Tsunami Warning
- And Then What?

Navigate the Stories

- Are you aware of the recent tsunami warning?

We had just tied our lines to the quay in the recently constructed harbour at Foamullah island in the Maldives. Two young locals on a moped stopped and told us that there had been a giant under water earth quake, 8.7 on the Richter scale, in Indonesia, near the location of the disastrous Boxing Day tsunami 2004. The government had issued a Tsunami Warning.

Malla and I looked at each other in disbelief. Pirates, political riots, tsunamis. What is next?

A harbour is a death trap in a tsunami, especially one that is constructed as the one where we were at the moment, with only one opening and no other place for water to get out. We were in company with another cruising yacht, the Finnish sloop Elaine, and I walked over to our friends Kalle and Helinä to tell them the news. We decided first to spend 30 minutes each on the internet trying to find information about a possible tsunami.

The depth in the harbour is 3 metres, but just outside the entrance it is 500 metres. This would be a death trap in a tsunami.
Scorpios masts seen at the quay on the right. (Click image for blow up)

The tsunami warning was immediately confirmed when we got on-line. However, there were no reports of a tsunami wave, yet. A warning had been issued in 28 countries in the Indian Ocean.


The earth quake had taken place roughly two hours earlier, and according to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) the estimated time for a tsunami (if any) to arrive at our location would be at 16:44, one hour from now. I went out in the cockpit and looked around the harbour. There was no activity at all indicating that a catastrophe was threathening within an hour. All local boats were peacefully hanging to their moorings and people were sitting idle in the shades of the trees.

Aboard Scorpio and Elaine it was decided that staying inside the tiny harbour was not prudent at this time and with the information we had at hand. At 16:00 both yachts left the harbour and headed for deep water, just a few cables out from the island, where we would be safe from any possible tsunami. We continued our monitoring of internet sources regarding the situation, but there were no reports of major waves. Only about one metre was reported from Sumatra. One problem was that our location in the Maldives was one of the first that would have been hit and therefore we couldn't be sure that no news indeed was good news.

According to the news, the population of Phuket, a place hit hard by the 2004 tsunami, and several other Thai provinces had been evacuated to higher terrain and the airport had closed.

Because it is so deep close to shore around Foamullah, where the ocean floor comes up from several hundred metres to zero in an instant, we could stay within reach of 3G-mobile internet and bide our time. Fortunately there was no wind, which made manoeuvring easy. By 17:00 there was still no sign of a tsunami where we were and no reports elsewhere either. According to PTWC, if no major waves have occurred within two hours after the estimated arrival time, one can assume that the threat has passed.

Finally, around 18:30 we received the information, that the tsunami warning had been cancelled: "A significant tsunami had been generated. However sea level readings now indicate that the threat has diminished or is over for most areas".

No tsunami, but waves are getting over the breakwater Open water between Scorpio and the earth quake

When we received the news that the risk was over it was already dark and although it would have been possible to navigate ourselves back into the harbour (because we already had been there once and new our way) it would have been impossible to see all the mooring lines that were crisscrossing the basin. We had no desire to get ropes around the propeller and decided to spend the night at sea and enter the harbour again after sunrise.

We were glad that the tsunami threat turned out to be a non-event, but I find it very strange that no local boats left the harbour. There were no other yachts in the harbour except Scorpio and Elaine, just local fishing boats and small inter island cargo vessels. Only we decided to depart.

Thousands of the Maldivians died and many more lost their homes in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. In spite of their cruel experiences just a few years ago the people in the harbour of Fuamullah did apparently not care about the threat. But, they didn't remain in the harbour because they knew in advance there was not going to be a tsunami.

No, they stayed because they crossed their fingers and prayed.

previous Previous story Next story next

Back to Stories Index