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Backfill

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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#BourdainDay

“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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Full disclosure 

Dear Escapees, In the interest of full transparency I have to confess that I’d first noticed, of all things, a mandolin hanging high on a string in the corner of a tiny six foot wide music shop, just a few blocks from our hotel, if you can call them blocks. You couldn’t see it from the street. I reached up and unhooked the tuner heads from a string, that’s when Marce turned to go. I said, “Hey how about that? it’s a nice mandolin.” I could imagine her massive eye roll even from behind. I asked the proprietor, “How much?” He adopted that pained expression all Vietnamese vendors can call up instantly. After pointing out the instrument’s features he smiled and said one million five hundred dong. I smiled and handed the instrument back to him.

I confess it wore on me. It was bigger than me, It called to me so much during our Ha Long trip that I pulled up my currency converter app figuring when I get back I could probably get him down to one million dong so that’s all I’ll take with me and if he won’t come down in price, I can’t get it. See how that works? It won’t be my fault, it’ll be fate. A kismet kinda thing. After all, what’s a million dong? Like $42 USD. What’s the worst that could happen? So as soon as we get back to our hotel room I ask M. if she’s up for a little walk, because I haven’t a clue where music row is. No. Ok I won’t be long. Johnny FairPlay here.

Look, there is no place I’ve found on this earth where it’s easier to get more profoundly lost than Hanoi. Somehow I stumble into the same music shop but he’s not there. Only his bitchy daughter is and she doesn’t care whether she sells this thing or not. Finally I resort to where’s the old guy? That’s when he walks in. Kismet, right? Initially he’s resistant to the one million dong concept, but with a beautiful example of pained proprietor face he eventually agrees. Now where is the case? Bitchy daughter looks through a large tub loaded with gig bags and hands me a cheap black bag with Ukulele stenciled in bold white letters. She wants 30,000 dong which is about $1.25 USD but I don’t have it. An even more pained version from the old guy who glances at his daughter then motions that I should go now.

Shopping in Vietnam is exhausting but if you’re successful in getting your price it can leave you feeling ebullient and alive.

Feeling especially alive I head toward Hoan Keim Lake and the most reliable ATM I know of. Get a million dong on the first try and watch powder blue uniformed street sweepers line up and do warm up exercises. This is a crazy intersection featuring seven roads leading into a large square of mayhem. There are no traffic signals, not that anyone would obey them. I decide to celebrate with a sidewalk table, a beer and a banh mi and just watch the show. Have a Graham Green moment. Just then a familiar face walks by. It’s my kayaking partner from Ha Long Bay. Of all the gin joints in Hanoi…etc. We sip a couple of cold Tigers and watch the madness with bemused smiles on our faces.

Full disclosure, I might have had several coldies but my story is that it was just two and I’m sticking to it.

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Ha Long has this been going on?

Once again the back and forthing, the “maybe this” or “how about that?” even the “should we go or should we stay?” was driving us crazy. There were so many companies and combinations of packages that finally we just threw ourselves on the mercy of the concierge at our hotel thinking they really didn’t want guests coming back pissed off from a bad experience.

Two days and one night on a sixteen cabin bay steamer. It’s really the only way to appreciate this UNESCO World Heritage site, but they aren’t giving these berths away and we’ll lose two precious days in Hanoi. It was a tough decision because let’s face it, we spend every night sleeping on a boat and we’ve seen a few islands in over 30,000 nm of sailing.

The morning of the tour we were contemplating a second leisurely run through our hotel’s buffet breakfast when the concierge came up to our table and informed us that instead of an 8:30 pickup they will be here in 15 minutes! They weren’t but it was a close thing. We were the first pickup so our little bus trundled a circuitous route through downtown Hanoi for nearly an hour to stop at half dozen other hotels to collect the rest of our fellow passengers, mostly young couples.

Unfortunately it was a gray day so not much to look at as we drove out of town and we were informed that we would be making a comfort stop in two hours. When we finally pulled off the road at a rest area I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that in reality it was a massive souvenir shop and we were to make our way through the gift gauntlet to meet our bus on the other side. Immediately we were overwhelmed by massive sculptures and giant polished mineral boulders. Our personal sales associate, noticing our astonishment, leaned in and assured us in a conspiratorial tone, “We ship anywhere in the world!”

By the time we waded through acres and acres of every kind of Vietnamese souvenir we found the checkout counters and that’s when Marce discovered a large display of Pepperidge Farm products. It had been awhile. I guess by the time you get to checkout without your own personal mineral boulder you are not considered a high roller but they’ve just got to get something out of you…and they did. Cheddar Goldfish crackers at 187,000 dong ($8/bag.)

We piled into the little bus and another two hours later disgorged into the ship’s launch which took us and our luggage out to our boat and a sun-dappled lunch. Our room had classic louvered doors, an en suite bathroom and a tiny private balcony. It looked a proper bay steamer stateroom. Soon we were underway, navigating around small islands shaped like gigantic dragon teeth as far as the eye can see.

Of course the Vietnamese have creation myths about how Ha Long Bay was made, naturally involving gigantic dragons descending into the bay and something about swirling its tail making at last count well over 3000 limestone islands. The Bay encompasses 1,500 sq. km. so in two days there’s only so much of it you’re going to see.  

A few hours later we anchored in the lee of a shapely spike of limestone and were shuttled by launch to a small fishing village for a bit of kayaking and a visit to a pearl farm.

Back aboard our boat we were ready for a beautiful sunset but as the sun sank lower a misty fog moved in and only a glass of wine could console us.

Dinner was abundant and well presented, with extra sides for Marce and the other vegetarians. While we were the oldest couple on the boat, as we usually are these days, we seemed to be accepted and included. We passed on Asia’s obsession with karaoke, our scheduled nighttime entertainment, and retired to our cabin and our Pepperidge Farm goldfish.

In the morning we steamed for an hour or so in the rain to another island and while the rest of the guests visited a cave, M and I stayed onboard to appreciate the scenery in peace and quiet while we could.

For the rest of the morning we motored back through the islands to the harbour in increasingly bleak weather. Towards the end the kitchen staff gave a cooking demonstration and the guests learned how to make spring rolls which became part of our lunch. And just like that we were at anchor, piled into the launch and into a bus for the 4-1/2 hour ride to Hanoi.

Back at the hotel the concierge eagerly awaited the verdict. Thoroughly enjoyable, we assured him.

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Humane treatment

Morning found us walking purposefully south and west of our hotel, navigating via Google maps on my phone because we found it difficult to follow the tourist map our hotel concierge gave us. We zigged and zagged a number of doglegs around Hoan Kiem Lake, dodged traffic, made vague promises of “later” to groups of school children wanting to practice their English, and fought the temptations of inviting streets and alleyways. After about 30 minutes we turned a corner and saw what we were looking for, one of the remaining outer walls of Maison Centrale, the infamous Hanoi Hilton, where captured American pilots were imprisoned and tortured, some for more than eight years, during the “American War.” When I saw the recognizable wall, my breath caught in my throat and I anticipated another difficult morning.

We paid our admission fee, entered though the main arch and picked up our headphones and players for the audio tour.

As it happened most of the tour focused on the construction of the prison by the French in the late 19th century and the abominable conditions experienced by the Vietnamese patriots who were imprisoned there. The place was called “hell on earth” and the French were said to use “ruthless and inhumane torture against patriotic and revolutionary prisoners.” Exhibit after exhibit detailed the meager food rations, the beatings, the stench, the killings by guillotine, the attempted escapes and subsequent recaptures and punishments, and of course the heroic acts of the patriots to subvert their French rulers.

After the overthrow of the French in 1954 the Vietnamese took over the prison, and from 1964 to 1972 during the “war of destruction against North Vietnam” the prison held captured US pilots.

Our audio tour painted a happy picture of war prisoners being well looked after, playing basketball, decorating Christmas trees, preparing holiday dinners. We’ve been told a different story.

Later I looked up the tap code that we’ve heard about so many times from survivors of the Hanoi Hilton and found this.

We left Maison Centrale in a glum mood and walked back toward the center of town. We had lunch on a balcony overlooking the cathedral and the setting lifted our spirits while we batted around doing an overnight cruise on Ha Long Bay. We wanted to do it, but it would eat up two full days of our time in Hanoi and we were really enjoying the energy of the city and hated to leave. Choosing a tour operator was also causing some agita, as there are dozens of them and the guidebooks and online sources are full of warnings of low quality, unsafe or unscrupulous companies. What to do, what to do?

We pushed that dilemma to the back burner and enjoyed the afternoon and evening. shopping, eating, and doing the usual Schulz Aimless Wandering that we’ve perfected over the years.

Back towards our hotel we found ourselves on Musical Instrument Street and while we were marveling over some of the unidentifiable native instruments Jack spotted a mandolin, a target of his obsession over the years. He recently bought a ukulele bass and wisely talked himself out of adding another instrument to the growing onboard collection.

As darkness fell activity spilled out into the streets and we returned to our hotel to freshen up and rest before tackling dinner.

It was Cinco de Mayo so like all good Americans we opted for Mexican again and enjoyed two-for-one margaritas and about the best quesadilla I’ve ever had. In Hanoi.

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H4 U3

We didn’t plan it especially for this reason but our tour of Vietnam includes four cities beginning with H: Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An, Hué and our final stop, Hanoi. We also planned three UNESCO sites, Hoi An Ancient Town, the Citadel in Hué and our last intended site, Ha Long Bay, which isn’t really near Hanoi but that’s how you get there.

After the dead heat of Hué I was glad to be going further north and hoping to find cooler temps. We did, but we also got our first cloudy weather, and eventually, rain. We had pushed the calendar a little and were on the cusp of rainy season so we weren’t surprised at that, and really, in a big city, rain is rarely a deterrent to activity.

We settled into our hotel by mid afternoon, giving us plenty of time to reconnoiter the neighborhood. Right away we noticed that the shops are largely organized like a giant department store, with one street mostly hardware stores, one street baby clothes, several streets toys, etc. Our hotel was in Notions department with separate shops selling buttons, zippers, fasteners, beads and so on. If my feet would hold out I’d have walked the streets for days just to discover the categories.

The scary Vietnamese telecom system is on full view in Hanoi and apparently kept in good nick.

We decided Hanoi is even more chaotic than Saigon but we enjoyed navigating the crazy traffic and crowded streets, appreciating the architecture and the way the city seems to be held together by sheer determination and a little luck.

Our hotel concierge tipped us on the night market happening around the corner on the evening of our arrival so we joined the fray and negotiated the crush of humanity for about an hour and a half before taking refuge in a quiet restaurant for dinner. The food would surely have been better out in the market but we needed real chairs to sit in, and a bit of air conditioning.

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May the fourth

Today is the March for Science and we wish we could participate in a local event but it’s a travel day for us. Two years ago we were in New Zealand on the day and we had our own march despite our remote location.

This year the March for Science appropriately falls on Star Wars Day, all the more reason to celebrate science in all its branches, everywhere, by everyone. Science isn’t something you decide to agree or disagree with. There aren’t “two sides” to science. It’s the fundamental underpinnings of everything over, under, around and through us. And I say hats off to every scientist, past, present and future, who furthers our understanding of the world.

May Fourth has a darker meaning and for me it’s become a personal day of remembrance, a meditation on peace, and a ritual of thanksgiving. It was on this day in 1970 that the Ohio National Guard opened fire on students at Kent State University who were protesting the American invasion of Cambodia, killing four and injuring nine others. It was a shocking act of violence against unarmed young adults exercising their right to free speech in a country we were being told was fighting a war halfway around the world to protect those very rights. I can remember the horror I felt that my country turned its weapons on its own citizens. Ten days later a similar shooting at Jackson State University in Mississippi left 2 student protestors dead and injured 12 more. Every year on this day I think of those students and the soldiers who killed them and hope that one day we will have peace on earth for all people.

On May 4th, 2014, forty-four years after the Kent State massacre, while I was pondering how to memorialize the event, we lost our rig to the Pacific Ocean on a fine sailing day when a critical piece of hardware failed without warning 450 miles from the nearest land. We were not injured, and except for the loss of sail power we were not disabled. We had sufficient fuel, water and food to make it back to safety. We were able to make repairs and continue our journey less than a year later, and we will always be grateful that what could have killed us or at least ended our plans, instead taught us patience and led us to experiences we never imagined.

Life is cruel and wonderful. We always hope for more wonderful than cruel, but we have no choice but to take it as it comes. Breathe in peace; breathe out love.

May the Fourth be with you.

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