By Diane Haynes Woodburn
“Don’t worry. The ocean is really calm,” my husband, Jamie, assured me, his voice loud and clear over the satellite phone. Moments later, his boat left the Nuku‘alofa harbor for an eight-hour voyage to Telekivava‘u, a remote island in the Kingdom of Tonga.
Did I mention we own an island in Tonga? It belonged to our friend Kendall. Before he died, Kendall left the island to Jamie and our friend Matt — along with a beautiful whitewashed plantation-style home, a cookhouse, and a caretaker’s home — all in disrepair. Jamie, Matt and friends make a few trips there each year to help patch the old girl back together. It’s a labor of love for them, two weeks of hair-pulling worry for me.
The forty-two-acre island offers . . . well, nothing. No electricity. No (working) generator. No phones. No civilization. Just the ocean, thousands of coconut and fruit trees, and miles of pristine white sand and surf. And the only way to get there is by boat.
I’m not often clairvoyant, but as I hung up the phone, I felt a shiver. I would later learn that my instincts were right. Forty miles into open ocean, the boat’s engine stopped. Water had entered the fuel tank, and the emergency tank was (mysteriously) empty. With 200 pounds of freshly caught fish and months of supplies for the young couple who live on the island as caretakers, Jamie and friends were adrift.
They activated the emergency radio beacon. Seven hours later, the seas were coming up, the skies were dark, and no one had responded to their call for help. And the satellite phone wasn’t working. They dropped anchor and managed to catch a reef, but friction from the churning ocean ripped the rope and set them adrift again.
Perhaps you are thinking, “Well, at least they were well provisioned. No desperate Life of Pi ingenuity required.” Think again. They were moving at two-and-a-half knots, heading into ten-foot swells. Starlight shone on the reef toward which their pitching boat was making a deadly run. In anticipation of possibly abandoning ship, they ditched the fresh catch to avoid providing shark appetizers.