The Timor Sea

The Timor Sea: a notorious stretch of ocean nearly claims a surfer’s life. 

It’s hard to tell, through the texts and tearful phone calls, the exact series of events: did the engine die, or did the headsail tear apart first? Either way, my wife’s best friend’s husband found himself in a bad way on the Timor Sea last week aboard his new 35-foot yacht, on the 350-mile crossing between Indonesia and their home in Darwin, Australia.

With headwinds gusting to 35 knots and 2.5-meter (8-foot) running seas, he had lost steering because of the headsail and the engine failure, then deployed a sea anchor (a parachute-like device that’s run-out to keep a vessel bow-on to oncoming seas in storm conditions). 

The line to the sea anchor parted, and the seas then swept him sideways between steep and breaking waves, making it just be a matter of time before his vessel would be swamped, capsized, then sunk. That’s when he activated the EPRB (an emergency satellite beacon) and the Australian coast guard deployed a plane to assess the situation. 

A cargo ship transiting the area was diverted to pick up our friend and his partner, and all we know is that he is safely on board and headed to a port that is about a six-hour drive from Darwin. The $60,000 yacht, bought on credit, is adrift, presumably headed back to Timor unless it sinks first, along with a nice little tender that he’d already cut loose in the heavy seas.

Traveling by sail (even with motor assist) has always involved the possibility of danger. But what my wife and I cannot understand (and this little tale is just between us friends here in Carpinteria, reading the Coastal View News, right?) is why he made the crossing when he did. Apparently, the weather pattern switches in late September and early October, making the sail a “downhill” run from Timor to Darwin – literally, surfing home.   

Naturally, there were other factors at play. First off, he was operating on 21st-century time, having taken a couple of weeks off from his job as a regional pilot in Australia to make the voyage, so it was simply time to get back to work and to his family. And the ocean doesn’t care if your boss gets mad about taking another week or two off. 

The main factor in losing the boat was attempting the crossing even though the forecast did not look promising. Yet I believe an important underlying factor (which I can very much relate to) was our friend’s desire for the surfing life and its inevitable conflict with family life. After all, the only reason he had the new yacht was so that he could sail from surfless Darwin, to wave-rich Indonesia a few times a year.

But with two little boys and his wife at home, and none of them prepared to jump in full time to the sailing life, I feel that my friend might have made other choices. The boat itself – awesome as it would be to own – was a huge expense, and just as they are trying to buy a home (with real estate being about as crazy-expensive in coastal Australia as it is in coastal U.S.). 

And it is the second boat he’s purchased (apparently telling his wife only after the deal was done). The first boat he left on a mooring in Timor, pre-Covid 19, and he’d sailed the new one over to deal with the old one, moving the first boat from a mooring where it had been falling to disrepair for a year-and-a-half.

Still though, I understand what may have been his feelings of chafing under a stultifying routine. This is a guy who grew up between Kauai and the perfect waves of Queensland. I’ve surfed with him, and he has that through-and-through quality that the best surfers have, that comes from pursuing wave riding intensely from a young age and for a long time. So, he might have felt trapped in Darwin, making flights across the big Aussie continent, not surfing much at all. And with this weird Covid-19 time we’re all in, perhaps it all felt like too much – like his life, or what he believed his life was meant to be, depended on getting to Indonesia aboard his new yacht. 

I know that he loves his family too. His boys are bright and funny, his wife is beautiful and intelligent. It’s really not for me to judge, but I cannot help wondering about how much of our own interests we’re entitled to once we have children. My feeling is that we’re entitled (perhaps “entitled” is the wrong word) to a good amount of our own interests. Our children depend on us of course, and in fact they are the ones who are entitled to our care and time. But even as parents, we are still individuals, trying to make what we can out of our lives.

If I am right – if my wife’s best friend’s husband (who is also a friend of mine), really could do nothing but buy himself a yacht and sail it in the wrong time of year in a desperate attempt to wring some surf adventure out of his life – then I just feel badly for him. Because that’s not merely rotten luck on a rough crossing; that level of desperation, I’m afraid, leans towards something that even the most perfect wave in the world can’t fix.   


Christian Beamish took leave of his position at Coastal View News in October 2020, to pursue his surfboard business, “Surfboards California,” full time. He continues his monthly column. The former Associate Editor of The Surfer’s Journal, Beamish is also the author of “Voyage of the Cormorant” (Patagonia Books, 2012) about his single-handed expedition down the coast of Baja California by sail and oar in his self-built Shetland Isle beach boat. He lives with his wife and two children in Carpinteria. 

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