In Unfamiliar Waters : Two Californians, Two Indonesians Received a Heroes’ Welcome After 21 Days Adrift. Then the Cheering Stopped.
Last Sept. 6, after 21 days adrift in the Indian Ocean with two Indonesian boatmen, Judy Schwartz and Rickey Berkowitz, both of Palos Verdes, washed ashore in a remote fishing village in southern Sumatra. Although weak and malnourished, the two 27-year-old women recovered so quickly that, before returning home, they held a press conference at the American Embassy in Jakarta. “We thought it was kind of fun,” Schwartz would say later. “We had no idea what it would lead to.”
It led to a “madhouse.” When their plane landed at Los Angeles International, “we were just attacked by the cameras,” Schwartz says. It was one media flash after another: “CBS Morning News,” “Today,” “Nightline” and 12 minutes with Johnny Carson.
But soon, Reuters was quoting Indonesian newspaper stories that cast a different light on what had been played as a heartwarming story of Yankee ingenuity and grit. Although Schwartz and Berkowitz had bounced back after a decent meal and a good night’s sleep, the two Indonesian boatmen had been hospitalized for dehydration and shock. The reason, they said, was that the women had hoarded their food. Rather than die of starvation, one of the men confessed, “we snatched food from their bag.”
Schwartz and Berkowitz were astonished at the charges. “We behaved with a good deal of dignity,” Berkowitz complained. “They were jerks.” Yet neither side disagreed on the facts of the story. The problem was the assumptions behind the facts. In everything from planning to praying, their deepest values were worlds apart.
Rickey Berkowitz has the compact physique and walnut-cracking smile of a Mary Lou Retton. Articulate and relentlessly enthusiastic, she grew up in Palos Verdes, where she was the only girl in the neighborhood to pack her own fielder’s mitt. She has backpacked in the Canadian Rockies, gone bird watching in Mexico and lived for six months on an Israeli kibbutz, where she studied Hebrew and installed irrigation pipes. After her return from Indonesia, she entered graduate school at Cal State Dominguez Hills to earn a credential as a school psychologist.
Judy Schwartz still wears the same tennis shoes she wore during her weeks at sea. “They’re cleaner now,” she says. Bubbly, trusting and a self-described right-brain, intuitive type, she plays the guitar, designs her own Christmas cards and likes to ski and windsurf. Since her return, she’s been living with her fiance in Mountain View, where she teaches physical education to emotionally disturbed children.
It was at a New Year’s Eve party that Schwartz and Berkowitz, who have known each other since seventh-grade P.E. class, decided to spend the summer traveling through Fiji, New Zealand, Australia and Bali. Then, as they were about to leave, they saw a National Geographic article on Ujung Kulon, an exotic wildlife refuge on the western tip of Java, near the infamous Krakatau volcano.
It wasn’t just the haunting pictures of rare Javanese rhinoceroses and river boats drifting through deep, virgin jungle that made the place seem so mysterious. In 1883, Krakatau erupted with such vehemence that it sent sheep stampeding 1,700 miles away in Australia and a 100-foot wall of water ripping across the coastal villages of western Java and southern Sumatra. Altogether some 36,000 people died, including the entire population of Ujung Kulon. Except for a few park rangers, the place has been uninhabited ever since--if you don’t count monkeys, crocodiles, leopards and great clouds of fruit-eating bats. To Schwartz and Berkowitz, it seemed exactly the way to cap what would undoubtedly be their last summer-long vacation before settling down to careers and families.
Getting to the Ujung Kulon peninsula was not simply a matter of signing up for the tour bus in Jakarta. First they had to take a train to Bogor to get a park permit. Then they traveled by bus to the west coast of Java, where, because the peninsula is separated from the mainland by an impenetrable marsh, they had to hire a boat.
While buying supplies and trying to arrange transportation to Ujung Kulon, Schwartz and Berkowitz stayed at the Carita Krakatau Beach Hotel, an oceanfront array of thatched cottages hidden under lush palms. But for the beer coolers, the hotel is right out of a Joseph Conrad novel. Strings of coconuts serve as dividers in the open-air lobby, and water buffalo skulls decorate the pillars. The beach is sandy white, the water like a warm bath, and at night the breaking waves flash blue with phosphorescence.
The women spent one day visiting the smoking remains of Krakatau with a local boatman named Amat (most Javanese have only one name). “Amat was a nice, warm guy,” Schwartz says, “and I really felt confident with him.” After some firm but friendly negotiating, he agreed for $150 to take them and their new Australian friend, botanist Paul Van Der Moezel, to Ujung Kulon for four days.
But on the morning of the trip, Aug. 17, they discovered that Amat was sending them out in a 16-foot fiber-glass runabout, not the 40-foot oceangoing fishing boat he had used for the Krakatau trip. And he now told them that he was sending two villagers in his place. The final blow, Schwartz says, was Van Der Moezel’s last-minute announcement that he “had a bad feeling about it” and had decided he didn’t want to go. As a way of making it up to the women, Van Der Moezel promised to wait at Carita until they were safely back.
The day they left for Ujung Kulon, the ocean was so warm and calm that Schwartz could have water-skied the entire way. But about 2 in the afternoon, just 10 miles from their destination, the boat’s engine suddenly quit. “We knew we were in trouble,” Berkowitz says, “when the boatmen pulled out their tool kit and it consisted of a rusty pair of pliers, a couple of old spark plugs and a wrench that didn’t fit.” The boatmen, Jasman and Simin, tried changing the spark plugs and pulling the starter rope but, Schwartz says, their “mechanical ability was nil.”
Because the women spoke English and the boatmen Sundanese, they communicated mostly by gesture and pantomime. Jasman and Simin were from the same west Java fishing village. Both were ostensibly Muslim, though in that part of Indonesia, Islam is shot through with strains from Hinduism, Buddhism and ancient folk beliefs.
Of the two, Jasman was shyer, and the better seaman. He was short and muscular, with a black mustache and a sailor’s aptitude for tying knots. Simin, in contrast, was tall and thin and not at all happy about being adrift at sea. Every year, Loro Kidul, Queen of the Indian Ocean, demanded a human sacrifice, and Simin feared this year he might be it.
To keep the boat from drifting into the Indian Ocean’s 20-foot waves, the men dropped the anchor--but the water was too deep. Swimming was out of the question, even if you ignored the shark problem--the distance was too great. At one point Schwartz tried to tow the boat to shore by swimming with a rope around her waist, but it was a futile gesture she later took to calling her “bionic woman” act.
Despite the lack of emergency equipment, neither of the women was worried. “We had just seen fishermen,” Berkowitz says. “We had the coast in view behind us and an island in front of us.” The sunsets were beautiful at sea, and that night Schwartz and Berkowitz sat on the cabin roof singing folk songs and watching shooting stars.
By the next morning the swift currents of the Sunda Strait had carried them past the island, and by the third day they had lost sight of land altogether.
Those first few days the women almost enjoyed themselves. They had brought food and water for several days, as well as plenty of sun screen, and they spent their time playing backgammon and gin rummy, trading recipes and jumping into the water to cool off and stretch their legs. In deference to Loro Kidul, Jasman and Simin stayed in the boat.
As Schwartz and Berkowitz envisioned the rescue scenario, no one would realize they were missing for the first four days. On the fifth, Van Der Moezel would no doubt assume they were having a splendid time and not give it another thought. On the sixth, it would dawn on him that he’d better notify the authorities. Finally, on the seventh, they’d send out the rescue fleet.
But when the seventh day came and went without a ship on the horizon or a plane in the sky, the women began to wonder if their earlier confidence had been misplaced. Perhaps Van Der Moezel hadn’t bothered to wait after all. Perhaps Amat had just taken the money and run. Perhaps, after all this time, no one even knew they were missing. “That,” Berkowitz says, “was when we decided to make a sail.”
Using a Swiss army knife and fishing line, Schwartz and Berkowitz sewed together a tent fly, a rain poncho and two sarongs, fastened the fabric to a bamboo pole and, with the aid of a compass, pointed the bow toward Sumatra. “It wasn’t like being in a Hobie Cat,” Schwartz says. “There were times I wasn’t sure we were moving at all.”
When Schwartz and Berkowitz didn’t show up by the sixth day, Van Der Moezel took a bus to Jakarta where, early the next morning, he informed American Embassy officials that his two friends might be missing. The embassy cabled the State Department, which in turn notified the women’s parents--Martin and Doris Berkowitz, and Richard and Ruth Schwartz--that their daughters were lost in a remote region of Java. After a sleepless night with no further news, they decided there was only one thing to do--fly to Indonesia.
Arriving in Jakarta a bare 30 hours later, the parents approached the American Embassy with more than a little trepidation. They’d all seen the Jack Lemmon / Sissy Spacek movie “Missing” and half expected to be treated with indifference or contempt. They were immensely grateful when Consul General Susan Wood, a 37-year-old Fulbright scholar from Mississippi, escorted them to west Java to oversee the search effort personally.
After four days in west Java, however, the parents began to lose hope. The Indonesian Coast Guard, Navy, police and park rangers all reported searching the entire Sunda Strait area as well as southern Sumatra, without result. The embassy had sent up its own inter-island plane, although with its limited range and poor search capability it couldn’t venture far out to sea. Finally, the embassy tracked down Amat at the local police station, where he was nervously making a report on his role in the affair. He had, he explained, already made two boat trips to Ujung Kulon to look for possible survivors, once losing a mast in a shrieking wind.
Before leaving Carita, the parents had an emotional meeting with the boatmen’s wives, while the rest of the village gazed on in wonder. Jasman’s wife, only 15, cried the entire time. Simin’s 3-year-old daughter kept asking when her father was coming back.
In fact, the whole village was in mourning. Assuming that the men were dead, the families of Jasman and Simin a week earlier had said prayers for their souls in the village mosque. As to how they might have died no one could say, but the villagers were increasingly suspicious of the two American women. One of them had worn a green Bay to Breakers race T-shirt, the same fatal green favored by Loro Kidul. The speculation was that the Americans weren’t ordinary women after all but Loro Kidul’s messengers, come to claim her due.
To appease the sea goddess, Simin’s wife had killed two white chickens and thrown their blood upon the waves. When that had no effect, she had sold five coconut trees and several more chickens to hire two dukun (witch doctors), one local and the other the most famous in west Java. Their predictions were vague but encouraging, with one dukun insisting that all four people were alive and well, although he didn’t know where, and the second saying that he had had a vision that Simin was now living in the village of Krui, on the southwest coast of Sumatra.
Amat made a bus-and-ferry trip to Sumatra. But if Simin was living there, Amat couldn’t find him.
In preparation for their stay on Ujung Kulon, Schwartz and Berkowitz had brought with them a supply of food: 15 slices of bread, a dozen hard-boiled eggs, 10 oranges, 5 apples, 2 pineapples, 2 bags of cookies, 2 packages of peanuts and 8 liters of water. As part of their agreement with Amat, they had also provided 6 cups of rice and 7 packs of clove cigarettes for the boatmen.
When, after the third day, it began to seem as if they might be out a long time, the women decided to ration the food and water. The difficulty was explaining the concept to Jasman and Simin.
It wasn’t just the language barrier, but the entirely different world view of a South Seas island culture. In Java, say Western anthropologists who have worked in the area, the ocean is bountiful, the weather warm, the volcanic soil rich and deep. When the next meal is no farther away than the nearest coconut tree, it’s easy to live only for today. Anthropologist Jessica Glicken remembers being told by a Sundanese: “If we have money we spend it, if we have water we drink it, if we have a lot of food we eat it all and starve tomorrow.”
As far as Schwartz could tell, Jasman gave no indication of worrying about tomorrow, and, despite the limited water supply, helped himself to a drink every half hour. Worse yet, he didn’t drink it so much as swish it around in his mouth and spit it out in the bottom of the boat. The women tried to tell him to swallow, but he dismissed them--”Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
When they were down to the last two bottles, the women gave one to Jasman and Simin and kept the other for themselves. The men drank theirs immediately, spilling half of it in the process. The next day Simin asked Schwartz and Berkowitz to share theirs. When they said no, he waited until they were asleep and downed the last three gulps.
The one thing the women absolutely reserved for themselves was their small tube of Colgate toothpaste. “It tasted sweet and it made our mouths feel good and it felt like we were eating,” Schwartz says. To make it last longer, they took it out only once a day, at what they called their evening “happy hour.” “And as soon as we opened it up, Jasman came over with his finger out.”
The next thing Schwartz knew, Jasman was hiding under a sarong and rifling through the pockets of the day pack. She was so angry that she ripped the sarong off his head. “They were really scared,” she would say later. “They thought, ‘We’re going to get it now.’ ”
To Schwartz and Berkowitz, who were busying themselves with taking compass readings and manning the sail, it seemed as if the boatmen had given up. On the third day Simin had “freaked out,” Schwartz says. He retired to the cabin (and her air mattress) and virtually never came out again. “Slowly we felt more and more weak and in a panic,” he would say later through an interpreter. “My thinking was, all the time I was on the open sea, ‘I’m going to die.’ ”
Unlike in this country, where the idea of taking action is practically ingrained at birth, in Third World nations like Indonesia the belief is strong that certain things are beyond human control. As Muslims, Jasman and Simin also subscribed to the notion that the world unfolds according to Allah’s plan. As it would be the height of futility to struggle against his will, they devoted their time to what did make sense under the circumstances--preparing for the hereafter. (Still, just in case Allah changed his mind, Simin promised to sacrifice three goats the instant he reached dry land.)
The men’s praying to Gusti (Allah) used to drive Schwartz crazy. “They didn’t even try,” she would say later. When flying fish landed in the boat, Jasman ate them raw rather than using them as bait. “They just laid down and moaned and groaned and let somebody take care of them--Gusti, whoever that was.”
To Simin, the American women were “very strange.” Once, when he and Schwartz were asleep in the cabin, he inadvertently laid his leg over hers and was “punched awake” in a most “unfriendly” fashion. Coming from a crowded country like Java, where people routinely stand buttock to thigh on crowded buses, he didn’t understand her concern with personal space.
Also, the whole time that he and Jasman were lying in the cabin and feeling “very hungry and thirsty,” he told a Jakarta newspaper, the two women “were always very joyful, as if they didn’t see what was happening. They were putting their bodies on a rope (safety line) and going swimming in the open sea. If they were not swimming they were playing cards.”
Still, it was a relief to discover that they didn’t blame him and Jasman for having stranded them at sea. “They were very understanding of what was happening,” Simin says. “The engine is broken. ‘Oh yes, yes, yes.’ We have no water. ‘Oh yes, yes, yes.’ Now we will die. ‘Oh, yes, yes, yes.’ ”
A 16-foot boat is small for four people under the best conditions, and after 10 days under the equatorial sun, their tempers started to flare.
Because the boat had no rudder, when it strayed off course the only way to turn it back toward Sumatra was to move the mast. Because Jasman was the strongest, the task usually fell to him. As he saw it, it was both unfair and demeaning to be ordered about by the women as if he were a servant. He was feeling weak, and the fact that the women had a compass didn’t make it any less galling.
When the men ran out of food and the women were down to their last three peanuts, Jasman couldn’t take it anymore. He leapt onto the roof of the cabin, assumed a wide-legged Bruce Lee stance and, screaming “Huah, huah!” furiously began to chop at the boat with a rusty machete. A piece of plexiglass from the spray shield flew off and hit Berkowitz in the face. “No, no, no!” Schwartz screamed. “You want my peanuts? I’ll give you my peanuts!”
From her experience with emotionally disturbed children, Schwartz knew that the best way to deal with a tantrum is to act calm, avoid confrontation and let the crisis pass. After about 10 minutes, during which time Jasman smashed the front window and wrecked the sleeping benches in the cabin, he put down the machete and hung his head in shame.
In an effort to keep the peace, Schwartz patted Jasman on the shoulder. Even so, she was frightened from that day on. “I hated that knife. You never knew what was going to happen. Strange things go through your mind. ‘What if they are cannibals?’ ”
On the 12th day, having had no food or water for 48 hours, Jasman asked the women to pray with him in the name of Gusti. “Suddenly,” Simin says, “the miracle started--a drizzling rain.” Everyone licked the water from their hands and arms, the windows and bulkheads. But when the drizzle refused to turn into rain, Simin began to wonder whether the voices of the infidels had somehow jammed his channel to Gusti. This time he and Jasman prayed alone, whereupon the rain poured down torrentially.
As they filled up their water bottles, Schwartz was so grateful she kissed Jasman on the cheek.
Compared to the women, who, like most American women, had ample reserves of fat under their skin and in their breasts and thighs, the men were thin and wiry, with no reserves at all. Jasman was more muscular than Simin, but after the 10th day the flesh seemed to fall from his bones overnight. “I’m sure he just looked at himself and said, ‘I am destined to die,’ ” Schwartz says. As for Simin, after two weeks he was positively cadaverous.
The two men had never been friends in the past, but now they made a pact: Whichever one died first, the other would not throw the body into the sea.
And if, they wondered, the corpse started to stink?
Well, then, in that case, yes.
Having recently read “Out on a Limb,” Shirley MacLaine’s book on reincarnation, Schwartz and Berkowitz idly speculated on their likely end. Would they just lie down? Fall asleep? Or be eaten by sharks?
Berkowitz didn’t really expect to die, but if it came to that she was fully ready to accept it. Her main regret was that she’d never get a chance to raise a family. For Schwartz, the darkest moment was their 16th day adrift, the day their return flight was to have landed at LAX. She could just picture her fiance standing at the end of the ramp, frightened and bewildered when she didn’t get off the plane.
Later that day, the women sighted land to the northeast. The stiff wind in their sail notwithstanding, it was hard to tell if they were making any progress. Schwartz kept asking, “Are we moving?” Berkowitz would invariably answer that yes, they were, though in truth she couldn’t tell either.
Around the 19th day, no closer to land, all four were in the cabin when Berkowitz noticed the machete lying under a shattered bench. As she was wondering what to do, Schwartz stood up and blocked Simin’s view--whereupon Berkowitz slid the machete into a blanket and walked out.
By this point, she refused to have anything more to do with the men. What really made her angry, she says, was the way they used the machete to prop up their failing manhood. Whenever Simin wanted water, he would “hold the knife to his neck and shake it in a threatening way at Judy. They could tell she was afraid of it.”
When Simin saw that the machete was missing, he began to search frantically. Thinking that he might as well know the truth now as later, Berkowitz held up the machete and, waggling it between two fingers, gave him a big grin.
Simin was furious. He picked up a board from the bench and came toward her. Schwartz and Jasman were too stunned to move, but Berkowitz glared at him with the most wild-eyed look she could muster.
For several seconds it was a standoff. “At that point,” Berkowitz says, “I was stronger than him, both mentally and physically. I stared him down.” Eventually, Simin put down the board and sank to the floor.
“I was so proud of Rickey,” Schwartz would say later. “That was the first time that I felt free.”
“Once I saw land,” Berkowitz says, “I was obsessed with it.” Although Sept. 6 was a dark, moonless night, she still could see the mass of the land against the sky. Suddenly, after three weeks at sea, she realized that landfall was imminent. Schwartz, Jasman and Simin were asleep in the cabin. “Around 10 o’clock,” Berkowitz says, “I said, ‘Judy, come out. We’re going to hit land in half an hour.’ ”
Schwartz sat on one side of the boat and Berkowitz on the other, staring quietly at the shore. Neither of them saw the wave that picked up the boat, flipped it over and smashed it against a coral reef.
It felt to Berkowitz as if she were in a washing machine. Yet she was too angry to be afraid. “My feeling was, ‘If I was going to drown, why wasn’t I drowned on the second day? I went 21 days, and now you’re going to drown me?’ ” She was sucked under as three or four waves hit her in quick succession. Finally, she felt land underneath her. But her legs wouldn’t support her, and she bodysurfed to shore.
Schwartz tried to stand up but had no better luck than Berkowitz. More than anything, she says, she felt like someone in a movie, crawling ashore, collapsing on the beach and dragging her fingers through the sand.
Jasman and Simin, in the meantime, were struggling for Schwartz’s air mattress. “Two is too much,” Jasman said.
“Together safe or together dead,” answered Simin.
Having no alternative, together they rode ashore, and when Berkowitz came washing in they pulled her out of the surf.
As it soon began to thunder and lightning, they all huddled under a tree and waited for morning. It was the first decent sleep Berkowitz had had in three weeks. Schwartz was cold and buried her legs in the sand, only to discover the next day that sand fleas had left her legs a mass of welts.
Shortly after daybreak, they spotted some lobster fishermen, who took them to a nearby village. There the local women, who along with the rest of Indonesia had heard about the two missing Americans, served them an elaborate meal of shellfish and hot, spicy rice. The first question the village harbor master asked was, “Were you molested?”
“No,” Berkowitz said.
They didn’t reach a town with a telephone for two more days. Then, just as the police were preparing to drive them to the provincial capital, someone came running out to the jeep to tell Schwartz there was a telephone call for her. It was Susan Wood, calling from Jakarta. “Is this Judy Schwartz?” she screamed. “Is this really Judy Schwartz?”
Sunday evening, Sept. 8, was the Berkowitzes’ 30th wedding anniversary. When the phone rang, Martin Berkowitz picked it up and heard the voice of Susan Wood: “They’re OK. They washed up in Sumatra. I talked to Judy and they’re OK.”
After that, all Wood could hear was screaming, crying and general pandemonium. “They were incoherent with happiness.”
When Schwartz and Berkowitz arrived at the American Embassy in Jakarta, they learned from Wood that their parents had left $500 with her to give to Jasman’s and Simin’s families. But now that Jasman and Simin were safe, there was no need to distribute the money, and Wood asked the women what they wanted her to do.
“The last thing we wanted was to give them any money,” Berkowitz says. Instead, they used it to buy clothes--they had lost everything--and to help pay for the long flight home.
Although Schwartz and Berkowitz were back in Los Angeles and appearing on talk shows within seven days of washing ashore, Jasman and Simin were stuck in Sumatra for two weeks. At first they stayed in a hospital. Then they were questioned for three days by the Sumatra police, who, refusing to believe a cockamamie story about surviving 21 days in the Indian Ocean in an open boat, initially thought they were smuggling drugs.
At the end of September, Simin and Jasman finally hitchhiked back to Carita, where they were surprised to learn that everyone had assumed they were dead. Jasman’s wife, believing she was a widow, had returned to her own village. To help her over her sorrow, her parents had begun to arrange another marriage.
When Axel Ridder, the owner of the Carita Krakatau Beach Hotel, heard that the men had returned, he invited them over, ordered a big meal in the hotel dining room and, as the staff looked on, talked with them all night. “They laughed a lot,” he says. “They looked real skinny. They really had had a hard time.”
According to Ridder, an iconoclastic German expatriate with a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Cologne, they talked mostly about sex. Just as Westerners tend to fantasize about making love under coconut trees to free-spirited native women, Ridder says, Indonesian men fantasize about making love to white women--which was one reason the story of two American women on a boat with two Indonesians made front-page news all over Java. Even Jasman’s father got into the act, bragging that he would soon have grandchildren in America.
The one thing everyone wanted to know at the welcome-back dinner was whether Jasman and Simin had actually made love to the two Americans. When they laughed and answered, “No, no, no,” Ridder teased them. “ ‘Simin,’ I said to him, ‘Why do you not go to the States and have a nice life?’ And they were laughing about it. It was also going on in their minds that they had missed the big chance of their lives. Especially Jasman, because his wife had left him.”
By Ridder’s account, the men would never have hurt the women with the machete. They just wanted some of the food. “Before Jasman threatened them with the knife,” Ridder says, “the girls said, ‘No, no, no.’ Then he pounded on the boat with the knife. And the girls said, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ Jasman was laughing when he told the story.”
Today, Simin says he feels “very sorry about the machete. I would like to ask for forgiveness. But in fact the girls did wrong. They did not share the food.”
“They have a lot of nerve to accuse us of starving them,” Berkowitz says now. “I really feel we helped keep them alive.”
After Judy Schwartz’s and Rickey Berkowitz’s media flash, they received several book and film offers. And in December, NBC optioned the story for a TV movie. As to who would play whom, Schwartz says, “My dad said he wants Paul Newman. Marty Berkowitz wants Jack Lemmon. Doris Berkowitz would be Ellen Burstyn. My mom would be Carol Burnett.” To play herself, Schwartz would love to have Debra Winger, but realistically, she says, “it will probably be a no-name.”
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