Don’t leave port on a Friday

Maybe it was the bananas, hanging so innocently in the cockpit, or perhaps we shouldn’t have left on a Friday. More likely, it’s time I accepted the adage that cruising is simply an exercise in fixing your boat at exotic locations. For the past 2 weeks we’ve fixed our boat in the open ocean, every day. We left Pangkor in Malaysia, sun gleaming off our freshly painted hull, the boat laden down with provisions and chocolate stuffed in every available space, proud of our well prepared selves, Our itinerary is ambitious and limited, Malaysia to Sydney, as fast as we can safely manage, stopping only for fuel and fresh provisions. It was time to get back to reality and lucrative employment. When we weighed anchor at Pangkor Island, we waved farewell to the land, next stop Kudat, some 1000 or so miles away.

First day at sea, the salt water pump in the galley leaked puddles all over boat, necessitating a day long repair activity.

Second day a sea, more puddles all over the galley. The culprit this time was a blocked drain in the flooded anchor locker, seeping its contents under our bed and beneath the settee. A trickier fix, we had the heave to in choppy seas and head winds for Fred to clamber in and poke around with a screw driver to clear blockage. No more flooding, but the scent of damp now pervades our cabin.

Third day at sea, in the frantically busy Singapore harbour with 20 knots of wind on the nose, while avoiding giant cargo ships, a sickening ripping sound heralded the demise of our mainsail. The seam above the third reef had given up and the sail flapped wildly and uselessly in the glaring light. It took the rest of the day to motor painfully and slowly through the shipping lane, against the whipping wind, choppy seas and strong current to a safe spot to anchor. We feared Paul, our lovely new crew member, may be losing faith in the boat. Instead, he was a dab hand with a needle and thread, and after a day of what he dubbed the ‘Blair Stitch Project’ we were back on our way.

The Blair Stitch Project

The Blair Stitch Project

Day 4 at sea, another sickening rip, and the resurrected sail gave up again, the fabric ripping all the way across. No stitch job could fix it this time but at least the damage was further down so we could roll up the sail on the second reef and continue on. It would slow us down and potentially require a stop in the Philippnes for a replacement but we could keep going.

Day 4 at sea, later that afternoon, more ripping, another seam gave way, rendering the sail unusable and our spirits a little lower. But there’s not much to keep you occupied on a calm day at at sea, so day 5 was spent on deck with our sewing kit, an up the sail went again.

Every day there was something new. The autopilot packed up, freshwater pump failed, the spreader light smashed on deck, fishing lure was eaten by a fish too impolite to offer himself for dinner in return. We added some self inflicted problems just to keep us busy, breaking the gas regulator on the stove, leaving only one burner. It keeps us busy.

It seems the sea is conspiring against our rushed schedule. The need for a new mainsail is now inevitable. So instead of dashing through the Philippines as planned, we might now have an extra couple of weeks waiting for the sail to be made. The cruising life is not ready to let us go just yet.

Delays, delays

Delays, delays

Location:South China Sea

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Wedding Crashers

Evelyn’s home-stay, just south of Kota Kinabalu, was a rambling house, surrounded by overgrown bush and coconut trees, dogs and chickens getting underfoot and oddly, tanks of small terrified looking frogs scattered around the garden.  We’d stopped by on our way back from Kinabatangan River, to visit our friend Yves who’d just gotten out of hospital with a severely broken leg. He was spending a week recuperating before flying back to France.  The poor guy had fallen off his boat, onto the hard concrete 3 metres below.  He may have gotten a softer landing at sea, but at least on land there was someone to rescue him.

We’d been in Borneo for 3 months now, but hadn’t made it further than Kudat at the northern tip.  Its a quiet little town where nothing much happens, but it does have a boat yard with a fully operational crane, so Mary Blair got her annual haul out, scrape down and repaint.  Its a dirty job but someone’s got to do it… not me, I quite inconsiderately escaped back to Ireland for a month while Fred got to work, expecting it all to be finished by my return.  But a man alone with an old boat and a scraper gets ideas in his head and a dirty job turned into a 6 week project.   Years of paint layers were scraped back to the bare aluminium and fared to perfection.   I didn’t quite escape all the work though, and got back in time to help a very thin Fred complete the last couple of coats.

Dirty Work


Bare Bum

Almost there!

High rise living

It felt a little strange to live onboard, dry docked, perched atop concrete blocks, for once completely still.  Below lay the muddy yard, and the stink of fish, and a pack of dogs.   Our neighbours were mainly wooden fishing trawlers, in for their yearly makeover.  Entire extended families, children appearing from every porthole on land for a brief respite from life lived at sea.  It wasn’t the fanciest spot we’ve stopped in, the toilet block rivaled the trainspotting loo and was a mecca for every creepy crawly around.  The geckos did their best to keep the bug numbers down, but were also a suicidal bunch, ever in need of rescuing from drowning in the sink.

It was, as well, a particularly accident-prone place, with sailors tumbling from their boats, down steps and off bikes, broken limbs abounded. Given my clumsiness, and the encroaching boredom, it was best to perhaps escape for a while, so we left the boat behind and took a little holiday from our holiday.

The Kinabatangan river was a wildlife wonderland, and I’ll post pictures soon.  It was on our way back that we passed through Penampang and paid a visit to the convalescing Yves.  We’d barely had the chance to inspect his scars before Evelyn, the owner of the B&B, herded us down the road and straight into her neighbour’s wedding.  The open barn was packed with the villagers, and food and a band of gong players.   No one seemed to mind 2 quite embarrassed foreigners, a foot taller than everyone else, turning up, and thrust plates of food at us, and dragged us onto the dance floor.

The reluctant wedding guest.

Wedding Band

One guy had appointed himself official beer enforcer and made rounds of the guests insisting that they down pints of beer every ten minutes or so.  It wasn’t so different from an Irish Wedding.

Getting jiggy with the beer man

We escaped eventually, but not before Evelyn made us stash a few cans of beer from the drinks table to bring back for Yves.  Model wedding guests!  This was an audience participation kind of a B&B and Evelyn got us started on making dinner while she ran a few errands.  She searched around for a DVD to keep us entertained while chopping veggies, eventually unearthing one from the back of a drawer, and waved goodbye.  And so we were left alone with “House of Whips”, which started innocently enough but soon descended into a fine example of 1970s British porn, just in time for the other guests to wander out of their rooms, it was a scramble to dive for the stop button and then hide the evidence.

We left a couple of days later without anymore pornographic incidents, a tree planted in our honour and an invitation to come back and live in Penampang.  Evelyn can’t imagine why anyone would want to live anywhere else.  She’s already got a wife lined up for Yves!

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Peace and Quiet

Finally some peace!  We ‘d stopped for the night on the west of Masbate Island.  It was the first time since we’ve arrived that we were far from human inhabitation.  We were anchored in a wide bay and the sun was setting over the still water and silence  surrounded us save for the hiccupping bird that follows us everywhere…  wonderful. It’s a noisy old place here most of time, constant horn blowing (if it moves, beep, if it stays still, beep!), the fighting cocks a doodling, techno music competing with karaoke through the night, Bangka engines roaring right beside us and always everybody shouting.  Mobile phones are everywhere, but roaring your head off seems a preferred method of communication.  It reminds me of growing up at home with my 3 brothers, no-one would ever actually look for another member of the family at home, preferring to shout conversations from end of the house to the other.

Out and about we’ve had many high decibel exchanges, usually with someone in a field about 200 metres away.   ‘Whats your name?’  ‘WHAT IS YOUR NAME? …..NAME?? Always followed with ‘where are you going?  It’s the default question, asked in every situation, even on the way to the loo.  Throw in the language difficulties, and cock crowing and it’s a long loud shouting match as we inch slowly away.

As with every foreigner, shouts of  ‘Hey Joe’ are a common greeting.   I’m not sure if it’s a mutation of Hello, or if we just all look alike and many years ago some guy called Joe travelled the length of the Philippines and met everyone.  The more welcoming ‘Hey Friend’ was heard throughout Camiguin, a lovely island north of Mindanao, and the decidedly less hospitable ‘Give me money’ shouted by every child in every island, from the cities to the tiny villages and strangely by a very elderly lady from the porch of her clearly undestitute house.  The sentiment is not so mystifying; the Philippines is a poor nation, but exactly the same phrase everywhere?  Do they teach it at school?    I’m always happy to give the street kids a little here and there, but it’s harder to deal with a gang of 20 boisterous boys in canoes surrounding the boat.   So instead of just handing over the cash, we engage in a bit of coconut dealing and have a fresh green buko rolling around the boat.  Straight from the fridge on a hot evening, just stick in a straw, delicious, add a bit of rum and its perfection.

Coconut Kids turned tour guide – Turtle Cave, Gigantes Islands

The Coconut Boys

The Coconut Boys

And so, sitting out on deck, happily slurping bounty flavoured cocktails, enjoying this rare quiet, the explosion came as quite a surprise.   The huge bang resonated through the aluminium.  After a moment of confusion the white water across the bay gave the culprit away.  A lone fisherman in a small canoe about a half mile away had set off dynamite underwater and was gathering up the casualties, just stretch out a hand and grab them.    An effective if destructive and pretty unfair method of fishing.  Dynamite fishing had been common all over the Philippines, but now is officially banned, although still takes place in some remote areas.   What were once some of the finest reefs in the world, are now sadly decimated.  Makes for depressing snorkling over stretches of dead reef, mostly devoid of fish.  There’s gradually been more effort at conservation and stricter policing, and in places the coral is recovering, but it will be a slow process.

Dynamite Fishing

Dynamite Fishing

Something for us to ponder while we drink our rum and coconut juice.

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Yesterday a piece of polystyrene floated by, with 2 castaway crabs onboard.  I still feel terrible we didn’t manage to rescue them.   How long had they been bobbing on their flotsam craft? Will their ocean going adventure end happily, or in some crab cannibalism?   I’m hoping for a joyful miracle where they wash up on a litter strewn beach..

Our own resident crab hasn’t been spotted for a while.  He first appeared on that awful crossing from the Solomon Islands, scuttling his way across the cockpit and down one of the scuppers where I assume he lives a damp and unpredictable life.  He reappears every so often, each time a little larger than before.  I wonder what else makes up the eco system down there that’s keeping him alive.   These uninvited pets and the persistent grass growing ever more rapidly on the water line make it clear that we’re becoming overdue for a haul out and scrub.  We won’t manage that until we make it to Borneo, and have just now begun the long trek South from Luzon.

We’ll spend some time in Palawan in the southern Philippines on the way, which promises island hideaways and great snorkelling and need to make it to Borneo in early may in time for my flight home.

It seems we’ve been constantly on the move for the last month or so.    With all the fish traps and unlit fishing boats, it’s not safe to sail at night.  Add to that a strong headwind and its been some slow progress.  The logbook is filled with overnight stops and the comment ‘did not go ashore’.  Its making us all the more impatient to get to Palawan where we can stop for a little while

The two main stops we did manage over the last while were lovely.  A brief break in the rain in Donsol meant we could head out to snorkel with the whale sharks and spend some time with friends from home.  Julian and Sandra were on a speedy tour of the Philippines, packing almost as much into a week as we’d managed in a month.  We almost missed each other due to the weather, but happily got to spend a morning together chasing some poor whale shark around the bay.

Romblon has also been one of the favourites.  A small marble producing island in the central Philippines and a welcoming place for a boat.  It’s probably the nicest town we’ve visited with some lovely bars and cafes for people watching.  I managed my first run in months here, much to the amusement of everyone I encountered.  Being a large white woman attracts enough attention, add to that a sweaty red face and thunder down the road and they  may never stop laughing.  Still.. I’ve got some wedding dresses to try on.. so drastic action is required.. I suppose I could always go on a diet!


The best breakfast in town


Beautiful Romblon


Whale Hunting

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Financial Planning

Until now, my financial planning has been largely based on serendipitous optimism.  Retirement fund to be populated by a lottery win, some million dollar bright business idea to finance the family home.  Not so anymore,we now have a far more concrete plan to work from.  We met a man in Pamilican, a retired Norwegian ship captain, now living by the beach with his beautiful Filipina wife and their gorgeous chatty children, and he told us of the path to riches.  ‘Whale Burp’ is the answer. The waters around Pamilican are often visited by sperm whale, who lives on an exclusive diet of squid. The whale can’t completely digest the squid and he occasionally burps up a waxy expectorant.  Not unlike a cats fur ball.   Bizarrely, this mammalian waste product is prized by the perfume industry, used in musky scents and when of the right quality, fetches more per ounce than gold.

All you have to do is, hang out in a whaly area, scan the waves for a bobbing grey lump of wax…  Get it on board the boat,  I still have to work out a plan for that.  Stop it melting, maybe we can put it in the fridge, and call the man from Chanel, and he’ll be on the first plane over.  Our Norwegian friends neighbour was lucky enough to haul one in with his fishing net, and kept in the garden while he waited the perfume people to arrive.  under the hot Philippines sun, the treasure apparently melted away to half its size, but no matter, the agents bought the soil underneath a took that too.

So now along with watching out for big ships, floating logs, fish farms and fishermen we peer into the binoculars hoping for our smelly whaley fortune to float by.

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Singstar superstar

The Philippines is a staunchly catholic nation, but as a traveler, it’s not so much a firm belief in God that you need, rather a strong faith in your immune system.  With our sturdy constitutions we munched our way around the street side food stalls in Cebu.   In among the mud, goats, mangy dogs and fighting cocks, the ladies set up their mini kitchens and the customers simply wander by, peering under pot covers to see what’s on offer.  For less than a dollar you can have a feast of stewed vegetables with unidentified gristly meat, gristly meat on its own, gristly meat with sauce, crispy fried chicken and a surprisingly delicious prawn tortilla type thing.   Still, it’s an improvement on the pacific, which was just spam, spam, spam, spam, spam and yam.  Just don’t eat the Aso.

It’s a while now since our crossing from Palau. Thankfully a 4-day swift passage, nothing like the pre-Christmas misery. Our only mishap was a high speed fishing boat intent on a midnight ocean collision.   50 metres may sound like a long way, but at sea, in the dark with a roaring fish factory heading straight for you in a sailboat that won’t turn around, its damn close.  They pulled away at the last moment at headed off into the night, leaving us a trembling bag of nerves.  Pirates, ocean joy riders or just shortsighted fishermen? We’ll never know but given that they did change direction multiple times to stay on a collision course, innocent intentions seem unlikely.

It’s been problem free since then, apart from a little earthquake and some customs officials with a creative approach to entry fees.  With each new country there’s a new set of customs, quarantine, sanitation and immigration regulations to comply with and a ton of forms to fill out.              It’s ranged from the chic and efficient New Caledonian experience, where elegantly clad officials boarded the boat within half an hour of arriving, to the sweaty wait in the stultifying Solomons heat for a man with no shoes.  Cebu City was relatively easy, a parade   of gentlemen joined us at the bar quickly sorting the paperwork before presenting a range of unpublished charges, which there seemed no way to avoid.

A little too late we worked out that these were highly inflated fees and by the time we made it to jam packed immigration office, we were sick of paying the baksheesh and refused to hand over any more corrupt charges. The poor official was apoplectic with rage.  We rather too honestly admitted that we’d been had by his colleagues.  He considered it most unfair that we pay everyone else’s made up charges but not his own.  We eventually got away with a ‘special minimal charge’ of 1000pesos, still entirely imaginary, but at least we got a smile, and a smile goes a long way here.

This is an alarmingly well-armed place.  Even the bakeries have an M16 machine gun toting security guard and allegedly there’s a dainty pistol in every man bag.   Clearly it’s best not to get into an argument. Luckily, the Filipinos have a horror of losing face or ‘hiya’ in public so disagreements are solved with a smile, and the passions are poured into karaoke instead.  Grown men willingly gather at night to blast the surrounding square mile with renditions of mournful high-pitched 1980s love songs.   There is no escape, where-ever there’s electricity there’s a videoke machine and a happy clientele who sing the night away.  And, as it’s considered immensely bad form to criticise anyone’s performance, there’s invariably some excrutiating voices filling the air.   Perhaps here, my own special talents will finally be appreciated.

Biking round Bohol

We’re now battling our way north against a strong head wind, pinballesque, tacking between Cebu and Negros.  We’ve traipsed our way through the last 2 months around Bohol, Camiguin, Siquijor gathering new friends along the way.  Concerned texts about our whereabouts and wellbeing keep us company now.  I’m a conformist at heart, but blending in is not an option.  It’s hard to be inconspicuous when a foot taller then everyone else and the boat is not the best option for a discrete arrival in town.  Its takes a day or two to get beyond the novelty factor and genuinely talk to people.  The Barangay boat party at Bonbon and the whale sharks of Pamilican hanging out under the hull are just two of the highlights so far.  It’s a vibrant, noisy and slightly mad place, full of goats and guns and pigs and volcanoes and perhaps our favourite so far.

Boat party with the Bonbon girls

Tired at the summit of Mount Hibok Hibok

Happy and cool before getting lost for 2 hours in the bliserting sun!


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Like a glimpse of blue sky, the sight of seabirds always reassures me. The boat can be barrelling down a wall of water and the wind whipping up the seas, but the birds swooping and diving over the waves add a sense of normalcy to the scene and help keep the panic at bay.

As on the crossing from Australia, the reassuring Boobies were a common sight all the way to Palau. One in particular followed us for hours making several aborted landings, before crashing into the cockpit with zero points for style.

He sprawled inelegantly, huge wings awkwardly draped over the winch and railing and looked at me with little interest. He took up residence among the Genoa sheets unperturbed by my presence, aside from the odd peck when I tried to offer him water or pull any ropes in his vicinity. And there he stayed, head tucked into his wing wobbling back and forth to the movement of the boat.


At that stage we were almost a 1000 miles from land, and had crossed the equator just the day before. Poor thing was half dead from exhaustion, perhaps he hadn’t managed to catch any fish, or maybe he was just getting old, but after 24 hours and barely a peak from under his wing, we administered emergency mackerel (de-tinned and washed clean of white wine sauce) and water rations. Sadly to no avail, and a few hours later our first onboard pet had a burial at sea.

I had been quite excited about this crossing, my longest so far. After the first few days, when the constant tiredness and nausea passes, you settle into a rhythm. The days and nights are served in 3 hour doses, a little social time when we’re both awake in the middle of the day, but otherwise quite solitary and surprisingly busy. Checking the weather, rigging up the salt water shower, fishing (unsuccessfully), baking bread, learning french (promise!), fixing sails, the days become quite full, padded out with long bouts of lying back in the cockpit reading or simply contemplating the starry sky.

This trip was a little different though, dogged by unsettled weather almost the entire way. Of the 1900 miles, a large proportion were spent going very slowly in the wrong direction, or suffering cloud after cloud of torrential downpours. Take the sails in, put them back out again, screech along with winds of 35 knots, then 10 minutes later put the engine on. The boat rolled around like a pig, difficult to stand, hard to do anything really, covered in bruises and a touch tetchy from loss of sleep, everything sodden, soggy bottoms and sick of goddamn beans; it was not the most pleasant of experiences. The casualties of the journey have been; one bird (R.I.P. Boobie), one main sail – ripped from end to end in a particulary nasty squall, one favourite hat and one favourite cap lost overboard to the wind, so many cushions sodden and mouldy beyond reprieve and a sense of wonder over long ocean crossings.

Bye bye beans! Thrilled to finally throw them overboard.

Thankfully, when the wind and current finally turned in our favour we bombed along for the last 3 days and made it into Palau just in time for Christmas. We hadn’t been alone in our miserable passage, almost every other boat arriving had a similarly bumpy ride, and I’ve been assured it’s unusual. Lucky as Palau is in the middle of nowhere, if I had to go through that again, we might just end up living here.

Crossing the equator – a splash of rum for Neptune and a slurp for us.  Ignore the budgie smugglers!  Fashion sense tends to go out the window after a week at sea


A dolphin escort for the last few miles

And woo hoo, a wahoo. Finally a tasty fish.

Woo Hoo... a Wahoo.... finally a tasty fish

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Location:Somewhere in the Pacific

Posted in Cruising, Mary Blair, Solomon Islands | Tagged | 3 Comments