May 10, 2015

Weathering the Maldivian Weather

watching a squall come in over the reef

We’ve spent the past few days hunkering down between fast bursts of sailing south—when we have moved it’s been with a cautious eye on the weather and an equally careful search of the charts. When we get in we want to know exactly what to expect from an anchorage and have a fairly clear idea where we’ll be dropping the hook. Thanks goodness for google earth--and the Maldivian's unique use of 'stick' navigation (sticks often mark reef passes) if we had to rely on charts of this region we'd be far less adventurous.

a few seconds later the island (and our bows) disappeared in the rain
Our goal is to keep making our way south through the Maldives as the south west monsoon sets in: A goal that’s complicated by the fact that we really haven’t got a clear understanding of what to expect from the south west monsoon season—especially because as our climate changes, long-reliable seasons just aren’t that predictable anymore.

it's not all like this...
When we’re passage making, we tend to use the big picture weather providers: and download GRIBS and satellite pictures to get a sense of trends and forecasts. Once we get to a new country though—especially one that’s 99% sea, we tend to look more at local resources to get a handle on weather and current patterns. In the case of the Maldives we check in with local forecasts as well as with the local fishermen.

Since ancient times, the Maldivian people have organized their lives around two seasonal weather patterns. Every year has two monsoons, the north east monsoon or Iruvai and the south west monsoon called Hulhangu. Iruvai means hot and dry and Hulhangu means hot and wet. Historically Hulhangu starts on April 8 and is divided into 18 nakaiy, thirteen or fourteen day periods that help people determine the best times to fish, travel and plant crops. Technically the nakaiy should also help tell us when to sail south—but the feedback we’re getting from local fishermen is the nakaiy ain’t what they used to be, so we should use the historical info with a grain of salt.

the good news is you can still snorkel in the rain
Right now though the nakaiy seems to be right on track. The period from May 6-19 is called Kethi and traditionally consists of dark clouds, frequent rains and storms—making it a good time to burn leaves and sew crops but not such a good time to travel or fish for tuna.

The good news is that if Kethi does follow its typical patterns we should get a decent period of calm starting in a few days (that would be for the crop planting). Right now though, we’re tucked in behind a big wide reef with the tuna fleet anchored behind us. Wind is roaring through our rigging and we’re all catching up on long neglected chores, book reading and movie watching. And we're dreaming of days where we see sunsets. And the sun.

May 3, 2015

More Maldives

A Dhoani taking tourists for a sunset ride
I love it when a country surprises me.
Maybe it’s the sombre clothing, the women dressed in flowing black dresses and hijabs; or perhaps it’s the reserved way the locals interact, as welcome as we feel its tough to get a smile or wave out of people: but the Maldives feel very sedate and steady, and very unsurprising. It’s not the kind of place that you’d expect to have 12 different names for a coconut. Or even the kind of place where a coconut might be detained by the police. But during the 2013 election a kihah (young drinking coconut) was suspected of being infused with black magic and was accused of vote-rigging in a key presidential election.

The kihah was found innocent and released.

posters and political slogans are found throughout the islands
Much of what makes the Maldives intriguing is how little most people know about it. The common perception is of a sun-kissed paradise that caters to the well-heeled and honeymooning. And up until 2010 (after the Local Tourism Laws were passed by Mohamed Nasheed in 2009) exclusive resorts were about all outsiders ever saw of the Maldives.

In truth, it’s a deeply complex country of 394,000 (with one third of those being foreign or illegal workers). Most people either work in the resorts, for the government or they fish. Right now the Islamic Republic is struggling to stabilize its nascent democracy. But just yesterday thousands protested against the government in Male and hundreds (including several members of the opposing political party) were arrested.

we spend hours everyday in the warm water

Despite the turmoil, the Maldives feels very peaceful. We were lucky enough to spend the past two days being shown around a couple of villages (when we were out of the water—which is tough, the water is amazing). 

a local boat getting repairs
On Maamigili Island Jamsheed walked us through the town to the shore where traditional wooden boats being built. There we were told they are built without plans or nails and that the master boat builder has the blueprints in his head. From there he took us past the gardens and then to a local restaurant where he treated us to a traditional lunch where he encouraged us to try a little post-lunch adafi (betel leaf and areca nut with a little breath-freshening mint and clove).

my skeptical face...
Over the adafi (I’m pretty sure I got the delicate-white-tourist-lady serving because I never noticed any sort of effect) our talk turned to how the tourism laws are perceived in the villages. Jamsheed explained that more conservative Muslims are worried that the outside influence of foreigners will dilute community and religious values. But as the owner of a guesthouse he’s discovered the opposite is true. Most people who come to the islands want to learn about the local culture, he explained, so the local culture has a chance to become stronger.

We talked a while about village life and politics, and then Jamsheed asked us if we needed any coconuts. We told him we already have a few aboard and then we commiserated over how tricky it is to get the young drinking coconuts. Then we learned those aren’t coconuts. A coconut (the mature kind with meat) is a kaashi. But a kihah is for drinking (or placing curses on someone…) and therefore it’s not a coconut.

So armed with twelve names for coconuts, and a deeper understanding of village life, we headed back to the boat and dove back into the gorgeous water and looked forward to all the surprises to come.

April 28, 2015

Such Sadness for a Friend

There’s a funeral today. Every time I think about it my stomach lurches and I’m reminded of an unimaginable loss that happened in the blink of an eye. My friend’s sparkling little sprite of a daughter drowned near their boat. For an endless night, rescue crews searched the marina’s water while volunteers walked pathways hoping to find Kitty safe and happy. My friend and her family didn’t get their joyful ending.

Almost every parent I know has had ‘the moment’, that one where their kid was a kid and slipped from their grasp, or dodged out of sight. It’s ‘the moment’ because it reminds us that no matter how cautious we are, accidents happen. It’s also the moment because it should teach us humanity and compassion—it should remind us that sometimes when we get lucky, others do not.

I am so grateful to be part of a compassionate group of mothers who live on boats and who have jumped in to support Cidnie, Mark, Maura and Sam in any way they can. Some are making cross-country journeys for the funeral, others are coordinating meals, while others are fundraising for the family. Still others are there to bear witness with their words: My friend Cindy has compiled all the ways these women have said we’re standing beside the family in their grief and will be there in the future.

My friend Cidnie, with a level of grace I can’t imagine, has said one organization stood out in the search for Kitty. Tim Miller from Texas Equusearch promised the family to keep searching until Kitty was found. After other searches were called off, TXEQ kept their equipment in the water.

I was fortunate enough the write about Texas Equusearch a few years ago. If you’re not familiar with the organization, it’s one Tim Miller started after the loss of his own daughter. The volunteer group has purchased a variety of high-tech equipment to support local searches around North America. They also provide peer-support for families going through unimaginable grief.

Unfortunately, as a volunteer run organization they’re dependent on donations, and last year they nearly shut down, and Cidnie has asked that if you feel moved, to please donate in Kitty’s memory: Texas Equusearch

April 11, 2015

The Other Maldives

So we’ve been poking around the islands swimming in this gorgeous, utterly unreal, aqua water for a couple of weeks now. Some days we’ll sail for a few hours to another atoll. Others we’ll stay put and spend the day snorkeling and the evenings watching the sunset (often from the beach with a cold beverage in hand). On one level our experience is very similar to that of every other tourist who comes to the Maldives, but on another level it’s utterly different

The Maldives is a fairly unique place. Unlike most tropical holiday destinations, people coming to the Maldives are typically headed to a luxury resort on a private island. This means you arrive at the airport in Male and immediately transfer to your hotel transport. A short while later you’re on your own island—no local hawkers to contend with and other than the occasional cultural day-trip to a local island, no rubbing shoulders with riff-raff.

We’re kind of keen on the riff-raff and are really grateful to be here after the 2009 Local Tourism Law which lets us visit the villages. But recently we (sort-of) got a view of how the other half live when we visited the Zitahli Dholhiyadhoo Resort.

For a pleasant day we wandered the resort pathways, explored the amenities, played with the turtles in the conservation program and swam on the gorgeous resort reef. The major differentiation was we still ate and slept on the boat, and oh, the resort was built but never opened so it’s kind of abandoned.

part of the show suite--to let prospective buyers know how the resort could look
Maia checking out our over-water bungalow
Apparently there are quite a few abandoned resorts in the Maldives. Information about why they are tourist free is a bit scarce—but it seems that a combination of politics, financial and environmental factors have conspired against them.

checking out the turtle conservation program
the staff spend their off-time fishing for the turtles
The result is both a bit eerie and heartbreaking. It seems like a huge waste and the workers who are left behind to try and maintain the resorts face an uphill battle. Zitahli Dholhiyadhoo was started in 2008 set to open in early 2011, but rather than looking like an almost new resort it’s looking fairly forlorn. Still gorgeous though.

April 5, 2015

First Impressions of the Maldives

I’ve been slow to write about the Maldives—part of it is we’ve been busy exploring; the water is gorgeous and the villages are intriguing. The other reason is it’s a hard place to draw conclusions about; a typical day is a contradictory mix of experiences and emotions

 The other day Behan and I headed into Nolhivaranfaru, the little village we’d been anchored off of for the past few days. As we wandered the tidy grid of streets I was surprised by the grandeur of some of the houses peaking out from behind the high stone walls. Many of the homes we’re seen so far have been modest coral or cinder–block structures surrounded by fruit trees and enclosed by walls (often painted with political slogans). On Nolhivaranfaru there were also big blocks of government housing—apparently waiting to be filled by residents from other villages—as the Maldives seeks to centralize its population.

The main reason we headed in is we were planning to move on and Behan wanted to show me the ancient banyan tree in the village centre. I also wanted to take in some of the Koran recital competition that we’d been hearing amplified over the water. The reaction we got as we strolled the sand streets varied from engaged conversation, welcoming handshakes and smiles, to hard stares. We fell somewhere between guest and unwelcome distraction; despite having carefully dressed in long skirts and long sleeves our otherness still showed.

I’m not sure if this reaction is a reflection of the fact that the Local Tourism Law (which went into effect in 2009—and allows visitors to access islands outside of the approved ‘tourist’ islands) hasn’t really taken hold up here, or if Maldivian people are simply very reserved. Chances are we were among the first tourists (if not the first) to wander the village lanes.

 A short while later, we pulled up anchor and headed toward Kulhudhuffushi (grocery store island for short, and the forth largest city in the Maldives). On the way we encountered a small pod of shy dwarf sperm whale and a sleepy pod of Risso’s dolphins—just two of the 21 species of whales and dolphins found here. As we slowly motored past the Risso’s dolphins, we watched them drift lazily on the surface, their white snouts pointed sunward. One breached. And a few did dolphin leaps—but mainly they just sunbathed.

Below the water the life is just as rich and diverse. Sea-temperature rise means the coral isn’t as vibrant as some we’ve seen, but we’ve seen some great formations and a lovely variety of fish life. Coral is everywhere—so it’s not hard to find a place to snorkel (it’s actually harder to find a place to anchor).

In Kulhudhuffushi we anchored in the international boat harbour—as the only boats, and waited for the customs officials to return from prayer so we could head ashore. When we headed into town I took in the faded yellow flags for the Maldivian Democratic Party that still flutter over the streets—despite the imprisonment of former President Mohamed Nasheed.

Lining the street were stores filled with a quirky miscellany; cinnamon next to a vice and a box of machetes, and areca nut (betel) found with the rice. What we couldn’t find was flour. Somehow in our provisioning, wheat flour was missed. We never carry tons; it’s easily infested and until now we’ve found it everywhere.

We searched along the wide sand streets and down a few narrow lanes. Visiting about a dozen stores we went through our spiel: ask for flour for bread, show a loaf of bread, and repeat the flour part. Usually we got a head shake. Occasionally the store clerk would look through the whole shop with us before sending us on to the next store. The worst moment came when we chased down the bakery truck only to have the driver look at us in confusion-despite the baked goods sitting beside him.

On a whim we went into on final store. As soon as we entered, we were ready to turn around, it had less on the shelves than most of the others, but when we went through our spiel the shop clerk opened up a bucket of flour.

Yesterday we arrived at a new anchorage. After a pretty snorkel the kids headed to shore and I made belated hot cross buns. Then Evan and I went in and joined the other cruisers sitting in a circle in the sand with the council president where they were talking about politics, drinking water shortages, sea level rise and fishing. A woman in a full hijab quietly brought us drinking coconuts—then returned to a circle of women a little ways away.

I peppered our host with questions—trying to get to the heart of the Maldives, trying to understand what it’s like to live in the place that the rest of the world sees as a perfect paradise.

March 23, 2015

Slowest passage ever?

If there is any wind, we're a 6 knot boat. We have typically averaged about 150 miles in a 24 hour period on passages. From Trinco to the northernmost Maldives port of entry is 720 miles.

This one has been different. Aside from the south coast of Sri Lanka, where the light NE trade winds are deflected and increased by the island, and the engine was shut off for a day, this has been a motorboat ride. And because we've still got a long way to go, we're maximizing our fuel range by motoring and motorsailing slowly. At 4 knots.

At 4 knots we burn about 0.4 gallons/hr, at 5 knots it's closer to 0.6. Fuel consumption in displacement boats is a very nonlinear curve.

We carry 60 gallons of diesel. At 0.4 gph we can motor for almost 150 hours. 150 hours x. 4 knots = 600 miles. We've never tried to maximize our motoring range until this passage. Let's all raise a glass and say "cheers" for bit of wind out here. 320 miles to go as of 3 am today.

Its boring to motor for 6 days. ��


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March 21, 2015

En route to the Maldives, day #3

It's been a very light wind passage to the Maldives until last night. Night #1 saw us getting caught in 2 fishing nets and having to cut ourselves free. It got to be a well practiced drill. Engine off, furl Genoa, raise the daggerboard where the net was caught, let net slip aft to the rudder, lift it with a boathook and cut away. Thankfully winds were light so there wasn't much pressure on the nets. Its always very stressful.

Last night was easier, we stayed further offshore in the shipping lane on the South coast of Sri Lanka - but more importantly the fishermen had lights on both ends of their nets. Made it much easier to avoid them. None came by to trade with us for fish.

We've been sailing slowly all night but the wind has increased to about 11 knots on the beam. So we're doing 6.5 knots. The forecast doesn't have this wind lasting, but for now we're going to enjoy it and sail fast to our next country.


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March 19, 2015

So Long Sri Lanka

In a perfect blogging world I would have written several posts about Sri Lanka by now. I would have written about riding an antique train to catch up with our friends in Kandy, and then stopping long enough to absorb a little of the wonder of Sri Lanka. I would have described how Maia fulfilled a childhood dream and had a sari made with babysitting money—and then how she discovered that it’s a bridge between cultures which lead to some of the sweetest interactions she’s had, as each woman she met needed to adjust it.

Some of my words would have been used to tell about the highlands, where tea is grown. How the green is so vibrant it made us think of New Zealand. But also, how the picking and processing of tea is so labour intensive that we’ll never take a cuppa for granted again. One entire post would probably have been about traveling cross country in company with three other boat crews—about the hotels we found (some nice, some infested) and what it felt like to hurtle down roads, passing every vehicle in sight, despite the lack of passing lanes and driving three abreast on a one-lane road.

The roads
Making hoppers--a yummy rice and coconut pancake with an egg inside
Sri Lanka has captivated us. We love the food, the people and the beauty of the landscape.

One morning in Anuradhapura we woke up early and loaded into a big jeep for a Safari through Wilpattu National Park. The park was closed for 26 violent years during the civil war. In 1984 when the LTTE massacred 24 park rangers, the terrorists went on the rampage poaching animals, taking timber and robbing archaeological treasures. The Government attempted to re-open the National Park twice. First in 2003, but then a group of visitors were killed in a landmine blast. In 2007 eight soldiers and park staff were killed by terrorists.

The park reopened for good after the war in 2010. But even in 2015 visits to the park are still a fraction of what they were. For us, this meant when our jeep passed through the gates and into the park, we soon wonderfully alone in the woods. Our guide was thrilled each time he stopped to show us yet another wonder. There was a jackal which looked exactly like an Egyptian Hieroglyphic, enough mongooses that we had to look up the plural of mongoose (mongeese is also correct), native peacocks and elephants.

When we sighted one of the parks 40 endangered leopards, I couldn’t help but cry.

In Anuradhapura we cycled through the 2000 year old city exploring the ruins. Samphat befriended us when we were looking at one excavation. He had worked as an archaeological assistant but because his hope is to travel he went to school to become a cook. Even as a cook in a good hotel he still only earns $40 a month. So as he showed us the ruins and taught us about Buddhism he explained his plan.

By the old bathing pool he gave us samples of the languages he’s learning—along with English, he’s taught himself some French, Italian, German and Spanish. As he showed us 2000-year relief carvings he told us how he was collecting foreign coins to represent his goals and showed us his small collection. Then he grew thoughtful and explained Buddhism teaches you to accept things, and maybe he’d never earn enough money to travel. So he showed us how to meditate to gain peace. 
But when he was done he told us he was a bad Buddhist because he still really wanted to travel.