Against All Odds
Going the wrong way - A Case Study

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The route plan
(Click on any photo or map for a blow up)
We left Male on the 20th of March, when it officially still is the time of the NE monsoon. Our plan was to sail directly to Phuket, a distance of about 1,500 nm as the bird flies. If the conditions would prove to be too difficult or in case of some serious break down we had the possibilities to duck into Galle on Sri Lanka and/or Pulau Weh on Sumatra. In the final stages, in case of bad weather over Phuket, we could also steer for Langkawi in Malaysia.
A colourful sunset on our first evening out of Male

The ideal time to set sail for a passage from the Maldives to Thailand would be at the beginning of the SW monsoon, which usually should take place at the end of May. Consequently we should have waited another two months. However, after looking at the issue from several angles we decided to go before the end of March. You can read more about our reasoning in The Countdown has Started.

The planning charts

During the past five centuries navigators have kept records of winds and currents. This historical data has been pulled together on Pilot Charts, also called Routing Charts, one for each month of the year. On these maps the oceans have been divided in squares of 1° by 1°, and each of these areas have been given a wind and a current "rose", showing the average velocity and direction of wind and current respectively during that month.

We already knew, that we were challenging history by our early departure, but I couldn't resist doing a check on what was ahead, using a passage planning software. I compared the conditions of March with those of May. I shouldn't have - this is what came out for a yacht with Scorpio's characteristics on our intended passage:

Parameters March May
Calculated great circle distance (nm) 1,524 1,524
Actual distance traveled (due to beating) 1,625 1,524
Elapsed time (days) 18.9 8.8
Average speed (kn) 3.6 7.2
Velocity made good (kn) 3.4 7.2
Fuel consumption (units) 2,453 0

Pretty bad isn't it! And I can hear you say, why on earth would anyone choose the conditions of March if you only have to wait two months and make the trip in 9 days instead of 19? Well, if you read The Countdown has Started, you know our reasoning concerning the unusual weather this (La Nina) year. In addition to weather considerations we were a bit fed up with the way cruisers are treated in the Maldives (check Cruiser's Paradise Lost). Enough is enough.

My biggest concern before the start wasn't the risk of head winds, because all forecasts predicted light winds. Adverse currents would be a much more significant obstacle. Therefore the plan was to stay on the latitude of Male, 4°N, all the way to around 91°E. In case we encountered strong W-setting currents we would steer more south closer to the Equator and hope to find the Equatorial counter current. The planning chart image below (with current roses) gives an idea (you can click it for an image of better resolution). I have included the relevant routing charts under the buttons below just for illustration purpose; unfortunately the images are too small for details.

The calm beginning

The first days were dead calm and we trotted along by motor under a burning sun, across a mirror like surface where the mirage made it difficult to tell apart sea and sky. The lack of adverse current was a welcomed surprise, and we actually had a bit of favourable current for several days.

One of those sunsets again
Guess we can't get enough of them

The sea was so calm, that we could use the arm
chairs on poop deck, just as when anchored.

The breakdowns

As usual, some repairs were needed. Our house bank of batteries started to boil, which can be extremely dangerous. Fortunately I had a spare regulator, which saved the day after I had added 4 litres of distilled water also. Other problems were a loose engine mount (installed only 4 months ago), loose v-belts on the service alternator and dirty fuel filters. Fairly minor problems after all, although the battery overheating could have caused serious problems.

The harassments

About a hundred nautical miles south of Sri Lanka we started to have problems with fishing boats. Within 24 hours we were approached and chased by fishermen four times, two of which were probably innocent. The first crew only asked for food, coffee, alcohol and cigarettes, but gave in after a few minutes. The second waved with a fish that they obviously offered for sale, but quickly turned around when we showed thumbs down.

The third one was frightening. They came straight at us, head to head, and I had to dodge them to avoid a collision. They then turned around, threw out three heavy fishing lines from their stern and came alongside on our port side as we were running at full speed. There were six young men onboard and the driver kept turning the wheel to starboard, forcing me to do the same. I think they were trying to drive around us in a circle hoping that the lines they were trolling would get around our propeller. The men behaved very aggressively and shouted angrily to us in a language we didn't recognize.

I brought Scorpio quickly to a full stop, then turned around 180 degrees and started to build up speed again. The fishing boat had also turned around, and started to chase us again. I picked up our hand held VHF, making sure that the attackers noticed it, and pretended to talk to somebody. At the same time I pointed in a westerly direction, to indicate that we were in company with an other yacht. This act appeared to be working, the fishing boat slowed down and I started to make a wide curve back on an easterly course. The fishermen followed us at a distance for a couple of hours before they disappeared.

Attack or not?
Rattle your sabres
What's the name of this game?

The next attack followed a few hours later, and it appeared to be the same vessel that had attacked us earlier. This time they came from astern. We again drove at full throttle, but they were gaining on us. I again picked up the hand held, and this time actually talked to Richard on Good Hope. He said that he had us in sight and that he was motoring in our direction at full speed.

Apparently the fishermen became aware of the other sailing vessel because they suddenly weird away to the south. Phiuuh!

I'm sure that many people will tell me that these incidents were no real attacks, only fishermen trying to sell or trade or beg. The first two encounters were probably only just that, but numbers 3 and 4 were definitely aggressive attacks. Maybe they just wanted to scare us for a laugh, but I'm pretty sure their intention was to see how far they could get. Maybe the attacks were carried out half-heartedly, but they were still attacks to me.

And yes, I forgot to mention Good Hope earlier. She is sailed by Richard and Anne and they left Male on the same day as we did. We had been in daily contact with them on the VHF, and after the fishing boat incidents we decided to sail relatively close to each other until we got some distance away from Sri Lanka.

This confrontation with an agressive fishing boat made me look at the Somalian piracy issue in a wider perspective, see Why Somali Piracy Has to Stop.

The sail-trimming shuffle

The whole first week was what we use to call Sunday weather: blue skies and calm seas. At the end of the week we started to get 5-7kn of WSW winds, dead astern, and some swell on the starboard quarter, which makes for quite a lot of rolling. Even though there was some wind, it was extremely difficult to keep it in the sails because of the rolling of the boat.

One day we managed to turn off the engine for 10 hours and sail under the spinnaker. Everyday I tried several different sail configurations, but it was not particularly rewarding. Even when we got some wind in the sails we usually had to keep the engine running on low revs also.

Wrestling with the spinnaker

Sailing in light winds is hard work

Mizzen stay sail on test
Two head sails poled out
Torsten, our faithful watch keeper
The spinnaker is smaller after we cut one section
We never raised the mainsail on this trip
My toes are always in the way

The daily routines

As usual, we quickly got used to the daily rhythm. Before the rolling started it was quite comfortable and I could even pass the time by working on the computers. Malla read her books as usual; I think she consumed three books on this trip. Physically it was an easy passage, but with the light winds and constant motoring it was mentally a challenge. When I'm sailing on a passage I have a feeling that I have already arrived at my destination. That is what we are here for, sort of, and time flies quickly. But when I'm motoring I'm actually counting the hours we still have to go until we reach wherever it is we are going.

Skipjack tuna, but not as small as it looks
Oatmeal porridge and a nice cup of tea
A day at the office during the calm days

The conditions change

About half-ways the conditions started to change. The winds would in general remain between WNW and WSW at below 10kn, but every day, and particularly every night, we were hit by squalls, which could pack up to 35-40kn for a while. The nights were now dark and moonless, so it was difficult to spot the clouds. Every night we had thunderstorms and massive lightning, and we therefore avoided using the radar for squall spotting. Also the current had now turned unfavourable, but the velocity varied a lot, sometimes we were doing 2.8 kn SOG, sometimes almost 5 kn. We lowered our course slightly to the south, hoping to find better currents.

A different sunset
Rain protection from astern
A large squall area on the radar
Then Good Hope broke their head stay. Richard managed to climb the mast a couple of times and make a temporary repair, despite the rolling conditions (thanks to the mast steps that he has installed all the way up to the mast head). Fortunately the winds were forecasted to remain westerly, which meant that the loads would be on the back stay. We agreed to shadow Good Hope all the way to Phuket, or at least to Pulau Weh, in case they would need assistance.

Good Hope broke their forestay.
Left: A squall approaching

This text is white
Pulau Weh, Sumatra

Luckily all went well and both yachts arrived safely in Phuket. We passed close to Pulau Weh, but decided not to go in there, instead we continued motoring the remaining 220 nm. During the last morning we started to see Thai fishing boats, and it was nice not to have to be scared shitless every time. Just wave. At 8:30 pm on the 2nd of April we sighted Phuket island and at 16:00 Scorpio dropped the hook in Nai Harn bay. We were only 2 yachts there, which is quite a change from the 80 or so yachts that were here on New Years Eve.
Thai fishing boat. The lights are used to attract fish.
A long-tail outside of Nai Harn bay
Not a bank robber, but a FRIENDLY Thai fisherman

The trip took 13 days 2 hours, much less than we had ever hoped for. We recorded our shortest 24-hour distance ever, 101 nm, and our slowest average speed for the whole trip, 4.8 kn, although the engine had been running for around 280 hours.

It will be interesting to see how the conditions between Male and Phuket develop during the following month. We know of a vessel who is waiting in Male right now for the prevailing pattern to change before they start on the same trip. They will be sailing more "by the book" than we did. We will soon find out if we also should have waited or if it would have made any difference at all.

Photo on the left: The Big Buddha overlooks Ao Chalong, the main anchorage at Phuket.

View the photos of this report as a (manual) slide show HERE.