Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Final Leg - Belitung to Malaysia

The GRIB files predicted a couple of days of 10-15knots SE winds. Perfect, we thought and left Belitung a few days earlier than planned. We'd been the only boat anchored there for two days and, unlike in Australia where I enjoyed the privacy of a secluded anchorage, here in Indonesia, I felt vulnerable. After cruising for 3 months with the Sail Indonesia rally, I've come to feel more comfortable in the company of other yachts! Ironically, as we left, a catamaran arrived. We spoke briefly on the radio before continuing out to sea. 

The forecast wind was not yet around, so we motored along easily in small swell under gathering cloud. Rene got our new autopilot (a Raymarine ST 1000 Tiller Pilot) working and we enjoyed its ease of operation. We've named it MeesterRay (inspired by Indonesia) and are quite impressed with how it keeps us on course. 
MeesterRay in action working with Aries to steer us along.
The first of many squalls came over, bringing with it some rain, but not much wind. We'd prepared for it by furling in the headsail and triple-reefing the main. Our extreme caution came from hearing the horror stories of other yachts caught in gale-force storms in this area. The clouds never left that day as the rain eased in and out. I tidied up on deck, lashing things down, wiping and sweeping. My main worry for this leg was being caught in a violent storm or water spout (like a miniature twister). 
Instead of water spouts, our first night involved the other danger out here near the equator, electrical storms! The lightning started during my watch, just after sunset as large, black clouds ambled towards us, sparkling with sheet lighting. I woke Rene just before it hit and we pulled in all the sails, battened down the hatches and held on! Visibility reduced to a few metres in front of us as heavy rain blasted down. I maintained a constant watch for shipping, using the near-constant lightning flashes to scan the horizon. Some of this lightning was so bright that it hurt my wide-open night eyes! I convinced myself that the lightning was getting ever closer and so unplugged our laptops and GPS and shoved the laptop under the stove in case of a direct hit. I then painstakingly wrote out all the 30 or so GPS waypoints for our course into Johor Bahru in case we suffered a strike and lost our computer and GPS. 
An approaching storm.
Rene had a busy watch that first night also. MeesterRay stopped working and R2 had to be coaxed back into action. Another squall passed over, increasing our speed by one knot under bare poles. Rene calculated the nearest lightning strike to be 5 seconds away (about 4.5 km). 
Stormy skies surrounded us.
Rene had tried (unsuccessfully) to get Open CPN to read our AIS signal without dropping out while in Belitung. He again worked at it but as yet has found no fix. We have to reboot the navigation laptop whenever we wish to see what big ships are around us. 

My midnight watch that first night was not so good. The storms still surrounded us - but now, so were many small fishing boats and FAD's. Many of these small boats would only put on their light when we got close-ish to them! I spent the entire 4 hours of my watch staring out into the night, tracking, spotting and navigating around various lights. The worst are lights which flash on and off in blue, red or green as they're very difficult to take a bearing of. There were so many flashing lights that I was forced to alter course hard to port. Then, when more and more started appearing, I changed course completely and headed out to sea - rather than parrallel to the land. After all of my careful route-planning back in Belitung, we changed our minds and instead took the outside route where we hoped there would be fewer small fishing boats/traps. Again, I wrote out all the waypoints by hand. 
Beautiful clouds bringing rain.
While I collapsed, exhausted, Rene's shift involved continuing to navigate past fishing vessels and unlit FADs! He stopped the engine for 20 minutes (with no wind, Anima simply sat still on the calm sea) in order to repair the alternator which wasn't working (again). After cleaning the negative terminals, it worked again - now putting in 20 amps to our batteries. Mr Fix-it Rene also changed the wiring to MeesterRay using a much thicker cable and the autopilot fired into life again. 

More and rain and no wind. Some swallows landed on Anima for a while to shelter from the wet weather and dry their wings. They were very unafraid of us and one even landed on Rene's shoulder for a time! 
Rene and his new little friend :)
Boat-loving Swallow.
More fishing boats were about. These ones had me nervous for a different reason. Through binoculars, I could see about a dozen men on each (smaller than Anima-sized) boat. Again, probably due to us being at the tail end of the rally, the solitude of sailing with no other yachts had me imagining all sorts of terrible pirate-related things. Of course, nothing ever happened and we were probably really safe. 

We passed a few seasnakes (the biggest was 2 metres long and 20 cm thick!) swirling down through the clear water to escape our hull. A few small pods of really large dolphins also came by to say G'day. 
Glass-out seas means there's no wind for sailing! 
This is the life! Very relaxed in calm seas. 
We tracked our fuel usage and were pleased to figure out that Anima burns less diesel than we'd always thought. At 1400Rpm (about 4.5 to 5 knots) she goes through about 3 litres an hour. At higher rev's, this amount increases exponentially. 
Rene refills Anima while underway.
On the second night (as we inched ever closer to Malaysia) the dark sky was frequented by the friendly flashing of aeroplane lights! Such a simple thing - but it came to symbolise our return to civilisation. Before now, I'd seen probably 4 planes in 3 months. Now, there were usually four in the sky simultaneously for hours!! This second night was one of my best night watches. I didn't see a single ship/fish device, the seas had a gentle breeze and the crescent moon lit up the constantly changing layered clouds. 
Early morning on the 21st, Rene woke me and we turned off the engine. Rene had hoisted the sails so we could sail (at 1 knot) across the equator. I offered Neptune a shot of Captain Morgan Rum over our bows which Rene teased me incessantly over. He thought it was all a big joke and was yelling out taunts and challeges to the nautical God (much to my displeasure!). He then added insult to injury by pouring water over my head! 
The GPS doesn't lie! We're in the northern hemisphere now!!
Pouring a shot for Neptune.
Actually, it wasn't so bad - it even woke me up a little and fulfilled the tradition of getting wet the first time you cross the equator by sea. 

Perhaps Rene's taunts to Neptune were indeed heard, as the wind picked up from the North and we had to punch into (small) waves hard on the nose for the rest of the day. The sky was a metallic blue/grey, heavy with the threat of something nasty. 
Threatening cloud approaches as does a tug boat! 
Rene planned to sail (motor) up the Riau strait by night in order to get up to the Singapore Strait by the following day. I wasn't keen on this plan - the passage the Riau strait looked to be a bit hazardous. I convinced him to anchor at a nearby island and to take the rest of the journey in day hops. Neptune however had other plans! The increasing wind brought a dark, dark band of clouds which gave us bigger waves and stronger wind on the nose! 

Taking a compass sight to ensure we don't collide with another ship.
We survived the storm easily due to Anima's strength and managed to avoid the tug boat too. I was getting quite tired of all this and was very much looking forward to being still for a long time!! Our planned anchorage however was not protected at all from the north and we were concerned that the wind could change direction at any time during the night, rendering any anchorage quite unsafe. So, we decided to push on, up the Riau Strait. On a few occasions we had to alter course in order to avoid local fishermen and their nets. It's almost as though Indonesian fishermen have a death wish! They seem to go out into the middle of busy shipping lanes, with no lights (until another boat gets close and they switch it on). A few times, we would be steaming along quickly with the current and only see a small, bright light minutes before collision could have occurred! 
Sunset over the Riau Strait
The city lights from Singapore made up for the lack of moon. We could easily see the islands to avoid and the ships were all marked on our AIS. The major annoyance with this was that it required our navigation laptop to be rebooted every 5-20 minutes (usually 5). Rene plans on using his IT skills to address this problem so that next time we require AIS, it will be more reliable. 

Rene let me take a cat nap for an hour and when I arose, we were well on our way along the Singapore Strait! WOW! The horizon was filled with thousands of lights - not Singapore, container ships!! HUNDREDS OF THEM!!! We now rebooted our laptop every 5 minutes to keep an up to date account of the surrounding shipping and their movements. Often, a ship would look like it was coming for us, but we'd see on the AIS that in fact, it was about to turn, to follow the marked shipping lane. 

We made our way along the far edge of the Singapore Strait, away from the busiest parts of the shipping lanes. We still had to be constantly alert however, as these massive container ships would frequently peel away from the main laneway to head off on alternate paths, right past us! 
Close encounters with container ships.
Our plotted course had us following the far south-easterly edge of the Strait, but just before midnight, we encountered a problem: reef. There was a few reefs marked on the charts, they had lights too but as we approached them, the moonlight showed exposed reef extending much further than what we thought was marked on the chart. Our course had us going right over it! I freaked out and Rene eventually agreed that it was not a good idea to push on. Instead he went below and plotted a new course while I took the helm and kept us away from the reef and big ships. One of these big ships was coming right for us and had been for about 5 minutes. He was on a collision course. Rene came on deck with our new course - we were to cross the shipping lanes and continue on the northern edge. The big ship kept steaming up to us and then, amazingly, turned to port, pausing to allow us to cross the shipping lane!! How polite! We took off, relying quite heavily on the AIS and only having to reboot it twice. We then had a relatively smooth journey along the edge of the shipping lane, on the Singapore side for the remainder of the night. We both stayed awake with frequent coffee's and the excitement of it all. Where we'd crossed over was right in front of Singapore city. What a sight! What a place! I took screen images from our AIS but unfortunately, the files seem to be corrupt. 

At dawn we were followed by a water Police vehicle, ensuring we didn't stray over the line into Singaporean waters. We motored through hundreds more giant ships, all waiting at anchor to be processed in or out.

So many ships!!!
We continued on, the tide now against us up the Johor Strait. A Singaporean water police boat tailed us for most of the way - ensuring we didn't try and sneak over I guess. In our tired state, the hot, slow journey up towards Danga Bay was very hot and very slow! Frequent fishermen dropped their nets right in front of us and we had to reverse and negotiate our way through many fishing areas. We figured out later that those nets were deep enough for us to go over but we were too worried about getting nets caught around our propeller. 

Eventually we made it to Danga Bay in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. The marina here was fully booked for the Sail Malaysia rally so we anchored in shallow, muddy water right near Yawarra 2!! Our relatives we last saw a year ago in Townsville!!

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