Outer Waters: Deep Learning

Navigating the Gulf of Thailand, the Malacca Strait, and Sumatra aboard the 35-foot Endurance monohull Calypte.

Light / Dark


By Torren Martyn

In a lot of ways, I’ve always been intimidated by the ocean. There’s no controlling it, and for me sailing represents something that requires you to become symbiotic with it. Once you’re offshore, you learn a lot about both the ocean and yourself by silencing your fear and existing with it. I really wanted that challenge—and I certainly got it. 

When I met Aiyana, my partner, one of the first things we talked about was sailing. She spent part of her childhood living on a boat with her parents, and the idea of this type of voyage created an instant connection for us. I don’t know if I was cocky or naive, or if I didn’t think enough about it. I do know I took the whole thing seriously. I was aware of the consequences and tried to sponge as much information as I could before we left. 

We met an Aussie sailor named George in Thailand where we fixed up Calypte. Our friends Kelly Foote and Ryan Scanlon have also been sailing for most of their lives. Ryan is the founder of needessentials, and his support has been crucial. The sailing community in general is so open and willing to share, and I built my knowledge in stages. I knew that type of introduction was important because I was going into it with almost no experience. 

We set out in the north of the Gulf of Thailand with George onboard for the first leg, acting as captain. At one point, very early on, we broke a hose clamp for the engine exhaust and Calypte was basically sinking, and he helped us diagnose and fix the problem. He’d worked as a diesel mechanic and built his own boat, and he showed me how important it is to stay calm and to think clearly at sea. 

Kelly came aboard for a few weeks after George left, and I kind of took over the captain’s role with him as my cushion. Then Ryan came and he helped me learn a few more lessons. Ishka Folkwell was also onboard for a few legs to film. Aside from that, Aiyana and I were mostly on our own for the next 10 months. 

We didn’t know what the boat was capable of at first. We didn’t know what we were capable of. We were learning the terminology, how to service an engine, how to make repairs, how to navigate, and all the points of sail. I was literally still reading how-to books on sailing 10 months into the trip—riding on the swells of a nearby monsoon system, figuring out how to sail downwind. 

You can feel alone when something happens in the  middle of the ocean. The Gulf of Thailand gave us an opportunity to get to know the boat without being in the open sea.  We then sailed to Borneo and up the Malacca Strait, one of the busiest shipping channels in the world. In that early stage, we were dealing with a lot of fishing boats and huge cargo ships, getting used to sitting watch through the night while the other person was asleep, how to anchor, how to listen and know what sounds right and what doesn’t. We had a bit of a taste for it all by the time we got into the open Indian Ocean, where there was access to waves. 

Time moves so slowly on a boat, but the days pass and the weeks pass and the months pass, and by then I was ready to surf. I remember the first time Calypte was sitting in a channel off Sumatra. Watching sets peel over the reef gave me a huge sense of accomplishment. 

A lot of the charts in some of the areas we explored are incredibly inaccurate, so to bring the boat in close to a reef pass can be dangerous. We ran aground in the first week of getting to waves. It was about five in the afternoon and I’d set the anchor just as a squall was coming. I was confident in our anchorage, but a couple of local fishermen came in and basically told us we should move onto the inside of the reef. 

Everything in my mind said we should stay, but they were convincing. As we started motoring in, I could see coral heads and bits of rock coming out of the water, and I knew I’d made a bad decision. Aiyana was on the bow telling me that she could see the reef, and I was watching the depth gauge go from 5 meters to 3 meters to 1. 

After we hit a coral head, I was so angry at myself. We were able to get away without major damage, but it made me realize I was responsible for everything that happened on the boat and for my own judgment. I became more confident in that responsibility as the trip went on—navigating storms and anchorages, weighing whether we should ride out a storm or chase it for waves—even with other people onboard who might not entirely agree with me. 

Anytime you surf a new wave—when you don’t know its name and there’s no one else in the water on some remote stretch of coast—it can feel like you’re the only person in the world. In the early stages, if I was in the water and a squall would hit, I’d be straight back to the boat, ready to make a move. Eventually, we started traveling with the storms and using them to our advantage. 

Being in the middle of the ocean is one of the most profound things I’ve ever experienced. When you’re hundreds of miles from land and it’s completely glassy and the stars are reflecting off the water, it can feel like floating through space. You can also encounter a storm and it can be terrifying. The winds and the rains are going horizontal, you’re heeled over with too much sail, trying to reduce, and, again, you’re out in the middle of the ocean. I’d go through these intense highs and lows. Sometimes all I could think of was how to escape. Other times there was no other place I’d have rather been.

Between storms, northern Sumatra. “It can feel like a short circuit in your brain,” says Powell. “Like the palm-fringed beaches and the spitting barrels and the blue skies can’t possibly be real, but they are.” Photo by Ishka Folkwell.


By Aiyana Powell

I saw that if I thought about the voyage as being something big—this huge trip with all these challenges—it became overwhelming. If I learned each new piece of the puzzle a little bit at a time, however, it became a process of getting through that initial fear or lack of knowledge and coming to understand how much the boat could handle. I gained a lot of confidence over the course of the trip. I think Torren did too. 

My parents lived on a boat in the Santa Barbara Harbor when I was a baby. After that, they bought a 44-foot Hans Christian in Vancouver and sailed it down the West Coast, through California, Mexico, and the Panama Canal. We ended up in Guatemala and sailed around the Caribbean and outside of Belize. We would go back and forth, spending half the year on the boat and half the year in Santa Barbara while my parents worked. We did that until I was maybe 5 years old. I have memories of passing through the canal and seeing monkeys in the jungle. Ever since then, I’ve dreamed of living on a boat again. 

I’ve also always wanted to live a lifestyle that’s close to nature and to travel responsibly. While living on Calypte, we were constantly faced with the repercussions of our  decisions in ways that I hadn’t experienced living on land. We went  through the process of learning to live with less. It was jarring to have to exist in a 35-foot space with all our trash for long periods of time. It really made us conscious of how much waste we created, and we thought a lot about the environmental impacts of single-use plastics on ocean ecosystems. 

Photo by Ishka Folkwell.

We had to carry everything we needed with us, so we learned to be a lot more aware of how to conserve what we had. We had to haul diesel onboard via jerry cans, and fresh water in 10-gallon jugs, so over the course of the trip we became more aware of what we used and when. Living in such a small space, watching pollution float by even in the open ocean, and living close to nature made us confront how our decisions, even if they were small, played a role in the bigger picture. 

Spending a year in that mindset put me very close to everything happening around me. Traveling 5,000 miles across the ocean at a very slow speed seemed to help me see the entire voyage as attainable—having hour after hour and day after day to focus on what was immediately in front of us, solving problems as they came up instead of thinking too far ahead. 

Aiyana Powell. Photo by Milo Inglis.

I remember one night in the Indian Ocean, when we were about 30 miles offshore between Nias and the Telo Islands, something went wrong with our bilge pump. It was about one in the morning, and I was sitting watch as Torren was going below. He opened the engine hatch to check on the equipment and saw the compartment was filling with water. I could hear it rushing into the boat and started preparing to grab a drybag, imagining all these different scenarios of being adrift. Then we both stopped, thought for a moment, and decided to change tack. As we did, the boat heeled to the other side and the water stopped coming in, because we were heeled to port and the leak was out of the water. All of a sudden we went from feeling like we were going to die to sailing at 6 knots under a beautiful, clear sky with the bioluminescence shimmering on the hull. 

I’ve never been so scared on a regular basis before in my life. I’ve also never seen waves like the ones we saw, with nobody around and crystal-clear water and walls of jungle behind us. At one point, Torren went home to visit his grandmother for two weeks and I stayed on the boat by myself. I was anchored in a mangrove corridor and would take the dinghy to a bunch of different spots to go surf or diving. The area kept getting these psycho northwesterly squalls that came one after another for almost the whole time Torren was gone. I would be up all night checking the anchor and freaking out, but then the mornings would be clear again and I’d go ride waves. It made me realize how much I’d actually learned and how capable I’d become. 

Prime anchorage. “I became more confident as the trip went on,” Martyn says, “weighing whether we should ride out a storm or chase it for waves.” Photo by Adirikan Wau.

I kept thinking about what people go through who do circumnavigations solo—what their experiences must be like, alone with their thoughts on the ocean. There’s a constant interplay between being safe and, in our case, surfing the waves we wanted to surf. It made me so much more grateful for when I actually did get to surf, because it was so hard to achieve. It can literally take 24 hours of constant work and sailing, then if you go to the wrong place or the wind directions change, it’s, like, five hours to the next spot. You’re just out at sea, moving, and I learned to fully accept the chunks of time passing and being so busy and so focused on the boat and the conditions. 

We’ve more or less come to the end of our voyage with Calypte, which is sad in some ways. For now we’re planning to stick around in Indonesia until we can sell her. We have no idea what we’re going to do next. The boat I grew up on is rotting away on a hardstand down in Guatemala. The scale would be way bigger and she needs a lot of work, but she’s super seaworthy, and the trip we just finished also seemed big when we left Thailand. We might see if we can figure everything out and sail her around the world.

[Feature Image Caption: Highline navigation. Photo by Milo Inglis.]

Premium Membership
From $175.00
Annual Subscription
From $84.00
Monthly Subscription
$8.00 per month