Story and photos by SILJA RUEBSAMEN
I used to be a teacher and schoolbook editor. In 2006, I was working for a prestigious German publishing company. I had a house, a garden, a Mercedes – albeit a coughing, heavy 1981 model – and a pet.
2007 found me 50km north of Sabah, in a bay just on the southern tip of Palawan island in the neighbouring Philippines, battling one of the last typhoons of the season, praying that my two anchors would hold. I had become a sailor.
I learnt sailing while at university, and due to a chronic lack of cash I took odd jobs on yachts during holidays. In 2005 I was part of a crew that sailed a 20m steel behemoth named Daisy back home to Hamburg from Iceland.
The former crew had abandoned ship; for good reason. As it turned out, Daisy’s engine was on the verge of un-seaworthiness, although the sails and rigging were in fair condition. After three weeks of getting thrashed in the Arctic and North Seas, we arrived in Hamburg. In one piece.
The agency that had hired me and the captain was impressed. So was the owner. Word got around. In Christmas 2006, I was offered the Samba, a white, 14m long sloop (which means it has one mast); a 1994 prototype for the Delta yacht. The offer came with a one-way plane ticket to Cairns, Australia.
I was 29 years old, a bookworm who wrote schoolbooks with a PhD in the works. My parents were horrified. I boarded the plane to meet the love of my life, Samba.
In Australia, I met up with Franz – an engineering wizard and sailing legend with about half a million miles logged – who introduced me to Samba. She had been abused as a charter yacht by various agencies and her condition was deplorable: all mouldy and rotten inside, the engine barely running, and she was leaking so badly that she would have sunk in the Cairns harbour had a nice fellow yachtie not volunteered to pump out the bilge every day.
We managed to clean her, get the rot out, fix the engine and stop the leaks, plus sail her to Darwin within two weeks. We then brought her to Thailand, where she underwent a refit for her voyage home to Germany.
I had been hired for two years, a justifiably long (or short, as you will?) time to get Samba back west to Germany. Instead, I went east. This way was entirely against the usual blue water cruising route, which uses prevailing westbound trades and currents to circumnavigate the globe.
But from Thailand, Samba patiently carried me south and east, through Malaysia and the Philippines to Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Nauru, Kiribati, Tuvalu, and Fiji.
Samba’s owner, George, was happy I had chosen this way, and in 2009 extended my contract for another two years. Whenever Samba happened to be in a particularly nice spot, he visited to enjoy fine diving and sailing, or sent friends and family for a vacation.
After Fiji, going further east became impossible. I never found out why, but I was simply unable to find the fabled equatorial counter current that would have made the passage east easier. Fighting against easterly trades and a westbound current was just too strenuous. So having achieved a sailor’s dream, crossing the international dateline and time-travelling into yesterday, I turned her around and started the voyage home. This was in late 2010, when I had not been home – or worn shoes, I swear – since January 2007.
I am still on board. In 2013, I left Samba in Langkawi and returned to Germany for a year to work as a teacher. But returning turned out to be impossible. I had been sailing for too long. Life on the ocean had become my way of life – the daily fight for resources, the dependency on wind, weather, moon and stars, and the harmony between me and the environment.
Most of my years aboard were spent in the Pacific, in remote areas such as Papua New Guinea, where supermarkets, the Internet, or even medical aid were non-existent. When I wanted fish for dinner, I cast out a line or went snorkelling with a spear gun. When I wanted meat, I traded rice, batteries or milk powder for chicken, pork, even a flying fox once. The same for vegetables.
Electricity came from solar panels (and a generator, in case of an emergency), water fell from the sky. Entertainment was in the form of DVDs or books I had traded with fellow cruisers I met along routes.
Whenever there were guests on board, they marvelled at the simplicity and efficiency of sailing life. Most visitors stayed for three or so weeks, some longer. Herbert, an engineer from Germany, stayed for a year. Thomas came for two weeks – and left six months later. I had come for a two-year contract in 2007 and am still on board. And although I still appreciate visits to museums, strolls in busy towns, or artsy book launches, I now know I can never trade life on the ocean for life ashore again.