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Asia – Cruising Asia’s “Land Between Water”

The Sanskrit word for continent is ‘dvipa’, meaning “land between water.” No other part of the world conjures up imagines of lush green jungles and rice fields surrounded by calm oceans studded with islands as does Southeast Asia. And deservedly so: from Burma and Thailand in the west to Irian Jaya in the east, Southeast Asia is made up of vast archipelagos with over 30,000 islands. So vast is this archipelago and so rich is it in culture and biodiversity that it is no exaggeration to say it would take a lifetime to get to know it. If one was to visit every island and spend one day on each it would take a staggering 46 years to cover the islands of Indonesia alone. Considering that three of the world’s five largest islands lie within Indonesia, one can get an idea of just how vast an area it is.

Captain’s Log by Captain Christoph Schaefer – M/Y Pegaso

As the Ottoman Empire closed off the western end of the Silk Route, and the Mamluk Sultans of Egypt stopped all trade between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean with all non-Muslims in the year of 1421, the European traders were forced to finally find another way to India, the fabled Spice Islands and China, in order to continue the trade they made so much money on.

When, in 1498, Vasco da Gama sailed into the port of Calicut, the first European to do so, he was dumbfounded. Having left Portugal with what was considered adequate goods to establish a business relationship with a local sovereign, he became painfully aware as he landed that he was confronted with a civilisation far more advanced than that of Europe and that he was ill-equipped to fulfill his task. Further confronted with interfering Arab traders who tried to prevent him from establishing a trading post, he became convinced that Portugal and Europe in general would only be successful if they could suppress all non-Christian trade in the Indian Ocean.

With this mindset, centuries of colonialism and bloody suppression of entire nations was to follow this first visit that opened the sea route to Southeast Asia. In 1511, Alfonso de Albuquerque arrived in Malacca, the principal trading town of Southeast Asia, and in a bloody month-long struggle he destroyed the city and ordered all Muslims slaughtered.
Tales of fabulous wealth amassed by individual traders and companies lured ever more adventurers and mercenaries to Southeast Asia and, by the end of the 17th century, most of Southeast Asia was under European control and would remain there until after WWII.
The political turmoil of the first half of the 20th century left the region in just as much upheaval and confusion as the rest of the world.

For many years, Southeast Asia was viewed as a poor and desperate place, with ethnic violence and infamous bloody conflicts such as the war in Vietnam, in which both France and the United States failed to gain the upper hand, and the Cambodia of Pol Pot, a strange and dangerous place; a place for adventurers and soldiers of fortune.

Our perception of the region is largely based on tales originating from the kingdoms to the east, and from the war in Vietnam, which was the first war ever brought into our living rooms through our TV sets. These were countries of a vastly different ethnic background to ours, incomprehensible to your average Western person, exotic with gilded temples and long-forgotten jungle ruins. While we are attracted by this strangeness, and most Westerners are susceptible to the ideas of Buddhism and Eastern spirituality, in general there remains an element of caution and apprehension in our dealings with the East.

The recent influx of tourists into the region has again only helped to renew and deepen the mystery that surrounds it. Millions return home with glowing reports from the “Land of Smiles”, the superb diving and rich culture, lost cities in the jungle, the food, followed by the shocking reports of tsunamis, volcano eruptions and rare diseases.

I believe there is no other place in the world that is more exotic than Southeast Asia; this huge archipelago straddling the equator for 50 degrees of longitude. No other region is this much misunderstood and yet adored at the same time.

With the arrival of tourism in the region, maritime tourism developed as fast as all other sectors of the industry.
It did not take long for the infrastructure to develop. In 1992, we had only one marina in Singapore and a handful in Hong Kong; today we count no fewer than twelve full-service marinas between Singapore and Phuket alone, and new ones are always under development.

However, the absence of large superyachts, especially regionally based large charter yachts, became apparent to me during a 14 month cruise on the 175’ motor yacht Pegaso between November 2005 and March 2007. During the entire time there, we covered a total of 25,000 miles. Besides the usual yachting hotspots of Phuket and Bali, we visited numerous world-class destinations such as Burma’s Mergui Archipelago, home of the notorious British pirate “Siamese White;” Krakatau, the most famous of all volcanoes, and Java’s Borobodur, one of the Seven Wonders of the World; Komodo Island, home of the dragons, and Flores, famous for its three-colored lake; Borneo’s Tanjong Putting, with its orangutans, and Kakaban with its fabled jellyfish lake; Sulawesi straddling the Wallace Line, the demarcation between Asia and Australia; from there all the way north to Busuanga, in the Philippines, and across the Sulu Sea to Bangkok. During this entire time we shared an anchorage only once with another large yacht, and that was outside of Phuket. The rest of the time we were on our own, bar the occasional stray live-aboard dive vessel.

With all that Southeast Asia has to offer, it is astounding that not a single large charter yacht has established its base in the region. It is certainly no longer a chicken-and-egg situation. The eggs are clearly in the basket. Anyone visiting Oneº15 in Singapore, for example, will have to admit that this is as good a marina as they come. The main reason there are so few yachts in the region is misinformation, ignorance and superstition.
Let us look at a few of these misconceptions.

Generally piracy in Asia can be summed up in a few sentences. Piracy is on the increase, with most cases (some 300 annually) reported in Southeast Asia. The conclusion is also quite clear: don’t go there.

Having spent many years of trouble-free cruising in the region, I feel things are a bit different than widely perceived. To deny the existence of piracy in the region would be foolish. However, the vast majority of reported piracy cases involve only petty theft in port or suspicious behavior observed either in port or at sea. In the US, for example, any thefts on yachts are simply reported to the police. In February of 2005, I had a burglar board my yacht in Fort Lauderdale. No one ever considered using the word “piracy”. One wonders why not: this was not an isolated case; tens of cases have been reported to the local police. Why don’t these incidents show up in the annual piracy report? I am sure we would see a clear shift of statistics, and that suddenly Southeast Asia would no longer be seen as the hotspot of piracy.

To my knowledge, most of the violent acts of piracy that resulted in the death of crew members or even an entire crew always involved oil tankers. I suppose it is much easier to shift large quantities of petrol or diesel or even, as in one case, coconut oil, than it is selling other goods. For this reason I believe that such a threat to a superyacht is not very large.
One worrying aspect is the merging of piracy and terrorism. It is one of the big fears of the international shipping community that pirates will seize a major ship and, depending on the cargo, use it to threaten entire cities, disrupt traffic flow in major shipping lanes, or other such sinister things. The insurance community advises that Southeast Asia would be a very high-impact area, with major shipping bottlenecks such as the Singapore and Malacca Strait, but the actual risk is deemed low.

However, it is a major consideration for any of us in the large-yacht industry dealing with our high-value “cargo,” in terms of our passengers on board. It is quite conceivable that a group of misguided individuals would dream up a plan to seize a major yacht and its passengers and crew in an attempt to raise awareness for their cause or simply for financial gain. There is no denying that this is a real threat and that this threat prevails worldwide, not just in Southeast Asia. In 2006, for the first time since I came to Asia, the world shipping community and the insurance brokers have stated that the piracy threat in Southeast Asia is on the decline, and the Malacca Strait has finally been removed from the war risk areas.

Another area of misconception about cruising in Southeast Asia is its remoteness.
While it is true that Southeast Asia is one of the last frontiers of the world for yachtsmen, it is still quite manageable for a well-found superyacht and a competent and motivated crew. The idea of needing an exploration yacht to undertake a voyage of discovery of several months through the archipelagoes is simply wrong. While the Pegaso is without doubt a well-found and capable superyacht of substantial size and range, she was designed and built as a Mediterranean yacht. The two most important aspects in taking a superyacht on a voyage like this is an owner with a sense of adventure and a captain who can put together a crew that function well not only when stern-to on the dock in Antibes.

With the formation of SuperyachtASIA, captains now have an alternative network of agents throughout Southeast Asia. SuperyachtASIA was formed to offer a high-quality service ensuring yachts receive the vital support required throughout the region. While cruising through Southeast Asia with the Pegaso, I used the services of SuperyachtASIA agents throughout the trip, and was truly impressed by the professional service I received from all its members. Those captains that are used to dealing with the agents in the Med will find nothing lacking in this department in the region, and will even be positively surprised just how smooth things can run.

In my opinion, Southeast Asia is an absolute must for any enthusiastic yacht owner. This region has far more to offer than a seemingly endless supply of beaches and anchorages. While the rich culture of Southeast Asia is famous for is epitomised in the ruins of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and in Java’s Borobodur, a visit to Bangkok and Ayudhaya will give the visitor a good impression of just how glorious both the living and past culture of the region really is.

There is no need to worry about what to expect. There are excellent charts and cruising guides to be purchased. Contact any of the agents at SuperyachtASIA and they will happily supply you with whatever you require. You are not on your own. Southeast Asia is a well-established but certainly not a well-traveled destination; one that will keep you spellbound for many years.