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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