AN adventurous East Antrim couple have retuned home after an incredible round the world voyage on the high seas.
Jim and Marion Stewart, who have been members of East Antrim Boat Club for over 30 years, travelled 31,168 miles during an epic journey spanning six continents.
For four years, the couple’s home was a 40ft, steel-hulled yacht called Balu. While they have been married for many years and completed a number of long-haul sailing trips together, nothing could prepare them for the dangers they would face on their global excursion.
The pair, both 61, had to learn to trust each other with their lives as they dodged ruthless pirates, narrowly escaped a tsunami and spent weeks at a time on the open sea.
Departing from Larne in September 2008, the Stewart’s made one last stopover in their home town of Carrickfergus, where they received a salute from the Carrick Sailing Club cannons, before making the journey south to Spain, Portugal and the Canary islands.
Cape Verde was their jumping off point for the trip across the Atlantic to the exotic shores of the Caribbean. It was then onward through the Panama Canal to the Galápagos Islands, which Jim told the Times was one of his personal highlights of the entire expedition.
From there, Jim and Marion faced a 23 day nonstop journey across the Pacific Ocean. “It was extremely isolated, and we saw only one ship the entire time. But is was actually a very pleasant experience, as the weather was good and we didn’t have to worry about hitting anything!” Jim added.
The couple finally felt the Earth beneath their feet again when they reached French Polynesia, and then continued to Samoa where they paid a visit to the grave of Robert Louis Stevenson.
They reached Tonga in late summer 2009, and it was here the couple first came close to disaster as they narrowly escaped a devastating tsunami.
“Luckily, our yacht was moored in deep anchorage at the time, but tragically, one of our friends was drowned in the flood waters,” Jim said.
With that near miss behind them, Jim and Marion completed a rough crossing to New Zealand, where they took a short break from their adventure to fly back to Northern Ireland for their daughter’s marriage in January 2010.
Jim added: “Fittingly, by this point in our journey we had travelled exactly half way around the world from our starting point in Larne. So this was as good a time as any to go back home and reconnect with our family and friends.”
By May that year, Jim and Marion had carried out a few necessary repairs to Balu and were ready to drop anchor once again. So on they went to Cairns in Australia, before making their way across the Great Barrier Reef and arriving in Darwin. By July, they had reached the island of Komodo, which lends its name to the large dragon-like lizards that inhabit the area.
“We got up close to a few of these giant lizards, closer than I think Marion would have liked!” Jim joked.
Onwards they went to Bali and Borneo, where they travelled through the jungle to get up close and personal with some more local wildlife, a group of orangutans.
When they reached Singapore in September, it was time to fly home once again, this time to celebrate the marriage of their son. The couple then spent Christmas in Phuket, Thailand, and headed towards India in early 2011.
It was here that the most difficult and terrifying part of the Stewart’s long journey began, as they found themselves “on the menu” for bands of roving pirates.
“A huge random had just been paid for a British yachting couple (the Chandlers) who had been taken hostage by pirates. After that, all yachts in the area suddenly found themselves targets for these pirates,” Jim added.
He recalled their journey across the Arabic Sea between India and Oman, when they were forced to keep their ship “blacked out” at night and travel at full speed to avoid prowling pirate gangs.
Jim said: “It was a really scary time. Unfortunately, the crew of a yacht called Quest was captured and subsequently killed by Somali pirates. We had spent time with these people in India prior to their capture, so their deaths really brought it home to us how dangerous the whole thing was. To get across safely to Oman, we had to travel in a rag-tag convey of 13 boats.”
After making the crossing safely, the couple planned to stop in Yemen, but were forced to press on to Africa due to civil unrest in the country.
Jim told the Times: “We travelled on to Eritrea, and by this point we could breath a sigh of relief as we knew we were safe from pirates.
“However, it turned out that we had not seen the last of civil unrest in the region, as when we arrived in Egypt it was in full revolt. We wanted to go to Luxor to see some of the sights, so we caught a train from Cairo. But on the way there, we were forced to get off the train in the middle of the desert as rebels had blown up the tracks. It seemed that trouble was following us where ever we went.”
By the time the Stewarts found themselves in Cyprus in late 2011, they were glad to be back in more stable waters. After flying home once again for the birth of their grandchild, the couple spent the winter in Greece and then made their way through the Mediterranean to Gibraltar, before heading north to Spain, France, England.
And on Saturday, Balu finally pulled into Larne Harbour to a rapturous reception, escorted into port by a flotilla of ships from the local boat club.
“It was great to see the warm welcome we received on Saturday and we were both very touched by it. The fleet met us at Brown’s Bay and took us the rest of the way. The fast ferry also gave us a couple of toots of its horn as we approached, and the RNLI lifeboat was out as well,” Jim said.
“It is great to be back home, but a bit strange to be sleeping in a bed that I know I won’t fall out of in the middle of the night. We are now planning on renewing our friendships and looking forward to spending time with our family. It is amazing how much our grandchild has grown since we last saw him!” Jim concluded.