Lightning storm at the Nicobars

Weather is fundamental to sailors. We used Weatherfax.

Through our SSB (HF) radio (long-range) at certain times of the day and night, we could dial up a frequency, link the laptop to the radio, and receive synoptic charts. Simple software that we downloaded from the Internet decoded the signal. Receiving free twelve, twenty-four, thirty-six, forty-eight and seventy-two-hour weather reports, while onboard and, in the middle of the ocean, was simply marvellous. There are stations all over the world that transmit these weather reports regularly, covering every inch of the ocean.


Receiving Weatherfaxes was a daily task and was usually in direct association with my internal weather system. When we were tossed and buffeted, I felt beaten. As the weather improved, I shifted from thoughts of selling the boat to designing a new vegetable rack. Viewing the complete picture on synoptic charts, we were sometimes anxious, but always ready.

En route to Sri Lanka, we passed through The Nicobars. The Nicobars are a collection of reefs and islands approximately one day’s sail out of Thailand. Regular navigation was imperative at these times. Underwater islands agitated the waters, odd currents swirled and larger waves could be found traversing these peculiarities of the sea. The underwater terrain made barriers for the ocean to churn around and flow over. In the middle of this area, a lightning storm scratched the sky, bringing sheets of rain as thick as ice.

Storm at sea

At midnight, my shift was coming to an end, just as the rain and lightning gathered full momentum. The pleasure of peeling off my wet weather gear and snuggling below in our warm, cosy, dry boat was short-lived. As I was about to slip into a warm-body-heated bunk, I looked out at Noel, double-checking that he was clipped on to the lifelines. We always wore our lifejackets and harness when in the cockpit or on deck. At that moment, the lightning cracked with an ear-splitting crescendo and the rain stepped up its onslaught. Noel sat in the cockpit, cloaked in full wet weather gear, arms folded, head down, plainly miserable. CRACK, another shot of lightning almost hit us.

‘Do you want me to stay up for a while?’

‘That’d be nice,’ Noel replied gratefully. Although I was desperate to sleep and hide from the storm’s onslaught, I knew I wouldn’t want to be left alone in these conditions.

We sat up together all night under the deluge of rain, huddling in a corner of the open cockpit with wet weather gear and Wellingtons our only protection. Thankfully, the wind did not kick up too much, but the walls of rain made keeping a lookout a struggle. Hugging tightly together, the lightning

consistently cracked and crashed around Mariah, toying with us. The boat’s outline was seared onto our retinas beneath our closed eyelids. We witnessed the fingers of electricity strike the water an arm’s length away from where we sat.

A lightning strike would be devastating. We could navigate with our sextant, but that was not easy. We liked our GPS; it made life simple. During the storm, our radios and GPSs had been disconnected and placed in the oven – our temporary Faraday’s cage. Our electronic steering gear was in use. We’d just have to hope the lightning didn’t find our mast. We felt like sitting ducks, teasing Mother Nature by waving a tantalising finger, our mast, in the air.

In our little huddle of fear, we thought, well, we’re either going to wake up or we’re not!

After a long night, as we peeled open our soggy eyes and tried to un-glue our bodies that had clung tightly together, we awoke to what felt like a movie set. Blue skies stretched into infinity, birds soared swiftly across the bow and the sea sparkled diamonds under the sun. Wrung-out with lack of sleep and hours of tense fear, we still managed to grin; we had survived!

It was necessary to reduce sail and slow down as we approached Sri Lanka. The winds had lifted their game and a favourable current had opted to give us a hand. That’s a real oddity about sailing: you can go too fast or too slow. Some harbours and ports need to be entered during the day. It isn’t always safe to enter in the dark, navigation lights and aids are often not kept up to date, or present at all! This means, at times, that we had to try to speed up or slow down to ensure we reached the port in daylight.

Another peculiarity is that you can slow down in good winds and favourable currents, only to find that the current and winds turn against you and suddenly you need to speed up. In our case, after slowing down the wind had then died, so we had to run the motor. Two days out of Sri Lanka, our fuel was getting low.

We were probably going to be okay, but didn’t want to take any risks; fortunately for us, we had caught up with our friends on Breakaway as they had been happy to travel around two knots and sail most of the way. Therefore, they had ample fuel. In the middle of the Indian Ocean we carried out a fuel/beer exchange. We manoeuvred Mariah alongside Breakaway and maintained a distance of about twenty feet to allow for the boats’ movements. Jamie threw over a rope, attached were two drums of fuel and some yummy homemade scones. We hauled in the line and attached half a dozen beers in a bag for them. Visiting islands meant trading at times; this was our first mid-ocean trade, though.

Typically, after we took on this fuel, we sailed the rest of the way and were able to give them back their entire fuel supply in port!

The last few nights into Sri Lanka were dark, the moon working her way up from a slither. I preferred full moon nights, but the dark nights held their own magic. The sequin-sewn carpet of black was breathtaking. Endless shooting stars helped me offload some of my wishes. Sighting satellites was easy. They’re like slow-moving stars, a remarkable feat of human ingenuity that astounds me every time I thought about it. During most trips, dolphins became part of our journey. At night, nearing Sri Lanka, we couldn’t see the dolphins themselves, but their outline in the green phosphorescence that ran off their backs and around their sides. So dark was the night and so bright the phosphorescence, that the dolphins appeared as shooting comets as they slipped through Mariah’s wake. The green, breathing torpedoes accompanied us for some time, relieving the monotony of the dark, lonely night.

glorious sunset

While sailing, we usually slept in the single bunks in the saloon. This is the centre of the boat and therefore a bit more stable than either end. In feisty weather, single bunks are better. A lee-cloth is used, which creates a cot, so you can’t fall out. When it’s really calm we can sleep in the v-berth, which is a double bed at the forepeak.

I was about to climb into the v-berth for a snooze when my nose curled at a really strong fish smell. Flying fish have wings, which give them flight to escape a predator. With the v-berth hatch open, a flying fish had flown into our bed and died. Fortunately, it was still relatively fresh and I was tired, so I just threw it out the hatch and plopped into bed. I briefly wondered how many people thought nothing of finding a dead fish in their bed.

These flying fish are incredible creatures. In the dead of night, all of a sudden you’d hear a thump, a brief pause then a rapid flap-flap-flap. Quite often the fishy smell would then assault your nostrils. I always tried to find the source of the flap as soon as possible. I couldn’t bear the thought of a little fish fighting for breath. Noel would catch them, cook them, and eat them.

Flying Fish
Flying Fish

The strong olfactory confirmation that a flying fish had landed on the deck was in good company of many other smells: the tangy brew of percolating coffee and the salty damp. Onions sizzling in the pan became a near-daily event on board, meal creativity started here. Sun-dried canvas evoked memories of summer holidays in our youth; the damp cotton cockpit cushions, penetrated by salt, never completely dried out.

Then there was the contrasting whiff of exhaust which encouraged sea-sickness, the sweet smell of freshly baked bread inspiring hunger. While travelling, we trolled a fishing line. This had been one hundred percent unsuccessful so far on the voyage, but apparently, as we approached the Red Sea fishing became better. The countries there are so busy fighting each other they had no time for fishing.

We heard it was expensive to stop here, in Sri Lanka, but we would never be sailing by again, plus we needed fuel. The northeast trade winds were supposed to be clipping us along by now, but there was no sign of them.

At 7:45 am we were sailing into Sri Lanka. It was cloudy and drizzling, just like good old English weather.

The dawn was beginning to break and the peacefulness was calming. I sat on the bow of the boat, watching the land grow bigger. I could smell the grass, one of my favourite smells. Land has a distinctly sweet and welcoming smell; Sri Lanka’s scent was strong, replacing the salt that had tickled our noses for the last nine days. I knew I was going to like it here. This was our first successful long ocean passage, and we were ecstatic.

At last, we were anchored safely in Gaulle harbour. Combating the heat and weariness after a journey, we organised all of the relevant paperwork to check-in. This took a whole day. The police, marine police, customs, immigration, and health were all armed and all unsmiling.

The boat was searched, although not too thoroughly, but it irritated me when they checked through personal letters, as if I’d hide a person in them. As usual, there was a fee for checking in plus taxes for this and that, which ran into hundreds of American dollars.

At this time, the Tamil Tigers were causing grief on the northern part of the island, which we were not permitted to visit. Due to the problems, every two hours throughout the night, bombs were let off in the anchorage. This was to prevent underwater attacks. We couldn’t help but jump when a few sounded far too close for comfort. We did manage to sleep though; curled up in our v-berth with the satisfaction of arriving safely into a new port.

At times, it was hard to comprehend that we had sailed into another country. The absurdity of our popping in to different countries on a regular basis and meeting people from all over the world was condensed in this extract of a letter by Noel, to his brother Colin, in Australia:

I’m sitting on a Kiwi built yacht, Mariah II, with a Pommie wife, next door to our new friends (we met in Borneo) who are Irish, in a harbour of Sri-Lankans. Jack’s playing a learn-to-speak-French tape while doing the dishes and repeating all these avoirs and merci’s etc. I tell you it’s enough to make me feel a little strange and disorientated. But most of the time I’m maintaining a balance of these absurdities, and with the help of the GPS I know where I am at, even if I can’t remember how I got here.

By some miracle, we are both still alive and not in hospital or lying in the side of the road or in jail for strangling our driver and beating him to a slow, fearful death. These guys are maniacs, our pleas of, ‘Slow down for chrissakes,’ went unheeded as they drove pedal to the metal, dodging pushbikes buses, ox towed carts, cows, elephants, and meandering pedestrians.

In between being scared to a frazzle, we saw an assortment of ruins from ancient periods in Ceylon’s past. When kings were kings and the people seemed to have only one passion in life: to stack bricks and stones in a pattern to their masters’ liking. All of course in the belief that, having been good little slaves, they would be reborn into a better life. Well, two thousand years later the majority of these workers are eating rice with their fingers and generally following tourists around. They are picking tealeaves, cleaning ruins, making carvings for tourists, living in hovels, crapping in holes in the ground and trying to sell something to a tourist. They don’t eat with the left hand as that hand has a specific use – there is no toilet paper (only a bucket of water if you’re lucky). Not exactly the promised Land, but hey, if they keep building temples and putting money in the donation boxes along the sides of the road (outside the temples), and if they don’t actually rob a tourist with a gun, well then they’ll definitely come back a better person and richer, no doubt, one day. Well you’ve got to believe in something as you dig mud, plant rice, and by and large, Buddhism seems a little kinder and peace-loving than most other religions.

Mostly, the countryside is lush and beautiful. Swaying coconut palms amid light-seeking tropical vegetation provided the spectator a vision of soft greens, romantic rice fields and oxen images. All of which camouflaged the blind beggars and open drains.

The majority of the population seemed healthy enough, bright eyes flashing, white teeth, and lean muscled bodies, putting us fat puffing whities to shame. Then there are the elephants; there are flocks of them, a positive gaggle of elephants. The elephant orphanage, free to the local public, foreigners pay 150 rupees (about five Australian dollars and fifty cents) to enter and view the animals. The orphanage was set up to accommodate any elephant that decided to start stomping on a few heads. Apparently, they tend to start head stomping when the said heads chop and burn down their forest homes. Elephants like foliage, mobs of it, elephants also like water, lakes of it. Little heads, supported on spindly legs tend to clear the forest foliage and plant gardens and rice. They clear

(drain) the lakes and plant rice. The elephants think, ‘Okay, we’ll eat the gardens and wallow in the rice paddies.’ The little heads start yelling, shooting and poking the elephants with sticks. The elephants think, ‘Okay, I’m going to stomp on your little head.’ The little heads talk to all the other little heads and gather even more little heads with guns and trucks and herd the remaining surviving elephants into the compounds. They feed them palm leaves, chain them to the ground for photos, charge the white heads admission, and sell carvings of the elephants. The white heads pay for the carvings. The timber comes from the cleared forests. The elephants are still thinking about this, but a general plan involving considerable head stomping is being formulated. Elephants think for a long time…


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