Wednesday, September 12, 2007

EXCLUSIVE: Holiday hell

It is a holiday photograph familiar to many, one that you'll find in many family albums, a shot that brothers and sisters will pore over after Sunday lunch as they laugh and remember the good times they've just had on their trip away to the sun. The promise of fun, relaxation, sea, surf and good weather lure sun-worshippers away every year and most return with happy tales to tell.


However, for one Irish holiday-maker and his girlfriend, it was to turn into the holiday from hell. One that they were lucky to survive.


Three days into a break away in sunny Dubrovnik, Terence McDanger (31) and his girlfriend Persephone Van Dyke (45), decided to avail of one of the many boat trips on offer to the nearby trinity of islands off the coast of southern Croatia.

"It looked like it would be a lovely day-trip away," said McDanger, safely moored at his home in north county Dublin. "They made it sound so easy, just pay some money, get on a boat and off you go. Little did we realise what was going to happen."


The first inkling that all was not well became apparent when instead of the shiny, modern and sleek boat photographed in the brochures they had been shown, a small rickety-looking vessel turned up to ferry them to the island. It was a bad omen for the day.

"It looked like we'd become the victims of false advertising," McDanger added sagely. "It was just a little tug boat really. If I'd wanted a tug, I'd have asked for it."

With some reservations, the holiday-makers, about thirteen in all, stepped onto the rocking vessel and chugged slowly out to sea. As they took a last look back at civilisation shrinking behind them on the shore, many didn't realise how long it would be before they saw it again, or the brush with disaster they would have to endure before setting foot on the sweet sanctuary of its lands once more. The expectation was for calm, soothing seas and a day of relaxation, but it wouldn't turn out like that at all.

McDanger takes up the story once more.


"We got to the first of the three islands without much trouble. The sea was slightly choppy and some water splashed over the side of the boat and wet us, but we expected the water to be wet so that was ok.

"Apart from a small surprise burp that turned into one of those little mini-vomits about half-way over, I was pretty much alright. Nobody noticed and I took a drink of water and was ok, although Persephone was getting worried about her hair being made frizzy by the breeze and salt water. She looked a bit like Einstein after getting out of bed actually which I laughed at."


There was further disquiet when the captain of the boat, a swarthy Mediterranean type with stubble, greasy hair and a pirate's earring, announced that the planned trip to panorama the old city walls had been abandoned because of rough seas.

"We were quick to put two and two together," said McDanger. "Rough seas meant trouble. But things didn't seem too bad so we said nothing. There was no point in organising a mutiny or anything."


After a short stay on the first island, the group were transferred to a larger vessel for ferrying to the next stop. Although this boat looked more secure, the passengers were still far from becalmed.

"Okay, so we got a larger boat for ferrying to the next stop. Although this boat looked more secure passengers were still far from becalmed," McDanger echoed eerily.

The group pulled into the harbour of the next island with a great degree of difficulty. A much stronger wind had blown up and the captain had problems docking. He quickly announced that plans to have lunch on this island had been abandoned. It was too windy. The group would go elsewhere for food. The stay would be thirty minutes only. The air was fraught.

"The air was fraught," recalled McDanger. "We unwittingly spoke in short sentences. This is a literary device that raises tensions. We didn't know we were doing it. Had we realised, we'd have stopped. It might have taken the heat out of the situation. But we didn't. I'm sorry for it now. Damn. Bugger."


A windswept and bedraggled group barely had time to recover from the ever-encroaching nausea of the crossing before they were herded back on to the ship by the worried crew, who previously were unruffled and laughing (see picture), but were now looking anxiously to the skies with furrowed brows, stern faces, tightly-clenched jaws and presumably, tensed buttocks also.

As the ship chugged its way to the next island, the reason for the disquiet among the sailors became apparent. The vessel seemed to be in a degree of trouble.

"We were swaying a fair bit, tossing about, rising up and down and tipping from side to side in a sickening motion. Persephone was getting very worried and even though I laughed it off in a suitably manly, seafaring fashion, I too was beginning to get concerned. I was just thankful that the next island wasn't too far away."


After the short but choppy crossing to the next island, the crew docked the boat and fired up a barbeque for some fried chicken and fish. They passed out the plates and as the boat bobbed gently in the sheltered cove, passengers soon forgot their worries as they tucked in and drank the provided wine. After eating, refreshed and relaxed, the group disembarked and wandered off to enjoy the island. But an air of danger still hung over the day for McDanger, who used to joke that if Danger wasn't quite his middle name, it was definitely his surname. But not any more.

"I for one hadn't forgotten the incidental fact that we would have to get back on the boat and sail home later that day. The wine might have dulled the senses of the others but I wasn't so easily fooled. It was calm in the bay, sure, but beyond I just knew instinctively that a raging tempest of epic proportions was whipping up a frenzy on the seas, in preparation to chuck us about the Adriatic like a rubber ducky at the command of a boisterous child in the bath.

"Well, I knew it'd be rough, put it that way."


At approximately 7.30GMT, the group were assembled on the boat for the trip back to the mainland. This would be the longest leg of the journey and as such, the longest stay on the boat at a time of day when the breeze was at its strongest. The crew didn't pull any punches.

"The little scruffy guy with the beard that looked like a tramp told us to sit in the back of the boat. He waved his arms with a worried-looking face and said: 'Dee See. Eets big. Seet here pleese.' We knew we were in trouble then."

The trip home to the mainland was where the real drama ensued. By now the seas were high, the breeze was strong and cold and the little boat was forced to go slower than normal, which is about as fast as a horse and cart if the reader can imagine a horse and cart on the high seas. The boat tilted dangerously at the front and then dipped suddenly as the waves passed under the boat, giving a roller-coaster sensation to the passengers who felt like they might be tipped out. It lurched from side to side as it struggled to stay upright. Worried glances were exchanged as the group on board knew this wasn't normal. Waves of salt water regularly charged over the sides of the boat and drenched all on board. This wasn't what they'd signed up for at all.

"I was eating salt all the way home. It was all around my mouth in a crust like I was a fat greedy kid at the cinema who'd eaten too much popcorn. We were jammed into the boat like sardines, getting saturated. Make that salted sardines. It was extremely frightening. There was no life jackets I could see. I was feeling sick," McDanger explained.

"On more than one occasion I almost tipped out of my seat such was the force of the seas. Luckily, I was able to stabilise myself more than once on the large breasts of the Australian seated beside me. I admit it was irregular but it was like, where will I put my hands? Oh, there's some boobs. Great. She was a real sport about it. Before long, lots of people were falling into her cleavage. Everyone knew it was a team effort and I guess they just pitched in and sacrificed whatever was available to dangle from, body parts or whatever.

"There was a guy with huge flappy ears sitting near the front and people took turns to slot in behind him and use them as handlebars to stay upright. People were grabbing everything and anything to stay in the boat."


As the grasping, huddling group ground its way home, the journey time began to seem interminable. The high waves battering the ship felt like they were forcing the boat backwards instead of forwards, the diesel farts of the engine almost dying every time a swell was encountered. All the while, nausea increased on board and the prospect of an all-in chunder chain among the desperate, clutching passengers reared its head. Most had drank some beers on the last island and there was a definite possibility of a group spew given the churning effect of the seas.

"Man, if one person had barfed, that was it, we'd all have let rip. We didn't really want that. Wet, cold, frustrated, the icing on the cake would have been someone else's dinner all over your pants. I was a bit sick myself I have to say. I just held the breasts of the lady next to me and hoped it would go away.

"There was a girl across from me who had literally gone green, like she was standing in the glow of a green traffic light. She really looked like the damn was about to burst. I leaned over and said: 'Do you feel okay, can I give you a drink of water? Your face is completely green.' She smiled and said she was alright, her face always looked that colour. We all laughed and it helped lift the mood for a minute of two. But not for long."


Gradually, the boat inched its way towards shore. Landmarks on the mainland came into view.

"Yeah, we could see the mainland for ages. But I think we'd have been as well off to turn off the boat's engines and let continental drift get us home, it would have been quicker," McDanger explained with noticeable sarcasm.

"At one stage I thought all the salt water I'd swallowed was making me hallucinate and that the shore was just an illusion. Like, maybe we'd been abducted by the army of an underwater civilisation and were actually sailing unknowingly towards a lifetime of captivity. At one stage, I thought I saw a badger on deck wearing a silk dressing gown and smoking a pipe. All sorts of crazy shit was going through my head."

Slowly, slowly, the boat made its way to the mainland. The utterly bedraggled, soaked and angry passengers, all the while bucking and swaying in unison at the behest of the sea's chuckling conductor, could scarcely wait to get off the boat. Land neared at one stage and hopes rose but alas, the boat was scheduled to dock at another bay and so had to crawl past. It was almost the final blow but the passengers brushed off the disappointment and steeled themselves for yet more endurance on their almost biblical quest.


Finally, over two hours after setting off on its 12km voyage, the hapless M/B Mare spluttered to a halt in the bay of Lapad near Dubrovnik. Passengers destined for the old town were advised to disembark and get a bus home, or else stay in the boat for a further trip. Nobody needed to be told twice to get off, after the most excruciating sea-journey of their lives.

McDanger and his girlfriend were simply happy to see dry land again. Shaken, saturated, stomach lurching, they retired to their hotel room and didn't budge until the nausea dissipated and their appetites returned some hours later. Today they know they are lucky to be alive.

"When I look at the little things that used to annoy me, I smile to myself and am grateful to be here to experience them still," added McDanger. "My friends calling me a cock. Radge getting crotchety and telling me not to read stuff over his shoulder. A Monday fart on the train. Liverpool losing to Everton. Pubes in the shower.

"When I think of all that could have been lost at sea, I am truly thankful."

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