Chapter 13 – A Pleasure-Boat Trip Turns Sour
Tales of a Teenage Spy - The Life and Times of Gábor Rimner
The unhappy atmosphere at home was dramatically transformed by a freak, if frightening event in, I think, early 1972.
One weekend, the University of Khartoum invited foreign faculty members and their families on a pleasure-boat trip up the Nile.
Alas, come the day, it turned out to be anything but a pleasure.
The cruise ship was a converted gunboat from British colonial days. Officially it could take around 40 passengers, plus crew. In practice, I think there were about 80 on board that day, double the official limit.
It certainly all began well, and come the afternoon return home, guests were having a jolly time: some were playing cards in the cabin.
I was inside, watching, even though I don't know how to play cards, because I wanted a cigarette, and didn't want to smoke in front of my father. Even though I was probably 16, he didn't like it. But somehow he spotted me through a window, and beckoned me to join him on deck.
For once, I was not my normal, stubborn self; I snuffed out my ciggie, and joined him outside. The move almost certainly saved my life.
There we were, gently chugging down the Nile, all calm and peaceful, when, out of nothing, a sandstorm hit us. Seconds later, in a suffocating fog of dust and silica grit, the boat keeled over and I found myself sliding down the deck in a chaotic mix of people and furniture, all cascading into the water.
Next thing, I was somehow underneath the boat, my head bumping on what I presumed was the deck above me, with people grabbing my legs and arms in desperate panic.
I too started panicking, but had the sense to start swimming away from under the ship – at least, that was my hope. In fact, I was blind. I confess I was absolutely inconsiderate of everyone: if I felt somebody grabbing my leg, I kicked them as strongly as I could, and kept swimming.
Suddenly, I got out from under the ship and my head surfaced.
The boat had turned through 180 degrees, completely upside down. A gaggle of survivors had already climbed aboard the keel, which stood well out of the water. Then I saw my mother and father, almost in tandem, come up nearby, and we were helped 'aboard' the wreck to comparative safety.
I felt pretty calm by then, but many around us were emotional, screaming and crying. We kept pulling more out of the water, but pretty soon they stopped surfacing. We could hear people trapped in the boat, banging on the doors and window shutters.
A Greek engineer swam down to try to help them, but the shutters were stuck, and they couldn't get out. All the people in the cabin, about 16, maybe 18, who'd been playing cards, died.
Meanwhile, the upturned boat was not so safe: caught on a sandbank, it was slowly sinking, the water first covering my foot, then my ankle, then my knees. At this point, I kicked off my shoes, and told my parents I was going to swim to the bank, about 300 metres away. I'd swum the Nile before, it was no big deal for me.
But my parents - and this was the first occasion since my mother had arrived back from Hungary they had agreed on anything – shouted in unison: “No, you're not going anywhere!”
“But listen, this boat is sinking. Why am I sitting here? Why don't you swim away too, both of you are good swimmers?”
“No, no, no!” they yelled back. “We are going to wait to be rescued.”
And so it transpired. Somebody had seen us from a bridge when the sandstorm cleared, and a ferry was sent down to rescue us. Only about 30 centimetres of the keel was above water, at the time, so it was a close run thing.
A Sudanese newspaper had an article on the event, but it played down the numbers on the boat. I guess that was politics, because a lot of the dead were foreigners, Polish, Irish and American university employees, and everyone was afraid of being sued.
The Sudanese didn't have skilled divers, so they called in Egyptians, who brought out the corpses some time later.
We had survived unscathed, and the effect on my family was astonishing. That evening, I could feel and see such a family that I had never even dreamed of before. Everybody loved everybody, my father loved my mother and me, my mother loved my father and me, and I loved them both.
We were in absolute harmony, and nobody even thought about things like divorce, and finances, and this is your property, this is my property. (This was my mother's idea – she wanted to have everything on paper, as if marriage was a business contract. My father got sick of the whole thing.)
But in those weeks after the sinking, you could hear nothing of this, nothing!
Yet, as time passed, and the shock of this we-almost-died event faded, the ugly, loveless tensions began to return.
They were rather discreet, they weren't killing each other in front of me, but I could feel it, and slowly, inexorably, we returned to the horrible normal.