Sunday, December 30, 2012

Bali, Indonesia, part 1 (2012)

We weighed anchor early in the morning of August 6th, and headed out of Darwin Harbor on our way to Bali, Indonesia, 965 miles away.  Our route took us west out of Darwin for 450 miles to pass between Ashmore Reef and Hibernia Reef.  This stretch of water is shallow (depths generally between 100-150 ft), and there are many shoals and oil derricks to avoid in addition to the reefs.  The winds were light near the Australian coast, which is normal for this area.  Once we rounded Ashmore Reef, we altered course to the NW toward Bali and after that, we had good E to SE winds from 12 - 20 knots for the rest of the trip.  We made great time, averaging 6-7 knots, boosted by a little current.  We approached Bali a day ahead of schedule after an uneventful passage and were excited to be on track for an early afternoon arrival on August 12th. 

As we approached the island of Lombok, just east of Bali, we started to feel the effects of the strong currents that run through the Indonesian archipelago.  The last 40 miles were a bit of an emotional roller coaster as we first thought we had plenty of time to make it by nightfall flying along at 7 knots, only to find an hour later we were only making 2 knots against the current and resigned ourselves to another night at sea.  Then a couple hours later, we would be going 7 knots again for a few hours and then back to 2 knots as the tide turned. Given the hazards around the entrance, we knew this was not a harbor to approach after dark.  Fortunately, we were able to make it into Benoa Harbor at 5:30 pm with just enough light to make it into the marina.    

The harbor felt a bit chaotic as fishing boats large and small shared the waters with power boats that were speeding around in all directions, pulling tourists on water-skis and parasails, some of them coming quite close to us.  We hailed the marina on the VHF and were relieved to hear they had room for us.  We pulled into the slip and the marina staff helped us tie off our dock lines.  We didn’t have to worry about clearing in that night as the offices were closed, so we got cleaned up and enjoyed dinner ashore.    

Indonesia is an archipelago made up of over 13,000 islands stretching over roughly 3,200 miles with a population of almost 240 million people.  The island of Bali would be our only stop in the country.  If we had more time, we would like to visit more of the islands, as Bali is quite different culturally than the rest of the country.   Although Indonesia is the largest country in the world with a Muslim majority, the Balinese are mainly Hindu and the only Hindu society in all of Southeast Asia. 

The morning after we arrived, we set off to complete the clearance formalities, which are rumored to be a long and frustrating process.  Thankfully, four of the five offices are within walking distance of the marina.  Determined to be patient, we stopped first at the immigration office to get our 30-day visas.  Less than 15 minutes later, we were on our way to the quarantine office, another surprisingly short and painless stop.  After we paid our 50,000 Rupiah (roughly $5 USD) to the quarantine, the next stop was the customs office.  The customs officer arrived, signed, and stamped our crew list without any questions or fees.  So far, this was going way too smoothly.

Our next stop was the Navy office, but we were misinformed that it was located on nearby Serangen Island.  We took a cab over to Serangen Island, found the small Navy office, but they told us we needed to go to the main offices in the capital city of Denpasar.  So, we renegotiated our cab fare to include another stop in Denpasar. 

Once we found the Navy office in Denpasar, the process took only a few minutes.  With our five signed and stamped copies of the crew list, we made our way back to the harbor master to complete the process.  All in all, the clearance process was much easier than we anticipated, and by noon, we were free to explore the island.

There was a long list of places we wanted to see on Bali, and we quickly figured out that we couldn’t afford to travel by cab.  The bus system wasn’t very good on the island either, and we noticed that most of the locals got around on scooters.  We talked to the marina about renting one, and it turns out that they are fairly inexpensive, at around $4 per day.

The next day, the marina had a scooter brought over and we filled out the rental contract before the guy gave us a very brief rundown on driving in Bali.  He didn’t speak very good English, but mentioned we needed to drive on the left hand side of the road, if the police pulled us over we would be required to pay a bribe (otherwise they would keep the registration), and if we were low on fuel, then something about a vodka bottle that we couldn’t quite understand. 

The Balinese did not seem to be overly concerned with traffic laws and rules of the road.  There didn’t seem to be any age restrictions either.  People didn’t pay attention to lanes, and you could have four scooters and three cars side by side on a two lane road.  Riding the scooter turned out to be much faster than travelling by car.  As cars stacked up at traffic lights, we could weave in and out and get to the front of the line, saving lots of time.   Sidewalks were not off limits, and driving the wrong way on a one way seemed to be ok as long as you stayed off to the side. 

The only drawback, other than obvious safety concerns, was getting pulled over and having to pay a bribe.  We ended up getting pulled over three times while we were there, including once when we didn’t do anything wrong.  It was really annoying, but still an inexpensive way to get around even with the occasional $10 bribe.

Many of the locals ride these scooters, and even though most are only 125cc’s, they are real work horses.  It is hard to believe how much can be carried on such a small vehicle.  It was fairly common to see a family of five zipping around town on one, and we would frequently see cargo stacked on the back that went several feet over the drivers head.  As part of an upcoming holiday, the Balinese people decorated tall bamboo poles (40-50ft high) that were then planted in front of each house.  Most of these were brought home via scooter.  We learned quickly to stay well clear when someone was making a turn carrying one of these poles.  Once we were even passed by a couple guys on a scooter, and the passenger was carrying five very unhappy quacking ducks in each hand.    

The tourism industry is primarily focused in the south, and the hub of it is the town of Kuta.  For our first trip from the marina, we decided to check out this area.   This was probably not the best area to go into first, as it is the most congested part of the island and required the most aggressive driving.  It was bit nerve-wracking at first as Andrew maneuvered the bike through the streets while Di held on for dear life, reading the map and shouting directions forward. 

Kuta was packed with bars, nightclubs, restuarants, shops and a long stretch of beach.  Amongst the crowds of the tourists walking around, the local Balinese still went about many of their traditional customs.  It was common to see them making dailing offerings, called canang, which are banana-leaf trays that have been pinned together with bamboo splinters and filled with rice, fruit, flowers and incense.  Offerings for the gods are placed in elevated positions and those meant for demons are scattered on the ground.  It was hard to walk around without accidentally stepping on or kicking one of these offerings.  

Unfortunately, when you pick up a rented scooter, they only leave you with a tiny bit of gas, and we ran out within an hour.  We had been looking for a gas station since leaving the marina, but couldn’t seem to find one.  That is when we figured out what the guy was talking about when he mentioned the vodka bottles.  Stores all over Kuta had small stands with vodka bottles filled with gasoline.  You could buy a liter for about 5,000 Rupiah (50 cents).  We bought a couple liters, and the guy at the stand dumped them through a filter into our tank.  We were back in business a few minutes later.

Scooters are very popular around Bali.

As we planned our travel around the island, it became obvious that we would be better off spending a few nights away from the boat, as the island is a decent size (90 miles across from east to west and 70 miles across from north to south).  Going back and forth from the boat everyday was going to result in more time on the road and less at the actual sites.  According to our guide book, there were inexpensive losmen or home stays all around the island where we could stay the night.  They were mostly just a few rooms attached to someone’s house or a restaurant, and we found some decent places for only $20.  Only some of them had hot water, but they were quite clean and comfortable.  This meant that we could see a lot of the island over several days, and the shorter day hops meant we didn’t have to drive at night, which is also a bit dangerous since some of the vehicles/bicycles/animals that share the road don’t have lights.  So we packed up our backpacks and headed north from the marina for a several day trip to explore the island. 

We first headed back to Denpasar, the capital of Bali, to visit the Bali Museum.  This was an interesting introduction to the history and culture of the island.  We learned a bit about the history of the Indonesian Islands, which gained their independence from the Dutch in 1962.  We also learned a few things about the Hindu religion and the many temples that we had seen around.  Apparently each village has three temples: the temple of origin (pura puseh), the day-to-day village temple (pura desa) and the temple of the dead (pura dalem).  There are many villages around Bali, and with three temples in each village, this results in over 20,000 temples on the island.  There are also nine directional temples, which are located at strategic points across the island .  Every temple has an anniversary celebration, called odalan, which lasts three days.  Since there are so many temples, it is hard not to witness a few of these celebrations while visiting.  It was a nice museum and quite small, which was good because we usually don’t last more than an hour in museums. 

Bali Museum

A short walk away, we found the local market, Pasar Badung.  This is the largest market and is open 24 hours a day.  It was much different than the ones in the touristy areas.  Our guide book’s description of “chaotic” was spot on.  Stall owners were persistent in their sales pitch, and they would swarm around us as we shopped.  One woman followed us for three blocks.  The first floor had mainly fruits and vegetables, as well as some stacks of cooked meat.  We were in search of some hot curry powder and found some at a spice stand.  Bartering is a common practice at these markets, so we were prepared to negotiate.  We picked out a small packet of hot curry powder and chili powder, each roughly 4 ounces.  Our jaws dropped when the woman told us the price was 360,000 Rp – almost $40 USD!  We started to walk away, but she asked us what we would be willing to pay, and after a bit of back and forth, she reluctantly accepted 70,000 Rp, which was still probably way too high.

market in Denpasar
From Denpasar we headed north to Batubulan to see some traditional Balinese dancing.  What we actually ended up seeing was a Barong-Rangda dramatization.   This is a traditional Balinese play about the forces of good and evil.  Apparently the actual play is quite long, but it has been shortened for us tourists with short attention spans.  It was quite entertaining, and they had had some very elaborate costumes and masks.    

Barong-Rangda play

From Batubulan we made our way toward Ubud, with the plan to stop in some of the small towns along the way.  Many of the villages in the Ubud area specialize in a type of craft, such as wood or stone carvings or basket weaving to name a few.  We made a quick stop in Celuk, the village known for its silverwork.  After that, we went to Mas, which is well known on the island for their woodcarving.  They had rooms full of carvings in ebony, sandalwood and other hardwoods.  There were some beautiful carvings, but they were really expensive. 

Our next stop was Ubud, the area considered to be the cultural hub of the island, where we spent several hours walking around the town.  There are many temples, museums and art galleries, Balinese dance shows, various craft studios, and traditional ceremonies.   As we walked through Ubud, we passed several temples.  Tourists are not allowed in some of the temples, but we found one on the main road that allowed tourists to walk around the courtyard.  The paths leading up to the temple were framed by ponds with hundreds of lily pads.  The stone carvings and other adornments of the temple were intricate and beautifully made.

temple in Ubud

Another highlight of Ubud was the monkey forest, where we saw what our guide book described as “malevolent but photogenic long-tailed macaques.”  There are walkways throughout the park as well as a temple and about 300 of these monkeys living there.   Several stalls near the entrance sold bananas and peanuts to feed the monkeys, which was a popular thing for the kids to do.  Once they knew you had food, the monkeys were quite aggressive, pulling on people’s arms and climbing on their backs to take the food.  A few of the kids probably left the park never wanting to see another monkey again.

Ubud Monkey Forest

After Ubud, our next stop was for lunch in Gianyar, which is known for babi guling (roasted suckling pig stuffed with chillies, rice, and spices).  Walking into the restaurant, we passed by the pig and the woman carving it, who was all business.  We sat down, and without ordering, they brought over two plates heaping full with various parts of the pig, as well as a side of soup with shredded pork.  Most of it was quite delicious, but there were definitely some things that we couldn’t identify.

preparation of babi guling

From Gianyar, we made our way north to see one of the most important temples.  Pura Lempuyang Luhur is one of the nine directional temples and sits on the slopes of the mountain called Gunung Lempuyang.  Hiking up to the main temple involves climbing 1,700 stairs, which sounded like a good way to get some exercise, as well as take in some of the great views.  At the gates, we both rented the mandatory sarongs and started climbing.

There are seven or so other temples along the way, but there isn’t a map and no signs to show which way to go.  Unfortunately about halfway up, we took a wrong turn and made our way back down through another valley and ended up at one of the local villages.  After a few inquiries, we realized our error, and trudged back up the stairs.   By now, we were really hot and sweaty in our rented sarongs, but we kept climbing.  After arriving at the main temple, you can walk up another hour and a half to visit one more temple at the summit.

We were amazed at the hundreds of Balinese people, young and old, in full traditional ceremonial dress that were descending as we were climbing.  Many of the women were balancing large baskets on their heads.  They were all smiles and very few passed without saying hello.  Finally, three hours after starting, we made it to the top.  The views were stunning, especially of nearby Mount Agung, which is an active volcano and the highest peak on Bali at almost 10,000 ft.  After a short rest, we made our way back down in less than an hour.  Our calves ached for a week after that.

Pura Lempuyang Luhur

After the temple, we stopped at the Taman Tirtagangga Water Palace.  It was our main reason for visiting Tirtagangga, and was where we would be staying the night.  This was constructed on the site of a holy spring, with pools and fountains and lots of stone statues.  The palace itself wasn’t very exciting, but it is surrounded by beautiful scenery, including lots of tiered rice fields.  The room that we rented for the night was actually in the middle of a rice field.   

statues in the water palace, Di in front of our room in the rice fields

The next morning, we were up early to go for a walk through the rice paddies.  There are locals that you can pay to guide you through the fields, but we thought we would try it on our own.  Our waiter the previous night told us it was ok to walk through the fields, as long as you don’t walk on the rice plants. 

After walking around for a while, we realized it wasn’t quite as simple as just walking through the rice paddies.  It involved balancing along the elevated and sometimes slippery edges of the flooded rice fields and jumping over the irrigation canals.  These fields were being worked by local families that lived in huts spread throughout the fields.  The irrigation canals were actually their source of water for bathing and laundry.  We had some awkward moments when we unexpectedly walked up on people bathing in the canal waters.  When we did come across people who were fully clothed, we asked if it was ok to be there.  They all assured us that it was fine, and we could go wherever we wished.  Several happily smiled for pictures. 

Tirtagangga rice fields

After a walk through the rice fields, we packed our backpack, got back on the scooter and headed to the north.  The further north we made it, the less important the tourism industry was and the more it felt like the authentic Bali.  Our next stop was the village of Amed on the northeast coast.   There are some nice reefs close to shore here, with lots of colorful fish and rays.  We spent the day walking around and went snorkeling in a couple of areas, including on the wreck of a Japanese freighter that was sunk in about 30 feet of water just off the beach.    

We spent the night in Amed and the next morning we packed up and headed south, this time along the coast.  Riding the scooter down this stretch of coastal road was definitely one of the highlights of our stay in Bali.  The coastline here is dotted with many beautiful bays with crystal clear water and beaches, framed by rugged cliffs.  For several miles, the road is very hilly, passing through the small fishing villages at sea level, and then climbing steeply to traverse along the cliffs for great views of the bays and beyond.  The landscape was quite different than what we had seen in other parts of the island.  Riding along, we were surprised to see hundreds of fisherman in their sailing canoes returning to the beach after early morning fishing excursions.  It was quite a sight to see all of the colorful sails dotting the horizon. 

sailing canoes on the coastline near Amed

After we made our way down the east coast, we decided to visit the west coast of Bali, primarily to see another directional temple, Pura Tanah Lot.  This is considered one of the holiest places on Bali, and is very popular with tourists.  We were shocked to find thousands of people swarming the area.  The temple complex has a distinct focus on tourism, with hundreds of stalls selling everything from t-shirts and sarongs to paintings and wood carvings.  The temple itself is on a small island, surrounded by water most of the day.  As the water recedes at low tide, a strip of sand is exposed that connects it to the main island, providing easier access.  Only worshippers are allowed to enter the temple compounds, but many tourists wade across to get a closer look.  There are several more temples along the coast, and we spent some time visiting them, as well as walking around the rice paddies above the beach.

Pura Tanah Lot and the nearby coastline

We still had many places to see, but it was time for us to head back to Saviah for a few nights to do some boat work.  Our friend Eric, from Seattle, was due to arrive soon, and we looked forward to seeing more of the island during his visit.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Australia (2012)

We departed Fife Bay on the SE coast of Papua New Guinea on Monday, July 9th.  The weather forecast looked good, and we set out early with ESE winds at 12-18 knots.  Our next destination was Australia, and our route would take us first to the west northwest around the Great Barrier Reef, and then to the southwest through the Torres Strait.  This strait is between New Guinea and Australia, where the Coral Sea to the east and the Arafura Sea to the west meet.  The shallow waters are a maze of reefs and some 274 islands making it bit of a challenge to navigate through. Since this is the primary channel between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, it’s also a busy shipping route. 

By the second day, our winds had lightened to ESE 8-12, and we had a hard time keeping the sails full as we rolled back and forth.  Progress was slow at only 2-3 knots.  We had the genoa poled out, but despite our efforts, it kept luffing, and after a day the sail started to rip along the foot.  We replaced it with the smaller working jib and resigned ourselves to motoring until the winds picked up.   

The light conditions persisted for 36 hours, and then the trade winds filled in Thursday night as we passed between Portlock Reefs and Goldie Reefs, the first of many we would be navigating through over the next few days.  It was nice to be sailing again, and we were back up to 5-6 knots thanks to a little current.  The following morning, we neared Bramble Cay and made our turn to the SW, entering the Great Northeast Channel to the Torres Strait on a close reach into SE 10-15 knot winds.  As we were now in the lee of the Great Barrier Reef, there was almost no ocean swell, just small wind waves, and the sailing was pleasant despite the fact that we were going to windward. 

From Bramble Cay, it is roughly 130 miles through the Torres Strait to Thursday Island where we would clear into the country.  If we continued to sail straight through, it was likely that we would arrive in about 24 hours.  Unfortunately, the next day was a Saturday.  The cost of clearing into Australia on a boat is very expensive, and the additional overtime charges for clearing in on the weekend are even harder to swallow.  Because of this, and the fact that navigating the strait during daylight hours was much more appealing, we chose to do shorter day hops and time our arrival for Monday morning.  We are allowed to stop and anchor before clearing in as long we fly the quarantine flag and don’t leave the boat (or have contact with other boats). 

So, we set our course for Rennel Island, 53 miles away, which was no problem to reach before sunset averaging 6 knots.  Andrew fished along the way and hooked a large wahoo fairly quickly.  We got it to the boat, but missed gaffing it before it got away.  We put the fishing lines back in the water, and nabbed a blue fin tuna right before reaching the anchorage.  This one we got on board.

We approached Rennel Island around 1:30 pm, very cautiously as we had little information on the anchorage and no detailed charts.  We did know it was uninhabited, and there was a reef surrounding the island, with coral heads extending off the shore in many areas.  We motored around and finally found a spot in the lee of the island in 25 feet to drop the hook.  It wasn’t a great anchorage and we were a bit closer to the reef than we would have liked.  Fortunately, the trade winds in the Torres Strait blow quite consistently from the SE, which we were counting on to keep us in deeper water.  The forecast didn’t show any wind shifts, but we set the anchor drag and shallow water alarms on the GPS just in case and enjoyed a fresh tuna steak for lunch.

It was nice to get a full night sleep, and Saturday morning we were well rested as we set off to make the 40 mile jump south to Sue Islet.  It was a very pleasant sail on a close reach in a 15 knot breeze.  The course passed by a large exposed wreck of a 400 ton vessel on one of the reefs.  We made good time and dropped the hook at 3 pm, sitting beam to the wind as the strong currents pulled us to the side.  Of the 274 islands in the Torres Strait, 17 are inhabited, and Sue Islet was the first one we came to that was.  Unfortunately, we were stuck on the boat until we officially cleared in.   

sailing the Torres Strait

Sunday morning, we made the 40 mile trip southwest to Wednesday Island, just a few miles north of Thursday Island.  The winds were stronger, and we flew along at 7 knots in the ESE 20-25 knot winds.  Andrew caught another tuna, which made for a couple of good meals.  Catching fish while sailing through the Torres Strait was really easy.  Tuna were constantly jumping around us, and fish were biting lures within minutes of getting them in the water.

By 3 pm, we were anchored off Wednesday Island, and the strong trade winds that were forecasted had arrived.  That night was a long one with sustained winds in the 25-30 knot range and gusting much higher.  We put out lots of scope, but our anchor was slowly dragging.  We just kept an eye on it, as depths in the area were consistently 30-40 ft, and there was plenty of room behind us.  We were up throughout the night monitoring our position, and finally around 2 am, after dragging 200 ft, the anchor seemed to be set.

On Monday morning, we motored the nine miles over to Thursday Island, which was a slow trip going against a strong current.  Thursday Island is the administrative and commercial center of the Torres Strait Islands.  The anchorage in front of Thursday Island is exposed to the trade winds, so we anchored across the channel and in the lee of nearby Horn Island.   We dropped the anchor in 30 feet of water and hailed the Australian customs office on the VHF.  The current flows quite fast through the channel (often reaching 4 knots), so we made sure to let out plenty of scope. 

Within an hour, a small powerboat pulled up alongside with customs, immigration and quarantine officers.  They boarded Saviah, and we went through the clearance formalities.  Australia has a bad reputation among cruisers because of the very strict quarantine requirements and costs, and many people avoid it all together.  We were expecting them to search every inch of the boat and dive on our hull to make sure we weren’t bringing in any unwanted sea life into Australian waters.  Although we had just painted the bottom in New Zealand and did some scrubbing in Papua New Guinea before we left, the thought of having to pay for another haul out to get a few barnacles off the bottom made us a bit nervous.  We were lucky though, as they didn’t search the boat at all and didn’t inspect the bottom of the boat either.  We still had to pay an outrageously high quarantine fee of around $350, but the rest of the process was very quick and painless. We talked to a few other cruisers later on that complained of detailed searches of their boats that lasted several hours. 

That afternoon, Annie and Ronnie, Australian cruisers on s/v Siri, stopped by to say “hello” and gave us the scoop on services on both Thursday Island and Horn Island.  We were a little nervous about rowing the quarter mile to the dock in our little dinghy because of the salt water crocodiles, or salties as the locals call them.  There are salties all along the northern coast of Australia, and the males can get up to 25 ft long – we could just imagine one of these ripping us out of our 8 ft dinghy.  We asked the crew of Siri whether they thought it was safe.  They said that there was a crocodile on the beach at the anchorage, but that they hadn’t seen it in a couple weeks and we would probably be ok.  We were ready to stretch our legs and get some dinner and cold drinks, so we went for it (scanning the water the entire time). 

The next day we rowed back to Horn Island and took the small ferry that goes across the channel to Thursday Island.  We wanted to do some walking around and stop at the grocery store.  We were also hoping to find a place with wi-fi to catch up on email, which we had last done in Vanuatu one month earlier.  While on-line, we checked our credit card bill and learned that a few thousand dollars had been charged while we were at sea.  This was an unfortunate surprise that we had to spend several hours sorting out and cancelling our credit cards.

We also took a short hike up to the top of Green Hill to see what is left of the old Victoria Barracks which was constructed in 1893.  The top of the hill has great views of the surrounding islands.  On our way back down, we stopped by the customs, immigration and quarantine offices and cleared out.  We only spent two days in Thursday Island, but we were anxious to get to Darwin, and the forecast looked good for the trip.

Thursday Island

Our 750 mile passage from Thursday Island to Darwin involved first crossing the shallow Gulf of Carpentaria, about 250 miles across.  Due to its shallow depths, the seas are often short and choppy, and it can become quite rough if the winds are strong.  We heard that it’s wise to pick a weather window with lighter winds for the first few days.   On Wednesday, July 18th, we rode the early morning tide out and set sail in very light SE winds for Darwin.

We slowly made our way into the Gulf of Carpentaria for the first day but by Thursday the winds filled in nicely and we sailed along at 6 knots with a single-reefed main and gennaker.  It was a bumpy ride, as the seas built in the shallow green water.  On Friday, the winds shifted more to the south and increased to 18-25 knots, but we had cleared the shallow waters of the gulf.  We doused the gennaker, unfurled the jib and tucked in the 2nd reef in the main.  We continued to make 6 knots on a beam reach for the next few days.  Throughout our passage, we were contacted on the VHF by an Australian customs plane that flew overhead.  We would hear it fly by and wait by the VHF for them to call and ask the name of the boat, last port and next port.  They seem to keep good tabs on cruisers here. 

The last 110 miles of our passage into Darwin involved crossing the Van Diemen Gulf and passing through the Clarence Strait, which has strong tidal currents that change direction several times a day and require good timing.  The information we had indicated that the best time to start the passage from Cape Don is when it is four hours before high tide in Darwin.  Since there are two high tides about 12 hours apart in Darwin and the passage is 110 miles, the decision was whether to begin late in the day and arrive in daylight, or begin in the morning and arrive after nightfall. Since the Clarence Strait is well charted with good navigational aids, we opted to start during the second high tide at 4 pm and arrive in Darwin the following afternoon.  As we approached the Van Diemen Gulf, it was after 4 pm and we had missed the window, so we anchored in Port Essington for the night and would head in to Darwin the following day.  We had a really peaceful night at anchor as the winds and seas were both starting to calm down.

We left Port Essington the next morning and reached Cape Don a couple hours early.  Our wind completely died right before we got there, so we fired up the engine as we needed to keep a decent pace to keep favorable tides with us the entire way.

At 6 pm, our emergency bilge pump and alarm went off, and pumped several gallons of water from the bilge.  This is never a good sign, and we frantically checked the through hulls, looking for leaks.  The through hulls all seemed fine, so we started speculating about what was causing the leak.  It wasn’t a major leak as it only pumped a few gallons every half hour, but we were still concerned, and it was frustrating to not know where it was coming from.

Finally around 10 pm, Andrew was crawling around in the bilge/engine room, and figured out that water was coming through the anti-siphon vent on the wet exhaust.  The vent has a half inch clear plastic hose that runs off of it and down into the bilge.  We weren’t sure why it was happening, but the exhaust and cooling system seemed to be working otherwise, so we decided it wasn’t critical and could wait until Darwin to figure it out.   It was a bit unnerving to know that it was an engine issue, as we were motoring through an area with strong currents and no wind to sail with.  We both stayed up throughout the night to navigate and take turns hand steering.

At 3 am, we noticed the bilge pump was no longer going off, and it didn’t happen again for the last five hours into Darwin.  By this time we were in the middle of the Clarence Strait, and making 9-10 knots with the 3-4 knots of current.  The strait is well charted and has lights throughout, and we zipped through covering 35 miles in four hours.

By 5 am, we were just outside the entrance to Darwin harbor, so we slowed down to enter in daylight.  We expected to arrive in the afternoon, but actually got there before the sun came up thanks to the free miles from a favorable current.   The sky began to lighten around 6:30 am, and we made our way into the anchorage in Fannie Bay, about five miles northwest of downtown Darwin.  

We were sharing the anchorage with what seemed like another 100 boats.  The Sail Indonesia Rally participants were gathered in Darwin and leaving in a few days so it was crowded.  There was another anchorage a few miles south, but boats were packed in tight.  Staying in a marina was too expensive due to the additional cost of lock transit fees (all Darwin marinas use lock systems due to the large tidal change).  The Fannie Bay anchorage was not ideal, but there was plenty of room and was our best option until the rally left. 

The problem with our anchorage was that the tidal change could be up to 20 ft twice a day.  This meant we had to anchor in at least 26 ft of water at high tide so we could have 6 ft of depth when the tide went out.  Fannie Bay has a gently sloping seafloor and when we dropped the anchor in 26 ft of water at high tide, we were about a mile from shore.  We really wished we had an outboard motor for the dinghy!  It took us 45 minutes to row in, which is an especially long time when you are constantly looking over your shoulder for crocodiles. 

We made the long row to shore a few times and caught a bus into downtown to have a look around and catch up on email.  They have a good bus system in Darwin and getting around town was easy.  Unfortunately, wifi is not very popular yet in the outback and was a bit difficult to find.  We did eventually find it at the public library, and we emailed our mechanic in Seattle about the engine issue.  We were happy to hear that it was likely a damaged gasket in the anti-siphon vented loop – replacing a gasket is a cheap fix.  We ordered a spare and had it shipped to our friend Eric from Seattle who was meeting us in Bali in a few weeks.  We also took this opportunity to order some other items that were either difficult to find or significantly more expensive outside the US.

Several days after we arrived, over a hundred cruising boats that were signed up with the rally hoisted their sails and set off to Indonesia.  Darwin harbor looked empty, and we quickly weighed anchor and moved over near Cullen Bay.  Before we dropped the anchor, we pulled up alongside at the fuel dock (outside the locks) to take on fresh water and give Saviah a much needed rinse. We then went out about a hundred yards and dropped the anchor beside only two other boats. 

We had a long list of things to accomplish while in Darwin to prepare us for the next three months of cruising across the Indian Ocean.  Provisioning was a big one, and our new anchorage near the Cullen Bay Marina would make things much easier.  We had a short row to the fuel and ferry dock, where we could leave our dinghy, and it was only a short walk to the bus stop from there.

While in Australia, we also hoped to squeeze in a little time for tourist activities.  We rented a car for a few days to see some sites and to make provisioning a little easier.  The car we rented turned out to have a manual transmission, and Andrew had to quickly learn how to drive a left hand stick shift.    

Our first stop was the Crocodylus Park & Zoo where they have over 1,000 crocodiles, as well as dozens of other animals.  There is an organized tour of the saltwater crocodile lagoon and breeding pens that started right when we arrived.  During the tour, our guide fed some of the crocodiles, which involved tying a string around raw meat and dangling it over them.  It was amazing to see how high they could come out of the water as they would very slowly rise up and chomp down on it.  It certainly didn’t help our anxiety later as we rowed back and forth from the boat.

salties at Crocodylus Park

At the end of the tour, the guide brought out a couple of baby crocodiles.  Their mouths were taped shut so they couldn’t bite anyone, and Di took a turn holding one.  The guide warned that they might squirm around and try to escape, so it was important to keep a firm grip and “don’t drop the babies”. 

Di holding a baby croc

They also breed crocodiles at the zoo for their meat, which is quite popular here.  After a day of walking around the park, we decided to get crocodile burgers for lunch.  The meat was not bad, although we probably won’t order it again. 

The next day we drove out to Litchfield National Park, about 75 miles south of Darwin.  There are a series of roads that wind through the park, and you can drive to various points of interest and dozens of trailheads.  Our first stop was an area with a bunch of termite mounds.  We noticed these mounds along the road on the way in, but weren’t sure what they were.  There are literally thousands of these mounds throughout the area, and some of them are 20 ft tall.

termite mounds at Litchfield National Park

We spent most of the day hiking to the various waterfalls in the park, many of which were designated swimming holes.  The outback is hot and dry during the winter months, and it was really nice to go for a swim to cool off afterward.  During the rainy season, there is flooding and some of the large saltwater crocodiles make their way inland and hang out in these swimming holes.  In the dry winter months there are only freshwater crocodiles left, which are smaller and less of a threat to humans.  We were glad not to see either.

hiking in Litchfield National Park

Unfortunately, our visit to Litchfield National Park and Crocodylus Park were about all of the time we had for tourist activities in Darwin.  We spent most of our time preparing the boat for the long and potentially boisterous ride across the Indian Ocean.  We made several trips to the grocery store to stock up on food to get us to South Africa and other supplies as well as fuel, water and propane.  We ended up staying in Darwin for only two weeks and left on August 6th.  Next stop Bali, Indonesia.

sunset over Darwin Harbor

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Papua New Guinea (2012)

After only three weeks in Vanuatu, it was time for us to keep moving.  We left Port Vila on June 16th with what looked to be a good weather window and headed towards the Torres Strait.  As we sailed out of Port Vila, we saw a police boat go by, and heard them on the VHF discussing boarding a boat and taking passengers off.  They went by us and about half an hour later we saw who they were boarding - a submarine. 

As forecasted, winds for the first five days of the passage were ESE 12-18, and we sailed dead downwind with only a poled-out genoa.  It was a rolly ride, but overall, a pleasant five days of sailing.  Andrew had some fishing success, catching a yellow fin tuna and a dogtooth tuna with very little effort.  Both fish were hooked within minutes of dropping the line in the water, using the cedar plugs he made.  Di had a less positive encounter with a fish, as one night, a flying fish flew into the cockpit and hit her in the neck.  We’ve read that the flying fish are attracted to light and will often leap towards it.  This does not bode well for us using headlamps to read during our night watches. 

By day six we started to see more squalls, quite a few with lightning.  We were in an area in the Coral Sea which is a convergence zone and prone to squalls.  They started off short lived, and were usually over in less than an hour.  By the evening on the seventh day, however, we found ourselves in the middle of a thunderstorm, with winds all over the board as far as speed and direction.  The thunder was loud and ominous, and we watched as lightning bolts lit up the sky all around us, several of them quite close to the boat.  We later learned that a Swedish boat was hit by lightning earlier, very near where we were and it fried all of their electronics.  After seven hours, we were finally out of the storm, and the lightning flashes grew more distant.  We breathed a sigh of relief to have made it through without any issues.

When we left Vanuatu, we had contemplated making a stop in Papua New Guinea.  We spoke to a French couple in Port Vila about our trip, and they recommended visiting the Louisiade Archipelago.  We didn’t have paper charts for the area, but we downloaded quite a bit of information from them before we left, including waypoints for entering the reef passes and a few guidebooks.  We did have electronic charts on our chart plotter and on our laptop through MaxSea.  We had traveled 1,000 miles since leaving Vanuatu and still had another 700 to Thursday Island in the Torres Strait.  We decided that a brief stop to rest in Papua New Guinea would be nice.

Papua New Guinea is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world, and there are reportedly 841 different languages spoken.  The majority of the population lives in traditional societies and practices subsistence-based agriculture.  Many of the tribes still have very little contact with the outside world. 

Our plan was to stop only at the Louisiade Archipelago.  This is a string of 80 small coral islands and 10 larger volcanic islands stretching out over 100 miles.  They are located southeast of the main island of New Guinea, and therefore, the first islands we came to after heading northwest from Vanuatu.  Since we were only coming in for a few days, and going to a port of entry involved a major detour over 100 miles away, we decided not to check into the country.

There is a fringing reef surrounding these islands, and as we neared the pass in the late afternoon, we knew we wouldn’t make it into the anchorage by nightfall.  So, we spent our eighth night hove to outside of the lagoon.  The next morning, we sailed in and covered the 20 miles to the island of Pana Numara.  As we approached the anchorage, a Swedish boat, Roxy, was also making its way into the bay.  Once we were both anchored, they came over to say hello and invited us over for coffee later aboard their 50 foot Hans Christian.  They had not seen another boat in the area for three weeks.  It was still early in the season, and the locals told us we were the first boats they’ve seen this year.

We caught up on sleep that night, and the next morning we had an endless stream of locals visiting us.  The first thing we noticed about the local people was their teeth, which were stained dark red.  It took us a while, but we eventually asked what was making their teeth red.  It turns out they chew something called buai (boo – eye) which is a mild stimulant.  It comes from chewing the seed of the betel nut, along with mustard (daka), which is the end of a bean like pepper.  They first dip the mustard into lime powder (kambang) and bite off the end.  When they chew it with the betel nut seed, the three ingredients mix, causing a chemical reaction which turns red.  When they chew it and spit, it looks like they are spitting out blood.

Most of the day, people from the island paddled out in their dugout canoes, looking to make a trade.  Word that we were there traveled fast, and sailing canoes came from other islands to trade with us as well.  As there aren’t any supply ships that come out to the smaller islands, trading with the dim dims (white people) is their only opportunity to get certain things without traveling long distances.  We got lots of wood carvings, shell necklaces, and fruits and vegetables.  In exchange, we traded T-shirts, rope, chisels, sandpaper, pasta, sugar, rice, batteries, fish hooks and line, paint, soap, shampoo, flashlight and a hat.

We enjoyed meeting the people, who were very friendly and happy just to stay and chat even if a trade did not work out.  Many of the islanders brought their children in the canoes with them, asking for lollies.  We didn’t have lollies, but we did have crayons and paper which we handed out instead.  They were very polite and thanked us for the crayons, but some were obviously disappointed that we didn’t have any candy. 

Pana Numara Island

After a few nights at Pana Numara, we moved to Bagaman Island, about five miles away.  It rained hard for a day and half, so we were able to fill up our water tanks.  The rain did not stop the traders, though.  We still had an endless stream of visits, and we would all sit in the cockpit under the awning waiting out the heavier downpours.

Bagaman Island

Between trading and visiting with the locals, we stayed busy working on some minor repairs, as well as getting familiar with Indian Ocean weather and reading guidebooks for destinations we plan to visit.  On our fourth day, the sun finally came out, and we made it to shore for the first time since leaving Vanuatu 13 days prior.  We landed the dinghy on the beach, and spent the afternoon walking around the village and hiking up the hill to check out the view.  The trail was very muddy due to all the rain, but the views from above were really nice.  It was interesting to see the huts where people lived.  They obviously get a bit of rain here as they were all built up on sticks a few feet above the ground. 

ashore on Bagaman Island

We were keeping a close eye on the weather, too, as the plan was to be underway again soon.  Unfortunately, a tropical disturbance was forecast to form just north of us, and we wanted to see what came of that.  There was also still an active trough spanning the Coral Sea, and we didn’t want to take our chances with more lightning storms.  Although it was fairly nice inside the protected anchorages, there was the potential for some rough weather in the Coral Sea for the next couple days.  We decided to wait a few more days to see if things settled, but move to a different anchorage.  Ulf on Roxy had told us about a nice anchorage off the island of Panasia, about 23 miles away.  We headed over while the sun was out, as we needed good light to enter the lagoon. 

The wind was blowing S 18-20, and we had a nice sail over.  As we neared the entrance, we became concerned about the exact location of the pass, as all we had were our electronic charts, and a few sentences in a guidebook to follow.  In these remote places, neither paper nor electronic charts are usually very accurate anyway.  At low tide, the swell would have broken on the reef, making the pass easy to identify.  Since we came in at high tide, the pass was difficult to see, although there were two large rocks visible that lined up with rocks on our charts on either side of the pass.  We made a very slow approach, and the depth plummeted to below 10 feet.  A few seconds later Saviah bumped the reef, and we threw it into reverse full throttle.  This was clearly not the pass.

After checking the bilge for water and thankfully finding none, we made our way a bit further north, and the darker water of the pass became obvious.  Very tentatively, we motored through and steered around the coral heads inside the lagoon.  Panasia is a long narrow island, with steep cliffs along most of the northern coast and a short stretch of white sand beach with a small village near the middle.  We dropped the anchor in 40 feet of water about 100 yards off the cliffs and soaked in the stunning scenery.  This is definitely one of the most beautiful places we have been yet. 

As we dropped the anchor, a young boy rowed over in a canoe.  We asked him if we could come to shore and walk around, and he said it was no problem.  He hung out chatting with us for a while before he worked up the nerve to ask if we had any lollies.  Shortly after he left, the people on the island boarded a large sailing canoe and rowed by us, waving and shouting “hello” and then continued on heading away from the island.  An hour later, we rowed to shore and found the village completely deserted – we had the whole island and lagoon to ourselves. 

Panasia Island

The next day, we rowed ashore and spent some time walking around.  We found a trail that led up the rocky valley and followed it up for a while.  There were terraces all along the way up with fruit trees planted.  Mostly there were bananas and po po’s, which is what they call papaya here.  There were some great views on the way up, and you could see the fringing reef and many of the islands out in the distance.   

more of Panasia Island

Back at Saviah, we went for a swim to dive on the hull and inspect the damage from hitting the reef.  Luckily, we had been going very slowly, and the only evidence of the bump was a few spots where the reef had rubbed off on the bottom.  We also dove on the anchor, and found that it was caught on some short pieces of coral that were spread around the mostly sand bottom.  We pulled in most of the chain and tied our fenders at intervals before letting it out again, to keep it floating above the coral. 

The next morning, Di was up as usual at 5 am listening to the Rag of the Air, an SSB net that gives weather forecasts for the SW Pacific.  The tropical disturbance was still in the forecast to develop very near us, so we pulled some more GRIB files and took a look.  The forecast showed 25-30 knots from the SW, SE, and E over the next 24 hours, which was concerning.  We hoisted the dinghy on board in case the anchorage became untenable and we needed to head out to sea.

During this time, we had exchanged a few emails via our satellite phone with Dave and Patricia from sailing vessel, Chameleon, in New Zealand.  They are quite involved in the Rag of the Air net we listen to, and Dave provides the weather synopsis every day.  They were very helpful and provided us with some weather information specific to our area since we were near the developing low, which confirmed our decision to stay put a little longer.

It rained all morning, and we had some gusty winds from several directions.  It was a little unnerving to have our back to the cliffs at times, but our anchor seemed to be holding.  Several times our chain caught on coral again, so we would pull it up and reposition the fenders.

The next day we breathed a sigh of relief as the low was no longer rotating, and had merged with the trough in the Coral Sea.  Unfortunately, this meant it was still not a good time to leave unless we wanted to encounter more thunderstorms.  We kept busy with various boat projects and reading but we were really ready to go.  We felt guilty for wanting to leave such a beautiful place, but we were starting to get behind schedule, and it seemed like the weather wasn’t improving. 

Later that afternoon, the sailing canoe that left shortly after we arrived came back into the pass and up onto the beach at the village.  A couple of kids rowed out in a small canoe and introduced themselves and then later, John, the father of the kids came out.  He invited us to come over to the village.  We rowed out the following day and met his family, traded a few things for some bananas and then spent some more time walking around.  He gave us two kinds of bananas, one for cooking and the other for eating raw.  Later, some other boys came out with more po po’s, coconuts, yams and pumpkins.  They grow a couple of different types of pumpkins on the island, and the ones they gave us, could be cooked and the whole thing eaten, including the skins.  They were quite good. 

John & family on Panasia Island

John told us that nobody lives on this side of the island year round.  They live on another island called Brooker about eight miles away.  There are not enough fruit trees on their island, so they have planted banana and papaya trees on terraces above the small village on Panasia.  They sail over periodically in their large sailing canoe to pick bananas and other produce from their gardens and usually stay for a few days. 

The next day, three French boats came into the anchorage, and several other sailing canoes came in from other islands as well.  They wanted to trade, but we were really running out of stuff to trade with.  Fortunately, we had a large spool of fishing line.  We traded fishing line for more produce and lobster until we had more than we needed. 

sailing canoe in lagoon at Panasia Island

We continued to check the weather, which still looked lousy.  If we left the next day, conditions would be decent for a day or two, but then a big high pressure system in the Tasman Sea was bringing trade wind surge to the tropics and high winds were forecast again on our route with lots of convection (squalls and thunderstorms). Our short stop had now turned into 11 days, and we were really starting to get frustrated.  We also weren’t technically supposed to be in the country without clearing in with customs and immigration.  We did have a two day window of decent weather.  We took a look at the limited information we had on Papua New Guinea and decided that there was a good anchorage about 170 miles west on the main island of New Guinea.  If we left early in the morning, we could make it by the following evening and then hole up there for a day.  We would check the weather along the way and keep going if it improved.  If not, at least we would be a little closer to the Torres Strait when it did improve.

Since it was 170 miles to Fife Bay, we set out from Panasia at first light.  Once the anchor was up, we motored by the beach to wave farewell to John and his family.  Several of them rowed out in their canoes to say farewell, and someone on shore blew the conch shell as we motored away. We hoisted the sails after leaving the lagoon and headed west.  We had a really nice sail for the first 24 hours and then the wind lightened.  We put up as much sail as we could, and just barely made it into Fife Bay before sunset.  As well pulled into the bay it became obvious that our MaxSea software and our GPS charts were off, and we were losing daylight quickly.  There were a couple of small submerged reefs on the electronic charts in our path, but we couldn’t figure out exactly where they were, since none of the islands were exactly where they were shown.  Fortunately several locals where out fishing in their canoes, and they were nice enough to guide us into the anchorage.  We dropped the anchor in about 50 feet, just as the sun was going down.  What a relief.

sunset in Fife Bay

We got a good night sleep and the next morning we awoke refreshed to clear skies and more visitors.  A woman named Clara and her daughter, Olive, come out to the boat.  As they approached we could see lots of fruit and were worried that they wanted to trade.  We were really running out of extra things to trade.  Fortunately, they were just giving them to us and didn’t want anything in return.  We ended up with 10 coconuts and some limes.  We kept saying we didn’t need that much, but she wouldn’t hear it.  Later her aunt and uncle and their two young sons rowed up and gave us some oranges and starfruit.   Before we knew it, all six of them were on board chatting with us in the cockpit. 

friendly locals in Fife Bay

The next morning we checked the weather again.  The high pressure system had moved east, and normal trade wind conditions finally returned to the Coral Sea.  We were looking forward to being underway again.  Our couple day stop in Papua New Guinea turned into 14 days.  We are a bit behind schedule, but waiting for the right weather is part of cruising.  We definitely don’t regret stopping though.  We enjoyed our stay on the beautiful islands, especially spending time with the local people.  We left Fife Bay on July 9th, bound for the Torres Strait.