How Cigarettes Once Saved My Life

Wednesday February 3 1993, 5 am

My watch beeps me out of my sleep. For a moment, I don’t know anymore where I am. I lay on a hard cotton cot, in a wet sleeping bag. The side of the tent drips. I am cold, wet. My muscles hurt, my skin is sunburned, my head aches. All I want to do is sleep. Just another hour, just another minute, but I know I can not. I fumble under the cot to find my glasses. They fog up. I step through puddles of water in the tent, and grab a flashlight. It is still pitch dark outside. The flashlight beams over our surroundings. Sand, low thorny scrub bushes. Hundreds of tiny hermit crabs with shells on their backs scavenging in between the huge boobies and frigate birds sitting randomly around us. The sound of the waves crashing onto the coral reef and rolling out onto the beach a bit further away. The smell of guano in the damp tropical air. We had a huge storm last night. I remember we were fighting to keep the tents up, and the water out. It was never supposed to rain here. They call it the desert of the Pacific, this place. Howland island. On the crossing of the equator and the dateline. In the middle of bloody nowhere. Emilia Earhart, the first woman to fly around the world was supposed to land here to refuel on July 3 1937, but she disappeared, never to be seen again. They had even flattened part of the island as a make shift landing strip for her, and put a fuel on shore.

For a second I curse the pain I feel in my body, curse my constant urge to ‘go where no man has gone before’. Well few men at least.. Why this constant drive to do the unusual? To take the risks? ‘Adrenaline junky. Peter, you are an adrenaline junky’, I repeat to myself as I walk over to one of the main tents. Well, ‘stumble’ is more like it. Stumbling between the pieces of coral and trying to avoid the thorns of the bushes. My legs are scratched a thousand times already. Every evening, I have to pull the thorns out of the soles of my feet. Everything hurts.

I open the flap of the tent, and see Mike sitting at a table in front of the radio. He has his reading glasses on the tip of his red sunburned nose. He looks up and winks at me. I smile at him. The small light, dangling by its electric cord from the top of the tent frame, swings slightly in the wind. The light dims as Mike is transmitting on the radio. I just hear the click-click from his morse key. Randy lays on a couple of plastic bags on the tent floor, amidst puddles of dirty rainwater filled with sand. I pull his shoulder, and tell him my cot is free. Without saying anything, he smiles as if he is still in a dream and shuffles off towards my tent. I take a seat in the plastic chair in front of the second radio and computer, put the headphones on, and listen to the cacophony of noises. It seems like these are people transmitting from Europe.. Let me see if I can create some order in this chaos..

Several hours later, my shift is finished. The sun is already straight above us and has heated up the tent to 40oC. Sweat is dripping off my back. My shirt and trunks are wet. I need a bath. But there is no fresh water. There is nothing on this godforsaken island, unless if we had brought it with us. Bathing is in the sea. Plenty of sea water, though, surrounding this half a square mile island. The sea is wild. The waves created by the immense storm last night thunder over the coral and run deep onto the shore. Where there was a hilly white beach yesterday, the sand is flattened to a perfect spotless even plain today. No traces yet of footsteps. As sand was scooped away by the storm, parts of the remains of a second World War amphibious plane surfaced. I take some soap and shampoo from my tent, and walk to the sea. Kurt, the ship’s cook is standing at the shore line, looking at the Machias, our chartered sailing ship. A wave turned over the dinghy he and Captain Bill were using to deliver our daily rations of water and food. The Captain broke his wrist when he smashed onto the coral. ‘We were supposed to get off this island today. Guess not, hey’, I smile sourly to Kurt. ‘Nope, the waves are too high, man’, Kurt says, ‘No dinghy can get through this’. There is no port on this deserted island. Nothing. All transport between the Machias, anchored outside the reef, and the island is done by shuttling dinghies, riding the waves. But with waves this high, it is pure suicide.. I see Bob and Walt walking towards us, coming from the second radio tent. They say nothing, but think the same as we do: yesterday, we made a huge error. In a hasty effort to start evacuating the island, when we saw the storm clouds gathering, we first ferried water supplies and food rations off the island. We thought: ‘This is the only stuff which can get wet, so let’s see how well it goes’. But the waves got bigger and before we knew it, there was no way we could get through the walls of white foam crashing onto the coral. The waves now run fifty meters deep over the beach and then retract back. What a difference it makes from the babbling waves when we landed two weeks go. The sea had resembled a lake then, compared to this raging madness.

I pull off my T-shirt, sit down in a coral pool filled with 50 centimeters of water, and start rubbing soap over me. The waves come over the pool, filling it up, and a few seconds later, the water gets sucked out as the wave retracts. I feel like a baby in a cradle, rocking to and fro with the waves coming in and out. Kurt pulls off his shirt and shares my pool. ‘Lovely’, he smiles.. A bigger wave comes crashing over the edge of the coral pool and hits us off balance. We giggle, floating in the current. But as the wave retracts, the force is so strong, it sucks us with it. In a flash, our smiles change into disbelief, fear, panic. My heart skips a beat. The wave pulls us over the edge of the pool, into the water. I can not believe water of only 50 cm deep can have this force. We try to stand up, holding on to whatever we can grab, but we are sucked into the sea. We know the edge of the coral is only a few meters away. It has an underwater hole in it. The water gets sucked through the hole, and pulls me with it. My legs get stuck into the hole. Kurt holds on to the coral with his hands. An incoming wave is not strong enough to push me through, back onto the shore. I am stuck in the underwater hole. Kurt gets smashed onto the shore again. I lose my glasses in the thundering whirlpool of white foam. As the wave retracts from the shore I now get sucked underwater. My body is pulled through the coral hole, and I can feel the sharp edges cutting into my legs, arms and back. A few seconds later, I appear above water at the other side of the coral. I don’t feel the bottom anymore, I can not stand up anymore. The water is too deep. Having lost my glasses, I can hardly see. There are waves all around me and the current drags me with it, probably way from the shore. In the background I hear shouting on the beach. I paddle with my legs so I can look around. I can not see Kurt. I look at the Machias, shout at the crew, but don’t hear any reply. Probably they had not seen the accident. Suddenly I realize I still have my soap in one hand and the plastic bottle of shampoo in the other. Here I am floating in a rip current, with my body bleeding, peddling with my feet to stay afloat, but still holding on to my soap and shampoo as if these were the last earthly belongings I wanted to take with me into the next world… I let go of them. They sink. All I can think off is staying afloat. The current is too strong, I can not swim against it. I have to preserve my strength. I kick off my sandals and strip my pants as they hinder my movements. Suddenly I see a reddish colour in the water. I see the scratches on my arms. Can not see the stuff on my back, but it must be bleeding badly. This is not good news.. I know the sea around this island is infested with sharks. Bleeding in between sharks…. I remember people always said to lay still in the water not to attract sharks, and I temper my movements.. Have to, to preserve strength also. My hope is that the guys on the beach have witnessed the accident, and would do something to get me a rope or whatever.. I can not really imagine what this ‘whatever’ might be. I look at the Machias again. I am drifting away from it, towards the open sea. I am now probably 100-150 meters from the shore. And counting.. This current is strong… Suddenly, I hear splashing. Sharks? I am seriously contemplating I might not survive this. Either I will drown or sharks will shred me to pieces. Funny, I am not panicking. I actually think about how in the books people describe how ‘they see flashes of their life passing before their eyes’. I don’t see fuck before my eyes.. Maybe it is because I lost my glasses. The only thing I see is the fucking shoreline disappearing, and the fucking Machias disappearing, and the only fucking thing I feel is that this fucking current is dragging me with it, and that the fucking sharks will have a feast with me. In the best case scenario, I might only loose an arm or a leg. For a moment, I think how Tine would be mad at me, when I would come back home less one arm or a leg. She would tell me ‘And I warned you so many times before you left, to be careful, you fool! I have more problems with you than with a class room of three year olds!’ Tine is a kindergarten teacher.
No, the splashing is caused by something else. The first thing I see is something orange. My eye sight really sucks.. Orange. And then I see a head.. It is Kurt. He is wearing an orange lifejacket. ‘I have a rope, hold on’, he shouts. I swim towards him. We touch. I never could have imagined a man’s body could feel that welcoming… ‘Man, I thought, I thought’, I stumble over my words.. Kurt smiles.. He is a strange character. ‘He is a lunatic’, Bob once said. True, Kurt could get these sudden rages, shouting and waving a knife when someone would appear in ‘his’ kitchen while he was preparing the meals. But Kurt and I had a bond. A special bond which had been building for weeks now. I had cigarettes, and he had none. ‘Here, take the rope’, he says smiling, ‘The guys on shore will pull us in. You ok?’. I nod, grabbing the rope knotted at the back of Kurt’s life jacket. We shout and make signs to the shore party they can start pulling and before we know it, we are moving like a speedboat against the current. ‘Watch the coral’, Kurt shouts, spitting out water, ‘Watch the coral as we go in. Protect your head’. We are catching the surf again, as we get closer to the shore. A huge wave towers two meters high behind us, and picks us up. Now it is the white foaming whirl which pushes us onto the shore. Well, it does not push us, it tumbles us, throws us head over heels, literally, as one of my knees bangs my forehead. I grab my head, protecting my face with my arms and elbows while still holding onto the rope. The wave does not hit us onto the coral, but drags us over in a tumbling rage. I try saving whatever parts of my body which were not bleeding yet. The next thing we know, is the feeling of soft sand below us. When I stand up, I realize I am only in 10 cm of water. Kurt tumbles in behind me. I sit on my knees, catching my breath, spitting up water. Kurt comes to me and grabs hold of me.. ‘Hey what a surf, hey?’.. I stand up. Must be a funny sight. I am stark naked, with blood running off from me. Someone found my glasses. I put them on. They are wet and full of sand, but I don’t see anymore.. Blood gushing in my eyes…
The guys help us into the shade of one of the tents. Kurt limps. He has hurt his leg as he was dragged with me into the sea. He said he only made it because I got stuck in the hole, and ‘the hole was not big enough for both of us’, he laughs, with his nutty giggling sound. ‘Yeah, I think he is a nutcase’, I say to myself, ‘but he bloody well saved my life’.

Burt, one of our expedition doctors appears with a white plastic bottle and a rough sponge… ‘You know life coral in your blood stream will kill you. It will consume all the oxygen in your veins and kill you. We have to dissolve it with distilled vinegar.’, he says softly, ‘This might hurt a bit’.. ‘Distilled vinegar on open wounds?’ ‘Yep, and I have to rub it in a bit, to ensure it is all properly cleaned’, Burt says in a calm occasional tone, as if he would be talking about the colour of the sky.. I don’t think I felt pain like that before. Two guys had to hold me onto my chair, while Burt, with no sign of mercy, rubbed all the wounds and poured the damned vinegar over it.. Thousands of needles were pushed into my body.

I cry, I shout.. So does Kurt. With chuckles and sniggers in between. After it is all over, he turns to me, smacks his hand on my shoulder and smile ‘Hey Peter, can I have a cigarette from you now?’. He might be nuts, but he is a hell of a guy.

No, I never felt that kind of pain again. Once it came close. A couple of months later, back in Belgium, when I got a kidney crisis due to the dehydration after being stuck on Howland Island for another week after the incident, without sufficient drinking water, the boat breaking down, the engines of the dinghies failing… Kurt was crucial in getting us off in the end, but that is another story.. It is also another story how I got back to work a week too late. My boss shook his head in disbelief and anger ‘you always want to do weird stuff, don’t you?’. He clearly did not agree with me wanting to take three months off next year to go to the Antarctic. I quit my job a week later.

Why I do all this? I don’t know. Maybe it makes a nice story to tell afterwards.. Maybe it is to learn a few lessons. Lessons for life like “Always listen to your wife’s advise”, or “Soap and shampoo are of no use when drowning” or “Sometimes cigarettes can safe your life”… I don’t know…

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Anonymous,  11 July, 2007 08:23  

That is a fantastic story, like something out of a film.. All I can say is why do you put yourself through it all? Not only could you have drowned but even worse you could have been shark fodder at what point are you going to say enough is enough! I do envy your bravery and sense of adventure though and wish I had a fraction of the courage you have then I guess I would feel like I could achieve anything. Very inspiring....but foolish. Thanks for sharing the story.

Peter 07 August, 2007 18:22  


Thanks for your reaction... Hmmm, good question "Why I put myself through all of that?"...
For the challenge, for the kicks, to find my boundaries. Yeah, sure.. But also: there 'on the edge' lays the lands of beauty. The unchartered territory of beautiful sunsets in a totally unspoiled environment, where I can sit, and just dream...


Anonymous,  18 November, 2008 14:16  

This was a fantastic story, but totally believable! I have been camping on the Tennessee river and have even had a few hairy experiences there myself. Camping takes on a life of its own sometimes and you can never know what to expect!

Unknown 03 December, 2008 04:57  

I loved this story, quite scary. I've had a few interesting stories like this while adventuring around the globe. I got to India one morning and at the Dehli airport young boys ask if you want a ride other than the taxi or bus to get you to your hotel. I signed up for the cheapest (2Rupees) and had to wait for 2 hours for someone to wake a driver to take three of us to town. There was me, a 28 year old woman, a Philipino younger guy and a guy my age from Japan. No one spoke english but me. After the bus took off we got near the airport exit, and the bus broke down, the bus driver motioned that we needed to get out and push, I said I'll pop the clutch and he can push with the other two. Right after i did it (from the wrong side for me) the driver insisted on taking control of the bus while I was driving. He sat right in my lap and took over while I got out from under him and took my seat. I eventually got to the hotel and got into a car accident the next two days in a row with a driver that had narcolepcy, but that's another story for another day.
PS I trade cigarettes for other useful stuff I need and they work all over the world.

Peter 03 December, 2008 11:40  

Interesting story, Deborah! Some of my worst experiences with road safety were in India too..!

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