I needed the money, that’s why I took the job. Despite having scholarships that covered most of my expenses as a student at MIT, I was still severely broke. A friend of a friend had mentioned a newly minted billionaire who was taking his boat island hopping for Spring Break. One of the kitchen hands had fallen sick and they needed an emergency replacement. I had worked as a waitress for my aunt’s catering company in London one summer and the head chef was happy to take me on the basis of that experience. Maybe he had taken pity on me, maybe he was just desperate. Either way I had secured a job with decent pay and decent conditions for Spring Break. A perfect solution to my predicament, or so I thought.
It took my last hundred dollars, two days and 22 hours of driving to get from campus to the Florida port where the boat was docked. I was there as a waitress/kitchen hand. Altogether, there were four of us under the command of Chef Rodney; in addition to me there was Nana, Beatrice and Fabien. Everyone else was more experienced, both in catering and working at sea. They seemed nice enough. Had things gone differently, I could see myself becoming part of the crew, perhaps even returning in the summer. No chance of that now of course.
We left port Wednesday morning. The anchor was pulled up, mechanically, and then the engine switched on and we went powering out to sea. We got to the Bahamas in under two hours. When I wasn’t in the kitchen I was sticking my nose into every nook and cranny of the ship. It fascinated me. The engine was incredible, but every other system on the ship was a feat of engineering in its own right. The showers used water from the sea that had been passed through an elaborate filtration system. Beautiful views outside, high tech systems inside, I was having a great time.
Once we got to the Bahamas some more friends of the guy who had chartered the boat boarded. For the next few days, we island hopped: Aruba, Turks & Caicos. When the guests were on the ship I was mostly busy below deck chopping, prepping and washing. The few times I came on deck was to set out or serve food. But when the guests went ashore, there was sometimes time for us to have a break as well. I had never seen such clean sand and such blue sea. Back then, I thought that it was impossible to get tired of such beauty.
At each stop we took aboard, food, drink and domestic essentials. Several times I thanked God that I had got a job in the kitchen. The guests were drinking far too much and the crew in charge of the cabins were forever cleaning up sick and other even less desirable body effusions.
The kitchen could get hot and the head chef loud but the smells were gorgeous and we were creating works of art. Despite my minimal experience, my knife and pot scrubbing skills were good enough not to get me thrown out of the kitchen. In fact over the six days I was aboard, I could see myself improving. The others would give me tips and show me better techniques.
It had not taken me long to get my sea legs. With so much work to do, it was not hard to ignore the subtle movement of the ground beneath my feet. Soon, I could carry large bots of soup through the kitchen without faltering, even when the waves were choppy. Fabien had been on boats the longest and he had argued one night that sea sickness was mostly in the mind, that it was a manifestation of a person’s mental feeling of insecurity. I guess it makes sense, perhaps my quick adaptation to life on the seas was because I had felt safe. On day one, I received my security briefing; it included how to deploy the lifeboats as well as how to use the emergency radio systems to call for help. All of the safety measures, combined with the technology gave me the assurance that there was nothing to worry about. It’s funny how nature has no regard for the state of the art technology. All it takes to turn the world upside down is a little wind.
The boat was expensive and sturdy, resilient enough to handle even the most extreme weather conditions. The thing is, everything is always a matter of degrees. On our sixth night at sea, the captain reported over the telecom that we were experiencing near hurricane level wind speeds and we needed to head to shore. Then he restricted us to our cabins.
I imagine that the storm was wreaking its havoc on our navigational systems because the best part of an hour passed and there was no word that we were approaching land. What we did eventually hear over the intercom was that our situation had worsened. There were breaches on the hull and we were taking on water. We had to abandon ship.
My life vest was in my cabin so I put it on straight away. I left the cabin and followed my crew mates up the stairs to the deck. The lifeboats were at the back of the ship on a lower deck. Rain was battering down on us. I could feel the strength of the winds. I was struggling to stay upright, I was struggling to breath. The last thing I remember was looking up to see a huge wave mounting above me. As it came crashing down there was nothing but water.
I woke up. My eyes heavy with exhaustion, I could feel the sun shining down on my face. Beneath me was water, but also something rough, slimy, shifting. I opened my eyes and moved my hand weakly. It was sand. It was land. I pulled myself up and crawled then walked out of the sea onto what I could see was a beach.
After a few steps I stumbled. My legs were weak. I looked down on my arms and legs. They were covered in cuts and scraped. There were lines of red, but nothing seemed to be actively bleeding.
I patted myself down. In my left pocket was a pen. In my right pocket, my phone! I gave the power button a long press, it was waterlogged. No rice. No charger.
A combination of my life jacket and being unconscious had kept me alive. As my training had instructed, I had pulled the string to inflate the life jacket when I was in the queue for the lifeboat. I must have been knocked into the sea by the wave I saw crashing down, and knocked unconscious. The life jacket would have kept my head above water as much as possible and being unconscious prevented me consuming too much water. I couldn’t have been too far from land when I went overboard as there’s no way I could have survived at sea for too long.
I looked around. There was nothing to indicate where I was. The beach was eerily empty, despite the fact that the height of the sun indicated mid morning. Opposite the sea on the other side of the beach was a tree line with a forest. Perhaps there was a road on the other side but the risk of bumping into snakes or any other creatures felt too high. At the far end of the beach were cliffs which fed up into a hill. Going up felt a lot safer than going inland. It looked high but climbable. Not quite a path, but I could see flat areas in the upward climb. It would probably take a few hours, but I should be able to climb up and get a better view and figure out where I could go for help.
I started up the hill. Maybe I would see a town in the distance, I thought to myself. Perhaps I wouldn’t have to walk that far up before I saw a road or a building that I could divert my trip towards. At first, trees blocked my view. I climbed higher, above the treeline, but then other hills obstructed my view. I became worried that the one I was climbing wasn’t high enough. However, I didn’t have to reach the summit to confirm my worst fears. I was on an island. There were no roads, no buildings. Just mounds of lush green foliage, trees, rocks and beaches surrounded by water. No people. Just me, myself and I.