Mahesh Pushpakumara (28), a frail looking young man with sun burnt skin which was not very conspicuous due to his dark complexion returned after being marooned at sea for five months with a miracle story. His fishing vessel which went missing for months after their last radio message with land on June 16, was found near Maldives on June 20. Four fishermen perished in the ordeal making Mahesh the sole survivor. His story bears testimony to the fact that miracles do happen!
On May 19, 2010 Dinusha II, a 40 feet multi day fishing vessel, ventured to sea from Beruwala carrying 4 experienced middle aged fishermen and a novice, 28 year old Mahesh.
Manned by an experienced skipper, 47 year old Priyantha the vessel’s destination was a location 1800km off Sri Lanka between Mauritius and Seychelles in the Indian Ocean.
It is a place visited only by the most courageous fishermen, for the journey to this unique ecosystem which cradled bountiful harvests took over 18 days. The whole journey meant nearly three months of treacherous life at sea.
Although Mahesh had been to sea on less daunting fishing expeditions on other trawlers about four times before, this was his first time with Dinusha II.
The vessel was a seasoned fishing boat that had only returned from a successful journey to the same far off location that they were going today, in January this year.
Mahesh was not a full time fisherman like his younger brother. With good results in his advanced level examination for which he did Commerce subjects, his mother pestered him to find a white collar job. She did not want both her sons in the dangerous fishing trade where life is a constant uncertainty. They were the only male siblings of a family of four children.
Despite his mother’s pleas, Mahesh decided to join in the voyage when the offer came in for a casual helper since there was no other option for better employment.
The journey began without any incident. The vessel was carrying food to last three months, water in a fixed tank and four big containers. They also had 250 gunny bags of salt to make dry fish with the harvest they make.
Their journey to the destination was uneventful. And as predicted the harvest was bountiful and beyond expectations. Skipper Priyantha was happy and everyone discussed about their return journey and what they would do after returning home.
On June 10 they turned the vessel towards Sri Lanka. The sky was bright and clear which was a welcome sign for any fisherman. For the next three days, the five spent most of their time inside the cabin chatting to each other. Their work was almost complete and they had many expectations after this long and hectic voyage.
Four of the fishermen except Mahesh were married and had children. They were all from Bubulawatte, Beruwala. Priyantha had three young kids, Amal had two and Ranjith and Nihal had three each. They had a lot to look forward to. They knew the children were waiting to see them. Mahesh too was yearning to get home to his family and taste a home cooked meal by his mother. Marine life was tough for him as any other.
They foresaw no evil and after three days into the return journey a meal consisting dhall curry and rice was made for dinner, from the rations they had in the cabin. There were plenty of dry rations left as they usually took more stock than necessary in case of an emergency.
Somewhere around 3 am the next morning (fourth day), the Engine gave a peculiar cough and came to an abrupt stop. Priyantha was not worried. He had had similar experiences and possessed the knowledge to repair minor engine troubles on sea.
He did what he was used to, he tried to get the engine back to life.
“But when initial attempts failed we made contact with the land. He asked for instructions to repair the engine,” Mahesh who faced a dreadful experience at sea told the Sunday Observer, shortly after his arrival from the Maldives on Wednesday.
The owner of the vessel Nalin Chandrakuamara said to wait till morning so they could get expert advice. They set anchor and waited.
Around 8.30am Priyantha got instructions to dismantle the whole engine and then put it back together. He began to feel uncomfortable, when all their attempts to bring the engine back to life failed.
They were too far from land and it was off season for any fishing team to brave this stretch of sea. Making contact with land was their only hope if they could not start the boat and return home. Now with the engine not running, the battery that powered the radio set which connected them with civilization could dry up within three days or less. So it was critical to get the engine started and keep home informed of where they were. “All our attempts to re-start the engine failed. I got really scared.”
From June 13 to 16 Priyantha made contact with land. The final distress call was made on June 16.
“After that the radio set could not be used. The battery was dead. We were hopeful the vessels passing by will see us and that we will be rescued.”
But Mahesh would never have foreseen the ordeal which he was about to undergo. “Priyantha made a sail out of cloth and we wanted to drift towards land using wind power. Our target was nearby Cesar island, even that was far off. We could not allow the currants to decide our fate. We travelled like this for about one and half months without any success. Then we were drifted near Somali waters. Two Malaysian vessels passed by but they did not respond to our distress call.” This maritime passage is infested by fierce Somali pirates and the merchant vessels steer clear of any unidentified smaller boats for the fear of high jacking.
“We were devastated.”
At one point we were drifting towards Iran and Pakistan waters. We were kind of going in circles.” Then there was a huge storm. Our boat could not bear the impact of the storm. We were all hurdled up in the cabin. Priyantha went to the dock to attend to something. Then a huge wave crashed and we saw him being washed over board.
“We could not do anything but stare in disbelief.”
The four of us were distraught but we decided that we have to face this together.
Food stocks that we brought from land finished about a month ago. Then we had to rely on raw fish. There was no problem with catching fish. There were plenty of them around the boat.
We became very weak. By this time the boat started to drift towards the Maldives. About 10-12 days ago we finished our last stock of water. All of us became very weak thereafter. Some were crippled.
I could not walk too. Then, the rest of the crew started to perish one by one in front of Mahesh’s eyes. Mahesh recited his story as if the dreadful experience, isolation at sea and the feeling of near death had drained out all his emotions.
First to die
His narration of how his team-mates met their frightful fate due to malnutrition and dehydration came out as if he was reading out a memo on a notice board.
The first to die was Amal. We carried his body and hauled it to the sea. “We discussed that we should go out of the cabin to die. We were so weak that we could not carry the dead bodies to be thrown out into the sea.”
Then we discussed that whoever survived the odeal must tell the families how each person died.
Then it was Ranjith’s turn to leave us. The last was Nimal. I was very weak by then. I was waiting for my fate. I thought everything will be over soon. “I never thought I will survive.”
About half an hour after Nimal died, it began raining. It was a miracle. I was able to regain my strength after drinking rain water. For five days after Nimal’s death I was drifting in the boat alone. “When it rained, I got new hope. I thought I will survive and this thought gave me new strength.”
Mahesh was rescued by two Maldivian fishing boats while he was drifting 350 km south of Male, close to the Thinadhoo islet. After the final distress call to the vessel owner Nalin on June 16, he contacted the Fisheries Ministry to get help to rescue the boat and the fishermen.
He told the Sunday Observer that he was ready to spend any amount to get the fishermen alive home. He had also posted an SOS on websites seeking help from overseas.
“This is the only multiduty fishing vessel I own. It cost me nearly Rs. eight million. But I was not thinking about that all the while. I am so glad that Mahesh survived. I feel sad about the fate of others.
Assistant Director Monitoring, Controlling and Surveillance Unit of the Fisheries Department Lal Silva said that soon after the boat went missing they alerted a number of countries within the region including Somalia, Diego Garcia and Yemen through the network of our foreign Missions.
Some of these countries including Diego Garcia through their Commonwealth office in London later conveyed that their search and rescue operations did not find a vessel of a similar description.
This could be because strong currants had taken the boat in different directions.
When the boat with Mahesh surfaced after nearly four months since it went missing the Maldivian Fisheries Minister contacted Minister Rajitha Senaratne to inform him of the incident and arrangements were made to bring him home.
Mahesh who spent three days in hospital was flown to Colombo and arrived at BIA 11.10 am on Wednesday. Despite the long ordeal at sea doctors say his health has not suffered much. However, his food intake has slowed down.
The airfare for his journey was borne by the Fisheries Department .The Assistant Director said the Ministry with the help of the Sri Lankan mission in Maldives will be taking action to help the owner to bring the vessel home after necessary repairs. Discussions to retrieve the vessel was going on when this paper went to press.