Portrait

Taking the ‘Angel Wing’ through the waters of the near north with ADF officer Amanda Johnston.

By Cass Moriarty.

Sailing in South East Asia

Even before she got on the boat, Amanda Johnston had done her fair share of travelling: 54 countries at last count. She was in the military for 25 years, deployed to Timor, Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea and the Middle East. In 2016, when an army colleague sent her a text message asking if she was interested in buying a boat, she thought, “Why not?” She had no sailing experience, but she and her friend, Andy Meacham, purchased the 12-metre Seawind catamaran and christened it Angel Wing. The pair joke that with four cabins and two-and-a-half bathrooms, Angel Wing is more luxurious than the landlocked homes they left behind. “We aren’t in a romantic relationship,” Amanda says, “and one of the reasons we bought a catamaran is we essentially have a hull each.”

The trip was a dream for Andy, who had planned to go sailing with his partner, Ita, before her death in a car accident in 2010. Despite that loss, as the years passed he was keen to complete the odyssey they had intended. When Amanda’s long-service fell due, it seemed the perfect opportunity to take to the seas.

Two months after Andy’s first text, they became the proud owners of the vessel that was to become their home. They spent most of 2016 in preparation for the journey, with Amanda crewing at a boat club to get some sailing experience. They plotted the itinerary in earnest, making the most of seasonal predictions and forecasted good weather, along with the visa requirements of various countries, to see as much as possible in the time they had available.

They departed Scarborough Marina on March 1 last year and travelled up the Queensland coast, watching for reports of Cyclone Debbie, which struck the Whitsundays 26 days later. After Gladstone and Cairns, they headed to Thursday Island, across the Arafura Sea to Indonesia, across the Singapore Strait to Malaysia, and then sailed slowly up the Malacca Strait. At a maximum speed of seven knots, Amanda says that the forced acquisition of patience has been an unexpected bonus. The next stop was Thailand, to the Similan and Surin islands, with plans to travel to Myanmar, Borneo and back to Indonesia.

Despite concerns about monsoons, lightning strikes, cabin fever and even the threat of pirates, the trip has so far proved to be an eye-opening adventure, one of strange and wonderful flora, fauna and sea creatures, rewarding personal achievements, and warm associations.  “I’ve confirmed that I have a natural wanderlust and I’m in total awe of nature,” Amanda says.

They have sailed with people from around the world, from a whole Swiss family to solo sailors to marine conservationists.

She says that learning “how much plastic pollution is in the ocean … is heartbreaking”.

An avid diver and snorkeller, Amanda now has the opportunity to visit some of the best reefs in the world, and to fine-tune her skills at underwater photography. On her blog she details encounters with mantas, sharks, turtles, eels, nudibranchs and coral.

“I recently uploaded a pic of a weird-looking critter to a nudibranch Facebook page, and they identified it as a Coriocella, aka sponge snail, about which not much is known.” A marine expert plans to write up her findings in an upcoming dive magazine. “And if that isn’t enough, I also may have discovered a new jellyfish. The marine biologist told me it was a Chrysaora (sea nettle) but not one she’d seen before … She reckons it’s a new species.”

Along with marine life, Amanda has seen komodo dragons and orang-utans, climbed an active volcano, skirted towering limestone monoliths, hiked to waterfalls, visited temples and photographed street art. She has learnt the necessities of basic boat repair – “cruisers joke that cruising is the art of doing boat maintenance in exotic locations” – and how to make her own yoghurt. She has developed a pragmatic approach to conservation and environmentalism, using both water-savers and solar panels. “Indonesia has over 16,000 islands, so the best way to see the country, and Malaysia and Thailand is by boat, using wind instead of petrol to move … It’s a great feeling, and environmentally more friendly.”

To date, her favourite place was Hoga Island in the Wakatobi region of Indonesia, isolated from the main islands, with unrivalled diving and snorkelling direct from their boat. In Thailand she encountered a ship-shaped beach bar made entirely of driftwood, and a cave full of wooden penises of all sizes.

Amanda will return to her role as a senior officer in the Australian Defence Force next year, although she has not given up hope of “a dream job … like hosting a travel show or working in marine conservation … despite a lack of qualifications in either field”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 24, 2018 as "Point of sail". Subscribe here.

Cass Moriarty
is the author of Parting Words and The Promise Seed.

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