Zanzibar: On Surviving a Shipwreck and Other Fun Experiences

We are nearing the wide coral shelf that lines the shore, the swell is getting bigger and bigger, the waves more frequent. We are returning home early from the reef around Mnemba atoll where the wind got too strong and the water too choppy for the boys to enjoy the snorkeling. But not before we had the most amazing time swimming with and photographing a pod of 8 dolphins!

Now everybody is quiet in our little fiberglass boat. From our vantage point we can see the rocky cliffs that mark the beach, still more than a kilometer away. We are just behind the breakers where the deep sea meets the coral shelf. The expression on our skipper’s face isn’t instilling much confidence as he counts the waves, waiting for a chance to sneak through.

After a few big breakers crash in front of us our skipper thinks he sees his chance, he is going for it. He opens the throttle and charges right into the breaker zone. Once we are through the first wave line he cuts the power to assess the situation and to plan his exit strategy. Our life jackets are safely tucked beneath our seats, nobody is wearing any.

Sailor John, contemplating his exit strategy.

Just yesterday we were on the same boat with the same skipper and there weren’t any life jackets in the boat. By the time we discovered it we were already in the middle of the very bumpy ocean. When I demanded some life jackets our skipper, in true African style, quickly organised three life jackets and a buoy from one of the other boats on the reef. Complacency on our side, I know. That is the African way and we, as parents, became complacent. Lesson well learned.

Our kind and gentle Swahili guide, Samuel.

A huge wave passes beneath our little ship and breaks a few meters in front of us. Nico, sitting next to Zee across from Vee and me, asks me to put on Vee’s swim belt (flotation device). Another large wave shakes the boat and I waver for a second, afraid to leave my firm grip of our boy and the boat railing. Nico urges me on and I snap at him. I finally manage to clip the belt around the little one’s waist. We wait anxiously. From the corner of my eye I see the mother of all waves approaching our tiny, defenseless little vessel. Nico yells “Hold oooon!” and the next moment we are all underwater.

Surreal. Slow motion. Moments afterward you can can try as you want but the simplest recollection of the order of events fails you. Our boat had capsized and we were treading water.  Vee and I were sitting on the side of the boat that first went down, and I think we just kind of washed out. Nico and Zee were sitting on the side that flipped over. As I came up the first time I got hold of Vee and pulled him close. He was crying but he was doing okay, his little arms wrapped tightly around my neck. I started to look for Zee and quickly noticed his little head as he came swimming out from beneath the overturned boat. His face when he first came up from beneath the water still stays with me. Drawing a deep breath of air, his older-but-still-so-young boy features crumpled into a fearful cry, little eyes wild with shock of what just happened. I never thought I would feel such relief to see one of my children cry!

Zanzibar snorkeling boat
Our little vessel before the war.

The waves were still coming in thick and fast, crashing over us and pulling us under. Our brave, brave boys were holding their breaths, trying to hold on to me but the powerful surges of the water kept pulling us apart. Our kind and gentle Swahili guide, Samuel, was scurrying for our gear bags and clothes that was adrift in all directions. He finally got hold of a buoy and one life jacket that he passed to us.

Nico, who came to take Zee, opted to stay in the deeper waters, fearful of the sea-urchin covered coral bed. I was just too thankful to finally have something solid beneath my feet, so with my hand firmly in Samuel’s we started toeing the coral towards the beach. Our poor gobsmacked skipper was the only one wearing shoes, so he was carrying Vee in his arms. Ironically, Nico and I both bought us a pair of the same cheap, plastic shoes at the market the day before after we saw the skipper’s pair. “To protect our feet on the coral”, we said. The shoes, along with our camera and snorkeling gear was now laying somewhere on the ocean floor. Of course we weren’t wearing them either.

$3.00 plastic coral-proof sandals.

Just before I could inflict serious damage to my feet another little vessel passed by and offered to take us home. We were incredibly grateful and very, very lucky to have escaped the the whole event unscathed. The next morning our skipper returned our (waterproof) camera and some more of our gear. He went out at first light and low tide in search of what was lost. We were so thankful to have our photos from the previous day’s excursion!

The generosity of the Tanzanians is what attracts us to the country, to go back there year after year. We have so much to learn from them about unconditional love, acceptance and kindness. They have time for their fellowman, and they spend it in abundance. They have patience with their fellowman, so they allow us to inquire, to taste, to try. They have kindness for their fellowman, so they smile and chat at every opportunity. When they give, they give in absolute abundance.

With an increased awareness of our incredible good fortune, I was overcome with emotions while celebrating my birthday a few days later. My loved ones and our local Zanzibari friends threw in everything, including the kitchen zink, to make it a joyous occasion.

We came to visit old friends on Zanzibar, but when we left it felt like we were saying goodbye to family.

Last night at the Matemwe samaki market. With Kibo (L) and Samuel (R).

2 Replies to “Zanzibar: On Surviving a Shipwreck and Other Fun Experiences”

  1. This is by far the most intriguing story I have ever read in my life. Thank you for sharing it with us, my love.

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