KOTA KINABALU: A strong smell of Tiger Balm broke a streak of bad luck for survivors Tommy Lam Wai Yin and three others as they drifted past at least 25 ships in the South China Sea and none of them sighting or helping them.
They were so close to hitting land off Kota Belud and later Labuan but winds pushed them away in their nine-day ordeal that ended with a poaching Vietnamese fishing boat rescuing them in the waters off Layang Layang.
â€œI had given up hope on the eighth day. I told the others to prepare for death. I prayed to my grandmother asking her for help. I promised that I will be good and take care of her great-grandchildren,” said the father of two in an interview with select media.
â€œIâ€™m an atheist but now I believe thereâ€™s definitely a higher power,â€ he said Monday as he slowly recovered from the nightmare following his return with Spaniards David Hernandes Gasulla, 29, Martha Miguel, 30, and resort worker Armella Ali Hassan, 23.
The four were picked up by Malaysian coastguards from the Vietnamese and brought here on May 12.
Lam, 44, said that after the prayer, he smelled a strong whiff of Tiger Balm (a mint-scented ointment meant for joint pains and breathing problems) on the eighth night and thought it was a sign.
â€œI asked Martha if she could smell it too, and she said yes, so I thought someone must have done something or put some kind of spell on this boat or perhaps it was a good omenâ€ he said, adding that he then prayed to his grandmother for help again.
â€œThe next morning, I saw that Martha was having her period, so I asked her to ‘wash’ the bow of the boat with her menses and urine to cleanse whatever evil spell that may have been put here,â€ he said.
Lam said it was a few hours after that that a Vietnamese fishing vessel noticed them and pulled them on board to safety, ending their nightmare that began while they were on their boat ride back to Simpang Mengayau, on the northern tip of Borneo, from Pulau Balambangan on May 2.
â€œIt was the best feeling in the world because after seeing and missing so many ships at sea, we were losing hope that help would ever come,” he said, adding that “one or two local fishermen just zoomed past” despite their calls for help.
Lam, an avid sea sports enthusiast, said their journey on a new boat from Simpang Mengayau was filled with bad luck from the beginning – when they left the island at about 5.30pm, they were immediately hit by strong waves and changing currents and winds.
â€œA huge wave threw all of us off the boat and we saw it circling before capsizing,â€ Lam said, adding that bad luck continued when he realised that he had not put on the control switch for the boat engine on his wrist.
“I could stop the engine till the boat capsized as I had to save Armella who could not swim,â€ he recalled.
They tried to grab essentials such as drinking water but almost everything was lost.
â€œWhen we finally got the boat right up and climbed inside, we realised that our handphones were soaked and not functioning,â€ he said, adding that the radio equipment was also washed out.
Lam said Armella, who had put her handphone in a waterproof bag in her life jacket, was in panic and did not tell them about it until the third day when the battery was already dead.
“I did not get angry because we had just been spotted by a search plane so I was confident that help was coming,â€ he said.
Lam said they had hoped to be pulled by currents into the Kota Belud area and later Labuan, but the winds blew them in another direction.
“We were about six kilometres from Labuan, and I wanted to swim to shore to get help. I tied a rope around myself but after I got into the water, David and Martha pulled me back because there was a shark around,” he added.
Lam, a Chinese national who is married to Sabahan Carrine Ng, said that when he met his wife at the airport, he just told her “I am sorry” while she cried.
Now, he says he will go back to sea but never pilot the boat by himself.
“Safety will be my stress from now on. All my boats will be equipped with necessary safety features and emergency equipment,” Lam said.