Man overboard!

Wander Woman, Marie Javins, witnesses a marine emergency on her final day cruising the islands of French Polynesia

5 mins

I sat awkwardly on the little desk in the corner of the ship's dormitory. I couldn't have done this a week ago when my power strip had still been working and the desk had been covered in phones and cameras, but now with the power strip busted, there was plenty of space. I was waiting on a ship employee to show up to repair my locker door, which had fallen off in my hands this morning. My French dorm-mates and I all had a good laugh over it, but now I hoped someone would show up to fix it before the day started.

Today all us passengers on the freighter were "swarming out" (as our German-speaking guide liked to say) to various activities on the Tuamotu atoll of Rangiroa. We were now out of the Marquesas, having spent all yesterday at sea covering the distance from the Marquesas to the Tuamotus. I'd slept for a bit of it. I'd been up late the previous night doing karaoke, which is not my thing but everyone had been so astonishingly bad at it that I hadn't been uncomfortable, plus I made a 15-year-old French teen sing a duet of "Summer Lovin'" with me – at least I didn't make him do the Olivia Newton-John parts. I'd also sat around chatting with others for more hours than I should admit, given that I still had deadlines.

But today was scuba day for me. I hadn't been diving in ten years, maybe since my first trip around the world and here I was on my second, and that dive, in Vietnam, had been a dud. My ears had hurt, I'd had a cold, and I'd ended up not getting underwater. Before that, I don't remember the last time.

"Heck," I thought. "If I can karaoke, surely I can scuba dive."

I signed up for a refresher/beginner dive, and this worked out well because the guide took only me and the ship's photographer/videographer. Our guide was a thin woman in her 30s or 40s, and she took us out into the clear blue-green water on a Zodiac, along with another guide and two French beginners.

Our guide threw her gear into the water, then jumped in and put it on there. I asked if I could do the standard backward roll off the boat, with all the gear on already, and she said sure. I sat there for a minute, remembering a disastrous dive years ago in San Diego. I'd gotten seasick bobbing up and down waiting for my friends to jump into the Pacific. I'd had a minor equipment failure, a piece not in place, easily rectified by a friend or me calmly sorting through my gear using the skills I'd learned long ago in a swimming pool at the Y in New York. But my dive buddy was off chasing his fin somewhere, and my other friend had gotten seasick and hadn't even left the boat yet. And I was clinging to the anchor line being useless.

I'd sat there in the rough surf, bobbing up and down, getting sicker and sicker until I'd reached a state of panic. In the end, my seasick friend had come in after me, found my buoyancy control and inflated it, but I was unable to do anything by then aside from vomit and cling to the rope. In the end, I'd let go, floated to the front of the boat, and my fin-chasing friend had dragged me out of the water, taken off all my gear, and tugged me over to the side of the boat to hold my head over the water so I could throw up.

So maybe you can see why I'm a bit apprehensive about my diving skills, and why I sat alone in the Zodiac for a second, psyching myself up.

I knew it was absolutely safe. The most we could go down here was between 20 and 30 feet. Nothing. It would be hard to hurt myself in this calm, idyllic dive spot.

I held on my mask and regulator, and leaned back. And rolled and bobbed right up underwater. I gave the okay sign.

The guide took me down a few feet, signaling me to release the air from my vest. I felt panic rising, but she looked me in the eye, daring me to be illogical.

I could do this.

We slowly descended. I held my regulator in with one hand, though my teeth were already gripping it enough to bite right through it.


I kept my cool.

She left me on the bottom of the ocean for a minute while she went to get the other diver. Then we were all three kneeling on the sand of the Pacific.

Our guide took both of us by the hands and led us around, releasing our hands to point out eels and colourful schools of fish. We were diving in something called the "Aquarium," which is an apt description.

As we became more confident, we just followed our guide around. At one point, my dive buddy went chasing a stingray and got lost. The guide found him just by seeing his fin from the surface. That's how shallow the dive was.

We were out for what felt like a long time, and it did turn out to be exactly that. Once the two dive-masters had hauled us all back into the Zodiac and we motored into shore, we learned that we'd missed lunch, a ship barbecue. We showered quickly, changed, and headed over.

I saw some gross-looking fish heads and thought "No food for me." Then one of the restaurant staff handed me a covered paper plate of vegetarian food and I laughed. They'd kept my lunch ready for me. (Because I can't eat fish, I'm a vegetarian on board, as it seemed easier than trying to explain what I could or couldn't eat).

I rested on a shaded bench, eating my lettuce and potato salad with a plastic fork, and waiting for my lungs to feel normal again. I'd been sucking up nitrox, which was new to me. Then, it was time to go, back on the barges to the ship.

After our long day of activities on Rangiroa, we all were on the ship, heading back to Tahiti. I'm not sure of the time, but I think I started doing my laundry around 4 or 4:30pm. and events unfolded shortly thereafter.

As I waited for the dryer to finish, water sloshed all over the porthole. Odd, I thought. The weather was perfectly calm. The ship was turning tightly. I heard something over the PA, but announcements were always happening and it didn’t strike me as odd.

I headed up the stairs to the deck with the dorms.

There, several crewmembers were standing at the railing. That was unusual, so I stopped.

"Dolphins?" I thought there must be something pretty good out there for the crew to be watching. No, it wasn't dolphins, nor was it good.

"What is it?" I addressed the first crewmember I saw. He said something to me in French, then said in English "Very bad." He shook his head and went back to staring at sea. That's when I realised one of the orange lifeboats was on the crane and being lowered.

I’d never seen an orange lifeboat being lowered, not in all the freighters I took during 2001, not ever. Something serious had happened.

The crane operator released the two hooks on the lifeboat simultaneously, and the boat landed in the ocean with a huge splash. The pilot had it going almost upon impact, and the lifeboat roared off into the distance.

I watched as several crewmembers pointed to the sea. They were pointing to the buoys and the man, whose head could just be seen bobbing up and down some ways off. I started shooting video as soon as I saw the lifeboat being released, and the two searchers in the back of the lifeboat picked up the man at 3:42 of the real-time video. I don't know how long he'd been in the sea before the lifeboat was launched.

The lifeboat searchers picked up the man, then proceeded to pick up two buoys. They headed back to the ship, and by then we could see that the man was OK, though obviously shaken and exhausted. The pilot of the lifeboat then stopped short of the ship and headed back out to pick up the third buoy. Buoys are thrown overboard because they travel at the same speed as a person, and they’re easier to see than a person.

He returned to the ship. The searcher at the back of the boat quickly latched the crane hook back onto the back of the lifeboat. The pilot had a hard time with the front hook, but then both were on and the crane operator raised the lifeboat out of the water and to the boat deck, back to its perch.

I couldn't see then if some people disembarked or not, but at this point, the boat was lowered one more deck to the restaurant deck, where a hinged steel gate was opened. Now the crew all urged us to get out of the way and clear the area. I took my laundry and went into the dorm.

Some French passengers told me they’d heard an argument and the words “Code Oscar” over the PA, which meant Man Overboard.

I did hear the next announcement, in which the names of several crew were tersely read off and instructed to report in. Presumably some men were being read the riot act, and possibly not invited back for future employment. But others had performed perfectly, as if they had drilled this a hundred times. While this had no doubt been a disaster, the rescue team should be proud.

The rescue-at-sea and speculation on what caused the fight was rampant that night, and we’d all run out of gossip by morning. Which was just as well, because it was almost time to disembark.

The ship slipped into Papeete under a mostly clear sky. A rainbow showed itself for just a moment, and then we docked. I dropped off my key and followed the others down the stairs off the ship. Beni from the Fare Suisse guesthouse came along in his little car to pick up those of us staying with him.

My room back at Fare Suisse was heaven after the tiny space allocated to me in the dorms. I spent the day wrestling my awkward wooden Marquesan carved paddle souvenir into wrapping and posting – bubble wrap wasn't easy to find, but Tourist Information helped me out.* And at night, I went down to the food trucks where a dozen other ship’s passengers were milling about. I found my Tiki-collecting friend and we walked out to the water's edge just in time for the sunset.

That was it, then. Flights out started tonight. Mine was tomorrow. Home was only a few days away, home after this long second journey around-the-world. Would there be a third ten years later?

The ship’s photographer came running up, breathlessly.

"You missed the sunset!" I said.

"No, I was right over there. I ran four blocks to get here in time."

We hadn't had a decent sunset the whole time we'd been at sea. But today's was lovely, as the sun set towards Moorea, lighting up the container terminal.

*If you ever need bubble wrap in Papeete, it's at a store called Hyper Brico on Av. Prince Hinoi near Hotel Tahiti Nui, and also at Carrefour.

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