“Where do you think a boat’s heart is?” Andrew asks. He walks along side the travel lift as it wheels Sonrisa into her slot in B&V Boatyard in Langkawi, Malaysia. This is a good question, as in just a few hours, we plan to temporarily amputate several pieces that bind the essence of a boat: rudder, keel, mast, hull. Each will be laid in its own area of the yard. To which part should we wander each day to whisper words of encouragement?
For almost a year, now, this repair-phase of our adventure seemed theoretical only, the centrifugal force of internet metallurgical study and blue print diagrams. But as we ticked away our last days in Thailand convalescing over my own surgery, and enjoying the fried pineapple pancakes at “Cindy’s Beach Pancakes and Massage” shack, the whole Oddgodfrey crew began to feel the reality of our impending project. Our imaginations trot through ten hour days in a sweltering boatyard, separation anxiety at the thought of living in a land house, and the weighty questions that loom:
Q: Are we capable of executing this job properly?
Q: Or, will we cut Sonrisa into pieces, never to be able to pull her back together again?
Q: Can this circumnavigation project survive these distractions, delays, and detours?
A: Only time will tell.
The night before we cast off to sail south from Phuket, Thailand we celebrate one last dinner with our friends Pete and Jen from Steel Sapphire who are in the midst of their own (seemingly never ending) boat refit in Phuket. We enjoy a round of pool and Australian/Thai Fusion Burgers made by the one and only Chef Rock with his self styled “Chef Rock” tattoo on his leg.
It’s the perfect kind of night to enjoy our final hours of procrastination.
As we depart and share hugs all around, they pause and shake their heads at us. “Man, next time we see you, Sonrisa will be all in pieces.”
“Yeah…” I say, while Andrew smiles and blinks.
“You’re crazy. A good crazy, but I can’t believe you are going to tackle this yourself.”
This has been a common refrain. Even the owners of Sonrisa’s fellow sailboat sisters have said much the same: “You have nerve taking on this project!” It’s not a criticism, but an appreciation of the potential complexity. It’s a question that makes us double check our judgment.
Why are we trying to do this job ourselves?
“Necessity is apparently also the mother of courage.” Andrew says.
As we started consulting with various yards in both Malaysia and Thailand, a disappointing fact took shape. No one has handled a full replacement of keel bolts like those in Sonrisa. Not all keels are made equally. Some have only a handful of bolts, designed to screw in and out of the keel for easy replacement. These are usually the smaller fin keels or bulb keels on racing boats or later year production boats. Sonrisa has fifteen keel bolts, and they are not simply screwed in. Sonrisa’s builder bent her bolts into the shape of a “J”, then poured molten lead over the top of them so they were “permanently” affixed into the keel. This plan would have been fantastic if they had used a metal that does not corrode in salt water. Because these keels are designed to be so strong, and because it takes thirty years (plus or minus) for stainless steel to corrode, there have not been many boats like Sonrisa who has needed this type of repair - yet. Eventually, it will happen for everyone. That being the case, no one in any of the yards in Thailand or Malaysia, or in the sailing community brain trust we’ve tapped has tackled this particular style of keel bolt.
In some ways, it’s all for the better. Sonrisa certainly prefers to be handled by her beloved Captain Andrew, and Captain Andrew prefers to know exactly what has been done to her in order to know her strengths and weaknesses. This feels a bit like preparing for a long passage at sea. We think we know what we are getting into, but we can’t know for sure. We feel a heavy weight of risk. Failure could mean the end: for Sonrisa if we can’t get her back together, the circumnavigation if we outspend the rest of our budget fixing her rather than sailing her, or the end for all of us if everything falls apart in the middle of the Indian Ocean. But, because of our passage making experience, we are well used to having no one to rely on but ourselves to solve a problem. At least in this scenario, we have access to the inter-webs of knowledge, and a yard full of sailors and workers who at least know and understand sailboats, generally.
How hard can it be?
The next morning, we weigh anchor and begin our “last sail for a while” southward to Langkawi, Malaysia. It’s a strange feeling. We’ve never sailed backward on this trip until now. Retracing our steps, we sail mostly the same track we sailed on our way North, but in reverse. As we reach fifteen or twenty miles offshore, the water clears, and the wind dies. We float in place and enjoy swimming through the glass-calm surface while watching sunbeams create prisms of color 50-80 feet below.
We reach Koh Rok Nok (“Bird Rock Island”) and spend the afternoon drift snorkeling over colorful giant clams. We stay in the water for more than an hour, until our fingers and toes are wrinkled like an old man’s earlobe. We cook one of our favorite anchorage meals of pasta in a spicy red pepper, chorizo and tomato sauce, topped with a dab of cream cheese. We drink wine and watch a crescent moon pierce the horizon with its spiny tip.
By the next morning we sail on, bashing our way with waves and splash upwind. “We should probably go a bit easier on her, don’t you think?” I say, but Andrew and Sonrisa are having too much fun sailing to alter course.
We reach a remote island called Koh Adang where Grin gathers a school of fish beneath his hull who follow him everywhere. We hide for three days swimming and snorkeling, playing with the stingless jellyfish, and watching sunset from a beach with sand that looks like crushed rock candy. We wrap our arms around these “last-for-a-while” cruising days realizing that we are unlikely to get away from humanity, see this many stars, or paddle around in neon green phosphorescent ocean for months to come. This project is ripping the Oddgodfrey Babies out of their salty ocean bathwater, and we don’t like it.
We could have stayed weeks longer avoiding the inevitable, but on the fourth morning, Andrew peeks his head into Sonrisa’s bilge and finds the nut from the broken keel bolt has crumbled into pieces. Sonrisa’s time bomb is still ticking, and we have stretched this sailing season out through so much fun and adventure already. We can’t get greedy.
So, we up anchor and as it breaks loose from mud and silt, our anxieties come bubbling to the surface with it. We sweat and rumble along to the vibration of Sonrisa’s engine through a windless day until a mood settles and the phrase “who are you to think you can do that?” is uttered on an unrelated topic, a straw man in place of the topic that really weighs crew shoulders. We roll around like tumbleweeds in a windstorm, dodging the cactus spines of each other’s words until the dust settles and we get back on with business as usual. So, often the things we say to others are the words we rather fear to direct at ourselves.
We arrive to a busier than normal Malaysia, gearing up for its military technology expo, LIMA. We pass whole fleets of military ships flying an array of various country’s flags, and watch a fighter jets in formation appear and disappear, depending on their angle.
Finally, we get Sonrisa into a marina slip in Malaysia, a home base from which we can buckle down and just “get on with it.” We rent a car and start apartment hunting. As luck would have it, there is a nice two bedroom apartment available for $450/month, with a pool, and a built in set of friends: Phil (our sailmaker), his wife Astrid and their adorable little two year old Esban.
The property manager, Iris, sits us down to work through the finances of paying for the apartment, up-front two months in cash. She’s all business until she launches into a full tutorial on wise living under the Chinese-Malay way. Tips on everything from breathing, swimming (seven lucky laps no more no less), the benefits and risks of Karma, nutritional benefits of various herbal remedies, and the importance of calling your mother. (Hiii Mom!))) Soon, she offers to lend us her car for the duration of our visit. “It’s a real jalopy!” she tells us, and in short order, the car’s name becomes obvious.
For the next week, Janis Jalopy clatters along between Sonrisa’s marina slip and the apartment carrying all manner of supplies we can’t live without. We spend the cooler morning hours working aboard Sonrisa to wash the salt from her sails and ropes, let them dry, then cart them to the apartment to be stored away from the sun, heat, fiberglass dust, and dirt of Sonrisa’s future home in the boat yard. “There!” I say, patting the last of the heavy sail bags we’ve hauled in. “Now the new sails are good and safe.”
…that is until the apartment’s fresh water inlet pipe burst, flooded the storage room and re-wets everything all over again.
Iris calls the plumber.
Though the apartment is ready for us (with air conditioning!) a week ahead of time, we continue to sleep aboard Sonrisa at anchor, enjoying her gentle rocking and keeping her company so her own nerves don’t get the best of her. “We will take good care of you, Sonrisa. Don’t you worry about a thing.” I tell her. She’s fallen quiet at this point, maybe visualizing good outcomes like she does before a passage? I hope.
The morning of haul out day, we finish the last few of our chores to get her ready then motor over to the yard. Sonrisa weaves back and forth in a flowing tidal current, though tied up next to the dock. She looks as antsy as I feel, but we must wait our turn while the yard lowers a Russian flagged boat into the water and sets her free. “In just a few months time, that will be us, too, Sonrisa.”
Just then, black clouds billow up over the mountains and descend over our shoulders. The first splat of rain plops into my eye as I hand the deck lines to a yard worker on the dock who starts to drag Sonrisa toward the travel lift like a reticent cat on a leash. “BAAHHHHRROOOOOOOMMMMMBBBBLLLE” Thunder claps and the sky opens to cough a deluge on all of us. We squint to see through the dousing, we yell to allow ourselves be heard over the roar of falling water pellets. The timing is impeccable, “The ocean must be sad to see you go up on land,” I say. She still has nothing to add.
Nice rain hat!
I wish we could wait until the storm passes, but the haul out process must be completed on “slack tide,” that window of time in which the sea calms between the end of rising tide and the start of falling tide. The yard workers wrestle two giant stirrups in place below Sonrisa’s hull. Andrew supervises to make sure they are in the right spot, I help in the cockpit to tighten ropes against the winches and do whatever other odd jobs to which I’m directed. Slowly, steadily, the crane lifts, and Sonrisa floats up and up, out of the water. When we are even with the cement dock, Andrew and I climb over Sonrisa’s bow pulpit and leave her to be hoisted the remaining distance skyward on her own. We look up and watch her fly.
Let’s pause here for some talk of reality. I know you must be wondering what this will cost, in time, money, and maybe even sanity.
How much further do we have to sail to finish our circumnavigation? At this point, we’ve sailed 17,000 miles of an anticipated 35,000 mile trip. So, we are just about half way home. We are three full years into a five year trip.
Will this repair cause delay? Yes. We expect this repair to take anywhere between two - six months, depending on whether Sonrisa and/or Neptune feel like they want to test our resolve. Also, we are have missed the North Indian Ocean sailing season, and it will not reopen until around January 2020.
How much will the repair cost? We are estimating $10,000 for the keel bolt repair, including yard time, materials and labor. (Mostly Andrew’s free labor!) While we are at it, we are going to touch up a few additional items to make sure she is in tip-top shape.
Can we withstand the time/money costs? When we left, we budgeted for a mid-cruise refit just in case. We knew Sonrisa would need new sails, and the rest of the money was estimated based on other cruisers we had watched who also needed mid-cruise refits. It’s a game of limbo to stay under that line. What we did not anticipate is the additional year worth of living expenses we are running through while dilly-dallying here. Hopefully, we can squeeze the extra year out of the generous monthly budget we gave ourselves. If not, we will deal with it when that problem arises. For now, we are okay.
Are you disappointed? A little, but we are trying to approach this as all part of the adventure. Neither of us expected to make Malaysia home for any period of time. This could be fun! If all goes well, maybe we can get a bit of land travel in to other areas to which we can’t sail. As sailors we know you can rarely sail directly upon your intended course. An ounce of patience will allow us to explore, enjoy, and get back to sea soon enough.
Wish us luck!