In the last article from Memories of a Circumnavigation, Hugh and Heather left Darwin for South-east Asia. This segment of their world cruise sees them sailing up the Lombok Strait to the Java Sea, island hopping to Borneo and on to Singapore.
Lets continue to follow the adventures of Argonauta I, from when they began their journey in 1997 in the Caribbean, until the completion of the circumnavigation in 2006, when they crossed their 1997 outbound Caribbean track.
Bali was beautiful but Singapore beckoned. Between lay the islands of Indonesia and the fascinating orangutans.
We intended to island hop as much as possible. According to a 2010 survey, Indonesia is made up of some 13,466 islands and only 922 are inhabited. The cruising is excellent, the culture exotic and it is rewarding to explore ashore. Our initial objective was to sail some 385 nautical miles (nm) to the southern part of the Island of Borneo in the Indonesian territory of Kalimantan. We planned to anchor in the Kluang River at the port of Kumai. There we would leave the yacht and take a three-day tour up the shallow Sekonyer River to the Tanjung Puting National Park and visit Camp Leaky, an orangutan sanctuary.
In company with our new buddy boat, Carillion, we departed Bali and motored some 12 nm to nearby Lembongan Island. We anchored for the night to allow a daylight passage up the Lombok Strait to the Java Sea. We motored against a three to four knot current the first three hours but, contrary to expectation, we enjoyed a two knot northerly current for the last third of the Strait. We entered the Java Sea in late afternoon and set a course westbound for Kangean Island.
We encountered heavy traffic in the Java Sea, as well as numerous hazards to navigation such as oil wells and floating fish traps. A safe passage required a high level of vigilance. Detached fishing lines and nets posed another threat, but we had fitted a line cutter to the shaft during our last haul-out so we were protected. In Bali, we had heard that a yacht collided with a coastal freighter as it approached Borneo. Although there was reportedly no serious damage, the incident emphasized the need for an alert watch. Dozing in the cockpit could prove disastrous!
About an hour before sunset a host of tiny single crew, double outrigger canoes, all sporting brightly colored sails, literally swarmed out to sea to fish overnight. None had lights.
Our buddy boat, Carillion, experienced a deliberate close pass by a fishing boat. We were told that locals do this to offload bad spirits onto another boat. As we arrived at Kangean Island, many sailing canoes were making their way back from the nightly fishing sortie. We had not seen any during the night! That afternoon, a fishing boat with ten teenagers and a two year old dropped by. This was a polite group and Heather used her twenty words of Bahasa Indonesian to communicate with them. They laughed a lot and we gave them cookies and stick-on Canada tattoos before we set off on a 170 nm overnight passage to Bawean Island.
Enroute, there was never a dull moment. Winds varied SE to SW from 5 to 20 knots, so to maintain our course of 295 degrees, we reconfigured sail several times. We also had to make a number of course alterations to avoid traffic and uncharted oil rigs. Fortunately, the oil rigs were lighted although initially, they looked like traffic until radar made it obvious they were fixed. Approaching the Island in the late afternoon, we encountered many fish traps identifiable by bamboo rafts with a dead palm frond as a marker. Constant course alteration was required. The fish traps were unlighted, so it was almost impossible to make a night arrival without colliding with one. Fortunately, we arrived before dark!
Heather recounted, “I was tracking a freighter well to starboard, watching anxiously for its green navigation light, which meant we would pass to starboard of each other. I altered course about ten degrees port, saw the green, but he was so close I finally decided I must disturb Hugh’s sleep. He confirmed that we would miss, but I felt as if I could smell their breath. Reports from boats ahead warned that we would be constantly threading the needle in the South China Sea. I thought perhaps I’d drop out in Borneo and do volunteer work with the orangutans!”
The next day we were awakened very early by dueling mosques calling a small village to prayer. We dinghied ashore and found a clean, prosperous looking village with shy but friendly people. Soon some children sported Canadian decals on their bikes! That evening on October 2, we left for Kumai, a 198 nm passage. We timed our departure to arrive mid-morning at the Kluang River entrance.
Crossing the Java Sea, we dodged small fishing boats and coastal freighters. At night we almost hit one of the unlighted fish traps as we passed it close to port. As we approached the Kluang River estuary, we had to avoid the local fishing fleet. Low visibility made navigation to Kumai, about 12 nm upriver, somewhat challenging. It got a bit shallow in the narrow channel, otherwise all went well. Kumai is an outpost with a long line of wharves where all manner of craft tie up. Huge logs float past in the murky river. There is little waste management and detritus litters the river banks. We anchored in the river directly across from a nondescript shack sporting the sign, Harry’s Yacht Service. Soon Harry appeared alongside our boat. Yachties had recommended Harry and his fleet of klotoks for a tour. Klotoks are river boats about 50 feet in length and very similar in design to the “African Queen”.
With our friends on Carillion, we arranged a two-day trip up the Sekonyer River to the Tanjung Puting National Park. Harry, our multi-talented skipper, with his crew of two, provided meals and running commentary . Rather than sleep aboard, we opted to stay overnight at the simple but comfortable Rimba Jungle Lodge. Our cruise along the meandering, crocodile ridden river, bordered by lush vegetation, invoked the book, Heart of Darkness. There were glimpses of iridescent kingfishers and rare hornbills. At dusk, troops of monkeys dotted the trees like mistletoe. Through binoculars we viewed the droll proboscis monkey with its Pinocchio nose.
The absolute highlight was a visit to the Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, Camp Leakey. We walked along a narrow wooden corduroy path into the jungle to the feeding station. Just before feeding time, a few early-comers began advancing. A mother orangutan with her baby clinging to her back swung from a tree. A huge male advanced on hind legs with his large hands dragging on the ground. His scowl advised us not to cross his path. The volunteers arrived, mounted the platform with a sack of bananas and pineapples, and gave Tarzan-like whoops. There was now a veritable wave of advancing diners. Some clambered to the platform, grabbed a bunch of bananas and swung off in the trees to devour them. Others stayed, gorging themselves and immersing their heads in buckets of watered milk. The infamous orangutan called Princess held her baby protectively and gave us warning glances. She had once appeared on the cover of National Geographic and recently, when pregnant, had bitten a Canadian visitor.
It was fascinating to watch these unique animals. The male orangutan is larger than a human. Their faces reflect a wide range of expressions. Their body is covered with long orange hair and their faces are almost blue black. A mother was seriously engaged in grooming her baby. From time to time she would stop nit-picking and kiss her baby on the lips. The little guy would pucker his lips and lift his head joyfully. One large and aggressive male forced his attentions on a reluctant female and visitors became inadvertent voyeurs.
On the klotok, Harry and his crew prepared delicious meals. The cook squatted on the deck preparing fried rice, eggplant, garlic and greens, banana fritters, curry dishes, and fresh fruit. That night a quite large crocodile swam across our path. Harry had crossed out “swimsuit” on his list of things to bring, after a British tourist was recently taken by a crocodile at the Camp Leakey watering hole. Volunteers still perform ablutions there, sluicing themselves with pails of water. One girl lost her toothpaste to a young orangutan. As we returned to the boats after dark, Harry had saved one treat for the last – the trees suddenly lit up like suburban areas in December and thousands of fireflies glittered among the branches. Magic!
Back at the Kumai anchorage, an enterprising teacher brought his class (a canoe laden with 15 teenagers) over to practice English and engage in conversation with yachties. We were the only yacht occupied at the time and we invited them all aboard. They were delightful young teenagers, polite and articulate, who asked questions such as “What sport you like Mister?” and, “How old are you?” We were invited to visit their school and went the following day for more conversations.
We headed down river to our destination, Serutu Island, some 269 nm distant in the South China Sea. We had the usual fog and smoke on departure, but upon clearing the estuary we were blessed with wind from the ESE at 20 knots. Rounding the southwest tip of Borneo at night made for a difficult trip. The sea is shallow and coastal traffic intense. There was no question of sleep as it took the concentration of us both to navigate through a seemingly endless fishing fleet. Radar was useful for the longer look, but most of the time we were avoiding close-in vessels, many of them towing nets. Fishing boats are scary because they move erratically and often their lights don’t tell it like it is – why do we see a blue light? Exhausted but unscathed, we anchored at Serutu Island around noon, after a memorable two-night passage.
We set out to cross the next 280 nm to an island group just south of the Riau Strait to lead us up to Nongsa Point Marina on the northern tip of Batam Island. We chose this route as it offered options for stops along the way, while also avoiding the Singapore Strait, which presented a risk of piracy. Often, lack of wind forced us to motor and we dodged even more traffic: freighters; tugs towing barges, and a myriad of small fishing boats. Closer to shore, once again we had to wind our way among fish traps.
We crossed the equator and, once again, Argonauta I was in the Northern Hemisphere. We saved the champagne until we anchored between Senipan and Ansunda Islands just off the coast of Sumatra. Another two nights of rest saw us on the final stretch to Nongsa Point Marina in the Singapore Strait, just across from the city of Singapore. Alternator #2 chose to fry itself shortly after departure. A hot electrical smell rapidly dissipated and the alternator continued to free wheel. A failed bearing was the main concern, but there was no sign of that so we carried on. Fortunately there was no drama as we still had alternator #1. The only service affected was the anchor winch, which was wired in such a way as to function only with #2 alternator. Manually anchoring at our final overnight stop between Bintan and tiny Buau Islands reminded me to get this anomaly corrected! We did that in Singapore.
We entered the Singapore Strait, linking the Strait of Malacca to the South China Sea, and made the short westbound transit to Batam Island and Nongsa Point Marina. It was a joy to reach Nongsa Point Marina, still in Indonesia, and a haven for ex pats working in Singapore. Heather headed for the swimming pool: No crocodiles!
We had made a reservation for a couple of weeks at the Singapore Raffles Marina, located on the western side of the Island. The marina is just short of the bridge to Malaysia, which spans the Johore Strait. In company with Carillion, we departed Indonesia early and entered the Singapore Strait, one of the busiest shipping channels in the world. A Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS) divides the 10 nm wide waterway into four lanes; two for southbound traffic and two for northbound. To reach Singapore, we had to position ourselves at the narrowest point and then cross these lanes at 90 degrees. High speed ferries thread their way around huge tankers, bulk carriers, and the odd cruise ship. The monsters do not slow or alter course, and by default have the right of way in this highly congested area.
Fortunately we had good visibility. Ships move at about 10 knots in steady parades in both directions. Separation can be as close as half a mile. With a motoring speed of only 7 knots, it was difficult for us to judge when to start the crossing. With a gap opening in the near lanes, Carillion started to cross and we followed about a mile behind. With an eye on the far lane of traffic, we powered across, but soon had to give way to a large southbound tanker. We could not stop as we had to clear the lane before another vessel traveling in the same direction became a factor. So we pressed on until almost within its path, then turning to pass behind safely, but much closer than one would normally choose. Once past the tanker, traffic in the other lane coming northbound included two huge liquefied natural gas (LNG) carriers, each with six or so large white domes. We reversed course, aiming to set up a safe crossing behind the first and in front of the second. It would have been folly to reduce boat speed as we would then have sacrificed maneuverability. While positioning for this, we nervously eyed another tanker approaching in the lane we still occupied. To close the gap we turned towards the first LNG carrier, aiming for his port bow. Once past it, we turned hard behind the beast through its wake and with our trusty diesel hammering away, made all speed to clear the lane.
Soon we joined Carillion safely on the Singapore side of the Strait. Bali was a month and some 1175 nm behind us. Singapore Slings beckoned.
Stay tuned for the next episode: Singapore, north up the Strait of Malacca to Malaysia, on to Thailand and across the Bay of Bengal to Sri Lanka.