Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Krstin arrives

Incredibly the plan came together, I made it to the airport with time to spare for Kristin's delayed flight from Oslo. Kristin eventually emerged frustrated that the selection of the best of European alcohol she'd brought with her from Scandinavia had to be abandoned on the plane as she'd been given false information at the duty free. Maldives have strict laws prohibiting the import of alcohol, pork products and dogs. She was somewhat consoled when she realised the Kika alcohol situation wasn't as desperate as she'd imagined - with rum that's lasted since Panama and gin from Samoa.

Unfortunately my efficiency hadn't managed to overcome Maldivian or perhaps just Male' bureaucracy and we were still waiting for our cruising permit. Amead promised it the next day, but was himself defeated by the various government departments required to scrutinise such requests. The expensive permit finally arrived on Tuesday afternoon and disappointingly stated we were allowed to visit only resort islands within Male' Atoll. Not exactly the freedom I'd hoped for, but an indication of the control the government likes to extend to free-roaming yachts. Still there was plenty to do to fill our time while waiting, with Male' to explore, stores to take onboard and Kiribati's homemade pizza to enjoy. David had "volunteered" to stay in a hostel for the first couple of days after Kristin's arrival and we quickly decided we enjoyed having the boat to ourselves, so we negotiated to subsidise David's stay in Male' while we explored the islands.

We eventually set off full of the finest fruit and veg Male' could provide and having to commandeer areas of the boat never before used for fresh storage. I was unusually apprehensive - I hadn't managed to find much information on cruising the Maldives and the little I had found indicated deep anchorages off resorts requiring yet more permission to anchor off their island. That and the charts aren't terribly reliable. Our chart of Male' Atoll stated:

"The depiction of reefs and dangers within the atolls is based on satellite imagery and aerial photography. Depths within the atolls are taken almost entirely from lead-line surveys of 1835, therefore many uncharted dangers may exist. Mariners should navigate with extreme caution."

Still it was a relief to set sail again, although my carefully crafted coral dodging course to our first night's anchorage had to be immediately abandoned as the wind was blowing from our destination. When I meekly suggested we could motor instead of sail, Kristin wasn't happy - "isn't Kika a sailing boat, can't we tack". Not used to such enthusiasm from my crew, I happily agreed to beat into the wind while keeping a sharp look-out of coral in our path.

Our first night's anchorage was off the local industrial island of Thulusdhoo - not exactly an island taken from the tourist brochures of the Maldives, but a gentle acclimatisation to island cruising after busy Male'. With little information and unreliable charting we struggled to find the break in the reef surrounding the island until from a distance we spotted another yacht. There must be an entrance around there I confidently predicted, my surety rapidly crumbling as we closed in on the listing boat firmly aground on the coral. Fortunately not too much further north I spotted a couple of poles and was lucky enough to be able to follow a local ferry in through the reef and find a secure anchorage just before dark.

Thulusdhoo: N04deg 22.6' E073deg 38.9'

Friday, January 23, 2009

Arrival in Male'

We had the perfect start to our last day at sea when a large school of dolphins swam with us for a good twenty minutes. It was as though they were an advanced welcoming party increasing our anticipation of our imminent landfall. We also saw large "flocks" of flying fish skimming across the water promising larger predators beneath the surface and for a while it looked as though we'd arrive with the fridge stuffed full of fresh fish. We lost the first fish as we reeled it in, the second was a monster, quickly running out all our line against a high drag and finally disappearing with the short-lived but successful squidski. Unfortunately re-rigging the line with a new squid failed to lure any more fish.
From a few miles off, Male' looked like a mini Singapore, densely packed high-rise buildings appearing to emerge straight from the water. The feeling was enhanced as we made our way to the packed anchorage on the more sheltered west side of the island; reminiscent of the busy anchorages on the south coast of Singapore.

With our tripping line readied we were prepared to try our luck on the 15m coral patch we'd learned was the only viable option for yachts, but as we approached the shallower water, we spotted another yacht further north in the anchorage. Hoping to glean valuable inside information about the check-in procedure we headed towards them. Unfortunately when they spotted us, they were hoping we might be able to help them! The Italians on Kiribati had arrived early that morning and were struggling to find an agent who would manage the check-in procedure for them. They'd tied themselves to the back of a large Omani fishing vessel and offered to take our lines.Once we'd strung ourselves behind Kiribati they filled us in on the situation. The next two days, Friday and Saturday were holidays, if we didn't manage to check-in today we'd have to wait until Sunday unable to leave the boat. It was now 4pm and as they'd been trying to wake up the bureaucratic machine ashore since the morning, the situation wasn't looking promising. We attempted to make contact with the authorities via the VHF, but couldn't raise any response. As we discussed the situation, over our first beer since leaving Thailand, the situation started to improve. With much Italian gesticulation Marco eventually contacted a couple of agents ashore via his mobile. Initially they quoted eye-wateringly outrageous figures for their services, but eventually we settled on a merely ridiculous price, although we doubted that they'd turn up as promised at 18.30. Incredibly the arrangement worked and after much form-filling and stamping - the Kika stamp being a requirement here to validate crew-lists and ship's papers copies - we were free to go ashore.

It was Marco's birthday, their dinghy had a puncture, so I offered to take the four of us (David staying onboard to catch-up on sleep) ashore for celebrations. It hadn't really sunk in before, that the Maldives are a strict Moslem country, so no alcohol is served, (unless in a tourist enclave) with the law appearing to be particular rigorously applied in Male'. Still we did our best to toast Marco's birthday raising our glasses of water over our Maldivian feast.

Position @ 15:00 (GMT +5) 22/1/2008: N4deg 10.7' E73deg 29.8'
Distance covered from Thailand to Maldives: 1550
Total time: 10days 0hours
Average speed: 6.45knots
Engine hours: 0.5hours

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Squidski delivers

It's been a perfect day's sailing. Decent wind, with an accompanying moderate sea; perhaps the much anticipated Indian Ocean "pleasant passage making" conditions have arrived unannounced. We caught a decent sized mahi-mahi in time for supper, my first mahi-mahi since crossing the coral sea to Australia. Supper was a real treat; fresh fish, accompanied by coleslaw and lightly fried potatoes. We have the ocean to ourselves, no fishing boats and the radar detector has remained quiet.

I spent the day researching and preparing for our landfall. We have a freshly painted Maldivian flag ready for hoisting, and some idea of the check-in procedure. Anchoring off Male' for check-in appears problematic with 50m depths. The trick seems to be to anchor off the west side on a coral head in 15m making sure the anchor has a tripping line attached. We'll see... We're hoping to arrive just before midday tomorrow. The Male' check-in sounds a little bureaucratic with most boats avoiding Male' and stopping instead at Uligamu in the north which appears to have stream-lined its procedures. We've been told we need to provide seven copies of the crew list. I naively thought the ten copies I made in Phuket would last me into the Mediterranean...

It's becoming harder to make a decent connection for sending and receiving emails. We're moving out of range of the station in Brunei 2108 miles east and the Red Sea station 2930 miles WNW isn't yet close enough. I guess it's not going to get any easier for the next 500 miles or so...

Position @ 23:00 (GMT +5) 21/1/2008: N4deg 24.4' E74deg 48.6'
Distance to Maldives: 78
Daily run: 154

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Return of the wind

With the genoa furled and the main secure, we let Kika drift through the night, while we caught up on some sleep. Just after 5am the wind returned and once again we could make decent progress towards the Maldives. Not only we were refreshed, but overnight the current had taken us 9 miles more of less in the right direction.

The wind and sea quickly built until by mid-morning we were once again careering along under a double-reefed main. It's amazing how quickly conditions can change from smooth windless ocean to roller-coaster ride in under four hours. It's hard to believe it's the same sea.

It seems that the waves sense when I've wedged myself in my favourite corner of the cockpit. No sooner have I started reading, than slap, a wave breaks over the boat and soaks me and my book. Today's drenching was the third in three days. I'm still searching for a new comfortable, shaded, dry location; perhaps under a tree somewhere!

In a slight change from the advertised plan we're heading further south towards Male' the capital of the Maldives, to pick-up "Kika Sailing Adventures" first repeat customer. Kristin is flying out on Sunday to join us for a couple of weeks cruising around the atols of the Maldives. If only I could persuade her to join us up the Red Sea...

Immodestly I'm awarding myself Master Chef honours today for a halfway decent loaf of bread I baked this morning. Unfortunately we finished the fresh tuna yesterday so we're back to being creative with the cans.

We've definitely escaped from the major shipping - the radar detector is silent and despite seeing a couple of fishing boats today, tonight there are no lights on the horizon, though as ever the sky is ablaze with another stunning Indian Ocean star spectacular.

Position @ 23:00 (GMT +5) 20/1/2008: N4deg 47.8' E77deg 21.3
Distance to Maldives: 232
Daily run: 127

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Taunted by the wind

The wind has been playing tricks on us today. Firstly it lulled us into thinking the fabled gentle NE monsoon had settled down to its advertised 10-20kn; instead the wind and sea built overnight and by the morning it was time to put a couple of reefs in the main. Then just as we were setup for the reality of 25-30kn of wind, it changed tactics and rapidly lost strength. So we were back to full sail trying to make the most of the dying wind in a sloppy sea. As if deliberately taunting us it then shifted to the west - a head wind - so the best course we could set was SW, taking us south of our desired course, although at least it's taking us away from the busy shipping routes. As I write this 23:30, the wind has completely died and we've furled the genoa, lashed the main in the centre and decided we'll drift and catch-up on some sleep until the wind changes its mind again.

The good news is that before the wind vanished we were making excellent progress and passed our waypoint off the southern coast of Sri Lanka mid-morning. We're now on the final leg of this passage 267deg to the Maldives.

David wins the Master Chef honours today for his sterling efforts in the galley creating sushi for lunch.

Time to adjust the clocks - it's been getting lighter later and later in the mornings. Looking at our longitude we should be on Indian time GMT +5½, but having a half hour in the timezone seems unnecessarily complicated so we've adopted Pakistan and Maldivian time of +5GMT. Slowly but surely we're getting closer to home.

Position @ 23:00 (GMT +5) 19/1/2008: N4deg 49.9' E79deg 29.2
Distance to Maldives: 359
Daily run: 143

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Full sails again

What a difference a day makes. The sea has calmed down, the wind has eased and for the first time in nearly a week, we've shaken out the reefs and are sailing along under full main and full genoa. It seems we've found the conditions mentioned in the pilot guide: "the NE monsoon blows at Force 4-5 (10-20kt) over most of the northern Indian Ocean making for very pleasant passage making.".

Now the ride less resembles a roller-coaster, we're able to contemplate activities other than mere survival. We spent the morning on repairs. David fixed the cockpit light and stern locker gutter, while I attempted to fix the log (speedometer) with some intricate solder work. All fixed, so now we can tell how much credit the ocean current can take for our record breaking progress. Answer: it's added between 1-2 knots to our speed.

With the easier conditions David disappeared in the galley for over an hour, emerging just before sunset with two pizzas - "meat feast" and "seafood extravaganza". They looked great and tasted even better. Then to finish a great day, the fishing line raced out, just as we were finishing our last mouthful of pizza. Finally our first catch of the trip - a small tuna. Fresh fish tomorrow...

The moon is rising later and later leaving the majority of the night to the stars, which are incredible. Surprisingly even though we're 5 degrees north of the equator the southern cross is still clearly visible. When the moon eventually appears it's a perfect half moon, aligned with the horizon.

Position @ 23:00 (GMT +7) 18/1/2008: N5deg 15.9' E81deg 50.2
Distance to Sri Lanka: 76
Daily run: 145

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Nocturnal drenching

For the last few days we've been sailing across the ocean swell. Once an hour or so, a wave will rear-up and crash against the side of the hull. You can normally hear the rush of water then the slap as the wave hits and have just enough time to duck before the resulting spray arrives in the cockpit. This evening I wedged myself behind the wheel, normally a dry location, at the start of my three hour stint on night-watch. I'd just started reading when, without the usual warning, the drenching commenced. This wasn't the usual spray, instead it felt as though someone had set a fire-hose on me and went on and on. Eventually the water stopped, I could take a breath again, and found myself knee deep in water still holding the now pulped remains of my book. The cockpit drains were doing their best, but still taking an agonisingly long time to clear the water. Fortunately most of the hatches were closed, so the cabin remained relatively dry, until I squelched down the companionway to find a towel and change of clothes.

It wasn't a relaxing night. All night boats crossed our path. Fortunately most kept a respectful distant, but there were a couple that felt a little too close for comfort and required a change in course to avoid.

At dawn we studied the chart - how to escape from what felt like a major shipping route. It appeared that the traffic was heading from the Red Sea via the south coast of Sri Lanka and making for the Malaka straight via the Great Channel we'd passed through a few days earlier. We could have chosen a pass further north in the Nicobar islands that I think would have kept us out of the traffic - still it's easy to be retrospectively wise. Instead we've chosen to head further south and so far the plan seems to be working; we see an occasional boat to the north, but no longer feel like a rabbit caught in the middle of a major highway.

So far we've had strong winds 25kt+ making for a fast, sometimes exhilarating, but also tiring passage. The conditions haven't been exactly as anticipated; the pilot guide describes: "This passage uses the NE monsoon to cross from SE Asia to the Red Sea. Mostly the NE monsoon blows at Force 4-5(10-20kt) over most of the northern Indian Ocean making for very pleasant passage making." Still at least we're not becalmed.

As ever, we've a bunch of bananas which have all over-ripened at the same time. Today's solution - banana cake with dried cranberries and pine-nuts. Delicious and it seems to be keeping the mutinous crew quiet about the continued lack of fresh fish.

Position @ 23:00 (GMT +7) 17/1/2008: N5deg 17.9' E84deg 15.5
Distance to Sri Lanka: 221
Daily run: 162

Friday, January 16, 2009

Mutinous crew

Friday morning, the crew were looking mutinous:
"It's not happening like", muttered David.
"What", I replied, trying not to sound too apprehensive.
"We've had that squid out for three days and only one bite to show for it. It's not right!"
Relieved that David was only worried about our omega 3 intake, I decided it was time to act.

Fortunately I've never understood the meaning behind the phrase "A bad workman blames his tools", so had no trouble identifying tiger squid as the problem. However it's easy to identify a problem but acting on it can be tricky, especially when you have to tell someone they're not performing. I tried to break the news to tiger squid in a way which hopefully, after the initial shock, he can use to become a better squid. So I started by telling him how much we value his contribution, that he never complains just gets on with the job, but we'd been studying his productivity recently, and the current harsh economic climate, we can't afford any passengers. He nodded in agreement, unaware of what was coming. I went on, "sadly even though you've been a good reliable worker, and we value your innovative use of colour, we feel that it was time you looked elsewhere for someone who could better use and appreciate your skills." It was difficult to tell how he took it, as we were interrupted at the critical moment by a breaking wave. I think he understood, although he raised doubts that we'd do any better with another squid. I also heard him muttering as he went back into the box, "What more can your expect from me than offering myself up for daily slaughter, if only the captain had a clue what he was doing...".

Fortunately I've found some other willing workers - Squidski and friends from Warsaw, who assure me they'll have no problem bringing in the fish.

Apart from problematic fishing, the boat came to a juddering halt this morning. Then there was a bang, bang, bang along the starboard side and I raced to the stern to see a tree trunk emerge in our wake. No harm done, thought we've probably lost some anti fouling paint.

Despite our lack of success with our trailing line, flying-fish seem to be happy to land on deck overnight. This morning's count was four. We're not desperate enough to eat them yet, but give it a few more fish-free days....

Position @ 23:00 (GMT +7) 14/1/2008: N5deg 42.0' E86deg 58.4
Distance to Sri Lanka: 383
Daily run: 177.9

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Acrobatic dolphins

It's been an exciting day. We've left the confused waters of the Andaman sea well behind us and in exchange we've been surfing down the large swells in the Indian Ocean. Added to which we've had a decent wind and have been making great progress. It's not the most comfortable ride, but exhilarating, surfing down the waves and watching the speed frequently break the 10 knot barrier. So much so that we've beaten our 24 hour distance record, making 182.7 nautical miles in 24 hours.

We also had our second dolphin visit of the trip. Today's visit was special - I don't remember having wild dolphins put on such an acrobatic show solely for our benefit. Today's school entertained with synchronized jumps clear of the water, shooting out of breaking waves, tail stands and back flips. The show lasted for 15 minutes, with one straggler staying on after the school had departed for a final encore of back flips. Stunning.

David's brief period of seasickness is well behind him, with a tricky juggling act in the galley resulting in a couple of great salads for lunch. It's not quite "master chef" competitive cooking yet, but I'll have to make sure I deliver the goods after a couple of dubious dishes.

This evening the wind's shifted, we're now on my favourite point of sail - a beam reach. The motion is a lot easier - less rolling and we're still hurtling west.

Position @ 23:00 (GMT +7) 14/1/2008: N5deg 52.9' E89deg 56.5
Distance to Sri Lanka: 560.9
Daily run: 182.7

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Farewell Andaman Sea, hello Indian Ocean

It's been a day of contrasts as we've moved from the Andaman sea into the Indian Ocean. The day started with a rainy squall, requiring a couple of reefs in the main and a free shower in the process. As we approached the "Great Channel" between the Nicobar Islands and Sumatra, the concentration of shipping increased, we were seeing at least a couple of ships an hour - unnerving the way they suddenly loomed out of the rain. The Andaman roller coaster ride continued adding challenge to the couple of gybes we made to deal with the shifting wind direction in the channel.

As we left the Andaman sea, the seas became noticeably more regular and the wind increased - now at last some exhilarating sailing as we sped across the relatively calm ocean with a strong tail-wind leaving the rain behind us. The contrast in sea conditions and comfort levels is incredible.

Some excitement as the fishing line raced out this afternoon, only to lead to disappointment as we landed a large plastic sheet.

We continued our tastes of the World cuisine, moving to Mexico for lunch as we used the reminder of the spag-bol topped with coleslaw in Taco shells. Not convinced by Taco shells - far too fiddly and messy to prepare on a rolling boat. This evening we moved back to Italy for spaghetti carbonara - unfortunately I seem to have forgotten the tricks we were taught by Stephania in New Zealand. She taught us carbonara the Roma way - is there any other? Unfortunately this evening mine was more spaghetti with scrambled eggs and bacon - edible but not from Roma.

It's a star filled night, with plenty of shipping around adding interest to tonight's watches.

Position @ 23:00 (GMT +5) 14/1/2008: N6deg 01.9' E93deg 00.0'
Distance to Sri Lanka: 743.6
Daily run: 168.4

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Andaman roller coaster

David's gentle introduction is over, the wind has found us and we're speeding along on a dead run. The Andaman sea is full of surprises. One moment we're rolling along on regular ocean swells, the next we're being violently thrown around in a heavily confused sea - as though there's suddenly a large current opposing the trade wind. After 10 minutes or so, we sail out the other end with a well defined transition back to gentle ocean swells. There's nothing on the chart to indicate these abrupt areas of overfalls, it's all very mysterious. I'm afraid first thing this morning, it was a little too much for David, who had a second taste of his breakfast. Although to compensate he spotted a turtle while leaning over the rail.

Eventually I found an entry in the pilot guide which shed some light on this unusual phenomenon: "In the Andaman Sea there will often be upwelling currents producing a strange choppy sea in defined areas" - so now we know!

I'm sure the suddenly confused seas aren't helping, but it seems to be taking longer than usual to adjust to the rhythm of being at sea again.

The wind has been varying in strength; at times we're surfing down waves making fantastic progress, the next the sails are flogging as there's insufficient wind to keep them filled in the swell.

After an appropriate mourning period, pink squid has been replaced by tiger squid. It's early days, but already our new lure is showing promise with a single bite today. Once we finish of the remains of today's spag-bol, we'll be expecting tiger to deliver some fresh protein.

Position @ 23:00 (GMT +5) 13/1/2008: N6deg 51.6' E95deg 41.6'
Distance to southern Nicobar islands: 111
Daily run: 134

Monday, January 12, 2009

1550 miles to the Maldives

Today we said farewell to wonderful Thailand, home of amazingly friendly people where a small grin elicits dazzling smiles in response, tasty food and the perfect location for migratory guests. It was a great energy boost having Ian and Kristin visit and taking a holiday from the trip. The 3+ weeks they were with me seemed to fly-by; one moment it felt like I had months to relax in Thailand, then suddenly the scramble was on to prepare the boat and find crew for the next part of the trip. It would have been perfect if Kristin or Ian could have been persuaded to join me for all or part of the trip to the Mediterranean, but they're both too conscientious to quit their jobs at a moment's notice and join my nomadic lifestyle. Still, I've been lucky and found crew. Welcome onboard "our David from Leeds". Assuming we're still speaking once we've navigated the waters of the Indian Ocean, we'll be continuing up the Red Sea and braving the infamous pirate alley.

This morning started with the urgent sound of shrouds banging against masts echoing around the anchorage indicating that the forecast drop in wind wasn't forthcoming. Cautiously we left the anchorage with a couple of reefs in the main. As ever the sound was more intimidating than the reality and once clear of land we shook out the reefs and set a course to the southern Nicobar Islands, making steady progress in a falling wind. Our passage to the Maldives is divided into a three parts, firstly SW 277 miles to Nicobar islands. Sadly we're not allowed to stop there - the Indian administered islands are off-limits to sailors. One reason given is that the indigenous people resist all outside influences. Allegedly in one small island, North Sentinel, "the 150 inhabitants fiercely resist all contact with the outside world. As soon as a government boat - with administrators and/or anthropologists - tries to land, they are met with arrows and stones. So far, nobody has dared to venture ashore". After dodging the flying spears of the Nicobar islands we steer WSW 800 miles to Sri Lanka and finally NW 470 miles to Uligamu in the northern Maldives, our first planned stop.

So far we've had varied conditions giving a gentle introduction for David. Downwind sailing, followed by a brief calm, followed by a wind reversal, followed by a heave-to as we tried to unsuccessfully untangle the fishing line which had wrapped itself around the propeller while we circled while chasing the wind. Finally settling into a pleasant fine reach and altering course briefly for the Singaporean container ship "Vasco da Gama". There's been much to take-in with a crash course in identifying ships at night from their light patterns, the vagaries of the wind-steering and sail trim. Still it hasn't all been hard work, with a dolphin visit and plenty of flying fish skimming across the waters.

This evening we're mourning the loss of pink squidy - he had a brief but busy life luring a couple of barracudas onto our hook over Christmas and although loosing some tentacles in the process, he was looking promising for the trip ahead.

Tonight we ate my version of Thai Chicken Tom Yam in the almost complete darkness that quickly overtakes the tropical sunset and before the moon manages to make an appearance. Impossible to see what we were eating, though fortunately on passage the taste counts more than the presentation.

Position @ 23:00 (GMT +5): N7deg31.6' E97deg50.2'
Distance to southern Nicobar islands: 245