Surfing a Tsunami

I wrote this letter the day after the 2004 Sumatra earthquake and subsequent tsunami. The ending of my story sounds flippant now considering over 200,000 people lost their lives, but I am leaving it the way I wrote it because at the time we didn’t know how bad things were and joking was how we dealt with our emotions at the end of the day. Our story is nothing compared to the tragedies suffered by many others, but it was dramatic enough for us.
Fishermen coming out of a cove in their longtails. Phi-Phi Island.
Our anchorage at Phi-Phi.

Street scene on Phi-Phi Island
On the morning of the 26th, Gene was up and out fairly early. He had to make trips to the fuel dock, fill gerry jugs with diesel, bring them back to the anchorage, pour them into the tank, and repeat the process until the tank was full. After that, we hoisted the outboard motor off the dinghy, fastened it onto the stern rail, then hauled the dink up and tied it down on the foredeck. It wasn't necessary to stow the dinghy. We could have towed it as we were just going around the southern tip of Phuket to the first anchorage on the western side of the island. We were anchored in Ao Chalong Bay which is a south facing bay at the southern end of Phuket Island, Thailand. There is a good sized island, Koh Lone, in the middle of the entrance to the bay so one must enter the bay through one of the two channels created by this island. We had entered on the east side channel, which faces southeast, and we were going to leave by the west side channel, which faces south. The channels are shallow and at low tide there isn't enough water for Peregrine to go through so we planned to leave at high tide. High tide was at 10:00 AM and Gene took up anchor just before that. I was down below playing bridge on the laptop when I heard Gene say, "Where did THAT wave come from?" Then, "Hang on!" I waited a few seconds for the usual wake from one of the speed boats buzzing the anchorage. Minutes went by, and still no wake. I turned off and secured the computer and started up the companionway. I was expecting to see a large wake so it took my brain a few milliseconds to acknowledge what I was seeing; a fifteen foot high wall of water coming up the channel toward us. I could see another just behind it. The tops of the waves were broken and the white water boiled furiously. The wind was blowing against the waves and the tops of the crests were blowing away from the oncoming waves. It looked like we were in a gale off the Pacific Northwest. The wave was nearly upon us when Gene decided to turn and go with it rather than try to go over it.
WE SURFED A TSUNAMI!! Gene was as capable a captain as any of the best as he moved us through the succession of waves that followed the first. He steered us down the waves till we got too close to the shore, then turned to go into them and away from the shore. The waves were like giant wind waves with narrow troughs. We would slide down into the trough and then head up to the next crest, then slide down again. We both silently feared hitting the bottom and having the keel punch up through the hull. It was amazing that we didn't hit bottom. It was an adrenaline sucking experience. Gene said that there must have been an earthquake. What else could have caused such bizarre conditions? After a time, the waves stopped, but the motion of the bay didn't. Our depth sounder registered three foot gains and losses in less than five minutes at times. The bay, which is basically a large bowl due to the island at the entrance, sloshed around in a confused manner. When the sloshing became manageable, we re-anchored close to where we originally had been.
We stayed on the boat the whole day, though by about 2:00 PM, it was apparent that we could go ashore if we had to. We were too shocked to do anything. Gene said, "That was scary." Talk about an understatement. We turned on the VHF and heard that there had been an earthquake in Phuket. We wondered about how that could be considering the way the wave washed in. Later we heard that there had been an 8.5 quake and the epi-center was off the north end of Sumatera (Sumatra). The radio was alive with individual stories, some of them quite dramatic. A few boats anchored in Nai Harn Bay (west coast) said they hauled people aboard who were being swept out to sea. We were beginning to get an idea about how big this thing was. Then rumors started that another, even bigger wave was on the way. Boats fled the bay like the proverbial rats on a sinking ship. As they motored by, they yelled to us that a bigger wave was on the way and we should head out to sea. We acknowledged them with a wave, but remained sitting in our cockpit. Most of them looked at us as if we were crazy; or maybe just plain stupid.
We had discussed this during the previous hour and decided that it would be very unlikely that a bigger wave would come. Being Californians, we knew there would be after-shocks, but we couldn't believe that something worse would hit. In fact, we had a hard time believing we had just experienced an 8.5 earthquake. A great quake! We figured that the chances of another extremely rare quake hitting were not too high. Then Gene said that the predictions weren't logical given travel time and etc., etc. Also, we were safe where we were, and we had no idea what condition the channels were in or if they had enough depth for us to get out. We stayed put as the exodus continued. Nearly every boat that was inhabited left the anchorage. Some of them stayed fairly close, anchoring next to the island farther out in the bay. I have to admit, here and now, that in the deepest recesses of my mind, I worried that the majority might be right. It was eerie to be sitting in the nearly empty anchorage, sloshing in the vibrating water. The time for the next tsunami passed and a new time was announced. At 12:00 the next one was due at 2:00, the 2:00 was now 2:30, then 3:15, and so on and so on. We finally turned the radio off.
At the end of the day, we made stiff gin and tonics and toasted our good fortune. Gene paraphrased a great Indiana Jones quote, "See, I haven't forgotten how to show a lady a good time."

Clean up at Kata Beach

Phi Phi

Nasa Burger. In my opinion the best burgers outside the USA so far. Run by a young Brit named Vince.

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