Storms and Pirates
by Kitty and Scott Kuhner New York Station
Most people have no idea what it’s like to be out on the ocean away from our very comfortable lifestyle here in the United States. Back in the early 1970s, Kitty and I spent four years circumnavigating the globe on our 30-foot Allied Seawind ketch, Bebinka. When we returned home to Westport, Connecticut, the first thing that friends asked was, “Weren’t you afraid of storms?”
We’d never been much afraid of storms because whenever the wind started to blow, we would heave to and ride out the bad weather. However, on July 14, 1974, midway between Cape Hatteras and Bermuda and only 500 miles from completing the voyage, we got caught in a fearsome storm and finally understood why others were always so concerned about such things.
When the wind started to come up, we hove to. A few hours later, the wind continued to build, and the roar was deafening. The wind-speed indicator showed 70 knots. We took all sails down and lay ahull. We became lulled by the apparent calm from the way Bebinka was riding out the storm, heeling over with the wind. That changed in the middle of the night, when we fell off a wave and hit a trough upside down with such force that the main hatch blew right off, as did the teak grab rails on the cabin top, our spray dodger, and our self-steering wind vane.
Kitty and I had been down below, and as Bebinka fell over, we both rolled onto the cabin top. As we righted, the now-open hatch scooped up so much water that down below it came up to the level of the bunks. When we fully righted, I looked out and saw that the life raft was still in the cockpit. I thought, at least we still had a safety net. I thanked the Lord that it was there, because had it been on deck, it would have been blown off with the rest of the stuff. I grabbed the piece of plywood that had been over the life raft to keep us from stepping on it and bolted it over the open companionway to prevent more waves from breaking over us and coming down below. Meanwhile, Kitty grabbed the big wastebasket that had been in the galley and ferociously started scooping up water, dumping it out the companionway.
The next morning, we reviewed all the damage. Seeing that everything had been blown off the cabin top and even the main boom had broken in two, we couldn’t believe we had survived. We thankfully saw that the mast was still standing, no doubt because in New Zealand we had rerigged with galvanized steel two sizes bigger than we’d had previously. We had also taken both the jibs below and furled and tied the main and mizzen sails to the boom. After cleaning up the mess down below,
We met a few other cruisers while we were in St. Thomas. Tom Corkill, an Australian, had sailed the smallest multihull ever to cross the Indian Ocean. While rounding the Cape of Good Hope, he was shipwrecked in a storm. He was rescued by a passing freighter and after a few years of land adventures, went back to Australia where he built himself a 35-foot catamaran, sailed back to South Africa, met his wife-to-be Sherri and convinced her to sail with him to the Caribbean.
I tried to fix the broken boom by sticking a piece of four-by-four into each end at the break and securing the broken boom to the wood inserts. It worked to the point that we were able to set some sail and limp our way home. Approaching New York City, I was finally able to hand-crank the 18-horsepower diesel engine and get it started, which enabled us to power up the East River and through the narrow tidal strait of Hell Gate.
Following our return to Westport, we spent the summer fixing all the damage. The lessons learned: 1) don’t keep the life raft on deck because had it been there, it would have been blown off with the rest of the gear; and 2) when crossing oceans, always have a parachute anchor and a set of drogues ready to keep the boat stern to the seas in nasty storms.
Rather than becoming fearful of ever going to sea again, we got back on the horse in the fall and set sail again for St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands to take jobs that had been offered to us. After a year in St. Thomas, we decided that it was time to go back to Connecticut, get “real” jobs, buy a house, and start a family. However, we had loved our time on the sea, meeting new people and learning about new cultures, so much so that we always had it in our minds to do it again sometime. Even after we started a family, the desire to go again never left us and was reinforced by wanting to show our kids that there was more to the world than Fairfield County, Connecticut.
In 1982, we were fortunate to buy Tamure, a Valiant 40, from an old friend who was moving up to a bigger boat. In 1987, when our two boys were nine and eleven, we felt it was the perfect time to let go of the mooring lines once again and head out on the next adventure of a lifetime. That October we packed the boys and tons of gear onto Tamure and sailed off on another four-year adventure.
On the first trip, we had sailed from northwest Australia across the Indian Ocean and down under South Africa. On this voyage, we wanted to go somewhere new. When we told friends that our plan this time was to go up the Red Sea, they immediately asked, “Aren’t you afraid of pirates?” We shrugged it off, but when we got back home in 1991, we did have a scary “pirates on board” story to tell.
In New Zealand, we decided to sail to New Caledonia, the Solomon Islands, and New Guinea. From there, we continued on to Bali in Indonesia. After spending a couple of weeks in Bali, we headed up the Java Sea to Singapore and on to Malaysia and Thailand, before going up the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. We left in company with two other boats, Bob and Beth Lux (BOS) on Rhodora, a Bermuda 40 yawl, and Carl and Peri McIlroy on KuKara, a 40-foot Cheoy Lee. The first night after leaving Bali, we anchored off Bawean, a little island north of Bali in what I had considered to be a truly remote area. However, Indonesia is very densely populated, and after we were securely anchored, a local fishing boat with about 10 men on board anchored only a hundred yards from us. Painted in psychedelic designs, it looked like a seagoing version of Tom Wolfe’s bus in his 1968 book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Once anchored, they all hung over the side and stared at us, as though they were sizing us up. However, they made no move to approach us, and by late evening I thought that if they had had any nefarious ideas, they would have already acted, so I went to sleep.
The next day we all headed up the Java Sea, bound for Singapore. As we approached the south end of Borneo, Bob Lux came on the radio and said that he and Beth were going to divert to Borneo. “After all,” he said, “I will never be by this place again and I would love to see it!” The day after they sailed off, we saw a freighter coming toward us. We were sailing under spinnaker, and we called them on the radio to make sure they saw us and would alter course for us. After acknowledging our presence and agreeing to change course, the captain asked us where we were headed. When I told him Singapore, he came back on the radio and ruined our day! He said, “Listen, from here on in be very careful. In the last month, two of our ships were boarded by guys with automatic weapons and the crew held up at gunpoint. There is still piracy in the area, so be careful.” That was just what we had not wanted to hear.
To increase our anxiety, that night we encountered a violent thunderstorm and had to dodge numerous thunderheads while praying that none of the ferocious lightning bolts would find our mast to be the shortest route to the ground. The next day we were exhausted. We decided to anchor off Pulau Karimata, which appeared on the chart to be a little deserted island southwest of Borneo. We dropped our hook. After a short rest and a peanut butter sandwich for lunch, Kitty and the boys went below, broke out the schoolbooks, and started doing their lessons for the day.
In the meantime, I was up on deck doing a few of the never-ending boat chores. A few minutes later, I looked up and saw a fishing boat not too far away. I didn’t think anything about it until I looked up again and saw that it was coming right at us. There was a man on the foredeck wearing dark clothes and a ski mask. Another ski mask was peeking up out of the hold. Just as the boat was about to hit us, the guy at the tiller slammed it into reverse, and before I could react, the fellow on the foredeck jumped on our boat and tied their boat to ours. In an instant, three dangerous-looking men in ski masks were on board Tamure.
I yelled at them to get off our boat. They yelled back at me in Indonesian. They didn’t understand a word I was saying, and I didn’t understand a word they were saying. Just then our oldest son Alex stuck his head out the companionway hatch to see what was going on. I yelled at him to get down below. Two minutes later, as we were all still frantically yelling, Kitty stuck her head out the hatch and handed out three Cokes and a pack of cigarettes. Suddenly, the men whipped their ski masks off and broke into big smiles.
We started communicating in sign language as we all sat down in the cockpit. I brought out the chart I was using to navigate and asked them where they were from. They pointed at the chart and jabbered away at each other, as if this was the first time they had seen an actual chart of their fishing grounds. One of the men then poked at the chart, looked at me and held up two fingers. I took it to mean, did I have two charts. I did have another usable chart in a different scale, so I gave them the chart. With big smiles, they looked at me as if we were their new best friends.
Kitty kept looking out the companionway and after an hour started to wonder how we could ask them to leave. Finally, they stood up and brought me over to their boat. They opened their hold and loaded my arms with fish. I had to point out that I could not hold any more and thanked them. I climbed back onto Tamure, and they started their engine. As they drove off, they each made a fist and wagged a thumbs-up as they drove off. Later a version of the Coca Cola jingle kept playing in my head: “I’d like to buy the world a Coke … and live in harmony!”
Just a few years ago when we were in the Bahamas, we invited another cruising couple to come on board for an afternoon sundowner. As we were telling them our story about being boarded by “pirates,” the woman guest told us that she was from that area of Borneo and explained that fishermen and construction workers wear ski masks despite the heat in order to protect their faces from the sun. She also told us that there is no such thing as private property in the way that we understand it. People just walk into someone’s home and say hello.
About the Authors
Kitty and Scott Kuhner’s extensive offshore voyaging has included two circumnavigations, the first one in 1971-74 on Bebinka, a 30-foot Allied Seawind ketch. They sailed around the world again in 1987–91 with their two sons, Spencer and Alex, on Tamure, a Valiant 40. In the fall of 2003 the Kuhners sailed from the Bahamas to Portugal via Bermuda and the Azores. The following year, after spending the winter in Portugal and exploring Spain, they sailed back across the Atlantic by way of the Canaries. They have since cruised extensively along the U.S. East Coast and throughout the Bahamas. In 2017, the Kuhners received the CCA’s Far Horizons Award for “a particularly meritorious cruise or series of cruises which exemplify the objectives of the club.”