We are not Afraid to Die

“We are Not Afraid to Die …. if We Can All Be Together” by Gordon Cook and Allan East
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Introduction …
Captain Cook was a legendary seafarer. He took three long voyages in unchartered waters of the ocean. Through a combination of courage, skill, never-say-die spirit, and luck, he virtually lorded over the sea. He was British, but voyagers of even modern times remember him with reverence and adulation. He has inspired scores of adventurers to follow his trail: some have returned triumphant, others have perished in the waters. But, Cook’s memory still beckons people to the thrill and solitude of the vast expanse of the oceans.
The story is a saga about a family’s long and heroic battle against the perils of the sea.
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Story ….

The author decided to take a three-year sabbatical from his business and go on a round-the-world voyage. He was kin to retrace the route that the legendary explorer Captain James Cook had taken two centuries ago. He wanted to re-live the horror and ecstasy of Captain Cook’s epoch-making sea odyssey. His wife Mary, son Johnson (6) and daughter Suzzane (7) were to accompany him.The author was, no doubt, a sailing freak. For 16 years, he and his wife spent a good deal of their leisure time in the sea off the British coast. They wanted to acclimatize themselves with the thrill and perils of life in the ocean waters.A sturdy boat, big enough to carry essentials for a long stay in the sea, was built by expert artisans. It was meticulously examined, and tested over and over again to ensure it was truly sea-worthy. The wooden craft was named Wavewalker. It weighed 30 tons and measured 23 meters end to end.The family set sail aboard the Wavewalker in July, 1976. It was going to be a 1,05,000 long voyage.The first leg of the journey along the west coast of Africa down to its southern-most tip, Cape Town, went off smoothly. Before embarking upon the trip heading East, they took two more men as sailing companions. They were Larry Vigil (American) and Herb Siegel (Swiss). The Indian Ocean could be treacherous at times. These two men were needed to fend off any danger in the journey ahead.Second day ..

The second day started with ominous signs. Strong winds buffeted Wavewalker relentlessly for days on end. For two weeks, the gales roared past the tiny Wavewalker. The powerful winds gnawed at the small crew, but they managed to brave it out. What scared them were the high waves the gales kicked off as they chafed the water surface. The 15-meter waves were as high as the boat’s mast.

By December 25, Wavewalker had sailed as far as 3500km east of Cape Town. The hostile weather did not dampen the joy of the Christmas. Soon came the New Year, but there was no respite from the ferocious gales that swept the region. The crew thought they could wait out the storm, but their hopes were belied as the winds howled more ferociously.

June 2 ..

The waves became frighteningly high. The Wavewalker had a small storm jib. However, the boat could traverse nearly eight knots a day. The tumultuous vast expanse of water seemed to writhe at our un-welcome presence. The crew cringed as the sea water virtually rained down on them making awful sounds. It seemed the gales signaled their intention to devour the beleaguered sailors.

To slow down the boat, the crew lowered the storm jib. They lashed a thick mooring rope around the mast to bolster it. They secured everything else by tying them with ropes thoroughly. To prepare for any eventuality, the crew decided to start the escape drill. They readied the life rafts, attached lifelines and wore oilskins and life jackets. With baited breath, fear pounding their hearts, they waited.

Around 6pm in the evening, the turbulent sea began to unravel what it held for the crew. There was a pause that appeared so deafening. The wind slowed down and the sky became dark. A strange sense of foreboding prevailed. The wind returned with vengeance. The howl got louder and a big dark cloud came charging at Wavewalker’s aft. To the horror of the author, it was not a cloud, but a gigantic mass of sea water. It stood tall at a height twice of the earlier ones.

The roar growled as the stern of the ship was lifted up by the approaching tower of water. The crew vainly assumed they could ride it out, but that was not to be. The raging mass of water came crashing down on the boat. The thud was terrible. The author was bodily thrown off balance. His head was smashed against the wheel as he was tossed up into the giant wave. The author felt dizzy. He realized his end was near. Surprisingly, he awaited death with sangfroid.

Quite unexpectedly, the turbulent water lifted the author’s head above water allowing him to breathe. The violent wave had wrecked the boat, and it was on the verge of sinking. The masts had become horizontal. Quite bizarrely, a wave came and made their crippled Wavewalker sit up! The author’s life line got stretched in the process. Clinging to the boat’s iron rails, the author somersaulted to the boat’s main boom position. The waves, however, kept rocking the author’s body with childish wickedness. The author’s body was badly bruised, with a broken rib, and blood oozing out of the mouth. A few teeth had been dislodged from their positions. The author did not give up. He took control of the wheel and positioned the craft to take on the next wave with the minimum battering.

There was only water all around. The author could sense that water had entered the ship, but thought it wise to be in control of the wheel rather than inspect the lower parts of the ship for water accumulation.

Mary, the author’s wife, managed to open the front hatch and emerged. With great panic, she screamed that the boat was capsizing. The decks were wrecked and Wavewalker was taking in water alarmingly.
Asking his wife to take control of the wheel, the author rushed to the hatch.
Lary and Herb, the two hired sailors, were frantically pumping out water. The timbers, broken oddly, had piled up. The starboard had been pushed in by the impact of the wave. All the essential items like clothes, crockery, charts, tins, and toys floated around helplessly.
Wading through the water, the author approached his children’s cabin to see how they were doing. They were alive and safe. Sue complained of some hurt in her head. Her forehead had swelled. The author had no time to worry about her.
Gathering screws, hammer and a piece of canvass, the author rushed to the deck. His priority, obviously, was to somehow prevent sea water from getting into the boat. That could prevent the boat from running aground.
The author succeeded in somehow restricting the inflow of water by securing the canvas to block the hole.
The trouble did not cease. The hand pumps got clogged when the debris blocked its passages. The electric pump too stopped working due to a short circuit. The water level soon began to rise alarmingly. The spare hand pumps lay battered on the deck. The forestay sail, the jib, the dinghies and the anchor lay there in a mesh.
Fortunately, the author managed to start a stand-by electric pump, and it began pumping out water. Darkness fell making the efforts for survival more arduous. Braving the cold, darkness, and all-round gloom, the crew worked through the night working the pump, steadying the ship and working the radio.
None of the frantic SOS messages were answered. In that remote part of the ocean, ship travelled seldom. Sue’s head injury was getting worse. Her eyes had turned black and the face had swelled. Her arm was bruised. She bore all these with remarkable composure. She barely complained. When asked, she said calmly that she did not like to bother her father when the latter was besieged with so many worries.

January 3rd morning ….
The pumps had worked really well to rein in the surging water level. At least, the specter of Wavewalker sinking with its crew had receded. The over-worked decided to give themselves two hours of rest. When one slept, the other kept vigil.
However, a big leak somewhere below the waterline continued to let in water. This had to be plugged somehow.
The author found to his great dismay that the rib frames lay tattered down on the keel. The body of the boat had been virtually broken into two. The two parts had a cupboard to hold them together.
It was 15 hours into the first storm hit. It was clear, the crippled Wavewalker would give way well before the Australian shores. A quick examination of the chart showed that there were possibly two tiny islands a few hundred kilometers to the east. A French scientific research station was located on Amsterdam, one of the two islands. But locating them was like looking for a needle in the haystack. The chances were to slim for comfort.

January 4 ..

Thirty six hours of continuous pumping had succeeded in pushing the water height inside the boat to a few centimeters. The task now was to somehow neutralize the water still entering. With the masts broken, there was no way the sails could be re-hoisted. Any further attempt could lead to the boat breaking up into two.
Hoisting the storm jib, the crew sailed forth to locate the island. Mary scoured the kitchen store and got biscuits and beef cans. With great relish, the crew ate them. For two days, they had eaten nothing.
But, danger again reared its head. Black clouds hovered over the area again. The sea was getting increasingly turbulent. Darkness fell.

January 5th …

By January 5th, the situation became as bad as before.
The author was confronted with the question, “’Dad, are we going to die? Jon asked the question. The author tried to dispel his fear by reassuring him that they were going to make it to the land soon.
He blurted out a line that rang in the author’s mind like a momentous declaration. He said, “We aren’t afraid of dying if we can all be together – you, mummy, Sue and I.”
The words left the author struggling to find words for an answer. He was flummoxed. The author decided to muster all his physical and mental power to fend off dangers posed by the howling sea. He tried to reorient the crippled craft to a position where the damaged portion did not face the surging waves. To do this, he used some nylon ropes and some empty paraffin drums.
That evening Mary and the author sat together hand in hand as a sign of solidarity in the face of distress. More waters splashed on to the damaged haul. The danger of capsizing looked so perilously close again.

January 6th morning ..
Wavewalker walked waded through the storm gallantly. Next morning, the wind had mellowed somewhat. The author had another look on the sextant. In the chart room, he examined some data like wind speed, drift, change of course etc. to get a sense of where they could be at that point of time. It was a frustrating conclusion. The boat was in the midst of a 150, 000 kilometer ocean trying to spot a 65-kilometer island!
Mary, badly bruised in her left face struggled to reach the author’s side to hand over a folder card she had made. In the cover, she had drawn two caricatures of her husband and daughter. The words, “Here are some funny people. Did they make you laugh? I laughed a lot as well.” The statement how stoic a person she was. She could summon her sense of humor in the face of death. There was another message inside that read, “Oh, I love you both. So this card is to say thank you and let’s hope for the best.” The optimism and the spirit of defiance of her words struck me. I t made me more determined than ever to make it to the shore and survive the ordeal.
The author rechecked his calculations. The main compass was lost. He was using an auxiliary one. It was not re-calibrated to factor the magnetic variation. He accounted for this and the westerly currents typical to that part of Indian Ocean.
Around 2 p.m, he went to the deck to ask Larry to steer a course of 185 degrees. Rather half-heartedly, he told Larry that they could see the island by 5 p.m, if they were indeed lucky.
With a heart despondent and gloomy, the author went to his bunk. Perhaps, out of exhaustion, he dozed off. He woke up around 6 p.m. The dusk was descending on the sea. He felt the boat had gone past the island and there was no way it could sail back against the westerly currents. It appeared to be doom and gloom everywhere.
His son came in to break news they all had been so anxiously waiting for. Congratulating his father as the best daddy and the best captain on earth, the son begged to hug the author. Other members of the family were there to were standing by, enjoying the moment.
They had found the island!!
The author went to the deck to see for himself. He had, at long last, outlasted the vagaries of the sea.
They anchored the crippled Wavewalker aside the island. Next morning, 28 inmates of that remote research station came in and welcome these visitors with open arms.
On land, the author reflected on the contribution of the two hired crew – Larry and Herbie – in the effort to beat off the angry sea. Their sangfroid and verve had led to the success of the fight for survival. He thought about Mary’s steadfastness and the courage of the little son and daughter who stared at death smilingly giving no room for their over-burdened father to worry for them. The well-knit family resolutely stood up to the taunts of the turbulent sea.
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