My Recycled Catamaran

John Campbell


© Copyright 2011 by John Campbell

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Drawing of plans for a cataraman hull.

The Maldives has surfing! This was my first thought as I exited Bangkok after 4 years working as an English teacher, bound for a 12 month contract at an International school. There was currently a dearth of jobs in Thailand due to the Bank engineered recession of 2008-9 & with over 1,000 islands out in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the chance of undiscovered surfing locations in the Maldives being discovered by diligent search was a fantasy about to be tested.

The first 2 questions I ask any new Englsih class are 1/. Why are you (and the rest of the world) all learning English? 2/ How many of you can swim? For an Island state, I was surprised that only 50% of my students could swim and that only about 30% of their parents possessed this life-saving skill.

For the first 3 months in the Maldives I decided to try to implement swimming lessons as an adjunct to my teaching English, so I spent much time in fruitless one-way communications with ‘the powers that be’. Eventually, I was told that I was “not important enough” for these ‘powers’ to bother communicating with – an attitude of bureaucratic ignorance that would have much more severe, deleterious effects later in my stay. After that initial, ineffective 3 months I then changed my off-duty activities to something more potentially, personally rewarding and perhaps interesting to the students as well, by creating something from the plethora of discarded building materials that littered our Island.

The Island I was situated upon was the first attempt at decentralization by the Authorities, and as such was not unlike a large building site where many raw materials were prematurely discarded. These ‘cast-offs’ I started to collect with the intention of perhaps building a small sail boat which would, on completion, enable me to travel the east-facing coasts of all the islands seeking the surf-break with ‘my name on it’.

I sketched a design and settled on a 14 ft. catamaran with low draught to more easily enable access to my discoveries. After permission was sought and granted to commence in the School grounds, I cleared a refuse storage area and began to buy the basic hand-tools needed, (at great expense). In a month or 2 I had a frame built, under rudimentary cover, all constructed using recycled materials. Everywhere I walked on the Island I would search for anything I thought may be useful in the construction.

By the time it became apparent to most observers that I may still be proficient in my childhood hobby of small boat construction, the negative comments started to arrive and the official permission was withdrawn. All the pressure of various Government bodies descended on our Principal who granted my initial permission, not on myself, as I was considered “not important enough” to communicate with directly….. It is not an easy operation to relocate a project when it is in a state of incompletion and their pressure mounted. My attempts to obtain new permission and a site where I could complete the project without being accused of trying to poison all the students with the various chemicals I used (at night and on week-ends) was difficult as I was deemed “not important enough . . . . . . . .. .etc”.

Eventually, due to luck and meeting some rare, positive people, I was able to relocate to a vacant block of land in the Industrial area of the Island controlled by a man who also collected discarded building materials, which he placed at my disposal free of charge if required.

My project was then interrupted by my breaking my left arm in an area of the School, prone to accidents when wet. I had previously warned Management and offered to fix this danger for free, little knowing that I would become this areas’ first serious victim. Due to this interruption my project was incomplete at the end of my first 12 month contract so I decided to extend for a further 12 months.

One month into my second year I broke my right arm causing collective, poor health delays of 6 months to my recycled catamaran project. Nevertheless, I persevered, gathering materials and completing items for the boat constantly. At times, local people, up to 20-30 would come to watch the ‘crazy foreigner’ working on his boat outside and I think there were few people on our Island who remained unaware of my catamaran project. Offers of any assistance were never forthcoming, although I did employ some itinerant Bangladeshi chaps to help me when they were unoccupied or had days off with the unskilled tasks, paying them much more than their standard salaries.

As the second year drew near its’ end, the boat drew near completion. The School Principal, (Turkish) and the majority of the office staff had been replaced half way through that second year of my employment and, unlike the former Principal, the new one was intimidated by my extracurricular activities and manufactured any and every obstacle he could to scuttle myself and my out-of-hours projects.

At years’ end, after the Principal refused to pay my end of contract salary and bonuses, and due to the depletion of all my existing monies spent while staying in the Maldives to fight for my rights, eventually I was granted one months’ salary, (approx 25% of separation monies owed) and I used it to visit my wife in Thailand for a month. By this time I had actually tested my boat in the water for one hour, noting the improvements and alterations required, & I set to work on them - planning to return and sail the Maldives, discovering surf spots and adventure, perhaps recording it to be used to promote lesser known areas of the Country.

Before leaving to see my wife, I had to trust an acquaintance with care of my possessions and (foolishly) with some local, inconvertible currency, that he promised to convert on the ‘black market’ and send to me in Bangkok. He changed his phone number so I couldn’t contact him from Thailand and upon my return I discovered he had absconded with all of my belongings. The boat I had just left pulled up on the beach near the ferry terminal, hoping it would be OK.

Arriving in the Maldives after one austere month in Thailand, I took a stroll past where my boat was left and, unsurprisingly, could not see it. Later I discovered its whereabouts and on inspection – as I found it in the water smashing itself to pieces on the rocks due to the prevailing winds - both hulls had their bottoms torn out and were 90% destroyed.  Disappointing - to say the least.

My actions of trying negotiations to make the School comply with their contract provisions I felt sure would end as soon as I again left the Country. What I didn't know was that the Police did nothing to enforce compliance from the School, had no intention of apprehending the thief nor make efforts to recover my stolen property even while I was there. I continued to ‘fight’ until my meager monies finally expired and quickly found myself without room, food or water, living on the street and sleeping in the fish market after it had closed at nights.

Rescue, of a sort, was provided to me (unofficially) by a couple of Maldivian Immigration Dept. Officials by placing me in the Immigration jail which at least gave me a room, mattress plus 3 meals a day, as it did their prisoners. However, I was free to come and go as I pleased, unlike the other detainees. Due to these benevolent Officers’ efforts I did not die and a few weeks later I returned to Thailand sans possessions, monies and with 2 years, part-time work wrecked on the foreshore of my original Island.

Since my departure from the Maldives in April 2011, the Police and other Government departments have consistently ignored all petitions for action, my communications and requests for information as “I am not important, etc." The sound of the jet engines on take-off was momentarily drowned-out by the sound of files closing..

You may well surmise it was a negative trip but, of course, not everything that happened in the 2 years was disconcerting. At times I was the surprised recipient of unsolicited acts of kindness, usually committed by the poor who exclusively understand destitution. The fact that a white person from a privileged country could be in dire straits is anathema to most foreigners. I may be temporarily deprived of ‘ready cash’ but surely not beyond the unlimited wealth that a single phone call to my country could provide for me. Failing that, I could always borrow against my Australian property or sell one of my 2 or 3 vehicles that all of us in Western countries own – they have seen it for real on T.V. Nevertheless, I consider that generally it was a mainly positive experience as I fulfilled my personal goals, though the ‘moral’ of the story still eludes me – I would welcome any readers’ insights.

Finally, after being rescued by our Department of Foreign Affairs, landing in Australia in debt after working overseas for 10 years was not my intention and, as I had no money to return to here I cannot pay to instigate any legal, civil action in any Maldives’ Court to force compliance from the School, Police nor (un)concerned Government departments.  The situation remains unresolved.

I am a well-travelled Australian who maintains a great interest in the English language and writing. I have been to 39 countries and that leaves around 160 still to visit. My ‘old age’ will be invested with writing about some of my travels – whether I have readers is inconsequential…

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