A Sea Odyssey that Led to a New Home

loading Asylum anchored at Koh Mook, just north of Pulau Langkawi, on the route to Phuket.

Jim, the watermaker repairman, working in small-space conditions under the starboard settee.

Asylum's navigation station.

IT WAS ALMOST 22 years ago, on October 10, 1999, that husband and wife sailing enthusiasts Jim and Katie Coolbaugh left the American east coast to begin their seafaring journey west around the world. Some 15 years later, they landed in Penang for the first time, which has since become an unplanned land-based home for them.

After selling their house in suburban Washington, D.C. and moving aboard Asylum, the crew headed south for the Caribbean, leaving in late autumn when the weather’s not yet icy cold, but with winter on the way, and as the Atlantic hurricane season was winding down.

For cruisers, as people like Katie and Jim are called, every decision they make is based on the weather, and the first cardinal rule of cruising is always “wait for weather” – good weather, that is. The second is never to have a schedule.

The first year for newbie full-time liveaboards is a big one for making lots of mistakes as they mounted the steep learning curve. “And we made a lot!” Katie says. “We were pounded by bad weather, having broken the second cardinal rule by trying to meet friends in the U.S. Virgin Islands for our first Christmas out. Because we had a ‘schedule,’ we didn’t ‘wait for weather’ and paid the price. We’ve never made that mistake again.”

Read also: Is Home Still Sweet Home during Covid-19?

The first year living aboard is also about learning to live 24/7 in close quarters and making lots of adjustments to be able to thrive in a small space – for purposes of both marital harmony and storing all the things you think you can’t live without as well as all the things you shouldn’t live without, like essential spare parts.

“You slowly get used to life in a finger puzzle where you always have to move one thing to get to another.” It quickly becomes clear how little space and stuff one really needs to be happy and comfortable. “Patience helps,” Katie adds.

Life Afloat

Nautically, the toilet is referred to as the “head”. Here, the toilet seat cover and the colourful panel in the shower curtain are made from molas by Kuna Indian women in the San Blas Islands of Panama.

Life on board is also about learning the art of self-sufficiency. Jim was a microbiologist in the U.S. Navy before heading to sea on a sailboat, but he has since become mechanic, plumber, electrician, carpenter, painter, rigger, cook, and all-around handy man. While it’s possible to find assistance for most jobs that need to be done on a boat when cruisers are near land, most of the time they had to adopt the do-it-yourself approach to keep the boat afloat.

Katie’s job was usually to be the assistant passing tools or “asking the dumb questions about the problem that sometimes led to an ‘aha’ moment of clarity and solution.” Teamwork is also an essential part of self-sufficiency and survival afloat, and even though they “didn’t always function like a well-oiled machine, most of the time we worked pretty well together.”

In addition to regular boat maintenance, self-sufficiency at sea includes maintaining the health and welfare of the crew, including keeping them well fed. Provisioning, as they call filling the cupboards, can be tricky and required flexibility and adaptability to what was available locally. “We always reminded ourselves that people everywhere have to eat, even if it’s not necessarily what we’re used to eating.”

Shopping in tiny village “supermarkets,” where most of the items on the shelf were past their expiration dates, and sampling the local fare was part of the adventure. “But that didn’t stop me from storing ‘staples,’” Katie says. “I was afraid I’d never see another jar of Dijon mustard so every time I saw one, I bought it. At one point, I had 7 jars stowed away.”

Life in a finger-puzzle. Katie practices in the one spot where she could play the cello, even while stuff is moved and piled around her.

All smiles. Katie with an orang utan in Sabah.

Provisioning for long passages (their longest time at sea was 23 days) was a simple formula based on the estimated time at sea (rule of thumb: always round up!): two people times 23 days means 46 breakfasts, lunches and dinners. One could add a little variety and snacks, but most of the time at sea food was just nourishment, not gourmet entertainment.

Seasickness plagues many ocean voyagers, but the Coolbaughs were both lucky enough not to be bothered by the boat’s motion. But this is not to say that rolly conditions at sea weren’t tedious and tiring, but fortunately they didn’t make anyone queasy. “We travelled with a substantial pharmacy and first aid kit, but for the most part, we didn’t need much of either.”

Even in remote places, medical care could be found. The most significant medical event they faced came in Vanuatu when a doctor handed Katie the phone and said, “If you have med-evac insurance, call them.” Jim needed surgery that couldn’t be done there. Whisked off to Australia on a jet sent in, he was fixed up in Brisbane while Asylum waited at anchor under the watchful eye of friends in Port Vila’s harbour.

Katie explores the waters of Sipadan Island.

Landing in Penang

It took Asylum nearly 15 years to reach Malaysia. “We’re pokey sailors,” says Katie. Arriving in Sabah from the Philippines, they poked their way down the coast of Borneo and spent four months in Kuching, and devouring all the Sarawak laksa they could. It was in Kuching that they met a British couple who had sailed the area for years and loved Penang. “After hearing their rave reviews, we were even more excited to get there and check it out for ourselves.”

“I always told my mother that cruisers have intentions, not plans,” Katie says. In this case, the intention had been to spend some time exploring the area – Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia – then press on across the Indian Ocean and up the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. But in 2014 when they arrived in Malaysia, the Somali pirate problem around the Horn of Africa, the narrow gateway to the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, was still too great for them to risk a transit through those waters.

Katie and Jim enjoying their meal at the famous Line Clear Nasi Kandar restaurant.

So, like dozens of other sailors in the area, they waited for things to improve along the African coast. Asylum was in and out of Penang several times, exploring the area as intended, but with each return feeling a bit more tug of permanence to the visit.

At the end of 2017, having resettled in Penang after six months in Indonesia, word came that Katie’s father’s health was failing. She and Jim spent nearly all of 2018 in the U.S. tending to him and his ultimate passing, Asylum waiting once again, this time at Straits Quay.

Back in Penang after her father’s death, Katie explains, it was too late to begin extensive preparations for the “intended” trip to the Mediterranean, which requires a December / January departure from this area. With the Somali pirate situation easing and more boats successfully making the trip up the Red Sea, it was increasingly safe to go, but they were tired from the stressful year in the U.S. and so “decided to give ourselves a year off to regroup and enjoy Penang. And I thought I might try to stick my toe in the music scene here.”

A friend, Louise Goss-Custard, arranged for her to attend a rehearsal of the Penang Philharmonic Orchestra (PPO). Katie thought she would just go to observe, but when she arrived, much to Katie’s surprise, the conductor handed her a cello! Sometime later he asked if she had been excited. “No, I was terrified! I had to sit down with a new cello, having not played in over 20 years, and sight read a Haydn symphony.”

The Cellestial Quartet. From left to right - Pung Xin Yao, Tan Tzu Pin, Katie Coolbaugh and Michael Kong.

Katie played her first concert with the PPO in the middle of the cello section but then was asked to lead the section for the next concert and has been PPO’s principal cellist since.

Covid-19 brought all orchestral activities to a halt because of social distancing requirements, but as SOPs eased and small groups could gather, Katie became active in playing and organising chamber music. She formed a quartet of PPO cellos and with flautist friend Louise, organised and presented two hugely successful chamber music concerts at the E&O Hotel last year. “Everyone is anxious to be able to play in a full orchestra again, but in the meantime, small performing ensembles keep the music flame burning for many of us here in Penang.”

The pandemic has also kept Asylum reigned in at the Straits Quay Marina. With all international borders closed, the boat hasn’t moved in over a year. And the crew has even made the move to land-life in Penang. After an unfortunate crash into a squash court wall early last year, resulting in several broken bones, Katie couldn’t get on or off the boat, so they moved into a friend’s flat while she recovered. In that respect, the timing of the MCO was perfect for keeping her home and resting. When they eagerly returned to life on the boat six months later, it was only after a few weeks on board that Jim admitted he missed the added space of life on land, so they took a flat at Straits Quay that overlooks their real home, Asylum. And there’s more space for the cello!

For now, until the world sorts itself out, home is Penang, where they’re most happy to be – a place that’s warm, welcoming, historically significant, culturally vibrant, delicious, and “well, just really comfortable to live in.”

Enzo Sim is a Mass Communications graduate who has an unwavering passion towards international relations, history and regional affairs of Southeast Asia. His passion has brought him to different Southeast Asian capitals to explore the diverse cultural intricacies within the region.
Katie Coolbaugh was a programme evaluator before becoming a boat bum. No room on the clock or on a boat to play the cello before, she’s thrilled for the opportunity now in Penang.

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