It’s a big decision to purchase a yacht and one that will very likely change your life forever. Emigrating to Hong Kong, my only sailing experience was a few outings in a Cornish Crabber in Plymouth. However, due to the relatively small size of Hong Kong, the water is a great getaway from the crowds. There are many country parks and over 250 outlying islands, best accessed from the sea and therefore the perfect playground for sailing.
The appeal of empty pristine tropical beaches and beautiful geology and geography to sail around started my search for a yacht. In preparation I attended a week-long live-aboard RYA day skipper course with Southern Sailing in Southampton in February. After facing the challenges of strong tides, currents, sandbanks and force 6-8 winds, I felt ready to cope with the hopefully more benign weather of Hong Hong.
In January 2014 a friend asked me to crew on his Irwin 52 for the Macau yacht race. Even though the winds were light, the enjoyment of being on a boat with friends sailing to a different country was fantastic. The flame of my sailing passion was stoked and I booked a Sunsail charter soon after in Phuket. After two weeks of skipping a yacht around the islands of Thailand my mind was made up, I needed to buy a boat and I would live on her.
The Hong Kong property market was now at a point that home ownership was almost out of the question. To avoid a housing bubble the government had increased stamp duty to 15% and down payments on mortgages were around 40%. Not wanting to waste my money renting and not willing to live in a small micro flat the idea of boat ownership came to mind. With no stamp duty and 100% financing it made financial sense and seemed like an exciting option.
I looked at the half dozen yachts on the market in the Hong Kong marinas over a period of about a year. These ranged from 40ft Beneteaus to a 60ft Swan. I realised that as my new home I would require a hull of around 45-50ft, have comforts such as air conditioning, a modern fridge and a washing machine. The Swan was tempting but expensive, not really conducive to short handed sailing, especially with my experience, and I would be a slave to those beautiful teak decks and bright work.
Searching the internet, talking to brokers and other yacht owners I stumbled upon the adventures of a yacht called ‘Delos’ on YouTube. Sailing around the world from Seattle with two young couples, their YouTube videos and blogs were mesmerising, packed with adventure and excitement. Their yacht of choice to safely take them around the world was the Amel Super Maramu 2000. I needed to look no further and packed my bags for Phuket and Langkawi to look at a handful of prospective boats.
It was merely a case of finding a tidy boat that had been looked after and I was able to compare half a dozen boats before I found “Jovic” lying in Langkawi Malaysia. ‘Jovic’ had a new set of sails, new generator, upgraded water-maker and enough spares to sink most other boats. John and Vicky had commissioned her 14yrs previously and sailed her since their retirement more than halfway around the world. We agreed on a price and I promised I’d look after her and continue her adventures starting first with a voyage to Hong Kong. I couldn’t miss the opportunity to sail my own boat to Hong Kong, a passage of over 2500nm, so I managed to take four weeks off work and started planning with a delivery couple recommended to me by my broker.
Martin was Italian/ Argentinean and his girlfriend Coralie was French. They live in Thailand and conduct professional yacht deliveries and charters. Luckily they were free, having just delivered a yacht from Malaysia around the Cape of Good Hope, through St. Helena to the Caribbean. My brother’s friend, also called Morgan, was a second engineer on super yachts and he was looking for some sea miles. I felt very privileged to have such a qualified team embark on this adventure with me. Langkawi is a great place for quality yet reasonably priced spares and work so I had a new Bimini made and a good look at the systems, rectifying any issues highlighted by the survey report which the insurance company required fixing.
Delayed by the Malaysian Raya festival we set sail on Monday 6th Oct. Our plan was to stop in Penang, Singapore, Brunei and the Philippines. As soon as we exited the marina the seas were rough and I hoped it wouldn’t be like this all the way. Luckily after a couple of hours the seas became smoother and by 8pm we were setting anchor in the designated small boats anchorage off George Town. Standing on the foredeck and before even turning the engine off we heard the sound of an approaching boat but in the blackness and confusion of lights we couldn’t see it. Suddenly there it was almost upon us, a barge being pulled alongside by a tug and coming straight for us. I dived into the cockpit to grab the torch while the others screamed at it. Flashing the torch and screaming, the tug saw us at the last moment and turned, missing us by feet.
With adrenaline pumping I couldn’t believe we’d almost been hit – I’d only sailed ‘Jovic’ for 6hrs! The masthead anchor light is useless in areas such as this lost amongst city lights and stars. We found some flashing fishing strobes and tied them to the bow and stern and opened a beer. After stocking up with vittles and picking up the life-raft that had been serviced, we set sail two days later for Singapore. Dinner was fantastic and was to be the theme for the next three weeks as Coralie was an excellent chef, used to producing a wide range of meals on charter vessels. If there is one thing that keeps morale up it’s food and the highlight of the day.
Singapore was an incredible parking lot for every type of ship imaginable. We ducked and weaved through the gloomy pollution to a river on the Malaysian side immediately to the east of the city. Our purpose was to refuel from a fuel barge up a creek using Martins local knowledge. The barge was one of three tied alongside one another in a setting similar to in the movie Apocalypse Now. A dirty clearing in the jungle housed skinny dogs, spilt oil barrels and lots of mud. The fuel at $2.65 ringit/ litre was relatively cheap compared to Singapore but was more than I expected and I only had cash for 350 litres. Brunei was over 700nm away and if we had to motor all the way we would run out of fuel about 150 nm prior to arriving. With a combination of sailing and motor sailing we covered about 150nm per day.
During the days and nights, we were graced by pods of dolphins and caught our first and only fish, a 1.5ft yellowfin tuna. Half was eaten straight away for sashimi and the rest in the coconut dish “Poison a la Tehelia.” The routine of offshore cruising was wonderful. In the daytime I’d clean and service the boat, read system manuals and whip ropes. Every evening at 5pm we’d have boat gym for an hour to keep fit followed by non-alcoholic sundowners and dinner. Being ‘off the grid’ regarding the internet, TV and day to day stress was a totally new concept for me and I loved it.
After 9 days of sailing from Penang we reached Brunei at 8pm and set anchor outside the Royal Brunei Yacht Club relaxing to beers and a curry. Before leaving Brunei, we stocked up on vittles and did two runs to the local petrol station in a van. The fuel sold to the locals is heavily subsidised and tax free costing $0.24 US/ltr, surely being the cheapest in the world. I filled the 650ltr tank and had another 150ltrs of diesel in plastic jerry cans strapped to the deck.
The passage to Subic bay took about six days and was pleasant apart from when I was on solo watch at 3am. The quiet solitude was destroyed suddenly by what felt like an explosion. The boat shook and I felt something unwillingly travel along the bottom of the boat, hitting the keel and popping back to the surface illuminated in my torch light. A huge tree, quite common in these waters due to the scale of deforestation. We had been lucky so far seeing and dodging lots of debris but it was only a matter of time. I was happy to be sailing such a tough boat and a dive the next day showed no damage apart from some missing paint. These are the moments I’m so happy not to be sailing in a production boat which is far more susceptible for damage. It is disappointing to me that Amel has since abandoned tried and tested safe designs such as a skeg rudder.
It was exciting reaching Subic Bay. We were now so close to home and the Philippines was in party mood with Octoberfest celebrations and street parties. The one thing Filipinos know how to do well is party! The charges on arrival were however extortionate. $50 USD for quarantine, $50 USD each for immigration clearing in and out and $50 USD for customs. The officers refused to provide us with official receipts so we refused to pay. This prompted an immediate 50% discount and was all part of their game. ‘Jovic’ got a wash down, an oil change and we topped off the tanks with diesel having used very little since Brunei.
I could have stayed an extra week in Subic bay but work loomed and we slipped out of the marina at sunrise still hungover. Feeling pretty comfortable on the yacht now having lived on her for three weeks my world quickly turned upside down as we navigated the infamous South China Sea. With 500nm to run to Hong Kong we hit strong NE winds up to 35kts and a 3.5-4m swell. It was like being strapped inside a washing machine in the middle of a car crash that continued for three days. Simple tasks were now missions that required NASA style planning. Using the bathroom, eating, moving and sleeping were near impossible. At night I lay across my berth with arms and legs outstretched, drunk with tiredness being physically thrown around and wishing for the explosive impacts to end while expecting something to break at any moment. On watch I could easily reef and trim the sails electrically from the safety of the cockpit by myself. Finally at 9pm we found shelter inside the Dangan islands entering Hong Kong waters. It was no time to relax though as, similar to Singapore, the sea traffic was hectic and we had a near miss with an incorrectly lit fishing boat.
Huge container ships pushed past, high speed ferries to and from Macau raced by at 40kts and more unlit three-man fishing San Pans suicidally fished the shipping lanes. With my phone now in range I contacted my brother for our berth location at the Gold Coast Marina. At 11pm with fenders out, bow thruster lowered and lines ready we slid through the strangely still calm black marina waters to our berth. Martin skilfully reversed us into our tight berth between a large expensive live-aboard powerboat and friends on the dock welcoming our lines. The feeling of elation, achievement and amazement that we’d just sailed this small yacht across Asia was fantastic. There is a feeling I found in common with other sailors having finished long cruises where in many ways you don’t want it to end. The routine and purposeful peacefulness is addictive and uncommon in today’s hectic life.
Sailing really is one of the last frontiers requiring skill, flexibility, calmness and respect. Not only did I successfully help deliver my new yacht to Hong Kong to become my home but I arrived a different person. My outlook, priorities and the way I approach day to day stress was totally reprogrammed. Who would have thought buying a boat would have such a huge positive impact on one’s life.