Friday, November 19, 2010

Up the Straits of Malacca

Leaving One15Marina  in Singapore was cause for many regrets. We parted with friends  we won't see for entirely too long. The marina itself was over-the-top luxurious and very, very comfortable. Easy access to one of the great cities of the world was something we all enjoyed. 

We could have stayed for a long time. But the plan had always been to be home by the middle of November and we weren't willing to forgo the plan. Ergo, time to move on if we wanted to see some of Malaysia this year.
So we left about 0700 the 30th of October, cleared the customs boat and made our way through the incredible anchorages along the western approaches to Singapore. The number of cargo vessels at anchor, on the move to and from the cargo handling facilities or on the docks or the fuel facilities and refineries is hard to believe until it's been encountered. 

The facilities go on for miles and miles and miles. The paper nautical charts cannot keep up with the rate at which the Port of Singapore is filling in land around the port to create more cargo handling area. Our electronic charts seemed reasonably accurate. We really didn't clear the anchored shipping until well up into the Straits of Malacca. Our destination was Admiral Marina, Port Dickson, Malaysia about a hundred and fifty miles north. We had almost no wind and since the enroute shipping was still passing us at a steady stream we were motoring again rather than tack around in the shipping separation zone day and night. 
We stayed at the extreme eastern side or out of the separation zone to the east. Most shipping passed us well to port but there were barges under tow and local vessels with us on the east side as well as the ever present fishing craft. All in all keeping a "proper watch" meant REALLY keeping a proper watch and the radar and binoculars got a good work out day and night. We had one fast car carrier come up from dead astern and swing over to pass us on starboard. The relative speed differential worked out to 18.4 knots which means he was doing 25 knots. That's really moving for a civilian vessel, any large vessel.  Probably the reason he was out of the separation zone. We spoke to him on the way past and he was carrying cars to Port Klang, undoubtably meant for sale in Kuala Lumpur.

So we arrived at Admiral Marina just south of Port Dickson as planned. The marina was very nice although they are doing a lot of dock refurbishing and many slips do not have shore power at the present time. We enjoyed the nice marina facilities and went into Port Dickson to check through customs, etc, into Malaysia. 
Everyone was very sweet and the process was easy. We spent a couple days at the marina eating good Indian food nearby. The first impression of Malaysia is that it's an interesting in-between place. In between the modernity and flash of Singapore and the third world chaos and poverty of much of Indonesia. The population is largely Muslim but didn't seem particularly conservative. People were as friendly as they could be and very welcoming. There does seem to be an element of financial chaos. It's common to see a very elaborate resort or housing complex, obviously built at great expense with grandiose expectations, to be sitting pretty much unoccupied and looking run down after only a few years. I think the Malaysian 'boom' of a decade ago had a little problem. Of course, where else did that happen?

It was another over nighter up to Penang. And conditions were similar. Motored the entire trip. There was less shipping, especially after passing Port Klang, but more fishing activity and we're beginning to see a lot of Thai purse seiner type fishing craft. Penang is a big and modern city and has aspirations of becoming Singapore. It may just do that, it's a busy and happening place. We spent a few nights at the Tanjong City Marina at Georgetown which is the historic old part of the city. The marina is quite nice despite the nearby ferry terminal. 
It has a reputation for getting extremely rough during any kind of strong northerly wind but we never had those conditions and were very comfortable. The Georgetown area is fascinating, a combination of a large Little India, Chinatown and old colonial city. We ate, in my opinion, the very best Indian food I've ever eaten and I think Janet agrees. 

That weekend was the end of the Hindu New Year festival and Little India was packed until the actual 'day' itself. Then it was a ghost town. Hard to believe. Another 'hard to believe' was the noise level of the QE II bar near the marina on Friday night. It had not been a problem all week, no sound at all, but at 2300 on Friday they kicked in the disco and blasted the surrounding area until 0200. We were plenty uncomfortable on the boat a couple hundred yards away. How anybody inside the building could survive is beyond me.

The plan was to push off that morning for Langkawi. After that little serenade we left with no regrets on the 6th and, again, motored the sixty miles up to Langkawi in very calm conditions. We spent a night at the Royal Langkawi Yacht Club marina. It's a nice enough facility but considerable noise and chop from the ferry terminal nearby and a LOT of current when the tide is on the ebb. 
We checked into Langkawi, hit the Mac Donald's at the mall (yetch, but it had to be done) and were generally surprised by both the physical beauty of the islands and the level of development. There's considerable hustle and bustle around Kuah, the main town, big resorts, malls and the usual tourist support paraphernalia. We moved the boat over to Rebak Island the next day.

And Rebak is truly a lovely place. The island is owned by the Rebak Resort hotel which is part of the Indian Taj Hotel chain and is very much the posh property. The marina itself is sheltered by forested hills to the extent that it can't be seen until inside the entrance passage. 

The slips were destroyed by the big tsunami in 2006 but only one boat was lost and no one was injured. As a result the slips are new and very nice. The whole facility is very yacht friendly. The resort is open to yachts staying at the marina and the lovely pool and pool bar beside the nice beach in the quiet and beautifully landscaped resort makes for the kind of place the average yachtie can stay a long time. And that's exactly our plan.

We took a day trip over to Satun, Thailand to check out the Phithak Shipyard with Carl and Kathleen Cox, fellow Wauquiez sailboat owners. The shipyard was a friendly, busy place full of Thai fishing boats but also about half a dozen foreign yachts having major work done. We left very favorably impressed.

So here's the plan: We have left the boat in the water at Rebak Marina. I'll return in March to take the boat over to Satun and supervise the work we intend to have done. This will be at minimum removing the teak decks and having the deck glassed over and painted. We may have some interior teak work done. We may have salon cushions recovered. We may have galley counter tops replaced, etc, etc. This should take a month or two.

I'll return the boat to Langkawi and may return home for awhile or Janet may come out to travel around SE Asia. We will use the remainder of the year to enjoy SE Asia one way or another. Come January of 2012 we'll catch the monsoon across the Indian Ocean to Sri Lanka and India, then across the Arabian Sea and up the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. That's the long term plan. Stay tuned please.

So now we've been home a couple days. The jet lag is wearing off. We had great flights and a good trip home through Singapore and Tokyo. I spent a night at the Radisson International Hotel at Narita, Tokyo which has always been our layover hotel. Over the years with Northwest I  spent over 700 nights there and it's close to being a  home. Since we have about three hundred crew members there on any given night the chance of running into old friends is pretty good and I was not disappointed. Janet is delighted that our house sitter left the place so nice and clean and spiffy. We're both a little amazed to be back after the adventure over the past eight months.

We had a great season. The sailing up the east coast of Australia was very good. The reinforced trades blew as forecast and all we had to do was keep from hitting anything hard. The voyage across the top to Darwin was rough but fast and safe.

The sail up to Kupang was lovely. Indonesia was a cultural experience which will always influence our thinking and the places and people we got to know were unforgettable. Singapore continues to amaze us with it's capacity for growth and change. The cultural contrast between Indonesia one day and Singapore the next was difficult to comprehend and accept. Malaysia has been beautiful and friendly. We'll be back there and into Thailand and more of SE Asia next year.

So thank you for following the blog this year. We'd love to read your comments. We'll be back on again in a few months. For now Janet is eyeing her next move in the gardens and I'm working on shooting my age at golf. A 63 isn't likely right now. But every year I'm getting closer.

Love to all,
Bill & Janet
SV Airstream

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Interlude in Singapore

We've been in Singapore more than a week now. One15 Marina is going to be hard to leave. And the city itself has not disappointed us. I had pitched it to skeptical friends as one of the most modern and dynamic cities in the world. Our expectations have been exceeded.
I sit now in an deeply air conditioned bar/business center, having finished a good lunch, with a wide screen high definition TV on the wall and very fast free wireless internet. Outside is a posh marina surrounded by luxury condominiums, swimming pool, good gym, big 7/11, and several restaurants. Berths are quite reasonably priced. Beer and food is not. The marina has every convenience and the staff is as helpful and efficient could ever be hoped. The great city of Singapore is a few minutes away by clean, fast,  free, air conditioned bus.

And Indonesia is just across the straits! How can it be? The cultural disconnect is amazing, befuddling and difficult at first to comprehend. As much as we enjoyed our experience in Indonesia we are people of the modern affluent 1st world. We had pretty much gotten  used to  that other, 3rd world, reality. Logic has nothing to do with it of course. But it's strange to be back. Kind of like coming in from a few weeks in the bush to central heat, a soft bed, a hot shower and clean sheets.

The voyage up the Selat Riau at night was interesting. Several very large freighters were at anchor in the middle of the strait being serviced by lighters and loaded/unloaded into pretty darn big local freighters and it was hard to figure out what was going on with the lights and on radar. As we got closer the situation became clear but it wasn't a sleepy time. By the time we got to the Singapore Straits it was daylight and crossing the strait was no disappointment. We had two super tankers coming one way, two big freighters coming the other and a cruise ship and another freighter coming out of the estuary across from us. We had more tonnage, closer, in five minutes than we've had anywhere near in the last three years. But there was no horn blowing and everyone seemed unconcerned and it all went well. Very exciting.

We had planned to go to Raffles Marina but heard good things from another boat just before the crossing that convinced us to try One 15 Marina. We were only a few miles away and it all worked out very well and we're glad we made the choice. Access to the city from here is much easier than from Raffles.

Tin Soldier, Baraka, Linda, La Palapa  and others came in over the next few days so we have our friends to play with again. We've gone out to dinner in Little India, had drinks (very over priced drinks) at Raffles Hotel, hung out at the pool, got to know the MRT (the subway) entirely too well, spent too much money and enjoyed the city life.

And Singapore is booming. It's always been changing but the pace of change seems to be accelerating. In the three years since we were last here there has been major construction everywhere around the city and the Sands Marina Resort complex is astounding. We went there yesterday with Glenn and Marilyn of Tin Soldier and were typical tourists. Glenn compared the energy here to Manhattan and although I had previously thought only Hong Kong could approach the New York, downtown Manhattan energy level what we've seen these past few days in Singapore, I have to agree,  is  powerful stuff. Very interesting.

We plan to depart the 29th and that will be a hard departure for several reasons. We like it here. We have friends who are going other ways and we may not see them again for a long time. And for me Singapore always has evoked the best feelings about my flying. I came here flying an airplane I loved with great guys  to a city worth going to and that we had time to enjoy. It didn't get much better than this,  and that I fondly remember and I miss.

But the boat is fueled up and our auto pilot and water maker problems are fixed, I think, under warranty and my other boat jobs are done. No excuses not to press on. A bunch of us are going out to the zoo and the Night Walk at the zoo tomorrow. Janet's doing Orchard Road this afternoon. It's been suggested I should show the boys the other side of town. I think we should take the girls.

Love to all,
Bill & Janet

Friday, October 15, 2010

Enroute to Singapore, Indonesian Retrospective

It's 0700 on the 15th of October. A lovely morning at sea. We're thirty five nautical miles south of the equator northbound for the Selat Riau and the Singapore Straits, Singapore and Raffles Marina. Civilization lurks.

Since there has been essentially no wind and this was expected we planned on motoring. We did have the genoa out for a few hours yesterday and were able to get a little lift from that sail but nothing more. If we were racing we could make use of the few knots of breeze from astern and set a light air chute and have a nice time getting the most out of this day. But we're racing only time itself and since there's a chance we can get into Raffles tomorrow afternoon in time to complete the customs procedures we're in the mode to get there. That would allow us to leave the boat in the evening and enjoy a taste of the wonders of Singapore, always one of my favorite layovers. So the trusty Yanmar 4JH4AE purrs on at 2800 RPM. That's Yanmar's recommended cruising RPM for this engine and it's nice and smooth even with this too small and too steeply pitched prop. That prop will be changed next year. We're doing seven knots through the water and we have about half a knot of current against us. The current will change with the tide in a few hours.

The Selat Riau is the thirty five mile passage northward between the islands of Bintan and Bantam leading to the Singapore Straits. We should hit the entrance to the Selat a little after midnight. It will be an interesting passage through a narrow, heavily traveled, very tidal strait at night. GPS and radar are a wonderful combination. The area is well charted and lighted.  The Singapore Straits themselves are one of the most heavily traveled passages anywhere but it will be daylight and the currents should be with us most of the way into the Straits of Johor and Raffles Marina. 

So now the equatorial sun has made its way out from the morning clouds and this sea is a perfect disk. No land, no shipping, no swell, just a gentle breeze from astern which has me thinking about getting a little sail up to push things along.

The anchorage at Belitung was one of our favorites ever. The beaches were brilliant, very fine, white sand. There were surrounding islets with big white granite boulders and palm lined beaches. 

We were one of the first boats to arrive and the area was very quiet and only the local fishermen and a few seaside local open air restaurants were present. 

The local fishing craft are especially interesting. I call them spider boats. Janet says they're star ships. Actually I like the "Star Ship" moniker better. They are 40-60 foot long mono hulls with immensely complex and wide double outriggers with twin masts and guys from the masts to support the outriggers. From a distance they appear to be giant water bugs low on the surface of the sea. They are beautiful and other worldly. We're told they fish them at night for calamari and for sardines.

The island of Belitung is very actively trying to promote their tourist industry. They claim to be the third most popular destination in Indonesia. Much as we liked these people and their island this is total BS. We saw no sign of organized foreign tourism. No resorts. No foreign style restaurants. The only sign of western influence was the KFC in the capitol city. We, as Caucasians, were a major curiosity. We have come to expect this in the many small places we've gone ashore across Indonesia. But this island is fairly large and populace and it seems that most folks have never seen a white person before. Everywhere people were stopping to have their picture taken with us. Anybody who had some English wanted to chat. In general it was assumed we were Australian. When they found out we were from the US they were quite amazed. And they all love Obama. 

The area is almost entirely Muslim. Like other Muslim places in the world I have visited everyone, without exception, has been extremely friendly and welcoming. We see occasional head scarves and conservative Muslim dress on a minority of women, no berkas. The Indonesian people on the whole are short in stature and lightly built. So westerners stand out immediately. And Janet, who is five-ten and slender with light hair is a star with the girls, and I suppose with the guys, although they are far too polite to be obvious. The girls cluster around her and want to touch her and have their picture taken with her. The cell phone camera is ubiquitous.

Since this was the last official rally event much of the fleet eventually congregated at the anchorage. This coincided with a major local festival so the local crowds grew to a few thousand people during the day with music and traditional dancing alternating with some western music and entertainment. It was all very good hearted. 

The final dinner for the rally participants was the usual elaborate affair with too many speeches, in this case by all the island big wigs, the rally organizer and a couple representatives from us yachties. My BS tolerance levels are rather low historically and this exceeded these limits but that's nothing new. The evening was a success and that was nice.

So, with a little luck, we will be out of Indonesian waters tomorrow morning. In retrospect this has been a great cruise and Indonesia is a great cruising ground. Boats are sometimes reluctant to enter these waters for a number of reasons.

First is the bureaucratic requirement to post a refundable bond of 20-50% of the worth of the boat in order to receive a cruising permit. This is a ridiculous requirement which is rightly objected to by most cruisers. Participants in the Sail Indonesia Rally are exempted from this requirement. In addition the Indonesian bureaucracy is viewed as corrupt, entangling and monumentally inefficient. There is some truth to this as well. As rally participants most of this was eased considerably but I have no doubt that given the wrong official and the wrong boat on the wrong day a true bureaucratic nightmare story could come about.

Second is the general feeling that somehow Indonesia and Indonesians are not friendly to people of European origin. This is just not true. In fact quite the opposite is the reality. Whatever the cultural and religious makeup of the communities we visited hospitality and friendliness were the constant.

Third is the fear of piracy and crime. I know of no documented incident of piracy against a cruising yacht in these waters.. I have read of accounts of accounts of acts of piracy years ago in Indonesian waters. I know some yachties who feel that any boat that maneuvers near them in a manner they have not predicted is somehow harassing them or a threat. But we never saw any indication of any kind of potential threat. Again, the reality was a welcoming and friendly maritime community. I'm sure crime can be a factor in the larger cities of Indonesia. As it is a factor in New York, Los Angeles, etc, etc.
All these negatives should be considered against the realities and against the wonderful cruising ground which awaits the yacht entering Indonesian waters. We've been here almost three months. It seems we've had years of experiences in those few months. We've barely scratched the surface. There are thousands of islands in this, the third most populace nation in the world. There are wonderfully beautiful places. There is great diving. There is great sailing. There are Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Christian cultures attempting to coexist and generally succeeding. This has been one of the richest experiences we've ever had and I encourage anyone heading this way not to pass up the opportunity to spend as much time as they can in this fascinating archipelago.

Love to all,
Bill & Janet
SV Airstream
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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Kumai and the Orangoutangs

Janet and girls friends delivered ashore, hydraulic fluid secured, belly stuffed up with a good Indonesian breakfast; it's time to relax alone and update the blog. As much as I have enjoyed the very communal and social setting the past few days a little time and space to myself is a pleasure. Since this is still the HF radio world, no internet, I can't send photos but will as soon as we get the capability.

And we have some great photos from a great experience up the river. Nine of us, Steve and Linda from "Linda", Dave and Jan from "Baraka", Glenn, Marilyn and Jaryd from "Tin Soldier" and Janet and I hired a Klotok, a wooden river boat, to go up the river system to the national park camps and research stations to view Orangutangs. We had a crew of six including the captain, two deck hands, two guides and the cook. Harri's yacht service in Kumai made the arrangements and also supplied a boat guy to stay aboard each of our yachts 24/7 while we were gone. The river boat was about sixty feet long and two decked. We ate, slept and spent almost all our time on the upper deck which was covered with an awning and had side curtains we could let down if it started blowing in rain. We'd set up a table and chairs on deck to eat meals. We'd take everything down and bring out mattresses and with mosquito net tents over them to sleep at night. The galley, crew quarters and head were below. We had a rudimentary shower and toilet. They supplied soft drinks and food. We supplied happy hour libations and goodies. Life on board was a little basic but very, very good. For Janet and I together this cost about $300 US total. One of our better deals ever.

So for three days and two nights we played the 'up the jungle river' game to the hilt. Something about sitting comfortably on deck while the boat glides up a river and the banks get closer together and the vegetation closes in is very relaxing. Along the lower reaches this river system is very tidal and the vegetation is all palms. As we got further upstream the tidal aspect was behind us and the water, which had been brown and muddy, became very black but much clearer and cooler. The vegetation became tropical hardwood forest with hanging vines and ferns and dense undergrowth.

After almost four hours traveling up the river the first morning we came to the Camp Leakey docks and had lunch before walking inland about half a mile to the feeding station. Most of the Orangoutangs at Camp Leakey were rescued from the illegal exotic animal market as youngsters and then re-acclimated and released into the wild. The ones that come to the feeding station to supplement their wild diets are not afraid of humans. The dominant males, and around Camp Leakey this is "Tom", are definitely not impressed by anybody and do darn well what they please.

I'm quite sure Tom could tear any human apart, limb by limb. The rangers are afraid of him, say he's a dangerous animal and that, "He hasn't hurt anybody yet, but he will!" So the two o'clock afternoon feeding is quite the occasion this time of year when the native fruits are a little scarce. The females and the youngsters show up swinging down from the trees and stuff themselves with bananas. We observers sit on plank benches near the platform and the Orangs move through us and over us in the trees as they please. They are amazingly strong and graceful. Once in awhile they'll take hold of a human and then go through his or her pockets looking for a special treat. We were warned that a favorite game is to take a tourist back pack about a hundred feet up into a tree and then go through it dropping everything not edible to the ground piece by piece, cameras, sat phones, etc. We were very lucky that each day we were at Camp Leakey "Tom" showed up.

The whole scene changes immediately. The distant trees shake harder. A three hundred pound beastie who is not concerned with stealth is on the move. The other males disappear. The rangers get excited and edgy. Some females generally move into the nearby trees. A few hang around interested in Tom. Everything gets out of the way and Tom goes directly where he wants to go. His head is huge with grotesque cheek pads and a large throat pouch. His hair is six inches long and appears to be nicely combed. It's nearly red except that near his feet it gets almost blond like some grizzlies. He looks you in the eye without concern or much interest and moves quickly past a foot away on the trail. The only time I've had a similar feeling was watching Brown Bears at Brooks Falls at Katmi National Park in Alaska. All you can say is, "WOW", what an experience to be close to them.

So Tom eats what he wants, chases a couple small females up into the trees, virgins for yet another day, puts on a hellofa show and departs through the trees, pretty cool. We spent three days going to two different camps and doing a little trek through the Borneo jungle. We saw, very close, Gibbons, Long Tailed Macaqs, wild pigs which looked much like our Southwestern Peccaries, and many Orangoutangs. We got a little wet on some rather damp trails.

We pulled off a few leaches. We got a few, but not really very many, mosquito bites. We slept, or at least lay there, during incredibly heavy rain, cozy and dry under our mosquito netting and rain awnings. Marilyn drubbed me at scrabble. I got back by beating up on Jaryd at chess. I've got to win when I can. We had good talks and got to know the crew who were very sweet and competent. It was a great trip and an experience which will not be forgotten. Personally I rank it up with viewing the bears at Katmi and some of the hunting we've done in Alaska and Africa as a great outdoor experience.

We got back yesterday afternoon and relaxed and had a sundowner with LaPalapa who had arrived that morning. Today Janet and friends are doing an event and lunch with the regency governor and I'm hanging around getting ready to depart, probably, tomorrow morning. It's about 280 nautical miles to the anchorage in Belitung which is considered part of Sumatra, a new regency of Indonesia for us. With a little luck we'll have some wind. One way or another we should be in there in two days. I'll miss the town of Kumai. Some places you like or dislike without really knowing the reason why. I like Kumai and a lot of the good stuff I like about Indonesia seems prominent here; the sweet and friendly people and the general air of good natured industriousness.

We've got a ways to go yet before we leave this country and enter Singapore but we've all talked a lot about what a great cruising ground Indonesia has been. It'll be hard to top our experiences in Kumai.
Love to all,
Bill & Janet
SV Airstream
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