Borneo to Sri Lanka
Borneo - Singapore, Monday 7th December - Friday 11th December 2009
We upped anchor at 09.30 am and headed out on another windless morning, but safe in the knowledge that if the worst comes to the worst we have adequate fuel for the journey to Singapore. At 17.30 we entered the South China Sea.
On Tuesday 8th we got caught under a 5 mile diameter storm and were unable to shake it off. It seemed to be hooked onto the boat by an invisible line and followed us every change of direction. Eventually we gave up evading it and after four hours of torrential rain and lightening it simply disappeared. These clouds seed and dissipate very suddenly and watching the process on radar is always entertaining, if ominous.
We sailed through large areas of very disturbed water and the charted whirlpools don't show the half of them. They churn everywhere and play havoc with speed and direction, but there is no avoiding them!
On Thursday 10th December, day 533, we re-crossed the equator!! Now back in the Northern hemisphere. In fact could say we are going home!
Friday 11th December - Singapore Straits. What a hair-raising journey we had negotiating the hundreds of huge ships, small fishing boats, pilot boats, tugs towing barges etc etc, which use this channel. The whole thing is compounded by the glitter of the coastline of Singapore twinkling madly, making light identification tricky. We both translated what we saw occasionally with different opinions and in the darkness made a dash to cross this crazy shipping lane towards the marina. It took half an hour to cross with a pause in the middle to let four big ships pass and I think we were both holding our breath the whole way. However we arrived at Raffles Marina at 08.30 am to be greeted by perfectly uniformed staff in a golf buggy who helped us tie up.
Singapore, 11th - 17th December 2009
The marina had everything, chandlery, shop, restaurants, laundry, wi-fi, swimming pool, bowling ally; more of a resort really. Our forward-looking sonar had not been working since the Java Sea so a nearby diver went down to check the transducer. As soon as he touched it, it popped out inside the boat leaving a 30mm diameter hole where water was spurting up like a fountain. Gordon put his hand over the hole and eventually managed to screw on the plug to stop the flow after getting completely sodden. He pumped out the water and after examining the transducer found it was completely broken with the retaining screw thread sheared. Then we remembered in the Java Sea we heard a loud bang at night from hitting some flotsam but could not find any damage at the time. This transducer could have fallen out any time and filled the boat with water.
The foyer of the marina complex was beyond belief with wide sweeping staircases, knee-deep carpets, fountains and chandeliers. This is when you realise you look a bit shabby in your well-worn shorts and t-shirts and bring out the 'good' clothes (also worn and shabby).
We met up again with William and Helen ('Out on the Blue') and shared a few happy moments not least of which was fulfilling one of my dreams ie going to 'The' Raffles Hotel for a Singapore Sling.
The Hotel has been renovated to an amazingly high standard and although the purists may say 'its not the same', I feel they have retained the feel of its pre-war glory days. The faded splendour has been replaced by brand spanking new splendour, but still has the features which the old colonialists would recognise. When we were shown to our table in the 'Long Bar', I almost complained because the floor around the table was strewn with peanut shells. However on looking around, I realised the entire floor was in the same state. It's tradition. You simply shell them and toss them on the ground. It felt very naughty. The 'Long Bar' is where the drink was invented and it was as good as I had imagined. Even Helen who does not like gin declared the cocktail 'lovely' but had a cup of tea. Had I kept my promise to many of my friends who said, before I left home, 'have a Singapore Sling in Raffles for me.' I would have been incapable, so I just had the one.
Now we had made an effort for our visit to Raffles and Gordon looked every inch the colonial ex-pat. White linen long trousers and shirt, hair tied back, but alas he was 'bounced' from the 'Tiffen Room', where we tried to have afternoon tea, because he was wearing open sandals! I swear there were men in there in trainers, but no. The lady at the desk offered him socks, but I felt we should just forget it. I mean, open topped sandals and socks! One has standards to maintain.
From here we walked, past the statue of Raffles himself, to China town, a warren of narrow streets lined with food stalls, markets, massage parlours, accompanied by the din of tinkly music, loud voices and hustle and bustle. You could buy anything here, from the expected tat to finest jade and silks. Gordon tried to buy a microphone for the video camera but came out with a wide-angle lens. He still doesn't know quite how it happened.
From here we caught the underground to Orchard Road, in the centre of downtown Singapore. I have never seen Christmas lights like these. The wide street, with huge towering skyscrapers, is completely decked in every imaginable type of light and massive decorated trees. The commercialism of the place is a bit depressing, since it's not really a Christian country, but all about retail. Same as home I suppose.
We ended the day by seeking out an Irish Pub (Muddy Murphy's) that William had heard was playing live music. Gordon had a pint of'Old Speckled Hen'. A bit bizarre, sitting in an Irish snug in Singapore, but no more so than everything else here.
Again we experienced a bit of a culture shock, having come from the jungles of Borneo straight to this retail Mecca. We made it to the tube station with one minute to spare for the last train out of the city.
Gordon spent a couple of days on the usual repairs and renewals the boat always requires and I made a very successful attempt at some Christmas shopping. As I said before, I have lost the shopping gene. My mind goes completely blank when faced with a sea of shops. Oh dear, Gordon ain't complaining though.
We met a great geezer called Chas from Tas who was skippering the delivery of a racing yacht berthed next to us. He has had the craziest life, crewing on fishing boats in the Orkneys, working in Glasgow, and sailing the Southern Oceans just as an example. He had many tails of derring do. Apparently he is writing a book, so I'll watch out for that one.
The day before we left Singapore, we checked out with the usual officials, readied the boat and had a farewell drink with William and Helen. Helen is spending Christmas alone here on the boat since William flies home for his father's birthday party (80'th I think). She seems ok about it. We will probably see them again in Oman.
After a stormy, bouncy journey of three days, we tied up at Langkawi Yacht Club on Sunday 20th December. I was beside myself at the thought of seeing Rachel and Chris, who were joining us for the festivities. They had spent a few days in Dubai and Kuala Lumpur and rolled up in a taxi having checked in at the Bayview Hotel in town. It was so good to be together again and we tumbled over each other's questions to catch up on the news. All good, except Rachel was burgled just before leaving home (expletives deleted).
Malaysia is a Muslim country and all the women wear the hijab in Langkawi, although few were fully veiled. We were therefore surprised to see Christmas decorations and Santas everywhere. I asked one local about this and he said 'Jesus was a great prophet' but I think he meant profit.
Rachel and Chris found the heat intolerable, hence the decision to stay in the hotel with air conditioning, but they felt the Bayview was too expensive so we spent a day walking around trying to find a better option. No joy, since the school holidays are on and this is a very popular Malaysian holiday resort. The city of Kuah, where we were, is covered in beautiful parks so walking is lovely, although the heat makes it challenging.
Langkawi boasts a very impressive chairlift which ascends over the rainforest canopy to a viewpoint on top its highest mountain peak. We queued for hours in searing heat to go up, taking it in turns to find shade. The fact is amongst my fears (flying, big seas, lightning, spiders etc) I hate heights, but had managed to forget that. Once we were launched on to the cable and the car started to lift, I realised the ground was very far away. The wind was howling around us and the kids took a particularly unflattering photo of my expression during the journey. I think I've got too used to sea level. I felt a little better when I realised a German woman who was sharing the cabin with us was actually crying!
We spent a lovely evening at Chenang beach, first on the beach in surfers bar, all made from drift wood and crates (The table candles were in Guinness pint mugs.). A band was playing gentle jazzy music as the sun dropped into the sea and a film crew turned up to capture the scene. Chris had a chat with a fellow sound man from the crew. We chatted with a lovely couple, she Irish, he Norwegian, who have lived in Malaysia for years. He is lead cellist with the Malaysian National Orchestra. She is from Cork.
On Christmas Eve Rachel and Chris checked out of Bayview and came on to the boat where they will stay until we reach Phuket. Gordon and I went off to provision and on return we dressed Equinox in tinsel and rigged up flashing Christmas lights along the boom and deck. She looked very fetching and was much admired.
Christmas Day dawned in 37 degC of heat and we all opened our stockings with a great deal of perspiring. The Buck's Fizz helped though. I had even managed to squirrel away some bacon from Oz, so as is our family tradition on Chrissy morning, bacon rolls all round. In the afternoon we swam at the pool and had a cocktail at the bar while the chicken was roasting in the oven. Yes I was determined to cook a traditional Christmas dinner, although standing in a sweaty puddle in the galley in my swimsuit, I did wonder at my sanity. Japanese sweet potato had to substitute for real ones, the chipolatas were more like frankfurters, but the whole ensemble complete with cranberry sauce and bread sauce (brought from home) went down well. We rounded up later with a very exotic fruit salad full of fresh rambutans, lychees, watermelon, mango etc. No one was interested in the Christmas pudding and brandy sauce which I had triumphantly found in Darwin. That night we were invited to a party aboard a large motor yacht by Mike the skipper, a Californian. This spacious yacht is used mostly for charter by surfers, since the Aussy owner loves surfing. Everyone else sat down around the huge dining table to eat steak and veggies, but we were unable to eat anything so just joined in the banter. We provided Christmas crackers which many of the nationalities around the table had never seen, but they really got into the spirit of the thing, putting on their party hats and reading out the terrible jokes. Some of the gags really do lose something in translation eg 'Why did 6 run away from 7? Because 7 8 9.' Now try translating that into French. 'sept, huit, neuf' Doesn't work does it. The ensuing explanations were much funnier than the jokes. Inevitably many of our fellow revellers ended up on Equinox where they stayed till 7.30 am. In one case he didn't get back to his own boat at all and I found him curled up like a baby sound asleep on the deck. I just covered him with a blanket, put a cushion under his head and went to bed. Hi to Cyril a French pilot and Hugues, his Belgian sailing companion. See you in Salalah.
Boxing day was quiet although I had a visitor for morning coffee at 9.30am. Not much sleep there then. Gordon did the usual customs clearance ready for departure the following day and we prepared the boat.
On Sunday 27th December we headed for an anchorage at Butang, Thailand, some 8 hours away. It was idyllic once we managed to anchor off the very shallow coral reefs. No other yachts and wonderful snorkelling, although we did see a shark circling when we were back on board. The jungle sounds coming from land lulled us to sleep and in the morning after Gordon and the kids explored the beach then more swimming and snorkelling, we set off for Phuket.
Phuket, Tuesday 29th December 2009 - Tuesday 5th January 2010, day 552.
After another windless overnight passage we arrived at the entry channel to Royal Phuket Marina. This is a very long channel, marked on one side by stakes, but even at high tide we ran into soft mud at 1.4 metres depth. So with the kids rocking the boat by running from side to side and engine on at full blast we managed to work ourselves free. However we repeated the exercise twice more for good measure. This might explain why most of the vessels in the marina were motorboats with shallow drafts. We thought we had seen it all, but were astonished and grateful, when we were greeted in the marina by a girl bearing perfumed wet flannels straight from the fridge. Bliss!
Our first task was to try and find accommodation for the kids, however we ended up renting a fabulous 3 bedroomed apartment in the marina complex and all moving in. We were the first occupants, so inevitably came across some snagging problems eg no water supply to dishwasher and washing machine, malfunctioning air conditioning, one toilet blocked by builders debris etc. These problems were solved where possible, but the dishwasher and washing machine couldn't be since they had built a fixed black granite plinth across the base, preventing removal without repairs. I know it's sad, but I had been so excited at the thought of a washing machine. Although the manager took away all our yucky boaty laundry (four huge bags) and returned everything ironed and on hangers, I felt cheated. Get a life Anne!
On the first night here Chris and Rachel went to Putang Beach, the main holiday area, and pronounced it 'mad'. We had to see it though and returned with them next afternoon. It was indeed crazy, packed beaches and endless groups of girls (well some of them were!) yelling 'massaaah' which is how they say massage. They are not hot on word endings here, never pronouncing the 's', for example, at the end. Here you are asked if you want more 'eye' for your drink, or 'rye' with your curry.
As we sat in a beach bar looking over the seething beach it was hard to imagine the awfulness of The Tsunami on Boxing Day 2004. If it had happened in the afternoon, instead of hitting at 9.30 am, the death toll would have been even higher due to the sheer volume of traffic and people. The locals describe how they had no warning and the wave crashed in and out three times, not once. Now there are signs everywhere showing a wave and saying 'Tsunami evacuation route', usually pointing to a gently sloping road. I shudder to think how it would be in reality amongst the panic.
On Hogmanay (New Years Eve to you non-Scots) we decided to give Putang a miss and instead, with some local advice, asked Mr Sak, the Marina taxi driver, to take us to Nai Yang beach. This proved to be a good move, since the atmosphere was much better and less crowded. As we sat in a bar I asked the waiter if they would have fireworks and he pointed to a huge row of what I had taken for heavy-duty fencing. We realised it was a row of 'rocket launchers' worthy of major warfare and for the sake of Chris's ears, upon which his job depends, we moved further along the bay to a beautiful spot where we sat at a table right on the waters edge with a more distant view of the whole area.
As we ate a wonderful dinner, feet almost in the warm water (I did go for a paddle while waiting for the meal) a very beautiful scene unfolded. The local people began lighting flames under 4ft high paper lanterns which silently rose into the night sky. These carry their hopes and prayers for the new year. Soon the whole sky was adrift with them and although they have no fizz, bang or flashing lights, they really were more magical than any fireworks.
In more raucous fashion many people had brought along huge boxes of pre packed fireworks which were set off at frequent intervals right beside us and all along the beach. At midnight the whole bay went ballistic. I have never seen anything like it. After years of attending Edinburgh Festival firework nights, Rachel's succinct expression 'Edinburgh's pants' just about sums it up. Round after astonishing round went up until the whole sky was full. Chris had resorted to stuffing wet paper napkins in his ears which he pronounced 'very effective'. We finished the night with a wee bop in an open air disco, then Mr Sak drove us home.
New Year's Day (or Ne'erday to us) was spent watching DVDs on the huge flat-screened telly in the air-conditioned apartment. Batteries recharged we went off next day to explore, going via a butterfly farm to Chalong Buddhist Temple. This is a collection of beautiful Thai buildings thronged with worshippers who didn't seem to mind the tourists at all. Some of the latter, though, made me cross with their blatant disregard for dress code. Bare midriffs and short shorts are not acceptable in this environment. The worshippers lit joss sticks, stuck gold leaf onto the statues and made offerings of flower garlands. Occasionally very loud bangs were heard as people lit firecrackers. All around the temples are market stalls and food vendors.
We then moved on to see 'Big Buddha', aptly named since he is 45 metres high, sitting atop a hill overlooking the whole coast. He is a work in progress and will take many years to finish. We paid 300 Bhat for a marble tile which we signed with a peace message and which will be placed on the structure forming his lotus seat. (So for Bhat we bought a bit for Buddha's butt).
We went for a whirl around the night market in the old town, where the display of street foods was impressive. Gordon bought two canisters of pepper spray as anti-pirate devices although they would already be too close for these to be effective. At the same stall we could have bought all sorts of weaponry, some real, some reproduction but didn't.
After the usual procedure of reprovisioning (Tesco Lotus!), cooking and vacuum packing, we sadly said goodbye to Rachel and Chris who went off via Bankok and Dubai to home. It was just fantastic having them.
While preparing to leave Phuket the night before leaving, Gordon discovered that we did not have the chart plotter chip covering the whole of the east coast of India and Sri Lanka. Woops. We could have got by with use of GPS and my computer, but not ideal. However true to Asian form, spoke with the Marina office who sourced one for us and it was delivered to the boat. All within 2 hours of leaving!
We requested a pilot to guide us out of the channel, not wishing to repeat our experience of coming in and he led us out in an inflatable RIB. He laid a path 10 -12 metres off the posts although we had been advised to hug them. Once free of the channel we were subject to 30 knot winds and tidal streams right behind us so made speeds of up to 9.4 knots.
I am writing this section of the blog while underway from Phuket to Sri Lanka, an indication of just how flat calm conditions are now. We are now on day 6 of the 10 day trip and are hoping for the wind to return tonight (11th January).
A wee bird joined us on board last night. It was very small and remember we are 500 miles from the nearest land. It grabbed onto a shroud, then landed on the wheel and eventually settled on my knee. We moved it to a cosy corner where it stuffed its head under its wing, turned its back to the wind and slept, standing up, all night. At dawn it flew below deck, sat on the chart table, but since they are very incontinent, we shooed him up top. After a while he took off at about 7 am and we haven't seen him since. (What was it Rob - see photo)
We are delighted to hear that Janice Handley (Panama to Galapagos) and Jonathon Tait (Kinsale to La Corunna) can rejoin us for Sri Lanka to Cochin and Cochin to Salalah legs respectively.
If you have the time please drop a wee line on the blog message board. It means so much to hear from you all.
A Happy and Peaceful NewYear to everyone.