Death at Sea
Interview with Edwin Mark © by Jack Niedenthal
The aluminum boat and the gasoline powered motor might eventually wipe out the traditional outrigger canoe, not just for the Bikinians, but throughout the Pacific islands. The following tale, however, dramatically underlines one basic flaw with this modern advance in island society: When an outboard engine fails, you can't sail home. Edwin Mark told me the story that follows of death on the high seas that involved the former Trust Liaison, Ralph "LaBako" Waltz.
Edwin and I go way back. I answered the phone call from his brother, Ichiro, one April day in 1991 when his father, Mark, died in Honolulu. Strangely, Edwin happened to be sitting in the office at the very moment the telephone rang. As soon as I heard Ichiro's voice on the receiver, I handed the phone over to Edwin. Then, as Ichiro revealed to Edwin that his father had passed away, I watched the the husky, forty-year-old man frown like a small child.
I was living on Kili in 1985 when Ichiro Mark knocked on the door of my shack to tell me that my own father was sick. I recall how softly he spoke when he told me that he had just received a call on the radio. He explained that my mother had contacted a friend of mine in Majuro and requested that he find me to say that I should fly to Majuro right away and call home; he said something was wrong with my father. I quickly surmised that if my mother had taken the trouble to send this message to me on Kili, that my father was probably dying. At the time, I hadn't seen my father in four years, which is a regret that I shall always harbor against my having stayed for so long in the islands. Knowing that my father was gravely ill, I still had to wait three days for an airplane to pick me up on Kili. Finally, I flew into the capital city, rushed to the satellite station and called home. My mother told me that my father had slipped into a coma and had died the day before.
That day in my office I told Edwin the story of my own father's death, what it felt like to be so far away from him when he died. After our exchange he started hanging around the office quite a bit. One day he told me the tale that follows, which I recorded on a micro-cassette. The story of this infamous adventure is now, and always will be, part of Bikinian modern day legend.
On that particular day, Edwin came to our former Liaison office early in the morning. For some unexplainable reason, Edwin always used to sit on my black filing cabinet by the door. Accordingly, after the big man entered the room, he cleared away the magazines on the cabinet and sat down. While we briefly reminisced about the American character in the story, LaBako [Ralph Waltz], I prepared the micro-cassette recorder for our session.
Ralph had lived and worked on Kili originally as a Peace Corps volunteer, and then later as a teacher, from 1967-1972. The reason the Bikinians called Ralph "LaBako", which, when translated, literally means "shark-man", was mainly due to his size--he was well over 6 feet tall and over 200 pounds in weight--and, while living on Kili, he was also known for his propensity to go fishing. He almost always came back with a decent catch--something the islanders greatly admired about the man.
I asked Edwin to tell me exactly where he was, and what he was doing, when the idea came about to venture out to sea with LaBako on that fateful day.
"Well, I was just sitting in front of my house on a Friday morning, I guess it was in the early 1970's, and I remember seeing LaBako walking around the island asking various men to go fishing with him. He was always fishing, fishing, fishing--and he was good at it--that was what we thought was unusual about him: an American that knew how to fish by using many different Marshallese methods. We always liked to go with him because he was entertaining, he always made us laugh, and because he spoke Marshallese so well. I decided to go along with him on this particular day and so did Jerry, Netab and Lee.
"Finished with their coffee, Jerry and Netab filled some plastic containers with gas from an uninhabited area on Kili, where we stored our fuel in those days so it remained as far away from the children as possible. After filling the containers they returned to the lagoon side where the rest of us were waiting to put the boat in the water. It was still early in the morning when we shoved off from the shore. The boat was about twenty feet long and it had a 25 horsepower Johnson engine. Immediately, two waves hit us pretty hard. Regardless of this warning, we continued out to sea.
"It was about mid-morning. We were trolling along the ocean side of Kili, which was still very clearly in sight, when we came across a wonak [a flock of birds feeding on a school of fish]. We quickly maneuvered our boat through the birds and caught quite a few fish--maybe ten tuna. After we had the fish stowed aboard the boat we turned into the waves towards another wonak. All of a sudden a huge wave rolled directly into us. It lifted the boat up--what felt like ten or twelve feet--and then we slammed down into another wave which soaked us all and caused the engine to stall."
I interrupted Edwin to ask him what time of day it had been.
"Oh, it was still early morning. Kili was still in sight. We had some pandanus and a gallon of water with us. The sea and sky were relatively calm and clear; so we weren't very worried. LaBako set about trying to get the engine started by yanking on the starter rope again and again, only to hear the outboard motor sputter and die each time. He must have worked on that engine nonstop for about an hour and a half to two hours. Meanwhile, we could see Kili getting further and further away from us.
"We were all getting anxious now and so we gathered around LaBako watching him restlessly trying to get the engine to start. All of a sudden, without any discussion, Netab said, 'I'm jumping' and then dove into the sea and started on an attempt to make a swim for Kili, which was now about the size of a hand, as we looked toward it, sitting on the horizon.
"Instantly, we began a heated discussion concerning the wisdom of Netab's decision. I wanted to go with him, but LaBako kept shouting and pleading with me, 'Edwin, please don't jump!' He kept telling me that it was safer to stay in the boat. We argued loudly. I truly thought that I could make it to Kili, but in the end I decided instead to listen to LaBako. I felt terribly guilty for not trying to swim for Kili with Netab.
"Then Jerry, who was a good friend of Netab's, shouted us all down saying that he just couldn't let Netab swim off by himself. He calmed a bit, then told us to tell his family members that he loved them and to say good-by to them in case he didn't make it to shore. Then he, too, jumped over the side of boat. Now there were only three of us left on-board. LaBako was enraged with Jerry. He had tried to plead with him not to go. We all felt powerless as we watched the two of them swirling hopelessly in the waves, drifting further away from our boat.
"LaBako continued to work on the engine with even more diligence than before. He pulled all the spark plugs out and disconnected other parts from the engine. Then he tried to dry them, using his shirt, so that the engine might start again. Lee and I alternated between watching LaBako's efforts with the engine and watching Netab and Jerry attempt to swim toward Kili. The waves began to get bigger as a strong wind whipped-up the sea. Shortly thereafter it started to rain heavily; that was when we lost sight of Jerry and Netab. And that was when we all became very frightened.
"LaBako eventually stopped working on the outboard because he had become seasick and was throwing up. By the time the sun disappeared over the sea he was lying down, exhausted, in the bottom of the boat. Lee and I were also sick. We huddled with LaBako on the bottom of the boat. We didn't sleep that night, not only because we were lying in the pool of water that had collected in the skiff, but also because we were so afraid. LaBako kept telling us that it was important to conserve our water supply, matches and pandanus, in case we would have to be at sea for a few days.
"Then it happened so fast! The MS Militobi, a field-trip ship, passed right by us! The lights from the ship were so bright we could see the people on board. I mean it almost hit us! We started jumping and screaming at the ship, but they didn't hear us. The ship cruised slowly by and came back again and again; but they never spotted us. We were so depressed. LaBako yelled at me for having used all the matches to smoke my cigarettes thereby making us unable to send a signal to the ship. There was a bad feeling between us all at that time. We were so terrified that they would never find us now. Our hopes faded as we watched the lights of the ship melt into the night.
"The next morning we found ourselves surrounded on all sides by ocean. Kili was totally out of sight. We discussed what we thought happened to Jerry and Netab. Lee and I thought that they had made it to Kili. LaBako said that he assumed that they were gone, dead. LaBako continued to mention over and over again about how I had been so foolish to use the matches for my cigarettes. Our hopelessness and our despair continued to reach new lows throughout the morning.
"After a while we could make-out, on the horizon, what we thought was a ship. We got excited and LaBako put me on his shoulders and we started screaming, jumping and waving our hands. All of sudden, the ship turned and started coming straight for us. We knew that they now had us in their sights. We were just crying and screaming with joy!
"When the ship pulled up along side of our little skiff, the first person we saw was Netab's brother, Uraia, who had gotten aboard the ship in Jaluit, where it was docked before it had begun the search. Uraia, who was living on Jaluit Atoll and had gotten aboard when he first heard that we were lost at sea, immediately asked us, 'Why did my brother and Jerry jump off the boat?' We had a hard time answering, in fact, we just told Uraia that we had all been terror-stricken and that the two of them had simply panicked. Uraia's wife was with him when we boarded the boat. We later found out that it was she who had miraculously--and mysteriously--directed the ship to where we had been adrift in the water; even though she had to yell in order to convince the captain to turn the ship around, because, at the time, we were totally out of sight.
"We were exhausted, dizzy and just wanted to get some food and go to sleep. I felt sick and my body hurt everywhere. When we returned to Kili many men were still looking for Jerry and Netab on the beaches of Kili. We never saw them again. It was then I realized that LaBako had saved my life by convincing me not to swim for Kili.
"Later, some people accused us of fighting with each other, and said that maybe that is why they didn't survive. But after we sat down with all the families concerned and told them the story of what had transpired, they understood and became sorry for us, too. I was sick for a couple of days with fever, as were LaBako and Lee, but eventually we all returned to good health. I know that horrible night at sea will remain in my thoughts forever."
Ralph "LaBako" Waltz died from cancer in July of 1987. He will be remembered by our community as a man of honesty and integrity, and for his tireless dedication to the people of Bikini.
[photo at right on Kili Island, from L to R]: Mayor Tomaki Juda, Ralph "LaBako" Waltz and National Geographic photographer, Bill Allen in 1984]