They said the curse had expired, but they lied. We should have guessed when we saw the boat. It was tied to a concrete dock with no fenders to protect it, a scratched, dented and dirty mockery of the spanking new Gib Sea 92 pictured in the Pelangi Cruises brochure. When we opened the aft cabin the smell of diesel fuel was overpowering.
"Normal," the charter company rep claimed since there was no blower to disperse the fumes.
At that moment we should have walked, but my experience with cruising sailboats was limited to a couple of week-long courses. He said it, I believed it. The final tipoff, though, was the name. One of the letters in Mahsuri Dua had fallen away. And Mahsuri was the woman who had cast the curse.
The story goes that in the not too distant Malaysian past a lady of royal pedigree was falsely accused of adultery. Justice being what it was in those days on the island of Langkawi, she was put to death. But as Mahsuri lay dying, she vented her wrath on everything and everybody on the island for seven generations to come, a sort of total coverage curse. I set foot on Langkawi at the beginning of the eighth generation.
My partner and I sailed off in the 31 foot yacht past dramatic monoliths of limestone jutting from the Andaman Sea, trailing a rubber dinghy that was visibly losing air. Our destination was a narrow channel between two cliffs recommended as a mooring by the same company faithful we shouldn't have listened to in the first place.
Arriving at dusk, I went forward to drop anchor. What I found in the locker was a ridiculously oversize hunk of plow-shaped metal connected to yards of heavy chain covered in thick, slippery muck. I let it out. And out - into what appeared to be a bottomless pit. "Wait a minute," I thought when the chain finally gave way to line, and put on the brakes just before the loose end slipped through my fingers. I cleated it fast, but now we were anchored with far too little scope in a place where we clearly should not have been. So I sat on the deck and began to haul. The slime formed a puddle around my haunches as the chain slipped through my hands and nothing, but nothing came up.
After futile attempts to improvise a winch, I found some rags for gripping the chain, sat on deck, braced my feet, and with much fervent cursing of my own, lugged the monster aboard. As I bent and strained, my wrath increased with each muscle-wrenching pull. This was meant to be fun, and fun it most definitely was not.
Around us black velvet hills melted into a pitch black, starless sky. Motoring slowly, we felt our way along the coast, reading a depth finder that seemed to think all depths were .7 meters, and finally moored in the center of a small cove.
Exhausted but relieved to be safe, we were downing the last of our canned tuna when we heard a rumble of distant thunder. Soon the wind was whistling through the rigging and the Mahsuri Dua was tugging and tossing at the mooring like an angry dog on a leash.
On deck, clutching the mast and pelted with warm, heavy rain, we marvelled at a sea alive with phosphorus. Crests of thousands of inky waves glowed in the dark, a violent procession of tumbling bands of light. Sheets of lightning strobelit the bay and until the storm passed we were transported to another galaxy, a fabulous other world.
Next morning all was serene. Except for my mood when I discovered the dinghy was deflated and the pump was broken. Back we sailed to Kua, Langkawi's main town, where we were promised a new dinghy "tomorrow."
Pelangi Cruises did indeed provide us with a "new" dinghy, one with a slower leak, and a pump that worked, so off we ventured once more. The aforementioned rep had taken our provisions to the boat and when I returned, said there was a great deal of oil below decks. This puzzled us. We'd used no cooking oil and the engine guage read full. He meant, of course, the diesel fuel, but that didn't occur to us.
Mahsuri was speaking, but we weren't listening.
We sailed some, motored more - the winds were fickle at best - and in late afternoon ducked into a channel between two islands. As the lowering sun turned the hillsides to emerald and the sea to cobalt blue, we drifted into the midst of a dozen or more fishing skiffs containing families of men and straw-hatted women and tawny naked babies. It was as if an entire fishing village had gone out for a watery evening stroll.
We sailed through this magic assemblage trading smiles and waves, and turned the corner into another enchanted bay. Dropping anchor in the shallows we dove into the soothing warm sea and as the cares of the world washed away I thought, "This may not be heaven, but it's close enough."
Next morning we set off early, hoping to reach our lunch spot before the brutal sun fried us to a crisp. In a fresh breeze we turned west and beam reached along Langkawi's northern coast. All across the horizon fishing boats were strung like beads on a string, their bows upswept and delicate, unlike the thick prows of western work boats. Close above us was Ko Ta Ru Tao, Thailand's southernmost island, and far ahead, enveloped in mist, the dim outline of mainland Malaysia.
The wind had been steadily dropping. I was in the bow in the shade of the Jenny when my friend decided to put on the motor. I heard it kick over, then catch with a strange racing sound. I was about to ask if something was wrong when I heard a bang and a shout: "My God, we're on fire!"
I turned and saw smoke rising from the cabin. Running aft I jumped below and grabbed the fire extinguisher, but not before seeing that the entire engine compartment and aft cabin were enveloped in flame. Now the smoke turned thick and black and in seconds the cabin was filled with the greasy, palpable and suffocating stuff. Jumping on deck, I discharged the fire extinguisher into the inferno to absolutely no effect and screamed, "Get into the dinghy!"
Moments later we were bobbing in a partially inflated raft without a paddle, watching the white, fiberglass sloop belching smoke and flame, already half consumed and turning a stomach-wrenching, bubbling black. We watched, dumb with shock, as the sails were eaten away, the mast toppled into the water, the hull burned like a floating funeral pyre.
After what seemed like an eternity, two fishing boats converged on us. The crew of one helped us aboard and hoisted our raft and as we looked on from a deck strewn with nets and little silver fish, played hoses on the flaming hulk.
Soon other boats arrived, each boat packed with excited humanity craning to take in the spectacle. At one point our rescuing skipper took out a passport and showed us that he was from Thailand. Then he brought us close to shore, set us adrift in our dinghy with a plank for a paddle and we made our way to land.
The rest is anticlimax - the tedium of police reports, the kindness of Malaysian officials and passing strangers, replacement of passports, credit cards, clothing, cameras, air plane tickets, the hundred and one items taken for granted until they are suddenly reduced to ashes. At long last, subdued and weary, we were more than ready to leave.
But as we stepped aboard our flight to Kuala Lumpur at the Langkawi airport I could swear I heard a low female chuckle rising from the jungle by the landing strip. "Goodbye, Mahsuri," I said under my breath. "I hope we were the final beneficiaries of your terrible seven generation curse."
The plane banked as we flew over the island and I tried to see where the boat had gone down. "Or perhaps they got it wrong," I thought.
"Not seven generations, but seven times seven."