Caught up in mountainous seas whipped up by Cyclone Isa, the 11 men were rescued from a remote atoll by Australia.
Indonesian fisherman Badco Said Jalating could not hold back the tears as he was reunited with his family this week after floating for more than 30 hours at sea when the fishing boat he was on sank during Cyclone Isa.
Hugging his mother and cradling his young son, 40-year-old Badco wiped away tears as he returned home to Rote Island in eastern Indonesia.
“I kept thinking of my child,” he told Al Jazeera. “When I was swimming at night, I heard my son’s voice calling my name. It gave me strength.”
Badco was one of 11 Indonesian fishermen shipwrecked on Bedwell Island, a remote, exposed and inhospitable stretch of white sand with no natural shelter or freshwater sources, as Cyclone Isa whipped up the seas off northwestern Australia before making landfall as one of the most ferocious storms ever to hit the country.
He had left Rote Island with nine other men, including his brother, on board the Putri Jaya, a typical Indonesian-style fishing boat. Australian authorities say the boat probably sank in “extreme weather conditions” on April 11 or 12. The other members of the crew are thought to have drowned.
Badco’s grief-stricken mother said she had begged her sons not to go to sea because of the weather conditions but they had little choice.
“Like all fishermen here, they have to listen to their boss,” she said. “If the boss says you go, you have to go.”
When Badco finally made it to Bedwell, he was discovered by 10 fellow residents of Rote Island, the crew of the Express 1, which had run aground on the island some 300km (200 miles) west of the Australian coastal tourist town of Broome, on April 12.
Wilhemus Bora’a, the ship’s 40-year-old captain, recalled that Badco was naked after so many hours at sea.
“We gave him clothes,” Wilhemus said. “I feel sad (about what happened to their boat) because they were fishermen like us – poor people.”
The 11 men ended up spending six days on Bedwell before they were spotted by the Australian authorities conducting routine air surveillance and later winched from the island.
Wilhemus, who has four children including a one-year-old baby, said they had no food and were drinking salt water. They did, however, manage to make a simple shelter from the boat’s debris.
“The wind took us until we ran aground on that atoll,” he said. “There was nothing there. Our boat was broken and we didn’t eat anything for six days.”
Indonesian authorities said they were grateful to Australia for rescuing the men but said they had gone to sea without a permit.
“If they had asked for a permit, we would have told them about the weather,” said Merry Foenay, the head of the fishing authority in West Nusa Tenggara where Rote is located. “If the weather is not good, we will not issue the permit.”
As their boats crashed around in the giant waves, the men doubted they would make it home again.
Badco recalled that Putri Jaya was overwhelmed by the powerful winds and capsized. At that point, the crew was still together.
“I grabbed my brother’s arm and I hung onto the boat,” he remembered. “But a log hit me and I was separated from my brother.”
Then another wave crashed into him.
“I lost my grip to the boat. I couldn’t do anything any more.”
Without a lifejacket to keep him afloat, Badco said he conserved energy by following the current and alternating the use of his legs and arms.
Reunited with the son whose image had kept him going through the darkness, Badco hugged him tight.
“I will still go to sea but I will watch the weather first,” he said.
With reporting by Eliazar Ballo in Rote Island, Indonesia.