Jan 02, 2015

I never wrote about this story but was recalling it in my mind today and thought it would be a fun read for those at home. It’s a story of bravery, heroism and cunning at sea. Ok, maybe not but it did involve some crazy shit happening on a boat.

Utila has a big “music” festival every year called Sun-Jam. It’s not as much of a music festival as it is an outdoor rave party but it attracts a really large crowd. Anyway, this thing is a big deal around the Bay Islands. It’s held on a private island, takes days to setup, attracts gringos and Hondurans alike and ends whenever the booz and drugs run out. It practically runs for 48 straight hours and it shouldn’t surprise too many people that many of the revelers at this festival party hard the entire time.

The island in the middle is Water Caye where Sunjam is held.

I had no plans of attending this shit show. I mean sure it sounded like an interesting thing to check out but the tickets were too expensive and the drinks were sure to be overpriced. Not to mention, you had to stay up all night because the boats only travel to and from the island when the sun is up… or at least that’s what I was told. All these negatives ruled it out completely in my mind. That is of course until these little roadblocks were all removed at the last minute.

I had just finished teaching an Open Water scuba course when another instructor came up to me and said “Hey Teague, I have free tickets to SunJam along with a ride on a party boat (30 ft sailboat with a DJ and free drinks) to and from the island and you can sleep on the boat if you get tired. The whole thing, aside from your drinks on the island, would be free!” Well, I thought, the price is right so why not. I ran back to the apartment, discussed the whole thing with Jen and the gang and headed off like the lone ranger to see what this whole SunJam thing was all about.

Standing at the dock at the dive shop a little dingy pulled up and collected four of us, Ginski, Maartje, Nivi and I. It took us on a very short ride to the sailboat where the owner was pouring strong drinks and another guy was mixing tunes. As more people joined I watched other boats drive off to the festival packed with people who looked ready to start hitting the party scene hard. About 45 minutes later the boat started the journey in style with about 25 people on board, plenty of cocktails to go around and some dance music to get everyone in the spirit.

As we slowly made our way to the island I was sitting on the cabin with Nivi drinking what must have been my 4th drink and watching the sun set slowly on the horizon. You could see a lightning storm between the mainland and Utila and some rain falling; with the sun touching the horizon underneath the clouds and lightning streaking down, I looked at Nivi and said “I will never forget this view.” She agreed and poured another drink. Everything was good so far. As the light of the setting sun began to fade you could see some stars coming out and the storm growing a little but nothing to be concerned about. The view really was quite nice.

How some people get to Sunjam.

As the four of us sat there chatting I happened to look over the side of the boat and noticed that I could very clearly see the reef. That’s not uncommon for Utila as the visibility in the water is very good. I took a quick look behind me and could see the island wasn’t too far off. Having come this way several times on the dive boat and being somewhat familiar with the area I was a little surprised to see it. I had certainly been past this area many times before but never this close to the island. Oh well, I thought, this guy must know what he’s doing. I made a comment to Nivi that the water was really shallow here and I could see the reef but we both just sort of looked at each other and shrugged.

As we sat there I watched the water and saw the reef coming up closer to the surface. I stood up to get a better look and realized we only had about 4 feet of water beneath us. How could we still be moving when a mono hull sailboat has such a deep draft? I turned my head to the left and looked back at the stern and could see a little bit of a channel that we had been following. I thought to myself “wow, this guy is threading the needle.” At the risk of sounding a little square I sort of half heartedly said to the guy driving “hey man, it looks pretty shallow here.” He didn’t seem to hear me over the loud thumping music and just sort of held up his glass as if to cheers me. Just then, I heard a loud scraping sound and then there was a very abrupt and very jarring halt to our passage as we hit the reef.

A new Dive Instructor from another dive shop who was a part of my instructor exam went crashing forward. Drinks everywhere sloshed and spilled about and there was the collective shouts and grumblings of people saying “what the fuck was that!?” I looked forward and could not only see the reef on all sides but could very clearly see a few small waves breaking over the reef about 15 feet off the bow, clearly the channel ended here and there was no way forward. Chaos ensued as everyone realized what happened.

The guy who went crashing to the deck was obviously very drunk as he stumbled about trying to get back up and holding the left side of his abdomen. He looked like he was in pain as he went below deck. The captain shouted “is everyone ok?” Some people answered yes and others simply shouted back asking what the hell happened. The guy had a worried look and was a little bewildered. I didn’t do anything at that point, I just thought to myself “ok, it’s not my boat I’m just a passenger… they’ll figure this out.” What I didn’t know was that just about everyone onboard aside from myself and the crew I came with was REALLY drunk and/or high on something, including the captain. He had apparently been doing lines of cocaine off the wheelhouse along with the guy who fell when we hit the reef and was becoming more and more useless the entire time.

As people settled down a little it became clear that there were quite a few people on the boat who claimed to have a solution to this problem. Everyone began shouting suggestions and instructions on how to sort this whole thing out. Some ideas were bad others were just plain idiotic. As a boat passed by some guy at the front of the boat began yelling, “Help! Help! We are stuck on the reef!” As others joined in, the captain and a few others yelled at them to be quiet as he scurried about like a mouse on speed searching for some rope and the boats anchor. I simply watched the chaos unfold and asked Nivi to pour me another drink. Turns out we had run out of ice too… great I thought, nothing worse than warm cocktails on a sinking boat. “I bet they didn’t have this problem on the Titanic” I murmured/slurred to no one in particular.

As the captain found the anchor and rope his plan became known; use the dingy to take the anchor out to deeper waters, drop it in and pull the rope to guide the boat out the way we came. Not a bad idea I thought, this will protect the prop and assure a more controlled exit. As he loaded the anchor and rope Maartje jumped into the dingy to lend a hand. Again people were shouting as boats passed by but there was nothing anyone could do but wait. With the anchor in the boat and the rope ready to go the captain lowered the little prop on the dingy and set off. Within seconds the dingy was reefed and the prop destroyed. “What an asshole” I thought aloud. They grabbed the tiny oars in the dingy and rowed back.

Upon returning and re-boarding the boat another round of suggestions, instructions and panicked yelling ensued. It was now getting pretty dark and the wind was picking up along with a little swell as the storm from earlier passed by. The boat rocked a bit on the reef and moved a little with the swells. This gave the captain another great idea, swing out the boom and have people sit on it to tilt the boat making the draft more shallow then use the engine to drive us backwards. Again, a surprisingly good idea for someone who has thus far been so inept.

As we put the plan into action some dumb girl went out too far on the boom and was stuck hanging from it with her feet and hands unable to come back on her own and over the water with sharp coral just beneath the surface. As more people climbed on the boat began to list to the side and we began floating again. The captain put it in reverse and as quickly as we were reefed we were free. Shouts of joy and laughter started coming from the drunk guys at the bow who were previously screaming for help and the boom was pulled in to retrieve the girl.

As we backed up it was clear the captain was not paying attention. I shouted my only words of advice since being reefed saying “hey pay attention to where you’re going, we are turning back into the reef!” “Way to contribute, Teague” I thought mentally patting myself on the back and sipping my drink. He didn’t hear me and within 2-3 minutes we were reefed again. I looked at Nivi and simply said “fuck this, we aren’t going to make it on this boat.” That’s about the same time the captain said “Ok, we need to be towed from the reef and must return to Utila.” Now the panic really set in as people realized they might not make it to the festival.

People were grabbing flashlights and signaling to other boats and shouting, “Help! Help!” as loud as they could. Ginski, Maartje, Nivi and I had a quick discussion and decided we were getting on the first boat that comes along and getting the hell out of here. Within minutes a boat pulled up and agreed to take people off the boat, everyone wanted to go but he only had room for six. With a little quick action the four of us jumped aboard. Two others got on and the guy agreed to come back after dropping us off.

As he set off he rounded to the bow of the sailboat and lifted the engine out of the water a bit to avoid hitting the reef with the prop. It didn’t matter, just then the boat scraped the reef and the seven of us were now reefed, again. “You gotta be kidding me!”  I said rather loudly. Luckily, this guy was a Utilian so he had a classic solution, put on a flip-flop and simply use one leg to push us off the reef. “Better your feet than mine buddy” I thought to myself. Within a minute or two we were free again.

Once again we were on our way. We all just sort of looked at each other and couldn’t believe what had happened. Oh well we thought, at least we are going to make it to the festival. We drove the rest of the way without any issues and joked about what a great story this would be. As the boat pulled up to the island our worries lifted but it turns out there would be one more surprise.

As we got close to shore the boat captain said “ok get out, I gotta go back and get the others.” We were in about 4 feet of water fully clothed and maybe 15 feet from shore. “Go in a little further man, why the hell are you stopping here?” we asked. “Get out now, I can’t go into the shallows” he replied. We all looked at each other and, knowing it was mostly a sandy bottom, figured we might as well just go. We jumped over the side soaking ourselves and waded in.

The rest of the night carried on without a hitch as our clothes dried out. The party was pretty good but I never really got into it as much as others did. The music was bad and by about 3:00am I had had enough. I took a short nap on the beach, rejoined the crew and some other people I knew and hung out nursing the same drink for a few hours. Around sunrise I hitched a ride back on the first boat I could find that was ready to go and stumbled home. SunJam itself was ok but not nearly as exciting as the ride there.


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