Boxing Day Tsunami 2004
(Some pre Christmas reading from my original story of the 22/11/04 Boxing Day Tsunami which I thought I would upload to save it in the Cloud – rather than on my LapTop – enjoy)
By now of course we are all aware of the Asian Tsunami, but for us on holiday in Thailand on Boxing Day 2004, it became an unfolding nightmare that we had become involved in.
We had booked a weeks sailing holiday with a few days break at the end of the week back on land at Phuket Island. We flew through Singapore and on to Phuket and went straight to the marina to board the yacht, a Sunsail Sun Odyssey 49, where we stayed overnight to avoid a night sail on a strange boat in unfamiliar waters with no chart plotter and few navigational marks at sea.
Having been to Thailand several times before we were familiar with the area and had a rough itinerary of where to go. On Christmas Day we had lunch on Krabi at the Rayavadee, where we had been before on honeymoon in 2000 and again recently in January, on Rai Le beach and anchored overnight in the bay. Still being a little jet lagged we awoke early and set off west to Phi Phi for lunch and to re-provision the boat.
We were running downwind flying the cruising chute in a steady F3, past Chicken Island, round the southern end of Bamboo Islands and took some photos of the people enjoying themselves. There were about 5 speed boats and about 10 Thai long tail boats within the reef, we remarked how idyllic it looked and wished we could have gone in to join them, but with a 2m deep fin it was not possible. Little did we know what was about to befall them.
We pressed on and were just anchoring off the east of Phi Phi Dom, around 10 am local time, ready to go ashore in the dingy, maneuvering to get in close to the edge of the reef and ensure that we had enough swinging room. This was a place we knew as we had stayed at the Holiday Inn in a beach front bungalow in January that year. Suzanne was up at the bow ready to deploy the anchor when she called back to me 'Wow, David, look at that surf'. I looked up from the speed and depth logs to see huge surf coming round the headland about 1 mile away. I picked up the camera and as I was looking through to focus I realised the sea was not level.
For some reason I instantly knew what it was and shouted to Suzanne to get the anchor up. As the tsunami rolled towards us the swell started the push back we were getting nearer the reef and I was trying to hold the boat on station waiting for the anchor. But the next shout was 'It's tripped'. I shot down the companionway to reset the trip and got back on the helm to drive into deeper water. As soon as the anchor was stowed I screamed at Suzanne to get back in the cockpit and hurl everything down the companionway, there was no time for lifejackets.
As we got away from the reef we looked to see the ocean get sucked back out, our depth dropped by 5 metres, as the tsunami started its relentless roll along the beach. I turned to square the boat up to the wave and it passed harmlessly as huge swell under our hull in 17 metres of water.
We watched helplessly as it picked up boats and took them up the beach, shattered the long tail boats, and collected everything from the beach and beyond and dragged it out to sea. Looking back to Bamboo Island we saw it become even larger and knew there was little chance of survival. A particularly cruel time to hit at high water on a spring tide, but with the volume of water I guess it made little difference.
After waiting some time we thought the sea was becoming more normal, only to find that more huge waves came rolling in at maybe 10 minute intervals, a total of between 6 and 10. We then noticed that there was a stationary wall of water, perhaps 4 metres high, a mile or so ahead with mud and debris being brought to the surface, so concluded this had been a local phenomenon, and decided to go to Ton Sai Bay on the south of the island.
As we went down the east side of the island we could see boats standing off and as we got to Ton Sai Bay there was an armada of large ferries, PADI dive boats and fishing boats, together with a couple of other Sunsail boats. A couple of Thai fishing boats came by and we managed to understand it was a tsunami and that we should stand off for at least 3 to 4 hours. The sea was still very angry and we moved towards a Sunsail boat with a Dutch family onboard, but they knew no more than us about what was going on.
So we decided to go back to the calmer water on the east and anchor for a few hours, before returning to Ton Sai Bay to provision and overnight, still not realising the true extent of the devastation. All the boats were still standing off as we moved slowly back into the bay through all the debris, wood, trees, sun loungers, plastic items and peoples shoes, still unaware that the few long tails that had survived were looking for bodies, but finding very few as they were still under the water.
There was a lot of VHF traffic as the medical rescue and military huey (UH-1) helicopters flew in. We could here them describe broken limbs and horrific cuts caused by all the debris, but I imagine a sheet of corrugated iron will cause high levels of trauma as it hits the body with tsunami force. They also described how the survivors, with no food or water, were becoming physically exhausted moving the dead and injured.
This was very distressing, made worse by the fact the jetty had been washed away and the sea still to rough to try and get ashore and help. It gets dark very early and very quickly at 08 degrees North so we decided with the threat of after shocks to go and find some shelter for the night. We anchored parallel to a large bay about 1 mile out in 16m of water on the east side of Phi Phi again, collected the Dutch family in their Sunsail 35 on the way as they were unsure of where to go, and put out all 60m of chain. We felt that as we had survived the initial waves any after shocks should be smaller and we would be safe, provided the epicentre was the same and the wave pattern remain unchanged.
Still not appreciating the full extent of the disaster we quickly jumped into the dingy, and went ashore to Phi Phi Island Village Resort to get something to eat, in the last of the daylight. There, of course, people were trying to piece together what happened, with the helicopters still flying into the night. As we left the dingy on the beach the security guard advised us that we may need to move it as they would be using the beach to land helicopters later. The information we got from the hotel was they had lost a couple who were snorkeling in one of the bays and that 5 - 10 were dead in Ton Sai (subsequently we learned it was around 500). We went back to the boat in very rough seas and tried to sleep as best we could on a lee shore with a long snubbing line hoping the anchor would hold if more waves came.
The next morning we awoke early and I turned on my mobile, as text messages started to come through the phone rang and it was Helen, Suzanne's daughter. She was very concerned and asked us about coming back, telling us empty planes were flying out to bring back Brits and that the area had been devastated. It was late in the UK, around 1 am and I assumed Helen had been drinking and got a bit emotional, but as I then started to go through 9 text messages from family and friends it did start to overwhelm us both.
But it was a great day and we decided to carry on but with a watchful eye on the horizon, still totally isolated from reality. We set off east to Krabi close hauled in a F4 making good speed, back past Bamboo Islands, where we could see the speed boats in the trees. But there were more boats there and still people on the beach, some wearing life jackets, so all still seemed relatively normal.
We went in to Ao Nang bay just north of Rai Lee beach as we felt the coastline was a safer profile. Although the water was shallow and we anchored off again about 1.5 miles in only 7m of water, far less than we wanted, but we didn't want to have to go too far in the dingy. Once anchored we looked through the binoculars and could see people being moved from Rai Lee to Ao Nang, with people all along the front and could hear announcements over a PA system.
Being a little unsure we tried to call Sunsail on the VHF, but their working channel of 67 only allowed 1 watt power and we were 25 miles away, we tried on the mobile phone, but constantly got 'Network busy', as power and networks were offline. There were a couple of other yachts in the bay so I dinghied over to the nearest, where I found a Brit live aboard and asked him if it was safe to go ashore. He told me that they were moving people from Rai Le as there were no jetties and few long tails, but that Ao Nang was fine and there were shops open so we could pick up supplies.
We jumped in the dingy and went ashore and found fire trucks and National Service lads cleaning up, with a cardboard sign marked 'First Aid', Thai people are very resourceful. Because most of the town was protected with a concrete wall all seemed reasonably OK. There was a camper van washed onto the beach and a small yacht and a catamaran were beached, but the southern end of the town, with no sea wall was severely damaged.
We picked up supplies and tried to get lunch, but could get little service, so went back out to the boat, as it was also very hot on land. Once onboard we had lunch and I turned on my mobile, and managed to get through to the Sunsail office in Phuket, who informed us they had us and one other boat down on their missing list. A short time later one of the Sunsail guys came by on a fast motor boat, cruising the usual anchorages looking for us and a blue hulled Bavaria 42.
In the late afternoon the Dutch family came in to the bay and spoke with us again and then the Brit live aboard came over and we had a few beers as the sun went down and then had our meal. At around 11 pm that evening we saw the Brit change from anchor light to navigation lights and he motored past us to say that his Thai girlfriend had heard on the radio there had been an after shock of 6.8 so we should follow him into deeper water.
Frantically we started the engine, grabbed the charts and my handheld GPS, we had no chartplotter on board, and set off into the blackness, hoping there were no uncharted reefs out there. The Brit had motored past the Dutch boat, and a motor boat, and they tagged along, we were monitoring channel 16 on the VHF and talking with the Dutch boat, but heard nothing. The deepest safe water we could find was only 12m, so we threw all the ground tackle over, driving the anchor in as hard as we could hoping the Delta would hold in the sand.
This was all rather frightening and Suzanne became very distressed, calling her brother in Australia and sending text messages to friends. That night we slept in lifejackets up in the cockpit not knowing if we would survive till morning, as the reality of what had happened began to sink in.
The next morning as telephone networks started to come back online and congestion eased we got text messages from family, friends and colleagues. We managed to make a few calls and I spoke with my daughter, Lisa, as she had been very concerned with all the TV coverage and that was a hard conversation to handle emotionally.
That day we sailed back towards Phuket past huts and houses, long tail boats, wood and shoes all floating in the sea and had to keep a lookout to ensure we hit nothing hard. We sailed down to Ko Mai Phai but it was too rough to anchor and we went up the east side Phuket and anchored over night before returning the boat to the Boat Lagoon.
We reported in and were debriefed by Sunsail, but the boat and ourselves had come through physically OK. We were told that one Sunsail boat had been going past Chicken Island at the time and picked up 35 survivors and 1 body all on a 35ft boat, but that all the their boats and crews were now safe.
Having rung our hotel earlier we established that it had survived and we went off to our hotel on Phuket, the Evason Spa, which because it is built into a cliff only lost its jetty. When we arrived we saw a sign asking urgently for negative blood, as Asians have only positive blood types. So the hotel arranged a small minibus and we went down with a number of other Europeans to the hospital.
Arriving at the hospital we were surprised at how well the Thais had organised everything. There was food and water being distributed, a series of tents to check lists of patients and register missing people and even a free Internet facility with about 20 PCs at the entrance. The press were there and it was very busy with lots of people and vehicles arriving, which they kept moving using megaphones. We tried to avoid eye contact with anyone, even each other as it was very hard looking at the wall of images of the missing. People were in groups trying to locate family and friends, lying on gurneys and the injured were being brought in on the back of pick up trucks.
Once back at the hotel we were able watch CNN and BBC World News and understand why all at home were so upset and concerned and just how fortunate we had been. We received a call from Kuoni Travel, who were relieved to know that we had checked in and that they could remove us from their missing list.
David & Suzanne