The Seychelles has been a dream destination of mine for as long as I can remember… or, at least, as long as I’ve known how to sail. This mid-Indian Ocean archipelago represented the epitome of top cruising destinations and I remember sitting of the shores of Mozambique, looking east, dreaming of a future when I’d get to weave my own track through her waters. I wasn’t quite certain if this dream would ever come to fruition because at the time I’d only been a coastal sailor, never venturing far from the sight of land. Regardless, I often imagined what the country would hold for me: Crystal blue waters shimmering over glittering diamond white sands, endless islets and atolls teaming with sea birds and land turtles, a steel band beating a tune as I turned fresh-caught lobsters on a fire, my toes buried in the sand. I am not sure if it was from a book that I pulled these images or the rumours of a fellow traveler; however they got there, the images were imbedded deep in my sub-consciousness. Now, firmly entrenched in the cruising lifestyle with six years of open-ocean sailing behind us, I was finally going to get my chance to see these images firsthand.
Cruisers often seem to travel in a flock. Perhaps it is some collective force of nature or the under-appreciated inclination for human sociability, but there is an undeniable gravitational force that pulls people together. Watching the fleet of boats transverse the Indian Ocean these past few years, it seems a random pattern of a southerly route followed by a northerly route from the Asia to South Africa; this year the majority of boats that we knew were heading south for Mauritius and Rodriquez but we weren’t to follow them. The Seychelles had been on my radar far too long to pass her by. We would cross the Indian Ocean this year, and I was determined that the Seychelles would feature in our route planning.
While arrival in a country after a long passage is always an emotive experience, seeing the peaks of the tall mountains rise up on the horizon was a particularly emotional moment for me. Here she was, the Seychelles at long last, unfolding herself in front of me on the very ocean that had separated me for so long. Having spent the past six months in a country made entirely of low-lying atolls, it was quite a sight to see the tip of Mome Seychellois, a 905-meter granite rock, rise up on the horizon. The detail of earth and humanity began to fill the blank green tapestry of the mountains as we inched towards Mome Seychellois and Trois Freres: The rich smell of dirt combined with the acrid smell of the tuna processing factory, the sound of chatty shorebirds mixed with the repetitive hum of rotating wind generator blades, a smattering of colourful roofs materializing from the canopy of trees as ornaments decorating the hillsides. I was abuzz with the same ecstatic enthusiasm of a young child licking her first ice cream cone – this was my first taste of the Seychelles and it couldn’t have been any sweeter.
Having waited so long to get to the Seychelles, it was ironic that we would work so hard to sail to her shores and fly immediately out. That said it had been a long time since we’d been home and family was calling. Tickets had been booked well in advance and the departure date was upon us – our time in the Seychelles was going to be short and sweet. We pulled in, played for a week and flew out. Given my anticipation to get here, I could appreciate our agent’s response when we petitioned for the boat to stay during our month departure: “What? You’ve just ARRIVED in the Seychelles and you already want to LEAVE the Seychelles? WHY would you do that?” Us: To visit family. “But, then why wouldn’t you leave from another country?!! Why would you choose to leave from THIS ONE?” Implied: You must be crazy! We were nervous. She was going to reject our application on grounds of national pride. While I understood her line of inquisition — we were leaving a dream holiday destination for a holiday elsewhere — we had already committed time with family and held tickets in hand. With a series of disapproving grunts and shake of the head in disapproval, she stamped our documents and dismissed us.
The next month saw us indulging in almost every shoreside pleasure available to us — something that England has in abundance. My standing joke was that I was going to eat as much cheese and drink as much wine as I could manage to consume, either leaving the country feverishly addicted or my long-standing cravings completely spent. We enjoyed time with family and reconnected with longstanding friends and fellow cruisers we’d shared company with in previous seasons. It was fun to ride the trains through the lush countryside and wander through quaint British villages, sail dinghies on the Solent and drive a RIB to the Isle of Wight, picnic in the manicured parks, dine in the pubs, grog up with the family, rock out at a concert and chase a rolling block of cheese down a hill. Above all we were reminded that while the cruising life is rich with reward, life ashore is rich with diversity.
A month after flying out we were back on creole soil, cravings satiated and addictions firmly rooted, this time with a month in front of us to explore the fabled Garden of Eden. What I didn’t appreciate then and do now is that the Seychelles is very different from my picture of a cruising paradise. It is worthy as a sailing destination to be sure, but not in the way I’d constructed in my head. The building blocks were there: the white sand, the clear water, the reggae music and the creole seafood. What was missing was the countless isles and the limitless possibilities. For all 115 islands that make it up, the Seychelles has a relatively constricted cruising area. There are three main islands, each with a collection of smaller marine reserves attached to it, that are the sum of cruising grounds for the majority of sailors. The rest of the hundred or so islands are uninhabited or protected marine reserves, most of these lying in the outer islands at a considerable distance from the inner hub and exposed to the weather.
I am and am not one fundamental thing: A planner. I am a Gemini with a drive for change without an interest in detail. The combination means that I do things at the spur of the moment without forethought or planning. I fly on a whim and learn on the way. This has many drawbacks but the advantage is the comedy of learning things in situ. The Seychelles is famous for a few things; well known to anyone that does a quick Google search of the country. I, however, having spent countless miles of hard work to get here never once researched the country to see what it offered. I had a dream, therefore I had drive – that was enough to draw me. As a result, the heart of the Seychelles unfolded itself to us in a series of comic moments, details of the country that I was to learn about over the course of our stay.
The first was the Coco de Mer. For the ungoogled, the image of the Coco de Mer is of the voluptuous derrière of the female figure, and it was everywhere. The female bum greets you on arrival at the airport, it fills the curios stalls in the streets, it is printed on postcards and every brochure of the country, it is even stamped on a page in our passports. There is a collective national fascination with the female reproductive anatomy. You can have a carved wooden statue, hold a key ring, wear a t-shirt, drink from a shot glass — all of a woman’s ass. Having just arrived from six months in a highly conservative Muslim country, the brashness of it was refreshing. The Seychelles was sexual, and they were proud of that sexuality. Or so I thought.
It took me a week, but I was to gradually learn that the Coco de Mer was, indeed, a coconut. It was endemic to the Seychelles and a rich part of its history. It was this nut, visually so representative of oversized human genitalia, that created the myth that the Seychelles was the Garden of Eden – scratch that apple, the nut was proof of the origin of mankind. For what it is worth, at half a meter in diameter and 20 kilograms in weight it is the largest seed found anywhere in the world, the male tree does hang a very long penis from its branches and the female does produce the most delicious looking derrière. Had I done my research, I’d have known a decade ago that it was trees on hillsides and not seashells on sandy shores that the Seychelles was known for. The Garden of Eden beckoned me, but to understand why I had to look toward land and not the sea.
The second of our comic relief moments was the granite. What I didn’t realize prior to arrival is that the country was full of rocks. Big, big rocks. In fact, I’d spent over a decade fantasizing about the Seychelles and not once had I appreciated that it was rock rather than sand that made the country famous. How did I miss that 41 of the 115 islands were built on a foundation of granite? Was it just oversight that made me ignorant of the exceptional fact that the Seychelles was the only mid-ocean granite islands in the world?! Expecting idle days anchored off low-lying islets with our heads poking around coral gardens, our reality was days spent gaping up at huge mountain peaks, over sheer rock cliffs and at boulder-crowned beaches. Rather than idle, our time was filled with vigorous hikes up steep rocky paths, walks through wooded forest, cycling up hills, meandering around boulder-strewn beaches and rock hopping above the surf.
Another misconstrued notion was that we’d spend all our time in the water. For one, it was cold… or at least, cold in comparison to the sauna-like waters of the Maldives. It took a week to acclimate to the 28-degree water temperature. Once that was corrected, it took time to work a strategy for tackling the big surf. It wasn’t big as in dude, ride that wave big. It was big as in doc, bust out the neck brace big. The waves that rolled into the bays were short and powerful, but once you worked out the set you could tackle a suitable approach – body surf four then race out before the next two rollers came and knocked you out in a body-crushing, ego-shattering washing machine. Outside of the in-your-face beach break, there were no obvious reefs to snorkel or charted dive sites to explore – ironic given the sites were fill with as many big rocks underwater as big rocks above water – and both were activities we expected would consume our days. What distinguishes the diving in the Seychelles are the unique granite underwater formations that make a spectacular underwater landscape but the sites weren’t easily accessible and required local knowledge. As a result we didn’t get time underwater as hoped, but we got plenty of time tumbled through it.
It was the third of the comic lessons that filled much of our children’s interest, and fulfilled their sex education. It was the first time the kids had seen a land tortoise and as the heaviest tortoises in the world at a whopping 300kg, they made quite an impression. They were held in open pens in parks, botanical gardens, beaches and bars. They were free roaming and also found in the backyards of local homes as they were often kept as family pets. We watched them eat, sleep, bathe and just as often, mate. There was one particular batch that seemed particularly inclined. The kids fed them their afternoon rations for a week and every day, like clockwork, we’d bear witness to their repetitious and droning copulation – clearly they too felt they were livin’ it large in the Garden of Eden. With the innocence of youth, each time Braca watched the act he told us they were “marrying each other;” it was a honeymoon destination indeed!
Having had my fill of rocks and nuts, we quickly became restless. We’d done the required gape at the country’s natural wonders: We’d pet the giant land tortoise and rubbed palms on the erogenous nut. Now we were keen to explore the country by sea but we had one problem – we didn’t see a labyrinth of reef-encrusted islets sprawled out around us. When looking in detail at the charts, the list of destinations within reach extended to three names, Mahe, Praslin and La Digue, all a short hop between each other. Basically, we had a month to play aquatic hopscotch.
Initially my enthusiasm fell flat as the experience fell far from my expectations — there was nothing intrepid about this experience at all. It was a land full of tour agents catering to tourists. There were lots of charter boats moving daily on their week tour of the country and the beaches were filled with sunburnt foreigners, but there were very few long-term cruisers exploring the area. After a few days of shaking my head in puzzlement, I readjusted my expectations and redefined what our time in the Seychelles was about: We were not going to hunker down with the indigenous population, use sign language and guess translation. We would not traipse across land left virgin to the traveler’s eye. We were going to take a holiday like the rest of them. Regular routine was cast out and we postponed schoolwork and put boat jobs on hold. We pulled out our sunblock and our beach toys and spent the days rolling about in the surf and lazing in the sand. We partied with the bareboat charterers, socialized with the holidaymakers, and entertained locals onboard in a revolving door of new faces. We rented bicycles to explore the villages, walked well-laid paths through native forests, surfed the shore breaks, and ogled at the breathtaking scenery around us.
We started our holiday in Mahe, the largest and most populated of the islands. With 90% of the country’s population living in Victoria, the smallest capital in the world, we had good grounds for observing the engaging confidence of the Seychellois. Their manner is forthright and confident, their personality gregarious and outspoken, their dress daring and bold. In social circles this was charming but in official circles we found it arrogant and blunt. While we tried to distance ourselves from as many administrative agents as possible, we welcomed locals onboard with open arms – this brought many entertaining evenings and some of our fondest experiences. One discussion that stands out was the local concept of self in relation to community. As our friend Ronny informed us, “to say a name anywhere in my country is to know the face” – a beautiful description for a country where everyone knew everyone. I compared it to my own community where even neighbours are strangers. “We care little for money here,” he added, “it is time and family we value. In this country, no one is ever alone and no one is forgotten.” Poetic. Regardless of the actual authenticity for the majority, it was a good reminder of the value often lost in Western culture where everything is fast paced, family distanced and friends forgotten, and money matters most. I find myself reminded again and again by local speak how it is the present that we live for in a world where family, friendship and community connection is paramount. When we invited Ronny for an evening onboard, we didn’t host one – we hosted a group. There were three generations amongst us and friends were included. Nor did they come empty handed; wrapped gifts were brought for the kids, beautiful shells were brought for us and the fish they pulled in that night was all donated to us. It was an incredible show of community, hospitality, warmth and camaraderie and I will always value the insights they shared and the friendship they offered.
From Mahe we followed the glossy brochure prompt to the neighbouring island of Praslin in search of the “best beach in the world,” page 8. It was a bold claim and I was keen to verify it for myself. Indeed, there was something to it. The large granite boulders that fringed the white sand beach resulted in a breathtaking panorama, the backdrop filled with tree-filled mountains and turtles that broke the surface of the water around us. It was here that a generous local tested our perchance for defying the law by offering us a sapling Coco de Mer. A generous offer and a tempting one, attracted as I was to the thought of my own palm-fringed deck, but one we had to refuse.
Given my agreement with page 8 of the brochure, I thought I’d follow its next suggestion on page 12: “It is not advisable to visit La Digue as a day trip only. There are so many beautiful spots to visit and so many interesting people to meet that we insist you spend a few days at least on this magnificent island regardless of your length of stay in the Seychelles.” With an advertisement like that, who could miss it?! We tucked ourselves into the tight little harbour in the center of town and enjoyed all that the island offered – charter yachts inches from port and starboard side and the socializing that came with it, bicycles to tour the island (it was that or tour by oxcart as vehicles are exempt from the island), creole meals and the festive atmosphere that defined the relaxed little island. In a fast moving world, this was the epitome of chill.
After four weeks of aquatic hopscotch, our little stone thrown at random determining if we moved ahead one space or back two between Mahe, Praslin and La Digue, we hit the end of our cruising permit and were ready to move on. Our key question was: Where to? Having diverged from the flock we were keen to return to it, a regrouping that would set our course south to Madagascar. But my sonar was bending my head to the west and all primal senses were driving me towards the shores of East Africa. It was not a common route; at this time of year the wind and current make moving south difficult and most of the yachts intending to exit the Indian Ocean by the end of the year need to get southward in order to round the Cape of Good Hope. We also need to pass this cape and we couldn’t understand a feasible way to make both East Africa and Madagascar happen this season. However, on close inspection it looks like the current splits at the border of Tanzania and Mozambique and the winds might be favorable if we stuck close to the coast, dodging behind the wind-shadow of Madagascar. In fact, going west to Tanzania might save the battering that wind and sea would give us if we tried to reach Madagascar directly. Besides, we weren’t the only wayward stragglers. We had cruising friends in Tanzania and we had cruising friends heading that way – either the route was feasible or we weren’t the only ones stupid enough to attempt it. Either way, we were going to find out. A week prior to departing the Seychelles we did a typical Atea gybe. We scrapped our plans to head south towards Madagascar and decided to continue our trek west. Onward we sail to East Africa – she has held me in her clutches before, as I am sure she will do yet again.
Images: Seychelles at Long Last
Sumatra received her name by happenchance when Italian explorer and conqueror Marco Polo returned home and pronounced the island’s name, Samudra, with a lisp and popularized the mutation. Personally, I’m attached to her previous name for its local translation, “ocean.” Living on a yacht, I thought traveling to a country called Ocean sounded like a pretty good idea. Outside of an affection for the name, we came to Sumatra with little expectation other than a feeling that we had missed our opportunities for the year. At the time we had no clear plan and only fragmented ideas of what we might do with the remainder of the year. We realized that this year, more than any other, we would need to cast aside our expectations and find a new way forward.
The 1292 slip-of-the-tongue was about all we had to go on when deciding to set off for Sumatra. At the time we knew little of the country’s biodiversity, its rich cultural history, its diverse marine environment or the island gems that lie off the coast. We chose Sumatra by default. Forced to cancel our plans for an Indian Ocean crossing due to Braca’s diagnosis, we reunited as a family in May with our son’s diabetic crisis and our daughter’s hand operation behind us. By the time we regrouped it was too late to follow through with our original intentions. John and I felt we had few desired options as we were returning to Atea midseason; we didn’t want to rush across the Indian Ocean to South Africa on a tight timeframe, nor did we want to spend another year in Malaysia or Thailand. Where could we go that would allow us time as well as new territory? Sumatra popped up on our radar as an option for the year. Initially I was disheartened; we knew little of Sumatra because there was little cruising information on it. Cruisers do not typically travel her shores as the island lies too far south for boats traveling the northern route across the Indian Ocean, and it lies too far north for boats traveling the southern route. We departed for Sumatra knowing little of what to expect but prepared for quiet solitude; I had resigned myself to making the most of what we could of the year but feeling saddened that we’d been knocked off our track.
Sumatra is a perfect example of what happens when the best-laid plans fail: Something unexpectedly amazing. Now that I’ve had a preliminary introduction, I couldn’t speak more highly of the country from a tourist perspective: The people are gracious, friendly and good-natured, and the country is diverse and offers a wide range of options. Now that I’ve sailed her shores, I couldn’t speak more highly of the country from a cruiser’s perspective: The islands off the west coast are hidden gems, unspoiled and unexploited. This is contrary to the little information we had prior to arrival. An article posted by a fellow cruiser stated, “You may find hostility against non-Muslims by locals. For safety it is best not to bring women ashore into any village.” Reading this, I expected a very conservative Muslim society and initially covered myself head to toe when going ashore and donned a headscarf when walking through any village. It didn’t take me long to recognize that I was a bit excessive and the smiles beamed at me regardless of my covering. I cannot imagine what situation brought on the negative experience of the other cruiser; John and I were warmly received and the kids doted on and adored. We didn’t have a single experience that led me to feel uncomfortable with the locals; it was completely the opposite. Braca and Ayla gained a reputation in the places we stayed, their names called out as we passed shops and children flocking by our sides as we wandered down streets. Women and men excitedly waved as we drove past them in our becak, smiles beaming. Where is this enthusiasm in our own culture? The simple pleasure in greeting a stranger, overtures made to assist any possible need or engage at every possible moment? In Sumatra, the people were as pleasant and as engaged as they could be, language barrier not withstanding.
English is not commonly spoken and I did feel a loss at how superficial conversations were without a common language; it would have been so wonderful to get a deeper level of understanding of the people we met. There are so many instances that I would have loved to been able to ask for details. On one beach a local canoe arrived with two very sheepish looking locals, who trotted into the bush and emerged with a bunch of small bags filled with colourful reef fish, presumably to stock international aquariums. Neither of the two men welcomed our curiosity and it was clear that their acquisitions were not legally approved – perhaps shared language wouldn’t have provided answers regardless. On another day, we visited a hut hidden deep in the bush and found thousands of dead or dying hermit crabs, clearly collected and harvested for the shell and not the animal. Were the shells on their way to be ground down into herbal remedies in Asia? Were the shells sent to replace the outgrown shells of other captive crabs in Western homes? What of the monkey roaming the courtyard by rolling the sides of his wire cage? What about the cock fights in the middle of the village or the monitor lizards bound and tied, left in a twisted heap to slowly die in the blaze of the tropical heat? All cultural curiosities that we were never able to ask questions of or answers given in Bhasa that we will never understand. But there is no better sign language than a smile, of which we received many, and gestures go a long way in conveying attitude, if not meaning. The locals had time for us, and patience with us. They smiled often and warmly. They waved from a distance and stopped us on passing, wanting to engage regardless of the lack of shared language. Braca and Ayla were once again center stage, the subject of every photo and the object of every curiosity. This was clearly not the Sumatra that the other cruiser experienced, whose wife was presumably left as caged in her boat as the trapped monkey ashore, and who missed out on the incredibly sociable and fun-loving attitudes that we were exposed to.
From a cruiser’s perspective the published reviews of Sumatra were equally harsh. As the westernmost of the Indonesian chain of islands, the country is off the normal cruising route for yachts passing from the Pacific Ocean into Asia, and few yachts travel south to visit her western shores when making passage through the Indian Ocean. We knew few boats that had traveled this way and Rod Heikell’s Cruising Guide did not give us much faith that it was a worthwhile trip to make, stating “[Sumatra] is no place for cruisers to be during the SW monsoon since it is very exposed and the seas run high.” It is true that the more north you get the stronger the winds, but conditions were no more adverse than Malaysia and Thailand this time of year and I couldn’t rate the destination more highly. In fact, outside the occasional squall – less regular the further south you sail – sailing conditions have been good as we traversed her western shores during the monsoon season; rather than exposed anchorages and high seas, lack of wind was our most common issue. The anchorages have almost all been protected and calm, and while it is true that they can run deep we were able to find suitable depth to anchor in every location we visited.
What we didn’t expect and came to us by surprise was the lack of coastal and offshore fishing vessels. A comment made in passing is that the fishing industry is in a huge slump, or perhaps the weather this time of year is too wet and changeable. Not only has the fishing fleet dwindled but the fishing traps that riddle the coastline appear unused as well. These traps are large wooden structures with nets that hang below and miniature houses that sit atop, set on floats or fixed by poles to the seabed. Regardless of the reason, it is a reprieve for us to be rid of the hoards of Thai and Malaysian fishing trawlers that litter the ocean day and night – so much so that most cruisers refuse to sail at night because of the maze of boats you have to navigate through. While fishing is clearly still an important aspect of village life, it is at a much slower pace – old men still punt around in small dugouts with wooden paddles, outboards are in use but there isn’t the constant roar of speeding boats and buffering of wakes. Unique to the area is the regional differences of boat: Flat aft end, double-rig with a hut perched on top, small canoes precariously balanced. We are often approached with the days catch on offer, ranging from $3-5 for fish, prawn, crab, lobster or octopus and it is always, always, offered with a smile.
While Sumatra offers a host of things for the intrepid traveler – to track the illusive Sumatran tiger, two-horned Sumatran rhino or the Sumatran elephant deep within the Gunung Leuser National Reserve, to dance along a line of a hundred bubbling volcanoes, to swim the sleepy shores of Danau Toba’s deep inland lake, have a date with a wild orangutan or smell the sent of the world’s largest flower – our experiences were based on coastal locations and the countries best known draw card: its infamous surf. Regardless of all its history and all its natural riches, West Sumatra is only really a name that passes through the lips of die-hard surfers searching for the epic break. Now that we’ve been here, I appreciate why the surfers have kept this remote coastline a secret: the surf is legendary and the waves empty of the crowds that define other popular international sites. Accommodation ashore is rudimentary, however, and the surf camps that crop up are no more than expanded local homes offering places to stay and a home cooked meal. Land travel can be difficult without well-developed infrastructure and to arrive in the islands requires a complex transportation arrangement. For us, we are not into this for the surf given our heads come in contact with the board more often than our feet, and not only are the waves monstrous but they also end on gagged coral. It is not a playground for the novice.
While Sumatra has long been a name that has been whispered within intimate circles by the obsessed surfer, recently the dive community has begun setting their sights on the country’s underwater world. Gaining in reputation, the northwestern corner has built a reputation as a dive destination. Having just purchased a dive compressor we were keen to get some time underwater and verify the validity of the rumours. We found them sound. The sites were filled with a diversity of fish life and an abundance of coral; twenty meters and above was less exceptional, but at depth there was plenty to dazzle the eye. Given we had independence, we first sought to explore the area ourselves but soon found the currents in the area too severe and a boat driver a necessity; too bad, as the locals ashore were more than happy to watch the kids while we played underwater, often refusing payment for their services. So we partnered with a dive operation and for a nominal $25 inclusive, we spent our days underwater. The further south we traveled, the more we were left to our own devices as very few dive operations exist outside Pulau Weh. We continued to drop our kids at the local sitting service – a fisherman happy to sit under a coconut tree for the hour – and played in the underwater garden in the afternoons. The coral was bleached in places, from tsunami or other factor we are unsure, but there was plenty of new growth and an abundance of marine life: butterfly fish, batfish, leaf fish, trumpet fish, angle and clown fish, box and blow fish, devil fire and scorpion fish, wrasse and blue tang blanketed the reef. Eel, rays, sea snake slid between boulders and reef shark lurked in the shadows. Unfortunately, the trevally and tuna were always just out of our grasp for our dinner plate and the lobster just a tad too small. What we didn’t see and were happy not to is the deadly salt water crocodile, though a few friends had some pretty intimidating experiences with swamp snakes and a few others had stories of malaria and dengue fever – a reminder that Sumatra is not for the faint of heart.
There are few travelers other than the obsessed surfer and the itinerant diver that find their way to Sumatra’s western shores, and fewer still who do so by yacht. One quote by the owner of a surf camp said that 10-15 boats pass this way a year; in terms of cruising numbers that is an infantile amount of boats transiting annually. Sumatra’s northern neighbors of Malaysia and Thailand get hundreds of yachts passing through in a given season, and an equal amount run the milk route through Indonesia on their way west. Perhaps cruisers are dissuaded by the Cruising Guide or by the experiences of other cruisers, or perhaps by history. In line with the country’s looming dangers, Sumatra is also a country with a collection of the world’s largest significant global disasters. The 1883 explosion of Krakatau produced a noise audible 5,000 miles away, waves that reached England, and changed global weather for three years. More recently, the 2004 Sumatran earthquake and tsunami were so violent that earth tilted on its axis and more than 300,000 people were killed across the Indian Ocean. The scars left behind after the earthquakes are still visible. At its most extreme, the land shifted 36 meters in places. What we’ve seen at almost every stop is the rise of land three meters; reef that used to be submerged now rings the islands, waterfront homes that now look out on an expanse of beach; palm trees once standing now submerged, new tracks of land thick with fledgling growth. We have to navigate with care as the charts are no longer accurate and many areas much shallower than what have been recorded.
One of the most poignant stops we made was to Banda Ache, a provincial capital that achieved worldwide recognition by being the closest city to epicenter of the earthquake, and as a result, the hardest hit by the tsunami that followed it. Being a low lying coastal city the destruction caused by the tsunami was almost absolute and 170,000 people lost their lives. After a multi-year reconstruction effort, it’s now a pleasant town with some bizarre landmarks. There is the ocean freighter high and dry eight miles from the sea, and the most iconic image of all – the 36 meter fishing boat atop a house in an otherwise normal suburb. It was a simple but powerful image of the terror and destruction that hit the city on Boxing Day almost a decade ago. Braca still talks about “the boat on a house” and how sad it was, but his frequent use of “I’m a giant tsunami” in his playtime shows how hard the magnitude of the event is to grasp.
While popular opinion was for us to avoid West Sumatra as a cruising ground, we’ve been pleased to experience such a different side of the culture and country. That said there are a few areas where Sumatra poses its set of challenges. It is not an ideal country for either breakages or part delivery, and so one hope’s to bring with them guardian angels or appeased spirits, good fortune or blind luck. Without a third eye painted on our bowsprit to ward off evil spirits, Atea fell pray to a few casualties. At one point in our trip the engine died as we entered Sibolga Harbour, and we had to bring the ship in at night into the busy port under the propulsion of our outboard, dingy attached alongside with me as driver and John steering Atea at the helm. We did a few unplanned donuts to the confusion of a moving tug, but finally settled her at midnight. After a tiring and long event, we decided to open a sacred/long-preserved bottle of port for celebration… to find it topped with a cork and no corkscrew to be found. Double-wham! We also had to deal with a continued issue with alternator bracket that is faulty by design and continues to present problems. We discovered that a corner had nearly cracked through and was close to complete failure. As a result, we urgently needed a welder otherwise we would have been unable to run the engine. Had we been in Thailand or Malaysia we would have easily been able to get a repair, but in Sumatra these skills were hard to find. We found a roadside welding shop that had us on our way in a few hours with a rudimentary fix at a fraction of what we would have paid anywhere else. We are also in need of a diesel mechanic to help solve a persisting engine oil issue and a radio engineer to fix a defective long-range radio, but these technical skills have been hard for us to find and remain unresolved. On the upside, at one stage the weather presented us with a surprise squall that delivered 50-knot winds, laying Atea flat on her ear for the first time. While it was fevered chaos onboard at the time, our new sails and rigging upgrades held fast and the event brings consolation that our ship is seaworthy and prepared for the adverse conditions that often present in the Indian Ocean. Leaving the shelter of Asia and the lack of wind that often defines cruising in these waters, we look forward to the rough and wide spaces of the Indian Ocean and finally letting Atea unfurl her sails and let the winds take us.
What comes to stand out for me during our short two-month stay in Sumatra is how individual experiences are and how personal a recommendation can be, and I am reminded of the importance of following your own path. If I think of the cruisers we met and list their favourite anchorages, there were few that resonated with us. Our best anchorages have been ones we found without following the cruising notes of others and our best experiences have been when we were on our own. Following our own nose has yielded more than we ever imagined. However, recommendation was spot on in one area of Sumatra’s listed cruising limitations: It is not an ideal country to depart from for any significant voyage. Provisioning is much more constrained than in Malaysia and Thailand and any hope for luxury items are a distant dream. As we prepare for a long distance passage to an uninhabited archipelago, much of what we will have to rely on are stores purchased earlier in the year. A-grade flour and rice are not available, let alone staples such as nuts and seeds, milk, butter and cheese, top-grade meat or the decadence of quality coffee or chocolate. That said produce in the fresh markets in the larger cities is bountiful. This came as a relief as in all the villages that outskirt the mainland towns have rudimentary produce shipped out one day a week, and the reliability of the supply boat is weather dependent.
As our time in Sumatra came to a close, I became a regular attendee at the market in Sibolga. For one week I wandered through the labyrinth of crowded stalls, produce spread out on burlap sacks in long lines down the market square. The stall-keepers soon began to expect my daily shop and a kind of camaraderie was built. They would ask for my children by name if they weren’t with me, they would greet me enthusiastically and proudly show me that day’s delivery, and they would hold onto my bags as I continued to shop. I tried to spread my loyalties but inevitably biases were built around the freshest or rarest of items. As the days continued I started to see a part of the undercurrent of the market and developed some temporary friendships, faces that brightened when I pulled up with my shopping bags and my Indonesian rupiah and my lost puppy look. “Mister! Mister! How are you?” was asked by almost everyone we passed and directed to both of us equally. With very good English, the conversation might stretch to “Where are you from?” before it screeched to a halt, open mouths closing into wide grins. Our greetings were as basic, having learned enough for the pleasantries but falling short of any real communication. A handshake or a thumb’s up would close the exchange and we would each meander on towards completing our individual tasks for the day. The language in the market was just as constrained as on the street, but the difference was we required the exchange of meaning in order to complete transactions. “Brapa kilo?” I’d ask of the weight and cost of an item, then I would gesture a scribble on my hand and pass pen and paper. The exchanges often lead to laughter and cheerful backslapping as they teased in my pathetic attempts to communicate. It always amazes me how much can be conveyed in simple sign language, hand and facial gestures and even if the meaning is totally lost, how much fun it can be regardless. Given my inability to communicate and my seeming insatiable appetite for goods, the women were wondrous at the copious amounts of certain products I was purchasing as it was not the average shopping habits of the typical tourist. A woman shook her head when I bought ten cabbages, asking what I did with so many. I asked in return what she would have chosen and she pointed to fresh greens and indicated a handful not a cart full; items at home that would be a staple supply wouldn’t last a few days in our current environment.
I needed produce that would last two months not two days; it is a long time to run on simple stores, and my eye was on only the greenest and heartiest of items. As a result, my other criteria for selecting produce that would last the duration was to pick out the greenest and hardest fruit and vegetables; on many occasion I had my entire selection put back into the bin by a helpful local. They would laugh at my apparent ignorance and a collection of observers would gather while I was tutored in a language I didn’t understand as to how to select the best quality: ripe, sweet and ready to eat. I initially tried to validate my choices but my mime only confused matters. Their attempts to help a wayward foreigner were so sweet that I simply gave up on my objective and effusively thanked them for their assistance. John would shake his head when I returned from yet another trip with food that wouldn’t last, knowing that I would be returning to the market the following day to get what I actually went for.
While Sumatra is not a typical stop for the ‘cookie cutter’ cruiser, it has proven itself to be a worthwhile destination for the intrepid soul. We met two solo sailors, one pushed towards cruising by a severe motorcycle accident at home and the other who sought it out as an extension of her globe-trotting adventures. They revived in me the passion for risk and challenge. These two adventurous livewires highlight how easily life can pass you by if you are not out there pursuing your dreams and challenging yourself. There were also a few cruisers who come annually as a break from work and the rainy season in Malaysia and Thailand, and an Australian who has come six years running as a short midyear escape from the fast-paced city life. Each sailor is a prime example of the merit in finding your own way and ditching the notion that there is more value in traveling in a pack or sticking to popular routes. While we knew few people prior to coming, and know only a few more now, those that we have met out here define the kind of cruiser I respect: Individuals who venture off the trodden path to make their own discoveries.
And so, this is the way life happens: The greatest things come when the best-laid plans fall through. What I imagined would be an isolating experience turned into something very different. Instead of disappointment, it has been a fantastic introduction to a country I knew little about. In leaving a social lifestyle ashore I was initially reserved about spending the year sailing outside a cruising community for social support, but I decided early that I was going to enjoy our detour and I have had an exceptional time doing so. It is a reminder that wherever you travel there are discoveries that await you, new experiences to broaden the mind and adventures to put wind under your wings. You just need to go your own way to find it.
I feel like I have spent the last year chomping on a mouth full of acidic fruit, lemon after rotten lemon passed over on a chipped plate. Fingers pinch my nose tight as I slowly dissect the rotten flesh and eat my way through its bitterness. Just as I rid my mouth of its sour taste another is put in front of me. Each time I am convinced this will be the last piece of spoiled, bitter fruit that will be served. Each time look up from my empty plate to be served another.
“How have you coped?!” asked a close friend.
“The universe is trying to tell you something,” said the next.
“Give up when you are ahead,” coached my neighbor.
“Redefine your happiness,” pleaded my mother.
“Learn to cook,” said myself.
With optimism, stubbornness and bull headedness, I decided that I would turn that chipped plate upside-down, denying a diet of disappointment. Rather than consume each lemon, I would collect them and turn it into a bartender’s #1 drink. After stockpiling them, I would transform them. I pulled out my largest mixing bowl, grabbed my best kitchen knife and my biggest wooden spoon and I started to concoct a beverage that would make something beautiful out of something debauched. I cried when I cut into my lemons; I froze when I sunk my hands into the ice; I despaired when I lost sight of the recipe; I exhausted myself when I waited for it to mix. At the end of a long day of cooking, I poured my concoction into tall glasses and served it up for friends and family to taste.
“Ahhh…. !!” they said in union, “The Perfect Lemonade!”
The ingredients to a tasty lemonade made from a batch of bitter lemons are as follows:
2 complex arm surgeries
1 damaged pancreas
2 determined parents
a pinch of supportive friendships
a dash of resolve
Put both miscarriages in a bowl and mix with a gallon of gratitude. Let sit until fully absorbed. In a separate bowl, add one wrist surgery and one hand surgery and douse with a litre of amazing medical ingenuity. Combine one diabetic son with a year’s supply of insulin, a crate full of syringes and 2,016 testing strips, add a satellite phone and a 24-hour emergency hotline; bring to a boil and simmer gently, uncovered, until tender. Remove from heat and cover with two dog-headed and determined parents committed to a dream.
The batch is ready to serve when you have a daughter with a redesigned limb, a son with an injection-supported pancreas, and two parents with their dreams still intact. Transfer everything to a serving platter and garnish with a twist of humour.
Lemon after lemon, my family has been tossed a succession of hurdles this year that have significantly affected our well-laid plans; each time we redefine our way forward to be hit with another obstacle. When I look back on the year I see that with every trial we carved out sweet memories, with every hardship we found beauty and adventure, with every lemon we squeezed out a few more drops of lemonade.
The first lemon was a miscarriage that changed our plans to cross the Indian Ocean in 2015, putting us back in New Zealand for a six-month contract and a delivery that never happened. Our next lemon was dropped three months later with a second miscarriage, which resulted in a trip to America to escape the New Zealand winter for the sunshine of California and the comfort of family in an attempt to put the two losses behind us.
During those first two months in California my daughter was given an opportunity to undergo a wrist operation to stabilize her right limb, turning our two-month holiday into a four-month separation from John who had remained on contract in New Zealand. At the end of that period Braca, Ayla and I flew to join John in Malaysia to resume our life afloat. We spent a furious two months getting work completed on Atea and the ship out of the boatyard, provisions purchased and last-minute purchases done to prepare for a year at sea.
At the conclusion of all our hard work and preparation, my son was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes and our trip across the Indian Ocean aborted a second time. What was expected to be a year that would see us drifting through the Indian Ocean with sand in our belly buttons and seawater in our ears instead had us wiping grit from our mouths and salt from our eyes; is was a succession of hard hits for our family and we were finding our way forward step by step by holding onto perspective to keep our lives on course and emotions in check.
We turned our hospital-tainted lemons into exotic tropical lemonade by taking the opportunity to explore Bangkok while awaiting our repatriation to New Zealand for further medical support and education. Rather than waiting out those weeks in the safety of a controlled environment, we packed up our insulin and our resources and hit the tourist circuit to explore temples and palaces, frenzied markets and congested riverboat taxis. This may sound little to most, but taking this on during our first days of caring for a diabetic without a team of medical support personnel was a daunting exercise. We found an unexpected pocket of pleasure through exploring the city and escaping the emotional trials we’d been through during the weeks stabilizing Braca; we cast aside our dependency on the medical community and put faith in ourselves that we would be capable of managing Braca’s condition whilst bringing laughter and play back into our world – and we did it with spectacular success.
Reality returned to us when we landed in Auckland and began our diabetic training within the New Zealand system. We spent our first month under the care of the pediatric diabetes team, re-learning how to care for Braca under a different system; gaining our understanding of the disease under two different systems gave us the advantage of additional resources. Again taking our lemons and converting it to lemonade, we completed our last course of training a month after arrival and immediately flew to the South Island to test our knowledge; we needed a good trial of glucose control on the road. If we could succeed on our own in the South Island, we would be prepared to succeed on our own in the Indian Ocean. Our camper van tour took us to all four corners of the South Island and the result was a fantastic month spent exploring one of the most beautiful countries in the world and being reminded of all that home holds for us.
At the end of our South Island tour, Ayla and I flew to California to complete her next operation, expecting to follow John and Braca a month later to Malaysia. Our post op recommendation was that we extend our stay an additional month, and with that extra time we jumped in the car four days after surgery for an epic coastal tour of the Californian seaside. Rather than moaning the extended time away from John and Braca or the delay to our cruising season, we had a fantastic girls trip with the company of some of my closest and dearest friends from my high school and college days. Again, lemons to lemonade; friends that I met and loved in the eighties and nineties opened their arms and their doors with a warm welcome a decade or two later. I have not had the opportunity in years to revisit these long-time friendships and it was rejuvenating to be surrounded by these golden friends again.
For those who don’t understand my ingredients, or the context to this story, I’d like to simplify: I believe hardship is a process to get through, and it is important not to forget the small moments along the way. What drives me to make a sweet drink from bitter fruit is the determination I have always had to see something through to the end, regardless of the hardships that present along the way. I have never been one to stop when the path gets rough or the road gets swept away by tsunami. In fact, I believe my biggest successes have come by way of failure first. Through this, I have learned that the hard times are to be navigated rather than run from, and I feel learning this has allowed us as a family to embrace some very special moments through some incredibly difficult times. The tough times always come; it is how we deal with it that allows us to stand tall or crumble, laugh or cry, take things head on or run from them.
Whether you see it coming or it finds you hiding behind the bushes, change is an inevitable part of life – and when hardship comes with it, I believe it is best to find your way rather than turn away. By taking events head on and embracing the change that comes with it I believe a person is best able to cope with the situation and move forward. For those friends who advised us to give up or redefine our goals and ambitions, I believe we can find a new reality in the context of our current passion. Philippe Petit once said in an interview “passion should be your motto” (in a very sexy French voice). I couldn’t agree with this sentiment more – life is too short not to live it on the edge of your seat and challenges need to taken as they come. I believe you should pursue your dreams the moment you have them, and change them when they fade into something different. Cruising is that part of “living the dream” for us at the present moment and I believe the obstacles we’ve been presented with lately can be navigated safely whilst still in pursuit of our passions.
Each of us must find our own way to make lemonade from our lemon tree, and this post shares the ways we have sought to make ours. I hope the conclusion of this year equips us with enough citrus to last the years ahead without any more fallen fruit and may this be the start of a new consciousness of travel as we forge forward as a family to pursue our lifestyle choice. May the misadventures of this past year lead us towards the adventures of the year ahead and let’s hope third time lucky as we begin our next attempt to set sail for the Indian Ocean!
We are in the country of spirits and as a child, when living here with my family, I remember stories of friendly ghosts inhabiting the houses of my schoolmates, evil spirits causing harm to workers in my father’s warehouse, water spirits invading the bedroom of our closest family friends. Of those who believed, it wasn’t only the Thai’s who had grown up on tales spouted through the generations; expatriates with experiences of their own came to independent conclusions and began dutifully placing offerings in the spirit houses that sat inside their homes. I, for one, neither believe nor disbelieve. I entertain the notion, however, that a Thai spirit has come onboard Atea to disrupt our balance. Whether benevolent or malicious, I believe it is up to interpretation and I try to look at what we’ve been given rather than what has been taken.
As I look back at 2015 our time has been generally been split evenly in fourths between Malaysia, Thailand, the United States and New Zealand. In that year, we lost a child due to miscarriage in both Malaysia and New Zealand; Ayla underwent major surgery in the US and Braca is now in intensive care in Thailand. Perhaps a Thai monk is in order to appease the spirits, or perhaps I owe thanks to my guardian angel for our good fortune. A response to our Facebook update on Braca’s condition resonates with this sentiment. In it my friend Gini stated, “I understand the Thai hospitals and doctors are world-class… I am amazed and encouraged by how your family has been so blessed with very scary health and welfare occurrences time and time again. The angels really take care of you and there is no reason why that will ever change.” There are so many ways to look at a situation; this is the first time we have had travel insurance. We could have been mid-passage. We could have been in a third-world country with poor medical care. Realize this and we can say how very blessed we are.
As many of you know we are now residents of the Bangkok Hospital in Phuket. This has come as a total surprise as at the moment we should be midway between Thailand and Sri Lanka, away from the business and busyness of society and lost in the silence and solitude of the sea. We have spent the last two months working overtime on overdrive, madly preparing and crew for a year in the Indian Ocean. We have spent $30,000 on the boat to ready her, countless days and endless expense buying provisions in preparation for remote regions, downloading hundreds of charts, upgrading equipment, the list goes on. The boat has been turn upside down, reordered, dumped on again and resorted in the flurry of preparations that had become our daily routine over the last two months. The months preceding this were spent on planning and organization, getting visas and caites in order, lining up local representatives in required countries, bolstering and purchasing insurance for both body and boat, our cash flowing like water. It has taken a lot of dedicated, hard work to get us to this point and at the very moment of completion all plans have been dashed on the rocks as a moment of crisis takes over the months and months of preparation and planning.
We’ve had increasing concern for our son Braca but have been unable to identify the issue. Over the course of a few weeks our normally exuberant and delightful son slipped towards a temperamental and lazy four-year old to a weak and to lackluster grump, sliding further in the last few days to an emaciated and exhausted inpatient. At first John and I reveled in his growth as his body slimmed down to a trim, long-legged stature; I attributed his mood-swings and bouts of anger to the testosterone spurt known to come to boys around the age of four. Gradually his appetite decreased, his energy dissipated, his temperament became moodier and more difficult. He started loosing his interest in play or engagement with others. Our worry started to mount but we couldn’t get Braca to admit to any discomfort. We took him to a clinic where he was diagnosed with vitamin deficiency; I felt it was more than that but continued to prepare for our journey while keeping a close eye on him. We cleared Thai customs and immigration and moved Atea to the westernmost departure point; the boat was ready but we were not sailing out until the final piece was in place: Braca.
On the day of our intended departure I whisked Braca to a reputable International Hospital, clear that we needed medical sign off before we departed. They checked his vitals and ran standard blood tests; all came back regular. The doctor found lesions in his throat, which he felt explained loss of appetite and as a result loss of weight and energy. He ran abdominal x-rays that revealed severe constipation. I left feeling optimistic with a handful of drugs and an easy cure, reporting back to John that we’d paid money to be told our son was full of shit. However, by night he was vomiting and his inclination to sleep all day still a concern, compounded by an abnormally heavy, deep rhythmic breathing pattern which certainly raised the alarm.
After researching the doctor’s analysis we felt the assessment was not represented by his symptoms. We ran our own list of symptoms against possible causes, knowing that non-professional self-diagnosis always provides the most dramatic results. Braca’s list was long: weight and muscle loss, over ¼ his body weight down to 14 kg; lethargy and loss of interest; mouth sores and bum rash; frequent urination and constant thirst; constipation; loss of appetite. We came up with a list of four: Depression, Addison’s Disease, Diabetes, Cancer.
In the morning we about-faced and returned to Ao Chelong, rushing ashore illegally to get Braca to the Bangkok Hospital in Phuket. It took no time after a quick examination for the doctor to recognize that Braca was in a critical state and things ran fast from there: IV drips, blood tests, ultrasounds, admittance to ICU. We’d gone from a surge of testosterone to vitamin deficiency to mouth sores to chronic illness in the space of a few weeks. Each prognosis was worse; it was a relief to finally arrive at the right conclusion.
To understand our predicament fully you have to appreciate a few of the circumstances. For one, we had gone through a lot of transitions and Braca was adjusting to changes in condition, environment and weather since leaving the United States. We also have a son who absolutely refuses to admit discomfort, illness, or unease. Since birth he has rejected a sticker for its resemblance of a plaster. I’d repeatedly asked how he has been feeling and he refused any confession, saying only “I’m FINE mom. Just leave me alone!” There is a beauty hidden in this frustrating trait. When admitted to hospital, the nurses in Intensive Care produced a chart with a series of ten faces, each expression progressively pained. Point to 1 and you had a grin from ear-to-ear, point to 10 and the head was sobbing into a puddle of tears. When he was admitted, lethargic and eyes half-mast they held the chart in front of him and asked him to identify the face that best matched his state. He took awhile to respond and after studying the faces he finally pointed to number 2: A cheerful grin on a very happy face. They suggested a few other expressions but he shook his head and pointed again at number 2. A few hours later, after he had exceeded his tolerance level for needles and jabs and was in a flurry of tears, they produced the chart and asked him to assess his pain. He pointed to number 2. The nurse again provided a few other suggestions and he doggedly shook his head and held his finger on number 2. This was repeated several times and he never varied once from his choice – a cheery grin on a happy face. Is there a better example of looking at the bright side in times of hardship? At age four Braca is teaching the world a lesson: Even in times of strife there is always a smile to be found.
John and I started this blog when we began our first season on Atea expecting it to be filled with stories of our travels along the way, opening our experiences to those interested along the way. We didn’t expect it to become such a personal narrative of our intimate and private affairs. In following us through times of play and pleasure as well as through struggle and more unfortunate circumstance, we’ve shared so much more than hidden jewels sprinkled far out at sea. Our high points and low points have taught us that life is full of surprises regardless of the most meticulous of plans. It has shown us that adventure comes in all forms and that even hardship brings beauty. Look at a little boys smile in the most dire of times and you know that life is all about perspective; regardless of events, rainbows can always grace our horizon.
As we look back the last six months the term “like a fish out of water” comes to mind. As a family we’ve been uprooted from our small steel home and deposited in an increasingly alien environment, reliant on others for our survival – all the while looking back enviously at those still swimming around in the pond. We are slowly but surely working our way back toward the edge. Very shortly, with one final effort, we hope to jump back where we belong and swim out into the blue.
This year has been a fast reminder that no plan is ever set in stone, and that regardless of effort things just never turn out as you quite expect them. We rolled into 2015 expecting to travel eastward to Malaysia, Borneo and the Philippines, but good sailing friends caused us to start looking westward. Soon Pacific plans were exchanged for Atlantic plans and we started looking at the Indian Ocean to get there. An unexpected third pregnancy early in the year caused us to abandon cruising plans and turn our sights from isolated atolls to the security of medical care. With a pregnancy pulling the strings and work contacts providing the anchor we found ourselves drawn back to a place neither of us expected: New Zealand in the winter.
By March Atea was dry-docked in Pangkor and we were wrapped-up in Auckland and it was cold. Very cold. Or at least that is how if felt after being spoilt and acclimatised to the Malaysian heat. As the winter approached we shivered in our woolly hats, huddled around heaters and sniffed our way into our new normal. John was strapped back into his work harness and I was adjusting to the domestic scene as our shore lives started to be reestablished. We settled into a rented house as our own home was under a tenancy agreement, with a six-month work contract ahead of us. All this was done in preparation for another child, but all for naught as we lost the baby early in pregnancy – after all this re-planning, resettling and readjusting, we’d lost the reason to be ashore.
As ever, it is the children who adjust with most ease to a new environment. While John and I do luxuriate in first world indulgences, we find that a few short weeks purges us of our cravings and we are ready to head back out to sea. For the kids the adjustment is quick and the past quickly forgotten – a valuable lesson in living in the present. Whether it is adjusting to a new house, a new culture, new friends or new routines, they are the first to find the fun in it and live fully in the current moment. This is a thing John and I struggle to do as we yearn for wide open spaces, flexible routines, constant change and adventure. Each season we’ve fallen more in step with the cruising lifestyle and we find our time ashore more constrained, our shore life an encroaching foreign territory. Slowly we find our comfort and our desire resides in a life afloat, and it is this pull that calls us back to sea.
By June we lost a second pregnancy due to another miscarriage and I was sick of loss, let down and a confined domestic scene. After four months in New Zealand, I was in need of change, the sun, and a new chapter. I flew myself and our youngest members to America while John stayed behind to finish out the work contract.
On my departure the intention was a two month separation: I got time with my family in California and some sunshine to boost the spirit, John couch-surfed with friends for the two remaining month of his contract. We were to reinstate our family and reconvene our cruising life at the end of September but a one month extension on John’s contract was soon offered and he accepted, a little extra money to boost the next cruising season a good thing. Plans were made and tickets purchased for a mid-October departure – all sights set for a return to Atea and an Indian Ocean adventure. As they say, “never count your chickens before they hatch” and true to the saying our plans, once again, unraveled.
For us in California, a two-month holiday turned into a four-month temporary residency. Whilst on holiday I was advised to look into local specialist hospital, Shriner’s Hospital for Children, for treatment for Ayla and I began the process without ever expecting it would go anywhere. Boy was I wrong! Not only did things happen, but they happened quick. Within a week of the application being accepted we were in consultation; within a day of consultation Ayla was under the scalpel. Surgery happened before we’d had a chance to consider the implications of it, but the opportunity for Ayla outweighed all other considerations.
And here we are now: A week before John’s departure and another five weeks for us to go before our fifth season begins. We’ve been closely watching our friends swim westward on the wide reaches of the Indian Ocean, straining against the confines of society’s net for our freedom. That said, it was not an easy ride for many of them. One boat was wrecked on an uncharted island, one lost their mast but lost no lives, one lost their mast and abandoned ship, one was struck by lightning, one was blown up on a reef. Plenty have reported minor breakages from breaking waves and strong winds, yet despite this carnage we are eager to dive in and resume our own journey.
I’ve no idea how best to predict this next cruising season. I know our intentions, but if this year has reminded me of one thing it is that all plans will soon be under a redesign. But that is immaterial; change is inevitable. What I do know is that we will be out there pursuing our passion, following our dreams and living our lives as we most enjoy it.
It is a laugh to report on our recent travels after my previous post that focused on the difficulties of the cruising lifestyle. That particular rant is certainly not representative of our current experiences, as our days are filled with highlights that tumble on top of highlights. Sure, we’ve had a few setbacks: We’ve flown our newly purchased drone into our rig and dropped it into the ocean, with half a dozen flights under our belt. We noted loose engine belts and found a crack in the water-maker mounting bracket, and spent a week on a water ration. Our refrigerator broke – twice. We spent one night in the middle of a thunderstorm and watched lightening strike the water around us, the world flashing electric blue, both horrified and completely thrilled by the experience. But all in all, our days are mostly filled with picture-perfect postcard settings, lazy days and rum cocktails.
We’ve spent the past three months exploring southwestern Thailand. This period seems less an off-track adventure and more a long extended holiday. Cruising in Thai waters is cheap and easy. Distances are short but there is variety depending on destination. If you use Phuket as a reference the following applies: Hop south and you are out of the general reach of mainstream tourism, free to pretend you’ve found a paradise not yet exploited. Head west and you are in in water so clear and you can see your reflection on the sand below, spending your days waterlogged, sun-kissed and beer-filled. East brings you into a labyrinth of sea caves and hongs that send you scurrying about with torches in total darkness, Pussy Galore and Bond-like, swimming or paddling through narrow winding passages until light finally breaks on the other side. Once through the cave and into the interior of the island, you are surrounded by thick jungle exposed to the sky from above. North offers a step away from mainstream tourism into quiet island getaways with tourists seeking to get a taste of a slower Thailand. Hit the hub, Phuket Central, and you are bustling for elbowroom amongst pink-skinned tourists, drinking cocktail concoctions out of buckets and gawking at bare boobs and lady boys.
Thailand is special for many reasons: the climate, the beautiful beaches, clear temperate water, the exceptional food and exceptional people, the inexpensive lifestyle. But for us in particular Thailand offers a social circle unique to previous seasons. I received more friend requests on Facebook after our first week in Thailand than on all our previous years of cruising combined. While using social media to gauge your level of social welfare has many inherent pitfalls, it is an example of how quickly friendships have been made this season and how many other cruisers we’ve been able to share company with.
What makes this particular group of cruisers unique is the collection of babes on boats (of the pintsized variety). Kid-boats: You avoid them like the plague. Unless of course you are infected yourself in which case you stalk them and hoard them like precious commodities. On pretense it is because kids enjoy kid-company. In truth it is to relieve oneself of the parental role of engagement. After weeks of being the only go-to for your child’s fantasy world, it is great relief when you can push them on another as a diversion. In addition, it is only those who have kids who invite those with kids onboard – and evening beverages is a staple for sanity on any ship. Given weeks of toddler games that leave you of crawling on all fours or tied up in rope, you really need both alcohol and adult companionship as a means of escape.
Regardless of reason given, it has been a pleasure to cruise in such a tight-knit group and have that connection with kindred spirits in foreign ports. Adventures jointly sought and holidays celebrated as a makeshift family unit have been a defining part of this season. As this year’s cruisers head onward and Braca’s flotilla of playmates dissipate, it will be interesting to see what dynamic a new influx of yachts bring.
January is a defining month as boats that intend to cross the Indian Ocean begin their migration. In typical Atea fashion, we enter the year with no set plan. Loosely, we’d discussed a trip that sends us north of Borneo into the Philippines. As we spent time with yachts heading across the Indian Ocean, our sights turned westward. To our surprise, unplanned influences look to direct us on a path independent of research or planning.
We have officially invited our third crewmate onboard.* Let me preface this with an earlier conversation that went along the lines of, “yeah, I’d be open to another,” at which time the conversation was decidedly more theoretical than practical. After firmly deciding that Atea would head west to Sri Lanka as soon as possible, medical advice has recommended that we don’t attempt a third pregnancy at sea. All significant test dates line up with the more remote regions of the trip, and given my age the BOLD FACE RECOMMENDATION is that we do not travel after 34 weeks – which would put us somewhere near East Africa. Such a timeframe would mean a race to the finish line, so to speak, to make it to South Africa by the beginning of August. We have decided that we will not choose the fast-track option and will leave an Indian Ocean crossing for another season.
As I write, each day we are committed to a new plan. While this indecision was starting to do my head in, I realize that all possibilities are good ones and we merely struggle to make the optimum choice – which of course changes depending on mood, amount of sleep, the state of chaos or calm onboard. So, wherever tomorrow takes us we will end up in a good place. If that decision happens to move us onward from Southeast Asia, we take with us a season full of friendships, paradise held in our fingertips and, of course, a belly full of rum.
* Please Note: We lost the child during the second month of pregnancy. I chose to include the comment about our third as it was part of our experience and I wanted this little soul represented in our season. Little sweetheart – you are missed.
We have finally completed our transit of Malaysia’s western coast. We entered Malaysian waters as a family of three and exited her northern shores as a family of four. Of the ten months that Atea was temporary resident, we have cruised a two months of that time.
Of general impressions, it is a culturally fantastic place to visit however not ideal from a cruising perspective. Her waters are a murky, dirty brown and littered with rubbish. Beaches are equally scarred by a waterline filled with plastic debris. The skyline is hazy and thick of smoke from burning palm plantations. Yachts typically day hop up the coast because a maze of fishing traps make night passage hazardous and the horizon is a cluster of lights from the hundreds of trawlers pulling up anything with a gill or fin. We’ve stopped any attempt at fishing out of compassion for the little marine life left. The heat has been repressive, Ayla suffering the most. She had three bouts of heat exhaustion before we identified the cause of her illness and now sleeps with a fan inches above her head.
From a tourist perspective however, there is much on offer. Most of the tourists are from near and far reaches of Asia and I’ve enjoyed being immersed in the mix, standing out in my whiteness like a sore thumb. It is predominately Muslim and days are punctuated with the call to prayer. While as a tourist we are not expected to dress in full cover, it is still a courtesy to cover shoulders and legs – a hard won courtesy in the heat. In several towns the mix of religions is evident and what stands out is the multi-cultural cohesion: Mosques, churches and temples are evenly dispersed down alleyways and ethnic diversity is evident in the wide range of cuisine options. We toured Malaysia through our bellies, guided by our appetite.
Remote anchorages dominated our previous cruising seasons and we spent our time in either isolated bays or small island villages where locals relied on subsistence farming and fishing and resources were scarce. Atea always left homeport fully stocked for the duration of our trip, cubbyholes stuffed with a year’s supply of canned and dried goods. This season has been very different. We boarded Atea where we would be spending the initial part of our season rather than facing the long distances we’ve undertaken in years past to get to our cruising destination. We are planning on spending the first six months sailing up and down the Malaysian and Thai west coast, exploring local sites with nothing more than day hops in front of us. There is no need to stuff Atea to the brim with staples as food will be cheap, delicious and in ready supply. Given the large Indian population, we are filling our bellies with roti cani, tandoori chicken and green curry, in addition to local Malay and Chinese cuisine. Markets are filled with a wide range of fruit and vegetables and grocery stores are stocked with local and imported goods to satisfy multinational cravings. Food, for the first time in our cruising history, is easily stocked and easily replenished. I used to have a secret stash of treats, doled out on special occasions. Now it feels like a lavish lifestyle to eat as the taste buds desire.
This rule used to follow for alcohol as well. Where it was once our “liquor reserves,” it is now a stockpile. Langkawi is a duty free haven and the tax cuts make it a cruiser’s Mecca. Boatyards offer a good place for mariners to base themselves for haul out and refit, and parts are available at good rates. It is also Mecca for the alcoholic. Top shelf booze runs $10 a bottle, and there is no limit to quantity or variety. Beer runs $2 a can, and we purchased it by the truckload. Wine is the only category of liquor that is consistent with New Zealand prices, so we are skint on cork but loaded with anything 80-proof and up.
If you are a yacht owner or an alcoholic, Kuah is a must. If you want a taste of cruising in the Med, Telaga offers you the flavour. If you like history and art, Penang offers a maze of vibrant colour that lines the boulevards, where street art abounds…if you are not too distracted by all the delicious smells from food trolleys to see it. The Fjords south of Langkawi are stunning skyscrapers of rock projecting from the sea, scenic and quiet and beautiful. The mangrove forests east of Langkawi are winding arteries of river, nourishing the abundant wildlife that feeds off it.
While I mention the things that Malaysia lacks from a cruising context – murky water, clogged and cluttered – there are amazing attractions on offer that are not accessible to the average tourist. Of course, charters are available to take tourists out to the sites, but they are powerboats that run at high speed and in a cluster. What they miss is the magic, the beauty of solitude. It is the freedom to stay where you want, for as long as you want that defines the cruiser’s ambition. It is the joy of finding a place on your own and discovering its quiet and its noise: Deep red sunsets setting to the silence of fallen wind and tide, a million bats floating out at dusk to cover the moon, eagles that swoop and rise again with fish in talon, dodging each other in flight, monkeys lapping up water at the shores edge, playful and flirtatious for none but you as witness. These are only a few of the moments we’ve shared with the inhabitants of Malaysia over the course of the past few weeks.
For those who wonder why you’d take a yacht 20,000 miles through fine and foul weather when you can hop on an airplane for a fraction of the price – this is the point of cruising. You can never fly to where you can sail, and you can never buy what you can get when you work for it. My previous post highlighted “The Other Days,” which in truth are few and far between. It is These Days, self-sought and not offered in travel brochures, which breathe the soul into the life of cruising.