Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Sailing Free as Crew on a Yacht

Story and photos by Thomas H. Booth

In any city of the world where land touches the sea there’ll be a yacht club or marina where visitors who show signs of enthusiasm will be welcomed by boat owners—some of whom may offer more than just conversation.

Of equal importance for traveling visitors are the bulletin boards of yacht clubs found all over the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, and Micronesia—from Honolulu to Hong Kong.

At the Yacht Club in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands on Guadalcanal, we met an Englishman who, over a welcome cold beer, announced that he was running his 35-foot power boat down the Guadalcanal coast to Marau Sound and he would welcome company. The sea was blue and placid, Marau Sound was a multi-hued place of beauty, and on the 2-day passage our new friend provided unlimited measures of island lore. Nothing could have been better.

In Penang and Langkowi—islands off the west coast of Malaysia—yacht club bulletin boards are rich in both commercial and private sailing offers for trips to nearby Sumatra, up into Thailand, and down to Singapore.

But it was in Hong Kong that a bulletin board notice paid off most handsomely.

We had been invited to the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club to celebrate a friend’s birthday. At one point midway between festivities and facilities (the men’s room), I came upon the club’s bulletin board and was struck by a prominent notice: “Newly constructed Twin Diesel Trawler 40 requires crew for voyage to Singapore. Contact George Harriman, 5-68724.”

Foregoing the men’s room, I hastened to fetch my wife, Virginia, who guardedly agreed that it wouldn’t hurt to look into the matter. A few days later, over eggs Benedict at the American Club, the youngish American owner told us that his voyage would take him to Singapore, where he had permanent crew waiting to help him continue the trip on to Penang, Colombo, Aden, Jeddah, Suez, and finally Greece—all of them 1,500 to 2,000 miles apart.One purpose of the voyage, he said, was to test the theories of Robert P. Beebe, a yacht designer who maintained that with well-functioning diesels and a good hull one could go anywhere—on schedule and in comfort. Beebe, according to Harriman, spoke with admiration of the purity of sailing, but felt that sailing imposed a certain tyranny upon the crew.

Harriman required two warm bodies who could stand wheel watch, do some cooking, and share expenses. He said we’d do, and after a short pause we agreed to go.

To make a long story short, Mr. Beebe was nearly right. We did complete the 10-day voyage on schedule—but not without a measure of high seas and discomfort. Still, this is what the sea is all about, and I continue to recommend yacht club bulletin boards as a source of adventure.

One final thought: Do not blindly accept any offer for going to sea without quietly checking it out. Some boats are unseaworthy and some skipper-owners can be scoundrels. I’ve always been lucky.

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