Indonesia to the Maldives
“Isolation causes an activation of the unconscious, and this produces something similar to the illusions and hallucinations that beset lonely wanderers in the desert, seafarers and saints.” Carl Jung
With the required documentation completed, the Harbour Master signed and stamped the port clearance[i] allowing Galaxy III to depart Padang on Wednesday 28th June, bound over 1,600 nm west for the Maldives. After a few days surfing in the Mentawai Islands 90nm from Padang, we began our passage across the expanse of the Indian Ocean.
Our latitude was around 2⁰ S, which is the northern most limit of the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) in the southern hemisphere winter, a.k.a. the Doldrums. So, the plan is to motor sail SW to 6⁰S to pick up the SE trade winds and then west with 10-15kts on a broad reach. The wind forecasts and routing software on PredictWind confirmed this was a sound plan and so, what could possibly go wrong? Over eons the doldrums have becalmed ships and sent sailors crazy – Galaxy was not about to be let off lightly on this passage.
The Indian Ocean has several swells running in different directions at the same time, creating a confused sea state. When swells travelling in opposite directions cross over, the respective heights are added, creating a peak – imagine a backwash wave at the beach, except it is 5,000m deep, so they don’t break. The criss-crossing swells roll the boat constantly with the mast and keel swinging like a pendulum. If there’s enough wind to fill the sails, it spills when the boat rolls and fills again as the sail flogs back into shape – the forces then transfer to the rigging causing the whole boat to clang and shudder. Thwump, clang, thwump, clang – sometimes the rigging sounds like human voices, other than Ben. It’s a weird feeling when you realise your mind can mess with your head like that. Spend enough time in the doldrums and jumping into the sea after a mermaid seems a perfectly reasonable thing to do.
With little or no boat speed, for a few days it became the morning routine to jump off the back with a rope in hand to wash off the salt, sweat and sunscreen. The water is a beautiful crystal-clear indigo and has a quality beyond colour and clarity that eludes any attempt to capture a photo – almost like an electric glow. The bioluminescence at night is beautiful as well.
Our morale would rise and fall with every puff of wind, electrical storm or rain squall – each time setting the sails thinking the SE trades had arrived, only to take them down again after an hour or several hours, when the wind died. With lows, there are also highs and one of these was a broad reach with the cutter rig, where Galaxy comfortably sustained 8-9kts for a few hours. It felt like a different boat in that sweet spot.
Each day I would download the wind forecast and each day it more or less said, not much wind today and tomorrow looks like 15kts. After a week of false hope, I began to wise up – it was a bit like Groundhog Day as I wondered how I needed to change for the wind to start.
I’m feeling buggered and a study of the 2006-7 Velux 5 Oceans round-the-world race suggests why: “All skippers stated that poor yacht performance in light winds was one of the most difficult stressors to deal with. …….. skippers would spend a lot of time and energy trying to find wind to get the yacht moving. These efforts would subsequently result in less sleep, greater physical exhaustion and emotional instability.”
The supermarket in Padang had a limited range of groceries and we bought some fresh fruit & vegetables, rice and a chicken. So, our provisions were tight from the start and Ben instituted rationing within a week of leaving Padang. The plan to fill the gap with fish didn’t play out too well – we hooked eight and landed two, one of which was a 1.3m mahi mahi estimated to weigh over 18kg.The beer also ran dry before long and with a diet primarily of rice, lentils and canned food, there was no need to run the fridge any longer. We both lost some weight.
We also have a deadline to be in the Maldives by 22nd July – Ben has booked a surf charter and I am meeting Deanne for a few weeks together. We allowed 3 weeks for a 2-week trip and thought a 1 week contingency buffer would be plenty. Each day we whittle away the buffer and there’s a running tally of calculations – distance to go, fuel remaining, average sailing speed required to make 22nd July etc. We use ¾ of our fuel in the first half of the passage – so to keep 30 hrs motoring in hand we have no option but to sit and wait for wind – 2 kts of speed over the ground feels like progress and other days we heave-to and go backwards in circles, with 1 to 1 ½ knots of Equatorial Counter Current against us. Constantly evaluating scenarios, I considered diverting from Male down to Cocos Keeling (Australian Territory) and settled on the Port of Gan on the southernmost Addoo Atoll, which is 0⁰41’ S. This shaved a few hundred nm from the passage and saved having to cross the doldrums again to Male at 4⁰ N – we could fly from Gan to Male. The math still looks OK, IF the wind shows up.
We sighted just one ship in the first week before crossing the shipping lane during the second week. At the end of the second week, on Saturday night, we came across a fishing vessel which was well lit and without AIS. At the end of the long lines of several kilometres they placed flashing red, blue & green LEDs and so we were keeping a keen watch to avoid tangling the lines.
The fishing boat decided to pay us a visit and waved us down with a whistle and lights. Whether they heard my radio call or not I’ll never know. We were a long way from anywhere – 600nm south of Sri Lanka and 500nm east of Maldives. The moon had yet to rise and it was pitch dark. We felt vulnerable if they had malicious intent – it turns out they were from Sri Lanka and simply wanted to barter fish for food, beer and cigarettes. Couldn’t help them with beer or cigarettes and traded a sailfish for some canned food from our meagre rations as well as some colouring pencils and a deck of uno cards. Passing the goods between boats in a rolling sea takes some doing and once they had the bag that’s where their attention went, so we moved on beyond the long lines. While the sailfish was over a metre long, the fillet was quite thin and we’ll only get two meals from it – I overpaid for this one.
The wind remained inconsistent for several more days and we continue with the run rate calculations for our deadline. On the last day, the SE trade wind finally settled in for a downwind run to the Port of Gan, arriving first light on Thursday 20th July. After some back and forth to find an anchorage, a boatload of 6 officials boarded to complete the clearing in formalities in an hour or so. The Maldives became independent from British rule in 1965 and the requirement for 12 documents to clear into port gives the British a clear lead over the Dutch in Indonesia, though the process itself was much faster. Note to self – remember to get a boat stamp made up; so far I have improvised using my fingerprint – it worked in Indonesia and also here in the Maldives.
Over 20 days since leaving the Mentawai Islands, we completed the longest passage so far and also made our deadline – there were several days I thought we wouldn’t make it on time. After three months apart, the prospect of Deanne drinking cocktails at the resort on her own wasn’t a good one.
[i] The documents required to be signed and stamped for Port Clearance include, crew list, customs declaration, quarantine clearance, ship sanitation control exemption certificate, ship’s medical chest certificate, certificate of water quality at port, airport and ground-crossing for conveyance and ships health book.