The view from the back porch

The particular topography of Rebak Island often deflects the storm cells we see heading across the Strait on radar. Looks like this one’s going to pass us by.


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Ok, ok. Yes, it’s been a while, and we apologize to those loyal readers who’ve sent us increasingly worried messages asking if we’re ok. We are, sort of. Like nearly everyone else we’re trying, often unsuccessfully, to adjust to the pandemic spanner that got tossed into our best-laid plans. Actually, we didn’t really have plans but Covid-19 sure has limited our options. Let’s back up a bit.

When last we wrote Jack was appreciating some new hardware in his port side leg. He made steady progress and our plan was to sail north to Thailand around the end of February when he was fit enough to handle the boat.

While Jack was still rehabbing his knee we hired a local canvas company to replace our deteriorating cockpit enclosure and re-cover the cockpit cushions. We ran into a snag when the canvas people told us they couldn’t schedule our job before our Thai visas expired but they could easily finish before our current Malaysian visas ran out in early April. We were faced with a decision. The Thai visas weren’t cheap, but the canvas price was excellent and we really needed the new enclosure because it’s not only a comfort issue, keeping us sheltered from the elements, it’s also a safety concern for visibility underway in harsh weather.

In the end, we decided to sacrifice the Thai visas and wait in Malaysia for the canvas work to be done. It was a decision that sealed our fate, for good or for ill.

In mid-February, the canvas was ordered and the painstaking patterning work started. It’s a big job and we made some design modifications from the original so the canvas folks made several trips to our island over the next few weeks. During this time, just like everyone all over the world, we monitored the news as a contagious virus inched its way toward us. And suddenly, on March 18th, Malaysia went into full lockdown. All but essential businesses closed, and that included our canvas people. Our hearts ached for them, and all the other small businesses that were left with no income.

We assumed the lockdown would be temporary. As our April 13th visa expiration date approached we worried we’d have to leave the country with half our cockpit work done, bad for us, bad for the canvas business. Just in time, the Movement Control Order was extended and foreigners on tourist visas, including us, learned we could overstay our visas without penalty, but once the MCO was lifted, we’d have two weeks to clear out. At the same time, our embassy communicated to us that they recommended no unnecessary international travel. Flights were canceled left and right. Our choices were to either leave the boat and return to the US immediately or stay put. We stayed put.

As a reminder, we are in a marina on a tiny privately owned island. The only other business here is a small resort owned by Taj.

When the country went on lockdown, the resort closed and sent most of their employees home. Except for a skeleton crew, we yachties were the only residents on Rebak Island. At the time of lockdown, there were 110 marina residents and we were effectively quarantined together.

Back to the fate part. Had we declined the bid from the canvas people and left for Thailand when we intended, we’d have been locked down there instead of here. Would that have been better or worse? Who knows? Just different, I guess. We know people who are stuck in Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and the Maldives, and the movement restrictions and visa worries are largely the same. We feel lucky that our small island is virus-free and we’re safe both from infection and from weather. On the other hand for people accustomed to traveling, being tied to a dock for this long is taxing.

The community of long-distance sailors is far-flung but tight. We’ve been following the travails of our comrades all over the world, people like us who are on our boats but confined to a certain place and with bureaucratic worries, people who weren’t on their boats when the lockdown happened and can’t return to them, people who were underway when borders closed and weren’t allowed to clear in to their destinations. Some have been lucky enough to get to a safe place where they could wait out the worst of it and move on. Depending on your passport countries are either open or not. Unfortunately, as US citizens we are not welcome in the EU, and Malaysia just announced that citizens from the 23 nations with the greatest number of cases (we’re number 1!) are not allowed to enter the country. That means if we leave Escape Velocity and fly back to the States, we will not be allowed to return for the foreseeable future. The surrounding borders are all closed, probably until at least 2021. It’s quite the situation.

So, like everyone else, we’re in limbo, trying to adjust to this new reality and wavering about whether to leave our home and return to the States until the world gets to the other side of this. On the one hand, we’d be able to see friends and family and do a little safe road tripping in a big country. On the other hand, we’d hate to leave our home, we’re definitely safer here, and SE Asia is affordable on our social security income, which America definitely is not.

Meanwhile, here we sit.

We do have some stories to tell, and Jack and I are determined to do some blogging again. We’ve missed it, but I admit the realities of life during a global pandemic too often take our attention away from our own day to day life. We need to remedy that. Life is short.


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What’d I miss?

So…lets see…where was I? Oh yes, with EV stashed safely floating in Malaysia in the lagoon Marina at Rebak Island, a tiny speck a mile off a somewhat larger island called Langkawi, as previously noted, we’ve been able to do a spot of soul-enriching deep traveling in Asia.

After our quickly improvised visit to the states to see a surprise new family member, it was obvious that it was time to pull the trigger on a new and improved knee. Stainless or titanium? My doc squints at Yours Truly and says, “At your age, you’re not going to need the titanium” and he can do it tomorrow! They don’t mess around here in Malaysia. I thought it was a nice touch when my nurse presented a plastic zip bag with my old knee to me, just like a car repair shop that shows you your old shocks so you can say, “Yep, they were bad.” And so it goes.

Maybe you don’t have to endure as much pain as I did while rehabbing a new knee but I can say, not much happens until the swelling goes down.

I’d devised ways to get around Escape Velocity with a bad knee so I found it surprisingly easy to negotiate the boat with a rather stiff new one. One day as I was mounting the three giant “Simon says” boarding ladder steps up to EV’s deck, I noticed that it’s getting a bit easier and I wonder if I can get the knee bent enough to pedal my folding bike. There’s only one way to find out. “Johnny Fairplay” has to admit that the first couple of strokes put a few tears in my eyes but riding my bike was like freedom to me.

We were both finishing so many projects on EV that I can’t remember them all and that’s the way it’s supposed to work. If we’d remember them all we wouldn’t do this to ourselves.

That’s when we heard of something called Covid-19. Seemed quite remote but China is in our neck of the woods and the Chinese seem to like visiting the resort on Rebak Island. It bears watching.

In no time the world turned upside down. The resort closed. Langkawi shutdown. Malaysia shutdown. Asia shut down leaving a handful of us yachties stranded at our marina with nowhere to go, and visas expiring. We wouldn’t even consider the descent into the chaos and madness of the twinkle toes magical thinking of anti-science USA.

We watched them drain the pool, close the resort, kick out all the guests, close our beach Tiki bar and the yachtie’s own Hard Dock Cafe. This is probably one of the safest quarantines on earth. Nothing but hornbills, sea eagles, monkeys, monitor lizards, and more snakes than any of us want to think about. Especially the three-meter python that squished a little ship’s cat one night, right beside a sleeping yachty. Yikes!

Our friend Mike was on his way to Japan when the border closed while he was airborne. Five or six canceled flights later he barely made it back to Rebak as borders slammed shut behind him. Many of our friends are trapped on islands in a long stream heading west across the Indian Ocean.

So here we sit, with EV gently tugging on her dock lines as the tide slowly flows in and out of the lagoon, taking a morning walk or maybe a ride on our only nature trail which loops around the island, past the empty pool, to the ghost town of our resort.

There are rumors, but there’s always scuttlebutt around a Marina.

“There is no more status quo,

But the sun comes up and the world still spins.”


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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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