Homeward Bound

The antipodean point to Bermuda is Perth in Western Australia. That is, the point that is on exactly the opposite side of the planet. If you could dig a hole straight through the center of the Earth from Bermuda and hop through it that’s where you’d pop out.

We didn’t visit Perth but we did, as you know, visit Bali, which is directly north of Perth and on the same line of longitude. In fact, our anchorage, at longitude 115 15 E was exactly 180 degrees from Devonshire parish, Bermuda. Finally, after two years and ten months, we have reached the other side of the world, and every mile sailed will take Bob one mile closer to home rather than one mile further from it. It’s a nice feeling. Somehow it feels like we’re sailing down-hill, and that Bob knows she’s going home.

This illusion has been helped along no doubt by some of the unusually high daily runs that we’ve clocked up over the last few days, despite sailing quite conservatively. We have some very favourable currents to thank for that.

The oceans of the world are actually higher at their western sides than they are at their eastern sides. The relentless trade winds and great ocean currents heap up the sea against the continents. Going from the Atlantic to the Pacific we cheated by dropping several metres through the Panamanian lock system. But the transit from the Pacific to the Indian doesn’t involve any locks or sophistication. Neither does it involve a solid land mass with an unbroken coastline for thousands of miles. Instead, the Pacific squirts through to the Indian through the shallows of the Torres Straits and through the myriad of islands of Indonesia. This ‘equalising current’ runs generally from East to West and has been helping us along for the last month or so, often quite spectacularly. Approaching Bali we regularly saw GPS speeds of over ten knots!

Those currents have significantly reduced now but Bob keeps on bobbing along. We struggled for wind for the first few days but it seems to be a bit more consistent now. We’ve got a solid 15 to 20 knots of breeze on the beam and are making about six and a half knots under a double-reefed mainsail and half of our big 150% genoa. Christmas Island, an Australian territory, is 180 miles to our East North East and we haven’t seen any other marine traffic for the last three days, which suits us just fine. The days are starting to roll together. We’re still eating fresh food for now, though the tomatoes have started to sprout and the green stuff is looking a bit sorry for itself. There are a series of sea mounts coming up in a day or so so I’ll probably stick the fishing lines over soon and try my luck.

Our destination is Northern Madagascar, still some 3200 miles away, or about four weeks of sailing. Our original intention had been to visit a little island called Rodrigues just to the East of Mauritius and then head directly from there to South Africa, but based on the look of the weather charts and the advice of a meteorologist-sailor based in South Africa we decided to opt for what we hope will be an easier route around the Northern tip of Madagascar. Besides, Sarah wants to see the Aye Aye, her favourite animal (also one of the ugliest I think!), in the wild and that is the only place they live.

Oceans of Plastic

This is a blog that I’ve been thinking of writing for a while. Indeed, some of our past blogs have briefly mentioned the problems we’ve seen with plastics and waste management in general, but I feel this is a topic that deserves a bit more focus.

We’re all aware of the problems associated with plastics, particularly single-use plastics, and that a large proportion of them end up in our oceans and wreak havoc with the wildlife. We’ve heard of the Great Pacific Gyre and are probably aware that there are similar gyres in all the other oceans of the world. There are also some pretty neat ideas about cleaning it up. The Ocean Cleanup Project has received a particularly large amount of sensationalist press, not least because the guy who came up with the idea and presented it at a TEDx talk was 17 at the time. In fact, the whole idea was spawned from a school project. Things like this have great potential to put a good dent in the amount of plastics that are already in the oceans, but I wonder how many people appreciate how easy it could be to tackle the problem from the other end – where the plastics first go into the environment.

Just twenty countries are responsible for 80% of total plastic waste that ends up in the sea. See the graph below for who they are:

 

Waste estimates from the top 20 countries in 2010 by mismanaged plastic waste (million metric tonnes per year). Data is taken from Jambeck, J. R. et al. (2015) “Plastic Waste Inputs from Land into the Oceans.” Science, vol. 347. No 6223, pp. 768-771.

But it gets better than that! The vast majority of these plastics are carried to the sea via rivers, each of which may pass through several countries. In fact, a whopping 90% of the total global plastic waste that ends up in the sea comes out of just ten rivers, and eight of them are in Asia. This is great news, because it means the solution doesn’t need to be global. All is not lost! We just need to focus efforts on those rivers, which, conveniently, aren’t even all that widely-separated on the planet.

The plastic waste that litters the seas around Indonesia is, quite frankly, disgusting. We can’t run our water-maker in port. We tried, and it sucked up a plastic bag and blew out the gasket on the boost pump (I replaced the pump with an old domestic water pressure pump so we’re back in action now!). We know when we’re approaching a town or village because we literally start sailing through plastic. At around the time that we arrived here and were confronted with this sad situation I happened to glance at Facebook and came across a series of posts written in relation to someone who had thrown some beer bottles overboard from a boat during cup match in Bermuda. The kick-back from the community was huge. That person was shamed, his father was shamed, his friends were shamed and a great deal of anger was generated over this one incident. Rightly so, perhaps, but for me, reading about this incident really impressed upon me just how good we are in the Western world at waste management and how great the general anti-pollution mentality of the populations is. Plastic waste in Bermuda doesn’t last long, because someone will pick it up. My grandfather used to have a nail in the bottom of his walking stick so that he could pick up the odd bit of trash that he encountered on his morning walk. Many times when out in my boat in Bermuda I have picked up a bit of floating plastic that I’ve spotted bobbing around, and most other boaters can say the same. If I did the same thing here, I would never do anything else and the inflow of plastics is so great that my efforts would count for absolutely nothing. My point is that we in the Western world deserve a massive pat on the back for how we manage our waste. It’s not perfect of course, but it’s very, very good.

Another point I’d like to make is that it is not necessarily the fault of the people who live in these places. We were appalled in the islands of Polynesia to see widespread mismanagement of trash and extensive littering. But think about it – how long have the people living in these places had to deal with plastic waste? Perhaps a couple of decades at the most. Prior to that people ate foods that were packaged by Mother Nature. You eat a banana and you leave the skin on the ground. The same goes for coconuts, papaya, breadfruit and whatever else you are eating. There was no such thing as waste management because there never needed to be. How, then, can the populations of these places be expected to miraculously effect a paradigm shift and spontaneously develop effective waste management strategies just because their food now comes wrapped in a different material? Of course they can’t. They never leave their islands. They don’t see how it could be done, they have no-one to teach them otherwise and many don’t have the resources or infrastructure for proper management in the first place.

I read a book recently that contained an account of a government-sponsored beach cleanup day in El Salvador. The government approached the villagers along a stretch of coastline and said “we’d like to clean up your shoreline and we’d like you to help”. The villagers were really keen. They all went off and spent a day collecting ‘trash’. When the government trash truck turned up at the end of the day they were dismayed to discover that the villagers had picked up all the palm fronds, all the dead branches of trees, and left the plastic waste right where it was. They simply didn’t view it as being ‘trash’. The government educated the people and told them that it was the plastic that they wanted, not the palm fronds. The villagers went off again and they transformed the coastline, removing every bit of trash. The government officials were so impressed that they decided to reward the villagers. They sent trucks with food. Unfortunately the food was wrapped in plastic……………

We’ve seen a very similar mentality here in Indonesia. Below is a photo of an idyllic-looking waterfront:

The people clearly take pride in their living spaces. The houses and boats are beautifully-painted. The people are clean, and clothed well. We even saw evidence of trash disposal in the form of no less than three fire pits. But this is a very dry island. They can’t grow crops and they don’t have enough water. When the majority of your food and all of your drinking water is packaged in plastic, and you have 1,700 people living in a close-knit village perched at the base of a mountain and hemmed-in by the sea, you can’t burn it all. If you tried you’d have people getting ill from the fumes. So this is the inevitable result:

We are nearing the end of the dry season now, so this river is very low and the plastics debris nearing its worst. As soon as the monsoon rains start some time in November all of this will be washed into the sea. For me, the thought of that is horrible. For the villagers, though, it must be a huge relief. But the truly shocking thing is that this is Komodo Village, right at the heart of Komodo National Park. It is considered a global conservation priority area due to the unparalleled biodiversity of its terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

 

Even if the countries in this part of the world all had waste management plans on par with those in the Western world it wouldn’t solve the problem. When I talk about plastic packaging you are no doubt thinking of the over-packaged food you buy at your standard Western supermarket. A bag of frozen peas wrapped in plastic. A pre-cooked microwave meal in a plastic tray, covered in plastic film and wrapped in a plastic-coated cardboard container. It’s pretty terrible, but that’s in countries where the producers know that people are, at least to some extent, sensitised to the evils of plastics. What the producers do in Asian countries, where people don’t view the plastics as a problem, or at best see them as a necessary nuisance, is far, far worse. The pictures below were taken back in January when we were in Thailand. This is TYPICAL of packaging not just in Thailand, but all over Asia.

There’s also one more aspect to this. Population. I don’t think most people realise that 60% of the population of the planet lives in Asia. That’s over 4.5 billion consumers all jammed into 30% of the world’s land area. No wonder this is where the heart of the problem is! But it’s also convenient. All of the people whose mentalities regarding plastics and waste need to change are all in the same place.

So, all is not lost. Well done Western world! Now let’s focus on changing the practices of those Asian countries and really make a difference at the source.

A New Ocean

Two days ago we left the Pacific behind us and entered the Arafura Sea, which leads into the Indian Ocean a few hundred miles further West. The Pacific has been very special for me in particular as it was the lure of that huge, wild ocean that provided the impetus for this whole voyage. We have seen some incredible places, met some amazing people and been treated to countless exceptional experiences over the last couple of years. Polynesian and Melanesian culture is underpinned by the attributes of generosity and friendliness. The languages of the people are diverse but all share common themes such that the sounds of the words, which seemed so alien and unpronounceable to us at first, became perfectly natural. The diet has shifted bit by bit but has remained stapled around the same basic home-grown or self-caught ingredients. We have become accustomed to a diet of fish and coconuts and can now count ‘snake bean’, breadfruit, coco pods and giant (head-sized!) grapefruit among our favourite foods. Now, however, we are leaving all that behind. We don’t really know what to expect when we reach our next port but we are anticipating a huge cultural shift along with a change in ideals, diet, language and the general way in which people go about their lives. One thing is already clear, and that is that we are moving from a place of practicality to a place considerably more chaotic.

We don’t actually know where we are going yet because the Indonesian pre-clearance formalities are so complicated and illogical that they are proving impossible to complete. Ostensibly one may register their yacht online, enter all the required details and receive clearance in advance. In reality the online registration system doesn’t work (and has not worked for at least a month), the information requested is often impossible to provide and there actually isn’t any official legislation or set of procedures that can be followed and which will be accepted at the port of entry. It all depends on who you get when you arrive and whether they are having a good day. We do know that there are no official fees for entering but that we will be expected to haggle over the size of the ‘gift’ to be presented to the immigration and customs officials. This modus operandi is something that I have experienced a little of in my travels but am certainly not familiar or comfortable with. We have been forced to hire an agent to help us smooth things over but we haven’t heard from him in nearly a week despite daily emails from me and have no idea whether we will actually be allowed to enter. We gave up in the end and set sail from Papua New Guinea because the weather forecast was favourable but looking to deteriorate if we left it any longer.

Fortunately we have options. It seems that Timor Leste (formerly East Timor) is capitalising on the impossibility of entering Indonesia by making their entry procedures as simple as possible. Apparently it’s a nice place too, now that the bloody civil war which ended with it’s independence from Indonesia in 2002 is over. So, if we can’t get in to Indonesia we can go there instead, or at least be a little further along while we keep working on the Indonesians.

I had been quite nervous about transiting the Torres Straits – the area of shallow sea strewn with reefs, islands and strong, unpredictable currents that separates Australia from West Papua and the Pacific from the Indian Ocean – but in fact it was nowhere near as bad as what I was anticipating. The winds were kind to us, shipping was exceptionally light and even the infamous Australian border force were polite and un-hindering to our plans. We even managed to anchor overnight and get some rest without being told-off, which I’d heard might be a problem.

We had a bit of a hiccough when one of the seams on the genoa blew out (rotten stitching – the sail came with the boat and is probably twenty years old) just as darkness was falling two nights ago. Rather than switch out the sail at night we ran under main alone and then I spent most of yesterday sewing it back up again. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before another seam goes but for now the sail is up and we’re moving……….. kind of. Our average speed is 2.8 knots and the sail is banging back and forth as Bob rolls with the swells in her characteristically sharp, violent manner. It’s the reason we’re using this rotten old blown-out sail in the first place. We’re following the example of the grain ships. They would switch out their full suite of sails four times on their voyage to Australia and back – old rotten ones for the tropical trade winds, where the sun would beat down on them day after day and weeks could be spent doing what we’re doing now, and bright, new, strong sails for the higher latitudes, where you needed to be able to rely on your gear in the hurricane-strength winds of the Southern Ocean. With crews of perhaps fifteen, thirty or so sails and some of those sails weighing well over a ton it was a gruelling task that took several weeks to complete. A day spent sewing Bob’s old genoa is peanuts by comparison, and I even had a pod of dolphins up at the bow to keep me company for a while.

Position as of 0830 (UTC + 10), Wednesday September 5th is 09 51’S 138 54’E.

 

Bird Warfare, Rogue Waves and Port Moresby

Our visitor the following night was not a Booby this time but a petrel, which is much smaller and less intimidating than a Booby. Thus, I was able to adopt a new tactic with this one. It insisted on perching on the outboard engine, with its bum pointed inwards into the cockpit. Scaring it away was to no avail. It would circle the boat a few times and then return to exactly the same spot, in exactly the same orientation. But I’d noticed that it is possible, at night, to get very close to these birds indeed without them spooking and flying away. So close, in fact, that I was able to simply reach out, pick the thing up and re-locate it to what I thought was a mutually-acceptable perch. I put it on the port solar panels, which were raised out to the sides at the time and provided, I thought, a nice, firm, flat, large perching platform that would also be very easy to clean. Alas, it all went well until the first large wave rolled us over and the bird slid right off the side and then flew away just before it plopped into the water. When it returned, it did so to it’s engine perch. Take two. This time I chose a spot on the port quarter where the occasional boarding seas would wash away the nastiness. The bird, however, didn’t like that spot, and flew away only to return to……… the engine perch. I gave up and went to bed. Round two – birds.

Here’s one of the rare considerate ones. This Booby sat perched on our bow pulpit looking regal for most of the night. It can poo all it likes there because the waves washing over the foredeck deal with it.

 

In other news, we experienced my first proper rogue wave. Those of you with good memories might remember something called ‘wave superimposition theory’ from your schooling days. Basically, if you have, say, two waves, when they meet they will interact with one another to produce a single wave that is a mixture of the two. If a trough meets another trough then the resulting trough will be as deep as the two combined. If a crest meets a crest then the resulting crest will produce a wave that it as high as the two combined. And if a crest meets a trough then they cancel each other out and you get nothing. This can produce, on occasion, some quite uncomfortable, unpredictable, steep, large waves. What is known as a ‘rogue’ wave, however, is a much more rare occurrence. It is a matter of subjective opinion, but basically a rogue wave is a wave that is MUCH bigger and usually from a different direction than would normally be expected in the conditions that one is experiencing. I’ve had a few big waves that stand out in my history at sea, but none quite so roguish as the one that we had the other night. It was fairly calm and Bob was jogging along nicely. No big rolls, no lurching or pitching. You could perhaps have left a mug of something on the chart table and it would have stayed there. Suddenly, there was the sound of rushing water and a huge impact on the port side. Bob was thrown right over about 60 degrees. All the books on the shelf on the port side fell onto Sarah (who was sleeping peacefully in her bunk). A tray of eggs launched itself off the galley countertop and landed half way across the cabin. Afterwards………. nothing. Back to being pretty calm.

On the morning of August 15th we arrived in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, and have been anchored at the Royal Papua Yacht Club since then. It’s a really lovely place with superb facilities and two large supermarkets just a few minutes walk away. The city of Port Moresby is, as I’ve mentioned previously, not a safe place but it still has a lot to offer and is not too unsafe during the daytime, if you go in a group. Four of us (us and two new cruiser friends) went to a dance competition yesterday. Paul got his phone nicked out of his pocket and I’m 100% certain that if I hadn’t been walking around with my backpack on my front and a hand on the zippers at all times it would have been emptied in short order, but we never felt personally threatened and every single person we have (knowingly) met has been wonderfully friendly and nice. Sarah traded a shell head-dress with a local lady, and I had my own cultural experience when I tried betel nut – the local drug of choice (perfectly legal!).

 

These dancers all came from the island province of Manus, to the north of the main island:

Below is a photo of Sarah with the lady whose headdress she made the mistake of complimenting. It’s not the first time this has happened! In our culture if you express admiration for an item of clothing that another person is wearing it is received as a personal compliment and a congenial sentiment. In Polynesian and Melanesian culture, however, they take it one step further; their natural response is to offer that item as a gift. This lady immediately whipped off her headdress and tied it around Sarah’s head. Sarah responded by making a gift of her earrings. Last time it was her hat. Who knows what it’ll be next time!

You’ll notice that the lady above has a reddish tinge to her mouth? That’s a common feature among Papua New Guineans and it’s caused by the habitual chewing of Betel nut. It’s illegal in some places because it causes cancer of the mouth. It also appears to rot the teeth. People here chew it constantly. I thought I’d give it a go, so I bought a nut for one Kina (about 35 cents) and the lady showed me what to do with it. It tasted horrible, made me very light-headed and slightly ill. I should perhaps have tried half of a nut, or a quarter, rather than shoving the whole thing in! It turns deep red and releases the active ingredient when mixed with an acid. Mine is only orange because I am a wuss and couldn’t handle anything like the potency that the locals barely seem to notice:

Across the Coral Sea Part Two

Day 9 and all is well on Bob. It’s been long enough now that the days have rolled together, and I had to go and have a look at the ship’s log to figure out how many days we’d been at sea. Most of those days recently have been grey and drizzly, but we’re happy with that because the alternative wouldn’t have been much fun at all. Our decision to stay well South appears to have paid off – just 100 miles to our North yesterday was an area of intense thunder storms with light winds that had organised themselves into a well-defined cyclonic motion. The Coral Sea, where we are now, is the birthplace of South Pacific cyclones. We’re here at the wrong time of year (or the right time of year depending on how you look at it!) and the sea temperatures are too low for cyclone development but if that hadn’t been the case we might have just witnessed the formation of one of those infamous beasts.

In other news we finally struck gold on the fishing front a few days ago. Having caught nothing in quite some time (except a barracuda in Vanuatu which we put back due to the risk of Ciguatera poisoning) we got a Mahi Mahi and a yellowfin tuna three days ago. The freezer is full (thank you Jonathan Baxter and Roger Beach for the freezer!) and we have been enjoying tuna sashimi, fish steaks and fish stew for our meals. I think we will both struggle when we return to the ‘developed’ world and fish and coconuts become exorbitantly expensive.

It is 0845 on Sunday morning, August 19th (UTC+11). Our position is 13 41’S, 151 37’E. That puts us 370 miles from our destination. We have turned to head there directly now and are rolling along under a reefed mainsail almost directly down-wind. We’re looking provisionally at a Wednesday afternoon arrival in Port Moresby, which suits us very well as it will allow us to clear customs on the same day with a bit of luck, without having to pay any extra fees for a weekend arrival. As I send this off I will be downloading a weather forecast, which I generally do every two days. At one stage the computer models were predicting 30-knot winds and we were anticipating a rough ride into Port Moresby. The one I got two days ago showed a much more moderate 22 knots, which is a good amount of wind when one is sailing with it. Fingers crossed that this one will show something similar.

There is a fair bit of bird life out here, which I suppose is to be expected given our proximity to various land masses. Three times on this voyage a bird has chosen Bob as it’s roosting spot for the night, which Sarah thinks is wonderful and I will tolerate so long as it’s not in the cockpit. Last night we had a particularly stubborn Booby that wouldn’t go away, move forward or even turn around so that it’s bum was pointing outwards. Despite my every effort to make it understand that it was not welcome – including prodding it firmly with bits of wood – I came on deck this morning to find that our starboard secondary cockpit winch had received what looked like a poorly-administered coat of white paint. Of course, I was the one to clean it up. If ever there was a case for carrying guns on board this would be it! A large portion of my day today will be devoted to devising a plan of defence for this evening. Electrified lifelines? A trip wire attached to a butane torch? Perhaps a potato cannon with some sort of bird homing system?……….. That reminds me of a wonderful story about pigeons in the Second World War: Apparently they constructed and tested prototypes for early guided bombs using pigeons. A pigeon was strapped into the front of a bomb behind a Perspex nose cone. It would try to home in on a target and the bomb would detect which way the pigeon wanted to fly and adjust the aero foils to turn in that direction. It was a great success (for the guidance, not for the pigeon) but was eventually scrapped because of the shortage of pigeons that would home to the desired targets. Apologies, I digress! I shall mull over the problem of Booby poo today. I suspect, though, that the weapon of choice will once again be a wet cloth.