The following story is true…
Port Blair, The Andaman & Nicobar Islands, India: On March 11 of last year, a group of divers left on a routine diving excursion from Port Blair in the Andaman Sea. The weather was clear and the undulating swells of the ocean seemed normal. As they loaded the 13 metre-long dungi (Burmese dug-out) with dive gear, after-dive snacks and a few bottles of water, the crew comprising of a father and son team, Sr. Rama Rao and Jr. Rama Rao, and an assistant, Himanshu fired up the twin engines. Their destination lay at Sir Hugh Ross Island, 20 nautical miles due east.
The dungi belonged to Commander AS Baath, retired from the Indian Navy, who was running a dive operation in the Andamans. The other two divers onboard were Hugues Vitry; a grizzled veteran of the sub-aquatic world, who had a dive operation of his own in Mauritius, and had arguably spent the larger part of his life more wet than dry [a 3 Star CMAS Instructor, founding Member of the Mauritian Scuba Diving Association (MSDA) and DAN (Divers Alert Network) Instructor]; and a French lady, Christel Sanson (a 3 Star CMAS diver), who was on holiday. After negotiating the drop-off on the collar of the reef, the three divers flipped over the side of the boat. The dive was a good one, nothing exceptional, and lasted fifty-five minutes. Little did the divers below realize that the elements above were plotting their fate. On board, the weather was taking a turn for the worse. The winds were acting up and the sky was acquiring an ominous disposition. Surfacing at 1300 hours, and assessing the situation, they decided to head back towards Port Blair.
Commander Baath has lived most of his life on or by the sea. As the Andaman Islands are situated in a depression zone, one does not associate predictability with weather here. To Baath, nothing seemed amiss or out of the ordinary. If the winds settled, they even considered doing another dive en route to Port Blair, at North Bay. However, the weather worsened. From over the horizon, another depression was sweeping toward them, fast and furious. They could not have avoided it even if they chose to. It was upon them before they knew it—full of belligerent winds and whiplash rains.
Within the next half-hour, the boat was caught in a full-blown storm. The waves were unforgiving, tossing the dungi around; nothing to do but ride it out and wait for it to blow over. And it did. Apparently. Almost as soon as it appeared, the storm subsided. Two whales surfaced near the boat. Hugues tried to photograph them, urging Sr. Rama Rao to follow these leviathan harbingers of hope. This went on for several minutes, probably the only 15 minutes of magic they would pluck out and be able to smile about later. The whales turned and dived teasingly. And then the weather returned with fury. This time, it was here to stay. The whales, perhaps sensing threat, disappeared. The second dive was forgotten. Home to Port Blair was the only option, but which way was home?
Circling the whales had thrown them a little off course and suddenly there were no landmarks in sight. The divers fished out their compass, studied it for a moment, and then pointed confidently. Sr. Rama Rao’s instinct kicked in strongly, though briefly, at this point. He had doubts about the direction. His opinion was vetoed by the overwhelming technological supremacy of the compass. The boat steamed in the direction of the pointed finger. Had the sun been out, they might have realised they were headed in the opposite direction. Caught in the teeth of the savage winds and raging seas, Port Blair faded behind them to the north. They were headed southeast, approximately in the direction of the Malacca Straits, over the open expanse of a belligerent Bay of Bengal.
To confirm their predicament, they pitched the anchor. Even with a 100-metre rope attached to it, there was no indication of the bottom. Nightfall had descended, and with only 20 litres of fuel left, it made sense to drift until daybreak.
Hugues Vitry: “On the 12th morning, drifting 30 miles off what should have been Sister Islands, Sr. Rama Rao started having an argument with Baath about our actual position at that time. It was obvious to him that we were drifting towards North Sentinel Island. After all we heard about these hostile tribal people, who are supposed to be cannibals. Seeing the palpable anxiety on the faces of the crew as the arguing went on, Christel really started getting frightened. I did everything to make her stop worrying. I told her that even though we came close to the island, we would not come close to the shore as the drifting anchor will hold at the bottom. We planned to wait until nightfall before landing on the island. I also told her that we still had 3 full tanks of air that would allow us to dive for safety or to go below and capsize any small boat if the tribal people were to attack us.”
Andaman Sea: The night was black, and when the moon finally decided to fleetingly show herself, it was bang overhead, making it impossible to decipher east from west. Early morning, they got a brief glimpse of the sun. Although short-lived, it revealed the westerly direction Commander Baath was looking for. Having dived at Passage Island and the Sister Islands before, Baath recognized these outcrops in the distance. The Rama Raos got the engines in motion and this was when the dungi ran out of fuel. By afternoon, the winds were raging again and soon there was no sight of any landform around.
The fresh water on board was running out, and the packed food had turned putrid. The weather had no intentions of letting up and the possibility of the boat capsizing seemed uncomfortably real. Improvising a tarpaulin as a sail, they headed into the direction of the wind to prevent the dungi from being overturned. For two long days the fury of the elements battered them mercilessly. The nights were turning cold and they huddled together under towels and a sheet of canvas—trying to stay inside the boat. Cleverly, Hugues had managed to open the necks of three of the dive tanks and filled them with rain—36 litres of fresh water.
Port Blair: The Coast Guard initiated a search, as the dungi had not returned for two days. No one was really worried considering the crew’s reputation as “sea-faring” folk. Everyone presumed that the people on the boat had probably pitched tent on one of the several islands and were waiting for the weather to calm down. The French Navy had also been informed through their consulate that a French citizen was lost at sea as they had a vessel close to the area at the time.
Hugues Vitry: “A violent gale went on during a full day and two full nights—an illuminated and thundering sky. Christel’s mood was cyclic; tears-sadness-tears-fright. She didn’t know then that 2 days later in the unbearable heat of the calm seas, she would be praying to all the gods in heaven for the storm to come again.”
Andaman Sea: By now, it was apparent that they were drifting away from land. Three days had passed and everyone was feeling the strain. Devoid of stamina, and hungry, they tried their utmost to keep their hopes up. Also, the direction had become apparent. The special prismatic diver’s compass had been misread as it was viewed from the top rather than through it’s prism—they had been heading in exactly the opposite direction—towards Thailand.
It is a known fact that pirates roam the Andaman waters. From poachers to smugglers, stories have often floated around in the comfort of Port Blair. Now in the open sea, these stories were being recalled, but never aloud. On March 14th, a ship passed scarcely 6-7 kms away. Hugues started flashing his camera while the others burned rubber tyres hanging off the side of the dungi. The ship cautiously ignored all attempts as this “marooned victim” ploy is known to be used by pirates to board ships as they approach to help. This was a back-breaker for the team’s morale. Baath tried to keep the spirits up, and Himanshu cracked jokes about how much he’d eat when they reached Port Blair. The intentions were right, but how long would this courage last?
Port Blair: DIG Dey, Commander Coast Guard Region, Commander Abu Talah and all the Coast Guard officers and navy had now launched an extensive rescue mission. An NGO, Reefwatch, was returning from an expedition around Nicobar. Most of the crew on board were very close friends of Hugues and Baath. Being alerted of the news, they kept a keen watch, and by default, picked up some fishermen who had been stranded on Cynque Island. These men had survived without food or water for 4 days. This furnished a glimmer of hope—little did anyone imagine that Baath’s dungi was closer to Thailand than to the Andamans.
The navy was expanding the search perimeter, but the area that needed to be covered was proving to be too vast in spite of alerting all ships plying in the vicinity. Protocol usually demanded that if nothing at all was found within a stipulated time, the search should be called off. But Dey refused to call off search despite it being over the standard 72 hours. He had tremendous faith in Baath’s seaworthy abilities and refused to believe him to be dead.
Andaman Sea: Five days had passed and there had been no indication of a rescue. The storm had quelled, which was a good sign. But no rain meant no more water. Now the sun had begun to beat down. The water that was left was rationed to each person at six sips a day. Jr. Rama Rao lay motionless for an entire day—everyone wondered if he’d die of heat exhaustion. Towels and a bit of net proved futile for catching fish. Finally, they resorted to eating the flesh inside barnacles, which were clinging on the side of the boat.
Hugues Vitry: “On the 14th, Christel started menstruating. First I tried to be discreet about it but soon, she was bleeding so much that her condition was evident to every one. I tore the towels provided by the hotel for her. Christel discovered that the water was the best place to be and we all went into the water with our life jackets or diving jackets and from then on we played hide and seek with the sun. Our nightmare would start every day around 0800hrs until 1530hrs sitting under a blazing sun in a complete lull. During the day the heat was unbearable and during the nights we slept under our towels that were completely stiff with the salt in it and as the night cooled down dampness and humidity crept out of the wooden planks and enfolded us from the air above, getting us wet and sticky…”
Port Blair: News of a sighting had come in. Pieces of a wooden hull had been washed up by the storm. A team was immediately dispatched down south of South Andaman Island. While everyone waited with bated breath, the radio crackled describing the pieces to have blue paint. Baath’s boat had a yellowish coat. By now, the Divers Alert Network had been intimated of the incident and as Hugues was a DAN Instructor and member, they were ready to dispatch choppers and a full team to assist in the rescue operations.
Andaman Sea: Six days had passed. The boat was absorbing water. Everyone was severely drained, though, if they didn’t bail the water continuously they were aware that the dungi would ultimately sink.
In the stillness of the night, another ship sailed past. Using some engine oil, they lit two strips of rubber. The ship’s crew was probably asleep. Did they suspect poachers? No one will ever know if they did see them, but they didn’t stop. Disheartened and broken, Baath promised the others that the Coast Guard and navy would never quit the search. Besides, they would hit Thailand in the next two days. He even promised Sr. Rama Rao a free tour of Thailand if this did happen.
Port Blair: Considering the number of days that had lapsed, people were beginning to lose hope. Though left unsaid, most people did not expect anyone to be alive. What was on everyone’s mind was that there had been absolutely no sign of wreckage. This however, was not a cue to give up the search; most of the naval and Coast Guard team comprised of Baath’s close friends. They had decided to continue all efforts until some conclusive evidence would be found.
Hugues Vitry: “On the 16th I fell into a sudden uncontrolled breakdown and all day everyone was faced with my speechlessness. My silent body and the outwardly absence of my mind—I was scanning my soul. I only came out of this state to groan and rail against the poor thirsty crew who I felt were drinking too much water. That was the toughest time for me. In the late evening, some dolphins were sighted and even with all the admiration I have for these creatures I started making a harpoon with a rusty steel bar, a hammer, and my Leatherman survival knife. By the time I finished the harpoon the dolphins were gone. That night I prayed for the first time, after maybe 20 years.”
Andaman Sea: On March 17, seven days adrift, everyone was floating attached to the dungi. It was 1:40 in the afternoon as the sun’s harsh rays beat down. Even if they would eventually reach Thailand, how many of them would actually be alive? Suddenly, there was the muffled sound of an aeroplane propeller. Everyone clambered aboard and started waving frantically.
Hugues Vitry: “I quickly grabbed my flashlight and tried to flash the SOS code, but the batteries were almost out and recharging them took more than 20 seconds, but from the first flash the plane turned the opposite direction and then started climbing like a rocket upwards. The first time round they flew quite high above us and only when they were sure it was us the pilot flew so close to the sea that there was a spray behind the plane. Tears rolled down our cheeks as we all hugged each other and waved to our saviours. The plane’s loudspeaker announced repeatedly, ‘Don’t worry… a ship is on its way.’ We later learned from the pilots that they turned the plane away and up because they thought that the flashlight might have been gunshots from poachers.”
Andaman Sea: From the distance a Coast Guard Dornier approached the dungi. They had been spotted. The pilot announced that a vessel was on its way. As they spent their last few moments on the dungi rejoicing, they spotted a black shape in the water—long, slithery and treacherous. Skittish and extremely aggressive, an ungainly creature bumping into a sea snake would be provocation enough for the animal to employ its fangs. The samudri naag was wriggling on the surface by the side of the boat where the team would have been floating. They did not have to voice it, but the thought ran like a loose current through their heads. Had the plane not been heard, everyone would still have been in the water.
Footnote: The entire version of the events related under the “Andaman Sea” header has been related through Commander Baath’s version of the incident.
A Warning For Divers:
Commander A.S. Baath: “Anything can happen at sea, no matter how long or short the journey. Get a VHF set, GPS, compass, extra food, water and fuel. I keep thinking that if I had only carried just 20 extra litres of diesel as an emergency store, we would have reached Passage or Sister Island and everybody would have been saved the trauma. Extra rations, spare fuel, batteries and torches, these can save you in an emergency. But most important of all is hope. Never give up hope as long as you have a breath of life in you. Improvise to get food; survival is important, not etiquette. Raw fish, crabs, anything can save your life. Diving too is great fun but you need to make sure that your equipment is checked for safety. Don’t ever, ever take the sea for granted.”
Christel Sanson: “When you live this kind of horrible experience, you don’t see life the same way… You realise how life is beautiful. There is not a day that goes by without me thinking of what happened during those 7 days … it was a nightmare. Even though I went down sometimes, I always tried to keep smiling!
“Baath was fantastic and thanks to him I never lost hope even though it was very hard psychologically on this small boat. You don’t know at all what is going on, you don’t see land, it’s very hot during the day, cold during the night, only a few sips of rain water per day. You don’t know if you will be rescued, how long it will take, if your family has been contacted. Thanks to the Indian Government we were found, but what hurts me the most is that I don’t think they would have searched us for so long if it were only Indian people on the boat… but we were foreigners… me being French, Hugues being Mauritian and Baath an important Indian navy guy…”
Images courtesy Hugues Vitry