Life in Salt: Twenty Days Adrift in the Indian Ocean

by Owen James Burke

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Didik Hengky Prasetya (“Prasetya”) and two of his brothers were tuna fishing when a storm sank their boat. What followed were 20 days of despair, spent clinging to a shattered piece of their hull in the open Indian Ocean.

I was in the Banyuwangi Regency of Java, Indonesia, looking to go fishing. After wandering across thick jungle and a hot empty beach, I was met by a few boys who directed into the small fishing village of Pancer. There were some old men sitting on a rock wall in the shade on the edge of the village who were startled at first sight of me. I offered up some fishing hooks to lighten the mood. Then, through a series of charades, I tried asking them if they would take me out fishing the following morning, but it was all they could do not to laugh at me. That was when a short, thin-framed young man of about my age wandered up and in English, to my surprise, asked what it was that I wanted. I replied that I wanted to go fishing, and the young man – who introduced himself as Prasetya – engaged in a brief conversation with the old men, and then he turned to me and said “Okay. Tomorrow.”

Prasetya then took me out into the harbor along with the men, where we collected the day’s catch of skipjack tuna, small sharks and dolphinfish (mahimahi, dorado) and brought them back ashore. He handed me three skipjack tuna to hold as we climbed onto his motorbike and rode over slippery, dry leaves through the dense but arid jungle (it was dry season). We pulled up to a shack on the edge of the jungle facing the beach. It was his family’s cafe, built of bamboo and palm fronds. Prasetya placed the fish over a smoke pit which his father was tending to, got hold of a beer and sat down next to me. I asked him why he hadn’t gone fishing that morning, and he told me he didn’t fish very much anymore. There are a million reasons why a fisherman might not fish much anymore, but I felt compelled to probe nonetheless. Told in broken yet commendable English and with the help of many hand gestures, this was his story.

“We were floating in the middle of the Indian Ocean for 20 days…”

Didik Hengky Prasetya (“Prasetya”) and his family live in the small village of Pancer, which lies along the southern coast of Banyuwangi in East Java, Indonesia. Fewer than 300 people live there, everyone knows one another, and they all rely on each other to keep the community running.

Wealth takes on a relative meaning in a place like Pancer where, apart from a few ambitious lobster divers with business ties in the greater Asian market, money does not have much presence or purpose within the community. Houses stay within the family from one generation to the next, and most food is either harvested from the sea in front of the village or farmed from the land behind it. Motorbikes are becoming more common for getting around and occasionally a boat engine needs to be replaced (they perform nearly all their own repairs), but for the last twenty years, gasoline has been about the only consistent daily expense that requires actual currency.

The continental shelf and ensuing deep trench off the south coasts of the Indonesian islands send an upwelling of cool, nutrient-rich Southern Ocean currents into warm tropical seas teaming with large, hungry pelagic life. There, along the Java Trench, the nearly five mile deep Sunda Trough (formerly the Java Trough) presents grand opportunities but grave dangers. Yet as is the case for most of the world’s fishermen, going to sea is not dictated by favorable atmospheric conditions, but whether or not there’s food on the table.

For this reason alone, scores of fishermen are lost at sea annually—over 24,000, reports the Italian organization Safety for Fishermen. This puts fishing at or near the top of the list among the world’s most dangerous occupations. And those numbers probably don’t represent the true and awful reality. Many disappearances in remote places like Pancer simply go unreported, because the villagers may have no interest in creating a public affair over the loss of a loved one. Such is the reality of the completely obscure life of a deep sea fisherman from a remote village in Indonesia. Once you lose your boat, you have no reason to suspect that anyone is coming to look for you. In one way or another, your fate is bent on death by water–either too much or too little.

In September of 2009, a twenty-year-old Prasetya and two of his brothers left Pancer in search of yellowfin tuna in the Sunda Trough on the edge of an expansive, largely unchartered corner of the Indian Ocean. They had no lifejackets, no marine radio, and admittedly lacked confidence in the seaworthiness of their old wooden vessel. They were young, sure, but they had been doing this as long as they could remember, and going to sea on these premises was and still is commonplace in Pancer. The three brothers were prepared as they could possibly be, given their want for food and the shape of their vessel. The whole village was relying on them.

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Only recently has their small village in Eastern Java, begun to replace their wooden fleet with fiberglass skiffs and canoes–an improvement, perhaps. More importantly, they may not only save an invaluable amount of time (fiberglass boats generally require much less maintenance than wooden ones) but lives.

After hours motoring offshore with no land in sight, the sky gave way to dark clouds and a sudden and vicious wind brought with it towering waves and terrifying weather. Exactly how far they were from land, they did not know. The fishermen of Pancer navigate not with modern technology but by sun, wind and stars.

Being experienced seamen, Prasetya and his brothers quickly realized that they were caught in the open ocean with nowhere to hide. No matter, they thought. They’d lived through this story before. They lay down on deck and grabbed whatever they could to keep from being tossed into the frothing sea. They’d long been taught to turn their boat’s bow to face the wind and ride over the cresting waves, but large swells began to torture the boat from every direction. Each blow to the hull sounded worse than the last, and eventually there was a jarring, splitting crash as if the timbers were struck by lightning. A wave had cracked the hull wide open. All three fishermen reached for the high rail (the only part of the boat that was not submerged), waiting for a plunge into the depths. In short order, the old boat was torn to pieces and scattered like a box of matches.

As they hit the water, Prasetya knew that his life was over. For all their lives, the worst case – and most likely case that the brothers had ever considered – was a storm taking their boat, and simply drowning them. No need to worry about survival. You’d just die. They’d never really considered a scenario in which their boat might sink but they didn’t drown. Yet the next thing the fishermen knew, they were still breathing, together and afloat. They found themselves clinging to a piece of their hull, which supported them just enough to keep their heads above water. Maybe they weren’t going down with the ship, but that realization only brought on an entirely new onset of problems–and terrors. Though well aware of the dangers of fishing in the open ocean, the young men were utterly unprepared for a trial such as this.

Despite being the warmest ocean on average, the currents in the Indian Ocean travel north from the Southern Ocean into the tropics, and even off Indonesia, sea surface temperatures can fall to 72 degrees Fahrenheit in the evenings. Air temperatures can hover only a few degrees higher. That’s over 25 degrees below a human’s normal body temperature and is a combination cold enough to bring on hypothermia. There didn’t seem much else for the brothers to do now, but brine in the salt, freezing to death by night and sizzling beneath the midday sun. But despite despair and looming agony, giving up was – at this point at least – out of the question. The fishermen kept a seasoned eye out for something that might resemble food and tried to prepare some sort of catchment system for rainwater (which proved more or less unsuccessful) atop a piece of driftwood.

It turned out that eventually, food came to the brothers. Any solid that floats—be it plastic, wood or foam—becomes host to a colony of life within days in the ocean. The three brothers managed to sustain themselves on sea moss, shrimp, and barnacles that grew or congregated on and around the bottom side of their waterlogged slab of salvation. Occasionally, if nourished and inclined enough, they’d manage to grab hold of a free-swimming fish (no small feat, and a testament to their fishing ability).

But they simply could not get enough freshwater. “It was not so much the food that was difficult to get,” said Prasetya, “but the water…,” his thoughts trailed off as he turned to stare out at the open ocean in front of us, remembering too well the dreadful experience of thirst at sea. The moments that were especially difficult, he said, were those “when there was no new rain to drink.”

There was nothing sufficient for catching or storing water besides the sodden clothes on their back, which were, of course, laden with salt. They positioned their clothes over their heads so that they’d soak up the rain, and after awhile, they were able to wring most of the salt from them, but at first, their drinking water was saturated with salt. Each time a squall appeared, they drank from their clothes, but there was no way to preserve the water they collected. It would evaporate too quickly, or become salt-contaminated. It was enough to induce madness. Furthermore, September is a mostly dry month in this part of the world, and days passed with no rain at all. As dehydration and malnourishment mounted, consciousness spun wildly out of control. The young men discussed any and every ‘what if’ that crossed their minds just to keep from succumbing to what seemed to be the inevitable fact: they were dying a slow and agonizing death. Eventually, delirious imaginations spun wild with visions of verdant waterfalls and feasts with family and friends.

The Sunda Trough and the outer-lying Java Trench are popular fishing grounds, but make up a tiny part of the Ninetyeast Ridge, which, at 3,100 miles long, forms the longest underwater mountain chain on earth. Even if there were 10,000 boats fishing those waters at any given time, the likelihood of coming across three shipwreck survivors floating on a piece of wood is inconceivable, and the brothers knew it. Yet after 20 days at sea, and in the depths of hell, the brothers were discovered and rescued 165 miles from land. Their rescuers, a crew of fisherman on a boat out of Makassar, South Sulawasi, (an island in the north of Indonesia) saw what looked like floating debris and assumed it would be a good place to look for fish. Instead, they found Prasetya and his brothers, fatigued, sunburned, dehydrated and nearly dead. It would be hard to say who was more shocked at the sight of the other, but both parties were filled with sheer disbelief. Being so far from land, you might have a similar chance at happening upon the floating remains of Jimmy Hoffa.

Awestruck as they were, the rescuing crew hurriedly pulled the three wary fishermen aboard and helped get water down their throats. The first sip of water hurt, Prasetya said, and it was difficult for him to open his sore, desiccated throat. Slowly though, they were able to drink. The water felt like the purest sugar.

It seems miraculous that these three fishermen were able to stand upright, let alone fish after 20 days adrift, lying on a piece of wood. But what was the first thing Prasetya and his brothers did after being saved? They simply continued their fishing trip with their rescuers as if they’d started it 20 days before. The way they saw it, their basic needs had been met. They now had food and water and there were fish to be caught.

Prasetya and his two brothers never determined how far they had drifted, but they were well over 100 miles from where they had lost their boat when they were rescued. It is safe to say though, that everyone was extraordinarily overjoyed, and when the boys finally did return home – yellowfin tuna in hand, of course – everyone in the village of Pancer went pale, sure they were looking at ethereal beings.

Prasetya is as healthy as just about anyone, at a glance, but his wiry, ectomorphic body doesn’t lend itself to the imagination as being able to survive three weeks at sea without high calorie intake. Unmistakably recognizable upon looking him in the eyes though, is his strength, endurance, and simple will to survive.

In speaking with Prasetya, each time that we made eye contact, I felt I was conversing with a wise elder. The certainty and conviction with which this now twenty-five-year-old cast his gaze bespoke of an experience that transcends quantifiable measurements like age. Simply put into layman’s terms, Prasetya had lived more in those twenty days than most of us will in twenty years. And then he went fishing.

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