The weather in this part of the world is very unpredictable, varying from dead flat calm with no wind at all, a gentle breeze may come up during the day, then the squalls blow through, so in planning an overnight passage, it is not always easy to get the perfect conditions.
The day we chose to sail over to Natuna couldn’t have been more ideal. We figured the 120 miles would take us about 24 hrs at 5 knot average, so we set off at 12 midday in order to sail through the night to make landfall during the morning. If we go faster than the 5 knots, then we can slow down to arrive after sunrise, or if the wind dies and we go slower, then we still have time in the day to make landfall before night.
We ended up getting a steady 15 knots, just forward of the beam, a lovely comfortable reach for a magic carpet ride through the night on flat calm seas without touching our sails once. Truly a dream passage.
As we were dropping the anchor in a lovely bay on the north of Natuna, we could see dark clouds accumulating on the horizon. Sure enough, within an hour a huge squall hit with its usual thunder and lightning announcing its arrival, but we were now safely at anchor. Ashore we could see a large settlement that we later learned was an Indonesian military base for 1000 personnel. There have been many conflicts in these islands over the years, so Indonesia has good reason to guard its borders from invaders. Natuna is the main island of the Indonesian Riau Islands Province with 52,000 inhabitants
We rested for the day then continued 10nms down the coast to Selahang where we would stay for the next 5 or 6 days.
Our anchorage in Selahang, a large bay lying at the foot of a 1000m volcano named Mt Ranai, was a great anchorage in 4m on sand with plenty of room for all the rally boats to swing on their anchors. This is very reassuring with the fickle winds and rain that can swoop down off the mountain nearly every day. The heavy rains are a welcome respite from the intense, oppressive heat. Also, the water here is clean enough for swimming, a luxury that will be coming to an end once we reach the coastal, crocodile infested waters of Sarawak.
Customs and immigration officers came and set up a temporary office under the palm trees for us to complete our entry formalities. Once they had taken our passports, the tourism team stepped in, greeting us with huge smiles, eager to make our stay as pleasant as possible. Over the next week they would organise trips to the local market, ATM machines, car and motor cycle hire and information on the tours and festivities that have been planned for us.
They had even set up a floating dock for us to leave our dinghies ashore, much to the amusement of all the local kids who spent hours swimming and jumping from its precarious planks, greeting us with huge smiles and hellos while the older ones posed for selfies. Such happy, wonderful people.
With our friends, Susie and Kevin off Temptress of Down, we hired a car one day to do market shopping and take ourselves on a tour to the southern part of the island which is 58kms long. We saw mangrove swamps, muddy rivers with the stilt houses on the river banks and lots of small fishing boats tucked into the shoreline. The huge boulders seen scattered all over the island are a large part of their tourism, with eco lodges built on and around them. The people are poor by our standards, but really lack for nothing. They appear very happy, very generous, and very clean. The people are Muslim and every village has its mosque.
We came back to a games day that had been organised by the local community. Cruisers against the locals. They love this and all the children really get into it. Then there is always food served by the villagers, proud to have us taste their local specialities.
One day we drove for nearly 2 hrs over the roughest of roads to one very isolated fishing village where we were entertained with welcome ceremonies, special local foods, and tours of their beautiful colourful village built on stilts over the river. And, of course, always lots of photos.
The villages smell strongly of cloves. All along the walkways in front of the houses, cloves are out drying in the sun, Cloves grow wild in the nearby forest and once dried are used in making their cigarettes. Apparently, it makes them taste better and we noticed that a huge number of men smoke.
Natuna Island has been a wonderful stop but now it is time to move to our next destination, Sarawak, on the Island of Borneo. The rally has organised events in Kuching, but we need to consider wind and sailing conditions before heading out.
Back to customs and immigration to retrieve our passports, get our clearance from Indonesia with permission to enter our next port in Sarawak. Because of supposedly better winds, several of us decided to sail to Miri, another port further to the north. For the 250mile passage we needed to be sailing for 2 nights and 3 days, so we lifted anchor around 7pm and set off for the first night, in company with 2 other yachts.
The winds were very light and not really the angle we had hoped for, so we ended up sailing, but mostly motor sailing, for most of the trip. The 3 boats sailed within 2 to 5 miles of each other, enough to keep up VHF chats along the way. It is reassuring with all the fishing boats, logs, and oil rigs that are scattered in these seas to maintain this close connection. The second evening when we were 120 miles from our next port, we were hit by a squall with winds of 30 to 35 knots. As evening was approaching, we took the precaution to reef down our mainsail and drop the genoa, and sail with our staysail and reefed main. The squall passed us with no problems, however we noticed our friends who were about 2 miles behind had come to a stop, confirmed on AIS. We could see their mainsail flapping so a quick VHF call confirmed that their in-mast roller furling had failed and as a result their mainsail was in tatters, split in half. Their roller furling genoa was also torn, so Don went below to start the engine to continue with just the motor. We hung about until they were under way again. But now the engine was overheating and despite exploring all the usual reasons for this, nothing worked. Engine dead.
This is why it is wise to travel with company if at all possible, especially in such remote areas of the ocean as this. It could be weeks before you could get local assistance. Following a radio discussion between the 3 boats, we offered to give them a tow. Mai Tai was the closer of the two boats so we went back to get the tow under way. The other boat stayed close by, just in case. We have all the equipment which includes 200 metres of 8 braid nylon line (which is also our stern anchor line), a 100m nylon float rope with ball to help pass the heavy tow rope to the other boat, plus Lane’s knowledge and experience. The sea was rather choppy but the tow throughout the night went very smoothly, so that at daylight we successfully passed the tow line to the other boat to continue towing to Miri. We had towed the boat for ten hours, right through the night.
We arrived at the marina entrance at 4pm, only a couple of hrs before low tide which was a risk that we were willing to take. With just 40cms under our keel at one stage, we got in just in time and were comfortably docked at our marina berth before nightfall.
The others were not so lucky and had to anchor outside in a horribly choppy sea to enter at high tide the next morning.
We plan on doing some exploring of Borneo from here, so will post those adventures in our next blog.