Saturday, December 28, 2013

The tempest transit

We hoisted our anchor on December 21st to leave Kumai (Indonesia) where we had spent 3 fabulous days with the orangutans, an experience we will never forget!

It took 2.5 hours to motor down the long river before reaching the expansive and shallow bay. About 3 nautical miles offshore under a brisk sail, we heard a solid thump. Jordan immediately thought it was a log from the river. But no log was visible. Then again, a thump, thump. He rechecked our electronic charts which showed extreme shallows a half mile to our starboard. We knew then that the charts were off that much and we were bouncing off the rubble bottom. We immediately turned away and escaped a grounding!

Once out of the bay, the light was fading and the wind was building. We were on about a 500-nautical mile (925 km) passage to Batam Island, our Indonesian checkout point, just across the channel from the Island nation of Singapore. The route would first take us along the south coast of Kalimantan (Borneo), then out to the open waters of the South China Sea.

The first night, the seas were implacable. We were fighting strong winds mostly on the nose and intense squalls and lightning from storm cell after storm cell. We were making maybe 1 knot to the good and paying the price for it.

As we were approaching the last point before open seas, we decided to take refuge behind the point but still somewhat exposed. We anchored (S02°55.268' E110°30.250') at the southwestern end of Borneo in the inky black of the night to wait it out.

By dawn, we had a few hours of peace and sleep. The winds and rain seemed to have died a bit so we pulled anchor at midday and started our tacking out of the expansive bay. Soon we came upon rows of fishing boats with nets stretched across our path. The first boat frantically waved and directed us away around his net line which lost us valuable distance-made-good.

Then another fishing boat's line required us to tack. After about 4 of these encounters, Jordan said "The heck with it. I'm going right over them." Our hull shape is cut-away, transitioning into a full keel with an attached rudder so we knew the line would slide over the bottom and out the back. Still a nervous move not only for us but you should have seen the excited waves and shouts of the fishermen! We just waved back and continued. "Crazy sailors!"

Once around the point and heading out to the South China Sea, the winds picked up to a full gale, again right on the nose with short steep waves. To get a good angle, we motor-sailed with tight reefing. But the bashing was taking its toll. Finally Jordan said to me "This is really not a good decision."

We were just starting the open waters and this weather could last for days. At that rate, it would take us 10 days of bashing. We decided to turn around; a move that proved even wiser when soon after Jordan looked up and saw a broken and unravelling strand of wire at the top of our backstay. He relieved the pressure of the vulnerable stay by affixing the running backstay with a strong cinch and kept the reefed mainsail in a bit more. We were still in a gale but running with the wind and waves made all the difference in the world. Things calmed down and we could semi-relax a bit.

The next morning at one point, we heaved to for about 15 minutes till a tempestuous squall passed before continuing our downwind run. We were heading back to Bali. It was a 4-day backtrack and a tough but only option as we had to regroup. At this point, we also had to address our soon to expire Indonesian visitor's visas and Bali was the closest practical place to do this.

Around 10:00, we could see a freighter coming up from behind and it became evident that we would be on converging paths. Our sail and rigging were set so Jordan made calls to the freighter to change course. No reply at first but finally in broken English "I see you. No problem. I change." We could see Barent Sea change course slightly to pass behind us and the Captain came on the radio "Sea Turtle, can I take a picture?" Jordan replied "Of course!"

That was an unusual request we thought. A sailboat is common in these waters and not that much of a novelty. But then we realized we must look pretty vulnerable in the gale's high seas. When we stood in the cockpit and watched as at some points our line of sight to the freighter bridge disappeared behind the height of the waves, it gave us a gauge at just how big the seas were and it must have been impressive to the freighter observers. But Sea Turtle was handling it good and we felt safe running downwind.

As we approached the big Island of Bali from the north end on December 26th, the winds died. So we started the Perkins at 10:30. Our destination was around the far south side of the Island and our course would take us through a pass between Bali and Lombok Island to the east. These passes between islands here are notorious for strong gap winds and very strong currents. Add to that, this particular pass is on a main path for international sea traffic. We saw a number of behemoths transitting past.

At midday on the 27th, we came to the east point of Bali. Our destination was almost in sight. Close, but it would prove to be far. As we rounded the point, we were hit with winds from the direction of our destination and an opposing current. We motor-sailed into very short waves that stopped us abruptly. The GPS ship on our electronic charts showed 0 knots. We spent a frustrating 14 hours making about 9 nautical miles (16.6 km), bashing and tacking.

The one pleasant thing was the beautiful sunset. For the last couple of hours to the entrance of the harbour of our destination, the winds and current died to give us a final relief. In front of the harbour's tricky entrance, we drifted for an hour or so until the sun came up for a safe entrance.

Finally we picked up a mooring ball at 05:45 on December 28th (S08°43.185' E115°14.434') back at the Royal Bali Yacht Club (a malapropos misnomer). These weary sailors were so relieved to have this arduous passage behind them. "Tell me again, why are we doing this?" But we knew the next day would put it back in a balanced perspective!

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