Betwixt and Between

One year ago I spent a month as a resident at the Vermont Studio Center, where focused on essay writing. This essay about open ocean sailing was written while at the center, in response to fellow resident’s question.

Read this essay as it appeared in the October 2018 issue of Cruising World Magazine. (pdf download)

It was also performed live at Liars’ League Hong Kong, watch the video here.

Leaving without a fixed destination to arrive to an uncertain welcome. That is why I sail.

It’s the first thing I tell landlubbers who ask, “What is it like, to sail across an ocean in a small boat?”

I could describe the long, loping swell of the deep ocean. The black, moonless nights when the darkness chokes my mind. The curl of blue bioluminescence on a breaking wave. The way a new dawn paints the deck candy floss pink. I could describe the welling of joy when dolphins appear and the secrets we share. But I always begin with the thrill of leaving port.

My port clearance is a precious document, the paper clearing boat and crew of debts and warrants and unpaid bar tabs, free to leave without obligation to say where we will come to rest. A zarpe, outbound clearance, a chit that sets you free. The thrill of limbo when I travel without destination sets my imagination afloat.

I aim my boat into blue waters, seeking wind and way. A month of waves may kiss my keel, then, just miles from port, I gybe away. To another coast, a friendlier nation, somewhere downwind from here. Perhaps I’ll never return, never arrive, betwixt and between, alone at sea. I’ll sail in circles, north to the pole, south to the ice, east and then west until land stands in the way. I could if I wanted to.

When the wind blows hard from the north, we aim for Yemen rather than Oman. When our water runs low we stop in Alaska on our way to Japan. If the sailing is good I’ll pass New Zealand and aim straight for Tahiti.

It isn’t always so, this ticket to eternal noncommittal freedom. If you are port hopping in an island nation, or skipping down a nation’s coast, authorities may ask your destination. But when you raise your sail to cross the Atlantic Ocean, The Arabian Sea, crossing a great expanse to a land far away, you wave farewell and slip away into a world between nations, free of borders, free of customs, duties and right of abode.

Tell me, where else can you wander like this? Which train carries you across a border without two nations, one to exit, one to enter? No airliner takes off without a destination on your boarding pass. Roads that lead to the fronterra cross to the other side.

But not when I go to sea.

“Don’t you get bored, day after day with nothing new to do or see?” the landlubbers ask.

Bored? No. Never. I’m too engrossed in the blue soul of the Indian Ocean, light shot through it like a drift of silver filings. The fear that punches through the bottom of my belly when I look aft and see a grey wave, two, three stories high, with anger in its face. The brilliant flash of metal and blue, streaks of yellow, as a tuna hits the lure. Hand over hand, in it comes, the first fresh food of the voyage.

There’s too much work, helming hour after hour, trimming, changing sails. An inch of ease for a tenth of speed. Or making repairs, jury-rigging when you don’t have spares. Baking bread, cooking dinner, cleaning the head.

My father, an old farmer, came aboard my boat. Never sailed, never cruised, a life spent working hard. He knew nothing of the sea. I was proud, showing him my world. And I waited, wanting a hand on the shoulder saying, son, you’ve done well. Nothing. A silent, critical eye.

“So Dad, what do you think of sailing?”

“Seems like an awful lot of work to go real slow.”

I couldn’t argue. The whole point is to go real slow, to appreciate the subtle shifts of scene. Sometimes I just sit and stare at the sea. Every cloud that passes creates a new blue, new grey, new frothy white cap on the wave. Sometimes there are thrills, a squall that makes us long for home. A whale, a school of dolphins showing us the way. But even without, even if it’s calm, we’re still sailing in a kaleidoscope of shifting shape and light. The setting sun on a clean horizon, the masthead light joining Orion. Darkness so deep it’s hard to stay on your feet. Watching the stars revolve, picking a new one to point the way. Then the dawn. Oh, the dawn. First a tinge of grey, then blues and pinks and tangerine light. The white decks glow, waves and wind that frightened in the night pushed back by the light. If I show you the dawn of open sea you will love me. You’ll know what’s for real.

And then, a few weeks in, someone gets lucky on their watch.

“Land! I think I see land!”

A dark smudge on the horizon turns into mountains, beaches and trees and sand. An excitement takes hold. We clean, we shower, we put the ship in order, we work even harder.

Port of Aden, Dutch Harbour, Port of Jamestown, Pond Inlet, Galle, Salalah. Ports and not marinas, not moored next to superyachts and motor cruisers, but ships of war and coastal barges, the grit and grim of a working harbour. The docks are painted with tar, the water streaked with oil. This is not the country’s best face. But it’s where we arrive, alongside working men and foreign cargos, by the kitchen door. Others, less fortunate I’d say, are disgorged into shiny halls, then a taxi and a hotel in a predictable order. We hoist our yellow flag, a declaration of quarantine, inviting corrupt officials to board.

“Perhaps you have a gift for me? Ah thank you, but my brother, he likes Marlboros too.”

Our first requests are fuel and water and is there a sailmaker in this port? And once she’s secure, the papers signed and bilge inspected, we step ashore.

A cold beer, that day’s newspaper, a meal that’s fresh and green. A walk about town, perhaps a souvenir. And then I begin to wonder, what does the forecast say, when will the wind blow and get us out of here?

Cruising through the Cold War

Finland is opening some of its secluded military islands to the public, creating a string of new cruising destinations and adding to the many gems of unpolished history spread across this remote archipelago.

This story was first published in the February 2018 issue of Cruising Helmsman.

The waters approaching Örö are treacherous. Submerged rocks abound, and if you don’t pay attention to your charts you’ll end up swimming in the cold Baltic Sea. It only makes sense, as the inhabitants of this Finnish island have spent the last century with guns in hand, trying to keep visitors at bay.

We handed our sails and motor into the marina under the gun-slit gaze of a weathered concrete bunker, knowing the gun barrels were plugged with concrete while the bunkers are now a tourist attraction.

Örö served as a grazing pasture for local farmers until the early 1900s. Then, as the First World War loomed, Tsarist Russia built a fortress on the island to keep ships away from it’s nearby capital, St Petersburg. Civilians were prohibited from visiting the island and the Russians embarked on a base-building frenzy, from artillery batteries, observation towers, barracks, jetties and cobble-stone roads to warrens of trenches.

When Finland declared independent in 1917 Örö was handed to the Finnish Defence Forces — and remained closed to the public. It was an important defence base during World War Two, and it remained an active base until 2004. Only in 2015 were Örö and all of its buildings transferred to the park system and opened to the public. Örö is only about a 25 mile sail southwest of the region’s major yachting base of Hankow.

The second ö in Örö means island in Swedish, the language of choice for many locals — which points to wars that took place even before this island was militarised. Many of the decommissioned islands have been occupied by Swedish, Russian and Finnish soldiers over the centuries, so each layer of peeling camouflage paint has a story to tell.

On Örö,, the rusting weaponry still gives off a Cold War chill. The historical preservation has been careful and unobtrusive, allowing each new visitor to feel as if they’ve stumbled upon a secret.

If your charts are a year or two out of date, like mine were, the secret can suddenly become pressingly more realistic.

“There’s a north cardinal up ahead,” my girlfriend told me as she helmed our borrowed H323 through the skerries south of Örö. We were on a three-week cruise, with this being her first ever sailing trip. I was navigating, my nose in a book of charts.

“What? You must be seeing something else. There’s nothing on the charts,” I replied, scanning paper and screen simultaneously.


The lack of marks on my charts explained why we were sticking to a wider channel, tacking well clear of the shore and watching the depth meter with a nervous eye. Finland’s waters are notoriously rocky, but the main cruising areas are well marked, with excellently maintained and positioned cardinals, transit marks, lighthouses and cairns. It’s like sailing in a navigational classroom.

“And there’s an east cardinal…I think I can see another north over there.”

These marks for small craft had been laid, or maybe only revealed, in the past year or two, if the date on my charts were correct. I had no doubt the Finnish Defence Forces had these waters well-charted, but still, it felt like we were in remote waters.

Once we were safely moored on Örö we wandered the many hiking trails that wind through forests and over windswept rocky shores. Sprinkled across the island are barracks and mess halls painted the rusty red colour favoured by Scandinavian cottage owners. Örö felt like a summer camp, until we stumbled upon guns with barrels big enough to support a bridge. A radar whirred and spun atop a communications tower, reminding us of Örö’s less peaceful past. Each headland and windswept hill is honeycombed with bunkers and gun positions.

That night we sat, naked and sweating, in the marina’s new sauna, a Scandinavian chic and minimalistic building nestled among the birch trees. An expansive veranda led to a pier, from which steaming pink bodies were being launched into the frigid sea. A full moon bathed the rocky shore in light and turned the leaves of the forest silver. War seemed far away.

Some of the decommissioned islands are just outside Helsinki’s main harbour. Vallisaari was known for centuries as a place where sailors could take fresh water. When Sweden and Russia were at war in 1808 the Russians used Vallisaari as a base, and the island was only opened as tourism destination in 2016. The nearby islands of Isosaari and Lonna, all part of the Helsinki Archipelago, have similar stories to tell. Limited access has allowed threatened wildlife species and habitats to thrive on these islands, making them popular with scientists and eco-tourists alike.

While the bucolic natural settings have made it easy to turn the islands into parks, some decommissioned islands can’t shake their rough character quite so easily. On Utö, 25 miles to the southwest of Örö, the cruising boats are outnumbered by beefy coast guard ships and working boats that have to earn their keep. Utö has had a weather station since 1881 and is the southernmost year-round inhabited island in Finland, but the island feels like a place you are sent to and where you remain out of a sense of duty. Here the bunkers carved into granite feel colder, harder, more dangerous. In reality, Utö has also been a place of refuge. The island and its sailors formed the backbone of the rescue effort when the MS Estonia ferry sank nearby in 1994.

There was a cold, stiff breeze hitting Utö from the northeast when we were there, and it made me wonder about the island’s welcome. But then it came time for one of the handful of sailing boats to leave the dock, and the warm heart of these waters showed. Helping hands began to emerge from cockpits as the departing sail boat started her engine. Warps were run ashore, instructions shouted into the wind, and the boat began to back out while the sailors ashore controlled her head and made sure she got away cleanly. Here, boats moor bow to the dock, with a hook on a stern line to catch the mooring buoy. Boats run their anchor from the stern in smaller marinas without buoys. Most local boats have a strap line on a spool at the stern to make mooring easier.

A spool of strong line on the stern also makes it easier to adapt to local customs in natural harbours. In the Finnish archipelago the land falls into the sea so steeply that in many places you can moor your boat directly to the rocks — a frightening exercise for uninitiated sailors. The anchor is dropped off the stern, and bow lines are tied to trees or pitons pounded into cracks in the rock. Then you jump ashore off the bow and explore your island.

Even in the high season of June and July you can have a cozy bay all to yourself. The forests are wild and pristine, filled with wild berries — within a one-week span we picked blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and cranberries — as well as wild mushrooms, if you dare. While there are summer houses sprinkled across the archipelago, the land use customs dictate that as long as you’re not moored right in front of the property and give everyone a bit of space and privacy, you’re allowed to go ashore anywhere you want.

When you run out of beer and locally smoked fish, there are scores of small, affordable with basic services and friendly advice. The islands have three main mooring options: Natural harbours, whether anchored or moored to the shore; basic marinas, with a toilet and picnic table near the dock and not much more, are free; service marinas, which range from small family-run affairs that offer basic amenities to professionally-run marinas with fuel and repair support. Service marinas charges anywhere from 15 to 40 euros for a 40-foot boat, depending on their location and services.

Foreign boats are rare, and locals are surprised to encounter sailors from Hong Kong in their homely little ports. We borrowed Valaska from a friend, and she flies the Finnish flag, so in every port there was an awkward explanation — we’re not Finnish, we don’t speak Finnish or Swedish, we’re not from around here, but hello all the same. We saw a handful of Germans, the odd British, Estonian or Russian flag, but the vast majority of the boats were from Sweden or Finland. It only added to the feeling that we were discovering something special.

But the discoveries are not limited to old guns and underground bunkers. A dusty patina of history also covers many of the civilian islands that have transitioned from industry and other functions to nature tourism. Most of them are within an easy day’s sail of each other.

Själö was once home to a mental hospital and leper colony — today it’s a marine research center and quiet marina. Nearby is Jussarö’s abandoned iron ore mine, which became a military training ground before even the soldiers went home. The island, now a nature reserve, advertises itself as Finland’s only ghost town.

Helsingholmen is also on that list. When I told a fellow sailor that I preferred rustic, quiet marinas to the full-service ones, he showed me the island on a map.

“There’s just one family living there, running the place, selling some fish and keeping the island alive,” he said.

We arrived in Helsingholmen after a long day of dodging squalls and running in front of a 25-knot breeze. It was nearly dead calm in the bay. Children were playing on the lawn and the smell of smoke and fish drifted through the air.

Helsingholmen has been inhabited by farmers and fishermen since the 1770s, but now it’s just the Andersson family left. I went ashore to pay our marina fee and instead of a cash register found a wooden box nailed to the wall of an old barn, on the honour system. Smoked fish and bread rolls that were still warm from the Andersson family oven were on offer.

A hike across the island took me past abandoned log cabins with leaky roofs, 18th century farm machinery that was slowly becoming part of nature, and overgrown pastures carved out of the forest. The whole island felt like a museum piece.

The sun was beginning to set — which happens late, if at all, during the Finnish summer. I found a rocky outcrop that faced mainland Finland. The sea chopped at the rocky shore, trying to tear out the reeds that grew in the shallows. My sailing voyage through Finland’s archipelago was coming to an end, and I looked out across the water we would cross the next day. We would sail east, towards the bustling port of Hankow and beyond that the capital, Helsinki, and back into the present.

Double Haven

Read this story as it originally appeared on SCMP.com.

The map showed an idyllic patch of water hemmed in by parkland islands. I could see small coves and passages, the perfect place to explore in a kayak. Its name, Double Haven, completed the tranquil image.

But we weren’t there yet. First we had to cross the lumpy, grey seas of Tolo Channel, our kayaks bobbing in the waves as we waited for a ship to pass. Then we rounded Wong Chuk Kok Tsui, where hikers scrambling along the rocky shore to get to the Devil’s Fist shouted and waved at us as we paddled by.

We landed on Tung Wan for lunch, where my paddling partner, on her first big kayaking trip, slumped down onto a rock, exhausted.

“Is the whole trip going to be like this? With wind and waves? This cold?”

I made reassuring sounds and promised better conditions ahead, but I wasn’t sure myself what to expect. After an hour of shivering on the beach and gulping hot tea from a thermos I cajoled her back into her kayak. We pointed the boats through the narrow gap between Crescent and Double Islands and entered a whole different world.

Double Haven lay spread out before us, unfurled like an old Chinese scroll painting, complete with overlapping hills that disappeared into the blue haze. The water was calm, like an inland lake. The sun came out, turning greys into greens and blues, the light catching the silver flash of a jumping fish.

Double Haven, named Yan Chau Tong in Chinese, is on the northeastern shores of Plover Cove Country Park. Eroded volcanic rock, which is sharp and brittle and often blood red with iron oxide, shelters Double Haven at all points of the compass, saving it from the storms that batter other parts of Hong Kong. At its north end Double Haven becomes Crooked Harbour, but the two protected bodies of water can be explored as one.

Very few Hong Kongers even know of Double Haven, much less visited it. There no roads into the area and ferry connections are infrequent and inconvenient, so most visitors hike in. The area is perhaps best known for Lai Chi Wo, the 300-year old walled Hakka village that is being revitalised and sits inside the Yan Chau Tong Marine Park that was created in 1996.

The historic village was our destination for the day, and it was late afternoon by the time our kayaks bumped ashore next to its pier. There was no space for a tent on the beach, and the village square was covered in concrete, so we settled on a tiny patch of grass next to the village gate. We pulled our kayaks up above the high-tide line, hung our dripping clothes from a line and pitched the tent. It was dark by the time we had our cook stove hissing. Soon a villager arrived on his bicycle and we braced ourselves, expecting him to chase us away.

“I’m just checking my nets,” the man said. “It’s okay, you can camp here.”

He waded out into the receding tide, and moments later reappeared with a small fish he had pulled from his net.

“It’s not much, but I’m just fishing to feed myself, so it’s enough,” he said.

Before leaving he warned us to secure our food bags against wild pigs. Sure enough, we saw one trotting along the darkened shore and were jolted awake during the night when a squealing pig ran by our tent, chased by baying village dogs.

The next morning we paddled north to the island of Ap Chau. In the 1960s this island became home to the Taiwan-based True Jesus Church and its followers. Today, the church remains in use but there are only a handful of the island’s 1,000 Tanka residents left.

It was on the peak of Ap Chau where the preciousness of Double Haven’s seclusion hit home. Just two kilometres to the north was Yantian, which in the past two decades has evolved from a small fishing village into one of the world’s busiest container terminals. The roar of engines and clang of metal floated across the water, the acrid smell of diesel exhaust hung in the air. To the northwest was a wall of office and residential towers, where Sha Tau Kok blends seamlessly into the far reaches of the Shenzhen metropolis. To the east, beyond the hills of Crooked Island, was the open waters of Mirs Bay, dotted with cargo ships from around the world. But to south lay a scene largely unchanged for thousands of years; the intricate maze of isolated islands and quiet bays that we’d just paddled through. A tiny refuge in a sea of people and progress.

We paddled two kilometres east to the village of Kat O on Crooked Island, one of the only villages in the area with a permanent population and signs of activity. The village itself is well maintained and interesting to explore, but its main beach, where we landed, faces the industrial eyesore of Yantien, so we ate a quick lunch and continued on our way.

We pointed our kayaks south, back into the protection and quiet of Double Haven. It was hot and still for a winter day, and we took breaks from paddling to trail our hands in the cool water. The marine park teems with life, and the jumping fish were the only thing breaking the smooth surface of the sea. Our course took us along the southern shores of Double Haven and through the narrow Hung Shek Mun gap between Double Island and the mainland. We were on our way home, but it was still a long way to go.

Because Double Haven has so few waves the vegetation grows right down to the high tide line and there are few beaches, resulting in a dearth of camping spots. The weather forecast called for a drastic change of weather, so we needed protection. I scanned the shores, looking for a flat, dry spot to pitch our tent.

As we rounded the southern tip of Double Island and exited Double Haven I spotted the Outward Bound base in Wong Wan. The camp was empty except for a grizzled caretaker, who welcomed us to pitch our tent on the lawn. By the time all our gear was hung to dry, the tent was pitched and our dinner was on the stove the wind had begun to pick up. It was hard to tell at first, as we were still in a protected cove, but across the water we could see white-caps and spumes of spray where the waves were crashing into the shore.

“There’s going to be a storm,” the caretaker warned. “Tomorrow will be worse.”

He was right. We fell asleep to the sound of our tent fly flapping in the wind, and awoke to a full gale that brought with it a 10-degree drop in temperatures. The final 10 kilometres of our 45 kilometre trip would take us through exposed, open seas, so we waited, hoping the wind would ease. In the afternoon we went as far as to load the kayaks and paddle out to sea, but we were quickly turned back by steep, breaking waves. The camp caretaker gave us a “I told you so” look as we returned to his base and set up our tent for another night.

By the next morning the wind had subsided, but the cold remained. We hurried through breakfast iin case the wind would return and then pushed off from the shore, headed for home. The waves were smaller than they’d been the day before, but they still broke over the decks of our kayaks, reminding us of the haven we’d left behind.