Top o’ the mornin to ye

001 degrees 42.9’N 110 degrees 19.4’E Anchored in Santubong River, near Kuching, Sarawak

Nine weeks and 1,200 miles after I left Santubong and I’m back in Santubong. Huh? This time on Gillaroo, a 48ft Irish-registered catamaran, with Tyrone, Chris, Hugo and the ghosts of Henry and Morgan the egrets.
After finally seeing the elephants up the Kinabatangan river, Steve and I made for Semporna, on the south-east coast of Sabah, to restock with food, diesel and water before going to the dive mecca of Sipadan and Mabul.
We made a slightly illegal stop at Sibutu, just over the border in the Philippines, expecting a deserted coral atol but finding instead a massive water village in the middle of nowhere, where we became the entertainment for the locals, who came over by the boatload just to watch us sitting in our cockpit, snorkelling and even showering. What a fascinating sight that must have been. Semporna was a crazy, crazy place centred around a large wet market, with all kinds of fish – stingray tail, anyone? – fruit and vegetables and a crazy bus station of a boat dock with locals coming over from the nearby stilt villages to celebrate Hari Raya, the end of Ramadan, all dressed up in their finest polyester silk tunics for the occasion.
We spent a week in Mabul with Greg and Debs from Southern Cross and Nic, a French dive photographer who has just had his second book of stunning images published. Steve went to dive Sipadan, rated one of the best dive spots in the world and with a limit of 120 divers a day. Greg and Debs got me over my fear of snorkelling and I was soon chasing turtles off the 35m drop off, spotting rosettes of nudibranch eggs swaying in the current and moving away pretty sharpish from a venomous banded sea snake I saw on the bottom.
We made friends with the management of the Scuba Junkie dive complex on Mabul Island and became regulars at their bar, polishing off quite a bit of lethal Tanduay Filipino rum, which cost RM10 a bottle (two pounds sterling) and had me seeing double.
One particularly drunken evening, some rum-induced home truths and a 25-year-old West Virginian later I was feeling sorry for myself, with a bit of a sore head, when I received an email from Tyrone, who is taking three years to circumnavigate in his catamaran he built himself and was looking for crew to replace someone leaving in Sandakan. So I hopped on a bus and six numbed bum hours later found myself back at Sandakan Yacht Club meeting Tyrone, and Katharine, who was leaving after six months on board. Tyrone is 52 and was building canoes in Ireland before he built Gillaroo. The other crew are Hugo, 19, on his gap year from New Zealand who will leave us in Singapore to go back to his studies, and Chris, 25, travelling after being fired from his mining job in the States.
I’ve never sailed on a catamaran before but it seems to be pretty similar, except we have to take the foresails or spinnaker down if we want to gybe because we’re square at the front rather than pointed, something I keep forgetting. There is tons of space below – the bed in my cabin is a normal double size, I have wardrobes (note the plural) and plenty of room to stand. The best thing is the lack of heeling over, so a drink stays where you put it on the table. But going into the wind is quite a bit bouncier than on a monohull and as we only weigh 5 tonnes we have to be careful not to overdo it. We’ve been doing about 8 knots today and the highest speed Tyrone has seen her do is 18kts.
The plan is to sail to Singapore, Thailand, Sri Lanka, the Red Sea and through the Mediterranean in nine months. Compare that to me sailing about a third of the coast of Borneo in two months. Only a few days after I joined we set off on a five-day passage to Kuching, our last stop before Singapore. My first solo night watch and we were surrounded by lightning storms and saw forked lighting hit the water dead ahead of the boat. “What will happen if we’re hit by lightning?” Hugo asked. “It’d fry the electrics and I can’t afford to replace them so it’d probably mean the end of the trip,” Tyrone said. “Or it might kill someone.” Great! We rigged up the conductor plate and by the end of my watch, three hours later, the danger seemed to have passed.
En route to Kuching two egrets landed on deck for a rest. We named them Henry and Morgan, after the captain’s rum. They stayed with us for two days and became part of the Gillaroo crew for a while, Henry turning his head into the wind as well as any windex and Morgan clambering all over the sheets. Henry shuffled off quietly after the two egrets had a fight; Morgan, having successfully claimed his ground, hung around for another day before collapsing at dawn and being consigned to a watery grave in the South China Sea after giving Chris one last beady look. RIP Morgan. You’ll be missed – but your poop certainly won’t.)
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