The great escape: sailing yacht Escapade's epic adventure
by Stewart Campbell
“I just wanted to show you this picture. This is a dead person.” The owners of 37.5 metre Escapade are cycling through thousands of photos from their journey from New Zealand up to Myanmar’s Mergui islands, and we’ve just got to Sulawesi, in the Flores Sea.
“We drove inland for six hours, to go and see the villages of the animist Toraja tribes. They keep their dead for a year, sometimes more, in their houses. Our guide explained how he had lived with his dead grandfather in the house for seven years,” the Swiss owner of the yacht tells me. “But they were very welcoming – and the architecture is just beautiful.”
Most owners spend years talking about a cruise as expansive as this but, for the owners of Escapade, it was a case of: build yacht, get yacht, explore. Straight after taking delivery of the sloop from New Zealand’s Fitzroy Yachts in 2014 – the last yacht built by the yard before it closed its doors – passage was made for Australia, and after that the compass was pinned on north west until they hit Myanmar.
The weren’t new to yachting, however: the couple had spent 12 years chartering yachts. “We once chartered Mirabella I for three straight weeks,” the owner says. Nor were they strangers to Southeast Asia. The owner’s company has a factory in Indonesia and headquarters in Penang, Malaysia. But still the ambition of the trip – a form of extreme shakedown cruise – has to be admired, especially so because it formed only leg one of what is a global cruise. Leg two is the passage across the Pacific, with the final stretch taking them across the Atlantic to Europe.
I meet the family in the midst of planning for the Pacific passage, shortly after leaving the boat back in New Zealand after returning from Myanmar. “We’ve met other superyacht owners that tell us we have to spend at least a month in Vanuatu. They say it’s practically the most beautiful place they have ever seen.”
They’re happy for the advice since out in the Pacific they’ll be in uncharted waters. On the first leg of their trip, however, local knowledge served them well – and ultimately saved them money. The first agent they engaged to help smooth their passage with various permits, visas and services on the trip north through Indonesia to Thailand charged them around $8,000. The fee was so significant, the agent said, because bribes to local officials were built into the bill. “That’s impossible to account and legislate for,” the owner says. “I have had a factory in Indonesia for 10 years. So I know they may ask for a bribe, but you should never pay it because they come again and again. You should work by the book – and it works. It might take a little more time but once you have established that they leave you in peace.”
On the return leg they changed tack and used a local – Raymond Lesmana, from Sail Indonesia – who charged them just $800 for the same service. “Some agents believe that superyachts are just cows to be milked. And I don’t like feeling like a cow to be milked,” the owner says.
The choice of agent for the outward passage was a blip, however, in what was an eventful cruise through the Flores Sea, which included a visit to the island of Komodo.
There, among the dragons, they were left face to face with the walking fossils when their guide ran away. “All the guides have these big sticks, that’s all they have in the way of defence,” the owner says. “Our guide tried to prod a big one out of the way, and it whipped its tail at him and chased him off!” The family had sticks, too – “but didn’t know how to use them”, the eldest son chips in. “The trick is to be behind them, and not to move too much. But you can generally poke them out of the way.”
The remoteness of some of Indonesia’s islands was rammed home during one encounter with a fisherman. “This guy came up alongside in his boat and said: ‘Do you want fish?’ Then he opens up this box and he’s got loads of freshly caught fish, like groupers and huge fish like that,” the owner’s wife recalls. “He gave me five, so I asked him how much they cost. He said: ‘I don’t know, I’ve never sold them.’ We eventually ended up exchanging the fish for some rice, cooking oil and sugar. It was a good trade – the fish was delicious.”
In all, Escapade spent two months in the Flores Sea, including some time in Bali, which left the deckhands with some cleaning to do. “The marina was right under the take-off for the airport, so every morning the boat was black with soot!” the owner says. They found refuge in Medana Bay on the neighbouring island of Lombok, and took to taking the ferry across to Bali. Its capital, Denpasar, provided a better impression: “You can find lots of good, small restaurants and there’s lots to see – cultural sites and fauna,” the owner says. “From this point of view, it’s quite interesting.”
A stark contrast to the bustle of Bali was the “lost” island of Pulau Nangka, where they stopped shortly after passing Singapore. This tiny speck just south of the Malacca Strait has a single resident, “the guardian of the island”, the owner says. “He was so nice. He took us across the island,” the owner’s wife remembers. “He just had a machete and he chopped through the bush and up to the peak. He’s the guard, paid by the government. He goes off the island once a month to collect his salary in a small boat, but otherwise he lives there alone.”
Escapade stayed at anchor for three nights and the owners allowed their son to camp out on the beach with his tutor. “They had a bonfire on the beach and the guardian showed them where to camp to avoid being completely eaten by mosquitoes!” This was far from the only selfless act encountered and reflected the impression that, particularly in the smaller places, superyachts are made to feel very welcome. In Maumere, Indonesia, the harbourmaster took his own car to fetch their eldest son from the airport. “We wanted to pay him for the kilometres but he refused,” the owner says. “He said: ‘No, no, no, we’re happy to see you coming here.’”
In Malaysia, the boat was made race-ready for its very first regatta, the Raja Muda. This is a three-passage event from Port Klang, to Pangkor, Penang and finally Langkawi. Escapade suffered in the light winds of the southern part of the event, but on the longest – and last – passage the yacht came in a pleasing third. Racing was never really part of the plan, the owners say, but is “the cherry on the cake”. Christmas and New Year 2014 were spent in Phuket, Thailand, where they stayed for a month. Then, in early 2015, they eyed their prize: Myanmar. “We loved a previous visit to the country about 20 years ago and always wanted to go back – but this time by sea. And we had heard the Mergui islands were really virgin and uninhabited,” the owner says. He wouldn’t be disappointed. They took on a guide at Port Victoria in Thailand – a requirement – and set course for the once off-limits archipelago. They felt truly alone among the area’s 800 islands, spying only two other boats the whole time, “one of which was flying a Swiss flag”, the owner laughs. “We felt like Robinson Crusoe. The islands are covered with virgin rainforest. The beaches are white sand and very clean. One island had a small sea gypsy village on it, which was really interesting, but everywhere else we went was uninhabited.”
Below the waterline, things weren’t quite so impressive, the owner recalls. Locals commonly fish with dynamite, which has destroyed many of the reefs, leaving scars on the sea bed and an absence of much to see beneath the waves. “You could see the leftovers, the remnants,” the owner, a keen diver, recalls sadly. “Apparently it’s now been stopped but it could be decades before the coral comes back.”
The blissful isolation lasted 10 days but commitments in Europe and a need to get a snagging list of items taken care of back in New Zealand meant it was time to reverse their route. There was one big change to the southern passage, however. On the way back down, Escapade skirted the islands in the northern part of the Flores Sea, making a date with some of the world’s most incredible dive sites. The Taka Bonerate National Park stands out in the memory of all on board. “There were huge coral leaves, which were one or two metres in diameter, undulating in the current. They were just fantastic,” the owner says.
No trip by a keen diver to this area would be complete, though, without a visit to Raja Ampat, widely regarded as one of the world’s best diving areas. “I’ve probably dived in 40 different places,” the owner says. “Raja Ampat is in my top three. I’d say the best are Sipadan in Malaysia, the Galápagos and Raja Ampat, but not necessarily in that order.” The most enduring memory, though, came courtesy of the Toraja in Sulawesi, and their habit of living with the dead. “We’ve lived in Southeast Asia for 30 years and it’s become much more developed in that time, but this was really something new,” the owner says. “They were the most fascinating people we encountered.”
It’s all a far cry from the hotel in a rainy UK where I meet the family. But the grey scene beyond the windows of the restaurant doesn’t dampen the enthusiasm of Escapade’s owners for their next big adventure. The Pacific awaits....