In the age of sail, monsoons governed the movement of ships throughout the region. When the Portuguese arrived they found a thriving seaborne trade dominated by the Chinese junk, which had some advanced features unknown to Europeans. The Chinese invented the magnetic compass, the transom hung rudder, watertight compartments and the battened lozenge-shape sail that enabled them to point higher into the wind and outsail square rigged carracks. The sail plan was easier to manage because the battens, controlled from the deck by lines, enabled sails to be quickly reefed.
Before the time of Columbus and Vasco da Gama a eunuch slave in the court of Emperor Cheng Zu was given command of a huge fleet of about 100 ships. Over the next year and a half various elements of the fleet cruised through the Indian Ocean as far as Africa seeking trade. The 15th century more than any other can be called the century of exploration although the Chinese failed to exploit their sea power. They had also invented gunpowder but later fell under the thrall of the invading Europeans.
Since our cruising permit had now expired we were not allowed to land at an Indonesian port again and we hadn’t enough fuel to motor all the way to Singapore. Inch by inch, it seemed, we crept up the Karimata Strait by the coast of Borneo, staying clear of the Sumatra shore, where pirates had recently been reported. Piracy is an ancient profession in these waters. One day I found Robin in the cockpit in tears.
“Oh God, how long is this going to last?” she wailed.
“Until it ends,” I said in my oracle voice.
Actually, I wouldn’t have minded a bit of a cry myself but we men have to keep the flag flying. The entrance to Singapore Strait was still 200 miles away across the South China Sea into the teeth of the new monsoon.
When we did eventually get to Singapore I reported to the harbour master, who asked, filling in a form, “What is purpose of visit? Business, education or pleasure?”
I had to think about that for a while. It wasn’t business, it wasn’t education so it must have been pleasure. “Pleasure,” I finally said. “Yes, we do this for pleasure.”