The day stared off like all other day’s in the Mentawai’s – the usual morning surf session lasting until noon and then time to cool off, have lunch and rest up for the late afternoon glass-off. The swell had been dropping steadily for the past three days and most of the charter boats in the area had been moving southward down from the Playground and Macaroni’s to Rags and Thunder’s which hold size a bit better this time of year. After a brief daybreak surf at Thunder’s with a crowd in the water, three of us took our skiff from the Pelagic to Rag’s Right which had only one boat parked at the break. It was the “Katika”, an easily recognized shapely 60 foot, steel hull sail boat that has been working the Menatwai charter business out of Padang for many years. We had been sharing the same breaks with its five passengers, three from California, two from Australia, and crew for several days. Our decision turned out to be a smart call… Rags Right can be a fickle, tide and wind dependent break, but this morning it was in good form with head high sets and solid barrels.
After lunch and sipping on a cold Bintang back on our boat, I noticed a small puff of smoke coming up in the cloudless sky near where we had just surfed. At first it was not any different than numerous other small fires started by local islanders. Within seconds, the smoke transformed into a thick, ominous black plume directly under the “Katika” and we scrambled for the binoculars that confirmed our initial impression that this was not the usual brush fire. Our Captain sprinted to the wheel room where the radio crackled out a distress call in broken English that lasted only a few seconds, but painted a clear picture of panic and urgency, then went dead in mid-sentence. We pulled anchor immediately, leaving three of our surfers in the water, as did several other boats anchored at Thunder’s, and headed across the 6 mile channel between the two islands.
During the fifteen minute crossing, the devastation unfolded in front of our eyes; flames were now easily visible across the entire deck of the Katika and extending far up the mast. The diesel fuel was now feeding this monster and the thoughts of saving the boat turned to concern for the crew and passengers. The radio offered no help, but as we pulled nearer to the burning hull, a jet ski which arrived first at the scene came by and the rider yelled that everyone had gotten off safely… jumping into the water with no more than their surfboards.
A sixty foot steel hull sailboat with 3,000 gallons of diesel fuel on board burns like a backyard barbecue for hours; the aluminum mast melts under the intense heat and the once beautiful blue paint bubbles, then catches fire and burns down to the waterline. Attempts by the other boats to help put out the fire on the Katika, which we later learned started in the kitchen when cooking oil ignited, with their emergency hoses were well intended, but clearly futile. As we looked on to what was so recently a scene of beauty and tranquility, pondering the moment, the realization of how quickly fortunes can change, how fragile we are, and how uncertain the future is began to slowly sink in.