Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Journey From Bali to Kalimantan (Borneo)

When Rene visited me in Ubud, he came bearing a bad cough which I eventually succumbed to as well and which we’ve ended up having to take antibiotics to cure. We thought it was simply a strange cold but have realised after chatting to yachties from Tiger that it’s more likely to be a chest infection. I had a fever and we both felt it would be unsafe to leave Bali and set out to sea while sick. So we waited and waited. Gradually most of the yachts left the anchorage until there was only half a dozen left.

I used the waiting time to write, rest and organise things. We’ve booked into a marina in Johor Bahru which is just across the river from Singapore and which is free to live aboard in!! Rene tweaked the engine alignment and filled our tanks with free water from a local. Again I wish for a water maker or at least a water filter as this local water comes with floaty bits which don’t make it very appealing! We stocked up on food from the local markets and chatted to other yachties about various anchorages and routes ahead. Rene took me to the local hot springs and we swam about in the sulphuric water pools amongst green forest. I much prefer to visit hot springs in a cold climate as it just doesn’t feel right to get in hot water when it’s 30 degrees and humid!! 
Rene LOVES hot springs!
The peddlers who had initially seemed easy to deal with became more annoying with each visit to the shore. As soon as the dinghy touched the sand, a bunch of them would be at our side talking to us, asking questions and trying to sell their stuff. If they walked away, others would replace them! This is a list of stuff we were offered:
-       large shells
-       pearls necklaces and earrings
-       fresh fruit (held in bowls carried on women’s heads)
-       chess sets
-       carved wooden dolphins
-       sarongs
-       massages
-       coconut oil
-       tours
-       motorbike rides
-       cheap bracelets
-       laundry
-       pens and books
This kind of selling is annoying because it’s inescapable. We succumbed to a few of the sellers over the 2 weeks in Bali and were probably ripped off, despite their assurances that we were getting a ‘special price’.

We finally set off for Kumai and I was a little daunted at the number of miles this journey entailed – over 400 nautical miles. This time we settled on a rhythm of four-hourly watches with Rene having 1200-1600, 2000-0000 and 0400-0800 while I had 0000-0400, 0800-1200 and 1600-2000. It worked out pretty well after the first night during which we both found it difficult to sleep in our off times.
The FAD’s (Fish Attraction Devices) continued from Bali for 20 miles out to sea, as did our mobile phone reception! It was cool to chat to Rene’s brother and sister in law whilst watching small whales frolic in the calm waters.

Our course took us between two large reefs in the middle of the night. I noticed, as we motored through (at this stage, we still had no wind) that under the water was full of large balls of pulsating lights about the size of beach balls and all beating to the same rhythm. Were they jellyfish or squids or aliens? Any ideas?
On another night I saw a shooting star (or piece of space junk) that was so bright it made me look up to see it burning its way in through our atmosphere.

The journey was frustratingly slow with very little wind for most of it. We drifted along in the light winds (thankfully the current was with us) with the spinnaker and headsail out wing-and-wing (sometimes barely filling with wind). I was annoyed but then realized that I’d have to deal with it because we simply didn’t have sufficient diesel to motor the whole way!

We left Bali alone and I found the solitude at sea challenging as usual. Rene helped out by playing Scrabble and Chinese Checkers with me but I much prefer to sail in company with other yachts. I read ‘Singpura’ by Christopher Nicole and Rene listened to a series of lectures on his Kindle about world economics.

We did have plenty of other company - there were loads more big and little ships in the Java sea. On one count, I could see 24 individual lights around us at varying distances. Our AIS is proving valuable here but not all ships show up! One day, a local boat motored right up to us, Rene had to quickly start the engine and surge forward to avoid us being hit as the local boat veered off at the last second. This close encounter got our adrenaline pumping as did another that night.

By the third night, I was sleeping well during my times off watch. At midnight Rene woke me for my turn on deck with ‘Love, there’s a cup of tea on the stove for you’. It’s much easier to start a night watch with a hot mug of caffeinated liquid – even if it is a balmy night. There are so many ships about, anchored in the shallow waters (40 to 60 metres is the usual depth of the Java sea). At night these ships show up as glowing white areas of light when over the horizon and as very bright lights when closer.

Having so many lights to have to navigate around keeps it interesting and at least there is something more than the stars to look at. While doing a routine scan of our surroundings with the binoculars that night, I stopped short when my eyes fell upon a large, black lumpy shape about 1Km away. The lumpy mass looked alarmingly like an island – an uncharted one! I quickly started steering us more to port, away from this dangerous lump and simultaneously switched on our chart plotter (to double check there was indeed no island) and depth sounder (to check we weren’t about to hit the bottom). Of course, the chart plotter didn’t boot up right away and the depth sounder sounded its shallow water alarm showing a depth of 1.7 metres!!

I panicked a bit but not totally because our depth sounder is often a little trigger happy but I cursed loudly enough to wake Rene and for him to realise he was required! Meanwhile, despite me steering away, the ‘island’ loomed ever closer. Through binoculars I could see it had a tiny, dull light atop and what looked like crashing waves around it. Fearing fringing reef, I got Ren to start up the engine and turned the wheel 90 degrees hard to port. I was feeling quite stressed now, because in addition to this island, there was now also a large ship that was heading right for us. It played its spotlight over us repeatedly as I tried to steer in such a way as to minimize damage to our Spinnaker (which was backed into the rigging) and to communicate clearly to the ship our intended course.

As I was busy with this, Rene methodically worked through the problems (he is amazingly calm-headed in any stressful situation!). He got the chart plotter working and saw there were no dangers marked anywhere nearby. He got the depth sounder to behave and saw we were in 50 metres of water. He radioed the ship to ask its intentions (they didn’t reply). By this stage I was noticing that the island still looked the same distance away. Rene noticed that the big ship looked like a tug boat. It dawned on us that maybe the island was being pulled by the tug? How could it be? The island was huge (at least 200 metres long and 60+ high) and so far away from the tug (and lying in a different direction). A broken Bahasa Indonesia/English radio conversation between the tug and Rene confirmed its direction and that yes, it was pulling that thing!

I now made a course to head back and around behind the floating island as the tug continued to blind us with his powerful spotlight. Our spotlight didn’t even get close! What a dangerous tug driver!! Pulling a much-too-big load at night, basically unlit on a ridiculously long line!! We were heading right for this invisible line when I first saw the dark mass against the lit horizon from those anchored fishing vessels. This experience made me wish for a radar – maybe we would have realized sooner what was going on. There were some hairy moments there, filled with questions and confusion. I don’t really like the Java sea!!

We were spotlighted at night by big ships about half a dozen times. I’m not sure why, whether it is to let us know that they know we are there or to warn us of their presence (as if we didn’t already see them!). The most crazy of these ships was one that was pumping loud electronic music and had multi-coloured lights all over it. What a party!

The local’s use the VHF radio channel 16 (meant to be an emergency channel) for endless chatter, singing, music, whistling and silly noises that go on 24 hours a day! We end up turning our radio right down to block them out – but don’t like to because it is the emergency channel!

On the fourth day we finally start to get some decent breeze and to sail at speeds above 3 knots! We cover more miles than we’d planned to and so end up making landfall at night – not a thing I like at all. We sailed up to the shallow water of about 5 metres and then traced along the edge of this to find the deeper area leading us into a temporary night anchorage. We’d been sailing downwind for 4 days and 3 nights and had two portholes open for air circulation down below. Neither of us thought to close them until it was too late when Rene took us on a beam reach and two big waves splashed right inside. The water went everywhere and I was made busy with towels to try and mop up as much as possible. We’re still finding water in the bilges now (2 days later).

We sailed (and then motored) for ages and were still an hour off the waypoint we had from some old cruising notes when a local boat spotlighted us and we decided to anchor there and then. It was a rolly spot, 20 miles offshore and in 10 metres of water but it was safe enough. Ironically we got more sleep while on passage than we did that night at anchor!!

Early next morning we began the 40 mile journey up the Kumai river to where the Orangutan tours depart from. We used a series of waypoints from 101 Anchorages and found them to be mostly accurate. Rene was annoyingly purist and managed to sail for most of the way. I wanted to just turn on the motor and get there quickly!! Eventually we did arrive and found the town of Kumai to look quite strange. The city seems to be made of tall, grey cement buildings with no windows! There are millions of birds and many huge ships. We just missed the Sail Indonesia events (again!) and our friends left just an hour after we arrived. It’s incredibly hot and steamy here – I got heat rash on my arm just from doing the washing up! Rene went ashore and organized our Orangutan tour while I wrote this and melted!!

Apologies for the lack of photos for this post – but most of what happened was not able to be captured with my little camera. I promise lots of pictures for the next post which will detail our experience with the Orangutans.

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