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Passage to Oman
by Lois Joy
February 18-27, 2007
Day One. A good beginning.
The wind is up! A good omen for Oman. We had planned to check out today anyway; Immigration would open at 0730; if there was no wind, we considered snorkeling at one of the outlying atolls as a back-up plan and leaving the following day at dawn’s light. But waking to wind infuses the three of us—Captain Gunter, able-bodied seaman Chris, and yours truly, Ship’s Navigator—with a new energy. We grab a little breakfast on the run, hop into the dinghy with our passports and clearance papers, and head into the village of Uligan. The women are busily sweeping the coral sand streets, like they do every day. Most of them wave; we yachties walking along the jetty and through the village have become a common sight. We’ve come to know a few of them. Customs…immigration…a few final photos in the morning light, and we are at Sailor’s Choice, finding a few more veggies to buy and jawing with the Judge for the last time. We even find a dusty stack of T-shirts in his little store. One choice of designs. One size: Medium. That works for Chris and me. It’s not easy to buy a souvenir of Uligan.
At 1015, Gunter starts the engines. We play our “good luck” Windjammer album, beginning with many versions of Amazing Grace and ending with Barefootin’ as we pull in 120 feet of anchor chain. Then we form a ring and clasp hands, ask God to send His angel to guard us, in Jesus’ name, and we are off on the final long passage of our circumnavigation. Depending on the wind, we could be out here 9-12 days.
The green-and-sand islands flanking the northern pass fall to our stern. We turn at the final exit waypoint, setting our course for Salalah, Oman. It is one long, straight line on the computer program. There is nothing in between. “We’ll just spool off the days,” says Gunter.
I finish mixing another batch of pumpernickel bread and carefully fill the breadmaker, wet ingredients first, dry ingredients next, make a well for the yeast. I’ve opened a fresh vacuum-packed package of dry yeast and will throw away the rest on board. The loaf I brought to the beach BBQue and potluck last night was heavy as a brick. Even so, it was a hit, served warm with honey. Our Maldivian friends had never tasted such a bread. The bread they eat is similar to Indian roti. The thinly-sliced sandwich bread they sell to yachties is white, sweet, and molds within two days. The breadmaker starts churning away, while I sit at the salon, writing in my journal. I am happy, because I don’t have to work up a sweat, kneading.
By 1100, we are sailing between 7 and 8 knots with a full main and jib in a 15-knot northeasterly. Perfect! Pacific Bliss is in the groove on a beam reach, her favorite point of sale. We are following SCUD, a St. Francis 44-foot CAT, with our new-found friends, Tina, Peter and Adam on board. Jacob, a single-handler, is alongside on board his CAT, James McDust. It is fun to leave an anchorage with three CATs.
By 1500, the smell of freshly baked bread permeates Pacific Bliss. A pod of spinner dolphins put on a show for us. The wind strength varies throughout the night. By early morning, it slows to 5-8 knots NE, and we have to start the iron jenny. Even so, we have had a great start and a peaceful first night’s sleep.
First 24-hours, miles: 142
Position: 8º17 N, 70º46 E
Day Two. Dolphins and International Cuisine.
The pod of dolphins swim back and forth at the bows of Pacific Bliss, sometimes two or three of them jumping in sync, every bit as entertaining as the “trained” dolphins at San Diego SeaWorld. Then out to sea at our port, we spot another group coming our way, jumping completely out of the waves, and spinning. They all hang around, jumping and spinning, for the next half-hour. There must be 50 of them! This is the highlight of our second day at sea.
The second highlight is our dinner at sunset: roesti (hash browns vacuum-packed in Switzerland), pork tenderloins from Thailand, and the last of our fresh lettuce from Sri Lanka. We three can barely move from the cockpit table to roll ourselves into our evening watches. But then there’s Tim Tams from Australia in the fridge—with that special chocolate-wafer crunch to munch under a starry sky…
So far, this passage has been easy. Mostly sailing in Force 4 NE winds on the beam or starboard aft quarter. Some motorsailing when the winds are light. No complaints. Another one of the steps going down into the port hull has broken. But that’s a carpentry job for the Salalah list. After all, we must come to port with a TO DO list!
Day Two Miles: 153
Position: 9º 28 N, 68º 37 E
Only 975 miles to go to Salalah.
Day Three. Mahi Mahi and The Daily Dolphin Show.
“I hate you, Pacific Bliss,” says a voice on the NET. We seem be the only yacht out here who reported in with a sailing wind. (There are 30-plus yachts—from Malaysia, Thailand, the Andamans, Sri Lanka, Cochin, and the Maldives—all converging to the port of Salalah, Oman where we will form convoys to sail through “Pirate Alley” to Aden. Pacific Bliss has managed to sail all of past 24 hours, spooling off 184 miles, which will probably be our record. During the early morning hours, the steady F4 wind increases to F6, bringing a light rain. For a few hours, we reef for the first time on this passage. Now, the wind has died and we are motoring.
But no matter, Chris has just caught a beautiful 2 ½ foot mahi-mahi (dolphin fish). So today, we have fresh fish on the menu. It has been a busy Wednesday morning, because after that, we had 25 or so performers at the bows for our Daily Dolphin Show.
Yesterday, the cooling fan for one of our Spectra watermaker pumps went kaput; but we still have output, just reduced from 60 liters per hour to 40, another project for our TO DO list. All is well on board.
Day Three Miles: 184
Position: 10º41 N, 66º22 E
811 miles to go to Salalah.
Insert photos 01 and 02.
Day Four. Spooling off the Miles with Gremlins on Board.
210 miles in the last 24 hours. Wow! Our last 200-mile day was crossing the Atlantic during our Voyage One. We are sailing hard-on-the-wind, not a great point-of-sail for passenger comfort, but Pacific Bliss seems up to the challenge, crashing into those waves with her starboard hull, crushing the waves hitting her port, causing an occasional “bomb” to shudder that hull. With a full main and jib the entire time, the NNE wind never reached over a Force 4, so we didn’t reef. But it appears that with only 14-15 knots of wind, but 20 apparent, Pacific Bliss is treating those full sails like wings and has decided to fly to Salalah. It’s OK with us. We just have to hang on.
But those gremlins! The three of us are in the cockpit together, watching a fuchsia sun sink behind silver streaks when I blurt out the now off-limit words, “Voodoo Electronics.” Usually I joke about “French Electronics” being an oxymoron, and the spirits around here seem to take that language in stride. Or perhaps they don’t understand the joke. But I make the mistake of taking it too far. “If we have a calmer period during the day tomorrow, how about putting that fuse back in and trying to turn on the deck lights directly from the instrument panel, you know, our flaky voodoo electronics…they may just work now.” Gunter agrees and we chat about other things, such as how far back Thailand seems to us now. Ten minutes later, it is dark and he goes in the salon to turn on the running lights (at the instrument panel to the left of our fridge).
“Come here! All the lights on this left section of the panel are out. Nav lights, steaming light, masthead light. All dead.”
Chris and I rush to clear the cockpit table of stuff, fold it up, clear the settee of pillows and books and more stuff, and open up the cushions to access the box with the relays and switches. Gunter checks each switch to find the correct one; he flips it while Chris holds the flashlight and I am posted at the flaky panel. “Nav lights ON,” I call out, then check outside to make sure that they are REALLY ON. Problem solved. Chris turns toward us and shakes his head, “Just ten minutes ago you were talking about the voodoo electronics on this boat. Strange.”
It is pitch dark now. “Oops. I think I used the wrong word,” I reply.
This morning Gunter throws the cushions off the settee, digging into the box behind. Then he goes to that recalcitrant panel. “Lois, come here.” Now what? I’m thinking. “See? The instruments are working again. Check them out to verify.”
Yep. All is OK. Well, we still don’t know about that deck light. Gunter had pulled the fuse on that one, since it tended to stay ON all the time. Go figure.
“Voodoo…” he begins.
“Don’t say those words,” I interrupt. “They’re just gremlins, and they like to come out and make mischief at night.”
Day Four Miles: 210
Position: 12º 04 N, 63º44 E
637 miles to go to Salalah.
Day Five. On the Downhill Stretch
The gremlins have stayed away. Gunter puts the fuse back into the deck light circuit and even that one works now. The only instrument permanently diseased is our radar. It sweeps but doesn't receive.
Surprisingly, we experience another great day's run: our second 200-mile day. At noon, we have a little half-way party—a lunch of BLT's, with cabbage substituted for the lettuce we no longer have on board. I splurge on a glass of wine, Gunter pours a Dark & Stormy, but Chris declines. "I'll wait for port to have that beer, because I'll not want to stop at one." We toast to a continuing safe passage and to the crew, with a special tribute to Ray, our fourth crew member, who faithfully maintains a steady course day after day. Our special music is Jerry Lee Lewis, who really gets us into a party mood.
After an hour of fun, we settle back into our usual watch schedules. It's a quiet ocean out here. We haven't seen a big ship for over two days. But there are small fishing boats in this part of the Indian Ocean. They can pull drift nets miles long. One fisherman calls us on the VHF to warn us of his 1.8 km net. Usually they don't call and their boats have only small white lights. The person on watch knows the direction of the net by the direction of the wind. We try to give them a three-mile wide berth. Another CAT two days ahead of us alerted us, via SailMail, to the coordinates of one or two nets that had tangled in their rudder. Twice.
Twenty-five yachts checked into the Indian Ocean/Red Sea NET this morning, all converging on the port of Salalah, Oman.
Day Five Miles: 201
Position: 13º21 N, 61º15 E
470 miles to go to Salalah.
Day Six. Night of Nets.
This is Pacific Bliss. I have my own story to tell. I wasn’t too happy last night about 9:45 PM. I droned along—as blissful as can be on a glassy sea—giving my wings a rest. My navigator was busy at the nav station entering comments into the logbook about the 3 fishing boats at the horizon to port. “3-4 miles off,” she wrote. She could see that horizon because we have almost a half-moon now, beaming a silvery path right to the port helm seat. My able-bodied seaman Chris had just gone off watch. And my Captain was sawing logs, storing up energy for the dogleg watch.
All of a sudden, I was trapped like a hunted prey, my engine gasping for breath. And I’m a huge whale of a prey, at 12 tons. My daggerboards were at one side of a huge black net, and both my hulls were enveloped at the stern. Totally trapped! I must say, my crew rose to the occasion. Lois ran to the helm. Chris was out of his bunk like a flash and shut off the engine. Gunter heard the commotion breaking through his dreams and arrived topsides, wearing nothing but a pair of shorts. I must say, my crew does take care of me. But it took them awhile to get me out of this predicament. First, they took down my sails so I couldn’t move forward. Then they took both daggerboards all the way up to free the forward side of the net. But it was still wrapped around my stern—on both sides. White floats were holding it up, and one big float, the bitter end I think, was bobbing at the port side, trying to sneak underneath.
My crew used every hook on board to try to get that net free, to no avail. They discussed going down below me, into that deep dark sea, but no-one wanted to do that. I don’t blame them; that net was heavy and still attached to a fishing boat over four miles away. As Lois and Chris peered over the port side, they heard the blow of a whale coming for air, three times to be exact. I wonder what happens to one of those whales caught in a net like that. I know what happens to dolphins and sea turtles; they struggle and drown.
Well, Chris managed to push that big float underneath me with the big hook. It slid underneath past the rudder and sail drive and out. That left only a small section of net at my starboard stern. He pushed the other end down with the same hook and finally we were free.
Later on Captain Gunter’s watch, another fisherman hailed us on the VHF. He didn’t speak English well, but he gave his position. “Is that your NET or your BOAT?” Lois asked him three times. (She was still up after her watch, keeping Gunter company, “teaming up,” they call it.) Finally the man gave two lats and longs, one for the boat and another for the net. Turns out his net was 10 kilometers long (that’s about 6 miles for you Americans who still do not buy into the metric system). We had to deviate course for some time. I wonder what those big freighters do out here. ‘Course there’s none of them out here lately to worry about.
Frankly friends, I’m relieved to hear that we have only 350 miles to go to Salalah. I’m tired of these Indian Ocean fishing nets and quite ready for a rest.
Day Six Miles: 122 miles
Position: 14º 17 N, 59º 23 E
P.S. This story is dedicated to CodyMan, because I know he is quite the storyteller too. I have some of his stories on board.
Day Seven. The Changing Night Sky.
The faint streaks of dawn, like pale ale, begin to snuff out all but the strongest of the stars. On my early morning watch, I scan the horizon broadly for freighters, then more closely for those dim white lights of fishing boats. None. We have had a well-deserved quiet night. No gremlins. No nets. Just Orion forever stalking the Great Bear. And Perseus in perpetual pursuit of Andromeda, whom he must rescue. We can still enjoy at The Southern Cross early in the evening. But now that we have sailed farther into the Northern Hemisphere, we've found The Big Dipper again, still bright in the morning, its rim pointing toward the sparkling North Star. It was a similar bright star that the wise men from the East followed to see the Baby Jesus, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We are also arriving from the East--actually, to the Middle East from Southeast Asia--but on sailboat instead of camel caravan. These days, we're delving into the Lonely Planet, Arabian Peninsula, looking for ideas on what to see and do after we arrive. Frankincense. We find that this exotic spice is one of the recommended souvenirs from Oman. Along with saffron, baskets made of rush and camel's leather; silver swords and tribal khanjars, silver jewelry, and bead-covered cases of kohl, a black eyeliner used by the women of Oman and Yemen. (After all, there is nothing else for them to show off behind those black purdah.)
Our anticipation builds. Just as the night sky is changing as we reach 15 degrees north, so will the landscape and the culture.
Day Seven Miles:
Position: 15 12 N, 57 31 E
227 miles to Salalah
Day Eight. One Day at a Time: the 24-hour Countdown
This morning, Captain Gunter hums the song by Christy Lane that is part of our iPOD Sunday Songs Selections: “One day at a time, sweet Jesus, that’s all I ask from you…” He is so filled with the anticipation of our arrival that he’s squirming around like a little kid, unable to sit still. In 24 hours, we’ll be in port.
Last night, we three watched a wine-colored elliptical sun sink slowly beneath the glassy Arabian Sea as Pacific Bliss droned along at only 5 knots. There was no green flash. The swirling, oily reflections of cumulous clouds were a presentiment of the oil-rich countries we would visit. What talked about what we would see. Then Gunter reflected on what a bugaboo the vast Indian Ocean had been to him. “Finally, I decided just to just spool off the days, one at a time, and now…here we are! We’ve done it. No sweat, no worries.”
Gunter and Chris burned up restless energy by tackling a few chores. Chris gave Pacific Bliss a good salt water wash-down, and polished stainless steel rails and fittings while Gunter even polished the teapot and stock pot. Then Gunter checked his spare parts book to find that, indeed, we do have a spare fan for the watermaker pump in our bow locker; we have two spare fans! So the guys replaced the defective one—all corroded—one more item to take off the Salalah fix-it list. Now, the Captain is happy about the watermaker throughput. We’ll fill our water tanks at sea, given that any water and diesel in Salalah will have to be jerry-lugged and dinghied out to Pacific Bliss at anchor. Just as in Sri Lanka, there is no marina. 24 yachts checked into the Indian Ocean/Red Sea Net—most converging on Salalah, Pacific Bliss towards the front of the pack. Yours truly has baked another loaf of bread, a recipe called “Farmhouse,” using fresh eggs, milk and butter. We didn’t suffer on Sunday. Bacon, eggs and toast for breakfast; warm bread with butter and cheddar cheese for lunch; and snacks at sundowner time. Now the breadmaker is stashed away until the Red Sea passage and the galley prettied up for any boarding authorities. Even the Oman flag has been hoisted, along with the yellow courtesy flag. We have a day to relax before the hustle-bustle of arriving in port. If this keeps up, we will have had a perfect passage.
Insert Photos 3-7
I slept as soundly as the first night at anchor after a voyage. It seemed we were at anchor, motoring so slowly in a lazy Force 1 wind. My dream was about “authorities” and someone telling me to hand him the little Nikon. I could feel the leather case cradled in my hand and I didn’t want to let it go…just then I heard a succinct voice breaking into my dream: “This is a coalition warship.” Just a minute. This doesn’t fit the plot. I sat straight up in my berth, than ran up to the nav station in my PJs. The ship was hailing a vessel, calling Ocean Experience. “It’s Ocean Spray, whispered Gunter. Whatever. A lady’s voice with a clipped British accent was asking them questions such as place of departure from last port, date of departure, then they switched to a lower VHF channel. We switched too, eavesdropping. She appeared to be doing a survey. “And how was your experience in this area. Did you feel safe?” We couldn’t hear the answer and discussed the probable range of military VHF. Where was the coalition ship? Looking at the larger picture on our computer chart, we could see that in the Arabian Sea approaching Salalah, a ship could be en route from the neck separating Africa from Asia (Pirate Alley) heading toward the Gulf of Oman. Somehow, it made me feel safer, hearing a Coalition ship on the airwaves as we approached our first Arab land.
Day Eight Miles: 128 miles
Position: 16º 06 N, 55º 38 E
107 Miles to Salalah
Day Nine. Our last day at Sea.
Force 0. Gunter shuts off the engine. “Swim time!” This swim-and-shampoo will be the final one before our arrival in Salalah. We don our suits as Pacific Bliss slows to a stop. It doesn’t take her long; the sails are down. “Only one in the water at a time,” Gunter cautions. “We don’t want to repeat the story of the three crew who all dove in at the same time, only to see their yacht drifting off without them. From California I think. Coastal cruisers,” he smirks. The ocean looks inviting, but also a little scary. It so deep in the Arabian Sea that parts of it have never been surveyed. Who knows what lurks below? Chris jumps in first and takes a look at the hulls. “No damage from those fishing nets,” he reports. “This is weird, he raises his head above the water, face mask on, “you look face down, and there is nothing…not a sign of life.”
“Wait until those sharks pick you up on their radar…that will be about the time Lois goes down,” Gunter jokes.
“Great!” I play along with the antics.
“On second thought,” says Gunter. You stay in the water with Lois; I don’t want her in there alone.”
Guess he values me after all! I gingerly step down the swim ladder. “Don’t worry. I’m NOT letting go of this ladder. It’s too eerie.”
I lie on the trampoline, face down, to dry. The low sun to port casts criss-cross shadows of the net onto the inside starboard hull. I try making shadows with my hands and arms, playing shadow puppet games. What fun!
During Chris’ AM watch, the B&G display quits. No harm done, we only use the display (chart plotter) to get an idea of which satellites are available for the GPS. Ray—and his instruments and multis—keep on plugging away. Gremlins again? (Sure enough, the next morning, the display works.)
On my morning watch our last day at sea, I call our position into the Net. “10 miles to Salalah.”
“Congratulations, Pacific Bliss,” says Net Control. How happy I am to hear those words. Soon we see the flat plains of Oman against a backdrop of hazy, purple mountains. By 1000, we are headed into the commercial and navy port of Mina Rayut. We motor slowly past a huge array of massive orange cranes loading container ships and finally toward the masts peeking beyond a second breakwater. Port Control says to anchor to the port of Windpocke. We try, three times, dragging on the rocky bottom, then give up and anchor toward the beginning of the anchorage, next to Rapture.
Check-in is simple and fast. Three brown-uniformed customs agents come on board. No gifts. No baksheesh. “Follow us to immigration,” says the officer. Gunter and Chris follow their launch in Petit Bliss, but then they have to walk 1 km in the hot sun to immigration. Success! They come back to Bliss with a one-month Visas. Meanwhile, I have fixed lunch on board. After that, along with an arrival beer, we collapse into our berths during the heat of the afternoon.
Day Nine Miles: 153
Position at anchor in Salalah: 16º 56.27N, 54º 00.24E
Insert Photos 8 & 9
February 28: The Morning After.
the Cuba Libra the bartender fixed me at the Oasis, the watering hole for
commercial ship captains and yachties, I was feeling no pain. And last night,
our first one at anchor in ten days, I slept straight through.
As I close my journal, sitting in the cockpit this morning, an Omani warship swishes proudly through the harbor, her pilot boat only a few feet from our starboard swim steps. Her paint job is an unblemished steel-gray, the letters in sharp black Arabic. Men stand at attention on deck. What a difference between this and the decrepit Sri Lankan navy ships. Oil talks! I look forward to driving to Salalah today; the town is about 12 miles up the road. I suspect that it will be quite the surprise.