Monday, October 21, 2013

Bintan Island

The freighter traffic was getting heavy as we made our way north though Selat Riau, the wide channel that works it way towards Singapore.  Our guide book  mentioned an anchorage that sounded promising and we were just about to pull in when a very dark thunderhead threatened to turn loose on us.  The anchorage turned out to be awful so we headed back south and found a very secure spot just to the east of Raja Island.  After a very comfortable night, we got underway the next morning for what was to be our final leg with Sail Indonesia, a luxury resort on the north side of Bintan Island.

As we were dodging the massive freighters that were anchored, another very dark thunderstorm was forming to the west and soon the wind was up to the low 30s.  It didn’t take long for a decent-sized swell to develop but the rain associated with the storm was relatively mild.

The route I had plotted on the chart plotter took us over an area that had about 35 feet of water, more than enough for Rutea’s 6’6” draft but still relatively shallow compared to the water surrounding us.  I wasn’t worried about it but I still kept a watchful eye on the depth sounder.  What was more of a concern was the enormous amounts of trash in the water.

The wind had dropped to about 10 knots and with just the genoa out, we put the engine on to keep our speed up.  With a sudden jarring and loud banging from the hull, Rutea almost came to a complete stop.  “We’ve run aground,” I shouted and shifted the engine into neutral but a quick check of the depth sounder said we were still had 35 feet of water under the keel.  Perhaps we had just picked up something on the prop so I tried reverse but the noise that came from the engine/transmission indicated that something was seriously wrong.  I tried to do a logical diagnosis of the problem and I became suspicious of the transmission.  A quick inspection didn’t reveal anything obvious or conclusive.  Ruthie suggested I look over the transom and see if we were trailing anything.

The answer was very plain and very troubling.  Sticking out about four feet from under Rutea’s hull and transom were four large timbers, each one measuring about 6” by 8”.  The ends of the timbers were rounded from wear but the wood was still very sound.  I could see a threaded rod, measuring about ¾” in diameter that was keeping the timbers together.  What I couldn’t see was the end of the timbers that were still under the boat.

We furled the genoa and threw a long polypropylene line in the water, something for me to hang onto when I was in the water.  There was enough wind that even with the sails furled, Rutea was still moving at about 1 knot per hour and can’t I swim that fast.  Once in the water with my facemask on, I could see the whole story.  Four heavy timbers, probably twelve feet long each, held together with three four-foot lengths of threaded rod, were on either side of Rutea’s skeg and rudder, just inches away from her prop.  The seas were still rough enough that it would have been difficult if not impossible to remove the timbers where we were.  The wood still had enough buoyancy that I could stand on them and my weight didn’t make them sink appreciably.  I decided that all we could do for the moment was sail into the anchorage, which was only a couple of miles away.  Running the engine was out of the question as it would have been far too easy for one of the timbers to shift right into the prop, easily ruining it.

We sailed into the anchorage, dropped the hook and I was in the water with a hacksaw a few minutes later.  It took about 15 minutes to saw through the threaded rod, one pair of timbers drifting away easily while the other pair was applying enough pressure on the rod that I still couldn’t free it.  I started to think about rigging blocks and tackle to attach to the whole mess when a final effort got the timbers free.

The whole episode now just seems like a bad dream.  The only damage I could see was where the threaded rod had worn away the gel coat and some of the fiberglass on the leading edge of the skeg, a repair that’s not too difficult to make once the boat is out of the water.  What I still can’t understand is how the timbers, two on each side, got to straddle the skeg and rudder.  If the whole mess had been floating, it would have struck the boat just below the waterline.  Why didn’t the timbers straddle the keel?  How did they get past the keel in the first place?

Alls well that ends well but this could have been a disaster.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Belitung Island to Bintan Island

We were relieved to get out of Kumai and delighted when we found enough wind to be able to fly the spinnaker for most of the afternoon. As evening set in, the wind died and the engine came on - it stayed on for most of the 300 miles we traveled to get to Belitung Island. A good percentage of the participants in Sail Indonesia were there when we arrived and it almost felt like a reunion. Our anchor set deeply in a good sand bottom which is always reassuring.

The beach was lined with warungs which is almost like a restaurant. Its usually a tin roof over some resin tables and chairs, the 'kitchen' is sometimes nothing more than a wood fire in the back. We have had some very good meals in some warungs but also some lousy ones. The cruisers all seem to gather at a particular one which meant the poor staff there was going crazy trying to fill the orders from the Demanding White People Who Don't Have Much Patience. At least they had a good inventory of cold Bintang beer, Indonesia's equivalent to America's Budweiser, so even if a cruiser had to wait an hour-and-a-half for his plate of nasi goreng (fried rice), he would have been kept quiet by pounding down a few of the 650-ml bottles.

Its easy to drink a lot of beer when its as hot as it is here. With daytime temperatures in the mid-90°F and humidity somewhere around 95%, any physical exercise more strenuous than drinking a beer will produce enough perspiration to completely soak through a t-shirt. It was close to midnight a couple of nights ago when the wind shifted so I decided to pole out the genoa; by the time I got back to the cockpit after just a few minutes of working on deck, I was in bad need of a shower. The benefit is that it makes the perfect excuse for procrastinating any project. All you have to do when work rears it's ugly head is say, "Its too hot." and everyone around will nod in agreement.

The small village we had anchored off of was just too small and didn't even have a small grocery store. A few boats got together and hired a small bus with a driver to take us into the nearest town - about 30 kilometers away - so we could do some provisioning. It was a bit of unusual luck when we discovered that the bus had air conditioning and we all sat feeling very regal as we watched people on their motorbikes struggling in the pouring rain. As it turns out, the joke was on us as we discovered that the entire town was shut down in observance of a Muslim holiday. Nothing was open and the streets were deserted. We found a few items in a convenience store but no produce to speak of and that had been our main objective.

We left Belitung the next day, hoping our meager supplies will see us to Singapore. Since we left Darwin we have covered 2,900 nautical miles and still have another 300 or so to go. By the time we get to Malaysia, its quite likely that our odometer will show over 20,000 miles sailed since we left San Diego.
At 10/17/2013 4:41 AM (utc) Rutea's position was 01°20.65'S 105°51.50'E

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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Tanjung Puting National Park

It was hard not to get impatient as we waited for the boat to take us up to the Tanjung Puting National Park.  First light happens at about 0400 and dawn is just before 0500, making it hard to sleep much past 0530.  The boat was supposed to pick us up at 0830 but it was closing in on 1000 by the time it showed up.  The 20-meter timber boat was expertly maneuvered along side Rutea, it’s single-cylinder diesel engine put-putting slowly as the captain used the river current to his advantage.  His docking skills were tested five more times as we picked up the crews of Atea, Inspiration Lady, Equanimity, Hokule’a and Solstice.  
Proboscis Monkey
Diesel-Flavored Cooking

The boat’s main deck was mostly covered and provided adequate shade from the very hot sun and kept us dry as it rained for most of our first day.  Below the main deck was the hold that barely had 4’ of head room and the cooks had to do all their work on their knees or squatting.  As we chugged up river, our guides, Joe, and his daughter, Febri, proved to be experts at spotting wildlife and were continuously pointing out crocodiles, monkeys and exotic birds.  

The water of the Sekonyer River was the color of coffee with too much milk in it and even though it got quite narrow in places, our guides told us it had 10 meters of depth.  It was still raining lightly was we stopped at our first station and we questioned our guides as to what kind of gear we should wear.  “Will there be any leeches?” “They only come out when its raining.”  “How bad will the mosquitoes be?”  “Bad.”  Undeterred, our 17-person entourage tramped up through the muddy trails in the Borneo rainforest in search of the almost-extinct orangutan.

The 415,000-hectare Tanjung Puting National Park is a sanctuary to protect not only the orangutans but also try to keep Borneo’s rainforest from being completely clear cut and transformed into palm tree plantations (for palm oil).  Feeding stations have been set up for orangutans that are being rehabilitated back into the wild, a practice that raises some controversy.  Our guide’s timing was perfect and we had no sooner arrived at one such station when one of the park’s staff showed up with a large sack of bananas.  Within a couple of minutes we could hear a major thrashing occurring deep in the jungle and seconds later we could see trees shaking and bending over as the orangutans made their way towards us.  A mother orangutan and her baby were swinging through the trees, climbing to the near tops and as the tree would bend under their weight, the orangutan would simply grab another tree and continue her progress, her baby holding on to her fur.  Often a branch would snap under her weight but she continued on, stopping from time to time.  Climbing up a tree appeared to be as effortless as climbing down, the strong fingers on their hind legs gripping as well as the fingers on their hands.  As they reached the feeding platform, you could see how expressive their faces are, even though they’re the least related to humans of all the great apes.

Mosquito Tent City

We were pretty well drenched with sweat and rain by the time we got back to the boat but our cameras were loaded with hundreds of precious photos.  The cooks brought out a big batch of hot banana fritters as a snack that would hopefully keep our hunger in check until dinner.  I was disappointed when dinner was served as not only was there very little to feed the 17 of us but I thought the food had a distinct diesel fuel flavor.  After dinner, we cast off again and made our way downstream in the fading light to a spot where fireflies are known to hang out.  As dusk turned into night, one tree in particular started glowing with millions of the bugs, sometimes their ‘lights’ blinking in unison.  Once we had returne to dock at the station, a big group of us played cards while the enormous bugs were drawn to the fluorescent lights.  The crew sat by until we were finished and then cleared the area for sleeping.  As the main deck was only big enough for about 6 people to sleep on, two other similarly-sized boats were brought in as sleeping stations.  The ‘mattresses’ were like lumpy tumbling mats but the individual mosquito nets promised to keep the malaria-carrying evil critters away if not providing any privacy.  It was kind of like a slumber party with Ruthie, Corie, Kyle and I sleeping right next to Jake and Jackie from Hokule’a, separated only by the thin gauze of the mosquito nets.  Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep as one of the crew sleeping below went into a coughing fit that lasted for hours.

Breakfast was horrible.  They served us scrambled eggs that had been sweetened and slices of white bread with too much melted ‘butter’ on it.  The coffee we made ourselves, dumping coffee that had been ground to a fine powder into a cup, pouring boiling water on it, waiting for the grounds to settle and then drinking it while trying to avoid getting a mouth full of grounds.  Someone saw the crew being served heaps of nasi goreng, the staple of fried rice and vegetables so we told our guides that that was what we wanted for breakfast the next day.

After the main deck was cleared of breakfast and the sleeping gear, we got underway again, making a turn onto the Sangai Sekoner Kecil where the water changed from it’s milky color to that of strong tea.  It was much narrower and seemed even more remote as the jungle towered over us.  We docked at Camp Leakey, a station named after the famous anthropologist and, almost as if waiting for us, sat a male orangutan, just a few feet away on the other side of the narrow river.  Things were becoming congested with other boats bringing tourists to the same spot, with the ‘raft up’ completely blocking any passage upstream.  As we were getting ready to make our way to the camp’s center, a crafty orangutan named Percy stealthily made his way onto one of the boats and stole a can of condensed milk off the table, the crew who was sitting only a few feet away oblivious until it was too late.

It was a small army of tourists who made their way into the camp that afternoon, dressed in full mosquito battle gear and armed with an expensive collection of long-lensed cameras.  As we were walking up the path, following right behind a mother orangutan and her baby, she grabbed the hands of the person to her right and to her left and with a powerful grasp, lifted herself off the ground, choosing to be carried to the feeding station rather than walking.  Many of us took turns carrying the 60-kilo ape and her baby; sometimes she would nibble on the hand that was carrying her.  This time the feeding station was crowded with orangutans and we were able to see some of the dynamics between their hierarchy.

Showers were offered once we were back on the boat and a steady stream of the cool river water provided a welcome respite to the steamy heat.  The boat was moved downstream for the night and we had another forgettable dinner.  The mattresses were just as uncomfortable as the night before and the nasi goreng in the morning still had the diesel-fuel flavoring.  We made our way to still another feeding station although this time dominating the platform was a large adult male which we hadn’t seen before.  There was no mistaking his wide cheeks, broad shoulders and huge pouch under his chin.
The King
After yet another lousy lunch, we began to make our way back to our respective boats.  Most of those in our group gushed with enthusiasm for the expedition although I am more reserved.  I am absolutely glad I did it but my expectations had been for a few more creature comforts, especially since I found out that we had paid a premium price and I know some of the other boats were better appointed than ours.   I suppose that if you’re an anthropologist, watching orangutans eat for hours is fascinating but it started to get boring for me.  Now that we’re back aboard Rutea, I am looking forward to getting underway and finding our next adventure.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Kumai, Kalimantan

The one consolation of being forced to motor any significant distance on Rutea is that usually the seas are flat and such was the case as we made our way north across the Java Sea.  The freighter traffic was pretty intense, though, and we had to dodge a lot of fishing boats as well.  One boat was paying out a net that was over 2.5 miles long.
Mei Goreng in the Making
 We deliberately timed our arrival at the mouth of the Kumai River to the beginning of a flood tide and even though we had to continue to dodge freighters, we were able to sail the entire twenty miles upstream to the town of Kumai.  Friends of ours had made arrangements with a tour operator and booked us a two-night, three-day passage on a boat that will take us to the Tanjung Puting National Park where orangutans live in their natural habitat.  It has been said that this is a safe place to leave the boat for a few days and we’re going to hope for the best.

Today we went into the town of Kumai and I think it is easily one of the ugliest towns I have ever seen.  Besides the typical dusty streets and the litter everywhere, this town has hundreds of tall concrete buildings that have no windows – they look like small prisons.  In fact, they’re nesting sites for swiflets who build their nests from their saliva.  Apparently, the Chinese have a fondness for Bird’s Nest Soup and a kilo of this tasteless, hardened bird spit can fetch up to US$3,000.  The buildings have loudspeakers on the roofs and play the swiftlet song, hoping to attract more birds.

Hold on to that power line!
Despite the usual trappings of a poor Third World town and the fact that its hot as hell and the power was out, we were able to find a decent plate of Mei Goreng (fried noodles and vegetables) for about US$1.00.  The market had a nice selection of fresh produce and we bought some beautiful fresh fish for slightly over US$2.00 per pound (take that, PLSF!).  We’re very excited about our trip to the deep, dark jungle of Borneo tomorrow and I promise a posting soon after we return.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Bali to Borneo

The beach that had once swarmed with hawkers, taxi drivers and vendors seemed deserted now, the stalls that had been crammed with trinkets, sarongs and batiks empty with only the ever-present litter left behind. Less than a dozen boats lay at anchor as the rest of the fleet had continued the journey west. After more than two weeks there, I was hoping that I'd remember to turn out the lights when we left.

With some cantankerous boat problems patched sufficiently enough to get us to the next boat yard - which is still a 1,000 miles away - we left Bali at 0400 with a promising forecast for 20-knot winds. Our course would take us between Palau Sapudi and Palau Raas where we thought we might spend the first evening. The wind never materialized and Rutea's diesel throbbed all day, finding us off Palau Raas in the early afternoon - too early to drop the hook so we pressed on, fighting to find a scrap of shade in the late afternoon to protect us from the intense sun. Finally, at around 2200, a light breeze filled in, enough to warrant shutting down the engine even if we had to change our course to a very broad reach. I had to maneuver though a huge fleet of fishing boats, their bright lights making the distance between us and them almost impossible to judge - they don't show up on radar. Corie came on watch at midnight and was able to just barely keep the wind in the sails by hand steering but once Ruthie came on watch at 0300, she was going to have none of that and started the engine. I made a vain attempt to get us sailing again by poling out the genoa but our Speed Over Ground continued to drop and the engine came back on.

After motoring for thirty-six hours, we have almost another thirty-six hours to go. A fresh batch of scones this morning helped the time go by and Ruthie has promised curry for dinner. Our iPad says that we've crossed into yet another time zone, now we're GMT +7 hours, the same time zone as Jakarta, Indonesia's capital city and a city we have no intention of visiting. We keep a sharp lookout for traffic as these waters are some of the busiest in world with ships heading for China and southeast Asia crossing our bow and stern constantly. The very bored Indonesian fishermen play on the VHF radio, making it almost impossible to listen to: They'll sing or make stupid noises or just hold the microphone up to a radio and leave it there, driving us nuts.
At 10/3/2013 8:05 AM (utc) Rutea's position was 05°09.90'S 112°53.66'E

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