004 degrees 35′ 60 N 118 degrees 43′ 26 E
Before I decided to quit my life in London and go and hitch hike my way around the world on boats, I thought I had a reasonable amount of yachting experience under my belt. I’d done a few flotilla holidays in the Med, raced around the cans off Brighton through the bitter cold of an English winter and skipped across the Atlantic ocean in a stripped down 68ft Clipper. Living on a luxury yacht in the tropical waters of Borneo? Piece of piss, surely? Not quite.
I’ve been cruising for approaching two months now and I still haven’t quite adapted to the lifestyle fully. The itinerary was Borneo, Philippines, Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, New Zealand. Before I left the UK, people asked me how long it would be before I got to NZ. I didn’t really know so I guessed between two and four months. My only reference point for long-distance sailing was my Clipper Atlantic crossing, which took nine days from Canada to Ireland. Two months later and I’m still in Borneo and I’ve only really seen a couple of places in Sarawak and a fair amount in Sabah, and that’s forgetting about Indonesian Kalimantan, which makes up about three-quarters of the island. Travelling happens slooowly when you’re a yachtie.
Yachties are a little subset of society that would fascinate an anthropologist. They can most easily be recognised by their floating homes, with or without sails, that they only take to a marina if they absolutely cannot avoid it, for example if their engine completely fails and they can’t botch fix it themselves. Their second main characteristic is the colour of their skin, which is most cases was originally white but is now a leathery brown colour. Similarly, their hair, whether it be on their heads, eyebrows, arms or bellies, is bleached a distinctive yellow colour by the sun. The same sun has faded all of their clothes to grey, which have been ripped across the bum and hip area by bits of rigging, and the soles of their feet have been hardened to leather by the burning hot decks. Their favoured diet is Western food, and they will spend days hunting out cheese and bread suppliers in local towns and boasting of their treasures to other yachties. Their other must-have is cases of beer, which they struggle to locate in Muslim Malaysia, so they have developed a cunning sixth sense for sniffing out which Chinese-run shop or restaurant will sell them an illegal case or two round the back and, while they’re at it, flog them a packet of haram sausages and a few slices of bacon at the same time.
Yes, the yachtie surely is a wily creature who eschews land-based culture and instead follows the yachtie code. This involves getting up before dawn, making their own bread and yoghurt, the latter from sacred cultures passed on from boat to boat, sailing through the morning, stopping for a swim or a snorkel, trawling fishing lines daily but rarely catching anything, dropping anchor in a bay mid-afternoon (the co-ordinates of which have been sourced from a yachtie friend of a friend who was given them by an American cruising couple who picked them up from a yacht club somewhere), having another snorkel, popping over to another yacht for a sundowner (usually a beer or a G&T encased in a stubbie holder, or condom, as they are affectionately known in Thailand), heading back for a home cooked meal and then bed by 10pm.
In between all that there’s fixing of all the things that invariably break or go wrong all the time, and scratching around for phone or internet connection to get in touch with family and friends back home or order replacement parts for the most recent thing that’s bust.
Most yachties I’ve met since I’ve been over here have been British couples in their 50s or older, who have decided to spend the kids’ inheritance and live out the (usually) husband’s dream by buying a boat. This seems to be the bulk of the stories, but it varies slightly with the odd French or Dutch boat, a couple in their 40s or a lone boat owner who takes paying passengers as his source of income. Most people I’ve spoken to have rented out their houses back home and often end up cruising for longer than they first planned – one couple, David and Juliet, have been at sea for 16 years.
So far, I think I’ve managed to avoid being converted into a fully-fledged yachtie. For one thing, the pace feels too slow for me. Unlike David and Juliet, I haven’t got the funds (or the boat, either) to spend 16 years at sea, so I’m anxious to see as much of the world as possible in the year or so that my money lasts for. I still crave stopping at marinas and towns, so that I can easily hop on and off the boat, rather than going through the rigmarole of lowering the dinghy, motoring over to a dock, dropping the anchor and tying the boat away from the spiky poles they always seem to provide. But I have adopted the yachties’ slightly snobbish attitude towards normal tourists, my skin is browner than it has ever been, my hair blonder and I am drinking a lot more beer than I ever used to. I find the lack of wind in Borneo frustrating but the calm conditions give me chance to learn lots of new skills – I now know how to siphon (handy if I ever need to steal petrol), clean black streaks off topsides, polish and wax stanchions, climb a mast (scary – see above!), bake bread, make yoghurt, get a dinghy to plane, spot reefs under the water and con my way through them, plot a route on an electric chart, use an auto helm, decorate a lure, navigate a river with no chart information, swim with fins, identify various fish and corals, push to the front of a queue without feeling guilty, cool down in crocodile-infested waters by turning a dinghy into a bath/swimming pool, and, most importantly, understand when a cat is saying “I’m hungry” or “I want to play” and also “Leave me the fuck alone”.