Skippers log 5 / George Town, Malaysia - towards - Djibouti, Africa.
We changed a few crew out in George Town, bidding Egon, Steen and Grith adieu and welcoming Ludvig and Alberte who met whilst sailing together aboard the Training ship Danmark. They had been traveling for some time together in the Pacific, this pair make a great team and are a valuable addition to any ship. Ludvig sailed on Yukon with his Father John an old sailing friend of Ea and mine, from Strynø to Scotland at the start of this voyage 12 years ago. He’s a bit bigger now and has a heap of experience, great to see the next generation stepping up to the plate. Danish Matilde heard about Yukon via one of our ex-crew Maja is joining this leg as well. With our boys, ‘Ea the second’ and mate Greg all these youngsters instantly spiced up the mix. Mike, Pete and I being relegated to the old farts department.
I decided to slip Yukon in Penang do some leak hunting and give her a repaint below the waterline. It should never be underestimated the rate of marine growth in the tropics and dear old European Yukon was feeling it a bit. We had to slip at midnight to work the tide and it was the same story when we refloated 4 days later. Anchoring in deeper water for a day as payment was verified. Thank you, Morgan and your team, at Limbongan Batu Maung Shipyard. Work done, leaks found, paint painted, well done excellent crew.
We were bound for the Paradisal Island of Langkawi about 60 miles north our Malaysian clearance port and on top of its beauty, Langkawi is a duty-free island. Thirsty crew is expensive to maintain, so it was great to pick up some bargains in this utopia.
I don’t know what we were expecting, laying alongside the fuel berth at Telega harbour in Langkawi, it was five minutes to six (5.55p.m.) in the evening and everybody knows that in this harbour they don’t sell fuel after six pm! We had already cleared Customs and Immigration, so we were feeling a bit alien at the best, no fuel until 0900 tomorrow! Despite our protests, the lady at the fuel station had a look of determination not to be messed with. With the law, and maybe the Gods on her side, we had no choice but to slink back aboard Yukon feeling frustrated and perhaps even a sense of defeat. I decided we had better remain alongside as it was about 1300 miles to Sri Lanka and 500 litres more in the tanks was good security, so therefore – we wait! The day had been long and warm, and we found the red wine we had purchased in Langkawi was decidedly undrinkable, well that was until a wise soul suggested Sangria was the solution – it’s amazing what lemons, oranges, ice a bit of arrack etc can do! A good evening was had by all, the log reads, ´much dancing and music´.
On the morrow fuel was bunkered and the woman at the service station nodded her approval as we paid our money. Time to go….
Day 178, Friday 16th December 0930 let go, set Main, Main Topsail, Jib, and Raffee, the trade wind sail configuration that we were so familiar aboard Yukon on our voyage out from Denmark 12 years ago was once again with us. The trade winds we had up the east coast of Australia had been too strong most of the time for a full Main and Topsail.
Crossing on a westerly course from the Malay Peninsula towards the Bay of Bengal leaving Subang Island to the south and great Nicobar Island to the north of us, proved to be a squall filled and exceptionally rain filled experience. For the first time on this voyage, we were three watchkeepers Greg, i.e. yours truly and Kristopher. This means a lot with regards to getting more sleep and only eight hours watchkeeping a day as adverse to twelve. The squalls proved to be less volatile than the Sumatra we had experienced further south in the Malacca Strait, but you never knew for sure what you were going to get, so it was sail up, sail down and again, sometimes three to four times a watch. One particularly vicious squall had Kristopher’s 12 to 4 watch running at 7 knots under bare poles, hard work and soggy clothing. Our expectations of Christmas eve in Sri Lanka were fading fast as we were forced on a north westerly course by a low pressure cell lying unseasonably far to the North smack bang on our intended course. Such is the nature of nature.
Saturday the 24th of December we celebrate the Danish Jul with gifts were exchanged a “visit from Black Santa” reads the log with Pete strangely absent. Finally, we are able to tack round and run towards the southwest, this makes for a far easier motion and better speed as well.
Christmas day dawns fine, with a fair wind sailing under full sail we stop short of mutual back slapping with the realization the horizon to the southeast is as black as pitch. We shorten down and brace for impact ….rain, rain and more rain, bucketing down. Not much wind but amazing rain, that was so powerful it flattens the sea around us. We are all walking around with dishpan feet and hands. We can’t remember the last time the decks were dry. The drips down below change from day to day, fresh water is thinner than salt and gets in to places you wouldn’t believe.
Tuesday 27th Dec, we land at Galle, Sri Lanka, clear Customs and Immigration with a minimum of fuss.
I engaged an agent called, Chatura, his wife Nilusha and son, Arpu. Their company, ‘Tango Shipping’ is in reality a salvage company and the whole family dives. They have some great stories to share. They are lovely warm and welcoming people. This was to be a great precursor of the time we spent on this beautiful island.
We berthed in the navy dockyard which was charming and peaceful. Outside the gates, our man on the street was Marlin, he has been helping visiting mariners for years with whatever they required. He and his dedicated Tuc Tuc drivers looked after us for the week culminating with a dinner for all hands at his place the night before we sailed.
Another highlight was a fully paid day out for all hands to the Yala National Park about two hours drive across to the east coast of the island, compliments of friends and family of Pete – this was great! We did the tourist thing, riding round in the back of 4-wheel drives on the fringes of a massive nature reserve, getting the chance to see elephants, water buffalo and even crocodiles. It was so nice to get a day out all together as a crew, as it’s such a rare thing.
Sri Lanka has a remarkable and ancient culture with magnificent Buddhist temples abounding these structures some dating back to the Middle Ages are interwoven into the fabric of daily life. Sri Lanka is also an island suffering under rampant government corruption, its people suffering from the result of this, rationing of fuel to a maximum of 20 litres per week, is one of many examples of austere measures and with many people living well below the bread line. This creates a lot of frustration and distrust that often comes up in conversation. Unemployment is high and social unease flared a few months prior to our arrival up in the capital, Colombo, with police shooting some protesters.
Our time here was brief, we only had a week, but we all found it remarkably insightful and welcoming. It was with an air of sadness we farewelled our new friends, clearing Immigration & Customs and departing on Tuesday the 3rd of January setting a course toward the north west across the gulf of Manar toward India . The breeze was fairly blowing on the starboard beam, Yukon relishing the 20 odd knots of wind driving her through the two-metre swell, sometimes soaking the watch aft in spray. With a second reef in the main we still maintained good speed after rounding Cape Comorin, the southernmost point of the continent, the sea lay down a bit and eventually the wind died, leaving us with a glassy calm morning for our approach to Kochi about a hundred miles north, making 375miles in just under three days.
Kochi is a fascinating old harbour with huge cantilevered fishing nets lining the busy harbour mouth dipping up and down like giant dab nets balanced by a multitude of large rocks lashed together like a string of pearls. The harbour is the entrance to a large network of inland waterways stretching 20 miles in either direction north and south of the entrance.
The remnant of an old fort is the feature of the south head. A cathedral housing the grave site of Vasco de Gama. I say site, as his bones proved too popular to remain in India and were packed up and sent home to Lisbon in the 1800’s or something like that. It was cool to wander around groups of Indians soaking their feet in the sea, standing being photographed with the body of water we had just crossed as their backdrop, playing and swimming.
We cleared in on the Friday, managing to complete formalities relatively smoothly from the anchorage at Malabar point. Clearing is always an exercise in controlled breathing and anger management. I feel I am getting better at it and with my faithful tech savvy secretary Kristopher at my side we form an awesome team exuding an air of patience and friendly understanding.
The Indians we meet are lovely people, displaying such open faces and enquiring minds, mostly. Anyway, this was going to be a great month! It was always planned that we would have a month’s break from voyaging here in Kochi, firstly because I considered it prudent to wait for the Northeast monsoon to settle and it would set us up better for the northern half of The Red Sea time wise, March being the quiet time up there.
We moved around to the Kochi marina on Bolgatty island which proved to be ideally located, as part of the Bolgatty Palace built by the Dutch in 1744 with lovely gardens, majestic trees overhanging the surrounding coastline, was also a great spot to wander around. A more recently built holiday resort provided us with access to the swimming pool, gardens, beer parlour and restaurant …we were living the life. Greg, Peter and Matilde went “Royal Enfielding“ about the surrounding countryside of Kerala, soaking up the scenery, braving the traffic, whilst Aron, Ludvig, Alberte and Michael stayed aboard and did their stint of ship keeping and maintenance, swapping around after a week. “Young Ea” flying back home to Denmark. It’s always a sad time saying goodbye to shipmates breaking up the team, but this unfortunately is the nature of the voyage.
Kristopher had long been planning to fly back to Denmark to audition for the Royal Academy of music in Copenhagen. He had been practising his heart out over the last few months and was ready to give it a crack. I wanted to go too so I could see Ea, who had just begun her chemotherapy sessions. So, we shot through on the 11th of Feb from Kochi international airport. It was a surrealist feeling flying over the Arabian sea in three hours, a distance that would take us 14 days aboard Yukon. The sea below blue and featureless, the coastline recognisable with the help of the inflight thingy in the seat back. Wow it just makes you realize what the hell you are doing sometimes.
Denmark, my other land, familiar friends and family greeting us, the dark of winter, Kristopher and I still in tropical sailing mode, culture shock in your own culture. It took a few days to land and was wonderful to see Ea again as never before have we been separated for such a long period! We spent our valuable time together enjoying winter walks in the surrounding forests fringing Jutland’s glacial lakes. The tall beech and oak trees amazingly bare and grey in the cold winter light, a stark contrast to southeast Asia so I was layered up like a wombat. Happy to say Ea is doing well on her own voyage. Her cancer treatment is ongoing and proving to be successful.
It’s not easy….. I’m very fortunate to have such an amazing and strong wife.
One week later I flew to New Delhi to meet up with Aron, to do some travelling together, as it was our goal to see the Taj Mahal in Agra. We spent three days with our driver Rajid doing the Golden Triangle first to Jaipur to see the pink city and wander around the amazing Amber Fort, a Mughal palace and fortresses of massive proportions.
At the Red Fort in the city of Bharat Pur we meet a young man called Mohammed, he is a 14th generation stonemason; his ancestors emigrating to India from Iran to build the same fortress in the 16th century. His home still in the small village within the massive walls, awesome!
Our three-night tour culminating with the beauty of the Taj Mahal at dawn on the final day. It’s a testimony to love beyond architectural compare. Built by Emperor Shah Jahan for his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal, a perfectly symmetrical precinct of buildings, gateways and gardens culminating in the famous central mausoleum 68 metres high, of sparkling white marble. Its stunning for not only its design but for the atmosphere surrounding the site on the banks of the Yamuna River. The sun rarely breaking through the misty dawn occasionally casting light on the surrounding blue pools and reflecting on to the bone white structure. Taking 22 years and 20,000 workers all paid a wage as our guide Ali explained. We spent a couple of hours with necks craned skywards marvelling and doing the photo thing it was chilly up in northern India. A mission accomplished Aron and I headed back to the hotel and warm Masala tea and Roti breakfast, we were now well and truly accustomed to, on our golden triangle odyssey. It was great spending some time with Aron and to not be working. It was a rare opportunity to do something which wasn’t about boats or customers. So, we allowed ourselves to act as touristy as possible, but reality beckons and we flew the 2000 kms south together back to Kochi and Yukon arriving as rested as could be expected.
The crew had been busy doing all the jobs on the lists, including changing out our damaged solar panel, taring, painting, sail repairs etc . 11 days! It was the longest period of time I had been away from our dear ship in six years.
With a week to finalize preps for departure, set for the Friday the 3rd we had two crew stuck in airports testing positive to the Covid virus. Fred Doepel, an old friend flying from Cairns, tested negative after three days so he was good, but Marlies flying from Tassie was stuck in Singapore and kept testing positive without symptoms for 14 days. It was a bit nail bity – we had almost given up hope of her being able to re-join when at the final day of opportunity, she tested negative and embarked within 24 hours. We also had the good fortune of a last-minute embarkation. Nya another friend of our ex crew Maja joins us the day before departure.
India amazes,”the greatest resource” our immigration officer explained to me on our arrival “is our people“. She was right, 1. 4 billion of them as well. It’s an incredible swirling mass of beautifully dressed, wealthy, impoverished organised chaos to the outsider, the initial impression as it so often is.
We departed the marina early Friday morning and motored down toward the Malabar anchorage to clear Customs and Immigration. Kristopher and I sat on a bench outside the customs office for a meagre six hours! Something was wrong with the paperwork the smiling official couldn’t explain what exactly was wrong, but there was much hand waving and hushed scurrying with papers between the customs and the port authority building across the road. Finally, clearance was given, Yukon was free from the shackles of bureaucratic science once again. We heaved anchor before they could change their mind and proceeded to sea at 17.25, the Arabian sea stretching out ahead. Our month in India had been fantastic and surely a highlight of the voyage so far. I was dreaming of some stable air flows and perhaps a little less rain after a couple of days of variables we began to pick up the North easterly monsoon, fairly light at first, yet stable enough to sail for about 80 percent of the day. The island of Socotra off the horn of Africa 1300 miles distant was our next call, a dominion of Yemen. The island is noted for its large array of endemic species including the famed Dragon Blood Tree. The sailing was superb! Not a drop of rain and clear starry nights, this was shaping up to be the finest sailing of the voyage so far, Yukon making about 120 miles a day. Officially the longest open passage of our voyage back to Europe we had been crossing our fingers that the weather patterns would play ball and we have not been disappointed. We logged on to the UKMTO (United Kingdom Marine Trade Operations) with our vessel details and gave them further daily reports around noon, this enables vessels to be tracked to better watch for and report suspected piracy or suspicious activity. It’s a comfort to know that help is at hand in the unlikely event of piracy.
Day 12 of our passage Land Ho! Socotra! Wow it’s defiantly closer to Africa, high jagged mountain peaks very little visible vegetation and huge sand cliffs and blows stretching up mountain sides for hundreds of metres. By mid-morning we were up to the anchorage near the town of Hamided at let go in clear waters just off the end of a breakwater. I had sent all the necessary details for visas before leaving Kochi but didn’t really know what to expect.
Before coffee had been consumed a vessel came alongside, our agent Ghanem Ali Alscotri or Ali for short, was first aboard greeting us all warmly, followed by Immigration and Port authority taking a quick look around. Visas were produced, paperwork done, 10 minutes later they were gone again. Wow that was pretty easy, it would seem Socotrans don’t like excessive paperwork either. The next thing we knew, we were on our way into town for some fresh provisions. Ali was great, such a nice guy and he made our time on the island a breeze.
The next morning, we stamped and fingerprinted our way into this interesting place.
Socotra is about 130 by 50 kilometres with mountains up to 2000 metres. It’s a dry landscape but the wet season leaves evidence of large gullies and flushed riverbeds in its wake. We took a day trip inland once again leaving Yukon to some peace and quiet alone in the calm anchorage. Two land cruisers with brilliant drivers provided the transport and I mean brilliant, some of the roads we covered were unbelievably bad at times, quicker to walk. Heading up into the mountains on the south western plateau was about an hour’s drive, the higher altitude providing some fantastic views. The Dragon Blood Trees starting to appear like some sort of alien creature, the higher we climb. Eventually we climb a hill and below a whole forested plain stretching out before us covered with these weird beasts of trees, silently watching us, watching them. The wind whispering about the tops, it truly was magic. Welcome to the most alien place on earth! On our way home after lunch and a swim in a rockpool we stopped at the house of a little old lady, our aim to purchase a bag of dried Dragon blood. The sap as red as paprika is dried and ground into a powder.
After a greeting, sitting on mats in this enchantingly serene stone enclosed yard complete with tomato and chilli plants, we were offered a slug of fermented goat´s milk from a gourd. Some of the crew had theirs faces painted expertly by this understatedly empowered lady, with a mixture of dragon blood and turmeric. This was so cool walking around with faces of muddy okra, the whites of their eyes and smiling teeth making a stark contrast.
Homeward bound to the boat, in the headlight less Toyota. It was an excitingly lovely end to a great day ashore, both drivers suddenly stopping on the roadside 10 kilometres out of town at the call to prayer. The small roadside Mosque filling with men from all directions. It reminded me of a roadside pub on a Friday afternoon in Australia, the irony!
The following day we all took a heart pumping stroll up the massive sand blow right next to our anchorage 380 meters high said the chart. There were fantastic views towards the interior eagles soaring below our eyes but the best bit after the hours climb along the ridge was the bum slide straight back down in the pure sand, reminds me of childhood dune surfing near Adelaide.
Monday 20th Feb or Day 244. Time to go, the anchorage which is quite exposed to Northerly wind was getting lively too, rough to load water alongside the wharf as planned so we decanted 600 litres from the truck into 20 litre and 60 litre drums and pumped aboard Yukon. We jokingly named the creek it came from, Dead Goat creek, mmmmmm.
Clearance obtained easily and with no fuss, heartfelt goodbyes from our great agent Ali and we were away. The wind from the Northeast on the starboard beam as we steer up towards the International Recommended Transit Corridor or IRTC. Arriving at 0400 on Wednesday we were advised to sail between the two shipping lanes, the northern heading west, the southern heading east. It was a bit like riding a bicycle down a median strip on a busy freeway, i.e. large ships, about a hundred a day passing us on either side with a mile or two clearance. It was quite comfortable, the Japanese navy doing a fly over every day or so saying hello on the radio.
This was our world for the next three days punctuated with the occasional gybe to hold our course. This latitude is special: cool evenings, crystal clear heavens, hot days – the awning aft stopping us frying. The Southern Cross and pointers slowly setting each morning like a friend saying goodbye on the port hand and your old mate Polaris greeting you after 12 years absence on the starboard hand, a little higher each evening when you come on watch. The joys of life at sea are not plentiful but they are profound.
The breeze so stable I decide to allow our main topsail to carried after dark, generally a no no aboard Yukon as it can be a bugger to get down in the dark, if hit by a sudden squall. Serenity prevails, we enjoy superb sailing, some of the best I can remember and still not a drop of rain. Another amazing feature on these Indian ocean legs has been the presence of Bio-luminescence or as the Danes more interestingly call it `Mor Ild` or mother fire. Some nights the ship would carve a bright green line across the sea, the bow wave flashing on the leeward side, the brightest of greens. Dolphins creating jet streams as they swum the bow wave, even the toilet bowl lighting up green when you flush,(if you remember to switch off the light) a couple of times we saw large 20 metre long patches of light some distance from us which we suspect may have been whale shark.
Sunday 26th Feb Ras Bir light looms on the Starboard beam, Africa! A good run north of Isle Musma and we drop anchor in Djibouti harbour just before noon. The Indian Ocean or at least the northern part of it crossed, we are all feeling good. Denmark getting closer.
Our agent Phoenix greets us and gets us cleared through immigration with a minimum of fuss. We are able to get ashore and provision some essentials and enjoy a nice barbeque on board in the calm anchorage. We invite our neighbours over to join us for a good evening.
I was in Djibouti aboard Bounty in 1987 on our way to England to participate in the First Fleet re-enactment, so my memories of the city are scant. 35 years can change a place and this place has certainly grown, especially the harbour, new wharves and container terminals, shopping malls apartment buildings and the like. It’s now the largest port in the region, supporting navy activity for the multitude of nations involved in the Transit corridor and its security. The U.S have their only base on mainland Africa here as do the French of course and the Japanese, so it’s a busy place.
We bid Nya farewell and Fred joins a French yacht heading north in need of crew. It’s been great having them aboard – they will be missed. The new crew embarking for the next 49 days as we head up the Red Sea towards the Greek Archipelago having a chance to swap stories with those departing.
That’s all for now David.