Book - East of Kinabalu

Some 12 hours later than anticipated, we were speeding up the Gum Gum Creek. The engines were going well. The steering was perfect. Again I took the wheel. Tundah sat on the front deck, to keep an eye out for sinkers. As we came out into the estuary, Tundah resumed his position at the wheel. Our mechanic friend had been right. It was almost dark. It was low water again, and the tide was starting to flow.

From the Gum Gum estuary to the small fishing village of Kulapis, which marked the entrance to Labuk Bay, we had to follow the north-facing shore of the Sandakan peninsula. Because it was low tide, my idea of hugging the shore-line was impossible. To avoid the mud banks, we had to go about two or three miles offshore before turning into the deeper channel which was normally used by large kumpits and timber-tugs.

Tundah took us straight out to sea in the semi-darkness. We were running head-on into the waves. The wind was strong and it came straight out of the Sulu Sea from the north-east. It funnelled in and drove the waves against the sloping north shore. A few miles to the east lay the Turtle Islands, and beyond them, the western islands of the Philippines archipelago.

There was a brisk chop but the Pekaka cut through it in fine style, throwing up a spray every time we crashed into an incoming wave. It was an exhilarating run. The wind snatched at my hair, blowing away the last vestiges of my hangover. The stars were beginning to appear overhead. Two phosphorescent plumes of water from our propellers arched out behind us as we carved our way towards Kulapis.

Peering into the darkness ahead, Tundah eased back sharply on the throttles. I could just make out the blacker outline of a fishing kelong, which marked the edge of the deeper channel. Kelongs were long nibong poles which were sunk into the sea bed on which the prawn-fishermen suspended their nets. They carry no lights of course, and like the sinkers, they are a major hazard to coastal shipping travelling at night.

Tundah was enjoying himself. He was a Banjar, a member of that famous sea-going race. He was completely fearless in the water and his courage was shortly to be put to the test. He eased the Pekaka round the kelong in a wide sweep and brought it on to a course running parallel to the far-off shore-line. The moon had not yet emerged. However in the dim light of the stars we could just make out the darker line of the mangroves far away on our port side. Ahead of us we could see the lights of Kulapis twinkling in the distance.

The storm hit us suddenly! Tundah shouted and pointed ahead. The lights of Kulapis and half of the stars were blotted out by an immense black wall, which seemed to be advancing towards us with the speed of an express train. Tundah handed over the steering to me and grabbed for his torch. I was momentarily disorientated. It looked as if we were running into the forest wall on the shore, but the shore-line was at least two miles away.

It was in fact, a solid wall of rain. There was no time for further speculation. We had run straight into a violent tropical storm which seemed to have come out of nowhere. We heard later that it was the tail-end of a typhoon from the South China Sea a hundred miles to the north.

Almost instantly the sea was whipped up into a boiling maelstrom. It was absolutely pitch dark. I remember holding up my hand in front of my face, and I could not see it. The wind tore at us with an insane shriek. It drove the rain and spray horizontally at us with a fury that stung our faces. Peal after peal of thunder rolled around and every few minutes we were lit by flashes of lightning.

The Pekaka was being tossed around like a piece of drift-wood. For what felt like seconds at a time, we seemed to be climbing, and then we would hit the water with a shuddering crash, which made me wonder if the plywood hull might split from end to end. It was made much worse by the complete darkness, lit only by frequent flashes of lightning. With the thunder, and the howling of the wind normal speech was impossible.


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