Monday, April 23, 2007

Out of diesel, out of wind

After some excellent and easy days sailing through the Maldives, we sadly said goodbye as we motored past the last little island and headed out into the big empty sea. Well, Diny and I were sad, Max, always ready for the next place, had been chomping at the bit for a few days. Salalah, Oman was our goal, 1250 miles of empty ocean away.

The new autopilot we installed in Thailand was on the fritz (grrr), so we had to steer the boat manually. We had initially been dreading this. Normally on watch, you just keep an eye out for traffic (1000 foot long freighters, fishing boats, debris, whatever), watch the instruments, and let the autopilot maintain the course. But now, for 8 hours each day (two 3 hour shifts, and one 2 hour shift) each of the three of us would have to watch our course (using the GPS, ship's compass, and wind indicator) and make constant corrections to keep us on course.

But it turned out not to be so bad. The seas were pretty mellow for most of the crossing, which meant the boat was not being pushed around by the waves. We spent long, lazy hours laying in the cockpit watching the wind vane on top of the mast and keeping the sails as full as possible (mostly close hauled, for you sailing geeks). We got pretty good at trimming the sails so the boat would steer itself. A few days of it were without a doubt the finest sailing I've done.

The only problem was, for quite a bit of the twelve day crossing, there wasn't much wind to sail on. And with full tanks we could only motor about 800 of the 1250 nautical miles. We spent entire days sailing on 1 - 2 kts of wind, though we were pretty proud of ourselves that we could get the boat to make about 2.5 kts on it. But 3 kts is about walking speed. Imagine going 1250 nautical miles (about 1425 miles) at a strolling pace. At times, the wind died completely for a few hours, leaving the sea glassy calm, and us calculating how many days worth of water were left in the tanks. We had plenty, so as long as we were willing to sail slowly, there should be no problem, unless the current turned against us.

One of the lulls was quite lucky. Dolphins often approach us and play in the bow wave when we are sailing or motoring, but we rarely see them when we aren't moving. Just at sunset, with the boat barely moving through the glassy sea, dolphins appeared, lots of them, at least 20. We jumped in the water and swam out to meet them. From eye level, swimming in the sea, it is somewhat unnerving to watch these fins approach you and then, 10 meters away, disappear under the water. It triggers some deep trauma from having seen Jaws as an eight year old. But they're dolphins right, our friends? Like Flipper? I sure hoped so. Not wanting to take time to put on my bathing suit when we saw them approaching, I had stripped naked and jumped in the water. I hoped they wouldn't mistake any part of my anatomy for a fish. Or a toy.

The neighbors.

While most of them stood off at a distance, some groups of 3 or 4 approached us from below, swimming on their sides to look up at us. They seemed curious, but wary, kind of like I was feeling. The water was almost purple in the late afternoon light, and watching them watch us from below in that vast blue was strange and beautiful and unforgettable. Swimming along with them, Diny and I got pretty far from the boat. Max had stayed aboard (someone has to), letting Diny and me enjoy the opportunity, as big a gift as I've ever been given. When the dolphins left us, we turned back to the boat, maybe 250 meters away, and looking very small against the empty encircling horizon. Swimming back I felt deeply fortunate to have the chance to do such things.

After about 10 days of this sometimes-sailing-sometimes-drifing, we were only about 80 nm from being able to motor the rest of the way in to Salalah, but the wind was barely a breath. That 80 nm was going to take us at least 2 days unless something changed. We came across the first small boat we had seen since leaving Maldives, a 20 meter fishing boat from the looks of it.

We approached cautiously; fishing boats occasionally take advantage of the general lawlessness of the sea to prey on "rich" yachts.

Approach with caution . . . (Diny's pic)

There were about 20 guys on deck. All of them looking pretty rough, but smiling. The vibe was good. Pointing to an empty jerry can, I yelled "diesel?". They nodded yes. "Whiskey?" they called. We said yes. We came along side, tied up, and did some trading. We got about 15 gallons of diesel (about half of what we needed to motor the remainder of our trip), and a fresh tuna. They got a bottle of rum, a bottle of whiskey, and a carton of cigarettes.

Everyone came away happy (Diny's pic).

We sailed another day, started the motor and came on in to Oman, 12 days after leaving Maldvies. After a few days working on the boat, I signed off. Running low on time, I couldn't stay with the boat through the next leg of countries that are difficult to fly out of (Yemen, Eritrea, Sudan), though it broke my heart not to go with the boat to Eritrea and see friends there.

I spent two weeks in Oman traveling by bus and hitchiking (yes, an American can hitchike quite safely across Arabia, and if that surprises you, Dick Cheney has a bridge in Brooklyn he'd like to sell you). I saw what must be one of the most beautiful spots I've ever been to, but that will have to wait for the next post.