Stranded At Sea

Koh RongTraveling by sea between islands in any developing country carries with it a certain amount of risk. Whether it be the fast boats on the Mekong, the island hoppers in Indonesia, or the Koh Rong Sihanoukville double decker, overloaded, elevated center of gravity, ferry.

The trip across to Koh Rong had been an adventure even though uneventful. Two older obnoxious Americans, the stereo-typical kind, had very loudly pointed out the sub-standard safety of the vessel.

The high seas and accompanying large waves caused our ship to bobble in the water like an apple in a cask. Tipping did not seem like an unreasonable outcome.

But with that said it was still not something you needed to vocalized the entire two hour journey.

That however was on the way over; not the way back.

The way back started out fine. The boat was much bigger. It had two engines instead of one, seemed generally sturdier and more maintained than the first.

What it didn’t have was a cargo hold where all  the backpacks could be stowed. The first one did and I think ultimately helped steady the boat.

The backpacks and other cargo were piled into a heap in the center of the boat reaching from floor to roof. Passengers were seated around the pyramid of luggage and on the roof deck.

Engines fired up and with a vomit of black smoke we were underway!

Koh Rong Ferry

Back to Sihanoukville where I planned to spend the night and catch the bus in the morning to Kampot. I was going to have a barracuda dinner on the beach; watch the fireworks and sunset. Get an early night and leave Sihanoukvile for greener pastures.

At exactly the 55 minute mark of the 2 hour crossing there were some noises. Like crackling or sparks in repetition. There was no smoke but it didn’t seem like those kinds of sounds should be coming from the engine room.

Luckily there were two engines.

The sea was pretty rough today. Worse than before. On occasion waves were easily coming into and over the boat. All those sitting along the perimeter were wet.

Some were searching through day packs for something warm to cover up with. Most were only able to come up with a sarong that they wrapped around themselves to trap the escaping heat.

The temperature had probably dropped to 80 degrees! There really was not much risk of frostbite!

At 58 minutes one of the engines stopped working. At 58 and a half, the second one shut down in sympathy.

Crew members scrambled to the rear of the boat each holding a different tool. Cell phones began to ring; jingle bells, mission impossible, whoop there it is, or something like that…all sounding in one after the other.

We were stranded and the impact of this began to freak some out as attempts to start the engines failed time after time.

The boat began to rock uncontrollably and water constantly made its way into the interior with increasing volume. The pyramid of luggage began to sway in time with the ocean.

Those seated to the sides watched with one hand up in the air. Ready to break the fall of crushing cargo; as if a hand would do the trick.

Others, who had already began to freak, now began to moan. Eyes once bright and full of youth now became scared and meek. Any attempt to console was like an affront to their independence.

There was a fair bit of melodrama going on at this point.

The two fishing trawlers less than a hundred meters away seemed to offer little comfort.

After about an hour a rescue boat turned up. We could see it approaching. Rocking and bouncing across the water. Flopping from side to side and rolling with the waves. Initially the plan was to attempt a passenger transfer.

I was not going to be part of that attempt.

Eventually that plan was dropped and the rescue boat would tow us back. With the realization that back meant to the island, some of the more vocal groaners were visibly disturbed.

“I am never getting on another boat again” was heard more than once.

Several attempts were made to throw a tire with a rope tied around it, to the boat that was to tow us; but each attempt failed. The one guy on the rescue boat did manage to catch it once but when he untied the rope from the tire he held onto the tire and let the rope go.

He had successfully rescued a tire!

All that was accomplished was that he now had our tire and the rope floated in the sea between us both.

Eventually communication was established and the plan was resumed; this time with success.

For the next 3 hours we were towed towards the harbor in Sihanoukville, not Koh Rong. The air on board was lighter however the drama queens remained in high gear.

Docking was not a simple task but once the boat was all tied up and secure we deboarded and stepped foot on the pier.

No apologies were made…I didn’t really expect there to be any.

I boarded a bus. This now became the worst part of the trip. So many people boarded the bus that there was no room for bags underneath. That scenario sounds vaguely familiar.

All passengers were boarded and then sealed in by a wall of backpacks at the front of the aisle and against the only exit. The wall of luggage was from floor to roof again and we were sealed in tight.

The 30 minute journey seemed longer.

As you would expect the humidity quickly grew to the point of stifling. Peering out the sealed windows provided a modicum of relief. In the back of my mind the thought persisted that a crash or breakdown of any kind could easily turn into a nightmare.

Claustrophobia, stress, and heat do not mix well.

When we rounded the Golden Lions statue and arrived at the town of Serendipity, yes Serendipity, almost 6 hours after leaving Koh Rong; it was a relief.

Getting off that bus and walking the remaining kilometer was a pleasure.

Fresh air, space, land…I was really looking forward to that barracuda.

For photos of Cambodia click here.

37 thoughts on “Stranded At Sea

  1. I too would have been terrified and I am thinking that small inter island ferries in Asia are not for me. 🙂 I even decided the Penang ferry which is a much more modern tin can was not my cup of tea and fly from Penang to Langkawi. I think I might have to stick to the mainland in Cambodia.


  2. You lived a nightmare Tim! I guess you will not forget it soon.. but I think you have to take into account incidents like this when traveling in developing countries.. isn’t it?


    1. I am not sure I would call it a nightmare but you are right about these incidents being part of the excitement of travel, especially in developing countries.


  3. Hey Tim,

    This sounds like a nightmare ride but ferries are quite unavoidable in SE Asia, huh? It’s kind of the same here in Korea and the people here are very concerned with safety as of late (with the Sewol sinking, of course) but yeah, I hope those Americans didn’t get too far under your skin.

    Sometimes I wish my people would just shut up and enjoy the ride instead of nitpicking things that don’t fit into their 4-5 star expectations while shelling out 1-2 star money.

    I really want to get back to Cambodia. Didn’t go anywhere outside of Siem Reap last time so definitely hoping to make an island trip or even to Sihanoukville sometime. Your destination sounded like a blast!


  4. Hi Tim,

    I have not traveled in sea ever. In fact, the only time I was in boat, was when we rented a boat locally here in Dallas in a lake for fun 🙂

    But, as usual, your adventurous journey is awesome! I can only imagine how much chaotic it would have been…. wow!

    Great share and just to awaken us to the fact that life can be unexpected anytime!



  5. Wow. Just wow. I can’t help but think that you were the lucky ones, as I’ve seen so many stories lately of capsized ferry boats. I wish I could say that I’d be as calm as you, but I think I’d be one of those causing the melodrama!


    1. I kept thinking how I was going to write about what was happening. I think that’s what helped keep things in perspective as I didn’t to write about me being a big whiny baby 🙂


  6. I think about how seasick the first day on a gigantic cruise ship and how that would be different when being tossed around in a much smaller boat. After almost drowning a couple of times as a kid, I tend to steer clear of boats for the most part, but not always. The one time I went snorkeling in Florida Bay, there was a barracuda who liked to hang out by the tourist boat. What a funky dangerous looking fish.


    1. They certainly look menacing those barracuda but from what I’ve read they are not aggressive; at least that’s how I interpreted the article.


  7. I thought of my husband who gets really seasick when experiencing any kind of rocking on a boat. Even so, being in the coast guard, (another story by itself), I know he would have been less the happy about the general lack of caring of the crew of the boat. Regardless, I’m glad things turned out ok.


  8. Being a boater for almost 30 years, I still got a little seasick just reading about your experience. It’s quite difficult to have the “right attitude” on a rocking boat that is making you seasick, while experiencing what sounds like less than a caring attitude from the crew. Glad YOU made it off feeling fine!


  9. Glad you still had a safe and adventurous trip, well any ship is probably safer as long as Captain Schettino is not behind the wheel. You know Tim, I kinda have this image of you calmly sitting in a rickety boat that’s tipsy in the ocean while everyone else around you is panicking.


  10. Hi Tim,
    Thanks for a delightful read. Glad you were able to keep your composure.

    A couple of memories come to mind. First, when I was in the Navy, I was stationed on a destroyer escort. We received a distress call from near Gnome, Alaska involving the collision of a Japanese freighter called the Tana Maru and a Greek tanker. The ship was converted to war speed and we got underway.

    By the time we arrived, the vessels were nowhere to be seen. We rescued 36 Japanese men who were stranded at sea and clinging to life. They were immediately taken to sick bay for hypothermia, given warm clothing and then to the galley for food. It was a great learning experience for me.

    Second, we went to some outer islands off Kauai on a catamaran and my wife got seasick, even though the waters were only slightly choppy. She will never be stranded at sea.
    She’s vowed to never do that again.

    All the best!


    1. I am sure there are many like your wife who do not have a love of the ocean after a bout of seasickness or something similar. It is a strange feeling for a us humans to be out of our element.


  11. Sea voyages on ships that would not be allowed to operate in the West is part of the developing world. We have all travelled on them and survived. It’s part of the charm.


  12. I had my “come to Jesus” moment in a small bus in Costa Rica. All the luggage was lashed onto the top of the bus and at a certain point, the bus started swaying from side to side. I was quite sure it was going to flip over.

    My similar experience at sea was on a tender from a Cypriot owned cruise ship. The ship was owned and operated by Louis Cruise Lines, famous for crashing ships into reefs. We had to use tenders (i.e. the ship’s life boats to be transported to shore at the port of Naphleon(sp?). By the time we were returning to the ship, the wind and waves had kicked up and our ride became somewhat roller coaster-ish. Two Russian men were crying—but, we made it, so all’s well that ends well.


  13. Ok, I would have been puking my guts out and green the entire way. I guess it was an experience you will not soon forget. I like the way you just kind of went along with it. And I can only imagine having to put up with the obnoxious tourists. You seem very patient. Glad you made it safe and sound. Love the tee shirt, by the way!


    1. The funny thing about the t-shirt was that when all the boat drama settled down I just happened to see this guy walk by me. I stopped and asked if I could photograph his shirt as it encapsulated the whole day. I had not seen this shirt on the island of Koh Rong.


  14. Do they sell the Koh Rong shirt in Koh Rong! I suppose that could be an omen. I wonder how the change of plans to transfer passengers came about. Was there passenger input or did the crew make the decision? I’d like to think the latter as that suggests that they were competent. Gotta love the people who always put down the equipment that they have chosen to experience.


  15. I got a little sea sick just reading that! I must admit I would have been terrified, likely on my knees praying to who ever would listen that’d I’d never sin again. But you made it through without all that! Hmmmm…next time I’ll rethink my panic attack:) Mostly I’m happy you made it to that beach, the barracuda, and the fireworks!


  16. Hey Time, it sounds as though you have the right attitude for being stranded at sea. Some like the idea of an adventure but not so much when one actually materializes. How rough do the seas get off that stretch of Cambodia ? It must have been interesting to observe how the concerns switched from safety over life and limb to the inconvenience of a bus ride. Hope the barracuda was good !


    1. Barracuda was beyond expectation and I was pretty darn happy to be sitting at the beach, watching fireworks and feeling content. As for the seas, they did get pretty rough. The boat that you see in the pictures was getting tossed around in the swells; sometimes submerging one side before righting itself. The part that gave me most concern was the boat to boat transfer plan…crazy!


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