Trip Reports

1000 Miles To Windward (11-Dec-2001-10-00):
1000 AM local time, Tuesday, December 11 (0200 Dec. 11 UTC) 01 11 N 104 06 E. Temp. 86, Humidity 80%, Cloud Cover 100%. At a slip, Nongsa Point Marina, Batam, Indonesia. (Across the Singapore Strait from Singapore)

When we returned from the river expedition and prepared once again to go out and wage war, which is how we conceived of it, we decided to change down to our 90% from the Genoa we had unfortunately had up until Kumai. When we went to do this we discovered that the part of the furler extrusion that connects to the drum, and therefore takes the strain of turning the entire extrusion, had become a tangled mess of aluminum. (For you non-sailors, the furler is a mechanism that allows us to wind up the headsail like a window shade.) This was due to the failure of a bearing inside the extrusion holding it straight and off the forestay, which was not an issue until the whole rig was put under so much tension during the passage from Bali. Even Master Bosun Terry Shrode, who always describes gear failure in relaxed terms, was a bit worried about this one. It was a complete mess, seeming to not allow room for a fix. If we couldn't jury rig something, it would comprise a dire situation: with 600 heavy upwind miles to go, we would have to raise and lower the sail on the extrusion slot every time we needed to douse or hoist. This would be a daunting prospect even for both of us, when a thunderstorm headed our way.

Mr. Shrode managed a genius repair using more bearings, many hose clamps, and some J. B. Weld. The latter didn't do much, but with it and the hose clamps we hoped that we could use the furler, if we never used it to reef. This meant keeping too much sail or not enough sail up at times, but we couldn't risk the strain on that section that reefing would entail. We knew how important it was to have just the right amount of power at all times. Facing that mess out there with questionable gear was weighing heavily on the Captain's mind.

I mentioned a few missives ago that the day before we entered the Kumai River, we experienced the first one of many thunderstorms we were to encounter on this trip. We had seen squalls all the way from California. They aren't all the same. Sometimes they don't do anything to the wind, sometimes they shut it off and there's heavy rain. Then, other times, the breeze builds as the cold wind, dropping down from 30,000 feet or more, rushes out below the thunderhead.

The thunderstorms of Borneo, which occur here more frequently than any other place on the globe, appear on the horizon as a black and sinister band of clouds. They don't mess around, but attack you within minutes. When they hit, they mean business, and carry lightening, rain, and winds in excess of 50 knots. But they never blew from anywhere useful, just right on the nose.

The first couple of these were pretty exciting because we prepared ourselves for our usual 35-knot breeze and that's a little too much sail to have up in 55 knots. (On one of these, Paul's anemometer read 60 knots. Ours is broken.) Not a few boats on this passage shredded their headsails by not dealing with them in time. We fell off to just above a beam reach, where we could control the amount of wind in the sails by luffing up just a little, and took off at 10-11 knots. We suffered no harm other than that necessitating a change of underwear. Soon enough, we learned to roll up the headsail completely and if it wasn't already tucked in, which was unusual, put a double reef in the main. The Captain decided our policy would be that if these developed when one of us was asleep, the off-watch person would be awakened before it hit. One of us could handle things, if nothing went wrong, but if something happened, by the time the other person was awake and had his harness on, we could lose a sail. Losing a little sleep was preferable. One night, both jib sheets went overboard in one of these because we had changed to some different jib cars that were larger and allowed our normal figure-eight to escape. The Captain crawled up on the deck to retrieve them as the wind raged, and thought by comparison to slogging to windward day after day, it was quite a bit of fun.

Excitement is one thing, but the last thing we wanted was to be robbed of our hard-earned miles by yet another obstacle to add to headwinds, chop, and current. In one 36 hour period we experienced four of these, and since they left dead air in their wake and blew us off course, each one might set us back as much as four hours. Doesn't sound like much, I guess.

Now we'd have these monsters to deal with, with the crippled furler in the back of our minds. Nonetheless, there was nothing for it but to do it, so right after Okiva, we weighed anchor and turned to face the sea. After departing the Kumai River, we set ourselves again out into the westerlies blowing along the coast, and tacked up to the southwest tip of Kalimantan. Here we hoped that, if the wind was really a westerly, when we cleared the light at Fox Bank and headed northwest, we'd be able to fetch our waypoint on port tack.

First, we had to get around the corner. At 0730 the morning of the second day, we had covered 70 miles from the river mouth, were 20 miles from the light, and were satisfied with our progress. Fifteen hours later, we were 42 miles from it. (The adverse current around this corner was about three knots.) At about 0800 the next morning we finally cleared the bank, had advanced our position about 40 miles in twenty-four hours, and were beat from tacking, sail handling, and hand steering. We changed our course to northwest. So did the wind, and there would be no fetching the mark.

A few nights later, Okiva had pulled up behind the island of Serutu, at the last point before entering the South China Sea, and anchored to effect some repairs. Not long after, during our radio contact, we realized we were very close so they shined their beacon into the night and we could see its loom aboard Maverick, perhaps four miles away. We hadn't been following each other, so it seemed weird and wonderful to be out there and just hook up like that at the end of the Java Sea. But we sailed on, not wishing to waste any time.

Soon afterwards, following another thunderstorm, the sky cleared and I saw some stars and the moon over the island. Since we almost never saw anything but clouds from the time we left Bali, this was a beautiful, serene vision, a good omen, I thought. As we rounded the island, the wind backed to the north, and I could make our course! I headed up to 310 true and was even able to crack off a little. It looked as though we were finally going to be able to sail free the rest of the way to Singapore.

Not more than five minutes of euphoria had passed before a small squall came through, and the wind stopped. After an hour or so, it came back up, and blew twenty-five. From 310 degrees, right on the nose.

This Charlie Brown kind of experience, where we convinced ourselves that around this island, or that cape, or when we finally crossed into the South China Sea from the Java Sea, Lucy would not pull the football away and we would finally, at last, be able to sail free, was to be with us for the entire passage. We had to keep telling ourselves things would change, and when they didn't, the disappointment could be bitter. All the boats on the same track had seen worse weather and endured prolonged high winds, but agreed there was something relentlessly unmerciful about this passage. Here, it seemed that the sea had turned its will against us, and was methodically and apathetically grinding us down, just waiting us out until something blew.

Every skipper and crew had to press on day after day, with two particularly troubling worries. One was there might be a major gear failure, or failure in judgment, as the boats and crews were being pressed very hard; in fact, much gear did fail. If the wrong thing broke--if the wrong sail blew out, for example--progress to windward, we all knew, may become impossible. This led to the other concern, which may be hard for the reader to appreciate and was not openly voiced among us, and that was that it really seemed possible we might not make it; until the moment we finally were released from the trap we were in, the question remained undecided. On Maverick, we'd never felt that way before on a passage. Usually, when progress is slow, it is because there is not any wind, and therefore little strain on anything, or anyone, except waiting. But here, the slow progress was matched with day after day of rough conditions and grueling work, and it wore down your will, and your confidence.

On Okiva, even Paul Moore's confidence began to fade, and that's saying something. Not that he ever whined, or anything of the sort. They had multiple mechanical and electrical problems, all of which they managed to find some way to deal with but could not properly fix. They were also very concerned about fuel, and tired. Okiva, according to Paul, can't really make any progress to windward in a breeze without the engine. It was not at all out of the question that if the wind continued to blow hard, they would run out of fuel in the middle of the South China Sea. I have no doubt Paul would have figured out something, but it would have to have involved going backwards. He'd never run into this problem before, because of Okiva's long range, the low chance of encountering an upwind passage of this length, and the large distance between ports on this run. But the main weakness of the motorsailer is that when you find yourself in a situation where you must go upwind without the motor, you've got a problem. Usually it's mentioned in the context of having to claw off a lee shore (which can happen in low wind as well as high wind). But this was another example of potential vulnerability and it had Paul worried, with good reason.

The boys of Maverick attempted to cheer the Okiva crew, and ourselves as well, with some success, by the heartfelt singing of that old masterpiece by the Fugs, "River of Shit."

For those wishing to follow along at home, this is sung in gospel harmony in time, at a stately adagio, with prayerful conviction:

Verse One

River of shit (I)

River of shit (IV)

Roll on (I)

Roll on (V)

River of shit (I)

Verse Two

Right from my toes

Up to my nose

Roll on

Roll on

River of shit

As we got within 100 miles of the Singapore Strait, the wind went light, but of course did not change direction. Maverick motorsailed the last one and a half days it took to do this, because of, you know, adverse current. The height of the seas was diminished, and for the first time since the third day out of Bali, Maverick was not taking waves over the foredeck. The stress level was down, as well. Almost as a footnote, we had passed over to the northern hemisphere, crossing the equator for the second and last time.

Finally, on the ninth of December, long after we had accepted beating to windward as central to the life we would live forevermore, we rounded the northeast corner of the Indonesian island of Bintan, headed into the Singapore Strait, and eased the sheets for the first time in 1000 miles. To make good that distance from Bali, we had sailed 1700 miles over the ground, not counting the side trip to Kalimantan. If you add in 25%, which I believe is conservative, for adverse current, Maverick had sailed more than 2100 miles through those waves. But Mr. Shrode's genius repair of the roller furling had stood the test of the South China Sea, and we'd made it.

So imagine how we felt when, having arrived at the Nongsa Point Marina on Batam Island, Indonesia, tired but relieved to be at a dock, we and Okiva were told that our papers were not in order and we would have to leave, immediately. (Paul and Francis of Okiva were fifteen minutes behind, and that gives you your comparison of the upwind performance of race boat Maverick vs. motorsailer Okiva. In the lighter conditions at the end of the trip they were able to use less fuel and arrived on fumes.) Your Captain pointed out to the gentleman that we needed to check out of the country at this port and could not do so if we could not check in. We were not going to turn around and go back to Kumai to straighten this out, and that was a certainty. Well, it turned out that this was a very ham fisted, yet successful, attempt at soliciting a bribe. They got $30 US from each of us, and Paul and the Captain laughed about how lame they were in getting our money. We're Americans. Shaking people down is in our blood. If we had done it there would have been no uniformed thugs, we would have gotten more money, and the victim would have felt we did him a great favor and sent us a Christmas card every year. They were too stupid to even know they needed some improvement; and after all, it worked. But Indonesia has a long way to go to become a world power, is what I think.

There were other troubles with other boats, but by far the biggest horror story of this passage was that of Oceans Free. They had left a week or two before us. We had thought we were late, but it turned out that the winds were a full six weeks early this year, and even the more prudent boats had been slammed.

Oceans Free is about a 55-footer and as Bristol as they come. It had just had a complete refit in Cairns and was easily worth a million bucks. We met the very affable Peter and his pretty wife, Lynn, in Australia and they are headed for the Red Sea on the same schedule we are.

A few days out of Bali their fuel filters began to clog in the rough seas, perhaps from bad fuel or an ineffective tank cleaning in Cairns. They had plenty of primary filters but less of the secondary and eventually ran through all their spares and could not run the engine. So they sailed the entire way, and described the trip in the same terms we did. When they finally reached the entrance to the Nongsa Marina, they were tired, and as it was dark and they decided to anchor under sail outside the channel. Peter had Admiralty charts and an electronic chart, both of which improperly located the surrounding reef. (This is not just his excuse. We know it is true, having seen the reef.) They hit it, and without an engine, could not back off. They called for help on the radio, and in ten minutes a tug from Singapore showed up to get them off. Oceans Free would be saved.

The local Indonesian officials intervened and told the tug it could not operate in Indonesian waters, and forced it to leave. On the other hand, they couldn't or wouldn't provide any assistance themselves. Peter kept issuing a "pan-pan" on the radio, and after a day or so the Indonesian navy showed up. They instructed him and his crew to leave the boat, and they would send their men aboard to get it off the reef. Even in America, I would be extremely reluctant to follow such instructions on Maverick. But in Indonesia, Peter had little doubt that this was an attempt to get him to abandon his vessel so they could strip it of its equipment. He refused, and they left, rendering no assistance and calling no other vessel to assist. Finally, after three and a half days, Peter was able to arrange for an Indonesian tug to pull him off. He still had no engine, and although he didn't know it at the time, Oceans Free had only half a keel and half a rudder left.

But Peter's no sissy, and managed to get the boat into the harbor under sail and tie up. He noticed she was handling strangely. A few days later he had her hauled in Singapore and saw the damage. The repairs will cost $150,000.

We're sailors, and nobody made us do this. We surely expect no sympathy for our struggles, because we are living an adventure many folks dream about but only a few are fortunate enough to experience. In the living of it, there can be real trouble, and real harm. But that's part of what you can expect when you raise the anchor, make your way out of the snug harbor, and set sail for the precinct of come-what-may, at the edge of the sky, beyond the west horizon

Next report more-or-less from this location: Docked Near Singapore

Back to the Progress Chart | Back to Trip Reports
Progress ChartTrip ReportsPhoto GalleryAbout MaverickThe CrewGlossary & Technical Weather Check