We left Tawau under no illusion that we had a difficult voyage ahead of us. Our intended destination was Darwin in northern Australia, meaning that we’d have to make our way through the remote undeveloped islands of eastern Indonesia. A number of sailors who’d based themselves in Borneo, especially the Australian sailboats, warned there was no infrastructure in Indonesia to cater for independent sailing vessels making their own way. The Aussies, New Zealanders and occasional American boats came up through Indonesia on the organised annual Australia to Singapore rally from Cairns to Thailand, we ourselves have no experience or desire to participate in these type of fleet rallies. This rally’s main port of call in Indonesia is the touristic island of Bali, we’d been advised to avoid Bali at all costs. Searching the internet for information, I came across the blog notes uploaded three years before by the New Zealand vessel Carillon. The more I read, the more I realised this husband and wife crew had made detailed surveys of their own route south to Darwin when returning to their home country New Zealand. This was all uploaded online. One more exciting consideration was that my daughter Lauren and partner Dan were backpacking through Bali, they could arrange to get to wherever we decided to enter through an Indonesian port of entry, it would then be easy enough for them to sail south with us through the country and it’s hundreds of islands. It would be extremely nice to be joined by Lauren & Dan, they were both experienced travellers and Lauren had sailed with us a number of times before, notably in the Mediterranean, Thailand and Malaysia.
On Neil’s recommendations, we headed almost straight southeast through the southern Sulu Sea, four-hundred and fifty sea miles to the port of Bitung on the northern tip of the island of Sulawesi. First, around fifty miles from Tawau, we anchored off the dive resort island of Mabul for two nights, primarily to refill our three scuba tanks with air and also to sample the reputed food in their restaurants. From Mabul we expected the voyage to take three days, but light winds made it nearly five. We were relying upon the remnants of the north pacific trades, the winds became more fickle the nearer we came to the equator. We did not know what to expect from the immigration officials in Bitung, we were supposed to get visas in Borneo before we arrived in Indonesia, three times we visited the Indonesian consulate back in Tawau, every time it was closed. Locals told us we did not need visas, we didn’t believe them – in any event we departed Tawau without Indonesian visas in our passports. What would happen when we arrived in Bitung?
Bitung was not what we expected. The port was full of big bulk carriers and fishing vessels, we entered in the dark, negotiating our way through scores of anchored cargo ships, many of them rusting hulks and almost all of them Chinese. The entry to Bitung was a long channel between the main island and a smaller island to our port side, it was pitch dark with many of the channel buoys unlit, their navigation lights not working. We had no navigational information except our electronic charts and an old Admiralty paper chart given to us by an Australian boat in Kudat, we had to ‘feel’ our way southward down the channel using our depth sounder and radar, we had no real idea where the main port was or the town itself – also, finding a suitable depth to drop our anchor in the dark was proving to be a real problem, the depths were fine for large cargo vessels but not for a small boat such as ourselves carrying far less anchor chain. Eventually, after poking around the port anchorage for nearly four hours, our depth sounder registered a depth of around twenty metres or so on a small isolated bank or something and, in the growing morning twilight, we dropped anchor. We estimated that we were perhaps two miles or so from where we thought the main town would be, but the nearer we got to where civilisation seemed to be concentrated, the deeper the water became. We had no choice, this was our only anchoring opportunity even though it was precarious and still relatively deep. This was it.
In the growing light we could see that Bitung was not a pretty place. It was dirty, highly commercialised and especially run down, furthermore we did not yet know what reception we would get from the port officials, or indeed where the authorities were even located. We made morning tea, ate some breakfast, gathered together all our documents then launched our inflatable dinghy. We would look a weird sight pitching up in our dinghy out of nowhere but we had no choice. By now there was growing small boat traffic, local fishermen and locals going about their early morning business. We were clearly causing a stir, a number of small skiffs came alongside as we careered down the channel towards the town – it was easily a two mile ride, we didn’t really know where we were heading, we were in a strange port with no local money and if the water got rough for some reason then our dinghy was quite a precarious place to be. Also, we were there in Indonesia unofficially, without visas in a small inflatable dinghy, we had left Sänna alone to her own devices. A small skiff came alongside us, three rough looking local guys shouted across to us – one spoke English. He asked what we were doing there, where had we come from and where were we going? I was reluctant to answer, these men were clearly undesirables looking to rob us or cause us harm. In actual fact he turned out to be the harbourmaster, he’d been told there was a strange looking yacht anchored in the harbour approach with two weird westerners mucking about in a small inflatable boat looking lost. He’d come out to investigate. Marie explained who we were and that we were looking for the port, the harbourmaster and immigration. He smiled an extremely friendly smile, telling us to follow him. Wearing no uniform or mark of authority, he could have been anyone but we figured that we had no choice – we’d entered many foreign ports in our time, we’d developing instincts for what might be right.
The skiff led us to a small, packed landing dock that seemed to be a dilapidated building with dozens and dozens of tied up skiffs – small elongated and narrow boats with long extended outboard engines common throughout southeast Asia. They could hold about a half-dozen or so people, some of the longer ones a few more. The skiff we were following pushed its way through the myriad of boats to the main dock, a precarious landing point to say the least. A large crowd quickly gathered as I gave our painter line to a young boy who tied it to a post. We climbed out the dinghy to get ashore, so far so good, we’d made it this far. The man who spoke English came to us, only at this point did he explain that he was the harbourmaster, he asked if there was anything we needed. Our first course of action when arriving in a new country is always local money – the harbourmaster took us to a shady looking character sitting on a bench, he turned out to be a moneylender who could exchange any currency we wished to trade. We always carried US dollars for this eventually, the moneylender was more than happy to oblige – afterwards the harbourmaster explained that we’d received an extremely good rate of exchange. So far, so good.
Next, the harbourmaster led us to the office for immigration & customs, a ten minute walk through the bustling rundown town. The building was unimposing, nothing special with the Indonesian flag hanging outside, we would never have found it ourselves. He took us into an office with two young looking guys in pristine white uniforms sitting behind desks, the harbourmaster explained who were then told us this was the immigration office – customs and quarantine would come later, then we were to return to him to receive our vessel permits. We thanked him with all our hearts, he shook our hands with deep meaning and obvious friendship – but what would happen now with immigration? Well, the first thing we got was coffee laced with condensed milk, some local cakes and sweet biscuits. Both immigration officers spoke excellent English, they were extremely excited that we’d turned up out-of-the-blue, they usually only dealt with Chinese and Philippine cargo ship crews – an English couple appearing from nowhere was a complete novelty and totally unexpected, they asked if we’d had breakfast. They introduced themselves as Muhammad and Musa, they asked to see our passports and entry visas, I explained that we’d been unable to obtain visas prior to arrival telling them about the closed Indonesian consulate in Tawau. Musa said that it was a legal requirement to have approved visas before arriving – but that it wasn’t a problem because he could give us visas there and then – but apologised, saying they would need to be completed by hand instead of printed. Muhammad then spent a good half-hour handwriting two visas in English before inserting them in our passports. Now we were legal. Then they both took us up two flights of stairs to the customs office – with more tea and cakes. We sat talking to the three customs officials, along with with Muhammad and Musa for a good hour, not once did they ask any official questions, it was mainly football (soccer to you yanks), England, their families, our families – they signed, stamped and issued customs declaration forms whilst we looked at photos of their wives and kids. Next it was quarantine and vessel health, normally this entails a vessel inspection but not every time, this time our main problem was the Quarantine officials were about half-an-hour across town – no problem, Muhammad said they could take us on their scooters so I rode with Musa whilst Marie sat pillion with Muhammad, it was a hair-raising ride through the traffic but we arrived safely. The officials said they didn’t need to inspect Sänna on anchor, would we like coffee and Indonesian cakes instead?
In the meantime, I messaged Lauren to say we’d arrived in Bitung in Sulawesi. She messaged back to say they could get a local flight from Bali to Manado on the western side of Sulawesi in two days time, they could meet us in Bitung. This was fine. Muhammad and Musa then took us back to the harbourmaster on the back of their scooters, we received our vessel CAIT clearance documents plus a personal letter of safe passage for us to take through the Indonesian islands with us – the harbourmaster said we would need it, many of the island authorities ran their own regimes and applied laws in different ways. Muhammad asked if there was anything we needed, I said diesel fuel and food supplies were our main requirement and that I needed to find a way for my daughter to get to Bitung from Manado airport, which was nearly a hundred kilometres away. Firstly, Muhammad said he would arrange for diesel and food to be delivered to Sänna direct, Marie gave him a list of food items which he said we could pay the skiff pilot for when it arrived to Sänna. Then he said that he and Musa would take their official car to Manado to collect Lauren and Dan. We were gobsmacked, By early afternoon, we were all official, dieseled up and restocked – but we still had the two mile dinghy ride to the landing terminal whenever we went into town. By this time Jamaal was our ‘official’ dinghy boy, we gave him a US dollar each time to tie up and look after our dinghy. Muhammad gave us one last piece of advice – like the Philippines, he said, be careful when buying eggs in Indonesia, Balut is a much favoured local delicacy – these eggs contain the fully grown about-to-hatch embryo of the chicken inside but on the outside they looked like normal yolked eggs. Also, many local restaurants in Sulawesi served up dog as a local dish.
Lauren and Dan arrived the next day – but their luggage did not, it was still in Bali. It was expected the next day but that meant another long ride to the airport to collect it – not an easy solution to a really irritating problem. Not to worry, said Muhammad, Musa would drive to the airport to collect their luggage direct from the terminal processing office. This was immigration service to the absolute extreme – and it worked. Three days later, with Lauren & Dan onboard safely with their luggage, we said goodbye to Bitung, to our friends Muhammad and Musa too to head south. Our plan was to ultimately head for the island of Ambon through the numerous archipelagos and islands that make up Indonesia. Lauren & Dan planned to spend around ten days with us before continuing with their own travels. First, we headed across flat-calm seas to the island of Bacan, which took us over the equator from the northern hemisphere into the southern hemisphere, the first time for Marie and myself, but not for Lauren & Dan. We celebrated in the middle of the night with fizzy wine and cold beer, then sailed on to spend a few days in the wonderful anchorages found all over Bacan. None of the anchorages were charted particularly well but with the invaluable help of Carillon’s excellent navigation notes we found good depths and strong holding. This was remote stuff, we saw no one, only the occasional dug-out canoe used by local fishermen to cast their nets.
We had been warned back in Bitung that in more remote regions of the islands, locals traditionally viewed dwellings open to anyone, there was no concept of privacy or home ownership. Consequently, we were told to expect locals to climb onboard uninvited who would then just wander around to take a look. They meant no threat or harm, it was just curiosity and the Indonesian Muslim tradition of welcoming a visitor into the place where you live. Dan woke me early one morning while anchored off Bacan to say there was an indigenous Indian guy sitting in Sänna’s cockpit – I jumped out of bed with Marie close behind. Lauren was already up trying to talk to our visitor, who just sat there with a pleasant smile etched permanently upon his face. I tried to ask what he wanted but he spoke no English, we offered him food, coffee and water but he declined everything we put in front of him. He nodded and smiled whenever we made conversation, in the end we just left him to it. He sat there in the same spot for nearly five hours with his little wooden canoe tied off the Sänna’s stern. One moment, during the early afternoon, he smiled once more, stood up and left, no word of goodbye or thanks, not even a wave. He just paddled off towards the fishing village we could see in the distance.
From Bacan we headed across the straits to the island of Mandioli, again using the cruising notes of Carillon. There were two anchorages they’d used, both first class, well protected, uninhabited and remote. We stayed nearly a week there, fishing and poking around the jungle inlets in our dinghy having a fine time – this was quality time with my daughter and her husband to be. In the evenings we ate god knows what fish that Dan had caught, drank wine and talked about their travels around Africa. Lauren & Dan had met working for an overland adventure travel company following Lauren’s two year stint as a tour guide on the trans-Siberia rail express, her fluent Chinese and Russian the main reason for her employment. They could travel anywhere and take anything, they said, but nothing prepared them for Ambon. They’d not seen anything like Ambon, even Marie and I were shocked when we saw Ambon.
Ambon is a long established port in the south of the island from which it takes its name, the island being the centre of the spice trade established by the Portuguese during the seventeenth century – then taken in turn by force by the Dutch, English and Japanese at various times in history. Nutmeg was the extremely valuable commodity that drove maritime nations to fight it out in their old sailing ships, the English and the Dutch explored much of the pacific and beyond in the belief that undiscovered sea routes lay outside the control of the Portuguese who were exceptionally secretive over the exact location of their spice-laden paradise. In any event, Ambon was always a rat and plague infested seaport, the death rate amongst seamen and European settlers was phenomenal – especially when those dying from the age-old curse of scurvy were added into the mix. Little has changed, Ambon today is a dirty rundown port – we arrived in the mid-afternoon then once more spent nearly two hours searching for a suitable depth to anchor among more rusting cargo hulks. We tried calling up the harbourmaster on channel sixteen but received no answer. Our charts showed shallower depths towards the inner section of the port, we headed there to drop anchor exhausted – only to be immediately moved on by an Indonesian navel launch that shot out of nowhere to warn us that we were in a restricted area. They told us to move to the main port located further out, we pointed out that depths there were nearly sixty metres, way too deep for the amount of anchor chain we carried. They ignored our pleas, telling us this was where we must anchor and, when we were anchored, they would come aboard to inspect our vessel and paperwork.
The navy followed us to their designated location then sped off, there was no possibility of anchoring where they said, so when they left we promptly turned around to head back to where they had instructed us to move from, it was the only safe depth to drop anchor. The navy launch immediately returned, this time they asked to see our CAIT permit and passports. I passed all of these to their officer in charge together with the letter of safe passage we’d received from Muhammad back in Bitung. This time the navy seemed fine, they stamped our CAIT then sped off. By this time it was dark, there was the horrible stink of sewerage from somewhere but even so we rustled up dinner. The next morning, at first light, Dan once more woke me to say there was a sewer outlet pipe less than fifty metres off our port side, it was dribbling raw effluent directly into the harbour. In any event, we launched the dinghy – we had to show our documents to the harbourmaster onshore. We were directed to a landing point by a local skiff pilot, it was a pitiful site when we arrived there. There was a landing dock but the tide was out, we had to wade through stinking mud saturated with dead fish, uncountable layers of dumped refuge bags, orange plastic carrier bags and the ubiquitous blue plastic water bags that were littered everywhere. It stank awful – our bare feet were horridly coated in this shit. Once ashore, a young boy led us to a water tap to clean our feet, it seemed to make little difference. Nevertheless, we cleaned up and made our way into town.
Dan spotted a chicken restaurant, it didn’t look particularly salubrious but we were hungry. The food turned out to be delicious, we then realised we could eat well for less than a dollar each – Ambon suddenly began to appeal. Later in the afternoon we returned to Sänna by wading back through the horrible mire to our dinghy, which by now was covered in the same muddy grime which now stank to eye-watering levels. Early evening Lauren & Dan decided to take a look around the town, just the two of them to spend some time together – but neither of them fancied the trek through the shit of the landing dock so I offered to transport them in the dinghy to the rocky breakwater, then collect them later – they would call on the hand-held VHF. Landing the pair of them on the rock wall was fairly straightforward, they then climbed the rocks, then over a small fence onto the road. Later, in the dark, I returned to bring them back to Sänna but Dan was not in a good mood – it turned out that many locals, due to the lack of any public toilets or sanitation, simply climbed the same fence onto the rocky breakwater to defecate or urinate as they saw fit – this was the horrible excrement smell I’d noticed when dropping them off and collecting them. They both showered and cleaned themselves thoroughly when they came back onboard. After four days anchored in Ambon we’d had enough.
We had always planned to leave Indonesia through the port of Ambon, it was a recognised port of entry and departure and our best exit point for Darwin in northern Australia. The route straight south by southeast was around five-hundred and fifty miles across the Banda Sea, we could break the voyage in half by stopping in the Tanimbar Islands before crossing the Arafura Sea that divides Australia from southern Indonesia. We had originally planned to head eastwards to Papua New Guinea, then to Darwin or Gove in the Northern Territories but by now we were running out of time. We were well into November, we were both keen to return to England for Christmas – we had an important wedding to attend – our own. Lauren & Dan decided to fly out of Ambon back to Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia located on the island of Java. So we said our goodbyes in Ambon, I ferried them and their luggage ashore via the toilet latrine rocks close by, they picked their way through various mounds of dubious looking piles of something or other before stopping a local rickshaw taxi. We ourselves made our way through the landing dock mud to the harbourmaster who processed our exit CAIT in an efficient and friendly manner – then we completed customs and immigration. We were ready to leave.
First we needed to get a weather forecast. The Banda Sea is often beset with calm winds, we expected to motor most of the first two-hundred and fifty miles or so to the Tanimbars where we might need to call to replenish our diesel supply before making for Darwin. The harbourmaster in Ambon arranged for a fuel barge to come alongside us in Ambon harbour to fill up, but we still wouldn’t have enough fuel range to get all the way to Darwin – everything depended upon weather and wind conditions in the Arafura Sea beyond the Tanimbars, there we would have another three hundred miles or so of potentially severe sea conditions if we did not time the weather right. The full force of the pacific trade winds blow through the Torres Straits, the most northerly tip of Australia and southern Papua New Guinea, these winds then rip westward across the Arafura Sea creating seas that are not to be sniffed at. Every now and then a blocking high pressure ridge forms to the east of the Torres Straits which then blocks the trade winds that would be blowing across our beam – we did not relish crossing the Arafura Sea beam abreast of high storm waves, nor did we wish to encounter any early season hurricanes that often form in the Gulf of Carpenteria. The latest wind forecast was vital to our departure. The Ambon harbourmaster gave us a long-term synopsis, from this we could see the blocking high that might or might possibly not form during the next five days. We decided to depart Ambon then make a final decision when approaching the Tanimbars – the harbourmaster said we could call him on the SSB radio so that he could keep us updated. This was a good plan.
Our first two days and nights on our by now temperamental volvo engine went ok, but we learned on the radio that we could not stop in the Tanimbars for fuel because we’d already checked out of Indonesia. We could have bluffed it but the forecast for the Arafura Sea looked good, enough wind to sail on a beam reach but not too much to cause problems, so we passed between the islands of Tanimbar and Pulau Masela in the dead of night. If we could make our way under sail from this point for the two hundred and thirty miles to a point west of Australia’s Melville Island north of Darwin then we would have sufficient fuel to make the last ninety miles into Darwin should there be no wind in the lee of Melville Island. This is pretty much how it worked out, we estimated six days to make the passage from Ambon to Darwin but on the fifth day we were to the west of Melville, we should be off Darwin by early light of the sixth day. Two hundred miles north of Melville Island we were overflown by an Australian coastguard aircraft who made contact with us on the VHF – they required our vessel identification, the identities of all crew onboard, our intended destination and estimated hour of arrival. We had already secured our Australian entry visas online, we’d also provided the minimum forty-eight hours notice of maritime arrival – but Australia is overly cautious about illegal immigration from Asia – in fact, Australia is overly cautious about everything, which we were pretty soon to find out. Early the next morning, the same aircraft visited us once more and asked the same questions although this time they called us by our vessel name. Marie told them our details hadn’t changed, they were exactly the same as the previous day – and Marie learned that Australian officialdom is seriously devoid of any sense of humour, also the friendliness found in Indonesia and Borneo. The next morning, as we approached Darwin with our engine blowing exhaust smoke at obscene levels, we were overflown by the same aircraft again asking for details of persons onboard. This time Marie talked more conciliatory on the radio – it might well be that we’d need a tow into Darwin harbour.
Australia was a fantastic sight. It’s redness in the early morning light was incredible, by now it really began to hit that we’d pretty much sailed halfway around the world. We hugged each other in congratulations, still trying to take in that it was Australia sitting there before our eyes. Our volvo engine kept going, we made our way to drop anchor in Fannie Bay to await the vigorously infamous Australian customs and immigration. Marie called them up on the VHF to notify them of our arrival, we were instructed to make for the customs dock towards the entrance of Cullen Bay marina.
Customs, immigration and health quarantine were not straightforward. First, our passports were rigorously checked – I pointed out that we were from the UK, technically their mother country that shared our queen. This cut no ice. Our visas were verified, we thought that was it – until the health and customs officials came onboard. First, quarantine said that all wood based artefacts and souvenirs we’d brought along from Borneo, the Philippines and Indonesia would be confiscated. They mostly went into a black rubbish bag they’d brought along but they allowed us to keep statuettes we told them were from the Mediterranean – we lied, they were from Palawan in the Philippines, they were cheap and nasty but we treasured them. But every piece of timber I kept onboard for emergency repair work was taken away. Next went all our meat produce from our fridge, along with eggs, fruit and vegetables, we were left with nothing fresh. Then, we were told, their specialist divers would be sent under our hull to inject pesticides into each of our seawater intakes for the engine, generator, watermaker, toilets and sinks. This was to kill unwanted pests we might have brought with is us from the rest of the world. We would then have to remain in our present secure location for fifteen hours whilst these chemicals had the desired affect, in the meantime all seawater intakes had to remain closed. There were two scuba divers in Australian official regulation gear, one to inject the chemicals, the other armed to protect the first diver from the enormous hungry crocodiles that infest Darwin waters. A third diver also went into the water to take samples of our hull antifouling bottom paint, they were looking for recently banned copper content – the copper used in antifouling for many a long year for keeping down marine growth on the underside of vessel hulls was now deemed to be dangerous to all Australian marine life. God knows what would have been the consequences if they’d found copper in our paint. However, Neil in Borneo had forewarned us of these Australian regulations, we’d specified copper-free antifouling paint back in Kudat when we’d hauled out in the Chinese boatyard – which was why our hull was already badly fouled – because environmentally friendly copper-free antifouling doesn’t work.
During our fifteen hour wait, the young health official was required to remain onboard with us, presumably to ensure we didn’t sneak off somewhere. During this time all three of us listened to live cricket on our radio, this particular year was the ashes test between bitter rivals Australia and England. England were resoundly beating the Australians in the five-match series, a fact that ensured the open hostility of the health official who stayed with us onboard. Neither Marie nor myself could hide our extreme satisfaction each time another Australian wicket fell to Ian Botham, who then went on to destroy the Aussies in a famous batting innings still talked about many years later.
Then we were free to leave, we could go ashore. We had no fresh food, everything had been confiscated, nor did we have any Australian dollars to buy anything. Marie decided to wander off, find an ATM to get money, then visit a takeaway so that we could eat. An hour later she returned with two packaged meals of burgers and chips – which were awful. Then she told me she’d taken money to the value of nearly forty English quids from the ATM – then spent the whole lot on these two meals of burgers & chips. We were both gobsmacked – no way could the cost of living be this high? It turned out that it was – this was not Indonesia or the Philippines, where the same meal would have cost less than two quid. From the customs dock we made our way to the Tipperary Waters marina where we had secured a berth to leave Sänna for a few weeks, first we had to navigate into the lock entry systems all the marinas and harbours in Darwin use – the tide range in the Darwin region are the highest in the world, nearly eight metres was predicted at the next tide. Traversing the lock entrance, the lock-master made us stop and wait between the two lock doors, pointing to an object in the water right behind us – a huge five metre crocodile, a monster, was attempting to enter the marina and residential quarters alongside us – our introduction to the myriad of life in Australian waters that are lethal to the human race.
But we quickly grew to love Darwin. This most northerly Australian town is located on the verge of real Australian bush country, the outback survival mentality found in Darwin and its locality is awesome. Darwin attracts the rough rednecks, the tough cookies of Australian society, we in no time grew to respect them enormously. Some of the characters we met in the harbours were memorable, especially the drunken night we spent with a guy we only knew as Rabbit. We could also get our volva penta removed, overhauled and rebuilt and new sails made, in fact we could pretty much get any work done we needed to extremely good standards – at a price.
Two weeks later we flew out of Darwin back to England. Christmas and our long overdue wedding.
Dave – Cairns, Australia 2011.
In memory of Robert Skaane, Tom Gisle Bellika and Leonard Banks, crew of the Norwegian yacht Berserk, missing presumed lost, Antarctica, February 2011.
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