Monday, June 27, 2011

Moving house (or: Stories of a Passage)

It was time to move house. We had to take ourselves and our home from west (peninsular) Malaysia to East Malaysia (Borneo). You understand: when we move house the moving process must accommodate us leading our lives as normally as possible on board the cargo in transit, and we can never stop for a re-think or breather or loo or coffee-break…. Here, then is the story of this latest house move, which took place over 4 days and 500 nautical miles.

The Plans

Destination: Santubong River, near Kuching, Sarawak state, Malaysia, Borneo… a distance of 500nm.

Expectation: 4 days, so meal plans were made and provisioned accordingly.

Weather would determine how to tackle the trip; reports (from any number of different sources: GRIB files, windguru website, other yachties) predicted no wind at the start, then wind coming in from the south from the first evening, predicted between 10 and 20 knots, and remain so for the trip.

Ugh. So this meant we would, when the wind came, have it almost “on the nose”; this is very hard to sail and brings the waves straight onto you so makes it horrible and uncomfortable.

So our strategy was…. On day 1, get as far south as possible, then when the winds were due to set in and become stronger we could pick up a more easterly course and hopefully actually get to sail and be more comfortable. This course also gave us a reasonable distance off some isolated Indonesian islands where some pirate activity had been reported and take us south of the restricted areas around some of the oil fields.

Watches were set up as 6 hours on 6 hours off during the day and 4 hour watches during the night (shorter during the nights when it is harder to concentrate for a long time, and much more concentration is required). We also had to avoid clusters of small buoys that indicate the presence of fishing nets… these, early on the bright first day, were easy to see with their attendant boat…

How it happened

Day 1: as expected. Horrible endless engine noise (no soft swooshing sounds of peaceful sailing) but smooth sea and normal living… regular dinner plates! Then, as expected, the wind came in late afternoon and it became crash – bang into waves that became increasingly larger; hard work, exhausting, at one stage accompanied by an electrical storm (which means you run around putting all the small electronics inside the microwave and the oven for protection in these “Faraday’s cages”).

What was not expected was the amount of shipping traffic on the lanes that we had to cross over when leaving the Malaysian shoreline. First the shipping between Singapore and Bangkok / Vietnam and then shipping between Singapore and Hong Kong and Japan.
With heart firmly in mouth Irene abandoned the make-south strategy, put throttles on full and headed directly across the channel between the monsters bearing down on us from left and right (crossing at 90 degrees is the recognised way for small vessels to cross shipping lanes)…. And was secretly delighted when the changed engine sound woke skipper Rolf (off watch) and brought him to the helm too!

Day 2: Wind was strong enough and at an angle feasible to try to sail so it was time to change course a few degrees to the east. Full sails went up and we turned so the sea came onto our starboard bow (i.e. front right!). This worked and engines could go off, but it was tight sailing with leeway of 20 degrees due to monsoon currents and the boat skidding along on a close haul; however, we worked hard at it and the sails stayed up for at least the next 48 hours and we flew! With winds above 20 knots (much more in the squalls), the boat speed was never below 8 knots.


Man, that sea was fiercely uncomfortable. The monsoon current was a full 1.5 knots against us, the waves came at us from all directions and we could not move anywhere (or in fact perform any functions) on the boat without grabbing the handholds, unable to do any reading or cleaning or cooking or normal boat-work, unable to do anything but live through it. The sea broke over the bows and up through the trampolines in explosions of spray; it often splashed over the coach roof right up to the windscreen; it crashed over the side-decks, and into the cockpit and drenched us at the helm; it made a constant churning pool on the port (lee side) sugar-scoop, saturated the whole boat and dressed everything in wet, slippery, grimy salt. Wet, wet, everywhere: us, the boat, floors, towels, (a pile of wet towels has a very distinctive smell (stink?)- and dried, salt-encrusted towels are equally horrible…)
Washing or drying a foot is sorely challenging in a pitching and rolling shower stall, and grab-rails barely help you to remain closer to vertical than horizontal. Unfortunately both of the heads hatches have proved ineffective against solid sea coming over the top, and the bathroom floors spent the time awash in sea water. Sitting on the loo is a difficult enough task while clutching a grab rail; it becomes a hot, sweaty seated dance as the boat pitches and rolls around, swishing the loo contents up and around the bowl and perilously close to vulnerable naked parts…reminding of the need to flush regularly to avoid unpleasant bombardment! You are hard-pressed to maintain a sense of humour when a torrent of salt water pours in through the leaking hatch and over your head whilst poised in this delicate predicament!

Then the toilets both stopped flushing: detective work established that the toilet flush seawater inlets had become air-locked by the boat’s violent motion and periodic airborne manoeuvres; the air-lock then prevented any flushing – see above for consequences. Addressing this problem requires a calm approach and controlled application of the deck wash hose carefully led in from outside at the front deck, through galley hatch, into saloon and down into the hulls and within the plumbing in the bilges to pump water into the offending pipes. We do feel sorry for friends on a stripped down and very fast trimaran yacht who have nothing but a long drop (which in such seas provides sea-water enemas and makes toilet paper superfluous) and we refrain from griping about our problems with air-locks in the piping of our electric toilets! A modified long-drop strategy on Ketoro would have us balanced precariously with centres of gravity outside the boat…. as it tilted…

We needed to eat. The planned menu was scrapped in favour of bowls of food that needed little preparation (pity the chef in a humid, pitching galley) and that were easy to eat. A bowl of all-in potato / tomato / cheese / cucumber salad for lunch was too much for un-hungry people; supper became an omelette stuffed with the same potato salad… and supper the next day involved tinned lentils and ratatouille. Gourmet stuff indeed!

Morning cereal was blown all over the cockpit by the wind; a cup of coffee was always welcome, but blew away as it tilted to your lips! We looked a delight: cockpit a mess, clothes and bodies and faces dishevelled and delicately patterned with streaks of coco pops and coffee, hairstyles both Elvis coiffures (the wind was from the right; hair styled up and away from the right side….)

Soft swooshing sounds of sailing? Forget it! No engine sounds, but the sea and boat are very noisy in these conditions. In search of sanity, Andrew Lloyd Webber rose above the noise of the crashing, banging and slamming under the hull. Irene tried dancing in the cockpit to Bruce Springsteen but the need to hold onto something resulted in some weird and violent pole-dancing…! When the stirring rhythm and lyrics could no longer be contained by mere foot tapping and succeeded in rousing the beast in the skipper, they provoked bravado filled challenges to the storm gods to ‘bring it on!’ (quietly of course, in case the gods were listening).

Mostly, however, was heaviness as fatigue set in, with little inclination for frivolity… and a weary shrug when it was your turn to go on watch. We were dependant on the radar display (below, right) and AIS information (left: but note that many of the pink dashes, indicating ships, do not have an AIS triangle icon displayed: this goes off and on and demands constant attention.) The ship (triangle below, behind our boat icon) changed course for us after we called him up because we were under sail and could manoeuvre only with difficulty.
Counting our blessings: for a change there was no need for head-in-the-engine compartment and we had a great sail, made excellent time with the good speeds, sustained no damage (we had a number of squalls come through but managed to reef in time to protect the boat). When all the rally boats were finally in, about 50% had suffered damage to boats, rigging or sails.

It was great to be part of a greater community of sailors sharing similar experiences and one yacht ran a “sched”: scheduled radio communications and reports on the SSB radio twice a day, through which we monitored the positions and experiences of the others who used the system. One evening we heard reports of yachts behind (west of) us experiencing an electrical storm, so this prior warning gave us time to reef the sails… but as we went forward to deal with the sails we were delighted to be joined by a pod of a dozen small Irrawaddy dolphins, shooting in off the waves to have fun on the boat’s bow-wave: a good omen!

After noon on the last day the wind died, sun appeared and engines went on: this time we were pleased to use them, as the boat’s batteries needed charging, we could run the water-maker…. and do the washing of endless awful towels and some smelly clothes.

Picking the neighbourhood

So it was time to put the anchor down and treat our exhausted selves to a night’s sleep. We were now off Borneo Island, which is huge, heavily treed and mountainous: most appealing. We found a good looking anchorage off a little island off the coast of Borneo at about 5pm and dropped the anchor, thinking to put our feet up.
Not so....

Immediately decided to re-anchor as we felt we were too close to shore. Picking up anchor again should have been easy but the strong tide had pushed us in and the chain was stuck fast. No amount of work on the winch could ease it: time to check out the problem underwater, so mask, snorkel and fins were donned by Rolf. Visibility proved almost zero in the strong current over the silty / muddy bottom so in again with full scuba gear and Rolf discovered our chain had found the only small (but very solid) pinnacle of rock in the area! He released the chain and the anchor was up again. Unfortunately, in wrestling with the chain in the zero visibility water, Rolf scraped his left shin on that rock and also (more worryingly) landed on an urchin with his right calf, coming up from the water bleeding and bearing several dark blue-grey circular puncture marks, some surrounded by their own petal-like circle of red marks.

No time to attend to the wounded however; the anchor was lifted and re-laid elsewhere, set and found to hold fast. The “urchin” leg (if that is what it was) was examined for broken-off spines and treated with exceptionally hot water for at least 5 minutes (enough that the victim/patient wants to scream and run) then doused with vinegar and wrapped with vinegar-soaked bandages. The bleeding, scraped leg was washed and treated with iodine. A week, much vinegar, quadriderm and a natural “antibiotic” later, we seem to have avoided a trip to a doctor.

The End

How the move ended: the yachts who were first at the island that day decided on sunset drinks on the beach, but endless sand flies favoured a change of venue and Ketoro hosted the first “welcome-to-Borneo” boat-wetting party: we were salt-saturated, vinegar-soaked and exhausted, but happy to be at our new home!