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.

Åland

Read this story as it was first published in the April issue of Cruising World.

Finnish sailors are proud of their submerged rocks. They grinned as they told me about the many skerries that barely break the surface of the Baltic Sea.

“Surely most of them are well marked,” I begged.

They shrugged their shoulders in a worrying, non-committal way and gave a rueful chuckle, like someone who has learned their lesson the hard way.

Those rocks were on my mind as I helmed west through the Finnish Archipelago.
I couldn’t afford to mess this up. My Finnish friends had generously lent me their sailing boat, Valaska, for three weeks, no strings attached, and I didn’t want to betray their trust.

The island of Korpo was to starboard. I’d just dropped off the owner’s son after a two-day shakedown cruise out of Turku, during which I tried to memorise where all the switches, sea cocks and latches were, which bits to jimmy and which ones were jammed. Now the yacht was my responsibility, and nothing but the hull stood between the rocks and I.

“After this west cardinal there are three north cardinals in a row, and then a south cardinal,” my crew told me, sitting in the cockpit, paper charts on his lap, checking the veracity of the chart plotter. He looked worried.

“I see an east cardinal there…is that ours?” I stood up, straddling the rudder of the trim little H323, ready to turn either way at moment’s notice, my eyes scanning the water for the waves in the middle of nowhere that characterise skerries.

And so it would go for the next few hundred miles as we wove our way through the thousands of islands sprinkled across the Gulf of Bothnia. Our destination was Åland, a place I’d never even heard of until I’d begun planning this cruise.

When the owner first made his offer I proposed that I sail to Sweden and explore its famous archipelago. And as soon as the words were out of my mouth I sensed that this was not what he had in mind.

“Yes, you could sail to Sweden, but Finland has thousands of islands as well. You would have to pass right by Åland. Look it up, you might want to spend your time there instead.” There was raw nerve of competition between the Scandinavian neighbours, I realised.

They were right about this little-known corner of Europe, where berries grow wild, the sun stays high in the sky during summer nights and the fluttering Åland flag reminds visitors that Finland may own the land, but the hearts and spirit of the people remain free.

Åland is an archipelago of 6,500 islands and skerries. It was under Swedish rule for 700 years until the Treaty of Fredrikshamn forced Sweden to hand it, along with Finland, to Imperial Russia. In 1917 Finland declared independence from Russia and took Åland with it. Ålanders argued for their own self-determination, with a request for annexation by Sweden, but there were concerns that independence could make them vulnerable to Nazi Germany or Soviet influence.

In 1920 Finland granted wide-reaching cultural and political autonomy to Åland, including its own flag, postage stamps, police force and a seat in the Nordic Council. This demilitarised region is part of Finland’s Archipelago Sea, the largest archipelago system in the world and the spiritual home of Tove Jansson, the Finnish novelist and comic strip author of the Moomin books for children.

Dotted with natural harbours, remote islands and weatherbeaten pilot houses, Åland’s history is visible at every turn. In small ports I saw iron mooring rings pounded into granite shores by Russian sailors more than a century ago, which today are used to moor yachts. Lonely pilot houses top windswept islands and remind sailors that this was once one of the great shipbuilding sites of Europe.

It is rare to see sailors from outside Scandinavia in these waters, and most of those you do meet are German. So, when we arrived in the marina at the top of Bärö, next to the island of Kumlinge, we were surprise to find a dozen cruisers filling the tiny harbour. But there was still one spot left — arriving in a 32 foot boat with a 1.4m draft is a distinct advantage in these waters. These brackish waters have no significant tides, allowing for an extra degree of bravery when edging a yacht into shallow anchorages.

After the customary anchor drinks I changed into swimming shorts and headed for the sauna built on a floating dock, eager for the full experience of Finnish sailing. I threw open the door with a cheery “Hello!” — sometimes it’s an advantage to have everyone know you’re not local. The three women inside pulled their towels a little bit tighter around them and looked at me suspiciously.

“This is a private sauna,” one of them cooly informed me.

I stammered my apologies, backing out the way I’d come, and returned to the boat for additional anchor drinks. Soon one of them swam over with a smile on her face to explain that we had to book the sauna — but unfortunately it was already booked solid for the evening. Our first sauna experience would have to wait.

The next morning we returned to the steady southwesterly 15-18 knot breeze that had brought us here. It carried us to the remote northern shores of Fasta Åland, the main island, where the region’s most untamed forests and islands are. Saggö, nestled against its sister island Saggö ön, forms a narrow strait that provided us protection from the wind and showed promise ashore.

It was my first attempt at Finland’s unique mooring system. I motored along the shore to check depths, then picked my spot. The crew stood on the bow, mooring lines in hand, and I dropped the anchor from the stern as we approached the rocky cliffs. I edged the boat close enough for the crew to jump ashore, where they banged iron pitons into cracks in the granite. Mooring lines were looped through the pitons, while I tightened the anchor line. When we were done the bow of the boat was only two feet from the rocks, but the steep shore and taut anchor line kept the keel in deep water.

I jumped onto a boulder covered in orange lichen and scrambled up the rocks, using the scrawny fir trees to pull myself into the forest. The forest was deep and quiet, with only the sigh of wind against the tops of the fir trees to break the silence. The thick, springy silenced my steps. I reached down and pulled out a damp handful, releasing a woodsy, earthy smell — a scent I don’t normally associate with cruising holidays.

Then I spotted them…a cluster of red ones here, some deep purple ones there. Bilberries and lingonberries — in North America commonly known as blueberries and cranberries — growing wild in thick clumps.

I dropped to my knees and gorged on them. They were tart and sweet, making my tongue tingle. I picked until my fingers were blue with juice and had filled a small bag with those that somehow escaped my mouth.

That evening we sat around a campfire on the rocks, sipping coffee and eating fresh berries with scones baked in Valaska’s oven. The firelight flickered on her white hull, confusing me for a moment — was I on a camping or a sailing holiday?

We continued across the north of Fasta Åland, alone but for the Whooper swans — Finland’s national bird featured on the 1 euro coin — and even an occasional seal, but we saw few other boats. Eventually we turned south, down the western side of the island, past the Ådskär lighthouse to Mariehamn.

The southern coast is the part of Åland that most visitors see. Mariehamn, the region’s capital, was named for a Russian empress. Here huge ferries disgorge tourists from Sweden, Estonia and mainland Finland, and the streets are lined with cafes and restaurants in ornate, historic buildings. It’s home to summer music festivals and nearly half of Åland’s population.

That night the wind rose until waves broke over the marina docks and the air was filled with the screech of rigging, so in the morning we switched to bicycles, Åland’s other great mode of transport. Fasta Åland and the outlying islands have hundreds of kilometres of well maintained and signposted bicycle paths, and we followed one of them north. It took us through rolling fields of ripe barley and wheat growing between forests of fir and silver birch, past small farms with bright red outbuildings and summer cottages with stacks of firewood outside their doors. Every few kilometres the path cut back towards the coast, and I caught glimpses of the sparkling Baltic Sea.

Twenty-five kilometres later we arrived at Kastelholm, a Swedish-built medieval castle occupied by Finns, Swedes and Russians over the centuries. It was used as a prison and execution grounds in the late 1600’s when Åland was in the grip of a hysterical witch hunt. Åland’s independent postal office has just issued a stamp to commemorate the execution of seven suspected witches.

From the castle walls I looked down on the Kastelholm Yacht Harbour, nestled in the narrow inlet of Ladängsviken, making a mental note to sail rather then pedal next time.

By the next morning the winds were more manageable, and we set off through the complicated fairway leading from Mariehamn to open sea. We shared the channel with several massive international ferries, which added to the navigational challenge. Despite the apparent remoteness of the region, there are also small ferries criss-crossing the archipelago, requiring sailors to keep a constant watch.

Rödhamn, an island port I’ve heard about from numerous other sailors, is just 10 nm south of Mariehamn. Its name refers to the red (röd) colour of its rocky shores, which have provided safe haven to centuries of seafarers. The shores of the southern, sea-lashed side of the island are dotted with stone cairns left behind by passing sailors. There is no electricity or running water in the marina, making it a quiet, peaceful place. A small bakery delivers hot rolls to your boat in the morning.

But the real reason I came to Rödhamn was its famed sauna. Late that night we hiked across the island with our towels around our necks. The air had turned chilly and the sky was filled with the kind of clear light only found in a high-latitude summer night. On the far side of Rödhamn, perched at the tip of a peninsula, was a small hut facing the sea. Smoke puffed from its chimney.

We stripped and ducked into the warm darkness. It was nearly dark inside, with just a glimmer of evening light coming through a small window. The wood-burning stove hissed as I threw a scoop of water at it, producing a searing hot steam that rose to ceiling. Soon I was dripping with sweat and conversation ebbed to the occasional sigh.

When the heat became unbearable I burst out of the sauna and ran, stark naked, across the smooth granite rocks that sloped towards the sea. The indigo sky was streaked with yellow light, the sun still high above the horizon despite the late hour.

“Whoo hooo!” I shouted as I launched myself, my yell becoming a yelp as I hit the frigid Baltic Sea. Within seconds the cold became too much, and I swam for the shore to dash back into the sauna.

The summer was coming to an end, and the wind turned from westerlies to easterlies as we began our 150nm voyage to Valaska’s home port of Helsinki. The easterlies brought a cold rain that slashed at our faces as we tacked our way home, as if cajoling us to return to Åland and its sunny skies.

Seattle Screening on Feb 12

I’m very pleased that my documentary “The New Northwest Passage” will be screening at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle, WA as part of their “Imaging the Arctic” exhibition.

Date: Thursday, February 12, 2015
Time: 7:00 pm
Location: Nordic Heritage Museum, 3014 NW 67th Street
Tickets are $5

RSVP at documentary-newnorthwestpassage.eventbrite.com

FjordLobbysmall

Penghu

This story originally appeared in the SCMP’s Post Magazine as “The wind and the waves” on November 16, 2014.

The temple is filled with the fug of incense, the air musty with 400 years worth of prayers that have been offered up towards its wooden beams. I’m not a religious man, and certainly not one who prays to Chinese gods, but these are special circumstances. If it worked for pirates, it might work for me.

Outside, the tangy brine fills my nostrils and the unrelenting wind tugs at my hair. I stand at the threshold, the darkness of the temple behind me, the sea just a few blocks away, knowing that thousands of sailors have stood in this spot, like me, wishing the winds would back off a little.

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From the Penghu Mazu Temple, the goddess of the sea, known as Tin Hau in Cantonese, has watched over this Taiwanese archipelago’s seafarers for four centuries, offering her protection from countless typhoons like the one that is now darkening the skies.

I came to notoriously windy Penghu, an archipelago of 90 islands, to experience its maritime culture and soak in the folklore of pirates and conquering navies. Now I’m experiencing the uncertainty of being a Taiwan Strait sailor. Penghu’s mariners learned long ago that the winds are out of their control, hence the 183 temples scattered across the islands, some large and grand, others so small and nondescript they’re hard to find.

Severe Tropical Storm Fung-wong is churning her way north, aimed squarely at Taiwan. As soon as my flight touched down in Magong, the islands’ main town, my skipper called to warn me that our sailing trip would be delayed.

Like any restless shore-bound sailor, I seek ways to kill time.

Magong is a maze of criss-crossing streets, the heart of the old town lying low and grey behind ancient walls, huddled against the elements. New, garish hotels and empty boulevards sit exposed to the steady rush of wind. The town’s bars have been shut down for the season, and I haven’t spotted any bordellos around the port, so I rent a scooter and ride the island’s winding roads.

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The reliance of the Penghu Islands, also known as the Pescadores, on the ocean is evident at every turn; from ancient houses and garden walls built of greying coral to the waft of drying fish.

Settlement of these islands began some 700 years ago, 400 years before the Chinese arrived on the Taiwanese mainland, and they served as a way station for people migrating from Fujian province to Taiwan, leaving the chain scattered with historical sites.

Numerous navies have anchored off the Penghu shores, their colonial forces engulfing the islands and then receding again, like the storms that sweep over the low-lying land. The Dutch came to Taiwan in 1624, were challenged by the Spanish and were eventually dislodged by Ming-dynasty loyalist Zheng Chenggong, whose Latinised name was Koxinga.

He was a privateer with a vast fleet and control over large swathes of China’s coastline, and the Penghu Islands were a frequent hideout. Koxinga used Taiwan as a base in his failed fight to overthrow the Qing dynasty and restore the Ming.

Eventually, the French came and built a fort overlooking Magong, but their stay was short, and they were long gone by the time the Japanese moved in for a 50-year stay, only to be replaced by the Chinese Nationalists.

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Now it is the Republic of China’s armed forces who are stationed on a far-flung promontory, their base built around the stately Yuwengdao Lighthouse, which was designed by a British engineer for the Chinese imperial government in 1828. Soldiers peer from behind rusted gates and banks of sagging sand bags, the camouflage paint on the buildings peeling in the sun. They slouch with boredom, staring across the strait at an ideological enemy that batters the island with tourists instead of artillery shells.

The islands have long been viewed as a frontline in tensions with mainland China, and martial law was only lifted in 1979, allowing people from Taiwan proper unfettered access for the first time. Penghu has since tried to grow a tourism industry, to prop up its tepid economy, offering as enticement its long, pristine beaches and azure water.

On July 23, Magong hit the front pages of newspapers when TransAsia Airways Flight 222, from Kaohsiung, crashed when landing in heavy winds and careened into nearby homes, killing all but 10 of its 58 passengers and crew.

“They were almost all from here, from Penghu, so it was very bad. Everyone knew someone affected,” says my host, Tom Chen, proprietor of the oddly named 1,2,3 V-Stone B&B, which is located a short walk from the main harbour and a five-minute drive from the centre of Magong, in a rapidly developing part of town.

“Now everyone is scared, so with this storm there will be no flights or ferries until it is gone.”

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The snaking road that connects the islands via bridges and causeways leads to Wai-an, in Siyu township, a small village perched in front of a hill that threatens to push it into the sea. The village is centred on its port, the main street tracing a line of bollards on the wharf and each side street leading to and from the water.

The harbour is jammed with fishing boats, with more arriving every hour, seeking shelter from the impending storm. The boats appear first as dots on the horizon, riding a white wake as they draw near. They rumble into the port and tie up three deep along the wharf, where fishermen sleep in hammocks or squat on their haunches, cigarettes smouldering between their lips as they repair their nets.

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“Looks bad, doesn’t it,” I ask a group of fishermen sitting on the wharf, surrounded by billowing heaps of net. They squint, looking up at the sky, where the sun still shines despite the dark bruise on the southern horizon.

“It will be over tomorrow,” they assure me. “The storm comes one day and then it is gone.”

The wind may prove inconvenient at times, but it does draw tourists to Penghu, whether for windsurfing, kite boarding or, more recently, sailing; the Penghu Regatta Week is held every June.

The fishermen were wrong, being out by two days, but finally the weather breaks, the wind dies and the skies clear.

We slip the lines on our 40-foot catamaran and motor to the harbour master’s station, to officially clear port before heading out to sea. A stream of fishing boats floods out of the harbour alongside us, crews eager to lower their nets.

Soon we’re making our way down the coast, where the ornate, curved roofs of the temples stand high above village houses. From the sea I can’t be sure which of the temples venerate Mazu, so instead I mouth a prayer of thanks into the breeze, sure that it will eventually reach the goddess of the sea.

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Montana Screening

I’m very pleased to tell you that my film, The New Northwest Passage, will be screening at the Dulcie Theater in Livingston, Montana on Saturday, September 6 (2pm).

The screening is part of the Livingston Film Festival Series and the Last Best Fest, their annual arts festival.

Unfortunately I won’t be there for the screening, but if you’re in Montana you can be there in my place!

northwest-passage

Junking in Hong Kong

I spent last Sunday on the water, where I prefer to spend most of my weekends if I have the choice. Sailing, kayaking, or, in this case, on a junk boat with a group of friends.

Hong Kong junk boats can be chartered by the day, or sometimes corporations own them for employee use (this was a lot more popular before the many financial crisis’!) They are no longer the traditional junk boats with sails that the name suggests, although that’s where the name came from. These days they’re big, heavy motor yachts, with large aft decks, a small cabin/head below, and a large open top deck. Sometimes they come with full galleys. Perfect for friends to jump off of into the sea, dance in the sun (if the boat is not rolling!), drink, flirt and enjoy Hong Kong’s natural beauty.

Just watch this video I made and you’ll know what I mean.

Jump Cut to the Arctic

I’m very pleased that the young curators at JUMP CUT Independent Film Festival in Hong Kong have chosen to show my documentary, The New Northwest Passage!

The New Northwest Passage
Wednesday, April 16, 7pm (Contact the festival for tickets)
The Hive 21/F, 23 Luard Rd, Wanchai

It’s a cool new pop-up festival happening in April using some very innovative spaces around Hong Kong, presented by Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation and aimed at nurturing the next generation of independent filmmakers and consumers.

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This festival is run entirely by the JUMP CUT youth committee, comprising passionate and determined young film-lovers selected through a recruitment process. With guidance from staff at YAF and experts from the industry, this team is given the thrilling but challenging task of running a festival. From curating the programme and selecting films to inviting guest speakers, writing reviews and organising scriptwriting and storyboarding workshops for other young people, the JUMP CUT youth committee experiences all the magic that happens behind the scenes.

By exposing young people to non-mainstream film culture and creating an intimate community of like-minded people, the youth committee is a place where ideas, experiences and emotions are shared, and where team members inspire one another.

 

 

Hitting Helsinki

The New Northwest Passage is going to Finland! To the Helsinki International Boat Show, Vene 14 Båt, to be more exact.The film will be screening in Hall 7 in Purjehdussatama on both Feb 15th and 16th (Sat/Sun) at around noon and I’ll be there to answer questions and tell a few stories that are not in the film. If you, by chance, are in Finland around that time, please come by and say hello. Other speakers include Young America’s Cup winner Kyle Langford (7–9 February); Volvo Ocean Race 2014 Team SCA leader Richard Brisius (14 February); round-the-world sailor and writer Jimmy Cornell can be seen on the Majakka stage (15 –16 February) and Arturo Rey Da Silva, who is in charge of the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage at UNESCO.

On Monday, Feb 17 in the evening the film will screen at Marjaniemen Purjehtijat.

On Tuesday, Feb 18, 1800hrs the film will screen at Helsingfors segelklub

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Bringing a little bit of ice to Brazil

Brazil’s Globosat, a multichannel cable and satellite TV service, has brought the broadcast rights to The New Northwest Passage documentary! I’m not sure which of their 26 channels will be airing it, or when, but the deal has been confirmed.

There’s not much money in it, but it’s significant to me because it means that I actually sold my first film, completing the entire process of going on the trip, making the film, showing it at a festival (and winning it!) and then getting distribution. That follows the international publication of the book and the creating and sale of the iPad app on iTunes. I feel I’ve wrung as much out of that adventure as I could be expected to!

Mance Media are the distributor of the film. We’re still hoping for a sale in North America in the coming months, and we’re also moving ahead with digital distribution, from pay-per-view on Amazon to Blu-Ray discs, etc.