Ships of Misfortune

“As the midday sun slowly cooked our diesel-soaked skin, I knew that throwing up would increase my risk of dehydration,” recalls Ross Greenwood of Queensland as he realized his dire situation. “So I forced myself to stop. I took photos of the wreckage and myself, thinking someone might find the camera and use the photos to identify my body if I didn’t make it. From my daypack, I also took out a football jersey I bought for my son and from that point was determined to fight for my life.”

Over the years, genuine horror stories like this one have threaded themselves in between all the elation of glorious Mentawai boat trips, serving mostly as precautionary whispers. This year, the silence finally broke.

Some claim that the 2002 wave season in the Mentawais was the worst for boat-trip disasters as tales from the sea, impossible to write off as freakish, poured in with alarming frequency. Ill-maintained boats and inexperienced crews hastily ushered load after load of surfers to the fabled surf breaks mostly without mishap. But some suffered life-threatening transfers for medical help while others were marooned on malaria-infested shores or left naked, adrift and left to die.

Australian Get Slotted surf charters say on its website ( that the 15-meter Duekun Luat (Sea Wizard) is a regularly-maintained, metal-lined, timber-hulled boat fitted with copious safety devices including radar, first aid kit, life jackets, fire extinguishers, a 6-meter dingy with a 60-horsepower motor, EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) and GPS. Also, a radio telephone to contact the mainland, it claims, is used twice daily.

But on May 13, after possibly colliding with some debris and taking on water, the Duekun Luat sank within a minute. A distress signal was never issued. Tour operator Keith Golledge and the chartered crew were left to huddle in the broken-down dingy with only salvaged rations, and the unsettling fact that no one knew where they were.

After 32 hours, Greenwood, 42, and the rest of the crew were luckily rescued by a couple of passing fishing boats. But not after learning that boat trips don’t always live up to the savory words and images in brochures, promising a return to adventurous surf exploration. For the surfers who pore over those full-color ads and on-line seduction, however, being stranded on a tropical island in front of perfect, 100-yard left-hand barrel is a dream come true. Such a dream, however, couldn’t have been further from reality, as more unsuspecting surfers faced disaster.

Word of a new boat called the M.V. Diane quickly spread to the other 30-plus Mentawai surf charters as the greatest bane ever to hit the region: over 110 feet and room for 20 surfers–twice the size and capacity of most other charters. On its maiden voyage in mid August, however, the M.V. Diane dropped its laughably inadequate anchor at Macaroni’s and proceeded to drag itself across the reef and up onto the beach far inside the bay. All on board were left to build makeshift shelter as the stricken vessel settled deeper in the soft sand. All the while, captain Peter TK’s other boat, the Anjing Laut (Sea Dog), was due to embark on another charter from Padang. But, according to those aboard, he was more concerned with tending to the M.V. Diane than ferrying newly-arrived surfers to waves.”The captain completely used us and our boat for his benefit to get to the M.V Diane and take care of his own agenda,” says John Yeh of his experience on the Anjing Laut. “Meanwhile, I awoke one morning to see my sandals floating by me in the sleeping cabin. The fresh-water holding tank sprang a leak, so we lost half of our water supply for the rest of the trip.”

As horrifying as these tales are to some, with at least six other boats sinking or burning down this year, they don’t raise the eyebrows of others. “This year hasn’t been any worse out there than in years past,” says Jeff Wilson, travel director at Quiksilver. “There are relatively few incidents, and if you book with a legitimate operation, it’s a safe trip from entry to exit.” But budgets of everyday surfers can rarely stretch to cover a pricey, instituted charter. So the cheaper, grittier alternatives appeal to those looking for a more genuine Mentawai experience. Unfortunately, choosing a boat randomly may be a matter of life and death.

Although traumatized and exhausted, it could have been much worse for all aboard the M.V. Diane, the Anjing Laut and the Duekun Luat. Accidents can be quickly treated while on land, but on a boat meandering through a primitive, tropical island chain, simple procedures become critical, time-consuming races against the clock. Bodily injuries, however, are inherent risks surfers are aware of and willing to take. But thoroughly researching a surf-charter operation is just as important. Before putting an initial deposit down, you should know that your hired boat will safely take you to those transcendent wave gardens, and back again.