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  Surviving the Tsuanmi

For most of us, the catastrophe wrought by December's Indian Ocean tsunamis is beyond imagining. Within minutes of their arrival, tens of thousands of lives and livelihoods had been completely wiped out. With human remains still being uncovered in some areas, the estimated death toll has risen above 225,000, making this the most devastating natural disaster in modern history.

As most readers undoubtedly know by now, just before 8 a.m. on December 26, a massive 9.0 undersea earthquake rocked South Asia. It was centered roughly 60 miles west of Aceh Province on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Scientists surmise that the tremendous jolt was due to the shifting of tectonic plates along a vast undersea fault.

The quake's incredible power generated a series of tsunami waves which radiated out across the Indian Ocean and Andaman Sea at estimated speeds of 500 mph - as fast as a jet plane. Towns along the coastline of northwestern Sumatra were annihilated with a force reminiscent of a nuclear blast, while the first of several 30-foot-tall swells rounded the island's northern tip, racing eastward down the Straits of Malacca and northeast toward the tourist mecca of Phuket, Thailand. The tsunamis' inertia simultaneously pushed west all the way to the coast of Africa, some 2,800 miles from the temblor's epicenter.

Out at sea, the phalanx of fast-moving swells passed beneath ships largely unnoticed, but when they collided with the shoaling coastlines of Thailand, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and India, they built into ferocious walls of water - at least 15 feet high - bent on obliterating everything in their path.

Despite the unprecedented carnage ashore, reports from Thailand and western Malaysia indicate that, while many cruising boats were severely damaged, relatively few were completely destroyed. And to our knowledge, no cruisers in those areas lost their lives - an astonishing fact, if true.

For the sailors who lived through this surreal nightmare, reflecting on their own good luck was bittersweet. Many, in fact, were emotionally stunned, if not substantially guilt-ridden, to realize that they had come through this colossal tragedy relatively unscathed, while so many others lost everything. Showing typical cruiser spirit, however, some were able to pluck struggling swimmers from the roiling waters, and many immediately pitched in to assist the wounded and help in the cleanup efforts.

We won't attempt to give you a comprehensive overview of the devastation in these pages. However, we hope the following excerpts from firsthand reports will give you some understanding of what the experience was like for sailors who endured it. There are also lessons to be learned from the decisive actions taken by many mariners - especially, to quickly raise anchor and head for deeper water.

Our hearts go out to all who have suffered in this catastrophe.

In Asian waters, one of the greatest concentrations of cruising sailors can be found at, or near, the large resort island of Phuket, Thailand, and at several anchorages on the duty-free island of Langkawi in western Malaysia.

By all accounts, the morning of December 26 was a typically stellar day in Phuket, with a gentle breeze blowing in off the water, sunny skies and thousands of tourists recreating on the island's many exquisite beaches.

Having sailed through the night from Langkawi, 140 miles to the south, the crew of the 44-ft X-Yacht Rhythm Stick had dropped their hook during the early morning hours in Chalong Bay, a popular cruiser anchorage on the south coast of Phuket. They were still deep asleep when - at roughly 10 a.m. - they were awakened by their boat's peculiar motion.

A minute later, former Californian Martin Harris heard his wife Vita cry out from the cockpit that huge waves were coming - and from the tone of her voice he knew they were in serious trouble.

Standing at the wheel moments later, Martin looked out across his bow towards the south entrance of the bay: "I was absolutely stunned by what I saw; I couldn't believe it. While the water around the boat had become even more disturbed and choppy, I saw a series of green watery walls at least 2 or 3 meters high screaming in directly toward us."

He started the engine and shouted to his crewman, Jumar, to quickly raise the anchor or cut loose the chain so they could maneuver: "The steep green wall lifted the Rhythm Stick to a frightening angle as the wave exploded on the bow. The boat screeched as the anchor chain was pulled tight, and the rig vibrated as if hit by a hammer. The second wave of this first series looked far taller and more menacing as the boat was now tilting bow down into the wave's trough, which was not green like the water that just passed us, but muddy and brown. 'Is this the bottom?' I thought.

"Around us, the once-peaceful lagoon had turned into hell as I saw boats capsizing and crashing; a 50-ft power boat right in front of us had already come off its mooring, but became entangled in a rope and collided with a crewless sailboat. Hit nearly side-on by the next wave, they were now being pushed toward us.

"The second wave exploded right on top of Jumar, who was bravely kneeling on the bow working the anchor windlass. For a moment I thought we were going to loose him, but as the foam cleared, there he was, the remote control for the electric winch in hand and winding up the chain.

"Luckily for us, the next wall of water appeared to be a bit smaller, but then Vita called the depth 'Zero point 3 under the keel!.' What? Only 30 centimeters? This can't be. I had dropped the anchor in 5 meters of water."

Rhythm Stick took the next wave on her bow quarter, but the deep-keeled boat listed only slightly. As they raced down the back of the wave, Jumar finally got the anchor up. "Just in time," recalls Harris, "as the two entwined boats were dangerously near - so close that I could see directly into the scared, widened eyes of the deckhand on the powerboat. He didn't speak a word, just stared at me. I could do nothing to help."

Harris turned Rhythm Stick toward the easterly exit of the bay, heading for deeper water. "In the meantime, the entire bay had been turned into a boiling, swirling inferno with brown water and drifting boat planks, logs and whatnot all around."

Again Vita called out in horror. Behind them, "the water was towering up to at least 5 meters as it hit land and rolled along the beaches with incredible speed, consuming all in its way. I watched as several large boats were thrown into the trees. Far in the distance a longtail boat (Thai 'canoe' with an ultra-long shaft) was trying to escape the greedy barrel and seemed to be surfing down the front, making a getaway. But as we watched, the small boat was engulfed and swallowed by the monstrous wall of turning water. . . The radio on channel 16 went mad as boats called Mayday for help, trying to reach other boats or people on shore."

Completely stunned, Harris and his crew headed for Nai Harn Bay, a deep-water anchorage a few miles to the west. "One moment you are in a calm, safe, sheltered anchorage, the next moment in hell," he reflected later. Along the way, "the ocean was littered with deck chairs, tables, wood and bamboo. Children's toys and flip-flops floated by. . ." When they arrived at the entrance to the bay, they saw "50 or more boats drifting in the deep waters out front."

One of the 85 boats anchored in Nai Harn Bay was the Monterey-based Gulfstar 50 Blue Banana. Ironically, 'Sam' Fleetwood had just finished typing up a Changes in Latitudes report for Latitude when the tsunamis roared through the anchorage, which lies near the southernmost tip of Phuket. She and husband Bill quickly upped anchor and headed out to sea, as did many of the other boats moored there. Remarkably, none of them were lost.

"The restaurant where a big group of us had Christmas dinner is gone," said Sam, "nothing left but the concrete. All the businesses on the main beach are gone as well as the hundreds of beach chairs and umbrellas, the massage huts, the stores and restaurants."

It was a similar tale of destruction all along Phuket's west coast.

Meanwhile, about 25 miles to the east - halfway to the mainland - a dozen boats participating in the Blue Water Around the World Rally were anchored in a small cove on the north side of idyllic Phi Phi Don Island. Opposite them, the island's south-facing bay could be seen across a low sandy isthmus, roughly 250 yards wide by 3/4 of a mile long, which stood about 12 feet above sea level at high tide.

Rally participants Dick and Leslie York of the J/46 Aragorn report that the isthmus "was filled with dive shops, small restaurants, Thai massage parlors, and t-shirt shops, plus local markets and food stalls. Working on and off the beach on the south bay, there were about 50 to 100 longtail boats taking tourists out, along with 20 or more speedboats and ferries which had arrived with hundreds of people."

Several members of the York family were about to take a swim at about 10:45 a.m. when "the wave sucked the water out of much of our cove, then filled it up again. At the same time," recalls Dick, "the wave was pouring over the sand spit. It did this at least three major times. The water in our small, circular bay was spinning, making boats look like a Disneyland ride.

"We saw the reef and beach that covers the south half of our bay uncover, despite being almost at a peak spring high tide of 8.5 ft. The water rushing out made a giant spinning pool, counterclockwise, clear on the edges and brown in the center."

As crews instinctively scrambled to move their boats to deeper water, the erratic actions of the supercharged waves spun unattended boats in opposite directions, snapping the anchor chains of two of them.

"By this time," recalls York, the second or third wave crest had refilled the bay and was crashing on the shore around the boats. The center of the bay was a cauldron, with swirling and standing waves jumping all over."

As another Rally boat, the 35-ft sloop Briet, was getting underway, the force of a receding wave rapidly flushed her out - clocking 12 kts on her speedo.

Ashore, Ed and Helen Muesch of the Rally boat Tahlequah had been walking along the beach toward their dinghy on the north side of the isthmus when the bay started to empty. They spotted the first wave a few moments later. Unable to outrun it, they bear-hugged in order to stay together as the monster wave hit, but were thrown head-over-heels to the bottom. They were then were pinned against two palm trees by the tremendous current.

The second - larger - wave sent them tumbling across the isthmus into the south bay and out toward open water. "Swallowing water I knew the end was near and felt death all around me," Ed later wrote in an Internet posting. "I remember feeling a sense of peace I had never felt before; everything seemed to go into slow motion, quiet and very peaceful."

Between waves, Ed clawed his way to the surface for air, but Helen had passed out, having ingested water into her lungs. Ed eventually managed to get Helen aboard a longtail with the help of its shell-shocked driver, whose niece had just disappeared off the beach. A wooden barkentine which had come in to lend assistance eventually took Ed and Helen to Phuket, where, thankfully, she made a full recovery after a stay in the hospital.

"It is a miracle that they are alive," says York. "Many others near them were severely injured by the debris. How did they travel so far across the spit without hitting anything hard and not drown?" Fortunately, the Muesch's 21-year-old grandson Michael, who'd been alone aboard Tahlequah, was able to get her anchor up and move her to deeper water with the help of the York's son, Tom.

On their way out, the Yorks rescued several kayakers near the island. Later, several of their family members, along with other Rally crews, dinghied ashore with medical supplies to help the wounded.

Rally participants George and Ellen McNeil were aboard their New Zealand-based sloop WindDancer at Phi Phi Don when the tsunamis roared in. Their 16-year-old grandson Jordan, however, was somewhere ashore.

"We nearly lost the boat and ourselves in the incoming torrent surge, but finally got the anchor up and headed for deep water," says Ellen.

"Jordan was standing on the beach watching the tide get very low, then started running as he and others realized that the incoming tide was getting too high. He was tossed around, cut, dunked, and was finally able to crawl through an upper story of one of three hotels left standing on the island. There, he joined other young tourists from Europe in saving and helping the injured."

WindDancer circled offshore until the McNeils felt confident that the waves had subsided. Then George dinghied ashore to find his grandson. He soon radioed from the beach that he had never seen such devastation.

A medical doctor, George instinctively began helping the injured even before locating Jordan. "He then radioed us to re-anchor the boat in the bay, put out a Pan-Pan on the VHF radio for medical help - supplies and any doctors and yachties who felt they could join us on shore." Ellen clearly remembers his words: "We cannot leave these people, we have to help. Bring all the medical supplies, bandages and clean towels. Be ready to stay."

"Crewman Jeff Stanley and I understood that this meant that we might lose WindDancer to another wave surge," recalls Ellen, "but George's choice was clear." They were joining a shore party from Aragorn, which included second-year medical student Sloane York, just as George radioed that he'd found Jordan. Although beat up, he was running food and water up to survivors who had fled to high ground.   

As they neared shore, Ellen surveyed the carnage: "There was nothing left standing, save parts of three hotels. Sheet metal, rocks, trees, concrete slabs, septic tanks, clothing, shoes, cameras, boats, swim fins, cameras, backpacks, sand and coral tossed violently together in chaos. How could anyone survive this?"

The volunteers worked throughout the night giving medical assistance, George being one of only two doctors for thousands of injured and nearly dead. "Sloane and Jeff were amazing, as were the New Zealanders, Shelley and Murray, that I worked with," says Ellen. "Jordan showed stamina and compassion beyond belief, and beyond his years.

"The injuries were brutal rips, slashes, broken bones and tangled bodies. The dead were laid out with sheets respectfully covering them if they were fortunate enough to have been found. Med evac helicopters started to come in by late evening, and makeshift stretchers with swimsuit-clad carriers started the long slog across the tangled scene to the chopper area.

"The night just went on and on, being guided by Thais over jungle paths and debris to places where severely injured people were hoping for a doctor. It was strictly war zone medicine: flooding gashes with alcohol or iodine; using the antibiotics and dressings from the boats, as nothing else was available; applying gauze pads, wrapping, taping; with George prioritizing who would be lifted out by chopper that night."

"There were many more images from that endless night: dive boats returning; people leaving the island by boat; people crying out for missing children, husbands and friends; fires burning to guide the choppers in; a full moon to take away some of the terror of darkness; and finally a few hours of sleep when we were too exhausted to do anymore."

By noon the next day, Thai medics, nurses and special forces units arrived with medicines, food and water.


The day of the massive quake, the Cheoy Lee 38 Tir na n-Og was anchored off Rai Le, a popular beach on a small peninsula close to the town of Krabi - a day's sail north of Phi Phi Don.

By late morning, the beaches, which can only be reached by boat, were crawling with tourists who'd been brought in by longtail boats. Tir na n-Og's owners, Mary and Merle Clawson, had taken their 16-year-old daughter Crystal ashore early to join a rock-climbing course across the peninsula, on the east side - about 2/3 of a mile from where their boat was moored in a west-side bay.

Before heading back to the boat, they stopped into a beachfront Internet café, and just as they were getting connected, people started screaming and running up the beach. "Mary thought a bomb had gone off, or some act of terrorism," remembers Merle.  

"Once we looked towards the water, we saw the reason for the panic - a tsunami! It was a sight that we will never ever forget. A monstrous wall of water was heading toward us at an amazing speed. I have to admit, I was momentarily frozen in fear. 

"The next thing I remember is Mary screaming, 'Tir na n-Og, not again, not again, this can't be happening!'" Two years earlier, the sturdy ketch had been damaged, then sunk by two successive typhoons in Guam. After completing extensive repairs, they - like most other sailors here - had sought out the 'safe' refuge of these waters, out of the cyclone zone.

"At that moment, an eight- to ten-meter wave broke over our floating home, smashing her on her port side and burying her underwater. We both just stood there in utter shock. Unbelievably, she came back up. There might be hope. 

"Screaming a short distance away caught our attention. We looked at the water's edge to see close to fifty people, some in kayaks, sitting or laying on the ocean floor. The entire bay had drained. 

Mary screamed, "We have to help these people," she recalls. But as they started toward the bay the second massive wave hit Tir na n-Og. "She was slammed, again on her port side and engulfed in water. The energy of these waves was colossal, and we could see in the distance that another was on the way. Instantly we knew we had to leave.

"In my peripheral vision I saw four or five longtails with people flying out of them swallowed by white water. The scene was surreal, indescribable. The water was coming fast and there was nothing to do at this point but run." As they turned to flee they both thought of Crystal. "No matter what," they remember thinking, "we had to get to her. She had to be alive. The boat, or anything else at that point was insignificant."

"Looking over my shoulder," says Merle, "I saw complete panic. One of my thoughts was of the people I had seen only minutes earlier in the water. I knew many were now dead. We were literally running for our lives. Hundreds of people were scattering for high ground."

As they ran toward the east to find Crystal, they met a flood of people coming toward them from that side. "The trip to the east beach took what seemed to be a thousand years. When we arrived, the water was high, and many parts of the beach were under. Wading through waist-high water that was rushing toward shore, we finally came to the spot where we had left Crystal. Screaming her name, and whistling, we got no response. Then from up the steep wall of limestone she called back. 'Mom, dad, up here!' The relief was incredible, but short-lived, for we had to move. We were alive, and together, but still far from being out of harm's way." 

Another huge wave was barreling toward them. Mary yelled to Crystal to keep running as fast and as far as she could.

"Hundreds of people were moving to high ground, and there was only one place to go. When we finally arrived at this spot, about sixty meters high, we found ourselves exhausted, drained physically and mentally. The thoughts of what just happened overwhelmed us.

"Standing on this one spot we embraced each other in a three-way hug and broke down in tears. For all of us to be alive and together, knowing all the death we had just seen around us, was something that we cannot put into words."

We're happy to report that when the Clawson family eventually got back to the west side, they were astounded to find that their boat was still afloat, although she'd lost most of her deck gear and was thoroughly trashed below decks.

Among the other yachts moored at Rai Le over Christmas was a Jeanneau 35, skippered by John Henke of San Diego. For the past week, he, along with Julie Sobolewski and her 25-year-old son, Casey, had been enjoying a 10-day charter out of Sunsail's base at the Phuket Boat Lagoon, on the big island's east side. Up until that point, it had been a dream trip.

After a leisurely morning ashore, they departed Rai Le about 11 a.m. and headed south along the eastern side of the Ko Dam group - a cluster of two major islands connected by a sandy beach and a shallow reef, as well as 8-10 small rocky islets. It's a very popular day destination for snorkeling and fishing.

"While passing between Ko Dam Kwam and Ko Poda, I noticed something strange happening. The rock islands a half mile due south of us looked as though they were 'calving' like an iceberg, with very high splashes of water, perhaps 100 feet or more, that kept getting bigger, not smaller. We all stared, not knowing exactly what we were seeing, as this portion of the Phang Nga Bay is extremely sheltered, and swells are unheard of.

"It became obvious that there were very large waves coming toward us, and we feared for the 50 to 100 tourists and 10 to 12 longtail boats on the two beaches nearby.

"We watched as the large wave formed on the far side of the sand bar, and time seemed to stand still for a few minutes. The wave then began to crash and the sand bar beaches disappeared. Instantly, the water was turbulent, ugly, brown, swirling, thick and charging very fast. The sand bar beaches, people and longtails had disappeared.

"Another five longtails were in the water directly in front of us. They tried to outrun the wave and shoot through the reef between the islands. At first it looked like they would all make it, but none did. All broached and flipped over in the surf.

"This first wave looked to be about 25 feet tall, but, oddly, there was no back to it. The backside was nearly level with the crest of the wave. The sea level was rising and there were more waves behind the first as the water level rose significantly. That first wave completely blew through the sand spit beaches and across the submerged coral reef between the two islands, sending people and longtails flying in all directions. The surge literally blew people and the overturned longtails right through the pass toward our boat. Fortunately, most all were wearing lifejackets."

John and Julie first pulled two middle-aged Asian woman and their longtail skipper aboard, then threw lines to swimmers nearby. Casey took off in the dinghy to reach others. Within a few minutes they had 21 Thai survivors aboard, and Casey had another five in the dinghy.
"Debris in the churning water made it difficult to spot people swimming," recalls John. "There were overturned longtails all around us."

Seeing a second surge approaching, they began to motor toward deeper water, but Casey was falling behind in the overloaded dinghy with its 5 hp outboard.

"Realizing that we wouldn't outrun the waves, I slowed the boat and turned to take them head on. We took the first one over the bow, but the rest were not too bad." Casey and his passengers somehow held on through the waves, but spun out in the currents from the surge.
After offloading the survivors onto a large ferry in the lee of Ko Poda, and sending Casey to the beach with his people, John and Julie went to look for more stranded folks in the lee of the islands. "The water was full of sand and debris," says John, "plus overturned longtail boats, and all of their contents strewn across the water: shoes, backpacks, picnic lunches, you name it."

Hunting around the floating debris piles for more survivors, they suddenly ran hard aground and heeled over 20° to starboard. "I yelled at Jules to check the bilges for incoming water, but there didn't seem to be any. A small wave bounced us again on the reef, but it spun the boat in a better direction. I gunned the engine and we headed off for deeper water."

After another 20 minutes of searching, they headed back to the lee of Ko Poda and picked up Casey. A short time later, they rescued a group of people who had taken refuge atop a 300-foot limestone pillar. Sadly, their final rescue came too late. Among floating rubble, they found a drowned Asian snorkeler, still wearing her goggles.
Amazingly, none of Sunsail's clients were harmed. Nor were any of their boats or facilities damaged.

The killer waves reached Langkawi, Malaysia, a short time later. Because this small island is a duty-free port and is quite close to the Thai border, it's a favorite hangout for many world cruisers.

Doug Walling of the Monterey-based Bristol Channel Cutter Calliste had recently pulled into the nearly new Telaga Harbour Marina, on Langkawi's west coast, to fuel up for a week's cruise around the island when he and many others were blindsided by the series of freak waves:

"At about 12:25 local time, I noticed a series of breaking waves about 3 to 4 meters high coming up Telaga entrance, flattening out by the fuel dock to about 1 meter high.

"It hit the boats and slips with such force, rolling side-by-side boats 30° in opposite directions, with their masts crashing. Finger slips started ripping from gangways, then gangways ripped from pilings. There were sickening crashing sounds, people were thrown off their boats into the water, and others were thrown off the docks.

"Boats attached to pontoons floated out to sea by themselves. It was like a hurricane's affect without the wind and rain. . . . With quick work at the right time, we kept Calliste's mast up until she was caught in an eddy, then returned and secured her to a remaining pontoon - all by sheer luck."

Although repairable, the stout 28-footer endured $40,000 in damage. Walling reports that since all boat repair facilities are booked solid from Phuket to Kuala Lumpur, he'll probably head to Singapore for repairs. (Yes, he was insured.)

Oddly enough, some boats lying outside the marina in Telaga Lagoon - which is sheltered by two barrier islands - were unharmed. Cruisers anchored there were able to rescue and reanchor a half-dozen unattended boats which had broken loose from the chock-full marina.
Further reports indicate that the nearby Rebak Marina facility was very badly damaged, with most, if not all, pontoons breaking free, sending a fleet of boats - still tied to them - out to sea.

Latitude contributors Tom Morkin and Liz Tosoni report that at the south end of the island, in Kuah town, the 200-slip Royal Langkawi YC was virtually unharmed, as it lies around a corner and up a channel from open water. "There were only a few villages on the west side of Langkawi that were affected and no deaths as far as we know," says Tom, "so we've been sheltered from the horror of the devastation."

Curiously, Asian newspaper reports indicate that some animals - both wild and domestic - instinctively fled to higher ground long before there were any signs of approaching waves. Even more curious is the fact that Andaman Sea Gypsies, reclusive bands of waterborne people who live aboard simple boats and stilt houses in the remote outer islands, also answered some inner call to seek high ground. According to published reports, their community remains unharmed.
We have no reports from boaters in Sri Lanka or India. Along the African coast, the affects were apparently greatly subdued, although some deaths were reported.


Within Mother Nature's arsenal of natural disasters, tsunamis are rare, but certainly not unheard of, in either the Indian or Pacific Ocean basins. But in the Pacific there has been an extensive warning system in place since 1949 - established in the aftermath of an Aleutian Island earthquake, which generated a tsunami that killed 165 people in Hawaii and Alaska. Sadly, Indonesia has had plans for such a system on the back burner for over a decade, but to date it remains unfunded.

At this writing, a month after the late-December disaster, the most encouraging news we can bring you is that the international relief effort has been unprecedented. To their credit, many sailors have also lent their energies and talents to the recovery process. Dr. George McNeil, for example, has joined other mariners in mounting a volunteer relief effort to Aceh called Waves of Mercy. They're using two large charter vessels to transport "doctors, nurses and many tons of medical and emergency supplies" to the devastated coastal town. (See www.wavesofmercy.com.) When he returned home, John Henke set up his own charity to buy longtails for the Thais. (Email him for info.)

We would strongly encourage you to follow their lead by donating to the aid organization of your choice, such as the Red Cross, UNICEF, OXFAM or Seacology (www.seacology.org).

As med student Sloane York said in an email to her friends after her night of triage at Phi Phi Don, "I have never beheld such horrors in my life. . . If I was already trained as a physician, you would not be seeing me for many months because I could not leave these people. . . Please help in any way you can." As she pointed out, even a $5 donation will help.

Paradoxically, one of the most beneficial things outsiders could do for tourist destinations like Phuket is to keep spending vacation dollars there. But with its reputation now tainted by so much death and suffering, the customary throngs of travelers may not return any time soon - creating a second crushing blow to the livelihoods of the island's people.

Memories of this tragedy will undoubtedly always stay with those who witnessed it. We can only hope that the affected areas can eventually rebuild into the paradise-like settings that they once were.

- latitude/aet

This story was reprinted from the February 2005 issue of Latitude 38. To order a copy (complete with a map and photos in living black & white), use the subscription order form, and specify the 2/05 issue, or just drop us a note with a check for $7 to Latitude 38, Attn: Back Issues, 15 Locust Ave., Mill Valley, CA 94941.

Please note: After a couple of years, the actual issue may no longer be available, but we will still be able to make photocopies of it.

©2005 Latitude 38 Publishing Co., Inc.