Stroke of luck
By HUGH KEARNEY
"ALL we could see from horizon to horizon was a wall of water five metres high coming towards us."
That was how tsunami survivor Howard Rudd, 52, of Tweed Heads described the scene confronting him and his girlfriend as they headed out on a longtail boat for a day of snorkelling near Phi Phi Island on Boxing Day.
Howard yesterday told of his lucky escape from the deadly wave which devastated coastal areas of countries on the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal.
"I feel I must tell my story because of the overwhelming reaction of family and friends to my wellbeing on my homecoming. They were all genuinely concerned about me," he said.
Howard, a partner in a Tweed spec-home design amd building company, was on a holiday with his Thai girlfriend Chantana, a hairdresser at Patong Beach on Phuket.
The couple were staying at Ah Nang Beach near the mainland town of Krabi, across the bay east of Phuket and had been bartering with one of the longtail boat skippers to take them snorkelling.
The trio headed out towards a popular diving reef about 20 minutes by boat towards Phi Phi.
About 15 minutes into the trip and four kilometres out into the bay, the skipper yelled a warning in Thai.
"Chantana saw it at the same time and translated 'big wave come'," Howard said.
"All we could see from horizon to horizon was a wall of water five metres high coming towards us, an unbroken wall of water.
"We had no idea what it was, how far away it was or how fast it was coming," he said. "It was very, very eerie.
"I thought maybe this was a regular event, because the skipper stayed very calm.
"There was no way around it so I thought we should go back to the beach, but the skipper decided to take it straight on.
"He gunned it towards the wave, handling it like a sweep on a surf boat. We shot up the front of the wave, not knowing what was on the other side, and the skipper cut the revs just at the right moment so it slid down the back.
"I thought it was going to nosedive under the water but it popped up and we went through," Howard said.
Still ignorant of what had happened, the trio then waited for 20 or 30 minutes but no more big waves came, so they headed back to a small mainland village estuary north of Ah Nang.
??What they saw there made Howard realise how lucky they were.
Immediately behind them, a longtail boat carrying five American tourists pulled in to the beach.
"They were in very bad shape, all in shock, their clothes ripped to shreds, their bodies extremely badly cut by coral.
"We went to help them and I realised one of the men was dead."
Howard said the party, including a 16year-old boy, had been at the same reef they were heading to and were in the water snorkelling when the wave hit.
He said the dead man had been knocked unconscious against the coral and could not be revived. All the Americans were taken to hospital suffering serious injuries.
Back at their hotel, Howard heard on television that 150 people had died at Krabi.
Chantana's hairdressing salon at Patong had been completely destroyed and she had relocated to her sister's salon at Udon Thai in northern Thailand.
As the news of the tsunamis devastation filtered in, Howard said he began to realise what a lucky escape he and Chantana had had.
"If we hadn't bartered so long with the longtail skipper, we would have been out on the reef, diving in about a metre or two of water, just like the Americans," he said.