Across the Bay of Bengal

Friday, March 5, 5 p.m. (9:00 a.m. UTC)

The wind spirits that Paul’s sister Joanne sent along must have worked! We motored for the 20 hours or so, and have been sailing ever since (with the exception of having to turn on the motor to dodge fishing nets and boats from time to time.)

It looks like we’ll bypass Aceh. And maybe even Sri Lanka, if this wind holds, and go straight to the Maldives. Right now it’s blowing harder, at 15 knots, and the boat is flying along at 7 knots under double reefs as a Sumatra (local storm which blows of the coast of – you guessed it — Sumatra) moves through. But it’s pretty benign (so far), and already the sun is shining again. Sima, off watch, is sleeping through it.

It’s been a very pleasant sail so far. This a.m. we had dolphins bopping along when we put the reefs in. Yesterday, two fishing boats over laden with locals approached to ten yards, whoopin’ and hollerin’. We know hotel-lobby Indonesian, but it wasn’t needed, as they gestured to their mouths in the form of guzzling beer bottles and smoking cigarettes. “Tidak,” we shouted back. “No!” Away they turned, with more yelling and waving. We know that there are no pirates here, and such encounters may well be a little more intense when we get such equally benign approaches later on, which no doubt we will.

Something like 50 sailboats or so have made the passage in front of us, through to the Red Sea, without a problem. We wonder, when we get to Salalah, whether there will be anybody left to convoy with through pirate alley. We strongly suspect that there will, but it’s one of those things that you can’t plan until you get there. So on we go.

2:45 a.m. UTC, Sunday, March 7. 10:45 a.m. local time. (Wait, I think we’ve passed another time zone and it’s actually only 9:45 a.m.)

We did bypass Aceh, and are continuing along toward Sri Lanka. The wind has held up pretty well. We sailed all day yesterday with 10 knots on the beam, allowing us to sail at about seven knots. At sunset, though, the western horizon was lined with thick cumulus clouds, and we thought we might be in for a tough night. The wind then died at 9 p.m., as it often does in front of a blow, as the wind gets sucked out in front. But the barometer didn’t move, the clouds passed harmlessly overhead, and the winds returned at about 3 a.m. So back up went the sails. The wind is now a little bit stronger and from the NW, closer to our nose, so it makes for some faster and bumpier sailing. We’re doing about 8 knots now, some times a little bit more. We’re about 750 miles from Sri Lanka. If the winds hold up, will keep on going right to the Maldives, which is another 400 miles west. We don’t have much interest in Sri Lanka, or any other part of the Indian Ocean, other than to get fuel and get on through.

Only two minor problems so far. Tranny fluid was leaking into the basin beneath the engine. Paul had just changed the fluid as a preventive measure, and figured no good deed goes unpunished. Did we overfill it? Underfill? Wrong kind of fluid? These did not seem possibilities, and it turned out that the drain screw needed just one more drive home, and now appears to be good. Second problem is a wire that controls the amount of amps that the alternator drives into the batteries when the motor is running. It is actually not the wire, but the connector that attaches to the alternator. The connector on the alternator is like the two prongs to a household plug, only much smaller. One of them is loose, and we can’t figure out how to make it right without taking the alternator off and apart, which we’re loathe to do at sea. It’s no real big problem, as we can control it manually, to some extent, by shutting the alternator off entirely after the bats are fully charged. This is only a problem when the engine is running, and it’s not a big deal.

Every part of the world seems to have it’s phenomena, and here is no exception — rip currents that appear in the middle of the ocean. We knew that they would be here, but it makes them no less a strange experience. We’ll be sailing along in the middle of the night, with relatively calm seas, and the radar alarm will go off. We look at the screen and see a line of disturbance “approaching” us from a half mile away. We say “approaching” because even though it’s stationary, and we’re sailing into it, for all the world it feels the other way around. When we peer out in front of the boat into the inky dark, we can whooshing sounds in the distance, like the surf reaching the beach. Then we start to make out the whitecaps in the starlight. Swish, splash, whap, it goes. Such disturbances usually happen around reefs, so the first time this happened, especially at night, a slight amount of anxiety accompanied the event, in spite of the assurances being provided by the chart and the depth sounder. Into the maelstrom the boat goes, and gets tossed around a little bit. The boat slows, as there is a substantial current, always seeming to flow west-to-east, against us. The boat speed drops to five knots, four, three, two, then even a half knot sometimes, and can have problems making it through, requiring that we resort to the assistance of the iron genoa.

We understand that these disturbances are caused by upwellings of warm water. But why here, so frequently, over stretches of hundreds of miles, and no where else in the world (that we’ve seen), where currents and temperature differentials are just as common? Maybe there is underground thermal activity? But they seem too regular, when they come (in waves, with each band spread a 1/2 mile apart), to be that. In any event, they make things more interesting.

It has been a good passage so far. Lots of tankers and cargo ships around. Sunny or starry, depending upon the time of day, and better wind than we expected.

10 a.m. (2:00 a.m. UTC) Monday, March 8, 2010 6 10 N, 90 01 E, Indian Ocean 600 miles due east of Sri Lanka

Another good day. We had great wind yesterday, with 15 knots on the beam allowing us to clip along at 8.5 knots. We’re motoring again now, as the wind died at about 6:00 a.m., but the GRIB files and BUOY Weather predict that the wind will return later today.

It has been wall-to-wall tankers here. We don’t sleep very soundly during the night, because our alarms go off continually, either the radar indicating that a ship has come within 1.5 miles of us, or our AIS telling us that a ship at some distance will be coming within one mile of us sometime soon. (Though one of us is always on watch in the cockpit, we can often catnap while doing so, while the other tries to sleep.) We usually turn off the radar zone and the AIS dangerous target alarm until the ship clears the area, because the alarms otherwise keep returning. The large ships almost always move away, but “almost” is a big word, and sometimes we change course slightly to keep out of their way. We are going to move a little bit further north of the rhum line, and see if we can get out of the heavy shipping lanes. Often, when you leave the shipping lanes, you get scores of fishing boats as a tradeoff. But hopefully here, in the middle of the ocean, there won’t be any of those either.

This has happened to us before, but it always catches us by surprise each time that it does. Paul was on watch in the night, and suddenly noticed one ship astern that seemed awfully close, though it appeared neither on radar nor on AIS. He could see what looked to be a very bright line of yellow/orange bridge lights, and judging by their width and distance above the horizon, the ship was very close, less than a mile. He checked the radar and AIS again, and was about to reach for the binoculars when he noticed that the bottom of the bridge lights were beginning to curve. Ohhhhh! Fooled by the moon again, rising above a band of clouds 5 degrees off the horizon! That’s the third time that we’ve been tricked that way on passage. What must it have been like in the days of the square riggers, when the appearance of a ship so close must have have weakened the knees of many a man. You would pay dearly if you allowed a ship to sneak up on you like that in the night. If it has happened to us three times, it must have happened to those sailors all the time, or at least some of the time. Maybe they were keener on paying attention to when the moon was supposed to rise. The first thought that must have gone through their head, before they figured it out, must have been that the ship had come up with lights out, and no had lit up to prepare for attack. Maybe Paul wouldn’t have been a good lookout, but at least we didn’t go so far as to roll out the cannons.

Sima would have been a good lookout. She DID pick out the warship from among the commercial shipping yesterday. She noticed that a very large blip on the radar had no accompanying AIS identification. She looked, and saw a warship, which, as it came closer, turned out to be a small aircraft carrier, packed with helicopters and small fixed wing aircraft. A helicopter was in the air, trailing off the back. We scanned the VHF for chatter, but found nothing. We looked with binoculars, and could see the number “6” painted in typical white on the typical battleship gray superstructure, but no other identification or flag. It passed us by, and after the excitement died down, we heard a buzzing in the sky. The helicopter had come back two miles or so to us to say hello. It did a close circle around the boat, and we waved. Still nothing on the VHF – we listened because off the coast of Australia, the Coast Watch called as they flew by. We waved, but couldn’t tell if the fellow in the open window, green-suited, goggled, and helmeted, waved back. He seemed a bit stone faced, actually, but maybe that was just the outfit.

We’ve seemingly resolved the second of the engine-related problems we were having. We’ve jury rigged the field current plug for the alternator, and that seems to be keeping the charging rate down. We’ll keep an eye on it. But now we’ve got another problem. There is a small coolant leak on the back of the exhaust manifold. Not much, probably a drip every 45 seconds. The area of the leak is typically hidden from view, and the bolt and washer that hold down the corner of the plate where the leak is look a little bit junky and corroded. We are really vigilant with the engine, but when you are running it for hundreds of hours on end, as we did through much of Malaysia and Indonesia, where there was no wind, small things like this pop up, as we’re again having to motor part of each day when the wind dies. We’re debating whether to try to tighten the bolt, or to instead use a temporary fix using some epoxy-like substance. We’ll probably go with the latter, as we don’t want to risk breaking the bolt off at sea, as that would be a much harder fix, to say the least. We’ll keep you posted.

More dolphins yesterday. We’re learning more about their nature. If you want them to stay and play, don’t yell, “Hello, boys!” really loud as you walk to the bow to greet them. That seems to scare them away. Maybe a green suit, helmet, and goggles would work better?

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