Worn out parts

We’ve been lax about blogging for so long that we’re starting to get messages of concern from readers wondering if we’re ok. We are, but it’s definitely past time to paint the picture of where we are now and what’s happening in our life.

For several years now both Jack and I have been suffering the predictable — but not welcome — physical deterioration that advancing age can bring. Jack’s left knee became so worn down and painful that many of our travel decisions and even shopping trips had to be planned around how far he can walk between resting spots. Gone were our spectacular but arduous hikes that made many of our destinations as thrilling as the beautiful anchorages.

High above the pineapple plantations in Moorea, French Polynesia

For my part, you may remember I injured my back in 2015 in Huahine, French Polynesia. For the past four years I’ve gone through good periods and bad ones where my back would flare up and change my whole attitude toward life. Ocean passages have become torture for me, as are long bus rides, or even retrieving cookware from the bottom cupboard. I’m definitely too young to accept this as the new normal.

Between the two of us, we slowed down so much that eventually we stopped. We’ve been in the same place, parked in a marina, for over a year. This is not the life we imagined, or the one we enjoyed for more than 7 years. We’ve become less and less active, in effect surrendering to aging. Something had to change.

In the beginning of November we flew to Penang, a well-respected “medical tourism” destination and made appointments for both of us to see an orthopedist. For my part, I was assured that with proper physiotherapy my back can be pain free and I can regain my former strength and flexibility. For Jack, the answer was simple and unavoidable: total knee replacement. Remarkably, they could schedule it for two days later. That was a shocker, but we needed to think it through, do some research and financial calculations. Besides, we had flights booked for the end of the week and we’d need to repack for a longer trip.

I spent the next three days in physiotherapy with a wonderful woman who not only released the muscle spasms that cause much of my pain, but also taught me strengthening exercises and reassured me that the stretching she recommended would not reinjure my discs. I’m on the road to recovery, but it will take a long time to rebuild the strength I used to have in my back and to live pain free.

We flew home to Escape Velocity where we tried to compare the out-of-pocket cost of a knee replacement in Malaysia vs. the cost of flying back to the states where Medicare would cover most of the hospital costs but not the flights, car rental, Airbnb, etc. It’s apples to oranges and impossible to reckon. The final decision was based on our assumption that scheduling the surgery in America would probably take weeks, if not months, and here in Malaysia the only scheduling factor is which days of the week the surgeon operates.

In the end we called the hospital and scheduled the surgery for Thursday of the following week which just happened to be Jack’s 70th birthday. By paying a little extra for a private room in the hospital I was allowed to stay with Jack and sleep on a daybed, saving us a few bucks in hotel costs. We packed what we needed for a couple of weeks, flew back to Penang and checked into the hospital on the 20th of November.

The surgeon made sure there’d be no mistaking which knee would be replaced.

All of the nurses and other hospital personnel were wonderful and the hospital is well run and up to date.

Dr. Aaron Lim replaced Jack’s knee in little more than an hour. Later that day he came to check on his work, and the following day Jack started the long road of physical therapy.

After a week in the hospital we moved to a hotel and made daily trips to rehab. Jack made great progress and after another week he could walk without a cane. We moved to another hotel closer to restaurants and part of Jack’s daily exercise became walking to a café or to dinner in the evening. Penang is a food paradise, especially compared to Langkawi.

Finally, twenty-four days after flying to Penang, we returned to Escape Velocity. I was a little worried about whether Jack could get on and off the boat, and if he could continue rehabbing without the supervision and encouragement of the physiotherapist. On the first point, he had no problem. His knee was so bad for so long that he had already figured out workarounds for most movements. This turned out to be a mixed blessing and Jack sometimes needs reminders that he’s got a perfectly functioning knee now that doesn’t require favoring.

Back to my back. After making great progress while I saw the physiotherapist and diligently doing the exercises she suggested, at home my back returned to its new not-normal bad condition. It’s clear I need longer term help to get better. We both do.

So here we are, making progress but much more slowly than we hoped. We’re still in a marina, me unhappily so, Jack, the more zen of us, content for the moment. I still love boat life, but not being in one place for so long. Jack wants to keep on keeping on, whatever that means to him.

We are definitely at a time of re-evaluation. We have to consider what we can do physically, how many more years of active life we can expect, what our priorities are travel-wise, and what our options are from where we are now.

Most options are on the table. Negotiations continue….


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Night moves

It’s 3am and the gentle rain we were having has suddenly turned into a howling squall. Escape Velocity is tugging at her docklines and Jack climbs down to the dock in his underwear to lay his bicycle down while I retrieve a few loose items out of the cockpit before they blow away.

When we’re at anchor the boat generally swings to face into the wind, which means wind-borne rain is blocked by the forward cockpit enclosure and we’re safe and dry while we check on things. Tied to a dock the boat is held in one position and we’re at the mercy of whatever direction the weather comes from. Right now it’s blowing in from behind so even a quick foray outside leaves us dripping.

Jack climbs back aboard and I check that our rain collector hose is feeding into the water tank. We’re both barely back in bed when a white flash lights the cabin accompanied by a loud thunderclap.

“That was close!” we both say at once and I jump out of bed again and out into the cockpit to see — what? I don’t know. I just feel the need to do something. Back inside I adjust the position of the yellow plastic bowl that collects the drips coming in where I haven’t perfectly taped the plastic around the temporary room air conditioner over the main galley hatch. I make a mental note to look into that tomorrow.

Within minutes the wind dies down and the rain is back to its gentle pitterpat but I can still hear thunder rumbling in the distance. Whether it’s coming or going I can’t tell. Squalls often come in bands around here and may go on for hours. I could check the weather radar but it’s now almost 4am and it seems more important to close my eyes again and try to get some sleep. Jack’s already in dreamland, blissfully trusting our boat, the docklines and his own instincts. As the more analytical partner I go through my standard mental checklist of What Could Go Wrong and What To Do About It before I can begin to think about sleep. But I’m going to try. Here goes. Good night.


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No more calls, we have a winner

Ah, so Sydney it’ll be. After spending an inordinate amount of time inviting family and friends to a largely expense paid vacation in exotic Malaysia aboard Escape Velocity, we were honored with a proffered week in one of our favorite towns with two of our favorite people, Diana and Alex formally of Enki ll. It’ll  count as a reset for our Malayian visas as well. Weighing the pros and cons took about two, maybe three seconds. The mountain goes to Mohammed.

Marce started the insanely frustrating process called booking an airline ticket in 2019. Of course we have a few complications such as, and I’ll be generous here, spotty internet in Rebak, and maybe even less cell “service”. Turns out the month that you want to fly is critical as is the date and day of the week. I never knew the hour of departure could effect the price of one’s ticket to the degree it apparently does and of course we have to factor in the schedule of our little ferry to and from Rebak, without which we aren’t going anywhere. Suffice it to say you really don’t want Yours Truly anywhere near this process.

It was about at this time we realized that it’s winter in the land down under, we have no warm clothes and they don’t offer much, if anything, in the way of thermal wear here. It’s damn hard to find anything that even fits a reasonably healthy Yankee frame in Langkawi.

Being the packrats that we are we came up with what we hoped would be enough layers for what the weatherman said was a seasonably moderate 5 – 15°C…whatever that is.
Marce accomplished her usual magic, coming up with red eye flights to and from Sydney, which allowed for our Rebak to Langkawi ferry schedule while getting us to OZ mid morning.

We found Sydney sunny and clear but predictably cold after being efficiently stamped, inspected, welcomed, and shot out of the transportation end of the terminal. Well, that was easy and we weren’t separated or locked up in a dog cage as others seem to want to do.

It was all quite familiar all the way to Rozelle by train and bus, and when that cheerful door opened it was hugs all around. It feels like home. 

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Here we go again

It’s hard to believe but once again it’s time to plan a trip out of Malaysia to get a new 90-day visa stamp on our return. Where should we go this time? We’re planning our first US trip in almost five years in two months and that’s going to put a visible dent in our budget so this visa run needs to be cheap. We could untie the docklines and sail 30 miles to Thailand for a week of beach life at anchor but neither of us is keen on that. Flying out of Langkawi is so cheap we prefer to go that route and avoid the added paperwork and hassle of clearing the boat in and out of two countries. We narrow the affordable, desirable options to Singapore and Changrai, Thailand. And then we have the brilliant idea to invite our greatly missed Sydney friends to join us at either destination.

But damn, our Window of Opportunity doesn’t fit their Window of Opportunity and our spirits fall until a further email pops up with an alternative proposal. “Come to Sydney!” they say. “Yes!” we say. The idea of spending a week with good friends in a city we love is the exact thing we need right now, as we suffocate in the tropical humidity of the Malaysian summer, a little lonely for company with the marina nearly empty of inhabitants and those who are still here mostly taking refuge inside in air conditioned comfort, including us. We need to get out.

I’m shocked to realize that Sydney is very far away and booking the journey takes on the complexity of a major campaign. As much as we’ve traveled, neither of us has been on long-haul flights, and while this doesn’t qualify as that, it will be the longest flight either of us has taken before. And as with any trip from tiny Rebak Island, it all starts with a ferry ride to the bigger island of Langkawi where the airport is. Coordinating with the limited ferry schedule is the greatest challenge of any trip from here but I manage to get us to Kuala Lumpur in time for an 8-1/2 hour red-eye to Sydney without too much distress.

Diana insists they pick us up at the airport but we point out the need to clear customs and immigration, find an ATM, get a SIM card for the phone and arm ourselves with Opal cards for Sydney’s excellent public transportation system before we’re ready for pickup so she relents and allows that maybe it’s better if we make our way to their house in our own time. We look forward to the 45-minute downtime buffer between the buzz of the airport and welcome in Rozelle. But first we make our way to the duty free shop where we’ve ordered a two-pack of bubbly to celebrate our cruiser reunion.

We haven’t even presented ourselves at the pickup counter before the clerk looks up and says, “You must be Jack.” We’re both startled and suspicious as we look behind us to make sure he’s addressing us and not some long-lost distant cousin, but yes, he’s looking at Jack. We’re apparently the last of our flight to retrieve an order, as our age-adjusted pace from the plane, through the restroom gauntlet, down long terminal walkways and through the arrival hall means our Moët is the only remaining package.

With errands done and luggage compiled in traveling mode our feet remember the way to the train for the city, and we feel the nostalgic pull of a place we considered home not too long ago. It’s very good to be back.

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We’ve been filling in some of our adventures from last season. If you’re not a subscriber use the calendar on the menu and go back the beginning of August 2018 to start reading about Buton, Flores, Komodo and Lombok. We’re doing our best to get up to date. More to come.


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Just add it to the list

Word came up from down under. Down under the sink that is. It’s never good news to hear that it’s wet down under the sink. There’s a lot of tortured plumbing jammed in under the sink and access, if you can call it that, is minimal at best. You’ve got the union of the twin sinks that drain somewhere down there. Freshwater hot and cold faucet with spraying hose, and taps, drinking water filter and faucet which likes to leak, foot pump and its faucet, and the main freshwater pressure pump, which runs the whole works. Have I mentioned I really hate plumbing?

Most of the connections have to be “Micky-Moused” because the authorities have decreed that there will be no compatibility between home and boat systems, thread type, or hose and hose clamps to whatever the hell kind of fittings various countries around the world use. In short I have to fix it with whatever I can find, wherever we are. 

Long story short, after removing our medium sized garbage bin, an awesome collection of cleaning products, a rusty spray can of WD40, rags (mostly worn out tee shirts), spare garbage bags and crap I’ve already forgotten about, I found a small puddle of water which had collected under our beloved smart sensor freshwater pressure pump. This pump has quietly been supplying water to the entire boat since 2004. Definitely some kind of record. If you’ve ever experienced the racket the typical water pressure pump makes in a boat you’d know how treasured a truly quiet one is.

I start by dipping a finger in the puddle. Every captain has to do this; it’s in the bylaws I think. Is it fresh or is it salty? Which means are we sinking or do I just have a plumbing problem? I immediately set about trying to find the source of the drip. There was no squirting involved. None of the fittings would give up the source, but there the puddle would remain. Sadly, and I do mean sadly, I started to remove our beloved pump.

As I’ve said before it’s always the pressure switch and I hated to be right again but there it was, dripping. Still, it works fine except for the drip so back under the sink cabinet with a small collection bowl strategically placed under our smart sensor Shurflo quiet pump. 

After due research we found that many others have gone before us in this quest only to find that Shurflo, in their infinite wisdom, have redesigned the pump and the pressure switch is not retroactively compatible with anything older than 2006.  

Maybe someone around here will have one last old Shurflo pressure switch. What are the odds? We add it to the “to buy” list. In the mean time I think it’s your turn to empty the bowl.

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“If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food, it’s a plus for everybody. Open your mind, get up off the couch, move.” — Anthony Bourdain

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The four miracles of getting from there to here

There are many things that suck upon realizing that your anchor chain has rusted to the point that it’s a shadow of its former self. We normally live on the hook so having a significant weakness in ground tackle is untenable. We last replaced our chain in Grenada. American made ATCO chain was always the gold standard, but by 2013 their quality had slipped badly and scuttlebutt had it that an Italian company called Maggi used old world galvanizing techniques with consistent chain sizing at a semi reasonable price. I talked the marina at Clarks Court Bay into allowing me to tie up to their dock, had the chandlery deliver all 275 feet of 10mm chain, which they dumped into a tangled pile at the head of their pier. Escape Velocity was just 200 feet away. Mark from Macushla and I had to hand all 416 lbs of chain into the most decrepit wobbly wheelbarrow you’ve ever seen. I’ve gotten used to boat yard carts and wheelbarrows since then and I can tell you they’re all the same. Loosy goosey, bent axles are par for the course and I don’t know why but the tires are almost always virtually flat, too.

So what we have is Yours Truly trying to herd Clark Court Bays’ wobblybarrow with a nearly flat tire loaded with 416 lbs of anchor chain over a semi floating bucking dock, knowing that if I dump the chain it would disappear into the briny deep faster than you can yell, “Hey grab that end!” I made it, fed the chain into the windlass and stepped on the up button and Bob’s your uncle. 

That was then. Turns out that was the easy one. 

I recently end-for-ended the anchor chain on Escape Velocity, noting that the section that we’d been using had really lost a lot of material and was rusting badly. “Just in time,” I said, knowing full well that it wasn’t long for the world, especially if we enter into a deep anchorage and have to get into the weak part of the chain. While poking around the only decent chandlery in Kuah, Langkawi, I saw a drum of sparkly galvanized Canadian anchor chain made by Rocna, the same people that made our beloved anchor. We had to special order the length we needed so I started a low intensity inquiry as to the best way to get 416 lbs of chain from Langkawi over 10 miles of ocean to Rebak Island, which is where EV has been safely moored. In the meantime we have been doing a lot of traveling and it’s so easy to let things slip. 

Long story short, there is no easy way to get 416 lbs of slippery Rocna chain from Kuah to Rebak without doing the 20 mile do-si-do in Escape Velocity which now sprouts an air conditioner balanced over the saloon hatch, extensive electrical cabling, a spiders web of docklines, plus having to pay a Royal ransom to the Royal Lankawi Yacht Club for an hour of precious dock time, billed in half day increments.
That’s when I came up with the Over Lord Plan, last seen to great effect on D-day. With our friend Mike we’d take the early ferry across to the Cenang Ferry Jetty, up the long ramp to rent a car from Mr. Din, drive a half hour into Kuah, and this is where the first miracle takes place, haul 416 lbs of shiny New Zealand chain 100 feet out to the Mr. Din special on a wobbly wheeled, bent axle hand truck. We couldn’t lift the barrel up into the the back seat so we pulled most of the chain out and spread it out evenly over the back of the car and found a way to get the rest of the barrel up into the car.

Off we chugged back the half hour to the jetty ramp. This is the site of the next miracle. After repacking the barrel we shoved, wheeled, and just plain wrestled the bastard down to where the special boat was supposed to meet us. 

Shortly Capt. Haris came putting into the jetty dock, site of our next miracle. Capt. Haris directed the hauling of the bastard barrel off the dock across a foot of water onto his small fishing boat. Not a big man but apparently big where it counts.

For our last miracle we had to hand out enough chain to wrestle the bastard barrel onto the docks.

I gave the old rusty chain to wiry Capt. Haris and after lunch I set about making depth marks with colorful little plastic biscuits on EVs new anchor chain. 

It definitely doesn’t suck to have anchor rode that you trust in your anchor locker.

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The view from the back porch

This is a different kind of view from what you’re used to seeing from us. We’ve been living at a marina since January and will be here at least until the end of October. It’s relatively inexpensive, easy living, very protected from weather, and we’re getting caught up on some very minor but time consuming boat projects. It’s also a very easy place to travel from, with an airport close by. Any marina dents our budget a little, even a cheap one, but the removal of anchor/weather stress is giving us a much needed break from cruising after seven years.

In this marina there are many unoccupied boats that are either for sale or stowed during the wet season while the owners go back to Australia or Europe or New Zealand. The occupied boats are either longterm residents or, like us, taking a break, doing longterm repairs, or here for the convenience of traveling. It’s not perfect — getting groceries is an effort — but living in the trees with abundant birds, monkeys, monitor lizards and, though we haven’t seen them yet, otters, is a delight.

On this peaceful morning, I can hear at least five or six different bird calls. Today is Hari Raya or Eid, the end of Ramadan and we’ll be going to a special buffet at sundown this evening to celebrate. You can read about Eid here. We’re looking forward to it!

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To Penang

And just like that our Vietnam sojourn is over. In hindsight I think we would skip Hué and spend more time in Hanoi but that could be because our weather in Hué was unbearably hot and it was difficult to get motivated for anything. Hanoi, however, is much more interesting and deserves more time than we gave it.

We flew directly to Penang, wisely avoiding a potential repeat of our visa problem at Kuala Lumpur Immigration. When we arrived we confidently queued up behind the “All Passports” sign and I went first. “How long will you be staying in Malaysia?” the agent asked. I told her we have a yacht in Langkawi and asked for three more months. “Wait here,” she said, and she left her post and disappeared down the row of agents and around the corner. I called after her, “Do you want my yacht papers?” but she didn’t answer. Not again, I thought, and I looked over at Jack and shrugged.

Time passed. The people who had queued behind Jack grew impatient. I kept leaning around the booth to watch for her return, then turned toward the passengers behind Jack and shrugged to indicate I didn’t know what was happening. Eventually they all moved to another line as Jack and I grew more concerned. What could possibly be the problem?

After about 15 minutes the agent returned to her booth, stamped my passport and handed it over. “Did you want to see my yacht papers?” I asked again. She shook her head in dismissal and gestured for Jack to approach. “He’s with me,” I said. “Same deal.” She nodded, and as I stood off to the side, Jack was stamped in within seconds. I have no idea what to make of it but we’re legal for another 90 days.

We collected our luggage, skipped through customs and called a Grab car for the 30 minute ride to Georgetown. We intend to stay here, yet another UNESCO World Heritage site, for a few days before finally heading home to Escape Velocity. Most of our yachtie friends have sung the praises of Penang and I think if there were better yacht facilities there’d be more boats here than in Langkawi. Most folks either stop for a day or two on their way north or south or leave their boats elsewhere and come by ferry, air or car.

It was pouring rain. And by pouring, I mean like Costa Rica. Biblical. I even mentioned to Jack that I suspected Escape Velocity’s water tank was probably overflowing with rainwater from our passive collection system. Our driver said it had been raining for days. And with that I began to worry.

Escape Velocity relies on sunshine to function without us. The batteries that run the bilge pumps and keep the fridge and freezer working are kept charged by solar panels on the roof. Too many days without enough sunshine can drain the battery bank. When we’re there and monitoring things we can supplement the solar charging with a battery charger powered by a diesel generator but if we’re not there, well, nothing happens automatically.

I checked a few weather apps to see if Langkawi, a mere 70 miles north, was experiencing the same rain as Penang. It didn’t appear to be, and Jack convinced me that EV is fine and not to worry. I consider it part of my job to worry, but we’re finally in Penang and looking forward to it.

Our hotel, another cruiser recommendation, is modern and comfy with some seriously fancy fixtures. we just love these hotel visits where we can indulge in long hot showers and modern plumbing that’s not our responsibility to maintain.

I found a café about a kilometer from the hotel that advertised bagels so the next morning we hightailed it out the door into the steam heat of SE Asia rainy season to see for ourselves if they were real bagels and not just donut shaped bread. They were. We ordered toasted bagels with egg and cheese, plus bacon for Jack, and savored every bite. I like Penang already.

The historic area of Georgetown is famous for its street art and we sought out some, but the rain got to be too much and we took refuge where any self-respecting American goes in bad weather: to the mall. There are several huge ones in Penang and we both enjoy keeping up with what’s selling in the First World even if we don’t buy anything. We did get an extra set of mandolin strings for Jack at a gigantic music store, the second one we checked out. The first one was merely large, quite a difference from the tiny jam packed shop in Hanoi where Jack bought his new axe.

We tried more exploring on foot but with on and off showers it was clear that our planned time here is not going to entail our favorite pastime of café hopping and architecture gazing. With another check on the weather we gave up and reserved seats on a flight back to Langkawi the next morning. We’ll come back when it stops raining. There’s a lot to do here and we’d rather do it without carrying an umbrella.

As Jack predicted, Escape Velocity had fared well in our absence, and waiting for me at home was my new Firefly 5-string banjo made by Magic Fluke in Massachusetts. It’s a beautiful scaled down instrument that fits perfectly on the boat, yet has a real bluegrass sound. I can’t wait to learn to play. Dock neighbors beware! You may need earplugs for a while….

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