It was our second night out of Tambobo. We were under sail beneath a dark, dirty sky, when I heard a loud sigh and a splash off to starboard. I grabbed the Dolphin torch, which lived up to its name as its beam caught an actual dolphin, airborne in a great leap that brought it alongside. In the distance were the splashes and spouts of its brothers and sisters, coming to ride in Labyrinth’s bow waves.
There were dozens of them, sleek grey shadows racing like greyhounds in the water that rose and then fell away from our bows. Sparkles danced in the air every time they leapt as the sea was alive with bioluminescence; we could see the dolphins themselves glowing, the speed of their passage causing the tiny microscopic ocean plankton to burst brightly into flaring protest, so the dolphins trailed a wake of green sparks.
They raced and twisted around each other, in a complicated dance that brought them up from behind us in waves, racing beneath Labyrinth’s triple hulls, broaching together in a line like a rank of infantrymen going over the top, riding our bow waves for a second, spouting great clouds of seawater that soaked us where we lay above them in the nets, and then falling away so that the next rank could have their ride.
The night was unusually dark, the promised three quarter moon yet to rise, and the sea was very, very still. The glassy sea reflected the glimmering stars above and it was difficult to see where the sky ended and the sea began. It appeared that that we sailed through the heavens, the reflected stars pinpricking the briny depths, the faintly glowing clouds like nebula hanging in infinity.
And beneath us ran the dolphins, dozens of them, all shedding showers of sparks as they slipped through a sea thick with phosphorescence, like a swarm of sentient comets, blazing green with an unworldly cold fire that stretched out in a broad wake behind Labyrinth. An observer up above would see a long green arrow that pointed to the place where the two species rode in communion with each other, coming together in a shared moment of the joy of movement, of being at sea, of being alive.
It was a fine welcome home for us, after five weeks of plans going awry, bad luck, injuries, damages and contrary weather. The sea is a hostile environment. Forgetting the obvious dangers of severe storms and hidden rocks, any sailor will tell you that constant movement and the salt water corrosion are insidious enemies that can only be kept at bay through constant diligence, maintenance and assimilating a bewildering body of arcane knowledge covering seacraft, mechanics, chemistry, electronics, medicine and so forth. This means two things; an experienced sailor is the ideal companion in a post-apocalyptic environment (although I am getting close to referencing Waterworld here so let’s move on) and boats are expensive timesinks.
The three weeks following the failure of Labyrinth’s engine in the middle of the Sulu Sea were frustrating and frequently disappointing. A broken camshaft belt lead to two valves bent and a jammed engine – and me without the time or the money in the Voyage of the Labyrinth project budget to replace a faulty engine.
We were on our way to Davao to join the Raja Ampat rally to north eastern Indonesia when it happened. We had two weeks to cover four hundred miles – usually no arduous task but there was no way I could thread the many island channels of the Philippines at the mercy of the fickle winds that had just left us drifting in the Sulu sea for four days.
We made it to the fine anchorage of Tambobo bay – one of the best typhoon holes in the Philippines, if you can make it past the treacherous reefs and sandbars at its entrance; a dangerous passage as a French yacht found to their cost when they were wrecked there during a storm last year.
There we found a small community of yachties, who were free with their advice and generous with loaning their tools. One of the engine head bolts was seized and I proceeded carefully and slowly, knowing that if I rounded off the bolt, broke it or otherwise damaged the engine out of frustration then I would be in a world of pain. It took three days to free the bolt – a mix of ATF and acetone, poured into a well made of plasticine around the bolt and left overnight, finally did the trick.
Unfortunately, the spare valves I inherited when I bought Labyrinth have turned out to be previously damaged valves kept as reference! Labyrinth’s engine is a 25 year old marinised truck diesel – a good idea in the 1990s when exotic yacht parts were rarely found in remote islands but a rather obsolete view these days, especially in a world of online shopping and overnight shipping. Even after my repairs, the engine still wouldn’t start. I spent all day walking around the nearby town of Dumaguete looking for new valves but fourteen diesel engine shops couldn’t help me.
As one wizened Chinese mechanic told me, “Sir, I have been in this shop so long my hair has gone white and never has anyone asked for this engine parts.” One store called around their suppliers on my behalf and came back with the unwelcome news that my engine was now obsolete and parts were no longer stocked. But they could sell me a new engine! Yeah, not this year, thank you.
I tried a few more tricks but had no success – so it was time to bite the bullet and call in a pro. We were referred to a Filipino mechanic named Jojo, who came out to Labyrinth and inspected the diesel with all the fuss and attention of a devoted country doctor. He disappeared with the head, a good fifteen kilos chunk of metal holding the valves and tappets and overhead camshaft, for four days while we waited.
It was a frustrating time as we only had solar for power, so I could not work on editing our films on the laptop. The boat was stifling, the fridge ran off the engine so was out of action, and Rox’s injury was giving her trouble. For her own health and sanity, she and James decamped to Dumaguete for a couple of days while I pushed on with other repairs. With the engine in pieces it was a fine time to get at all the bits that were beyond my reach normally and I renewed hoses and clamps like it was going out of style. The boat was like a mechanics shop, every horizontal surface covered with fuel pumps, heat exchangers and radiators, as well as a myriad of hoses and belts, and small plastic bags labelled AIR INTAKE BOLTS and MAIN WP FITTINGS, making Jolene’s life hell as she negotiated a minefield of metal every time she moved around.
Finally Jojo returned. He had faced the same problem I had with spares (his own suppliers asked him “Hey, is this for that foreign guy who was here a few days ago?”) and a supplier in Cebu, who promised him the parts, had left him down. However he had ingeniously sourced valves from different cars that matched the specifications of the valves I needed. The engine was reassembled, tested rigorously and we spent a day fine tuning the fuel injection to work with the new configuration. I spent a day running seatrials and found it had some new quirks but nothing to hold us back.
Eventually we were good to leave Tambobo bay – but we had lost two weeks and the rally had already departed for Indonesia. But we set off anyway; the organisers told us that we could still join if we caught up with them by the 10th. The rally’s journey through Indonesia was a key part of the Voyage of the Labyrinth film making project and there was not a moment to be lost.
The engine is still giving me problems – pulling it completely apart means there are many hoses and fittings and screws that need to settle in plus it appears that some of the pipes were cracked by our energetic mechanic so I am still fixing all the things broken while fixing the engine. But we are underway again, racing day and night to make up lost time.
This morning we broke out of the Hinatuan passage, a maze of islands famous for its ripping tides and whirlpools that can spin a yacht right around, and entered into the Pacific Ocean.
The rising sun painted a road of sparkling diamonds across a silky sea that rippled like a flag in the breeze. All around us was rush hour, as fishermen raced out to sea in small outrigged canoes, each one a triple hulled miniature of Labyrinth, so it appeared we were a mother duck surrounded by a cluster of ducklings.
We’ve in a whole new ocean and ahead of us is a horizon that promises mystery and adventure.
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