Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Post Covid Malaysia

Store access only with tracing App.
For the past 2 months, we have been living under Malaysia's very serious Movement Control Order (MCO).

Typical checkout counter
Malaysia was initially hit hard with Covid-19 but restricted the population under the MCO.  Malaysians had done the right thing, bit the bullet, took a short term hit to their economy, and really gotten the virus under control.

As we were leaving, the restrictions were almost negligible and the Covid-19 was almost eradicated from the country. 

Almost all the economic pain is gone and life had almost returned to normal.

As of today, Malaysia has a total death toll of 114.  That's 3.5 deaths per million. For comparison, the US is at 278 deaths per million.  275 times higher.  

There are 11 people being treated in the ICU and 7 on ventilators in the whole country of 33 million people.

Malaysia is so far ahead in testing and tracing that they have a chart similar to a family tree for every infection.  They can trace every case back to an index exposure or cluster.

Our state, Perak, had no cases for almost 2 weeks and it wasn't until inter-state travel was allowed that 2 new cases appeared from 2 siblings who came from the south. 

That moved us from being a green zone to now being a yellow zone until the siblings recover.  Different color zones have different restrictions.

We have been so fortunate to be there during these times to see how a prepared country operates in a pandemic.

Here is a really good short video showing Malaysia's recovery.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Maldives Update - Steel Sapphire

Here is the Maldives Update from Steel Sapphire. The original post is at 
Here in Malaysia, Pangkor Island Marina owner, James Khoo, tried to get one of the islands to be used as a 'quarantine island'. The government was unable to come up with a resolution since nobody wanted to stick their neck out to allow foreigners into the country because so many of the cases have been 'imported'.
UPDATE: 02/05/20
Thanks so much to everyone for the outpouring of support and advice in response to this blog.
In the 2 days since we posted this, we’ve had a huge response, approximately 6,000 people have read it and we’ve received over 250 messages so far, mostly from friends, family and concerned cruisers around the world.

Two tangible and positive things have happened in these last 48 hours.
The first is that we’ve been given unrestricted daylight hours access to an uninhabited island about 5 miles from Uligan, in the NW corner of the atoll…which also happens to be the best spot for us to anchor now that the West winds have set in.
It’s a lovely island, and is already having a noticeable impact on the morale of the 10 boats who remain here. We’ve also been assured by our agent that the Maldives authorities do not intend to unceremoniously ask us to leave - the scary "prepare to leave” message they sent last week was more a “heads up" in case the situation continued to deteriorate.
The virus is continuing its spread, so it might yet happen, but the tone of the communication is definitely more positive.
The second development is that the Australian High Commission in Colombo, in conjunction with the US and Canadian embassies) is actively trying to organise a safe harbour option in Sri Lanka for those yachts in Maldives who want to take them up on it.
It’s still under negotiation, and I’m not sure if it would be anyone’s first choice (the most likely destination, Galle, is not a great place for yachts, and the backup, Trincomalee, while much more pleasant, is still a bit exposed in the SW monsoon. Plus, it’s in the cyclone belt), but it’s great that they’re working on it, and it would be good to have up our sleeve if the Maldives do end up asking us to leave before anywhere else has opened their borders.
So all in all, things are definitely feeling a fair bit more positive than just 48 hours ago.
Many of the ideas and suggestions that people have been making were written in the context of us having no choice if we were asked to leave here suddenly.
I don’t want to speak too soon, but if our current situation holds, and the Maldives continue to allow us to be here, then it buys us some time to try and make the best decision we can about where to go.
Malaysia or Thailand are still the best choice for us IF we think it’s going to take 12-18 months to sort out this whole Covid-19 schmozzle. Which it may, or may not. And if we can’t get in there, then finding a way to get back to Australia with or without the boat is the fallback.
In that scenario, positioning ourselves in Tanzania (currently open) or Seychelles or Reunion (potentially opening soon) would not be a great option, as I don’t see those destinations being a practical place for us to stay for that length of time.
On the other hand, it we thought that normal cruising could resume in the next few months, we would regret heading back east towards Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei or Australia, only to have to retrace our steps.
So our decision (if we have the luxury of making it ourselves) is really all about one question and one question alone: “Will normal cruising resume later this year, early next year, or some time later than that”.
And where we go next needs to be driven almost entirely by our answer to that key question.
Obviously we have insufficient data to answer it with any confidence right now. It will involve a guess and a gamble whenever we have to choose, but the later we can make that decision the better our data will be.
So our current strategy is all about maximising the length of time we can stay in the Maldives, to gather as much data as we can to inform that guess, while doing everything we can to open up the more desirable long term bolt holes if that’s the path we end up choosing.
In the meantime, thanks again for all the support - it’s been overwhelming and incredibly helpful.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Steel Sapphire

I am reposting with permission this post from a sailboat currently in the Maldives.
It is well written and describes the situation and challenges facing many cruisers.

An Indian Ocean crossing is planned years in advance and begins with a January departure from Thailand and ends in Cape Town at Christmas.  Many boats doing the crossing this year were spread out at different islands but are experiencing the same effects.

We are very fortunate to be in Malaysia and had not planned the Indian Ocean Passage for 2020.

Here is the blog reference:

A Nightmare Scenario
Death or severe illness.  Economic meltdown.  Loss of personal income.  Future instability.  Massive disruption to daily life.

For so, so many different reasons, Covid-19 is having a drastic impact on just about everyone on the planet.

Until a vaccine is developed and distributed, shelter in place seems to be the preferred solution.   If you were overseas when this all started, the instruction was to get yourself home, by whatever means possible.

And then, to a greater or lesser extent based on your country, people have been told to restrict their movement, stay at home, and limit their excursions to exercise or getting food.

But what happens if you don’t have a home, in the conventional sense?  And what about if there’s no way to get to your own country without the risk of significant environmental damage and/or putting yourself in terrible personal danger?

Spare a thought for those of us whose home is floating and subject to the vagaries of storms, cyclones and worse.  Who have a limited supply of food, fuel and water, no shops to visit to resupply, and limited or no access to land for exercise. 

Spare a thought for those for whom each day is consumed by what happens when the country they’re currently anchored in asks them to leave, while every other country’s borders are closed and being defended by Navy gunships.  

Think about how it would feel to be a stranger in a strange land, knowing that the locals are barely coping themselves with hunger, grief or economic hardship, and may be looking upon you with fear that you are carrying the virus to their homes or are consuming their scarce resources.

And all of this with the persistent dread about how you’ll cope when your engine, water maker or other critical system breaks down and you have no access to spare parts or replacements.

Like many other blue water cruisers at the moment, we are in a precarious position, and our short to medium term future is fraught with high levels of stress, anxiety and danger.

Along with everyone else, we have absolutely no sense of when things are going to get better.  But unlike most, we have a visceral and almost tangible dread - a very realistic fear grounded in the bleakest of realities - that things are about to get immeasurably worse.
We, and many others like us, need help.  Soon.

The current situation

We’re currently anchored in Uligan, the second-most northern island in the Maldives. 

Uligan is in Haa Alifu Atoll in the far north of the Maldives

We left Sydney in July 2018 to begin a 5 year circumnavigation, and sailed through South-East Asia visiting Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Sri Lanka, before arriving here in the Maldives in early March this year. 

Our plan for 2020 was to follow the weather systems through the Indian Ocean, travelling from North to South as the year progressed, arriving in South Africa around October.  

This is the traditional route for a west-about circumnavigation, and the timing of each leg is critical to ensure you are always in the safe zone avoiding cyclones and the worst of the infamous Indian Ocean seas and weather.

When we left Sri Lanka in early March, Coronavirus was on everyone’s lips, but the term Covid-19 had barely entered public consciousness, and “social distancing” was a phrase used by people who didn’t like Facebook and Instagram.

We were sufficiently aware to check with our agent in the Maldives but were reassured that all was good, and we would be welcome.  It was a 6-day passage during which we had no internet, so we were shocked by how much the global situation had deteriorated by the time we arrived on 12th March.

Two days after we arrived, the Maldives shut their borders, and we were told that it might be several days, or even a week or two, until our cruising permit was issued, while the government worked out their approach to the emerging threat.  By this point 12 boats were waiting in the anchorage with us.
50 days later we are still here.  

We have been required to shelter in place in the current anchorage, and have not been allowed to go ashore, other than brief walks on an uninhabited island under the watch of the Maldivian coastguard.
A few boats arrived after the borders were closed, but with one exception they were all moved on by the Coastguard to destinations unknown, after being given fuel or additional food and water.
The exception was a Swedish boat that arrived after a 5 day sail from Sri Lanka just three days after us (but one day after the border was closed).  We listened on the VHF radio as the skipper, in wonderfully calm and measured tones, patiently explained to the coastguard over and over that there was nowhere safe for him to sail onwards to.  He sailed backwards and forwards for 12 hours, while his embassy negotiated with the Maldives government, and was eventually given permission to anchor.
Some 7 weeks later he remains here, in limbo.  Neither cleared into the country, nor being moved on, he and his wife must remain on board, and are not allowed to interact with the other yachts anchored just metres away.

But this version of purgatory is much, much better than the alternative, and the other sailors nearby are full of admiration for his steadfastness and refusal to put his ship and crew into danger.
The truth is that for the other yachts who did manage to get officially cleared in, life is not that much better. 
We do have the ability to visit each other on our yachts (and that is significant), and where we are anchored has beautiful coral, lots of fish, and occasional visits from turtles, dolphins and manta rays.
One upside? The sea life here is AMAZING!
These are wonderful privileges, especially compared to some of our fellow cruisers locked down elsewhere in the world, but the good news stops there.
Shore access is still limited to just one 200m long, uninhabited rocky island on the other side of the atoll from Uligan.  To access the island we need permission from the coastguard to sail 5 miles to get there, and then permission again to disembark.  We must report back to the coastguard when we are back on board.
A turn for the worse
The Maldivian authorities have been helpful, providing regular supplies of basic groceries and diesel, and so the plan has been to sit out the worst of the coronavirus in Uligan, and then resume our onwards journey when borders reopened.
We have also come to realise that Africa is not a suitable onwards destination over the next 12 months even if the borders do open up, due to the risk of civil unrest there, as well as a lack of medical facilities suited to dealing with Covid-19, so we had started to think about alternative routes when last week the situation took a turn for the worse.
After a period of stability and low infection rates, the virus has begun to spread rapidly through the Maldives, and we received initially a coastguard call, and then a written message from our agent, stating that the authorities have asked all foreign yachts in the Maldives to prepare for an emergency departure if the situation continues to deteriorate.
There is nowhere to leave the yacht (a 32 tonne, 50 foot vessel) in the Maldives, so the typical consular advice of flying home to Australia is neither viable, nor appropriate from an environmental perspective (it could not be left unattended on its own anchor for any length of time without serious risk of sinking).
Sailing directly home to Australia is also out of the question, as it is over 4,000 miles away and such a journey would also be against the prevailing winds and currents.  There would be absolutely nowhere to refuel or reprovision along the way, and no “bail-out” ports if serious problems arose.

You really do not want to sail thousands of miles into the wind!
In fact, the pilot books (cruising guides which outline safe passages based on hundreds of years of weather data) for this part of the world do not even include a direct route from Maldives to Australia – instead the recommendation is to sail down the east African coast, turn left at Cape Town and then sail east to Fremantle and Sydney, turning it into an 8,500 mile non stop passage in the most dangerous and treacherous waters in the world.

West-bound routes
This is not a viable option for our vessel and crew, and as skipper, I am not prepared to put our lives in danger by trying to tackle this.
(The images above are reproduced from the Indian Ocean Cruising guide, and if you don’t believe me about the challenge of the route from Maldives to Austrlia via South Africa, check out how the guide describes it below):

Considering our options
What about sailing elsewhere?
When we first started considering our options, we were imagining that it was just a case of waiting out a few months, and then we would be able to resume our circumnavigation. 

Now we’re not so sure.
Everything we read suggests that most countries are unlikely to open their borders to foreign nationals for at least 6 months, and quite likely into the new year.  And that’s if the likely second and third waves of infections are able to be controlled as countries relax their movement restrictions for their citizens. 
If those subsequent waves get out of control, it’s quite possible that countries will keep their borders closed for non-essential travel right up until a vaccine is manufactured and delivered, which as we all know is 12-18 months away at least.
So as we contemplate being asked to leave Maldives imminently, our criteria for finding an alternative is as follows, in priority order:
  1. Is the journey there viable and safe from a sailing perspective?
  2. Is the border open and the country itself safe to be in?
  3. If the border is not open, is there still some kind of medium-long term options there (either shelter in place on our boat for several months, or facilities to leave the boat and fly home)?
Currently, there is no country in the world that meets those criteria for us, and indeed for virtually every blue water cruising boat. 
Every country that borders the Indian Ocean fails criteria 2, with just one exception.  At the time of writing, Tanzania’s borders remains open.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that the President there prefers to tackle Covid-19 through the use of onions, garlic and prayer rather than social distancing and lockdowns. 

Sadly, that means for us it fails the second part of test 2.
It’s also 1,700 miles away, mostly upwind, with very limited facilities for yachts of our size, making tests 1 and 3 marginal at best.
In short, it’s not a viable option for us.  And that’s the best we have.
Many, if not most countries who have closed their borders will provide emergency refuelling or reprovisioning for yachts, and so we know of some cruisers who have chosen to strike out for home, no matter how long and unsafe the journey, hoping to take advantage of an assumed willingness of each country they pass to top them up as they go.

While a “short hop” strategy like that might work if one was in the Mediterranean and trying to sail back to the UK  (for example), it is a dangerous strategy in the Indian ocean due to the huge distances and seasonal dangers to the weather.
We are aware of one Swedish yacht (different to the one referred to above) who has decided to sail single handed from The Maldives home to Sweden via The Cape of Good Hope, a distance of some 12,000 miles sailing in the wrong season almost the entire way, an undertaking that no other skipper I’ve spoken to would be prepared to attempt.
An Australian yacht recently made it to Darwin having sailed back from Thailand through the Indonesian archipelago, and making it just in time before the seasonal weather changes would have made such a journey quite challenging. 

Nonetheless, they encountered a great deal of hostility along the way, including the Indonesian military firing warning shots at them while they were taking on emergency fuel.
At this time of year (between April and October), the SW monsoon in this part of the world means that to pass Test 1, the most comfortable and safe direction to head in a sailboat is NE, and so the safest option for us is to sail to Malaysia or Thailand, where we spent several months in 2019. 

They each have the ability to be able to store yachts like ours, meaning they could also pass test 3.

Unfortunately both countries are in lockdown, and have stated that while they will refuel yachts, they will compel them to keep moving, and they will not be allowed to shelter in place.
This raises the prospect of us having to sail indefinitely, stopping only to take on fuel and emergency food in those countries that will allow us to do so.
So our best option at this stage, is to set out on the 1,700 mile passage from Uligan to Malaysia, knowing it will take 15-20 days at this time of year,  We will likely arrive perilously low on fuel, unless we’re willing to drift for days on end waiting for the wind to fill in, in which case we’ll likely arrive low on food instead.
Either way, it will have been a tough journey, throughout which we will have no insight into what awaits us.  Challenged by the Malaysian Navy, guns pointed at us?  Refueled and moved on?  And if so, to where?  And in what mental state will we be as we embark on that journey, again without knowledge of what awaits us at the other end.
Right back to the start - the nightmare continues
Naturally we have reached out to our embassy, both in Malaysia and Sri Lanka.  While they are trying to be helpful, they are simply not geared up to deal with our tiny niche, and so the initial advice has not been relevant to our situation.
The constant refrain is to fly home. 
“But what about the yacht”, we ask?  “We can’t just leave it to sink, can we?”
“Oh yeah, well you need to just stay in The Maldives then”.
“Yes, but we’re being warned by the Maldives that they may ask us to leave imminently. What then?”
“You need to have a plan in place in case you can’t stay”
“That’s why we contacted you.  Can you please liaise with the authorities in Malaysia or Thailand about our situation?”
“No, their borders are closed, and we cannot challenge their laws.  That’s not our role here”.
And round and round we go.
Quite apart from the physical dangers inherent in the choices ahead of us, the mental strain is considerable, and is taking its toll on our community of 12 yachts here in Uligan – initially there was a convivial and collegiate atmosphere which really did feel like we were all in this together.
After almost two months cooped up in tiny boxes, with little or no exercise, basic provisions, and a huge dose of uncertainty and fear about our future, the mood has changed in recent days. 
Now factions have formed, and there’s lots of bickering, mistrust, and an “every yacht for themselves” mentality creeping in. 
You really, really don’t want to know about the arguments about the fairest way to order and distribute groceries.
It would be funny if it did not highlight a serious point.
What was once an exciting and thrilling chapter in our lives has descended into a kafka-esque nightmare from which there appears to be no escape.
I wish I could end this blog with a more uplifting conclusion, but the truth is I’ll have to leave you hanging, for that is where we are at ourselves.
The blue water cruising community is such a tiny niche that it is entirely understandable that we have not been on the radar of governments, who surely have had much bigger issues affecting the vast majority of their constituents to deal with first.
But as the first wave of the virus settles down, and the pre-vaccine measures become the new norm, it’s my fervent hope that governments will start to have the bandwidth to focus in on those niche cases like ours where the standard solutions don’t fit.
The good news is that even as I wrote this today, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade actually issued a statement and memo specifically for Australian yachts overseas
Their advice?
Stay where you are or fly home. 


Friday, March 27, 2020

Locked Down in Malaysia

Malaysia’s neighbor, Singapore, had an early start to the COVID-19 coronavirus from travelers during Chinese New Year.  However, Singapore had learned many lessons from the 2003 SARS epidemic and was ready for the challenge. 

Shopping the day before MKO

About 3 weeks ago, Singapore closed their borders to all non-nationals, started aggressive testing, tracking, and quarantine.

As oblivious cruisers, our big concern was where to go for visa renewals if not Singapore.  In reality, the COVID growth in Malaysia was accelerating. 

Take-away Naan Bread from the tandoori
Malaysia had a big spike in cases from a religious pilgrimage at the end of February in Sri Petaling, a suburb of Kuala Lumpur.  16,000 people were in close contact and exposed to the virus.

Malaysia accepted WHO assistance to track and test the attendees to avoid further exposure to the general population.  These exposures made Malaysia the country with the highest number of cases in SE Asia.

Marina Island Checkpoint
The government of Mayalsia has a good working relationship with South Korea, Hong Kong, and China.  

They didn’t go into denial but instead listened to the lessons learned from SARS and N1H1.

On March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day, Malaysia ordered a 2 week Movement Control Order (MKO)

Empty Checkout lines during the MKO
The MKO is basically a nationwide shutdown.  The borders are closed.  All businesses except markets and convenience stores, gas stations, power plants, the post, and the military are closed.  

No hardware stores, retail, nor are services open.  

Foreigners are not permitted to enter the country and no Malaysian may leave.  Inter-city checkpoints block all traffic except essential commerce.

Restaurants can be open for take away only but since business is so slow, it doesn’t make sense economically to stay open.  The economy of the country is essentially shut down.

We went food shopping before the MKO and the stores were busy but still stocked.

Now, during the MKO, only the head of the household can enter, must wear a face mask, while the security guard gives you hand sanitizer.  The checkout people have been wearing masks and gloves long before the MKO.
They are very serious here

We are doing fine and are glad that we are in a country that cares enough about its people to go through these extreme measures.  The isolation is weird but nowhere near as bad as our month long passage from Mexico to French Polynesia.

The 14 day MKO has now been extended for another 2 weeks.  We feel very safe here and do not mind these restrictions.  Malaysia is very serious about the spread of this disease.  It would be nice if the United States was also.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Still Spraying and Sanding

Wet Sanding Setup
By the way, we are not just traveling around SE Asia.  We are still working on the boat.   

Scratches from prior sanding
Since every instrument, hinge, winch, holder, bolt, and screw was removed from the cockpit, it really was a priority to get it back together.  Psychologically the need to actually fully complete a section of the boat was also important.  

More important were all the holes from where things were removed and were just covered with tape and had the chance of leaking.   

The last thing you need to have is a boat leak when you are gone and have the boat fill up with water.  In a closed boat sitting in  the 100 degree heat of Malaysia, mold would grow fast on everything.

The cockpit was one of the places where there are a lot of corners and detail that makes the sanding go slow.

Scratches from hand sanding with 60 grit
We did the standard 100 grit initial sanding after spraying super thinned out Black Oxide Primer guide coat.   

We then wiped on the next application of guide coat with a rag and then wet sanded with 240 grit.  After that was complete, more guide coat was applied.    

Guide coat is darker with more scratches
We tried to jump to 800 grit sandpaper but it was taking quite a long time to remove the scratches and using up quite a few discs so we reverted to 400 grit.  More guide coat applied and then the final sanding with 800 grit.

Booker then went around with acetone and cleaned and excess guide.

and lighter with each subsequent finer sanding
Buffing then started with Extra Course Rubbing compound.  Then, another buffing using standard rubbing compound and a final buffing using 3M swirl remover.

The last step was only done where things were to be remounted.   

The rest of the cockpit will be done with swirl remover during the final detailing.

Here are some pictures showing the scratches that had to be sanded out.  I have tried to sand without the guide coat but it is just not possible to see all the scratches.  I feel that using guide coat before every sanding is the only way to remove all the imperfections.

In this last photo, a significant difference in color can be seen between the cockpit and locker lids.

The locker lid gelcoat was from a company in Singapore and applied during our design and trail phase.  Obviously it is not acceptable and we will have to do the lids again with the new gelcoat sourced from RP Malaysia in Johor Bahru.