Wednesday, October 14, 2009


I was crew on a pleasure yaght for a season, we sailed around the Pacific making stops at all of the pituresque little islands so the passengers could play in the surf and shop at the local markets. It was a great job, I was out in the salty air, and made some great friends among my ship mates. It wasn't a three hour tour or anything, but I diddn't think it would be a eternity at sea like the Ancient Mariner.

In fact we were only half way through our voyage when the weather shifted and we lost connection to the GPS. We had already been off course a bit when the storm blew up, due to a day of following some Humpback whales wich had been feeding and preforming stunts all day for the passengers. They headed in a southern direction and we followed although our planned course was west. Everyone was delighted to spend the day whale watching even though it ment we would miss one of our stops, and the crew was pleased to oblidge, though in hindsight I wish the Captain had at least called in a course correction while the radio was still in range.

The storm took out our main mast even though we had reduced sail to quarter mast. The mast unfortunately whent over the side and the lines dragged it bashing against the hull like a battering ram. The breaches filled with water quickly and we were trying to disengage the life boat wich was full of passengers when I was hit by debris. I whent under screaming, and dont know why they diddnt pull me up and rescue me, but I was quickly caught in some kind of current and between fighting for breath and trying to keep my head up I lost track of the boat for a while. When I finally caught sight of her again it was because it was on fire. The explosion happened soon after, I dont know if anyone else made it, if they were rescued or managed to get the dingy away from the ship enough to survive the fireball.

I also dont know how long I was adrift. Once again I was grateful to be female, my body had built in life preservers, and I had a lot of swimming practice so I can tread water for long periods of time, the main problem was the cold water, wich even in the South Pacific can kill you of Hypothermia in hours. I would like to say I washed up on a sandy beach but truth was I had been about to doze off (wich probably would have been my final sleep) when I was bashed against some rocks and after many bloody and painful attempts I managed to get myself out of the water onto the slippery black jagged surface. It was not a Island, not yet, I was on a reef or promintary and I was too exhausted to look around much. I simply dragged myself above the waves and passed out in the fetal position.

The next morning was clear, I woke early, still exhausted and feeling weak. Looking around I found myself perched on a shelf of rock wich was surrounded by coral on the inside of a reef. The tides must have been extremely high last night wich is why I wasnt bashed against the seemingly delicate coral formations wich would have peirced my skin like arrows. I looked down at the microcosm beneath me, a coral forest filled with teeny tiny electric blue fish. There was nothing to eat there, and I would need to eat soon. My body had been through a ordeal and I would have to help it cope with food and shelter.

There were more rocks like mine, wich led almost like a path for giants towards a small Island, it was so small I doubt it was on any map, but perhapse it was just the tip of a chain and I would be able to make my way to somewhere inhabited. I would have to swim for it, unfortunately once I dove off my little rock platform there would be no going back as the water level would not allow me to get back up without slicing my legs to ribbons on reef.

There was however no shelter, water or food on this Island, so I would have to make the best of it. I made a beautiful dive into the water, wich made the scrapes and cuts on my skin burn like sulfuric acid for a moment before they were numbed by the cold. Once in the water I headed for shore, but did not use a rapid pace, rather I let the waves push me and I relaxed into a slow but easy breast stroke wich kept my head above the water and my eyes on the shore.

There were palm trees, I hoped that ment coconut, and bushy scrub, wich I hoped ment there was some water source though I knew the chances of that were unlikely. Standing water on such a small Island would have to be brackish. No matter what Robinson Cruso or the Smith family had told me from childhood, I knew that water seeped under the sand of Islands and was full of salt. Salt blew in on the breezes and salt sat in the sand. Salt water was all I would be likely to find.

I could see debris and flotsom washed up on the shore, some of it was probably from the yaght I had been on, the rest was just the usual junk wich washed up on any island in the Pacific. Our society was a consumer, and we tossed more trash into the water than anyone in history, but today I was thankful that this Island was so polluted, it gave me raw materials.

When the water started to get shallow I had to be careful. I knew that there was all kinds off life below me, and it wasnt just coral that could puncture my skin. Stone fish cone shells and stingrays often hid beneath the sand their poisonous barbs protecting them from being stood upon.  I kicked my feet each time before touching down to rest, and I swam even when in the shallows to avoid stepping on unseen sand.

Finally dragging myself up onto the beach I collapsed for a few moments only before pulling myself up and making my way into the shade. I was dehydrated enough, and although it had been some time since I had needed sunscreen onboard I did not want to risk a bad sunburn now. My skin would need to stay intact to prevent infection, and I was already concerned about the scrapes that I had. I would have to search the limited plants on this Island for some type of home made remedy soon.

And water!
To think of the thousands of liter bottles we had stowed aboard ship before we sailed. How many of those bottles had a drunk in my lifetime? I would give a kidney for a case of those bottles now. Looking around I saw that there were indeed coconuts, and having opened these tough nuts before I knew what a tough job it was. I dragged myself up again, thanking the sea and sky that it was still early and cool in the day for work even though my body wanted to take a siesta.

I searched the beach for the perfect jagged rock, like a shelf it was sharp allong one plane but large enough for me to use other rocks to wedge it upright into a husking tool wich I could pound the coconut onto in order to lift the fiberous coating and pry it away from the round nut. I found a board, about eight foot long wich had long nails protruding in pairs about every 3 feet allong, its back was painted a chipped white wich made me wonder if it was from the same yaght I was on, or another ship wich had met with a unlucky fate.

One by one I dragged my finds up into the shade line, half burried my husking rock and surrounded it with other rocks to hold it in the right position. I then searched out green coconuts from underneath the trees and began the laborous process of getting something to drink.

After husking three coconuts I turned to the nails on the board. One of them wiggled free and I was able to use the board to pound small holes into one of the three 'eye' patches on top of the coconuts face. The juice was nearly water at this stage, though it had a sour tang to it. It was salt free, but it had its own drawbacks as I knew, drinking this for more than a few days I would begin to have stomach problems. I would need eventually to come up with a actual source of water.

After I was satieated for juice I husked and broke open a more mature nut, one wich had a small shoot growing out of one side. These nuts had a spongy center and sweet meat, wich I feasted on, but like the juice, it was only a temporary measure. I could not survive on coconuts alone, and besides there were not enough coconut trees on the Island to keep me in a endless supply.

The next priority would have to be some type of signal however, if planes flew over the island looking for survivors I could not count on myself being seen. I would have to make something that could be seen from above and at a great distance. So I set about collecting debris and making a giant X on the beach. Spelling out Help was tempting, but it would likely be washed away with the next high tide anyway and I figured that it might not be seen to well from far away. A X however would be destinctive and I could put my energies into making it larger and more stable. I also used every peice of flotsom I could find, more white boards, more plastic fragments and bits of cloth and seaweed. Rocks surrounded my X to anchor it in place against the water that I was certain would lap against its lower edge when the water rose.

I found several objects that I could put to good use while I was working on the marker. There were many, many soda cans, wich could be used for so many purposes, these I made a pile of, also I found part of a blue tarp, a few lengths of rope, a narrow length of PVC pipe, and several peices of plastic wrapping material (such as bread bags and chip bags and other odd peices of trash). I even found one milk or juice jug wich though missing its top was in very good condition.

Going to the center of the island I found a place wich was protected from the winds where I dug a sandy pit. I then dragged flat stones to line the pit into a cone shape, and sunk the plastic jug into its center. I had cut the top (painstakingly poking the nail into it untill I could tear it off) and I now had a opening big enough for me to use the chip bag as a funnel into. I then lined the pit with plastic patting it into place as best I could and then covered it with a criss cross of sticks and finally the tarp. Hopefully water would condense on the plastic at night, and it would run into the jug. So long as the plastic stayed in place in theory it should work.

I then took my much needed siesta, knowing that it was now the hottest part of the day and the perfect time to sleep. Unfortunately the bugs were now out in force, and I spent most of my nap swatting and scratching my own skin. I would need to find some way of repelling them and unfortunately I did not know plant remidies for insect bites. I finally descided to go for a swim to cool off and give myself a momentary respite for pests.

The water was soothing, and I got to work afterwards making a fire, wich was by far the most difficut task so far. Getting tinder was easy, the old dried up coconut husks were perfect for this. I found a few logs too but descided to only burn one log tonight since my selection of downed wood was limited and I did not want to follow Easter Islands example and burn all of my trees. Coconut husks would provide light, and smoke to chase off the bugs, they diddnt produce much heat but the Island was balmy and the cool of the evening did not require a roaring fire.

I followed Tom Hanks example from 'Cast Away' and made a fire saw. A dried peice of wood with a notch in it wedged open with a rock, and a second peice of wood to rub up and down the notch, a depression underneath in the sand filled with coco fiber. After what seemed like hours I had a ember and smoke wich I blew on and fed small quantities of leaves and fiber untill I could add the husks and finally the log. I resoved to keep this fire going for a while if I could, though coals would not last forever without real wood.

By this time it was late afternoon and I felt that I should forage for some real food. I got out the length of pvc pipe, and using the side of my coconut husker sharpened the pipes end to make a very rudimentary spear. There was a loop of elastic bungy cord on the section of tarp I had found, and I sliced the tarps grommet out to free it. I worked hard at wedging the grommet into the PVC and it was a tight fit but I now had what was a very post apocolypse version of what was known in the islands as a hawaian sling. The bunge cord would be looped over my palm, I would slide my hand down the spear until there was tension and when I released it the spear would shoot forward. The force was not great, expecially in my handmade version, but underwater it would shoot out a foot or more and was enough to embed the point (I hoped) into a fish.

The beach on this side of the Island streached out into the shallows for quite a ways, so I walked around to the other side, wich was rockier and dropped off into a steeper incline under water. Unfortunately I could not observe other Islands, but I knew that without a raised perspective they could be as close as a mile away without me being able to see them over the horison.

The water on this side of the island was cooler and a deep blue. There was also more of a current so I was careful not to go to far out. Without a mask and snorkle I had a hard time spotting the fish but eventually I saw a rather large grouper, wich was slow moving enough for me to approach. It was feeding on coral heads and it made no move to get away when I dove down and speared it. Unfortunately without a barb on the spear he easily slipped off and made a break for it. I could not hold my breath long enough or without fins hope to catch his hasty retreat, and there was now blood in the water wich made me nervous. I whent back to shore empty handed, and switched tactics. This time I climbed up on the rocks and searched the nooks and crannys for hidden life. There were no tide pools here, but there was a lot of places just under the water line that I could see clearly, one of wich contained a octopus.

He was not the biggest specimin I had seen, his head was about the size of my fist, and he had thin long tenticles wich moved constantly under water searching for fish straying close to his hole. I still had blood on my spear and so I put it under water out of his line of sight, and brought it slowly closer to his den. Keeping the point upstream I let the scent of it tantilize him untill he inched his way out of his crevasse. I waited patiently untill he was almost completely free and moved the tip slowly until he began to explore it with his tenative tenticles.

I speared him though the eye, he too slipped off the spear point but was dead and so I easily fished him out of the water although his slippery body was hard to grasp. I carried my trophy back to the fire and then debated on how best to cook him. Really I had never cooked much, and diddn't know anything about how to clean a kill. Fish guts were one thing, I had seen fish cleaned before, but what would need to be cut out of a octopus? I thought the legs were the best portion, but they were so small and I figured That I should just cook the thing entire and see what was edible by taiste alone. As far as I knew nothing on a octopus was toxic, and so I poked a stick through my kill and held it over the fire to roast like a marshmallow.

Eventually I got tired of holding it and I wedged the stick into rocks, the bugs were not venturing near my smokey fire though it did burn my eyes it was a relief, and I began to mourn the loss of my bedroll or the want of a hammok as I began to look around the rocky campsite.

There was no soft vegitation on this island, no mossy banks or springy bannana leaves, tomorrow I would have to think about building some type of shelter, and even if I made a sandy bed it would be better than laying on a pile of coconut fronds wich were pokey and sharp. The octopus took forever to cook, I checked it several times but it was hard to tell when it was done since it was so rubbery. Finally I descided it was done enough and just ate it. As I had suspected the legs were pretty much the only thing worth eating and there wasnt much there, I even tried the eyes wich were discusting even to a hungry shipwreaked sailor like myself. I debated cracking another coconut to wash the taste away but was too tired to bother and finally just banked the fire, curled up and fell into a restless sleep.

Despite my best efforts the fire was out by the time I woke, and I had to spend another hour getting that ready before I breckfasted on coconut. I checked my water trap wich had only a few dropps of moisture but had suffered minor damage as the plastic had slipped down over the jug in the night. Either I would have to find one large peice of sheet plastic or find some way of securing the peices. Really bannana leaves would have been a big boon, but there was nothing here large enough to be useful and so I experimented with weaving coconut fronds into a cone like basket. Really it was rubbish so I patted the plastic back in place, and whent about gathering materials to make a shelter instead.

There was more flotsam on the beach, peices of what im sure was my yaght, and I put what I found into the making of a leanto. I gathered a layer of sand using a fiberglass hatch cover for a sled to drag the sand up to my campsite. I worried about what would happen during the next big storm, and since there was no high ground the chance of the island being submerged was a very real possibility. Still I had enough to worry about without thinking of future catastrophies.

My X was still in place, the tide had not reached it yet, and I noticed that there were small crabs fiddling with the seaweed. I used the woven cone I had made earler and abandoned as a carry basket, and with much scrambling and a few escapees I managed to capture enough to attempt a meal. However I soon found out that crabs of this size were hardly worth the effort in catching them as without some means of deep frying them I had no way of cooking the shells enough to be eaten entire, and digging out microscopic fragments of tissue from the hard exoskelletons was a huge occupation in itself.

I had not seen mammals on this island, and the only birds I had seen had been at a distance. The two meals I had made myself so far were really pathetic, and I needed protein not found in coconuts. I looked at my spear again and began to think of ways to improve it. First I was concerned about the bungee falling out. The only thing holding it in place now was the grommet forced into the pipe end. I had not streached the bungee very far when I used it because I was afraid to put too much pressure on the connection lest I pull it loose. So with some effort I wiggled and pried the grommet out, and began to use my trusty coconut husker to grind a notch on the pipe. It took forever and I scraped my hand up quite a bit but eventually I had it, I put the grommet back in letting the bungy slide into the notch on either side, then I rolled a rock out of my fire pit, and carefully holding the bunge up so it would not touch I pressed first one side then the other of the pvc against the rock to melt it slightly and soften the PVC enough to bend it inward. Eventually this capped the end off and the grommet was a permanent edition.

The next problem was that the spear needed a barb or hook to keep the fish from sliding off. This was much more dificult. If I had a real saw I could make notches allong the point. The coconut husker made too big a notch for this purpose, I would just tear the tip up and probably blunt the sharp end. So I took some of the nails I had salvaged from the beached boards and first heated them and pushed them through from the inside of the pipe. Though it was tough to keep them at the right angle since I could not touch the nails when they were heated, I did manage to get two pointed back wich hopefully would work to purpose.

I tried it out again this time on the shallow side of the island, and managed to spear a flounder type fish and bring it back to shore. It was much eaiser to spear from a standing position in the shallows since I could see through the water rather than submerging and trying to see from beneath without goggles.

That night I had a descent meal, frying the fish on a flat rock resting in the middle of the fire. I praised myself heartily and then had a descent nights sleep in my little shelter, this time manageing to bank the fire properly for the night.

I wont say that everything from that point was easy. In fact it was a constant struggle to survive, and I learned most of my lessons the hard way. In time however I learned, and lived a fairly descent life.

I became a proficient hunter, and a better cook, I learned how to weave baskets out of fronds and make rope from the fibers on the trunk of palm trees. I made a hammok to sleep in, and built a descent platform above the ground to sleep above the highest water mark of monsoon season. I diddnt have everything I wanted, but I had most of what I needed.

But I always maintained my X every morning.

One morning I came out from under my palm frond roof to see that there was a lovely little catamaran anchored within swimming distance of my island. With a whoop I ran down to the beach and dove into the water and made my way towards her hull. A sleepy young man poked his head out of the hatch to answer my shouts and his grin was the most beautiful sight I had seen in a long long time.

He spoke English, though he was Norwegian, and he cooked me powdered eggs and oatmeal with raisins and brown sugar! You cannot imagine how good this simple meal was to me, it litterally brought tears to my eyes. He watched me eat, Im sure I was a appaling sight clothes in tatters, gobbling the hot food like I had not eaten in months. I know I had lost a lot of weight, having not seen my own face in the time that I had been here I had no clue as to what changes it had undergone. At least I was clean, the life Ive been living had kept me in the surf for most of my time so I was fit and healthy despite my ordeal. With no real idea on how long I had been here I asked him the date.

Two years! I had lived alone for two years. The number shocked me, but now that I was in this comfortable yet small cabin, with this handsome Norwegian, I smiled rather than cried about it. I had grown up in America with everything given or bought easily, educated, and relatively living in the lap of luxury (though I had been in the middle class by their standards). I had taken this trip as a break after colledge to grow up and see the world.

I had seen it, or a large part of it before I ended my journey on this little island, and with a smile I stood up a woman, took the Norwegians hand and led him back to his cosy bunk where I shed my rags and reviled in my now adult body.

The next morning I showed him around my Island, he was amazed by all I had accomplished. That night I asked him for pen and paper, and taking several sheets I sat on the deck dressed in a pair of his shorts and a Tshirt and wrote two pages. The first was a letter to my parents, it contained everything that had happened to me in a brief summary. The second was a shopping list of all of the things my island was missing. I brought the papers back to the Norwegian who had been watching me with curious eyes.

I watched his boat sail off that night, tearless, I knew he would return in a week or so. Bringing with him supplies and word from shore. I had given him my parents phone number, and I hoped that they had not moved while I had been here. Two years was a long time to stay in the same house.

AUTHORS NOTE: Image was found on a website of Russian Models, no credit given for photographer or model. I was always fond of survival stories, the day to day trivialities wich can be so difficult in some situations. I spent 3 years living on a Island in Micronesia, and though it was civilized it gave me some perspective on just how difficult it would have been for Robinson Crusoe. But I often wondered at the end why they had to leave paridise, it was like the bible only these people chose to leave they werent cast out. I always thought if it was me I would stay, and keep the Island.

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