Wednesday, March 5, 2014

On the Way to Bitung, Suluwesi, Indonesia

February 2014

We planned to leave Sandakan early, as the trip to Tambisan Island on the NE corner of Borneo is a long one and the entry into the anchorage looked a bit complex. However, attempting to raise the anchor at 06:00 that morning, we found it completely fouled and were unable to get it off the bottom. This was the first time in a lot of years of cruising that our anchor was apparently irretrievable.  We went to the police station who reportedly had divers and would help free fouled anchors, but no divers were available. However, one of the maintenance men on a police boat came out and between him and Pat and myself, we managed to free the anchor, several hours after our planned departure time. 

Leaving the harbor at Sandakan we were approached by fishermen who sold us some huge prawns, dinner at least was now easy. As we sailed along, the wind increased and pretty soon we were making 8-10 knots and we realized that we could still get into the Tambisan Island anchorage at a reasonable hour. We had agreed to pick up some items from a cruising yacht that had gone aground on the reef just outside of Tambisan, and bring them down to Darwin, so we met with a lovely  Filipino / Malaysian couple who helped us pick up the items and the next morning fed us an incredible breakfast of fried prawns, rice and noodles (not your standard breakfast fare, but it was great). Our plan for the day was a short sail about 20 miles around the tip of Borneo to an anchorage that was closest to the route to the NE tip of the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. We left in the early afternoon.
leaving Sandakan, Malaysia

Boat on reef in Tambisan

local prawn

Freighter going by

Gally after provisioning in Sandakan

We were going to leave early the next day as the one area with potential pirate activity had to be crossed that day and we wanted to be well away from the Philippine/Muslim islands by nightfall. Once again, our plans were foiled as an unseasonable wind angle left our planned anchorage untenable. So, with no other option, we headed towards potentially pirate-infested waters in the early afternoon instead of early morning. We had great winds and quickly crossed through the Philippine Island group and on towards Indonesia. After dinner, Pat went down for a nap and I started the first watch. Because of the many FADs (fish attracting devices) I kept our speed down to about 6.5 knots (more about the FADs later). About 9:30 I noticed two small strobe-like lights in the distance off our stern. Half an hour later they were close, Pat was up and we were nervous as the vessels with the lights had to be coming from the Philippine islands where piracy is a serious concern. As the lights closed I used a powerful LED spotlight and we saw two identical small fast boats, each with a single driver, dressed all in black. We sped up, but it was clear that these two boats were much faster. When they approached, they first demanded to come aboard, then asked for a tow. We refused both of these. They finally just asked for something to eat, but by then we were so nervous that we used the spotlight to ward them off and convince them to go away. Were they pirates? Certainly not professional ones, perhaps opportunistic ones. Our relief was palpable as they went back towards the Philippine island group.

The rest of the night was uneventful, but the next morning brought another issue to the forefront. We had been told that crossing the Celebes Sea to Manado directly was unadvisable due to the large number of FADs. But we were used to the flimsy bamboo structures common the Philippines so we thought it would be OK if we were careful. Here in Indonesia, the FADs are steel cylinders and range in size from 2 feet by 5 feet to 4 by 15 feet. They are anchored to the bottom in waters as deep as 15,000 feet. This seems like an amazing feat in itself. Their weights range from hundreds to thousands of pounds. Not something to run into in a thin-skinned aluminum boat.
Back to the next morning, just as the first of light came over the ocean I saw about 10 yards dead ahead a large FAD. I changed course and we uneventfully continued on our way. What would have happened if daybreak had been fifteen minutes later or I had been making a cup of coffee? We saw FADs all day long and learned that if we adjusted the radar carefully we could spot them when they got very close (they are cylindrical and lie in the swell so are difficult for the radar to discern). So, the next night we kept a very careful watch with the radar as well as just a lookout (Pat had insisted that we cross with a full moon and once again her instincts were well founded). At 2:20 am, just as I was starting to get some much-needed sleep, we encountered a huge squall, had to reef sails and found ourselves completely blind as the radar was unable to see through the rain. So, for several hours we sailed way too fast with almost no ability to see ahead, not good! By now we are not happy with our decision to sail directly to Manado, we are both exhausted, and the winds are heading us. So, we made a hard right turn for the northern shore of Sulawesei. 
passing by a FAD

FAD up close

The Celebes Sea is a deep purple shade of blue that is almost heartbreakingly beautiful. The color of the water is simply unbelievable. The tragedy is the huge amount of plastic trash in the middle of this piece of incredible ocean.
We spent one more tense night at sea. Approaching the coast after dawn the next morning, I saw a shape on the radar that was not visible to the naked eye, I realized it was a waterspout about 3 miles away. The waterspout dissipated into a white squall and finally into a normal black squall that we avoided. It was quite an entry into Indonesia.
We entered a poorly-charted harbor an hour later and then found, with the help of a local fisherman, an anchorage right in front of a fish market in a small port. We spent the next day catching up on sleep here in Kwandang Harbor.

We planned to spend the next week slowly harbor-hopping NE along the coast of Sulawesi, heading towards Manado and then around to Bitung on the NE corner of the island where we hope to spend a few days diving and resting up from our passage. 

We spent 3 nights in Tudi Bay, a small nook behind a reef that offers protection from the seas. Days were hot enough that we have been taking the dinghy up into the mangrove –lined rivers just to cool down. People here are very poor and shy but friendly. They comb the reef at low tide every day, hunting for small fishes and invertebrates.  When they approach Silver Tern I often think they must feel how we would feel if aliens landed a flying saucer in our backyard. We are truly from a different world if not universe.

Anchored behind reef

mangrove rest spot

We continued to harbor hop, stopping in Teluk Bolaang Uti, a well protected harbor with an active night fishing fleet. Several fishermen stopped to chat and our few words of Bahasa Indonesia paid off. One of the visitors took us to a local market so we could resupply with vegetables (and beer). 

Finally, we arrived in the famous diving island of Bunaken. We contacted a dive resort, Froggies, in Pantai Liang who said we could use their mooring. We carefully crossed the fringing reef at high tide, moored the boat, and visitied Froggies. The managers and staff were so welcoming and friendly that we stayed a week there, diving with them as well as dining there.

Diving Photos from Bunaken
tunicate or sea squirt

emperor angelfish

crinoid, type of echinoderm

sponge with damselfish inside