KOTA KINABALU: A strong smell of Tiger Balm broke a streak of bad luck for Tommy Lam Wai Yin and three others after they drifted past at least 25 ships in the South China Sea with none sighting or helping them.
They came close to hitting land off Kota Belud and later Labuan but winds pushed them away.
Then, nine days into their ordeal came the smell of balm. With it came their rescue in the waters off Layang-Layang.
"I had given up hope on the eighth day. I told the others to prepare for death. I prayed to my grandmother asking her for help.
"I promised that I would be good and take care of her great grandchildren," said the father of two in an interview with select media.
Not long after the prayer, he said he caught a strong whiff of Tiger Balm and thought it was a sign.
"I'm an atheist but now I believe there's definitely a higher power," he said yesterday as he recovered from the shock of his nightmare following his return with Spaniards David Hernandes Gasulla, 29, Martha Miguel, 30, and resort worker Armella Ali Hassan, 23.
It was just after the prayer that a Vietnamese fishing vessel spotted them and pulled them on board, ending the nightmare which began while they were on a boat ride back to Simpang Mengayau (in the northern tip of Borneo) from Pulau Balambangan on May 2.
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Their journey was filled with bad luck from the start, said Lam, an avid sea sports enthusiast.
As they left the island at about 5.30pm, they were immediately hit by strong waves.
"A huge wave threw all four of us off the boat and it capsized," Lam said, adding he then realised that he had not put on the boat's engine control switch on his wrist.
"I could not stop the engine as I had to save Armella, who could not swim," he recalled.
"When we finally got the boat right side up and climbed on, we realised that all our handphones were already soaked and that the radio equipment was washed out.
Armella, who had her handphone stored inside a waterproof bag, was so traumatised that she did not tell them about it until the third day. By then, the battery was dead.
"Just about then, we were spotted by a search plane so I was confident that help was coming," he said.
But back luck struck again. When a marine boat went to the location, they had drifted some 1km away.
"I just don't know why no one could see us. David even burnt a life jacket to attract attention," he said.
As the boat neared the shores of Kota Belud and Labuan only to be pushed back by the waves, Lam had even wanted to swim six kilometres to Labuan.
"I tied a rope around myself and got into the water but David and Martha pulled me back as there was a shark around," Lam added.
During the nine-day ordeal, he said they tried to stay positive.
"I told everyone that there were many fishermen around and people would see us and help would come. But it did not," he said.
Talking about his survival, Lam said he, David and Martha stripped because they were suffering from blisters and their clothes were cutting while Armella did not. She prayed constantly instead.
Armella refused to eat the raw fish and only drank condensed water droplets on the fifth day.
"Two flying fish landed on our boat. We also used our waterproof bags to catch little fish that came close to our boat. I had a bad tummy after that," he said.
Lam, a Chinese national who is married to Sabahan Carrine Ng, is now enjoying every meal.
He said he would go back to sea but now would never pilot a boat by himself.
"Safety will be all-important from now on. All my boats will have emergency equipment," he said.