A Stroke of Luck ( Kayaking Trip in Southern Thailand)

We slipped into the water fronting our camp on the jungle’s edge, donned our masks and fins, and kicked through the shallows to reach the deeper water where the coral thrived.

Beneath us were dozens of blue and red speckled sea urchins. The jellyfish were out in numbers, and we had to keep alert to try to avoid their stings.

A few minutes later, we reached the edge of the shallows, and below us were towers of coral rising some six to eight feet from the bottom. Brilliant orange clown fish hid in the swaying tentacles of the anemones while graceful angelfish grazed the surface of the coral.

Suddenly and inexplicably, the water was crowded with jellyfish, and their stings became more numerous and impossible to dodge. A current began to draw us away from shore.

Alarmed, we both surfaced. Looking toward shore, we could see that the coral we’d glided over minutes before was exposed all the way to the beach, rising approximately four feet above the surface of the water. The effect was quite disorienting and made the beach look strangely unfamiliar.

For a moment, I thought we had drifted in a current, but our tent and kayak were still on the shore directly in front of us. Why was all that coral suddenly exposed? Ryan considered the possibility of a tsunami, but that seemed incomprehensible. We wrestled with this strange current and tried to make sense of the rapidly and radically changing surroundings.

Our kayaking trip in southern Thailand began three days earlier, on December 23, 2004. We had traveled by train a thousand kilometers south along the Malay Peninsula with bags containing our kayak, camping gear, clothes and food. We arrived at the ranger station on Ko Adang, one of several islands in the Tarutao National Park on the southern west coast of Thailand. 

We camped at the edge of the beach backed by a lush jade-green jungle blanketing the mountainous island. We spent two days at this idyllic location, paddling the surrounding waters and enjoying scenic jungle hikes to waterfalls and cliffs. We were elated by each new wildlife discovery—a five-foot-long monitor lizard, crab-eating macaques, a small shark, a flying squirrel and numerous sea eagles.

On Christmas morning, we packed up our belongings and loaded the kayak with enough supplies for a leisurely 10-day tour of the more isolated islands.

We crossed to Ko Lipe, an island crowded with resorts and foreign tourists. After landing on Pattaya Beach and purchasing some “Christmas treats” from one of the resorts—salty potato chips and cold sodas—we resumed our circumnavigation of Ko Lipe under sail and headed for the western shore of Ko Adang.

As we came around the western point of Ko Lipe, a sudden gust caught our sail and capsized us with breathtaking speed. We bailed out, and Ryan dived down to unhook the sail so we could right the kayak. With the boat upright, we pulled the sea sock inside-out to drain the water and climbed back aboard. The pump made fast work of the water in the aft sea sock, and we were off paddling again. Our wet clothes were actually a welcome cooling-off from the 95˚F heat.

An hour of paddling hard against the wind brought us to more sheltered waters on the western shore of Ko Adang. Paddling close to shore, we looked for a campsite and a place to dry our things. We arrived at our beach and set about wringing out our gear and laying it in the sun to dry.

Two park rangers approached and claimed it was dangerous to camp away from the ranger station where there would be no support if we got into trouble. In Thailand, people rarely camp without facilities nearby, making us an anomaly to them.

Although they asked us to try to paddle back that night, we knew we were too tired and darkness was approaching. We set up camp as high on the beach as possible without going into the jungle, tucking our tent into the shade of a tall, rounded boulder that sat about three vertical feet above the reach of high tide.

That evening, we enjoyed a Christmas supper of “turkey casserole in a bag.” After dinner, we strolled down the beach among the hermit and scuttle crabs, under the light of a brilliant full moon. We visited with three other kayakers who were camped nearby. Their tents, adorned with Christmas lights, were set on a sandbar next to a small creek.

December 26 was clear and warm and notably devoid of the ever-present wind. As we ate breakfast, we waved to our fellow kayakers as they paddled by en route to their next camp. The water was quite still, so we decided to go snorkeling around 9:45. It was about 10 o’clock when the water around us began to recede, exposing the coral beds.

We needed to get back to shore, but the coral would have been impossible to walk over with its saw-like edges and clusters of spiny sea urchins, now exposed to the quiet morning air.

We swam parallel to the shore, looking for a clear path to the beach. The current shifted direction, and within seconds, the water had become opaque with sand churned up from the bottom. It was as if it were caught in a blender.

With the current now pushing us toward shore and the jagged coral, we kicked and stroked frantically against the press of turbid water, trying desperately to keep from being tumbled across the coral and the needle-like urchin spines.

Our anxiety was at its peak, and we felt completely helpless and at the mercy of the water. Adrenaline had kicked in, but we made no progress in the few seconds that we tried to swim against the current.

As I realized that we were being pushed rapidly toward the beach, I was filled with dread: We were flotsam about to be smashed against the coral. All we could do was pray for our lives.

Suddenly the coral was covered by the wave. Ryan pulled my arm and yelled, “Swim with it!” Turning and swimming with the wave, we tried to clear the coral and reach shore.

We kicked as hard as we could, certain our lives depended on it. In our helpless state, swimming was the only thing we had control over and seemed the only reasonable course of action. I yelled to Ryan, “My flippers are falling off!” Reaching back, I managed to reattach my heal strap and quickly resume kicking.

Feeling powerless against the immense force of the water, I kept screaming to Ryan, “Don’t let go of me!” He gripped my arm tighter and yelled back, “Keep kicking!” We could see the head of the wave 15 feet in front of us, foaming and churning as it tore into the exposed coastline. The enormous surge of water lifted us far above the ragged claws of the coral.

In five interminably long seconds of riding the wave, we were almost on the beach. We watched the wave around us as it crashed against the shore. As the water began to recede, our feet touched the sand.

We stood in chest-deep water and tore off our flippers. The sea was pulling us back with incredible force as we struggled to climb up the beach. Finally, we freed ourselves from the water’s pull. The wave had left us on the beach without a scratch.

We ran toward our camp as a second surge of water pushed up the beach even higher than the first. It swamped our tent and began to pull our kayak and gear out to sea. We frantically grabbed whatever was in front of us and threw it higher into the jungle.

The kayak was the first priority. We hauled it as high as we could. Thorny shrubs in the undergrowth at the top of the beach scratched our legs up to our knees and punctured our bare feet. At the moment, we weren’t concerned about the thorns—watching only for another wave, we scrambled to save our equipment.

The surges continued for another 20 minutes, but none were as large or as powerful as the first two. We put away our fears about being pulled back out to sea and salvaged what we could of our ruined camp. Our tent was entangled in the low limbs of a large tree, its sturdy aluminum poles twisted like rubber tubing.

The gear inside was saturated with seawater, and the continuing surges kept trying to pull the tent out to sea. We struggled to hold on to it and eventually were able to get it into the jungle to higher ground. The mesh door had been torn to shreds, and our ID cards and many of our supplies had been washed away. Every piece of gear we could retrieve was soaked with gritty seawater and fouled with jungle debris.

We took inventory to see what the sea had claimed. Footwear was our main concern, as we were now feeling the pain of the thorns, and to go anywhere on the beach, we had to contend with a gauntlet of sea urchins and coral fragments. Several hundred feet down the shore, a small creek had been turned into a torrent of brown water as the land shed the water that had washed over it.

A Thai fisherman came running down the beach toward us. His eyes were wide with terror. He told us that he had lived on the island his entire life and that nothing like this had ever happened before.

His family and his home down the beach were high enough to escape the surge of water, but he kept repeating that a foreigner had died on the coral on nearby Ko Rawi. Although feeling exceedingly grateful that we were OK, our understanding of the scale of what had happened and our concern for others in the area was rising. We wanted to get back to the ranger station as quickly as possible.

The Thai man came and went numerous times, often returning with a piece of our equipment—a cooking pot, a camp chair kit, bits of webbing. It was comforting to have him near.

While I gathered gear around the site and set it out to dry, Ryan walked down the beach to search for the rest of our belongings. He returned with cooking utensils, insect repellent and, most important, sandals. Meanwhile, several long-tail boats congregated offshore, seemingly unsure of what to do. After a while, they started their motors and headed south at high speed. We assumed they were moving to safer waters.

After waiting out two hours of calm seas, we packed our boat. We shared some oranges with our Thai neighbor, and he helped us launch. We paddled briskly to deeper waters, as the shallows no longer felt secure.

Our trip back to the ranger station took over an hour as we took a course much farther from shore than usual. Our kayak meandered through some unusual swirling currents that certainly didn’t help calm our frayed nerves.

Approaching the ranger station, we saw the rangers we had encountered the day before. They ran to meet us and helped with our kayak. They were very glad to see us back safe and excitedly voiced their concern for us when the waves hit.

We felt safe being back at the station, but there was rumor of a larger wave that was to approach in the next hour. With the help of the park staff, we quickly transported our boat and gear to higher ground.

Most of the foreigners we’d seen typically kept to themselves on vacation, but here at the ranger station, a camaraderie emerged among all of us. They gave us dry clothes to change into and iodine for our wounds. We gathered around a small satellite television to watch Thai news coverage of the tsunami. Understanding little of the language, we found it hard to comprehend the enormity of the disaster.

The next morning, we were able to get calls through to our parents. They informed us about the horrific and climbing death toll and the numerous countries affected by the disaster. We realized just how incredibly fortunate we had been that the wave hadn’t been larger where we were. Losing some of our gear—even expensive electronics like our camera and GPS—seemed insignificant next to the loss of so many lives.

Over the following two days, many foreigners and Thais left the island. We stayed behind with a handful of other foreigners, as we believed the mass exodus of tourists would overload the available transportation. We cleaned and dried our gear and sewed up our tent.

Three days after the tsunami, we returned to the campsite and found many of our things at the edge of the jungle and in the shallows, including shoes, dishes and ID cards. When we returned to the ranger station, we met up once again with the kayakers we had visited with on Christmas Day.

They had been kayaking near a bay on Ko Rawi when the wave hit and had paddled farther offshore for a few hours to escape the destruction on shore.

Only four days after the tsunami, we resumed our original plans and paddled to the other islands of Tarutao National Park. We spent another week exploring new shorelines, beaches and coral reefs.

We had been spared the full impact of the tsunami. Although geographically close to the epicenter, we were traveling in the lee of Sumatra and Ko Rawi. Cut off from the news that barraged our families back home with scenes of destruction and loss of life, we enjoyed the last days of our holiday.

Memories of that time spent in a beautiful land now seem decidedly bittersweet as we sift through news in the aftermath of the tsunami—images, statistics and stories of lives destroyed.

Karen and Ryan Kurytnik are avid paddlers and have guided trips in the waters surrounding Vancouver Island. Karen is working on her Ph.D. in educational psychology, and Ryan is completing medical school. They are based in North Vancouver, BC.

Editor’s note: We at Sea Kayaker encourage our readers to support the relief efforts taking place in the countries devastated by the tsunami. John “Caveman” Gray, Sea Kayaker contributor and veteran kayak guide operating in Phuket, Thailand, reminded us that the quick resumption of tourism is essential to the area’s recovery. As evident in the Kurytniks’ story, many places returned to normal activities soon after the tsunami struck. Direct aid is, of course, essential, but booking travel to the areas supports those families whose income is tied to tourism.


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