By Gavin McClurg
I could just make out the outlines of Discovery a few hundred meters off the end of a lurching plastic dock as a moonless night descended on Lombok, Indonesia. I’d sent multiple texts to the freelance Captain who was supposed to be delivering our yacht to Thailand and who was presumably still on board as I crossed 15 time zones from Idaho to Hong Kong, down to Bali and a final quick flight over to Lombok but all had gone unanswered. Now I was finally here, but there was no sign of the Captain. I found a fisherman willing to take me out to the boat for a big wad of rupiahs and was greeted with a scene out of the movie “Dead Calm” with Nicole Kidman, one of the greatest suspense/horror films of all time. But this was no movie. The dinghy was slamming into our freshly painted stern with a loud crack as Discovery surged on the swell. No anchor light, no lights of any kind. The cockpit was swimming in sand and there was blood everywhere. Broken glass and over a dozen empty 5ths of every flavor- Jack Daniels, tequila, wine, vodka and more were tipped over on every surface. I found a headlamp and entered the main saloon. Brand new cushions covered in blood. More vodka and whiskey bottles. All of them empty. More sand.
“Where the fuck are you you PIECE OF SHIT?” I screamed. No answer. I tried starboard forward cabin. No Captain, but the head filled with vomit. Aft cabin. Toilet filled with shit, no Captain. Port side. Bingo. Passed out naked. No sheets, no pillow cases. Sweating profusely. Enemy number 1.
“Wake UP and GET THE FUCK OFF my boat!” No answer. Was he dead? I grabbed the gash in his foot (the source of the blood everywhere) and pinched hard. Not dead. “Wake up and get off my boat. You’ve got 5 minutes.”
Some groaning. Then, “I need to call my Dad.”
As patiently as I am able with hands locked in fists, desperately wanting to punch this asshole I completely fail to hold my voice below a scream, “you can call your Dad from the dock. Four minutes… In four minutes I take all your stuff and throw it in the ocean. At 5 minutes I throw you in the ocean, which will kill you in your state, so get your shit together. NOW!”
“I need to call my Dad.”
“Oh man. Can I just go back to bed man? I don’t think I can do this. I don’t feel good. I’m so sorry I did this man. I’m so sorry I disrespected you and your boat. I’m really sorry. Can I go back to bed?”
“We’re not going to be friends. You don’t need to apologize, you need to get off my boat. Two minutes and I’m throwing you in the ocean.”
Meanwhile I take stock of the situation. I haven’t been onboard in over two years. We’ve just completed a $300,000 refit- new engines, new sails, new instruments, new plumbing, new electrical…and I’m trying to figure it all out with a headlamp. Discovery is in a state that is making my stomach churn. I want to simultaneously kill this idiot and make sure he doesn’t die as he clearly has an awful problem. Our brand new AGM batteries are down to under 10%. Totally dead. $4,000 investment up in smoke. The water tanks are totally empty, both new water pumps must have run for days until the batteries died, destroying the impellers and motors. Neither engine will start. Neither generator turns over. I can’t recall ever being this angry.
“It’s time to go fuckstick. Now.”
I throw his backpack and then him into the dinghy and do the same at the dock.
“Good luck” I say not very earnestly, “hope you make it through the night. And I hope you get some help.”
Our brand new dinghy must have two hundred pounds of sand in it. Probably from sitting in a shore break at some point. Battery terminals all corroded. ASSHOLES! My mind is cataloguing already dozens of things that weren’t done correctly in the refit and haven’t been attended to properly in the last months of operations. In the days to come the list would become pages long. In the last 4 months of operations we’ve had 4 different skippers and 5 different chefs. And I’m the guy in charge so I’m the only one to blame. But one thing at a time. Dinghy up in the davits. Emergency cross-connect our dead batteries to the windlass batteries and starting batteries. Boom, one engine fires. Twenty more minutes and I’ve got one genset running. Then I get the other engine running. Three hours later I have most critical systems restored. Empty bottles and other potential projectiles in garbage bags. Things put away so we can head to sea. Our brand new Garmin Navigation system comes on and I spend a few minutes figuring out how it all works and how to use the radar and AIS system and we’re ready to go. I have no idea what’s in the fridge or even if we have any food but there’s a case of bottled water and once we get to sea I can hopefully get the water maker up and running (last report was that it was broken) so I’ll survive. Time to go. 1600 miles to Phuket, Thailand across the Java Sea and Malacca Straits, two of the busiest shipping zones on Earth. Ten years ago nearly to the day I did it solo and it nearly killed me.
72 hours earlier I got the message you never want to get. “Gavin, you better get out there, he’s in a bad way.” “Out there” was of course Lombok. I had three crew in play to help the skipper with the passage, but they were all gone. He was drunk when he boarded and apparently stayed that way the next couple days and the crew reasonably didn’t feel like spending 10-12 days on one of the toughest passages there is with a drunk. A few hours after receiving the message I was on a red eye to Hong Kong. 32 hours of traveling to the other side of the world to get back to my old job, one I want to do these days about as much as I wanted to clean the ubiquitous vomit and shit and blood that was all over Discovery. I circumnavigated with Discovery and spent nearly 15 straight years at sea. It was one of the greatest adventures of my life. I don’t regret a day of it. So many crazy adventures that will bring smiles to my grave. But I’m done with sailing. I hate the tropics. I hate the heat, hate the lack of seasons, hate that the sun comes up and goes down at exactly the same time every day. I hate all the plastic on every beach and in every ocean, I hate the constant maintenance and stress of keeping a ship humming with guests on board knowing I’m a water maker or genset problem away from a nightmare. What we do and what we offer is awesome, and we remain the only ones on Earth doing it. But you need energy that I no longer have to pull it off.
We motored all night across the southern end of Lombok and up through the Bali straits in mostly calm seas. I kept myself awake by just sorting out one issue after another and figuring out how things worked. Satellite phone and internet: can turn it on, but not functioning. Water maker: sorted. Second genset, one that none of my skippers had been able to fix all season and had been a source of serious stress and nearly 15 grand of additional expense: sorted. Failed water pump port side: replaced. Our skipper who had run most of the refit this year spent three weeks teaching all the systems to his replacement. I was just figuring it out as I went. At daybreak we were nearly clear of Bali but the sea was choked with fishermen and I zigged and zagged for hours as one after another would chase me and shoo me away from their nets, which are of course unmarked and impossible to see. Finally I left them behind as we entered the Java sea and a nice wind picked up. After a little re-familiarizing with the rig I had the mainsail up and genoa flying wing-on-wing and Discovery came alive. The nice sailing allowed me to tackle the filthy heads and scrub all the blood out of the cushions and get our girl slowly back to her glorious self. We’ve been through a lot, Discovery and me and I could almost hear her say “hey there Skip, it’s good to have you back. Let me show you what I can still do.”
I’d put up a post on Facebook and sent out an email to friends on my way to the airport about the situation and that I was in urgent need of crew. Many people answered, but only 3 could jump on a plane with no notice and arrive as fast as I needed them. Kitya, who had run our galley several times in the past couple years could get to Surubaya from the Philippines. And Primoz, a former client of ours could do the same from Slovenia. And my friend Tim who was currently in Montana and had sailed with me ages ago from Panama to the Galapagos could get to Belitung a couple days later, where we could check out of Indonesia. Thankfully as I sailed along the north coast of Bali and then Java I remained in cell coverage as I couldn’t get our sat system to work so Primoz and I could study Google Earth as he flew to Dubai and onward to Java and figure out a pick up point. It would be one of the scariest pick ups in my long sailing career, but we’re not quite there yet.
We sailed all day making great time until the wind eased off after sunset and the motors came back on. Then we had another busy sleepless night with lots of fishing boats, ferries and unlit FAD’s (“fish attraction devices”- basically unlit usually metal buoys that are anchored to the bottom and don’t show up on radar, which make for terrific fiberglass boat sinking hazards) which brought me to a protected bay at daybreak on the east end of Madura Island off the north coast of Java where I could anchor and clean the hull. Discovery seemed slow with her new engines and given the state of the rest of the boat it was safe to guess she hadn’t had a proper hull scrub in awhile. Two hours and a little vomiting later (cleaning a hull upside down when there is a little sea running makes even an old sea dog like myself wickedly sea-sick) we were back underway, sailing fast downwind towards Surubaya, the second largest city in Indonesia.
As I closed on the rendezvous point after a ripper under sail all day bamboo fish traps started popping up all over the place. Invisible on radar, and as I was heading directly into the setting sun, invisible to the eye. Then just two miles short of what looked to be a small fishing port with break walls on both sides and a place I hoped would work to pick up my incoming crew blackness fell. I was 30 minutes too late. This would all have to be done on radar and feel, and close attention to our depth sounder. I lowered the sails and gingerly made towards shore, hoping dumb luck would keep me clear of the fish traps. A few hundred meters off shore the break walls started to be more clear on the radar, two long fingers of red and a narrow black opening. My heart was racing. Make a mistake here and the ship is lost. The wind was rapidly backing off but there was still a substantial swell. As I neared the upwind wall I could begin to make out anchored fishing vessels on the radar as well. Watching the depth and trying to get my eyes to see anything I motored forward as slowly as possible. 3 meters. 2 meters. We draw 1.4 meters but had my previous Captain adjusted it correctly to compensate for where the depth sounder was located? Judging by how poorly everything else had been done, unlikely. So I probably had nearly a meter more than the instrument said. I desperately hoped so as the depth slid down to 1.4, 1.3….1.2. Suddenly I was blinded by a beam of light from shore. Then a bunch of hollering by a group of people on motorbikes. Was I doing something wrong or were they just saying hello? I spun into the wind, ran to the foredeck and dropped the anchor, then ran back into the cockpit to watch our position between the walls. If I’d had a beer it would have been welcomed.
30 minutes later Primoz was sending me messages from shore. Some guys wanted to see our paperwork and refused to let them out to the boat. Were they military or official in any way? Unknown. I assumed it was a classic Indo money frisk and didn’t have the patience to deal with this. I hadn’t slept in three days and no way we were going to spend the night in this “harbor.” Finally they relented after some magic hand gestures by Primoz, no doubt lots of smiling by Kitya (she’s always smiling) and an invitation by me to come aboard, check our paperwork and confirm our safety gear. Three military guys sporting nice uniforms and life jackets, my bewildered crew, and several huge boxes of food (no beer unfortunately- Java is Muslim) were onboard sometime later and after a few selfies, a good look around, and confirmation that we were legitimate the guys wished us well and we were once again underway. We’d only lost a few hours and I now had something I really needed. 1) Food and, 2) Help.
We motored north across the Java sea all night. Primoz and I took turns on 3 hour shifts, which allowed me to get my first glorious stress-free hours of sleep since this whole disaster began. By morning Primoz was more competent with the radar and keeping watch than some crew I’ve had for a year. Turns out an IT expert who is really, really excited to come to Indo to have a big adventure is about the best crew you can ask for! The wind started picking up mid-morning so we killed the motors and raised the sails, Kitya whipped up a delicious breakfast and Primoz and I proceeded to spend most of the day whipping lines (which somehow hadn’t been done in the last 5 months), dodging fishing vessels and FAD’s, laughing, tweaking sails, cleaning, sorting out problems and fixes (he got out satellite system up and running in no time), more delicious eating…which becomes a comfortable and enjoyable routine in the days ahead.
As the days go by and Discovery gets fixed and cleaned and back in order I am buoyed by Primoz’s enthusiasm and Kitya’s terrific food. The pace at sea when you aren’t getting your ass kicked is hard to replicate off the water. I’m furious at how poorly our amazing vessel has been attended to by people I hired and assumed had a base level of professionalism who clearly didn’t but the fact is I’m enjoying myself. I miss my family and daughter painfully and while the newness and challenge which are so enticing to Primoz are not my reality it’s hard not to smile as Discovery slices through the water and the miles melt in our wake.
Three days later we made landfall again just after dark on the north side of Belitung island in the northern Java Sea after yet another fast and terrific sail all day nearly dead downwind. Tim had arrived earlier in the day and was waiting on the dock. He showed us to “Evan’s place” and as the world spun and danced nauseatingly for Kitya, Primoz and I (we all had acute land sickness, which can be even more disturbing than sea sickness) we arranged for a nice plate of fish, cold beer and all the things we needed the next day: an agent to help us clear out of Indonesia, 500 liters of diesel, laundry, beer, and the food market. Time for bed.
In the morning Tim hoisted me to the top of the mast (not difficult with an electric winch!) to check why our wind instruments weren’t working and why our anchor and tricolor light weren’t coming on. I’d heard about the light problem months before. I always asked the obvious question- have you gone to the top of the mast to check? When I got to the top the inoperable lights were pretty easy to diagnose- there were no bulbs! Discovery had been sitting for 13 months getting every conceivable upgrade and no one ever went to the top of the mast for something so critical? The faulty wind instruments were nearly as easy to diagnose. The water proof connection had become loose and there was a little bit of corrosion. After cleaning it immediately started working, but the cables would need to be replaced when we reached Thailand.
Checking out from Belitung was uneventful. It took all day, which surprised my crew but that’s pretty standard in Indo and actually around the world and while frustrating, I’d learned it doesn’t gain you anything trying to rush it along. People in the tropics operate on a different clock. I don’t blame them. It’s hot and stuffy and any exertion of any kind just leads to profuse sweating and headaches. Much easier to do as little as possible.
By sunset we were underway, once again motoring north and dodging huge fleets of what must have been squid boats, lit up with city-bright domes of green lights. The horizon often had over 60 targets if you took the time to count, little green monsters at every point of the compass. With an extra crew member I now had anywhere from 6 to 8 hours off between shifts (we take 3 hour shifts at night and 4 hours in the day) which my tired body and brain welcomed. One day I found our brand-new gennaker buried deep under a mountain of crap in the tool room (one of the first things to be rectified when we get to Phuket), which looked like it had never been used. Tim and I hooked her up, Primoz handled the sheet and after a little sorting we had Discovery ripping along comfortably, closing on the equator at 10 knots.
The Java sea ends at the south end of the Malacca Straits, where a choke of granite islands between Sumatra, Borneo and the south end of Malaysia presents a myriad of thin channels to choose from but they all lead to one place- the busiest shipping lane on Earth. Once plagued by pirates the Straits are now relatively safe other than the constant flow of BIG traffic and the ever-present danger of powerful electrical storms that build over Sumatra and Malaysia almost every night. In 2009 when I was solo through this stretch one of those electrical storms ended up sending me overboard at midnight (not clipped in) and remains one of the most dangerous (and stupid) things I’ve ever done. I’d been talking about the Malacca Straits for days with my crew and fully expected it to be the scariest and most difficult part of the journey, but in the end with our new instruments and AIS system it all went down with very little stress.
A few monster thunderstorms (perfect for deck showers and cleaning the boat) and some terrific light shows at night were in fact welcomed. One day I had to dive down under the boat to clear the props of plastic, garbage and fishing nets three times, an unpleasant reminder of what we are collectively doing to this planet and in fact the Straits seemed many times worse than the last time through. Scientists say the Ocean will have more plastic in it than fish in the not-too-distant future. And new models show sea water rise being much worse than predictions even just a few years ago, putting vast cities like Bangkok, Shanghai, Bombay and many others under water at high tide by 2050. Much scarier stuff than electrical storms!
Tim caught a wahoo one day that I promptly lost, then he caught another one which didn’t get so lucky. Kitya turned the gift into morsels of awesome and on day 12 when we reached Phuket just a few hours before sunrise in a perfectly calm sea my crew was dialed, Discovery was in vastly improved condition, and I was ready to tuck into a few hard days undoing the wrongs that had been done to her over the last year and half.
By noon on our first day in Phuket we were checked in, Tim was on his way back to Montana and Kitya and Primoz and I were back underway to the north end of Phuket to tuck her into her new home for the next two months before she leaves for the Maldives. This was the same marina where I’d sold Saoirse, my first boat back in 2005 after 8 years of sailing around the Pacific and Asia and was the place where we came up with the concept that became what we are today.
Over the course of the next three days Discovery got an overhaul that could have and should have been done before I ever got there. We removed over 3,000 pounds of useless crap. 7 full dock carts of junk. A pile of water damaged wood scraps; boxes of rusted out paint, epoxy and other cans; old sails and moldy canvas and a TON more. Her water line went up 8 inches at least. How much fuel and unneeded wear and tear for months because of inept laziness? Primoz managed to put the dozens of kite and surfboards that were being stored randomly under every bed on the boat into the dodger (which it was built for!). A tool room that I could barely access now has every box labeled, organized with plenty of room to spare. When I got on board all 6 beds were completely full below the mattresses. Now there are two lifejackets and nothing else. I’m not going to lie, these three days were filled with cussing by yours truly. We spent over 13 months doing a refit and no one ever thought it would be a good idea to take an inventory and do a little organizing? Time for a change.