Sunday, September 12, 2010

Luxury and Indulgence compared with Privilege and Opportunity

We have now been sailing for exactly a year and during that time had numerous friends join us on the boat and had communication with many more. Our friends being generally of the outspoken variety, do not hesitate to hurl insults and heap abuse and the nature of their chirping would suggest that we wallow in a life of indulgence and luxury aboard our yacht, idling away the hours sipping cocktails, being fanned by palm fronds and admiring nubile wenches cavorting on sun drenched beaches (this would of course be me observing the crew!).

Those that have actually joined us on the boat do grudgingly admit to new insights into the relentlessly physical nature of life aboard. However, they remain stubbornly dismissive of most of my pitiful and heart wrenching laments – so I must lobby my cause here.

We are indeed privileged to have been able to briefly put on hold the hardship of earning an income while we take our ‘gap year’, and to enjoy enough fitness and health to spend that time on our boat in order to grasp this opportunity.

Because you are so smart you will have noticed that the key words of the venture are privilege and opportunity – not luxury and indulgence!

Consider your daily long, hot shower followed by fluffy dry towel and freshly laundered clothes and compare this with the meager trickle, cold, at the best of times or no shower at all when fresh water is rationed or we have no fresh water (i.e. when you have a Sea Recovery watermaker that has been under repair - under warranty – for the past three months). Scarcity of fresh water necessitates jumping into the sea off the back of the boat wielding a bar of soap, which does not lather in sea water! Followed by a wipe down with a multipurpose towel that has seen too many purposes that day and clothes that only pretend to be dry. Nothing is ever really dry. But occasionally our sea bath is accompanied by the magic of dense bioluminescence of thousands of tiny stars, down to the depth of your feet - that simply cannot be captured on film. Lying back in the dark seawater and making ‘snow angels’ that stir up millions of luminescent stars and then emerging to find some of these brilliant lights sticking to you. Having the opportunity to experience such a memorable event makes all the cold boat-showers no hardship at all.

Never was an invention more worthy of a knighthood than the flushing masterpiece of Sir Thomas Crapper and the 110mm diameter water borne sewage system. A simple flush makes it all disappear. Forever. Guaranteed! Sheer genius! Why, oh why do boat builders inflict on us 38mm pipes that are devoid of any significant water pressure? And that pipe is 38mm for only a brief instant before constricting to nothing by scaling, deposition and those special installation kinks. I’m afraid I cannot find a positive opportunity to balance this one! Except perhaps the profound relief when all the boat systems combine and make the fish happy.

Picture yourself striding through your spacious house, flicking the remote and easing into your air-conditioned car, flicking another switch for the automated garage doors and proceeding apace towards your selected gratification of the moment (noting in passing that you are dry, freshly groomed and not breathless). I on the other hand suffer the relentless hassle of launching the dinghy, loading and boarding this gyrating beast in the prevailing seas, navigating to the rusty pier where I scale the steel girders, secure the dinghy amongst the congestion of dinghies already there and offer up a quick prayer that some idiot does not untie mine for fun or in neglect (or steal my outboard motor); walking, walking some more, did I mention walking? perhaps some motorcycling if I’m lucky (or feeling lucky!). Any journey onto land inevitably involves buying provisions which means loading up the motorcycle like a beast of burden, back to the dinghy, load up that unstable beast by lowering fragile packets from the pier, or perhaps the added excitement of a beach launch through the surf – made even more memorable by the tide having receded leaving 200m of exposed mud, back to the yacht (hopefully still there) unloading uphill onto the yacht (with the fragile packets now adding the special challenge of being wet), and then hoisting up the bloody dinghy (125kg of motor, fuel tank and boat). Eeiish!!

But then the dinghy also introduces us to the privilege of racing playful dolphins that swerve and dive only inches from the boat; discovering, diving and snorkeling fantastic reefs; fishing the gentleman’s way despite the yacht being at anchor; exploring caves and hongs and deserted lagoons; and perversely, being able to hoist the dinghy aboard and enhance the feeling of independence and readiness for the next destination.

Dishwashing – for years our dishwasher on land had all the fun. As the non-cook on board I have the opportunity to re-discover and appreciate the ruthless efficacy of dishwashing soap and the sensuous pleasure of caressing the grease and gunk off the non-stick frying pan in a foamy explosion of sparkly soap bubbles: ..… Ah! how travel broadens the mind and opens new horizons!!

The internet and computers – fortified by a mighty army of anti-virus, anti-malware, anti-spyware and firewalls; naturally all updated constantly. And I mean constantly, because our internet connection speed does not allow for anything more than serving the update demands of these masters! Experts predict dire consequences of infected and therefore non-functioning computers that will inevitably result from anything less than code red vigilance at wi-fi spots and public internet access in Thailand. The result is a computer so slowed down with conflicting and self-serving protection software that it does not function in any event. I’m trying to find the positive here but the best I can do is promote Apple or cheapos that you can throw away!

Drinks on deck at sunset, in splendid isolation, with spectacular views and balmy breezes – Yes! I love it - so go ahead and be envious. I offer you only the small consolation that perhaps I lacked the fortitude to cart the drinks along the tortuous dinghy route described above. Yeah, right!

Changing a light bulb. Our spare bulbs are stored in a box in the starboard engine compartment – in order to get to engine, remove bedding and mattress and suffer the wrath of the crew; put foot into filthy water in engine compartment bilge – find sponge and clean out bilges; note that the v-belt tension for the sea water cooling pump is loose – fetch spanners; tighten stud to tighten v-belt; give daily portion of blood after nicking hand on sharp edge; over-tighten stud and twist it off completely; discover new words and concepts; jury rig a webbing strap and cable ties around an engine mount to get some tension on the v-belt. Note to self – arrange for first class, English speaking diesel mechanic with access to machine shop to remove bracket with offending broken stud and return quickly bearing superb workmanship and negligible invoice! Find bulb. Return to light fitting to find it corroded solid. Fetch pliers to apply judicious force. Discover pliers are rusted solid. Get penetrating oil and Q20 / WD40 and apply also to the side cutters, the non-shifting shifting spanner and to the machete. Rust has made machete blunt – sharpen this (at the back edge of the boat because you are smart and have learnt, the hard way, that rust particles cannot easily be removed from gelcoat). Discover that rust nevertheless still falls onto and stains gelcoat. Drink Beer. Drink more beer and revel in the feeling of a job well done. By now it is night and you wonder why it is dark even with the light switch on. Luxury and indulgence! Hah! (True story).

Anchorage and passage – safety is a 24/7 pre-occupation. In foul weather, a stable house would invite you to snuggle down with a good book / DVD / partner and perhaps emerge a little later for a refreshing stroll to the nearby coffee shop. Instead we snuggle deeper into smelly foul-weather clothes and wet boots, worry about absolutely everything from being run down by a ship, suffering major breakages, dragging anchor, generally cocking up something – to not having anything warm to eat or drink. However, I admit that the privilege of being able to move our entire ‘cottage at the beach’ to a completely new beach in a few hours - with new panorama, new diving, new people and new places to explore – and fishing en route – provides great opportunity.

Travelling to new countries, locations and experiences. You have a computer online and can find out anything, you have a telephone that works and know who to call to fix whatever and you have a car that enables you to meet face to face. You enjoy the therapeutic pleasure of regaling your friends with accounts of frustrating issues while drinking copious amounts of beer that you got cheaply from a little place you found. On an overseas vacation, everything is temporary and can wait until you get back! That is luxury! The price we pay includes comfort and convenience and the familiarity of home. The countries we have visited – some of the courtesy flags we hoisted while in each of these are in the photo above (South Africa, Mozambique, Bassas de India (France), Madagascar, Seychelles, Chagos, Maldives, Sumatra, Thailand and Malaysia) each impose their own brand of bureaucracy, offer their own selection of supplies and facilities – or not; but in any event, all on terms and in a language foreign to our frame of reference. They do however form part of a kaleidoscope of experiences and opportunities to explore the country, interact with the people, learn something (not least of which patience, tolerance and humility), and enjoy the various activities – everything from the modes of travel, the food?, the diving, the humour, the interactions with people, to the natural beauty and features of the environment. Luxury and indulgence is certainly not a feature of our daily fare, but fantastic opportunities for life and experience certainly are and that is a privilege.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A need for land and for sea

Recently, we have blogged about the joy of life on land in Phuket (made so interesting with people contact in the busy towns) and in the glorious natural environment of the uninhabited surrounding islands. Sailing in these sheltered areas in this SW monsoon season is so easy: protection from storms which thus provide little challenge; safe anchorage to be found everywhere and Phuket island offers several marinas for berthing the boat… and the opportunity to be idle and pampered with shore power, shore water and easy access.

However, we have tried to be more active than idle. Chatting to others and watching the behaviour of the many cruisers here, it is clear that there is a very definite risk of losing confidence in yourself and your boat and have your sailing skills deteriorate if you languish too long off the “real” sea and so it is necessary to put yourself out there and sail! On top of that, after a while we find that we miss the beauty and isolation of the sea.

Hence our choice to again sail to Malaysia recently to be able to renew our visas (instead of the costly option of flying there). Sometimes it was only us in our world of huge sky and sea, with only a small strip of land on the horizon, and sometimes we were happy to share the watery world with other yachts and fishing boats.

These seas offer different challenges: those of avoiding the numerous fishing flags that mark the fish traps and buoyed-up sections of fishing nets (and thereby avoid getting propellers fouled up in the nets)… and also avoiding the small-boat fishermen… and bad spirits! Local coastal fishermen use long-tail boats for their work, a colourful sight as the scarves on their bows flutter in prayer and apparently release bad spirits. Occasionally we see a long-tail, off to one side, suddenly accelerate and come rushing towards our boat to cross the bow with only metres to spare. Evidently they believe that if they pass in front of a yacht, in close enough proximity, the bad spirits from their boat will leave them and jump onto the yacht!

A more sobering reality is that some of the fishermen apparently pass dangerously close to the front of the yachts in order to force a collision and thus acquire a new long-tail boat in the ensuing claims, which are heard in local forums.

The large fishing boats are less threatening, if more intimidating in that it would be us at the bottom of the sea in the event of a collision! They are also more visible by day… and the horizon glows end-to-end with fishing lights at night. There are far too many fishing boats for these small, over-fished waters.

We were told that much foreign aid after the 2004 tsunami took the form of a new fishing fleet, and associated wages and diesel money until 2011, when foreign aid dries up. There is nothing left in these waters to provide a living for so many in the fishing industry and we fear for the fishermen from next year. Let it be said, however, that Ketoro boys (Rolf and John recently) caught a massive barracuda in these same waters… after cutting loose a magnificent tail-walking sailfish!

When dealing with storms, your world becomes very small: just you, the boat, waves and wind, and the business of getting through it safely. In this passage to Malaysia, we were spared real storms and enjoyed alternately a wonderful calm world and then superb sailing winds… but one morning on leaving an overnight anchorage we were surprised to find the group of fishermen nearby on a set of rafted fishing boats at anchor, gesticulating to us and conveying the message that the waves were too big out there, and we should rather remain in the sheltered anchorage. Unsettling as that was (they work here and know these seas, don’t they? So we should heed their advice!) we ventured forth, resolving to return within an hour if they were proved correct. Well, the sail was brisk and not very comfortable, but we were glad of the opportunity for some hard sailing again and felt great when entering Pulau (Malay word for Island) Langkawi in Malaysia the next day.

Turns out land exploration in Langkawi is as interesting as it is in Thailand and deserves far more time than the two separate weekends we have devoted to it so far. The charm of the rural setting, complete with water buffalo grazing alongside the main roads, has made us determined to explore this area further. Pulau Langkawi Geopark, a World Heritage Site, is spectacularly beautiful when seen from the cable car that is set up in two stages, while the bridge is an amazing feat of engineering… and anyone with vertigo is advised to keep looking ahead and up!

On our return from Malaysia we cleared into Thailand again, thus starting the clock on another one-month visa, and waited impatiently for friends to visit. Andrea and Brian, Veronica and John spent about 8 days at a resort north of Patong Beach on Phuket island, but subjected themselves to our tour plans for land and sea, giving up their air-conditioned hotel comforts for two nights and three days on Ketoro.

The land side of the visit included Phuket Old Town, Wat (Temple) Chalong and a poignant 10m-high Tsunami Memorial metal sculpture called Jitt Jakawan (Heart of the Universe). Another stop was the Big Buddha. This stands proud on the highest hill of Phuket; it had gazed East and over us for many days in Ao Chalong (Bay) so a visit was called for. The statue, 45m high and covered by 135 tons of Burmese white marble, is still under construction; the enormity of the task and the quantities of materials is staggering, and the project is funded entirely by donations. The Big Buddha is accompanied by an already-completed 12m high, 22-ton, imposing brass Buddha statue.

Land travel was undertaken in Tuk-tuks (allowing us to chat and sight-see, leaving the stress of driving in crazy traffic and breaking down at the top of a steep hill to our driver) and on scooters: yes, despite Rolf’s “Driving in Thailand” blog our friends were brave enough to try scooter travel. Happily none us of ended the day with injuries beyond the head impaled on a mirror that is visible in this photo….!
The freedom and independence offered by scooter travel is wonderful; we went off the regular tourist tracks and were able to enjoy roads along beaches and through busy little villages and stop at a roadside market we happened upon which offered a huge (and largely exotic, to western tastebuds) variety of foods to sample and savour… or reject.

Thailand surprises visitors with its range of shopping experiences and the incredible variety of fruits and vegetables available. We subjected our guests to as much as we could, including local fruits rambutans, dragon fruit and the durian fruit, famed for its rich, exotic taste and pungent rotten smell (the word “subjected” has this fruit in mind: hotels refuse to keep it on their premises!)
Menus always provide interest: from the variety of new tastes and food-types to (when an English text is offered) the spelling and hence odd associations! We could not recommend the tuna “sandwic” option in this menu.
When it came to their time on the sea, Ketoro obliged our guests as she generally does, and tested this next group of stalwarts: the electric halyard winch gave up, forcing skipper Rolf to supervise ‘crewmen’ Brian and John as they applied brute force to the manual winch and manfully raised the heavy main sail (happily, the fault fixed itself and the electric winch worked fine the next day). We were lucky to have amazingly good sailing winds that carried us off to the magnificent islands of Phang Nga Bay with their lagoons, hongs, caves and tunnels to negotiate in the dinghy; followed by great snorkeling off Ko Hae (Coral Island).

The Sea Recovery water-maker being in the same state of disrepair it has been for the past few months (all under warranty of course), we were cautious with water usage but our new canvas water-collector did a great job. A 3-day requirement for water is not particularly onerous, but nonetheless some decided to have a sea-bath and were delighted to be swimming with millions of tiny bio-luminescent sea creatures. As with previous visitors to the boat, the heat was oppressive and some found it better to sleep on the trampoline, but the best use for the trampoline, of course, is “drinks-on-deck”. Happily Ketoro managed to avoid being beset by bad spirits from fishing boats (instead, enjoying the most incredible fresh prawns from one of them), but the drinks on deck experiences provided spirit of another kind.

We are now about to embark on some serious land visiting: to land-locked Pretoria to be with friends and family for a month. Our sea home is not a “lock-up-and-go”: preparing it for our time away has included taking everything out of lockers and out of bags to dry things off before returning them to their storage space; in the process we have had to address issues of mould on most items, ditto rust … even on items not exposed to the sea (eg un-openable zips of wetsuits and equipment bags) and a scuba tank compressor that has compleley succumbed to corrosion and manages only some desultory flatulance. All canvases are safely inside a cabin, the food lockers have been cleared of resident weevils (lest we be met by batallions of them on our return), the dinghy is covered (required swimming in the marina water, taking care to avoid the monitor lizard and lion fish that live under the pontoons), the fuel from jerry cans has been poured into the diesel tank (to decrease the volume of air above the fuel and thereby minimise condensation), the water in the water tank has been treated and most importantly the lines that secure Ketoro to the jetty have been checked and re-checked lest she loses her hold on land.