In a Small Fishing Boat, Looking to Make Peace With a Punishing Sea
OLUVIL, Sri Lanka, Jan. 13 - Standing on a dark beach before daybreak Thursday, Syed Ibrahim Yusuf wrestled with his fear. That morning he had planned to return to the sea for the first time since a wall of water rewrote his life, his livelihood and his village. Instead, he stood on the beach under a moonless sky, unmoving and unsure, intimidated by waves he would have challenged easily three weeks ago.
"This sea is not normal," he said, staring at swells that appeared rough but not insurmountable. "We'll see after the sunrise. If the sea continues to be like this, we will give up."
Mr. Yusuf, 35, felt defenseless in a sense before a sea he had mastered countless times since he became a fisherman more than a decade ago. His wife had begged him not to go to sea again. His regular boat, a sturdy 21-foot fiberglass canoe with an outboard motor, vanished when the tsunami struck here on Dec. 26.
The replacement was a nautical misfit, a leaking, 18-foot fiberglass canoe powered by three paddles.
He and his two crewmen, Ahmadlebbe Fasmeer and Ismalebbe Aboor Khan, were returning to the water not out of pride, tradition or a rekindled love of the sea. They were driven by desperation.
"We have been unemployed for the last two weeks; we spent whatever we had in savings," Mr. Khan, 23, said. "If we don't do this, we won't have anything to eat."
After streaks of sunlight appeared on the horizon, two other men pushed a canoe the same size as Mr. Yusuf's into the churning surf. As Mr. Yusuf and his crew watched, they paddled frantically and made no headway. Each time they tried to row into the open sea, a powerful wave pushed the canoe back to shore like a piece of driftwood.
"If a small wave like this comes, it will push it into the water," Mr. Yusuf said, referring to his spindly craft capsizing. "The boat is so small."
Mr. Yusuf and his crew watched the other fishermen struggle for a few minutes. Then Mr. Fasmeer, 22, said he had had enough.
"Let's go," he said over the roar of the surf.
Mr. Yusuf spotted a break in the waves.
"Let's use this chance!" he shouted.
They pushed their boat into the surf, jumped aboard and paddled furiously. But within seconds, whatever window Mr. Yusuf thought he had seen was gone.
Wave after wave dwarfed the craft, easily pushing it back to shore. They tried again and again, getting nowhere, finally becoming trapped in the breakers and working feverishly to keep the boat perpendicular to the shore and upright.
Instead of panicking, Mr. Yusuf waited. He told his men to rest while he kept the boat straight and studied the incoming swells. After several minutes, he spotted a lull, and shouted for them to row. With a sudden burst of speed, the tiny boat crested several large waves and glided into the open water, just as the other boat had done seconds earlier.
Exhausted but exhilarated, the three steadily paddled away from the beach. Gradually, the bellow of waves crashing ashore behind them faded. They entered a more peaceful realm.
The tsunami had changed the ocean, just as it had changed the shore. The water was green, not blue, its color remade by the vast amounts of sand and dirt the receding waves had stolen from the shore.
The ocean also seemed unusually rough, with 20-foot swells rhythmically lifting the tiny boat high in the air, then dropping it into troughs of water where the vessel and its crew briefly disappeared. The sea and the waves towered over the canoe and its three passengers, making them look like tiny tadpoles on the surface of a freshwater pond.
As Mr. Yusuf paddled, his crewmen lowered a fishing net into the water. One of the few nets in the village of 10,000 people to survive, its owner lent it because his own boat had been demolished.
Of the roughly 100 boats in the village, only about a half dozen were not destroyed, according to local fishermen. The others were snapped in two or gouged when the waves hurled them against coconut trees.
With 90 percent of the village's population employed directly or indirectly in fishing, its economy has ground to a halt, residents say. The engine that drove the economy - fishing boats - no longer exists.
The same is true in fishing communities across Sri Lanka, where the tsunami damaged 70 percent of the country's coastline. The waves also destroyed 22,000 of Sri Lanka's 30,000 fishing boats, according to the Ministry of Fisheries and Ocean Resources. About 17,000 of the country's 150,000 fishermen are believed to have died.
For some reason, in Oluvil the water level rose instead of crashing ashore in waves. As a result, only two people perished. Local fishermen call that a blessing but also a curse, because with so few deaths, little international or national aid has arrived, they say. Already impoverished fishermen are despairing.
Even before the tsunami, most of Sri Lanka's fishermen were nothing more than day laborers. The majority of fishing boats in the country are owned by businessmen who never go to sea, according to officials. Instead, they pay fishermen $3 to $5 a day on average to do the work for them.
Many fishermen are also heavily in debt. Mr. Yusuf's previous boat was owned by Mr. Khan, his crewman. Mr. Khan still owes $1,500 on the boat, a hefty sum in an occupation where $150 a month is a good salary. Mr. Yusuf has a fourth-grade education. His two crewmen have eighth-grade educations.
All chose fishing because it is the lifeblood of their community, an area famed for its rich fishing. On a normal day, as many as 100 boats would be plying the waters off Oluvil. On this day, nine boats were bobbing on the horizon.
Before the tsunami, Mr. Yusuf routinely used his motor to cruise a dozen miles offshore to catch more lucrative deep-sea fish. Now, stuck with only paddles and muscle power, he planned a maritime baby step, a trip no more than a mile offshore.
As his crewmen lowered the net into the water, Mr. Yusuf slowly paddled the boat out to sea. The men had spent days repairing the net and were unsure how well it would work. It was designed to sink to deep waters and catch large fish.
About 15 minutes after they cast the net, they began retrieving it. "We've got only small, small fish," Mr. Fasmeer lamented. Slowly, the mood on the boat lightened. The two younger men joked with one another as Mr. Yusuf silently paddled. The crew occasionally bailed, but the boat did not appear to be taking on much water.
After they had retrieved several hundred yards of the net, a strong current caused their net to become entangled with one from the canoe that had departed seconds before they did. The tangle meant both nets would catch less fish.
The two crewmen carefully retrieved the two nets, separating them slowly. As they pulled the final section from the water, they found large numbers of fish ensnared.
Excited, they made their way to shore. Roughly two hours after conquering the waves, they landed on the beach, bounded off their boat and unloaded their catch. Beaming, they carried about 50 large fish to a spot where a small auction was held.
Normally, 200 buyers would be lined up to buy from Oluvil's fishing fleet. On Thursday there were 10 to 15. The fish sold for $10, about double what they would have fetched before the tsunami destroyed the fleet. They were able to sell their fish despite doubts about whether survivors could bear to eat the products of a sea that had become a graveyard.
The crewmen, instant celebrities, regaled others with tales of their morning. Mr. Yusuf left alone to have lunch with his family. The two younger men made their way to a small tea stall where they ate before heading again for the water.
After their morning triumph, the men seemed somehow changed. There was a swagger in their step. There were smiles on their faces. They were providing for their families again.
"We had a fear inside," Mr. Khan said as he ate, "but we didn't show it."
Mr. Yusuf, a man intimidated by the waves that morning, stood transformed.
"If it is the same," he said, referring to the sea, "we will go tomorrow morning."
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