Aden, February 1997
I am writing this newsletter as we sail to Aden – we are leaving the exotic Far East to enter the Middle East. The trip has been timed to take advantage of the NE monsoon, which should give generally favorable winds as far as the south part of the Red Sea. Walter and I put in a heavy week of maintenance at Cairns before Ginny arrived. The weather in the Tasman Sea had left us with a lot to do, including lifting a few teak deck planks and recaulking underneath. Whilst in Cairns I had hoped to get a permit to cruise Indonesia but I was defeated by the inertia of the Indonesian officials. After wasting $15 on phone cards and mostly being kept on hold I gave up and decided to visit Thailand instead.
We had strong SE winds for our trip through the Great Barrier Reef. We anchored every night usually making good about 55 miles between anchorages. Lizard Island was the best stop and our last chance to go snorkeling – north of Lizard we were warned to stay out of the water due to the predatory habits of the salt water crocodiles. We spent a couple of days in Cooktown before Lizard – this is the place Captain Cook repaired the Endeavour after he crunched on a reef. After repairs he sailed to Lizard Island and climbed the hill in order to plot the best way out through the Great Barrier Reef into open water. Cooktown was established many years later as a trading center for the miners heading for the gold fields on the Palmer River – a fascinating story told in a book we got at the Cooktown Museum. North of Cooktown the Queensland coast is very desolate. Ginny and I had a curious experience when we dinghied up to a small settlement several hundred miles north of Cooktown. We had anchored FIONA and gone ashore to trade paperbacks, as we had been told earlier by an Aussie yachtey that this was the place to do it. Instead we ran into a genuine outback character called Barbara who invited us into her ramshackle abode, amused us with stories of the region and finally gave us some Holy Heavenly Healing Cloth which she said would cure any ailment, along with typewritten instructions.
We sailed past Cape York into the Torres Strait and spent a couple of days at Thursday Island. At one time this was a great pearling center and we were lucky enough to see one of the old pearling luggers, now sailing as a yacht. From Thursday it was a few day’s sail to Darwin, the modern capital of the Northern Territories. Darwin was very hot – in the nineties every day – goodness knows what it is like in summer. We stayed at a new marina, fortunately there was lots of fresh water available. We had the anchor chain regalvanized and took care of other maintenance chores. We rented a car and most days drove down to the yacht club for a beer and a game of pool each afternoon. We also restocked at the last western style supermarket that we will see for a long time. We then left on the long haul to Thailand, about 3000 miles, paralleling the coast of Java and Sumatra. Our one stop was Christmas Island, an Australian possession developed by the British in the late nineteenth century because of the enormous guano deposits. t was a fascinating place to visit, it has quite a bloody history detailed in a booklet we picked up. The guano was dug up by imported Chinese coolies who sometimes murdered their overseers due to the harsh working conditions. The Japanese invaded in 1942 and the few British soldiers on the island were killed by the Sihk policemen just before the invasion began. Every year on Christmas Island millions of red land crabs migrate to the sea to reproduce. We were there for the tail end – crabs everywhere. Whatever is in their path they climb over – even three story buildings. We refueled and left -we expected a long – windless, passage through the doldrums as we approached the equator. The wind dropped the day after Christmas Island disappeared over the stern horizon and we motored over a calm sea for nearly a week. When we crossed the equator Ginny was truly inducted as a Daughter of Neptune by the old King himself, who climbed over the lifeline to perform the ceremony, using lots of Mount Gay rum. Apart from the odd encounter with Indonesian fishing boats we saw no one. Above one degree north the fuel got low and we sailed in very light winds, sometimes tacking to within a few miles of the coast of Sumatra, which looked very green, but with no signs of life.
We arrived in Phuket, Thailand, in early December, thirty-one days after leaving Darwin. Ginny left us here, her son flew down from Nepal and they went off sightseeing before her return to the USA in time for Christmas. I called my daughter Brenda and she posted a notice on the Internet that produced a new crew member for the leg to the Mediterranean within two days. While we waited Walter and I sampled the culinary delights of Thailand, where a dollar or two gets you as much tasty food as you can eat in one meal. We also cruised the spectacular bay to the east of Phuket, where islands of volcanic origin with vertical walls tower up hundred of feet, crowned with dense vegetation. Parts of a James Bond movie were shot here a few years ago. We wound up at Phi Phi Don, this is a unique island with no airfield, visitors sail here or take the ferry from Phuket. A few pleasant hotels and guest houses provide accommodation. The village has several streets, each no more than ten feet wide, absolutely packed with small shops and eating establishments. The place never seems to close, even in the small hours. We even found a pool hall, a game the Thai play very enthusiastically and noisily. Robert flew in from Seattle the day after Christmas, after another brief visit to Phi Phi Don we sailed to Sri Lanka.
This turned out to be a glorious sail, a wonderful introduction to ocean cruising for Robert, whose experience had been confined to coastal cruising. We covered the 1,200 miles in just over eight days and fortunately arrived in the late afternoon at Galle in time to beat the harbor curfew. The curfew is imposed by the Sri Lanka Navy, who close the harbor at dusk and then proceed to discourage Tamil rebels by dropping grenades and sticks of dynamite into the sea near the entrance for the rest of the night. The civil war has clearly had a profound impact on the country, including a severe economic penalty. It is probably the poorest country we have visited since Guyana. The political situation reminded me of Northern Ireland. The Tamils, who originated from India, just across a narrow sea to the north, are Hindu, the majority of Sri Lankans, called Sinhalese, are Buddhist. They are concentrated in the south. In contrast to Ireland, the Tamils are fighting for a separate state of their own, will the fighting in Ireland continue if it is united, with rebels fighting for a state of their own?
We made a two day van ride to Kandy, the old capital with beautiful Buddhist shrines, the one we visited was said to hold a tooth of Buddha. The central part of Sri Lanka is lovely, with intensively cultivated hillsides and, of course, lots of tea plantations. Several times we passed through police road blocks. Their job is no sinecure, on the day we left twenty-two policemen were killed by Tamils. Prices are very cheap, our hotel in Kandy cost $6 per room, with private bath. Expertly made carvings, mostly in teak and ebony, are available for a song. On our arrival in Galle the naval officer had noticed from the passports that Walter’s birthday was the next day. “Come to the party”, we gaily said. “I will”, he replied, “I’ll bring my boss”. Sure enough a bevy of navy people showed up at sundown the next day and we had quite a party , as several yachties had already been invited aboard, and a couple of bottles of our Caribbean rum were sacrificed to cement Sri Lanka – American relations.
From Sri Lanka we sailed few hundred miles southwest to the Maldive Islands. These comprise over a thousand islands grouped in about 18 atolls spread from several degrees north to the equator. The capital, Male, lies halfway along the chain at about four degrees north. I had expected them to be poor, rather like other atolls we had visited such as the Tuamotus and the Cook group in the South Pacific. This view was reinforced by an article written by Ginny’s son Ian describing a trip he made in the traditional dhow to atolls lying to the south of Male, but I was wrong. The Republic of the Maldives is the first Islamic country we have visited and unfortunately we arrived in the middle of Ramadan. Many businesses and government agencies open only for a few hours in the morning, Moslems fast during daylight hours and restaurants open only after nightfall. It is considered bad form for Westerners to be seen eating or drinking in public. Besides these minor problems Male is one of the worst anchorages we have encountered. The water is deep, typically 150 ft, currents are strong, there are no facilities to handle dinghies and we anchored cheek by jowl with over twenty freighters sharing the harbor. The freighters, however, are the clue to the Maldives amazing prosperity, for they export virtually nothing, the freighters brought only imports. The prosperity has been achieved in the thirty years since independence from Britain by a very hard look at what they did have and how to cash in on it. What they did have was over a thousand charming tropical islands. Up till now seventy-nine have been developed exclusively as luxurious beach hotels. A huge airfield, nearly two miles long, funnels dozens of jets in each day, packed with tourists. An infrastructure of ferries, helicopters and planes deals with the transportation of the pale, mostly European, tourists to their designated luxury islands. No natives, except staff, live on the resort island, native villages are to be found on one hundred and sixty nine other islands – they have no tourists. After customs and immigration formalities in Male we sailed to one resort island and anchored off a lovely beach. We were welcome to use the facilities on shore. The hotel there was beautifully designed and landscaped, prices were out of sight for poor yachties – $30 lunches, but we splurged (once) on $10 cheeseburgers and a beer by the pool.
We returned to Male for outward clearance. The first time we had anchored with all our chain plus 200 ft of rope. It had taken us two hours to raise it, the weight of 150 ft of chain hanging straight down was simply beyond the capacity of the anchor winch. On our return we used all rope with just 30 ft of chain. One of the very few times (perhaps the only time) when I have used rope instead of chain for the anchor. We ate out in Male after sunset for only a few dollars and I was amazed how the streets filled with laughing happy people once the fasting was over for the day. The two week sail to Yemen from Male was very pleasant; lots of marine life. At night the phosphorescence was almost enough to read by – as dolphins swam around the boat they left greenish-white “contrails” in the water. Every so often there was a slurpy gasp as they sharply inhaled. Walter caught several fish on the trolling line, most got off the hook but we did land and eat two. Aden is very battered due to the recent civil war, the town is located between harsh, barren mountains. Most women wear long black robes and head veil, the hijab, brown eyes peer at you through a little slit in the head-dress. Everyone is very friendly, we will refuel, reprovision and leave for the Red Sea, The Suez Canal and the Mediterranean.