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The One That Got Away: A Survivor's Tale

Tsunami Exacts Fearful Toll On Sri Lankan Fisherman

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 18, 2005; Page C01

BENTOTA, Sri Lanka -- The one-eyed fisherman sits, balanced between sea and sky, his feet in a canoe fashioned from a hollowed-out log. The wind is picking up, the lagoon beneath him rocking up and down, up down. He is old and he rolls with it as a jockey does with a galloping horse. Steady now. Steady.

He is alone on this inlet, the ocean perhaps a quarter-mile away. The current beneath him is deep, fast and strong. The sun blazes crystal yellow overhead. The ocean pours into the lagoon through a 200-yard gash the tsunami tore through a narrow barrier peninsula that once blocked the waterway from the sea.

Since the tsunami, W.M. Douglas fishes in a once-protected lagoon, afraid to venture into the ocean. (Neely Tucker -- The Washington Post)

Now he can see whitecaps on the ocean from this spot, even from the door of his small house alongside the lagoon's shore. For the first time in his half-century on the sea, the view frightens him.

"The wave," the old man says, gesturing to the sea. "You do not know when it is coming back."

W.M. Douglas is 64 years old, he is very poor, he has been a fisherman since he was a teenager, and he is extraordinarily lucky to be alive. As the days go by, the toll exacted by the Dec. 26 tsunami on the men who fish the sea here is becoming terribly clear.

The United Nations office in Sri Lanka reported late last week that at least 7,500 of the nation's 30,000 people killed by the wave were fishermen. Another 5,600 are missing. The vast majority of those will be added to the list of the fatalities when their families give up hope. At least 18,500 boats were damaged or destroyed, some 80 percent of the nation's fishing fleet. Small-timers like Douglas barely even show up on such counts.

"This will hit already poor families hard, because fishing is what supports people in coast communities and what keeps them out of poverty," Miguel Bermeo, the U.N's director in Sri Lanka, told reporters last week.

There are survivors. There are always survivors. But what are they to do?

The stories of men who work on the ocean are as ancient as the Greeks and their wine-dark sea, as Jonah and his biblical whale, as Captain Ahab and the fatal pursuit of his white one. It retains its fascination to modern storytellers, from Hemingway and his old Cuban fisherman -- of whom Douglas could be an Indian Ocean model -- to the modern cinema of "The Perfect Storm." The theme of any and all of these stories is man's fragility before the forces of nature, the most terrible of these being the sea enraged. Douglas's boat is a carved-out section of a breadfruit tree. It is perhaps 10 feet long, 10 inches deep and no wider than the span of a grown man's hand outstretched from forefinger to thumb. He perches his hips on the upper edges because it is too narrow for him to sit down inside.

Two sticks are lashed with twine to the fore and aft midsections of the boat, and these sticks extend several feet off to the right, where they are lashed to a slender log that rides parallel to the body of the boat. This is its balancing beam, an outrigger that makes the craft part canoe and part catamaran. The oar is a hewn plank. Such dugouts are perhaps the most ancient of sea-going craft.

He pushes off in the late morning into the lagoon's current, riding high and easy.

Douglas lives along the northern shore of a lagoon just outside of Bentota, a fishing town on the country's southwestern coast. At the city's natural harbor a short distance away, there are commercial fishing boats, the diesel-humming things intended to go out at night, haul up fish by the netload and not come back until daybreak.

Virtually all of those boats are tossed up on the beach now.

On Douglas's side of the lagoon, the streets are packed dirt. They are populated by tiny brick houses, lean-tos, small shops and fishermen who catch fish on a string, one by one. The men live in the shade of palm and banana trees. While the big boats lie helpless on the sand, here is Douglas, a reed-thin, brown-skinned man wearing a sarong, a knit shirt and a baseball cap, pushing out into the wide lagoon, all alone.

"I haven't been in the open ocean since the tsunami," he says to the passenger in the boat next to him as he paddles slowly, a sheepish grin playing out across his weathered skin. "I am afraid of it, to tell you the truth. My family, they are afraid for me to be out there. So I come here" -- he gestures to the lagoon -- "and fish for a few hours instead."

It was a matter of luck and geography that he and his boat survived the tsunami. That they did so without a scratch, he says, is divine intervention.

The waves came the morning after a full moon.

He and his family had gone to the nearby Hindu temple to pray that morning as they did each such lunar cycle. At 9:30 a.m., when the waves slammed ashore, they were protected by the barrier peninsula, the lagoon and half a mile of the mainland. Douglas, his wife, and all five of their grown children survived fine. His house and his boat took minor damage. Any other day of the lunar cycle, he would have been 300, 400 yards out into the ocean.

"No one would have ever seen me again," he says.

It wasn't even the first time he should have died, he says. Because all fishermen have stories, this leads to the tale of his empty eye socket.

Thirty, thirty-five years ago, there was this mob fight between hundreds of men from two local villages. He remembers it as being about a woman.

He leapt into the fray. The police came. Shots were fired. One bullet entered the back of his skull at the base -- he bows his head to show the scar as proof -- and the bullet emerged through his left eye.

"I was surprised," he says.

So was everyone else when he walked out of the hospital two years later. He was fine except for the fact that he couldn't open his mouth much.

So here he is in the sunshine, between the impoverished side of the lagoon and the affluence of the tourist hotels on the other, because it happened that way, and because luck counts, too.

But in these quiet days on the water, he concedes that the fishermen who survived are skittish. These are impoverished men who do not have as much as a barometer. They determine the safety of their enterprise by sight and feel.

Now, he says, shaking his head, "The sea is different. There's too much salt in the water. The current is wrong. I have been fishing the ocean for 50 years, ever since I was 14. I was never even capsized, because I know the water and the weather."

With a few strokes he moves farther into water and lets his boat drift in the current. He has two rods. Each is a thin shaft of wood that looks like a bamboo reed. Twenty or 30 feet of fishing wire are tied to the end. He pulls the end of the wire to him and ties a knot to the hook.

Then he reaches into the small tin bucket, punctured with holes, that is tied to the boat and floats at his side. It is called a paha. Swimming around in the bucket are the tiny shrimp he uses for bait. He grabs one, ties it on and lets the line slip into the water.

He is in mid-current when the line dips once, twice and then hard. He pulls it up. A slippery silver streak of fish appears on the other end. He reaches out with the paddle and slaps it on the head.

"Atawala," he says, giving the local name of the fish.

He doesn't need a scale to know it weighs about a pound and a half. On an average day, it would net him about $1.50.

But so many people died in the ocean that there is now little market for seafood. People think the fish ate the bodies of the dead. There are daily articles in the local paper quoting scientists saying this is not so -- there was even a chart of what local fish do and do not feed on -- and still fresh fish rots in the markets.

"People are frightened," he says.

He drops the fish beneath his feet on the bottom of the boat.

One fish. He needs several more before he can go in. You have to eat to survive. The water laps at the boat. The hours pass.

In the late afternoon, he will turn and paddle to the shore, away from the open sea, to his wife and children in the house beneath the palm trees.

It is another evening, no more and no less. It is what is left to survivors; it is what Heaven has allowed.

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