The island of Semau takes twenty-five minutes to get to by one the wooden skiffs that depart several times each day from the port of Tenau on the western tip of Timor. Two weekends ago, I accompanied my girlfriend Sari on a short trip there. She was technically traveling for work, I technically for leisure, and both of us to see if we couldn’t also find an excuse to move things along.
Anchored halfway across the narrow strait between the two islands is a Chinese fishing boat—the Fu Yuan Yu 831, abandoned since its interdiction in late 2017 and now covered in rust and seagrowth. Since returning from the trip, I have done some research and learned that illegal boats like these are quite common throughout Indonesian waters, risking similar fates for a chance at a lucrative catch. At the time of its seizure by Indonesian authorities, the Fu Yuan Yu 831 was reportedly carrying 35 tons of fish, including hundreds of protected tiger sharks. I saw a picture of the carcasses online, piled high with their bellies slashed open and entrails oozing out. The image itself didn’t hit me especially hard, but the mere thought of the smell that must have smacked the photographer square in the face made me sick to my stomach.
Apparently, Indonesia’s minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Susi Pudjiastuti, had previously and famously ordered all confiscated foreign vessels to be blown up or burnt. In 2016, 23 were accordingly disposed of by the Indonesian navy before the practice was retired in favor of just letting the damn things sink. I don’t know if Mr. Susi himself had ever set foot in the dank cargo hold of one of these vessels. But if so, then I can imagine at least one reason why he gave that splashy order: maybe he felt that only fire could purge the stench.
I also learned from my research that the Fu Yuan Yu 831 was caught carrying the flags of six different nations—an attempt at evading fishing regulators and other maritime watchdogs. This strikes me as a particularly futile and laughable move, seeing as there are enormous Chinese characters, along with the words “Fu Zhou,” emblazoned on the stern of the boat. I don’t see how flying, say, a Vietnamese flag could fool anyone about its origin. Maybe I just don’t know enough about how the fishing and maritime worlds work. Maybe these ships are built, named, and slathered in paint by the Chinese before they get shipped off to crews in other countries. Maybe there is something to the flag trick. But it clearly wasn’t enough to keep the Fu Yuan Yu 831 and plenty of other illicit craft from meeting their watery ends.
I knew none of this backstory, though, passing by a shipwreck-to-be in a little fishing boat on a fine morning in mid-June. The water was calm and blue. A light breeze was blowing and Sari was wearing sandals and squinting and struggling to keep her long hair out of her face. At the time, seeing the ship still above water, decrepit and grimy, gave me a creepy sensation—as of something obviously outcast, even cursed, slowly but surely poisoning otherwise clean and pure environs. The crew of the skiff didn’t just steer clear of it either. We pulled up alongside of it—so close that I could have climbed up a rope dangling over the side of the ship’s hull—and spent several minutes just idling there in the shade and staring up.
The rest of the weekend was nothing but time-effacing purity: small villages, Sunday service, beehives and honey, coconuts, the shy tenderness of newfound companionship, coral, campfires, sunburns, sand, seawater up the nose. In the meantime, the Fu Yuan Yu 831 sank, and quickly too. After more than a year and a half of mouldering in the strait, it began to rapidly take on water this past month. And by the time we passed it again at dusk on Sunday, this time from a distance and without stopping, the water level had crept a good ten feet up the side of the hull so that the the telling Chinese characters were at last beneath the surface—at last hidden permanently from view.