Thursday, June 20, 2013

Maldives to Malaysia (May - June 2013)

Maldives to Malaysia (May - June, 2013)

Our route across the Bay of Bengal

  The "spirit of blogging" is waning in that this is becoming more "book-like" all the time. When the book is finally published it will be entitled: "How I Singlehanded Around the World the Wrong Way - with Deborah". Not really mean, she freely agrees. In the meantime, another post for those who follow us.

Remember that to enlarge the pictures click onto the thumbnails and to return to the post, click  "back".

We spent close to three months in the Maldives and our account of that is in a previous blog "India to the Maldives". Overall, our time there was again different from any other of our sailing experiences apart from perhaps the Bahamas, the similarities being flat islands which were less interesting than the coral reefs and clear waters, as well as having limited food supplies and fresh water and the differences being largely cultural ones. Life is so interesting when you let it be. 

Satellite picture of precipitation in the Bay of Bengal
 This passage to Malaysia is a traditional sailing route that many cruisers follow, 1600 nautical miles traveling almost due east from Male (Maldives) passing south of Sri Lanka, across the Bay of Bengal to the top of the Indonesian Archipelago and across the Straits of Malacca to Thailand, or in our case, the island of Langkawi, Malaysia, close to the Thai border. The winds that would allow us to sail were those of the Southwest Monsoon, stronger and wetter (than the North East Monsoon) noted for their frequent squally conditions. The month of April was a "transition" month, meaning the seasons were beginning to change and by mid-to-late May the eastbound passage could be attempted without having to motor excessively. The Bay of Bengal is notorious for tropical storms at this time of year, which, although having paths tending to move northward, still spawn and develop along that route. Weather watching and obtaining good forecasts are a must. 

The planning and preparations from the India to Maldives passage we had made a few months previously were still fresh in our minds and the notes we had made then were to be a time saver. Provisioning, taking on adequate water rations, making RO (reverse osmosis) water daily with the water maker to keep the tanks full, planning meals and buying the food, ensuring the boat's systems were all up to standard, safety and emergency equipment and procedures, were all in place. 

The limitations of our sheltered anchorage, positioned behind the Male International Airport runway on the island of Hulhumale were quite apparent as we began final preparations. To get ashore we had to dinghy to what is known locally as the "Tsunami Jetty", a semi-sheltering, badly rusting steel wall which, being the busy place it was, had us beach the dinghy on a plastic-bottle strewn sandy patch - most often with an onshore wind which created body-soaking waves coming and going in spite of our cringing. 

Diesel had to be jerry-jugged from the nearby petrol station via dinghy, Chinook's tanks topped and eight jugs with a total of 200 litres lashed to the deck for the anticipated motoring approaching the Thai/Malaysia peninsula. We hauled 5-litre bottles of drinking water to supplement the RO water, loaded the dinghy many, many times with fresh fruit and vegetables which cluttered the fridge and hung in the hammocks crowding the saloon - bunches of green bananas that were to last us 14 days, oranges, green and ripening melons, papayas and mangos, coconuts, tomatoes adorned the downstairs. 

The other limitation was that the (only) protected anchorage was on Hulhumale, so it was a ferry ride to Male where the large grocery stores and the fresh markets were. A 10-minute dink ride, a 20 minute walk to the ferry terminal, a 25 minute ferry ride, taxi rides; the day took planning amid the increasingly frequent rain and wind squalls.
 Photo: Another sunrise...

 Watching and waiting for a reasonable weather window in which to depart became the game. We planned to leave around the middle of May, actually departing on the 19th between successions of squally weather and the tail-end of a tropical storm in the north Bay of Bengal. Our friends Terry and Fiona on Roam2 in Malaysia had offered to text (sms) us daily weather forecasts via satellite phone. At least that would tell us what to expect en route although re-routing would only be done if a tropical storm was to develop along our path. The moon phase was to be good for us; a full moon on the 25th May meant about ten nights of comforting moonlight during night watches, as long as the clouds did not obscure it. 

The other two yachts that had sailed from India about the same time we did, Esper and Divanty, had set sail south to Chagos and then to Madagascar and Seychelles respectively. Encountering bad weather in the Maldives which forced them back to Male they both decided to sail to Malaysia instead but they needed a little more time to prepare and were to depart after us. We agreed to communicate by satellite phone with daily position reports, weather updates, safety issues and encouragement. Divanty, a much larger and faster yacht was to pass us after 17 days and Esper arrived in Langkawi a few days after us. 

Chinook's anchor, with a light weedy growth along 20 metres of its chain, was lifted at 0930 on the 19th May and she motored out of Hulhumale, setting sail in 15 knots of wind an hour later in the flat seas of the lee of the island. The day was clearing after a night of rain showers and it was a pleasant day's sail.  The seas became lumpy that night and the first squall of many to come mowed us down at 4 a.m. Gray skies and light showers persisted all day and we found ourselves motoring ten miles off track to avoid a large area of thunderstorms. So much for the reasonable weather forecasts we had waited for. 

The following day a severe thunderstorm caught up to us from behind and for several hours lightning and deafening thunderclaps played around us. Some of the more important electronics were put into the oven, a makeshift Faraday Cage that is supposed to protect from electrical surges. This was the first time we had been in such a situation and it was not enjoyable. However, the next nine days were to be mostly sailing, the engine only being used to replenish the house batteries that were feeding the voracious self-steering, augmenting the wind generator and the solar panels. We were averaging the 80 - 90 miles a day we had counted on. 

Crevice corrosion in the turnbuckle
A turnbuckle (bottlescrew) which had some crevice corrosion had been repaired in India but even after thoroughly inspecting all the others we missed another corroded one on the inner lower shroud that let go with an explosive sound on the 5th night. The broken end was replaced with the only spare part we had, but two days later the other end went. A $5 cast iron hardware store special was used as that replacement. 

Our poopy little "traveler" 
A seabird decided it needed change from sleeping in the waves and roosted under the dinghy lashed on deck. Cute, except it pooped its white fishy shit everywhere. Flying fish often made the mistake of winging onto the deck for their last landing. Three pods of dolphins were seen on this passage - always treating us to their swimming antics. And the fishermen we are not, meant no fish were caught.

The lumpy seas stirred up years of settled sediment in the main water tanks making it unfit for washing dishes, clothes and bodies. Our drinking water is in a separate smaller tank which is able to be cleaned easily, and so the RO water was put into that now "multipurpose" tank. 

Squalls passed over us several times a day making for exciting downwind helming. The winds were generally 25 knots during them but occasionally gale-like 35 knots whipped up the seas and had us surfing down the waves. Our original sail plan was to sail with two reefs in the mainsail, leave the storm staysail hanked on permanently for the squalls and use the genoa for helm balance . After the first violent squall the main came down and the genoa was played for light winds and furled for the the heavy winds. The small but strong storm staysail alone was sufficient in the squalls. 

Deborah repairing the genoa sail
Then the genoa developed a small tear in the lower panel which we watched anxiously but could not do much about, as to take it off for repairs was impossible in any wind. During the twelfth night the tear became a major rip along the whole seam and as luck would have it for us, the winds died the next morning, we motored, took the sail off, stuffed it down the forward hatch and Deborah mended and reinforced it using the new sewing machine we purchased in India. It was back up again within hours and we were sailing again with the light breeze that was developing. 

Several Sri Lankan fishing boats were seen - two were very curious and came alongside to just watch us for a while. Piracy was never an issue this far east, but other cruisers had reported aggressive fishermen demanding liquor and cigarettes. No cargo freighters were sighted until the 14th day nearing the Indonesian archipelago - there we saw two. 

That night (of the 14th) we encountered a storm with rain and strong winds whipping up the seas into large waves. The autopilot could not handle the motion and we took turns of 15 - 30 minutes about hand steering, trying to nap in our "off time", By morning we were quite exhausted. To make matters worse, the genoa had ripped again, this time in different places. The adverse current against the wind made the seas even larger, causing Chinook to roll most uncomfortably gunwale to gunwale and our speed to slow to 2.5 - 3 knots. Then the GPS hooked into the AIS radio stopped receiving, meaning we could not "see" shipping on the AIS screen. Of course there was no comforting moon; it was truly, a dark and gloomy night! Rogue waves, not obligingly following the wave pattern would frequently slap Chinook off course but one nasty one leaped over the stern almost filling the cockpit and drenching both of us. 

Pelau Weh
At that time we were nearing the island of Pelau Weh north of Sumatra we decided to stop for a night to repair the sail, look at the GPS and recover from our lack of sleep. Guided by a friendly local, Anwar, to a mooring buoy off the village we immediately took down the sail and began the repairs. Within an hour the Habourmaster's official and a Coast Guard representative arrived to do the "formalities". We did not want to formally check in to Indonesia with the time and costs involved so were granted 48 hours to complete the repairs - after writing a "declaration" that there was indeed an emergency. "Cigarette money" was given in the form of American dollars for the "granting". 

We slept like logs that night and decided to stay the next day and night to fully recover, change engine filters and the water pump impeller (which was damaged), dive on the hull to clean thriving marine growth off the sides and rudder, decant 10 litres of diesel fuel from jerry-jugs into the main tanks and generally check Chinook over after two weeks of non-stop sailing. 

Calm means motoring.
36 hours later we were under way for the last three days of the trip, somewhat refreshed with the mended genoa we were largely depending on. The wind was light but we could sail in lumpy seas. By the end of the day the wind had disappeared and the engine was started - and remained on for the next 60 hours. The bonus was that the seas had flattened considerably. 

One of the dozens of container ships
Life is a highway! The ship dodging games began. The Straits of Malacca is an extremely busy shipping route with freighters from Singapore heading to and returning from India, the Red Sea and African destinations. At any given hour we had five new ships appearing on the AIS screen - that is 120 per 24 hours within the 15-mile radius of the screen. Many of them were on courses that would have us pass as close as 200 metres so we had to alter course. Several fishermen came to look at us, one boat asked for beer but got water. Unfortunately they had no fish to sell us. 

Approaching Langkawi - 3 hours to arrival
The green mountainous coastline of Malaysia and Thailand appeared in the early morning sun of the 20th day of the passage, June 7th. With a helping tidal current and a light wind we motor-sailed into Langkawi and entered the Royal Langkawi Yacht Club at 12:30, berthing at slack tide with assistance from Terry and Fiona (from Roam2). They had cold champagne waiting in their fridge and with Divanty, who had arrived the previous day but anchored overnight in the bay, we duly celebrated the passage. 

Checking in procedures were very easy to do (with no costs involved) the following day. The RLYC is a great location and a destination for many cruising sailboats. It has a bar, restaurant, pool, chandlery, dive shop, and is close to a mall with a large supermarket. The island of Langkawi is "duty free" and has many beautiful scenic attractions - quite touristy. Ferries to Thailand, Indonesia and other Malaysian ports arrive and leave frequently from the nearby Jeti Terminal. Here, we are meeting many other cruisers and swapping stories.

We stayed in the RLYC for about ten days before taking Chinook to nearby Rebak Island Resort and Marina to be hauled out and left alone "on the hard" in the heat and humidity while we fly to a pleasant British Columbian summer.

Deborah commented that the few days after arrival felt like "jet lag" and it took her almost a week to recover from the passage. It was a tiring journey and made us realize that we are not as young as we once were. We crossed the Atlantic nine years previously and had forgotten the discomfort of the continual motion, the dampness, cooking on a wildly swinging gas stove, bad weather, Brian's seasickness affliction, never being able to fully relax, worry about rigging failure, engine problems, sails ripping - the list goes on. Had we remembered these, would we have left India, and more importantly, unless we blot the discomforts of this passage from our minds, will we cross any more oceans? Remains to be seen. 

Rebak Island Marina