The motion of the boat was strange that night; I couldn't sleep. She
rocked forwards and backwards – not the uncomfortable side-to-side 'yaw'
we had been accustomed to throughout the week. Then again, maybe this
was normal, I didn't know, I just knew I was restless. There were
gurgling noises, I closed the drains from both toilet and sink and
checked our position outside. Still in the same spot, by the quieter and
less inhabited east side of Cumberland Bay. We were tied to a mooring
buoy, courtesy of the Navy I guess. This is a huge block of concrete
resting on the sea floor attached to a very long line of heavy chain and
designed for holding ships several times our size. Andy had dived down
and inspected it on our first day here,- far more secure than an anchor,
assuming the mooring is a good one, and much easier to arrive at and
leave from. I guess the Navy also like us to use them: so they also know
that we are held firm.
At 4am the boat started rocking in all directions. We jumped up, Andy
checked the ropes.. behind us it looked like we were flying through the
water although we were still tied firm at the bow. Then an almighty
roar, resonating around the bay. 'Oh my god', I hear Andy outside….'o
my god'… it's a really dark night but looks like there are – houses,
floating. 'There's been a landslide.' He asks me to start untying the
dinghy,- he's not going out in that though, surely? I'm outside now,
water is flying past us in big whirls, carrying trees and, yes, it looks
like roofs. We think the hill right by us has collapsed, horrible, but
The water is now soaring out towards the open ocean, carrying with it
all objects in its path. We hear cries and calls from people, people in
the houses, people in the water in the houses. It's dark. With head
torches and lights we are shining beams around.. towards the voices,
'swim to the yacht, swim to the yacht' Andy is shouting top voice in
spanish. Thank god he's got the sense to not go anywhere. This is no
landslide though we have no idea what it is.
Where's the Navy?, I'm thinking. Where's the rescue team? Surely an
island like this has a volunteer rescue team? There's no-one here, just
people shouting, and us. And a few flashlights now from people on shore.
But where are the emergency services? We call up on the radio, VHF
channel 16. At first no-one replies, then, eventually. And gradually
more torch lights start appearing on shore.
Next thing Andy has reached over the side and pulled a boy onto the
deck. Pablo, age 14, shivering, covered in oil and cuts, soaking of
course. Looking for his family 'Mama! Papa!' the strained voice of
terror. I get him inside for a short while, get him warmer and dryer,
into a warm jacket, briefly wrapped up in a sleeping bag but he won't
stay long. He needs to be outside searching. I put the kettle on and
then immediately off again when strong fumes surround us,- petrol,
diesel, later there is a strong noise of gas bottles hissing. Gas
bottles that have been ripped from the houses they used to supply.
Two more boys climb on board. I think Andy lifts one, the other climbs
on while I hold his arm. He's older, late teens, strong. And wants to
save people. The boys now calling to everyone, 'come here, come to the
boat'. There are other boats in the water now. And a Navy boat,- at last
a Navy boat is near us I think with relief. Only to realise it's
unoccupied, dragging fast on it's mooring. Andy and the three boys are
fending the boat off – one wants to jump on and start it but none of
them know how. On the other side a rooftop is pushing up against us, and
next – a house. 'I'm holding back a house!' Andy shouts. He's fending
them off with the wooden oars from our dinghy.
Further away, a family are stranded in the top floor of a floating
house, they see us and swim. We throw a rope to them, they grab it on
the third try. Thank god. Right next to us now. Andy pulls up a young
girl, light as a feather. Now for the other three…no, no, they've been
pulled past us and the father has let go of the rope. Deliberately. He
won't leave his wife and son. NO! The older teenager with us wants to
jump in and swim to them. This time we manage to dissuade him but later
he'll go swimming again, and thankfully return.
An inflated zodiac dinghy has drifted up to us. Andy ties it on, we can
use that somehow, we have an outboard we could put on it. The boys start
focussing on that. I'm inside with Francisca, sweet waif of a shivering
child. Age seven, huge eyes, wearing a wetsuit that I suspect saved her.
She's talking about dying, her dying, her mother dying, her family.
She's terrified, shaking. Gradually she warms up, calms a bit. I hold
her and hold her and hold her. But she's got guts this one. She's feisty
and determined and also wants to go outside. Ok, as long as she stays
We're out there for a while, calling, talking, listening to the cries.
Pablo joins us, good news, he's found his family,- they're alive. He is
relieved. He talks with Francisca, who is she, who was she with, where
were they living? I'm surprised he doesn't know her – it seems her
family are visitors to the island. Bless her, she's trying so hard to
stay awake but the little body is exhausted. We're telling the radio,
shouting to the boats – we have a girl here, Francisca, she's ok, she's
here, she's ok.
A fishing boat pulls up to us, full of people. The driver is completely
naked and freezing. This is madness. It's still dark dark dark. As I
find him clothes the three boys join him, and three other people join
us. It's Francisca's family: joy! Her mother, her father, her brother.
Dear God, thankyou. Yes, they confirm, this is their whole family. They
huddle in one big hug in our cockpit.
The hours continue, but slower now. Still calls and shouts. We get the
kids dry and into bed. Blankets, jumpers, hats, socks… they're all so
cold. Now the mum too. Talking, sleeping, talking. What the hell-? The
father is strong and warm now, working with Andy outside. They're
hacking away at the trees that are tangled up in our mooring. Trees, big
trees, ropes, all sorts of debris. I can't even imagine the force this
mooring must have held at times. We have shifted for sure, but we're
still holding. And it's a relief to think they are cutting the debris
There's a light flashing nearby, floating. We can't make out if there's
a person with it. Andy and Alex get into the zodiac and try to
investigate but can't get our outboard working: too many lines in the
sea. The sea which is now calmer. We feel safe on the boat, in the bay,
but there are still cries and calls all around. So we feel helpless too.
The calls are not near us now. How far did this thing reach? Gradually
we start piecing together the night. This was no landslide. This as a
wave, a huge wave. And the calls and shouts continue in the distance.
Waiting for dawn.
Time passes. More shouts, lights, calls.
As light approaches we start to digest the damage. Not just this corner
of the bay, the quieter corner that is mostly rocky beachfront and a few
cabanas. The whole town front has been wiped out, gone. The navy boat
that floated past is wrecked on the rocks. Pedro, our friend Pedro, he
has a beautiful house right on the water. Two stories, modern design,
light, open plan, wood and stones, his home and his business- a hostal,
a bar, a meeting place. I blink. Pedro's house is gone. Not there. The
shops I bought supplies in yesterday. Gone. Oh my god- the Navy didn't
answer because they were hit too. The whole bay, the whole town, a
wreck. People's lives – but it's only later that I start thinking about
that, about the consequences.
From a distance it seems that the wave must have reached about 70 or 80
metres inland from the shore. The family's cabana was situated at a
height of about 40m, so we know it reached at least this far up.
Thankfully the island is steep so many houses stand above this level.
Still, it seems the 'main-drag' was hit. This would include all public
offices, the school, many houses, many shops, the town square.
Clearly we're not leaving today anymore. We want to stay, we need to
stay. We want to help. It's an unspoken given.
The Navy calls us on the radio, they speak through the father, Alex, who
himself speaks excellent English, and is ex-Navy. There has been news
from Valparaiso: another wave is coming. The whole town is being
evacuated to higher ground. And we need to leave.
At first the family choose to stay with us, then they choose to be taken
around the corner, to a hostal on a hill. A plan is quickly devised:
we'll take them near the hostal, they'll then leave in the zodiac. Simple.
Sail covers off, chaos strapped down, engine started, mooring lines let
free, careful navigation through debris in the bay, we motor around the
corner, the outboard is started, the family get in the zodiac, they're
off. They're safe. We're safe. It's over. We watch them head for safety.
We watch in horror as the outboard stops running. He can't get it
started. They are drifting again, for the second time tonight, no oars,
helpless. This can't be.
The mountainous island thankfully has steep slopes so we can drive back
up to them – the water is still quite deep. We tow them a bit closer,
then pass the oars and I climb in too. We'll lose our outboard but never
our oars,- we need them. Alex rows us all to land, they climb out, I row
back. Ever aware that a second wave could be pummelling towards us.
Grab oars, ditch dinghy, ditch outboard, climb on board, – get away from
land -. This is insane. They are safe. I see them waving from the rocks.
"Please explain that we wanted to stay", I want to say, "we were told to
leave". I feel like we're running away, cowards. The only people able to
leave. I don't want to leave, but we have to. We only endanger ourselves
and others by staying.
We stay in radio contact with the Navy for about 6 miles. They ask us to
go 10 miles offshore or 150 metres depth. We also hear Pedro on the
radio. He and his family are safe, we will try and email his brother
with the news.
As light came up we saw the wreckage. The rubble. I can't get that image
out of my mind. I desperately want to go back. So does Andy. We have
reached the 10 mile mark, we are out of radio contact now, we don't know
what to do. Our hearts say "return", our heads say, "continue". Already
we have seen three planes arriving and heard that a Navy ship is on its
way. Support has arrived. We would like to go back, stay a few weeks,
help rebuild the town. But today isn't about rebuilding, today is about
finding people, roofs over heads, feeding families. And grief. Emergency
response. Definitely not a time for voyeuristic visitors either.
Ten miles offshore the winds and seas are pushing us exactly on course
for Isla de Pascua, Easter Island. 1629 miles away. We make the decision
with our heads, our hearts screaming in defiance, and set the sails for