Survive shipwreck adventure

“He who clutches desperately to security, to everyday habits, work, organization, friends, family, no longer lives. More than security, life needs adventure, risk, dynamic activity, self-giving, presence to others.”

Jean Vanier, Tears of Silence

Adventure. Thrill. Camaraderie. Ocean. We had those kind of experiences in mind when we were planning and embarking on a sailing trip around Sumba island last year. Who could have known that we would get more than we wished for! Our trip was abruptly interrupted two days in when the boat’s ‘captain’ crashed full speed into a coral reef in the middle of the night and turned our ship into a wreck. But let’s start from the beginning…

[Note for Generation Z: if you hate reading 😉 feel free to scroll down to watch the video.]

As you probably have noticed, no big effort has to be put into convincing me to join any adventure trip. Usually it takes me 2 seconds to decide and very often it is yes. My wife jokes that I am the only one who attends ALL the trips. Well, she might be right. My good friend here in Bali mentioned a boat trip around Sumba. I got immediately excited and committed even without knowing details.


Sumba island is one the wilder islands of Indonesia. Two times size of Bali, with population around 800,000 people, located in South-East of the Indonesian archipelago. Beautiful nature, tough people, ancient culture, golden beaches stretching for miles, virtually no tourists. Major challenges with water supply especially in dry season. All strains of malaria and dengue too – probably that’s why you don’t see many foreigners visiting the island. There is a couple of incredibly pretty resorts, really ‘off-beaten-path’ with world-class surfing spots. And now, we are going to sail around! Wow.

Traditional Sumbanese village
Traditional Sumbanese village

Our group consists of 11 men, all living in Indonesia, adventure and epic life seekers, some fishermen and other divers. Our plan is to start in the north of Sumba and sail around the eastern tip into the South with incredible bays, huge swells and unspoiled coral reefs. There are no commercial boats sailing in the area at all, therefore we need to find a boat with experienced crew who can pull such expedition together. One of us secures the boat and off we go. Or at least that’s what we think.

Start of the trip is not perfect

Everyone is excited on board of a small plane from Bali! Adventure like what is just in front of us does not happen often, there are probably very few people on this planet who sailed around Sumba. Our excitement is somewhat tuned down after we learn that the boat is still stuck in a harbor on another island and will be late. Nevertheless, we secure ourselves a decent bungalow place on the beach and wait for the boat. Snorkelling on the house reef is already amazing as well as fresh fish barbecued for us in the hotel restaurant. So far so good.

The beach as far as you can see
The beach as far as you can see

Next day afternoon the boat arrives, yay! We are picked up by a dinghy (this little piece of plastic will soon play a key role in our rescue) from the beach and move to the boat. On board we realize that our ‘ship’ is not perfect, let’s say… Deck has not been washed for weeks or years, cabins smell of petrol, kitchen looks appalling. There is no life boat which one of us (rightly so!) considers a safety risk. Nevertheless, we start sailing into the closest harbor as the captain needs to refill diesel cans.

Do we have enough fuel?

Luckily, we get suspicious and ask him how much fuel he expects we need for our trip and how much he has available. There are no refuelling options on our planned route. This conversation later shows to be crucial to our survival because we find out that our ‘boat master’ is not only unsure how much fuel he has but he has even less idea how much we need to safely complete our trip. There, in the evening of the first night, we decide to sadly abandon our plan of sailing south into the wild seas and stay in the north of Sumba where the ocean is much calmer and predictable.

Atmosphere on board gets somehow tense between us and the crew. We are disappointed by their clear incompetence while they probably think we are a bunch of too clever white guys. Calm evening with sea breeze slightly improves the situation nevertheless when we gather next morning on the upper deck – everyone has some ‘night time’ stories: rats chew new headset of one of us, cockroaches size of dogs wander around whenever lights are off, some of us got a bit high from sleeping on pillows soaked in petrol. Several of us decide to abandon the ship at the next possible occasion while others are set to persevere.

Set sail

We start sailing around the coast heading west and it’s beautiful! Rugged coastline changes into immense empty beaches. Dolphins accompany our boat. We anchor next to the colorful coral reef, one group snorkels around the boat while another picks up their fishing rods to test the waters. Reefs seem to be very healthy here and are teeming with life, small fish, large fish, corals, lobsters.


After such an amazing day, we feel truly re-energized. Let’s not forget an incredibly tasty paella (with one of the unfortunate lobsters) which my friend cooked for our dinner. We talk, drink some beers, beautiful evening. Calm before the storm, we could say now.

For the night, we are anchored next to a coral reef as there are no bays where we could get protected. Sea is very gentle though and we go to sleep. During the night the boat starts rocking more and more. Our captain decides to leave the spot and sail through the night, find another anchorage after sun appears.

We are a bit nervous given the fact that the crew don’t know how to use their GPS which remains off despite sailing 5 knots in pitch black night in the seas which we don’t know. I am looking at my sailing app on the phone. It seems that we successfully navigated around the nearby lighthouse and now should be sailing around the straight coastline with no rocks or small inlets on the charts. If we could stay a bit off-shore to avoid coral reefs that are consistently wrapping around the island, we are good. In theory. Hence, we all go back to sleep.

The crash

I sleep in the hammock at the bow. For some reason, I wake up, look around from my post and see in a dim light coming from our boat that there is a coral reef just next to us astern. I start climbing out of the hammock when ripping sound comes from under our hull as we hit the reef in full speed.

Building a shelter on the remote beach
Building a shelter on the remote beach

Enjoy the video with the rest of the story as well as aftermath discussion about what we learned from our shipwreck adventure:

What do you think? How would you manage such situation? Would you step out of the boat already at the beginning when lack of safety equipment, no life raft became obvious? Let me know, I am as always keen to hear from my readers.

Thanks to all my friends for surviving the shipwreck adventure together. Last but not least, I would like to extend our gratitude to Sumba Hospitality Foundation people who hosted our last night’s dinner on the island. They do amazing work to educate local teens, provide them with a chance for better life and decent job in the hospitality industry. Well done.

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