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TAMRYN Burger immediately catches the eye: A tall, attractive blonde busking along Jalan Pantai Cenang in Langkawi is usually a head-turner.

But what makes the 27-year-old truly stand out is her day job. Burger is – wait for it – a skipper.

That’s right, a skipper of the boat-sailing variety. So really, it should be cap’n Burger to you.

Burger, who lists delivering yachts, working on ships, and doing heavy-duty shipyard work as part of her job, is currently living the good life in Langkawi – soaking up the sun during the day and performing on her guitarlele (a ukukele-sized guitar) with local buskers during the night – while waiting for her next job to come along.

I hope to one day meet someone who charters traditional ships, and work for him or her until I die. – When asked about her ultimate goal.

“I’m in Malaysia because I was hired by an American man in Japan to deliver his boat from Croatia (where it was manufactured) to Langkawi,” said Burger, who hails from Durban, South Africa.

Boats

Burger hanging from the rig of a Bark Europa tall ship, where she worked as a deck hand, sailing from Cape Town to Durban.

While sailing around in a yacht for a living sounds like a lot of fun, things can get really tough on the high seas.

Take her most recent gig for example, the one that landed her in Langkawi. She and her two crew members had to sail the 44-foot yacht across the Mediterranean Sea from Croatia to Jordan, dismantle the yacht (which she did herself. Oh, did we mention she’s a welder as well?) and transport the parts by land across Saudi Arabia to Dubai in order to avoid sailing the pirate-infested Somalian Coast.

In Dubai, they reassembled the yacht before sailing to Langkawi.

There we were, just outside the Langkawi harbour at midnight, when the wind suddenly dies. So, you’re out at sea with no fuel and no wind. What do you do then?

It sounds like an incredibly daunting task, but Burger makes it seem like the easiest thing in the world.

“It took us about two weeks to put the boat back together,” she said matter-of-factly. “The only problem was that Dubai is really hot so we could only work from 5am to 10am, and then from 5pm to 10pm.”

That meant putting the boat back together – tricky little pieces, electronic components and all – in the dark, lit only by headlamps.

Clearly, they did a good job, because the boat made it to Langkawi in perfect condition. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing, though.

South Africa, Boat, Skipper,

When we met Burger in Langkawi, she was sitting behind a stall on Cenang beach selling trinkets. The stall belonged to one of her newfound Malaysian friends, and she was helping him out for free. When she isn’t at the stall, she’s usually performing with local bands and buskers.

 

Dead in the water
“We ran out of diesel!” said Burger with a laugh, though being stuck in the middle of the ocean with no fuel doesn’t quite sound like a laughing matter.

“It wasn’t a very big problem,” she explained. “When you run out of diesel, you just wait for the wind, and sail the old-fashioned way.”

Unfortunately, they ran out near the Mumbai anchorage, and stopping there to re-fuel got them arrested as South Africans need a visa to land in Mumbai.

To make matters worse, it was during Diwali, so they were stuck in the anchorage for a week and a half waiting for immigration staff to get back from their holidays.

After parting with US$1,500 (RM5,300) to get the proper documents and pay for parking charges, they finally managed to sail out of the Mumbai harbour towards Langkawi, only to run out of diesel again 300km outside the island.

Back to old-fashioned sailing, only this time, the winds were blowing against them. The crew had to sail in a torturously slow, zig-zag motion to catch the wind.

“So there we were, just outside the Langkawi harbour at midnight, when the wind suddenly dies,” Burger reminisced.

So, you’re out at sea with no fuel and no wind. What do you do then? “You take out the oars and paddle!” she said with a laugh.

It took them 15 hours to negotiate those final 300km, and 40 days for the entire journey.

“We reached in the end, so I guess we were successful!” she said with a grin. “It was really fun.”

Following the compass
Burger, who graduated with a Masters in sound engineering (she’s also an accomplished musician), discovered her love for sailing when she took a job as a stewardess on a cruise liner during her gap year.

She went on to work on a boat in Cape Town, and that led to her taking the necessary licenses to be a skipper.

Her current license allows her to only skipper boats on short trips, so for jobs on longer-haul trips, she takes on different roles, such as first mate (ranked just below the captain), bosun (the senior crewperson on deck) or even the cook.

It’s challenging to cook when the wind is pushing your boat at a 45° angle most of the time.

In fact, her most recent job was as a chef on a boat travelling from Singapore to Thailand.

“It’s challenging to cook when the wind is pushing your boat at a 45° angle most of the time,” she said, adding that getting used to “life at 45°” is something all sailors have to adapt to. “I burnt myself a couple of times, but it was still a very fun trip.”

She is also a certified welder. She worked as a welder in a shipyard in Bangkok for four months, and was also once offered a job as a welder on an oil rig, which she turned down because she’d rather be sailing than stuck on a rig.

Life at 45°

Being a sailor can be lonely, said Burger, in a rare moment of vulnerability during our interview. She has sailed as long as two years without going home to Durban.

“My mother misses me, of course,” she said, “And while I have friends in almost every country, I only have two or three very close friends I have known for a long time because it’s hard to keep in touch when I’m always on the go.”

Boat

Burger on board the Esperance, a 68-foot marconi schooner, where she worked as first mate.

Though it can be tough, Burger wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Some people like the 9-5 kind of job,” she said. “I love travelling, meeting new people and learning about new cultures.”

That wanderlust is what drives her to take any kind of job as long as it’s on a boat sailing somewhere.

“I would do grinding, sanding, welding, rust prevention and the like,” she said enthusiastically. “It’s really heavy work, but I like it. It gives me disgustingly rough hands, but I enjoy being outdoors, and it gives me the opportunity to see more places.”

It’s a huge joke when you go to a shipyard and pick up tools, and people are like, ‘Oh, let me get that for you; go put on a dress or something.

She has been sailing for six years now, and there are still no plans to anchor down anytime soon.

“I foresee myself sailing for the rest of my life!” she said. “Sometimes things get pretty scary, but that’s what I love.”

By “pretty scary”, she means 40-knot (74km/h) winds and eight-metre waves, which is what she experienced on a trip around Sri Lanka.

The only real complaint she has about life as a sailor, is the sexism.

“I get it all the time,” she said. “It’s a huge joke when you go to a shipyard and pick up tools, and people are like, ‘Oh, let me get that for you; go put on a dress or something.’

“But you learn to deal with it. Sometimes it’s better to be firm and just do it yourself; but if you need the help, accept it,” she said. “There’s no point in cutting off your nose to spite your face.”

Sailing into the sunset
Burger’s dream is to one day sail a traditional ship. “It’s too expensive to buy and sail one,” she said. “I hope to one day meet someone who charters traditional ships, and work for him or her until I die.”

For now, she is content to take a short break in Langkawi, playing the guitarlele with her newfound local friends, landbound until the next ocean adventure beckons.

About

Literature grad-turned-journalist who loves our R.AGE team karaoke nights a little too much. While her literature background has left her with a slightly twisted sense of humour, it has also given her a passion for writing on social issues.

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