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Natural Selection

The legend of Darwin.

I was out of breath. My arms and legs ached with every stroke. The rain was pounding down on my back. Was that hail? Surely it was, it was stinging. The wind was whipping the ocean into a choppy frenzy. I tried to lay on my back to get some breath back, but the waves were just that little bit too high, resulting in a cough and splutter before resuming the battle with the sea. The only way was to keep swimming. I kept looking up at the boat, slowly inching its way closer. All around me people were immersed in the same battle, all striving to reach the safety of the boat. I was exhausted, but I would make it. Kick, stroke, breath, kick: slowly but surely inching forwards. Then I heard a shout and turned towards the voice. Seeing his arms flailing, and his head bobbing, water spluttering from his mouth. One of the girls was shouting for help.

He was drowning. And there was nothing I could do to help.


I hadn’t met the guy, but I’d heard the stories. They said the only way to describe him was a liability. He hadn’t been in Asia long, but he already had a reputation. Still it was early days in the making of the legend of Darwin. He seemed somewhat intelligent, but a lack of common sense and social skills meant that after only a couple of weeks on the continent stories were spreading. I won’t describe all of them here, many are just not appropriate. But suffice to say sometimes his lack of logic is breathtaking. His real name isn’t Darwin, but since our fateful boat trip the nickname has spread like wildfire. He is now simply Darwin, and his legend is spreading across the globe.

Less than 24 hours in Asia and he’d had his money stolen. In fact he had little money to start with and just took off half way across the world after a vague suggestion from a friend. He’d also somehow fallen over a wall into a bathroom and broken a sink. Like I said, this guy has many stories, and more have surfaced since that fateful day.

And of course there’s the tattoo. Dear god, the tattoo. I’ve seen and heard of some bad tattoos, but this one was amazing. The ugliest mess of ink I could imagine. The story went his mates were in Bangkok and decided to get tattoos from one of the best tattoo artists in Bangkok, and emerged with some pretty good tats. Darwin however couldn’t decide what to get, so didn’t get one. Later that night, much later in fact he changed his mind. Heavy drinking, 6am and street tattooists who are almost as drunk as you are not a good mix. The tattoo covers his whole arm, and is supposed to be in Thai, however no-one who speaks Thai can read it. He even asked the “artist” to sign his work, getting one letter in before he was mercifully rescued by one of his mates.


Now, back to that fateful day. We were in Sihanoukville in Southern Cambodia. A sleazy but fun town full of beach-style debauchery. We’d decided to take a boat trip out to some of the surrounding islands. There was a few of us. The Phnom Penh crew and my friend Ele, who I’d first met in Nepal. Also tagging along was Darwin. Ele was good friends with Darwins mate, and he had decided to tag along. I had a strange feeling before the trip, feeling somewhat nervous about taking this guy on a boat after all those stories. But surely I was just being silly?


We had a great day, despite some somewhat dubious weather at times. We jumped from the boat, we snorkelled, we swam, we trekked through rivers and jungle and we lazed on a beach. There was a good crew of people on the boat too, about 35 or so.

When the boat got to the main island, we had two options. Take the dingy into shore, or swim. It was a fair way to shore 200m or so, but most of us decided on the swim. The way in was a bit tiring, but pretty easy, taking breaks along the way, floating along and looking at the clouds, it was actually a pretty relaxing swim. After the island fun it came time to swim back to the boat.


It was then things started to go wrong. As we begun to swim the weather turned. The wind came up, the heavens opened and the waves picked up. The wind blowing towards the shore meant that every stroke was that little bit harder, and any “rests” treading water meant a few extra metres that had to be caught up. Quite a few of us were struggling, but most would reach the boat. Two people had turned back and were quite close to the shore. I was about 40 metres from the boat, with Darwin about twenty metres behind me when he starting drowning.

Whilst I had enough energy to save myself, there was no way I could help anyone else. If I tried I would make myself a liability as well. It was a hard call to make, and I felt absolutely useless. Especially after all my rescue training over the last few years, not being able to help someone in trouble was a real kick in the teeth. But I knew that risking myself was the worst thing I could do. Still it was hard to just sit there in the water or turn away and save myself. I know I made the right decision though, as it was I was lucky to make it. Luckily there were people in better shape than me, and Ele and one of the Dutch guys, Lino, came to Darwins aid. They really did save his life. At one point he did go under and had to be hauled back up. Whilst they strived to keep him afloat they were slowly floating further from the boat. I stopped and watched, still wondering if there was anything I could do to help, except scream at the boat for help. I’d stopped for maybe 30 seconds and turned back to the boat. My heart sank. I’d been drifting and the boat was another 30 metres away. It was hard to describe that feeling, but it was shattering to see that beacon of safety drifting further out of reach. Everyone was spread out in the water, and many were yelling at the boat for help. There were others in the water struggling and shouting. Chaos had arrived.

The dingy was there, but inexplicably not moving. The driver had little awareness of the urgency of the situation. The few swimmers who had gotten to the boat were searching for lifejackets and eventually tried to come to the aid of the strugglers in the water. The dingy finally got moving, but was going painfully slowly and stopped to pick up those closest to the boat. People were piled in the dingy and hanging off the sides. The driver wanted to go back to the boat and collect the others, including the drowning Darwin on a second run, but the hordes of screaming westerners managed to finally get the message across and he eventually made his way to the drifting three. I was hanging off the side of the dingy by this stage, trying to get my breath back. Every muscle was aching and my body was shaking.

Finally he was hauled into the dingy and it started making its way slowly back to the main boat. Darwin collapsed in the middle of the dingy. Fears were held however for the two close to shore. We’d lost sight of them. We all finally hauled ourselves onto the main boat and collapsed. Towels were passed out as everyone started to digest what had happened. People were nervously shaking and sharing tales of survival, waiting for the dingy to return. Eventually it did, with the remaining passengers and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. We had all survived.

It was certainly a lesson. How quickly an innocent swim turned into chaos and had the potential for a mass drowning. There were a few of us who really had feared for our lives that day. How just a few small waves and a bit of wind had turned a long but easy swim into one of the toughest things I’ve done, and really pushed me to the limits. It also reminded me that I am a fairly poor swimmer. And the fact that on the boat we all had fins, masks and snorkels, things that would have made that swim easy, even in those conditions. As it turned out, it was a lesson I didn’t learn, and a couple of months later put myself in a very similar situation. The big lesson, “Don’t F___ with water.”

After all the stories we all wondered how Darwin has survived for over 20 years. The thought occurred to me how he had escaped Natural selection this long. That’s when we named him Darwin and the legend of Darwin begun.

The rest of the trip was good, after a whiskey infused coffee and a beer I’d recovered and my aching muscles had stopped shaking. We were fairly social on the boat and met with a bunch of the survivors that night in Sihanoukville, and proceeded to party till the wee hours of the morning. We were tempted to get some T-shirts printed. “We survived Sihanoukville!” As we in fact hadn’t yet left the town of Sihanoukville alive, we decided this was a little presumptuous and delayed the printing of said shirts. These people became our travelling companions and together we shared the “Bodhi days” in Kampot, one of the most relaxed bits of my trip. While there I wrote the song “Natural Selection” an ode to the legend of Darwin. But the stories of our times at Bodhi can wait for another day.


I kind of miss Darwin and his stories. In some ways he was a hard person to hang around, but he is unmatched in the story department. I hang out to get my “Darwin update” and hear about his recent antics.

But we shall see how long he can escape the powers of natural selection...

Posted by nomadSteve 23:29 Archived in Cambodia Tagged boats water darwin drowning

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