God’s Own Country

Entering the coastal waters off southwestern India from the open ocean, it took no time to register the shift from azure tropical isles to hazy muddy metropolis. As we entered within twenty miles of the mainland, the clear blue water turned a silted, muddy brown and a murky atmospheric blanket lay over the endless blue sky, turning the radiant sun into an obscure orange disk. img_3668-800x533Images of ghost ships emerged from the haze around us, visible only within a three-mile radius. I sighed a farewell to the open ocean as I took a gulp of carbon monoxide and we drove Atea into the haze. If it was this thick offshore, I feared the industrial minefield that lay ahead of us. We entered the busy channel that lead into Kochi harbour and already the assault had begun. We bobbed past gigantic tankers and cargo ships that came in and out of view by only a small margin of error, past dredgers churning up the thick mud and fishing boats chasing us down for a packet of cigarettes. Either by distraction or camouflage, we sideswiped Atea into a large red channel marker masked behind the reddish tinge in the air; we were certainly out of our element for such a tactical error to occur. We needed to change our internal gears quickly from the quiet peaceful isles of the Maldives to the energetic fervor of India – and fast. This was going to be an entirely different experience and I held apprehension and excitement in equal measure.

There are many countries that I’ve traveled to where I had little expectation or that which I held was benign and mild. India is no such country. Since my early twenties when my travel yearnings took me to the most far-flung places,img_3581-800x533 I was wary of an extended trip to India. It was a country in which you had to train yourself like an Olympic athlete for an event: you had to sharpen your senses, dull your sensitivities, harden your gut and learn to blend in like a chameleon. I was my sharpest and strongest as a young woman and I knew I didn’t have the mental or emotional strength to take it on. Yet here we were, on a whim, sailing towards her shores with several sets of valid and invalid visas stamped in our passports. I was about to open my eyes to a country I’d long held a fear-driven reverence for.

I was immediately surprised after the hours spent trudging through the brown haze to see the city of Kochi emerge in front of us. It was dusk as we sailed into the harbour and the lights that hung from the trees illuminated the detail ashore, revealing a charm that was totally unexpected. img_3683-800x533Rather than the congestion of a featureless concrete city, the old colonial town unfolded itself with a lit promenade, a line of Chinese fishing nets in front of historical seafront buildings. Bridges crossed the waterways that ran into a network of canals and everything surrounding it was lush and green. People milled along the walkway and little ferryboats ran people between the scattered islands. My excitement boomed. What lay before us defied every preconception: Kochi was a beautiful port city and I couldn’t wait to get ashore to explore.

But first we had to navigate our way through the infamous Indian bureaucracy. Having called harbour control to advise them of our arrival, it was disconcerting when two police launches filled with stern-faced men raced up waving arms and demanding permits.
img_7086-800x519After an issue of incomprehensible instructions, extended periods of silence and long pauses between statements while trying as best we could to exude friendliness and confidence through the volley of questions and repeated reviews of our documentation, they finally backed away as a launch containing another boatful of officials arrived. I’ve never before been so pleased to see customs and immigration. We eagerly waved them onboard and made way for their hundredweight stack of paperwork. We spent the next two hours smiling, bobbing our heads and signing the multitude of required forms. By 8PM we all agreed that all remaining forms (we were still only half way through) could be completed the following day and we handed over our passports – a fundamental mistake – and bobbled our heads in agreement that we would meet first thing in the morning.

Thanks to cruisers already in Kochi, we’d been recommended a local rickshaw driver turned professional cruising consultant as our guide. At first light there was a knock on our hull and a man in a wooden canoe was there to deliver us ashore. img_3685-800x533It was a poetic introduction to India as we sat in the leaking dugout with a wizened old man in a mundu and watched him paddled us furiously against the current with bent back. As we pulled up to the jetty we were greeted by our hired strong-arm, Nasar, and a small fleet of police who refused us landing without a tourist card. Not only did we not have the requested permit, we couldn’t even hand over our passports as we’d unwisely surrendered them over to immigration the night before – a rookie mistake for any seasoned traveler. And so we sat trapped in our wayward raft in the building heat while Nasar – a man who stood in the middle of the boxing ring for us and we’d not even introduced ourselves to yet – and the head policeman verbally duked it out. The comedy of events was on its last string as our representative won the fight and we were guided literally ten paces across the street and into the immigration office, Police officer’s hand on one shoulder and our guide’s hand on the other.

The negligible sum we paid for Nasar’s support had already paid its weight. He then guided us through the labyrinth that is India’s bureaucratic system and got us through in due course. It was the start of a beautiful friendship. By day’s end we had the requisite stamps in place and moved Atea around to the only existing marina in all of Kerala: The Kochi International Marina off Bolgatty Palace Island Resort. img_6912-800x507There we were greeted by India’s small collection of cruisers – a fleet of four. While past history realized a more vibrant cruising scene, difficult bureaucracy and shifting cruising circuits draw in fewer visiting yachts. Not that the marina could have held more than a half dozen boats given only its outer berths draw more than two and a half meters; the rest of the twenty-odd berths sit on a large bank of mud. We nestled Atea’s keel in this sludge and we all settled in. This was to be our home base while we were in India and at first sight it was a welcome one.

The Kochi International Marina was built six years ago and sits alongside the Bolgatty Palace, one of the oldest Dutch palaces outside of Holland. It was converted into a heritage hotel after India gained independence from England and continues to hold its original air of elegance and aristocracy while providing a hub of modern day activity. While we were there we watched a continuous stream of bodies flow through the premises, come to celebrate engagements and weddings, participate in art exhibits and movie sets, attend conventions and presentations. It was fun to be privy to these events and periodically gatecrash the after-parties. It was at one of these events that were approached by scouts with a request to use Atea as a set for a movie. Flattered, we said yes. The following quote during their inspection will remain one of my favourite: “This is a nice boat, but we are looking for something with a little luxury.” With that one word – luxury – we were put right back in our place.

Another event that was held during our stay was the international art exhibition called Kochi-Muziris Biennale, an international art event held every two years in Kochi. For a week canvases were lay sprawled across the grounds and we watched beautiful images emerge. One in particular captivated me. It was an oil painting of the marina, a very dominant red rooster and Atea in profile. When I inquired about purchase – unsure where I might fix a monstrous red chook, let alone what I’d say to anyone interested as to why I bought a painting with a monstrous red chook – I was told all art was commissioned by the high court in Delhi and would be hung there on display. Pretty cool to know that Atea’s footprint would remain in India long after our departure.

Not only was the hotel a hub of activity, so was the waterway that it sat along. Tourist boats and fishing vessels of all make and design passed us throughout the day. img_4991-800x533We were warned of this and told we would quickly tire of the constant barrage of noise but I delighted in the exchange of smiles it brought. Kochi ranks first in the total number of domestic tourists visiting Kerala and this was obvious to us without even leaving the marina – boats full of curious onlookers would pass by in a continuous stream throughout the day. We would first hear the blare of loud Indian music, then a few dozen faces would pull into view, cameras attached, then blink, smile, click in or direction. I would send the kids running to the rail to wave enthusiastically and we’d invariably receive the same in return. Smiles begetting smiles – who wouldn’t choose it? My favourite times were when the boats of would-be Bollywood dancers would pass us, all hands dancing at full throttle, often the party already going hard at 8AM in the morning. img_4944-800x533The energy, festivity and playfulness of it were contagious, even if I was only into my first cup of the day. I also enjoyed the constant movement of fishing boats that passed by us, some with a single or pair of men in a traditional wooden dugout and others with an entire family floating on a small reed sphere. Sitting on the deck we were able to watch the drift of local life drift past us, and on occasion were able to pass on the odd toy or teddy to a raft with young child balanced in it as their parents worked hard to pull small fish from the water or crab from the mud.

As for the marina, it was only six years after its completion and it was already starting to rot at its frame. Many of the planks were broken or missing and the silted mud rendered ninety percent of the berths useless. What took up the slack for the lack of sailors was the prevalence of rats. On arrival we were warned to amass our defenses but in time we discovered our neighbourly ships cats were adequate security. img_4895-800x533A week after arrival we were asked to cat-sit while the owner flew off to South Africa. We took the job on eagerly. Not only did we want the cats as close to our defenses as possible, but it was also a reasonable job for an enthusiastic three and five year old to contribute to. Unfortunately, the arrangement didn’t turn out so well as both charges disappeared under our care. Not only had we lost the marina’s most successful ratters, but we spent the next month berthed directly next to the owner. Fortunately, he took the loss with grace and didn’t punish us for negligence.

By in by, we settled into routine. There was a beautiful pool at the hotel and we quickly adopted the daily ritual of a splash in the chlorine followed by a dash of rum down the pipes.img_4815-800x533The hotel staff soon recognized us as long-term guests and accepted us as temporary adoptees. One evening Ayla and I were socializing in the on-site girls dormitory – a series of bunk beds, a television and a communal closet – when we found ourselves locked in past curfew at the ripe hour of ten past nine. To get home, I had to scale a fence and then haul Ayla over the barrier. It won us novelty points and firmly seated the friendship. A few days following this, the young women took me shopping for local attire. It was fun to get swathed in silk and rolled in cotton, again delighting and entertaining the staff, and it was fun to be surrounded by the laughter and feel casually entwined in the culture.

The rickshaw drivers also became a part of our collective unit. By nature of staying in an exclusive resort, we couldn’t step out the door and grab local transport; they had to be called to us. img_3709-800x533In short time we found a few drivers that we connected with and they became a central part of our experience. Not only were we there to explore the city and surrounding areas, we also had a list of boat jobs to do. So, tucked into the back of a three-wheeled rickshaw, we got a good dose of back alleys and out of the way spots that are off most tourists radars. We became close to two drivers in particular: the first was our heavy-weight customs ally, Nasar, and the second was the delightful Binu – in personality on as opposite sides of the scale as you can get. Binu was relaxed and polite, hard working and punctual, and most importantly, not a liability on the road. Nasar was heated and temperamental, erratic and inclined towards road rage, but he was well mimg_6520-800x524eaning, had a big heart and included us open armed into his family. By nature of driver and vehicle safely, we tended to opt for one or the other depending on the task at hand. For local trips we chose Binu because he lived close by and for extended journeys we picked Binu because he would get us there safely. Out of loyalty, we chose Nasar. Nasar’s most common phrase was “it is no problem in my country,” which took us a while to understand he didn’t mean India in general but his neighbourhood specifically. We put him to the test a number of times and invariably he was correct – it was either cheaper, available or achievable in his country every single time. For all things that requited covert execution, he was our go-to guy.

So Nasar showed us the guts of Kerala and Binu showed us its beauty. With Nasar we were able to get our settees reupholstered, our carpets replaced, our engine serviced and our liquor re-provisioned. Two years ago the state cracked down on liquor consumption and shut down all bars outside of resorts and restricted the purchase of alcohol to five bottles of beer and one bottle of spirits a day. A reasonable quota if you are local, another thing if you are trying to stock up on a year’s supply in a few short weeks. At 5 and 1, it was going to take us a very long time to provision for the season. The Maldives was also a dry country and we didn’t want to spend the year on a dry boat, so we needed to find a solution. Thanks to Nasar, it was no problem in his country.

With Binu, we went further afield. He drove me regularly to Maria who taught me the ins and outs of south Indian cooking. He drove us out to the hill stations where we surrounded ourselves in tea plantations and panoramic vistas. He drove us to greet elephants in the forest and relax in the cooler temperatures of the countryside. img_5544-800x533He drove to the backwaters where we took an old punting boat through an intercostal network of waterways that extend 900 miles up the length of state. He drove us on multiple trips to the customs and immigration offices for visa extensions and together we established a regular route between the marina and local hospital for a series of blood tests and treatments for Ayla. Methodically, Nasar and Binu and their rickshaws wove themselves into the fiber of our life in Kochi.

And so through Binu and Nasar we were shown God’s Own Country, the state slogan for Kerala coined as a marketing ploy to expand tourism in the area. While the real origin of the phrase is recent and straightforward, when I asked on the street I got a range of responses from “it is because we have 100% literacy” and “Hindus, Christians and Mslims live here together in peace,” to “Kochi is one of the cleanest cities in India” and “it is because Kerala has had no natural disasters!” I found it quite fascinating to ask the question and find so many varied responses – none hitting the mark. All statements were factual enough, though, and provided an interesting collective summary of the region. For me, God’s Own Country applies to the natural beauty of the area, img_5136-800x533the diversity of the state and the warmth and vibrancy of its people. It is a region that defies all my expectations of India with its network of rivers and lagoons, highlands and lowlands, dense forests and backwaters and beaches. For me, its charm was in the physical and the constant assault on the senses: Our ears were filled with the pop of fireworks from the churches, the crackle of firecrackers from the temples and the chant echoing out from the mosques. Our eyes were filled with flutter of colourful saris, fruit piled in street side carts, the cast of the fishing nets on the water, and beautiful colonial Portuguese and Dutch architecture spread throughout the city. And of course, our mouths, filled with the spicy sweet taste of southwestern Indian cuisine. But top of my list are the people – warm and welcoming, energetic and engaging – forever putting a smile on my lips.

I am not sure what part me will miss India most: my eyes, my ears, my nose, my mouth. It fulfilled all those senses equally, and fully. While I cannot claim to know the breadth that India has on offer, IMG_6396 (800x533).jpgI’ve seen a small section of the country and have been blown away by its beauty. Both John and I felt sad to come to the end of our time and sail away, neither of us feeling we’d gotten enough time in India. Our farewell, however, turned out to be an unexpectedly short one and less than twenty-four hours later we were back in India, sadder still, due to engine failure. Again, we had the pleasure of a lengthy clearance process but by then we were familiar with the faces and knew the ropes. We counted the days absored in Indian bureaucracy. Collectively, we’d spent nine out of forty-five days in the company of the Indian officials:

One day to submit and pay for the wrong visas
One day to submit and pay for the right visas
One day to collect the visas
One day to pay fees and clear in
One day to clear out
One day to submit and pay for a return visa
One day to submit and pay for a visa extension
One day with immigration at the marina, proving
we had the right to stay
One day to clear out again

While it was an undeniably lengthy process, everyone we worked with was extremely polite and professional. IMG_3711 (800x533).jpgThe quote that resonated throughout the process was “the moment you shout is the moment you loose,” and we felt this particularly valuable advice. Don’t loose your cool or you have just dug yourself a deep, deep hole. We’d spent six weeks with our keel in the mud and felt we’d spent enough time in the hole. After our unexpected two week extension, we and our engine were finally ready to say our goodbyes and set Atea free to the wind.

Following are a few of our specific events during our time in Kerala:

Annual Hindu Festival (25-12-2016): Four elephants were paraded through through town from four corners to the Hindu temple in Bolgatty Island. We happened to be at the start of one of these corners and we were included in the march. We spent several hours walking in the procession, followed by musicians and a long line of women carrying offerings, watching locals on the street doing offerings as we passed. One the backs of the elephants is a “deity out on a stroll,” for devotees to make prayers and prostrations to. Once at the temple, two to three dancers mount the elephants holding tinselled silk parasols and peacock feather fans, swaying to the rhythm of the accompanying orchestra. The elephants were decorated with gold-plated “caparisons” (head-dress), bells, necklaces, and the sad sight of chains around their ankles. We were the only non-Hindi, non-Indian attendees, and were warmly welcomed.

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Kathakali is one of the major forms of classical Indian dance, developed as a Hindu performance in southwestern region of India. It is a “story play” distinguished by its elaborately colourful makeup, costumes and face masks. We were allowed to join the dancer in the attic of the hotel while he painted his face, a process that took about two hours, and layered his costume, which took about an hour. The dance itself is a story told through facial expression and hand gestures, with musicians sitting to the side to compliment the drama.

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Kerala Backwater

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Kerala midlands and highlands consist of valleys and hills covered in tea, coffee and spice plantations and mountanous regions further east covered in thick jungle. We explored a little of the western Ghats and enjoyed the cooler climate and local chai:

Consisting of the undulating country east of the lowlands, the midlands lie in the central hills with valleys, punctuated here and there by isolated hills.  This rich and fertile region bears the largest extent of agricultural crops. The lush valleys are sown with tea, coffee and spices. Extensive tea and cardamom plantation dominate in the higher elevations, while ginger, rubber, pepper, and turmeric flourish at the lower elevations. The cardamom takes its name from the Cardamom hills of Kerala. 

The Highlands

The forest-clad highlands on the extreme east are a a range of forested mountains averaging 1000m in height, but reaching 2690m at Mt. Anamudi, which is the highest peak in the region.

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Chinese fishing nets are fixed land installations that stand 10m high and hold out horizontal nets about 20m across. The system is sufficiently balanced that the weight of a man walking along the main beam is sufficient to cause the net to descend into the sea. The net is left for a short time before it is raised by pulling on ropes, pulling up a modest catch of fish and crustaceans.

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Round reed fishing baskets are quite often seen with either a team of two or a young couple with their young children balanced inside, most often passing by the marina early morning and late afternoon. They often pulled up to the pontoon for a rest and a drink of water, or to rest in the shade and our short exchanges will remain a cherished part of our local exchange.

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Whiskers and Wings

We are sailing towards a country renowned for its delivery of headaches and we aren’t even on her shores before we are tipping paracetamol into our mouths. If India is as much trouble before we are even in the country, what is it going to be like when we set foot on soil?

img_9893We spent a week of hassle getting the appropriate visas re-issued, after the hassle a week prior of getting them issued in the first place — an effort that not only cost us money, but precious time. We were headed to the northern atolls in the Maldives when we discovered the visas we had on hand were only valid for arrival by airplane; entry by boat required a different category of visa. The only place this was issued was in person in Mále, so after a number of far-flung impractical ideas we turned the ship around and headed back to where we’d come from.

We applied for a six-month tourist via and indicated to the embassy that we expected to be in India a month; we would learn that we shouldn’t have been so specific about dates but we didn’t realize the implications yet. We then headed out as quickly as possible with a one-month stamp on our new visa for the short 270-mile passage from Mále in the central Maldives to Kochi on the southwestern coast of India. Whilst waiting for our visas we’d watched prime sailing winds ebb through the week to flat calm and our fast outbound march was actually a lazy slog without a lick of wind to fill our sails and a running current against us. India ahead. More paracetamol down. Were these two things going to be synonymous?

We’ve spent a fantastic two months in the Maldives but I look forward to a change of scene – something that India will definitely offer us. I’ve heard that one must physically and emotionally prepare for travel in India, and I am not sure what to expect. Though I have heard to expect the unexpected, and I’m drawn to anyplace that can claim that. As for the Maldives, we will be back – and that is something I feel quite fortunate to be able to say. Ying, India. Yang, the Maldives. Let’s see if somewhere in their difference lays a balance.

Calm seas and a lazy breeze defined the weather for our five-day passage. The sailing was pleasant and easy, and we filled our days with both old and new traditions. Fimg_3176or one, we departed the Maldives on the 21st of December and Christmas was quickly descending on us unawares. Quite unlike my fellow associates madly scrambling to stockpile presents and negotiate parents and in-laws, we were at St. Nick’s countdown and hadn’t even hummed a holiday tune. While we were delayed, we were also prepared. We’d sent the kids out prior to departure with a bucket to fill with shells and I’d found a suitable sick of driftwood that was now safely stowed on deck. It wasn’t going to be a recognizable effort to anyone outside my clan, however inside it was the makings of a very traditional Christmas.

On our first day at sea we pulled out what we’d scavenged and set to making the season merry. The driftwood “tree” was tied to the maststep and shells hung from its gnarled branches. It was another year that location might be a slight challenge for Santa and his elves, so we wrote letters to the jolly man, stuck them inside a plastic bottle on which we’d painted “Santa Collect Here” and towed it in our wake. The kids wrote about what they’d done this year, things they’d learned and things they wanted to improve. They were told to write a list of presents they might want Santa to bring and they could only come up with one request: In direct quote they said, “a bar of chocolate, if he has one.” Ahh… long may our children hold low expectations. We were set. Our Christmas buildup was going to last a full four days, a sane number when confined to a small boat.

Less than a week to Christmas and we started our ramp up to the holiday. My own childhood memories are made up of a series of homemade creations: playdough ornaments, a macramé tree covered with red fluffy balls and a small styrofoam tree covered in a green wool. I remember cutting and pasting brown grocery bags to the wall and placing colourfully wrapped gifts under it. I love that my children’s memories will be filled up with these oddities. Today we raised a flag up the mast broadcasting “Braca and Ayla are here,” and put Santa’s letters in a bottle. The bottle now floats behind Atea in the guise of making it easier to see, and two sets of hopeful eyes keep a lookout for their collection. The elves have yet to come but the children remain optimistic. It isn’t the first Christmas Santa has had to find them at sea.

img_3120-800x533Of new traditions, this year we began giving the kids a passage present on their first day at sea for any offshore voyage. It works well to build their excitement and has become quite a fun ritual. This time the kids delighted in an assortment of treats: a magnet set, a storybook, an origami book and a mini basketball and hoop. Championships may take some time to come, but indoor practice is a good say to burn off some energy.

img_3190-800x496Wind came in the night, and we finally put Lucy [the engine] to rest and raise the sails. There is such beauty in the silence, and the gentle roll of the waves. We now have a dead slice of tree tied to our maststep bedecked in broken shells and the incessant tune of Jingle Bells in our ears. The jingle of the bells must have called in the birds, as a large seabird somehow managed to swoop through our aft hatch and now sits in our cabin. Let’s hope it doesn’t leave us its own White Christmas.

We’d set out a beacon for Santa and his elves and while they did finally locate us, the more immediate response came from another equally unlikely creature. Seabirds are frequently sighted any distance out to sea, and they usually fly in for a glance and fly off again. This trip was marked by some pretty unusual behavior. We had birds enter the boat three out of the five days we spent at sea; they would come in and perch on the window in the galley, on the bookcase, in the forward and aft cabins, and on our Christmas stick – probably a more accurate reference to our driftwood tree. At first I was worried they were injured or unable to find their way out and I delicately shoed them out from a distance. As each subsequent bird entered my tactics to free it relaxed, to the point that I eventually walked up and stuck my finger to its chest and the little bird would hop on without hesitation. I would walk it out onto the deck and point hand to wind, whispering the inspirational “free at last,” but none showed any interest in moving onward. I’d gently nudge them off my digit and they’d fly back into the cabin ahead of me. At first I thought it must be a domesticated bird that’d escaped the confines of its cage, however it was not only a different bird over the course of a few days, it was also difference species. Somehow we’d been marked as Fowl’s Arc and it was indeed wild seabirds that we had as guests. Our sail towards India was so unique; it was like a precursor to the country itself.

img_3274-533x800Four birds invade our cabin throughout the day, comfortable as guests. The last is insistent and re re-enters as quickly as I take him out. He perches on our Christmas tree, content. Not until he drops a little poop on our floor do I decide to move him out again, for the fifth time. But he returns, this time to the forward cabin. I slide my finger up to his belly and he hops on, as if he and I are old friends. I carry him out again; he knows the routine. This time he changes tactic, and flies into the steering wheel as if to say, “I’m the one who owns this ship.” If he stays in the cockpit, I’m happy with the deal.

As the last of the birds depart, Santa’s elves made their way in on a surprise visit. Santa’s cards were gone and in their place were thank you notes for each of the kids and the gnawed ends of the beans we’d placed in the bottle for the reindeer, and a mess of tracks – better known as white flour – left from their footprints. The kids were ecstatic. We also spent our final day wrapped up in another new family tradition, which is a theme day during one of the days at sea. This time the kids chose Rainforest Day, after a Cat in the Hat book by Dr Seuss. Origami birds hung from the ceiling and our Christmas tree stood as a giant emergent. Ayla dressed as a hummingbird with pink wings, flowing tutu, and an origami beak. Braca dressed as a multi-colour ocelot, complete with curling tail, my leopard print nightgown and body paint. John played the roll of howler monkey, with a dress-up beard modified to form a hairy chest and a stuffed snake curling out from behind as a tail. I transformed myself into the Cat in the Hat, complete with black nose and whiskers, neck scarf and tall hat. We scattered nuts on the “forest” floor and foraged for our meal, and hooted, buzzed, howled and growled through the afternoon with flapping wings and flicking tails. It was a riot onboard and a great way to whittle away the afternoon. The four of us really got into it, and the kids carried on in character while John and I moved on to more pressing matters – entering the busy port of Kochi.

DAY 5:
8:00 in the morning and already the smog that extends out from China envelops us. A tanker, four miles on our port side, is barely visible in the haze. Another tanker heading in our direction, seven img_3314-800x533miles distant, isn’t visible. The sun is shrouded in haze and the sky is covered a murky light. I pop up on deck 10 minutes later to check our surroundings and the tanker to our port is now invisible to us, hidden in the haze. It is busy today; the normal 15-minute check is down to 5 as ships and fishing boats appear in in patches with much more regularity. Fishing boats chase us down out of curiosity. All hands crowd the rail to wave hello, and after pleasantries they slow their speed and the distance spreads.

We’d pulled out of the calm ocean abyss into one of the busiest international shipping ports. The crowded shipping lanes and congestion of the local fishing fleet fulfilled all expectations of a busy and bustling India, even from 20 miles out to sea. However, where the mayhem could have easily made one feel lost, the friendly smiles and enthusiastic waves from the passing fishermen made it feel like a homecoming.

A quick scribble of notes for the day. It is evening now and we are surrounded by fishing boats, lots of them. We put our flashing light forward and navigate through the patches. We are under sail, though wind is light. At 3PM the winds shift and we put the engine on. The engine low water flow alarm shrills in our ears. We raise the sails again and John spends the next several hours replacing the impeller.

What should have been a midday arrival was delayed as we worked furiously to get the engine repaired. In the meantime, we proceeded down the shipping lane towards the harbour entrance and the smog of the day left me with an expectation of featureless high rise buildings and industrial cement compounds; img_3683-800x533I was greatly surprised, therefore, when we sailed into the entrance and a green colonial city unfolded itself in front of us. Chinese lanterns swung and lights glittered in the trees as people strolled down the promenade under them, crossing over small walking bridges that laid across narrow canals that lead back into the city. Old Chinese fishing nets of yesteryear lined the waterfront set against centuries-old Portuguese buildings. As we sailed deeper into the harbour entrance I was buzzing with excitement, eager to explore the beautiful city that lay before us.

Before any of that could happen, however, we needed to slog our way through port control, immigration and customs. At 4PM we notified port authority and customs of our intentions and they said they would meet us on arrival. We anchored off the historic Malabar hotel and were soon greeted by a boatful of officials, all whom clambered onboard and handed out a myriad of redundant forms. As we sat there filling out form after form, I noted how incredibly friendly everyone was, with vigorous head bobbing and generous smiles. While the process was lengthy, the officials made it a delight. It wasn’t until they left that we realized that they, too, received their own pleasure throughout the meeting for there I sat, oblivious to the fact that I was in full Cat in the Hat kit complete with black nose and cheek-lined whiskers. I just might have been the oddest-looking cruiser they’d processed, but it seemed they were all the merrier for it!


To view a collection of photos: Passage Photos

Anak Afloat


TRANSLATION: Indonesian Bhasa to English
ANAK (n.): Child; a boy or a girl.
ANAK ANAK (n. pl.): Children.

The Indonesian language is a simple one, with no use of complicated plurals, gender identification, or multiple sound enunciations for a single letter. Take the word child for instance. Child in Bhasa is ANAK. If you have more than one, it is ANAK ANAK. Just repeat the word and you have a plural. As for gender identification, there is no added complication of separate words to identify female or male. Simple.

This simplicity is completely unlike English. In English, the word for child in the singular sounds completely different than it does in the plural, where the strong “i” in child randomly changes to an elongated sounding “i” in children. Make sense of that. Furthermore, why the addition of –ren? Why not add an “s” as you would to multiply a buoy to two buoys, for simplicity? And what’s up with the creepy silent ‘h?’ Can someone please explain why is it even there, with no purpose other than to complicate and confuse?

ba-swimmingFive years and two ANAK ANAK later, we’ve learned the value of simplicity and the importance of urgency as cruisers. I’ve seen too many prospective cruisers delay ad infinitum, “next year” being the one that dreams would be realized. Each year the same boat sat in the same slip, and the same bum sat behind the same desk. I’ve seen too many boat owners delay because they’ve overcomplicated their end goal – to cast lines and set sail. “Just one more [X], and then we’ll be off…” played over again and again. This is further compounded with additional family members, each having their own ties that need to be severed before starting to plot the chart. When it comes to cruising with kids, we try to follow two simple concepts: do it now, and do it simply.


As the saying goes, there is no time like the present. John and I took this phrase to heart when we met, and six months after our first introduction we found out we were pregnant. At the same time, we were looking at boats. On my first consultation with the gynecologist, I asked her opinion about boats and babies and she told me under no uncertain terms that the two were incompatible. We walked from that meeting and John looked at me wistfully and said, “Well, there goes our cruising plans.” I looked him dead in the eye and said, “We’re not doing babies if we’re not doing boats!” See, a pregnancy was not in my plan. I didn’t want my freedom of adventure stripped from me, or my options to travel restricted. Exploring the globe was something I found a passion for in early in life and it clung to my soul, defining many key decisions throughout my life. Now I was pregnant, a hidden blessing, and I was determined that a baby wouldn’t cancel my dreams.

vanuatu-womanAnd we did it. We brought both baby and boat together. We bought a sailboat the same week we found out we were pregnant, moved onboard and three months later we were started our first cruising season. We departed New Zealand bound for Tonga at sixteen weeks pregnant. We have now sailed through two pregnancies and have two children onboard and I couldn’t have planned it any better. To be a mother and father cruising with kids is the best of both worlds.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen it comes to the topic of cruising with children, there is debate about the appropriate age to take a child to sea. I’ve often held the gaze of a parent in disbelief at mention of the long ocean passages we’ve taken with our children onboard or the length of time we’ve been away. Our son was six months old when we took him to sea for the first time, his first voyage being a ten-day passage from New Zealand to Vanuatu. Our daughter started cruising at nine months off the coasts of Thailand and Malaysia. Yeah, we’ve spent some time cruising with children onboard and I have to say, it is a pretty fantastic way to raise kids.

chagos-beach-sundownersTo many who are removed from the reality of cruising it may seem an implausible concept: big seas, confined spaces, young children and no external escape. I have to confess I prefer raising children at sea to raising them on land. With one full time parent caretaking home and child, and the other absent parent entrenched in the corporate grind, shore life brings a significant separation in time, routine and responsibilities. Research points to the importance of parental engagement in the first years of life and there is nothing that amplifies that time together better than a family afloat. We wake together and remain together every hour of the day, seven days a week. The children get equal time with both parents and the parents get the support of a true partnership in parenting. We get to travel, explore, and discover and at the same time appreciate the full experience of family and parenthood. What shore-based environment can beat that?

vanuatu-warriorsWhile there are great opportunities given to children that go cruising, there is also an inherent risk that is often overlooked. As would-be sailors start to scheme their ocean travel and plan their exit strategy, they may look at their children and contemplate the much-debated topic of age. The question they ask shouldn’t be “Are they too young?” The question they should ask themselves is “If we wait, will they be too old?” There have been many cruising plans foiled by teens that cannot adjust to the shift in lifestyle; either the teens resist so much that the parents never pull out of port or the family makes all the sacrifices and get away only to be thwarted by teenage sabotage. My recommendation for those who don’t want to wait for retirement and want their family to go with them, the sooner you cast off lines the better.

So when a stranger gapes at the notion of cruising with children, I always say, “if you have the opportunity, how could you not?” Kids on boats are a treat. If they are infants you’d be home anyway, or wishing you were, so isn’t a traveling abode better than a stationary one? As toddlers your child is the gateway into society like no other, pined for and doted upon by every villager you meet. In this ever-changing environment, you watch as they test their wings in uncertain circumstances and fly. As young children, you offer them both your soul and the world. Together you get an adventure of a lifetime and you share an intimacy born on shared experience. So when your time comes and you ponder the viability of cruising with kids, don’t wait. Do it now.


If you are choosing to travel with children, perhaps the Indonesian to English translation of the world child is a good reminder of the value of simplicity. One word for singular: ANAK. Repeat it for plural: ANAK ANAK. Easy. A complicated language makes me think of a complicated society and complicated arrangements. Take one cruiser’s complex dissertation on cleaning and caring for cloth nappies, for instance. There were three stages of purification and sanitation, a store of chemicals and a never-ending procedure for flushing, scrubbing, triple soaking, rinsing and drying. I was under no uncertain terms going to weave that kind of complex relationship with Braca’s soiled garments. Bring me simplicity.

nappies-on-railI We opted to travel with an ANAK onboard: simple plans, simple structure. I hung a netted bag from the aft rail and towed all things soiled behind the boat for a few miles. Afterward, I would plonk the solid-free garments in a bucket with some laundry detergent, rinse with fresh water and hang in the sunshine to dry. Presto! However you go about managing routine, the point is this: there is complication, and there is simplicity. When traveling with kids I can immediately think of my winning choice.

Of course, kids by their very nature provide examples of how simplistic things can be. Take my son and daughter’s preferred toys for example. We have an assortment of store purchased items yet their longest-standing favorites are the clothes pegs, rope ends and a bucket of water. When it comes to entertainment, the kids pull trumps when it comes to imagination and creativity: they read more books than watch TV, they create toys rather than acquire them, they pull games out of their imagination rather than from a box. Every time I return to visit friends or family I forget the simplicity of life onboard the yacht, and I stockpile the current trend in child entertainment and education; I can’t strip my child of all these opportunities to learn and grow, for goodness sake. A few weeks back onboard, however, and the buzz of the new glitter has worn off. The ropes reemerge and out come the pegs. We are once again laughing, splashing and playing in buckets full of water.

ba-hand-in-handOn a yacht, things slow down. Time that may be taken up in play dates, technology, outside obligations and internal preoccupations ashore becomes less fragmented and more focused. You experience a tunnel vision of sorts, where the outside clutter filters out and you hone in on the important things: Your family, unfiltered. Now, when I talk about keeping things simple, I am familiar with how complicated life can be regardless of design. With a two-year old born with a congenital hand condition and a four-year old T1 diabetic, we aren’t cruising on a silver cloud. We have had a number of crises thrown at us that could have crushed our dreams had we succumbed to the pressure. However, we value this lifestyle for its purity and beauty, its intensity and its simplicity and have held onto the bigger picture through life’s sharper edges.

There is a saying that there is no employee who has ever wanted more working hours in exchange for less time with their child and this is the crux of cruising with kids. Whilst cruising, there is no hamster wheel that spins your days away like the quick click of the second-hand on a clock. Each day is a fresh, clean slate. There is no routine of sameness to bleach each month the same muted color of the last. Each time you pull anchor it is for an unknown destination full of expectation and promise, and as a result a week afloat can hold the intensity and variety that would take many a year to amass ashore. So if you are facing the dilemma of when to cruise and how, remember two simple rules and let the detail get sorted out in situ. When it comes to cruising with kids: do it now, and keep it simple. I promise you one thing, neither you nor your children will ever regret it.

For the published article: anak-afloat