Through Storms And Fishing Nets: RGS’s Circumnavigation Arrives In Phuket

Ahead are the islands of Thailand. Photos of the expedition participants
Ahead are the islands of Thailand. Photos of the expedition participants

The participants of the circumnavigation expedition of the Tomsk Regional Branch of the Russian Geographical Society reached the coast of the Thai island of Phuket on January 25. The ship anchored in Chalong Bay. It took five days to get there from Indonesia.

Evgeny Kovalevsky and Stanislav Berezkin set off from the island of Batam on January 21. The 557-mile route ran within the zone of active navigation and fishing, which left its mark on the nature of the voyage and posed a certain danger. To avoid collisions with large vessels and small, nimble fishermen's boats, the crew had to be constantly on the alert. In the Malacca Strait, according to the travelers, there are countless different ships moving in all directions. They managed to count 25 supertankers alone.

“Container ships, bulk carriers, car carriers, tankers are coming close to us and to each other in both directions. This is a usual thing for captains. It's worrying for us. What if we run into each other? The traffic is heavy," admitted Evgeny Kovalevsky.

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A dangerous traveling companion. Photos of the participants
A dangerous traveling companion. Photos of the participants

The weather on the first day of the voyage from Indonesia to Thailand turned out to be hot. The crew used it to wash and dry their personal belongings. The scientific duties of the expedition were not forgotten either: the travelers carried out radiation level measurements on the instructions of the Tomsk Branch of the Russian Atomic Energy Information Center. The background levels are slightly elevated.

“We decide to cross the fairway from left to right to the coast of Singapore. First, we look at how other ships do it. It turns out that despite the huge dimensions, the ships let each other pass. Tankers slow down, letting through the colleagues heading for the shore or the fairway. Having found a gap, we slide into it. By 11:00 we are sailing along the right edge of the fairway to avoid the most dense traffic lane. Two lines are marked on the map: two opposite directions. They must be adhered to. But the captains do not always comply, they go as they need to. The groups and convoys of giants (gas carriers, tankers, container ships) are catching up with us and passing by. It's funny that in the middle of the ship's bacchanalia, small fishing boats scurry around, intensifying the chaos," Kovalevsky said.

In the afternoon, a police boat approaches the circumnavigation sailboat. The conversation with the guards takes place over the radio. After interviewing the crew, the police ask not to enter the waters of the Singapore port. Close by, another similar boat is turning away fishermen's boats from the fairway. In the late afternoon, the circumnavigators cross the border of Singapore and Malaysia.

“Malay fishermen are rushing around on fast motorboats. They pass by, looking at us. We wave our hands and greet them. In response, smiles and also waves of hands. Stas suddenly rushes to the steering wheel, twists it sharply to the left. Right ahead, 10 meters away, the path is blocked by a long net. Well done Stas! Spotted in time. A few more seconds and we would have had nets wound around our propeller. But the propeller is saved!” Evgeny Kovalevsky wrote in his diary.

The crew constantly has to dodge fishing boats, which often go head-on and do not give way. On January 23, in half an hour, they almost flew into nets three times. It's especially hard in the dark. Flickering lights at the corners of the nets show where they are attached. However, their dim light is not always immediately noticeable.

In the morning of the next day, suddenly there is a strong impact on the propeller. The sailboat is slowing down.

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Busy traffic at sea. Photos of the expedition participants
Busy traffic at sea. Photos of the expedition participants

“Quickly turn off the engine, stop. We have to dive and see. Stas dives in. That's right: rags and ropes are wrapped around the propeller. There is a lot of garbage in the water. Stas cleans the propeller with a knife. We see that a tugboat, which was coming towards us, has stopped. The captain is watching. He realized that we have a problem and is waiting to see if we need help. We are grateful to him; all sailors are brothers. But the propeller is cleared, we start the engine and continue sailing. And the captain of the tugboat, seeing that everything is in order, continues his journey," says Kovalevsky.

It gets cloudy in the morning, it starts to rain, but then it subsides. It's warm, quiet and peaceful around, even cozy. And the ubiquitous fishermen are already like family. In the evening, powerful gray clouds gather and form a chain in the west. The pink sunset light and the blue space around give the picturesque spectacle a truly epic beauty.

However, the paradise ends soon enough and an avalanche of rain falls on the sailboat.

There is a storm ahead on the course. Photos of the expedition participants

“The storm! Lightning flashes all around. There are blood-curdling thunderclaps right above the mast. A solid curtain of water obscures the view. The fishermen disappear from sight. I turn on all the running lights and the bow searchlight so that the fishermen can see us," Kovalevsky notes.

The storm stops as abruptly as it started. It gets lighter, and at least 30 fishing boats immediately appear around. In the west, everything turns pink. Once again, the world is covered in divine beauty.

In the Malaysian port of Lumut, the crew is carrying out a scheduled oil change in the engine. At midnight on January 24, the sailboat leaves the bay and moves northwest. In the morning, Stanislav Berezkin, who is on watch, is forced to abruptly stop the ship and even reverse course — again the path is blocked by a net. The navigation device on the way of the circumnavigators shows a lot of sunken ships.

“According to our observations, this does not affect the captains of the ships. They boldly pass over dangerous areas. We're being careful, we're going around," Kovalevsky said.

Unpleasant, harsh, one-meter waves appear near the island of Penang. There is headwind, it’s cloudy, the ship is pitching. At the same time, fishermen go fishing. There are at least 25 trawlers in line of sight. Someone is moving, someone is waiting. It is not so easy to follow the course in such conditions.

By evening, the storm begins again. Squalls with a wind of 30 knots are coming one after the other. The sailboat rolls to the left so much that the water is sweeping over the deck. According to Stanislav Berezkin, the height of individual waves at that moment reached 3 m. They almost turned the ship over.

And on January 25, at least 200 fishing boats surrounded the circumnavigators in a dense semicircle near the island of Langkawi. There was a bright green light on each of them.

“Longboat illumination illuminates the entire bay. Probably, fishing goes well in inclement weather. Until one-thirty at night, we are fighting a real battle with superior enemy forces. Figuratively speaking, of course. Fishermen attack in packs, cut us off, cross the path, swim up close. It's like we don't exist. They live their own lives. And I have to keep up with dodging everyone," says Kovalevsky.

Closer to two o'clock in the morning, Langkawi Bay is left behind. The last barrier of fishermen pops up in the way: about 25 longboats lined up in several lines, blocking the path. By maneuvering and avoiding collisions, the travelers break out into the open space.

However, the adventures do not end there. Already in the dead of night, an absolutely dark trawler grows out of the darkness at the next island 5 m ahead. The bow of the sailboat runs into the trawl, but the net does not reach the keel.

“Slowly we get out of the embrace. Everyone is asleep on the trawler. We search for a way around the danger, look around and suddenly realize that we are trapped. There are six completely dark trawlers around. There are no people visible on them, probably the fishermen have gone inside the boats and are sleeping. For 15 minutes we try to get out of the tangle of trawls. Finally, we succeed," Kovalevsky noted in his diary.

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Islands of Thailand. Photos of the expedition participants.
Islands of Thailand. Photos of the expedition participants.

In the morning, with wind gusts of up to 20 knots, the sailboat enters the waters of Thailand. There are a lot of white box-shaped signs around – also net signs. They are not at all like the Indonesian and Malay ones. The traditional connection with the coastal headquarters in Tomsk. The travelers send Yulia Kalyuzhnaya their coordinates and information. The headquarters places it on the website and makes another mark on the map.

Phuket is about 70 miles away. The crew intends to get there by nightfall. A storm is expected the next day. Short low waves are moving in measured rows. Their height is enough to rock the sailboat from side to side. The sun enlivens the picture and the mood. The beautiful islands of Thailand float by. Phraya Nak, similar to a medieval castle with its jagged rocks, is a tourist paradise of Ko Phi Phi Le.

The last three hours of the voyage to Phuket are like a real thriller. Gusts of wind up to 30 knots. Harsh and frequent waves literally put the sailboat on its side on the verge of overturning.

“Everything loose is jumping around inside. The deck is flooded with waves. When entering the harbor in shallow water, the waves grew to two meters. We were being thrown so hard that we had to pray. A huge Buddha blessed our entrance to the bay from a high mountain," Evgeny Kovalevsky wrote in his diary.

At 23:00 on January 25, the RGS’s circumnavigation sailboat anchored in Chalong Bay on Phuket Island. The journey continues.

On July 1, 2021, Siberian travelers Evgeny Kovalevsky and Stanislav Berezkin set off along the route of the first Russian round-the-world expeditions of the 19th century: Ivan Kruzenshtern’s (1803-1806), Yuri Lisyansky’s (1803-1806), Otto Kotzebue’s (1815-1818, 1823-1826), Vasily Golovnin’s (1817-1819), Fedor Litke’s (1826-1829), Faddey Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev’s (1819-1921). The international project of the Tomsk Regional Branch of the Russian Geographical Society "Following the paths of Russian explorers" is dedicated to the 250th birthday anniversary of Krusenstern and the 200th anniversary of the discovery of Antarctica by Russian sailors. These events for a long time determined Russia's leadership in the development of the oceans and the discovery of new lands. You can learn more about the project and provide all possible assistance in its implementation on the website of the expedition.