On the open ocean

A video for a foretaste of sailing. Hopefully more videos will come later:


The first days of sailing along the Indian coast were quite calm and uneventful. No big waves, equally weak wind. A few times we stopped for a swim even. That lasted about four days. As we started to approach the southern tip if India and the straight between India and Sri Lanka, things got rougher. We knew we were going to have much stronger winds there and those were welcome, since in order to get somewhere by sailing, one actually needs wind.

Sailing at night

Sailing at night

Passageweather.com was our major source of weather information. It provides weather forecast for the world’s oceans in convenient graphic form for the winds, waves and surface pressure. Wind and wave strength are displayed by different colours and for the region between India and Sri Lanka we were expecting “green” winds, which means 25 to 30 knots. Good for sailing, not so good for the stomach and one would probably not want much more than that. So, quite suddenly we found ourselves in much rougher seas and Liberty was advancing much faster now. For the next couple of days we had it quite rough. Since it was just the beginning of the journey, we didn’t have our sea legs yet and I, at least, got a bit sea sick. Nothing too bad, I could still perform my duties but it was not pleasant.

We were so close to land (lots of fishing vessels) and we were about to cross one of the major shipping lines in the world, between Singapore and the Persian Gulf/Red Sea/Europe, that passes a few miles off the southern coast of Sri Lanka, we had to take our watches very seriously, day and night.

AIS Radar

AIS Radar

Luckily, Liberty is equipped with an AIS radar. AIS is something that most, if not all, big ships have. It sends out information about the ship, over radio frequencies (VHF) and this information can be picked by other vessels within 30 or so miles. Liberty has an AIS radar that picks up this information, but does not send out information about us. This means that we could see other ships on the radar even before they appeared on the horizon, but they could not see us from that far. So it was important to stay visible. Sometimes we even had to contact a coming ship over the radio to make sure they are aware of us and would not run us over, so to speak. Or just for a chat about the weather… AIS is quite handy though. It tells you the ship’s name, speed, intended course and real course so you can calculate if it is on a collision course or not. If not, you can relax. If it is going to come close to us, then you keep an eye on it, even wake up the captain, if needed.


The self-steering’s wind vane

The other device that made our lives much easier was the self steering. The self steering is a completely mechanical device – no electronics whatsoever or any electricity needed. It is basically a wooden blade, called a wind vane, no more than a meter long and 20 cm wide, which is lightweight enough to respond when pushed by the wind. It sticks up at the back of the boat and can be rotated so that it points exactly into the wind when the boat is oriented in the position you want to go. Then the blade can incline to the left or right when pushed by the wind, as the boat veers off course. When it inclines, the wind vane gives a nudge to an auxilliary rudder that steers the boat slightly back on track. Unless the wind is very weak, this mechanism works like magic and, what is most important, relieves us from the boring and tiring task of hand steering the boat, which would be a 24-hour job. Later, in the open ocean, when there was no land, no traffic and no obstacles, this meant that we could just sleep. As the captain used to say, the difference between hand steering and self steering is as the difference between third and first class travelling.

The AIS and self steering made a huge difference later on when we were approaching the Equator. To the south of Sri Lanka, we still had some roughish weather, not as rough as before but still enough to toss us around a little bit. As we moved south (and east) towards the equator, we got into much more stable weather. This means no rain, blue skies, a constant northerly/northeasterly wind – strong enough to keep us moving. Still we wished it was stronger so we would be moving faster. As we passed 3° North and getting close to the Equator, we stopped experiencing an unfavourable current that kept us from going faster, as we were reaching the so called Equatorial counter current – a current going east, which was favourable for us. Then we changed our course to the east and at round 2°30 N we started moving straight towards Sumatra. We saw ships once in a couple of days at the most and we took it easy. The weather was calm and all of us basically slept all night. The self steering did its job so we stayed on course. The alarm of the AIS would wake us up, in case a ship was approaching.

These were a few calm, quiet, uneventful days. We slept a lot, I read a few books and we took it easy – listening to music, cooking pancakes. We did not really celebrate Christmas and New Year in any way (I would make up for that by celebrating the Chinese New Year later that month, but that is another story).
On the last day of 2013 I decided that my hair was too long and annoying (this means 2 cm long:) and decided to shave it off completely. I had thought about doing that in the past but I always stopped myself, thinking that my thick eyebrows will look funny if I didn’t have any hair. Now, in the ocean there would not be so many people to take a note, so I thought I’d go for it and you can see the result above…

Then one day things started happening. First, Gerd decided to weigh the bottle of gas we used for cooking. I have to say I had mentioned a few times in India that it would be a good idea to buy a spare one, just in case, for such a long journey. But we didn’t buy a spare one. And now it turned out that we had only between 2 and 3 kg of gas and at least a month to go. In no way could that gas be enough for the journey. And since most of our food required cooking in some way (flour, beans, rice…) something had to be done. After discussing the possibilities of building a wood stove to burn some bamboo that we had on board and driftwood from the ocean (what were we thinking???) and making an emergency stop in Indonesia (since we didn’t have any permits or visas we could legally make a 72-hour stopover for emergencies) to buy gas, we decided to change course to Malaysia – the only country around that we did not need a permit for.

blister sail

What helped in making the decision to change course was also the fact that we got two rips in our main foresail during a squall and also that our beautiful blister sail (on the picture – it looks like a circus tent) also ripped. So, sails needed to be repaired, gas needed to be bought and crew changes needed to be made. Around that time I started thinking about changing my plans and continuing my travels on land mostly. Mostly because of the many changes of plan, schedule and so on. My main reason to do this sailing trip was to see some remote places in Melanesia and now it seemed like it would take a while before we get there and so on…

We were at less than 1° North – we almost reached the Equator – when we changed course due east and a bit north again. The ocean was mostly calm, very few other vessels, a lot of reading, sleeping, cooking, some wind to keep us going. I remember this time as mostly waiting – to get close to land. So, slowly we got close to Sumatra, at around 3° North we reached land. One morning we woke up with land in sight – two small islands called Pulau Pulau Kokos. They are off the coast of the island of Simeulue, which is off the coast of Sumatra. A link to Google maps: http://goo.gl/maps/zI6mw

The name is interesting. Pulau means island in Bahasa (Indonesian and Malay). I have to check but I guess that the reduplication (“pulau-pulau”) either marks the plural (Indonesian doesn’t always mark plural, but when it does reduplication is one way to do that) or is a dimunitive marker – the two islands were quite tiny. One of them had a lighthouse but still we knew that no one lived there.
small island
We anchored off the coast of one of the islands and were surprised to see a house at the island and even some smoke in the evening. We stayed there for three nights in total and unfortunately didn’t go onshore in our small dingy. The first day the sea was calm in the small lagoon and it would have been possible to even swim to the shore, but the next two days when we actually decided to go, the waves were hitting the rocky shore quite hard and Gerd didn’t want to damage the dinghy. Also, he was very suspicious about the people that we saw on the shore – although they waived and invited us to come over. He thought this was a prison island. I think it was a coconut plantation where people came to work (do the people in the picture look like prisoners, really???). In any case, I am sure they were grilling some tasty fish on those fires at night… We’ll never know (or we might get to know some day…)

From here we followed the Sumatran coast. There was very little wind so we motored a bit. Until we reached almost the northern tip of Sumatra (in the Aceh province) Remember the Christmas tsunami in 2004? – around 200,000 people died on that coast in a few minutes that day. One morning Andres woke me up and said “I think you might want to see this!” And indeed, the view was amazing – a small bay, calm water, beautiful, steep, jungle-covered mountains rising almost straight from the shore and small fishing boats around.
It was a Sunday morning and we decided to make a stopover in this beautiful bay. Anchor dropped, we were ready for adventure. This time me and Andres were determined to go ashore (being practically illegal in a country made it even more irresistible). And so we did. This blogpost is becoming too long, so about this, next time. Hold your breath!



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