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Terror in Thailand: Surviving A Tropical Storm on A Lifeboat

Water isn’t my thing, which you might already know, but over the last year, water and I have come to a fragile arrangement. I’ll keep my cool, no pun intended, in the water as long as water agrees to not chuck huge waves of itself in my face.

After all what kind of Adventure Travel Blogger am I, if I can’t face my fears?

Little did I know, that water was about to break this unstable truce and that within a few days, I would be in a tropical storm, stranded in the water for an hour, and on a sinking lifeboat. Not my ideal of the best things to do in Thailand

Damn you water….damn you

It all started when Chris from Backpacker Banter (all photos are his btw) invited me to tag along with him on board with the Koa Lak Scuba team. Living on a boat, enjoying fourteen dives off the west coast of Thailand near a small group of gorgeous islands called the Similans, sounded like an amazing way to spend a week traveling in Southeast Asia. “Besides”, I thought to myself, “there are no waves when diving”… Boy, I was wrong.

Running to catch my overnight bus from Koa San Rd in Bangkok, I settled in for the 10 hour ride to Koa Lak.

Seventeen hours, two buses, one tuk tuk ride, and a horrible night later, I stumbled out of the final bus. I rubbed my red, sleep deprived eyes, and ignored the throbbing headache that had popped up around the twelfth hour. (This is still when I was learning my Backpacking Southeast Asia Travel Tips)

I stumbled into the closest coffee shop to get my caffeine fix while waiting for the Backpacking Banter to pick me up, not sure if I had the engery to dive Koh Lak.

That night, we boarded the Manta Queen III, one of the most impressive boats I‘ve ever been on, and perfect from a Similan Liveaboard.

Koa Lak Divers definitely have the nicest dive boats and crew in Koa Lak. It had a fully stocked kitchen (with unlimited coffee!), rooms  and a lounge that would rival a hotel that include couches, bean bags, and movies. A perfect way to relax after a day of diving!

A backpacker shouldn’t be so spoiled! 

For the next few days, I envisioned myself sitting back, relaxing in the sun, stuffing my face with amazing food, and just enjoying a nice breeze on the calm seas. Right? Nope!

That night a tropical storm hit and the boat heaved back and forth higher and higher as if the the wind was playing tug of war with itself and had deiced to use the boat instead of rope. Couches rolled across the lounge, dish flew, and I felt sick.

“Ok, ok, maybe some sleep will make it better,” I said to myself as I scurried up to the top bunk.

That was my second wrong assumption.

The boat was tossing all of us around, and since the only thing separating me and the floor was my arm bracing against a wood shelf nailed to the wall, I quickly knew that sleep would not be an option.

By our mid-afternoon dive the next day, the storm was so bad that the dive guides huddled around a table to discuss if we would be able to dive at all. Coming to the conclusion the storm would soon pass, which is what all the technical data said by the way, they gave us the go ahead to get ready to dive.

Now I had the option.

Diving in the Similans was on my list of things to do in the Thailand and would I turn down this awesome opportunity to dive in one of the best places in the world or man up and face a few terrified minutes of strong waves in my face before I could plunge under?

As always, when these situations pop up during my adventures I ask myself “When I am 70, will I regret not doing this”.

Just like that, the adventurer in me took over. I started strapping on my wetsuit and approached the dive spot.

Jumping out of the boat, our team kicked over to a descent spot. I took a couple big waves but nothing massive. If I had only known, what was coming!

We plunge below. The dive went smooth; the Simian waters are just as beautiful as everyone says, and a lifetime of dives would not do them justice. However, that is a story for another time. This is a story about waves hitting my face remember.

As I ascended to the surface, I wondered what I would find. The strong wind beat against my face, the waves rose, crashed, and then rose again.

“This storm is no joke now,” I thought spinning my head in every direction trying to find the boat. I spotted it way off the coast. Between waves, I heard a dive guide shout,

“The storm is too strong. The lifeboat will have to pick us up”. That’s when I noticed a problem. (using my keen intellect) I could tell we would be last in the long line of 20 passengers to be pick up.

It’s Adventure Travel now!

Engaging freak out mode in 3…2…1… ahhhhh.

Forty minutes later, we were still floating while whitewater roared around us. The smell of salt filled my nostrils as massive waves propelled us up and down, back and forth, and to and fro.

Chris, who loves water more than land, along with the other dive guides were enjoying this wild and wet roller coaster. They were all laughing, joking, and telling stories.

However, I floated there silently thinking about the 108 ways I could, and more than likely would, die in this situation.

Terrified, my muscles had been clenched so long that I was starting to get cramps….err make that 109 ways to die. Drowing was not something thought possible while diving in the Similans, but now it was seemed like reality.

I quickly went of my list of things to do in Thailand.

Let’s see… eat deep fried scorpions , get a bamboo tattoo, umm Yep, just as I suspected drowning wasn’t on the list.

A few minutes later, I eagerly watched the boat pick up the last of the other divers and start to make its way toward us.

Relief washed over me with the thought that soon I’d be back on the deck of the ship and safe.

When the lifeboat pulled up beside us, I made sure I was the first one in.

However, to get into a lifeboat, you have to first take off your BCD (the inflatable life jacket that holds your air tanks) in the water!

Taking off the only thing making me float before getting into the safe haven of the boat was not my ideal scenario, but an overwhelming urge to not look like a coward took over as I slung it off and lifted it into the lifeboat.

Soon we were on our way to the ship; there were only a few minor problems.

1- The storm had picked up considerably in the last 40 minutes.

2- This made it difficult for the lifeboat to make its way to the ship.

3- The combination of dive equipment, people, and waves was causing the lifeboat to fill with water rapidly.

All of us started bailing the water out of the boat, which had slowed to a crawl. While doing this, the thought that I had nothing to make me float hit my brain like a freight train and true panic set in.

I was bailing out the boat with my mask, but in such a panic, that I was literally splashing the water directly in my face and back into the boat….not my finest moment.

It became clear to everyone that if we didn’t ditch some weight, the boat was going down.

The dive guides, like the heroes they are, started slipping there flippers back on before flipping off the boat and back into the water.

This was exactly what the boat needed; it immediately picked up speed and we were soon back on the ship.

Luckily the dive guides were close enough, that they all were able to swim back fine.

That night the stormed raged, but the captain and the dive masters made incredibly good decisions that kept everyone safe.

Personally I was just grateful to be on the boat even if it was thrashing in the storm. The next day, the sun came out, and the diving continued as usual. All was well in paradise.

It seems as if water had been trying to break our fragile alliance, but it just makes it better for adventure….

13 thoughts on “Terror in Thailand: Surviving A Tropical Storm on A Lifeboat”

  1. Cat of Sunshine and Siestas

    I would die – drowning is my biggest fear, and I don’t even like getting my hair wet! Great storytelling.

  2. Carl Joe Wright

    You call this minor problem…?1- The storm had picked up considerably in the last 40 minutes.2- This made it difficult for the lifeboat to make its way to the ship.3- The combination of dive equipment, people, and waves was causing the lifeboat to fill with water rapidly. Oh… your such a brave traveler.@stephenschreck:disqus … Next time try visiting Kiama Australia.. There are lots of beaches perfect for surfing and snorkeling…

  3. Oh… you’re a brave traveler.. I cant imagine storm had picked up considerably in the last 40 minutes… Makes me say that its not pretty easy to face.. BUt thank GOD you’re all safe.

  4. That sounds like a horrendous experience. Rough waters, a rough sailing boat trip and then being stuck in the water bobbing around for 40 minutes. Awful, awful, awful.

    I hope the dive itself was okay? I took my diving course a few years ago and know the water feels calmer under the surface. However with storms they do say it mixes things up and lowers the visibility for dives.

    BTW great pictures from your friend. By the way Stephen has anyone told you (maybe thousands already have) that you look a bit like Damien Lewis?

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