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By the Power of Jesus and the Pharmaceutical Properties of Xanax (a surf story)
We were here:
We had a surprise visit from these friendly guys who wanted to check out the foreigners who’d shown up at the remote village of Lakey.
After two weeks of surf ranging from fun to drownable, the swell showed no signs of tapering off, but my buddies had to get to Bali to catch their flight home, which meant getting to Bima. The only public transport we could arrange out of the village was a battered truck that hauled rice harvests to Bima and returned with boxes of instant Super Mie noodles.
Just before they got on the dinghy to shore, my buddy gave me his first aid kit. He took out a bottle, chucked a few pills into a zipped plastic bag. “For my flight home,” he said. “You can have the rest.”
Curious, I examined the bottle. “What is it?”
“Great for when you’re stressed out. Calms you right down.”
I was staying on the boat to sail back to Bali, planning to check out a few spots along Sumbawa’s south coast. Most of it was jungle. Newmont had yet to find copper and gold in them thar hills. It was late May, with morning off-shore mountain winds giving way later to light sea breezes. The Balinese skipper Pak Ngasti hopped on the truck with jerry cans to get diesel for the return trip and was back by noon. After filling the boat’s tank, we hoisted anchor and set off off, the 33-hp Izusu engine chugging happily. Not exactly a powerhouse, it was one of those small “I think I can, I think I can, I think can” optimists. The boat had a cut-down sail that helped steady the hull but didn’t really add any juice to the speed.
We passed Airplane Point. The afternoon sun sparkled on the aluminum carcass of a plane that had mysteriously crash-landed on the coral beach there decades previously. The thundering surf and the dense jungle had kept the salvagers away. I’d read all the novels I’d brought with me, so I fished out the little travel Bible. Lounging on the back deck cushions, I read again the story of Jesus walking on the water.
The mid-afternoon breeze had picked up, turning into the season’s first strong trade wind that would probably last all night, blowing out the entire coast. There’d be no anchorage until we rounded Sekongkang (Yo-Yos) and got to Maluk. But that was okay, as we were headed downwind. And headed home, too. At the tiller, Ngasti happily hummed Balinese tunes.
I glanced at the rolling seas and being of more logical than spiritual mind, mixed with a bit of writer’s whimsy, wondered if Jesus had actually been surfing. (Perhaps, God forbid, a SUP?)
With the sun inching toward the horizon, we trundled across a wide bay, heading for a point line with boulder cliffs. Then the engine hiccupped. The exhaust smoke turned black and foul. Engineer Nyoman leaped into action with me right behind. The engine sputtered, its spirit of “I think I can” becoming “I’m not so sure.”
Why? Everything had been checked and double-checked. Wait — the new fuel.
We dipped out a sample from the fuel tank. The diesel been mixed with cheaper kerosene. The engine was burning up, and even as we stood there, it banged one last time and quit. With no forward momentum, the boat began rocking violently. Things crashed and banged.
I raced topside. Ngasti was dropping the sail and eyeing the cliffs, now just a few hundred meters ahead. The current was dragging us toward the rocks. With the engine dead, the wind was slowly but inexorably blowing us shorewards. Here there was no fringing reef. The surf crashed into the volcanic cliff with thundering booms, white water shooting upwards, swirling and sucking around the lower boulders. It was one of those places where you could lose more than just a boat, but your life, too.
Talk about a stressful situation. That image of the bottle popped into my head. I opened it and swallowed a pill, swigging from a bottle of water rolling around the deck. A wave larger than the others smashed against the cliff, spray billowing upwards. I swallowed a second.
“Get the dinghy in the water!” I shouted. We unlashed the dinghy and shoved it off the cabin-top into the water. With the boat lurching this way and that, we man-handled the 40-horse outboard onto the dinghy, tied a line to the dingy’s transom and the other end to the boat’s bow. That plan was to tow the boat and claw our way past the cliff and the immediate danger.
Ngasti gave the outboard full throttle. I immediately learned a lesson about towing a big boat with a small dingy. The dinghy skitters across the water, left and right and left, without actually pulling the boat forward.
The cliff face drew closer. The jagged boulders and edges looked like the teeth of hell. The booms of the waves sounded like my heart. The blowback from the spray spat over the boat.
“God, please help,” I cried. “I walk on water, too. I’ll give Jesus all the set waves he wants. Please calm this wind.”
Sudddenly a great peace washed over me. My heart and mind quieted. And I saw the answer at once. I shouted to Ngasti, “Bring the dinghy to the side and lash it off to the railing.”
We were a couple minutes from being smashed onto the cliff, but such was my peace that I was no longer frantic with fear. I calmly helped lash the dinghy to the side of the boat, looping line around the boat railing and dingy’s safety line and handles to snug them together. With the boat now rising on the larger sets that seconds later exploded against the cliff, Ngasti gave the outboard engine full throttle and nudged the bow of the boat out to sea and made slow but sure headway. The trick — of using the dinghy not to tow but essentially as a secured platform for the outboard — worked like an answer to prayer. And a testimony to the pharmaceutical properties of Xanax.
Winds often blow hardest around points and headlands. Beyond, it gentled. We took turns sitting in the dinghy all line, using the 40-horse outboard to move the boat along. Thank God we had plenty of good petrol. An hour before dawn we rounded Yo-Yo’s. We were so exhausted we didn’t bother with Maluk but dropped anchor in the tiny cove tucked around the headland and slept the sleep of the saved.
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