Saint Helena to the Caribbean

15th January to 15th February 2021

St Helena, over the equator once more and on to the island of Martinique. World circuit completed.

What do you really look forward to when you reach your destination after a long passage? What have you missed during those solitary rolly days on the big empty ocean?

For me, approaching Saint Helena, it was a chance to walk and stretch my legs, meet people and chat, emails and WhatsApp with family and friends, a meal out perhaps. And then there’s always the excitement of new local interest with history, architecture, novel foods, wildlife, ways of speech, strange customs. So much to explore and enjoy.

Dream on!

Moored off St Helena

All of that was denied in St Helena. Since leaving Cape Town the rules for St Helena had changed. In fact I left South Africa on 30th December, rules were I believe changed at a St Helena Council meeting on 31st December. As I have no internet at sea, I had no way of knowing.

On arrival a VHF call from the port tells me I can’t land. I’m not allowed to leave the boat. I’m not to approach any of the other cruisers (there seem to be four or five occupied boats that must have been here for a very long time – what on earth are they doing?) I have to leave the mooring within 24 hours. I must go away. 

Talk about feeling unloved and unwanted.

Covid paranoia on this tiny remote and isolated island has reached new heights of absurdity and two weeks’ quarantine in total isolation many hundreds of miles from all human life forms, plus a negative test on arrival is not enough. Now, quite simply, one is not allowed in. (I smile at the silly thought that Napoleon would never have been allowed in. When he was exiled here, just think of the dreadful bugs that were around in his country, France, and Britain, horrid diseases like smallpox, typhus, yellow fever, polio, cholera, typhoid, scarlet fever, plague plus all those viruses like measles, mumps etc. He of course was sent here and died here.)

Plenty of other countries have applied the same draconian emphatic ‘NO, GO AWAY’ to sailing boats, but they’re not British territory; it’s not for me to comment, none of my business. But Saint Helena is a British millstone; UK taxpayers keep it afloat. I feel I can comment.

To say I was very disappointed and quietly seething understates my sentiments. Presumably a caucus of local politicians made this decision. I’m checking which decisions, if any, have to be rubber stamped by Foreign Office in London. Research to be done. Questions to ask. I’m awaiting replies to my first round of emails. 

This little outpost of 4,500 people is almost entirely sustained by aid from the British Government.  Around half its GDP, nearly £20 million is for Government Services alone. That doesn’t include the $374 million spent on what was dubbed ‘The World’s Most Useless Airport’ which was completed four years ago. 

To be fair, I add that the local Harbour Master, Steve, and his staff seemed bemused by (but respectful of) the new ruling, and were of course obliged to follow their government directives. I needed a new bolt for self steering, that had sheared off in the boisterous Cape Town conditions, and they found this for me, plus a box of food to help me on my way.

Johnny and Steve deliver a box of food

I enjoyed some swimming in the clear blue sea off Henrietta’s stern as well. A bit chilly but I feel clean and fresh. It cooled my frustrations too.

One of the ugliest looking settlements I have ever seen anywhere on earth scars the cliff top and ridge above the anchorage of St Helena. This eyesore is the capital of this isolated outpost in the South Atlantic, a jumble of chaotic ugliness called Jamestown. You could not devise a more unsightly set of dwellings were you to try. That’s what it looks like from offshore. Folk on land may tell me otherwise.

The crumbling grey brown cliffs that loom over the anchorage are home to sea birds, mainly masked boobies and white terns I think, but the high cliffs look dirty and threatening rather than majestic, not a pretty sight. 

It is wonderful though for me to imagine the history of long-ago sailing ships calling in on their passages to and from the Far East – days before the Suez Canal when St Helena was a welcome port-of-call for provioning (as it is for me right now! ).

The Northumberland brought Napoleon to St Helena

I left.

It’s a long way from St Helena to the Caribbean, nearly 4,000 miles.

To break the journey and add interest, I toyed with the idea of stopping at the Brazilian island of Fernando de Noronha, but it charges extortionate fees even for brief stops, and I wasn’t clear about quarantine rules. I thought too about Surinam, but learnt that I’d be faced with a week of quarantine on a mosquito infested river, and that restaurants were take-away only and, the killer for me, no tourism to the interior. So, just kept going to the Caribbean….

It is essentially an easy journey across the South and North Atlantic Ocean, even if quite a long way. More or less reliable Trade Winds north and south of the equator, a patch of Doldrums somewhere in the middle. Hot sunshine and grand empty blue ocean all the way.

I was about to say not much happened. But then I remembered that on day 17, I started a new tube of toothpaste….

….Then it all came flooding back. A lot happened. In fact I’ve never yet sailed a long ocean passage without some drama to disturb life. It’s just that I’m extremely proficient at forgetting horrid stuff. You have to be or you’d give up.

Early on and tired of slow progress in light winds I fished out the cruising chute, which had lain unused for three years. I seldom use it as it’s big and hard to handle alone if the wind gets up, and it doesn’t add much to speed except in these very light downwind conditions. Plus I don’t much like its colour or pattern; letter-box red and silly flat white chevrons near the edges. It is gaudy and loud, and looks out of place and clashes with the beautiful natural blues of ocean and sky.

Sailing peacefully northwards, slowly

Once hoisted, all went well and speed picked up. The great big red nylon balloon swung and rolled with the swell. Even if I still didn’t care for the colour we were moving faster.

…and a bit faster..

But then, after three days and nights and in rising wind, the tack line (short bit of rope at bottom corner of chute) had chafed itself to extinction and broke free. I’d not spotted it weakening. 

As they say, with wind growing stronger by the minute, all hell broke loose. The giant red nylon blob was wildly angrily flapping itself forward of Henrietta, the shackle a demented murderous lump of metal flying everywhere. The noise was awful. Time to do something.

I’ll spare you the details, but if you’ve ever had the excitement of regaining control of a spinnaker or gennaker that’s gone berserk, you will know how hard life can be – and how many muscles are needed. It took me over an hour to recover the sail, fit a new tack, trim the sail and get going once more. I was bruised, grazed, burned, sore and blooded. Hands and knees, whole body, needed a holiday. I was shakey and pretty much knackered – but at least, I thought, letter-box red hides the blood stains. That’s more than enough drama for an Englishman in retirement.

A bit bruised

Two more days of red blob sailing and then it had to come down. Surfing down the waves at over eight knots is no fun for Henrietta and makes me very nervous. Wind was much too strong and my armpits smelt of garlic (sure sign that anxiety levels were way through the roof). We were not in a race. It took nearly an hour lowering the beast and stowing and tidying up before life was back to something more sensible. I had a good wash too, and soon smelled sweetly of Johnson’s Baby Shampoo (it makes bubbles with seawater).

The Doldrums are not necessarily all calm. They weren’t for me. Instead they gave four days of wildly variable winds, intense rainfall, some calm and frequent squalls. Better equipped sailors have access to weather forecasts and can find the best longitude to cross the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (the proper phrase to describe this unsettled, and often calm, equatorial band across the ocean). I just went the way that experience had found most favourable in the centuries of sail trading vessels. 

After that it was a fast sail for the next 2,000 miles on to Martinique, just one small semi-open Brazilian fishing boat, over 400 miles from its home. They offer me a fish, a big tuna I think, but it’s too tricky to slow or go close enough. But such kind gestures make me want to sail to Brazil – another day. A few other fishing boats, I guess from French Guiana or Trinidad were around too so it’s not an area for much sleep.

Then, one full month after leaving Saint Helena and nearly seven weeks out of Cape Town, Henrietta took me into Martinique. The bay at St Anne is a mass of masts bright in the early morning sunshine. There are hundreds of yachts here, more boats than I’ve seen in the past two years. Clearance at the port of Le Marin takes five minutes.

A mass of masts, anchored off St Anne, Martinique
Quickly cleared in, Q flag can come down

Martinique marks the end of Henrietta’s trip around the world. We were last here four years ago.

I should perhaps have a glass of champagne. But there’s no crested flute on board; no champagne either. A tin of beer is fine. Perfectly amazing in fact..

Then, the icing on the cake, a long peaceful night of calm undisturbed sleep. 

I suppose I ought to feel happy, elated even, to have sailed around this unique and wonderful planet. It is true that I’m pleased, especially as four years ago I was very unsure what to do, feeling a bit creaky, weary, and lost. Thought I’d just have a look at more islands in the Caribbean then sail home and complete a second Atlantic Circuit. But I didn’t; instead I carried on westwards.

For me it was never a dream; and I’ve never had a ‘bucket list’. I just went. Henrietta looked after me.

Perhaps it really is best to try something rather than regret never having had a go. I do not know. Don’t ask me.

South Africa to Saint Helena

1st December 2020 to 13th January 2021

Tourist Cape Town, Christmas and a sail to Saint Helena

A month in Cape Town passed quickly; a fascinating month, which included the typical cruising sailors’ diet of boat bits, tourist bits, sociable bits and unmentionable bits, plus Christmas somewhere in there. Briefly then….

First though I point out that Cape Town is made interesting less because of its scenic splendour, fine beaches and high quality wine (nice as they all are) than because it’s such a bubbling stew pot of people, folk from every corner of the planet. New African arrivals from most countries of the continent, people who have short term work here, freshly arrived Europeans, and others, all muddling along with the historic residents, African, Afrikaans, Cape Coloured, Indian and English. 

It is a beautiful, yet for me an uneasy metropolitan city of contrasts: global glamour and awful poverty, striking city architecture, luxurious villas alongside desperate shabby townships, privileged wealth and struggling immigrants, the entitled and the misfitting outcasts, ragged down-and-outs at a Ferrari showroom. All this human life beneath the fabulous backdrop of Table Mountain and Lion’s Peak, and an overarching blue sky.

Cape of Good Hope (or Storms, depending)

The racial divides and tensions are complex. Much too complex for me. I was going to tell you something about it, but remembered it’s best to gloss over the three minefield topics of politics, religion and Marmite – best not to upset people. “Cry, the Beloved Country” which I’d read as a youth, is well worth reading again.

With such warm welcomes everywhere, and outstanding friendly generosity and help, it would smack of ingratitude were I to dwell on the Nation’s difficulties. (And it’s not as if my nation, Britain, doesn’t have its own heavyweight problems.)

When here, you will often hear the words “This is Africa”, delivered with a fatalistic shrug, not because your knowledge of geography might be limited, but rather like the commonplace British phrase “it is what it is”; both being uttered to explain anything that is wrong, or fails to happen or seems ridiculous. Most tiresome.

However, this blog is meant to be telling you about Henrietta’s little adventure, not these rambling observations.

Memorable highlights for me? 

Lunch with the Portuguese Cape Town community. Mainly originating in Madeira, they’d invited solo sailor Henrique (Madeira), who’d then invited Frank (German solo) and me (British solo) to go too. Wonderful generosity, white table cloths, real interest, a feast and excellent wine. Huge thank you to the local Portuguese.

Portuguese/Madeira Cape Town for lunch

Kirstenbosch Gardens. Perhaps the most beautiful, serene and magical botanic gardens I’ve seen anywhere in the world (and I’ve seen many). A fabulous variety of plants, textures and colours perfectly set in the rolling foothills behind the city and with Table Mountain behind. Visited twice but would readily have returned many more times. In fact I could live there.

A sweaty leg-throbbing clamber up Table Mountain – on a very hot sunny day. Ample water and a banana used. But some titanium definitely needed. Fifty years ago it was easy-peasy, but things change. At little over 1,000 metres Table Mountain isn’t even very high.

Half way up Table Mountain, and puffing

A wonderful Christmas Day with my kind host Michael (originally New York but long time South Africa), plus Othmane (Morocco to Cape Town, four years, on bicycle and skateboard), and Regina (Germany with Kazakhstan origins working here).

After four of the past six Christmases spent alone, usually at sea, it was an especially memorable, friendly and happy day. And much as I enjoy the company of my fellow sailors it’s good too to spend time with terrestrial friends.

Christmas lunch. Othmane, me, Michael and Regina

Othmane Zolate from Morocco has been in Cape Town for two years now. He’s wide-eyed, gentle, modest and open, not born to either money or privileges, but with a local production company is now making a film of his four year cycle/skateboard trip for several African TV stations. (Out early in 2021, Netflix too). Here’s a link to a YouTube clip.

Othmsne’s Trip

One of the many extraordinary people I’ve met during the past few years, his next venture is to sail around the world. He’s done a sailing course here in Cape Town and I’ve no doubt he’ll go on soon to his next venture. Bicycle, skateboard, African deserts and hardships on land will make life on a boat at sea seem oh so easy and relaxed – most of the time.

A few unlucky participants in the Vendée Globe (a singlehanded round the world non-stop sailing race) were forced to retire and their beautiful racing boats, the Formula 1 racers of the sailing world, found themselves in Cape Town. To my eyes they are beautiful and of course I’d love to sail one, but for cruising round the oceans give me Henrietta any day.

Vendée Racing yachts, Initiatives Coeur (Samantha Davies) and Hugo Boss (Alex Thompson)

Soon it was time to move on. Home is still a long way away. The first step is 1,700 nautical miles from Cape Town to the little South Atlantic island of St Helena, perhaps 12 days; quite a long way but nothing special in the world of circumnavigation. 

Changes to Covid rules in South Africa at the end of December 2020 had among other things banned the sale of drink. A new level of restrictions was introduced. All alcohol sales had been banned. No shop could sell it. Vineyard visits and wine tastings were over. Every bar shut down, restaurants and clubs such as the Royal Cape Yacht Club could no longer sell booze. The place died.

Wine tasting before the ban

But that wasn’t the reason I left. It just happened that way. I’d had a month in Cape Town, seen what I’d wanted to see, enjoyed a convivial Christmas and done enough shopping. I had the nomadic itch and wanted to move on.

I’d expected an easy passage northwards with following breeze and warm sunshine, so it was a horrible shock by day three to have a full gale, cabin soaked from a breaking sea that sluiced inside (I’d foolishly removed washboards for fresh air).

Feeling queasy, unwell, downhearted and exhausted, it was a rare spell when I asked myself what on earth was I doing on the wild ocean waves when I might instead succumb to advanced self-pity, lie around at home, hug a hot-water bottle and broach a bottle of whisky.

The crashing wave had made trouble for electronics too; AIS and chart plotter were out of action (fortunately partially fixed a couple of days later, along with my morale).

The gale, with howling winds gusting over 50 knots and harsh foam-crested waves, lasted nearly three days, much stronger than forecast before I left Cape Town. It definitely shouldn’t have happened. It was a wild downwind ride, all sails stowed and still at speeds over 5 knots.

Such conditions make you feel very small, insignificant and powerless in the face of nature – which indeed we are. It’s very rare to encounter them and in about 45,000 miles over the past five years this is only the second such occasion. After that wild start, it was a slow warm easy sail the rest of the way, an occasional gull or tropic bird for company.

Apart from very rare incidents of vile weather, time passes easily enough with on-board chores, minor maintenance, cleaning, cooking, reading, looking out enchanted by the confident dance, swoops and glide of occasional ocean birds, and the less confident skittery flights of flying fish, music, podcasts, thinking, planning, dreaming, sail trimming. And I find I’m tired, happy to sleep when I can.

If ever boredom threatens I remember my mother’s comment to a listless moody teenage son, “it’s only the boring who ever get bored”. And with routine established, boat tidied and feeling better in warm sunshine, St Helena soon comes into view.

Approaching St Helena
Sailing ships have stopped here for many centuries

In the end the passage took longer than 12 days but, as I’d known landing in St Helena would not be permitted till at least 14 days had elapsed since leaving Cape Town, there was no rush. I was looking forward to stretching my legs, chatting to fellow mankind, fixing broken Hydrovane bracket (a bolt had sheared in gale) and buying some fresh fruit and a beer.

Little did I know…….

South Africa

Réunion, Richards Bay, Durban, Knysna, Cape Town

13th October to 30th November

Henrietta arrived in Cape Town last night after a busy and eventful few weeks sailing the stretch from Réunion; about 1,400 miles in one hop to Richards Bay in South Africa, then three hops and another few hundred miles round the bottom of Africa to here. I’m happy to be back in the Atlantic Ocean.

That’s it. If you want more detail you’ll need to read more below, but this is rather a rambling blog post. I’m sleepy.

From Réunion to Richards Bay, my first port in South Africa, and then on to Cape Town was an anxious business. I feared 2,000 miles of fearsome winds, wild seas and so on. That’s what I’d been learning about before setting out.

Fine sunset. A few ships to keep me awake whilst sailing this stretch.

In practice, the anxiety came not from the reality but from reading and hearing too much beforehand. As so often in life the reality does not live up to the hype.

Having read books, blogs, internet sources and listened to others I’d come to expect some severe sailing. In the case of South Africa I’d learnt that there’s one low pressure system after another rushing in from the Antarctic Southern Ocean, each bringing wind reversals and seriously windy stuff and violent swells, just a few days between each episode of horrors. (This was all news to me. I thought South Africa had hot dusty game parks with lions and hippos inland, and warm blue skies with sandy beaches and lovely blue seas along its coastline. I’d been here before you see – though that was ages ago, 1973, and I was on my motorbike not a boat.)

1973 and wild camping. I was quite young.
The motorbike was, I recall, a BMW R27 bought from a missionary in Malawi. This road in Lesotho got too rough to go further.

Sailors suffer their own version of what I call ‘fisherman’s hyperbole syndrome’. This is a fairly harmless ailment that in bar room anecdotes and the excitement of hazy hindsight, converts ten inch mackerel into ten foot marlin. In sailors, this syndrome magnifies a strong wind and choppy sea to storm force winds and mountainous waves.

Nothing wrong with a good story but with time plus the distortions of Facebook’s opinionated commentators and its incubated falsehoods, in rounding the seas of South Africa we hear nothing but horrendous tales of treacherous conditions, foul currents, endless gales and dreadful fog, in which you put your vessel and lives at risk. After all there are an awful lot of wrecks. For me it wasn’t really like that. Thank goodness.

Please don’t take this to mean that it’s an easy bit of sailing. It isn’t. The Indian Ocean and South Africa in particular have given me the most challenging conditions of this journey so far. It’s really quite tiring.

But the hazards of sailing tend not to come from recognised tricky spots where we know we have to be extra careful, but from unexpected quarters. In hazardous places we carefully watch tides, forecasts etc. and we remain alert. Rounding South Africa we remain alert, but there’s no need to imagine it’ll be especially alarming. I experienced only two short-lived rough spells of 35 – 40 knots plus, and that was because I chose not to stop at East London or Port Elizabeth (because I’m mildly allergic to bureaucratic paperwork and knew such ports require it). 

Anyway, the 1,400 mile passage from Réunion to Richards Bay in South Africa was a mix of calm and too much wind, but no serious gales. I was sorry not to stop in Madagascar but it’s still closed.

At Richards Bay there’s a warm welcome from Natasha the OCC rep, a Covid test, a wait, lots of paperwork, more waiting and, after a week South Africa immigration authority decides we visiting sailors may have visas. Passport is stamped and the visa gives me three months. They call us foreign sailors, “internationals” (which is true but sounds a bit grand I think).

Friendly health officials….
We’re welcomed to Zululand Yacht Club with a bottle of fizz!

As an aside, it is frustratingly ironic that as long distance sailors, in Covid terms, we are perhaps the purest people on the planet (extreme social distancing, prolonged isolation etc) and yet on arrival in a new country – if allowed to arrive at all – are often viewed more as 19th century lepers than purity personified.

A friendly photo opportunity on arrival in South Africa (Tuzi Gazi). Don’t tell me I’m irresponsible. I know.

Never mind, South Africa has opened its doors, thanks to extensive behind-the-scenes efforts by notable local individuals.

In a big circle of holding hands, our hosts sing the National Anthem (its long and in four or maybe five languages.)

From the happy hospitality and welcoming Zululand Yacht Club of Richards Bay it was a short overnight hop to Durban. The less said about Durban the better. The silver lining was the Royal Natal Yacht Club which kindly gives visiting ‘internationals’ free membership and a bottle of red wine. The dark cloud is a striking but unlovely city where a solitary city walk to see parks, architecture and local life left me feeling uncomfortable and unwanted. But the beaches are nice enough. Suburbs I’m told are very nice. No hostility there.

I left Durban as soon as I could for a four day sail, nearly 600 miles round the southeastern bit of Africa to the charming lagoon at Knysna where green hills and a neat little town make for a picture postcard stop. 

That stretch of coast includes record daily runs as there’s the amazing Agulhas Current that adds 3-5 knots to boat speed. Too fast, so I had to linger off Knysna waiting for the right conditions to get in. It’s a hazardous entry, 30 metres wide with big swell crashing onto rocks very close. (Commodore of the local yacht club tells me that Lloyd’s of London judge it the second most dangerous entry in the world.) Going in was fine; coming out a week later more alarming – no chance to take a photo.

Entry to Knysna is through that gap.

But it was worth the wait to enter. Too many people have said ‘what could be nicer than Knysna’, but it’s true. The tricky entrance makes it untenable in strong winds or rough seas, and this entrance keeps the crowds away, but if you make it past the rocks, fast currents and shallow bar, there’s a friendly helpful welcome from the yacht club, and a small bright comfortable club house restaurant. And a relatively affluent small town on the doorstep. 

On South Africa’s Garden Route Knysna is normally busy with tourists both local and international (not this year), and well-off South Africans have waterfront holiday homes here. Henrietta had a beautiful rest tethered to the visitor mooring where guillemots (or shags) dive and terns visited. She’s the only visiting yacht so far this summer. I spent days walking, kayaking, doing minor boat chores and eating. (South Africa has a wonderful range of fresh high quality fruit and vegetables, a treasure trove of fabulous food for a veggie.)

And then I moved on, a 290 mile leg to Cape Town. It includes the southernmost tip of Africa, Cape Agulhas, and takes you from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic; and then past the Cape of Good Hope and on to Cape Town. It’s a beautiful and magnificent piece of coastline, and lots of seals are flopping and diving around as Henrietta approaches.

Approaching Cape Town

So now I sit secure in the Royal Cape Yacht Club Marina waiting for clearance. Henrietta has a fine view of Table Mountain……Health officials arrived as I was writing so now I’ve done straightforward formalities and am ‘legal’. Free to explore.

And the view now from Henrietta.

La Reunion

4th September to 12th October

Mountains, wine, hiking, more wine and it’s not a hedgehog 

If you haven’t been here and you’re not French, you may not know much about Réunion. You may scarcely have heard of it. France probably wants to keep it a secret.

It must be French!

So first of all here’s some geography. It’s a French Territory (like Martinique and Guadalupe) a bit bigger than its nearest neighbour, Mauritius, which is just over 100 miles away. Both islands emerged from the same geological hotspot in the earth’s crust, though Réunion is much younger, a mere 2 million years. Hence it’s very mountainous with stark steep volcanic peaks everywhere other than on the narrow coastal belt, and lots of deep ravines. Madagascar is about 400 miles west of here.

Preparing colourful street decoration in St Denis (the capital)
Traditional villas from early 1800’s

First settled by the French in the 17th century, sugar became the mainstay of the economy, with firstly slave labour from Africa, and then indentured labour from India and elsewhere. Hence the population mix today. In Réunion’s case it’s roughly a third each of people with origins in Europe, Africa and South India, plus a handful from China and elsewhere, all with lots of intermixing from earliest days, total over 800,000 people who mainly live in the coastal towns. I find it delightful. 

Could easily be a scene from the French Alps?

Those born here are Reunion Creole and often speak a local French creole language, which I’m told is similar to Mauritius creole. But totally incomprehensible for visitors like me, who must try and use French, which is the official language.

That’s your geography and history lesson for the day.

Recently added land

For me, life here could be very easy, even easier if I spoke much more French. 

It has all the comforts of France, everything from fresh baguettes, myriad cheeses and bottles of Bordeaux, to good infrastructure, clean streets and well-stocked chandleries. Bins are emptied promptly. Cafes, bars and restaurants abound. 

People seem much more laid back and friendly than in much of France. Cars usually stop for pedestrians at zebra crossings, and we exchange friendly ‘Bonjours’ with a smile. People everywhere seem happy to chat with me.

A popular local beer

The only reason Réunion is not so very easy is that the island has all these super steep mountains, which were created so we could go hiking. 

Useful guide for 152 trails (there are more)

And since the seas are so full of unfriendly sharks that visitors only swim or surf a little bit, we all go mountain walking instead. Or to be precise, some go walking. Others run or ride their bicycles up and down these crazily steep slopes.

The place is covered in a network of steep hairpin roads, the hairiest hair pins you’ll find anyway outside your granny’s dressing table. 

This allows access to hundreds of well-marked paths. As in the Alps there are excellent signs, maps and splodges of paint, so no one ever gets lost – except me.

Well marked trails everywhere

And if mountain walking is too tame for you then every year they hold an international mountain ultramarathon, reputedly one of the toughest races in the world. It’s designed to bring out and satisfy the masochist in you – something the French excel in (see also Tour de France, Marathon des Sables, Vendée Globe – a question to ponder: is masochism an under-reported part of the French psyche?). 

This year the Réunion endurance run, La Diagonale des Fous, Madmen’s Diagonal, will be held this week, mid-October (probably explains why in the time I’ve been here there are so many people running up and down these extremely steep and rocky paths – running!).

Scenic places for an ultramarathon

The course covers 166 km, with a total climb of nearly 10,000 metres (significantly more than Mount Everest). 

There are over 1,000 entries, far fewer than usual, and winners usually finish in less than 24 hours; others may take three days. Although I have done a few standard marathons in my time, the thought of four marathons run consecutively on rocky and muddy little paths with Mount Everest included, leaves me incredulous. Even ambling along the paths in sedate style is a seriously tiring affair.

If you enjoy mountain walks in an exquisite variety of scenery both above and below the clouds, with fabulous wildlife and glorious views, Réunion is a dream. 

Walk above the cloud, beneath the cloud or in the cloud

If you’re not up to walking, then there are hundreds of helicopters. There are perhaps more helicopters per person than anywhere on earth, though I’m only guessing that. (For one well populated area in the Cirque Mafate, it’s how residents get their food supplies. They walk a couple of hours up a mountainside to where they keep their cars, drive down to a supermarket, leave their shopping for helicopter delivery, drive back up the mountain, and walk down to their homes. Not really popping out to the corner shop, is it)

While thinking of most, highest, biggest, etc, Guinness Book of Records stuff, I can tell you that Réunion, apart from its amazing number of helicopters, has records for heaviest rainfalls on earth (over 1.8 metres in 24 hours is one such) and for its size is one of the most biodiverse places on earth too. Its cirques, ramparts and pitons give its National Park (40% of the island) UNESCO World Heritage status.

And so for more than a month I’ve been wearing out joints and organs that are little used with life on a boat (ie. legs and lungs). Plus eating a lot and enjoying a subdued and civilised social life with the twenty or so visiting and resident boats. 

Birthday party
This ship, the Marion Duffresne now restocking behind our marina, is a research and supply vessel for French islands near Antarctica

We’re a mixed bunch of visiting boats, mainly French, but including Scandinavians, Chilean, Canadian, Madeira, Swiss, Réunion, Spanish, German and me (English). Réunion has new-found popularity with world-cruising sailors while both Mauritius and Madagascar remain shut.

I cherish and value the international goodwill and friendly helpfulness that are so much a part of cruising life. About half of us, maybe a dozen boats including me, will head for South Africa in the next few weeks, before the start of cyclone season.

Legs and limbs, and shoes, are worn out (disused historic cable car behind)

Oh! This little creature that I stopped to chat with on one of my walks is not a slimline hedgehog, as I’d initially thought. It’s a tailless tenrec. It seemed friendly. Apparently good to eat. Maybe a useful word for Scrabble too. I’d not heard of tenrecs.


Indonesia to La Reunion

11th August to 3rd September

Raffles (Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles) is best known as the ‘founder’ of Singapore, and is now a part of the Singapore brand. He was one of those incredibly capable, energetic, ambitious and visionary men who carved a place in history. 

He journeyed home after his time in the east over this same Indian Ocean some 200 years ago. 

He and his wife and two remaining children had set out from Bencoolen (now Bengkulu in Sumatra) on the Fame, bound for England. But less than 60 miles from shore the ship caught fire and sank.

1824 - Sir Stamford Raffles: the wreck of the Fame

They lost everything: all Raffles’ collections, writings, artwork, gold, jewellery, “135 hefty crates, apart from the live animals” (which included a living tapir, a new species of tiger and unknown types of pheasant). They were lucky to survive with their lives. Any further offshore and they’d have been unable to row back.

Remember, they weren’t sailing for fun or for adventure. They just wanted to get home. I don’t suppose they enjoyed it at all. But that was the nature of international travel until not so long ago: dangerous, uncomfortable, slow.

Eventually they found another ship, the Mariner, and left Sumatra in April 1824, reaching St Helena (Napoleon had died there three years earlier) in July, and England in August. Imagine rounding the Cape of Good Hope in mid-winter storms.

(While they were on their way home, the Treaty of London between the British and Dutch was signed. This ceded British stations in Sumatra to the Dutch, and removed Dutch opposition to the British in Singapore. Another bit of the colonial jigsaw was fixed.)

You may not find that bit of history interesting but I do. It puts our own Indian Ocean sailing adventures into perspective to realise how relatively easy and safe are our modern day travels. 

Final morning of calm before leaving Sunda Strait

For me this was an unexpectedly long crossing, the bug having shut off stopping en route at Cocos Keeling (Australian territory – I was curtly told that to stop there I’d be contravening both the Customs Act 1901 and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands Emergency Management Ordinance 2012. Just imagine what horrors might await an errant Pom. I sense this guy was longing to clap me in irons.) 

And so it was just over 3,000 miles to the little bit of French territory, La Reunion. 

Good food cooked as I left – to last a few days. Fish a parting gift from local fishermen.

The Southeast Trade Winds are well established now and wind direction steady.

Where else can you sail 3,000 miles on one tack, reaching all the way, over clear deep blue sea, scarcely seeing another vessel, and with warm sunshine most of the way? It was the kind of sailing you might enjoy one day in fifty in Northern Europe. And it went on for 23 days non-stop.

Another fine day

The downside was that half of it was a bit rough and windy. The other half was very rough and very windy. Both Henrietta and I felt a bit bruised by the time we reached Reunion.

It was rough – difficult to capture with my photography skills!

At an average of just over 1,000 miles a week (6 knots) in just over three weeks, it was my second longest non-stop solo passage.


Henrietta has performed well, of course. The mainsail has rarely been needed, just a reefed genoa had us zipping along for most of the time. Hydrovane self-steering never in doubt as we skedaddled down the deep blue white-crested waves.

A few seabirds appeared, some boobies, a couple of gorgeous tropicbirds, and shearwaters magically soaring and swooping over the waves, somehow travelling upwind into 30 knots of spumey sea. And suicidal flying fish occasionally end their days on deck.

It does occur to me sometimes that aeroplanes may be pretty dull and spew a lot of carbon dioxide, but they are oh-so quick and pretty comfortable too. They cover in less than two hours what takes most yachts at least a week’s continuous sailing. But aeroplanes make me nervous. Plus I’ve really appreciated no news, no contacts, no gloom, no land-dwelling anxieties, and none of the silly stuff we tend to live with for so much of our lives.

Above all, slow sea travel can bring you such fabulous happy feelings: the endless majesty of ocean swell, the unsullied ocean breeze, sparkling starlit nights; and then the heart lifting and body-tingling joy that comes with landfall after a long time at sea, the emotional high of a new unknown island. 

I approached La Reunion before dawn. There was indescribable otherworldly beauty in a town in the north (Saint-Denis, the capital) with its twinkling lights glittering like gold dust scattered up the dark dark grey mountainside, all set beneath the bright silver globe of a full moon. And little bits of phosphorescence flashed in the passing sea.

Approaching La Reunion just after dawn (plane coming in to land too)

Arrival in Le Port, Reunion a few hours later was quick, easy and efficient. Though the port approach seems to be in an acceleration zone where wind was over 30 knots, the marina is calm. I later find there’s no acceleration zone; it was just a very windy day – a rare event on the west coast.

Staff and neighbours give warm welcomes and Henrietta is tied up in two minutes, customs officials arrive and clear me in five more minutes. All done. No charges, no excessive paperwork, no passport stamp (luckily Britain not yet sufficiently Brexitted for that)…just a freshwater shower…..and I’m off to a boulangerie and U Express supermarket down the road. Yum! ( N.B. If you sail here, you should submit paperwork before leaving your last port).

Look what was just down the road

I’ll probably stay here a month or so. Lots to do……

Calm, peaceful, friendly

Farewell Indonesia, Farewell Southeast Asia

Farewell Indonesia, Farewell Southeast Asia

Time to say goodbye

4th to 10th August

A palm oil refinery, stocking up, last goodbyes, and papers

After over two years and a few thousand miles in Southeast Asia, over a year of which has been in Indonesia, it’s time to move on.

For me, and apart from Europe, this is the most wonderful region of our planet. A long and fascinating history, colourful people, sophisticated culture, a multitude of different languages, diverse religions, fine mountains, clear seas and overwhelmingly friendly people.

Little wonder that so many boats stay here for many years. Some come here and never leave. Were it not so far from my home, I’d stay longer. Were it not for the global bug, I’d like more travel on land.  But for now, and before it’s too late, I choose to move on.

The past few days in Belitung have been busy. Fellow boat owners will know the tasks involved in preparing for long offshore passages. The checks: engine, standing rigging, running rigging, shackles, cables, batteries. Cleaning: hull, inside lockers, fridge, windows, laundry. Shopping: spares. Last emails, weather forecasts, route planning, and so on.

…oh yes! Food for a month or more too.


Before leaving there was just time  for a visit to Belitung’s biggest palm oil refinery. William, the manager, has invited me to come and see it. It is a fascinating day out.

Palm oil fruit awaiting processing

I’ve always loved factory visits.  I’ll not swamp you with palm oil technicalities (though my note book is crammed).

From this….
..via this, and …
…this…to …

Suffice to say, 12,000 hectares of palm trees are grown from seed, transplanted till maturity brings the fruit, which is then harvested manually and trucked to the refinery in a constant stream of small lorries, and tractor/trailers – about one every seven minutes all day. The fruit has to be milled within a few hours of picking and goes through a series of heating, milling, cooling, heating processes and lots of computer-controlled pipes and tubes and tanks, to result in a list of end products that includes cooking oil, solid greasy stuff (for soap, margarine, shampoo, cosmetics, ice cream and lots of other things), plus biodiesel. Dry residues are used to fire the boilers to provide the plant’s electricity, and exported for cattle feed. Everything is used.

..and this..(cattle feed)



With the general manager, William, at the refinery’s jetty


We go down to the jetty where the products are stored before shipping overseas.

The ship we see is typical of the global maritime industry:- Bermuda registered, Russian captain, Philippino crew, cargo from Indonesia, heading for Malaysia. They await papers and a pilot and high tide. Every month, I estimate 30-50,000 tonnes of the various products are exported.The EU has given palm oil bad press. Plantations have devoured many thousands of hectares of rainforest in Malaysia and Indonesia (though in Belitung, the native forests, where they existed, have long since been destroyed with tin mining. Soils are not fertile.)

I’ll not enter the debate as to the merits or otherwise of palm oil plantations. This refinery meets European standards. Working conditions for around 3,000 employees are good (play group, clinic, landscaping, housing, football pitch, indoor badminton, a mosque, everywhere clean and careful). William and the staff I meet are understandably proud of Belitung’s biggest export earner.

Next day passes with frantic foray to the market and local shops for enough food for several weeks. Guess there’s going to be quite a lot of onions and lentils with rice to keep me going. And some carrots and garlic and ginger and chillies (yum!) 

And finally there’s paperwork. Three young customs officials want to inspect Henrietta. They hadn’t travelled 500 metres of choppy water on an elderly Avon inflatable before. But with dampened backsides they were safely on board and thoroughly checked my cupboards, photographed lots of odds and ends and so on. I think they had a memorable half day out.

Customs officers after checking Henrietta

So, with more papers to allow my exit from Indonesia, I bid sweet sad farewells to some of those who’ve been so kind and helpful during my prolonged stop in Belitung. It has been one of my happiest, most memorable anchorages anywhere in the world.

There are lots of farewells! There are no fellow boats to say goodbye to, but local friends, and helpers, the shops and warungs I’ve come to know.

Kind, helpful, energetic Erny. Funny, international, generous Muramotosan come to say goodbye

Thank you to everyone who has helped make my days here in Belitung so full, friendly and comfortable (fairly comfortable). Especially, Erfan, Fenny, Eddy, Johnny, Erne, Muramotosan, William, Alex, Rosa, Bambang, Cecilia, Frankie, Yvonne and everyone else (whose names I’ve forgotten.)

Ever helpful Erfan and Fenny

Eddy helping load some diesel and clean laundry
Alex, Rosa, Bambang and Cecilia

Final enquiries and phone calls to people in specific countries mean I’ll now head for La Réunion – a little French island east of Madagascar and southwest of Mauritius. If Mauritius reopens in September I’ll aim to go there instead.

 I write this at a peaceful little island in the Sunda Strait, Pulau Sebuku, not far from Krakatoa.

Tug with barge full of coal for Java power station
Oil fields off Southeast Sumatra
Busy with ferries and ships at Sunda Strait

The two days and nights sailing from Belitung left me weary. It’s through an area that’s too busy with shipping and fishing, and oil fields to allow much rest!

Local fishermen have just come alongside and given me some fresh fish. I’ll leave tomorrow for the long sail to La Reunion, around four weeks, all being well.


(A bit of internet here may let this post be published, but maybe not)


I’ll be out of contact for a while. Best wishes and safe sailing to many sailor friends who’ve made different plans, and of course I’ll hope to see many of you again.




Belitung and Jakarta 2

1st July to 3rd August 2020

Getting to know Belitung, local friends, a new passport

Budgerigars at Alex’s butterfly garden

Henrietta and I are not accustomed to long stays anywhere. We like to be sailing. ‘Rolling stones gather no moss’ (or, moving bottoms gather no weed) is our mantra. To stop is to stagnate; the mind grows dull, the body weak; not to mention poor Henrietta’s nether regions. 

In the five years we’ve been together, we have never stopped for more than a month anywhere – until now.

Pizzas with the only other sailors to have visited in over two months, KaijaSong with Gary and Kaija from British Columbia

Now, things are rather different, as we all know. We’re seriously restricted in how we follow our desires and dreams, wanderlust suppressed, plans tattered. Apart from one sail to Jakarta and back, and, for me, two flights to Jakarta and back (more later), we have lived in Belitung for over two and a half months. When you reach an age where you know that life is finite, that’s much too long a time. 

Some of Indonesia’s many airlines are operating again. They serve over a hundred domestic airports in over 16,000 islands

Jakarta, and meet up with ever friendly, always helpful, enigmatic, charismatic Raymond

And yet, and I stress this because it has surprised me, I have really enjoyed a more settled existence. It has been a rare pleasure to appreciate a slower and less demanding pace. I am happy. This is especially so as Belitung is friendly, fascinating and often fun; and central to this, it is open to free movement, albeit usually masked.

I’ve become a ‘local’ in as much as any Westerner will ever be local.

Almost a ‘local’ now, on my beach again

Folk know or know of the ‘strange Englishman who’s living on that sailing boat out there’. (Henrietta is prominent as the only boat anchored in a wide bay off over a kilometre of sand and coral).

I have my favourite local shops and ‘warungs’ for lunch or coffee, begin to know my way around the capital (40 minutes motorcycle away) and have explored much of the island. Even the local turtles seem to come and check up on me. (We share advanced distaste for the passing jet skis, their dangers and the noise – their insistent angry growls and roar – and the wash) 

Belitung’s wealth, such as it is, derives from tin mining, palm oil, kaolin and sand export (good building sand is barged to Jakarta), fishing, boat building and, in more normal times, local tourism (when over 2,000 visitors, Indonesian and a handful of foreigners, fly in each week on up to a dozen flights a day).

It may lack the spectacular volcanic mountains of Java, Sumatra and Bali but the beauty of its beaches, clear seas, unique rock formations had it strive for recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (It lost out to Langkawi in Malaysia). 

Given a healthy historic mix of peoples from all over Indonesia (including Malay, Java, Bugis, Sumatran, Chinese), and a handful of resident foreigners (at least a dozen), there is a happy acceptance of everyone.

A few of many beers available in Belitung

One incidental outcome of this tolerance is Indonesia’s largest selection of beer (ie. fizzy lager), and Franky’s wife runs a small bright bar at their hotel that has stocked over a hundred varieties from around the world.

Erny and Muromotosan have a break from SUPs

People have, almost  without exception, been friendly, polite, inquisitive and helpful. Locally, Erpan and his wife Penny have helped with taxi services, rental motorcycle, laundry, and all round advice and information. Johnny in the capital helps with visa paperwork and officialdom. 

More than anyone, the lovely local businesswoman Erny and friend, Muromotosan, have always included me with outings around the island and paddleboarding (or for me, kayaking) to nearby islands. It has been a treat to meet so many of their friends, and see places I’d never have found were it not for them.

We’ve eaten lots!

Travelling alone on rented motorbike, or with Erny and Muromotosan by car, I’ve rarely had time to fester or succumb to melancholia.

Rather than give you day-by-day accounts of what’s gone on, here are a few odds and ends, edited as I feel necessary. Much of this would have been tricky without the contacts, and the energy, enthusiasm and encouragement of Erny: –

Seeing with Franky the undeveloped southern parts of Belitung. A tireless young businessman, his interests include tree plantations for plywood production, land speculation and development, a hotel, an eco-resort, herb production (whenever he talks I learn of another venture.)

Regular visits by paddleboard and kayak to Kelayang Island where we feed bananas to the one resident macaque, fatten ourselves with hot banana fritters, and swim and snorkel.

Pizzas and happy family gatherings with Alex, Rosa and children, Bambang and Cecilia. Alex is an enthusiastic, patient and knowledgeable animal-lover who’s made Belitung his home.

Alex, inseparable from Ivy, his baby macaque

Hydroponic salad eco-farming

Fresh salad from source

Honey production at Hendra’s home.

Hendra and huge sculptures (of stingless honey bees)

A palm oil refinery, where William, the general manager, explains the processes between harvesting from 30,000 hectares of palm trees to shipping processed oil and other products to China, Myanmar, Bangladesh, South Korea from their own shipping jetty…..He’s been in charge for nearly 20 years of this 24 hour, 365 days a year operation that employs around 3,000 people. Fascinating and he’s going to show me around the refinery later this week.

William outside Kampit’s Chinese Temple

A day out on the private island of Leebong, where luxury villas are available for those more affluent than me. Now of course deserted apart from the owner’s family and friends.

Loaded up for a day out
Leebong Island and one of the smart villas

And then, to test my stamina and powers of patience, I’ve been ‘getting-a-new-passport’, the old one unexpired but after five years rapidly filled with stamps and visas that accompany sailing around half the world. I cannot even leave Indonesia without a new one.

Cities – traffic, tall offices, shopping malls, freeways. Same the world over.

Should I or should I not castigate the UK Foreign Office in this post? An open letter to the Foreign Secretary perhaps? I’m tempted – but you don’t want to read a grumpy man’s rants.

Another covid test needed (before you can fly anywhere)
Not many applying for visas for UK. Brexit and the bug have killed off business.

Passport application processes are aimed at people who live more normal lives: those who travel overseas to work or for holidays, for example. Us sailors are clearly not considered normal; we don’t usually have a local address, or local British professionals to vouch that the photo is of us, or even know where we are going next, or even when we may go! And we often don’t live in places with reliable postal services. Our homes are our boats.

Of no interest to most of you who read this stuff, I’ll just tell you that wherever you are in the world, U.K. Passport renewal is done in Britain. In Indonesia an agent in Jakarta handles it. First trouble arose when I found that the Passport agent was shut for three months of Jakarta lock-down. (i.e.passport could not be renewed. You’re stuffed)

The Embassy doesn’t want to talk to anyone unless ‘emergency’. Phone calls to local Consul refer you to Britain where, even if staff have heard of Indonesia, they do not know anything of local realities. Enough…my little bit of hair turns grey, blood pressure off the scale.

Disciplined queues in Jakarta’s busy domestic air terminal

And so, to spare you sharing any more of my grumpy-man anguish I’ll simply say that once Jakarta lockdown ended and the agent reopened I was obliged to invest in two return flights to Jakarta.

A night in a pod (capsule) at Jakarta airport

That’s four flights, two covid blood tests (needed before all flights), 14 taxis, two nights in hotels…..But at last, after all that and with a wallet that’s very much thinner, I have a new passport (big thank you to the staff who actually do the work – which does not include Foreign Secretary or embassy – and turned it round in three weeks).

In theory I can now move again.

I cannot do anything about the sad fact (sad for me anyway) that  the new black (hint of blue maybe) passport is one of these half-hearted ones with a new title –  it reminds us we shall no longer enjoy the privilege of unfettered travels or life or work in the EU. (But I shan’t start on that source of anger and irritation. Also, I do wish to remain friends with some lovely folk who think quite differently from me.)

This is turning into another ramble of ill-considered thoughts, so I’ll stop. As I said, I’m happy and healthy, and consider I’m very fortunate to be in Indonesia. I hope to leave in a week or so.

Belitung and Jakarta

Belitung and Jakarta

26th May to 30th June

Freed from quarantine; travels, food and life in Belitung and Jakarta, but it’s not normal

Sail to Jakarta and back, 470 miles round trip

For most of us on planet earth it’s been a strange few months, strange in many different ways. I shan’t dwell on the strangeness too much. 

Though there are a few folk who seem to relish the forced changes to their lives and plans, and use it as an opportunity to improve things, do things they’d always meant to, or become artists or ventriloquists, I’m not one of those. I hate it. This global bug is a curse, a serious menace, a foul nuisance. I loathe it and it’s crazy vocabulary – everything about it. (What sort of depraved Brave New World, by the way, comes up with “New Normal”?)

But I don’t like to be gloomy for too long and so will soon move on to cheerier stuff. (Anyhow, one more opinion from one of several billion opinions is neither here nor there.)

If you take even a passing glance at conditions in the world’s poorer communities, you quickly appreciate how very fortunate you are to be well-off or live in a wealthier country, shielded from the harsher realities of isolated semi-dependent places. The tight-packed shanty areas of Jakarta or the islands reliant almost wholly on tourism are just two local examples I’ve visited recently. For the impoverished, the destitute, the uneducated and of course those with poor health, there is nothing whatever to value in current conditions. 

Give me freedom, unchallenged health, happy hugs and wholesome handshakes, and opportunity and community vitality any day. For most people I guess, and for most cruisers around the world, at best these are disconcerting times. Like the majority, I ‘make the most of it’, ‘do what I can’, ‘stay positive’, ‘look on the bright side’. You know the cliches.

And, though I detest this loathsome global bug, for Henrietta and me, life has been pretty good.

Our quarantine wristbands – soon to be removed

Released from 14 days of quarantine (16 days in the end, as there were holidays for wristband removers), Laura and I were free, no longer branded as potentially unclean.

Freedom on a motorbike

We hired a car, and then motorbikes, and bought our own food in stalls and markets and stores; went for walks; did the sights of Belitung.

Deep fried bananas with chocolate, sweet toast with cheese

It may sound rather silly but after three months, it’s quite exciting to buy your own bananas, choose your own vegetables and biscuits. It’s even more of a thrill to go to cafes and restaurants, and eat some disgustingly delicious sweet things: – deep fried bananas with chocolate, sweetened toast with ice-cream and green syrup, baby doughnuts with ice-cream. And though many local warungs (small restaurants) remain closed, the few that are open are very happy to find customers. 

Another time, we had soemthing different. Of course it’s not healthy. Who cares?

Another big excitement in the month, a genuinely worthy thrill, was the arrival of a new windlass. If you’re not a boaty person, this is the magical electric machine that pulls up the anchor and chain.

Fresh from Italy…..

And, if you are a boaty person, you will appreciate that it’s been extremely troublesome to try and raise the anchor for a 12 ton boat by hand, and it has severely limited the depths where we could anchor. 

Anyhow, after the miracles of modern global courier delivery systems, this new windlass turned up in Belitung (via Italy and extended global excursion). We went to collect it from a little rain-swept office in the backstreets of Tanjung Pandan (Belitung’s main town). A few days later it was fitted and working – still beautifully shiny too, despite my messiness with outdated Sikaflex.

Still Shiny ; a bit boring but it makes a nice change from photos of food or sunset

Belitung is a big island. For British comparisons, it’s more than ten times as big as the Isle of Wight (England’s largest) with about twice the population. Skye in Scotland is one third the size of Belitung. 

A visit from Alex and his family – they live nearby

Unlike many Indonesian islands, Belitung has few high mountains. We climbed the highest of them, Mount Tajan, a glorious two hour hike through rainforest to about 500 metres, not a soul to be seen and a fine waterfall and pool for cool freshwater swim on the way down. It is indeed another thrill to enjoy a good walk once more. (You see, despite my annoyance and anger over the bug, the month has been full of pleasure as well.)

on the way up Mount Tajan
A swim on the way down

Alas! The time had come for Laura to return home. Flights from Jakarta to Europe were fine; but internal Indonesian flights to get to Jakarta were not at all fine. Her first two bookings were cancelled, no reasons given. 

So we sailed to Jakarta. It’s not a straightforward sail. 

Murky approach to Jakarta

It’s 230 miles close-hauled through fishing boats, ships, tugs and, for us, two days and nights of sailing, a few squalls and lots of sail changes. A good sail (with engine not needed) to end our time together. 

On arrival we’re the poor relation

There’s a marina in Jakarta. Batavia Marina is near the spot where the Dutch established their centre for Dutch East Indies operations centuries ago. It’s mainly taken over nowadays by the mega-motor yachts of Jakarta’s elite, a few slots sometimes available for visitors. 

We move and have our not-so-pretty namesake nearby

After papers were checked and our temperatures taken, we were free to travel throughout the city, facemasks supposedly obligatory, handwashing and temperatures checked at every mall and store, on every street posters and placards to enforce the covid message. Even Grab taxis have a screen to surround the driver.

Ever so grand, smart and mildly interesting, Cafe Batavia
As the only customers the chef came to tell us what it was. I can’t remember but needed a proper meal afterwards
..full lunch here for two a better bargain than coffee for one above…We had both!

But big city life must go on and even here in North Jakarta, the centre of the city’s most serious bug outbreak, cargo ships are loaded, container lorries roar past, stalls sell fruit and snacks, supermarkets trade, traffic trundles along (although far far less traffic than is Jakarta’s norm) and the air is hot, dank and hazy.

A sight little changed in fifty years

Then Laura flew home. She’s an amazing and lovely young woman, and has been a wonderful companion and crew in extraordinary times. I’m sure she knows I shall miss her. But I can see that Germany and Europe have missed her too.

Next day, Jakarta’s museums started to reopen. With fellow sailors and the ever-helpful Raymond, we visit a few, drink coffee, chat, eat and shop. Then, with government offices closed at the weekend, there’s more time in Jakarta before I can clear out. More shopping, walking, sociability.

At the wayang (puppet) museum

Marina life is not for me. After a week of Jakarta’s excitements, and my mind filled with a wealth of very mixed images, I sail back to Belitung. Two sleep-deprived nights of solo sailing in busy waters exhausts me, and it’s good to drop anchor again at Belitung.

The turtles are still here and seem to welcome me ‘home’. There are always friends in nature. Quarantine seems not to be required now, but I choose to isolate myself for a while anyway. There are always things to do on a little boat. And I’ve written this too.

Empty beaches of Belitung

South Sumatra

West and South Coast Sumatra, Sunda Strait, Belitung

14th April to 25th May

Isolation, sailing again, games, fitness, eating and …..stuff

Barogang is about half way down the left side of Sumatra. We’re now at Pulau Belitung (lower right)

Think of Sumatra as a giant sausage with a bulging middle, reclining a bit to the left. The sausage is about a thousand miles long and packed with mountains and jungles and lakes and amazing wildlife and exotic cultures and colourful welcoming people, a fabulous world of diversity. Utterly amazing – I am sure.

But despite sailing its entire length from north to south we have not seen a single bit of it!

We have not even set foot on the Sumatra sausage. (Such are the restrictions needed to appease this global menace of Covid.) Just a few brief footfalls on some of the many islands with exotic names that lie about 60 miles off Sumatra’s west coast: Siberut, Mentawai, Nias, Simeulue.

And we have now rounded the southern tip of Sumatra, anchored as I write this, some 15 miles north of Krakatoa and its adjacent troubled simmering volcano islands. (I finished writing it a long time later, a complete circumnavigation of Sumatra completed – without once landing on it.)

Krakatoa simmers in the distance – tug and barge passing in front

Krakatoa lies in the passage between Sumatra and Java, the Sunda Strait. Scenically magnificent – when the haze cleared enough to see the nearby volcanoes and lush green mountain forests.

Of course it has been disappointing to miss seeing one of Indonesia’s largest and most amazing islands. But compared with the disappointments and frustrations and pain of most of the planet, we have been very fortunate.

This post covers some of what we have done with the past several weeks. (Though I must confess that it is sometimes a case that on Thursday I cannot remember what I did on Tuesday, even though I’m sure we have been pretty busy – at least a bit busy.)

Yachts anchored off Pulau Barogang (drone photo thanks to Javerne)

A month ago we were settled with a cluster of fellow yachts anchored off our very own isolation island, called Barogang. Like neighbours on an exclusive housing estate we were both respectful of others’ privacy and yet gregarious and supportive enough to share news and views, snacks and games parties. And the fleet included some very fine cooks, practical craftsmen and skilled designers. And, in case you want to know, our games repertoire was extensive:- Mexican Train, Rummy, Scrabble, and ‘Chase the Bitch’ (This is the Australian phrase for what I thought was ‘Hearts’); and another Australian one, ‘Spite and Malice’. (Does Australian vocabulary tell us something of cultural differences?)

Empty bottle stock hugely increased since we left

The exclusive isolation island of Barogang wasn’t Alcatraz, of course not. We were well supplied with food, company was sound, a nearby beach enabled leg stretching, body-surfing and other things deemed good for human well-being. Life was leisurely.

Hammock on loan from kind ever-friendly Florence

And sailors more dynamic than us built a roofed bar area, cultivated a vegetable garden, bought chicken, cleared jungle, drank cocktails, stroked pussycats and tickled pigs’ tummies. But after four weeks, and the real prospect of many more, Henrietta was itching to move on. We left.

We left some fine friends in Barogang

Two weeks’ good wind blew us the final few hundred miles south along the Sumatran coastline, past grey and awesome mountains, fabulous skies and glistening turquoise surfers’ swells.

On reflection, the wind was not always so ‘good’; one long overnight stretch included one of those exhausting spells of tropical ITCZ conditions (look it up): winds wildly spinning through all points of the compass and leaping about from zero to over 40 knots. Reef, preventer on, spinnaker pole up, gybe, pole down, preventer off, reefs out….repeat…several times, all the while being rolled and tossed about and drenched with downpours of rain.

Very tiresome and wearisome, and at times like that you wonder if a more normal retirement mightn’t be such a bad thing.

At last some good sailing…

Anyhow, forget that bit; unpleasantness is soon a distant fast-fading memory.

We breezed into the Sunda Strait early one morning a day or two later, turned left at the corner at the bottom of Sumatra and sailed north of Krakatoa, that renowned volcano (too far off our course and recently too active to visit) and stopped at a couple of tiny villages on isolated islands; local people as friendly and happy as ever with waving and smiles – though keeping very well away (bar one cheery young family who came to chat and sell us sweet slimy coconut cakes).

Small peaceful isolated communities in Sunda Strait
Always a friendly smile and wave…
..and colourful local craft

Intention was then to head east along north coasts of Java and Bali to Lombok. But weather gods were hostile. After more than two days furious beating into relentless headwinds, head currents and bang-slap waves, we turned and sailed instead to the island of Belitung. (Billiton in English – the source if you’re interested, of BHP Billiton’s name; here tin mining).  

The local beach at Belitung- on a very wet morning

Our isolation islet of Kelayang

We have a fine place to anchor. Henrietta was here nearly two years ago. But now it is empty: no other yachts, all beach bars and cafes and restaurants closed, rarely anyone on the long sandy beach, a scattering of small fishing boats that continue to putter offshore at dusk.

Swimming to find a way out
Isolated in paradise?

In this Province of Indonesia all new arrivals are quarantined, whoever, whenever, whyever. After blood tests (negative) we have two weeks of isolation. No hardship whatsoever and few folk can have enjoyed such privileged ‘isolation’.

You may ask…

We have the entire little islet of Kelayang to ourselves. (It’s normally thronging with trippers) We snorkel its unique and beautiful rocks, amble on the beach, practice yoga ….and simply appreciate how very lucky we are to be here in Indonesia with the world’s most warm-hearted, happy, generous people.

Freedom in isolation

Laura, quite apart from being the most perfect crew that any sailor could ever wish for, and being an all-round marvellous person, has me sticking to a rigorous Teutonic regime of ‘planking’ (yes, I’ve tummy muscles fit for Mr Universe). Plus she has introduced me to Germany’s National Card Game. It’s called ‘Skat’.

Beauty and the Beast play Skat (Officers’ Skat)

No! Do not laugh. It is the National Card game. It is played with all the serious earnest vigour and concentration that Germany expends on its car industry and beer. Though quite why a nation so hard-working, rational and cultivated should have devised such an absurdly illogical and tricky card game, I cannot think. To be precise Skat needs three people, and, as there are only two of us, we have a modified version called ‘Offiziersskat’. Laura almost always wins.

So you can see, life in the age of Covid goes on. Different of course for all of us.

Aboard Henrietta I am forever conscious that it’s only us human beans that are bothered. The turtles flipper around us in contentment, untroubled dolphins visit, the sun sets and rises, birds sing timidly and sweetly, rain patters down and sunshine bakes us dry.

Whatever happens next is anyone’s guess – not mine.

Where next?


NW Malaysia to NW Sumatra, Indonesia

24th February to 13th April 2020

Farewell Malaysia, Indonesia once more, and a world turned upside down

tidy the chaos on board and….
Sail west to sunset and Sumatra

Normality absent for a while, your worlds on hold or disrupted, cut short or drastically modified. Regular activities curtailed, plans torn up, and perhaps for you (though I trust not) anxiety, mild hysteria, poverty, ill health or worse. 

As ever, I count myself lucky. I’ll not dwell unduly on current global virus obsessions. For us who travel slowly on boats, freedom is one of the prime reasons that we are here. Most of us are always and forever excited at the knowledge we are able to leave a place and move on at will; free to try new anchorages, meet new people, see new life. We may only exist on the fringes of the normal societies we visit, merely brief visitors,  but that means we are less tied to the controls, pressures and norms of anywhere on land. 

Now that those freedoms are no longer here, we have had our wings clipped; we can no longer sail where and when and how we want. But it really isn’t all that tough or grim or bad! Whatever happens with mortals handcuffed to land, we still have sunshine, unsullied nature and the open sea around us.

Henrietta is just one of very many hundreds of little boats around the world that are pretty well stuck. Legally in Indonesia for now (though visas not being renewed), we know that other countries do not want us unless we are their citizens. Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, Thailand, Mauritius, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, India: these are within reasonable range. But for now they’re all closed. We are bound to Indonesia, even though limited in how we may move within this vast country.

But Indonesia is as good a place as any to lie at anchor. In fact it’s perhaps one of the very best countries in which to lie at anchor. Here in Sumatra it’s usually hot and sunny (keeps batteries topped up), there’s usually some food that local people bring us, scenery is picture-postcard pretty – deserted sandy beaches, coconut palms, clear water and coral or steady glistening rollers of surf, sometimes heavy rain showers (keeps water tanks topped up), people generally friendly (though more distant than is usual, and very occasionally we are certainly not welcome).

Sailing life is of course disrupted. We cannot enter towns and this year’s plan for me to cross the Indian Ocean is postponed a year or cancelled altogether. 

But as I’ve already said, I am lucky. Now I’ll tell you what we’ve been up to. I’ll try to keep it brief.

First Sumatra stop, the island of Weh

With boat work completed at Pangkor (new batteries, gas pipework, shaft seal,engine service, antifouling etc etc – a long and dull list….), Henrietta was relaunched and I sailed north again up the Malaysian coastline via Penang to Langkawi. New sails – for me always one of the more thrilling (and pricey) items of essential periodic replacement.

In early March I left Langkawi, Malaysia and set sail for North Sumatra, two days and overnight sails away, little realising that in those two days, countries would close their borders and drastically restrict movements. Those who were later than me leaving were stuck in Malaysia or Thailand. 

A small sailing rally along the Sumatran coast and on to Borneo was cancelled before it could start. (I was to have joined for a part of it). But officials stamped passports, took our temperatures, allowed us ashore (for two days) and quickly the restrictions that the world is now familiar with came into play.

Two new crew members arrived as planned. Just one day later and it would not have been possible. Here’s a picture of the truly lovely Judith and Laura. (See what I mean about being lucky?)

Judith and Laura. It’s a tough life, yet they always smile…

At this point I’ll quickly tell you that Sumatra is the world’s sixth biggest island (or is it fifth?), twice the area of the United Kingdom and about a thousand miles from northwest to southeast. The next month or two or more (who knows?) we’ll sail along its length and the many smaller islands that lie along it. If we are allowed to, that is.

We slowly sail down the west side of this huge island, Sumatra

On the final day of relative freedom, before leaving Sabang, I joined others for a whirlwind motorcycle tour around the island of Weh: lush mountain scenery in every shade of green  and grey, waterfall and freshwater swim, beachside meal with waves lapping gently at golden sand (It may sound like a cliche, but it really was dreamy gorgeous). Here are the photos….

Next day after hurried shopping and meeting up with Laura and Judith, we are confined on board – no more landing allowed. It’s time to move on. Officialdom in this bit of Northern Aceh may usually be welcoming and friendly, but now we’re not wanted here.

Uniformed folk tell us to leave…after they’d bought us cabbages and onions…

For the next week or two, we stay on board apart from one short walk on a small deserted island, moving on each day, sailing overnight a few times, avoiding larger towns and passing or anchoring off the many small islands that are scattered offshore in this part of Sumatra. (In fact I realise that in more than a month I have not yet visited the main island of Sumatra at all.)

Another solitary isolated anchorage – an uninhabited bit of paradise

We’re told we’ll be more welcome in Teluk Dalam, in the Province of South Nias. So we head there. Sadly Judith leaves from there. She’s one of the world’s two brightest, most friendly, capable, interesting and attractive people. (Laura is the other.) But she needed to return to Belgium.

Quarantine inspection and fumigation in South Nias

One visit ashore at Teluk Dalam. And a visit or two from local lads who needed firm lessons regarding social distancing. Then Laura and I sailed on south. 

I firmly told these cheeky fellows about social distancing and they swam home

We cross the equator back into the Southern Hemisphere, a first for crew (hence the balloons etc). ….and then after several days and nights…..we’re told to head back north to a tiny deserted island (just one part-time guardian).

Laura crosses the equator. A quiet word and beer for Neptune…

This is the island of Barogang. You won’t be heading this way any time soon. It lies close to an island called Tanahbala, which is itself over 60 miles from Sumatra. 

As I write this, there are eight boats here, a mix of Australians, Swiss, English and New Zealand. And as you might expect from such a mix, an old canoe, some bamboo, a few planks and bits of driftwood are soon assembled to form a bar. Large smelly bonfires devour the rubbish and undergrowth that is cleared. And, depending on how long we are here, this may be just phase 1 of an international resort and who knows what…..but probably not…

Clearing a bit of the island of Barogang
Sign artist and admirer. Corona Bar is open (but no stock!)

Compared to most of my family and friends on land we feel blessed. We just need to stay almost wholly isolated (which for now suits both local people and ourselves). There are of course no medical facilities. No internet either. (We moved a few miles to post this update from Henrietta and to find out a little of what goes on in the wider world).

Wonderful South Nias Bupati (Regent) and Raymond (always calm friendly and helpful) come to visit
…and sunsets forever soothing and gracious..

The unreliable journal of a sailing voyage