It is quite an unnatural phenomenon on a boat, which should always be found creaking or sighing in some way, to find silence. Whilst I had fallen asleep to the pleasantly monotonous drone of the engine, I was roused from my slumber not by that, nor by the usual whirr of the wind generator, nor even the sound of ocean lapping at the other side of the hull. Rather, it was the peculiar sound of nothing at all that gave me a start. With Holmesian aptitude I surmised we were neither motoring nor sailing, and to even say that we were bobbing would be to attribute more motion to the situation than could be justified. No, Blue Eye was no more and no less than simply floating.
Rolling over I peered out from the forecabin through the rest of the boat, and felt something amiss. Ah yes, James, I realised. Where’s he gone then?
It’s been a long held nightmare of mine to awake to find that a crewmember has disappeared overboard during the night, slipping unnoticed and unheard into the black waters where they would almost certainly never be found by anyone but the sharks. Yet on this perfectly still morning, even the drunkest sailor would be hard pressed to fall off.
Concluding he was still aboard somewhere then, but with Holmesian deductions otherwise exhausted, I resigned myself to the fact that I’d have to get out of bed.
As I came through into the saloon, something emerged suddenly and silently from within the cockpit floor outside. It was black and curiously sticky-looking, and the whole moment would have been utterly Lynchian in its horror had the thing not looked slightly like James’s head.
“The engine seems to have shit itself”, the thing announced, matter of factly.
“Oh” I breathed, relieved that the thing was indeed James’s head. “Right.”
It was news to me that engines reserved such faculties, but the oily film covering my begrimed crewmate was evidence enough, and so I acted in the most important way one can in such times of strife and put the kettle on, before climbing out into the morning.
The day was already hot. Blue Eye twirled aimlessly across calm and glassy waters, locked into a hazy blue dome in which the edges of sea and sky were barely discernible in the distance. This was our sixth day journeying up the west coast of Borneo from the Indonesian south to the Malaysian north: latitudes infamous amongst sailors for their vacuum-like qualities. A motor, therefore, was rather crucial to any continued navigation, and ours – judging by the tone of both James’s face and voice – was suffering from a clinical case of diarrhoea.
As I mulled over these unclear horizons, I observed a yellow and black snake approaching across the sea – its head just above the surface with a long tail determining it towards us. I watched as it tested all sides of the hull to see that it might slither aboard, but I was relief itself to observe that it could not. After a circumnavigation of Blue Eye, the creature regarded me spitefully before spiralling extravagantly down into the depths, as if smug about something, and that left me unsettled. I was, however, glad it had not found its way up via the sinkhole, as a crab had done the week before.
Retreating back down into the cabin to attend to the whistling kettle, I was soon distracted by James’s discovery. The offending article was a burst high-pressure pipe that transferred oil from – to be specific about it – this bit of the engine to that bit. Once removed it took on a suspiciously familiar quality, and rummaging through the engine spares James soon held triumphantly aloft the very same pipe, only this one was without a gaping hole that might serve to paint the bilge black again. We were particularly jubilant because neither of us had bought this obscure part, but rather dear friend and founder of this bodge-it-around-the world project, Tom Ebdon, had purchased it some years before in an admirable – though it has to be said, rare – case of forward thinking.
In a climate as heavy with heat as with profanities, some hard hours later James had us up and running again and we pointed the bow to our destination once more: the Santubong River of Malaysia’s Sarawak region. I merrily munched on an apple, reflecting how funny it was to find ourselves in this strange part of the world, and was in good spirits until I cretinously chipped a front tooth on the fruit. If a snake wasn’t a sufficiently sincere omen of things to come, then the similarly biblical apple should have been. Things were about to get a whole lot worse.
Blue Eye was approaching the mouth of the river, a wide expanse that lay in the shadow of the towering Mount Santubong rising vertiginously out of an otherwise low-lying landscape, when an engine alarm pierced the air. Having spent many months and miles negotiating this engines inexplicable tendency to overheat and subsequently shriek from time to time, there was no mistaking what the issue was now. We turned it off with haste, and considered the inconveniently and precariously proximate position to rocks and shallow water that we found ourselves in, whilst utterly at the whims of the currents where river met sea. Until now the engine had only ever spontaneously overheated out in open water and away from such hazards, but this post-snake, post-apple era came with new rules.
With the engine quite resolute that all the normal tricks to cool it down would not work on this particular occasion, we had to hope that the sails would figure out a way to work in no wind at all. Sailors have been praying for such a miracle since somebody was so foolish as to hoist canvas on a floating object, and it seemed unlikely the matter would resolve itself now. Mercifully, before long the sinking sun cued the onset of a gentle land breeze that the night air can often bring, and the sails drank it in greedily. Slowly we sailed into the Santubong River.
But as chance would have it (and we were beginning to understand that chance would be against us), low tide was fast approaching and the river mouth was becoming impassably shallow. Sure enough, before long the fully canvassed Blue Eye eased to a halt as her keel nestled gently but firmly into soft mud, stranding us a tantalising one-mile from the designated anchorage where boats are actually supposed to come to a stop. Seeing as we were quite positively stopped where we were, we saw there was nothing for it but to wait until the tide came back up, and it was in this way that Blue Eye came to be in the novel situation of having full sails up, at the same time as a heavy anchor and chain down.
Some hours and several cups of tea later, when the engine had cooled down from its tantrum and the tide had lifted us off the riverbed, we anchored under the dark outline of Mount Santubong and went to bed. It had been a very long day.
And yet, things got worse still. The next morning whilst we slept, an enormous floating fish farmhouse crashed into us.
There’s not really anyway of beating around the bush with something like that; that is just quite simply what happened. Whereas the day before a peculiar silence roused me from sleep, on this morning it was a terrifying crunching-splintering-scraping cacophony that had us scrambling up on deck with that horrible clumsy haste that accompanies an urgent awakening, to find Blue Eye being engulfed by, as I said, an enormous floating fish farmhouse.
For the confused – and confused you should be – these floating fish farmhouses (from hereon FFF’s) tend to comprise of a tin-roofed hut erected on a grid-like network of planks which float atop dozens of buoyant plastic barrels, and below this sprawling structure hangs a large underwater net to facilitate the farming of the fish. FFF’s can be seen throughout Southeast Asia, most commonly in rivers, but on rare occasions they can be found straddling the bows of unwitting sailboats. The latter can occur when the tidal current is so strong that the heavy FFF manages to break free of its anchors, and drift downriver until it meets said boat. Never mind that the river might be a hundred metres wide and it could have easily missed the boat, because this boat – this particular boat – quite literally had it coming.
All this was very unclear in those first few dreadful moments in which the runaway FFF swallowed us up. I really can’t emphasise how perplexing it is to wake on what you thought was a stationary boat, and find yourself in collision with something. Our instincts were that we had dragged anchor, but getting our bearings we saw this just couldn’t be true. “Well this is crashing into us!” James cried, more to himself than anyone else.
The crunching and splitting sounds continued to jar on our ears as we helplessly watched the enormous FFF wreak its havoc, folding under the force of its own magnificent weight around Blue Eye like a splintering stick across a knee. One half scratched and scraped its way along Blue Eye’s starboard side before continuing its quest for freedom downriver, whilst the other half clung stubbornly onto the bow. Within moments the carnage settled, peace had returned to the morning, and all was normal again. That is, aside from us having quite suddenly inherited an extension to our home in the form of half an FFF that now sat rubbing against the portside paintwork. After a few comically hopeless pushes and pokes it became apparent that the thing was quite stuck, and there was little to be done other than to put the kettle on.
If this was of any interest to anybody ashore, it wasn’t immediately obvious. Nobody paid any heed to the foreign sailboat that had turned up overnight, seemingly complete with an extensive wooden patio, and a garden shed that looked a little bit like a tin-roofed hut from an FFF, but of course couldn’t be. Nobody abided in this hut, though there was a bed in there that looked like it had been used recently. And nobody had come to try and discover the fate of this FFF, that had snaked its way all the way downriver but couldn’t quite manage to navigate itself around the small sailboat that had been magnetising misfortune to itself ever since entering Malaysian waters.
With the turn of the tide, however, came a turn in luck too, as local fishermen arrived to help pull the immense disaster off of us. They towed the thing to shore where it sat looking sorry and dejected, and not long after we watched its other half return back into the river looking equally sorry and dejected, having only just escaped into the ocean before the tide sucked it back in again. This time it passed us by at a safe distance.
Agreeing that this was no place to remain, we soon went to haul anchor and seek refuge in another of Borneo’s many rivers that twist into its rich interior. But so heavy had the combined weight of boat and FFF been on the chain, it was impossible to wrench the hook from the thick mud of the seabed. Perhaps there was a plank or something fouling the anchor we considered, but in these crocodile-occupied waters browner than the best-brewed cup of tea, it was not something we were going to investigate. Miserably conceding that, one, for the best chance of freeing it we would have to wait for the more favourable angle that low tide would afford us the next day, and two, that reaching this conclusion proved that trigonometry actually can be of use outside the maths classroom (apologies Mr Clackson), we settled in for another night on the river.
At low tide the next day the anchor emerged from the opaque waters coated in a clay-rich mud, having been yanked from the riverbed by some commendable let’s-get-the-hell-out-of-here driving from James. But with dismay the irony dawned that the low tide that had allowed us to free the anchor was the same low tide that now locked us into the river – unless we wanted to spend more time aground on the bed of the mouth – and so reluctantly we dropped the anchor back down again, and awaited the turn of yet another tide. During this time we reflected that not in all our miles sailing around the world thus far had so many challenges confronted us in such a concentrated area. “Easy life this cruising thing, hey?” James languished. “Piece of cake”, I muttered; and that reminded us to go and have a cup of tea.
It was clear to us this snake curse was a serious one, and the only thing for it was to venture as far into the depths of Eden as we could go and await this ill fortune to blow over. We sailed east and started up Borneo’s largest river, the Rajang, with ambitious plans to see how far inland we might meander. The coffee-coloured low tide exposed a plethora of mangrove roots that swirled pleasingly down steep-sided mud banks; whilst at a tea-tinted high tide the Rajang lapped at the thick green landscape that we weaved our way into ever deeper, in the bowers of overhanging trees. When the scenery grew monotonous we resorted to playing a clip-the-branches-with-the-mast game, which demanded nerves of steel to drive right along the riverbank and not run aground. At other times steering into the mangroves was actually the safest option, as enormous barges charged downriver and came sphincter-relaxingly close: the men on the bridge just waved cheerily, oblivious to our distress. More welcoming gestures came from the uniformed children that whooped and waved from speed boats as they careered by, which was not at all a bad way to get to and from school we thought. But best of all was the exclusive appearances of the river-residing Irrawaddy dolphins, who occasionally joined us from the murky depths.
One day the brightly coloured city of Sarikei emerged around a corner. Below the grey brushstrokes of the sky and against the golden brown of the Rajang, the pinks, oranges and greens of the buildings struck a surreal but agreeable sight. Inside this jungle-dwelling city we found strange things: indeterminable fruits in all manner of shapes and sizes; grubs being sold live and wriggling; and ducks being sold live and wrapped in newspaper. It was a confusing place, which was often the way we found Malaysia to be if I’m quite honest. As a melting pot of many Asian sects, we found navigating the cultural waters of Malaysia as windy and murky as its rivers, and whilst one shouldn’t want to put things into boxes, the fact that Malaysia doesn’t fit into one very neatly can be naturally unsettling for the foreign mind.
We had taken Blue Eye as far inland as she had ever likely been, and it felt like a very long way back to the ocean. But back to the ocean she must go, and in any case the jungle’s intensity had become too much for us. From the moment the sun squeezed through the mosquito net each morning, the temperature was already hastening towards its formidable heights; and though we longed to swim in the cool, muddy waters, the very real risk of encountering crocodiles kept us hot and sticky throughout the day. And so we made our way back down the Rajang and headed up the Sarawak River to the metropolis of Kuching, the region’s capital, determined to collect some ordered engine parts and depart these brown waters that had conspired against us since a tooth broke on an apple. “While I breathe, I hope”, is the Sarawak motto. Well in that humidity a breath was hard to come by.
Business complete in the city, we slipped the lines and caught an ebbing tide that swept us back out of our last Borneo river at a delightful seven knots. I hoped that the Irrawaddy dolphins jumping all around might be a signal of changed fortunes; that our time in the jungle had been enough to redeem us somehow. But even in the bible, after a bite on an apple comes the reckoning of the storm, and indeed an hour later thunderclouds began to form directly over our heads. On that dark night the wind swirled around the compass like a snake eddying into the depths, and so I pulled up my hood and awaited the downpour, wondering if Blue Eye sufficiently resembled Noah’s Ark that we might see the morning.