Stolen Kiss

Stolen Kiss

December 28, 2004

Our personal account of the Tsunami. Dec 26, 2004

0930 hours on Boxing Day, 2004 saw approximately 100 yachts anchored in the beautiful Nai Harn Bay in Phuket, Thailand. This is a deep bay with most yachts anchored in 8m – 15m of water. One or two yachts, mainly catamarans had edged a little closer to the beach.

Peter and I had decided to go ashore to finalize a few chores before we departed for the next part of our cruise. A small swell had been running off and on over the past two weeks, which made landing the dinghy on the main beach a very wet experience at times. The long white beach is littered with rows of sun lounges and umbrellas for the tourists. It was still early morning - the morning after xmas celebrations. We had made a safe landing and dragged the dinghy high up over the high tide mark, and buried the anchor at the end of a very long line (just to be sure!).

We had missed one bus and were sitting on another bus watching over the beautiful bay. It was high water springs, so when the water suddenly receded to a level that we had never seen, an eerie feeling filled the air. We stood at the top of some of stairs at the back of the beach about 5m above sea level. Suddenly the water bubbled back in towards the shore. It just kept coming. People who were sun bathing were running up the beach in disbelief.

The water silently gathered up sun lounges, umbrellas, people’s belongings and the wares from small stores along the sea wall. Other dinghies on the beach started to spin around and move towards us, our dinghy still anchored and floating amongst the debris. A Thai man next to us said he had lived at this beach for 40 years and had never seen anything like this. We were mesmerized by what was happening. We sort of had a feeling of ‘earthquake somewhere’ but did not realize the magnitude of what was about to happen.

The first surge departed the beach as quickly as it arrived. We went to get the dinghy and Peter decided we would get out while we could. As we were dragging the dinghy towards the water (that had again receded), the next surge started coming in. We were getting buffeted with debris. I had tried to put my shoes on as we made our way to the dinghy. I was worried about broken glass and other debris and have serious issues with having bare feet in water I am unsure of.

As the surge continued up the beach, it was dragging us with it. I had lost a shoe and was chasing it. Suddenly I was aware that I could not stand and going away from the dingy. Peter was yelling at me to get back to the dinghy and get in. I saved my shoe and lunged at the dinghy, just managing to heave myself over the side. I usually have problems with this when in water over my depth – amazing what adrenaline can do! We started paddling out – paddling very hard! All sorts of debris in the water – sun lounges, cushions, umbrellas, tables, cool boxes, bottles.
There were some cruising people coming in their dinghies, so at that moment we were not worried. Once almost out and clear of most debris we started the outboard and went back to Stolen Kiss to up anchor and move. We did not realize the strength of the current until we tried to grab hold of Stolen Kiss. By this time, the second surge was leaving the bay. An instinctive decision turned out well for us, but it could have gone pear shaped very quickly.

Other yachts were moving out in an orderly fashion. Some decided to stay. We would have been ok as we were well anchored with plenty of scope. However we felt there was worse to come! As we had turned west with the beach behind us, the third and largest surge pushing us back to the beach was approximately 4 knots. I noticed that we were not making any headway so had to put full revs on the motor, happy that it was a good reliable engine. We looked around as we were moving and saw this enormous (approximately 10m) wall of water go up, over the sea wall, over the top of the shops in the corner and continue up the car park. A car had come floating down the river in the south corner of the beach. We just kept looking west! That was scary!

The height of the water was estimated at 30 feet. Stories were coming in over the VHF – some yachts in the shallow bay of Patong (which was devastated up to one block from the beach) had a horrific experience laying over on their side when the water receded and getting dragged towards the beach. One yacht had to dump its anchor and warp to avoid being dragged up the beach. There were also problems in the shallow bay of Ao Chalong where many local boats had broken their moorings and were moving around the anchorage, colliding at great speed. A catamaran had a longtail overturned between its hull and lost their windlass trying to get clear. VHF Ch 69 is the general calling frequency that all the yachts use. Everyone was staying on 69 telling of their ordeals and who needed assistance. Very chilling!

Once out in deeper water we tried to call a few people in Langkawi, but it was too late. We managed a call through to Bill (Time Out) in Australia. His boat was unattended in Telaga and remained afloat. Bill arrived in Langkawi 12 hours after the call.

We were very shaken. How did we react? Drank copious amounts of alcohol of course!

Once we were out in the bay, we tried to phone some friends in Langkaw, but it was too late. We called Bill in Adelaide. I was near hysterical, he was calm. Time Out was in Telaga, Langkawi. Bill landed in Langkawi 12 hours after the phone call. Time Out was still floating.

Stories were coming in from other anchorages and other islands. Tragedy on Phi Phi island was horrific and there had been divers lost in Emerald Cave, Ko Muk. The Phuket Chief of Police was having breakfast in Patong and had to get rescued out of the top of a palm tree. The marinas here survived, with the water stopping just below the top of the posts. Not so for our friends south in Langkawi. Two marinas on the west side of the island were decimated. Most of our information comes from BBC world on 6 megs. The whole region has suffered tremendous loss. How fortunate were we?

There were people who died at Nai Harn Beach. Shops and a local restaurant ‘The Jungle Bar’ frequented by yachties were all washed away. There were cars on the beach and washed onto rocks, dinghies up trees and in car parks. The surge was one thing, but when the water emptied out of the bay, bringing with it a huge amount of debris, that was something else. Many yachts spent the rest of the day out in deeper water collecting furniture and the like to bring back in for the local people. (We rather fancied the cane lounge for the poop deck!) We have not seen the footage on TV channels showing devastation around Phuket, but listening to the stories of local people has been chilling enough. New Years Eve usually sees the shallow Patong Bay full of yachts watching the amazing fireworks display. Another time, the situation for us could have been very different.

A peculiarity to Thailand is that when you check in you have to provide an estimate of the value of your yacht, on the off chance it gets stolen or it sinks. So in the event of this happening, you then pay 1.5 times the amount of this value to the Thai Government. This is to deter people from abandoning their yachts here (and some people do) or selling them without paying duty. Just something else to think about if our uninsured yachts (as most cruising yachts are) came to grief!

Two days after the event, the clean up and rebuilding at Nai Harn is in progress. Here we sit with many other yachts anchored out the back of the bay (half way to India!). Some yachts have gingerly gone a little closer to the beach. There are still strange currents and undertows in the bay. There is much talking about the event and the need to share stories. Local people still greet us, somehow, with a smile.

What saved us? A deep water anchorage; a scope of approximately 7:1, which coped with the surges underneath us; good holding; a more than adequate anchor and a lot of luck!

Our thoughts are with the local people and our friends who lost their yachts or suffered terrible damage. The marina in Langkawi where we left Stolen Kiss to return to Australia previously is no more. We only had left there ourselves two weeks ago. The tragedy of it all is devastating to see. It is one thing to see it on TV and another to see and hear personal accounts of tragedy. Our plans are now on hold for another year.

So, if you see water retreating fast down a beach…run!

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