After our last trip ended in Bali I had 24 hours to fuel the boat, fix a half dozen urgent mechanical issues, check out of the country, and find some crew. Sunita and Bobby were tied up in Bali and Jody needed to be in Singapore to arrange travel visas. I had no desire to sail 1500 miles across the equator by myself through the busiest shipping route in the world.
I begged and pleaded with everyone I knew, regardless of their experience. But no one could commit. As the day of departure wore on the reality, which I’d been trying to optimistically ignore set in. I raced on my rented motorbike to the supermarket; rashly bought a bag full of fresh goods, some chocolate, lots of coffee and a bottle of scotch (I’ve sailed alone before, trust me, it’s a necessity).
I was spent. We’d just finished 4 back to back trips. Instead of sleeping all night I pumped out an endless string of emails as I hadn’t had reliable internet in months. When I finally did relent to exhaustion instead of sleeping I fretted about the autopilot, which was on the glitch. Even a well-rested person can only hand steer a boat for a few hours before making time-consuming errors. The autopilot would also keep me off the helm so I could attend to things like charts, sails, and food. The other device that had to work flawlessly was the radar. Once I got into the Java Sea there would be an endless string of mammoth ships (cargo, freighters, tankers, etc.) traveling at 25 knots going both directions. From the time a human eye can pick out a vessel on the horizon traveling at that speed you’ve got 8 minutes before it can run you down. A guard alarm on the radar sings out if a target gets too close. With a well-rested crew the radar is merely back-up to a diligent watch. But for me the radar was my first line of defense. I could not stay awake and sharp for 10 days. Both the Java Sea and Malacca Straits are shallow and constricted by hundreds of islands. Some of them no larger than an acre, and others like Java, Borneo and Sumatra stretch hundreds of miles. I had no choice but to run in the same waters the giants did.
Thousands of fishing vessels further complicate matters. Java is the most populated island on earth, many of whom get sustanance from catch pulled from the Java Sea. At night lights from these vessels are so dense and bright they appear as populated cities instead of a vast expanse of ocean. Even if you don’t stray from the shipping lanes it’s easy to foul a prop with netting. If this happens while solo the consequences could be dire.
But none of this was yet on my mind. As I pulled anchor I kept repeating to myself that everything was going to be fine. I ignored my body’s plea for sleep and instead enjoyed the solace and beauty as the sun slipped behind the peaceful island of Bali, leaving a fiery crimson sky in our wake. As darkness set on that first night Discovery and I found a rhythm. I cranked up the tunes, took a nip of scotch, made some dinner, and eased back in the cockpit and thought to myself, “this might not be too bad.”
By midnight we’d cleared the Lombok Straits. This felt like a huge feat in itself. Now I could relax a bit as we had ocean on both sides of the boat instead of land, and the currents, which can exceed 7 knots in the Straits slowly eased their grip. The computer constantly provides updates on our Estimated Time of Arrival depending on our Velocity Made Good. I’ve learned it’s usually demoralizing to watch this ever-changing tease but knowing we had to arrive in 10 days for a scheduled haul-out for Discovery, I couldn’t help but sing out as the hours and days diminished with our increased speed. One knot faster on this end equals a day and a half off the trip. I set the guard alarm on the radar; my clock alarm for 20 minutes and fell fast asleep.
As bad as it sounds the body eventually adapts to these fleeting moments of rest. The alarm never fails to make me jump, but it is a necessary component of the night. By daybreak I actually felt well rested. A nice southerly breeze was setting in; welcome relief as we’d burned precious fuel motoring all night. I lowered the mainsail, set the jib and gennaker and set off dead downwind “wing on wing” heading NNW, across the Java Sea. Discovery seemed to be sailing slower than usual which I thought was due to current, but the Sailing Directions for the area refuted this, claiming if anything a northerly trend in October. Could our hull be fouled so badly that it was slowing us down? If the wind eased I’d have to dive below to investigate.
I remember little over the next 48 hours other than a number of visits from dolphins and continually altering our course to give the growing numbers of boats a wide berth. At night, regardless of the hour I could count over a dozen vessels on the horizon, most of them weighing over 3000 tonnes (we are 25) churning at 20+ knots. When the wind died on the 3rd day I’d developed a routine. By day I tried to eat well, read a bit and allowed myself a daily DVD by mounting my lap top at the nav station so I could maintain watch. I’d long given up any attempt at wearing cloths as the days were miserably hot and well…why not? I have to act the part of mostly responsible Captain year round, I might as well try to enjoy this trip as much as I could! But any semblance of pleasure was about to end.
Brooding skies replaced the gray stratus that had been our cover since departure. We were still over 500 miles south of the equator, but it appeared the dreaded equatorial squalls were going to stalk our future. The next morning the first of many storms hit. Rain drops the size of golf balls came down in heaving sheets. Visibility dropped to less than 20 meters. I could barely make out the bow of the boat from inside the saloon. Before the squall I’d counted two dozen ships at every point of the compass and now I couldn’t see a thing. The radar screen was solid snow, its echoes unable to penetrate the cascades of water. It was impossible to see other vessels, and just as impossible for them to see us. I felt like a blind man standing at the center of converging train tracks with locomotives coming from every direction. We had no where to run. Great cracks of lightning scorched the heavy air, followed immediately by explosions of thunder which rattled the boat. It was continuous, as if the sky was super-charged with billions of mountain-sized spark plugs all firing at once.
In the first hour I sat awed by the deluge, but as time passed my nerves began to unravel. By the end of the second hour, with no relent in the weather I started to shake. I was soaked and naked, but the shaking wasn’t due to cold. I kept sounding our fog horn though I knew it was pointless. An oncoming vessel wouldn’t hear it, and certainly not in time to slow down or change course. By the fourth hour I was well and truly scared shitless. I tried singing; I tried listening to music; I even tried scotch; but I couldn’t calm down. In all my years at sea I’d never been so afraid, never felt so insignificant. I don’t like counting on luck to keep from getting run down, but that’s the only weapon I had. I stood on deck and cussed the blackened sky and shook my fist like a ranting child.
By nightfall, which was indistinguishable from the day, the squall passed, after nearly 6 hours of hell. But it was replaced by another of equal power and ferocity. And another, and another, and another. On the morning of the 6th day, after battling for nearly 48 hours I was jolted awake by silence. No torrents of rain, no cracks of thunder. Only the steady hum of engines. I raised my battered head off the wet pillow and scanned the sky. It looked the same as it had, but the sea was dead still and the quiet was startling. I brewed a cup of coffee, which had long ago lost the ingredients to keep me awake, and sat on the stern in a complete trance, my limbs aching from raw nerves. I killed the engines and we slowed to a stop. For some time I just stared at the horizon, resigned to no thought whatsoever.
But the stillness was as intolerable as the storms. My mind needed activity, something other than fear to keep it occupied. I grabbed my mask, fins and a metal spatula and dove overboard in the middle of the Straits and scraped the hull of critters that in some places were 3 inches thick. Little wonder why we’d been so slow. The job took 2 1/2 hours. I cleaned my hands, which were bleeding and stung from contact with the sharp barnacles, started the engines and carried on north 2 knots faster than before. A nasty Staph infection had taken hold in my left leg and was growing into a small volcano, a sure indication of my physical exhaustion. I was falling apart.
On the morning of the 7th day I realized we didn’t have enough fuel. The days of motoring laden with barnacles had used up our reserves. We were only 40 miles out of Nongsa Point marina, where I wanted to stop for the night and refuel before heading into the Malacca Straits, but it might as well be on the moon. I spotted a cargo ship at anchor near the south end of Batam island and motored slowly up to her stern. Discovery seemed a toy, dwarfed by the rusting hulk. Two dozen dirty men crowded around their aft deck and looked bemused a few stories down at me; haggard and emaciated, yelling for help. Using long ropes their crew hoisted up two empty jerry cans and filled them with diesel; then lowered them back down, slinging fuel all over the deck. The fuel was filthy- too dirty to even get through the filter funnel into the tank; which caused me to spill over a gallon all over the teak decks. I painstakingly removed the gunk from the filter with my hands and slowly got a few gallons down the funnel, hopefully enough to get us into port.
Discovery and I pulled into the swanky marina, just across the channel from Singapore right after sunset. Jody met me on the docks and we dissolved into a heated fight. She was frustrated with a lack of progress on the visas and I didn’t have it in me to bear the news. We ate dinner in silence and rented a room at the hotel. Not surprisingly neither of us slept much. Jody had to catch the sunrise ferry back to Singapore to catch a flight to Kuala Lumpur, where she hoped to obtain the visas, and I had to get back to sea.
By early afternoon I had the boat fueled, cleaned up and ready to go. 5 minutes out of the marina the port engine rpm gauge failed and the autopilot wouldn’t work. I stopped the boat; jumped down into the engine room; tightened the fan belt, which cured the rpm gauge; changed the fuel filters which just needed to be done; and did everything I could think of to fix the autopilot. Late in the afternoon we were underway again but the autopilot only operated at random intervals. The Malacca Straits looked like an ocean-sized version of gridlock freeway traffic. I’d never seen a busier waterway.
Early in the evening with the glow of Singapore fading off our starboard stern, while doing my best to make sense of an orgy of navigation lights I suddenly saw a globe of fire swinging back and forth off our bow. I rubbed my eyes a few times thinking I was hallucinating, but the flame remained. It was someone in distress. Not for the first time in the last few days I swore. That’s all I needed was to perform a rescue! Three Indonesian men operating a long boat filled with fuel drums had apparently lost their engine. It was hard to tell as we couldn’t communicate, but it was simple enough to realize they needed help. I tossed them a thick mooring line, tied it off to our stern cleat and turned toward shore. An hour later after threading through a mine field of boats I found a tug willing to take the castaways to safety. I wished them well and hurriedly carried on, thankful it hadn’t taken too much precious time.
The Malacca Straits are narrow and shallow and run northwest-southeast 400 miles between Malaysia and Sumatra. The Sailing Directions warn of many dangers but the three most-stressed are weather systems known as “Sumatras”, violent squalls that generate off the Indonesian coast; the obvious shipping traffic; and the shallow depths at the edge of the shipping lanes, which are clustered with bamboo fish traps and nets that cannot be picked up by radar. A sidebar noted that more insurance claims caused by lightning strikes are filed in this part of the world than anywhere else.
The lightning began far to our west at 2100 hours. For two hours there wasn’t a sound, just a sky of mesmerizing streaks of crooked, evil white lines. There were multiple strikes every second. It was as impressive as it was scary and I hoped it would remain on the horizon. But by midnight it was clear we were not going to outrun the storm. For some reason the slow advance of the lighting caused me to think it was only going to be electrical, even though the menacing cloud line had all the tell-tale signs of strong wind- sheer flat bottom, massive vertical development, coal-black, and huge.
Looking back my only excuse for getting caught so blindly was the poor functioning of my tired mind. When it slammed us I was completely unprepared. The wind went from zero to 35 knots in a few seconds. Sharp seas followed instantly. I hadn’t even bothered to reef the mainsail, which was fully deployed. Discovery careened off course 45 degrees and the autopilot predictably failed to correct. I ran forward to the base of the mast to lower the sail but when I got there stood dumbly for what seemed many minutes doing nothing. The boat was shaking violently. Rain, thunder and lightning seemed to be assailing us from every direction and without an autopilot I couldn’t get the pressure out of the sail to lower it. If I blew the main halyard (the line that holds the sail up) the sail would wrap around the shrouds and break all the battens, which would rip the sail to shreds. Finally I snapped out of my stupor and ran back to the helm. I floored the still-running engines, cranked the wheel against the wind, hoping the sail could hold the enormous pressure and went dead into irons. As we rounded up I ran forward again and blew the halyard instantly, and thankfully the sail slammed down undamaged in an unorganized mess.
I sprinted back to the helm and discovered the starboard engine alarm was blaring; the engine had stalled. Nothing I could do about it now. I unfurled the staysail and set a course towards land. Screw the fishing nets, I needed rest and cover. As we approached what I hoped was a usable anchorage, after hand-steering through a blizzard of rain and lightning and a parade of tankers for nearly 6 hours I remembered the fouled engine. I furled the staysail and let Discovery slow. Without thinking things through very clearly I grabbed my mask and an underwater light and jumped into the cold black depths, holding tight to the stern. The prop sits about 5 feet in front of the transom but there is nothing to hold on to and if I dove down and missed the stern on my return Discovery would be gone. I lunged forward and stuck my hand in the exhaust outlet, then thrust underneath the boat kicking madly. I couldn’t see anything, but felt my way to the prop, which sure enough was fouled with netting and plastic. Thankfully a few tugs freed the mess and I lurched frantically back on board.
I fired the engines and used the radar and depth sounder to find what I hoped would be a good place to get some rest. I dropped the anchor just before the first light of dawn, then sat in disbelief as the GPS showed we were dragging at a brisk 1.6 knots. I couldn’t hear or feel the anchor moving or scraping but there we were continuing our drift. For an hour and a half I just sat at the nav station and stared at the screen. I couldn’t figure out what else to do. Finally, after what seemed an eternity the anchor held. I staggered to bed and crashed dead asleep.
I awoke at noon to a perfectly still, sunny day. We were surrounded by fish traps. There was only one convoluted path into the spot where we were anchored and somehow we’d managed to negotiate the maze by nothing more than dumb luck. I felt brilliant, as fresh and alive as the day was bright. Discovery and I had been slammed with an impossible test of will but somehow we’d pulled through. We turned north again and stayed true to our course until we reached Langkawi a day and a half later. More squalls battered us that night, more boats nearly ran us down, more swearing exploded from my mouth at the increasingly unreliable autopilot but nothing could stop us now.
By the time we reached Langkawi, where Discovery was hauled right on schedule I was in a pathetic state. But at the same time I felt a sense of great achievement, and incredibly a welling sadness that it was over. Between the battles there were pristine moments of clarity; precious and rare times of quiet and peace; and some startling expressions of self that I could never do in the company of others. No doubt the experience has made me stronger. And hopefully wise enough to never attempt again.
“To avoid situations in which you might make mistakes may be the biggest mistake of all.“–Peter McWilliams