Pirates of the Southern Seas
IMPORTANT! This post is not chronological. We skipped some posts about Indonesia and Papua New Guinea FOR NOW. They will be translated later. For the moment we will post in advance a few stories from our sails with the yacht “Alabama”.
(So in short: before this we traveled some more islands in Indonesia, mainly hitchhiking, then we spent two incredible months in Papua New Guinea and found a yacht to Fiji. There we later encountered “Alabama” and its lovely crew who quickly became our family.)
Let’s go back to “Alabama”. We are accommodated in one of the many cabins of the boat and everyone had their own. The yacht is really spacious, with wooden cladding that gives the impression of an old ship. Not only her current crew is unorthodox, but its whole story. We find some documents on board, from which we learn that one of his previous owners used the boat to traffic drugs, and three members of the crew were killed, one of whom was beheaded by pirates or drug barons in southern Philippines. Well, we certainly will not sail with her around the Philippines 🙂
Lines are being pulled, people climb up and down between the engine compartment and the deck. One is running, the other is rocking in the hammock, the third one smoking a cigarette, the fourth brewing coffee in the kitchen, the fifth taking a shower naked , the sixth singing or playing the guitar… The crew consists of ten really interesting people with dreadlocks and hippy outlooks. The atmosphere is joyous.
Getting ready for the sailing
Tom the captain is an Englishman, who had spent years on boats and ships, with extensive experience in sailing. He is responsible, with penetrating blue eyes, possessing all the skills to command a team without forcing his opinion or pushing people too hard. Arfa, his girlfriend, is a Taiwanese art person, always dreaming, sometimes looking at things with eyes wide open, all the time doing something or cooking.
James, Tom’s brother, had worked on a fishing boat in New Zealand and knows about sailing too. He is covered in tattoos of skulls and scary creatures, with a shaved head and really into heavy metal music. Sometimes he looks quite fearsome, but is actually a sweetheart. He and his girlfriend Carrie, who is Maori, have come to spend two-three weeks with Tom and help him with the sailing to Vanuatu.
Carrie is also quite unique a person, also tattooed, with earrings on her nose, dreadlocks and an incredible story in her past. Her mother is a Polish jew who had run away from Europe during World War II and went to New Zealand. There she married to a half Maori, half Serbian guy, a captain. So Carrie has spent her life on a boat, she crossed the Atlantic as a child, lived on a secluded island in Scotland, kibutzes in Israel, hippie tippies in South Africa and is currently a fisher-woman in New Zealand.
The crew on the deck table
There are also two French guys on board. Sebastian is looking like a French Corsair. He is joyous, likes spiritual adventures, dresses always in shabby clothes and have sailed on different boats, he has found through various hippie communities.
Celine is forty something years old lady, who came to “Alabama” by accident after she got disappointed by some other captain on another boat, going to Australia, who was too nervous. She had noticed our boat and had asked the crew to join. Our people, who are always with open hearts and doors, had taken her.
Another interesting person is Sony, a guy from Fiji, the engineer of the boat, hired by the owner, Mr. Windy. He is small boned, always smiling and full of energy. The only problem is that he doesn’t know anything about engineering and is not very fond of working. He is so nice, that nobody cares what he does and is part of the group.
The engineer Sony
With us is also Mr. Choi, the Korean manager of the feat we are about to start, close friend to the owner. He is a typical Korean, has family and owns a business, and is absolutely baffled by the actions of the crew, by the people walking naked around and by the open-minded views of the team. Anyway it seems that he likes this and all the people here. He is doing well on board and the only problem is he can’t eat anything but Korean food, so he had brought tons of Korean noodles and sauces. Same we think is valid for most of the Koreans, who are not adaptive to foreign cuisines at all. Choi is a Christian, Presbyterian, and his mother is a pastor in a church.
So… we are sailing away from the main island. Winds blow, but for now we are using the engines. The most interesting part is that we will be sailing without any modern navigation devices, we don’t even have a way to measure the wind’s direction and force. We will use paper maps, compass and the the GPS of a mobile phone.
We have a device to measure the depth of the sea but the radar and the long wave radio transmitter don’t work. At least we have a satellite phone, just we aren’t sure if it works. The sails are old and sewn here and there. The engines and the generator are supposed to be working fine after being fixed and one of them even replaced.
Not one toilet or shower work. So we will use a bucket and an outside shower. For now we are optimistic. The distance to Vanuatu is 550 sea miles (1017 kilometers), which we are supposed to cross in four days. Mr. Shushtari and I are still dazed by how fast it all happened – as if by a magic wand.
Things change the moment we go out into the open sea. The waves are big and the whole yacht is rocking heavily from one side to the other. One by one the sailors get sea-sick. First is Sony, the engineer from Fiji, who crashes into his cabin and we don’t see him again until we reach Vanuatu, except the first night, when Mr. Shushtari saw him to make some magic tricks with his fingers crossed on the blocked hydraulic system and reading some prayers. Some really elaborated engineer techniques from Fiji obviously… Then all women and Mr. Choi start feeling sick. One by one we go to our cabins. It rocks heavily but I manage to not vomit. Soon dusk falls down on our small pirate boat. It seems like the night won’t be a calm one.
The waves are getting bigger and at some point during the night the hydraulic system fails permanently, the rudder stops working and the autopilot is off. Urgently we take out a long wooden rod called tiller. It is attached directly to the rudder and with a system of ropes and rolls attached to one of its end it is used to steer the boat manually. But this is not an easy way to navigate so we move in circles or at best zigzagging. When you steer you have to look at the compass constantly in order to not lose direction.
The captain Tom steers the boat with the newly installed system
The men jump around euphoric by the action taking place and drink rum “Captain Morgan”. Their hairs are messed up, their clothes are shabby and their eyes shining madly. Everything is like in a novel for sea wolves except that no one has a wooden leg or an eye patch. Anyway the French guy Sebastian recently got hurt while fixing the boat and has a wound on his face and a missing teeth, resembling quite a lot a real pirate, as we imagine them.
At some point during the night the brave sailors manage to lay the boat alongside the bay of the beautiful island Wayasewu and everyone crashes dead tired in the hammocks, couches and berths. We will think of how we will fix everything tomorrow. All that we can say for now is: what a great start of the new journey! 🙂
Our navigation system on the phone and the pirate Sebastian
The boat is rocking slowly in the silent bay. We hear birds chirping and can see a white stripe of sand, coco-nut trees and few houses. Wayasewu is the most southern of the island group Yasawas, the most popular group among tourists, though it seems that in our bay there are no hotels or tourists. It looks like a wild pristine paradise. A local guy walks in the sea with his dogs. After the past crazy night we are engulfed in a tropical calmness.
A short video of a day on “Alabama”
We spend the morning diving among the corals. Mr. Shushtari and I even manage to swim to the shore and walk on the beach. There is no one around. In the early afternoon the broken hydraulic system is somewhat fixed and we raise the anchor. This time we leave Fiji waters. Back in open sea, the waves get at us immediately. Sea sickness grabs the crew by the throat. The hydraulic systems breaks down again.
Obviously we will use the manual system for the next four days. It is labor intensive and hard to follow the direction, but we will manage somehow. But… fun is just about to start. Soon the engine overheats and the radio stops working. We continue sailing though.
Second day of the sailing
Sea sickness reigns. Everything is shaking, rocking, crashing, rattling. People are in their cabins half conscious. Only men take turns to steer using the manual system, the compass and the smartphone. The sky is clear but the sea is rough. Waves hit one side of the boat hard and every few seconds foam covers the round hatches and soon some of them start leaking water inside. We are now with one engine and sails.
Cooking in the kitchen is a real test. It is actually an act of art to even keep oneself standing. You have to balance tilting oneself extremely form one side to the other and holding oneself on something fixed at all times. All things slide away and have to be fixed or attached to something. The doors of the cupboards open and close noisily. All the pots and sauce pans rattle and roll around.
Because of this we cook mainly instant noodles, white rice and freshly caught fried tuna fish. In addition many people don’t eat at all because of the sea sickness. Sony, the Fijian engineer, hasn’t eaten a thing in two days.
Sony trying to recover
I don’t know how it happens but when we made some calculations we find out there are still four days of sailing left.
At night we hear people shouting and running around. Waves have broken the hatches of two of the cabins and the whole beds and the people sleeping on them are soaked. One wave opens our hatch too but we somehow manage to close it and tighten it before we get wet. The situation is quite miserable. “The wet mice” move to the couches in the kitchen. Hatch windows are closed and tightened, but still continue to leak. Hard night…
I feel dazed and my body hurts from the long time I have spent in bed, but at the same time waves of joy and happiness fill me in because of this great adventure in the middle of the blue water ocean. I can’t stand on my feet, can’t read, all in all can’t do anything. Walking is painful, the world moves before my eyes, how will I be able to reach the outside toilet?!
I crawl out. As I walk towards the sails I feel like any wave can take me away in the sea. Then comes the art balancing on the bucket and trying to not let it slip. The thought of falling down on the ground and the bucket and its contents spilling on top of me is terrifying.
The wind is cool. I lie down and look at the horizon. The water is magical with its silver waves forming a lead-like sparkling surface, as if it is molten metal. The light changes and the water is colored in the darkest, deepest blue that can only be seen inside the ocean. Ink-colored depths as if from a dream, cause the soul to forget about the world. Or maybe these colors don’t exist and are only in my delirium…
It is time for the daily dose of adrenaline on the boat. Tom goes to see if there is a fish caught on the fishing rod and, there is a surprise. The propeller and its axis, that connects the propeller to the engine, are broken, swinging outside the boat. Panic follows. If the propeller breaks away it will leave a huge hole in the boat and we will sink in seconds. Everyone except the sea sick are so overwhelmed by this fact that the idea of an imminent death can’t still reach their minds. Men manage to catch the propeller with fishing nets while the boat is sailing, which is really hard to do. The situation is saved for now. A cork screw is prepared to close the eventual hole, but it is OK, it seemed that luckily the axis has broken outside the boat.
Later the front sail is torn in two, but luckily we have another in reserve. At the end of the day we take a deep breath of relief, though we are officially without engines, sailing only on sails and with no hydraulic system for steering. Because of our slow speed and the zigzagging there are as always four days left till we reach our destination.
Another day of extreme situations. We need to take the propeller out of the water. Before we start this complicated endeavor the captain Tom and his brothers James put on masks and fins and jump in the water to take a look. We stop the boat and they enter into the rough sea tied with ropes to the railings. Suddenly, in order for things to become even more extreme, as if they are not extreme enough, someone sees a shark on the other side of the boat. To our relief it swims away and our friends climb safely back.
We start the procedure of pulling the few meters long iron rod out of the water with the help of a rope and a winch. The boat rocks and this makes the iron piece to swing more and more. The situation is going out of control. The heavy iron rod swings out of control and almost kills few of the crew and then starts hitting the boat, breaking part of the wooden rail. And the end the crew manages to catch it without anyone being hurt. We put the axis and the propeller on the roof of the yacht.
There are few more “pleasant” surprises in the afternoon. We discover that the engine compartment is filling slowly with water. We can’t find why. Another crisis emerges when we find out we can’t start the generator and without it can’t turn on the pumps to take out the water. If it rises 20-30 centimeters more the water will enter the engine and the generator. Then all will be wet and we will not be able to start the pumps… if this happens, well, we will slowly sink, and any land is far, far away 🙂
Of course we have life boats but no one has checked if they open properly, and top of this their technical examine due date has expired a month ago. We faced death so many times these days that no one is panicking this time. After releasing some fumes the generator is on and the water is pumped out. We are saved again!
The engine room
At night we sing French chansons, counting the days left to reach the land, that are as always four, which is normal, having in mind our current speed of two knots – the normal speed of a pedestrian 🙂
Everyone is exhausted by the unexpectedly prolonged journey, the constant rocking, the cold wind, the manual steering, the night shifts, eating all the time fish and rice, almost always lying down, the sea sickness, the slow speed… Sony is very thin as he is not eating at all, being constantly in his bed. My body aches by being in bed all the time and not getting enough sleep because of the constant rocking of the boat that makes my body roll on the bed from one side to the other constantly.
In one of the cabins there is some family drama going on. Later water enters through the exhaust pipe of the brand new generator and now it is totally out of order. Good news are that today the autopilot starts and the GPS says that there are just 40 miles left to Port Villa, which means that we will probably reach it tomorrow.
Early in the morning we finally see land! “Alabama” is swinging towards the coast of Efate, the island where the capital of Vanuatu, called Port Vila, is. We all go out on the deck feeling really happy. We will not die, at least not this time. The boat is still rocking so we, the people with sea sickness, have to lie down some more time. We spread the big sail and approach the land. The coast is so close. There are a few resorts, villages and beautiful jungle.
We celebrate being alive in Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu
At 3 p.m. we throw the anchor in the quiet big bay of Port Vila. Welcome to Vanuatu!
Locals practice walking on water in the islands of Yasawas 🙂