This is Part I of Oliver and Juliet's Sailing adventures. You can go to Part II using the following link: Andaman Islands

The Oliver and Juliet Diaries

This Diary is written by Juliet Crittenden, wife of Oliver Stapleton who is a Cinematographer. If you'd like to read his "So You Wanna Work in Movies" essay then follow this link:


Without Oliver's driving force, this trip would never have happened. He foresaw that once the children left home, it would be healthy to prise us out of Ausewell and our habitual way of being, to go on a journey together. We looked at various options. He had developed a passion for sailing boats back in the mid-nineties, reading every account he could lay his hands on about all aspects of blue water cruising, seaworthiness and safety, all the while scouring the yachting press for the perfect boat. I was immersed in my own work at the time and competing the horses with the children. I noticed out of the corner of my eye that the passion did not abate, the intensive technical research continued, but since, when we chartered boats for sailing holidays, Oliver's interest seemed to be much more about the boats themselves than about the actual sailing, I concluded that his passion was in boat design and would never culminate in the purchase of a yacht. He was an armchair sailor! How wrong I was!

In 2000, when we chartered a boat in Thailand with some friends for two weeks, Oliver developed yachtie contacts there who started to contact him when the odd boat came up for sale. He stopped off a couple of times en route for Australia and finally saw a catamaran that he liked. With alarm I realized that he really was going to buy a boat! He asked me if I was 'in' or 'out' - meaning, would I go with him? I had just done the whole horse 'eventing' thing and bust my gut for us to do it well. My heart failed at the thought of learning a whole new sport, especially one which, like horses, involves so many aspects and a massive amount to learn. I also didn't relish the idea that it was another 'elite' sport. I really wasn't that interested.

However, I liked the idea of going on a journey with Oliver at this juncture in our lives and taking on something together as a joint venture... After much reflection, I finally said I was 'in', but I couldn't guarantee how I would behave if terror kicked in! I grew up with the notorious seas of the Cape of Storms and a coastline littered with wrecks, so my ideas of the ocean were not all that romantic! However, when someone pointed out: 'Don't project your fear of being cooped up for weeks on end in a tiny space with Oliver, on to the poor old sea!' This rang true - I dreaded that aspect most of all! After all we have spent most of our life together, thousands of miles apart, because of Oliver's work, and at Ausewell, if I want time on my own, I can always slip off for a walk or go and muck out...

After exchanging hundreds of e-mails with the owner, Oliver finally bought Sundancer. The problem now was to find a reliable engineer to oversee the refit. Fortunately, Leon, an Australian who speaks fluent Thai, came on to the scene and has overseen work on the boat ever since - invaluable, because throughout Oliver has had to organize all that from afar. Leon had the diesel engine taken out, and in August 2003 Oliver, Michaela, Misha and I sailed down to Malaysia with an Australian Simon Andrew skippering the boat: the mission was to pick up our new electric engines and generator, a sit-on-top kayak and other goodies which were loaded on to the foredeck by crane in Lankawi, the duty-free port in Malaysia. It was like Christmas for the boys - all those boxes to tear open and marvel at the contents, admiring the quality of engineering and craftsmanship. Back in the Boat Lagoon in Phuket, Sundancer was taken out of the water to have her major refit done on the hard. Over that winter I did a RYA Day Skipper Theory course to learn about navigation. April 2004 saw Sundancer back in the water for a shake down cruise: Simon the skipper, his Thai friend, Bok, Oliver and I sailed to Malaysia and back. This time we had the electric engines and did numerous sea trials to test the equipment. This trip gave Oliver time to dream up further changes that he wanted on board so back in the Boat Lagoon Sundancer came out of the water once more for further work.

Oliver went straight to Venice to work on the film Casanova for six months. I did the odd afternoon as a crew-member, racing on the River Tamar on a friend's beautiful classic monohull, and I also sailed with the same friend across the Bay of Biscay that summer on the tail end of Hurricane Charlie! It was my first sea passage. I had always thought to get the worst over first, starting with the Bay of Biscay, on the basis that if I survived that, everything else might feel a doddle! I hadn't bargained for Hurricane Charlie, but I was with seasoned seamen whom I trusted. My experience skippering racing dinghies in my youth did help a bit, especially when it came to helming. We were on a watch system for four days and I had to take my turn at the helm for two-hour stretches day and night whatever the weather, which was a massive challenge especially in the first twenty-four hours, but I managed OK despite huge seas and Force 7 winds, which moderated as the days went by... It was exhilarating and proved an invaluable experience...<\p>

Oliver came home mid-December with the girls and a houseful of guests. Amidst the hubbub and preparations for Christmas, we were trying to pack for our four month sailing trip on Sundancer AND get Ausewell and the farming side of things ship-shape for Fiona to take over whilst we were away. We were due to leave on 29th December.

On Boxing Day the tsunami hit and decimated all the places in the Indian Ocean that we had planned to visit under sail on our journey. We were due to leave the UK just three days later with four friends who were going to accompany us on the first leg of our journey - to the Andaman Islands. One of them was to skipper Sundancer for the first three weeks, whilst we gained the necessary skills to take over sailing the boat once he left - Oliver had always promised me we would have a professional skipper aboard for the first month or so, until we felt confident enough to do the job ourselves... As the news of the tsunami broke, and it became clear that the Andaman Islands were now a no-go area, our friends all cancelled their flights. This also meant we no longer had a skipper!

Oliver and I found ourselves stunned, in deep shock watching the appalling fate of so many of those living along that sea board as day after day the full extent of the disaster became apparent. After a while we began to differentiate another layer of devastation inside of us which we felt unable to voice at first because it seemed so petty, but in one swoop the tsunami had shattered ALL of our plans for our journey after all those years of dogged organization and supreme effort to make it happen against all odds! Oliver was exhausted after six months of very long hours in Venice and from the final frantic logistics of getting the boat ready and equipped from afar in time for our trip, and I had just gone through the demanding process of finishing with all my long term psychotherapy clients. The house was bursting with family and young friends all having a whirlwind of a time day after day and there was no space to think! It felt like we were starting all over from scratch and airlines were demanding quick decisions! A trivial problem compared with those whose lives have been shattered forever, but nevertheless disconcerting... We went out for a couple of hours on our own on New Year's Eve and hatched the beginnings of a new direction and our energy returned.

We left in late January 2005 bound for South Africa for five weeks to see my mother and sail in Cape waters with the aim of getting the RYA Day Skipper Practical and Coastal Skipper Theory and Practical under our belts before heading to Thailand and our boat, Sundancer, in early March! Again, we chose the Cape of Storms in the hope that learning in the worst conditions would prepare us for any eventuality! Of course all this experience is pretty flimsy compared with what most people do to prepare themselves for cruising the blue waters.


South Africa, as ever, raised the thorny question about where home is. So much is familiar, so many things I just know because that's where I'm from, that's where I grew up. I really noticed that this time.

It was great to see my mother and be reminded of all her amazing qualities and her quite exceptional attitude to life. We often talk about her and wonder how she does it? Her 'Secrets To A Life Well-lived' would make a valuable heirloom! Of course, there are downsides too. She has an extraordinary memory of absolutely everything. She never repeats herself. She doesn't lose things or mislay them. She has a policy never ever to give up if she can't remember a fact: she won't let it rest until she's remembered it, even if it's a couple of days later. But when she's talking to you, to get to a particular memory, she needs to start from the beginning and recall every detail and detour on the way, as if she has an internal map that she can negotiate by following one thread that leads to another that finally leads to the point of her story. But these threads are not necessarily in straight lines - they meander along, rich in detail! She seems to need to describe the entire scenario with its myriad facets as she goes along, like building blocks, otherwise she gets lost. Asked to take a shortcut, she loses her bearings and loses the thread! It's a fascinating process, and one learns interesting things, but it is time-consuming! I think it might be similar to the manner in which I negotiate my way around Cape Town, having been away for so long and yet having known it once so well: I start out, knowing my destination, but I can no longer see the whole route of how to get there in my mind's eye. That is a blank. I have to trust that as I get to each intersection, everything will flood back and I'll know where to go next (unless everything has changed in the meantime of course!) and so on until I get to my destination. If someone asked me how to get there from the outset, I wouldn't be able to say. The downside is I can't manipulate the route in my head, to evaluate whether it's the quickest one, because I haven't got a picture of it!

Both Oliver and I have come to realize how meaningful our friendships are with the people that we see in Cape Town each time we visit, most of whom are artists, actors, directors, musicians and filmmakers - catching up with them is to connect up with a vital throbbing thread in our lives, especially for Oliver, but also for me. This time we saw other friends too, important figures from my childhood and university days. Fondness makes the bonds run deep and it was lovely to get to know them afresh. I won't forget the hot, dry, aromatic fynbos walk up Table Mountain with Bernie and Jane and their ridgebacks - so steep in parts that for the first time in my life I felt faint and desperately thirsty and had to slow down - the old ticker felt as if it would explode - mind you, nothing that a delicious shower under a fine waterfall in a high kloof didn't sort out! We even spotted a red disa dazzling in the rare green of the damp cliff-face. We made new friends with a professor of English and Media studies, who asked Oliver to run some workshops at our old university, UCT, while we were there, and his wife, who is a TV writer and presenter and who has triplets! We found we had much in common with them and I feel sure we will see them again too, especially as Ian is trying to persuade Oliver to go to UCT for a term to teach on the film course!

Other things I loved about being back: talking to the taxi drivers about their lives and how things have changed; the sea teeming with wildlife - whales, dolphins, seals, sunfish (the Thai sea is like a desert in comparison); the terrible southeaster 'pomping' in the bay, one minute angrily tearing at the sea, the next dead calm because of the wind-shadow cast by Table mountain. I had forgotten about all that. Oddly enough, this time it was the Afrikaans language that I couldn't get enough of: in Langebaan especially, everyone everywhere was Afrikaans and I let the textures and sounds and delightful old long-forgotten expressions wash over me and the meanings all flooded back. It's physical, gutteral, highly expressive and makes me laugh: Listening to it, I feel like I've come home, I suppose because it is uniquely South African, and more familiar to me than the African languages. After all I had to learn it all my school life! It's embedded in my being.


Oliver, ironing on the balcony of the house in Seaforth - you can just see the rim of lights going all around False Bay.

Unfortunately the battery in the camera went flat after that first ironing picture, so we don't have any more photos of the time we spent with Ma, only vivid memories of delightful expeditions to Miller's Point, Kommetjie, and Smitswinkel Bay where a handful of houses bask at the bottom of the cliffs that you can only get to on foot via a steep mountain path. We fantasized about buying a house there, but figured things might not be so hunky-dory if one didn't get on with the neighbours! The surf was perfect at Scarborough on the West Coast at sunset where anxious dogs lined the beach at the high tide mark watching the waves, hawklike, poised to pounce on any emerging surfer with great yelps and wags certain it was their master, only to slink off dejected. As it got dark, one by one the dogs joined up with a tired surfer and trailed back to the car delirious with joy and relief.

Oliver and I have thought a lot on and off about buying a house in Cape Town, before the prices shoot through the roof - as they have, in fact. We've just not seen our way clear to becoming part of that whole speculation thing where foreigners buy into a country while the going is good, pushing the prices up, so that the local people lose all hope of ever being able to buy a house themselves. This is exactly what has happened: houses bought as investment/holiday homes and let out to tourists for most of the year, unavailable to locals. If we were planning to make South Africa our permanent home, I guess it might be different. But we are not.


I was desperately hot and thirsty!


Fiona preparing her intricate dishes with her daughter Anna and Anna's boyfriend.


We had a stunning Sunday lunch on the verander, effortlessly produced by Fiona and Sean, who barbecued the fish to perfection. The twins are in white. The gigantic black great dane lies at the bottom - the size of his bed offers a clue to his gangly dimensions!


We were lucky enough to stay in Fiona's art studio in the city with views of the mountain and the Malay quarter. Oliver used to live in the Malay quarter in the old days before it was done up, when it was still the hub of the Malay community in Cape Town.


This man suddenly appeared with no safety harness on a narrow ledge seven floors up, pressure hosing the building! He jumped up on to our balcony and told us he'd done it all his life and was confident he'd never fall off. I found his antics hair-raising and couldn't bear to watch him!


Behind the photographer there were rows of desks with people hard at work. Honest!


On the RYA course, we were holed up for a week with these guys aboard this yacht! Here seen leaving Cape Town for the passage to Langebaan - we arrived at midnight. Spirits are high, the wind was behind us, boding well... Oliver took the photo: Juliet, 'Essex' Pete at the helm (raised in a scrapyard, he could hot-wire any engine of any description - he was invaluable on a boat!), Kev a switched on chef, alias computer whiz, from Durban, who even slept with his mobile to his ear in case there was any 'action' he was missing out on ashore, mainly on the girl front, and Nic, our instructor, who had interesting stories of his mishaps at sea and how he managed to survive them!


Back in our flat in London, we had a gorgeous cosy time catching up with the girls, Josie, Michaela (and Martha), before setting off again on our Thai adventure. They asked anxiously: 'You're not planning to move to South Africa, are you?' The implication being that they really wouldn't like that... They are used to having us easily available to them: I think the whole trip had the effect of 'absence makes the heart grow fonder'!





Lawrence the electrician is putting in finishing touches to the fantastic job he did installing the electric engines and all the complicated electric systems on the boat. The beautiful new chart table and all the instrumentation is behind him. Our various sailbags still on the floor.

We spent 10 days at least at the Boat Lagoon in Phuket, getting all the systems in order, cleaning everything, washing down the bilges, provisioning, putting on the sails, cutting and whipping the mooring warps, buying last minute equipment we were missing, putting surplus stuff in storage and last but not least adding the decorative stripes and her name to the fantastic paintjob, not such an easy job because as soon as the day heated up (at 8.30 am) the stripes would bubble on the hot metal of the hull, so either we were being eaten alive by mosquitoes in the evening or racing to beat the sun in the morning! All this at snail's pace because it was SO HOT although Oliver had had a fantastic bimini made by the famous Muzza which was an art and major undertaking in itself to erect, but created shade GLORIOUS SHADE! By 8 am the Thai guys working on the boat next door would have started up their horrendous din of electric saws, drills and high pitched metal sanders that lasted everyday through till 5pm, so we couldn't hear ourselves speak. They were fun though, and offered uncalled for advice in vigorous sign-language in response to many things we did! And kindly lent us their boss's hose out of hours to hose down the decks! For much of the low tide we actually sat on the oozing mud, crawling with curious primordial creatures, and the building site on the river banks whirred day and night sending clouds of dust on the wind that settled on the decks and meant major deck scrubs. There was a substantial oil spillage in the marina that slurped around our hulls at one point, but fortunately we weren't the worst hit.

For the first week we stayed in the hotel, and bathed in the pool after dark, soothing, but not cooling our tired bodies, before heading to the stunningly cheap outdoor restaurant on a grassy verge next to the road for a simple evening meal with a singer who sang wonderful songs all slightly out of tune and when he wasn't singing a huge screen showed the National Geographic television channel at full blast, which drowned out any hopes of conversation - it was really for the benefit of the staff, we suspected - they even served you with one eye on the screen! The second week we braved the mosquitoes and lived on the boat - we thought it would give us the incentive to finally get it together to get out of there!


I spent the entire trip trying to solve the problem of where to sleep to escape the stifling heat - anything for a whiff of breeze: on the trampolene up near the bow was ideal but not always possible, the deterring factor being mosquitoes and rainstorms... the cockpit is a rather airless compromise. Oliver, not being such a fanatic fresh air freak, went techno below with fans and air-conditioning in a sealed cabin! When utterly defeated, I would join him and sometimes he joined me on deck, especially when I perfected the mosquito net hung from the genoa sheet over the trampolene with a quick remove system in the event of storms, later on in the trip. This was early days and I had slept as usual in the cockpit, entirely covered by my sarong like a corpse in a shroud - a bit hard to breathe - but the mozzies always mangaged to get me anyway, so I would wake in a tetchy state of mind! We couldn't find the corpse picture - this was taken a few minutes later - in the boat lagoon, at high tide, with the building site in the background.


Our first night on our own! We ran aground on the way down the channel out of the mangrove swamp - you can only enter or leave the Boat Lagoon marina at high tide down a two mile long narrow channel with rudimentary markers. We had a huge multistory motorcruiser sniffing up our backside, revving his engines, so Oliver pulled over a fraction so he could pass and in a flash we were aground despite our fancy electronic depth sounder reading 15m! (This turned out to be a common occurrence - not going aground, but the depth sounder misreading, depending on passing barnacles etc. I found it nightmarish not knowing our depths, and developed a darling line with knots and a lead weight which was often called upon when setting our anchor!). Oliver has a clever kick-up rudder system and with some quick thinking we were off the mudbank with me lunging at the offending rudder, fighting to stop it, once released, floating off altogether! We were both excited and in a frazz of nerves, probably argued all the way about every possible manoever and anchored with even more high pitched arguing at this delightful spot on an island just off Phuket. The boat is in the background and we had dinghied to the beach for our first steps of freedom. Our neighbour for the night, another catamaran, was a Japanese man, also making his first inexperienced voyage! He sailed off with great verve next morning. We stayed another day and night, because we needed to test various systems like our new watermaker that we hadn't been able to test in the Boat Lagoon because of the appalling mud clogging everything up. It turned out that the watermaker had been plumbed into the inlet pipe for the heads and the water really stank offensively. Yuk! Oliver disabled the heads permanently and we used the one in the other hull. He promised me doubtfully that the water would improve, which it did, but only after two or three weeks of making water every day, which we used for showering, laundry and deckscrubbing. Fortunately, having absolutely no faith in modern gadgetry, I had secreted my own supply of bottled drinking water on board, which he had to admit saved the day, just lasting us until we got to Kuah in Lankawi,10 days later where we could restock. Leon the engineer came out in the dinghy to show Oliver how to service the watermaker and change the filters and while Oliver was taking him back to the Boat Lagoon, I meanwhile was a bundle of nerves alone aboard the boat, imagining the wind coming up and I didn't even know how to start or work the electric engines or the windlass or anything really. I hate feeling disempowered. He got back O.K. but my anxieties were severe for the first few days, always picturing every eventuality and focussing on the very worst. In the end Oliver banned 'doom-mongering' and with the help of a book I happened to be reading, called 'Journey through the Soul' by Thomas Moore, I became aware of just how extreme my state of mind had become: my mistrust of boat and crew had become TOTAL!

Fortunately, the act of becoming aware seemed to shift the anxieties to a large extent, though I remained maddeningly cautious until later in the trip when I had gained confidence, both in Oliver's ability and in my own.

Initially though, there I was, trained for a monohull, but on a catamaran with completely different systems apart from the steering and the genoa, with a man who I KNEW only knew what I knew, and I knew how little that was(!), though technically he knew many things about his particular boat that I didn't know, which was a relief in one sense, but bad in another, because it meant I was powerless. On top of all this Oliver is nightmarishly gung-ho, in my view - just wanting to plough ahead and do stuff without thinking, whereas I would think painstakingly of every eventuality: 'WHY do you have to ARGUE about EVERYTHING?' he would yell in utter FRUSTRATION! But I did. And sometimes I turned out to be right and we were glad I had made us take certain precautions rather than shortcuts. Very occasionally I bit my lip and didn't say anything, aware of how tedious I always sounded, and then regretted it because we got in a right old pickle, just as I had pictured we would. And sometimes I need not have worried. I also noticed that he argued with everything I said! But that is a by the way. The fact is, we make rather a good combination, if we strike a balance that uses the best of each approach.

So there I was with this nightmare gung-ho sailor on a boat I was pretty helpless on because I couldn't even start the engine. And that opens another can of worms: not only was he gung-ho, but I was discovering fast the extent to which Oliver is a habitual free-thinker, with absolutely no regard for hundreds of years of sailing know-how(!): if a practice doesn't make sense to him, he thinks out something outrageously different. Why not?! All day long, he is forever trying out new things, fiddling with his systems. In some ways, it was quite exhausting, mainly because I was forever being asked to help and hold this and pass that! He never sat down! Now this creative thinking is all very well, but what about the holes in his knowledge? He's someone who acts confident, pooh-poohs suggestions that he might be wrong, unless they really have substance. So how the hell do I ascertain what he knows and what he doesn't!!! I strongly suspect he doesn't know about the loads equipment can bear, for example. I have an inkling these things are important, but I know even less. And so we argue. And I worry. A bit. Sometimes a lot.

Because he questions EVERYTHING, not only do I have the challenge of going off sailing without extensive training and apprenticeship as most people do, but on a boat with highly unconventional systems like electric motors, and much else besides... It didn't take me much longer than the first 24 hours to figure out that with electric engines that had proven so far on our boat to be not very powerful with a tendency to struggle in any amount of (?) headwind or current (I wasn't sure of the exact figures, so the mind went rampant and ruled it a dead loss - in heavy conditions, certainly...) To cheer me up, Oliver kept saying that lots of people sail round the world WITHOUT an engine, so don't worry. Like Commander Victor Clarke. Yes, but he had a lifetime of experience and a boat that could sail to windward. But this train of thought only served to alarm me more: Sundancer had an angle of sailing to windward of 60 degrees, all of which meant that any thoughts of escaping a tight anchorage once conditions had deteriorated were effectively zilch. This played on my mind rather, quietly at first and then more vociferously. How I longed for everything to be CONVENTIONAL, at least then there would be more that was known, that I could rely on. As it was, I didn't have ANY firm ground under my feet at all! However, this was not all: there were beautiful thrilling bits as well like this gorgeous first evening in the photo and that is Phuket in the background.


We felt very safe at this exquisite anchorage, though we did anchor absurdly far out!

We were two full day's sailing further south by now and everything was going well.


At the same anchorage the next day. We went ashore for supper, which was great, but it was spring tides and one or other of us had to keep going to check the dinghy that it didn't float away as the tide came in. It is hellishly heavy to pull up the beach and we hadn't gone quite far enough. The anchor we had dug in above the high water mark had held fine, but this whole caper meant that supper was not a very relaxed affair! We met a friendly German couple and would have liked to have seen more of them the next day, but we got into tackling some jobs on the boat instead. Like scrubbing the hull. Every time I suggested a break and a swim, Oliver would say 'You couldn't take the brush with you and scrub the hull!' I thought I was the obsessive one!

Our first big challenge came on the next major leg - a long day's sail south to the Bulan Channel through an area bristling with fishtraps so you are constantly dodging flags and you certainly wouldn't want to be caught in the dark sailing through here! The boats that do night passages to Lankawi sail 30 miles offshore to avoid these problems.

Because we really want to sail, not motor, we had developed a rule of thumb never to leave an anchorage unless there was a brisk wind to get us on our way. The wind always drops at some point, turns around and hopefully picks up from another direction, though often doesn't. On this occasion I was pulling up the mainsail early on in the day, a job Oliver usually did while I manned the engines, when I noticed that 3 of the cars that attach the mainsail to the mast were now broken, and they were all high up beyond the reefing points, so we couldn't even reef the main and sail like that. One car had broken each day - they were just rotten - and it was clear that the pressure on the sail would pull more away. Our hearts sank, partly because we had a decent wind, and now we would be motoring for 10 hours, but even worse it might mean we had no mainsail for the rest of the trip! The cars have to be ordered from America and we didn't exactly have a fixed address!

But we had a more urgent matter at hand: we would be racing all day now to get to the Bulan Channel by dark, we had banked on a bit of wind to up our speed a bit at least for a while...

It did get dark, for the last hour. But we know the anchorage so it wasn't as horrendous as it might have been.

In the middle of the night Oliver woke with a brainwave on how to fashion new cars, which of course carry a tremendous amount of stress... We were up with first light with hacksaw and some pieces of aluminium he happened to have kept on board 'in case', regretting the fact that we'd left the vice behind in London because it was too heavy in our baggage, but I held the metal tight and he ingeniously fashioned 3 cars that in fact slid up and down better than the originals and lasted the whole six weeks! I was well impressed!

'If only we had the vice!' we exclaimed many times on our trip: when packing in London, it was either that or my books (I had been allowed a quota of 12). Oliver reluctantly gave in to my books. As it happens I only had time to read 2, I was always too busy and at night it was too dim to read. So I felt rather sheepish and next time the vice will get preference!


Here he is, at it again, in the shade of the bimini this time, mending the first of many punctures in the kayak. The kayak had 4 air tubes each with a different colour valve: to remember which was which we gave them names: the red valve pumped up Stalin on the far left, the yellow peril Chairman Mao was inside left, the green party was inside right and blue was Thatcher on the far right! Which resulted in conversations like: 'Have you done Thatcher yet?' 'Oh God, Stalin's going soft again!' 'We can rely on the Greens and Chairman Mao to get us home: don't worry about pumping up Stalin again.' Stalin was forever letting us down!


Waiting for me, as usual, Oliver's decided to drift and chill! This is an amazing anchorage called the fjord - high cliffs all around offering apparent protection, but it actually acts as a funnel, and certain winds whistle through the channel - we dragged badly towards the cliff-face here one night. The bright green is a tiny little mangrove swamp. The kayaking is out of this world around here with lots of tiny islands to explore with fascinating overhangs. And particularly lush jungle. These islands are in Malaysia, in the Lankawi archipelago.

We saw lots of kingfishers, kites, sea eagles and other shy little seabirds. Some swallows even started nesting in our masthead and travelled with us from island to island, shitting on our deck at night!


In the same anchorage as above. When you go to sleep you never know who will be anchored alongside you at dawn! This day it was particularly spectacular. These are trawlers that constantly ply the seas in pairs trawling nets between them. As a yacht, you have to keep a constant eye on their movements.

In this channel as in the Bulan channel, fisher people in longtails float silently past your boat at anchor all night, drifting with the tide, shining torches on the cliffs and barnacled rocks, hunting for crabs, fishing with lights, occasionally you hear a cough which reminds you of their presence - some of them sea gypsies who live fulltime on these tiny boats, the wife crouched under a tiny tarp shelter in the bilges with her children. All the overhanging cliffs around these islands have pieces of rope hanging down, where the long-tails tie up together in communities to rest, cook, shelter from the sun and from electric storms. Some seem more lonely than that. Their way of life intrigued me. If you stay in an anchorage a couple of days, some of them wave to you when they pass. They never bother you or even approach. If you were to ask them for fish, they would probably oblige. It was only in the more touristy area north of Phuket, which they used in the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun, that any fisherman actually accosted us to sell his fish.


Kayak stowed after a quick exploration revealed crab-eating monkeys and deer ashore on the beach!


It was so thunderously hot in Lankawi during the day that by late afternoon the only possible solution was a storm, every day. This was it! Our neighbour pulled up just after we got there and I heard him whooping about his boat, SHOUTING 'Yes!' 'Freedom at last!' We kayaked over and it transpired he works in Kuala Lumpur all week and flies up to Lankawi every weekend where he keeps a yacht and had taught himself to sail over the past year. This was Friday night and sheer bliss! He was on his own! It was sweet!

We spent a couple of days in Kuah, on the pontoons in the Royal Lankawi Yacht club, where we met up for the second time with a Swiss couple, very experienced sailors, who were sailing round the world backwards (against the prevailing winds) in a catamaran. We had been out for supper with them and had gone to bed, when knock, knock, at midnight - it was Pieter saying there had been an official tsunami warning, another earthquake off Sumatra, and it was expected in Kuah at 3 am! The Thai and Malay governments were evacuating people close to shore. This was for real! Pieter and Hannie were planning to leave the marina and head for open waters. Sure enough as he spoke, boats were pulling off the pontoons and leaving like ghosts in the dark. Oliver and I were thrown into a horrible quandary for half an hour. We didn't fancy milling around in the channel with lots of boats when the 20 knot surges came, with our electric engines and lack of skill and experience. On the other hand, did we want to stay and wait like cowering ducks for those surges to pass through the marina? We had heard tales how all the other marinas in Lankawi had been devastated in the previous tsunami and many yachts had sunk. This marina had survived. But it was already high tide, so a surge on top of that might take the floating pontoons off the top of the concrete piles this time... Maybe we should just make Sundancer doubly fast and head for higher ground? This sounded a relief: at least we would survive! But it was pitch dark and where was higher ground? We didn't know the terrain. I busied myself making the mooring lines into slip lines, muttering: 'I consciously chose to run considerable risks on this trip, but I didn't choose this one! I never imagined this would happen!' My mouth was dry and my mind somewhat paralysed: I couldn't make a decision. Oliver took himself off for a walk along the pontoon to clear his head. He came back a bit later, saying he'd spoken to a German who had said: 'No, I'm not leaving. I have no propeller!' He had been there in the last tsunami and explained to Oliver exactly what had happened, how all the masts had crashed together and so on. He had a television on board switched to CNN. 'Has anyone actually seen a wave?' asked Oliver. 'No, not yet' said the German. So armed with that information, Oliver decided we should make Sundancer doubly fast and stay, which we did, on the off-chance that there was no wave. After that it was fun, if not a bit shivery, walking along the pontoons, chatting to people: We found an Austrian woman with a laconic American companion with a long white beard relaxing on their tiny yacht that was tied up like a spider in a web - they only had an outboard (although she had sailed the boat to Thailand via the Panama Canal and across the Pacific), so they weren't planning on leaving, but instead had cracked open a bottle of wine, saying: 'What the hell!' A few more checks with the German and his TV, 3 am came and went, so feeling we had had an amazing reprieve, we went to sleep and the next morning all the others came back a little sheepish, but glad they had taken action. It was a friendly place and we met some nice people, especially a young enthusiastic Canadian called Jason, married to a Danish girl, who had been sailing all his life, but now they had a baby, he had to contemplate going ashore back in Denmark and getting a proper job for a while. We couldn't work out how the young fund their sailing, though they clearly do it on a shoestring.

I didn't get any e-mails while I was away - internet cafes were just not on our beat... We did find one in Kuah that looked like a grimy motorbike shop until we realized that the bikes belonged to the patrons. It was really greasy and I didn't really fancy touching the keyboard, which only indicates how namby-pamby I am. Oliver did his business there though.

48 hours later, we were further north in the Datai Bay, still on Lankawi, when Oliver got a phone call from his agent saying he must download a script to read! Hasn't she got any imagination? Then we hit on an idea! We knew from the almanac that there was a very exclusive hotel ashore (couple of thousand bucks a night!). So we kayaked from our distant anchorage to the beach with smart casual wear in a plastic bag lashed on to the bow section. Quick change in the bushes and some languid detective work culminated in an innocent enquiry at reception about the whereabouts of their internet facility: "in the library sir, over there." Quick press of the printer button and Oliver had 200 pages in his hand. Feeling a bit guilty, he went back to reception and said: "I've just printed out 200 pages off the internet, can I offer to pay?" "Oh no, Sir! Don't worry! It's on the house!" Reckoning he had after all done his bit, Oliver shrugged his shoulders, strolled out and hotfooted it several hundred yards back down the hill through the jungle gardens to the beach where he met me and our trusty steed the kayak! However this was a one in a million opportunity and on your average beach in the middle of absolutely nowhere you may be met by a crab-hunting monkey, but the man in livery offering you electric car transport up to reception is a rare beast!


Haunt of sea eagles, kites and longtail fishing boats.


The island in the background, Koh Phedra, always reminds me of a prehistoric monster sprawling in the sea!

We made Rok Nok by evening and anchored in a narrow channel between two pretty islands with chrystal clear water and lots of tiny coral fish. We observed from afar a French family anchored nearby, who fascinated us for a number of reasons: their family seemed a bit like ours: odd adults and lots of teenagers all crammed on this tiny, tough, rough little boat. Oliver's first comment was: 'they are clearly liveaboards. They are brave to sail around the world in a boat like that!' They were all so graceful and lissom, including the young man who looked like Tadjo in Death in Venice. They were also clearly having a great time. We couldn't work out the relationships: two older men - was one the granddad? Who was the mother? They all looked too young. We called them 'The French'. They taught us about 'lifting the hook' in a flash if you don't like a situation. A large tourist ferryboat swung in on the second day and anchored too close to 'The French' - we had watched these ferryboats before - the skippers were quite reckless - with no regard for other boats nearby or for their own crew, who often have to jump in the water carrying lines and end up thrashing around dangerously close to the propellers! I exclaimed in this case: 'Oh God! It's dragging! The ferry's out of control'. However, in two tics the French were off their mooring and already neatly on another much more sheltered one, much to our envy, before you could count to five!

On the way back we called in again at Koh Phi Phi, the island devastated by the tsunami, like a mouth with most of its teeth knocked out: a tangible atmosphere of shock and grief hangs over the place: how can it ever recover, one wonders, after being so overwhelmed... It seems that the losers are the local people who survived, many of them bereaved, whose dwellings were amongst the makeshift market stalls and shops that used to cover the low-lying isthmus of the island like a giant sprawling rabbit warren and all of which got swept away by waves that came surging in simultaneously from the bay on the North side and the bay on the South side, meeting in the middle in an explosive peak 30 feet high. These people have found they have no official title to their land and have been denied access to it now and have become displaced. It seems none of the aid raised in the west has got through to individuals on the ground here. Opportunist developers are profiting from the situation, filling the gap. Westerners living and working on the island seem to have banded together to support the local Thais with their rights and with rebuilding, and are running an orphanage and organizing the backpacking tourists into work teams to help clear up and rebuild. Every night there is a meeting at a restaurant literally on the beach called Carlitos where tourists can sign up for a job the next day.

In Phi Phi we ate ashore with a Danish couple, Boris and Lisbeth, who had been voyaging for 5 years and had no plans to stop in the foreseeable future, although he told us gloomily that he noticed all his friends quit once that had grandchildren! He was a real live wire and had us enthralled with encounters they had had ashore with locals in Trinidad, Venezuela and the Pacific: 'it's the people we encounter that makes the voyaging worth it' he said. I asked Lisbeth if they would likely be in Phuket at the end of the year when we return or would they have left and if so, bound for where exactly? 'Oh I think we'll be here a while,' she said. And then I got an inkling as to why so many sailors get washed up in Thailand and never leave: 'You see we can't decide - it's like choosing between a cobra and a viper: The Red Sea and its pirates or the daunting coast of Southern Africa!' Where does that leave Oliver and I? We are STARTING in Thailand, so what hope have we of ever getting any sea miles under our belt!!!


We were motoring with the autopilot on and I discovered Oliver sitting on the bow with this lunatic umbrella! Magic! The wind had dropped completely as it often does in the mid afternoon. In fact, unbeknown to us it was the day the monsoon turned around for the first time, which was to prove fatal to us that night, but not disastrous... We learnt afterwards that many seasoned local skippers were caught out on that particular night and dragged anchor. The wind had been blowing fairly consistently from the Northeast or East or Southeast every night. We could only rely on our experience as we had no means of getting a weather forecast - Oliver didn't believe a weather forecast could be useful in the tropics, though we discovered other cruisers did use them! We had to rely totally on our senses and we had become accustomed to watching the ever-changing cloud formations like hawks for signs of squalls or storms. As we neared the island an ocean swell came in which threatened the anchorage we passed on the Southeast side of the island, so we headed round to the secluded deeply inset bay on the West side, sheltered from the swell. On the way we experienced the strange 'confused' seas peculiar to this stretch of water, weird whirlpool effects, which were a little unnerving. We anchored deep in this narrow rocky bay just near a mooring buoy, jumped on the kayak and went ashore. Even the beach was rocky. There was a lot of rebuilding going on after the tsunami. We met a philipino musician who lived there who told us during the tsunami, the locals all ran up the mountain running the gauntlet of the deadly snakes! We walked across the island to the other anchorage we had spotted earlier and discovered no wind, no swell. Typical! When we got back it was nearly dark and the wind and seas had picked up and were beginning to pound the shore. The locals helped us get into our kayak off the bouncing caterpillar jetty and we battled out to the boat. If we had been brave we would have upped anchor then and left, but the spectre of those odd confused seas in the dark was not too enticing, so we let it go and stayed. Often the wind drops anyway after a couple of hours. Fatal decision! The wind shifted round and strengthened even more and we kept a nightmarish vigil all night anxiously watching the wind-gauge hit 25 to 30 knots with the boat bucking in the waves. A cat has such high windage compared to a monohull, it's scary. The mooring buoy was our only consolation, as we constantly peered into the dark to see where we were relative to its bobbing presence. Once again, I felt panicky and busied myself with all the slightly less important tasks, not daring to go into the heart of the problem: that anchor chain and what if it breaks? What will we do? But Oliver goes straight to that awful place and comes up with creative ideas to solve the problem! Whattaboy! He spent a couple of hours figuring out how to rig our spare anchor and set it up on the spare anchor roller, ready to go, with ingenious systems to get it there in the first place, which I helped with and more ingenious systems to release it into the water and then finally get it back in again once we had finished with it. When I crept out on to the trampolene to keep vigil with him for a while, I said 'Oliver, if the anchor chain breaks, what exactly do I have to do?' And he had it all mapped out. This and that, and if that fails we'll do this. You see we were trapped by the strength of the wind and waves and the narrowness of the bay. The angle of sail was impossible and the engines probably not strong enough. We could no longer just up anchor and go out to sea and relative safety. At one point we went into the saloon and turned on the SSB radio and never have we been so glad to hear 'Good evening, this is the BBC World Service. Charles and Camilla have just got married and we are going over to the chapel at Windsor Castle to hear the blessing of the Arch Bishop of Canterbury.' Never have we been so engrossed in the activities of the Royal family. Thank God for Charles and Camilla! We had a minute by minute account of the ceremony - hung on every cough in the audience. We couldn't get enough of hearing the opinions of people on the streets of Windsor - anything to keep our minds off that awful racket of the wind and the waves outside! Finally we couldn't justify running down the batteries anymore and turned the radio off. After an eternity, morning came, still wind with swell, but moderating now. We tried to up anchor but the anchor chain was evidently jammed under a piece of coral. My heart stopped! Oliver leapt into the rough sea and snorkelled out to have a look. He reckoned it was wound once around this isolated coral head and well and truly jammed underneath, and that was probably what had saved us from dragging the night before! He figured out a complicated manoever using the engines to motor forward at a certain angle and let the sea push us back so we unwound the chain, taking a gamble that in the dead of night we hadn't gone round twice or gone round the other way! Every time a wave hit, the boat snatched at the anchor chain in a most alarming way now it was shorter, so we got moving and abracadabra we unwound! I was so impressed with Oliver that night, something quite fundamental changed in my relationship to him and to sailing. I felt I could trust him in the very worst situations to be resourceful and creative. I learned something too, about going right in there and tackling the problem head on. He showed me how it can be done.

Once the anchor was up, we headed straight back to the safety of Chalong Bay at the southern end of Phuket island.


Heaven after what we had just been through!


We couldn't resist calling in on them. They asked us aboard and we spent an enjoyable couple of hours getting to know them while the youngsters cooked their lunch. It turned out they were a family of four: Francois had been sailing the seas for twenty-five years and during this time met Catherine, his wife, in French Polynesia, where he acquired this current boat: the children had been born and brought up on the boat with no formal schooling - the boy was doing his baccalaureat by correspondance, (He was 18, the girl, Yaelle, about 16) and they had just dropped off their charter clients, which explained the other two people we had seen on board with them at Rok Nok. They were the most delightful people we had met so far. They had been robbed in Penang of all their charts and much of their gear and were busy making new windscoops and cobbling together a new mainsheet and much else besides - they had no money and the charter business is disastrous this year which was affecting them badly. They were planning to go back to Penang to work ashore for the rainy season to try and earn some money. They had interesting views about things, an unusual perspective and were positive and full off life and laughs despite their troubles. We liked them.

Francois was the first person who enquired about our lives and Oliver's job. The other people we met were fun and interesting and told fantastic stories, but didn't really engage with us as people. The women did perhaps a bit more in private moments with me, but were often disadvantaged language-wise in the larger group. Catherine, the French woman, was different in this respect. She was very much present in the conversation and he dominated the conversation much less than the other men we met. I wonder if a husband who is also the skipper gets into a habit of dominating proceedings? This family tended to do things together more.

We talked about the problem of choosing an anchorage and said we had noticed how quickly they had moved in Rok Nok once they realized that things were not OK. Francois said in his French accent: 'We know each other so well, it is easy for us to work together! If you are not happy you must just lift the hook and go!' 'Just lift the hook and go!' became our motto forever after! Inspired by Francois.

We stayed in Chalong for a couple of days re-provisioning, doing immigration, checking out a possible new marina and wandering around the morning of the SONGKLA water festival where locals ambush you and each other with buckets of water, so you get drenched, which is actually a very pleasant relief from the heat, I found! Oliver especially was very exhausted after our ordeal - he had after all gone into the 'terrible place' and born the brunt of it. I supposed because I hadn't done that, it hadn't taken it out of me in quite the same way. I thought I noticed him become more sensible after that and curiously, I became more bold.

Finally we tore ourselves away from safety and shelter and ventured out again in a stiff wind. We had sailed a lot already during the trip with full sails out in 25 knots and she always felt great. So far in all our experience on her, sailing never once proved a problem. We did take a reef in once, but more for practice than anything else. Of course, we did furl the genoa in a bit from time to time, but it doesn't give a very good shape like that.

This day, however, to proceed north we needed to sail to windward in a fairly confined space between some islands. The monohulls that came out of Chalong that day, simply hardened up and disappeared out of sight, but with our tacking angle we simply went back and forth all day and after 24 nautical miles of sailing we had actually only covered two miles! Can you believe it? It was wretchedly depressing when we finally accepted defeat and headed back towards Chalong: we found a pleasant anchorage off Cape Panwa further out along the channel, which gave us the impression we had made a teeny-weeny bit of progress, though let's face it, not much! The next day the wind was still from the North East, but Oliver had been incubating a plan all night and he re-rigged the genoa differently - in an absurd way, in fact, that I would have said was preposterous (and no doubt did at the time!), but it worked a treat and I was getting a 45 degree angle at the helm. So we whooshed up the coast, not as well as the monohulls, but what the hell - we went North! We stopped one night in a lovely bay on Koh Yao Yai, deserted except for two young fishermen who sold us some giant prawns. They are Moslem and asked for Coca Cola, not beer. They actually fleeced us and went off elated with their 'killing! But we couldn't help liking them and didn't mind too much. It just meant we were much tougher next time it happened. The next day we headed up into Phangna Bay proper.


By this time, not only was the mosquito net perfected, but Oliver, desperate to keep me happy cooking down below rigged up an amazing system to keep me cool: he'd turn on the air-conditioning in the front cabin with a giant fan that aimed the cool air through the doorway into the galley where he had the extractor fan plugged in to whoosh away any hot air off the stove and I was a happy girl! The large fridge freezers open behind me are not being used. Instead we had a smaller one in the cockpit. The sink has a manual foot pump and Oliver spent many hours the whole trip trying to get airlocks out of that system which involved lots of complicated filters. I must say I never ventured into that department: something I shall have to learn about next time. I guess it's largely trial and error and being prepared to take things apart and put them together again! I'm not sure I have the patience, but I guess if I was desperate or the only one who could do it, I would. I never learnt about the watermaker either, only mocked its outrageously absurd antics... Which brings on another 'issue': how full to fill the water tanks? By now I was reading some of Oliver's manuals and discovered that cruisers reckon you should carry lots of water in your tanks, even if you have a watermaker, because there are lots of circumstances in which the watermaker can't be used, such as when the sea is rough. The watermaker, by the way, is supposed to transform sea water into fresh water. Oliver,it turns out,is a man who tends to skimp, in my view, cutting safety margins too fine, whereas I tend to lay in stocks 'in case', which means I always have too much of everything! Since Oliver is obsessive about keeping the weight on the boat down (for reasons of safety and speed), he would keep the watertanks constantly at a dangerously low level and top them up each day with the watermaker, which he got away with until it became apparent that at times the watermaker used more fresh water than it made! It always started it's cycle with fresh water and would end it with a 'fresh water flush' and at random moments it would even programme in the odd extra fresh water flush. As the pitch of the electronic hum changed, I could hear a string of expletives and a frantic dash to the display panel, followed by another string of expletives - too late, the machine would have run completely out of control! No amount of re-programming could get it to change its mind! At one point it inevitably acquired an airlock because the level in the water tank got too low and then it not only consumed water to re-start itself, but subsequently cut out before it ever made any fresh water! We bucketed water from the other tank. To re-start it used more fresh water, and then it would cut out again: so fixing the airlock became a catch 22 situation, since airlocks are notoriously difficult to get rid of and require persistent attempts! Horrified we watched the watermaker greedily gobbling up ALL our stocks of water! There was something insanely humorous about the whole situation, but also profoundly not funny! I still had a secret stash of water, being a hoarder and inveterate mistruster of all things electronic, so we were OK for drinking water, but all hope of ever showering again had literally disappeared up the spout!


We had arrived in a squall the night before and tried to anchor in the prescribed anchorage. It felt too deep and too enclosed and exposed to the South Easterly, which was gunning straight at us, so no sooner had we dropped the anchor than we pulled it up. We had learnt our lesson: 'if you don't like it, up the hook and go!' For the first time I realized why I constantly had bruises on my upper arm: every time we pull up the anchor, the anchor chain jams at 10 metres and I have to throw myself to the burning deck and flail around violently in the anchor locker with a metal stick to dislodge the crest of the heap of chain to make room for the rest, bruising my upper arms on the lip of the locker. In the heat of the moment I had never noticed this fact. This time, would you believe it, right in the middle of this dramatic manoever, in the drenching rain, a local fisherman tried to sell me his catch of fish. Couldn't he see I was busy!!! Incredulous, I dismissed him with a peremptory wave of the hand. Of course from his point of view, he probably couldn't work out what the fuss was about. The squall was over a few minutes later!

We sailed out of there and chose our own much better anchorage round the corner, sheltered and yet open with plenty of escape potential! We were getting to know our boat and its capabilities and adjusting to that.

Good decision! What a peaceful morning!


We spent many hours that day kayaking up into those dramatic islands you can see in the photo, arriving back fairly knackered at 5 pm.


Barely had we had a cuppa tea when we saw this black menace come whooping over the islands towards us - this is that same view you saw in photo 23! In a flash we said 'We are out of here!' Up came the hook in two minutes flat and off we scurried round the corner, the wind already 40 knots on a lee shore, whipping up waves round the corner too so our planned anchorage was no go now either: we headed on South arguing like mad with no anchorage in mind, it was getting dark, the storm was chasing us: the prognosis was not good! I was drenched from scurrying around the deck in the lightning flashes doing the necessary. Visibility was closing in horribly. I felt dreadfully excited and adrenalin-charged and ready for anything. I didn't even mind the lightning now! Suddenly Oliver and I saw it at the same time - a wall of zero visibility coming towards us from the front: an arm of the storm had veered round the East and was now coming straight at us from the South: the sea ahead was awash with lightning. In unison, for once, we skidded to a halt: 'READY ABOUT!' and whisked around back to the anchorage where we had originally planned to go, which was now calmish oddly enough as the worst had passed there, and the terrible onslaught behind us just missed us too. Our evasive action had worked! We had outwitted the beast! Down went the hook and out came the beer!

We awoke in our cocoon to this gorgeous spot, on the south western end of Koh Hung, the night after the storm.


We spent much of the morning kayaking here and at Koh Phedra discovering these amazing 'hungs' or enclosed lagoons actually inside the mountains with steep lofty cliffs open to the sky, reached by caves and passages from the outside world.


Amazing kayaking territory.


This one we reached through a scary pitch dark narrow passage-way which we were not certain led anywhere, but around the corner we saw a faint light... Inside it was eerily still.


Watch the ceiling here for the close up picture that follows...


A dog's head?


Extraordinary natural sculptures and stalactites hanging from the ceiling of the cave like a fanged mouth. Sundancer anchored off and catching the sun in the distance and a bunch of Asian fishermen tourists in a longtail.


We had to have a kedge anchor (the black line on the right) to hold her off the dock in the strong currents,. Made climbing on and off the boat an interesting manoeuvre, but by then I was a dab hand tightrope walker! Note the concrete piles on the left that the pontoons nearly floated off in the tsunami. This was a gorgeous friendly marina - we liked the couple who ran it - Nick and Zara. They were enthusiastic, friendly and fun. The boat will stay here till the autumn when it will go back to the Boat Lagoon to be antifouled up on the hard there.

True to form, a few hours later, as we unloaded our bags off the boat to go to the airport, the skies were raging black so we raced along the pontoon and up the steps to reach the taxi before the evening storm drenched us to the skin. It was heart-wrenching to tear ourselves away from her without really having time to linger and say goodbye! We had gone through so much together and the ties were beginning to run deep.

Next trip: November 2005!

You can go to Part II using the following link: Andaman Islands

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