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Rhian Salmon and Andy Whittaker, British nationals, relate their personal experience during the February, 2010 tsunami...

'It looks as if there are houses floating': The dream voyage that became a tsunami nightmare for one couple

12 June 2010


In January this year, British couple Rhian Salmon and Andy Whittaker embarked on the trip of a lifetime. In their yacht Zephyrus, Rhian, 35, an environmental scientist, and Andy, 36, a former Royal Marine and Antarctic guide, planned to sail from Chile to New Zealand. Their first port of call was the volcanic paradise of Robinson Crusoe Island, 400 miles off the South American coast, where they spent a week moored beside the idyllic village of San Juan Bautista. In the early hours of 27 February, the day they were due to set sail again, a devastating earthquake struck Chile, and unleashed a massive tsunami westwards across the Pacific. Robinson Crusoe Island was directly in its path. This is Rhian’s account of the moment the wave struck.

The motion of the boat is strange tonight; I can’t sleep. She’s rocking forwards and backwards – not the uncomfortable side-to-side 'yaw' we’ve been accustomed to all week. There are gurgling noises, so I close the toilet and sink drains, and check our position outside. We’re still in the same spot, moored in the quieter and less inhabited east side of Cumberland Bay some 150 metres from the shore.

We’re tied to a mooring buoy, courtesy of the Chilean Navy, I guess. It’s a huge block of concrete resting on the sea floor, attached to a long line of heavy chain, designed to hold ships several times our size. Andy dived down and inspected it on our first day here a week ago – it’s more secure than an anchor and much easier to arrive at and leave from.

At 4am the boat starts rocking violently. We jump up, Andy checks the ropes… behind us it looks as if we’re flying through the water, although we’re still tied firm at the bow. The water is rushing under our boat – only later do we realise this is the wave racing into shore.

Then an almighty roar, resonating around the bay. ‘Oh my God,’ I hear Andy outside. ‘It looks as if there are houses floating. There’s been a landslide.’ He asks me to start untying the dinghy – he’s not going out in that, surely? I’m outside now. Water is flying past us in big whirls, carrying trees and what looks like roofs. It’s a really dark night, but we think the hill right by us has collapsed.

The water is now soaring back towards the open ocean, carrying with it all objects in its path. We hear cries and calls from people on the roofs and trapped in the two- and three-storey houses which fly past us. We shine head torches and lights towards the voices. ‘Swim to the yacht, swim to the yacht,’ Andy is shouting at top volume in Spanish. Thank God he’s got the sense not to 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 such as this has a volunteer rescue team? But there’s no one here, just people shouting, and us. Now there are a few flashlights from people on shore cutting through the dark. But where are the emergency services? We call up on the radio. At first no one replies, then, eventually, gradually, more lights start appearing on shore.

Next thing Andy has reached over the side and pulled a boy on to the deck. Pablo, age 14, shivering, covered in oil and cuts, 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 on deck, searching for his family. I put the kettle on, and then immediately off again as we’re surrounded by strong fumes – petrol, diesel. Later there is a strong noise of gas hissing from gas bottles that have been ripped from the houses they used to supply.

Another boy climbs on board. He’s older, late teens, strong and wants to save people. The boys are 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 hard on its mooring. Andy and the two boys are fending the boat off – one of them wants to jump on and start it but none of them knows how. On the other side a rooftop is pushing up against us, and next to it a whole 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 on the top floor of a floating house. They see us and start to swim. We throw a rope to them and they grab it on the third try. 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. The older teenager with us wants to jump in and swim to them. This time we manage to dissuade him. (Later he’ll go swimming again, and thankfully return.)

An empty inflated Zodiac dinghy has drifted up to us. Andy ties it on: we can use that somehow, we have an outboard engine we could put on it. The boys start focusing 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 wants to go outside. OK, as long as she stays with me.

‘This was no landslide. This was a wave, a huge wave. The whole town front
has been wiped out, gone’

We’re out there for a while, calling, talking, listening to the cries. Then Pablo joins me and Francisca in the cockpit. Good news, he’s found his family – they’re alive. He talks with Francisca: who is she, who was she with, where were they living? I’m surprised he doesn’t know her, but it seems her family are visitors to the island. Bless her, she’s trying so hard to stay awake but her little body is exhausted. We’re telling the radio, shouting to other 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, who is Pablo’s uncle, is completely naked and freezing. As I find him clothes, the two boys join him to help search for survivors and three other people join us from the fishing boat. It’s Francisca’s family: joy! Her mother, her father, her brother. Dear God, thank you. Yes, they confirm, this is their whole family. They huddle in one big hug in our cockpit.

We get the children dry and into bed. Blankets, jumpers, hats, socks – they’re all so cold. Now the mum too. Talking…sleeping…talking… The father, Alex, is strong and warm now, working with Andy outside. They’re hacking away at the trees that are tangled up in our mooring. Trees, ropes, all sorts of debris. But the mooring is still holding.

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. The sea is calmer now. We feel safe on the boat, in the bay, but there are still cries and calls all around. How far did this thing reach? Gradually we start piecing together the night. This was no landslide. This was a wave, a huge wave.

And the calls and shouts continue in the distance.

Time passes.

Waiting for dawn.

Time passes. More shouts, lights, calls.

As dawn approaches we start to digest the damage. The whole town front has been wiped out, gone. The navy boat that floated past is wrecked on the rocks. Our friend Pedro had a beautiful house right on the water. Two storeys, modern design, light, open plan, wood and stone, his home and his business – a hostel, a bar, a meeting place. Pedro’s house is gone. Not there. The shops where I bought supplies yesterday. Gone. The Navy didn’t answer because they were hit too; their base destroyed and their boat washed on to the shore. The whole bay is a wreck. People’s lives too – but it’s only later that I start thinking about that.

From a distance it seems that the wave must have reached 70 or 80 metres inland. Alex’s family cabaña was situated at a height of about 20 metres, so we know it reached at least this far up. Thankfully the island is steep, so many houses are above this level. Still, it seems the ‘main drag’ was hit – including all public offices, the school, many houses, many shops, the town square.

A rooftop is pushing up against us, and next to it a whole house. ‘I’m holding back a house,’ says Andy

Clearly we’re not leaving today. We want to stay, we need to stay. We want to help. It’s an unspoken given. But then the Navy calls us on the radio. There has been news from Valparaiso on mainland Chile: another wave is coming. The whole town is being evacuated to higher ground, and we need to leave.

The family choose to be taken around the corner, to a hostel on a hill. A plan is quickly devised: we’ll take them near the hostel, then they can go on in the Zodiac dinghy.

Sail covers off, loose items strapped down, engine started, mooring lines let free, then careful navigation through debris in the bay. We motor around the corner, finally get the Zodiac outboard to start, the family get in the dinghy, they’re off. They’re safe. We’re safe. It’s over. We watch them head for safety, then watch in horror as the outboard stops running. Alex can’t get it started. They are drifting again, no oars, helpless.

We drive our boat back to them and tow them a bit closer to the shore. Then we pass over the oars and I climb into the dinghy too. Alex rows us all to land, they climb out, then I row back – ever aware that a second wave could be pummelling towards us.

Climb back on board, grab oars, ditch dinghy, ditch outboard and get away from land. This is insane, but at least they are safe. I see them waving from the rocks. I feel like we’re running away, cowards. The only people able to leave. I don’t want to leave, but we only endanger ourselves and others by staying.

We stay in radio contact with the Navy for about six miles. They ask us to go ten miles offshore, or 150 metres depth. We also hear our friend Pedro on the radio. He and his family are safe back on the shore: we will try to e-mail his brother with the news.

As the sun comes up we see the full extent of the wreckage. I can’t get that image out of my mind. The school, the gym, the bakery, naval station, library, houses and shops have simply been washed away. It looks as if most of the town centre has disappeared.

I desperately want to go back. So does Andy. We have reached the ten-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 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, putting roofs over heads, feeding families. Emergency response. And grief. Definitely not a time for visitors.

Ten miles offshore, the winds and seas are pushing us on course for Isla de Pascua (Easter Island), 1,629 miles away. We make the decision with our heads, our hearts screaming in defiance, and set the sails to head west.


The second wave never came, but Cumberland Bay lost 136 of its nearly 400 houses. At least 12 local people died and six are still listed as missing. Across Chile, the powerful earthquake, which measured 8.8 on the Richter scale, damaged an estimated 500,000 homes and killed around 500 people. In Cumberland Bay alone the damage has been estimated at £21 million, and an appeal has been launched to rebuild the local school. Rhian has donated her fee for writing this piece to the appeal. If you would like to contribute go to: colegioinsularrobisoncrusoe.com/index.html

Rhian and Andy are now on their way to New Zealand. You can follow their progress at smilingfootprints.com