With our new visas stamped in our passports we were ready to leave the busy port of Makassar on the south western coast of Sulawesi bound for Belitung Island, north of Jakarta.
We had been checking out various wind predicting programmes to plan our route. We could head across to Kalimantan and follow the coastline, but it would be a much slower trip by increasing our mileage. We were disappointed to miss the unique experience of a cruise down river to see the orangutans in the Tanjung Putting National Park, but we were hesitant about leaving our yacht unattended at the entrance to the Kumai River for a couple of days and we knew we would have the opportunity whilst in Sarawak, Malaysia in June to visit the renowned orangutan rehabilitation center at the Semenggoh Nature Reserve.
Another factor we considered – the predominant south easterly winds were significantly stronger away from the land and we knew we would need to move out of the lee of Sulawesi before we would get some decent wind.
We made our decision to keep about a hundred miles off the coastline of Kalimantan where we hoped to find wind, current and avoid the majority of the fishing fleets, converging closer towards land as we headed further west. We would sail straight through the 720 miles to Belitung, an island east of Sumatra, and stepping stone for our travels on to Malaysia.
As we departed from Makassar, Frank lifted the chain and was surprised to see barnacles and a strange slime covering the chain after just 10 days at anchor, but he stowed it away and we weaved our way through the cluster of anchored container ships waiting to offload their cargo onto the busy wharves of the port.
We motor sailed for most of the day but as the afternoon wore on and we moved further away from the protection of land, so the wind improved and increased. By 4.30 it was in excess of 25 knots, with gusts up to 30. We dropped the mizzen sail just before dusk, not wanting to be over canvassed during the night, and continued in the choppy seas.
During our time cruising in Indonesia, (July to November last year and since March this year), we have experienced mainly calm seas and favorable tail winds.
Time breeds complacency as memories slide.
Although we felt we had readied the yacht for passage, we had been unprepared for these conditions. Before the night was over, the familiar sound of clanking wires inside the masts were being drowned out by the clattering of sliding plates in the galley, bottles falling over in lockers and we had to retrieve items that had been flung across the yacht with the tumultuous movement.
Sleep was elusive that night. This was due to a combination of our first passage in many months, uncomfortable conditions and navigating through shipping lanes and areas frequented by fishing fleets (none of the latter that we encountered had AIS on board). AIS stands for automatic identification system.
Frank and I don’t follow rigid 3 or 4 hour shifts like some couples, but take turns to rest every few hours during the night, waking the other once we feel we are unable to stay awake any longer.
Whilst on watch, we have to stay alert. We both have eBook readers, and I had started an exciting new series of audio books but every few minutes, we have to remind ourselves to get up, check the GPS chart plotter for our position, any AIS signal to indicate a nearby ship, plus manually scour the horizon in every direction for a glimmer of light to indicate a fishing boat or net.
With no moon to light our way, it was impossible to keep an eye out for any floating debris, which are all too common in Indonesian waters, so we just had to hope we would not collide with any of the tree trunks, logs, errant buoys and FAD’s (fish attracting devices) that we frequently pass in daylight hours!
Dawn brought little change in the weather and those loud rushing noises we heard during the night were explained in the light of day. Three to four meter waves reared up behind our stern before their translucent green crests broke in a frenzy of cascading water that looked as if it would dump gallons of water straight in the cockpit. Stars End 2, like a frisky colt, simply lifted her rear end at the last moment to allow the crashing wave to pass beneath her hull.
Frank made comment that the last time he remembered similar conditions was sailing from New Caledonia to Papua New Guinea last June. It made us appreciate what fortuitous sailing we had enjoyed over the past year.
Thankfully, the wind settled down to 15-20 knots during the day and apart from the odd rogue wave to throw us onto our side, we enjoyed a more comfortable sail. Thunderclouds that had loomed on the horizon since the first afternoon grumbled in the distance and sent through a few squalls to remind us of our vulnerability in the vast ocean. Each night, flashes of lightning patterned the sky with jagged forks and lit up thick banks of distant storm-clouds across the horizon, forewarning us of what could come.
We crossed several shipping lanes during this passage and it was a new experience for us. We adjusted our direction and speed to detour around the huge ships and only communicated with them by radio in instances like when 7 ships were all converging with our path from both directions at the same time. The closest call we had was during the heavy storm on Day 4, when we had poor visibility, and this one tanker came charging out of the mist with no AIS signal at all to forewarn us of its arrival. It was good practise for when we reach the Malacca Straits near Singapore which is one of the busiest waterways in the world.
Fishing trawlers were an entirely different matter. Once we cleared the shipping lanes, we passed fleets of large wooden fishing boats, usually separated by a mile or so between each vessel, bobbing at anchor in 50 meters or more of water. At dusk they would move off for the nights’ fishing, and by dark the entire horizon would be awash with the bright gleam from their powerful lights. Unfortunately I don’t have a good enough camera to capture this, but it is a bizarre sight as we sailed far offshore, the distant shores of Kalimantan each night cast a bright luminescence from hundreds of fishing boats. Whilst we were relieved to be so far away from them, we were appreciative of the false moonlight they created to help us to sail through smaller groups of boats that were fishing farther offshore near our route.
We were making good time, sailing between 120 to 140 miles a day with the wind mostly behind us, so the motion was often a bit roly and uncomfortable. Around lunchtime on Day 3, 400 miles out from Makassar, we reached a small island surrounded by a wide reef. We had thought it might be possible to stop here, but we saw only a long concrete wharf that stretched far out into the water for supply ships to tie up, and the sheltered area in the lee of this wharf where a village nestled along the foreshores was too shallow and too rough for us to anchor.
Not too disappointed as we were well into the swing of our passage routine, we hoisted a double reefed mizzen sail to add to the front sail, and continued on our way under a steady speed between 6-8 knots. A few hours later, we had an interesting situation when a large local boat about 50 foot long sped up behind us from about a quarter of a mile away until it was only about 150 meters behind our stern. Frank was alone on deck, and unsure of their intentions, so he came down below to wake me and switch on the engine. I jerked myself awake and rushed up on deck, but Frank said that they could not keep up with our sailing speed and had fallen back behind us.
We were particularly cautious as last year two yachts had experienced very negative ‘encounters’ with local boats. They could not categorically say they were pirates, but in both instances, the local boat /skiffs gave chase and tried to ram the yachts, obviously with malicious intent. In both cases, the yachts managed to outrun the local skiffs and received help from a passing container ship or intervention from authorities after calling for help. I had marked the locations on our route (‘fish boats’ where 5 skiffs had given chase, and “pirates’ where a huge net had been thrust in front of the yacht), so we could be wary.
By Day 4, Frank and I had fallen into a comfortable routine of sleep, eat, read, sleep, eat, read, interspersed with checking the yacht’s progress and adjusting sails. At this stage we feel we could continue sailing indefinitely, as we enter a timeless limbo. Food becomes a focal point whilst on a passage, and takes on far more importance as there is not much else to think about!
Some people are happy to cook on passage, even in rough seas, but I know my limitations. It’s easy enough to have crackers and cheese, 5 minute noodles or a ‘toastie’ (toasted sandwich stuffed with whatever you have on hand, copied from our NZ mates Marian & Colin) for lunches or snacks, but we enjoy eating a hot meal once a day even in rough conditions. Luckily, neither Frank nor I seem to get seasick much at all anymore, but I don’t cope well preparing meals in a rocking galley.
I always try to cook up a supply of tasty meals that I vacuum seal or freeze before a voyage, and in a rolling seaway Frank is happy to take over as ‘galley slave’ and heat up my one pot wonders! We generally eat our evening meal before it gets dark at night and really appreciate having a hearty warm meal to face the long night ahead. I also try to cook up treats like a large sized rich fruit cake, or biscuits and have fresh fruit on hand we can enjoy in between meals. We certainly never go hungry and surprisingly still mange to lose weight on a passage.
Day four also saw a deterioration in the weather as a series of storm cells that had been threatening us constantly with lightning and grumbling thunder for the past few days finally descended with a vengeance. I clambered up on deck after my early morning sleep to find Frank had pulled down all the clear covers around the cockpit to keep out the pouring rain which had flattened the seas and becalmed us in a foggy veil. Violent claps of thunder advertised that the storm was directly overhead and the bright flare of lightning bolts provided the only relief from the dull grey monotone seascape. The sails were flapping noisily due to lack of wind, so the motor was on, but visibility had fallen to about 150 meters, so we had to steer by chart plotter and radar alone.
We had purposely bought a huge tin of unappetizing local biscuits in Labuan Bajo, just so we had a metal case in which to store all our hard drives, sim cards, SD cards and small electronic devices during storms. Last year, several yachts on the rally were struck by lightning when approaching Malaysia and one had their entire electronics frazzled so we were taking whatever precautions we could with whatever means we had.
The rain poured down but one positive was that we managed to collect many gallons of water from plastic tubes running down from holes in the solid cockpit roof to water jugs positioned on either side of our cockpit. Ensuring that we first flush the excess salt water and dirt before starting to collect the water pouring from the heavens, it is notable that the water quality is generally very pure with low dissolved solids.
As the afternoon wore on, the rain cleared but the wind did not come back at all and we were becalmed in a flat sea, forced to drop both sails and continue under motor alone. We had also finally lost the current which had given us a 1-2 knot positive boost since leaving Makassar and were now slowly chundering along under power at a modest 4-5 knots.
Reaching the western tip of Kalimantan shipping lanes ran from here to Surabaya and Jakarta, so we had fewer fishing boats and more container and passenger ships to manoeuvre around.
Since the rough weather passed, we had tried trolling lines behind the yacht using Paul’s plastic lures that he made himself. We have enjoyed such a success rate since starting cruising over 4 years ago, that fish was generally part of our diet 4 or 5 times a week and we had caught some impressive sized species. In Indonesia, we have had no success whatsoever, much to our disappointment. More so to Paul, who shares his fishing excitement vicariously through our successes. Until Indonesia!
There are actually more fishing boats in Indonesia than anywhere else we have sailed, and yet snorkelling, we have rarely caught sight of any fish larger than you would see in a domestic aquarium. We were shocked by the sight of dynamite fishing back in Indonesia in 2005, and have seen it again off the coast of Flores just recently, and it seems indicative to the over fishing problem that seems to have resulted in this vast country.
By dawn of day 5, the distant island of Belitung was in sight. Local boats were returning home from their nightly fishing grounds and we motored passed small islets that were the precursor of the main island of Belitung.
After 5 days and 5 hours to travel 720 miles, we dropped anchor in a small indentation in the coastline which could offer shelter from the light swell.
We spent the afternoon, tidying the boat. The anchor chain that had been stowed away as we left Makassar had reeked of rotting fish as it dried and the foul smell had invaded the front of the yacht making it impossible to sleep in the V-berth up front. To clean out the anchor well, Frank had to empty 50 meters of chain, 50 meters of heavy rope onto the deck and then soak up the residue rank fishy juice plus the built up sand, mud & barnacles from months of stowing the anchor.
I cooked a roast dinner and we treated ourselves to a bottle of red wine from our small stash we have left from NZ. We were in bed by 8.30 and slept for a well deserved 12 hours, happy and satisfied at another passage safely completed.