The Heather Chronicles
©Eric & Robin Lambert
These are letters written between 1994 and 1996, sent back by Eric and Robin Lambert from the good ship Heather, a 1964
I met Eric and Robin on Heather in
Sadly Heather was lost in 1997 off Saba in the Caribbean, an island I treat with trepidation when I pass it – the last time in Skylax we had 30 knots plus and a current kicking up horrendous seas. Oh, and the roller reefing jib, the only half decent foresail we had, was shredding all along the leach.
Eric and Robin have a new 36 footer now, Runaway, a kiwi boat they race locally on the west coast
In October of last year (1994), Robin and I flew to
After a few short sails over the holidays, in January we were finally able to let Heather strut her stuff with an 8‑day, 11‑anchorage, 340‑mile romp. We had to delay our departure from Auckland a couple of days to let a system with heavy rain and 30‑knot winds pass through, and our first leg out of the gulf was nothing special, with sloppy seas and light winds on the nose. We barely got into our anchorage in time to slip over the side and pick up a couple of fish and some dungeness‑like crabs; also some green‑lipped mussels, a few rock oysters, some clams... Pondering our bounty over a glass of Chardonnay, we wondered, "What would André do?" ‑‑ and proceeded to a dinner inspired by happy memories of Bicycle Shop bouillabaisse.
The next day was an easy 30‑mile sail to
Sailing again, with a perfect spinnaker run down to
At 5 a.m. the next morning, we were underway again. Destination:
We decided to swim ashore. Walking through the surreal landscape, reddish‑pink rock heaps and sand‑mud mounds dotted with impossibly bright patches of yellow sulfur crystals ringing roaring gas vents, we negotiated burbling creek beds through a quarter-mile wide break in the crater walls, elsewhere looming a thousand feet high, to reach the edge of a pit extending hundreds of feet below sea level, mostly obscured by billowing clouds of steam. A few moments for contemplation, and then we were back to the boat for a quick lunch, and off into a gathering gale. The wind shifted against us until we were near close‑hauled, with small jib up and a double‑reefed main, slopping through rough seas. Happy to get back to our
In February we headed north from
Less than an hour before we arrived in Tutukaka, the fishing reel buzzed. We slowed the boat and I wound in a muscular 10-pound bonita and flicked him into the cockpit. I made a grab as the fish made a flap, but it was a Rapala lure, with two treble hooks, only one of which was safely embedded in the fish's mouth. The other was dangerously embedded into my finger!
The hook entered the side of the finger and was buried all the way up to the bight (the U-shaped bend), with the point just under the skin at the fingertip. Now, the standard way of removing an embedded fishhook is to push it all the way through, cut off the barb, and back it out, but that wasn't going to work here. The hook couldn't go in any more because it was up to the bight, and it couldn't rotate because it was along the bone.
Robin got squeamish and sent Iretta down below to help me. Iretta got squeamish and sent Steve down. Steve got squeamish and suggested that Tutukaka, a game-fishing center, probably knew an expert on fishhook removal...
We inquired at the fishing lodge, who called the clinic ("Yes, doctor, it's another one") and lent us a car to get there. The doctor glanced at my finger and comforted me. "I've done hundreds," he said. He took a piece of string, tied one end to the eye of the hook, and as he clamped a hemostat onto the string an inch or two from the hook he explained, "You need a counterweight. Usually a fishing sinker is what you'd use." Then he took a loop of string around the bight of the hook, and with a foot or so of slack let out to allow him to pick up some momentum he suddenly jerked the hook out. I didn't feel a thing.
He told me that he had developed this technique over 20 years ago. I asked about the push-it-through-and-cut-off-the-barb method, and he winced: "That hurts," he said. I asked if other doctors used his technique. "Not as far as I know." I asked if he had publicized his technique. "No."
* * * * *
Unfortunately, Steve and Iretta missed the bits of weather with good sailing, but thankfully they also missed the swarms of mosquitoes we later encountered in a couple of anchorages. These voracious little vampires had no difficulty flying hundreds of yards out to the boat and offered 24-hour service to boot. Otherwise, it continued to be some of the most idyllic boating and foraging we've ever experienced.
At one single little bay, on Motorua Island in the Bay of Islands, while the Micskeys were still with us, we anchored in 10 feet of water over scallops galore. The scallops sit on the bottom, flat shell up, with a dusting of sand for camouflage. I pointed one out to Steve, who needed no further impetus, grabbing 3 or 4 per dive, with Robin getting as many. In less than 10 minutes we had as many as we could eat, with garlic, capers, and olive oil, dischi volanti pasta, and an opulent New Zealand Chardonnay. A few days later, Robin and I returned to that same bay to gather pipis (a type of clam) from the beach between the low and half tide lines. Another boat netted some piper, a delicious fish, 10 or 12 inches long, that looks a bit like a miniature marlin. They gave us a dozen of their surplus which we fried gently in butter with a squeeze of lemon -- nothing else required. A baited line over the side brought us a brace of snapper, our favorite breakfast fish. Then a thump on the hull alerted me to the presence of a kingfish, a gamefish similar to the West Coast yellowtail. They like to hide under anchored boats and ambush their prey, but two can play at that game. I leaned over the side with my pole spear and soon had landed a 15 pounder, perfect for sashimi.
Not only a seafood paradise,
As for the offshore islands, particularly the Poor Knights and the Mokohinau group, they are full of surprises: sheer cliffs rising from deep water, with an array of caves, arches, and tunnels, above and below the surface, to explore. We motored Heather through one arch with at least 50 feet of clearance above the mast and 60 feet of water under the keel, which nevertheless felt very daring at the time. Underwater, the fish life was profuse. Whenever we dived we would be surrounded by dozens of curious fish. Large, colorful sandager wrasses would let you hug them if they thought you might feed them. A pod of bottlenose dolphins herded several large schools of fish into our anchorage, making for disorienting diving, thousands of fish whirling by, close enough to touch.
And so have passed the halcyon days, the boat floating in a superabundance of seafood among intriguing anchorages and spectacular scenery, all systems onboard operating properly. This is as good as it gets; so what if we have occasionally gotten pinned down by 40-knot williwaws, with 4 inches of rain falling in 2 days non-stop... It is the end of March, and this more or less marks the end of our
June 18, 1995
At last we have had our first swim in a tropical lagoon -- and this is where the cruise really begins!
Backing up, we felt we just had to delay our departure from
Speaking of storms, last June a very bad one swept through the yachts on the NZ to
We had been portbound for several days waiting for some nasty weather to blow through, choosing a morning of cold southerlies (generally marking the passing of a low) to set off, Westhaven to
It does seem that for wind on this passage one gets either too much (maybe two times out of three) or not enough. All of our meteorological knowhow went into picking a time to leave that would give us not enough. It was a longish trip for the distance, 11 days, of which we had to power a couple, but what a great reintroduction to passagemaking. We still like doing it, and we still like doing it on Heather, small though she is!
Our next destination in
August 5, 1995
Since leaving N.Z. seven weeks ago, we have sailed some 2,500 miles, visited three countries, and now are looking at having to pick up the pace! A quick rundown:
Nuku'alofa (the capital, in the southernmost island group) was pretty much as we remembered from when we collected the Unicorn in 1991 for delivery to
We learned that Elke and Werner had been cruising for several years and had settled in Vava'u (northern group) to develop a resort. They were just in Nuku'alofa briefly, to get some official piece of paper or other. It would be ready tomorrow, and this had been the case since January!
Though relaxed in other respects,
There is no fuel dock in Nuku'alofa. If you don't want to jerry can it by taxi, a tanker truck with a hose long enough to extend across several boats docked side by side will deliver to the wharf. Our fuel tank only holds 25 gallons and was not even empty, and I was surprised that the fuel depot was prepared to deliver such a small quantity. But when the tanker truck driver had reset the meter, and I had filled the tank, and he had then checked the meter and made up the invoice, I realized we were being charged for the $5 worth or so of fuel still present in that long, long length of hose! I didn't mention it; it was well worth it for the convenience, and they still probably barely broke even on the sale.
On to Ha'apai, the middle Tongan group, where our time was characterized by windy days when we were in its fairly marginal anchorages and flat calms while we were making our passages. We will get it right eventually. Making landfall just after daybreak at uninhabited Telekevava'u Island, we set the anchor and I dove into the water intending to pick up a fish for lunch. Not as easy as in N.Z.! These fish were wary and spooked easily, and I was having little luck with my pole spear. I got Robin to launch our net (35' by 10') from the dink and then spotted and gave the evil eye to a nice fat fish who promptly fled from me, straight into the net. Gotcha! After lunch, over a couple of drinking coconuts ashore, we were starting to feel a little more native.
Some days later we sailed up to
Meandering up to Pangai, the main town of
One of Vava'u's natural wonders is Mariner's Cave, a large sea cave with an underwater entrance. There is no nearby anchorage; the water is over 200 feet deep just spitting distance from the cliffs. Robin and I had always wanted to explore the cave together, so we were very fortunate when another boat offered the loan of their two teenage sons to do donuts in Heather while we swam for a look. The cave's entrance daunts many people, but it's only 6 feet down and then 15 feet along (underneath the overhanging cliff) before you can surface inside to an interior well-lit with the emerald glow from the entrance. The ground swell changes the air pressure inside the cave, a drop in the water level causing a fog to form which instantly vanishes on the next wave. About 180 years ago, Will Mariner described the cave and the Tongan legend associated with it. Something to do with a handsome young chief (sure) and a beautiful princess (natch) and a wicked stepmother (oops!, wrong story).
Vanuatu via Fiji
Back underway enroute to
As we approached the coast, the wind and rain eased and we wound up furling the sails and powering during the last hours before our planned landfall. A couple of rain squalls came and went without much wind in them, not compared to the 25 to 30 knots we had gotten used to (from a trough which the weatherfax and the sky agreed had already passed over us and was now moving east). We studied the chart carefully. Vunanui looked well-protected and easy enough to enter, given good visibility. The barrier reef extends a couple of miles from land and is only apparent from the heavy rollers crashing into it. The proper entrance through the reef was right next to a false (dead-end) entrance, and both were at the head of a shallow, mile-deep bay within the reef. We still had a couple of hours of daylight left as we closed with the reef and turned into the bay. Another 10 minutes, and we should see the entrance; an additional 15, and we should have the anchor down.
But that is not what happened. Instead, we were suddenly in one of the most dangerous situations imaginable. In a matter of seconds the wind came up and the rain came down, the rain falling hard enough to reduce visibility to 100 feet or less, the wind mounting up to something over 50 knots, straight out of the south. The sailor's nightmare: embayed on a lee shore in a gale.
We knew it would be foolhardy to try for the entrance. With the poor visibility, only by the merest chance would we come directly upon it, and driven by the wind and seas there would be no second chance. I gave the engine maximum emergency power and spun Heather around to put the bow about 45 degrees to the wind and try to gain some searoom. Already the seas were up; a few minutes later they were 10 feet high and breaking. There we were in our little world with the wind screaming, the tops of waves leaping aboard, and no idea whether we were starting to gain or still being set down towards the reef. Indeed, the boat was tossing and pitching so violently that our GPS course and speed readings were worthless. What to do?
Fortunately, the GPS display of crosstrack error, since it averages out position errors, was good, so I called up our previous waypoint and hit Go To. Crosstrack error to the left would mean that we were being set onto the reef; crosstrack error to the right, that we were gaining searoom. It would be some moments before it registered one way or the other. Meantime, putting the boat on autopilot, which did a better job of steering than I had done (it wasn't distracted wondering what to do next!), I was figuring that it would still take a few minutes to rig the third reef line, and quite a few more to unhank the genoa and bend on the storm jib. We might not have enough time... Perhaps we should hurry to put on our wetsuits, the best thing to be wearing if we did get flung upon the reef...
A glance at the GPS: crosstrack error .02 miles to the right -- we were doing it! Heather was actually making headway against the gale! A glance at the instrument panel: oil pressure, normal; water temperature, normal -- the Yanmar was running like a top, with just the occasional boat-shuddering vibration when the seas shoved us sideways, the athwartships water flow causing the prop to cavitate. I was real glad I had fussed so much with that prop, pitching and re-pitching it till it was right on the money. I was also glad that even with all that water breaking over the deck, no lines washed off to wrap around it.
Robin, who up to this point had had the unenviable job down below of securing and stowing stuff as still more shook loose, now reported that she had the nav station back in order, at least. She came on deck with a block of chocolate for us (energy food) and took the watch, sending me down below to towel off and look at the chart. The wind eased to about 45 knots, Heather picked up to about 3, and after an hour or so we started to come into the lee of the nearby Beqa (pronounced mmBEN'guh) lagoon. A couple of hours later the wind had eased some more and the rain had stopped altogether. As moonlight was just starting to poke through the clouds, we gingerly crept through a break in the reef and anchored within the lagoon in the lee of
As I stirred up a good meal and cracked a bottle of wine, we listened to local (
The next day dawned bright blue and calm, with no wind at all for our run up to Lautoka. We had to power the whole way, and a shark went and sliced through the 400-lb. leader, making off with my favorite red-and-white feather lure. We barely made it to port in time to fill out their stacks of forms at the Customs House, under the gun to be done before 4:30 closing time else pay heavy overtime charges (we had arrived at 12:30!). But it all worked out, and soon we were tied to the ramshackle dock at Neisau Marina, and checking out the big city of
We liked Lautoka, with its colorful residential areas and the compact town center just a quick walk (by shortcut along the beach) from the marina. The market was reasonable, and though marine supplies were limited, the Indian shopkeepers were almost overwhelming in their eagerness to help us try to track down what we needed. (This was a welcome change from
We had tied up to the dock to take care of a couple of minor projects aboard Heather but I soon got snagged by the more interesting problems on four other boats at the dock, and a couple of days went by with little progress made on our own list. Just staying in practice. Robin, meanwhile, became embroiled in computer, weatherfax, and ham radio exchanges with the other cruisers, including Jim aboard Heart of Gold (a boat whose contributions to Latitude 38 had always caught our attention), merrily trading programs, broadcast schedules, and great reams of generic information. She brings happiness to photocopy services wherever she goes.
A dock is a great place for meeting other cruisers, and we met a bunch. Our standard opening line is, "Hi, want to trade some books?" Small boat means small library, and we are voracious readers. We had stocked up in N.Z. with some worthy works, but after a couple of months of trading most of our books now have those embossed covers, a real bad sign. Oddly, most boats claim to have started with better books; so where is this garbage coming from?
Our short stopover stretched into a week, and then the approaching southern hemisphere hurricane season tapped us on the shoulder. Looking at the chart, we had 6,000 miles to cover to get clear. Gotta go. Out of Lautoka, we allowed ourselves a day in Musket Cove to check it out, then began the rainy, windy 4-day passage to Port Vila in
We arrived here just in time for a weekend of independence day celebrations -- parties, music, a full hour of fireworks, and a flyby of an F-111, probably Australian. It's a deep harbor with exceptionally clean (swimmable) water, and the town has an enchanting ambiance. We'd love to get to the outer islands (or even just out to the country), but that tapping on the shoulder persists...
September 26, 1995
It's been seven weeks and another 2,500+ miles since we last wrote. THIS week our long‑range plan is to get the boat to the U.S. east coast by the summer of '97, sell her there, and then fly ourselves back to L.A. ready to Work Hard (without the distraction of a boat!) for another stretch. Thus our current trip will continue to involve lots of time crossing oceans and limited time in port ‑‑ an imbalance we can only justify with the rationale that we are scouting out good places for longer visits in the future.
One such promising place is
Heather, at 31 years old, stands out as unusually dainty and pretty (and small) among the current cruising boats. Indeed, we were beginning to think that we were the only ones nuts enough to cruise on a boat with varnished toerails, when in Port Vila we noticed that the three nearest boats ALL had varnished rails. One was the beautiful 37‑ft. Herreschoff ketch Nereia. Ron, the Kiwi owner, had built her in
As a cruising sailboat, Heather is also quite fast for her size, and we were ready for a good passage when we pointed her downwind towards the north coast of
Speaking of fishing, we trolled a lure for one day, caught a 40‑lb. mahimahi, filled fridge, freezer, and gullet, and that was that: no more fishing for the rest of what was turning out to be an express trip. Though we had originally planned on a quick bit of R & R at Indispensable Reefs (southern Solomons), and later at the Louisiades (PNG), with the rough weather we thought it best to press on. So it was that we arrived at the low islands and reefs of
In the last 4,000 miles we have seen only two pieces of floating debris: a park picnic table‑and‑benchseat arrangement floating 800 miles north of
The next day, a 45‑mile thrash to weather brought us to a lovely overnight anchorage at
Gove is a large and protected harbor with a small haulout facility, a pleasant, well‑shaded yacht club with bar, restaurant, showers, and coin laundry, and the gigantic Nabalco plant which converts locally mined bauxite into alumina. That's it. There is nothing else in Gove. It's about 5 miles (by thumb or taxi) into nearby Nhulunbuy, a town of a couple thousand served by a bank, a post office, two shopping malls, a library (home of the local one‑for‑one book exchange), amateur playhouse, public pool, outdoor cinema, etc., with a good range of provisions available, at prices 20% to 30% higher than in Darwin. We would have happily spent more time in Gove, as the local coast and bush looked intriguing and the people were just delightful. One long‑time local with a boat (Nyalla) the same size as Heather was Harry, who showed us the town and its environs and shared his extensive knowledge of the cruising attractions between Gove and Darwin. Housing in Gove is provided at nominal cost to Nabalco employees on a waiting list basis, and Harry and his wife Claire, with the persistence of years, had rated a place right on a perfect white sand beach. A million dollar view from under mature shade trees, a cold beer, what a life!
On a tour of the Nabalco facility, impressive for its attention to post‑mining bush regeneration, the guide boasted of the environmental benefits of the plant's new "dry stacking" technique for disposing of its millions of tons of red mud waste. He didn't mention the downside: an airborne superfine red dust with a particular (no pun intended) affinity for our halyards! We carried that souvenir all the way here to
October 3, 1995
Cruising yachts tend to blow right by the many possible anchorages along the Australian north coast. We have not met a foreign yacht that explored even as much as the little we did on our way from Gove. This might be because of the threat of attack by crocodiles or sharks or box jellyfish (whose sting is potentially fatal), not to mention the lurking blue‑ringed octopus (the only octopus in the world with a deadly poisonous bite)... Taking these dangers point by point, we reasoned: the crocs are mostly estuarine, the sharks exceedingly well‑fed; it was not yet the Wet, the season for the box jellyfish, and, finally, if you don't bother an octopus, he won't bother you. So let's go diving and pick up a fish for lunch! This turned out to be surprisingly easy.
We had good general‑coverage Australian charts, plus Harry of Nyalla had copied some detailed cruising guide info for us ‑‑ just as well, as a real danger of the area is the deceptive brightness of the aquamarine water, just opaque enough to conceal a reef or rock at less than your draft. The eyeball navigation so effective throughout the Pacific will get you into trouble here.
The crocs may well be a problem also. At our first anchorage (Guluwuru Is.) in the
In his Indian Ocean and Red Sea cruising guide, Alan Lucas also covers the top end of Australia and recommends that newcomers abstain from the passage through "Hole in the Wall," a 100‑meter wide, mile‑and‑a‑half long shortcut between a couple of the Wessels, where the current can exceed 9 knots. It never occurred to us to take any other route. Robin worked out the time for minimal or favorable current but that would get us to our chosen anchorage too late in the day, so we went through at a less than ideal time. In calm water, under full power, Heather can make 6 3/4 knots. She needed to on this occasion, for where the pass narrowed the current against us was over 5 1/2 knots. We lost some speed when I kept steering to avoid the whirlpools before figuring out that it was more efficient just to go through them.
The press of time prevented us from spending more than a couple of days among the Wessels group, but we hope to return. They are a strange and lovely chain of islands with their curious rock formations, white sand beaches (generously strewn with shells, to Robin's delight), and turquoise waters, all totally deserted. The trolling was good ‑‑ too damn good. We lost a couple of lures to two short‑billed spearfish well over 100 pounds. A fish that size is more than we can use, and we certainly don't want one flapping around in the cockpit breaking things.
After a couple day's passage, we overnighted in a wide, peaceful bay on the west side of
So here we are, finishing up with correspondence and packing provisions into the boat for the 1500‑mile trip to
Christmas Island to Chagos
From Christmas Island, Indian Ocean
November 4, 1995
It took great effort to wrench ourselves free from the clutches of Darwin. This was the best port for supplies that we would see for the next six months, so we took our time with the provisioning, carefully studying past usage rates and doublechecking onboard inventories to make sure that we stocked just what we will need, no more, no less. No more, especially. With Heather floating well down in the water, we have become rabid weight watchers. One would think that storage space on a boat this size would be the limiting factor, but we constantly outsmart ourselves. Using some Bill Bornemann carpentry techniques, I built an ultralight bookshelf which only weighs a few ounces ‑‑ but lets us carry another 40 pounds of books! Then Robin got into a fever pitch packing the lockers f‑u‑l‑l. Each one is a perfect 3‑D jigsaw puzzle. Trouble is, every time you take something out of its locker, the rest of the stuff fluffs up and overflows it, and now you can't get it all back in again, as you are no longer in high‑gear 3‑D puzzle‑solving mode.
One thing Darwin is definitely not ideal for is fresh produce: little is grown locally, and everything in the supermarkets has been trucked up from South Australia. For whatever reason, most of our produce rotted quickly even if refrigerated, and instantly if not. On the other hand, the local mangoes were ripening while we were there, and they were plentiful, the trees serving as an ornamental throughout the city. Ah, mango trees rampant with fruit pendant against a sky azure...
Yes, we were basically charmed by Darwin, and by the great many positive and energetic people we met there, including fellow cruisers and "locals" (the Aussie ones typically from elsewhere in Oz). The social whirl was getting pretty intense for us by the time we got underway, headed for the solitude of Ashmore Reef, 460 miles westward. Over a pre-departure lunch, a mixed green salad with seared kangaroo fillet and a balsamic vinegar dressing (recipe filched from chef Owen Sinclair of Killer Prawn), we found ourselves speculating: Darwin was named after Charlie, but you'd never know it. There were no references to him anywhere, no Survival of the Fittest Health Club, no Lamarckian Lounge, no Origin of the Specie Mining Co. How come? Certainly after all that Japanese bombing during World War II, and the devastating effects of Cyclone Tracy in 1974, the survival metaphor should be strong.
With little wind to be had in the lee of the mainland, we motored most of the way across the shallow Timor Sea, better off in any case than the becalmed "perahus," traditional Indonesian fishing boats that sail down into these waters. We kept a sharp eye out at night for them, as I suspected that their technology had not reached the running light stage. Despite our Friday the 13th departure it was an easy passage, motor ticking over at 2000 rpm and stereo cranked up all the way playing the new discs Louis had brought us. We particularly enjoyed several CDs by an Aussie group "The Cruel Sea." Not very cruel for us during this leg, anyway.
Now, we had never intended to stop at Ashmore, never even heard of it, but when Hans on "Chaparral" pointed out to us in Darwin that it was on the way to Christmas Island, we dug up a chart, saw that it had a superb anchorage, and decided to take a look.
And what a place! YEOW, what a place! Not much on shore: three small sand cays sharing a total of four coconut palms and some scattered octopus bush. But in the water, the finest snorkeling we have ever experienced. The coral was healthy and plentiful, and as rich in texture and color as the best we'd seen in Tonga (our previous high point). However, it was the fish life that arrested our attention. Ashmore is a marine reserve, i.e., no spearfishing allowed, so the fish are not spooked by a diver's presence and one is always surrounded by them. At anchor inside the pass, we swam in the midst of a school of 30 or more grazing parrotfish, gigantic creatures with a distinctively bulbous forehead like an old man snapper. I could tell they were parrotfish but would never have thought they could get so large: about four feet long and over 100 pounds, as confirmed by the entry in our fish book. (BOLBOMETOPON MURICATUS: Doubleheaded Parrotfish; 1.2 meters, 75 kg.) We later learned that the Reef is home to no less than 747 species of fish. For comparison, only 628 species have been identified in the entire Coral Sea. It is also sea snake city, with the world record for abundance and variety of species, half a dozen individuals in sight at any time, even more if one looks around very carefully... All sea snakes are highly venomous, but most are inoffensive, while many have fangs poorly placed for biting anything the size of a person (but don't go sticking your finger into a sea snake's mouth...).
We don't carry an Indonesian phrasebook onboard, having decided to sail past Indonesia on the present trip. This caused us some regret when two Indonesian fishermen from one of the perahus anchored at the entrance paddled their dugout over to Heather to do some trading. They had several shells and two pairs of shark's jaws ‑‑ all magnificent, very large specimens ‑‑ and we tried to explain in sign language that our boat was way too small for us to collect such things, or to carry "extras" of anything they might want (we had already given away our spare deck of cards!). They couldn't believe it. Finally we offered up two surplus towels. These the men accepted with underwhelming enthusiasm, but we figured they would make a hit with the womenfolk back on the perahu. (Towels are a weakness for Robin, who says that the kind you can get in Australia are the prettiest she's ever seen. In this humid heat we find that we prefer to sit and sleep on terry cloth.)
Steve and Dan are the resident rangers of Ashmore Reef aboard Aurelia IV, a 65‑foot powerboat which the Australian government keeps moored within the lagoon for research and surveillance purposes between April and December (inclusive). They live aboard the boat along with Steve's lovely young Dyak wife Kate and the occasional itinerant naturalist. The two guys came out to the entrance to greet us in their workboat and then guided us through a coralhead minefield to their well‑protected anchorage near West Island. In the days that followed, Steve and Kate showed us several of their favorite dive spots, and Dan even lent us his dugout canoe to play with. The canoe was good for a laugh, as it was MUCH more tippy than my kayak had been.
Each morning throughout our week-long stay at Ashmore we announced solemnly to the rangers that we would be leaving tomorrow, "after the wind came up," but were game for anything going on that day, be it work or play. Robin wound up doing some software repair and maintenance tasks on their computers while I straightened out a few mechanical problems on the boat for them (just staying in practice). We tried to do our email on their satellite phone but for some unknown and probably minor reason our computer wouldn't dial through properly.
Predictably, a number of great communal meals transpired aboard Aurelia IV. Kate and Robin found some sweet cockle clams at the midtide level on the beach and I demonstrated my spaghetti con vongole with capers and garlic. Steve caught a large parrotfish, Dan dipped into his stock of great Aussie red wines, Kate made a fried rice, I baked the fish in tomatoes, carrots, bay leaves, and oregano, we all traded Monty Python lines, the days fused together, this is what cruising is all about, including that nagging feeling: GOTTA GET MOVING, cyclone season coming.
So, on to Christmas Island, 1,050 miles to the west. We had an idyllic 8 days of sailing with steady tradewinds, calm seas, all hatches open and cabin comfortably cool as we cleared into deep ocean again, sea temperature dropping to 28C (83F) from the high of 32C (91F) measured at Ashmore. (I checked the calibration of our gauge against that on Aurelia IV, and it's accurate alright.) We'd forgotten to watch for the Orionid meteor shower on October 21st, and the total solar eclipse on the 24th was not total on our path, unfortunately. Robin dutifully projected the sun's diminishing crescent image onto the cockpit seat via a pinprick hole in a piece of cardboard, but the day did not appreciably darken. Ah, well, another remarkably uneventful passage! We sighted a total of four ships on this leg: a couple of (probably) Korean fishing boats, a tanker that didn't respond to my hail on the VHF, and a car carrier that did. After a full hour's spirited conversation with the Indian deck officer, we traded addresses on the slim chance of a get‑together in Goa in January.
Arriving at the island after dark, we anchored here in Flying Fish Cove and enjoyed a moonlit glass of wine in the cockpit before hitting the sack. That first all-night's sleep is always fitful after regular watchkeeping, and an hour before dawn we were awakened instantly by the very loud song of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. It was hauntingly beautiful, but this sort of thing can get old fast. To explain, Christmas Island is indeed an Australian possession, but as it is only 250 miles south of Djakarta, much of the population is Indonesian and Malay, and the dominant religion is Islam. Income is mostly from a large phosphate mining operation, with a casino resort catering to jetsetters from Djakarta celebrating its second anniversary this weekend. The tourist board here refers to the island as Australia-in-Asia. It looks like a fascinating place, and if we can just get this damned newsletter out we'll explore it a bit before hurrying on. The only other cruising boat in the anchorage set off for Cocos this morning; the main flock came and went weeks ago. Sure enough, the weather is starting to turn, with residents speculating about an early Wet as the local red crabs preen for their annual migration to the sea.
From here we sail to Chagos and the Maldives (south and west of India, respectively), and perhaps to India itself, before starting up the Red Sea in mid-February. We are aiming for an early spring arrival in the Med.
January 21, 1996
We found Flying Fish Cove a bit of a dicey anchorage. Rolly at best in the southeast trades, and open to the northwest monsoon so as to be untenable in that season, one need never lose one's sea legs at anchor here! We found that there was generally enough swell to make our flopper stopper worth its weight, but even worse were the wakes from the overpowered motorized barges which are used to help moor and unload ships. As it was, Heather was probably in the best position in the cove, convenient to shore on an obligatory mooring which had been poorly set up and maintained but which at least had a bomber anchor: a 12-ft. diameter ship's propeller. The snorkeling directly underneath the boat, in 25 to 30 feet of water, was a daily delight as we came to recognise and identify a profusion of bizarre and gaudy fish.
It is said that the
We were most fortunate at the outset to be befriended by Graham Collins, a cosmopolitan, nature-loving Kiwi of British extraction who had lived and worked the last 20+ years in C.I., where he and his wife were among the few longterm residents. Graham had a way of dropping particularly incisive comments while maintaining a deceptively mild and unassuming manner which won us over immediately. He introduced us to Christine Godfrey, a Sydney-based film producer on location for a week with her crew of three, gathering footage for a TV documentary called “Islands of Australia.” The three-part series is to air on PBS in the
The group of us were chatting over red wine and pizza on the patio of the Island Gecko restaurant one evening when Hans, the big, hearty film crew cameraman, asked: “So, what made you drop everything to go sailing?” I said that we had had a “year of death” a couple of years back when we had lost several people near and dear to us, and that this had made us appreciate the transitory nature of our own lives and had encouraged us to seize our first opportunity to take Heather onwards. This reply struck a nerve in Hans. His young wife, only 42, had recently been diagnosed with a virulent cancer, and chemotherapy was now transforming her into a living ghost. As if this weren't enough, mere days before our conversation a freak windstorm had brought a huge tree down upon their house, smashing it in two and rendering it unlivable. Hans was functioning in a state of shock, grappling for the inner resources to deal with this double catastrophe, and wondering if, by using it as a turning point, he could somehow redeem the experience.
The next morning, Graham let us tag along on an expedition across and around the island with the film crew sound man Glenn to capture the ambient noises of the sites to be filmed. Up in the highlands, the red crabs were on the move. C.I.'s rain forest is gardened by 120 million ground-dwelling red crabs, whose actions and appetites dictate the local plant growth, and each year at the start of the wet season the crabs migrate to the sea for a quick dip and a shag. 120 million is a lot of crabs, and they are quite large as well, dinner-plate size (legs spread). The migrating flood forms a red carpet, the underbrush a red, rustling mass. Soon the coastal roads seethe with crabs as they methodically pick their way down to the sea.
While Glenn recorded the sounds of red crabs along the roadside we wandered quietly among them, relieved to observe that despite their large claws they were totally non-aggressive. Coconut (robber) crabs were out in force, ready to recycle any squashed red crabs. Though coconut crabs are widely distributed throughout the tropics, so are people, their primary predator, and in our experience they have always been scarce, shy, and nocturnal. They are protected on C.I. and are a common sight. And what a sight! Based on a hermit crab design, the coconut crab eventually grows far larger than any shell could accommodate, making for a clattery, nightmarish monster with its beautiful red, blue, and purple colorations.
Back in the car, we crunched down the road to the “dales,” where a freshwater stream provided an ideal environment for the island's blue crabs, which are as distinctly blue as the red crabs are red. Since their favorite habitats (stream and creekbeds) are uncommon in the porous soil of C.I., blue crabs are not commonplace, but they were rife in the immediate area of our stream, even stacked four deep in some spots. We strolled along the narrow trail, sunlight scintillating through the forest canopy, swiftlets darting about and thrushes eyeing us fearlessly from inches away. Graham pointed out the native arenga palm, an essential food source for the coconut crabs in the near total absence of coconut palms on the island. He was also delighted to spot one of the very rare purple crabs, a species found on other islands and a possible progenitor of the endemic red crab.
Once more at the Island Gecko, among a gathering of the usual suspects, we met Frank Woodmore, conceiver and part owner of the island's thriving casino resort, boyish and enthusiastic, and utterly unspoilt by the success of his brainchild. Quite some success it is, too, with an annual gross profit of over $100 million. I had no idea that
Actually, we ran into problems trying to do our e-mail over standard island phone lines. The system on C.I. is cellular-based, and our modem could not cope with the radio link. Graham directed us to Brian and Allan, the fellows in charge of telecommunications, and they were able to put us through using a fiberoptic link to the satellite ground station. Easy-going characters with a spirit of fun and adventure, Allan was the third person we'd met on the island who had lived and worked in Antarctica, while Brian had been employed years before in Gove, and also in Darwin. With their considerable electronic expertise, they are regularly called upon for exotic repairs. Holger Rumpff, resident crab research scientist, burst in waving a high-tech electronic scale for weighing crabs; it had stopped working just as the crab migration was starting to build. As Brian poked dolefully at the innards of the scale, Allan, an exercise fiend, returned from his regular lunchtime workout at the pool across the street. Robin, envious, gushed, “I love swimming.” “So,” Holger asked wryly, “why are you traveling on a boat?” When we later invited Brian and Allan out to Heather for a visit and some snorkeling, they brought along their girlfriends Judi and Jeannie, both working locally as teachers, and plenty of fine Australian Chardonnay. A hilarious afternoon and evening were capped with a moonlit dip at “the grotto,” a natural pool in a cave with a subterranean link to the sea.
On November 10th we slipped our mooring and set sail for Chagos Archipelago. We had roughly figured that we would be at risk for a cyclone during only the first half of the 2,000+ mile passage to Salomon Atoll, while we were still within range of the southeast trades, or less if we proceeded briskly north towards the intertropical convergence zone, where the prevailing winds were less favorable. Fuel being precious (it would have to last until the
The first half of the passage was easy; on a broad reach we covered 1,000 miles in 8 days. Then a sluggish, westward-moving low to our east, which 4 days earlier we had identified as being one to watch, started to speed up, deepen, and move more southwesterly. It rapidly flared into a tropical storm and attained cyclone status, with us in its widening path. We squeezed in one more day of good sailing, then cut north to let the center pass a few hundred miles south. We had expected the winds to the north of the center to be fairly moderate, but hadn't counted on the simultaneous development of a northern hemisphere cyclone close above the equator to our north. The clockwise winds of the cyclone below us intermeshing with the counterclockwise winds of the one above had us squeezed like washing in the mangle. We were soon battling huge seas and 30 to 40 knot winds out of the west, the very direction we wanted to go . . .
Of course, we don't battle such winds when we can just heave to, go down below, and make popcorn! Four days later we were still popping corn, both storms having worked themselves up into severe cyclones (the one to our south, Agnielle ex Daryl, peaking at 120 knots with “phenomenal” seas) before finally moving on. With conditions abating, the boat having drifted nearly 100 miles further away from our destination, it was time for us to move on as well. So started a strenuous 15-day uphill slog in squally, rainy weather with totally bizarre seas, seas so “mixed” one could not see the direction of the wind in them at all. These were not good circumstances for us to have such seas (beating to weather), but Heather is a good little ship, and stalwartly fought her way upwind. The passage had been a severe test of the boat, and we were relieved to have experienced no gear failures at all.
After 27 days at sea, we arrived at Salomon Atoll in the midst of one of our now-customary rain squalls. Exchanging greetings with Chris and Louise, anchored by themselves off the island nearest the pass, we learned that this was the first bad weather they had seen in days. “Go out and come in again,” they suggested. Their 50-ft. cruising powerboat Harmony was of impressively seaworthy appearance, but unfortunately they shifted to Peros Banhos Atoll before we had a chance to check the boat out fully. We stopped for a refreshing swim and a quiet night, then picked our way between the coral bombies to the furthest end of the atoll to anchor at
March 4, 1996
SALOMON LAGOON, CHAGOS (12/7/95 - 1/5/96)
To visit Chagos has been a dream of ours for years. Isolated uninhabited tropical paradises are the very thing we most delight in. I well remember the day we both fell in love with Chagos. It was at a Marina del Rey slide show presentation given by Ed and Julie of Mas Alegre, newly returned to
The Chagos Archipelago comprises 3 coral atolls, some scattered islands and reefs, and the Great Chagos Bank (50 square miles of shallow water). It was first sighted by the Portuguese in 1512 and was still uninhabited when later claimed by France in the mid-18th century. By 1814, when ceded to Britain, the islands were being worked for copra, and copra was still the sole industry in 1967 when the entire population, some 1,200 persons, were resettled in Mauritius to clear the area for defense purposes. At present, 3/4 of the land mass and all of the population of Chagos is concentrated on Diego Garcia Atoll, now under lease to the U.S. as a military base. The authorities at Diego Garcia vigorously resist intrusions by yachties, but the rest of the archipelago is open to us, though only Salomon Atoll, and to a lesser extent Peros Banhos Atoll, provide secure anchorage.
When we arrived at Salomon Atoll, real-life castaways Pete and Tina (and Jess the cat) had been shipwrecked there since last February, when their boat hit and sank on a coralhead after dragging anchor in a storm. By now Vespera was almost seaworthy again, and Pete and Tina were readying themselves and the boat for passage back to South Africa at the beginning of this year's first weather window in May. An utterly delightful couple, they fascinated us with their tales of the monumental task of refloating and repairing Vespera, rebuilding her engine, and salvaging what they could of their flooded equipment and stores, all managed from a primitive camp ashore using only local resources, i.e., the aid of a few passing yachties, plus all the coconuts one can eat!
We moored off Boddam Island not far from Vespera in a prime spot, tied to a huge anchor jammed into a coralhead just a couple hundred feet off the ruined jetty, where there was plenty of room and depth for Heather, but not enough for a boat any larger.
In its heyday Boddam Island had a population of 300 people, and extensive ruins are in evidence, with coral block and cement walls still in reasonable shape, while the roofs of wooden rafters and corrugated iron have mostly collapsed. One building in good condition has been designated the “Yacht Club,” the walls of its single empty room cheerfully decorated with the handpainted insignias of a hundred passing yachts.
The several groves of citrus trees on the island seemed to be healthy, but the trees bore neither flower nor fruit. A couple of the local breadfruit trees had fruit when we were there, but by the time it dropped, it was overripe, and the trees themselves were tall and awkward to climb. The only other fruit we saw (besides the hardy coconut) was a good crop of bilimbis, a small and very tart green fruit with the disconcerting quirk of sprouting directly from the trunk and major limbs of its tree.
Tina, with Robinson-Crusoe inventiveness, made bilimbi pickles, bilimbi nectar, and dried bilimbis. At sundown we'd collect in the Watch Your Head Club, a rude shelter with an eponymous roof opening out onto the beach. With Tina fussing over a bubbling pot of bilimbi jam on the fire, Robin husking, cracking, and grating (she was making coconut cream for the evening's fish curry), Pete and I solved the problems of the world, aided by rum and coconut milk cocktails. This was our time to relax after a busy day tackling boat projects and foraging for fish, firewood, and fruit.
And so the days passed in splendid isolation until, shortly before Christmas, four yachts arrived in quick succession. One was a German couple and the others (one couple and two families) were from South Africa, giving us a good-sized crowd, complete with two small exuberant children, for a bang-up beachside Christmas party. We contributed the centerpiece of the potluck feast, a roast leg of lamb from Darwin, which was quite a testimony to our refrigeration system.
Where Heather and Vespera had anchored was so encumbered with coralheads, there was no room for the new arrivals. They all anchored a quarter of a mile down the beach where there was a much larger anchorage, and where the shoreside facilities, known as French Camp, included a homemade table and bench seat arrangement large enough for all 17 of us. That was where we gathered for the braai (Afrikaaners for “barbecue”) to celebrate Christmas. We also had a braai to celebrate New Year's Eve (Old Year's Day, as the South Africans called it), and another just for the sheer joy of being in Chagos. But it was the braai thrown to celebrate the birthdays of Mark (21) and Matthew (6) that turned out to be a bigger birthday party than anyone expected.
It was a warm, starry night with a decidedly gibbous moon. There was the faintest rustling of coconut fronds in the breeze, ripples lapping at the beach, and always the distant roar of the surf on the barrier reef. We had feasted upon the day's catch and were discussing the merits of the different varieties and preparations of the fish, faces gleaming contentedly in the flickering glow from several kerosene lanterns. Robin, who had slipped away quietly to attend to nature's call, suddenly shouted from the beach: “Hey... HEY! Quick! Baby turtles!” Grabbing flashlights and cameras, the crowd jostled around to look. “There's one!” “Here's another!” “Wow, look, there's dozens of them!” And there were: little 2 1/2 in. long turtles shuffling down to the water's edge. We soon found the source, a hole in the sand boiling over with baby turtles. The nest was amongst the trees, about 6 feet in from the high tide line and just 20 feet from where we had been celebrating. In less than half an hour it was over, all the turtles having safely reached the water to swim off to their precarious existence (only a small percentage would survive). When I reinspected the nest I was surprised to find it totally clean, not a trace of eggshell or anything else; turtles must be big on recycling.
Seeing their birth was definitely something special, but we saw full-grown turtles in the lagoon almost every day, both on the surface and underwater. Indeed, with its diversity of underwater life, Salomon Atoll had some of the best snorkeling we'd ever experienced, even though the water lacked the clarity we were used to in the South Pacific. (It was at its best directly following a heavy rainfall, after which a green murky cast and nighttime bioluminescence would gradually increase until the next rain.) The coral was amazing, and the fish life was nothing short of spectacular, every dive giving a sighting of some implausibly shaped and impossibly colored specimen that surely we had never seen before. We even spotted some pipefish, closely related to the seahorse, an underwater sighting of which has been a goal of mine for some time.
In 1973, when I was first sailing from New Zealand to the States, I met a fellow who made a comment I have never forgotten. He was a professional diver, and what he said was: “Every time you dive, you see something new.” Now, nearly a quarter of a century later, I am still finding that he was right. Except when passagemaking, we are in the water for a lookaround every day, sometimes several times a day. I cannot recall a single instance where a dive was not accompanied by the thrill of discovery. For this to be so, I assume that the undersea world must be incredibly vast, and our incursions into it minuscule by comparison.
We had hoped to explore nearby Peros Banhos Atoll while in Chagos, but time did not allow. There we were, spending mere weeks in an area where several months would not be adequate. Promising each other “Next time!” we reluctantly set out for Malé, capital and main port of entry for the Maldives, a 500-mile trip involving strong crosscurrents and mostly wispy headwinds, both of which had to be played very adroitly as we were almost out of fuel. On arrival at Malé Atoll we anchored in the deep (140 ft.) harbor off the 1 1/2 sq. kilometer island of Malé, which, in noisy contrast to similar-size Boddam in the Chagos, is home to 70,000 people plus one sultan. This was not a stop we particularly wished to make, and we would have readily skipped it were we not badly wanting for fuel and fresh provisions. We liked it still less on learning that we, a 29-ft. yacht, had to hire a local agent at considerable daily expense to handle clearance formalities and assist with bunkering.
A couple of busy days later we were underway northeastwards to Cochin, India, a place not on our original itinerary but by all accounts well worth a visit, AND only 400 miles away (though not exactly on our way). The winds turned fickle, then calm, and we motored the last half of the passage for a magical dawn arrival, the port's ancient dipping fishnets, eerie in the mist, standing sentinel either side of the harbor entrance as a pod of humpback dolphins approached to escort us in.
Anchoring Heather off the harbormaster's building, we had a quick breakfast before our first visit by the officials, and then I went ashore to complete the inexpensive but laborious process of clearing in. Hours later, after filling out countless pointless forms and waiting in innumerable dusty offices, I thought that we were finally done, but no: first I must write a letter to the Assistant Commissioner of Customs, Preventative (?), requesting permission for us to shift the boat. In a bemused state I listened to the lilting voice of the customs officer as he suggested the wording of the request: “Please be allowing me... Thanking you most sincerely...” Near as I could tell, the writing of the request constituted the permission, as we were at once free to pick our way across the shallows to the designated anchoring grounds off the picturesque Bolghatty Palace Hotel.
Among the few yachts in the anchorage was a Kiwi boat whose owner turned out to have grown up in my neighborhood in
The anchorage was situated well clear of ship traffic, but we found ourselves in the midst of a continuous bustle of small boats.
Through the day, cargo to and produce from the villages in the backwaters would pass by on 35-ft. canoes, stoutly constructed vessels made of wooden planks stitched together with coconut fiber, which were poled along at a relaxed pace unless a favorable breeze permitted the use of a single squaresail for drifting downwind. A pretty sight one morning was a diminutive tugboat towing a string of these cargo canoes, each with a mountain of sulphur glowing that impossible yellow in the early light.
Finally, there were the antique wooden ferries, gaily painted but dilapidated, roaring back and forth all day into the wee hours with their complement of 200 passengers and 6 life preservers. Each was very narrow, about 70 feet long, with a single deck and a corrugated iron roof. The helmsman would con the boat from a tiny cupola upon the roof, signalling throttle and shift to the engineer on the bridge by means of a Ding! on a tiny bell. During our visit of the area, where for the equivalent of a penny apiece we made use of these ferries at least twice a day, I observed the system to work very well. I also noted the testimony of the reinforced concrete railing at the end of one of the ferry docks, which was shattered and bent. Interestingly, cleats never evolved here; instead, since the ferry crewmen routinely wrapped the docklines around any convenient roof support post, these through natural selection had become massive members, able to take the strain of arresting a fully laden ferry.
Across the harbor, the commercial center of
Maintaining a 360-degree alertness to errant vehicles, we strove to take in the sights of the city, meanwhile keeping an eye on each footfall. The sidewalks were cement slabs laid over open sewers, and many of the slabs were broken, missing, or jumbled. I was amused by the optimism of some unknown street worker who, faced with a broken slab that would not quite bridge the sewer, had placed a little stick of wood across and laid the slab on that.
As we wandered into the market area, vendors called out to us from behind their mountains of magnificent fresh produce, vying with each other for our attention. We were like kids in a candy store, agape at those riotous displays, the first good selection of fruits and vegetables we had seen in months. The low prices were staggering, and so were we, under the load of less than $5 worth. Heading home, we paused to give right of way to a passing elephant, then detoured around some roadwork. A workcrew, ineffectively armed with broadbladed short-handled hoes, were resurfacing the road by spreading crushed rock over a thin layer of hot tar, a standard technique to be sure, except that in this case the crushed rock was in 8-in. pieces and the workers were going nuts trying to get them stuck to the tar and smoothed out to a good surface.
Back at Heather, we loaded our booty into the produce bin, where it rotted. Once we discovered how good and inexpensive the restaurants were, we mostly ate out.
Our stay in
The Christians have a long history in
Few Indians have telephones in their homes, and Ernakulam was sprinkled with hundreds of tiny businesses offering local and international phone calls, and often photocopy and fax services as well. These had automatic metering on the phone lines, and the fax machines connected with American standard phone plugs, same as our modem. Great, we thought, e-mail should be a snap. Hah! A computer making a phone call was a new one on them, and no way would they have anything to do with something new, weren't even curious about it. We got the same response from Telecom headquarters. Finally, after days of chasing around, we met the unusual owner of a local import-export business, who introduced us to the owner of a phone call fax service, a man he considered to be computer-savvy. Even this fellow was nervous, but he let us plug in and everything worked out okay.
Our interactions with the locals led us to an observation: the entire population seemed to aspire to middle management. They didn't do windows. Or sweep the streets. Or engage in ANY manual labor. Neither would they take charge, or make decisions, or undertake responsibility for ANYthing outside a narrow role. They were the very embodiment of the Golgafrinchams in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. In their business dealings, they all used this infectious gesture, a sort of head-waggle, usually combined with a silly grin, the exact meaning of which eluded us. It was quite endearing, and they really are such a sweet, friendly people, we found it impossible to get irked with them for their frustrating conservatism.
India is of course a huge country, and we realized that Cochin, the tiny corner we were seeing, was not necessarily representative of the rest of the country. Kerala is supposed to be a fairly prosperous state. In any case, we saw few signs of real poverty and (unlike in Los Angeles) little in the way of begging. Despite their dirty streets and sidewalks, the people and their clothing were immaculate, the men typically dressed in trousers or a longi (wrap skirt) and a dress shirt, the women, with their silver anklets and golden earrings, resplendent in colorful sarees or salwas (a sort of loose pants suit).
After only two weeks in the soupy waters of the harbor, the prop was a mass of barnacles and gave us just enough thrust to clear the harbor and put to sea. Once underway, a couple of miles offshore, I slipped over the side and scraped the blades clean, but it was another twenty miles before I judged the water sufficiently clean to run our watermaker. In flat calm, no wind, we motored the entire 240 miles to Suheli Par, an uninhabited atoll in the Laccadives. Boats of less than 6 feet of draft can supposedly enter the lagoon, but it looked doubtful to us, and we opted for a rather tenuous anchorage outside the pass for the night. It felt great to get the dirt of Cochin bucketed off the decks and to swim and dive and pick up a fresh fish for lunch. The next day the wind filled in, and we had a splendid 9-day sail, broad-reaching in 10 to 15 knots under clear skies, nary a squall, for the full 1,150 miles to Salalah, Oman. We could have made her go faster but felt there was no point in pushing it if only to arrive in the midst of the Muslim Thursday/Friday weekend.
Oman & Yemen
We entered Mina Raysut, the newly built port serving the mostly new city of
The road to Salalah was a magnificent four-lane highway through country reminiscent of parts of our beloved
The city was clean and bustling with activity. The men mostly dressed in long loose smocks, a beautiful pale lilac in color, resembling surgeon's gowns, the women (the few out and about) in black robes over other garments which were of an egregious mix of hideous colors. Their heads were covered by black veils or else a black headdress that gave just a narrow slit for my eyes to peer through at hers. I gave Robin a nudge. There, on the other side of the road, was Yassar Arafat.
We loaded up our shopping cart with pasta from Italy, babaghanoush from Lebanon, olive oil from Spain, mayonnaise from Germany, a frozen fillet of beef from New Zealand, frozen chickens from Denmark, butter from Ireland, a pineapple from Mauritius, oranges from Egypt, carrots from California and canned kidney beans from Kuwait -- it all made us feel very international. Hailing a passing cab, we slung our stuff into the trunk and took our seats. Our driver, Yassar Arafat, motioned to the seatbelts. In
Cruisers are currently allowed to visit
A wave of the thumb stopped the first car passing, an Omani who expressed the typical approval on finding we were Americans. There is a lot of English spoken in
The Omani people seemed very friendly, but shy. There was a satellite T.V. dish on every building, and no matter what their religious leaders say, they can look at CNN or whatever and tell that they are not mainstream in this world. Of course, neither are cruising sailors, but they don't know that. I think they must have some kind of trepidation that a Westerner might laugh at them, hence the initial shyness. In all of our encounters, we felt very comfortable with the locals, and when we left
The 600-mile jaunt down the coast to
humor that not even headwinds could dispel. After a couple of days, the winds came behind us (to where the pilot charts said they should be), and we had easy sailing the rest of the way. We kept about 40 miles offshore where I judged we would be clear of most of the ships and all of the dhows. I had noted that few of the dhows in Mina Raysut seemed equipped with running lights, so they were the main concern for us. Certainly our watchkeeping is conscientious enough to let us spot the bright lights of any ship at a goodly distance.
North and South Yemen, once separate entities, are currently in uneasy alliance as a single country, and
June 13, 1996
We cleared in with customs and immigration and hunted up Omar the taxi driver. There are plenty of taxi drivers around the customs house, but Omar is the famous one, and rightfully so, for he can track down anything you need and has a most gracious manner. We wanted to change some U.S. dollars into Yemeni rials and had heard that the black market gave a better deal than the bank. I asked Omar if he knew who would change money at a good rate. He glanced at me knowingly and tapped the side of his nose, but nothing fell out. A hundred U.S. dollars got us a wad of high denomination notes about 2 inches thick.
Off we went by taxi to check out the local stores and shops for the usual essentials. We found bread, in small rectangular loaves, as good as any we've ever tasted. Also good‑quality fresh produce in abundance, the wide selection of greens (including arugula) and herbs a particularly welcome sight. As for beer and wine, though
While doing our rounds, we needed to visit the Egyptian embassy for visas for
Continuing our tour of area markets, we hit the Arab market in Sheik Othman. Robin passed the time greeting curious onlookers in Arabic, giving her little phrasebook a workout, while I surveyed the stalls. The date seller was a fat, jolly man sitting behind great blocks of dates, the dates all fused together in a gelatinous mass. With a screwdriver, he prized off a 1‑1/2 kilogram chunk for me. They were very inexpensive, but vastly inferior to the superb dates we later got in
The Straits are amazingly narrow for the volume of sea they contain. The entrance is further encumbered by
Massawa is the main
As might be expected from its Italian heritage,
The port area of Massawa had been the scene of heavy fighting prior to independence, the presidential palace looking exceptionally well ventilated. Returning from an exploratory hike, we fell in step with a couple of local teenagers whose English was very good, for which they credited their teacher, an American in the Peace Corp. Esrar and Kidane stated their life's goals with clarity: go to
One and all, the Eritrean people were a friendly lot, free of that aggressiveness which sometimes seems to lurk behind the insistent calls to the traveler of "Hello, what is your name?" and "Where are you from?" On one of our strolls through town a boy about 5 years old strode manfully up to Robin and introduced himself with a formal handshake. His younger brother, perhaps 3 years old, followed suit, toddling up and gravely sticking out a tiny hand. "That's the smallest person I've ever shaken hands with," said Robin, much impressed, as we resumed walking.
The cruising guide had recommended refueling by means of a hired donkey cart for carrying one's jerry cans from the gas station. The romance of fuel by donkey cart seduced a number of cruising folk into failing to check out the alternatives, in spite of the fact that the donkey cart was not allowed into the port area, leaving them to lug the cans the last 1/4 mile on foot. People got quite cross when afterwards I asked why they didn't just go alongside that beautiful new fuel dock over there to refuel...
One day Spanish singlehander Gonzalo sailed his 44‑ft. ketch Sureste into the anchorage. His engine was out of commission. We had last seen Gonzalo in Christmas Island, where with a bit of a struggle I had managed to fix his autopilot prior to his
The next day dawned bright and clear in the anchorage (same as always). Gonzalo appeared alongside with a long face. "Eric, the engine is overheating." I took a look: combustion gases getting into the water jacket, and this probably wasn't the first time. Blown head gasket, I surmised, confirming it once the head was off. New gasket, torque the head, set the valve lash, bleed the injectors, and ‑‑ engine runs great!
The next morning promised yet another beautiful day, and we decided it was time to leave for
Relieved once more, Gonzalo treated us to a leisurely lunch and a few celebratory beers at a local restaurant. We finished our paperwork and officially checked Heather out at the very last minute before offices closed for the weekend. We were in the midst of preparing to put to sea when Gonzalo, looking dejected and discouraged, dinghied by. "Eric, the engine won't start." I took another look at it, we bled it and fussed with it, and it started, but now I was suspicious of the fuel system. "Gonzalo, when did you last change the fuel filter?" "In
Gonzalo, suicidally depressed, arrived. "Eric, I can't get the fuel filter back together." It was one of those poisonous CAV units, mounted awkwardly in the bilge, and it put up a valiant struggle before succumbing to a particularly choice epithet. I bled the fuel system again, the engine started right up, I went back to Heather, woke up Robin, and started hauling in the anchor. It wouldn't come up. The chain had gotten wrapped around some jagged iron debris embedded in the bottom, and the more we drove Heather around pulling from different directions, the worse it got tangled.
Gonzalo stopped by in a semi‑catatonic state. "Eric, the engine won't start." I mulled this over. Hmmm. Every time the engine sits for a while, it won't start without bleeding, but once it starts it runs fine. There must be a leak in the fuel system, but it can't be in the line up to the fuel lift pump because that's always under suction; the air would get in and kill the engine while it was running. So the leak must be in the tube between the lift pump and the injector pump. But if air can get in while the engine is stopped, fuel must be able to leak out while the engine is running. I doublechecked the end fittings: no leakage. The problem must be here, dammit! I followed the tube and found, in an inconspicuous and inaccessible spot, a pocket of rust which had eroded a tiny hole in the tube.
Assuring a dubious Gonzalo that all was now truly well with his engine, I raced back to Heather, woke up Robin again, dug out my mask and fins, and prepared to dive the anchor. Robin protested in a groggy voice: "Eric, it's 1 o'clock in the morning!" "Hand me the underwater flashlight, give me five minutes, and we're outta here!"
ALONG THE SUDANESE COAST (late March 1996)
That night the winds were favorable but fitful, staying that way (and forcing us to power) for the best part of the passage to
We made several stops along the Sudanese coast, anchoring amongst various coral heads for a quick snorkel and a fish for lunch. Though getting colder as we progressed northward, the water was clear, the coral colorful, the fish life prolific. Each time we resurfaced from a dive we would grin at each other in idiotic delight.
Our good mood was somewhat dampened when we tried to obtain our clearance into
With the engine turning briskly, and with the protection of the barrier reef, we made good speed into a slowly building wind. Opposite
The next day the wind was still howling. Some Sudanese fishermen, trapped like us by the wind, swung by Heather to do some trading. They had fish ‑‑ well, of course, so did we ‑‑ even so, a bit of interaction might prove entertaining. We wound up trading a quantity of cooking oil for a nice coral trout, and in selecting it I got a chance to check out the people and their boat. There were four of them, handsome young fellows without a word of English among them, in an open wooden boat, about 20 feet long, spars and lateen sail lashed to a gunnel, a large icebox in the center, and a 40hp Yamaha outboard on the back. We brought aboard our fish, and they buzzed off to try their luck with three other cruising boats that had also pulled in for shelter. Meanwhile, Robin and I settled in for some serious relaxing.
Very soon the fishermen were back, and before we knew it they had tied themselves up to Heather's stern. Robin, ever friendly, went out into the cockpit with her Arabic phrasebook and tried to make conversation. I was being gnarly down below, shouting up suggestions like "How do you say 'piss off' in Arabic?" She put her head down. "They've got a transistor radio they want you to look at." I was on deck in a flash. "Something to fix? Where?" It was a primitive Taiwanese AM receiver which bore the scars of many modifications and prior repairs. I could do no harm. I pulled out my multimeter and soldering iron and started working on it under the intense scrutiny of the fishermen, who one by one had come piling into Heather's cockpit.
Our VHF radio burst into life. The other cruising boats, observing through binoculars how we were being mobbed by the fishermen, wanted to know if we were OK. I checked with Robin. One of the fishermen had gone back to their vessel, from which interesting smells were issuing. I went back to the VHF: "Yes, we're OK, they are making us lunch."
By the time lunch was ready I had the radio working as well as it ever would, and to the squeaky strains of Arabic music our chef clambered back onboard Heather with plates of freshly made bread, fried fish, and a spicy chili sauce. The skipper dipped up a bucket of sea water so that they could wash their hands, and promptly doused his transistor radio.With a hopeful expression he offered it to me again for repair. The speaker cone was starting to disintegrate. I drew my finger across my throat: "Kaput!"
After lunch, completed in elegance onboard the fishermen's boat over tiny cups of intense Sudanese coffee, we spent the rest of that day and all of the next visiting and booktrading with the other cruising boats, exploring the islet, diving the coral heads, and (with predictable hilarity) playing cards with our faithful fishermen friends. At night we collectively marveled at our exquisite view of Comet Hyakutake in the clear, dry air. The wind gradually eased to 15 to 20 knots, right on the nose (of course). Good enough: everybody on their way!
An overnight sail brought us to a dawn arrival at Khor Shinab, an excellent example of the natural harbors that have formed every few miles along this coast. We followed the narrow entrance through the fringing reef to a huge protected bay surrounded by a desert landscape dramatic in its starkness. The next morning we set off again, the wind now 20 to 25, still on the nose. Heather, I think in part because of her narrow beam, does an exceptional job of punching into short, steep seas, under both sail and power. We made good progress, really picking up the pace when the wind and seas eased.
ALONG THE EGYPTIAN COAST (early April 1996)
Our first landfall in Egypt was Marsa Alam, not an entry port but one apparently tolerant of yachts, making it a handy fuel and provisioning stop in comparison to Safaga, where a port agent had to be hired. Even so, as we trudged up to the police station, ships papers in hand, we were quivering with impatience: our opposing wind had by now died completely and here we were, about to waste precious time. With greatest good fortune we met and made friends with the skipper of a Safaga‑based dive boat, a sympathetic Egyptian who was able to smooth things with the officials for us and then drove us around on our various chores. Within an hour we had jerry‑canned two loads of fuel, bought fresh bread and produce, posted some letters, and put to sea.
The calm lasted another 12 hours before our standard pattern of 20 to 25 knots on the nose abruptly re‑established itself, a long tubular line of cloud up ahead heralding the change in the middle of the night. Some hours later we decided to take a break, making for and anchoring in the outer part of the large harbor off of Safaga. Both of us were exhausted, and we wished only to rest before setting off again. No way. An Egyptian navy boat was soon bearing down on us, the crew taking turns gesturing and screaming threats at us in a most unmilitary style. They wanted us to go to the main wharf to undergo full entrance formalities, so that's what we did. I took comfort in a vision of the Israelis gleefully trampling the Egyptian military during the Six Days' War.
The next day we had another 12‑hour calm spell, which got us into the Gulf of Suez before the wind picked up again, to 30 to 35 knots this time. Our Red Sea Pilot had advised that the seas would be reduced along the fringing reef of the Egyptian coastline and suggested hugging the surf line very closely indeed. Maybe this was the case in lesser winds, but in the conditions we were seeing there was no discernible advantage. We turned back and ducked into Marsa Zeitya. The next morning the wind was down to 20 knots and we set off, at maximum engine power, going straight into it at 5 knots. By 3 a.m. it was back up to 30 knots and we were making less than 3 and getting beaten up doing it. However, we had clear passage into Marsa Hammam on the Sinai Peninsula for a dawn arrival. It was a lovely spot, mountains coming down to sand dunes to beach, all in soft desert colors, and we swam and rested in its well‑protected bay, feeling good now that Port Suez, just 50 miles away, was in the bag.
PORT SUEZ / SUEZ CANAL (4/5/96 ‑ 4/8/96)
The next morning we picked our way through heavy shipping and patches of thick fog in time for a mid‑morning arrival at the Suez Yacht Club, where we quickly took care of business. It turns out that on top of paying transit fees, one is obliged to engage an agent for the trivial work of filling in a few forms to arrange passage through the Canal. Of the possibilities, the Prince of the Red Sea Shipping Agency has a stranglehold on northbound traffic, and since the Prince (or, rather, his son Habib) turned out to be a personable enough chap, and evidently charged the going rate, we made no fuss about it.
That evening, in the company of a couple of crazy Canadian cruisers (Roger and Billy), we explored the town of Suez. It's a place full of incongruities. For example: in the very midst of the city, a small traffic island had two stunted trees, a few battered plants ‑‑ and a shepherd tending a flock of sheep! The concrete sidewalks seemed new though somehow rundown, but the drivers were very courteous. Rather than dazzle each other with their headlights, they turned them off in traffic. Or maybe they were just saving power?
Very hot in the daytime, the city comes alive at night, with all sorts of roadside stalls opening. We found ourselves alongside one that displayed some sort of shellfish and stood there puzzling over whether it was a bizarre clam, a weird oyster, or some kind of mondo mussel. A solicitous Egyptian materialized. "I can help you. Ask me anything!" Billy pointed at a shellfish. "What is it?" he asked. Stumped, the genie went away muttering.
Our passage through the Canal was uneventful. The pilots are paid by the Suez Canal Authority, but being Egyptian still expect baksheesh from the yachts. After investigating what was a customary gift, we decided on $10 if they were satisfactory, $5 if they were so‑so, and nothing if they made us angry. Our pilot on the first day's run to Lake Ismailia was happy with his $10; the second day's pilot was not. He heaved heart‑rending sighs and expressed dismay at the low standing we must hold him in, as evidenced by the paltriness of our gift. I was all set to ask for it back when he must have realized he had taken the wrong tack with me, for suddenly he thanked me with a smile and a handshake.
We cleared Port Said, at the Mediterranean end of the Canal, and enjoyed an easy overnight sail to Ashkelon, Israel. The Israeli navy keeps a very close watch on their coast and called us on the VHF the instant we crossed into Israeli waters. They were polite and competent; likewise, checking in on arrival in port was quick, painless, and free. What a contrast from what we'd just been through!
July 14, 1996
What with having to take care of projects on Heather and wanting to let summer arrive before we headed north, we wound up spending five weeks in
We got into conversation with a young soldier native to
We never did get used to Israeli names. One of the staff at the marina office introduced himself as Shlomo. Robin muttered to me as we went on our way, "Anybody ever call me that, I'd punch 'im in the nose!" Shlomo was actually quite a popular name; we met several shlomos, and even more locals named Dov. It was Muhammed and Abdul all over again. This time the paucity of name choice among our hosts became quite a common topic for conversation between me and Eric (from Control C) and Eric (from Sunflower) and Eric (Gary from Mission; he was an honorary Eric) in our frequent get-togethers over the communal barbecue.
The standard description of
From a boater's standpoint, the brand-new marina docks had surprisingly egregious design flaws, unforgivable in this age, thirty years since the construction of Marina del Rey. The Israelis have not even the New Zealanders' excuse of impecunity. Still, there were outdoor picnic and barbecue facilities, the bathrooms were clean and had high-pressure hot water showers, and the marina staff were extraordinarily genial and eager to help. Certainly we needed a lot of assistance: all the local phone books, yellow pages, and even most maps were written in Hebrew. There is one important concession made to tourists throughout
Another point of distinction for
Despite other boats having more interesting projects on their lists than Heather, we did manage to get most of our chores done, including a quick haulout and bottom job, the boat looking inconceivably small in the slings of the yard's 100-ton capacity travellift. We also stripped and revarnished our mahogany toerail and got the old girl looking as presentable as possible. She is holding up rather well, the biggest problem (an aesthetic one) being the full-scale failure of the Awlgrip paint on her topsides. This paint is sold for use on boats, yet doesn't like to get wet, can you believe it?
With Heather squared away and ready for the Med, we took a couple of days to do the typical touristy things, such as a wander through the old city area of
Larnaca Marina was the first place where the local cruisers, of various nationalities, outnumbered us Really Serious Sailors. Almost all of the boats we had met along the way in
The town of
After finishing up our business in Larnaca, we left on another overnight sail, heading west along the Cypriot coast past Aphrodite's offshore birthplace to the tiny
The harbor bottom at Paphos was thick with weed, poor holding for most anchors, and sure enough an English boat dragged down on Heather in the freshening afternoon breeze and cut a chip out of our freshly restored toerail. The English couple (on shore at the time, as were we) offered to pay for the cost of the repair, but since we decided to do the job ourselves, it was free... or was it?
We crossed over to
During this incident I was at the bank changing money. What fun. With an exchange rate of nearly 80,000 Turkish lira to the dollar, we had become instant millionaires. But one must be careful with this Monopoly money. A million here, a million there, and pretty soon you're talking Real Money.
Realizing we could not spare much time for
Imagine a rugged limestone shore, dotted with olive trees and perfumed with sagebrush and wild thyme, the wavelets chuckling into the deeply pocketed rock at the water's edge. In the late afternoon we would take one last swim before collecting firewood for a barbecue ashore. Then as dusk finally fell on the long summer's day, and the stars began to twinkle, the shadows from the fire would leap and gyre as Mark got his Egyptian waterpipe hubbling and bubbling. Our conversation would become more and more animated as the wine bottles, one by one, became less so.
While in this area, known for its ancient history no less than for its natural beauty, we roamed the grounds of the picturesque medieval castle of Kale Koy, dived the sunken city of Aperlae, and clambered among the Lycian rock tombs outside Ucagiz. These massive tombs or sarcophagi, common all along this coast, are very old (first millenium B.C.). They are usually mounted on a raised stone base, the great box and its vaulted lid skillfully "machined" from single blocks of stone. Grave robbers over the centuries have violated every one of them, casting off the heavy lid or smashing in one side of the box -- though I find this a depressing notion and prefer to imagine them as having hatched...
We were fortunate to meet Lindley, the man in charge of the archeological team surveying Aperlae (the sunken city), along with the team photographer Rick, both Americans. The four of us found ourselves sole customers at a tiny rustic restaurant in an otherwise deserted bay not far from the site. It was a quaint establishment with a herd of goats, a couple of calves, and even a resident camel to lend an exotic air (I think it was the camel). The proprietors responded to our request for lunch with alacrity, the matron carrying a bundle of firewood to the kitchen while the patron gathered some potatoes to peel and the eldest son showed us the day's catch of fish. Soon the table was laden with fresh pita, homemade goat cheese, and home-cured olives, which were followed by a simple salad and fried fish and chips. In general we had found "traditional" Turkish food to be surprisingly bland and uninspired, but this peasant fare was delightful, the beer ample (if not ice-cold), and the day agreeably lazy. Robin, who collects bits of seaglass, pulled out a tiny specimen that she suspected was not modern. Lindley was not particularly impressed. "Oh, yes. Ancient Roman."
From Kekova we sailed on to Ka_. It's a pleasant enough little town, full of charterboats stern to the quay all vying for the tourist dollar in fractured English. One boat offering fishing expeditions particularly amused me with its sign: "Do you like to cacht fish? Tuna! Sardines!!" Kas was where we had to part ways with Thistledown, as they were staying behind to meet friends flying into Turkey, while we had a friend arriving soon in Athens. Thistledown is the only boat we've ever buddyboated with out here, so no wonder we felt a bit wistful. Here we hadn't seen Mark and Ruth since Darwin, when we'd taken an instant liking to them, and now who could tell when we might bump into them again? We continued on to Bodrum (WAY too crowded and touristy), cleared out of Turkey, then enjoyed a splendid 10-mile sail to the Greek island of Kos.
GREECE (6/20/96 -
After formally clearing into Greece, our 16th country since New Zealand, we had a leisurely taverna meal before hitting the high seas for another overnighter, this time to the island of Ios, home of Oliver Tann (clothing discouraged). For the next several days we island-hopped north through the Cyclades, sailing in the light morning westerlies, anchoring in peaceful coves, swimming in the cool, limpid water and strolling through picture-postcard villages with their whitewashed walls and Aegean blue doors and shutters. The islands were rugged and brown, the greening from the winter rains long gone. Their hillsides were veined with stone walls constructed over several millennia in a Sisyphean effort to clear rocks from the fields.
In our frequent swims off the boat in these clear, clean waters, I would generally put on a mask and snorkel to have a look around for what might be good to eat. Not much. So far in the Med the fish have been small, skittish, or both. We have found areas of clamshells, but never the bed of living clams. Some locals seem to catch octopus readily enough, but I don't yet have the eye for them. As a rule, Mediterranean fishermen seem to work hard for their living, and even most of the dolphins we have encountered underway have been preoccupied with hunting.
One regular underwater task lately has been to bury the anchor. The bottom is usually weedy, and when we drop our CQR anchor and go to back her down, the anchor tends to skate over the weed, sometimes collecting a ball of it but seldom digging in properly. Experimenting with a Danforth, we found that it would hold at once with just the tips of the flukes dug in, but that under load it would tear out, a clump of weed-reinforced sand jammed between the blades to prevent its resetting. We have never had a problem with the CQR as long as I dive down and vigorously shove it into the bottom, and it remains our standard bow anchor.
We were snugly at anchor in spacious Faros bay on the isle of Sifnos, drying off and just barely snoozing in the cockpit after a good swim, when we felt a bow wave and heard a diesel engine very close indeed. We both leapt up, towels flying, to fend off as a 35-ft. charterboat skippered by a Frenchman sideswiped us at speed. It made a great clumpf as it grazed the boat, neatly stripping off several patches of varnish over a three-foot section of the toerail. (Miraculously, the mahogany itself was undamaged.) The elderly skipper was most apologetic and offered to pay for the repair, but as we do the work ourselves, it doesn't cost us anything. Or does it?
He had the best excuse we've heard yet: "Your boat, it is too small. I think it is a bigger boat, more far away." Heather is a bit delicate, we know, and we are concerned for her wellbeing if all of the Med is going to be populated by demolition derby fiends. Hoping our encounters have been an anomaly, we asked an English couple on a 30-footer what they had observed during their four years of cruising the area. They immediately burst out laughing, which unnerved us a little. "The Italians!" they said. "They are the worst!" "We have been hit by English, German, and French," I told them. "Well, definitely watch out for the Italians then!"
After days of deserted anchorages and sleepy villages, Athens proved to be quite a contrast. We sailed into Zea Marina, where with a vague wave of the hand the dockmaster directed us alongside several other visiting sailboats rafted up at the harbour entrance, fully exposed to the wakes of the hydrofoil ferries coming and going throughout the day. Here we stayed for several days catching up with projects and streamlining the boat for the arrival of our guest, friend George. The marina never did show any interest in finding us a more secure berth; then again, they cared little about charging us for our stay. It was obvious where their real business lay: a line-up of about fifty superyachts, mostly powerboats over 100 feet long, the tenders on their top decks nearly the size of Heather...
September 30, 1996
GREECE, cont'd (6/20/96 - 8/10/96)
Signage in Greece can be quite baffling, and visitors are quick to quip "It's all Greek to me" at every opportunity. Here and there the Greeks make some effort to transcribe their lettering for the tourists, but they themselves get confused. Robin, with her classical linguistics background, soon came up to speed reading Greek writing and undertook to explain to me the correlations between modern-day Greek letters and English (Roman) ones. We were sitting in a cute little tabepva in the Cyclades as she warmed to her theme: "You know, in Greek, Pi is P and P is actually Rho, or R, while B (Beta) is nowadays pronounced like our V. Careful, though, cuz a lower-case V is really Nu, or N. Back to B, if the Greeks want a B sound they just put a Mu before a Pi. Lastly, lower-case Upsilon (Y) appears as u, but both are pronounced like the modern Iota (ee). And that is why the Greek word for beer, pronounced "beera," is spelt on this menu here M-Pi-Y-P-A!" she concluded in triumph. "It's all Greek to me," I said, calling for another mpiupa.
On July 1st in Athens we were joined by our good friend George Roberts, longtime owner of a sailboat the same length as Heather (29'). George was formerly a math teacher and has cruised up and down the coasts of California and Baja with as many as 10 kids (students) onboard, plus himself, plus a big dog. We figured he would handle the cramped quarters aboard Heather admirably, as indeed he did. He encountered at least one trap, though. His own boat has standing headroom all the way forward to the toilet compartment. Heather does not, so "to hit the head" came to have dual meaning for George.
After spending a day in Athens visiting the Acropolis and Parthenon (magnificent), we were happy to leave the city behind and start the slog upwind towards the Corinth Canal and distant Ionian islands. As we transited the dead-straight ditch, over 3 miles long, which forms the canal, George was training his geologist's eyes on the cuts to either side with their 250-ft. deep cross-sections of solid rock. Impressive to be sure, though it's mostly monolithic limestone here, not the crazy jumble we're so used to in California.
Continued fighting into headwinds brought us to some pleasantly isolated anchorages, and then to the little town of Galaxidhi on the northern side of the Gulf of Corinth. This charming town spills down a hill to a (mostly pedestrian-trafficked) main street along the quay, and a tiny harbor formed by the wooded parklands opposite. We dropped our stern anchor and moored Med-style with our bow to the quay. (Most boats go stern to, but bow to works better for Heather.)
With a scurry around, we had soon sorted out the bus schedule for a trip to Delphi on the morrow, set up an evening's get-together with some Aussies on a neighboring catamaran bound for England, and discovered a perfect little taverna on an unpretentious back street for lunch in the meantime. (They even made their own wine.) The friendly young proprietor spoke passable English, and George quickly ferreted out his stateside connection: mother had lived in New Orleans for decades (see, here was her old collection of reel-to-reel jazz tapes...). George had earlier noticed that every Greek he'd gotten to chatting with turned out to have lived in the USA at one time himself else had a close relation living there. He concluded that our open immigration policy had led to huge numbers of people around the world having a positive personal or familial connection to the States -- all in all, a most beneficial foreign policy, which we as
American travelers are in a great position to appreciate. Certainly we have enjoyed a warm reception everywhere.
Too early the next morning we set off by bus for Delphi, in the company of our Aussie friends from the previous evening's carousing. Delphi is now just the scattered ruins of temples, treasuries, theater, etc., all overrun by dozens of coachloads of tourists, but the site retains its grandeur or "pride of place" high on a mountainside with a vista of rugged canyon spreading down to a fertile plain stretching out to the sea. This had been the home for centuries of the famous Oracle of Delphi, a vent in the rock which dispensed (for a price) exquisitely ambiguous predictions. Evidently, local priestesses were paid to interpret these utterings, since in their native state they were often so obscure that even the ambiguity was hidden... I suppose the modern equivalent would be our economists.
Underway again, butting into a building breeze, we managed to prove Zeno's Paradox. Zeno was an ancient Greek philosopher who offered up a number of startling ideas, among them the proposition that motion is impossible, because in order to go from A to B one must first pass through C, a point halfway between A and B, but in order to pass through C one would first need to pass through D, the point halfway between A and C, and so on, ad infinitum. This means that motion requires making an infinite number of steps, not possible in a finite amount of time. Well, in our case it worked something like this. When we were 9 miles from our next anchorage, we were making 6 knots, and so were an hour and a half away. By the time we were 7.5 miles out, the chop had slowed us down to 5 knots (an hour and a half to go). Some time later we were only 6 miles away, but by then, in the increasing headwind, our speed was down to 4 knots (still one and a half hours to go). At 4.5 miles out, the wind had steadied to 35 knots against us, and we were making just 3 knots and had, yes, one and a half hours to go...
Finally arriving at our anchorage, in the lee of a long skinny peninsula, we discovered another bizarre effect of the strong headwinds. They had blown the sun-warmed surface waters clean away from shore, creating an upwelling of deep, cold water immediately behind the peninsula. We thought our sea temperature gauge must have gone on the blink as it plunged from a reading of 27 degrees (C) to sporadic readings between 5C and 15C. A dive to check the anchor instantly convinced me of the unit's accuracy!
By morning the wind had died and the seawater had re-stratified and all was peaceful as we motored up to Trizonia Island. Its perfect harbor, suitable for refuge in a hurricane, was overkill in the present conditions. Opting for lunch ashore, we had indifferent food served in an impossibly picturesque setting looking over the twinkling bay, a multitude of gaily painted little fishing boats facing us from the quay, the sleepy hamlet at our backs. There was the occasional waft of wind bringing the scent of wild sage from the hills, and a heavy drone of cicadas, now and then punctuated by the phut phut phut of a fisherman's single-cylinder diesel engine. George, leaning back and eyeing the scene with contentment, imagined out loud the possibilities of, say, buying and renovating that neglected stone building over there, unutilized despite its ideal location...
Our next stop was a shock to all of us, the big city of Patras, ugly and smelly and blaring with traffic noise from the major coastal highway running along its waterfront. With great trepidation we managed to cross the road in what was perhaps the most dangerous maneuver of this whole voyage. There were no crosswalks, not that they would have made any difference. Crosswalks in Greece appear to serve a decorative function only. We've never once observed a Greek driver give way to a pedestrian on one, and it is obvious that the locals do not expect such a thing to happen. Strolling past a number of restaurants we noticed several which had, as is common in Greece, set up tables outside in nearby nicer surroundings, in this case across the road on the seaward side of that flood of speedway traffic! Waiters, with their trays of meals and drinks held high, drifted adroitly through the chaos of rumbling buses and pesky Vespas, a sight we could not bear to watch.
From Patras to the Ionian island of Zakynthos we got in the only decent sailing George was to see during the entire 200 miles he was aboard Heather, a 50-mile thrash -- hard on the wind of course!
On the northern end of Zakynthos there is a locally famous sea cave off of which we found an adequate anchorage in the early morning calm, before the wind got up and the day tripper boats arrived in their hordes with their hordes. We swam into the cave, whose entrance is mostly underwater, and admired its rippling white sand bottom and deep rocky interior fully lit by the blue glow of low-angle sunlight shining through the water. A stunning sight,somewhat reminiscent of the ultimate sea cave: Mariner's Cave in Tonga.
Just around the corner from the cave, I spotted my first Mediterranean lobster. A BIG one. They have neither claws nor antennae, only a couple of spatulate appendages from the head, but are otherwise lobsterlike and reputedly delicious. I dived down, whirled, and grabbed. Damn! damn! damn! As I surfaced with it securely in my grasp, I noticed it -- she -- was gravid, the egg bundle tucked neatly under her tail. There is little enough life in the Med for me to feel OK about taking a pregnant female, so I gently and unhappily put her back where I'd found her.
Zakynthos was where, after one last commemorative meal or two (trying not to think of the lobster), George left us for England. As he would eventually be returning to L.A., we loaded him down with half a world's worth of charts that we wanted off the boat. How fortunate he was traveling light. We now started to prepare for our next meeting, a get-together with the irrepressible Velya. Velya is another energetic bachelor we had known years ago in L.A. before he repatriated to his native Yugoslavia, shipping his household, including his 27-ft. sailboat AGAPE (Greek for "brotherly love"), there as well. The rest is history: directly upon his arrival, the country fell to bits. It probably would have anyway. With bombs flying overhead, AGAPE was one of few boats that managed to flee the marina in the port of Dubrovnik before its destruction in 1991, and Velya has been bumming around the Med ever since, usually in an urgent hurry. It was great to see him again, each in our own boat, and we bummed around the Ionian Sea for two weeks together, racing from Ithaca to Cephalonia back to Ithaca on to Levkas and Meganisi back to Levkas and on to Corfu, before Velya left us to continue on to Italy and France (where he will winter) while we sailed back south to the island of Cephalonia to meet my brother Louis and his girlfriend Anne.
We had arranged accommodations for the two of them in the harbor town of Agia Eufemia and were moored Med-style to the quay in the nearby ferry port of Sami awaiting their arrival. Mooring Med-style (boats packed in like sardines, side by side perpendicular to the quay, one end held off by an anchor or mooring line and the other tied to the quay) is great if you don't mind your boat being treated like the side of a dock that gives a little... Before long the skipper of a 45-ft. Greek-flagged powerboat had decided to bring his boat into the open space to one side of us. Ignoring the brisk crosswind, and waving off an early warning offered by me, he had dropped his anchor well to leeward (across ours!) and was starting to back the boat up alongside Heather while the several women onboard stood decoratively around the cockpit, no docklines in sight. Robin scrambled to the quay to assist them in, and I stood by to guard our stern. As he came alongside, the wind caught his two-story-high freeboard and I thought: In about 20 seconds, Heather is going to be in serious trouble unless I can get this guy to abandon his plan. "Go out and re-anchor," I suggested, and again came that dismissive wave of the hand. Then I remembered: Europeans never talk reasonably to each other, they always yell and gesticulate. Pointing seawards, I bellowed, "Go!" His expression told me I was starting to get through, but time was running out. "Go NOW, you MORON!" Action! With a thousand-horsepower rumble, and with me fending him off with all my strength, he just barely scraped by.
His second attempt was impeccable. He dropped the anchor in an ideal spot and backed up with due allowance for the crosswind. We must have aroused the ire of his wife, however, for Robin, at the dock helping with their stern lines (once they produced any!), now became the recipient of a torrent of abuse from the overly excited Greek woman. Robin was non-plussed. "Must be Greek Indignation Day or something," she muttered.
Louis and Anne had brought with them a whole stack of CDs, a welcome influx of new music for Heather. With stereo blaring and wine corks popping, we moseyed off to the first deserted cove we could find for a swim, followed by a nice lunch, some poking about ashore, and a lazy meander back to port for dinner. So started several days of swimming, sailing, and exploring, each day bringing perfect weather, the sky that lovely Greek blue, and the sea clear and warm.
All too soon Louis and Anne were off to their next adventure, and we to ours. At the tiny Ionian island of Atoko we found a dramatic anchorage bounded on one side by a cliff showing folded strata of limestone alternating with marbleized rock, the whole sprinkled over with cannonball-sized geodes. It tapered to a beach consisting of water-worn pebbles in a full spectrum of colors. Donning mask, snorkel, and fins we took care of the chore of setting the anchor through the weed and then took a look around at the undersea world. Octopus are the one common creature in the Med, and now that we know what to look for we both spot them frequently. There was a big one under the boat which I grabbed for a Japanese-style marinated octopus and cucumber salad for lunch. Robin, in the meantime pursuing shiny abalone shells, had spotted an octopus garden underneath a nearby French boat, which on surfacing she pointed out to them. The guy onboard, flexing his muscles before a bevy of admiring females (he was naked, too), took his speargun and leapt into the deep, where a few desultory pokes at the lair with his gun gained him nothing. He was clambering back onto the transom as I arrived on the scene. Diving down, I reached into the hole, pulled out the octopus, and brought it up to hand to him. He took it with delight and proceeded to pose with it before his womenfolk, one of whom had pulled out a camera. Suddenly he was killing it in the traditional manner -- by biting it between the eyes. The woman with the camera instantly lost her composure, and her lunch. She then staggered along the sides of the boat retching pathetically while the others onboard produced howls of derisive laughter. Robin and I discretely swam back to Heather, snorkeling quietly to ourselves.
We cleared out of Greece from Levkas, sad to leave that very special country after almost two months of great cruising there. Behind us were many unvisited islands we would have liked to see, and as many visited ones we would enjoy a return to. As we sailed west towards the Italian boot, we found ourselves trading favorite images of Greece with each other: the bay with the Herd of a Hundred Goats, their bells clanging loudly and not quite in syncopation, like an Indonesian gamalan orchestra; the clusters of wild garlic, mild and wonderful in salads, gathered from tiny pockets of sand amid the rocks of a bay under the old fort of Corfu; the Greek guide who, after earnestly pointing out that the ruins we were standing by were now 2,000 years old, had the grace to laugh when I faced them and started to sing "Happy Birthday to you...." But on to the next place: Italy.
Ah, Italy, the country where the main local cruising guide includes among a sidebar of diagrams of nautical knots that of the hangman's noose.
After overnighting in the bleak
Up before sunrise to catch a favorable current, we motored through the
This part of the Italian Boot is entirely lacking in natural coves or harbors. One is forced to use the man-made marinas -- and don't they know it! We put into Vibo Marina. The town was pleasant enough, with some superb butcher shops and green grocers, where we found fresh Italian sausage, red-skinned potatoes, flavorful plum tomatoes, and even a handful of just-picked bay leaves, provided at the counter, no charge. With some onions and garlic, those are the makings of salsicce e patate alla paesana, a favorite dish of ours. This version, our first with native ingredients, was the best ever.
The Italians bring to providing foodstuffs a casual elegance, and to providing boating facilities an even more casual incompetence. From marinas that lack showers to fuel docks that lack cleats, it's all done with straight-faced bravado. A fascinating country, to be sure, but no boater's paradise.
We struck out for the Aeolian Islands and found a tenuous anchorage off
From Isla Graciosa, Canaries
December 20, 1996
We put to sea from the
On the third morning out, Sardinia loomed through the predawn gloom in the shape of
Late in the afternoon a dive over the side showed the result of all those damn boats: litter. I swam down and picked up a piece of gaudy colored trash -- which turned out to be a brand new diving glove. Robin surfaced bearing its mate. Another dive produced a new and expensive mask and snorkel, and, getting into the swing of it, we soon turned up three more. After this, we felt a little more benevolent towards our departed neighbors.
From Tavolata we made an exploratory trip to Olbia, a small town at the head of a large bay. On our chart, the bay appeared to provide plenty of anchoring room but it proved to be entirely encumbered with mussel farms. Olbia was where our track crossed with that of Robin's brother Barney and his wife Caroline. They'd been here twelve years ago on the Mediterranean portion of their voyage from
With a nervous glance at the afternoon sky, we observed that it was nice and blue with the merest haze of high cirrus and, what's this? Sundogs. Sundogs are the bright patches of light, often rainbow-colored, that sometimes appear at cardinal points on a typical (23-degree) halo around the sun. In this case we saw patches to either side of the sun and another directly above it. Also visible was a faint 46-degree halo, and both halos had upper tangential mirror-image arcs, the finest such display we have ever seen. It gave us some disquiet, as we have usually experienced bad weather a day or two after seeing sundogs on the
In a light following breeze we sailed northward along the Sardinian coast, dramatic with its cliffs and granite outcroppings, to arrive at Porto Cervo, yachting center of the area. The yachting here consists mostly of very wealthy people schmoozing on each other's immensely impressive powerboats. There is a little sailing, albeit of a snobbish sort (e.g., a biannual Swan regatta). The local yacht club even fielded a rather laughable
The port consists of a protected but fairly small cove, mostly cluttered by two marinas whose high-season charges are legendary: about $100
Back aboard Heather, we settled down to watch the parade of playthings streaming into the two marinas for the night. All those millionaires on their resplendent 100-footers were entirely dwarfed by the grandeur of the billionaires with their 200-footers. Then the LADY MOURA came in: 340 feet of private gin palace, all kept immaculately white thanks to the full-time efforts of some 74 crewmembers. She barely fit into the harbor, and, being too large to turn around, had to actually BACK all the way into her marina berth. A hard act, perhaps an impossible one, to upstage. You see, a larger boat would have had to anchor out, and powerboats here never anchor overnight.
Before 5 a.m., in the predawn blackness, we were awakened by advancing rumbles of thunder. Heather heeled in a sudden gust as I scrambled into the cockpit for a look around. The wind was picking up to a steady howl, but in the strobe-like flashes of lightning I saw that we were holding fine for the moment. I returned down below to find Robin making the bed; further sleep was out of the question. I had put on the kettle for coffee and we were rummaging for some clothes when Robin noticed something through a window. "What's this?" she asked in a puzzled voice, "A dinghy...?" In another instant we both realized what that meant.
Together, still unclothed, we leapt on deck to fend off the Italian boat that had been anchored upwind of us. It was dragging onto us with incredible speed, its dinghy on a long enough painter to have given us warning. Putting our backs into it, we managed to catch and hold the boat as it lay across our bow, but now, in the lightning flashes between blasts of rain, we could see that we ourselves were dragging towards the rocks. Our neighbor's anchor had evidently tripped ours. He finally appeared at his rail, fully dressed, to hand me a line. I refused it. "Start Your Engine!" I suggested, several times before I twigged. "Motor" is the more universal word. It worked, and he got underway. I dashed aft to start our own engine just as, for the first time in my 18 years with her, Heather struck the rocks. With the other boat still thrashing about close off our bow, we had no chance of retrieving our anchor. Robin cut the anchor line, I gave the engine full power, and after one more sickening crunch we pulled free into deep water.
We now joined a milling group of boats who had likewise been uprooted. I was reluctant to re-anchor until I could see where the others were going to go, and perhaps they had the same idea, because we all continued to mill about, barely in control in the stronger gusts of wind, alternately blinded by the driving rain and dazzled by lightning flashes. Then a spot that no one else seemed to want became apparent and we took it, anchoring with the stern anchor led forward. I went back to making a pot of coffee. By the time it was ready, the storm was over, and the sun rose on a scene peaceful but for a hundred shattered nerves.
With daylight I donned mask and fins to inspect the damage: just a few minor gouges, thank God. As the morning progressed we retrieved our anchor and chain, re-spliced the line to it, and had gotten ourselves all ship-shape and ready to move on when we heard a shout. A hundred thousand dollars worth of engines encased in sleek fiberglass rumbled alongside. The skipper on the flybridge called again: "Stiamo a Porto Rotondo?" Porto Rotondo was 20 miles away. "No, esto e Porto Cervo!" Robin corrected. He gave a wave of thanks and roared out of the harbor. We soon followed.
It was only the third week of August, but this thunderstorm marked the end of our summer season in the Med. From this point on we never had more than three nice days in a row, and gales and rain became the norm.
We now headed for
Cala di Villamarina was a well-protected bay with ripe figs and an abandoned quarry ashore, the huge parts of an unfinished statue of Garibaldi strewn about engagingly. But what a bottom: a thick mat of weed covering several feet of mud the consistency of mayonnaise. We found that our standard anchor would hold at once in the weed. Under a bit more load, however, it would tear out and then, fouled with weed, not reset. With some experimentation we were finally holding reasonably well using our two biggest anchors chained in tandem. We still could not rest easy, though, and after just one night sought and managed to find other bays with better holding.
Several days of boisterous westerly winds finally gave way to a strong but favorable easterly, and we set off at once on 250 miles of wet and bumpy ride for the
Being stormbound together leads to much mingling among the boats, and we had several good get-togethers before heading on to Majorca Island, 55 miles away. The light wind just off the bow soon became 25 knots right on the nose, and it was a hard thrash to get to a decent anchorage before dark. Then came three days of settled weather and a pleasant coast-hop up to the city of
The weather was definitely telling us to move on and get tropical, so directly Astrid left us we set off again, despite adverse winds, in the direction of mainland
GIBRALTAR (9/27/96 - 10/10/96)
The Rock is a mile-and-a-half-long block of limestone jutting nearly vertically to almost 1500 feet high. The town below is a cramped maze of tiny traffic-choked streets and buildings amid old defensive walls and bastions, the all clinging to the lower slopes of the rock and out to some level ground reclaimed from the sea. A low spit connects Gibraltar to the mostly low-lying Spanish mainland, which basks in sunshine while Gib shivers under a perpetual local cloud created by airflow over the Rock.
Gibraltar proved to be a suitably bizarre stop for taking care of boat projects before our Atlantic crossing. Somehow, it wasn't as easy to get things done there as we had expected. We'd already noticed how Spanish shopkeepers in general are quite relaxed, not opening till late in the morning and closing early in the evening, with a three-hour siesta in between. The combined Spanish and English influence in Gibraltar brought retail to new levels of velleity. I was complaining to Paul on TRAVELLER about the local marine store being closed all through the weekend. "That's nothing," he laughed. "In town there's a restaurant that's closed for lunch!" Paul and Sarah were a young English couple we met on the dock who were now preparing for their first oceanic crossing.
On various errands we strolled the town, the restaurants, even the expensive ones, emitting their characteristic odor of burnt toast and overheated, rancid deep fat. Paul sniffed appreciatively. English food. "I LIKE English food," he defended. "You can taste the food; there's no garlic or spices to get in the way." A chalkboard offered today's special: Quiche, served with Chips and Baked Beans (on toast).
The decorative theme of the area was cannons and anchors, anchors and cannons, set up on any and every patch of public land. We threaded our way betwixt them, past the Victorian-era 100-ton gun (which surely would make a very fine anchor), and tramped up an insane stairway to the top of the Rock to meet the Apes. They are not apes, they are actually tail-less monkeys, as I annoyed the locals by pointing out. Paul had warned us that they (the monkeys) injure tourists at the rate of 90 per annum. What? They're only 2 or 3 feet high. They did gave me pause, however, when I saw how incredibly muscular they were. One, yawning pointedly, displayed a set of 1-1/2 inch canines that any junkyard dog would have given his eyeteeth for.
The view from the top of the Rock showed the town below, Africa in the distance, and a freeway flow of shipping traffic through the Strait between. The next day we were in the thick of it, making our way to Tangier.
Morocco & Canary Islands
Strolling through the harbor gates to explore the city, we were at once accosted by the touts. One at a time they approached us, offering to change money, expressing feelings of deep friendship, suggesting that any drugs we might desire were available, and claiming that all they wanted was to practice their English. Trying to escape a particularly obnoxious specimen, we fled into a shop. The tout followed and made signs to the proprietor: if we made a purchase, he wanted his cut as a reward for having brought us there. For all that,
Departing the African mainland, we motored toward the
CANARIES (10/20/96 - )
Our landfall in the Canary Islands was at Arrecife, the main town of
Then we discovered tiny Isla Graciosa, separated from the sheer cliffs along Lanzarote's northern coast by a mile-wide channel, with a good anchorage at
The first time we were driven out of
Sure enough, there he was, his mouth a big circle of fright, hooting in Swedish, looking like a chimpanzee, gunning his engine frantically in all directions, his boat mere inches away. We fended off and got a line to him, holding him astern of Heather until we could retrieve and reset his anchors. It took a while. Like many Swedish boats, his lacked a bowroller, so he had resorted to the expedient of using many tiny anchors rather than one big one. The system did not impress me, and bidding him a weary goodnight I went below to add
Directly the weather cleared we shifted back to Isla Graciosa, back to our favorite bay, back to the good life of hiking, diving, and picking up a daily fish for lunch -- back to getting caught up on our newsletter, and here it is!