Lost at Sea

I do not know how many people have experienced an event in which they see their entire life flash before their eyes.

My experience of this phenomenon occurred in 1970 off the coast of the islands of San Andrés, Colombia in the beautiful seas of the Caribbean.

I grew up in Colombia. I first arrived in “mi patria querida” before my earliest memories. (For the non-Spanish speaking reader, “mi patria querida” is “my country that I love” at least according to my translation of the phrase). The reason I grew up in Colombia was the chosen career of my parents as missionaries with the Southern Baptist Convention from 1956 to 1972.

We traveled extensively throughout a considerable portion of Colombia in my youth. There were considerable areas that were not safe for Americans, or even Colombians not native to the region, but we did get to see a substantial corridor stretching from the northeast to the southwest of the country. Our travels included the Caribbean coast from Cartagena to Santa Marta, with the at least one journey to Maicao in the Guajiras, to the east including Bucaramanga and Tunja, to the central areas including Bogota, Ibagué, Neiva and Pereira, as far west as Manizales and Cali, to the southwest including Popayán and Pasto. A fairly good chunk of the accessible and more populated areas Colombia. We avoided the northwest area of the Chocó and the southeast areas of the Los Llanos and Amazonia. Not only were they nearly inaccessible, due to a lack of navigable roads, but they were also unsafe, particularly for Americans. Though early on we did make a few trips to the Antioquia and it’s capital of Medellín, in later years we avoided that area as well due to safety concerns. Until 1970 we had also not traveled to the Departamento de San Andrés y Providencia ( the Department of San Andrés and Providencia) due to its remoteness as tiny islands in the Caribbean closer to Nicaragua then to Colombia. When the national airline of Colombia, Avianca, established a regular flight from our hometown of Barranquilla to San Andrés a trip was within our grasp.

My oldest brother, Wilson had left our home in Barranquilla in the summer of 1969 after his graduation from high school. He was continuing his education at Dallas Baptist College in Dallas, Texas. After the spring semester he returned home to spend the summer with his family in Colombia. My parents had planned a trip to San Andrés as a special family vacation after our long separation from our brother. We also were looking down the road to the departure of the next oldest, David, the following year. It was to be a truly special trip to an area that was so completely different from anything we had experienced in our travels throughout either Colombia or the United States.

San Andrés is a coral island archipelago in the western part of the Caribbean Sea. It was originally a British colony. As a British colony it was populated by immigrants from Barbados, England and Wales which brought the English language and the Protestant religion to the area. The British also brought black slaves from Jamaica, descendants of slaves brought from Africa, to the islands to work the cocoa and cotton plantations. When Colombia first gained control of the islands the Constitution of 1821 declared that all people born in Colombia were free, which resulted in releasing the slaves from their bondage. In the early part of the twentieth century, after several threats from the United States to make the islands either independent or part of Panama, the islands became a Department, or State, of Colombia. Throughout all of the political upheavals and challenges of the time, San Andrés retained its unique characteristic as an English-speaking, Protestant, mostly black population within the Spanish-speaking, mostly Catholic, mestizo population of Colombia. Today, as a result of migration from the mainland, the population is more representative of the rest of Colombia.

The only prior experience I had with San Andrés before our trip was listening to the tales and stories from my missionary uncles, George Kollmar and John (Jack) Thomas. Uncle George and Uncle Jack had been in the Colombian mission field during World War II. I had listened at the supper table and the family rooms to tales of how they had avoided the religious violence in Colombia during that time by traveling secretly from the coast of Colombia to San Andrés. But this put them at risk of the German U-Boats terrorizing the Caribbean Sea during the war so they made the perilous sea journey only at night, running without navigation lights. Uncle George and Uncle Jack were my some of my heroes as I grew up, representing faith, dedication and bravery. And their harrowing tales of their war experience had introduced and intrigued me about these remote islands that were part of Colombia.

Our trip was not nearly as hazardous, though it did have its element of fear for a young boy. We left the airport in Barranquilla, turned northwest to fly over the Caribbean for what seemed forever to land on a tiny pinpoint of land. I sat staring out the window of the plane for that flight imagining all the horrors that would occur if we had to ditch the plane in the middle of the ocean. But we did arrive safely and without incident to begin a wonderful and memorable visit to this unique island.

To my chagrin and embarrassment I do not remember the name of the missionary family that hosted us that summer. They were not part of the Southern Baptist Convention with which my parents were associated. Growing up we were constantly involved with the other Southern Baptist missionary families so I have strong personal memories of that extended family group. But with the other mission groups we were only incidentally associated. So though we spent a week on the island with our wonderful family I have failed to retain their names in my memory. With this admission I will simply refer to them as our hosts.

We visited all parts of the island both with our hosts and on our own. We got to tour the island by car and by motorbike. We swam at the beautiful beaches. We got to see the famous blowhole on the southern tip of the island. We got to explore the old church, Iglesia Bautista Emmanuel, at the highest point of the island at which our host ministered. My brother Terry and I loved to climb the bell tower to look across the island and the sea from that high vantage point. We resisted the urge to ring the church bell. Another highlight of our stay was the opportunity to talk to our grandparents back in Texas using the ham radio station our host operated.

During our visit to the island our host had prepared a snorkel diving trip out at a coral reef off the coast. I do not know exactly how all of the arrangements had been made to provide us with this exciting adventure. Back home Terry and I had spent many weekends traveling among the beaches northeast of Santa Marta on snorkel diving and spear fishing camping trips. Neither my parents nor my older brothers had ever seemed to have any interest in snorkel diving. For me snorkel diving was one of my rites of passage from being a child to becoming a young man. It also was a primary motivation to enter the field of wildlife conservation. Though later events in life did not result in my pursuit of that career it was the basis for my early university education and a lifelong love of wildlife and wilderness.

We traveled from the port in San Andrés across the bay out to a remote coral reef. Here we grabbed our gear and the four older boys went into the sea to explore the wonders of a Caribbean reef. I was familiar with snorkel diving and reef exploration because of my frequent trips to Bahia de Conchas and the Bahia de Taganga back home. I wandered far from the boat where our host and my parents were enjoying a day lolling in a boat in the gentle Caribbean and swimming with my little brother alongside the boat. It was a beautiful day for this activity. The skies were blue with just enough billowing clouds to provide shade from the unrelenting sun. The winds were gentle breezes making for the most enjoyable island environment.

Suddenly the weather made an abrupt change. A gale arose from what seemed out of no where. Of course my head had been down searching and exploring the reef and I had not been watching the skies so I do not know how the storm actually developed. But it also caught the grownups by surprise as well. The winds were strong and steady and the clouds rose up in a threatening thunderstorm. Our host and parents quickly raised anchor and began the process of trying to recover the kids in the water. We needed to seek the protection of small quay on the other side of the reef. Because the boys had strayed so far from the boat and we were in an area that ran a risk of grounding our host brought the vessel around close enough that my Dad could toss a knotted rope to provide a means for us to be towed to safety. As I recall Wilson got to rope first, Terry second and then David. But David was the at the end of the rope. Swimming as fast as I could I reached the rope only to find that I had nothing to grab except for David’s legs. As soon as I grabbed hold our host began trying to navigate to the quay as fast and safely as he could, all the while battling the ferocious squall.

We were towed for some distance in the ever-increasing choppy seas as the winds continued to rise in ferocity. Then the thunderstorm hit, first with a light rain and then a torrential downpour. When I would raise my face above the waves I could barely see past the boat. We were in a precarious situation, but the grownups were still in charge and I had only to hang on to reach safety.

The seas continued to rise, the winds buffeted me and my hold on David’s leg became harder and harder to retain. I felt myself slipping and tried desperately to retain my hold on his leg. Suddenly, as I was towed over a larger swell in the water, I lost my grip. I will never forget the immediate horror I felt as my forward momentum suddenly ceased. I raised my head to look. I could see the boat disappearing in the grayness of the storm. The rain continued to intensify, the winds were now at gale force status. It came to my realization that I was lost at sea. My parents were not even aware that I was lost and even if they were there was little they could do to return and rescue me.

Through the haze of the falling rain and splash of the choppy seas I could not even determine which direction I should head to reach the small island and the quay. I did not know for sure if we had first headed away from the island to insure that the boat was not tossed on to the rocks or if we had paralleled the island. As I tried to gather my thoughts concerning my current situation I so clearly recall thinking of all that I had experienced in my short life and all my hopes and aspirations for my life in the future. It is a really amazing experience to have that memory flash and the comfort that it provided me as I was tossed in the stormy seas.

As quickly as the storm had arisen it ended. The squall passed over and the rain and winds stopped. Quickly the blue sky and billowing clouds reappeared. Though the water remained choppy it too was settling down after the storm. As I could see again I realized I had fallen probably a tenth of a mile behind the boat. I was not that lost after all. Our host had already throttled down and my parents had began pulling the boys back into the boat. As our host turned the boat back I raised and waved my arm so that they could see me. It did not take long for me to be pulled back into the boat.

I never did ask my parents what they thought and felt when they realized one child was missing as they hauled my brothers into the boat. I wished I had, but the events of the day were not done with us yet.

As we recovered from the effects of the sudden squall at sea our host had pulled up to the quay and we were disembarking from the boat so he could check for any structural damage. As David leaped from the side of the boat into the shallow water to walk onshore he struck a “rock” on the side of his ankle. He yelled in pain and hobbled himself on shore and sat down on a rock. It was evident that something was horribly wrong. Our Dad leaped out of the boat and got to his side. I think he first thought that David had broken a bone when he hit that “rock”. After an initial examination Dad found a puncture wound. It became clear that David had not hit a rock, but instead had been stung by stingray. As David’s leg began to swell and he started to slip into shock all concern about the squall receded. All of our attention was directed at David and the events of squall, including my experience of being lost at sea, became old news. Dad did what he could to alleviate the pain and shock. Our host inspected the boat to insure its seaworthiness and we soon got back on board for a quick trip across the bay to get David some medical attention. Once back on the main island, Mom and Dad took David to get treatment for his injury while our host returned the rest of us to the house. When David finally returned with my parents he was on crutches and all of our attention was still centered around him.

I never did discuss with anyone the events that transpired after I lost my hold on David’s leg and how I watched the boat disappear in the haze of the storm. It wasn’t until years later that it occurred to me that I had truly been, if only for a few minutes, lost at sea.

 

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