I took the flight to Padang, Sumatra, where my surf guide Tony Smith picked me up from the airport. I had chartered passage on the cheapest vessel I could find (that still had air-conditioning of course). Her name was Santa Lusia and the accommodations and crew were outstanding. I went by myself, and as luck had it, I shared the boat with two crews of Big Island boys. While three were native Hawaiians, the other five were mainlanders. Every single guy on the boat was very cool and filled with Aloha.
As chance had it I randomly bumped into Jake, Roland and Tolly while on Bali at a restaurant, and they were on my boat. They were only 18, born and raised on Kona. They ripped hard and pushed me to surf a lot and at a higher level. Our trip started out great, we got heaps of great waves at many big name spots. However, seven days into the 12-day trip, I was exhausted. We had scored steady overhead pulses all week and myself and the braddahs had been in the water more than on the boat. On August 30th, 2004, I was literally too tired to surf. We had surfed at Bintang all morning and I was wiped out. After lunch I decided to nap and read for the rest of the day.
At exactly 5:30 p.m. I decided to go for a walk on the beach. With dusk approaching, malaria, peculiar villagers, and things that go bump in the night would be lurking near shore. Probably not the wisest thing to do, yet I felt driven to do it. I DEETed myself beyond pheromonal recognition and asked if there were any takers. All I got was a few raised Bintang beers and some pidgin, “Nah, brah.”
I jumped in the dinghy and my Indonesian buddy sped me toward the shore on the inside bay of Lance’s Left. En route he changed direction, increasing speed and running parallel to the shore. Not knowing Indonesian for “Where the heck are you going?”, I gave him the Puzzled-Looking-Tourist tap on the shoulder. He, not knowing English, simply pointed at two canoes near the inside reef, with the occupants quizzically looking at an unattended surfboard floating in between. As we sped closer, I quickly realized the board still held tightly in futile loyalty to its lifeless master by a leash.
It took an eternity to reach the scene, but when we did it was obvious that this person I had never met was in serious trouble. His bluish-gray body was floating face down in the water, his head barely cresting the surface, his face ominously occluded by a maroon veil of blood. I had already dived into the water before the boat came to a stop and was trying to push him up into the boat, my boat driver helping. Struggling under the watchful eyes of the canoe-men, we got him into the boat while they sat placidly smoking cigarettes, either too scared or too entertained to speak.
In the millisecond it took me to get up and over the boat rail and clamber to my feet, I looked at this man I had never met, lifeless and blue, head crowned with a ring of rouge, and thought to myself, “There is no way, he is too far gone; what if he has a broken neck, or a fatal skull fracture?” But I had to give “Wal,” as his friends call him, my best try. I straddled the victim’s body, and with his head turned to the side, sitting on his thighs, I gave him three (upward and inward) abdominal thrusts. A large amount of water came out of his mouth. As I positioned his head and listened for any sign of respiratory effort, I simultaneously felt for a pulse, neither of which were present. I felt the engine of the boat kick up and as we sped toward a destination known only to my driver, I began CPR on James Michael Walter.
Miraculously, within a few minutes he began to respond. I don’t know how we found the right boat, but as we pulled alongside Laut India, gasps were heard as passengers and members of her crew clamored down the side and came to assist me. By that time James had started breathing, and his pulse was strengthening, but he was in a state of shock, needing further medical intervention. Using a large surfboard as a makeshift litter, we used a set of straps to secure him as we transferred him into their dinghy, which was then hoisted up on to the deck, myself and “Wal” inside. Everyone was very helpful as they got blankets and a mattress, making him a bed on the deck of the piratesque Laut India. The satellite-phone was immediately in use.
Leaving my boards and belongings on my boat, I told the captain of Laut India that we should pull anchor and head in to shore immediately, and that this was paramount due to the severity of his injuries and the still-unknown implications of his head trauma. I continued to work on James, timing a few more abdominal thrusts with his own respirations. He was able to then clear enough seawater to respire effectively. With his color, breathing, and pulse greatly improved, we then bandaged his head. It was obvious he was disoriented and was unable to perform simple motor tasks like squeezing my hands. Although we had suture material on board it would not have been wise too sew his wounds closed at that time. We then spoke with the medical crew from S.O.S. Medical Evacuations (they are hired by medical travel insurance companies to evacuate persons in medical emergencies); this conversation was only the beginning of my day’s frustrations.
For as we gave them our latitude and longitude, they regretfully informed us that due to our remote location, we would have to first transport the victim to the mainland harbor of Padang, where a medical crew would meet us and fly him to a hospital in Singapore. The captain said it may take as long as 12 hours to reach the mainland and since there are no MedEvac helicopters available in this region, our only option was to carry him in by boat. I protested, but to no avail, explaining that the first few hours, up to 12 hours, are the most dangerous, and if he had an intercranial bleed, that our worst scenario might come to fruition, should the journey take that long.
Word spreads fast in the Mentawais and with so much radio traffic, the other boats had become interested. The Ardica, a small but very fast 45-ft. boat, offered to perform the medical transport, if the Laut India would take her crew and passengers for a few days. It was agreed, and a new stretcher was made out of a long tabletop, complete with freshly drilled holes to give a place for the support straps. By this time, hours had passed and the stress was palpable. I thought that we may never get there in time. By God’s further intervention however, Wal’s condition began to improve, his pulse and breathing had normalized, and neurologically his condition had improved, although he was still disoriented and in a critical state.
An at-sea transfer is never an easy task, especially between a 115-ft. schooner, which has a deck about 20 feet from the waterline, and a much smaller boat. With the flotilla of boats that had arrived, there was no shortage of helpers and the transfer was tenuous but successful. We set Wal into the bed they had cleared for him in the main compartment. As we set out, I felt glad that we were underway, but I was nervous about the fact that the captain had told me that the Ardica’s sat-phone was down and that their CB radio only had a range of 20 nautical miles. Nevertheless I was relieved we were leaving the Mentawais and heading into Sumatra. That feeling would be a short-lived emotion.