Pontification and Circumstance

We are living the dream. Really, this is it! White fluffy clouds and white sand beaches, freshly caught fish grilling on the barbeque and spiked coconut drinks served with little pink umbrellas. Bum swinging in the hammock, soft breeze flowing over bare feet, suntanned arm resting on the handrail. Eyes lazily gazing at pink speckled sunsets. Quiet mornings where the only sound is of a distant seabird dropping soulful echo in your ear. Bliss. This is what cruising is all about – the stuff landlubbers’ dream of and sailors boast about. Idyllic days spent on your haunches hakuna mata-style, all no worries and glowing happiness.

We have these times – really, we do! The only caveat is that of these days that sailors have and landlubbers dream about is that these moments are apportioned by The Other Days. And The Other Days happen just as often. These days look like this: Sweat pouring down backsides whilst crammed into tight, enclosed spaces, furiously cursing your boat, the heat, the sea, the salt, your partner, your mother, and your mother’s mother. You’ve a spanner and wrench in hand that might do the job, only if you can figure out what needs to be done. And you’d better figure it out – because you are the only name listed in the directory for handymen. If not, you have a hammer as back up so that you can, at the minimum, fix your frustrations if not your faults.

Let me take a moment and pontificate. In particular, I feel an urgent need to pontificate about rosy-glassed pontificators. There are so many first person narrations and third-party reiterations told in cyber chat, blog posts and magazine entries that preach of the goodness, almost akin to godliness, of those committed to aquatic travel. There seems an unspoken commitment to gloss over The Other Days. We’ve universally become ambassadors for The House of Travel and we are each madly selling package tours.

I was recently forwarded an article titled, “After Living Abroad for a Year and a Half Now…” that goes on to list ten points as to why an eight-year-old child has finally become enlightened by way of shedding herself of the entrapments of shore to live life afloat. She has cast aside her flash house, her new car, her TV, her plastic toys, her local friends, and her traditional education with no pain, remorse, or regret. She no longer knows about stress, having freed herself of all first-world entrapments. Brave warrior – she can now soar high and free. But…. but… really?! I have been a juvenile world-explorer. I am now raising a juvenile world-explorer. In both first and second instances, I understand the sacrifice that is asked of children when we take them out to sea. Every day is not filled up with sunshine and seahorses, baby turtles and rainbows. Sometimes the rainbows are just days of rain. Sometimes the sunshine is just melting heat. Sometimes instead of seahorses and turtles, you get dead coral and barren reef.

I like The House of Travel, and I do not want to offend. I wouldn’t dare illuminate the Dark Side of the cruising scene; that might alienate me from my peers. But I am prepared to reveal what happens on The Other Days; those days we really wish we were somewhere else. I have provided the Top Ten as follows.

1. Resources: You’ve access to every specialist required for the job, as long as you can pull that particular hat from your drawer. Otherwise, you may want to find that hammer. Or finance a new boat. On a yacht, the directory for services looks like this:

  • Plumber:       Mr. & Ms. Self              1-800-GOODLUCK
  • Electrician:   Mr. & Ms. Self              1-800-GOODLUCK
  • Seamstress: Mr. & Ms. Self              1-800-GOODLUCK
  • Mechanic:    Mr. & Ms. Self              1-800-GOODLUCK
  • Nurse:           Mr. & Ms. Self              1-800-GOODLUCK
  • Tour Guide:  Mr. & Ms. Self              1-800-GOODLUCK
  • Money-Juggling Account                 1-800-MPTYPOCKT

Every moment of each day your alter-identities are on stand-by. You’ve ten pagers attached to your hip, buzzing simultaneously, demanding immediate attention. At no time are you not on-call – it is a permanent state of affairs for every sailor. It is for you, the expert, to assess the emergency situation and respond to calls on level of urgency. All the while wondering, in the back of your head, why can’t we just go cruising? Why wasn’t this part advertised in the brochures? At no point did I receive a Cruising World with a model poised on the front cover with her bum-in-the-air, head-crammed-in-tight-space, back-burnt-and-twisted, profusely sweating middle-aged saltwort with a bubble of swear words above her head. This is the wrong kind of bikini-clad!

2. Duplicity: Everything has a back up, because everything breaks. And eventually every back up is used so you rely on the Directory of One, a pot of glue, your favourite swear word and, as last resort, your trusty hammer. When you’ve just bought two of every system onboard, at inflated marine prices, it is demoralizing to replace everything system by system to end up with a quick fix that only does half the job.

3. Replenishment: In a land-based home environment, if your bulb burns out you drop in at the corner mart to pick up a replacement. No problem. If the handle of your garden hose breaks you pop in to the local hardware store and buy another. No problem. You’ve just pulled the last square off your loo role and hop to the cupboard to find an empty plastic wrap. No problem, TP just a quick pop to the diary. All these are 15-minute jobs, completed without thought as you grab your car keys and drive on automatic pilot on an effortless errand. However, each of these insignificants whilst cruising can eat up entire days, and even then it may end in task incomplete. First, you have no car. No problem – catch a bus. If you happen to be anchored anyplace large enough to have public transport, you spend half the day sorting out taxi ranks and bus stops, to find out that the route you have taken has delivered you to a random mystery suburb. Second, you don’t speak the language. You gesticulate madly until someone smiles and points you in a direction, and you wander in circles until it finally dawns on you that local culture is to placate and appease. After a half dozen of these courteous navigational suggestions you finally clue in: They didn’t understand a word you said but it was more hospitable to appear helpful. Third, you finally navigate yourself to the right location to find out that they closed five minutes prior to your arrival for a protracted siesta. Or every staff member fell communally ill and the place will be closed for a week – directly corresponding with the day you arrived and the day you intend on leaving. Or it is a national holiday, a religious holiday, a wedding, or the birthday of a distant relative of the owner’s neighbor’s best friend. Regardless of the reason, you’ve just mimed and hitch-hiked your way across town to hear, “Sorry, please try again tomorrow.”

4. Space (-less): You’ve shopped around and done the research and found yourself the perfect boat. You’ve taken her on her maiden voyage and have fallen completely in love. She is perfect. You leave homeport, high as a kite. Make the most of those first years, as her glory fades. Little by little, season by season, your lady ages. Soon you are looking over at the boat anchored next to you, in lust. When that moment happens you will know you’ve contracted it. Forever after, you will suffer from a condition called 5-Footitis. No matter what, at some stage, every cruiser realizes that your boat is just a little too little.

I get it when my friends express amazement and, silently, pity when learning that we are raising a toddler and infant on a sailboat. Space is tight. Toys are kept minimal. Braca has learned that only one set of toys comes out at a time because there are no corners for typically toddler chaos. There are no “silent spaces.” Ayla has adjusted to sleeping with the roar of an engine or toddler in her ear. Literally. We eat, sleep, play, and work all within a 50-foot space. Fifty feet divided by two bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, a dining and living room, a work shop/engine room, a few cupboards and a closet, divided again by four active bodies, equates to half a cubic square per person at any given time. I get why friends look at me in a “thank god it’s not me” expression. At times on passage it is akin to living in the world’s smallest apartment, locking the door and throwing out the key.

5. Connoisseur’s Courtship: Cruising brings you to an entirely different level in your relationship with food. There are many people who have a great affection for food, but no one has ever courted food like a yachtie. Our relationship is physical. We don’t buy it at the grocery store and toss it in the fridge. We search for it like we are on a quest for long-lost treasure. We map it out on parchment and spend limitless time playing Hide and Seek. Rarely is a one-stop shop on offer. You have to search the town for a fresh market, a canned-food supplier, a butcher, a baker, a cheese shop, and a liquor store. Food is collected in bits and bobs. We are the modern day foragers and gatherers.

After spending all this time searching for these nutritional treasures, there isn’t a vast fridge to shove it all into. You have to select the bare minimum temperature requirements of each item and sort it accordingly. With a fridge and freezer each the size of a miniature beer cooler, competition for cold air is fierce. What doesn’t go into the fridge must withstand humidity and heat. Often a provision run must last months, so the lifespan of your fruit and veggies is critical. As a result, you coddle it and wrap it in cotton wool. We spend days searching for it and once located, attend to it like a first-born. Ancient methods of preservation are learned and implemented. Eggs are tended to and lovingly rotated each day, like Mother Hen, done so they will last months unrefrigerated. Carrots and green beans are individually washed and dried and wrapped into bags, the cycle repeated daily to protect it from moisture and rot. Potatoes and apples cohabitate, extending their freshness for weeks. Onions are individually wrapped in kitchen paper and only the dirtiest potatoes are selected as they take the longest to age. Bay leaves are tucked into all the bulk stores, fending off weevils and other unwanted pests. All this time and attention may sound endearing and sweet, however it is a relationship born out of necessity.

6. Decadence: Speaking of culinary affection, let me quickly touch on the topic of decadence. Point five, discussed above, solely focuses on foods of basic necessity; not foods of luxury and desire. Of the latter, I would like to wake up one morning and have a bakery at my disposal, all hot dough and buttery croissants, rather than spend the half hour the evening before bashing flour with my knuckles. I often crave a cappuccino with a frothy flower served in a delicate ceramic cup, the daily newspaper set to the side. I want to look at a menu with vast selection, dine on the chef’s special, and follow it with the devil’s pick in sweet delights. Superficial desire, I know. But the appeal becomes heightened when the option for a café or fine dining has been taken away.

7. Slow: Some days are just slow… too slow. Some days are on instant rewind and repeat. Somehow you’ve auditioned for the sequel of Groundhog Day and landed the lead role. Your days become a repeat of the same routines: A morning swim and a play on the beach, a siesta at noon, boat maintenance (because there is always boat maintenance), followed by sundowners with whoever straggles into your anchorage that day. Quiet nights. I miss the noise of city life. The loudness. The business. The pace. I miss live music, small pubs and rugby matches. I miss old faces. Not the geriatric kind of old faces, but the familiar old faces of long established friends.

8. Weather: Life is very much ruled by the weather. I know that grey days get people down wherever you are. But when you are stuck in a floating box in a downpour, it gets all the more oppressive. Cruisers usually pull it off because long days of rain are not the norm during the dry season in the tropics. But when bad weather hits, you better be prepared for it. It takes no time to learn that you never leave your yacht with the hatches open – better to come back to saloon filled with stifling hot air than a cabin full of water. Most often you cancel your agenda as there is nowhere to go in torrential downpour. If you do decide to be ambitious, it is inevitably awkward. You hunker down in the dingy and get pelted as you race ashore, then lumber along with gear in hand as you splash your way to your destination. Regardless of tactic, when you get where you are going you are soaked to the bone, wet as a tramp, wondering was this worth it?… wherever you head to, they’d better be serving beer!

9. Budgeting: When you board a boat with the intention of being a long-term cruiser, you slip back into the financial position of a teenager with a minimum wage job. You have cash, but you never seem to have enough of it. Money is constantly being budgeted; priority spending shifts as boat repairs claim more and more of the “reserve.” Cruising funds are further constrained each subsequent year and budgets are constantly revised in attempt to make the money last. Boats by their nature suck money, and each year there is less money available to suck.

10. Temporary Retirement & Re-Employment: You drip out your retirement account so that one day when the rest of your peers are dropping out of planes in their golden parachutes, gunning around town in their Maserati’s, sipping vintage wine in their split-level homes, you are heading back to an office. Older, slower, and grumpier.

While this Top Ten list isn’t exhaustive, I have probably succeeded in making my point: There is a Dark Side to cruising. Cruising is not an exercise in seamanship, navigation and heavy weather tactics. We rarely spend our days battling storms, big waves and nautical disasters. We usually spend our days fighting logistics and minor inconveniences.

Cruising isn’t a long holiday. It is a lifestyle choice. There are incredible highs, and these make dealing with The Other Days worth every moment of it. When back on land I often feel like I am living amidships on even keel – the highs aren’t near as high and the low’s happen less often. While I do love coming ashore and indulging in extravagances and indulgences, I find that when the novelty wears off I am soon looking around saying, “Well, this is a bit dull. What next?” Within a matter of weeks, days begin to blend into each other and months fade away without notice. All the conveniences of home you craved on The Other Days, like cars and cash machines, Google Maps and high speed Internet, seem like adventures worth their weight in pain and sweat on reflection for it made for good stories shared over a grog at sunset. At home social occasions are planned rather than spontaneous. It takes years to meet the neighbours, rather than the quick invitation that goes out with boats you share an anchorage with. Friendships ashore often come after long courtship with social circles rather than the quick acceptance you get in the cruising circuit. Eclectic Camaraderie. I enjoy the feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood that is felt between sailors, mixed by way of culture, nationality, age, religion and financial standing. All of whom share a love of boats and the sea, a passion for nature and wildlife, who are seeking out exploration and adventure. Each willing to put themselves out there to attain it regardless of the sacrifices it takes to get there.

Something To Say About Miracles

We finally arrive in Penang – exactly one year after our intended arrival date, and well past due we share this story.

For those of you who have met Ayla, you will know that she has a condition called radial dysplasia. She has the fourth stage that is defined by the absence of a radial bone and thumb. Often the condition is associated with heart and renal issues, along with a variety of other potential complications. It is only now that we have her with us that I can share her birth story, or more specifically, her en utero story.

I have heard many people say what a miracle babies are and what a complex process their development is, particularly in the womb. I understood this but never really appreciated it. It was truly amazing with my first to follow the month-to-month stages of growth and how quickly complex systems develop.

I got the condensed version with Ayla as we didn’t discover we were pregnant until the 15th week, well into the second trimester. We were sailing up the eastern Australian coast when I discovered a lump in my stomach, of which it took several days for me to convince John it wasn’t a figment of my imagination. We were a few days out of Cairns when he agreed that there was something evident, of which I said “it is either a good lump, or a bad one.” I figured it was either tumour or a baby and I knew right away which I preferred. A few days later we were able to confirm good news, and the following day we got an ultrasound.

It was such an unexpected surprise. For several reasons we thought I was unable to conceive, so to learn that we would be joined by yet another was fantastic news. During the ultrasound we were told that we would be having a girl and that all looked good in the scan. We were jubilant – a daughter for us, a sister for Braca! We returned to the receiving room to wait for our photos and our alarm grew as our wait was extended. Couples arriving after us came and went while we still waited, and we were finally called back into the examination room. There is a funny thing that adrenalin does to shift the space around you. I am sure everything slipped sideways and created a void as voices started to drift off when the doctor started talked about problems that had been found. Further tests were recommended. Specialists were referred. I walked out in a mechanical daze until I was freed by the open space outside to break down and cry. I called my mother and the words I remember repeating were “my baby is broken.”

We spent several weeks in Cairns seeing specialists who helped us understand what Ayla was dealing with. We had a child with a malformed limb with a host of other serious complications that could present on delivery. Her kidneys could fail. She may need heart surgery at birth. She may have mental disability. Blood transfusions.

Fifteen weeks along and we had some major decisions to make. Were we to carry this child to term? Should we head directly to New Zealand and the safety of a medical system we would be supported by? Could we dare carry forward with our plans and spend the pregnancy in remote regions with an at-risk pregnancy? Those few weeks without a plan and so many factors outside our influence was a very stressful period. I cried my full for the sorrow I felt for a child I couldn’t do anything to help, and worried over the possibility of a future with a special-needs child.

In the end, we decided to press on. Atea and crew would sail from Australia through Indonesia as planned, with sights on Singapore as a base for temporary work. We discussed this with the specialists and agreed that we would get periodic ultrasounds along the way. I did some research on potential delivery locations and found a gynecologist in Penang, Malaysia, who shared a birth philosophy that I was aligned with and who agreed to deliver Ayla for us. I owe my deepest, most sincere gratitude to Dr. Narinder Shadan for his support along the way. His responses were prompt, his manner gentle and sincere as well as professional, and his patronage gave me the confidence to carry forward.

We had a magic season – our trip through Indonesia was filled with dances and festivals, celebrations and local hospitality. It was easy to let my worries get lost in the fullness of our lives, and I embraced that. It was easier for me to put the pregnancy out of mind when results of the ultrasounds along the way confused us with a myriad of different results, all worse than the last.

Lombok and the northwestern Gili group provided a significant change to our plans. Through some close sailing friends I was introduced to Julia, a gynecologist-on-holiday who sat down for a consultation with me – it was a very fortunate introduction. We discussed Ayla’s condition and the risks we were taking of a delivery so far from home. She offered to join me during my next ultrasound appointment, as she would be traveling through Lombok and close to the hospital I would be visiting. On the evening, she was there in advance of us – “us” included John, Braca and I and our French friends Marie & Michel and their two children Nali & Niobe, 2 and 4. We walked in like a fortified battalion of misfit tourists. The doctor I consulted with was using old equipment and was under trained, and so Julia stepped in and ran the ultrasound for him. The conclusion was that I needed more sophisticated equipment to get the results we were looking for, and so we were referred to a specialist clinic across town. Off I went trailed by my eight-strong support team.

The results of the second test indicated that Ayla was loosing weight. She was in the 10th percentile and with it our focus shifted to low birth weight concerns. We decided that we had too much at risk to deliver Ayla overseas and made the decision to return to New Zealand for her birth.

But first, we had to get there. We had a floating home half way between points and needed to find a safe place to leave her. We ran through a few, mostly impractical, ideas before settling on a plan. My proposed solution – ludicrous on reflection – was to sail from Bali to Borneo, sail upriver and trek wild orangutan, then help deliver Atea o Singapore. Once there, I’d hop on a plane with a belly fit to bust and a two-year old, leaving John to job hunt in Singapore while I flew to NZ to deliver a baby and return once we’d received clearance. After persuading John to this plan, I realized that leaving him to his bachelorhood while I roamed Auckland knocked up and homeless was, while a wildly creative plan, definitely not a sound one. Eventually we agreed that I could keep the orangutan if I acceded Singapore. We would put the search for a contract in Singapore on the back burner and take it one step at a time. John would return with me to New Zealand to join in the birth of his daughter. If we could return to Atea soon after delivery we would address work options then. If we needed to stay in New Zealand at the request of our doctors we would be in a position to do so.

Having agreed on plan, we then needed to get both ourselves and our boat over 1000 miles to Danga Bay Marina in Malaysia, with 4 weeks remaining before the flight cut off. Women are denied access to airspace a month prior to their due date, which left us with a lot of distance and little time to get Atea secured before we had to fly.

While our pace was quick, we did schedule in a detour up the Kumai River in Borneo to visit wild orangutan in their natural habitat. With few places around the world that offered such a unique experience I was determined to get there (see video on our blog: X). John always teases me that when I am given option A and option B to choose between, I always choose A and B. We were also able to celebrate our son’s second birthday with our fellow cruising mates before signing off on the season. We then followed a quick pace to get Atea to our designated marina and did so with three days to spare. We madly packed bags and boat not knowing how long our departure was for. I expected a quick return and packed accordingly, however prepared the boat for an extended absence to ensure she would be keep well should be gone longer than anticipated. It was a mad few days in sweltering heat getting things ready for our departure. No feet up on soft cushions for the abdominally-enlarged. We worked steady and hard together, with a day to spare for a sight-seeing tour of Singapore before departure. All would have rolled without comment had the airline staff not stopped me at check-in, two short hours before departure, and demanded that I get a medical certificate confirming me fit to fly. Talk about sending a woman into early contractions! We raced out of the terminal to get a stamp of approval from an airline-approved doctor. Fortunately, the checkup was a blitz – I was asked my age and weight, told to flash him my ankle for visual inspection and waived out the door. It was the quickest, most expensive consultation in my life, and I thanked him for it. We were cleared for travel. Holding my belly, we sprinted off to departure count down and boarded our flight just in the knick of time.

The day after our return I had appointments with the specialists to discuss Ayla’s case. It was quickly determined that Ayla had slipped from the 10th percentile to the 3rd and the suggestion was made for an immediate C-section. I was totally unprepared for that recommendation. We had only just arrived, we were sleeping in a friend’s basement and had made no preparations to receive an infant.

We agreed on a contingency plan and monitored Ayla’s weight, however it was quickly evident that she was continuing to struggle and so on my subsequent assessment I was asked to immediately check in for an induction. A long, drawn out two days later, I held my beautiful baby in my arms.

One look at Ayla and I fell absolutely head-over-heals in love. Now, this is the amazing thing about nature: I had spent six months protecting myself and all the barriers crumbled the minute she was placed in my arms. I looked down at the most beautiful face I’d ever seen; blue eyes that reflected my father, graceful fingers that reflected my mother. Johns smile. My nose. I felt so proud of her for the miracle she made happen – she had survived on a single-vein umbilical chord with half the blood supply of a standard birth and she had made it.

It was the right decision that we had returned to New Zealand. We were wrapped up in a medical system that made things happen. As an American it was amazing to be in socialized care within a country with such excellent medical support. Things just happened without draining me of all my sweat, tears and dollars. Within days of Ayla’s birth, she had a full set of detailed full-bodied x-rays, a brain scan, a heart scan, bloods drawn and genetic testing – all reviewed by the top pediatric specialists in the country. I was visited by a Psychologist who offered free support counseling should I need it. Ayla’s pediatric doctor made several visits to check in. After all the emotional pressure of this pregnancy, it was amazing to fly home and fall into the arms of such an efficient medical system.

As always, it is the unknown that is the scariest. I remember a poignant moment when the psychologist called in. After a brief summary, I said how deeply I had fallen in love with my daughter on our first day together. She looked at me with very serious eyes, nodded, and asked, “and how are you feeling about her today?” She was looking for all the things unsaid. But there was nothing other than this floating feeling of elation. We’d made it. Ayla hadn’t been whisked off to an operating theatre or intensive care in her first moments. None of the disasters that we’d feared for her had presented. She had been placed in my arms on delivery and stayed with me every moment since.

And here we are, a few weeks shy of her first birthday. Back onboard Atea in the town we’d intended as her birthplace. I had sent Dr. Narinder an update when Ayla was born and said we’d touch base if we made it to Penang. On arriving, I followed up on that promise and received a reply filled with his typical warmth and enthusiasm. Two days following he came down and joined us at a pub near the marina and we met in person for the first time. He was introduced to the baby we’d hoped he would deliver and we were able to thank him for the support he gave us along the way. Had he not been there, we would have made very different decisions in regard to our movements last year.

While our pregnancy had been a difficult one, no day since her arrival has been. We’d spent six months preparing for the worst and every day since celebrating her progress. During that meeting a comment Dr. Narinder made hit home in a way I had never registered similar comments before. In talking about Ayla, he said what a miracle she was. When I acknowledged him he stopped, held my gaze and repeated, “No. She really is a miracle.” And for the first time I understood just how very, very lucky we were.

Bicycle Spokes and White Rice

We can now officially report that we have “gone cruising.” Dock lines were cast yesterday and we spent our first night at anchor. If feels rewarding to be truly afloat again, with bows pointed to the breeze and salt spray cast across her decks.

It is hot here in September – low 30’s hot, which when breezeless means really, really hot. Matters are worse when smoke fills the sky from burning plantations of palm trees, making the heat seem all the more oppressive. It has taken us some time to adjust to the high temperature but the gauges are tuning and our bodies starting to regulate. We initially stayed in a hotel near the marina whilst Atea was on the hard getting her final work done, the air-conditioned rooms a welcome reprieve. We soon discovered, however, that air-con in these parts don’t have temperature adjustments so we either battle hypothermia or heat exhaustion. I’ve never understood why countries with the hottest temperatures tend to turn their thermostats the lowest – it has always seemed counter-intuitive to carry jumpers around when walking around in the blistering heat. But if you intend to spend anytime indoors the extra layers are necessary. I now understand how Muslim’s can get away with head-to-toe covering when I spend time indoors shivering myself blue.

It took us three weeks to get ourselves sorted for the season, which was the timeframe we expected. While Pangkor may not attract the average tourist, Pangkor Marina does offer a good base to get marine work done. We had high hopes of getting a significant refit done to Atea during her nine months on the hard, but we soon realized that you have to be present to ensure progress. Nevertheless, we succeeded antifouling the hull, polishing the topsides, painting rust spots and the interior woodwork has been rejuvenated. At the last minute we added in an anchor winch service, rudder shaft repairs and a leaking hull valve replacement. After emptying out the bank account, we were finally ready to go. You quickly realize why boatyards are full of foreign cruising yachts. With prices roughly 50% lower than western yards, it is the only place you can afford to have work done… and even then boats quickly consume what money you have.

Of our diet, it has changed considerably since re-embarking on the cruising life. As I reflect through the seasons, the taste and flavour of our meals are highly influenced by the regions we travel through. This one more so than any other. In previous years we have left shore with a yacht stocked for extended periods. Rather than a year of stores onboard, this year we have the luxury of easy access to most foods and we are able to provision as we go. A novel experience. For the first time ice-cream blesses our freezer, which sounds a good thing as in years past the entire space has been jammed exclusively with eye fillet and scotch steak. However, while fruit and vegetables abound, quality meat, breads and cheeses are sparse. The chicken is scrawny and the meat ordered by hue: orange, black or green. As such, a vegetarian diet consumes our meals unless we go ashore. Given meals – good, delicious, full-flavour meals – are a quarter of what the ingredients would cost, eating ashore is a regular affair.

That’s great until you are blessed with a toddler who has little appreciation for spice. As meals in Malaysia are a blend of Indian and Malay culture, very little is served bland in nature. Given Braca’s distaste for meals with a red hot kick, rice is slowing becoming his staple. Ayla is getting her balance of nutrition through breast milk, but Braca has been abruptly deposited into a white rice diet.

We lucked into good company on our first day. We went to the boatyard to greet Atea for the first time in ten months when we saw two small figures madly peddling along the walkway. To my delight, they turned down the ramp to a yacht at the end of the jetty. I went around to introduce myself and was delighted to meet a very chatty and warm Canadian woman and her Australian family. Her two daughters are two and five, the youngest a month off Braca’s birthdate. We laughed at the kit that comes with kids and how ridiculous some of it was in a cruising context – babies on boats with bikes. John and I had debated before leaving Auckland at how ridiculous it was to bring a bicycle and trike (for the baby who isn’t yet crawling!), but this introduction started a ritual of morning communal bike rides and an immediate friendship. “Where are my girls?!” was the first thing Braca would say in the morning and they’d soon be off as a connected threesome. They would be off peddling around the marina, swimming in the hotel pool, hanging out below decks playing games or attending home-schooling lessons. We also took excursions into town, which provided access to local attractions and activities. SV Wandoo made the three weeks in Pangkor Marina a very social, welcome affair.

We have reunited with old friends and met some new, and social evenings on the aft deck have kicked in to a regular affair. What stands out is that at some point in the evening all conversation inevitably turns to “where to next?” Opposed to seasons past where routes all led westward, piracy in the Indian Ocean means that cruisers have to choose alternate plans to what was once the “milk run” to the Med. From Malaysia and Thailand, most boats head southwest through the South Indian Ocean to round the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa on a return trip to Europe or the Americas. A few brave or foolhardy team up to head through the Bay of Bengal and the pirate waters of the Arabian Sea (or finance the safer but more expensive option of shipping the yacht by cargo ship). Others look eastward on a circuit that leads them back through the North or South Pacific. Us? We have no idea. Or more aptly put, we have many ideas but none that we have committed to.

Sight and Taste of the Spice Islands

[As we prepare for this cruising season, we are tidying up from last season: Here is an update from July 2013 that covers the first few months of our trip through eastern Indonesia.]

In deciding to join the Indonesian rally this year, known locally as Sail Komodo and internationally as Sail Indonesia, we chose to do so not because of its logistical perks but for its social benefits. Indeed, the rally does assist in organizing visa permits and extensions. It organizes immigration and customs visits and the like which saves on the hassle of sorting it out individually and the runaround you often get outside of organizational sponsorship. However our key drivers were much less serious than all that; we wanted rum-buddies & poker-pals to share anchorages with along the way. With 105 yachts signed up for the rally, we were certain there would be a few like-minded comrades that we would be able to join up with.

One hundred and five is a whole heap of boats; about one hundred more than we were interested in joining in a poker match. Fortunately, the rally had organized two route options. Option A followed the traditional cruising route and had the majority of participants. Option B was on the ‘road less traveled’ and had received much less interest. When we first discovered the ratio of 6/99 we thought we’d clearly missed something. We spent a day doubting our choice however concluded that nothing could be worse than following a hundred boats around a cruising circuit. When the Indonesian Government laid down incentives we spent a second day debating what we’d missed: $250 in cash and $250 in diesel to switch, but the offer had only persuaded six boats to defect. One follows the tradition route along Flores, the other strikes north to the mythical Spice Islands.

Our decision made, we readied Atea for departure out of Darwin on the 27 of July, two days after our beach wedding. Our route would take us north to the Spice Islands in eastern Indonesia, westward through the little-known diving meccas of Wakatobi and Takabonerate, through the province of Buton and then southwest to rejoin the fleet in the world-famous Komodo Island, land where ‘dragons’ still roam.

After a three-day, rough but fast passage north from Darwin, as we set thankful feet ashore in Saumlaki, our first stop in Indonesia. Two things were immediately obvious: We were welcome guests, and this was no casual cruise. Upon arrival we were quickly wrapped up in a list of welcome ceremonies and official functions and as official guests of the state. Second, the Indonesian people were delighted to see us. As a step off the beaten path, locals were unused to foreigners and Saumlaki is far from a tourist destination. “Hello Mr., Hello Mrs.!” sang out in our ears along with the constant peeping of horns from countless motor-scooters, signaling a warm reception.

While we were used to Braca being a novelty in placed we’ve traveled, Indonesia is a busy populous country and he was swarmed in mass. Braca was bombarded by pinching fingers and phone cameras every step of the way, and he was quickly overwhelmed by the attention. Our poor little trooper was swamped in attention from adults and trailed an ever-growing crowd of kids wherever he went. The locals have a habit of touching or pinching the cheeks and flesh of babies they admire, and whilst Braca stoically endured this constantly, being picked up by adults became his do not cross line. Last year he was gently loved by the Pacific Islanders, but this year his patience had found its limit and he adopted a new habit of screaming his annoyance if picked up by an enthusiastic local. We coined the term “Braca-razzi” from paparazzi for the crowds of photographers who surrounded our son, and whenever the Brac-Pac was in pursuit we followed closely like security guards.

Braca was not the only youngster to be intimidated, however, as we quickly learned that the screaming babes and toddlers running for the protection of a mother’s skirt was due to our whiteness – it was the first time that these young ones had seen blue-eyed, yellow-haired humans. It made me appreciate just out “off the beaten path” we were.

After a week of official welcome ceremonies in the gusty deep-water anchorage of Port Saumlaki, we headed for a quiet stop only 20 miles up the coast which provided an insight to rural Indonesia. We anchored Atea off a beautiful sandy beach and took ourselves in to play on the white sand; before long a few of the villagers who’d spotted our mast wandered down to investigate. As children go, Braca immediately had playmates and we sat with the elder who shared with us stories about his village. We were taken to some charming washing pools in the forest and watched the children splash in the water and the women scrub clothes on the rocks. As the sunlight trickled through the thick canopy overhead, we felt the magic of the moment and the beauty of these cultural exchanges – this was what the lifestyle was about for us, unplanned and spontaneous.

From there it was another overnight passage to Banda Island, center of the lucrative nutmeg trade 200 years ago. Such was the importance of the nutmeg trade that the island was once swapped by the colonial powers in equal exchange for nothing less than Manhattan Island. Today it is a small, quiet but pretty town that sits in front of a towering volcano with a deep volcanic crater that provided us safe harbour. We were anchored stern to the shore alongside our new cruising partners, making new friendships as we adjusted to the dynamics of the rally. Banda has clear waters and great diving to offer, a volcano to climb and a town rich in history so our days were kept full. John took the two-hour hike up through thick bush to the summit of the volcano and was rewarded with a glimpse into the smoking crater, commanding views of the ocean and a sore knee that has not been the same since.

Wakatobi and Buton, our next two stops, lay at the end of a three-day passage westward and showed us the ethical dilemma of the rally. As a government-sponsored event, townships vied for the ability to host the rally and took on responsibility for events and activities to entertain us. It appeared to us that each town tried to outdo the last, as events became grander as we continued onward. Wakatobi offered us fuel and cash to visit and we were not too shy to decline the offer. Thankfully, the warmth of our welcome and the richness of the local events meant that we did not have to question whether acceptance of a gift imposed an obligation – we were grateful to accept both. The feast provided at Wakatobi was fantastic, local dance professionally delivered with plaques and traditional dress offered to us as gifts. Local events were hosted each day and free transportation provided at our beck and call.

Buton posed a slightly different problem, as it was a remote province that was not visited by foreigners and to get there added distance in the wrong direction. We were visited by the governor of the province with a direct plea that we attend his township’s festivities as they had spent six months preparing for our arrival, the “Dance of 12,000 Virgins.” While we had plotted to bypass this in search of some solitude, we felt the pressure to attend – of course we didn’t expect to actually see 12,000 bodies on stage however that is exactly what was delivered.

We were honoured guests to a traditional takoki, which translates to “giant dance.” 12,500 school children had spent the better part of a year preparing for the choreographed dance, professional musicians were brought in and the media was present. We were given “box office seats” in a decorated, designated area – the only covered seating offered to the public. I assume they were expecting a more even distribution of the 100 rally boats, but as there were only 12 yachts on this route the distribution was 1,000 dancers per visiting boat. We felt humbled that so many people had put in so much effort to be part of our welcome, but as the music boomed and the superbly drilled dancers flashed colour and movement as far as we could see, we couldn’t help but be absorbed and overwhelmed by the event. Buton had put on its very best and it was a truly exhilarating experience.

From the pace of back-to-back events and continuous entertainment, it was a welcome relief to leave big townships behind for the quieter pace of remote islands and small villages. Of those, Sagori Island provided an intimacy and closeness with the locals that we were blessed to experience. Idyllic in setting, local children would come out in their dugout canoes for friendly exchange, we would play ashore with imaginatively-crafted games and spend hours hanging out under palm trees with the locals. Braca developed a very sweet bond with one of the girls in particular, and would let no one but her pick him up and carry him around, whereby everyone took to calling her “big sister.” Sadly, it was an exposed and steeply shelving anchorage. When Atea gently carried away the inadequate mooring buoy, John’s prior decision to stay onboard that day saved us from disaster. Sadly we had to leave the island without a proper goodbye to the locals that we’d come to love the most.

Our final stop before rejoining the main rally was at Takabonerate Marine Park, which claimed to have some of the world’s most pristine diving and diverse marine life. We were eager for quiet, lazy days and that’s just what we got. Afternoons filled with nothing but water play, kites and scuba kit, beach toys and paddleboards. There was no village on the island but we were in the company of a few of our fellow cruisers, friends to enjoy a few sundowners with at the end of the day. Takabonerate was a welcome break from the obligations of being an official guest of Indonesia, and it was a break from the admiring – and sometimes intrusive – attentions we received over the past several weeks.

Sail Indonesia has defined the season more than we ever imagined. Once involved in the rally, it was difficult to withdraw to a more normal cruising pattern as the small size of our group meant that we were accountable for attending all of the activities. That said, the events that we were included in were opportunities to see a part of the culture we would have otherwise missed. We were wined and dined and not a cent was asked of us in compensation. We can only assume that the government took this on in an attempt to open the region up to tourism and we were the lucky ones to experience the graciousness and generosity of the locals as a result. I hope our small tokens of reciprocity to the individuals that we met along the way will have them remembering us as dearly as we remember them.

As we head south to rejoin the larger rally group we feel ready to be more anonymous. Perhaps none more so than Braca, whose photo must be on every cellphone in Southeast Sulawezi. Perhaps the locals will not remember the twelve visiting yachts or a dozen trailing officials, but I am sure they will remember with warmth our little blonde white boy, and all the laughter shared along the way. Sail Indonesia may have been sponsored by the state, but we did get to meet the people.

The Seagulls Have Landed

Here we are at long last – home again. As all international journeys go, it has been a long haul to get here.

We departed Riverhaven at 9AM with nine pieces of weight-maxed check-in luggage, five cement-filled carry-on bags, a nine-month old and a two-year old. After negotiating fees for our excess-baggage charge, redistributing weight in our carry-ons and wiping up the urine left at the counter by a near-potty trained toddler, our four-hour lead time to departure was quickly gobbled up. We juggled babies and bags through the international terminal and made the departure gate just in time.

I expected the demands of a long overseas trip to raise some patience-draining moments however Ayla and Braca proved to be capable and tolerant travel mates. We were well into our gin-induced zen state when we realized that we were minus one electronics-laden carry-on luggage. Laptops, cameras, ipods were left somewhere between check-in and the boarding gate and we had a thirteen hour flight to sit and ponder our idiocy and the implications of this digital loss.

We landed in Kuala Lampur at 9PM local (1AM NZ) and dragged eight droopy eyes and one less bag to a hotel near the airport. Whilst the adult contingent was well aware of the collective need for sleep, infant and toddler weren’t briefed on jet lag or the importance of getting on local time as soon as possible. This is not where I mention that John thought he left an additional item on the KL side and dragged a very-awake infant back to the airport at 4AM to scourer the trolleys and carrousel for the missing piece.

Our daybreak action plan was to try and track down our lost bag as soon as possible. After setting the sniffer dogs in motion we indulged in our first moments of the tropics – we donned togs and spent the morning evading early heat in the oasis-style pool. By 10AM we were back at our hotel room, by 10:15 we had confirmation that our bag had been located and by 10:30 we were off again on a four-hour taxi journey to Lamut, our final destination and Atea’s home for the past ten months.

Our current room has a marina view that looks out on Atea’s mast. The reunion has been quite sweet and all looks refreshingly good onboard. The work done on Atea has given her a much-needed facelift, and for me her interior is in equal portions beautifully familiar and intimidatingly small. We will adjust to our reduced space as outdoor time exceeds indoor life.

Alas, the travel dramas we expected didn’t materialize and those we didn’t anticipate have cost us. The kids are adjusting beautifully other than haphazard sleep and we are preparing for a few busy weeks ahead as we prepare Atea for the next season. And somewhere in that time we will need to find space onboard our little capsule for 215kg of luggage broken down to 180kg of toys, 20kg of boat bits, 12kg of Kia’s kit and a meager 3kg for John.