We hustled ‘n’ bustled to fuel up, water up and, watching the tide go out, scraped the bottom of Cullen Bay, just making the open waters of the Timor Sea.
“Next stop, Indonesia!” I announced as Tropicbird headed out, leaving Darwin behind.
We headed due west, straight into a spectacular sunset. Our dolphin escort of the last hour of daylight had let us be as we motored until my midnight-02:00 night-watch shift when the wind picked up and Skipper decided to hoist the sails.
“Now for the magic,” he grinned as he killed the engine.
Silence engulfed us like a vacuum seal.
Nothing but the wind and the breaking waves on the bow.
We were sailing.
I looked over the rails and saw the luminous plankton, also known as phosphorous. A light green twinkled every now and again, like glo-worms by a waterfall.
“Alright,” I grinned, giggty-gigging to myself as I headed below deck to spend my first night at sea in my berth, falling asleep to the rolling motion of the boat.
In the morning, after a breakfast of porridge with raisins and cinnamon, a pod of about a hundred dolphins appeared all around us, surrounding our port, starboard, stern and bow, surfing on our keel.
We all rushed about, watching and pointing.
My watch duty was 4-6 AM on the second day. As the sun came up, I trolled the fishing line out with a squid lure. Jill had come up and sat at the stern, chatting with me, looking out for dolphins while Skipper was sound asleep in the cockpit.
Then the line snapped.
“We’re on,” I jumped on the rod. There was no fight coming from whatever had hooked itself and I assumed that I was going to reel in a limp line. It took all but 30 seconds to bring in a Tarpon fish the size of a baseball bat, my biggest catch to date (although I’d only been fishing once before – the previous week).
“Lunch is served,” I grinned just as Skipper awoke and Baz came up to see what the commotion was about. He helped me fillet the fish and for lunch I steamed and served it on a bed of onion-sweetcorn rice. Olivia made a garlic-soy-ginger sauce which almost had her heaving overboard due to the roll of the boat (which is felt a lot stronger below deck).
Skipper had set up two head sails that were pushing us along at a steady 1.5 knots. We were barely moving so the suggestion of jumping in for a swim was welcomed by everyone. As we changed into bathers, Alison gave a cry from the starboard side.
“I just saw a whale!” she exclaimed. We searched the waters but all I could see was a sea turtle.
“You know you’re going slow when a turtle overtakes you,” I said.
“Oh look,” one of the girls pointed. “Jellyfish.”
Jellyfish stings hurt.
They hurt like a motherfucking sting from a jellyfish. They floated by as it appeared that we had parked right in the middle of their school zone.
On a boat, all your bowel movements are flushed out the back through a pumping system with the water in the bowl coming from the sea. The census is not to take a dump while you’re parked cause then shit just floats around.
Before I go for a swim, I always go for a number 2. So when Orla and Alison, who had already jumped off the stern, started to yelp out and Baz began to inquire who was responsible for the floaters, I realised my mistake.
“Oh, shit –” literally “– Sorry, ladies.” I somersaulted with the grace of a flying kosher pig off the bow.
The depth reader read 250 feet. It’s the deepest body of water I’ve ever swam in and to say that I wasn’t slightly overwhelmed would be like saying, ‘Hey, your slightly overwhelmed.’
I love swimming and I love being in water but put me in water where I can’t see the bottom and you’ll understand why I take a dump before I swim. And it didn’t settle my nerves when the dorsal fin of a shark was spotted as we were toweling off on deck with the addition of 2 sea snakes sighted not long after.
Dinner was an amazing spaghetti bolognese with dehydrated soy (which looks like dog food but is a pretty good meat substitute).
“Do you mind closing your legs?” asked Orla as I scrubbed the plates after dinner at the stern using a bucket of seawater.
“Why?” I asked.
“It’s just that I can see your left testicle,” she said.
I looked down and sure enough my legs were wide open and a curious left nut peaked from its holding in my bathers.
I grinned. “Then don’t look,” and resumed scrubbing.
“So,” Orla listed the day’s events as the sun dropped over the horizon, a red-pink-orange glow splayed across the sky like a water painting, “today we saw dolphins, a sea turtle, jellyfish, swam in Simon’s shit, saw a shark, sea snakes and Simon’s left nut.”
“Star of the day,” I collapsed into the hammock as another dolphin escort joined us.
Venus, the Evening Star (slash planet) and the first one out, appeared like clockwork as the sun set. The red orange ball dropped fast over the horizon and within 15 minutes we were under a night sky, littered with stars, the Milky Way cutting across like a bridge over an endless bay.
“I can’t believe that a planet is lighting up the water out here,” I said, staring in awe at Venus laying a path of light on the water, imitating the moon. We saw the Southern Cross, Orion’s Belt and Jill, using her star navigation software on her iPad, showed us where all the astrology signs were.
“What drug were these astrologers on when they claimed they can see all these animals up there?” I wondered aloud, looking up.
On day 3 I finished a great book that Baz had received at the Life Support Center in Darwin titled, ‘101 Adventures that got me Absolutely Nowhere’ by Phil O’Brien. It was one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, telling the tales of Phil roaming around the Outback from job to job over the last 25 years of his life.
After lunch we stopped for another swim. Skipper dropped the yellow floater that was our safety line but forgot to attach it to an actual line.
“I need a swimmer,” he called out as the floater floated away. I just happened to be standing next to him and without thinking I jumped into 300 feet of blue water.
I popped up and grabbed the floater, treading water as I watched Tropicbird sail away.
Oh fuck, I thought. I started to swim after the boat when two thoughts entered my mind:
- Splashing about might attract something with a dorsal fin and teeth.
- Swimming with a flotation device is like driving without wheels.
There’s nothing more terrifying than seeing your vessel of transport sail away (albeit at 1.5 knots) when you’re surrounded by open water and nothing else. Thankfully the line Skipper threw out just reached me and I pulled myself to the boat.
That night, Baz grabbed the boat-hook and trailed it in the water to activate the bio-luminous plankton. We all hung over the rail, watching in awe and delight as the water lit up in night-vision green.
On day 4 we stopped for another swim. This time, as I swan-dived off the bow, determined to overcome my fear of the very deep blue water. I opened my eyes and saw the bluest blue I had ever seen. Looking to my right, I saw the shadow of Tropicbird’s keel.
Skipper had brought out a mask and was cleaning one side of the propeller, scraping off the barnacles that were slowing us down. I was about to dive down and do the other side when I saw something far beneath me.
Is that… is that a whale? I looked up and in my peripheral I saw something swim by me. I turned and was face-to-jelly with a jellyfish.
I shot to the top and announced our uninvited guests. Still, we kept swimming and I even shimmied out on the spinnaker pole and dropped head down to the water below but somehow, Alison and Olivia got stung.
“I’d offer to pee on you but I already peed in the water,” I said as they thanked me, dousing their stings with vinegar.
Day 5 brought on some violent rolling of the boat. Tropicbird listed to 45°, rolling from side-to-side, really testing our balance (and Irish Riverdancing skills). We listed so violently that it knocked over three mugs of tea, one after the other.
Later that night, while sleeping soundly in the hammock on the deck, I awoke and looked down at the dark waters of the Timor Sea before swaying back over the deck, slamming into the mizzen mast. Taking it as a sign, I retired below deck and resumed sleep in my berth, almost flying onto Baz sleeping in the opposite berth.
As the sun rose up on the morning of day 6, Skipper called out, “Land ho!” and West Timor was in sight. It was a breath of fresh sea air to see land after 6 days on the blue. The wind picked up and we raised the genoa and main sail.
“What’s our speed?” Skipper asked from the forward deck.
“8 knots!” we called back.
We were flying, escorted by dolphins.
As we rounded the headland I spotted a wave, breaking left and going forever.
“Waves!!” I called out excitedly and rushed up to the bow. The choppy water made the bow pitch up to 10 feet before crashing back down onto the water only to be pushed up again.
The bow became my 50-foot surf board.
I was grinning and whooping at every pitch, timing the rise and fall of the motions. I waved at the passing fishing boats as the city of Kupang, on the West Timor Island, came into view, surfing the bow all the way to the anchorage. We passed by floating rubbish, passing plastic debris, cups, Styrofoam boxes, some shoes and what looked like a broken buoy. How the hell does one even bring oneself to dump rubbish in this beautiful environment?
“You’re burnt to a crisp, mate,” Bazza said when I returned to the cockpit.
“I feel it,” I agreed.
Since my sunglasses had taken a dive off the stern the day before, I had also managed to sunburn my eyes. At least the T-shirt tan I had obtained in Darwin was now gone.
Anchoring in Kupang, we had to wait until Quarantine and Immigration came to our boat. Being it Indonesia and being it an island meant we were on island time. After almost two hours eight officials finally arrived.
All boarded but only two were actually doing anything. We had to hide all the tools, and laptops. We made them laugh and had our photos taken with them.
“Where can I surf?” I asked one of the officials.
“Rote Island,” he said.
“Yeah but where can I surf here in Kupang?”
“Oh,” his face dropped. “No surf here. Only Rote Island.”
You gotta be kiddin’ me.
We readied the dinghy to lower it off the forward deck. Skipper checked its little outboard motor and, announcing its comatose state shortly after, meant we had to hitch a ride on a dinghy from a neighbouring boat to begin our first day in South East Asia. The landing area was packed with smiling faces and people waving. It seemed that the whole town had come to see all the sailing boats.
And of course, westerners = money.
On the streets we saw impossible traffic, a mixture of scooters, souped up taxi-buses (like something out of ‘Pimp My Ride’), conductors hanging out of the doors calling out, “Mister! Mister! Where you going?” and “Money, money!”
To them, it appeared, we were walking banks.
We walked on in the dark, paveless streets, trying not to get runover by passing scooters and the souped-up buses, passing fish markets and wood workshops filled with coffins. All along saying ‘Hello’ and waving at the locals who smiled and waved back.
We booked 3 rooms at the Ima Hotel. Jill insisted on paying for all the rooms.
After showering we headed out to a restaurant called ‘The Lion’ at the staff’s recommendation. There was karaoke and two full tables of locals breaking the Ramadan fast. We walked in and all eyes were on us.
Realising that I had sat on a seat that was too low against the table, I pushed back to change chairs when I felt something colliding then flying and landing with a thud, scraping along the concrete floor right behind me. I looked down to see that I had just wiped a kid out that had been running between the tables with his buddies.
“Oh, shit,” I said and was about to approach the little bugger to see if he was alright. But he just got up and continued to run to the table with the other kids and sat with them, as though nothing happened.
This kid had taken a chair like a WWE wrestler and he didn’t even peep.
I looked around nervously, readying myself for an angry, machete-wielding parent to come after me but no one appeared. All of a sudden the music changed and before we knew it, the locals had dragged us to the dance floor to partake in a traditional dance.
By the end of dinner, all the waiters wanted a photo with us.
We hitched a ride back to the hotel with random strangers. I don’t know how they didn’t throw us out of their car as we were blind drunk (well, I was). They pumped the music all the way and took photos of us.
From there I don’t remember what happened.
The next morning, after the all-included breakfast buffet, we were asked to pose with the staff for a photo. We were the celebrities and the locals, the paparazzi’s. We walked back to the landing area from where you could see all the boats anchored in the bay. And then I saw something that was so far over the top you couldn’t even see the top.
Or the sun.
Yachts come in different shapes and classes. The cruising yachts that the majority of the rally participants were sailing on might cost just over a hundred grand. Then you have the motorised vessels associated with millionaires – yachts.
Multi-millionaires have what’s known as ‘Super Yachts’.
Billionaires have ‘Mega Yachts’.
But Ibramovitch, the Russian oligrad who owns oil rigs around the world (and the Chelsea football club) has a Super-Mega-Jumbo-Mammoth yacht. It was bigger than the island we were on and it was blocking the sun. And if this extravagance wasn’t enough, it came complete with its own helicopter.
Its own helicopter!
Who needs a dinghy when you have a heli-fuckin’-copter on the back of your boat? I thought, watching the bird land on the mini-Titanic.
“He has 10 of them around the world,” said Arnour, a French backpacker I had befriended back in Darwin who was sailing on a different boat. “All the same.”
Jesus, talk about your small penis syndrome.
We changed hotels and booked into Hotel Maya. We had an easy night at a special ceremony for the participants of the Sail Indonesia rally. We were greeted by dancing dragons (like those on Chinese New Year’s), Minsters of Indonesia were there to show us how much we meant to them (and their economy). There was cultural dancing from every island and even a fashion parade, free food and gift bags with shirts, hats and scarves.
“Had I known we’d be piled with clothes and hats I wouldn’t have bothered packing,” I said as I tried on the T-shirt, almost drowning in the size XXXL.
“Do they think all Westerners are fat?” asked Orla, holding her shirt marked XXL.
With an early rise for the 7 AM farewell ceremony, we retired back to the hotel by 20:30.