The beginning

“Good morning Grenada, this is the Cruisers Net, let’s start with the weather report…. the temperature today is 31 degrees Celsius, 70% humidity…” This is how our days have started since we moved to our sailboat Mabul in the Caribbean in mid-August.

At 7:30 a.m., we turn on the radio at the navigation table and listen to the most important information from cruisers to cruisers. Is there a hurricane inbound? Where is the next shore excursion headed? Who is looking for or has boat parts for sale? Today someone is looking for their dinghy, their little dinghy that got loose from their boat last night.

To cruise, to sail the oceans, sounds like “lonely wolf” living, lone sailor conquering storms and tempests, at least that’s how I imagined it before Alex and I bought a sailboat in the Caribbean in mid-April. But since I moved from land to water, from Switzerland to the Caribbean on Mabul, I realize: being a cruiser is like living in a floating village, a tight-knit community, a tribe. The Caribbean island of Grenada’s Benji Bay, where our boat Mabul is moored at a buoy, is full of yachts of various sizes.

View to Benji Bay, Grenada
Part of a floating community

Next door to us lives Jay from Wisconsin, who has lived on his sailboat for six years. He used to make interiors for classic cars. As a cruiser, he earns a little money sewing a sunroof for sailors like us or helping with fiberglass work. Within shouting distance next door, Horst, a German chemist in early retirement, lives on a catamaran with his wife Amy and their Labrador Zoe. Just a few swim lengths away live Shaun and Paz, a young couple, he from Australia, she from Spain, both formerly in the construction business, who also just bought a sailboat a few weeks ago. “How are you today?” calls Kim, an experienced English skipper who has just crossed the Atlantic with his wife, as he swims past our boat in the morning. I quickly realize: moving onto a sailboat is not the beginning of a lonely life, but the entrance into a new community. It is made up of people who are rich or poor, have big or small boats, and who have all decided to leave behind their life on land, for a time or for the rest of their lives, and start a new one on the sea, always ready to weigh anchor to explore new shores.

The very first days on board

Alex and I are now part of this cruiser community, although we are not actually sailors, at least not experienced ones.

The first sailing lessons in Thailand

We started sailing only a year ago, in the summer of 2021, by pure chance and thanks to the pandemic. At that time we were living in Thailand, I was working as a Southeast Asia correspondent for Swiss Radio SRF and Alex was working as a freelance electrical engineer. Since the pandemic held us captive and we wanted to escape Bangkok, we spent the summer in the coastal town of Hua Hin, where we met Richard, an English sailing instructor who ran a sailing school with his Thai wife. On the beach at Hua Hin, we boarded a Laser, a sturdy single-handed dinghy, for the first time. The small, maneuverable Laser responds instantly to the interplay between water, wind, sail and body position – and if you do something wrong, the boom will bang you on the head or you’ll capsize – an efficient way to quickly learn the basic technique of sailing.

Waiting fleet of Laser dinghies

After two months of Laser sailing, we were drawn to bigger boats and booked the ten-day “From Zero To Hero” course with Captain Tim in Pattaya. In the course we would learn the “rules of the road”, more sailing technique and how to keep a boat alive. The “Yachtmaster Coastal Power & Sail” certificate would allow us to charter boats ourselves.

Navigation and positioning on paper charts has to be learned

Captain Tim was a wiry American from Maine, with a small goatee and thin hair that the wind blew off his head in all directions. When he spoke, he did so in a loud voice, as if he had to instruct the crew at the other end from one end of the boat, even if they were standing right next to him. He had sailed for seven years with his Japanese wife Naomi, planning a circumnavigation, but the Pacific offered too many temptations; they made it from the U.S. only as far as Thailand, where he opened a sailing school and from where his wife flew back to the United States. At least, he says, he now knows every island in the Pacific.
Captain Tim was no doubt an extremely capable and proven sailor, but his school boat Paprika was a sailing yacht that suffered from neglect and was long past its prime. Paprika’s sails were a patchwork quilt and many of the lessons on engine maintenance or navigation equipment operation thus became theoretical digressions, as neither the radio nor most of the electronics worked. On the first day, as we were about to sail out, the engine wouldn’t start – the battery was dead. Captain Tim was also a great storyteller, saying he always inculcated in his other instructors not to get distracted, “don’t go down the rabbit hole…”, he was a master at just that. So one afternoon we were at sea for six and a half hours, six and a half hours in which Captain Tim really only wanted to teach us the 24 traffic rules of navigation, instead after each rule he fell into a new rabbit hole, was reminded by each rule of a different story from his sailing life – and told it to us.
For example, the story of the ship Captain Tim and his crew were ferrying from Hawaii to Guam that nearly ran aground off Johnston Atoll. “A leaky monster” is what Captain Tim called the ship, which was used for day trips in Hawaii and was quite large and had two jet skis on board. At the height of Johnston Atoll, the pump that was supposed to pump out the water that was continuously flowing into the leaky boat failed. The sailors needed help and the only way to get it was at Johnston Atoll. The atoll is located in the northern Pacific Ocean and is politically part of the United States. Tim radioed the island, but the answer came quickly and clearly: You can’t dock here. Nevertheless, he set course for the atoll, otherwise there would soon have been no more leaky monster. Upon entering the harbor, Captain Tim and his crew were threatened with weapons until they were clearly identified as Americans. The sergeant on duty was not pleased, but allowed them to anchor and even promised to have the missing part for the pump flown in, but that would take two days, two days in which they were not allowed to be anywhere but on their boat and at the bar. They did just that, and in the process learned why Johnston Atoll remains inaccessible to civilians: This is where all the toxic waste was burned – the Agent Orange chemical defoliant left over from the Vietnam War, which the Americans had used to do so much damage in Vietnam, and other stuff – that they didn’t want in the United States. The first thing the sailors received was a small medicine packet with a syringe that they would have to inject immediately into their thighs in case of emergency. In their spare time, they gave tours of their leaky monster to the soldiers and civilian contractors present. One, a civilian contractor who hated living on the island, visited their boat several times. He was desperate to get off the island, begging Tim to take him, but he refused to take a passenger on board. Then, after three days and with a working pump, they left, promising never to come back. A few hours later, they discovered the stowaway, the unfortunate contractor. They couldn’t help but return to the atoll.
I wondered if these were simply sailor legends, made-up robber tales, and investigated….at least about the toxic waste, Captain Tim was right!
But Captain Tim’s stories were not just in the far Pacific, every single ship in Pattaya Marina had its story and many of them were known to Tim. The sailing ship right next to Paprika, for example, belonged to one of Tim’s former students. It had gained some notoriety, even making it onto the front page of the Bangkok Post because 600 kilograms of methamphetamine had been transported in its hull and eventually confiscated. After that, it didn’t find a buyer for a long time – until its name was changed.
Captain Tim’s stories gave us an idea of the worlds of adventure and experience that lay hidden in this universe of sailors and oceans.
Captain Tim’s stories gave us an idea of the worlds of adventure and experience that lay hidden in this universe of sailors and oceans. It was Captain Tim and other cruisers we met last year who made us dream of owning a sailboat ourselves and setting off for these faraway worlds….

Our first charter trip: a single disaster

Now that we were officially qualified to charter a boat, we rented our first sailboat, a Jeanneau 409, on Koh Chang, an island in the Gulf of Thailand. The charterer owned several sailboats himself that he rented out, all of which had not been sailed or maintained for some time due to the pandemic. Our first charter trip thus turned into a single disaster. Already on the second day, the engine smoked because the V-belt had broken, then the navigation device went out and finally the shift cable failed.

Broken V-belt somewhere between Koh Chang and Koh Khut, Thailand

«Things break down on boats!», was the only comment of the Russian owner, who came with his motorboat to tear the gearshift out of the boat with brute force. This first charter trip was followed by another one that was a bit more harmonious.
By mid-March, it was clear that my correspondence in Southeast Asia would soon be finished, and I was planning a longer break after more than twelve years as a correspondent in South and Southeast Asia. So we started to look for sailboats on the internet. The dream of owning a sailboat should not remain a dream anymore!

We are looking for a sailing boat

On Yachtworld, an internet platform where boats are offered for sale, our search began. First we searched in Asia, but here there were few and especially expensive boats. In the Mediterranean the offer was large, but since we did not want to begin our journey with our modest sailing experience directly with an Atlantic crossing, we searched in the Caribbean and found within two weeks: the blue water yacht Feeling 44, year 1988, built by Kirie in a French shipyard, equipped with watermaker, generator and new sails, was on the Caribbean island of Grenada and was for sale. She seemed exactly what we were looking for: an affordable monohull, 44 feet, a good 13 meters long, and not an ex-charter boat. Moreover, after crossing the Atlantic three times, she had already proven her ocean-going qualities.

Mabul, then still called “Pepper of Niihau”, is launched for the sea trial

From then on, everything happened very quickly. Alex flew halfway around the world to meet the English owner and take a look at the boat, while I traveled to Switzerland to go on a reading tour with my three new books. Together with a marine expert and the owner, Alex launched the boat and did a “sea trial”, i.e. a short sail to check the seaworthiness and systems on board. The boat seemed in generally good condition and a few days later, the bill of sale was signed and the boat was ours. I had never owned a car in my life and now we were suddenly sailboat owners, how crazy was that!

She is Ours! The first evening alone at anchorage in Woburn Bay, Grenada

If you think that you buy a boat and immediately start sailing, you are wrong. When you buy an old boat, that’s when the work starts. Besides the work on the boat, the registration had to be changed, insurance had to be taken out and all radios and radar equipment had to be registered in our names. We also wanted to rename our boat. “Pepper of Niihau” became “Mabul.” Mabul is the name of a Malaysian island off Borneo. Here, on a diving ship, Alex and I had met. A little romance is necessary…

On reading tour, book vernissage at sphères, Zurich

While I spent two months reading from my books and talking about Asia in libraries and bookstores in Switzerland, Alex sailed our ship from the marina to its first anchorage and began work on board. Frustrations regularly followed minor and major successes.

Pumps, watermakers, problems!

Here is an excerpt from Alex’s diary of the first days on Mabul: “May 21, 2022: I slept great! The breeze through the boat is awesome. The main project for today is the water maker, the high pressure pump gets too little water, even with the supply of fresh water. Probably the filter is to blame…… shower curtains installed and the first time showered on board. Room for improvement! Because of the fly screen over the hatch I can not stand, am too tall. I removed the screen, now I can stick my head out of the hatch while showering….. May 22, 2022: Actually I just wanted to do a few little things: pick up a multitool and some leftover paint. I went to the jetty with my dinghy and my cell phone fell into the water. Dived down and found it and put it in a rice bag on Mabul. Shit….. May 23, 2022: What I have done so far today: Fixed leak at toilet, replaced filter at watermaker, checked solenoid valve, checked gear oil level of dinghy engine, drained gear room. Absolute priority still has the watermaker, otherwise I’m soon on the dry. Was still shopping, bought many mangos. Took cell phone out of rice bag, is completely dead, no idea where I’ll get a new one on this island.”

Boat yoga, Leaky water tank inspection

And so it went on with Alex: when one problem was solved, the next one was already waiting to be tackled. In May and June, our conversations across the Atlantic were pretty much the same: Alex talked about pumps, filters, lines, gearboxes and new technical and mechanical problems that came up on the boat, I told him about the readings and the people I met.

A new, strange world

We moved for the moment in two completely different worlds, in the process I realized that if I had been alone on the boat, I would have been absolutely lost.

A look into the past: Karin on reportage in the mountains of Afghanistan

For 20 years I have been dealing with political, economic and social events and news as a journalist. I know how to navigate a crisis and war zone, how to appease corrupt officials or make arrogant politicians talk, but I don’t have the faintest clue about how to change a pump or get a water maker running. Without Alex, the “let’s sail into the world” project would have been doomed from the start. He’s a born tinkerer, the engineer, can spend days on the mechanics of an engine or the convoluted paths of cables. While I need interactions and conversations with other people, my daily dash of literature or writing as much as I need air to breathe, Alex is satisfied if he can spend hours on a technical problem until it is solved. On a sailing ship, his skills are a great blessing, a necessity. As he does so, I wonder what I will contribute to our boat life, whether with a little patience and curiosity I will learn to take care of pumps, engines, and craftsmanship, or whether we will suddenly become a very traditional couple, as I never wanted: Alex taking care of the engineering and the hands-on stuff, me taking care of the route planning, the communication and the food? What will the sea, the boat do to us, make of us?

This is what 100kg luggage looks like, London Heathrow Airport

With these questions in mind, I boarded the plane in mid-August in Zurich bound for the Caribbean. Before that, in July, Alex had traveled from the Caribbean to Europe and we had chartered a sailboat in Greece together with friends. It was a kind of main rehearsal, before we exchanged our life on the land, completely against one on the sea. The strong meltemi, the north wind that blew into our sails at up to forty knots, living in a confined space, and the more than a thousand nautical miles we covered in a month in the Aegean strengthened our confidence that even in strong winds and gusts we could still control the boat. But not only that. The month of sailing in the Aegean also showed us that, despite occasional discussions about the best anchorage and the most suitable route for sailing, the two of us are a good team. Alex clearly more ambitious and courageous – two sailboats sailing in the same direction is always a regatta! -, always a touch harder on the wind than me, always reefing the sails a few minutes later than me, but in the end we had mastered the month together and were looking forward to being on our own boat soon.

Finally the crew is complete! First day together on Mabul

What adventures, what challenges, strains, joys, discoveries and frustrations would await us in the coming months? I asked myself as I landed in Grenada on August 17 after a journey of more than 30 hours. Alex picked me up at the airport, from where we drove my 92 kilograms of luggage, including the folding bicycle and the bread machine, to the pier. From there, only a short dinghy ride separated us from Mabul and the beginning of our new life.

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Meinrad Stöhr

Servus Karin und Alex,
auf Anraten meiner Tochter Maria (Südortasien Korrespondentin des Spiegel) habe ich begonnen, euren Podcast zu hören. Sehr gut gemacht. Allein in den interessanten und kurzweiligen Interviews ist sehr viel professionelles Know How der Journalistin erkennbar. Alex bringt als Ingenieur – ich nehme an Maschinenbauer – ideale Voraussetzungen für einen Skipper mit.
Eure Anfänge würde ich als “wagemutig” einstufen. Alleine der Kauf des Bootes erscheint mir ein bisschen blauäugig. Aber was solls. Wichtig ist, dass ihr euch von den daraus resultierenden Problemen nicht habt entmutigen kassen. Dafür zolle ich euch meinen Respekt. Ich bin erst bei Episode “6” und freue mich auf weitere “Armchair Adventures”. Denn das sind sie für mich, da ich gerade mit Grippe im Bett liege.

Lieber Meinrad, bläugig und ziemlich naiv waren wir ganz bestimmt, aber wer weiss, vielleicht hätten wir sonst dieses Abenteuer gar nie gewagt und das ist es ja für uns, ein grosses Abenteuer. Wir freuen uns riesig, wenn wir dich etwas mit des Weges nehmen können. Frohes Armchair-Reisen und schreib wieder mal!

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