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A True Telal Tale

March 10, 2016

I’m Here to Tell the Tale:

It may be that after yesterday afternoon, I owe my life to a half dozen or so burly friendly fishermen who were willing to turn their boat in my direction.

I had been watching the Red Sea waves all morning from my balcony at Telal Al Sokna. Telal is a resort community-a-building on the seaside about 2 hours drive from Cairo. Many flats are unfinished, but enough are completed so that day by day new individuals or families arrive to take possession of their property. Our flat was one of the first completed, and we have been using it from time to time for several months. The Red Sea is a bit cold during the winter months, but in the sunny March weather it is warming up. I was waiting for an opportunity to take my new standup paddle board out for some exercise and enjoyment.

I’m 77 years old, and fairly fit, but paddle boarding is new for me. I’ve learned to climb aboard, stand up, navigate in the directions I choose. But still I’m at the stage that needs a smooth untroubled surface, and mild winds or none at all.

The morning wind was off the sea, just a bit brisk, and the waves had small whitecaps on them, so I held off. But around 3 in the afternoon the wind died down, and began to change direction, blowing from the hills behind Telal toward the sea. From my balcony the sea appeared becalmed.  I pulled on my neoprene shorty wetsuit, tied a life jacket round it, and wrestled my paddle board off the front balcony. The carry down to the waterside is not far; in about ten minutes I was at a point where I could push the board ahead of me into the oncoming waves and deeper water, and then slide on.

I got to my knees and paddled forward, seeking the perfect smooth water where it would be easy to stand up. What I had not noticed at first, but noticed now, was that the waves were bigger than I had anticipated. More importantly, I had not noticed before, but noticed now, the wind was increasing and the waves were changing direction, basically heading away from the seaside into deeper water. And just as I was making my first attempt to stand up, a confluence of changing wind and waves flipped my board over and tipped me into the sea.

I had my paddle in my left hand, and my board was secured to me by a plastic rope secured to my thigh. It took perhaps 30 seconds to head the paddle board into the wind, and flip it right side up, and then another 30 seconds to wriggle aboard again. This time I stayed on my knees for stability, and surveyed the situation.

I was surprisingly far from shore, so I decided it would be best to simply head back to where I had started. And that’s where the adventure turned a bit grim: I could choose the shoreward direction, but after a while I realized I was making no real headway to shore. Worse: the waves were much larger now, and the wind had increased. I was slowly being carried out to sea. I could see workmen busy on the beach, but I could not hear them, and I was quite sure they were not noticing me.

I’m pretty optimistic, and, as I said, fairly fit, and I thought I could paddle harder and find the right channels toward the shore, so for perhaps a half hour I kept trying to head towards where I had entered the water. But slowly it became clear that I could not get there; I could see the place, but I could not get closer to it.

I was calm, but at the same time it became clear to me that I could not keep paddling indefinitely. I changed position on the board, straddling it as one would sit astride a camel. My thigh muscles began to protest, but it was a better overall position for stability in the waves. However, my legs in the water would impede my forward progress. I put the paddle on the board and lay on the board, trying to paddle with my arms.  But that impeded my view of where I was, and when I returned to the seated position, I was further from shore than before.  And I was beginning to tire. I started to think about whether I was going to survive; it was almost sundown, and I would surely be blown out to sea the moment I ceased to paddle.  I was giving it all I had, and it was not enough.

Then I saw the fishing boat. It was several hundred yards from me and would soon pass between me and the shoreline. This seemed odd to me, because I did not think such a large boat, perhaps 70 feet in length, would be able to navigate so close to shore. Now I realize that I was much further out than I had estimated, and that the fishing boat was pulling its net at a normal distance from the shore.

Too far away for me to shout to it, the boat passed between me and the shore, from my left to my right, and then slowed speed. I thought I could see fishermen at the stern, working the big net. Did they see me? I did not know.

For several minutes I paddled to keep in a position facing the boat and the shore, and the boat seemed to stay still,  or maybe it was moving seaward in the same direction I was.  But at length the boat began to pull away. I remember saying out loud “Oh, don’t leave me!”  I felt pretty sure that the boat represented the only chance I had to avoid a night alone on a fairly rough sea, and I wondered if this might be the last night I would experience at all.

I raised up my paddle and tried to wave it vigorously, and almost immediately the boat turned in my direction.  It took a few minutes to reach me, but the fishermen grasped the situation immediately. They were calling to me in Arabic, and I was answering with the little I know, but when they held up a long green rope, I knew they were asking if I wanted them to throw it. I nodded my head and they started moving the boat closer to me.

It was touch and go to stay on the board when it neared the side of the boat.  They threw the rope and I was able to get hold of it. I tried to secure it to the holding strap of the paddle board, but the sea was tossing me about and I only partially succeeded. The fishermen pulled me to the side of their boat, and now gestured that they would lower a tire to me, secured by another rope. I was able to grasp the tire, but could not figure out how to fit myself into it. But strong arms were able to lift the tire, with me hanging on, to the point where they could grasp my hands in theirs, and then get arms under my own and pull me over the steel side of the ship onto the floorboards. Fortunately, the line from my paddle board to my thigh had held, and a sailor was able to haul the board up behind me.

Essentially my life was saved, and both they and I knew it.  They had to figure out what to do with me, because I could tell them where I wanted to go, but they were on their way to Suez, and there was no place for them to stop.  They could see I was fatigued, and they gave me water and soda. I drank that, but had to insist that I was not famished, because they clearly wanted me to eat food as well.  They gave me a huge fishing coat to wear, and a pair of trousers meant for a person double my size. They in fact all seemed to be double my size, though I am not a small person. They were superbly kind, humorous, interested in knowing where I came from, and whether I had a wife and children. My poor Arabic amused them, but somehow we kept communicating.  They soon had cameras out, and a cellphone for me to call shore. I could only  remember my own number, and of course no one was in the flat where my phone would ring on and on.  But they took the number, and made several calls so that when I got back home I would have their missed calls on my list.

Because they could not stop to drop me off, they called the coastline police, and a motor boat soon arrived with space enough for both me and my gear.  After profuse thanks, a lot of smiles and photographs I was lowered into the boat and waved farewell to my saviors.

The boat took me to the Marina at Porto Sokna, some ten kilometers down the coast from Telal. There I was interviewed by the police, to make sure I was not an illegal alien.  I had no identity cards with me, but they were able to call the management at Telal Al Sokna and give them my telephone number. When I confirmed the number of my flat, the managers there agreed to send a pickup truck to get me and my board and bring me back home. About twenty minutes later they were there, and in another twenty minutes I was in my flat again.

In Cairo my wife, Nelle, was soon relieved, because she had called me many times during the late afternoon, to no avail. I was able to call her at 7 pm, from our flat, using my own phone.

Now it is a new day, and tomorrow I will return to Cairo.  From my balcony I see that the waves are a bit brisk, so I will not be trying out the paddle board today. That means it will wait until a week or two later, when I return to Telal again. I will surely choose a no-wind, no-waves day, and I will surely stay close to the coastline.

I will reflect a lot on this incident. I think I have a new respect for the fragility of life, how we owe ours to others, and the importance of thinking ahead before trying to “go it alone”. Everything seems a bit more valuable to me than it did before this adventure, and I will try to maintain that sense of value in the days to come. I am specially thankful at the moment for those days.