Ferdinand Magellan and me (22) -Disaster

click for Ferdinand Magellan

We were bound for Djibouti, a former French colony near the narrow neck that separates the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden, about 1800 miles from Goa. The first few days were beautiful sailing but as we approached the Gulf of Aden the wind fell light and we had a day of drifting with a whale and her calf spouting noisily nearby. Then the wind came in from the west, dead on the nose. Finally, it began to rain, almost unknown in this area. The one hazard the Gulf of Aden is normally free from was to be our nemesis.
We caught a glimpse of the coast of South Yemen before the wind freshened, bringing heavy rain and lightning. Now followed two days of erratic wind with storms and calms; lightning, heavy rain and dark, threatening clouds. There was no sign of Sun or stars and observations were impossible. Once or twice I glimpsed the land and set a course to clear Ras Fartak, a headland jutting 20 miles out into the gulf.
Handing over the watch to Robin at midnight, I explained that if she could not maintain a course of 240 she should go on to the starboard tack, the wind at this time being southerly. I pointed to a light in the distance, which was a ship that had overtaken us earlier. Then I went to bed, only to be wakened three hours later by a crash and a jolt that nearly threw me out of the bunk.
Scrambling on deck stark naked I found Robin still gripping the wheel staring at the compass.
“Two four zero,” she said, almost in tears.
The yacht was grinding over the rocky bottom, still under way. Immediately I let go the anchor and Robin dropped the sails. With hindsight, this was a mistake. I should have left the mainsail up and run the engine to turn her into the wind. By dropping the sails the boat came upright and the diesel engine at full throttle could not shift her.
“Okay, we’ll have to try and lighten her up. Dump the fresh water, the books and the charts. That should lift her a couple of inches.”
Dressing hastily, I ran out the spare anchor on a long warp and winched on it, but it dragged on the rocky bottom. I began ferrying the books and charts ashore as Robin wrapped them in plastic bags. The rain had now eased but the wind was still fresh onshore and breaking seas pounded her on the rocks and swamped me in the dinghy.
Dawn revealed the bleakest prospect I had ever seen anywhere in the world. The rock-strewn coastal plain was backed by a range of hills rising to bare mountains in the distance. Less than a mile farther on the beach gave way to the cliffs of Ras Fartak fronted by reefs extending a mile or more into the sea. If we had struck on those reefs we’d be in worse trouble than we were now and God knows, I thought miserably, we’re in enough trouble as it is. The only sign of habitation was a distant group of mud houses. Thousands of yellow crabs swarmed over the beach. Bucko yapped at them. At least he was having fun.
Several inches of Wathara’s antifouling were now exposed and it was clear the tide was falling. We could only wait. As we huddled over toast and coffee, our hearts jumping into our mouths each time Wathara slammed on the rocks, there came a shout from the shore. Climbing on deck we saw two Arabs straight out of the movies standing on the shore gesticulating and shouting. They wore baggy trousers, jackets and turbans, with bandoliers of cartridges across their chest, ammunition for the ancient Lee Enfield rifles that they waved. Bucko was barking his head off and they ceased for a while but then resumed.
Hoping for the best, I smiled and waved regally, doing my impersonation of the Queen of England, at which one of the Arabs fired a shot over Wathara’s mast.
“Oh God,” Robin muttered and scuttled below.
I ducked down behind the cockpit coaming feeling thankful, not for the first time for Wathara’s steel hull. Now I remembered the scuttlebutt in Don Windsor’s establishment in Galle. Several yachts were choosing to go around the bottom of Africa rather than the Red Sea because of the danger of pirates, political and official corruption and training camps for terrorists. Had we fallen into a cauldron of political violence?
After a while the Arabs went away, which was possibly worse than having them in view. Had they gone for reinforcements? Fearfully, we gathered passports and important documents and packed a bag with clothes. Tearfully, Robin included a jar of Bucko’s soya bean pellets. Who could know what the future held?>/body>



Ferdinand Magellan and me (21)

click for Ferdinand Magellan

Wathara under sail in the Arabian Sea

Ferdinand Magellan was shipwrecked on one of the Lakshadweep Islands in 1509. The circumstances are not known but navigation was a dark art in the 16th century. Some ships carried astrologers to give advice to captains and pilots. Many came to grief because they had no way to determine longitude. It was another 150 years before an English carpenter named Harrison built a chronometer suitable for use at sea and accurate enough to enable navigators to find their longitude by observation of Sun, Moon and stars. Although they knew the world was round and consisted of 360 degrees of longitude, medieval navigators had no idea how many miles or feet or yards were in a degree of longitude. Columbus and Magellan both underestimated the circumference of the Earth by a factor of about one third. Magellan was astonished by the breadth of the Pacific Ocean and lost many men to starvation and scurvy because he had underestimated the amount of victuals required..
Aground in the Lakshadweep Islands in 1509 Magellan achieved a level of fame that brought him to the favourable notice of Viceroy Almeida. He proposed to take the longboat to Cochin and bring back a ship to take off the marooned crew. Fearing abandonment, the crew revolted, or at least they exercised their right to petition the captain with their grievance. Magellan capitulated, showing a side of his nature not often revealed. He agreed to send the pilot and quartermaster for help and stayed behind to reassure the crew. He earned kudos from Almeida for that response but later evoked Albuquerque’s displeasure, both of whom reported their opinions to King Manuel. Whether he realised it or not, Magellan was being drawn into the hotbed of Portuguese politics that would later cause him grief.

Steering well clear of the islands where Magellan was wrecked, we headed out on our next leg to Djibouti in the Red Sea. It was glorious sailing with a steady nor-easter. Bucko took the opportunity to relax and mounted his lookout post dozing on the cabin top. Wathara was slicing along effortlessly at 140 or 150 miles a day. Not bad for an old cruising yacht.
Unlike Magellan, I had an accurate quartz crystal clock and a nautical almanac produced by the British Admiralty. I have always been awed by the process of celestial navigation, which is only a short step away from astrology. Indeed, we attempt to predict the future from a study of the stars and planets. Of course, electronic gadgets are available but they seem to me to defeat the whole purpose of sailing, which is to create an intimate relationship with the world we live in. As Robin now understood very well, a yacht on the ocean is the last refuge from other people controlling your life. So far, the politicians have not managed to put a tax on the wind but I believe they are working on it.
I actually enjoyed getting out of bed before dawn and climbing on deck to say good morning to my friends Sirius, Canopus, Zubenelgenubi…Don’t you just love that name? It means the southern claw of the scorpion, Scorpio. He is also in my birth sign, Libra. I call him Zoob for short. And of course there is the Southern Cross; the most beautiful of constellations and the simplest. I am by no means a religious freak but I do believe the Southern Cross, which was easily visible in Palestine 2000 years ago, had something to do with Christianity’s logo. Maybe it was the bright star followed by the Magi.
Unfortunately, you don’t need an astrologer to predict that when conditions are so perfect they can only get worse.


Ferdinand Magellan and me (20) :Mortality.

click for Ferdinand Magellan

St Francis Xavier's resting placeIn late 1510 Ferdinand Magellan arrived back in Cochin from the failed expedition to Malacca under Diogo Lopez de Sequiera. Far from setting up a trading post, the Portuguese had been repulsed and left behind 39 hostages to the local potentate, Mahmud Shah.

Albuquerque was planning his second assault upon Goa and had commandeered several merchant ships that were either waiting for cargoes of spices or were already loaded and waiting for the favourable monsoon to sail for Portugal. Magellan and his future brother-in-law, Duarte Barbosa, argued that the spice ships should be allowed to go about their business, and thus incurred Albuquerque’s displeasure. This altercation may have been partly responsible for Magellan’s subsequent unpopularity with King Manuel, since Albuquerque reported on him to the king.

Albuquerque mustered 34 ships for the attack on Goa, which became the jewel in the crown of the Portuguese Empire in India. He apparently forgave Magellan’s temerity and appointed him captain of one of the fleet that returned to Malacca in 1511 to release Mahmud Shah’s hostages and establish Malacca as the major trading post in the Far East.

 We happened to arrive in Goa at what is probably their most important festival: celebration of St Francis Xavier. Just as Albuquerque expanded the Portuguese Empire militarily, Xavier some 50 years later extended the Christian faith as far as Japan. At a time when Catholic evangelists were busy exterminating the culture of native Americans such as Maya, Aztec and Inca, Xavier is credited with converting around 30,000 Asians to Christianity. He met with opposition in Japan, where Christianity was outlawed and driven underground. He died in China and a lasting mystique has grown around his corpse, which is said to be incorruptible. It was buried in Malacca for a couple of years, then uprooted and sent to Goa, the scene of his early ministry. He had built upon the evangelism of St Thomas; doubting Thomas, who refused to believe in Christ’s resurrection until he touched the nail holes in his hands. Xavier’s arms were chopped off to be venerated as relics but the rest of him is still preserved in a glass case in the church named after him.

About once every ten years the remains are put on display and paraded through the streets of Goa followed by an enthusiastic crowd. In the chapel of Bom Jesus the body was placed in an open coffin on an elevated platform. Mirrors enabled one to look down upon the remains but after 500 years there wasn’t much to see. I thought the spectacle rather ghoulish and Robin was also disgusted.
“Golly gosh, let’s go,” she said. I need a drink.



Ferdinand Magellan and me (19) Goa

click for Ferdinand Magellan

Albuquerque-the Lion of Portugal

Affonso de Albuquerque did more than any other individual to establish the Portuguese empire in the east. Known in his time as the Lion of Portugal, among other names, he rampaged across the Indian Ocean from Africa to Malaya fighting sea battles, building fortresses and leaving behind many dead people, mainly Muslims. Considering the motivation for this expansion was the little black berry of the clove tree, the cost in human lives of a spicy dinner in Europe was huge.

Ferdinand Magellan participated in a number of Albuquerque’s adventures, including the conquest of Goa. An important staging point in the Arab spice route to Europe, Goa was a prosperous city with a large Muslim population. Albuquerque underestimated his foe. Although he easily took control of the port city, the Muslim king of Bijapur rallied his troops and laid siege to the invaders. With his food supplies running low, Albuquerque was forced to retreat; not something within his nature.

Returning to Cannanore he raised a fleet of 34 ships with about 2000 men and within three months made his second assault upon the city, this time successfully. He ordered the entire Muslim population – men, women and children- be put to the sword. Estimates of the slaughter range between 6,000 and 9,000. Albuquerque secured Goa as part of the Portuguese empire and it remained so for 450 years. Only in 1961 did the Indian Army reclaim it.



The monsoon died soon after we left Calicut and started drifting with the Bhaktal lighthouse winking at us through the velvet night. Every once in a while a fishing boat came by and shouted at us and Bucko barked back but then the perfect silence of the placid sea descended. It was a magical night with a near full moon casting its glow in a path across the water. We were both so entranced that we sat up all night in the cockpit counting the stars. The breeze returned in fits and starts but it was a slow trip to Goa.

The anchorage in the Mandovi River was hopelessly busy with barges, ferries and ships crowding in behind the breakwater. Most of our two weeks in Goa were spent near the scene of Albuquerque’s slaughter but now it seemed a cheerful enough place and a tourist destination.

We visited the hospital seeking a cure for our lingering constipation. When we explained our problem and the cause of it to the duty doctor he burst out laughing. Then he took pity on us. He handed over his business card. He was a member of the British College of Surgeons, which seemed to me an acceptable credential. I had been reading news stories of a body organ trade in India.

“We don’t need surgery,” I said, and there may have been a note of panic in my voice.

“No, of course not but you are visitors to our town all the way from Australia. If I can be of any assistance…?”

“We’re just sort of interested in Ferdinand Magellan, you know, about 500 years ago. Actually, he blasted this place with cannons.”

“Ah, Magellan. An interesting man. First man to sail around the world.”

“Not really. His was the first ship but he never made it.”

One thing that amazed me in our voyage around the world was the hospitality we received from all kinds of people in different countries. It is usually the poorest who are ready to share whatever they have with a guest. This man was different. He was a toff; a Brahman but he took us home to share a meal with his family. I am embarrassed to admit that travellers will rarely receive that kind of hospitality in Australia.



Ferdinand Magellan and me (18) Constipation

click for Ferdinand Magellan

Vasco da Gama arrives in India

The Portuguese arrive in India.Under Viceroy Almeida, the Portuguese invaders including Ferdinand Magellan ranged across the Arabian Sea. They built forts at strategic points on the east coast of Africa and west coast of India. Numerous battles were fought as resistance grew.  Calicut, about 70 miles north of Cochin had been a  prosperous  part of the Arab spice trade for many centuries and had powerful allies. The Zamorin of Calicut raised a fleet of about 200 ships but was defeated by Almeida’s son, Lourenςo, at the Battle of Cannanore. He fought back with the help of the Mameluke Emir Hussein of Egypt and inflicted the first defeat upon the Portuguese, in which Lourenςo was killed.

Affonso de Albuquerque arrived in 1508 with a commission from King Manuel to relieve Almeida as Viceroy. Almeida had unfinished business, including revenge for the death of his son, and promptly clapped Albuquerque into prison. Almeida put together a fleet of 18 ships, probably with Ferdinand Magellan as one of its captains and  Duarte Barbosa, who was to become Magellan’s brother-in-law, as scrivener or accountant. The fleet sailed northwards towards the rich province of Gujarat and was met by an opposing fleet of 12 ships near the island of Diu. The Portuguese ships were the most formidable ocean-going men-o-war of their day; heavily armed and manned by seasoned sailors. Opposing them were small vessels designed for commerce in the relatively sheltered waters of the Mediterranean and Red Seas. They included Venetian galleys whose only real advantage was the ability to manoeuvre in windless conditions. Fortunately for the Portuguese, the breeze held and they inflicted grievous damage upon the enemy but not sufficient to satisfy Almeida’s thirst for revenge for the death of his son. He embarked on a murderous campaign against the populace that was to inform the policies of his vice-regal successor who still languished in prison: Albuquerque.


Calicut, now also known as Khozhikode, was definitely on our agenda since Ferdinand Magellan played a big role in the conflict with the Zamorin. Evidently, Almeida gave him a letter of marque that authorised him to attack enemies of Portugal almost at will. Magellan is credited with a few attacks upon local shipping.

For some reason that I failed to understand, the Cochin officials refused to give me a clearance for Khozhikode because on our entry form I had given our destination as Goa.

“We’re still going to Goa but I want to go to Calicut first,” I explained to the harbour master.

“Ah, but I’m afraid there is an extra fee payable for the paperwork ,” he said with an apologetic little smile. He was a middle aged man with a trimmed moustache and in our previous dealings had been affable and helpful.

I smelled a rat. I took the matter up with our friend, the father of Indira, the girl who wanted to study in Australia. He was a retired colonel of the Indian army and I guessed he knew a thing or two about how bureaucracy works.

“Oh yes,” he said, “unfortunately the wheels require a little grease to keep turning, but you should be careful. If you do offer to pay and the so-called fee is not legitimate, you could be in trouble for bribing an official.”

Robin also had an opinion. “Bloody outrageous,” she said in her endearing straightforward way. “We didn’t come all this way to miss out on Calicut.”

“Okay,” I said. “Never mind. “We won’t miss out on Calicut.”

The sailing is beautiful off the coast of India when the monsoon is right. You get a nice breeze off the land with a hint of cinnamon or coriander in the air. By this stage we were aficionados of spices which, after all, is what the story was all about. Bucko couldn’t stop sniffing.

If you read Wathara’s logbook for that period you will see that Robin and I had suddenly developed stomach cramps, high temperature and even a touch of diarrhoea. Suspected cause was food poisoning. By the time we reached the latitude of Calicut I, as master of the ship Wathara, declared a medical emergency and claimed Force Majeure under the International Law of the Sea.

We dropped anchor near the lighthouse, launched the dinghy and rowed ashore straight into the clutches of a person in a khaki uniform waiting for us on the beach.

“You are a foreign yacht?” he asked.

“Well, yes, you could say that.”

“Your papers, please.”


“Yes, your papers,” he said with infinite patience as if addressing a half-wit. “Passports. Travel documents. Clearance from last port.”

“Oh, the papers. Yes we do have papers.”

“May I see them please?”

I handed over our passports duly stamped with visas and our clearance from Cochin stamped by the harbour master.

“Your clearance is for Goa, not Kozhikode. Why have you come to Kozhikode?”

“Force Majeure,” I said.

His eyebrows lifted and he looked around the horizon at the placid sea with a gentle breeze blowing under a clear blue sky.

“I see no severe weather. Why do you claim Force Majeure?”

Now I saw why the yachties in Cochin had said the Indian bureaucracy was worse than the Indonesian. You can bullshit Indonesian officials because most don’t speak very good English but I couldn’t even bullshit this bloke in French.

“Medical emergency,” I said. “Food poisoning. You can read my logbook.”

“You require medical attention?”


“I may inspect your logbook.”

He turned and waved towards the lighthouse and before long an inflatable dinghy with a powerful outboard motor arrived from nowhere, came in through the low surf and landed on the beach.

“We shall visit  your vessel, please,” he said in velvet tones concealing an iron fist.

We returned to Wathara but had to put a collar and leash on Bucko, who was barking his head off. After verifying our medical condition in the logbook the official made a thorough inspection, opening lockers, lifting cushions and peering into the bilge.

Somewhat reluctantly it seemed to me, he stamped our passports and said, “Your medical condition will be dealt with.”

He took us back ashore and then escorted us to a pharmacy in the business district. He introduced us to the pharmacist, who seemed to be a friend of his and described our condition as ‘loose motion.’ He watched while the pharmacist stirred up some brew with a mortar and pestle and then watched to make sure we took our medicine. We were both constipated for a week after. To this day I wonder whether he had been tipped off by the Cochin harbour master. I fondly remember this incident as the Zamorin’s revenge.


Ferdinand Magellan and me (17) Cochin

click for Ferdinand Magellan
Ferdinand Magellan arrived in Cochin in 1503 sailing in a fleet commanded by  Dom Francisco de Almeida.  Dom Manuel, King of Portugal, had declared himself Lord of Commerce and conquest of the Arabian Sea, Persia and India. He appointed Almeida first Viceroy of the Portuguese state of India. Almeida set about building forts along the east coast of Africa and on the island of Socotra at the mouth of the Red Sea. The grand plan was to block the Arab spice trade from the Far East through the Red Sea to Europe. Already Portugal had her eye on the Spice Isles.

When Vasco da Gama reached Cochin in 1498, initiating the Portuguese occupation, he found a small Christian community among the Hindu populace. It was said to have been founded by St Thomas, doubting Thomas, who would not believe in Christ’s resurrection until putting his finger into the print of the nails in the Holy Ghost’s hands.  By the time Magellan got there the Portuguese were well established.

Magellan took part in a number of sea battles along with his cousin, Francisco Serrano, who was to become a key figure in Magellan’s expedition to the Spice Isles. Magellan would have heard first-hand stories of the fabulous Orient here. Since Marco Polo’s original expedition, a trickle of European adventurers had travelled to the Golden Chersonese, marked on Ptolemy’s 1st century world map. It showed the Mediterranean Sea at the centre of the world surrounded by land. The fantasy was only disproved by Vasco da Gama’s voyage 1500 years later.

Magellan undoubtedly saw a copy of this map as a page boy in the court of Queen Leonor in Lisbon. Prince Henry the Navigator had set up the Institute of Navigation at Sagres on the stormy cliffs of Cape St Vincent. Navigation and Geography were part of every page’s education as Portugal stretched its tentacles down the coast of Africa seeking booty of gold and slaves.


We arrived in Cochin after a rough sail from Galle and anchored off the Malabar Hotel. It was only a temporary anchorage for the purpose of completing Customs and immigration formalities, which took two days. Then we shifted to an anchorage off the Bolgatty Island hotel, former palace of colonial governors. Five foreign yachts had beaten us to it: Swedish, German, British and two Australian. All issued warnings about the Indian bureaucracy: even worse than the Indonesian according to some.

Cochin is of course rich in history and diverse in culture, with an abundance of exotic churches and temples. The countryside is lush and picturesque. We made the acquaintance of a girl planning to further her education at an Australian university. We gave her lots of information, probably inaccurate, and in return she and her family took us to places we never would have found without their local knowledge. Pink flamingos waded in shallow lakes and barges loaded with spices poled their way to market as they had done for centuries. We also attended the festival of Ganesh, the god that is half man, half elephant. Elephants decorated with flowers and embroidered head cloths paraded through the city streets led by boys blowing horns and banging cymbals.


ganesh-festival, CochinGanesh festival Cochin



Whisky Tango Foxtrot

click to buy on Amazon

Whisky Tango Foxtrot

Sea story, love story, war story; Whisky Tango Foxtrot is  based on true events. Eighty two men died in a collision between HMAS Voyager and aircraft carrier Melbourne in 1964. Jim Price was saved from certain death by his mate Charlie, but Charlie didn’t make it. Jim blames the disaster on Voyager’s singular captain, known in the Navy as Drunken Duncan. He vows to obtain justice for his mate but finds formidable obstacles placed in the path of justice. To complicate matters, he has fallen in love with Jenny, whose brother is a draft dodger and whose mother leads anti-Vietnam war demonstrations against a deceitful government.

Review by: Malcolm Torres on July 22, 2016 :
This book is part adventure thriller, part memoir, part history. It was fun to read because I love sea stories and my life intersects with some of the locations and scenes in this story. My favorite parts are when the author describes nautical technology like how systems and gear aboard ships works. I also like the pace of the action, with disasters at sea, love affairs, being shipped off suddenly to exotic and dangerous locations.

Review by: Jonathan Lee on July 22, 2016 : (no rating)
I was captivated by the breadth of this novel from navy cadet to politics to civil rights demonstrators to government corruption to CIA conspiracies, all seen through the eyes of a bizarre accident-capsize-at-sea survivor. This is the first novel I have read set in Australia and I found the Australian manner of speech and relationships fascinating. After enjoying the novel so much, I found the ending somewhat sudden and shocking. I wish the ending could have more tension, more build-up and more drama so that I can reach a satisfying conclusion to what was a fantastic read.

Review by: Boris Seaweed <https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/Seaweed71> on June 19, 2016 :

Thought-provoking and captivating book, written in smooth English and interspersed with Australian everyday spoken language, idioms and slang. Describing different sides of Australian life (the Navy, business, university life, Sydney city life, fashions, etc.) the author also delves into the recent history (Vietnam war and antiwar movement, politics, etc.). He also dares to weave into the plot and connect with the main character his version of mysterious disappearance of Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt on December 17, 1967. And it is also a charming love and family story. Personally I have read the book in one breath.

Official Review: Whisky tango foxtrot…copy by John regan
Post Number:#1 by Katherine Smith » 19 Apr 2017, 18:16
[Following is an official OnlineBookClub.org review of “Whisky tango foxtrot…copy” by John regan.]

4 out of 4 stars
Review by Katherine Smith
Share This Review
Whisky Tango Foxtrot written by John Regan is a historical fiction novel set in Eastern Australia. The novel begins in the summer of 1964 with the main character, petty officer Jim Price and his best friend petty officer Charlie Krantz of the Royal Australian Navy. Both men work as engineers in the Engine Room Artifices Fourth Class on the destroyer HMAS Voyager. Alongside the HMAS Voyager is the aircraft carrier Melbourne, who accompanies the ship during training exercises. Jim’s world is shattered after a collision between the two ships leads to the deaths of eight-two men including Charlie.

As Jim heals from the broken leg he suffered in the explosion, he begins to grapple with his purpose in life. During this time, he meets Jenny who is a nurse at Royal North Shore Hospital. As their romance blossoms, Jim enters into the naval college to become an officer also known as a “pig”. Despite his quick advancements, Jim becomes disillusioned with the Navy and its traditions. His breaking point comes during his service in the Vietnam War where he repeatedly witnesses death and destruction. He finally quits the service only to realize that his life feels even emptier than before. As violent protests sweep the country, Jim becomes increasingly more agitated and suspicious. His final act against those he feels have wronged him fulfills the beginning quote that “revenge is a dish best served cold”.

The main character of this book is a realistic representation of not only Vietnam veterans, but all veterans. His struggles with PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his experiences in Vietnam are a lesson on the horrors of war. His awkwardness at trying to navigate the war time society of Australia as a civilian without the support of social services furthers the believability. The author uses this book as a psychological study of the military and the politics of war.

The author’s use of the anti-Vietnam War protests gives the book authenticity, especially with the chants of “No, no, we won’t go”. The protests and the various organizations that arose from this anti-war sentiment show the high level of detail. When I was reading this novel, I could picture the hot steamy jungles of Vietnam and the guerrilla tactics used by the North Vietnamese against the allies. I also could picture all of the protests at the Navy yards including one in which protesters laid down in the street. The descriptions of the country’s volatility and the references to Bob Dylan songs made the novel seem more like an autobiography than a historical fiction piece.

I rate Whisky Tango Foxtrot 4 out of 4 stars because of the novel’s realistic depictions of the hippie counterculture and the mental scars that are inflicted when someone goes to war. I would recommend this book to any members of the military, former protesters and anyone who is interested in historical fiction.


Ferdinand Magellan and me (16) Galle

click for Ferdinand Magellan

Ferdinand Magellan would have visited Sri Lanka as a member of a fleet under Sequira on its way to Malacca. He spent several years in this region and took part in many battles as the Portuguese expanded their empire. The inhabitants of southern Asia were not naked savages but had a civilisation that, in several respects, was more advanced than the European. Chinese influence was strong throughout the region, Buddhism and Islam maintained more or less orderly societies and trade flourished among the various nations, much of it by sea.

Well before Christopher Columbus, the Chinese admiral Cheng Ho made a voyage nearly twice as long as his but the Celestial Empire was not interested in conquest, burglary or proselytising. Their benign attitude was their downfall and even China later fell victim to European cannons powered by a Chinese invention – gunpowder. The Chinese used gunpowder for fire crackers but Europeans turned it into a weapon of war. The cannon is what made the Europeans invincible. European ships carried cannons to the doorstep of major cities like Malacca, Galle and Colombo, Cochin and Goa. The British occupation was quite brutal.


Sailing is not all smooth seas and balmy weather. Chores have to be done, like periodically anti-fouling the boat’s bottom. It fell due in Galle and Don Windsor, the yachties’ agent, was only too happy to advise. No doubt he took a good commission from the boatyard where we hauled Wathara out of the water but who was to complain? First mate Robin proved a dab hand with a paint roller and especially with the fancy bits like touching up the name on the stern.

Windsor also introduced us to a particularly fiery brand of curry. I suspect he took secret glee from the startled expressions on our faces as we took the first mouthful and groped for the water decanter. By the end of our fortnight-long stay, however, it had become our favourite dish.

The first mate in action: not just a pretty face.

Haulout-first mate Robin gets to work


Ferdinand Magellan and me (15):Monsoon

click for Ferdinand Magellan

Portuguese ruins litter SE Asia

The north east monsoon provided some glorious sailing across the Andaman Sea. Day after day Wathara cruised along in the hands of our most important crew member: Fred – the wind vane self steering gear. While we humans lounged around the cockpit reading or snoozing or listening to music and Bucko kept watch sniffing the air, Fred tirelessly steered the boat towards our next destination – Galle. My role was to take star sights at dawn and dusk and sun sights at noon and forenoon, which I found almost spiritual. There is something mystical about peering through a sextant’s telescope, doing a bit of arithmetic and then marking a position on the chart. It represents your location in the cosmos at this point in history. No one has ever been at that timeplace before and never would be again. As a traveler in history I found this awesome.

In the age of sail back to pre-historic times the reversing monsoons had dictated the ebb and flow of commerce throughout the region. By the time the Portuguese arrived, sea trade routes were well established. The Chinese under Admiral Cheng Ho had penetrated as far as Africa long before Columbus found the New World. The inhabitants of South East Asia were not naked savages but had a civilisation that, in some respects, was more advanced than the European. Chinese influence was strong, Buddhism and Islam maintained orderly societies and trade was brisk. Then the Europeans arrived.

The Portuguese ruins in Galle are more extensive than those elsewhere, partly because the Dutch and English refrained from destroying them. The English used the Portuguese fortress as their administrative headquarters throughout their occupation of the island. Galle’s main attraction for us was the service offered by a man named Don Windsor, recommended by several cruising yachts. And upon arrival in Galle’s snug harbour we were reunited with some of them: Nangkita from Fremantle, Gresham from Auckland, Sophia from Rotterdam and Olivia from Buenos Aires – all part of the multinational cruising village.

Don Windsor was a flamboyant character given to wearing garish shirts and making dramatic announcements about the need to beware of government officials, who were all corrupt. That’s why we needed to entrust him, Don, with any official business. For a modest fee he could take the stress out of our encounters with bureaucracy. Having experienced the Indonesian bureaucracy we were happy to comply, leaving us free to explore this historic town.


Ferdinand Magellan and me (14) Malacca Strait

click for Ferdinand Magellan

Portuguese ship replica in Malacca

Malacca had a nautical museum featuring a replica of Albuquerque’s flagship Flor de la Mar, which sank with a fabulous treasure. Father Pintado, the Portuguese priest, was a keen supporter of the museum. He and his sister had been in Malacca since 1948 and had accumulated many antique books; original sources in old Portuguese that were unfortunately inaccessible to me. He translated some of the choice bits for me. He seemed a peaceful man rather than happy, with a gap in his top row of teeth and an impish squint when he laughed. Although he belonged to the Society of St Peter he was fascinated with St Francis Xavier, who was buried in Malacca for 9 months before being shipped to Goa, in India. It still lies in state and is placed on view every 10 years. He and his sister waved goodbye from the jetty when we set off on the next leg through the Malacca Strait.

Strong tides, foul winds and frequent squalls made the going fairly tough but snug anchorages compensated somewhat. Pangkor was a pretty place marred only by over-friendly fishermen and holidaying Chinese singing Karaoke on the beach at night, pounding out old chestnuts like ‘I’ve got a loverly bunch of coconuts’ in nasal, high-pitched accents. The fishermen redeemed themselves by trading a bucket of crabs for two glasses.

As in other parts of the region, Portuguese colonisers were succeeded by the Dutch and then the English, with the British East India Company setting up a trading post on Penang Island in the 18th century.  Independence came after a turbulent period of insurrection and war but the British colonial influence was still evident in a number of yacht clubs along the Malacca Strait. Club- houses resembled English pubs, with silver sporting trophies in glass cabinets and international yacht club pennants pinned up on the walls. Robin and I felt quite at home in these places. We left behind a pennant of our own.