Kaptain's Blog

The writings and musings of The Kaptain

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Majapahit Temples Of Trowulan (Mojokerto)

On a free day we took the opportunity to tour some of the relics of the Majapahit Kingdom. These candis (or “temples”) varied in nature, from those that were still being dug out of the earth, through foundation stones (or umpak) sunk at intervals into the soil, to fully renovated monuments. Each site was unique, although it was evident they somehow formed a “whole”.

We began in the village of Jati Pasar, Trowulan district, which is home to Candi Wringin Lawang. A large open gate, reminiscent of those found in Bali, this candi is so named because of the large banyan tree that grows nearby. (In Javanese, Wringin = banyan; Lawang = gate.) At the height of the Majapahit era, Wringin Lawang would have formed an entrance into a complex of buildings in this part of the city.

Candi Wringin Lawang

Still in the district of Trowulan we next visited Candi Tikus, situated in the village of Temon. In the Javanese language (as in bahasa Indonesia itself), “tikus” means mouse, or rat. Legend has it that the locals discovered the site when digging out a large rats’ nest, which is how this candi got its modern name. Sunk into the ground and consisting of a moat surrounding a central structure, Candi Tikus is a representation of the sacred Mount Mahameru. When fully functioning, the “source of life” was once symbolised by the water running through its stone.

Candi Tikus

To reach our next destination we skirted Kolam Segaran, a man made lake whose dimensions are 375m by 175m. During the Majapahit era the lake was used to entertain visiting dignitaries. Picnics were held on its banks and there were perahu to take the guests out on to the water. It is said that after each feast the plates and cutlery – often fashioned from silver – were discarded in the lake in a show of prosperity. It is also believed there was a palace nearby, although its exact location is disputed. Allegedly the paranormal can “see” where the cornerstones are laid, although aerial and other surveys have revealed no tangible evidence of this.

Also situated in Temon village, Candi Bajang Ratu takes its name from a King who was never crowned. Built in the 14th century to commemorate the death of Jayanegara, it is another example of a gate, though not fully open. The “wings” of the candi symbolise the “releasing of the soul”.

Candi Bajang Ratu

In Sentonorejo village we saw the 14 umpak of what was once a large, balé-style building (an open platform, or stage, with pillars leading to a thatched roof). It was here that plays would be enacted and other forms of entertainment offered to visiting dignitaries. Close by, we clambered over the ongoing dig at Candi Kedaton, where we were shown the skeletal remains of an adult male, unearthed at the site. The length of the femur and tibia/fibula, as well as the large skull, suggested that the people of this era were both tall and well-built.

We drove to the next site, situated in Bejijong village. Candi Brahu appeared to be modelled on the shape of a woman. It was interesting also that the “gate” was closed at the back. According to historical records, it was here that the cadavers of dead Kings were burned, although no physical evidence of this has ever been uncovered.

Candi Brahu

Our final stop was at Candi Minak Jinggo, another ongoing dig that has been stalled due to insufficient funding. It is so named because a large statue of a face bearing wings was discovered at the site, which the locals associated with the mythical warrior, Minak Jinggo. The statue itself is now on display in the National Museum in Jakarta.

posted by Kirk at 11:59 am  

Monday, September 5, 2011

Slow Train To Mojokerto

We stood on the platform at Gambir station looking down upon the Immanuel Church, built in 1839 in the heart of the world’s most populous Muslim nation.

Bhinneka Tunggal Ika: “Unity In Diversity”, goes the saying.

I had once lived in ibukota Jakarta, for eight years in what now seems another lifetime. But this was the first time I would ride one of her trains. We were travelling to Mojokerto, in Java’s east. Boarding was less chaotic than expected: I’d previously seen television footage of the platform jostling and all-round railway station mayhem that accompanied the ritual of mudik (or pulang kampung – literally: “return to village”).

During Lebaran, the period that follows Eid ul-Fitr, hundreds of thousands if not millions of city workers return to their villages of origin in order to participate in the annual family reunion. It is here that they seek their parents’ forgiveness for any shortcomings or sins – past, present and future.

Mohon ma’af lahir dan batin (“please forgive me, body and soul”).

Fortunately, we’d managed to precede the peak of the exodus from the capital by a couple of days. As a result, the ritual scrum was nothing more than a brushed shoulder here or there. We settled into our reasonably comfortable seats in what was a clean carriage and awaited the start of our twelve-hour journey. Being someone that always wants to be somewhere else, I was excited at the prospect.

The driver honked the train’s impressive horn with authority and we pulled away on schedule: the first example of Swiss timing I’d ever experienced in this country, which is better known for jam karet (“rubber time”). As we clanked our way over the sleepers, gradually picking up speed, I was reminded from this elevated angle of some of the districts I used to frequent: Menteng, Cikini, Manggarai, Jatinegara, Cakung, Bekasi… In the fading light we were slowly making our way east out of the great traffic-choked metropolis.

Indonesian flags, the merah-putih, were hung from almost every building along route. Already a week after Independence Day, they were still fluttering proudly in the evening breeze, a symbol of national pride. I reflected on whether the same scene would be played out in my own country, were we to hold our own National Day. Having witnessed the scenes of rioting, looting and gratuitous violence that were broadcast to the world from England barely two weeks earlier, I doubted it.

Further east we clattered and rocked, past wall-to-wall housing of irregular height and no planning, interrupted only by the narrow perpendicular roads that were crammed with a thousand revving motorcycles waiting to cross the tracks after our passage. Past corrugated iron shanty whose roofs were held down by loose rocks, in front of which burning piles of rubbish turned the setting sun red. Where still the merah-putih flapped in the occasional waft of smoke-filled wind. Past the wide drainage canals that were clogged with refuse and the occasional open area of red earth, where rabbles of children played makeshift games of football while others lounged on sofas that had once been indoors, as they waited for Maghrib and the breaking of fast. Past the occasional neat square of paddy, watched over by a solitary soul, squatting, and where multicoloured flags had been thrust into the marshland at intervals to ward off marauding emprit (a type of bird). And finally, at dusk, past a single, detached hut constructed of cardboard and wood that was in all likelihood bereft of water or electricity, where a woman was stood bent over a fire outside, poking it, and where still the merah-putih flew.

Not for the first time, I wondered what it took to govern such a country, and how such loyalty was conjured.

Across the plains of Java we rattled, passing Cirebon… It grew dark and the adzan was broadcast over the train’s tannoy. All around came the rustling of plastic and the ping of elastic bands releasing greaseproof paper wrappings as meals that had been prepared at home or purchased at the station were hurriedly disgorged and devoured. The carriage fell silent as everyone took in some much needed sustenance. Within minutes a low hubbub had returned as the weary travellers, bellies full and now lounging like pampered cats, chatted idly about the next instalments in what would prove an overnight feast of which Henry VIII might have boasted. There were several stops along the way, with each offering its own regional speciality as food vendors boarded the end-of-carriage gangways to ply their trade. “Sale pisang! Sale! Sale!” yelled the first of these as we stopped in Purwokerto. (Pronounced “salay”, this is a sweet snack made from dried bananas). “Getuk goreng! Getuk goreng!” called another. (Mashed cassava, deep fried.) On through the night we trundled to a familiar rhythm. “Gudeg!” came the cry in Tugu Yogyakarta (sweet young jackfruit soup). Then past Solobalapan to Madiun… where “Pecel Madiun!”, a selection of vegetables enwrapped in banana leaf, seemed to attract the most custom. Finally, the imsya’ was broadcast, signalling the start of the new day’s fast, when most settled down for a bit of shut-eye.

Nganjuk, Kertosono, Jombang…

Having read Bruce Chatwin’s gem “Why Am I Here” throughout the journey, I was just dropping off when, at around five a.m., we reached our destination. There aren’t many transport options from Mojokerto railway station at this time of the morning, particularly during Ramadan, but fortunately I was in the hands of my capable brother-in-law who quickly organised a fleet of becaks. A becak (the ‘c’ is pronounced ‘ch’) is a variation on a bicycle rickshaw, the difference being that the passenger sits in front while the “grunt” is applied from behind. Push rather than pull, in other words. Normally the passenger seat (there is no compartment as such) is good for two, even three: I had trouble squeezing into mine on my own. Off we set in near darkness in our unlit “vehicles” in convoy. “Aku mati!” (“I’m dying!”) yelled my guy to his comrades in reference, no doubt, to my bulk. But it was a pleasant journey in the pre-dawn breeze of this provincial East Java town. That is until we came to a main thoroughfare where two large trucks crossed quite close in front of us and we had to thread our way into what was, even at this hour, reasonably lively traffic. Before long, however, we’d arrived at the family home to a traditionally warm welcome where I was shown to a room and told to rest while some perfunctory maintenance was carried out on its ageing aircon unit.

I slept all day.

posted by Kirk at 5:06 am  

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Streets Of Ba-ha-rain

Much of the accommodation in Ba-ha-rain is in the form of houses contained within neatly manicured compounds:

Typical housing, shot through the window of an apartment:

A bridge linking islands:

Check out the apparent size of the sun in this shot:

Most of Ba-ha-rain’s reclaimed land looks like this:

posted by Kirk at 12:39 am  

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Desert Island Dishdash (2)

It’s the first time I’ve been shown where the emergency exits are by a man dressed as a chef. Once airborne, it’s the first time, too, that I can ever recall being offered soup as a starter on a plane. Quite unusual, as well – minted pea, with the accent on mint. It’s served up restaurant style, in a bowl that nestles atop not one but two different-sized plates. For the main course I choose the Arabic chicken dish, which Karl serves with what I assume is some kind of traditional Maltese flourish. The chicken is stuffed with dates, of all things, and I make a mental note of all the other ingredients on the plate: parmesan polenta, roasted zucchini, courgette, yellow and green peppers, plus some capers and chopped raw onions. When was the last time you saw such an eclectic mixture of ingredients tossed together in one meal?

As the old A340’s electric seat motors begin buzzing noisily all around me, it’s time for the ‘International Cheese Selection’, which comprises – somewhat disappointingly – of an agreeably pungent soft French number on the one hand, ‘complemented’ by what can only be described as a Dutch version of Bridgestone slicks on the other. What transports the platter beyond borderline affrontery is the generous offering of fresh figs. A rare treat, and reminder of the region to which we are headed. By way of accompaniment, a rather fine South African Shiraz also pleases.

“Fasten ze zeatbelt,” barks a rather nervy-looking Yulia, who hails, it turns out, from Sochi in Southern Russia. “Ve are eggzperienzing tubbulence. Ve don’t know how much. Vould you like to fill in ze in-flight-cuztomer-zatizfaction-zurvey?” Once again, I’m handed the dreaded paperwork just as – ping! – the fasten seatbelt signs, which have been illuminated for the past hour, are extinguished. By comparison, how switched on were you, Yulia? I think to myself.

The airport is clean and efficient. I get forty-four Ba-ha-raini Dinars for the thousand Hong Kong Dollars I pass to the currency exchange staffer, which starts me wondering what to tip here without breaking the bank each time. As expected from the news I was given while the plane was still on Manila tarmac, my luggage doesn’t arrive. “It’s OK,” the Gulf Air ground representative gleefully informs. “It’ll be here on the next flight. Arriving at 10:30 this evening. You can pick it up then.” Thanks, I think. But I’ll be in the bar by then. If there are such things here, I correct myself.

Dusk is already falling by five-thirty, and the call of the muezzin can be heard. The temperature is pleasant; the combination of this and late afternoon’s fading light a reminder that I have flown North, as well as West. In the summer it can climb above 50 degrees Celsius here, but for now the palms are swaying in a soft, almost Mediterranean, breeze. A routine inspection of my room reveals that the minibar contains just two bottles of mineral water – once again, I’m in a mild panic. What if…? But a cursory glance at the hotel facilities brochure appeases: the Bellevue Bar opens daily from six till midnight. Bismillah! I’m joined by an old friend from my days in Jakarta, who tells me that this particular bar is famous for its Pina Coladas. Three of the creamy shakes later, I have to agree with him: I’m already feeling at home, and comfortably numb.

Next day, we tour around town in his arctic white 6.2 litre Chevrolet tank: “The only kind of vehicle you want in this place,” my friend asserts, in his Minnesota drawl. He recounts a story he once read in the local newspaper about a government vehicle – all sinister black bodywork and windows – which, parked without shade, self-ignited one day. We drive out near the airport to the reclaimed land on which his house is built – a moonscape of heat and dust. What will this place look like in ten years’ time? I wonder. A canary yellow Maserati is having its tank filled as we stop at the petrol station – as I look down from my seat in the tank I can’t help chuckling at the sight of its two Dishdashed occupants: they remind me somehow of Ray Winstone as the viagra-altered Sheikh Me-Cory in the film Love, Honour & Obey. But I’ll get used to it, I know.

On to our final destination before I’m due to return to the airport and, ultimately, Hong Kong: the tackily-named Ric’s Kountry Kitchen – a redneck, Texas oil-man type of bar, complete with Country & Western muzak. Three very agreeable pints of Carlsberg Ice, a gigantic, child-size portion of cheeseburger and chips and a glass of Jägermeister later and we’re out of the place where by now I’ve scrawled my name on the bar.

Oh yeah… I’m getting to like it here, all right…

posted by Kirk at 10:13 pm  

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Desert Island Dishdash (1)

Taking to the skies again, I’m transported on the wings of a green and silver Cathay bird in the direction of Manila – an unlikely bearing to take from its Hong Kong eyrie, given that my ultimate destination is the desert island Kingdom known as Ba-ha-rain.

[For a glimpse of the place, click here: ba-ha-rain.jpg]

Landing on the provincial airstrip that passes for an international transportation hub in this volatile Wild East city, I am ushered with surprising efficiency to the bizclass lounge to be reunited with the creamy cheese pimiento sandwiches I remember from the days, in the early nineties of the last century, when I visited The Philippines regularly.

And there are other flashbacks, too. At almost the same instant my butt brushes the tatty, faux-leather sofa, a woman approaches me and offers a massage. No, not right there in front of the rest of the bizclass elite, but presumably in some near-distant chamber at the end of a dark and snaking corridor. That’s usually where it happens, anyway. I wave her away politely and return to my sandwich. The waiting staff are wonderfully willing, and soon an appropriately home pour strength gin and tonic is placed carefully to one side of the sandwich plate.

Christ! [Urgent note to self: reset reflex exclamation to Bismillah! or suchlike.] I realise that my passport and ticket were taken by the girl-with-the-walkie-talkie who brought me here. That’s right: the one I’d never met before, didn’t take much notice of when I did, and would now have little chance of picking out in any identity parade. I recall her muttering something like “Fetch boarding pass”, but I’m suddenly panicking. What if…? Thank God for Gilbey’s gin to quell the unease. [Will stick to the Christian moniker for the Almighty on this occasion, for reasons that will be obvious.]

As I continue to wait, nervously, the words: “You do not seem to have the correct/any – delete as appropriate – travel documentation, Sir” swimming through the currents of my mind, a group of thuggish men wearing Raybans and airport identification tags sweeps suddenly into the lounge. The surly officers from the Ministry of Dark Glasses bark aggressively, instilling fear among the hapless servants. Within moments, the bizclass buffet is substantially raided and their plates piled high with snacks, before they disappear off into a nearby canteen to gorge themselves on my sandwiches, while watching football. Some things, I say to myself, will never change.

A big sigh as the girl-with-the-walkie-talkie reappears with passport, eticket and boarding pass all intact. Bismillah! Time for another Gilbey’s, in celebration. I raise my glass and silently curse the ruffian marauders from the MoDG.

The flight is called and I move through the gate to board Gulf Air 155 to the Kingdom of Ba-ha-rain. The alphanumeric “1H” stamped on my boarding pass has a nice ring to it, but the first real sensation I experience upon entering what was, before such things became unaffordable, a first class cabin is the smell of the chemical toilet, situated right in front of my seat. This is, then, a very old Airbus indeed. Bismillah! “You ken put your stuff up zere,” instructs Julia – Yulia? – my Russian stewardess. Her accent is strikingly similar to that of Frau Blücher, a character from the Mel Brooks film Young Frankenstein. And so rather than offer me a glass of champagne I expect her, any moment, to say: “Vould you like a glass of varm milk…? Ovaltine…?” But she does neither, and instead I have a choice of juice or water. I take the latter, fooling myself that it will somehow help counterbalance the 800 units of alcohol I’ve imbibed since that first Bloody Mary in the Cathay lounge at eight o’clock this morning.

Out of nowhere, the Arabic writing that is scrawled liberally across the TV monitors, the illuminated lavatory signs and pretty much everywhere else in the cabin sends a somewhat startling subliminal message sparking along the strands of the few remaining neurotransmitters in my brain: There’s a possibility, old son, that this flight is going to be dry… But my sudden horror at the thought is assuaged as Maltese Karl, who introduces himself as my ‘chef’ for the flight, offers me the drinks list which, upon scrutiny, reveals itself to contain a range of satisfyingly New World wines.

A second Midnight Express moment of the day then manifests itself, quite suddenly. “Mr. Austin?” says the voice of the man who has appeared silently by my side. Were my thoughts back there in the bizclass lounge somehow picked up on some secret MoDG monitoring equipment? I look up in trepidation. “I’m sorry to tell you that we haven’t yet received your luggage from Cathay,” he continues, to an expression that is a mixture of dejection and relief. “It’s not likely to make the flight.”

Great, I think.

posted by Kirk at 1:44 am  

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Frivolity On The Bounty

The sight of ropes being thrown from pierside to the waiting deckhands signalled that we were about to depart. Standing on the deck of this wooden three-master, gin and tonic in hand, the incongruity of the glass towers along Central District’s waterfront suddenly struck me. Built in 1979 to star in the fifth movie of its infamous mutiny, the replica of Captain Bligh’s ill-fated HMAV Bounty then slid quietly through the oily waters of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour in pursuit of one of nature’s gifts: the setting sun, which lay essentially due West.

In the heavy afternoon air we chased the fiery orb as it radiated a hazy glow, its rays refracted through layers of polluted atmosphere. Northeast monsoon winds this chilly autumn day had once more played gracious host to an unruly guest, carrying with them trails of noxious gases: a by-product of southern China’s unscrupulous – but equally unstoppable – industrial machine. Bellowed constantly from the world’s factory, clouds of the antisocial miasma were again obscuring Earth’s star to the extent that it resembled an orange buoy floating in a grey sea of gloom. The filtering effect of the smog was sufficient to permit the human eye to stare at it directly, lingering without damage or pain. As we continued to lose our race against sunset, I paused for a moment’s quiet reflection upon how different the setting would have been had the real Bounty sailed through this harbour in 1789, whilst on her fateful journey East.

Passing close to starboard, the roar of a high-speed Macau ferry’s jet engines jolted me back to the present and I instinctively raised an arm to wave at no-one I could see through its darkly tinted windows. The gamblers within were, in any event, most likely engrossed in their first game of paper Mahjong, long before reaching the glitzy, Vegas-inspired casinos established recently in the former Portuguese colony. Not for them, then, the sheer romance of a square-rigger. Back on the deck of the Bounty, the breeze was beginning to freshen, but the alcohol was warming my insides. And as we continued to make way, the sixty guests of the generous shareholders of Lantau Island’s finest bar – Hemingway’s By The Bay – were continuously plied with free-flowing cocktails while munching through a spread of tasty nibbles. The fall of darkness then heralded a new perspective of the vessel’s stunning rigging, comprising scores of ropes arranged in an exact replication of the original. Clever lighting from beneath enabled a perfect view of this elaborate web of shrouds, stays and braces that trailed upwards to meet Bounty’s fighting tops.

A brief survey below decks provided the only source of disappointment during what was otherwise an enchanting experience. With a fair amount of plywood on view it seemed the careful attention to detail that had ensured her external authenticity had not been applied equally to the interior of Bounty’s hull. Expecting to be impressed by chartrooms, a mock-up, perhaps, of a typical eighteenth-century galley and surely a smattering of some historic memorabilia, we were instead treated to a tour of what can only be described as a stainless steel kitchen and some sparsely furnished rooms. Even the ‘great cabin’ – which on the original vessel had been converted to house potted breadfruit plants – was bereft of any real character, consisting of just a few rudimentary benches plus a deep ledge across the full beam of the stern. What role, I found myself asking, had these quarters played during the filming of Dino Di Laurentiis’ classic 1984 version of the historical drama for which this replica had been commissioned? The only possibility was that it had served as a home to members of the make-up team and other auxiliary crew, I decided.

Climbing up the steep stairwell to emerge back on deck, it was evident that this first anniversary party of our bar of choice was in full swing. To a man, the tipsy revellers were indulging not only in spirits, but perhaps imbibing the soul of Bounty herself. Then, after charitably expressing their gratitude for our loyal patronage, Hemingway’s management team continued to lead the festivities as we made our return to this magnificent vessel’s newly established port d’attache of Discovery Bay. The wine flowed freely and we danced to the familiar sounds of Caribbean reggae, so often enjoyed whilst sitting in the bar itself. Under the influence of a few glasses too many there were even one or two who were bold enough to contemplate scaling this classic three-master’s rigging – perhaps in defiance of challenges that had been left behind in the glass towers from which we had earlier escaped, but that were still refusing to back down. On further reflection, these foolhardy ideas were thankfully abandoned – a fear of futtocks, perhaps? – to be replaced by yet more concentrated bingeing.

So it was frivolity – and not mutiny – that had taken place on the Bounty today.

And it had been a privilege.


posted by Kirk at 3:42 am  

Saturday, November 24, 2007

A Glimpse Of Heaven – Soko’s Transit From Subic Bay To Hong Kong

Our position was 18°N, 116°E when the dolphins visited, their juvenile play around Soko’s bow at once uplifting and humbling. Six or seven of these stunning creatures sped effortlessly alongside the hull, accelerating on occasion to leap ahead of the yacht and tease her bow, before veering away. 150 miles into our journey, the crew of six welcomed this playful incursion and wished the pod had stayed longer. The 580 nautical mile transit from Subic Bay in the Philippines to Soko’s home port of Hong Kong had begun the previous day when, after stowing aboard ample provisions, we set off at around 1100. Initial winds were unfavourable and we laboured to round the promontory. Before long, though, we were making over six knots on a steady course over ground of 320°. But in mid-afternoon we saw dead ahead on the horizon the black sky of a major storm system and knew at once that we would be experiencing some interesting sailing over the hours to come.

As we neared the storm it became clear that there were two systems, each of considerable width. The larger was dead ahead, the other 25° to port. With no opportunity of rounding either, the decision was made to head for the gap between them, despite the knowledge that they appeared to be converging. There were few, if any, real options. A considerable amount of lightning was active, right across the horizon’s span and as a precaution we laid an anchor chain along the full length of the deck, wrapping it around the backstay before trailing it in the water astern. Coming closer, we witnessed from a distance of perhaps two miles the formation of a waterspout at 20° to port, which seemed to grow from top and bottom before joining in the middle. By now there was lightning at every point of the compass and the wind was gusting at up to 35 knots, although surprisingly there was little rain. The six crewmembers remained calm throughout, in the knowledge that informed decisions had been made and every possible precaution taken. There was a philosophical acceptance that whatever happened next was a matter for fate to decide. Happily, our number in this dark lottery did not come up and after an hour or so – it is hard to keep an accurate track of time in such circumstances – we knew we were through the worst. Looking aft at the receding blackness as we continued on our way a silent, conciliatory electric storm played out horizontally in the clouds, as if in tribute to the survivors.

The oppressive heat over the next few days saw us huddling together under Soko’s awning to avoid the scorching sun. These quieter moments gave opportunity to reflect that the art of sailing may be thought of as lying in the alchemy of a number of sciences – the nature of the vessel and characteristics of her hull; sea conditions; wind and weather among them. Then also what is perhaps the least tangible component, which might be termed ‘sail science’ – but something, in fact, that is more of an art. For throughout Soko’s 90-hour transit the crew wasted no opportunity to adjust the mainsail or tweak the jib, seeking always to capture the most of what was offered by the winds, whether moderate or strong, and coming from aft or on the port beam. At around 1830 on day two we were treated to a spectacle that may only be witnessed at sea, where the broadest of all panoramas provides an uninterrupted view of the breadth and depth of nature’s finest exhibition – sunset. On this occasion not the textbook orb dipping with increasing pace into an azure sea, but beautiful in its lack of orthodoxy, nonetheless. A huge black thunderhead rose up in the foreground with layers of nimbus, alto and cirrus nestling above. A range of blue hues surrounded these clouds, themselves backlit by the dramatic orange fire of the sun. The whole composition appeared at once to leap towards us in 3D, projecting as if a page from a child’s pop-up book, opened momentarily for us to view. But within seconds, the vitality of the image was sadly gone: the book closed, its illustration flat again. Our glimpse of heaven was over for now, perhaps to return tomorrow. Then, in the silence of the night and under the reflected light of a nearly full moon, Soko seemed to produce a music of its own – the creaking of its halyards and sheets creating a discordant sirensong, calling those on watch to stay vigilant. The ‘three on, six off’ system meant that night and day were no longer relevant, the only matter of importance being preparation for one’s next stint in the cockpit. It was vital to ensure that enough rest had been taken to remain sharp throughout. The watch partners were staggered like bricks laid in a wall, meaning each would have two associates – one replacing the other – during each watch. They would swap anecdotes or snack on high energy food bars (and, as a special treat, a limited supply of some truly sensational Philippine pineapples!) in order to comply with the siren’s haunting appeals for continued vigilance.

Next day, a ‘letterbox’ rainbow hung in the sky – a strange apparition that was content to float, cloud-like, without seeking earth at either end. By now we were approaching the busy shipping lanes where tankers, container ships and other large vessels ply their trade, meaning that extra attentiveness was required – particularly at night. On one occasion a fishing vessel lying about a mile dead ahead made a series of movements that were at first hard to interpret. As we neared her it appeared she had been mapping out the extent of her nets, where small auxiliary boats were attending each extreme. Another time, nearer to Hong Kong, a large vessel was cruising at night a mile off our port beam showing no navigation lights at all. From the row of windows running the length of her hull we presumed she was a cruise ship, or perhaps a floating casino. For two days now we had been trailing a lure in the hope of catching a tuna or other fish large enough to eat, which we planned to do raw, sashimi-style. Our patience was finally rewarded when a brilliantly-coloured fish took the bait and we hauled its vivid green and yellow body on board. It appeared to be a young dorado, too small to feed six grown men, and so we gave it another chance at life, tossing it back into the sea. Perhaps in repayment for this gesture we were subsequently treated to the arrival of another pod of dolphins, larger this time, advancing on the starboard beam. Their amazing speed of movement as they leapt and ducked towards us gave them the appearance of a predator pack from prehistory – a marine Jurassic Park, perhaps. This pod was clearly on a mission and did not stay with us for long, teasing us for just a short while before continuing on its way, in the original direction. It was suppertime in the fishing grounds, we presumed.

We were now just 70 nautical miles off Hong Kong and soon we crossed what seemed a line in the sea, where the pure blue expanse of the lapping ocean gave way to the soup of the oily, clinging industrial waters nearer home. The closer we came to port the more our perspective was challenged – after more than three days at sea, coastal features that should have been easy to recognise seemed to take on an unfamiliar look. Everything appeared to exist on a smaller scale when compared with the vastness of the ocean we had traversed. Upon finally gliding Soko into her berth at her home port, we knew we had seen our last glimpse of heaven for a while. But the camaraderie, trust, togetherness, wit and laughter the crew had shared throughout the transit would remain permanently etched in our minds.

Dolphin Teasing Soko’s Bow

posted by Kirk at 9:59 am