Two sailors’ epic eastbound journey halfway around the globe

Yachting World

A double-handed passage from Turkey to Seattle was an adventurous solution for Peter and Ginger Niemann

Departure time is a time of optimism for Ginger and me. All the stress of decision making and the work of planning and provisioning is behind us, and we are almost always full of good hope for an upcoming passage. Last year we were readying to leave the Mediterranean, departing on a voyage to home half a world away near Seattle.

Our ketch, Irene, was ready to go – with new bottom paint, fresh varnish, and full fuel and water tanks. Her lockers were crammed with excellent and inexpensive Turkish produce; olive oil, wine, grains and meats.

As we stowed provisions on that bright and sunny morning, we glanced past the breakwater and saw the Med was deep blue and speckled with whitecaps. A perfect sailing wind was blowing.

Our crew of two was ready to go, too. Turkey had been a wonderful place to visit, both for sailing and visits inland, but the Covid pandemic had impacted the world while we were there. We’d been locked down for four months, and onward borders were closing.

Peter and Ginger Niemann cruised Europe, before becoming stranded in Turkey due to the pandemic. Their previous world trip was in a 47ft sloop Marcy, sailing west-about from Seattle, rounding the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn, from 2006 to 2010.

We needed to come up with a plan for action, and we came up with a bold one: we decided to sail non-stop, mostly eastbound, halfway around the globe. We’d sail from Turkey to Seattle: down the Red Sea, across the Indian Ocean, and into the Pacific, crossing eastward in the northern latitudes. We would stop in Djibouti, Indonesia, Japan and lastly at Dutch Harbour in the Aleutian Islands.

We were aware that our plan came with some difficulties. The transit of the Red Sea was one – leaving in July, we’d be sailing in the hottest sea in the world at the hottest time of year. Then we would enter the Gulf of Aden at the height of the windy and stormy south-west monsoon.

Pirates, both the murderous type and the merely rapacious rascally variety, were known to plague parts of the route. And we could expect to be on the wind, tacking or close-hauled, for almost 3,000 miles on the leg from Singapore to Japan.

Like any long keel full displacement ketch, hard on the wind is not Irene’s strong point – especially with her by-now worn and baggy suit of sails. But the positives seemed to outweigh the negatives, and as we talked over the options Ginger looked at me, raised her glass of Raki, and declared “I’m in!”

Irene in the Arctic – the couple began their world voyage by sailing north through the Northwest Passage to Greenland. Photo: Jan Wanggaard

Egyptian escape

We were leaving Finike, an attractive little town on the Lycian coast. Irene had been Med moored all through the previous autumn and winter – her bow held in position by an anchor line fastened to an underwater concrete block. We’d used the windlass to tension this line to a couple of hundred pounds of static load.

Stern lines secured the boat near the pier – close enough to jump across but far enough to be sure that the rudder never encountered the concrete. Irene held in position perfectly this way, no matter which direction or how hard the wind blew, even when tested by thunderstorms and gales.

We felt like we were breaking out of jail as we hoisted the sails after so many months. Irene picked up speed as we heeled to the breeze, and we were homeward bound! We were euphoric to be on the move after being immobile for so long.

The first leg was a short one: after a couple of days we arrived at Port Said, the northern entrance of the Suez Canal. Although we had never been to Egypt, we’d heard from many other sailors about the legendary culture of baksheesh that was practised here, yet hoped to find for ourselves that these rumours were perhaps exaggerated.

Indeed, our first pilot was a man of honour, he complimented our boat handling skills and refused any offer of payment. But during the next few days at Port Fouad as Irene was ‘measured’ (by an airy wave of the hand of a disinterested official) and ‘inspected’ by a gift-hungry navy officer (and his jackbooted midshipmen), and we were charged for this and that by our agent, we felt worn down by it all.

Irene is a 52ft custom fibreglass ketch. Photo: Peter and Ginger Niemann

The canal itself was unexpectedly beautiful. The autopilot mostly steered as we motored down the ditch. We only had to be careful of navigation as a big ship passed us and to pay enough attention to not to hit any channel markers or pilings.

We passed hundreds of small fishing boats, all powered by oar and sail, though we were not allowed to take photographs of anything remotely military looking.

Some interesting tugs and a few ships passed us, and the banks were lined with reeds and trees and bird life of all sorts. But we were happy to reach the canal exit and be done with long hot days of motoring, with officials and pilots, and to sail out into the Red Sea.

Red hot in the Red Sea

If the Suez Canal was hot, the Red Sea was hotter by far. But the seascape was even more beautiful.

A warm low light at dawn and dusk painted the sea, sky, and Irene in soft colours. By midday each day we were grateful for the sun and wind protection of Irene’s doghouse.

The bird watching was spectacular. The nights were gorgeous with cloudless skies dense with stars, but sometimes punctuated with beautiful and terrifying thunderstorms. In the mornings we collected the flying fish that had landed on deck during the night and fried them for breakfast.

We began to suffer slightly with heat rash. After all, we are northern people, suited to ice and snow.

Unlike most yachts transiting this area, we had the wind behind us and were making fine progress. Both of us really enjoy passages once the ship’s onboard routine is established. We keep watches around the clock – four hours on, four hours off – and at any given time one person is in charge while the other is free to do whatever they please – eat, sleep, read, or sit on deck and watch waves.

Sailing into the rising sun in the northern Philippines. Photo: Peter and Ginger Niemann

Over the first few days as we get used to the boat’s motion once again, we systematically track down and eliminate any noises. All the squeaks in the rig, thumps from cans rolling in lockers, and anything else are dealt with. We go about the boat wedging locker contents with towels, lubricating dry fittings, and lashing gear down, and soon Irene is quiet except for the sound of wind and waves.

Then we can quickly notice any new rattle or tap, and in that way Irene herself becomes a watchkeeper, letting us know that something new needs attention. As each day passes, we relax a bit more.

But as we reached the halfway point in the Red Sea, the weather threw us a curveball in the form of a ‘haboob’, or dust storm. The wind shifted and we were now close-hauled and needing to tack our way south-east. We sailed closer to the Sudanese shore in the protection of islets and reefs to make better progress against wind and waves. Navigation became trickier and we were well aware that reefs in this area claim yachts every year.

For a few nights we anchored in whatever protection we could find, and were glad we had done so as the nights brought several truly horrific thunderstorms. Irene dipped her rail in the gusts and lightning flashed continuously. In the mornings the decks were thick with gritty mud.

Constant shipping in the Suez Canal. Photo: Peter and Ginger Niemann

As we continued down the sea at this slower pace the effects of the haboob began to moderate, so we resumed sailing 24/7 and soon slipped through Bab el-Mandeb in fine weather.

During our planning, we had intended to top up with fuel and groceries in Djibouti. When we arrived, though, it soon became apparent that we’d not be allowed ashore because of the pandemic. An agent presented himself, and we took on fuel from jugs and some wilted produce, before heading on into the Gulf of Aden.

Gulf of Aden

The pilot charts suggested that we were headed into a windy part of the world and, just as predicted, every day that we sailed in the Gulf of Aden was windier than the day before. We reduced sail bit by bit, first by reefing main, then mizzen, then putting second reefs in, then furling the yankee jib.

The wind kept increasing steadily as we dropped the main entirely, and the next morning we decided to drop the mizzen as well, and carry on under staysail alone.

Shipping in the Malacca Strait. Photo: Peter and Ginger Niemann

The waves had been increasing with the wind but Irene was as steady as a locomotive as she reached on, and the wind vane steered us on a straight and true course. The wind pressed the double reefed mizzen against the shrouds and, try as we might, we could not pull the sail down.

This has never been an issue for us before at sea – as the boat rolls and pitches in the waves any sail is momentarily unloaded, even in gale conditions, and can be lowered a bit at a time. But in this unusually steady strong wind, we could not budge it.

We rigged a downhaul line through sliders on the sail luff to a primary winch and dragged the sail down inch by inch. Then, for good measure, we reefed the staysail. Irene could not carry any less sail, so if the staysail was too much we would continue on under bare poles.

Afterwards we switched our efforts to hanging on and enjoying the ride. A passing container ship reported by VHF that the wind was blowing steady at 59 knots, gusting to 64.

Normally we would heave-to in wind and seas like this, but we were in pirate territory and felt that we should keep moving. There is a multinational anti-piracy military force operating in this region, and we would sometimes glimpse a warship on the horizon.

Curious Banda Aceh fishermen outbound for the night. Photo: Peter and Ginger Niemann

A Japanese patrol aircraft flew over us several times and Ginger had several friendly chats with the aircraft’s radio operator. We reported our position via email to the coalition forces daily. Considering the military presence and sea state we did not worry about pirates at all.

A low ebb

We passed north of the island of Socotra after around one month of sailing, and some 2,800 miles into our 5,800-mile passage to Indonesia.

The wind began to ease and we increased sail once again. All too soon, we were under full sail. The wind continued to decrease, the seas diminished too, as did our daily mileage. The autopilot had to take over steering as we no longer had enough wind to operate the wind vane.

It became possible to cook again. Although we’d hoped to replenish our water supply during the passage the rain squalls were infrequent and tantalisingly short, forcing us to reduce our consumption. As we passed close to Sri Lanka a friendly fishing boat tossed a pineapple aboard, and we lobbed bags of Turkish potato chips in return.

Repairing the yankee jib sheet underway – standing on the boom to reach the high clew. Photo: Peter and Ginger Niemann

Then, on day 48, Irene’s autopilot failed as we entered the Malacca Strait. We had been possibly struck by lightning, or saltwater might have intruded into a critical component. All of our efforts to revive it while we were underway were fruitless, so until we could get parts we’d need to hand steer when we motored or if the wind was too light for the vane over the next 700 miles.

We also lost the ability to overlay AIS and radar targets on the chartplotter, just as we entered some of the most crowded waters in the world.

Our spirits were ebbing as we made our way down the strait, unwashed, sleep deprived, and overworked with hand steering. We looked forward to stopping in Indonesia for repairs and reprovisioning. Shipboard morale recovered a bit as rain squalls moved into the area, letting us fill water tanks to bathe and wash clothes freely again.

Red Sea swallow hitches a ride. Photo: Peter and Ginger Niemann

But our mood took a deep dive on arrival at Batam Island, Indonesia. Although we had pre-arranged to stop for a few months, by the time we arrived the country was closed to visitors and we were told we must move on immediately. Only one country in the region would accept us (on the condition that we were never to go ashore): Singapore. And so Irene motored a few miles across the Singapore Strait to Changi Sailing Club.

Five months moored

We picked up a mooring and waited. We needed the monsoon to change and the typhoon risk to diminish, and to wait for spring in Alaska before proceeding home.

We fixed the autopilot, scrubbed the bottom, and bided our time. We could shop online for food, and row our dinghy to pick it up at the beach, and socialise with two other boats on moorings. We kept in touch with world affairs online and emailed family and friends. It felt luxurious to have almost unlimited time for reading, cooking, and sleeping.

Months flew by – from mid September to early February. Then, suddenly, it was time to depart again. Spirits appropriately high, we set sail and flew back out to sea, intoxicated by the freedom of moving. We passed Malaysia, Brunei and entered the South China Sea and sailed north-west. We were close-hauled to make our way past the Philippines towards Japan.

Friendly Japanese officials at every port – cruising Japan was a delight. Photo: Photo: Peter and Ginger Niemann

The sailing was an odd combination of non-stop passagemaking, and coastal cruising in sight of land, but with very tricky navigation. The area was crowded with fishing fleets, with lots of course changes and sail handling, and we were tired and short of sleep.

As Irene sailed up to the south end of Palawan Channel in the South China Sea, we were aware that we were in the most dangerous pirate area we would ever sail through.

On port tack as we converged on Palawan, Irene was sailing in an area that was terrorised by Abu Sayef and a gang of crack addicted, truly murderous kidnappers. They had been recently active and we wanted nothing to do with them.

On starboard tack, if we carried on too long, we could stray into a poorly surveyed (simply marked ‘Dangerous Ground’ on our chart) and politically hot archipelago of coral atolls – some of which were currently being claimed and militarised by China. Encountering anyone in either area would have been truly frightening for us, and we are glad we never saw a vessel.

As the days passed Irene became slow and sluggish. One night she refused to tack – inconveniently just as we were on a collision course with an outrigger fishing canoe. We started the motor to avoid collision, a first and hopefully a last time for us.

We instantly knew what our problem was: Irene’s antifouling paint was completely worn out. We had noticed a few days before that a remora had attached itself to our rudder, and marine growth trailed in our wake. With a typhoon also threatening us – forecast to impact our path in a day or two – we found a protected river mouth with mangroves all around and anchored to dive on Irene’s bottom to scrape her clean. We scraped for two days as the storm passed overhead and when we resumed our passage Irene tacked easily, our speed increased by a couple of knots.

A whale escort in the North Pacific, approaching the Aleutian Islands, Alaska. Photo: Peter and Ginger Niemann

Cross track

As Irene approached the Japanese coast we were excited and worried in equal parts. At this point we’d been aboard Irene virtually nonstop for eight months and we longed for some time on land. Although the formalities were intimidating, with dozens of officials crowding aboard giving us many, many instructions, we were granted entry. After a quarantine, a haul out and a new coat of bottom paint, we commenced cruising Japan.

Japan was spectacular; we sailed from south to north, taking our full three months allowed by visa. On 1 June we departed the Hokkaido port of Kushiro, next stop Alaska, all smiles as we sailed into the North Pacific. Eight days and 1,222 miles later we reached Attu, the westernmost Aleutian Island and our first anchorage in USA waters in years. We saw almost no-one as we sailed eastward up the island chain.

On 24 June we approached Dutch Harbour, crossing our outbound track and completing our eastbound circumnavigation. We tied up to a pontoon and walked up a gravel road to the Norwegian Rat Saloon, ordered a couple of Alaska Ambers, and raised glasses to our whole adventure. It felt great!

We declared ourselves bad-ass sailors and at the same time observed that we had been lucky as hell – many times. And we toasted Irene, who had taken care of us over and over. It had been an adventure that perhaps not every sailor could enjoy, but it suited our strengths of self-sufficiency, patience, and our appreciation of the ocean’s beauty and variety. Not to mention our appreciation of each other!


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