A century-old sailing boat that was falling to pieces just a year ago will soon set off on a four-month journey from Malta to Indonesia.

Mir, berthed at Manoel Island, will be based in Bali and used by non-profit organisation Biosphere to monitor coral reefs and raise awareness about them.

According to marine biologist Abigail Alling, the foundation's president and co-founder, most of the world's coral reefs are at risk.

The Biosphere Foundation has been mapping coral reefs since 1995 when it started in Miami. Since then it has surveyed 42 sites across the world. It also works with sea turtles in the Anambas Islands.

Ms Alling said: "If coral reefs are well, our health is good. But they are in a terrible shape."

The aim of the expedition is to work with locals in Indonesia and encourage them to create no-fishing zones in reef areas.

"We want to set up marine-protected areas by convincing people to create non-fishing zones in a third of reef areas," said Mark Van Thillo, Mir's captain who had funded Biosphere with Ms Alling.

The two started looking for a boat to take to Indonesia and, with a limited budget, their choice lay with old boats which they could turn into seaworthy vessels.

"We were looking for a boat that was big enough to allow us to take locals to reef areas," Ms Alling said, adding it was important to have a sailing boat since, as a non-profit organisation, money for fuel was in short supply.

They came across Mir on the internet. The 31-metre boat was abandoned at Coal Wharf, Marsa, and had been badly dismantled, leaving little more than a steel hull.

"We bought her for a song," Ms Alling said, although she would not divulge how much they paid for the boat.

Last September, the two, together with a number of volunteers, started the painstaking task of restoring Mir. Mr Van Thillo points to the 31-metre mast, gleaming in the Mediterranean sun. "It was rotten inside, it had to be completely redone," he said.

Although they originally toyed with the idea of shipping Mir to Indonesia, the price tag of $350,000 was way beyond their budget.

The group will be sailing through the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, across the Indian Ocean to Sri Lanka, Thailand and Malaysia; making it to Singapore - where the foundation has a number of sponsors - by September before going to Bali.

The boat will be manned by 10 crew members, who will have to be completely self-sufficient during the journey.

"It is a beautiful voyage and a big adventure, especially with pirates in the Red Sea," Mr Van Thillo said.

(The Sunday Times)

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