WEST SIDE STORIES: A big boatload of adventure

[The annual West Side Stories Grand Slam competition, hosted by Petaluma’s Dave Pokorny, was held Wednesday, Dec. 6, at the Mystic Theatre. Out of 13 competing storytellers, all delivering true five-minute stories inspired by the theme “When We Were Young,” the audience selected Brandon Spars as the first-place winner. Here is the story he told with impressive animation and commitment. Readers should be warned that the subject matter, while hilarious, includes some strong language, and situations some might find, well, kind of disgusting and pretty darn gross.]

BRANDON SPARS:?This is a story about a youthful thirst for adventure.

Thirty years ago, I was a tender twenty, and I was a volunteer English teacher, in Indonesia. I was boarding a ferry that was going to take me from the island of Sumatra to the island of Bali, which should have taken about 30 hours. When I got into the hold of the ship, there in capital letters, read a sign – “MAXIMUM CAPACITY 50 PEOPLE.”

I began to count.

And I stopped at 150.

And that was just on one side of the hold.

If this happened now, I would get off the boat. But at the time, I chuckled. This is what I found so thrilling and exciting, so liberating about living in Indonesia. The total disregard for technicalities. Technicalities such as “MAXIMUM CAPACITY 50 PEOPLE.”

Just six-and-a-half hours into the journey, it happened. What happens when you get more than 150 people on a boat that’s supposed to hold 50?

[Grins out at the audience, where a few people shout out the words “It sinks!” He shakes his head and continues]

The toilet jams.

Now, the toilet was little more than a hole in the deck, leading down a sewer pipe directly into the ocean. When I tried to use the bathroom, I couldn’t see the hole. It was buried under human sewage.

Several older women tried to take maters in to their own hands, and they began to knock insistently on a door labeled “CREW ONLY.” And eventually, a bearded man – I assume he was the captain – opened the door, and they issued a barrage of complaints, about the lack of places to sit, and the condition of the toilet.

He just slammed the door in their faces.

She caught my attention, as she paced to-and-fro in front of the room with the toilet. She was young and beautiful. She wore a flowing white gown, with a matching white Muslim hijab.

I knew she had to go to the bathroom.

Finally, she slipped inside.

Now, when two waves meet, they don’t cancel each other out. They add their volume together. It’s physics. There must have been one wave from the bough, and one wave from the stern, and they met directly underneath that sewer pipe, and together went right up it!

[Makes a sound something like “chub-dub BOOSH!”]

The door was nearly blown off its hinges! And a briny mist filled the hold.

The passengers began to cough and gag! And then, coming out of the mist, no longer white, was the woman. I remember how she stood there for a moment, perfectly still, her arms outstretched, her mouth a cavernous hole, and a strand of sewage hanging down, slowly connected to her lower lip. And that was when she began to wail.


Several passengers ran to assist her, but … WOAH! Bowel movements covered her like an infestation of leeches!

Probably in shock, and just trying to seek help, she began to come at us, wailing.


And when she drew near, a bunch of the passengers surged from that side of the boat to the other. Thereupon, slowly – like a reanimated corpse – she turned, and made her new approach.


And when she got near again, all the passengers surged back to the other side.

She pivoted, and kept coming. She just … kept … coming!

What we didn’t realize was what was happening up at the helm of the ship. With more than 150 people going back and forth, and back and forth, we had completely over-powered the steering system, causing the boat to spiral dangerously off course.

Oh, NOW the captain wanted to engage with us!

He was suddenly in our midst, grabbing people and hurling them down onto the stainless steel benches, instructing them to be calm. And then … he saw her. And he was at great pains to try imagine what could have possibly happened to her. No one had ever experienced something like this before.

Suddenly, there was a sickening grating sound.

And then, the entire boat began to shudder, followed by …

[Makes a sound something like “Schwiiiiiiiiissssssskkkkkkkkkk-unkhhhhh!”]

… and we lurched to a complete standstill. We had run aground.

Well, eventually we had to be rescued by another boat, and we were taken to a town on the north coast of Java. Where there appeared an article in the local newspaper, about us. The headline read, “Passengers call for stricter enforcement of capacity limits.”

Interestingly, there was a statement in the article from the indignant captain. Many times he’d made this journey, with many more passengers. The problem with us, he said, was that we were particularly full of s---. He answered our complaints with an appeal of his own that passengers should be required to s--- before getting on the boat. And his plight should serve as an example to ship captains around the world!

Well, I’m sure that over the last thirty years Indonesia has come into full compliance with all rules and regulations.

And me, far from seeing it as thrilling or exciting, I now see the failure to obey a warning as a failure of the imagination. I’ve learned that all warnings contain some wisdom, and wisdom is always based on experience.

So whether a sign reads “MAXIMUM CAPACITY 50,” or “PASSENGERS MUST S--- BEFORE BOARDING THE BOAT,” or “DO NOT SIT ON THE CROCODILES,” or “NO DRUNKEN DANCING NEAR THE EDGE,” or “REMAIN BEHIND THE PLASTIC SHIELD WHEN VIEWING THE APE,” I remind myself that there’s probably a true and unimaginable story behind it.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette