Writer and comedian Griff Rhys Jones tells the dramatic story of the boat that burned beneath him off the Galapagos Islands and how he and his wife leapt for their lives
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It was a discreet knock on the door. Too discreet, really. ‘Please, come on deck.’ It was night, but I suppose that is when such a knock comes. Not when you are alert and functioning, but when you are half schmoozled and unable to work out what the hell is going on. Sebastian and Beatrice, the stewards, were in the corridor outside our cabin and politely trying to alert us all. I could hear Rafael, the tour guide, in the background. He was somewhat more agitated.
‘Come on, please, come now. On deck. Quickly, quickly!’
My first instincts were as follows. (They were all wrong, incidentally, and have taught me valuable lessons for when I next have to jump into oceanic waters in the middle of the night because an engine has caught fire.)
I thought it was probably a drill. (Wrong.) I assumed we would be back in the cabin in a few moments. (Wrong.) I thought that Rafael, who was a wee bit inclined to self-dramatisation, was probably exaggerating. (Wrong.)
I thought that the few wisps of smoke in the corridor were undoubtedly smoke without fire. I saw no reason to take my lifejacket. In fact, I forgot that we had been told where the lifejackets were. I had wiped the drill from my mind. (Wrong, wrong, wrong.)
Rafael had given us the safety instructions earlier this month when we joined the Parranda, 125ft long and the pride of the Galapagos touring fleet.
In this, the Darwin bicentenary year, we were a party of 15 Brits and Americans, in eight cabins, who had come together through a mutual friend to hire the boat and her 11 crew for an organised tour of the islands. It had taken about two years to arrange.
We included publishers, artists, a magistrate, a West End theatre producer, an actor, an academic, a professional photographer and a lowly comedian and his wife, Jo.
Some of us had known each other for years, some were new acquaintances. In the three-and-a-half days before the boat burst into flames, we had been instantly and expertly guided around a series of staggering experiences by Rafael, a qualified naturalist who took no prisoners.
Not only had we wandered within inches of snakes, marine iguanas, nesting boobies, frigate birds, giant tortoises and sea lions, we had learned to distinguish the four beak sizes of the indigenous finches, the bone structures of whales and petrels, and the mating habits of immensely penised barnacles and uxorious gulls.
We had swum with penguins and turtles, watched octopuses mate and snorkelled in the middle of a school of fish while it was being dive-bombed by boobies.
What Rafael had called our great ‘karma’ had allowed us to swim with penguins, to come close to suckling sea lions and to be joined by an enormous school of dolphins playing in the Parranda’s bow wave. The only thing that Rafael had failed to deliver so far were the promised sharks.
Perhaps our karma had deserted us with that knock on the door. We had to leave quickly but I wasn’t going on deck naked. You do wonder what exactly to wear. It’s not vanity – it’s propriety. I dragged on my worst shorts and a light fleece. And then I paused. Jo said something like: ‘Come on, come on,’ but I turned back.
You should not do this. This is an error that all the drills emphasise, but I was beginning to wake up. Some rational possibilities had begun to overpower instincts, so I reached for my computer. I was writing a book.
I had spent every spare moment in the previous two weeks fiddling with the manuscript for River Journeys. (A maritime disaster does not prevent a free book plug.) I had about six weeks to write the thing and two of them were in that computer.
I might have had a better excuse than ‘the cat ate my homework’, but I wasn’t going to be separated from it now. I stumbled up the narrow spiral stairs and through the smoke-filled main saloon, clutching it like a baby to my chest.
In retrospect, had I not been half asleep I would have paused just a moment longer and taken a jacket with my passport in it. There is only one thing you really need to save from a burning ship and that is your identity. But there was a lot of shouting now.
It was about 11 o’clock and quite dark. I know that we jumped at 11.15 because a non-waterproof watch belonging to Delia, one of our party, obligingly stopped when she hit the water.
The Galapagos are on the Equator but the Humboldt current keeps a mysterious cloudy weather system hanging over the islands. It wasn’t cold but there was no moon.
Some of the party were gathered on the aft boat deck – a lower area where they launched the rubber dinghies for the shore expeditions through the nesting boobies and the suckling sea lions, where we marvelled at the complete indifference that every form of animal life had to British tourists. Both boats were still hanging in their cradles.
The crew were somewhere in the middle of the ship at the door of the engine room and shouting urgently in Spanish. I saw no fire extinguishers, but there was a lot of white smoke billowing out of that area.
We were cool. On the boats we had to wear lifejackets. Our new mate Col got them off the rack. As I took mine, privately wondering whether this was entirely necessary, I realised that Jo wasn’t there. I was hit by a tidal wave of anxiety.
I began shouting at exactly the moment that Sebastian found us. Everyone else was forward, gathered on the bow. They wanted us up there. We ran into the smoke and along the side companionways. For a moment or two, it was choking. This was the thick, acrid stuff that comes from a mixture of plastic, wood and fuel oil. The stuff everybody warns you about. I was glad we were in the open air.
They wanted us up front because the anchored boat was lying to the wind, so the smoke was driving back over the stern. We came out on to the high foredeck. The rest of our group were all present. Or seemed to be. Jo was standing with the others right up against the bulwark at the prow.
There was another large, lit boat about half a mile away. Surprisingly, there were flashing buoys marking a channel. We were anchored off Bartolome Island, and had come into a bay while we were asleep.
It was when I turned back that I saw fire for the first time. There was an ominous, red glow blazing out of the port side just around the bridge. ‘So, what was your most memorable moment on the trip?’ My fellow sailor Richard asked drily.
‘Jump. Come on, jump!’ I began to get my bearings. The others were preparing to leap into the water.
Despite the flames and the shouting, there didn’t seem to be any activity on the other boat across the bay, but our crew were now struggling with our rubber dinghy. Last week, we were told by Swiss researchers that the English suffered from their politeness on the Titanic, but politeness seems the only response. Everybody was jumping decorously. We were about 20ft up. The bay was completely calm.
I should explain that I am not English – I am Welsh. I also own a sailing boat. I have jumped in and fallen over before.
So the boyo stood on the burning deck whence all but he had fled. Col, charmingly, had taken my wife’s hand and they’d leapt together into the briny. But I hung on. I wanted the dinghy to get close enough for me to pass down my damned computer.
When it did get launched, it picked up a few people from the water and then sped away, and I suspected, for the first time, that the crew might know something we didn’t – that the Parranda might blow up in a spectacular fashion.
The flames had now become that interesting balled and James Bond-orange variety with big, black edges. They were licking up around the entire superstructure and spreading very quickly to consume the whole of the aft part of the vessel, where the gas canisters were kept.
My computer had been built to withstand water and shocks, so it was as heavy as a case of encyclopedias. I weighed it up. Would my computer drag me to the bottom of the ocean? Would it really survive the dunking or was it just splash proof? Bugger it. Perhaps it was fireproof as well.
I laid the ridiculous thing down on the deck and jumped myself.
There was, I should add, no mention of sharks. The most terrifying part of the experience was reading last week’s more lurid accounts in the Press.
It seemed like a gentle evening bathe. There was no wind. I was slightly amazed to find I had jumped in with my glasses on and they were still on the end of my nose when I surfaced. The dinghy had come back and was no distance away.
Two of the crew must have jumped early enough to swim a couple of hundred yards to one of the flashing buoys, but we were all picked up very quickly. We were taken aboard the other boat, the Darwin, also a tour ship, where most of the passengers stayed fast asleep below deck (you have an early start in the Galapagos).
All except one woman who emerged from her cabin – having heard noise and become frightened by the idea that something was happening – to see 26 wrecked sailors come aboard. She immediately went back to bed, reassured. There was also a night-owl Australian pilot called Shaun, who was still awake and videoed everything.
We couldn’t stay on the Darwin. Taking on that number of shipwrecked mariners broke various safety laws. Another boat was on its way. We were told that the Ecuadorian navy wanted to take control.
It has been suggested that the South American sailors got lost, but that may be a calumny. While we waited for their non-appearance, Sebastian, a paragon of a steward, brought us hot coffee and towels. Delia told him that ‘we’re all in the same boat now’, but he had become the Admirable Crichton, and the company continued to look after us impeccably throughout our catastrophe.
We wondered whether we should sing Roll Out The Barrel. What had been a floating house-party continued. We got on like a ship on fire. The boat continued to burn. It was a melancholy sight to see the entire ship now flaming from end to end.
Our rescue vessel, Coral I, was a larger boat. Again the cabins were full, and we all finally slept in the saloon, on the floor or curled up on chairs and sofas.
This was the only moment when I thought we felt unacceptably like stateless refugees. I mean, we were interlopers on someone else’s dream tour of the Galapagos, but I thought it showed admirable Ecuadorian sang-froid that Coral I continued its tour in the morning before putting us ashore.
In the event, the passengers shot us some startled looks as they were herded away for breakfast, but they were a conference party from the Council for the Advancement of Comprehensive Care (CACC).
Each of them turned out to be a senior dean or professor of nursing education. They were pedagogically solicitous. We were overwhelmed with kindness and unlikely clothing. They even offered us shoes and spare reading glasses.
We needed what we could get – although, slightly embarrassingly, I balked at the zebra-patterned nylon trousers. We’d lost everything except the pyjamas we stood up in. You know all those little green forms that you get whenever you are on an airplane. All of those had to be replaced.
The tour company proved exemplary. They flew us to Quito, 9,000ft up in the Andes, and put us up in its finest hotel. Without them we would have been unable to get money, passports or home.
We were as efficiently guided on the last three days of our holiday as we had been on the Parranda, only this time along bureaucratic trails that took us into the mysterious police stations and the strange habitats of embassy officials in Quito.
Luckily, they were not quite as indifferent to our presence as the scaly amphibians of the islands, but it all took a long time.
Next time I sleep on a boat, I will sleep with my passport strapped to my inner thigh. You cannot get anything without identity papers, especially money.
We heard that the Darwin was visited in the morning by so many sharks that the crew had to push them away with a broom handle. The Parranda sank just after dawn.
I await reviews that begin: ‘It’s pity that this book didn’t go down with the ship…’