Tsunami death toll rises as many yachtsmen have lucky escape

The Boxing Day tsunami which has left more than 150,000 people dead around the countries of the Indian Ocean has left many yachtsmen in the area surprisingly unscathed.

Of 150 Sunsail customers at the company’s base on the eastern side of Phuket every single one of them has been repatriated unharmed and all the company boats are undamaged. Not so lucky were the crews of the 10 boats of the Blue Water Rally who were moored on the western side of Phi Phi Don, Thailand (pictured left with a giant wave rearing up behind an anchored yacht]. Although none were killed or seriously injured they went through some dramatic experiences.

Yachtswoman Carolyn Roberts was among them and here reports on what happened.

‘At about 11am four of us took a longtail (taxi) boat to the inlet of Maya Beach, where the movie The Beach, was filmed.  The inlet is steep-sided and almost enclosed.  We slipped into the water rather cautiously, as many speed boats were dangerously close to us, and several seemed to be revving their engines and sounding klaxons rather noisily.  Almost immediately we  became aware of a strong current dragging us towards the mouth of the bay and then towards the sheer cliffs, which was unexpected, given the topography, and we put it down to the backwash from all the power boats. 

‘Later, we decided the reckless revving of speedboat engines and the frantic sounding of hooters, were the result of the drivers receiving warnings from friends – probably by mobile phone as few local boats carry VHF – of the approaching tsunami.’

‘Just a few minutes later the current changed direction and increased alarmingly, and we found ourselves being swept further into the bay, totally out of control.  The current reversed a couple more times, and we were dragged back and forth, frighteningly close to the cliff face, in water that had changed from crystal clear to muddy brown, until fortunately we all managed to struggle ashore in a tiny cove some distance from the main beach.  We had no idea what was happening, except that at one moment the beach was many metres wide, with a few fish stranded on the sand, and the next moment a heavy surge of water up to 3 or 4 metres high covered everything, and we were forced to retreat into the jungle behind the beach, and as the surges increased in height, we clambered a few feet up the craggy rockface at the back of the cove.

‘We were stranded in the cove, along with a French family, for a couple of hours as the water surged back and forth in the bay.  There was a huge amount of debris in the water, including tree trunks that had been swept off the beach.  Gradually the water became more stable, and powerboats which had retreated to the open sea began to edge their way into the bay to pick up the hundreds of people stranded on the main beach.

‘There was no sign of our taxiboat, however, and it was still far too dangerous for us to contemplate swimming out to the boats.  Eventually a taxiboat approached our cove, and we struggled out to it through still-swirling water. It was a sombre group that set off back to Phi Phi Don, through a sea that was littered with an amazing amount of flotsam, including two upturned kayaks and a couple more wrecked taxiboats.   

‘We have no idea how many swimmers were injured or killed in Phi Phi Le, but there must have been casualties, given the speed with which the calm sheltered waters of the bay became a dangerous fast-moving swirl of debris-laden waves crashing against the vertical cliffs.  By mid-afternoon the seas were glassy-smooth once more, but along the island coastlines were endless reminders of what had happened – wrecked longtail boats, paddles, lifejackets, shoes, bits of carpet, and the following morning the heartrending sight of tour company boats, normally busy with swimmers, divers and kayakers, scouring the rocky coasts.

‘We were dreading what we would find back at the anchorage but at this time we had no idea of the true scale of the disaster.  As we drew near we saw that most yachts had put to sea and were standing off about 2 miles.  As we rounded the last headland we saw still afloat and at anchor, and apparently undamaged, our boat.  Our relief was beyond words.

‘It appears that the tsunami had surged into the anchorage and across the beach of Phi Phi Don, devastating the resort.  Two members of the Rally who were ashore at the time were swept across the isthmus in a tangle of palm trees, dinghies and debris, and were lucky to survive – many other people did not.  The Jungle Bar, the dive shops, restaurants and internet cafes had all been destroyed, and many, many people had been drowned or killed by the detritus.

‘The first sign that something unusual was happening was when crews noticed what appeared to be an unusually low tide – at a time of near-high water locally – and the coral shelf fringing the bay was totally exposed.  Within minutes, a large foaming wave surged into the bay, followed almost immediately by an even larger one which caused the dreadful damage and loss of life ashore.  Two Rally boats lost their anchors when the yachts were thrown violently upwards by the waves,  causing their snubbing lines to part and the chain to jump off the gypsy and run out unchecked until the securing line at the bitter end also parted.  One of these yachts was unmanned at the time, and was sent careering around the bay in the swirling waters until the crew of another Rally boat managed to board it, start the engine, and motor out to sea.  The windlass on a third yacht was torn off, and the chain ran out for its full 80 metres, but in this case the bitter end held, and after buoying the chain, the line was cut so that the yacht could motor out to sea – unfortunately this strongly-built steel yacht was swept onto the coral in the process and sustained damage to its propeller before reaching deep water.  The log of one yacht at anchor registered 12 knots at the time. 

‘Somehow our own anchor had held, but there was a fear that further tidal waves would sweep into the bay, and so another Rally participant boarded our yacht and broke through two sets of padlocks in an effort to find our windlass switch and ignition key.  He did not manage to find either, but we were very grateful for the effort he had made to protect our floating home, at great risk to himself.   Once we were back on board we found only minor damage to the stemhead where the anchor chain had probably been yanked forcefully to one side, and some superficial marks on the topsides where one of the yachts that had broken free gave us a glancing blow.’ 

The next Blue Water Rally stop at Galle in Sri Lanka has been cancelled and instead the fleet will now call at Cochin in south-west India.