Our small fleet of 10 yachts, flying flags from 7 different countries, departed from Port Moresby for our passage to Indonesia on the tail end of a strong blow, so there was an expected large swell and the ever present trade winds blowing 20-25 knots behind our beam, with unusual lulls followed by blows gusting 30-40 knots at various times.
It was 190 miles to the start of the Bligh Passage, a deep, narrow gap between two outer barrier reefs 17 miles from the nearest land at Cape Direction in the far north of Australia, consisting of several narrow channels (as well as being the main shipping channel) through islands and reefs creating strong currents, before you emerge into the Arafura Sea.It is named after William Bligh who skillfully navigated 3,600 n miles from Tahiti to Kupang, Timor in a 23 ft boat with 18 others, after the infamous ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ in 1789.
Unfortunately our HF radio decided to play up and then stop working altogether, so we were only able to communicate on our VHF radio to those yachts that were in close range, to pass on our position to the Magnet West sked each morning and alert our family that all was well on board SE2.
It also means that now we can only post our position to our win link whenever we have internet connection until we are able to purchase a new radio in Singapore.
The 960 n mile sail to Debut was pretty much as we expected, but unfortunately we had overcast skies, constant rain showers and frequent squalls, the worst of which hit the night we were passing through the Bligh Passage. This was an uncomfortable night, as we not only had the strong winds and 40 knot gusts but we had pouring rain and the seas had built up in the narrow passage and we often had to adjust our course and tack into the wind to follow the leads. At least we timed it so that we had the current flowing with us but it was still a rather unpleasant night.
However, as morning came, the sun attempted to shine through the clouds and the seas were noticeably less. We passed close by the group of islands where the majority of the Sail 2 Indonesia rally boats had congregated at Thursday Island to clear out of Australia, and we sailed on into the Arafura Sea.
The 10 yachts had left Port Moresby at different times during the same day and took varying routes once we were clear of the Bligh Passage and Prince of Wales Channel.
Some took the strategy that sticking close to the main shipping channel would alleviate the risk of intercepting fishing boats, both Indonesian and Vietnamese, who lay their long line nets and trawl the waters between Australia and Indonesia. Some headed far west, closer to Papua New Guinea, but it appears that most of the rally participants had some form of contact with fishing boats and incidents avoiding nets during the 500 mile stretch we still had to sail to Debut in the small group of the Kei Islands west of Papua New Guinea.
Many of the Australian contingency of the rally who had already departed from Thursday Island were ahead of us and so we heard on the VHF radio that one of the participants ‘Scott Free’ had become entangled in a fishing net and set off their EPIRB (emergency beacon). The authorities were alerted and a plane was sent to check on them very quickly. A cargo ship in the vicinity offered their assistance by bringing them on board and taking them to Newcastle (in NSW, Australia), but they declined to abandon their yacht and managed to cut their way free after 24 hours.
We had been forewarned about the extensive fishing grounds in these waters, but had no idea what to expect. We chose to stay well clear of the area where the incident with ‘Scott Free’ occurred but the following day, we passed at least 24 large fishing boats, spread out across the horizon, at anchor in very deep water.
Just before sunset, I happened to be watching the horizon ahead and spotted a net obstructing our path, barely visible in the large swell. I called out to Frank, turned off the auto pilot & and swung the wheel hard around whilst he started the engine. We managed to veer away from the very solid looking net with oval floats along its length with literally inches to spare. We motored along the side of the net looking for the opening, but it was over 2 miles before we finally saw a buoy with an antenna that marked the end of the line and gave us an exit point.
As night came, we discovered that beacons lit up to indicate the 2 ends of the net. Sometimes, one end was attached to a fishing boat that was all lit up as they worked, and in some cases, the nets were so long there were numerous buoys and lights dotted along its length.
However, it was a sleepless night as we constantly needed to check the way ahead and we veered around a number of flashing lights.
In the middle of the night, we were close to an English catamaran ‘Por Dos’ (only 2.4 n miles away) and they kindly alerted us by radio of a net directly ahead of us. A few miles further on, they were disorientated by more flashing lights and became entangled in one of the long nets themselves. The skipper, Richard tried to unravel the net surrounding the boat, pulling on it in the large swell with his boat hook, but his hands became trapped in the net and a wave pulled him into the water, so they also had to contend with the emergency of his wife Dawn trying for half an hour to help Richard climb back on board with the net all pleated between him and their boat.
Frank and I turned ‘Stars End 2’ around and tacked back slowly towards Por Dos with the idea that if they were still trapped come dawn, we might be able to throw them a tow line and pull them away from the net, but in the strong winds and large seas with more nets around us, and in pitch darkness, we could do little but hover nearby to support them and be on standby to help once it was light enough to see. Meantime, they tried to call the large fishing boat all lit up several miles away on the radio to inform them they were caught in their net, but the reply that came back was a garble of Indonesian none of us could understand, with ‘fishing boat’ and ‘net’ the only English words spoken. Por Dos also let off flares, and put out a radio alert to all other yachts in the area, but over the next couple of hours, the large fishing boat motored very close to Por Dos and then strangely moved away. There was no more radio contact, but Richard suddenly realized that the net seemed to have been pulled away from their boat by the big ship pulling in their lines. They tentatively raised some sail and were able to drift away and increase speed, finally free. We both continued on our way and after we arrived in Debut, we met up with Dawn & Richard in person and spoke about their traumatic experience.
Over the next few nights, we saw a pattern emerge as we passed a score or more of large fishing boats during the afternoon, sometimes at anchor in very deep water, and at night, the sky would light up with the loom of these boats’ lights spread across the horizon as they started fishing and and we knew we would have a busy night ahead of us. Actually, the nighttime vigil was preferable to daytime sailing, as we could at least see the flashing lights to warn us of nets ahead.
We made good mileage, ranging from 130-150 miles a day, but as we reached day 5, so heavier rain clouds appeared all around us and the winds picked up to almost 30 knots at times.
The last 120 miles were in constant rain showers and with the wind from behind, it made the cockpit an uncomfortably wet place to sit, so we generally tried to stay below and pop up and down every few minutes to check on things.
As we neared our destination, it was exciting to identify other rally yachts on the AIS (Automatic Identification System) as their signals appeared on our GPS. It was quite intriguing that so many yachts had sailed from Thursday Island and Port Moresby (and a few other locations) and only during the last 20 miles did we all converge, so diverse were all our routes across the ocean.
So we finally arrived in Debut, Indonesia, for the start of the Sail 2 Indonesia Rally after sailing more than 3,500 n miles from New Zealand in mid May. In the following 3 months we would be traveling to 17 different locations (if we chose to visit them all) among the 2,000 islands in Indonesia, a distance of over 2,500 miles before reaching our final destination near Singapore in Malaysia in late October.
As we approached Debut, there were at least 40 of the 60 plus yachts appeared to already have arrived, and as we passed by the anchored boats, they waved, called out or welcomed us with air horns. Interestingly, about half the fleet were catamarans and we have been told there are participants from over 12 countries. Our good friends Anita & Pierre from Scarborough are also rally participants who had sailed via Thursday Island and their yacht ‘Xamela’, was already at anchor. They were visiting friends Catherine & Bernard, so we swung by their yacht ‘Cypraea’ on our way to anchor to greet them.
Debut is on the western side of the island of Kai Kecil, part of the Kei Islands, an uplifted coral reef located situated at the edge of the Banda Sea. It is connected by a bridge to the neighboring island of Dullah where the larger towns of Tual, (the capital of the province) and Langgur are situated.
We certainly did not expect such a wonderful welcome by the people of Debut, and were overcome at the efforts the Indonesian Government, officials and the local community made to help us in so many different ways- from organizing customs, quarantine & immigration agents especially brought to Debut to clear us all in, giving us mobile sim cards, offering help with information and sourcing parts for those that needed help with their yachts.
They organized rubbish removal and ‘Mr. Torres’ and his ever helpful group of young boys did an amazing job of collecting all the dinghies when we came ashore and ‘parking’ them along the wharf wall until we returned. Not least were the functions that were held in our honor.
It was such a busy time, saying hello to old friends from home (‘Xamela’, ’Island Pearl’ came from the same street as us, and ‘Sedna’ from Newport Waters too) catching up with the good friends we had made in Port Moresby, and new yacht friends we were introduced to or simply met ashore.
Local teachers and English speaking people were brought in to the area where we all congregated ashore to offer assistance with any queries, and guides were made available to offer tours of the local region. We took a minibus tour with a group of people the day after we arrived, and although we didn’t end up sightseeing too much as we all needed to visit a bank, pick up fresh produce after our passage and then we had a flat tyre!
It was still a fun day out, 10 of us crammed in the rear of the hot little bus, stopping by a local kindergarten, where we were treated to the children singing for us and offered morning tea by the teachers, plus visiting a couple of local spots, and speaking a mixture of French and English all day with our new friends, having a lot of laughs together.
There was a welcome ceremony with dancers and cultural performance to officially start the Sail 2 Indonesia Rally, attended by Government officials and the Regent of the area, and also a fantastic gala dinner on the beach Ngurbloat at Langgur with a live band that had both locals and yachties dancing the night away.
Their generosity was overwhelming. We were given gifts of Indonesian scarves, bags, sunhats, & caps, wet bags, glossy book of the area, CD of the welcome ceremony and at each event we were offered food and drink and such hospitality, the entire fleet were bowled over. Presiding over all of this is Raymond Lesmana, who is an agent who has organized yacht rallies for many years and liaises with the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism He has the huge task of organizing the Indonesian component of the rally in order to take the stress out of the process and manage issues for the entire fleet.
Whilst wandering around the little township of Debut, all the residents, both young and old, were so welcoming, smiling and saying hello and offering help to all the newcomers questions. Walking to the Hawang Caves we felt like the Pied Piper when a band of cheeky young boys followed us along the road and chattered incessantly, trying to make themselves understood.
One evening, the Port Moresby crowd all gathered on Bob & Judy’s yacht ‘Kinabaloo’ for a great evening of fun and laughs to belatedly celebrate Judy’s 70th birthday that had to be delayed until after they were cleared by customs.
All too soon, it was time to say goodbye to Debut, and sail 200 miles to our next destination- the group of islands of Banda, part of the Spice Islands.