Madness in Macau

With no safe or legal option into China from Hong Kong I was forced to find an alternative. A friend and I looked at the possibilities of rowing over to Macau but the logistics and bureaucracy seemed prohibitive. Once again Dave came to the rescue and offered to sail me over with Dolce.

Some preparations were in order. We needed to clear out from Hong Kong and figure out the process for clearing in to Macau. Hong Kong was rather straightforward but Macau was a bit confusing and not entirely clear. We decided to figure it out on arrival. Perhaps not the best idea…

Dave had been busy commuting from Dolce on the inflatable SUP and it had suffered some run ins with rocks and other hazards. I attempted to fix it with some powerful glue and patches but they did not work. Thankfully a friend from the yacht club offered up his kayak to use as our tender.

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The morning we planned to leave was dead calm. I kayaked out from the yacht I had been staying on and out to where Dolce was moored. She was looking like an old Grandma with yellow mosquito netting draped over the cabin. It was a beautiful morning and Dave was still asleep, as there was no wind. I returned to my luxury yacht for one more power nap.

A few hours later a breeze picked up and I returned to Dolce to greet Dave who was now keen to sail out of the crowded harbour. I was both nervous and impressed by Dave’s newfound courage in handling Dolce under sail alone. We slowly inched our way out of the harbour towards Hong Kong island.

After 5 hours of sailing we had come along side the island and the wind had almost completely disappeared. Instead of vulnerably floating around in the waters offshore of Hong Kong we decided it best to head into a bay and anchor for the night. I hopped in the kayak to paddle the rest of the way as Dave started up the engine and took Dolce to a safe harbour.

The next morning I paddled ashore to pick up some more supplies so the trip to Macau might be a bit more enjoyable. I took a short cut through a school on the way back that was highly guarded and a bit of a maze. When I got close to the shore the only way out of the school was to hop a ten foot fence. I did it as quick as possible, knowing the video cameras staring at me might have eyes watching on the other side.

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I paddled back to Dolce and we hoisted the hook. On the way out of the harbour we passed by some multi million dollar yachts with waterslides and jet skis ready to deploy. As we left Hong Kong Island behind us we entered into one of the busiest shipping channels in the world. It seemed orderly enough and not much of a challenge. We spotted the Chinese Coast guard at one point and my heart started pounding. It was easy to picture them stopping us and demanding us to motor somewhere, or worse. Thankfully they ducked behind an island and we never heard from them.

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The real challenge came when it got dark and it was difficult to see the small islands and other obstacles in the water. Hong Kong is surrounded by hundreds of little islands of varying populations and industries. I had recently seen an article in the paper about the outcry over an illegal garbage dump on one of them. Waste was pictured spilling into the sea.

At one point we could see a number of large posts or something in the water ahead of us. Dave thought they were far in the distance but I wasn’t so sure. I decided to maneuver well clear which it turned out was the right thing to do. They weren’t far from us and there was many of them. Oil rigs or bridge pillars in development. It was sketchy!

Soon after our near miss the winds picked up quickly and we rushed to reef our sails. Even in the somewhat protected waters of the islands, a sudden storm can be very exciting! Especially with many known and enough unknown obstacles to keep you on guard in the daylight, let alone the dark of night. The storm passed and the visibility improved so we could see the bright lights of the Macau Casinos in the distance. The playground for wealthy Chinese businessmen. The Portuguese version of the once British Hong Kong. A bizarre place.

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We arrived off the coast of Macau at night and unsuccessfully attempted to contact the harbour control on the radio. Apparently we were able to find one of the few places in Macau where our radio would not reach the necessary authorities. We dropped our anchor and drifted into sleep, slightly concerned about the lack of communication with the dreaded bureaucracy.

We woke up in the morning to a coast guard boat knocking on our hull. I climbed out to speak to them with smiles and understanding. They seemed to only speak Cantonese and I managed to explain that we attempted to radio them with no response. I think they realized we were not sneaking into Macau and maybe told me they would contact the authorities for us. I wasn’t sure if we were in trouble or all would be okay. The suspense was heavy like the air from the coal plants providing energy for all of Hong Kong.

Dave paddled into shore to attempt to find customs and clear us in. He was informed by somebody that they would call the police for us (or on us, it was never exactly clear). Dave wasn’t happy about the situation and was clearly a bit bothered. Soon after Customs showed up and Dave boarded their boat with our documents to get stuff sorted out. There were issues, but we weren’t sure what. They wanted us to follow them into harbour. There was an hour or so of discussion and broken communication that left me feeling extremely stressed about being forced to join them on their motor boat or use Dolce’s engine. I know it may sound silly to you and you may ask why not just use it and forget about it? I had spent almost two years of energy doing everything in my power to avoid it, does that answer the question?

In the end they wanted to guide us into the harbour on a passage that lead between one of the islands of Macau and the mainland. Thankfully for me the wind was blowing perfectly down the passage and we were able to sail. It was still stressful knowing the wind could die or they might lose their patience and force us to get towed by them. There was very little other traffic in the passage and it seemed straight forward enough. At one point we passed a firing range and ducked every time we heard a shot, as if it would help.

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The markers in the passage were not always very clear and at one point we ran aground. With a little bit of rocking back and forth we managed to slide free of the muddy bottom and into deeper water. Shortly after that the marine patrol lost their patience and came alongside us with ropes in hand, insisting they would tow us the rest of the way. I was getting ready to jump in the water with the kayak. Dave stopped me. I was feeling slightly pissed, very nervous, and super stressed. Dave then showed the Marine Guys that he was turning on the engine, which made me very nervous, even though he was keeping it in neutral. The sound and smell of it put me on edge. I wanted out of that situation as fast as possible.

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We continued to sail and soon entered a much more narrow passage into the main harbour of Macau. It was filled with hundreds of big Chinese style fishing junks. We had maybe five metres of space on either side of us, much less when one of these boats passed us. At one scary moment one of them pulled out of it’s mooring directly in front of us without bothering to look. The captain seemed to be preoccupied with something else, forgetting he was in a busy waterway. Our guide boat blared it’s horn and shouted at them with their megaphone just in time for us to sneak by on the far side.

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Another few hundred meters and we were in front of the marina. I hopped off onto the kayak and guided Dave to the dock. Then the customs and marina patrol realized we had made a big mistake. Macau has absolutely ridiculous entrance rules for yachts that require captains to arrive in advance of their vessels and fill out the necessary paperwork in order to clear in. They told us we would need to not only pay an expensive fine, but that we could not enter the country and would have to return immediately to Hong Kong.

I begged for an alternative and hoped that patience and a good attitude would pay off like it had so many times in the past. They seemed to not be particularly open to changing their minds. Over the course of the next hour our situation would seem to improve only to degrade further. I decided it was time to bring out my get out of jail free card. My letter of support from the Canadian government.  

Once one of them had read it and explained to the rest of them it immediately changed their attitudes. I think it was less the fact that my government was in support of me and more the fact that they grasped the extent of my expedition that they were close to ruining. They put the brakes on saying no and put it in the hands of their superiors.

As we were not allowed in the country yet they offered us a place to moor in front of their headquarters. They were extremely welcoming considering we had illegally entered their country. White privilege. Or was it sea folk respect. Or maybe even just respect for our courage. I think it was mostly white privilege. They offered us a place to shower and ordered us food and drinks, including some beers. After some essential photos with them we returned to our boat arrest on Dolce. The next morning we would speak to their boss and get the official decision as to whether we could enter the country.

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After the eventful passage from Hong Kong, the restless night, and the events of the day, I was somewhat relieved to be able to rest in peace. Even though it was not clear I was going to be able to continue on to China. I had a feeling things would work out. They had to! Didn’t they?

The next morning the boss came over in their motor boat and tied up next to us. I nervously boarded and clearly instructed them not to motor anywhere. They understood and laughed. The boss took our documents, made me sign some stuff, and informed me that we needed to pay a $100 fine. There was still no guarantee that we would be able to enter. I was being as respectful as I possibly could while internally expressing confidence that we would be able to enter in some way.

I returned to Dolce with some more food that they gifted us and was told to wait for them to return. It seemed like an eternity but a few hours later they came back and granted us entry into the Republic? Of Macau. Phewww!

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A reporter from the Macau Business Daily met us on the dock to interview me and expose the backward system that exists for yachts entering the country. She invited Dave and I for some dinner at a proper Portuguese cafe later that night.

Macau seemed like a very interesting place and I would have loved to explore it a bit more but I didn’t want to stick around in case conflict arose when Dave attempted to leave. I felt a bit bad leaving him with a potential mess but he understood. I also needed to meet Rein in 8 days time, over 1000km away in Hanoi, Vietnam. Time to enter China!