An 18-year old Indonesian called Aldi Novel Adilang was working on a floating fishing station off the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. It was a Saturday in July, 2018, and a storm had swept into the area where Adilang was anchored, 78 miles from the coast. The high winds broke the craft’s moorings, leaving a fearful Adilang with no idea what was going to happen next.
Adilang’s home island of Sulawesi has the distinction of being the 11th-largest island in the world. The center of the island is dominated by mountains, and there are various peninsulas surrounded by sea. Adilang comes from the province of North Sulawesi.
That Adilang was employed in Sulawesi’s fishing sector is no surprise given that the city of Bitung on the island’s north coast is a center for fish processing. Many thousands work in Bitung’s tuna canneries and other fish processing plants. The town’s local nickname, “Kota Cakalang,” translates as Skipjack Tuna Town.
The craft that Adilang was on is called a “rompong.” It looks like a floating hut, and in fact that is more or less exactly what it is, a hut stuck on top of a raft. Adilang’s rompong was moored off the coast of North Sulawesi, some 78 miles offshore from the province’s capital of Manado.
Adilang was on a six-month tour of duty on the craft, completely on his own. Once a week, the rompong’s owner sent somebody out on a boat with supplies – gas for his stove, fresh water and food. But apart from that, he lived in complete isolation out at sea, with no land in sight.
Adilang’s only means of communication was a two-way radio – and, as we’ll see, that later turned out to be a crucial piece of equipment indeed. Out in the middle of the sea, Adilang’s only guarantee of safety was a length of rope tied to a block of concrete acting as a makeshift anchor. The owner of Adilang’s rompong was apparently running as many as 50 of these vessels.
The purpose of a rompong is to attract fish. Adilang’s job was to light lamps arrayed around the rompong and powered by a generator each evening. It was those lights that would attract the fish. And the boat that came to resupply him each week would then catch those fish and leave more fuel for the generator.
So it was a lonely job, and we can only imagine what it’s like for a teenager to be effectively marooned at sea for six months as Adilang was. But things were to get much worse. On July 14, 2018, a tropical storm whipped up fierce winds, strong enough to cast the rompong adrift from its moorings.
Adilang had been at his solitary location for several months at this point, and now he really was on his own, floating out into the sea. As the days passed, he must have wondered if he’d ever be rescued or see his family again.
Unsurprisingly, Adilang was at times overcome by fear and reduced to tears by his predicament. And he must have also feared that high seas might overwhelm his frail craft. When he had been cast adrift, he had only limited supplies of food and drinking water. His most pressing priority was to find a way of surviving each day.
As the days went by, Adilang’s food and water supplies ran out. He caught fish and as his gas supply was also finished, broke bits of timber from the rompong to build a cooking fire. He drank the sea water that had soaked his clothes, presumably filtered to some extent by the fabric.
Since the rompong was not intended to be a craft that could propel itself through the sea, it had no oars, no sail and no engine, leaving Adilang entirely at the mercy of the ocean currents and the wind. And eventually he would drift thousands of miles across open ocean to the seas around Guam in the western Pacific.
Every so often, Adilang would see a ship in the distance – this happened as many as 10 times. But each time the vessel sailed on by, leaving Adilang in his ocean isolation. By now it was August 31 and Adilang had been drifting across the Pacific for 49 days.
Then, early in the morning of the 31st, another ship came into view. It was a large cargo ship, the 740-foot long M.V. Arpeggio, registered in Panama. Adilang waved his clothes in the air as he had done when previous ships hove into view. He also lit one of his lamps. But, yet again, nobody saw his signal.
Then Adilang used his two-way radio, hoping the ship’s radio operator might hear him. “Help!” he shouted in English. Miraculously, even although it was by now about a mile distant, the ship turned and started to come towards him. Rescue was at hand.
The operation to rescue Adilang was no simple matter. The sea was running rough that day, and it took some skillful navigating to get the bulk of the Arpeggio in the right position to pluck Adilang off his rompong. The huge cargo ship circled four times then cast a line.
Adilang couldn’t quite get hold of the rope and jumped into the sea to try and get it – a risky venture in his weakened state. But a crew member grabbed Adilang’s wrist and dragged him aboard the Arpeggio. At last, his ordeal was at an end – and he’d survived.
The M.V. Arpeggio now dried out Adilang and fed him. The ship’s cook, evidently a man with more than one skill, gave Adilang a haircut. The ship then took him to the Japanese port of Tokuyama, arriving there on September 6. It must have been a tremendous relief to be traveling on a proper seagoing vessel.
On September 8, Adilang flew to Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, and by the next day he was back in North Sulawesi to be reunited with his parents and three elder siblings. Although delighted to see him, his father Alfian was not a happy man.
Alfian Adilang told Boston.com that the rompong had broken its mooring on two previous occasions, but the craft’s owner had been able to rescue his son. Alfian was understandably furious with the owner. And Aldi Adilang said he would no longer work as a rompong operator. “My parents agree,” he said with masterful understatement.