With the boat totally becalmed after 30 days at sea, I was ready to do just about anything to get to land. About 15 miles off Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean, the wind had died completely during the night. Morning found me bobbing there on my boat in middle of the shipping lane, nervously watching big hulks zoom past while glimpses of distant mountains shimmered in the heat of the rising sun. I knew this passage had taken far too long, that family back home would be worried until I called, and I wanted nothing more than a decent meal, a cold drink, and some people around me. When my ears picked up the sound of a small engine, I eagerly scanned the glassy water for its source.
A fishing boat materialized in the haze and took shape as a brightly colored local vessel with curlicue Singhalese writing on the prow. I waved at the two men aboard, clad only in some tatty fabric wrapped around their waists, and they smiled, slowed down, and drew up alongside me. One of them held on to my railing, keeping a safe distance between the two hulls rocking in the oily swell. They spoke no English, I spoke no Singhalese, but with sign language I managed to make them understand that a tow toward land and out of the shipping lane would be very much appreciated. Soon enough, my boat was tied behind theirs, and one of the fishermen had invited himself into my cockpit. He stared boldly at me, this young girl alone on a sailboat that had appeared from a distant land across the sea. As grateful as I was for the tow, I also began to feel a little uneasy.
Here were two guys with a few nets, hooks, fishing line
, an old boat, and some scraps of fabric for clothes. Here was one girl with a nice fiberglass sailboat, and all kinds of clothes, books, electronics, and food. Even though, by American standards, I was under-equipped, next to these two guys, I could have been piloting the Golden Vanity. Comparing our two rigs
would be like comparing apples and Buicks.
Fourteen years ago, Sri Lanka belonged to a part of the world where people scrambled to be the first to greet sailors coming ashore with their bags of garbage. Scraps of paper, bits of plastic, string, jars, and cans—you name it—became, in a very poor country, a bounty of items to recycle into many other uses. For a nanosecond, I thought my boat without me aboard might recycle much better than any bag of trash, and what could stop this from happening? Having been incommunicado for the past 30 days, there wasn't a single person other than these two guys that knew exactly where I was. There was nothing to stop less-than-honest fishermen from succumbing to temptation at the cost of one girl's existence.
I've only played out this alarming scenario in hindsight, for it had nothing to do with what I really felt on that day. Sitting in the cockpit with a stranger staring at me and his colleague guiding me toward land, I was barely conscious of the vague worry; it was overshadowed by a joyful giddiness that became more pronounced with every mile made good toward land. Instead of discomfort, I felt immensely grateful to these guys who were going out of their way to help. I plied them with gifts. I dug out T-shirts, fabric, old magazines, some money, and a bottle of rum I was never going to drink. I even gave them my address. I remember a lot of smiling, sign language, and laughing until suddenly, still miles away from the harbor, they let me go and puttered off to their homeport up the coast. Still becalmed, I was sad to see the first live humans I had talked with in over a month leave, and disappointed because they hadn't towed me in any closer.
Then and there, preoccupied with the challenge of catching every land breeze to get into Galle Harbor by nightfall, I had no idea that, in future years, I would describe this encounter as a "close call." Since I was a female on a small boat, sailing alone across oceans to many different countries, those who have heard my story have often asked if I ever was scared for my life because of other people. For lack of anything more sensational, the hours spent with the Singhalese fishermen then became the story I told about how I may have come close to something bad once, but didn't. I suffered at the hands of adverse weather conditions and the nature of boating in general, but, in the two and a half years I spent on that trip, and in my subsequent travels, both alone and with groups, I still don't have anything worse to offer. Even in Sri Lanka, the worst only happened in my imagination, and this is so because we live on a planet where good people outnumber bad.
In a way, cruisers must be more open to cultivating this faith in human nature, and this was what allowed me to regard the fishermen's presence as assistance rather than danger. As I once did, cruisers are still arriving in harbors everywhere on their boats, often with all their worldly possessions contained within one hull. Over and over again, they are being absorbed and welcomed by people of entirely different cultures, socio-economic backgrounds, religions, and ways of life. Even though sometimes it seems as if the bad, or the potential for bad, gets more of the attention, it hasn't really kept the number of boats out there from growing. Ever since Slocum wrote about his adventures, others have been following in his wake, cruising the oceans, and collecting the colorful memories of relationships and interactions ashore that will follow them through life.
One year ago, and 13 years after the day my boat was becalmed off the Sri Lankan coast, I got a letter from one of the fishermen. He still couldn't speak or write English, but he had made the effort and paid the price for a letter writer to make contact with me. He had found my address, he said, and remembering that day and the wonder he had felt at finding me on the ocean had inspired him to find out how I was doing now. Did I have a husband and children? Was I happy and healthy? He sent news about his boat, his friend, his own family, and said he was looking forward to hearing back from me.
I was simultaneously thrilled, ashamed, and thankful. It was thrilling to hear that the song my memory sings of Sri Lanka is also being sung by the memory one Sri Lankan has of me all these years later. I was profoundly ashamed that I ever used my memory of him as an example of anything other than one of the many random acts of kindness that happen daily, all around the world. I was thankful that he gave me the perfect ending to a story that shows there is something fundamentally good about people, and we can't be reminded of this too often. Finally, I want to believe that, if given the exact same circumstances, I would still be trusting enough to accept help from the fishermen all over again.