17 July 2016 | Penang, Malaysia
20 February 2016 | Penang, Malaysia
02 October 2015 | Thailand
11 April 2015 | Krabi Boat Lagoon Marina, Thailand
25 December 2014 | Langkawi, Malaysia
04 June 2014 | Philippines
07 January 2014 | Brookeville, MD
04 July 2013 | Subic Bay Yacht Club, Philippines
31 October 2012 | Palau
02 December 2011 | Hermit Islands, Papua New Guinea
08 November 2011 | Maryland, USA
15 May 2011 | Kavieng, New Ireland, PNG
26 April 2011 | Kavieng, New Ireland
26 March 2011 | Kokopo, New Britain, Papua New Guinea
16 March 2011 | Kokopo, New Britain, Papua New Guinea
12 February 2011 | From Peava again
05 February 2011 | Solomon Islands
01 December 2010 | From Lola Island, VonaVona Lagoon, Solomon Islands
30 November 2010 | Peava, Nggatoke, Solomon Islands
25 November 2010 | Kolombangara Island, Solomons

July 1, 2016: 17 years on Asylum

17 July 2016 | Penang, Malaysia
It was 17 years ago today that we became full-fledged, live-aboard boat bums on Asylum. As I noted in a previous blog, had you told us then that we'd still be here now I would have waved you off. But never say never: here we are, still afloat, still boat bums.

When this anniversary date dawned on me I saw the opportunity to combine it with our ongoing efforts to edit and organize our woefully messy photo collection and take a brief nostalgia tour. In slogging through thousands of photos we are reminded how lucky we are to have been able to live this life and see the places we've seen and how lucky we are to have met so many memorable people, both fellow cruisers and "locals," everywhere we've visited. We laughed out loud at some of the old pictures of us and were delighted to see old friends again.

So, welcome aboard for a short cruise down memory lane channel.

One of the things cruisers always talk about is the enduring friendships made along the way. Our "Class of '99"--those of us who left the east coast of the U.S. for the Caribbean in the fall of 1999 and met that first year--included a fabulous fleet of fellow sea-farers. Some, like us, are still at it 17 years later, scattered all over the world. Others have "swallowed the hook," as boat-folk say, and are now dirt-dwellers, and we've stayed in touch with a bunch of them.

Heading down the Intracoastal waterway from Annapolis, among our earliest friends were Don and Sue on Suzannah, whom we first met after a squally night in Virginia where just about every boat in the little bay where we were anchored dragged. Here we are with them in Savannah, November 1999--one of the earliest boat bum photos of us I came across.

We saw them again a couple of years ago at an impromptu reunion of a few members of the Class: formerly of Suzannah, Serenity, Pelagic, and Windborne. All but Asylum are now dirt-dwellers.

When we set off, Jim shrugged off 30 years of Navy rule and let his hair grow. His squirrelly little pony tail got this far before he lopped it off in Venezuela in 2001... the hearty approval of the two old ladies in our home stay in the Andean town of Merida where we did a Spanish immersion course. When he returned from the barber without it, Aunt Tata on the left with me and Gioa's mother on the right (whose name I can't remember) broke into applause as he came through the door, shorn and now respectable-looking.

Since we were there, Venezuela has slid inexorably into political and economic chaos. I've wondered how those special people have fared, who offered such gracious hospitality, nurtured our fledgling Spanish, showed us rare Andean condors, and connected Jim with a surgeon who removed the painful bursa sac on his elbow. I hope they're doing ok.

In Panama's San Blas islands, one our favorite people was Puna BB, a diminutive great grandmother who didn't make very good molas and never said much but, as it turned out, had an impish sense of humor. In one of our many visits to her tiny island/home, I laid my sunglasses on the bench where she was working. I don't know what I was doing, probably visiting her ailing frail husband, Jim, inside their dark hut, but when I returned, she had slipped the oversized glasses on.

Jim, her husband, rarely left his hammock. He couldn't see much (despite the bright green glasses someone had given him) and could only walk with assistance. But he always seemed happy to see us and loved it when we brought him bottles of cold water from the boat. He spoke a few words of English and we spoke just enough Spanish by then to put together that he'd worked as a cook at a U.S. Army base in the Canal Zone a long time ago.

We heard that both Puna BB and Jim died a few years ago. Having been able to attend two Kuna funerals when we were there, I can imagine the family assembled around their hammock-borne bodies and then lowering her not-so-good molas and his favorite green glasses into their graves, where special things go with them to the after-world.

On the other side of Panama, anchored on one of the rivers in the remote Darien province, I wanted this guy's paddle and he wanted Jim's T-shirt, so everyone left the deal happy, except perhaps Jim, who went home shirtless.

The Vava'u island group in northern Tonga was a hub for Pacific-crossing cruisers and we had the good fortune to be there with a talented group that rocked the place with two open mic nights at a local bar. The first was such a hit that everyone wanted a second. I was the Em Cee (which basically meant saying "you're next!" and holding a flashlight for people who couldn't see their music). Jim sang a couple of songs and also joined Hans, our wonderful Dutch friend from the boat Happy Monster, to sing a Dutch folk song that everyone loved.

Hans and Dory have since swallowed the hook and are building a house on land that overlooks the sea in Fiji.

Vanuatu remains one of the most memorable stops in the voyage of Asylum. It dished up everything: eye-popping scenery above and below the waterline, earthquakes and erupting volcanoes, real-life anthropology classes, people whose generosity humbles you, kids who charm your socks off, spirits and black magic, and well, yes, even weasely government officials. It was terribly frustrating to be limited to a 4-month visa there. Among the many interesting people we met were these two guys from the mysterious Ambrym island where "black magic" was practiced and feared. Here they're dressed for an important "kastom" ceremony where men advance in hierarchical "grades" of importance. Sekor, on the right, is one of the highest ranking chiefs and working to restore kastom rights and traditions in Vanuatu. The other is Norbert, whose day job is a secondary school principal!

In Vanuatu Jim spent a fair amount of time being Mr. Fixit. He worked on this little generator under the hopeful eye of a lovely family who then shared their dinner with us.

Last year poor Vanuatu, listed by the United Nations Institute for Environment and Human Security as "the world's most at-risk country for natural disasters," was pummeled by Pam, the "largest cyclone in recorded history to make landfall in the Pacific." It likely would have blown away many of the small fragile homes and villages we visited. The cruiser community there (to the extent they were still afloat) took to the seas and delivered supplies to many remote villages. The overall death toll from the storm was thankfully low but the recovery process can't have been easy given the isolation and remoteness of so many places--which, ironically, is one of the things we liked best about them.

Sailing to the Philippines more than 20 years after living there we found our old house in Manila...

...but even better than life in a gated community, we found people and places you'd only see from a sailboat. (No clue what makes their little make-shift raft float!?)

In all these years afloat we are most grateful for enduring good health, although we've managed to have a few medical issues in exotic places along the way: I had my first-ever root canal in Raiatea; Jim had surgeries in both Venezuela and Borneo, and was med-evac'd from Vanuatu for another in Australia. He came close to lopping off the tip of his finger with the anchor in northern Thailand. Does this nurse look like she's 14 or am I just getting old?

For the last couple of years we've done more city hopping than actual island hopping, which I do miss. But when you land in a place like Penang in Malaysia, where we are now, the benefits of city life can be seductive: great local markets full of exotic stuff, western supermarkets full of familiar stuff, even the occasional classical music concert. You don't have to go too upscale though, and Jim maintains this is what a hardware store should look like. He always finds what he needs at this jam-packed gem on "Cheapside Lane," his favorite shop in Penang.

It's now July 17. Like the last 17 years, these last 17 days have flown by and as usual I'm behind. Just to round things out, though, since we started with a "before" shot of us from 17 years ago, I guess I should end with an "after"--or least one that bring things up to date:

Now back to photo-editing...


20 February 2016 | Penang, Malaysia
Chinese New Year Dragon Dance

We are in Penang, Malaysia, a wonderfully multi-cultural little island with a large Chinese population that enthusiastically celebrates Chinese New Year. We've attended several events over the past few days to usher in the year of the monkey, which got me thinking about all the other celebrations, festivals, and ceremonies we've been lucky enough to attend in our years of wandering the high seas. For some of them, we actually planned to be in the right place at the right time, but for most it was just dumb luck that we were there when things were going on. Here are a few of our favorites.

Chinese New Year, Penang, Malaysia
The celebrations go on for 15 days at various venues and temples around the city. Lots of firecrackers, drum banging, cymbal clanging, and good food.

Lion dance

The guy in the slip next to us in the marina lives in Penang and every year hires a lion dance team to come to his boat to bring him prosperity and good luck in the new year. We hope some carried over next door to Asylum.

Thaipusam, Penang
This is a Hindu festival that stems from a rather complicated legend with gods and villains and swords and vanquished enemies. It's also a bit gruesome, with many of the devout spiritually preparing themselves for 48 days before the celebration to be rather extensively poked and punctured, including spears through their cheeks; big hooks in their backs that they attach to ropes to tow floats; and dozens of little things hooked all over their bodies, some of which looked to us like those wee metal tea infuser balls. We thought just a few of the most devout engaged in the piercings (most people just carry milk pails on their heads to a temple), but apparently its hundreds who opt to be pierced. We saw a few of them being prepared. Each had a small drum band accompanying the piercing process, with firecrackers and lots of incense burning in the area. Supposedly they feel no pain and don't bleed.

Testing the hooks before rigging two guys to pull the float on the right.

Hitched to the float and ready to pull it on a long walk to the temple. They may look like they're holding those spears in their mouths, but they really are poked through the cheeks and each of those little pots on their bodies is attached by a hook in their skin.

Loi Krathong, Thailand
A festival of lights that happens on the full moon of the 12th month of the Thai calendar, the name means "to float a basket." The baskets are beautifully decorated and elaborately folded banana leaves, with flowers, incense sticks, and a candle. Many vendors line the waterfront assembling them on the spot. To launch your little basket, maybe adding a bit of your hair or a coin, you light the candle and let it go into whatever body of water you can find--making a wish as you do--and hope it floats away. If it comes back, your luck isn't so good; if it does float away, the coming year will bring good fortune.

Krathong vendor in Krabi

Ready to float our baskets, with friends from Catspaw

Away they go, down the river, bringing us all good fortune

Rainforest World Music Festival, Borneo
This 3-day international music festival is held near Kuching in Sarawak, Borneo and brings in performers--everything from rock bands to gong orchestras--from round the world. The year we attended they covered countries from almost-A to Z: Burkino Faso to New Zealand. Our favorite part of the festival was the series of informal workshops offered during the day, in traditional longhouses, that covered interesting and oddball topics like the variety of plucked instruments, bowed instruments, instruments you toot, drums and things you bang on, bellows and bagpipes around the world. At night, the high energy performances on the main stage went from 7 pm to 1 am. Hard to get good photos of that kind of thing, but you get the idea. Who woulda thunk in the wilds of Borneo??

Traditional Borneo longhouse workshop venue

Final night at the big stage

Carabao Festival, Philippines
Filipinos love a good festival and there's no subject too lowly to keep them from throwing one. Even water buffalo, affectionately known there as "carabao," get one, and it's a big deal. I have a thing for water buffaloes so this is a slice of heaven for me. It's hot, dirty, and crowded but I love it!

Everyone with a water buffalo comes from miles around to join in the parade

The water buffalo are trained to kneel and owners take great pride in having them do it in front of the church. Not sure whether the carabao himself gets the significance but the crowd loves it.

I never met a water buffalo I didn't love and want!

Traditional Canoe Festival, Yap
This was a quaint little event in Yap to celebrate their history of sailing and paddling the high seas in traditionally built vessels. The year we attended the weather wasn't great and despite their goal of attracting foreign tourists, we were among only about 10 non-natives in attendance. But it was fun and colorful with a low-key, home-grown feel.

Cultural Festivals, Vanuatu
Vanuatu is one of those almost-mythical places any National Geographic reader dreams of visiting and we were lucky enough to be in when three uniquely "kastom" festivals were held: one, a first-time culture-preserving gathering held on a tiny island in the Maskelyne group; another, a national cultural arts festival, the first in over 30 years, with the entire island nation represented; and finally the jaw-dropping Land Diving on Pentecost Island, to celebrate the yam harvest. It's hard to find the right non-trite words to describe these events, but awesome, authentic, and once-in-a-lifetime come to mind.

All the men from a small village perform a kastom hunting dance

The Rom dance from Ambrym Island, for men who are moving up in society's hierarchy of "grades" (it costs them a lot of pigs, the currency of the realm, to climb that ladder)

Land Diving, with nothing but vines around their ankles (note the upside down kid in flight on the left)

Heiva, Tahiti
Racing across the Pacific in 2007, our timing was perfect to be in the right place at the right time: Tahiti around Bastille Day. Heiva is an old festival that dates officially to 1882 when the French decided the Polynesians could legally dance again. Before that, the custom dances Polynesians performed for all occasions and ceremonies had been condemned by missionaries as seriously erotic debauchery and essentially outlawed. Now the festival has large, exotic traditional dance performances telling opera-like legends, as well as traditional sports activities with heavy stone lifting, javelin throwing, outrigger canoe races, and running around with heavy loads of bananas lashed to poles.

History, haircuts, and funerals, San Blas Islands, Panama
Panama's San Blas islands remain one of our favorite places in the world and their indigenous inhabitants, the Kuna Indians, celebrate life and death with great ritual. And, they love their chicha, home-fermented grog that would make a dragon wince. At one of our first island stops in the San Blas we stumbled on the annual 3-day reenactment and celebration of the 1925 Kuna "revolution" against the Panamanian government. And while the village was in such a festive mood, they also held a puberty ceremony for girls who recently had come of age, get their first haircuts in a hair cutting ritual, and are then ready to be married off. For these ceremonies, a town-size batch of chicha is set to brewing a few weeks ahead and declared ready when it's, well, time to drink it. At the other end of life are funerals, and we were also lucky enough to be invited to two, something we were told doesn't often happen for tourists. At the first we were advised not to take pictures and never in my life have I so wished for a James Bond gadget with a micro-camera in it. At the second, however, the family was not only OK with photos, they wanted copies!

Kuna kids celebrate victory in La Revolucion

Kuna girl gets her first hair cut

Kuna women do enjoy their chicha!

Kuna women and curious children tend to the deceased old woman while the men prepare her nearby grave

Havana, Cuba
We have no idea what these towering street performers were celebrating but even in dour Havana they were having a grand time doing it!

It would appear there's nothing quite so universal as a good celebration of something. Birth, death and all the milestones in between. Harvests, hunts, the sun, the moon, the sea. Friendship, heritage, art and music, water buffalos. Even mussels (we forgot about that one in New Zealand). Celebrations are everywhere, and they make you feel good--sometimes awed, sometimes inspired, sometimes cleansed, and sometimes just better.
With that, we're off to take in another Lion Dance. You can never have too much good luck and prosperity. Happy New Year!

Decisions, decisions...

02 October 2015 | Thailand
Where to next?

I haven't exactly been the better--or more frequent--blogger that I promised to be, but my intentions are still good. To get back on track, I'll stay with the topic of tracks (as we call them) one more time. A recent blog (before Asylum went to the spa) showed our track so far, so the next obvious question after where we've been is where we're going: Where to next?

This is actually a topic of considerable discussion around these parts because Thailand is "something of a crossroads," as one of our cruiser friends put it. Just about everyone, including us, arrives in Thailand--the go-to place for boat work--with a long list of projects. It doesn't matter whether you started cruising as nearby as Australia or New Zealand or as far away as the U.S. or Europe; by the time you get here, stuff needs to be fixed. That's why Asylum is at the spa now.

But once the work is done, the question on everybody's mind is, Where to next? People you meet for the first time, before their names have even registered, will say, "So...what's your next destination?" I quickly came to realize there's more to the question than just idle curiosity or polite conversation-making. Lots of cruisers in these parts are wrestling with this issue and in asking the question, they are often looking for some combination of advice, information, confirmation, or a even a potential buddy boat.

If you're headed to the Mediterranean or the Caribbean or the east coast of North America, how to get there from here is a big decision these days. In the good ol' days of cruising it was easy: Up the Red Sea and into the Med, and then across "the Pond," if that's where you're going. But those pesky Somali pirates changed all that and getting from here to there isn't that clear cut or easy anymore. It got me thinking about just what the options are. As I see it, there are eight:

1. Up the Red Sea to the Mediterranean
This was the route of choice for (mostly) everyone trying to complete a circumnavigation in Europe or the U.S. You stop along the way and dive the pristine waters of the Red Sea, go on a safari, wait out sand storms, pay the necessary fees and bribes to transit the Suez Canal, and voila, you're in the Med! That is, until Somalia fell apart and disgruntled fishermen took up more lucrative seafaring work in the form of piracy. Most of their victims have been big ships--tankers and freighters with expensive booty (if you haven't seen it, check out the movie Captain Phillips)--but then they started picking on sailboats as well. After the capture and deaths of several cruisers from 2009 to 2011 this was clearly no longer the route of choice, forcing everyone to scramble for alternative options. But things are changing a bit, so it's becoming, once again, a potential route. More on that later.

2. Via South Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope
As the Red Sea route became impossibly dangerous, this alternative course, across the Indian Ocean down and around South Africa, dangerous in its own right, became the lesser of two evils. There's a northern route (from Thailand) and a southern route (usually from Indonesia), but either way it's 5000+ boisterous sea miles to Africa.

The view from 9 of Cups, our intrepid cruiser friends who took this route earlier this year.
The sky is blue and the sailing exhilarating, but those are big seas and that's a lot of water washing over the decks!

Many of our friends have opted for this route over the past few years and we don't know anyone who hasn't taken a bit of lickin' somewhere along the way. The rewards of arrival are immense, with all of Africa at your doorstep once you're there,. Most people take advantage and do some exploring while they're there. But unless South Africa is your final destination, there's still a long way to go to get to the Mediterranean or the U.S. The route to the Med usually involves a long tack to Brazil and then another long tack back to Europe. From South Africa to Annapolis, where we started this whole thing, is about 7000 miles. (Remember: we think Asylum is going fast at 7 mph!)

3. Japan to Alaska
We know five boats that have taken this route in the last couple of years and more who are planning it. It's a good route if your goal is the northwest U.S. or Canada. And if you like long passages. And the cold. And sailing in relentlessly strong winds, contrary currents, and big seas. In fog.

From Bosun Bird, who braved this option a couple of years ago: how to get from Japan to Alaska

People usually plan on a good 6 weeks at sea for this passage, depending on where in Alaska they intend to make landfall. And that can change depending on how much broken stuff you have by then, how far off course you've been blown, or how desperate you are for fuel. I like to think we have an adventurous spirit, but probably not that adventurous. It's a tough 3500-4000 sea miles. I greatly admire our friends who have laid this track!

4. Japan to Hawaii
We know of one boat that took this route and another that planned to and then went to Alaska instead (hard to believe that was the easier course!). Like Japan to Alaska, you take this one if you're headed to the U.S northwest, which is where the wind and current want you to go when you leave Hawaii. Except that the weather may be warmer, I'm not convinced this route is really any easier than the one to Alaska. The seas can be rough and contrary; technically you're going the wrong direction for prevailing conditions. It's another tough slog, but at least you end up in Hawaii!

5. Ship the boat from Thailand to the Med
Yet another option that that many are choosing these days is to put your boat on a ship, usually in Thailand, and then fly to Turkey to meet it there.

Our friends' boat, Sabbatical III, waits to be loaded on her transport ship from Thailand to Turkey

This is a tempting but expensive way to accomplish the dangerous transit from Thailand to the Mediterranean. Depending on the size of your boat and the shipping line, the cost is $30 - 40,000+++. That is, plus the extra insurance, plus your airfare and lodging while the boat is in transit, and plus the costs of repairing the damage done underway. Besides being a real wallet-drainer, according to some purist circumnavigators, it's also cheating!

6. Go back the way we came
It is theoretically possible to turn around and retrace our steps, going back the way we came, but there's a good reason old trading ships and pirates and current day cruisers sail the direction we did: that's the way the "trade winds" blow. Going back the way we came would be a little like walking up the down escalator with a giant wind/wave machine blowing in our face. Like the other options, we know people who have done this but it can be a long hard slog. Best not to be in a hurry. "Wait for weather" would have to be your mantra.

7. Sell the boat and fly home
Judging by the number of boats for sale in the marinas in Phuket and Langkawi (another cruiser mecca just south of Phuket, in Malaysia), selling and flying is an increasingly popular option. When the others are too scary, too hard, or too expensive, I can see where calling it quits, leaving the keys with a broker and hopping a plane home would have some appeal.

Boats for sale in a Langkawi marina

The downside of this option, of course, is that lots of boats on the market is good for buyers, not sellers. Your beloved home of many years will not fetch the price you know in your heart it's worth.

8. Make no decision and continue to cruise indefinitely in this area
That twirly red line on the map above? That's for this option. And frankly, for us at the moment, this one has the most appeal. There are still places to go and people to see in this part of the world. Indonesia gets great reviews and is rich with great cruising, village, and dive opportunities. We've just scratched the surface of coastal Malaysia and Thailand and we keep hoping that places like Vietnam and Myanmar will loosen their restrictions on cruising boat visitors.

All that being said, we're not getting any younger (especially Jim), and eventually we'll have to think about pointing the bow homeward. Which brings us back to Option #1, up the Red Sea.

We've been watching with great interest over the last couple of years as boats have quietly begun transiting the Red Sea again. The intriguing twist is that they're doing it with their own little micro-armies: guys with very big guns for hire who spend a couple of weeks on the boat with you as you pass that tricky area around the Horn of Africa where the pirates have been so active. You collect your little army and their arms in the Maldives and drop them off in Sudan. We're not quite ready to book a squad yet, but of all the options out there, even though it's less than ideal, this one has our attention. Several boats (that we know of) made it without incident earlier this year. More are going in the 2016 transit season (Feb-April). We'll call it "Option 1b, Up the Red Sea with hired guns," and keep an eye on it. Will keep you posted as well. In the meantime, if you want to read more about Option 1b, check out this story from one of the boats that took it earlier this year:
(If the link doesn't work, just copy the address into your browser.)

More soon, I promise. I'm still resolved to be a better blogger...
Vessel Name: Asylum
Vessel Make/Model: Tayana V-42 Cutter
Hailing Port: Bethesda, MD USA
Crew: Jim & Katie Coolbaugh
In October 1999 we set out aboard ASYLUM, our Tayana 42 sailboat, on a slow wander around the world. The deal was that we’d keep going until we got tired of it or weren’t having fun anymore, or got all the way around, whichever came first. [...]
Extra: Within Malaysia: 0174209362 (Maxis) WhatsApp +60174209362
Asylum's Photos - Main
A few memories from our 17 years aboard
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Created 19 July 2016
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Created 19 February 2016
Where to next?
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Visit Asylum and see where we live
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Created 20 April 2010
Asylum returns to the water
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Created 16 April 2010