Had I not been blinded by my desire for adventure, I would have gotten off the yacht while it was still in the Langkawi marina. But instead I watched the hull cut a path through the calm Malaysian water as we motored past the rocky fingers of the harbor entrance, and out into the vast blue of the Indian Ocean.
The trip had started innocently enough with an email. I had been living in South Korea for a year and the rampant urbanization, combined with the high population density of the mountainous peninsula, had me craving a more visceral lifestyle. Two years before I had completed my first open ocean crossing by sailboat, traveling from New Zealand to Fiji, and had found the trip, overall, to be an incredible experience. Hoping to recapture those feelings of freedom, I started offering my services as a deckhand to captains whose online profiles stated they were anchored in Asia.
Months passed before I got the response I was looking for – a small yacht was docked in Malaysia and would be crossing the Indian ocean, stopping in the Maldives, Chagos, Seychelles, Mauritius, and Madagascar. Their departure lined up perfectly with the completion of my job contract in Korea and I signed on immediately. I was so convinced nothing could go wrong that I persuaded my best friend, Brad, to dip into his hard-won savings and join me for the journey.
Yet as we moved away from the safety of the marina, much of the initial excitement had been blunted. For several weeks we had been living on board Kotaro along with the Italian skipper, Federico. There was little natural chemistry between us, and relations had been strained from the start.
“Lieuk!” Screamed a voice in my left ear. Federico preferred this pronunciation of my name it seemed, and I had stopped trying to correct him. “You are seriously bad at steering, man. Three weeks and you have learned nothing.” I wanted to point out that this was the first time in those three weeks that we had actually been moving, but on a boat the captain is king so I said nothing.
Even after we were beyond the sight of land, and moving well with the sails full of wind, the mood did not improve. Brad suffered the most; he had never sailed in his life, but Federico had told him that his inexperience would not be a problem. Despite these promises, Federico grew increasingly impatient and often ranted about Brad’s lack of maritime skills.
“Bread!” Federico had his own version of my friend’s name as well. “Man, you really are an eediot. I tell you yesterday about the way to take a bearing and today you still screw up.” He seemed genuinely baffled as to why Brad was unable to master the art of sailing in five days.
On and on we went, our moods rising and falling like the ship’s hull in the ocean swell. The majesty of quicksilver sunsets, when the ocean’s surface would appear to change from water to molten metal, was countered by the anxiety of living under a tyrant. Combined with the cramped living conditions, and the need for strict discipline while at sea, the atmosphere soon became unbearable.
The adventure of a lifetime had turned into a floating nightmare, and we were becoming increasingly desperate to escape. Because of the decidedly un-private nature of life on a boat, Brad and I had to speak in hushed whispers to avoid being overheard as we voiced our mutual displeasure. After nearly two months aboard, with the Maldives growing nearer by the day, we hashed out our exit strategy in five-minute increments whenever we were reasonably sure of not being overheard.
Ultimately our plan was simple: jump ship. With no visa, hotel reservation, or exit flight, however, we were unsure how co-operative the Maldivian customs officials would be. And while they were certainly suspicious of our desperate attempts to talk our way into their country, eventually they gave in - with the firm stipulation that we were off the island nation within five days.
Maybe it was the panic in our eyes that moved them to be lenient with us. I’ll never know. But as we walked down the dazzling sandy whiteness of the Gan streets and away from the looming figure of Federico, I could only think of the harsh lesson learned: if you’re going to cross an ocean with someone, first make sure you like them.