I love ocean sailing. There is nothing I like better than an empty sea before me and an exotic port 6,000 miles away. Our 53-day passage across the Atlantic, from Cape Town to St. Barts in 2004, was picture-perfect. It almost seemed as if my wife, Carolyn, and I weren’t sailing so much as allowing the earth to rotate under us. And in 2013, when a five-day passage to Ecuador seemed like it would end in the arms of too-greedy shore officials, we merely turned the helm westward for a lovely 48-day jaunt to Tahiti. And why not? The trade winds were free and our calendar was clear.
Eventually that decision brought us to the tiny isle of Lazarus, located, literally, in the shadow of Singapore’s financial district. Isolated it is not. Lazarus is surrounded by 700 or so anchored freighters in one of the busiest ports on the planet, and there were never fewer than 200 targets on my AIS when we were anchored there. A number of ferry companies run hourly trips. On the weekends, the island is awash with fishermen, yachties, jet skiers, swimmers, sand sculptors, windsurfers, shell collectors, kite surfers, scuba divers and day-charter headboats.
In many ways, being on Lazarus is just like being ashore in Singapore. But Lazarus is not Singapore. It is an island. And islands, well, they have their own internal rhythms, their own steel-pan logic. There’s a moat between you and reality. Worrying becomes taboo. Time slows. Yawning is allowed, napping encouraged. And nothing seems like it must be done right now, because tomorrow, surely, will be soon enough.
Every few months for the past year that we spent in Singapore, we packed up all our cares and woes and sailed our 43-foot ketch, Ganesh, 25 miles to this tiny isle, waving at the giant skyscrapers that house our hardworking daughter, Roma Orion, her fast-track husband, Christian, and their two children, 5-year-old Sokù Orion and 2-year-old Tessa Maria, as we tacked by.
The water in the harbor at Lazarus is relatively clear, and Carolyn and I usually took advantage of it and scrubbed our bottom of marine growth (we haven’t hauled out for more than two years) while waiting for the kids to arrive. I checked the zincs, monitored the slop in our cutlass bearing, and polished the eye of our depth transducer.
Is the water clearer in the Bahamas, Chagos, the Red Sea, St. Helena and the Lesser Antilles? Sure, but everything is relative. We were surrounded by palm trees. Seagulls cawed. Fish jumped. It was almost heaven, especially for a sailor. The Eton International School lets out at midafternoon, and during these island visits, Aye Myo, our daughter’s Burmese helper, picked up the kids and took the ferry out to meet us soon thereafter. The kids love the boat. They would pile aboard and were soon asking us to do everything at once: take them rowing, swimming, sailing and beachcombing as soon as possible.
“Can I swing on the halyard, Grandpa?” Sokù would ask.
“Dunking chair, dunking chair!” Tessa would scream with delight, referring to the bosun’s chair suspended on a line at the end of the spinnaker pole. It’s a big hit with all kids under 12 years — and I’ve even had Carolyn dip me for a splash on hot equatorial days. Carolyn is Italian and loves to cook. As long as company is aboard, she’s happily talking and laughing, and an endless array of gourmet goodies flows from her spicy galley. “Mangia, mangia” are her two favorite words.
I don’t drink alcohol anymore, and thus Carolyn was always eager during our stay to share a glass of wine with Roma. It is strange that a party animal such as myself wound up with a wife whose drinking buddy is her own daughter.
Around 5-ish, Roma Orion would arrive from work at a multinational corporation that does something so complicated with Chinese students in America that I have never been able to precisely figure out what her job is, other than earning obscene amounts of money. But this was Singapore, where you have to “make money or die,” as one ancient crone in the financial district, known locally as the CBD, once croaked to us.
Just before the sun went down, we’d hear an approaching engine and both kids suddenly would erupt with calls of “Daddy, Daddy!”
Christian, usually immaculately dressed in his corporate armor by Brooks Brothers, would arrive with tales of wrestling mega-bucks, slewing business dragons, and bringing home the bacon in large quantities.
On the island, our little family was complete.
“Put up the table, Fatty,” Carolyn would say to me. It was a ritual. Sokù and Tessa got on one side of the cockpit, I on the other. We’d all slowly recite the words together: “Abracadabra, cadabra-do, this table’s good for me and for you!” Each part of the table unfolded in a process metered perfectly in the rhythm of the words. Once the table was up and its leaves unfolded, we broke into spontaneous applause at how clever we were. (If we were in a hurry to eat and attempted to skip this step, the kids went nuts with disappointment.) You can’t do such a family ritual over Skype — it comes off hollow. Facebook can’t capture it. Twitter is useless.
We adults made a point of tiring out the kids ashore and in the water. Often they would both fall asleep in the cockpit during our mammoth multicourse shrimp-fish-pasta feasts. Then the stars would come out, and the palm fronds would shuffle in familiar tropical harmony. The fishbats flitted while we adults took out hopes and dreams from our inner pockets, turned them to and fro in the blue-white moonlight, and reviewed our week.
“I finished the lead-up to the climax of my novel,” I said. “I figure another 20,000 words on top of the 80 grand should do it.”
“Mom, can you babysit on Wednesday?” asked Roma. “I want to attend a fundraiser for adoptees.”
“Fatty, how’s the new wireless Furuno radar working out?” asked Christian.
If an iPhone rang, I’d react with mock displeasure. In my best Capt. Bligh voice, I’d intone, “And why, exactly, didn’t I install mobile phone holders in the cockpit table?” “OK, OK,” Roma Orion would reply. “I know: Shut off the phone!”
By 9 o’clock we’d all be tucked into our berths. I’d fluff my pillow and whisper to the darkness, “Sweet dreams.” Then, the most important people in my universe would whisper back, “Sweet dreams!”
In the morning, Carolyn took Sokù kayaking while I fished off the transom with the younger Tessa. She never tired of catching the same squeeze-toy plastic fish, I guess because she got to squeeze it and make it noisily honk every time.
Sometimes the whole fam-dam-ily came with us on the four-hour sail home. Other times, they were too rushed by business and had to opt for the high-speed ferry.
Carolyn and I seldom hoisted the mainsail on these trips; the full genoa and the mizzen, set jib and jigger, gave us plenty of maneuverability as we swooped under the counters of the sleeping freighters and nearly kissed their vertical anchor chains with our topsides. Timing played an important part: S’pore has 9-foot tides and swift tidal currents. If we hit it just right, both the trip along the south coast and the northward duck into the Johor Bahru Channel were in a favorable current. If we hit it wrong, two hours were added to our trip. Navigating the coastal waters of Singapore is relatively easy, but navigating its strict maritime laws is not. There are a number of off-limit areas we had to avoid, or loud speakers connected to security computers would warn us away with increasing shrillness. I don’t understand how the government knows if I tack 5 feet too late while 2 miles offshore, but it does, and is never in a mood to be trifled with!
On these trips, we usually picked up our mooring at the Changi Sailing Club around dusk on Sunday, happy to be back while paradoxically regretting our return.
In a sense, nothing had happened. We were in the same place and were the same people. Yet our souls were somehow washed by the sea miles. We felt rejuvenated. The sailing breeze had blown the cobwebs out of our hair. We were ready to go and eager to kiss life full on the lips again.
Yes, Carolyn and I like the long, empty sea passages, but there is also joy in the short coastal ones. Mother Ocean truly works her magic regardless. Sailing isn’t about miles; it’s about smiles. Besides my family, all I need to know that I’m the luckiest man in the universe is a well-used tiller in my hand.
Cap’n Fatty and Carolyn Goodlander are wandering westward across the Indian Ocean, sailing far and short distances at a whim.