Cruising Plans and Political Turmoil

Cruisers often quip that “their plans are cast in jell-o” or “drawn in the sand at low tide.” One of the attractive things about the cruising lifestyle is that many of us are able to go with the wind and change our plans on a whim. Sometimes the changes in plans are by choice, and sometimes external events such as political turmoil force us to change tack.

We first experienced this while participating in the Auckland to Savusavu race in 2000. Near the halfway point, we received news during the daily radio schedule that Fiji was experiencing yet another coup. On advice from the New Zealand government, the race committee abandoned the race. Many of the fleet diverted to Noumea, New Caledonia. The rest turned around and headed back to Auckland.

Someone once said to me “When in doubt, do nothing,” so we decided to “pull over” at nearby Minerva Reef, take a short break, gather a bit more information and explore our options. Option one was to proceed to Tonga (upwind of Fiji) and visit Fiji later if things cooled off. Our second option was to head to Vanuatu or New Caledonia (downwind of Fiji) which would have made it much more difficult to get to Fiji later. Option three was to assess the situation in Fiji and continue on if it was safe. For us, returning to a New Zealand winter was NOT an option! We listened to news on the BBC, Radio New Zealand (via our SSB radio) and exchanged email with some cruising friends who were on the ground in Savusavu.

The information we received was that most of the turmoil was contained in the capital city of Suva and that outlying areas were largely unaffected. After a 24 pit-stop anchored inside the beautiful Minerva Reef, we continued on to Savusavu and received a very warm welcome as “the only yacht to finish the race.” We went on to enjoy four wonderful months of cruising in Fiji. As a precaution, we kept enough food and fuel on board to make a quick exit to Vanuatu in the event that we felt it was no longer safe to remain in Fiji. We kept up with events by listening regularly to the news the local radio station, Bula FM, TV news when we could find one, and occasionally picking up a copies of the Fiji Times newspaper. What was particularly notable about Fiji during this time was the lack of tourists, the very warm welcome we received from the Fijian people, and the fact that we never felt that we were ever in any danger whatsoever. The general consensus was that the coup was “a tempest in a teacup” and we were pleased we decided to stick with plan A.

Fast forward to September 2006. We’re in Malaysia and planning on heading north to Thailand in a couple of months and we get news that the government has been taken over in a bloodless coup. What will we do?? First off, nothing! In the mean time we’ll gather information about the nature of the turmoil, and what areas, if any, are affected. We’ll be paying attention to the news, and contacting friends on the ground in Bangkok. Because the media hyperbole can some times exaggerate a situation, there is no substitute for first hand information from someone who is there. That said, we will also have a plan B. Our first impression is that the situation is fairly benign, and that we will be able to safely visiting the outer islands. For the time being, we’ve postponed our plans to visit Bangkok. If it comes time to go and looks at all dodgy, we can give Thailand a miss this year and proceed straight to the Andaman Islands from Langkawi.

Also along our intended route for the next year is the island nation of Sri Lanka. The escalation in violent activities by the Tamil Tigers has us very concerned. A situation which used to be isolated on the north end of the island seems to have spread down to the cities on the south end of the island where we had planned to make landfall. At this point, we won’t be stopping there on our way across the Indian Ocean, but that is subject to change if a lasting truce appears to take hold.

Having plans and schedules that are too rigid can cause problems for cruisers. In some cases, it can be downright dangerous. I think the key is to keep things flexible. Since we are approaching year twelve of a planned five-to-eight year circumnavigation, our lives are about flexibility. At the end of the day, we’re not adrenaline junkies and have no interest in needlessly putting ourselves at risk by visiting places where there is violence and unrest. If it means missing someplace interesting, so be it. There are plenty of other beautiful, peaceful and interestingl countries left on the planet.

In travel, just as in sailing, it is important to remain aware of what is going on around you. Some cruisers take a great deal of pleasure in escaping the news and leaving the problems of the world behind. I say “good on ‘em,” knowing that many of them pick up necessary scuttlebutt from others who do keep an ear to the news. A lot of good and valuable information is regularly exchanged in the cockpit of a boat over sundowners or at the local cruiser’s hangouts. For us, however, keeping up on world events goes hand in hand with traveling the world adds to our experience.

As Yogi Berra said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” It’s always good to have options or backup plans if your first plan becomes undesirable due to political turmoil or other factors out of your control. Over the years, many “plan B’s” have turned out to be pleasant surprises that led me to places and experiences I never could have imagined.

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