Friday, December 26, 2008

Surin Islands; Christmas and Boxing Day

Waking up in our beautiful anchorage on Christmas day was a real treat. Up early once again, and in the early morning light we got a clearer picture of our bay and its surroundings. It was more a combination of bays really with several idyllic looking sandy beaches interspersed by rocky outcrops dropping into the sea. The hills all around were covered in lush tropical forest and the morning sounds emanating from it were intriguing. Above the general murmur of the forest we could make out more distinct animal noises - who knows whether they were the bats, or crab eating monkeys, or...

The water was calm and Ian took an early morning row across to the shore in the dinghy. The transition from deep to shallow was indeed rapid - and the water itself appeared clear, but different from Similan in that without a sandy bottom it was less obviously clear. There also appeared to be a big variation in depth.

Back onboard Kika Kristin was busy inflating the kayak, and set off the across bay in the general direction of the treacherous rocks in the centre, then across to the other side and along the opposite coastline towards the Park HQ. Nick and Ian relaxed on Kika's deck reading, occasionally pausing to track the progress of the Viking conquest in the binoculars. After some time Kristin disappeared from view and after some debate the boys assumed she'd made it into the channel between the 2 islands...but had she?
On board the kayak Kristin was busy paddling towards the white sand of the beach. It'd been a long paddle across the bay and her mind was focused on the mojito or caipirinha she'd have when she arrived. Perhaps she'd also have a massage on the beach to relax those muscles tired from all the paddling. And then a nice plate of Tom Yum soup for lunch would be perfect...ah how envious the boys would be when she returned later! If only she'd bought those prescription sunglasses she'd be able to see beyond the line of Longtail boats on the beach and onwards to the bar and restaurant. As it was, she was practically ashore before she noticed the boats were not in that great a condition - perhaps though paint and spare parts were in short supply out here in the Surins. As she waded ashore a group of kids arrived - and she took one of them for a short ride in the kayak which he loved. And then dragged the kayak onshore and walked up the beach. A group of men appeared not to notice her although they appeared friendly enough when she spoke to them. Having realised this was not the normal village 'resort' she asked if it was OK to look around, to which they said 'yes'. There were groups of huts arranged in rows behind the beach, and wandering around it became clear there wasn't much in the way of cocktails on offer! The idyllic beach was not quite so ideal and Kristin felt for them. And so after a gesture of goodwill to buy some small bracelets they'd made, she beat a hasty retreat away in the kayak, relieved to be paddling towards the 'real' village resort.
Meanwhile the boys had decided to do some snorkelling off the boat. First off the boat in a new environment is always Captain Nick, who in the first instance dived down to check the anchors. Back on the surface and snorkelling he was quickly swimming away. A somewhat reluctant Ian was quietly preoccupied with the fact he couldn't see the bottom of the water around the boat! After Nick's early reports that the coral was 'amazing' Ian persuaded himself into the deep and swam off towards Nick. The water was clear dark blue and within about 30m the coral rises up suddenly in front of you to about 1m from the surface.

The colours and variety of coral were indeed amazing. Imagine any illustrated book you've seen of a reef, all the coral varieties and colours on a page, and you have some idea of what it was like to swim on this reef. From blues, to purples, to pinks, to greens, it was a fantastic example of a garden at sea. Perhaps not so many large fish as in the Similan Islands but such abundance of coral and many many small fish living out their lives amongst its branches and tentacles.
Interestingly as we swam closer to the shore the water became deep again so by luck we'd actually managed to anchor alongside one of the best sections of reef. After a while we headed across the bay by dinghy to the area most frequented by other snorkellers and realised here too it was vibrant and beautiful. It also became very shallow and it was a challenge navigating between the coral heads without touching them. Interestingly when the bottom looms up like this one experiences similar anxieties to when it is too deep to see the bottom. The ideal snorkelling comfort zone appeared to be of 2-10m!

In anticipation of anchor raising faff Nick took the opportunity of visiting a dive boat in the bay for them to check his regulator. Generously they replaced the regulator and the hose for him without any charge.

As it was getting later in the afternoon, and there was no sign of Kristin, the decision was reached to go searching in the dinghy. Across the bay was easy and speedy but as we rounded the corner to head up the passage between the two islands it became extremely shallow. Scanning the horizon as sharp-eyed Nick spotted an orange spec on the beach and as we slowly closed in on the beach it was clearly our Viking crew preparing to launch herself home. Our arrival meant a Christmas Day beer on the beach and a chance to get some mobile phone reception for those Christmas messages. And then heading back home we noticed huge schools of jelly fish ominously in the water. Hmmmm, perhaps not what some of the crew wanted to see!!

Back on Kika, we treated ourselves to a variation of Coq au Vin, followed by Spotted Dick! Yes, what's Christmas Day without a pudding and Nick eagerly created our own using a recipe kindly supplied by Mrs Jenny Ager herself!! And the crew can confirm it was a fitting tribute from a son to his Mum!
Boxing day

Just another day in the tropics, waking up at dawn and gradually watching as the world around wakes up. We actually had some rain overnight so the spray hood was up over the hatch. As Ian unsecured it and pushed it down there was a nasty tearing sound. Closer inspection revealed a split along one side! Having just watched Nick repair the damage to the wind chute caused the day previously, it was a case of picking a suitable moment to confess to today's misdemeanour. No sense in waiting and Ian broke the news to a Captain who appeared close to boiling point! Enraged...ie. with a slightly furrowed brow and a 'hmmm that is nasty', Captain Nick spared Ian the fate of being keel hauled and instead stormed below. Anxious moments on deck fretting about the punishment and then the Captain reemerged promptly handing over a sewing kit and a book on how to stitch sails! Phew, fair and just punishment!

Today we planned to move around the island, but Nick is keen we wait for nature to be on our side ie. the wind to be blowing us off the reef, as we have the complication of raising two difficult anchors. Not having to fight the elements to keep us off the reef whilst possibly having to dive to free them, was very sensible. Stubbornly refusing to move from the stern all morning, the wind finally moved round about 11. Action stations - Nick and Kristin off in the dinghy to haul up the stern anchor, leaving Ian at the helm with engine on tickover anxiously watching the depth gauge. After several minutes of hauling, the dinghy crew returned tired but stern anchor in hand. No time to rest though we still had the normal anchor to raise. Thanks to the electronic windlass (winch) it would be a less physical task but there were still anxious moments whilst we waited for it to free itself from the depths. But free it did, and after much less of a struggle than anticipated we headed out of the bay and raised the sails.

Our plan to tack our way round the top of the island to the other side was going well. The wind was in our sails offshore and a single tack brought us back into the channel between our island and the next one north. It was a relaxing sail but we were covering good ground (or sea!). As we entered the channel though the wind died and we spent the next hour or so drifting through with the current. There's nothing like a diversion to keep us occupied whilst waiting for the wind and Nick pointed out the fishing boat about 300m away, suggesting Kristin might want to try a Viking raid and procure us some fresh fish. Never one to turn down a challenge, our Viking loaded her weapons into the dinghy, and with a rush of blood to the head as she hurriedly lowered the outboard, managed a well choreographed head over heels straight over the back of the dinghy. And wouldn't you know it, that was just the point where a big gust of wind lurched us forward at 1.5 knots! At last a proper man over board drill although we were lucky the dinghy was still attached. As Kristin plaintively called 'I won't reach' Nick leapt aboard the dinghy only to find young Kristin had the key round her wrist! Improvising well he held the cutout switch and motored the 50m to pickup her up.

Returning to Kika a few moments later, the fishing boat was now a further 100m away. A soggy but undaunted Kristin headed off on her quest. As she got further out the waves grew but our Viking bravely fought on. What might these fishmermen think we wondered as they woke from an afternoon doze to the sound of an outboard? Expecting to see another motor boat they instead see the mirage of a bikini-clad blond Norwegian approaching by dinghy. Is this the stuff of dreams? They pinch themselves hard and wipe their eyes, only to find the image has become clearer. A semi-naked woman drawing alongside and gesticulating wildly. After days at sea it must be unbelievable! Apparently it then took several minutes of gesticulation for Kristin to make them understand she wanted fish, although one suspects they knew straight away and prefered to maximise the time they had with our supermodel. Understood they did though, and what's more they generously threw fish of all shapes and sizes into the dinghy, and then refused payment! A triumphant Kristin returned to the mother ship seemingly empty handed, but then revealed 12 fresh fish including several grouper and the biggest squid we'd ever seen. Their generosity was humbling, although Nick and Ian suspected they might not have procured quite so much of a catch if they'd been in the dinghy! A return gift was in order though and a bottle of gin was raised from the depths of Kika's liqueur cabinet and Kristin despatched to deliver it. It proved to be the perfect return gift.
Fish processing began in earnest on deck and after an hour of gutting, deboning, deinking and filleting we had fish prepared in all shapes and sizes. We motored the last couple of miles to our new anchorage and picked up a mooring buoy right in the middle. Forests ran down to the edge of the water and in the distance the beach actually had people on it. It seemed to satisfy everyone - we were the only boat there, we had better access to facilities and mobile reception and we could see the bottom in the water around the boat!

That night we feasted in squid cooked in Thai style, and goujons of grouper fried in breadcrumbs. Delicious!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Similan to Surin Islands

We set off just before dawn, slipping quietly out of the bay. A larger navy ship had arrived on one of the outer moorings, and down on the beach a group of the Burmese were sitting in the water. We felt relieved to get away so we wouldn't have to witness their leaving.

As we headed out past Island 9, the most northerly of the Similan group, we were treated to a beautiful sunrise, and already the day felt like holiday again. There was a healthy wind but unfortunately it was over the bow and of little use to us to complete the 45 miles to the Surin Islands before dark. And so we were motoring. Although often more efficient than using the sails, as you can head directly for your destination, the use of the engine is more tiring. Outside on deck Kika's diesel hums nicely, at a constant 2000 rpm she can usually cruise at 5 knots. Below deck though the noise is less calming, and there is little that is relaxing when down there whilst motoring, unless of course you don't want to hear what is happening upstairs!

The boys spent the first part of the journey on deck practicing Christmas carols! When you're out at sea it doesn't really matter if you don't know the words nor if you only hit half the notes. Full marks were awarded for enthusiasm, and singing the first verse of every carol they knew constituted a good attempt at a Christmas carol service.
Kristin remained blissfully unaware of events down below catching up on emails.

Not content with frightening the fish with their singing, Nick headed below and returned with his trumpet, and a music book. This dress rehearsal (for the main concert was scheduled for the evening) got under way with 'Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer' and progressed quickly on to 'Happy Birthday to you', followed by the first few lines of a multitude of Christmas-themed Easy Listening tunes! Lack of breathing practice ensured that the concert was a fairly short one!

Our first note-worthy event was early morning fish drill. The clicking of the line as it went out sparked us into action. Our bait - a sparkly plastic pink squid - had only been out an hour and was quickly delivering results. Nick reeled in close to the boat and we could see the largish silvery fish fighting hard just off the stern. And then the line went slack...the prize of our first fish eluded us for now. The squid went back in and we returned to amusing ourselves. A couple of hours later fish drill no. 2 ensued. This time full crew were in attendance and whilst I tried to keep us on course, Nick and Kristin reeled in and fought with a large fish with nasty looking teeth just to my left. It turned out to be a barracuda, the hook well embedded in its vicious looking jaws. After a struggle the fish was landed, and it was an impressive specimen, but sadly not one we could eat because of the potential toxins they carry. Fishing success still eluded us!
The head wind continued to strengthen all morning and we were making just over 4 knots when our first man-overboard drill was initiated. In one gust Nick's swimwear, disappeared off the side and the crew swung into action, slowing and turning the boat and heading back over the wake. All eyes on lookout but to no avail. It seemed we'd been too slow to react and they'd sunk quickly. We reset the course feeling a bit deflated!

To avoid further mishaps the other washing was removed from the rails, but less than an hour later Nick's hat was taken by another gust, and we were into our second man-overboard drill. This time the reactions were faster and we got the boat to within a few feet of the hat...as it sunk! One hopes that our success in retrieving a crew member over board would be more successful. Joking apart it was a very good lesson in how quickly you need to react and work together to mount a successful rescue!

Nick's wardrobe was getting more and more depleted by the hour but luckily we were making good progress to the Surin Islands. We arrived late afternoon in a beautiful calm bay surrounded by hills covered in lush forest. The bay was fringed by golden beaches. We took the advice of the sailing guide and approached with caution - but even we were unprepared for the change in depth...from 45m, 30m, 20m, 11m, 4m, to 1.7m...all in the space of 3 boat lengths. Without a sandy bottom it was hard to see what lay below until you were right on top of it. There was also a huge boat at anchor close by making it hard to find a suitable spot. After a couple of approaches we decided to try one of the free moorings the other side of bay, but after easily picking the buoy up we realised the boat was a couple of metres away from dropping onto the reef. And so we very quickly moved off, flirted briefly with another dodgy mooring further out, but then decided to head back to where the large boat had just vacated its anchorage. Now against the clock, we sped over and found a spot. To feel comfortable we had to drop our normal anchor on the bow, and another from the stern. A few mins later though we were secure just as the light faded completely! Just-in-time anchoring.

As if they'd been waiting for us to arrive the Park Ranger boat arrived from nowhere - three friendly rangers wishing us Happy Christmas and then asking us to part with 1400 Baht. Our experience of Rangers is that they have some of the most appreciative smiles you'll ever see if you offer them alcohol, and these were no exception. A half bottle of gin waved in their direction elicited 'ooohs and aaahs', dazzling teeth and most importantly the offer of a discount. And so we finally parted with 1200 Baht and a pledge not to charge us anymore however long we stayed!

Kristin had been busy all this time preparing a delicious Christmas Eve dinner of marinated chicken, rice, pineapple salsa and vegetables. We cleaned up, showered, put on the best we had for dinner and enjoyed another great meal on deck. We also broke into the Christmas panettone and the evening finished with the trumpet reappearing. We weren't entirely convinced our neighbours across the bay appreciated the renditions quite as much as we did...but we hoped they had some Christmas spirit on board!

Surin islands anchorage: N9deg25.6' E097deg53.5'

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Kristin joins Kika

Astrid from Antares convinced Ian and me that we needed to invest some quality time cleaning prior to the arrival of Kristin, with her unambiguous verdict on the standard of hygiene below decks: "make sure you boys clean-up before she arrives, otherwise she'll take the first plane back to Norway". A harsh judgment which might have been more fairly levelled against the post galley improvement dusty interior that greeted Ian, but I felt that a week's worth of dusting had returned the cabin to almost pristine condition. Still we worked conscientiously, transforming the fore-peak from storage area into a livable cabin, the heads from ship's toilet into an area of surgical sterility and the randomly filled food lockers into clean logically ordered food storage areas. Surprisingly this took the whole morning, leaving just enough time for me to make my second back-of-a-scooter dash to the airport and for Ian to relax with a Thai foot massage.

It had been over five years since I'd last seen Kristin, however I didn't think there'd be a problem identifying the tall blond Norwegian from the other disembarking passengers until it turned out that the majority of the arrivals on her flight were also Scandinavians. Still it was fun searching the faces of other fair-haired tourists for a flicker of recognition. I need not have worried, instantly spotting Kristin as she burst out of Arrivals in a whirlwind of energy, projecting her trolley into the alarmed crowd of patient greeters before her. Months ago, when I was in Darwin, we began to discuss Christmas/New Year plans. Back then it seemed improbable that flights would be booked, I'd arrive in Thailand in time, the boat would be functional, and we'd all manage to meet-up, but against the odds our plans had come together and the scene was set for a couple of enjoyable weeks exploring the waters off Thailand's west coast.

Once Kristin was on board we headed across the bay for the calmer waters of the neighbouring anchorage and food at the beach restaurant. As with all new arrivals Kristin was promptly handed the wheel and given the rough direction of our intended destination. Kristin made full use of her elevated status at the helm to check her crew's preparation - was there sufficient depth across the bay?, were there any dangers to be aware of? rocks?. Ian and I reassured her; we'd made the same trip a week before - there were no hazards to avoid. Inevitably, a minute later, we ran aground. Not the most auspicious start, but with deft use of reverse, we rapidly extracted ourselves from the muddy bottom and continued cautiously on a subtly altered course. Once the anchor was down, Kristin introduced us to a Norwegian custom - "anchor dram" - celebrate the new anchorage with a shot of potent Norwegian spirit. A custom we enthusiastically embraced over the following weeks until we finished the bottle.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Rayleigh beach

Guest Entry: Kika Sailing Adventures TM Part 1

Like all customer-focused tour companies, showing up at the airport to collect your guest is a good first step, and Kika Sailing Adventures TM is no exception. Sparing no expense, the top man was despatched for the job, using luxury local transport (back of a scooter for 30km) and arriving well in time to be stationed along with all the other greeters just through Arrivals. Adhering to the local Thai custom of smiling at all pasty white foreigners, KSA's man was suitably beaming and after greeting formalities were completed we headed off into town by shared minibus.

We carefully explained to the driver that we wanted to go to the boat pier, and then sat and chatted along the way until the bus reached its last stop - only to be told our stop - Ao Chalong - was the first one of the journey - about 20 mins back! Nick has acquired many skills whilst overseas but bargaining does not seem to be one of them! We hastily agreed to the first price the taxi driver offered to take us back to the pier and soon we were heading out across the harbour to Kika.

Nick had dropped a few hints that he'd been working on the boat and things might not be as ship-shape as normal on board. One of our first tasks was to top up the water tanks onboard which involved ferrying 170 litres of water across the anchorage by dinghy and then lugging them onboard! I wondered what else might be in store for the new crew?
Well there was also the trip to Tesco's Lotus Market - yes Tescos with practically a whole aisle devoted to fish sauce. Job done we headed across the bay to a quieter anchorage, dropped anchor and headed ashore for beer and delicious Thai food.
Up bright and early we headed for Koh Pi Pi managing about half distance under sail before having to resort to the engine. A good time for some refresher training perhaps? KSA are an unconventional sailing company and they have a pioneering approach to crew training. On being welcomed aboard all crew are handed and asked to memorise the 'Competent crew' Handbook. Normally one might then expect to start work on menial tasks like hanking ropes and swabbing the decks, but no, not on Kika. Kika's approach is that all new crew get to stand at the helm and bark orders at Nick to hoist and trim the sails, raise the anchor etc. Unconventional eh? but who am I to complain!

We arrived late afternoon and after dropping anchor were all set for a swim until Nick pointed out that the boat was surrounded by small blue jellyfish! 'They'll be fine' said Nick. I obviously appeared reluctant. Not a man to be easily discouraged Nick offered to swim with his wetsuit on to see if they stung him! Off he went, returning to report gleefully that he hadn't been stung - although he later revealed it had in fact been like swimming in jelly! You won't be surprised that I decided to postpone my first experience with my new snorkel for clearer waters!!

Meanwhile we heard the distant rumble of a large diesel engine, and a Thai Long Tail boat plied across from the opposite side of the bay. There's no doubt they look great and in these local waters they are one of the best ways to travel - but you need ear plugs! They are really noisy, generally consisting of dubious adaptations of diesel engines from motor vehicle to boat, precariously mounted high up on the back of the boat with a long tail (drive shaft) to the rudder and propeller. Our tranquil anchorage appeared to be on the equivalent of the M25 for Long Tail boats ferrying tourists around Pi Pi, so it wasn't the quietest spot! As night fell we also had the nightclubs on the beach (about 500m away) to contend with. It was an interesting night's sleep.

An early start next day saw us heading under sail for Pi Pi Leh, in an attempt to beat the tourist rush. The elements were not on our side though and we were being overtaken by all manner of other craft, so we switched to engine. Pi Pi Leh is a beautiful island - high cliffs and hills rising vertically from the sea. It has achieved latter day fame as the location used to film 'The Beach' and when we arrived at our next anchorage - a beautiful bay surrounded by cliffs with a white sandy beach, it was already busy. We picked up a mooring buoy and I got to finally christen my snorkel, scaring the many fish and exloring the coral in a tiny sandy bay near Kika.
But then carnage ensued. Boats of all sizes began arriving en masse. In the space of just 15 mins pandemonium had descended on this tranquil spot. At one point there were probably more people snorkeling than there were fish in the sea. We decided to head off in the dinghy around the edge of the island, and when we returned an hour or so later it was already quieter. And by about 3pm there was almost no-one left. A few other yachts arrived late in the afternoon to stay for the night and you could suddenly appreciate how beautiful a place it was. We were joined onboard by an entertaining Aussie couple moored across the bay. Grant & Les, who were cruising on a local yacht, had stopped by for some ocean passage stories as they were thinking of doing a long voyage themselves. Nick was happy to oblige, particularly as the beer flowed. I toyed with the idea of pretending I'd been onboard for a while but I think given my skin colour and general lack of boat coordination it would have been a joke hard to carry off. No matter, we laughed the afternoon into evening anyway.

Oh and at least we now knew the secret of Thai anchorages - get there early or late, hide up while the tourist rush is on during the hottest hours of the day, and maximise the enjoyment from early morning and late afternoon tranquility.

Monday, December 08, 2008

King's cup challenges

My arrival in Phuket coincided with the start of the King's Cup Regatta - a week of yacht racing and apr├Ęs race socialising. My timing wasn't entirely coincidental. However I faced a small conflict of interest when Eric "the Viking", won two tickets for the evening social events and gave me one. Now my best intentions to ensure the boat was in tip-top condition for the arrival of my festive guests faced an unanticipated hurdle - the social events featured free food and drink, resulting in rather unproductive mornings.
The social events were held in up-market hotels around the SW coast of Phuket. Initially the world of plush hotels seemed somewhat alien after my mimimalist lifestyle onboard. However it's amazing how quickly one can adapt to the luxury and a few days in, the main race hotel began to feel like a second home.Still somehow I managed to balance the demands of the nocturnal partying with an engine service, sail repair, hunting-down some marine stainless-steel and nearly managing to put the galley back together after a frantic few days of sanding, varnishing and painting before Ian arrived.
OK I hadn't cleaned the boat as much as I'd planned, or filled up with water, but I think lugging 10 x 20 litre bottles of water via dinghy back to boat, gave a jet-lagged Ian a good introduction to the cruising life-style....
Kuta beach: N7deg 49.10' E98deg17.5'
Ko Phiphi: N7deg44.8' E098deg45.92'
Koh Dam Khwan: N7deg57.6' E098deg48.5'
Rai Le (Laem Nang) N8deg 00.67' E098deg 49.9'

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Into Thailand

It's only 120 miles from Langkawi to Phuket but I chose to make two stops en route to avoid mammoth day-sails or overnight trips. One of the benefits of smaller hops is there's more opportunity to sail in light winds; no need to switch the engine on when the speed drops below 5 knots in order to make landfall before nightfall. The strategy worked well with most of my duty-free Langkawi diesel still in the tank. The stops have also been a great way to reacquaint myself with my mask and snorkel which have been languishing in the stern locker throughout the trip up the uninviting Malaka straight.

What a change a few miles north makes; clean water, new fishing boat design, larger dolphins and real flying fish, as well as the acrobatic trumpet fish pretending to be flying fish I'd seen further south. The downside is that I'm not the only person to make this discovery and even remote anchorages are shared with other yachts and tourists ashore. I've even been charged an anchoring fee, but with no Thai currency, the national park ranger seemed content with a small bottle of barely drinkable whiskey I offered him.I'd expected Phuket to be a bustling port, but an hour out there was little difference from the other Thai island anchorages I've approached. That said the island was shrouded in mist; even the giant hill-top Buddha overlooking the anchorage was only just visible through the haze.

I arrived just before dark and have already met up with a couple of old friends, full with tales of delights ashore. Looking forward to exploring tomorrow...
26/11/2008, Off Koh Adang, Butang group: N6deg 31.4' E099deg17.0'
27/11/2008, Ko Rok Nai: N7deg 12.9' E099deg04.1
28/11/2008, Ao Chalong, Phuket: N7deg 49.2' E098deg21.5'

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Langkawi

Langkawi was another gathering place for migratory yachts as they took advantage of the duty free status of the island and the repair facilities available.

For my part I replenished my stores with a tank full of cheap diesel and as many cases of duty free beer as I could cram into the the lockers. My excuse is that I've recently fallen in with a crowd of Scandinavians - no longer the abstemious French - so have to cater accordingly.

For a change from fresh or canned fish, Ben (Lasse) and I found "the Italian Butcher". The Italian/fanatical butcher imports his cows from France (apparently they produce the best meat in the world), tends them lovingly as they grow fat on the lush pastures of Langkawi and finally soothes them with music in the slaughter house before turning them into steaks. Be on-guard if you're ever shown into a darkened air-conditioned room with relaxing music emanating from the ceiling by an enthusiastic Italian with a glint in his eye.... Wonderful steak, mince and sausages though.

Great to meet up with lots of boats I haven't seen for a while, Lasse, Blue Marlin and Antares to name a few. It was particular good to see Lasse again as we haven't really seen each other since we arrived in Indonesia. Lisa, aged 5, greeted me with an eight page story describing my future life. She's decided I should stop growing any older so she can catch-up and marry me. There were scenes of our wedding, us leaving on our catamaran for our honeymoon, and finally, me cooking on-board while Lisa looked after the children. Very sweet and one of the better offers I've received in a while...

There's much discussion in the anchorage about the trip west; piracy avoidance strategies, rumoured exorbitant costs in the Maldives and Oman and what the food's like in Somalia. One of the strategies is to form a mutually protective convoy through "pirate alley" - "circling the wagons if the pirates appear". It focuses the mind, thinking who you'd like to have around in an emergency. Hopefully the situation will improve in the next few months and it seems the pirates interest lies in something more valuable than a few impoverished sailors heading home. Let's hope so...

Sunday, November 23, 2008

To Langkawi

I started a little later than intended from Penang, I wasn't organised enough to arrange my clearance the night before, instead I had to hang around for the marina office to open at 9am - not a problem you have when you swing from your own anchor. I wanted to make an early start as it was 58 miles to an anchorage at the southern tip of Langkawi and ideally I'd arrive in the light.

Once clear of the marina, I drifted for a while in a big-ship anchorage while I checked the charts and entered waypoints. Heading back up the companionway my heart skipped a beat when I saw the towering bows of a tanker virtually on-top of me. After I retreated to a safe distance, I watched as the ship dropped its anchor in the position I'd been. They could have easily sounded their horn, but I think they chose to maximise their surprise... well they succeeded.

As ever I set off motoring in little wind towards my final destination in Malaysia, settling in for day's monotonous motoring. However by midday the wind started to pickup. All the more surprising as there didn't seem to be a thunderstorm around. Unfortunately it was blowing from the north. I remember a cruising guide saying: "Gentlemen don't go to wind" - but as this clearly doesn't apply to me, I hardened in the sheets, set the wind-vane and bashed my way, close-hauled, into the building sea. The wind continued to strengthen all afternoon. It was great to be sailing hard again at 7+knots with spray from the waves soaking the foredeck as Kika cut through the waves at a precarious angle. Late in the afternoon Prudence visited and I agreed that it would be wise to calm-down the boat a little before dusk - I'd almost forgotten the routine of reefing - it's been so long. Even well-reefed it was dramatic to be speeding towards land, picking out the silhouettes of the many islands on the southern coast of Langkawi against the darkening sky. When I was a mile off, the sea calmed down and I lowered the sails and tentatively motored towards the dark masses ahead.

The anchorage I'd chosen was in a small channel between a couple of islands. Very slowly, while anxiously watching the depth gauge, I made my way between the sheer islands until I found the channel. Normally passages which appear small on the chart, turn out to be wide expanses of water in reality, however in this case the scale appeared to be 1:1; the channel was as depicted. The feeling of being hemmed-in seemed exaggerated by the dark cliffs looming over the water. The final challenge was picking a spot to anchor between the three boats already secure for the night. Slowly with the help of the torch I worked out the available width of the channel and relative positions of the boats and on my second attempt found a spot far enough from the cliffs and the other boats to be able to sleep soundly for the night.

I'm looking forward to seeing the anchorage in the light, in the dark it feels as dramatic as our first landfall in the Marquesas.
Tomorrow I'm on a mission. I'm hunting down Jasper on Antares to as I'm on a delivery errand from the crew of "Helen Kate". Perhaps I should dig out the white beard and reindeer as I hand-over the flat bed sander he's been waiting for.

Anchorage off Palau Dayang Bunting, 23/11/2008: N6deg 11'.17 E99deg47.2

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Penang

It was a short hop to the city centre marina from Pulau Rimau up the strait between the mainland and Penang, as ever dodging the numerous fishing boats and lines of buoys en route. It's tricky working out what you need to avoid and what you can safely head over; at one point I made a wide detour around some fishing floats, only to discover I'd diverted around a rubbish slick of polystyrene.

As advertised the marina was in the city centre and with Penang billed the cuisine capital of Malaysia, I needed little encouragement to explore the range of food on offer. Close by were the colourful streets of the Indian quarter - "Little India" - serving up fabulous and good value food as well as an amazing variety of Malay and Chinese restaurants. What a treat.

Having filled-up with water, organised an extended visa for Thailand, visited the supermarket and laundry and sadly only sampled a small selection of the cuisine on offer, it was time to reluctantly bid farewell to Penang for the duty free delights of Langkawi...

Town centre marina: 20/11/2008: N5deg 24.85' E 100 20.6'

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Off Penang

Another day of little wind and hard motoring to make the 65 miles to the closest anchorage off Penang. Well at least the batteries are well charged - I hope they appreciate it.

Lots of jelly fish in the water and a huge fleet of fishing boats were the only real distractions for the day. The familiar thunderstorm bought a short-lived downpour which allowed me to save an hour's worth of diesel and break-out the Jif for some more cleaning. Ominously dark storms clouds stayed to the south and west so I narrowly avoided the worse of the weather.The anchorage was beautiful, if a little roly. It was set in a small bay on an island off the southern coast of Penang. The bay was steep sided, with a beach at its head. On one side a lighthouse was perched on top of the cliffs poking out of the dense forest covering the island. While I worked out where to anchor just before dark, I spied three or four monkeys foraging on the beach.

Palau Rimau: 19/11/2008: N 5deg 14.7' E 100deg 16.4'

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Pulau Pangkor

It was a short hop from the coastal anchorage to my next stop. I arrived mid-afternoon having slowly sailed and motored my way north. I choose the northern-most anchorage so that I'd reduce the following following day's trip.

For a change the water looked clear enough to swim in and I was about to jump in for my much anticipated first swim in Malaysia when I spotted one, two then three giant jelly fish in the water. These didn't seem to be randomly floating with the current, instead they appeared to be purposefully circling the spot where I intended to dive in. A little too off-putting. Instead I decided to overhaul the cockpit winches, as you do. I'd just taken the third one apart when the crew from the other boat in the anchorage came over to invite me for sun-downers. I'd never put a winch back together so quickly.
Pulau Pangkor: 18/11/2008: N4deg 14.91' E100deg32.58'

Monday, November 17, 2008

Scrubbing in the rain

Joy of joys, as I left Klang the wind started blowing and with the newly repaired main-sail I was perfectly prepared to take full advantage. I'd cleaned the servo-rudder in Klang so the wind-steering was able to free me from demands of the wheel, a great start.

There was an unbelievably thick layer of barnacles encasing the rudder. Even though the water looked horribly polluted around Singapore, the barnacles seemed to love it. As well as rudder barnacle removal, I'd spent some of my time in Klang cleaning the hull - the water-line was still filthy from my stay in Johur Bahur and the sun seemed to have burned the muck into the gel-coat. The problem with trying to clean the boat in Klang was that as soon as a fishing boat passed, its wake reapplied an oily residue to the waterline. Klang had many good things going for it, but the dirty and rubbish-strewn river wasn't one of them.

The cleaning bug seemed to have infected me. As soon as the inevitable downpour started, out came the Jif - yes my bottle is so old it's still called Jif. I seem to have developed a frenzy of boat cleaning/repairing/improving prior to the festive season in time for my migratory visitors.

From Klang it was 95 miles to the nearest anchorage - an overnight trip. One advantage of not having a dusk deadline is that there's no need to maintain 5 knots+. It was a pleasant change to be sailing along at 2-3 knots under wind-vane steering while I liberally applied cleaner around the cockpit. By mid-afternoon the thunderstorm passed, leaving clear skies, a cleaner boat, little wind and a lumpy sea, but I suppose two out of four isn't too bad.

As I continued sailing into the evening, I still had 40 miles to go to the anchorage and the prospect of motoring through the night wasn't particularly appealing. I could heave-to or drift, but there were too many fishing boats around to risk it. Instead I decided to head inshore and anchor in the adjacent bay. By this time I was surrounded by the lights of boats. I'd pick out a light, assume it was a fair way off, motor towards it and discover I was suddenly on top of the boat. The lights used seemed to make it harder than normal to judge distance. To quote the pilot guide: "SE Asian fishermen subscribe to the International Christmas-tree System for navigation lights; the more lights and different colours the better. Orange, red and white strobes are much favoured". Even with the diverse range of lighting surrounding around me, there was one set of lights which looked distinctly different, and I ended up anchoring a little distance off. In the morning the lighted object turned out to be a restaurant on poles a couple of miles off-shore. I presume it was an all night "drive-in" for the hungry fishermen - "you catch-it we'll cook it"??
Coastal anchorage: 17/11/2008, N3deg 43.3' E100 51.6'

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Klang

It was 44 miles from Port Dixon to the river entrance, but just when you think you've made it, there was a further 14 miles inland. The river wound past the ultra modern container port, which morphed into mangrove covered islands and eventual lead to the ramshackle fishing wharfs of Klang. The trip up the strait required a vigilant lookout. I opted for the shortest inshore passage which meant constantly manoeuvring around long lines of fishing buoys as well as a dodging an unbelievable quantity of debris, including some vicious looking barnacle encrusted trunks.

Luckily my arrived was perfectly timed for celebrations making the start of the Klang to Langkawi race and managed to blag my way into the free evening barbeque. With free anchoring, free water taxi, free food, many familiar faces, and Kuala Lumpur a short train ride away I think I'll rest here for a few days, taking my time to get the mainsail seam restitched.

Looks like some boats are anticipating uninvited guests; I noticed at least one boat with a rat stopper set on its chain; not the kind of crew I'm after...

N3deg 00.6' E101deg 23.2'