04 October, 2007

Wee, sleekit, cowering, timorous Timor Sea

The days lengthened as we lost sight of land within just a few hours. Watches were four hours on, four off, with two hour “dog watches” each between 16-2000hrs. This meant that we could organise a decent meal at teatime and that we each did alternating 14 and 10 hour days. The rhythm of the boat and the sea soon came along and was soon a part of daily life. It was a bit like marooning yourself on a floating desert island and it was as well that William and I got on so well and could blether about a wide range of subjects from the school playground to geo-politics. After a few days, I began to find that I was putting in a fair effort to get to sleep during time off, and then working hard to stay awake during watches. Luckily, the lurching movement of the boat helped maintain consciousness during watches! It helped much less when I was trying to get some decent sleep in the cabin. Hard going though – never enough sleep coupled with constant fatigue.Shipboard life took a fair bit of getting used to. After about five days I began to sleep more soundly. Exhaustion might have been kicking in at this point because I still never felt properly rested when awake, no matter how soundly I’d slept. Showers were in salt water (never much lather!) with fresh water rinses. I thought I was reasonably roughtie-toughtie, but I felt like a bit of a wimp as I asked William if it might be at all possible to wash my hands just once a day in fresh water. My palms were beginning to feel like old waxed-cotton jackets!

William had plenty of clothes to last him the 25 days we expected to be at sea. I can’t carry that much on the bike and so I had to make mine last longer than maybe would ordinarily be thought hygienically proper. They didn’t wash well in salt water, but the wind prevented much in the way of sweating anyway – I told myself!

Occasional strange boats on the horizon broke the daily monotony of very little wind and bobbing about on heavily swelling seas. William became quite apprehensive at the appearance of these boats and told me some scary stories about salty sea-dog chums of his who had shown too much friendliness towards passing fishermen in these waters, only to be boarded, robbed and left. Some boats came quite close but none so close as to threaten boarding.

The weather forecasts for this area were completely inaccurate - the winds should have been far more favourable to us at this time of year. As it was we made as much as we could of what wind there was, and used the motor as we had to.

William had originally gone into buying this boat for racing with a friend who found that he had 'other priorities' when it eventually came to putting his hand in his pocket. By that time William had spent a fair bit more than he could easily afford on the refurbishment of the boat. He decided to make the best of a poor situation and sail it around the planet. However, it is a racing boat, albeit a 1970's one. It has no distinct or separate cabins, no fridge, no fitted shower, definitely no air-conditioning and no fan. It does have a toilet, a 'gimbled' stove which sways with the waves, meaning the kettle can boil in peace without anyone getting scalded, an almost limitless number of sails, two lifeboats, all the modern gadgetry and electrickery you could want, proper Scottish flags to fly in times of need, and space for a motorbike on the deck abd I get my own wee space. It is very 'hardcore' and no mistake. All other boats I had even glimpsed were luxurious in comparison. I treated William to a bit of a ribbing over this, but in all truth, very few of the others would have been overly keen to risk their luxury fixtures and fittings with the addition of a muckle great 200kg motorbike onto the deck. I was very happy where I was and knew that we would be doing more sailing than the others in whatever conditions we met. In further discussion William agreed that it was, right enough, a bit like fitting a roofrack and a tow-bar onto an old Ferrari, and while not exactly attaching a caravan, maybe hooking a trailer tent to the back before touring through Africa. It was a great challenge for me. William had only recently fitted the luxury of a shade over the cockpit, to protect from the worst of the tropical sun. I hope to convince him in time to found the Tartan Navy, so that we can sail to offshore football matches in, say, the Faroes . . .

The days began to roll into each other and I started to lose track. I had tried to keep a journal but, while not making speedy progress, there was still loads to do which prevented any boredom setting in. I had the time to watch the sun go round overhead, quickly followed by a moon which grew each night, and then by Orion before the sun reappeared. Dolphins and porpoises appeared regularly, flying fish skipped across the waves, and unseen things slapped and snorted around the boat at night. Of course there were all manner of the usual sea creatures from the fearsome Kraaken to the chatty Neptune and some huge jellyfish the size of London to watch out for, then there was the one that got away, Captain Nemo and those Sirens . . . then of course the golden haired mermaids wouldn't leave us alone in their endless search for ever more bikini tops. They weren't too happy that we'd none to spare.

We were using the motor more than any sailor would prefer and eventually the engine began to develop some problems. It was surging and then over-revving before cutting out completely. William decided that the best thing to do would be to head towards Bali, in Indonesia. We hadn’t intended going there, but it is a major marina and we thought there should be parts and expertise available. William made some attempts at mending the motor, but wasn’t able to achieve any significant improvements. I felt guilty, having trained as a mechanical fitter at the Dockyard in Rosyth, I realised I’d never actually diagnosed a malfunctioning diesel motor. All we’d ever had back then were refits of huge warships and submarines which got all new parts in those days, whether they needed them or not. This was known as “preventative maintenance” which the Royal Navy could afford (at that time), but private boat owners can only dream of and hope for. Of course, just like travelling on the bike, there isn’t much incentive for unscrupulous mechanics the world over to fix anything properly since any problem is very unlikely to come back to them. William said he had had several difficulties of this nature with his engine, and had ended up paying more than the price of a new motor in repair costs over the years, each time convincing himself "this time . . ." I’ve known motorbikes like that.Strong currents on the approaches to Bali made us both a little nervous. At one point, in the middle of the night, I managed to muck up the auto-helm by pointing us at a landmark I’d noticed previously. It seemed that, while, yes indeed we had been pointing at that lighthouse to the north, the boat was actually, due to the current, moving sideways at 90degrees towards the west – all controlled by the auto-helm. It had beeped at me at one point while William slept soundly below. It was about 0240hrs. I pressed the correct button one too many times, manually steered us back toward the lighthouse and 20 minutes later we were actually approaching the lighthouse – which in the nature of lighthouses, had arranged itself thoughtfully above a large, jaggedy rock. Time to wake William! Mad, but we didn’t hit anything and remained afloat.

At first light William began trying to raise some assistance on the wireless. There was no response on Channel 16, the international emergency channel. This was odd being as we were so close to land and an international marina full of Anglophonic yachties. Four hours after sunrise, we began discussing options - not that I had or even wanted too much say in the matter! Our only real option, given that we could not motor into Bali and the current was too strong for us to sail in, was to head for Christmas Island. All our Christmas Islands would come at once, I thought, but what sort of presents would we get? An Australian outpost maybe 400Nms out into the Indian Ocean, Christmas Island was four days more sailing. This just as I was beginning to look forward to the idea of a proper shower and a good lengthy sleep. It was like holding a wee bit of tasty steak up for a pup and then pulling it away at the last second. The cruel sea!

William was just trying to soften this hefty blow when there was a voice on the wireless. The local pilot had responded to our pleadings and, while the next few hours were never entirely clear, a big Indonesian Coastguard boat eventually loomed into view. There are some funny rules about stricken boats at sea involving whose rope gets thrown to whom. If he takes our rope, we’re fine. If we take his rope, we’re his "salvage". William was understandably wary of this rule, even when the Coastguard sped off at such a speed that they snapped the rope – three times!

We were dragged ('towing' would have involved some consideration on their part) into the marina and tied ourselves up. William had been awake since 3am, and I’d not slept since midnight. We had nursed the boat in this far and fatigue was strong. But there were all the officials and "where is your flag?" and "where is Dundee?" and "where is your captain?" questions kept waking me from my peaceful slumber in the cockpit. William had leapt athletically off the boat to go and deal with as many officials as he could in their own nests, before they could swarm around and surround the boat. I was left to guard with my life, and repel all potential boarders. I fell quickly asleep, but nobody came on board, all too wary of my menacing snore.We had tied up in someone else’s berth and needed to move. That was going to cost $100 just to be towed a few metres. Some familiar-looking faces appeared, smiled and began pulling at ropes and untying things and reassuring me all was well. A wee boat towed Quickstep to another berth for $40 and all was tied back down and secured. I tidied ropes and cleared the decks as best I could and somehow remembered to be grateful and polite to some of those helpful souls I’d last seen back in Darwin, before falling fast asleep.

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