Trip Reports

Merry Christmas From Phuket (25-Dec-2001-11-00):
1100 AM local time, Tuesday, December 25 (0400 Dec. 25 UTC) 07 49 S 098 21 E. Temp. 83, Humidity 74%, Cloud Cover 60%. At anchor, Chalong Bay, Phuket Island, Thailand.

Season's greetings from the crew of Maverick.

It's a pretty Christmas day here in Phuket. Mr. Shrode has left for home, and the Captain is alone on the boat. Neither of us had thought of returning to the Bay Area before Maverick does, and we talked about his abrupt departure. Even though he'll be home for Christmas, because of the circumstances of his mother's illness it will not be with unalloyed happiness that he returns to see his family.

As for the Captain, my Christmas festivities will consist of writing to you all, as this is really the most pleasant thing I can think of doing in the way of celebration. We have not really been here long enough to meet many of the other cruisers in our anchorage and the ones we know from other boats are not nearby, so I'll not be joining any of them, which is a bit of a shame. But don't cry for me, America. I'd rather be with the raven-haired Theresa today, but I'm sure this is a Christmas I'll remember.

The subject of this report is all the bad things that didn't happen to us in Indonesia and the South China Sea. It's most probably just luck, but it is more pleasing to think that others' warnings about the sinister behavior of people around here were based on fears and rumors, and not observation of the true nature of the folks who populate this area of the world. We still have to go through the Red Sea, where some of these concerns will again surface, but we'll give the report up till now. The five things we were repeatedly warned about were lots of dangerous debris in the water, big ships that will run you down, fishermen carrying inappropriate lights or none at all and not knowing the rules of the road, pirates, and Muslims. Other than the last, these have long been thought of as the dangers of the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca. We'll address them in order.

1. Debris in the water. I'll make this short: a bit more than usual, but not so bad.

2. Large ships that will run you down. We didn't get run down, or come close to it. It seems to me that the busier the shipping lanes, the less likely that ships are not paying attention. You know, they really don't want to hit you, since it would mean a big legal and red tape hassle. No captain wants to deal with that or have it on his resume. We saw a lot of shipping, but where possible stayed out of the lanes, or maneuvered to miss the ships when we couldn't avoid the lanes. A big deal is made out of the fact that in the Strait of Malacca, you have a choice of either being in the shipping lanes or running into fish traps along the shore. But this gives you a fairly safe zone that is rarely less than three miles wide! Unless you're a singlehander and asleep, that should be well within your capabilities in terms of navigational accuracy. Another supposed nightmare is that you have to cross the "highway" of heavy ships approaching and departing Singapore. Well, they are huge and going fast, but lawd, there are usually at least a couple of miles between them. If you feel this is too much traffic for you, I wouldn't be comfortable on your boat on any given weekend on San Francisco Bay where numerous regattas are being held amongst the shipping lanes, ferries, and tour boats, never mind being on the line at the start of the Vallejo Race. I mean, see that big old ship? Don't run into it. This doesn't seem like that much of an intellectual challenge.

3. Local fishing boats without lights, or with the wrong lights, whose skippers don't observe the rules of the road. It is to a certain extent true that one may see boats with creative navigational lights. One night I even saw one without lights, but he stayed well clear. Mostly, what you see are small boats fishing through the night with an all-around white light, and I believe most of these were anchored but some may have been drifting. The light may not be technically correct, but it's certainly visible and you'd have to be a pretty big fool to run into it. I'm not aware that we saw any trawlers at night, which should have been green over white. If we did, they may not have been properly lit. But it would have been kind of stupid to approach them and see if you could get tangled in their lines, just to satisfy yourself that they didn't have the right lights up. What we did was give all vessels a pretty wide berth at night. It meant keeping a good lookout, that's all.

Now, I think it's not unfair to opine that there's a little bit of a western, yacht-club fussiness here. I mean, most of these boats don't just have the wrong lights. They have no charts, no radio, no compass, no pfd's, no fire extinguisher, no visible or audible signaling device, no throwable cushions, not to mention no EPIRB, no life raft, no flares, etc. In fact, many of these boats have no packing gland, so the boat is effectively sinking at all times. They just constantly bail, as if that were part of manning the helm. The crews of these boats, large or small, are poor folks. They survive out here not because they have all the right safety equipment, but in spite of the fact that they don't. They have been at sea since they were five, their fathers were fishermen, their grandfathers were fishermen, and their uncles and brothers and everyone they know is a fisherman. They are lifetime professionals who know more about this area of the sea than any twenty average cruisers laid end-to-end, and if they didn't have sense enough to either be visible or get out of the way when they aren't, not even one generation of them would have survived. They undoubtedly have their own signals and rules, which work perfectly well for everyone who knows the territory; and a cruiser from California, take it from the Captain, is not among those who know the territory. Often, after we'd shaken off the effects of one of these fifty-knot squalls, we'd see some guy in an open, twenty-foot boat, with no protection from the elements but a threadbare cotton shirt, placidly putting along, far out of sight of land. We are humbled; we don't presume to question this man's seamanship.

4. Pirates. Well, Maverick sashayed her way through the dreaded South China Sea and Strait of Malacca, hiked up her skirt, and with a wink and a nudge, cooed, "Hey, Sailor," and nobody answered the call. We got desperate enough that we'd sail over to some likely prospect and yell, "Hey, are you guys pirates?" But usually, they'd wave and smile and hold up a bonito. Maybe this was some kind of code for "give me your money and your women," but if so they were disappointed and somehow allowed us to escape; and as a result, we were disappointed too, in our pirate hunt.

There were over 400 reported acts of piracy in the year 2000 in this area, so someone is getting hit. I have no idea how many were reported by cruisers, but I can't believe it's a large number. Many people have reported being very frightened by boats acting strangely, or seeming to follow them or trap them. A woman we met, Jay of the boat Joy, had an interesting experience that is relevant here. She said that at Kumai she had to hire two Indonesians as crew because some romance or something stole her other crew away. She said the Indonesians didn't know how to sail but were very nice and stood their watches diligently. At one point, they were apparently being hassled by a couple of Indonesian fishing boats. Here her crew was quite an asset and talked to them on the radio, but couldn't get them to go away. The reason? Not piracy, but superstition. They didn't want her to cross their bow, because if she did so, she would leave her bad luck with them. But since they had nets between the two boats, they couldn't let her go behind, either. Now one who has a suspicious mind might surmise that this is a complete misinterpretation or worse, misrepresentation on the part of her crew; but on the other hand, they at no time showed any concern that the boat might be piratized, and since they wouldn't get paid if this happened, you'd think they'd have an issue with that. So there you go. Sometimes you gotta know the territory.

5. Muslims. Aside from the story about the mysterious answer from the girl in Kumai, the worst experience we had with Muslims was the following: The day before we were to leave Nongsa in Batam, a man in the marina office begged me, with some emotion, to delay our departure for a day so that we could experience 'id al-fitr, the festivities commemorating the end of Ramadan. This seemed to Ship's Ecumenical Studies Expert Terry Shrode and the Captain to be a splendid idea, so we elected to leave a day later to observe the occasion. We hired a car for the following day to take us wherever the celebrations were. But when the driver arrived, he said that there were no such festivities in the immediate vicinity. We didn't believe him, and asked him to take us to the largest mosque in the nearby city. When we arrived, it was deserted. There were no festivals in the streets, or any crowds, nor any sign of celebration. A little Muslim humor? We'll never know.

At any rate, we just have to report that we have no exciting news about hostile, terrifying Muslims. They were all as sweet and friendly as you could expect anyone to be. If they saw fit to make fun of the Captain's bearded Osama look, he's man enough to deal with that. We of course cannot be sure there weren't Muslims lurking in the bushes with hate in their eyes, just waiting for the best moment to ambush us, which, drat the luck, never came for them. But we'll just continue to imagine, in our naïve way on this Christmas, that people of all faiths are for the most part people of good faith, until we have a good reason to believe otherwise.

Have a happy holiday, and don't worry too much about pirates.

PS Remember that this missive is a current, real-time one and occurs after all the ones describing our trip from Bali to Singapore, even though you haven't received all of them yet. Just look at the dates at the top if you wish to read them in order.

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