_Liberty going east

Memories of the tropics

Having my last tropical breakfast in Port Vila.

Having my last tropical breakfast in Port Vila.

I’m sitting here at the airport in Port Vila, Vanuatu, waiting for my flight to Auckland. It’s going to be 15 degrees in New Zealand. First thing to do on arrival: buy some shoes.

It’s been one day and 13 months since I arrived in India to join a yacht as crew. The idea was to sail all the way to New Zealand. I jumped ship already in Malaysia and since then it’s been a wonderful tropical adventure through Myanmar, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. I will miss most things, but most of all the generous people, thirst quenching coconuts and “drinking” pineapples and mangos!

Some selected moments:


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!


Down the west coast of India

First four days of sailing are going pretty well.

No one is seasick yet, but that is probably because of the general lack of wind. We have been sailing more or less close to the coast, taking advantage of the land-sea wind effect. Other than that the ocean off India’s west coast is pretty windless at the moment. Being close to shore however means that there are a lot of fishing boats on our way and we need to be extra careful with those. Some of them are quite tiny and have no lights at night. Another problem is that their fishing nets are virtually invisible so you never know if you are passing over them. Which can be a huge problem, especially when we are motoring. A fishing net in the propeller at night is no fun.

We have had at least 5 visits from local fishermen every day. They come to say hi, ask for “drink” and “cigrattes” and offer fish to sell. Sometimes they won’t leave until we start filming them. Some were pretty nice and gave us fish for free after they asked us to go around their net and we politely changed course.

So far our progress has been slow but we have been trying to use the wind as much as possible. We motored for a few hours yesterday when there was no wind but basically we have been moving slowly but surely towards the southern tip of India where better winds await us, at least according to passageweather.com. Once we go around Sri Lanka, we will be following an east-southeast course towards Sumatra.

Every day so far we have stopped when there was no wind. Some swimming in the open ocean that was refreshing. I am fighting my fear of deep water (something like fear of heights, I kinda panic when I look down into bottomless water) and had some short swims around Liberty.

We just got pretty close to the shore at Trivandrum and did some sightseeing and used the internet. My phone, that acts like a router, is hoisted up the mast for better signal. That’s how we found out about the owl sleeping on top of our mast today.

This will probably be the last time we have internet before East Timor, which will be at the end of January at the earliest. Don’t forget to follow our spot messenger locations on Gerd’s profile.
This is our latest spot.:

UPDATE: A couple of pics

dead fish with crab

dead fish with crab

We hit a place where currents meet and deposit all the garbage that is carried around the ocean. This dead fish was floating around, acting as support for a lonely crab.

Sailing and sightseeing close to Trivandrum (full name Thiruvananthapuram – now say that out loud).

Sailing east from India

As some of you may know, I am currently in Kochin, in the south of India. Together with two other people, captain Gerd and Andres, we are preparing the sailboat Liberty to sail east from here. We have been here for over a month now, working hard on everything from repairing sails to cleaning to working on the engine and self-steering. Liberty will be slowly making its way to New Zealand in the next 12 months. The first leg of the route will be the longest open ocean passage of the whole trip. From India to East Timor passing west and south of Sumatra and Java.

The route for the beginning of our trip. This leg should take 40 to 50 days of sailing, a lot in open ocean without much connection and certainly no Internet.

The route for the beginning of our trip. This leg should take 40 to 50 days of sailing, a lot in open ocean without much connection and certainly no Internet.

In East Timor we are planning to stay some days, explore, pick up some new crew members, provision and continue more east, where the real exploring will begin, all throgh Melanesia: Irian Jaya (the western part of New Guinea, that is part of Indonesia), Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia are on the route before the end of the trip in New Zealand.

The others in the crew for now are:

Captain Gerd from Switzerland, who owns Liberty and has spent a lot of his life sailing and living around the Pacific.

Ali (left) and captain Gerd planning out the self-steering

Ali (left) and captain Gerd planning out the self-steering

Andrés is from Mexico. He has spent a lot of time travelling and certainly wants to be a sailor too.

Andres at work.

Andres at work.

Originally we were going to be six people sailing out of India. Ali, Majed and Ryan spent time with us, helping preparing the boat but had to leave for different reasons. For the time we spent here together we had a great time and it was a bit of a downer for me that they would not come with. Hopefully we will be able to travel together later.

Ryan is from Alaska. He is 21 and took a year off his geology studies to join this trip. A very polite and mature guy. I really hope he will be able to join us in East Timor.

Ryan is very good at all things mechanical

Ryan is very good at all things mechanical

Ali, from Iran, lives in San Francisco and is a sailing instructor. He wants to make it by sailing from Iran to San Francisco through the Pacific Ocean

Majed interviewing Ali for the film

Majed interviewing Ali for the film

Majed is also from Iran and is a documentary filmmaker. He wanted to make a film about this trip. He has filmed a lot in war zones in Afghanistan and Lebanon so he should be pretty well prepared for this adventure.

Besides a filmmaker Majed turned out to be a very taleneted cook

Besides a filmmaker Majed turned out to be a very taleneted cook

And last but not least: my humble self. I joined this trip for a few of reasons. Firstly, I have been interested in visiting Melanesia (Papua New Guines, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands etc.) for a long time. This part of the world is not very easily travelled due to its remoteness and lack of infrastructure. All of it is islands, big and small, so travelling by boat makes perfect sense. When I was in the Cook Islands and Fiji in 2008 I found Pacific islanders to be very friendly, sane, proud and relaxed people and I certainly want to explore more. The land- and waterscapes are of course picture perfect. But most of all, for some time now I have been thinking about working with endangered and/or undocumented languages and Melanesia has the highest linguistic diversity in the world. More than 1300 of the world’s 6-7000 languages are spoken there, many of them undocumented and certainly a huge number are endangered. So my most important mission on this trip is to get acquainted with the cultures of Melanesia. Other than that I want to learn how to sail better (I had a great sailing trip of a few weeks in Croatia with captain Zeljko last year). Also, sailing, although quite challenging on the body and mind, can be quite relaxing and I hope to have enough time to catch up on reading books and my video and photography skills. When I first came here I added one more mission: learning Persian since we had two nice Persian crew members onboard willing to teach me (one day I will travel Iran by bicycle but that is another story). Now that they are not coming along, I still hope to be able to make some progress by myself.

And me with a Kathakali traditional dancer. We attended a show organized for us at the place where we are staying. It takes 3 hours for the dancer to get prepared for the show.

And me with a Kathakali traditional dancer. We attended a show organized for us at the place where we are staying. It takes 3 hours for the dancer to get prepared for the show.

And finally, ta-dam! Liberty is a 15-meter ferrocement boat, built in New Zealand but now travelling under the Vanuatu flag. Gerd has owned and sailed it since 2008. Liberty is by far not a luxury yacht but all of her equipment is very well maintained (we are spending quite some time here in India making sure everything is as it should be after all). Liberty would have made very good friends with my South American bicycle Traicho, with his milk crate instead of panniers. She has two kitchens, comfortable berths and a lot of space on the front deck. We are taking good care of her and I am sure she’s gonna take good care of us in the coming months.

Liberty was docked at the international marina in Kochi – the only marina in India and the only marina between Dubai and Singapore. This is where we did most of the preparation work. We had plenty of space on the pier to do our work and have a good time. The marina is on the island of Bolgatty – the first island settled by Europeans in India, basically where the colonization of the whole subcontinent began. The marina is attached to a five-star (well…) resort that is housed in a Dutch palace from the 18th century. There is a nice swimming pool that we use for free and the views of the city across the river/bay are nice. A very quiet place and perfect for us.

We also managed to get to see some of the area around Kochi. We spent some time in Ernakulam, a satellite city of Kochin, across the water, mostly for shopping. And we did a great day trip in our dingy up the backwaters of Kerala. I am certainly coming back to India – an ocean of cultures, landscapes, people and smells in itself.

So this is the first and long blog post, therefore a bit dry, from this trip. I hope to be able to update as much as possible from where the real adventures will happen.

We are now anchored in the bay of Kochin and hopefully tomorrow we will finish doing the paperwork for clearing out and leave on the long voyage to East Timor. 40-50 days of sailing, probably not much connection to the outside world.

We have a facebook page about the trip: https://www.facebook.com/libertygoingeast