First Impressions

el duke

13 June 2011 | nias, indonesia

Hey, The Duke here. (Just Duke, if you’re into that whole brevity thing). This is the first time I’ve crewed on any type of boat before and my fellow crew members, Tex and Hollywood, fall in the same boat. (That pun took me hours to think up). I think I speak for the entire crew that sailing isn’t as glamorous as we once imagined when we enthusiastically and naively sent out emails to potential crew wanted advertisements.

I imagined sailing involved masquerading as a pirate and, every so often, pulling gently on rigging in order to arrive at a remote tropical paradise where mermaids would serve mead and exotic fish cuisine. Get this, mermaids aren’t real. True, I’ve seen plenty of paradises, but it took a lot of more work getting there, a lot more sleep deprivation than I imagined, and a lot of talking about Western food. (My favorite concoction I imagined: A south western burger covered with pasta carbonara, then wrapped into a Hawaiian pizza-style calzone). I’m knot knocking sailing (The puns are getting better, right?) but there is a lot more to sailing physically and philosophically than what I originally imaged.

Most notably, Murphy’s Law. Stuff is breaking or going wrong all the time. Here is a classic from the last two weeks related to the propane system:

1. A rusty propane tank needs to be refilled in Langkawi. It is refilled an hour or so before we leave port, but while sailing out of the harbor we discover there is a leak between the valve and the body. Alex empties the propane tank over the railing, while Tex, Hollywood, and I secretly wonder if we are going to blow up before ever seeing a sail pulled out.

2. We pull out a bigger, more inconvenient, back-up propane tank from the recesses of the boat, but find that the propane line on the boat has some leaks. We eat cold food for a few days while getting to Pulau Weh

3. In Pulau Weh, Alex and Hollywood get components to fix the leaks on the line only to find out that we have very little gas in the big tank to test the line.

4. Hollywood and I head back to Banda Aceh to get our empty propane tanks filled, find out that 1) Indo propane dispensers only fill Indo valve styles, 2) and they won’t change valves on tanks that aren’t Indo style, 3) oh yeah, it’s a holiday so no dispensers are open anyway, and 4) after giving up and buying an Indo regulator and two 5KG tanks with Indo valve styles, we are told we aren’t allowed to bring them onto the ferry. We take the regulator with us, sell the propane on the spot for a 5 dollar loss, and then manage to buy tanks in Sabang for 50% more than what we paid in Banda Aceh.

5. Having fixed the leaks on the line and obtained propane, we discover that the propane regulator is temperamental with an atomically small sweet zone between “nearly off” and “flame thrower”. Occasionally a burst of flame spews forth while setting up the system, inevitably causing Hollywood to scream “Off, off, off” like a 12 year old girl. As it turns out, the general consensus in the boating community is to not have plumes of fire erupting from inside the cabin while sailing in the ocean. Weird.

6. Realizing we needed a safer and more effective system, we eventually pick up a portable camping style stove with small propane canisters. Simple is often better on a boat. So after nearly two weeks, we have a reliable stove… for now.

And that’s just the story for propane tank. There are many more stories, some more intricate, some simple, some man-made, some acts of nature, a fair amount are acts of Hollywood, and some with more discouraging results. There was the time the autopilot hydraulic system broke in a storm. Then the sink wouldn’t drain and smelled like eggs. A gust of wind blowing in a bay that caused the boat to drag anchor, nearly hitting the rocks. The tiny cuts on fingers and feet that mysteriously appear and become infected when not treated properly. Hollywood losing, on average, one article of clothing into the ocean each day. Hollywood unintentionally abusing the American flag while trying to rescue said clothing. Dropping tools in the water while handing off a broken socket wrench case to the dingy. Jib furling lines getting stuck. Halyard lines fraying. Dairy products exploding in the refrigerator, probably a long time ago.

Now a recently rebuilt engine needs re-rebuilding after a mysterious runaway throttle type issue. Consequently, the battery life is limited at night because there is no engine (and no alternator) to repower the batteries until the solar panels kick in. Thus, we have no battery to continually run the refrigerator. The stuff growing in the refrigerator is growing arms and legs… now a mouth… it’s telling Alex it wants to be part of the crew… now it wants minimum wage and OSHA safety standards. This are getting crazy on Bubbles.

Like Murphy said, anything bad that can happen will happen, and it is never as true and annoying as on a boat when you’re in the middle of the ocean and far away from civilization. All that stuff has to be incredibly discouraging right? It is, no doubt. It’s a constant struggle to keep up with the maintenance, organization, and unplanned problems. So what makes it worth it? Well, for one, an opportunity to visit beautiful remote places and meet friendly local people who are often untainted by the greed that tourism so often brings.

One woman at the propane station in Banda Aceh provided free lunch and drinks just because she liked seeing tourists around the city (Banda Aceh’s tourist economy crumbled after the Boxing Day Tsunami that killed 120,000+ people). There was the honest taxi driver that made a point of honking louder as he motored around people just to show off that he is hauling Western travelers. Or being followed by locals at the market to see what fruit and vegetables I’m buying, and then trying to help translate when I have a stupid look on my face that shows I don’t know what’s going on.

And let’s not forget the kids. In Balai, the kids sat on the dock imitating and mimicking every action and word I said; taking pride in how close they came to my pronunciation and then laughing hysterically when they missed it entirely. I imagined the kids thinking, “Why would anyone make a word so hard to pronounce?” while I was thinking the same thing about their language. And it feels good when I say “Hello” to that curious but apprehensive gaze of a child hiding behind her mother’s leg and then see her face light up with a smile. Or the gang of kids on the dock relentlessly yelling “Hello Mister” as loud as possible as they watch me clean up the boat deck 100 meters away.

For me, there are times when all the benefits of being on a sailboat don’t seem to outweigh the most discouraging moments. More often or not, unsurprisingly, I feel this way when I mess up – we all do. In those moments, the one thing that keeps me moving forward is that I know our Captain lives in the moment. I know this because we’ve all messed up in various ways, including Alex, and I’ve seen that that is how he operates. Things break or people mess up, the first and only real question is “What can we do to fix the issue?” and if we can’t, we are going to make the best of what we got and we keep sailing on. That’s a pretty good philosophy for a boat and for life.

The Duke here, signing off and sailing on.

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