Trial and error
Tundah was shouting, close to my ear: “You drive … I look out … kelongs.” My God, he was right. If we hit a kelong while being flung around like this, the plywood hull would be smashed to matchwood in seconds. Tundah switched on his powerful torch and peered from time to time round the edge of the windscreen. Through the glass we could see nothing. It was awash. I was standing in a half-crouch, so that I also could take fleeting glances over the top of the windscreen. Even then, the torch was not of much benefit.
By the flashes of lightning however we could see short glimpses of huge green walls of water towering over us one minute, and then we were teetering over a black void the next. For the first few terrifying minutes the waves seemed to come from all directions. I had a confused impression that we were spun completely round on a couple of occasions as the waves broke around us. I had lost all sense of direction.
The Pekaka started to keel over at an impossible angle as we slid off the larger waves. It was a surely a matter of minutes before we turned turtle. “Turn …. head into…….. waves!” shouted Tundah and shone his torch to starboard. It seemed that the worst of the waves were indeed now coming more consistently from that direction.
To turn her round was not easy however. I eased down on the throttles. Almost immediately a green wave broke over our transom with a shuddering crash. In the next lightning flash I had a glimpse of Ah Chang, clinging desperately to his umbrella under a shower of spray. It was quite obvious that if we tried to run very slowly, we would either founder or the engines would be swamped.
Finally however, we were now heading directly into the waves at last. Our progress was curious. We seemed to climb with agonising slowness up, up, on the face of the oncoming wave. At the top we stopped dead, as if a giant hand had grabbed us from behind. Then we lurched down into the darkness and smashed into the next wave.
A sort of pattern was beginning to emerge however. By trial and error I found that I could influence our progress to some extent by the use of the throttles. I pushed them fully forward as we were climbing, then pulled back to slow us down as we passed the crest. If I was too slow, water surged over her transom again, and if I was too fast, the Pekaka buried her nose in the next wave.
The wind seemed to be abating slightly. The waves, when we glimpsed them in the light of the torch, or in the odd flash of lightning, were still terrifying but the Pekaka had stayed afloat so far. I wondered if we were perhaps at the epicentre of the storm. I took the opportunity of the lull to shout to Tundah and Ah Chang: “We’re heading in towards the shore. If we hit the mangroves jump out. Grab on to a tree.”
“No, Tuan,” Tundah shouted, “we are heading out to sea – to the Philippines!” Ah Chang said nothing. A flash of lightning revealed him sitting on the bottom of the boat, in six inches of water, eyes tightly closed, clinging resolutely to the wreckage of his umbrella. For his very first boat-trip, Ah Chang was getting his money’s worth!