A Tale of Improbability: A Sailor’s Demise

It’s hard to imagine why someone wouldn’t like to travel the world. It’s safe to say everyone who chooses to study abroad most probably enjoy traveling a lot. We know we will be exploring new places and getting to know new people, yet it’s always hard to imagine how a trip will play out. Sure, you can try to plan a little, have a general idea of places you would like to hit, but we usually keep it flexible as we know something might come up, right?

Three years ago I was on a solo trip and I found myself in a situation which certainly shed light on the uncertainties of traveling. I’m sharing this story to remind everyone of us who love the rush of traveling, that anything can happen. 

It was at 9:30 pm on September 5, 2016 when I called 112. I quickly let them know that I do not speak a word of Greek and then took the liberty to explain with the luxury of details what has just unfolded. I gave them our GPS location and was told to wait, as if I had a choice. When it happened I knew we were in for a long night. I always assumed I would experience something like that in my life, it was simply probable. It just never occurred to be it could have been in such a context. 

I asked Masha if she was hungry. I told her “We should eat as much as we possibly can right now, we will need the energy”. I prepared myself the biggest tuna-peach-teriyaki salad I could possibly make, it was a surprisingly good salad. Weird combination, but I was simply trying to eat all the food that was left over as I knew the rest will be thrown away. I sat down with Masha who clearly had a distraught, I-can’t-believe-what-just-happened look on her face. We both proceeded to eat as much as we could. When we finished eating I started gulping down all the Fix Hellas beers that I could, it was all a waiting game now. Stress was building up fast and booze was my way to deal with it.

After about a 30-minute wait, two boats approached us. They were both water taxis from the port which we were sailing to, which was less than 250 meters from where we were. One of them pulled up right next to us so we could talk. At first, we thought they were there to ‘rescue’ us. We were packing our bags while one of the men on the boat asked us what we were doing. I said “I thought we were going with you”, which he quickly replied with a bitter tone “no, you stay right there”. As I clearly misunderstood his intentions, I quickly resorted to cracking open another cold one.

The two boats proceeded to scout the area with high-powered flashlights in hope of finding a glimpse of life. One was looking around the rocky coast while the other was searching in a 150-meter radius around the boat. Not much later a three-man diving rescue group approached our boat and started asking us what happened. They said they were going to dive around the boat and check if they see anything. As they were brainstorming how they could increase the chances of finding him alive I just interrupted and said, “He’s dead”. Immediately one of the divers replied,  “Don’t say that, it’s a man’s life we are talking about here, we can’t say he’s dead unless we find his body”. I replied, “He’s dead, there is no chance”. While this wasn’t to provoke anyone, it did strike some nerves of the dive team.

While the divers were searching, Masha asked me “where are we going to sleep tonight?”. I honestly had no clue. We were supposed to sleep on the boat. It was already in the dead of night so I was thinking maybe arranging a place to stay anywhere near the port was going to be improbable. I did have my tent but somehow what came out of my mouth with a tone of confidence was “They will probably tow the boat to the port, we’ll sleep on the boat”. The truth was that I had no idea what was going to happen. 

Search and Rescue finally arrived after a solid two-and-a-half-hour wait after first calling the emergency line. We were required to go on the Search and Rescue boat, we had to cruise two and a half hours back to Volos, where we had departed from earlier in the day. Port Authority wanted us there for questioning.

We arrived around 2 or 3 in the morning, if I remember correctly. Everyone in the office was obviously sleepy but intrigued and perplexed to the accounts of our story. We were sat down in the same office and continuously asked the same questions by what appeared to be random people just coming in and out of the office. The first hour of what we thought was us being interrogated wasn’t anything official. Simply curious Port Authority staff members coming down to ask us what happened, unprofessional to say the least. 

Finally, one guy comes in who I haven’t seen before. “What happened?” he asked. As I was irked by being asked the same question over and over again I told him, “Don’t you already know?” “But I want to hear it from you,” he said. “Well, I really don’t want to keep repeating this to everyone who walks in here”, I replied. He swiftly replied saying that he was the one who’s going to interrogate us and I should tell him everything. 

Before our interrogation started they remembered about time limits on blood and urine tests so they prepared to rush us to the hospital. We had to be tested for drugs and alcohol, “It’s standard procedure”. We were driven to the local hospital in Volos, no sirens or anything, but they had less than an hour or so to get our samples. While I must have chugged down four liters of beer since the initial call, the stress combined with how much time has passed; made sure I was sober as a judge by the time I got my blood taken.

Waiting to get my blood taken

We get back at Port Authority, and are separated and so begins our exhausting interrogation at five in the morning. What I got asked was basically who I was, how I got to know Masha, why we were in Greece and of course how we got ourselves where we were. 

During my interrogation a call came in on the mobile phone which the cops found on the boat. The interrogating officer picked up and turned on the loudspeaker using a key instead of his fingers. I believe he did this because he didn’t want his fingerprints on the phone or for whatever reason. The lady on the phone was hysterical, begging the officer to tell her that her boyfriend didn’t die. “You’re not family, I can’t tell you anything,” the officer replied. I was thinking how horrible it must be for her, she wasn’t even in the country apparently.

Around noon, we are both let go but not before being accused of being naïve on what we chose to do the day before. Somehow my interrogation was two hours shorter than Masha’s. I think they felt like if it was a crime that took place, I would have been the mastermind while Masha was there to cover for me. The story I’ve been telling prior to the interrogation involved me doing pretty much everything while Masha just sat on the boat. As I understood, she got a grilling and had to be extra detailed when it came to painting the picture of our trip. 

Without putting much effort in making “new” plans, we walked to the rent-a-car agency we were planning to go to the day before. After a 15-minute walk , we got there. We decided to rent a car for a single day at €72, drove to a beach 30 minutes outside of Volos. The idea was to take a refreshing dip in the sea – we immediately fell asleep in the car instead. 

Now you are wondering, what was the prelude to what I just wrote. Here goes.

I was on a road-trip with a few friends of mine. After driving through St. Petersburg, Moscow and Kiev, we arrived in Odessa, Ukraine. Here is where I decided to Tinder some friends. As cheesy as Tinder might be, I found it great to meet people you might be interested in while traveling abroad, especially when you don’t have much time on your hands.

There, I matched with this one girl, Masha. We hit it off right away while texting and we wanted to meet. Just one problem, I was leaving the next day to Chisinau and she’s one town over. I left Ukraine without meeting her, but we kept talking as the conversation was both interesting and flowing freely. After a few days of texting her, I jokingly(?) told her to come visit me in Greece, as I would be there in 2-3 weeks. I was really skeptical when she told me she would. I stayed optimistic and planned for her arrival.

I got to Thessaloniki by train from Sofia at night, then took a bus to the airport. I slept there and waited for Masha’s plane which was coming in early in the morning. Somehow I was still surprised after she walked out of the arrivals hall. Somehow who I’ve met over the internet three weeks ago, actually flew out to come and see me. We rented a car and made our way to Halkidiki. We spent a few days traveling the three peninsulas, discovering a bunch of wild and secluded beaches. It was a fun time. After we were done with Halkidiki, her flight was five days away, leaving from Athens and mine was in six, also leaving from the capital. We agreed that spending all those days in Athens would be too much. We figured we could do something similar as we did in Halkidiki: rent a car, drive around to find marvelous places for a dip and camp in olive groves.

There are many olive groves in Greece where you can drive in at night and set up your tent.

 I looked at the map and found a place called Volos that seemed really promising. It had a small port-city and a peninsula we could drive to in less than two hours. Without much further research, we decided to go for it and took the next train out. On the train, I made a few phone calls to car-rental agencies and I found one that is within walking distance from the train station.

We got off the train at around 6 or 7 pm and started walking. The path we had to walk according to Google Maps brought us along a port where many sailboats were docked.

Volos, Greece

As we were walking down the boardwalk, a man noticed we were travelers as we carrying hiking backpacks and shouted: “Hey, where are you guys sleeping tonight?”. After a bit of confusion, and confirming that he was indeed talking to us we told him about our plans: we were going to rent a car and drive around to look for a place to camp. He offered us to sleep on his boat if we wished. He showed us a book where many of his previous guests had written something inside for him. I studied the book and indeed it seemed as if many travelers have stayed on his boat before. Yes, the dozens of different handwritings and messages could have been faked, but it really didn’t look so. After some contemplation, I thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea. After all, it was already dark, so renting a car today would be a waste of money as there were no beaches to be discovered that night. We decide to sleep on his boat and early in the morning we would rent the car instead, that would save us a night of car rental and we could even take shower!

He introduced himself as Carlos and then he introduced his small, fluffy white dog. “His name is King Louis, don’t just say Louis, he understands! His name is King Louise!” he said. What I noticed was that Carlos honestly looked like a wreck. He had torn shorts, had no shirt on, was walking around barefoot but his boat was really nice. Carlos gave us a small tour of the boat and showed us where we would be sleeping. The inside of the boat was much bigger than it looked like from the outside.

King Louise the dog

I was honestly curious how this guy got to boat. The way he was acting does not come over as someone …who could afford such a boat. I started asking questions when he explained that he’s not the actual owner of the boat. It’s actually his job to take care of it in between rentals. Still, I found it a bit odd. I was perhaps judging a book by its cover. Nonetheless from his first impression, he was not someone I would hire to keep an eye on a half a million euro sailboat.

Carlos asked us if we wanted to drink some beer, the second I said yes he said “be right back” and went for a beer run. He came back with a six-pack of Fix Hellas and a few  moments later he orders food from the restaurant across. We had our dinner, and for a moment we were all just at complete easy. The boat rocking us gently, the relaxing sound of small waves crashing into the pier, nothing couldn’t bother us at this point. A few moments later, Carlos got up and said that he will go and come back without giving much explanation. I don’t even know how this is possible but within 20 minutes he comes back visibly inebriated, he was smasheddd. The stench of alcohol on his breath smelled from a mile away. He proposed that we go in the city for some drinks. We thought why not, and walked 10 minutes to the center where we bar hopped a few times. At every single bar, he ordered us Mojitos, which was his favorite drink. Carlos always insisted on paying, no matter how much we wanted to return the favor he kept saying, “with me, you never pay.” He enjoyed pointing out that “money is just paper”.

During the course of this night, while we were all getting pretty drunk, Carlos was started getting a bit emotional. He rambled about how he has no family, his daughter only calls him when she feels like it. He also told us he has three different types of terminal cancers and that his days are counted. He explained he had skin and lung cancer but didn’t disclose what his third one was. This guy was smoking from what I had estimated to be around two packs of cigarettes a day. He also clearly had issues with his skin, I knew he wasn’t lying about the severity of his disease. While in town we passed twice in front of a church, where Carlos crossed himself each time, saying a few words about having respect for God. When we were at the third bar, Carlos suggested we head back to the boat as alcohol was getting the best out of him. I tried not to think much about him getting so emotional. Masha and me went to bed soon after that.

We woke up in the morning and we started to prepare to leave. Carlos asked us “Do you guys want to go sailing?” I understood that this might not be the brightest idea ever, going sailing with a complete stranger. But this guy seemed genuine, I had a good feeling about his intentions and even if he had anything up his sleeve, he appeared quite fragile, in the sense that I could physically overpower him. And hey, someone is offering take us on a cruise to a Greek island on a half a million euro sailboat, let’s fucking do it.

Locally owned produce shop in downtown Volos

Before we set sail he told us that we need to stock up on groceries, clean the boat and fill the water tanks.  We bought all our groceries at small, family-owned shops throughout downtown, he explained he wanted to support local families instead of making someone rich. We only bought food that didn’t require any cooking. He simply wanted to keep the kitchen as clean as possible for the next guests, so we planned on having plenty of salads. I noticed Carlos didn’t use a wallet: he just keeps his money in his pockets. Kind of odd I thought, but I didn’t think much about it. 

We got back to the boat and I realized I can plug my phone into the speaker system. I asked Carlos for permission, and he told me I’m more than welcome to play anything I want. He’s been only listening to the radio and he’s not very fond of it. I opened up Spotify and started blasting my 200+ reggae songs playlist. This really got Carlos in a good mood. He told us how grateful he was to have us there and that all the songs that I was playing were bringing back memories. He didn’t hear many of the songs for years. We sang along to songs like Kokomo and Red Red Wine. Carlos had to laugh when “It’s a Pity” was playing. “It’s a pity, you already have a wife? Haha, what a song” Carlos said. The vibe on the boat was mellow and soul soothing.

The time came and we finally sailed off.  Before going to the island Carlos wanted to make a quick stop at a nearby beach where one of his friends had a bar.

Salads are nice

We got there, anchored the boat and we pulled the dinghy from the top of the roof onto the water. We got on the dinghy and headed to the beach, we walked up to the bar and ordered, you guessed it, a few Mojitos. Suddenly Carlos gets called and is told that he has a job back at the port in Volos. He said “sorry guys business is business, but I have to go there and help someone with his boat for a bit,” he promised it wouldn’t take long. As non paying customers, we couldn’t really say anything so went along.  Carlos said we didn’t have to get the dinghy out of the boat as we will need it later so we should simply pull the dinghy behind the boat.

Pulling the dinghy

We get back to the port, Carlos does his thing and when we were ready to leave again it was just a few hours before sunset. Carlos actually let me steer the boat as he passed out for a bit.

Selfie

He had me follow the path the GPS marked, simple enough. After a few hours we were getting close to our destination as Carlos woke back up. Where we were sailing to was just ‘around the corner’, which was actually around a small rocky island. This small island has a second much smaller island which was actually a big ass rock in the water about 200 meters off of it.

I asked Carlos if I should go around or in between. I gave him a read on the depth finder and he tells me to go in between saying “normally you go around.” I took a look at the depth finder once again and saw how it read 12m but then suddenly changed to 7m, 5m, 2m, 0.5m in a matter of seconds. The seafloor between the island and the rock was actually pretty shallow. While sailing at an almost full speed we abruptly came to a complete stop after hitting the seafloor. Carlos was seriously concerned about the potential of the boat sinking, he asked me to help open the floorboards to check for leaks. Fortunately, there weren’t any. He tries to reverse the boat and amazingly it easily does. He takes back command of the boat and we sail around to the dock we were heading. Carlos was not in an easy mood, he really felt like he fucked up. He knew the bottom of the boat was all messed up and he’s responsible for it. All of this happened when the sun had already set a good 15 minutes before. The only things which made things visible now were the moonlight and the few lights we had on-board.

The orange arrow is the path we tried to take to get to the red star

About 20 minutes after hitting the seafloor we were suddenly only a 150 meters from the port. The sea was pretty flat, with almost no waves or wind. While conditions weren’t bad, except for a lack of light, Carlos had a hard time looking around. He was a bit drunk and had poor vision.  He tried to get close to the dock before realizing he was coming in from the wrong direction as the entrance to the dock was actually from the north and not from the south. He quickly turned the boat around for a second go. As he was doing the go-around the boat engine suddenly stopped. 

Carlos looked back and realized the rope which was pulling the dinghy got tangled in the propeller. Even though the wind was soft it was still blowing the boat in the direction of the island. He got worried by the possibility of the boat hitting the pier, the rocky shore, or other already docked, rather expensive, boats. He was visibly shaken as to how much more he could fuck up in one night, but somehow still acted with confidence. Carlos quickly asked me to grab him a knife from downstairs along with a pair of goggles. I handed them over while he jumped in the cold water along with a waterproof flashlight to save the night. He dove to the underside of the boat, I could see rays of light from his flashlight coming from beneath the boat. Carlos surfaced asking for another knife, the one he had was dull. I ran back inside, got another one and went back to the edge of the boat to hand it to him. He quickly took another lunge to the underside of the boat. 

No one ever saw him every again. 

“Is this really happening?” I asked myself. I looked at Masha and she knew at the look on my face that something was wrong. I was looking around the boat to see if I could see Carlos. I thought maybe he might have wanted to escape because he ruined the boat and didn’t want to pay for it. I was just making things up. But I knew that this man could not possibly hold his breath for more than 30 seconds and that made me conclude that he was fucking dead at that point. I just knew it right away. Meanwhile the dog sensed the same vibe and starts walking around the edge of the boat looking for him. King Louise was panicking. That’s when I grabbed my phone and dialed the three digits.

I got an epiphany. Having realized that I’m in that situation because of pure chance, made me feel completely detached from an idea I previously perceived as a concrete fact: that I’m in control of my life. Just kept asking myself “how the fuck did I get here?” before I heard the voice of responder through my phone.     

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