Saturday, June 26, 2010

Maldives to Thailand

It has taken us a long while to get this posting together… to some extent because we needed to get perspective on some issues that sit in our heads and hearts (also because we really have been busy!!). Thinking back on that “peaceful and graciously xenophobic Muslim country” the Maldives (quoting Fran, a sailing friend), we remember truly beautiful atolls; a capital city (Male) that can keep you fascinated for hours in its winding, surprisingly beautiful and verdantly treed roads; and friendly, warm citizens: making this a country well worth a visit. Knowledgeable cruisers, however, would probably not choose North Male atoll, the real tourist atoll of the Maldives, which is over-regulated and with most islands not welcoming cruisers (thanks to the resorts, who ‘own’ these islands). Cruisers, generally privileged in having freedom to anchor and enjoy both sea and land, become annoyed at burdensome and inappropriate regulation; this was happily not found at the non-tourist atolls which we remember fondly and recommend highly.

The day we cleared out of the Maldives we were told that cruising permits have now been increased to 90 days and associated cruising permit fees have been dropped. We are really happy for future cruisers and for the new Maldivian approach evidently adopted towards yachties… but we remember with chagrin the tension and stress caused by the torrid approach we had to take to ensure our stay of over 6 weeks (the only time allowed then, and at considerable cost) and avoid getting kicked out the country before any of our guests arrived (paid flights and work leave notwithstanding). We had to clear out of the south of Maldives, sail back towards Chagos, then turn around and clear in again ‘from Chagos / high seas’ further north, at Male.

Looking back on Male as we said farewell to the Maldives, we saw the highest point of this flat, thousand-mile long archipelago: the 6-storey-tall buildings of Male town, and looked hopefully forward to an utterly flat horizon with nothing but sea around us for about 2 weeks. Of course, we only set off when the forecast for the next 5 days promised fair winds; but on a long passage you take what you get…

With the winds in the right direction we used the code zero (the pretty sail!) during the day but replaced it with the headsail at nights (which is more robust and forgiving, giving time for sail changes should a squall hit us).

The boys were a trifle un-handy with the fishing rods this time, letting a couple get away; however we did get enough to try about 6 different tuna recipes, and also landed a barracuda… Rolf using gloves in the photo to avoid those fearsome teeth.
By the way, we sometimes let Rolf come on board and don’t always make him stay the other side of the “fence”! (We put this barricade up for ocean crossings to give us a fighting chance of not simply striding down the sugar-scoop steps and into the dark wet beyond.) Brian, newbie to sailing / fishing / snorkelling / you name it, nonetheless caught a tuna in a gale and soon learned the art of cleaning the fish; not many scraps were let go as Brian seriously enjoyed tuna sashimi! However, a flying fish that came to visit was not contemplated as “food”. These are very darkly coloured in this part of the world, compared with those down in SA waters.
Approaching an area well south of Sri Lanka, we saw a fishing boat change its course to steer directly to us, at speed. We are an unarmed yacht, on the high seas, and with no protective authority to call! We have no knowledge and probably not enough perspective on what to do in situations like this. When fairly close to us they gesticulated and held up a large tuna, presumably for trade (most likely for cigarettes and booze). We pointed out our fishing rods (fortunately not having to discuss our success with these), picked a course that best suited our sail setting and the wind and pushed our throttles to max to outrun them. They looked as disappointed as Irene felt at missing a bit of cultural exchange, but we decided the risks, if not of piracy then at least of our boat being bumped in their coming alongside, were too great to hang around for.
We are seldom bored: during easy sailing there is always a task to do, or books to read/listen to, and a need to keep up on your sleep. It is never a holiday, but it is always awe-inspiring and exhilarating to be completely immersed in this enormous natural world and to be leaving no footprints. Simple sights become majestic: watching gentle rains approaching over the sea is really beautiful as the line of tiny myriad eruptions of water splashes get closer, changing the texture of the surface. The setting sun determined the beautiful colour of this scene.
Typical of the tropics is relatively gentle weather with (sometimes frequent) squalls that come through with little warning; if you cannot see them and avoid them you have to be on your toes to make sail changes before being hit as they can bring gale-force winds which can shred your sails or bring your mast down. They create a choppy sea but generally do not last more than a few hours. This weather we expected.
We had then also heard of Sumatran line storms… basically a whole line of squalls that cannot be escaped, but made the best of (!!?). These we did not want, but it appears one cannot be picky.

We also ended up in a large tropical storm system that went on for days, bringing constant big winds, regular Beaufort F8 gales (up to 40 knots) and occasional winds up to 50 knots. These systems of long duration have a big impact on the sea, building small mountains and deep troughs. Then, superimposed on these waves will be great swells from other directions (e.g. Sri Lanka in this case) where large storms are also being experienced. Of course, these storms bring moisture. Sheets of rain pouring down in a deluge, and due to the wind, not obligingly straight down onto the cockpit roof. Oh, and also… at this stage we were entering the area where the massive ships travelling between Singapore and the Red Sea / Suez make their passage. There were a few consecutive days and nights of this.

General rules of “tri-light only” get ignored in favour of “be seen”. Tri-light, navigation (nav) lights, stern light, steaming light are all switched on…. and a spotlight beamed over the mast and rigging … and in the general direction of the other ship…. just to make sure they see our little yacht in these circumstances! We know that our radar print is very small (not a lot of steel went into the making of Ketoro!) so must do what we can to alert others of our presence.

Catamarans have a curious motion: they sit on top of the water and respond to every movement, big and small…the small are easier and more pleasant to deal with!!! So these are the circumstances for which there are no photos, but visualise cold, SODDEN people (full foul-weather gear and sea boots that appear to have lost its weather-proof-ness) life-jacketed and harnessed onto the boat, struggling to see the shipping either through the storm or on the radar screen (their print hidden by the weather-imprint) while ensuring the boat remains on course with the sea and wind behind her. It is necessary to remain attentive to so many factors simultaneously; remaining unintimidated and not letting anxiety overwhelm you. As sailor-friend Fran says, there is a lot of psychological management required to being on passage. Irene at the worst of these stages, (acknowledging that the following is a terrible thing for a sailor to say) preferred the night sailing…. for the simple reason that she could not SEE the monstrous sea and therefore could focus solely on sailing by the instrument panel and the feel of the boat’s movement. Rolf’s biggest concern was those times when, keeping a big wave on the stern, we were side-swiped by one from a-beam, raising fears of broaching (rolling sideways). Thank heavens for the teas / snacks / meals put together for us by Brian, doing galley duty for days in a mess of a galley/saloon sodden with towels and wet gear, who seemed to take everything in his stride.

(Oh look, there IS a photo… Rolf’s feet after 2 days in his “waterproof” boots. When we had naps, it was in full foul-weather gear.. too tired to take it off, and no sleeping time to waste!)

There were moments: on helm, Irene heard a guttural “YOT YOT YOT” over the VHF and very astutely deduced she was being called by one of the behemoths coming up from behind in the big weather. She responded and tried to establish if our print was being seen on their radar. Her response was not entirely, but a little like: “Ah, good evening sir! Can you please let me know if…” etc. His response sounded like he was clearing his throat of something horrible, but his track on radar showed a huge change in course, going behind us and off to our port side. Not many captains out there speak English, but Rolf says the world-wide strategy of avoiding women drivers is evident.

Another moment: grey twilight, heavy rain, gale force wind, misery (for a start). Rolf on helm, Irene studying the radar tracks of the ships and trying to establish their course. There was a big guy who appeared to be going in the opposite direction down our port side: his nav light, the colour of which would help us to identify which side of him we were looking at, was not able to be seen. He was really close… then suddenly Irene saw green, meaning his starboard (right) side: he had turned in front of us (Brian describes it as: he turned into us. Brian is right: I did not want you to think I was exaggerating). “Nifty footwork” on a boat means turn turn TURN fast, side-on then across the huge waves, and run in the other direction. Very uncomfortable experience.

A comment on nav lights…. The technology of these appears not to have changed since the days of steamships! Thus, one is able to see general ships’ lights from about 8 miles away, from which a fair amount of information is able to be deduced, but their nav lights are of such a low intensity that we only saw them a couple of miles away. They are the important lights for interpretation by others at sea. Steamships travelled slowly, so it was ok… then.

Aside: an AIS (Automatic Identification System) shows other ships your identification, course etc. There was no stock when we left Cape Town. We now have one.

Knowing that after rounding the top of Sumatra we still had the worst of the shipping traffic in the Malacca Straits ahead of us, and with the bad weather not letting up, we knew we were too exhausted to deal with it properly so took shelter in a beautiful lagoon at Pulau We, an island North of Sumatra where anchoring for a short period without clearing into the country is ‘permitted’. How wonderful to see that huge Sumatran land mass slowly appearing out of the rain in the grey dawn and know that a rest was around the corner!
However, before letting us do that we were assaulted by another 40-knot gale where it was funneled down a valley. Anchoring later proved relatively easy after we slowly made our way past the commercial harbour and small island (it would have helped, however, if all chart-marked buoys had been in place). The lagoon was well protected from the big weather so we made use of the time to rest, eat, clean the chaos and dry things (stringing up all the gear and endless saturated towels from the cockpit roof), and re-fuel the tank from jerry cans.
This Sumatran island was very beautiful: hilly, wooded and green, with apparently a primitive village and nearby small town and houses. The fishing boats and many individual locals went out daily, although not far as the weather outside the island would not have been easy for fishing. People were friendly as they went past us in their interesting boats, and two locals were extremely happy to receive the used jerry-cans (cheap ex-phosphoric acid cans from a coca cola plant in Seychelles) while three young men came on board to use our facilities to charge their cell phones. Lesson to Irene (who was too quick in allowing locals on board, although nothing went wrong in this case): never let local people on board… a sad but necessary approach to take and advised by most yachting blogs.
Two nights later we left Sumatra to head for Phuket Island, Thailand. This required that we cross the shipping channel (northern end of the Malacca Straights); a strategy for all small boats in these cases is to cross at 90 degrees. Radar showed sometimes 3 ships from each side simultaneously but we maintained course and speed, as rules require. Seems not everyone follows the same rule system. We kept close eye on a large vessel coming up on our port side and wondered if it either had not seen us or was playing chicken. Good thing we did not follow sea-rules and hold our line, but again turned rapidly out of the way… he was certainly not going to alter course. The raspy sound “Kuddamarruh” I heard on VHF was, on reflection, the skipper probably calling “catamaran” to tell us he was not intending to stick to the rules!
We had to avoid other things on passage: a few floating containers that we hope the owners are not going to hold their breath for (happily they seen as it was day time…) and, the day before arriving in Thailand, we were dealt several treats. Early in the day we had a few whales appear just ahead of us on our port side, travelling across our track. They dived and Irene turned the boat quickly to get off their path…. and then they appeared right on top of us! They provided magnificent views but more collision fears. Some time later we were joined by a pod of dolphins, and the rest of that day we enjoyed beautiful calm weather (in fact no wind); at sunset we switched off engines and had our meal in utter silence on the water, then a swim. The peace was disturbed by the appearance of more ships so we were underway for our last night… in which we were again beset by gale squalls, but at daybreak they ended for us to sail into Ao Chalong Bay, Phuket, and clear into our new country.

The following morning gave us this magnificent Thai sunrise, a welcoming greeting that we have taken to heart and are enjoying this land…. With many more tales to tell in the next blog (coming soon, we promise!)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Stories of Wilson, Gulliver and our travels

We are currently making our way across the big blue Indian Ocean to Thailand: presently half-way between Sri Lanka and Sumatra, enjoying wonderful (read: pleasant in strength and favourable in direction) winds and a current in our favour to enable brisk headway in the right direction. This history did have a little blip in it, where the winds had the right strength but pushed us south of our intended route necessitating some time to make our way back on a different tack. Then again, ahead will undoubtedly be periods of pitiful winds and uncomfortable seas.

Perspective on this: we will be content if we end up making headway at an average speed of about 5 knots… 5 nautical miles per hour. This means that we will traverse the 1500nm (just less than 3000km) from Maldives to Thailand at about the same speed that the “runner” of the family used to jog happily, namely 9km/h. Gives a lot of time to think about this turtle impersonation (im-animalisation??) we are doing, carrying our house around.

Brian, a nephew, is on board with us. Entry into any country requires you to be signed in by the skipper as crew or passenger and we can genuinely say that as crew he is wonderful (learning the sailing ropes at speed; willing, able and showing initiative in the galley; assisting with watches) and as passenger he would have cause to complain! He sacrificed leave and some pay to come and cook, clean, work… but thankfully he seems to be happy and feels that the incidental experiences (sailing across a great stretch of ocean, observing wonderful night skies, catching food, being surrounded by dolphins and …. learning the ropes) are well worth the sacrifices!

We had another passenger recently (definitely not crew). When we found ourselves underwater sawing off our rudder tops after our grounding, we discovered a 5cm long grey-brown fish fiercely protecting the starboard sail drive, which is near to the rudder. At every one of our forays into his territory he would dash out courageously and raise his dorsal fin at us menacingly, before retreating to his space under the hull having communicated his intentions. Well, he travelled with us, hence was given the name Gulliver (inspired suggestion by Geoff). For the next week he went where we went, travelling happily to several new venues and reefs… before he left us. We have no idea when or where he hopped on for the ride (Chagos? Addu Atoll? or perhaps we collided with his home reef….?) and neither do we know when he left us. However, when we returned close to where we had first discovered him we jumped in to give him our customary greeting and… he was gone. We like to believe he found a welcoming new home, as opposed to the alternative theory that he became part of the food chain. We identified him as a Drummer (Kyphosus Bigibbus…. big name for a small fish); these are apparently known to follow ships and are therefore called “rudderfish”… particularly apt in our situation!

Other things are also known to leave us summarily. Things like pegs, buckets, back-scrubbers, soap … sometimes go AWOL (the latter two during our sea-bath series). Well, when something hops off the boat there is an instant cry of “WILSON!” (remember Tom Hanks’ friend in Castaway who/which went missing?) and great efforts must be made to rescue the item (stopping short of making a Wilson of yourself when the boat is underway…).

Other things are tossed off the boat in fits of fury. Particularly eggs bought in the Maldives… which are imported from India and frequently to be found stored in the sun on the pavement patch outside a tiny messy shop. After several offensive experiences with grey, oozing specimens, the permanent crew of Ketoro tossed a dozen into the sea at the Hulhumale anchorage. Ketoro’s skipper, ever on the look-out for goods to scavenge and returning to the boat in the dinghy, was delighted to see potential scavenger-subjects floating past the dinghy. Fortunately he did NOT return gallantly with these “Wilsons”, even though they were the ones that did not explode on hitting the water…. Or he may have had egg on his face!

Skipper Rolf has, on this current passage, been close to tossing things overboard: little items like the generator, water-maker and one of the motors (or selected non-functioning parts of those machines). Two days ago all three malfunctioned simultaneously; a miserable experience on land, even less joyous when so far away from anything and pretty much dependant on these items. The first two have been repaired by our on-board mechanic; the last has a clearly dud regulator… Thank heavens this travelling house of ours is a catamaran: 2 motors and space for a generator!

So we journey with our house on our back to Thailand; the crew asked the skipper why we chose to be a turtle in our mode, rather than a hermit crab: perhaps it would be easier to simply take/borrow different houses at different lands and not do the transport ourselves? His response had to do with the strength and resourcefulness of turtles… but he noted that endless failing machinery could change his mindset.