“You realize we are set to cross the equator again in this passage?” Captain Andrew asks me as we ready Sonrisa for sea.
Over the course of two weeks in Belitung, Captain Andrew’s navigation plans were made, revised, made again, revised again. Input from other sailors open the possibility that we would do well to have Sonrisa’s work done in Malaysia, then we met other sailors who say: “No, no. That will be expensive and a pain in the ass, you must do the work in Thailand.” A third set yet recommend back to Malaysia, and regardless, the weather says we must be moving on to get to the Northern portion of Malaysia by the end of September. This is earlier than the November we were targeting, and The Riau group must be set by the wayside - except of course we all acknowledge that the rallies always get up as late as November, so why couldn’t we…..
At some point, you have to leave even if you don’t strictly know where you are going.
We cast off, fondly leaving Belitung’s crystal clear swimming water and extraordinary beer grotto behind. We decide to head toward Tanjung Pinang, an old City long used as a trading port. Along this route, we will make our second of four expected equator crossings. And, because we are in reefy, shallow, fishing house territory, we decide to break the passage up into as many daytime legs as possible, leaving us with only one night passage. These would be impossible to see at night if they happen to be abandoned and unlit:
Our first leg is a full sailing day, and leads us to an anchorage with lovely water and an island with a sharp silhouette reaching directly from shoreline to sky. We meet fellow sea people, anchored for dinner before they head out fishing for the night. They call us over and sell us a beautiful barracuda. Captain Andrew accomplishes an excellent “fishing transaction”, then jumps back in the water, swimming with his “catch” over his head so as to not attract the attention of any predators passing by. I’m sure this will work. We enjoy five meals of tender but solid white meat with very little fishy flavor pan fried in butter from this fella. Feasts fit for a Queen:
Unfortunately, this anchorage is not well protected with the unusual swell from the East and we spend the night rocking and rolling. We make way early the next morning for a 36 hour sail to our next stop. The wind is up, the waves are high and they are coming from every direction. It’s an uncomfortable but uneventful sail. We are almost relieved when we arrived at our next scheduled anchorage, but upon surveying the situation we realize the angle of the waves is a little different than normal and the anchorage is awash with nasty current. We have just enough sunlight to make it around the corner to another spot.
Two hours later, we find a different spot that is a bit more calm, but the wind continues to blow us back on our anchor, pulling and tugging. Over night, little wind waves build and when the current shifts, Sonrisa bounces in the wind against current like a bucking, snorting bull with a Cowboy pinching his ear. I’m yanked from sleep by a 4 a.m. alarm clock built of the sound of Sonrisa’s anchor chain rolling outward at a steady clip. This is bad. Of course we use a springy “snubber” (a rope designed to let Sonrisa ride the waves without yanking on her chain) to hold the chain fast, but even the snubber had been worked loose by the changes in current direction, and now Sonrisa’s anchor chain is flowing freely outward. If she gets to the end of her chain, there is a shackle pinning the bitter end to her bulkhead, but that will be 30,000+ pounds of boat being pushed by wind and waves yanking on this one small pressure point. It might hold for a moment, but it won’t be great. These realities are deeply embedded in my lizard brain from years of picturing potential disasters and mentally planning my theoretical solutions.
As I am bounced skyward on a wave, I make a rash dream-state decision to make quick way to my helms(wo)man station, turn on the engine, and drive forward to stop our backward drag until Andrew can re-secure the snubber. I swing my legs around in a 180 degree twist, to point my feet in the direction I want to go, and just as the sleep-fog clears, I feel a “rip!” somewhere in the spinal column of my back. I land on my feet and take five paces toward the helm, only to find Andrew has, stood up on the bed, reached his 6’3” self out of the hatch, and temporarily tightened down the windlass anchor tension in order to give him enough to give him time to get out there and reset the snubber.
My heart drops out of my throat and slows its tempo in the restored silence. “I think I did something to my back.” I report to Andrew as he slithers back down the hatch and back to bed. We both fall back to sleep. A few hours later, I wake and things seem fine. I am hopeful I escaped calamity for a few hours until suddenly there is a great seizing of muscles in my lower back. “Damn.” I say as I reach for a selection of Ibuprofen and install an icy pack in the freezer. I lay down, and take a rest while Andrew goes to shore to visit town with a new friend who stopped by.
(Oh, look! I missed out on more Bird’s Nest Drink)
If you happened to miss the video of Captain Andrew reviewing his first experience with Bird’s Nest Soda he posted on Instagram/Facebook, here it is for your curiosity’s pleasure
And here are photos of the Edible Nest Swiftlet’s Bird Houses, giant industrial warehouses popping up all over Indonesian Borneo. These little guys make their nests in comfort and style, I think. Easy to harvest for those yummy drinks, too.
We wait out this day and another, while rain squalls dump buckets of water down Sonrisa’s mast. Then, it’s time to set off for another leg. I take my position at the helm only to discover that with each rock back and forth, my spine sends a clear and unedited message of lightning hot nerve pain through my legs. I feel unreliable, as though I may crumple into a heap of flesh and sweaty laundry at any moment. I get us set on our sailing course and once Andrew’s anchor is up and secure, I leave Andrew to sail while I lay in the bunk, wedged into place by a heap of pillows.
At approximately high noon, Captain Andrew calls “all crew members to the deck!” It’s time for Shellbacks and Non-Shellbacks alike to honor Neptune and prostrate ourselves to the power of the sea as we cross the Equator. I hobble up to the cockpit, bringing along Sonrisa’s several new crew members onboard since our last crossing (Mexico to the Galapagos), including Tasman the Focus Kiwi, Lenny the Crocodile from Timor Leste, Louise our beer drinking Komodo Dragon, and a small shark carved by Madi’s brother. We don’t want to take any chances, so we dress them all up in rediculous costumes and prepare them for the Equator Crossing. The ship’s rum is acquired and Captain says a few words before forcing Tasman to hang from Sonrisa’s Yard Arm by her feet. With everyone properly humiliated, we offer rum to Neptune, sure to splash some on Sonrisa’s deck, and sure to have all crew members partake.
Will Neptune be appeased?
We enjoy a calm evening wrapped in a very protective anchorage. Fishermen stop by to share smoked squid and say hello. The sun dips under a hazy cloud making layers and layers of island stretch onto the horizon in a mysterious fashion.
The next morning, about an hour after we push off Neptune decides he must further test commitment of this Captain and Crew. I, again, am tucked in a bundle of pillows to moderate the rocking and rolling of my spinal column when suddenly the sound of the engine changes ever so slightly. For three or four rotations of the engine something sounds amiss and then I smell…”SMOKE!” I call out, jumping to my feet despite myself. “SMOKE!” Andrew and I both scurry at the same time to pull the engine choke switch.
“Alternator, I’m sure of it,” Andrew says, indeed just a few days ago he said as soon as we get to Malaysia he plans to proactively send it off to be rebuilt. I climb into the cockpit and take over. Not proactive anymore! The wind is building now as we are far enough away from the island we just left that trade winds are no longer blocked by it’s shores. I pull out the genoa and set a course toward our next anchorage while Andrew plucks through his spare parts stores to find his replacement alternator. Close to an hour later, I still hear grunting, groaning, buzzing of an electrical drill, more groaning. I thought this was going to be an easy swap from old alternator to new?
“You okay?” I ask. My question is met with only a long, deep sigh. I poke my head through the companion way. “What’s the matter?”
I see Andrew, sitting on the floor in the kitchen with parts and pieces spread all about him. The stairs are off and stacked on my bed, the engine room compartment held open on it’s hook. Andrew thrusts a mechanical object in my direction that I can only surmise is an alternator. A big hole in the casing exposes strangely coiled copper wires. It looks suspiciously new, and yet, there is a hole in it. “Is that the new one?”
“Yep.” Andrew tells me, matter of fact with only the hint of aggravation in his voice. He turns back to his post on the floor attempting to remove the screws holding the contraption together. I know better than to ask too many questions at this point. “Well, don’t worry, we are sailing right on course and the wind is holding us at a speed of 4.5 - 5 knots. We’ll be at the anchorage well before sunset. It’s a clear opening, too, so we can easily just sail onto the anchor if we must.” To this, I receive no response. “Maybe take a sea sickness pill?” I know how it is, looking down at all those small parts and pieces in the rolling boat, very little wind coming through the hatches to cool you off.
“That’s probably a good idea.” He grabs a pill, stands in the companion way and looks at me with sweat pouring off his forehead as he sips some water. “Obviously that thing was sitting in some salt water.” Thus explaining how his perfectly new, $600 alternator has been re-sculpted with a hole.
I nod. “Yeah, how?
“Anchor locker, I’m sure.” We had been storing these pieces in the front bow compartment, next to the anchor locker which is supposed to have a drain into the bilge, but obviously some water escaped a little higher up. All I can do is look on with sympathy and sail the boat.
Andrew goes back down below and I rearrange the bean bags so that I am squeezed in the footwell, as cushioned as possible against the rocking. I’m drugged up on Ibuprofen, hoping to cut down the nerve-lightning that hits me with each wave. I marvel at Andrew. What would I have done/said the moment I found that new alternator in the condition it is in? I’d be more vocal, I’ll tell you that. It would involve a string of my least clever explicative phrases - or in other words I'd be cussing like a sailor.
Andrew installs the new alternator anyway, hoping this is just a “cosmetic problem,” but the salt water corrosion has frozen its pieces in place. He removes the new alternator, hammers away at the old alternator and reinstalls it hoping juggling and hammering at it would help. The old alternator won’t work either and he doesn’t have a spare for the bearing that blew.
“What if you took the parts from the new alternator and put them on the old?” I ask as Andrew hammers away at trying to tear in half each the old and the new alternator.
“Yep, that’s what I’m going to do,” Andrew says, “I think the broken bits on each one are on opposite sides!” This is the first time hope has creeped into his voice all afternoon. Unfortunately it’s paired with a deep rumble from somewhere off our port bow. I don’t want to mention it, but a squall is on its way. Deep black clouds singing with their base choir of thunder has been slowly creeping up on Sonrisa’s stern for the last hour or two. I change course, riding the edge of the storm just a while longer. Andrew knows what he has to do, now, it won’t be long until he gets it squared away. More hammering, drilling, sweaty Captain silence goes on below until I can’t wait anymore, he should know what’s coming our way.
“No need to worry, I’ll just bring in sail, but there’s a squall headed our way.”
Andrew looks up at me, and his eyes tell me everything I already knew: “Really, seriously? Bah.” No one wants to chase rolly-polly nuts and bolts around the salon floor while surfing higher wind and waves of a squall. We need all our energy directed toward voodoo dancing to keep the lightning from striking that giant aluminum stick we like to carry around with us. “I’m almost done.” he says.
“I give you the Frankenator!” He holds up his new creation, the corpse of the old alternator paired with parts of the new, ready for business. I pull in the genoa and replace it with the smaller jib while Andrew attaches Frankenator in place. “Here goes nothing.” As equatorial thunder and lighting flash and crash all around us, Andrew instructs me to turn the key to the engine and we wait. Will it work?