Sulawesi to the Strait of Malacca

Borneo is divided three regions, one belonging to Malaysia, one Indonesia and one, the tiny nation of Brunei. These past 3 months cruising around Western and Northern Borneo, we crossed between the different regions several times, each time requiring us to go through the lengthy process of checking into and out of each country.

Screeds of paper work, official stamps and signatures from Immigration, Customs and Harbour Master are necessary for getting a clearance to leave one port, then repeated at the next port of entry giving us permission to enter there. This always involves several hours, sometimes a couple of days, as the offices are often in different parts of town, plus, they close 2 hrs for lunch or call to prayer at the mosque.  All we can do is smile, be polite and very patient. Entry at the next port can be made extremely difficult if there is a stamp missing!!

August 28th.

 It was just a 27mile passage to our next port in Indonesia, Nunukan. This is where the Malaysia East Rally ends and the participants head off in different directions. As we approached Nunukan we sailed through a channel that opened into a large open bay where the authorities instructed us to anchor. The interesting thing about this channel was that all the way along each bank, reaching out into the channel about 50 to 100mtrs, were thousands upon thousands of plastic bottles all attached together.  We stayed well clear and had no idea what this was, but we later learned that seaweed farming/cultivation is huge business in this part of Indonesia. At least they have found a way to reuse some of their plastic bottles.

Once anchored in Nunukan, teams of officials swarmed out to the boats. Customs, then Immigration, Police and Quarantine, who all wanted to see all of our documents, again. But this time they took our passports so they could issue our 2-month tourist visa for cruising Indonesia.  They told us they would definitely return our completed documents and our passports the next afternoon before 5:00.  We thought this was very efficient to get all our paperwork tomorrow.  So off went all our documents and passports into the oblivion of bureaucracy.

So that didn’t happen!!!!!

At 5pm there was no sign of the Harbour Master, no papers, no passports, and we want to leave first thing tomorrow morning.  The government offices had set up desks down on the wharf to help with our documents since there were so many boats in our group.

Keeping our cool, we told the officers on the wharf that we want to go to the Harbour Masters office ourselves to sort out this problem.  At first, they said definitely not – can’t do that!  A couple of us just quietly called a taxi and headed off in to town to find the Harbour Master.

Our taxi pulled up at the office with 3 of us, Lane, myself and Michel from SV Javerne, just as the staff were turning off the lights to go home for the night. The Harbour master took one look at us and called back all his staff.  He knew that he was supposed to have those done before the end of the day.  They began to pull out all our papers, which he hadn’t even looked at!!!!  After he finished Michel’s and our own papers, he started to close up but we stood our ground and said we were not leaving until we had all of the group’s papers completed.  Two hours later, with official stamps and signatures on all papers, selfie photos and big smiles, we were handed all the group’s papers and passports.   Poor guy was minutes away from leaving his office before we showed up.

August 30th

Maratua Atoll is a large coral atoll that lies in the Sulawesi Channel, 140 miles to the south of Nunukan.  Ten other boats from the rally fleet joined us as we set sail for an overnight passage to the atoll.   We wanted to arrive the next morning so we had the sun behind us as we entered a very narrow tricky pass into the lagoon. So, we arrived at the entrance the next morning after a smooth sail through the night.  The angle of the Sun for approaching the pass was good but the tide racing out of the lagoon was at maximum outgoing tidal flow. The turbulence, breaking waves and whirlpools tossed us around like a cork and even with our engine at full throttle we were advancing at 0.1 knot at times.  We were starting to look at how we could turn around and get out of this narrow coral gash through the reef while the water was racing against us.  We crept along for what seemed like forever at full throttle and every moment we were afraid the engine would blow up on us.  Finally, the knot meter read 0.2 knots, then 0.3.  We did make in in the end but it was a very close thing.  The current must have been running about 6.5 knots. 

We finally made it through to a stunningly beautiful lagoon, crystal clear waters, lots of fish and turtles swimming in the bay. Finally, here are the crystal-clear waters we have been waiting for, but the tidal currents are so strong that a refreshing dip off the boat meant hanging for dear life on to a line to avoid being swept back out the pass.

We are lucky enough to have a hairdresser on one of the yachts, so we can always look well groomed. Ashore, in the lovely colourful village we found the people very warm and welcoming.

This Atoll is an exotic destination for European and Asian Tourists and the luxury lodges dotted discretely throughout the lagoon cater for this clientele with European menus and prices.

One day we took a speed boat out to Kakaban Island to swim in a huge land-locked brackish lake for the pleasure of swimming with stingless jellyfish!!!! Snorkelling amongst them was a unique experience (although one most people would happily miss!) There were thousands of them, some like big dinner plates with 2 big eyes staring, brushing against us. Other smaller ones gently pulsating their brown skirts, swimming around us with their little ones flapping like crazy to keep up. I am so glad I was wearing my light diving skin. There are only 2 such lakes in the world, the other being in Palau in Micronesia.

September 1

We need to keep moving westwards to hopefully benefit from the last of the SE trade winds, so we set sail to the Indonesian Island of Sulawesi, 130 miles away. Unfortunately, we ended up motoring most of the way across to our first chosen anchorage. The Sulawesi Channel is hundreds of metres deep, and rises steeply very close to shore in a band of coral reefs. It was difficult to find a sandy spot to drop the anchor, not too close to shore but also not too deep.  After one night there we headed to our next planned anchorage at Donggala. Just north of Donggala we noticed a beautiful sandy beach with several lovely huts.  As we pulled in to check this area out for anchoring a motor boat came out and showed us to a mooring.  This was Prince John Dive Resort and they offered us free use of their moorings, to prevent our anchors damaging the beautiful corals.  We were not sure how well the moorings were maintained, but the weather remained calm during our stay so we slept easy and enjoyed the hospitality of the German owner of the dive resort, at his bar and restaurant.

Exactly one year ago a huge 7.5 magnitude earthquake hit Donggala and the subsequent tsunami swallowed up the city of Palu at the head of this deep valley. Over 800 people lost their lives and the city and surrounding area is still in ruins. Many people are still living in tents as they try to rebuild their city and their lives.  At the time the tsunami hit, we were sailing along the coast of Lombok, just 400 miles to the south.

After our usual re-provisioning of fresh food and Diesel in Donggala, we sailed on toward our intended stopover 35 miles down the coast.  But once we arrived at the bay, we found it impossible to approach the shore due to a massive seaweed farm extending far out from the shore.  So, with some reluctance on Lane’s part, we decided to carry on overnight down the coast to the city of Mamuju.  We arrived just as the sun was coming up. As we approached the city harbour, the morning call to prayer echoed out over the bay. Welcome to Mamuju.

This stop did not disappoint. It was a very colourful, welcoming city. Also, we found the best Pizzas we have had in months.  After a 40-minute walk we found Papa Pizza, a small hole in the wall restaurant, so we didn’t get our hopes up too high. But wow. What a surprise!! Delicious. And pancakes for dessert.

If you cast your eyes beyond the dirty streets, putrid water in open drains, trash everywhere, dangerously broken pavements, many houses in ruins, then, you will see clean, happy, well-fed and well- dressed people getting on with their lives. In the local markets there is a huge choice of local fruit and vegetables. We have never experienced any problems with the local produce.

Buying fresh chicken here was an experience!! We did request our chicken be dead, plucked and beheaded, at least.

September 15th

With a full pantry and full diesel tanks, we are now ready to set sail (or motor) back across the Sulawesi Channel to our next destination in Indonesia, the Island of Belitung 750 miles away, or about 5 or 6 days at sea. Fuel dock?? What’s that. The local people are always so willing to help make things happen, even taking several trips on their motor scooters to the local fuel station.

The expected south easterly winds didn’t show, so alas we ended up motor sailing for a day and a night. By the dusk the second day with no wind and a rolling sea, we happened to see dozens of fishing boats at anchor behind one of the islands off Kalimantan.  Seeing the fishing boats there helped us decide this must be a safe anchorage.  Normally we would not attempt to anchor at night in an unfamiliar anchorage.  Already it was getting dark and we had at least another two hours to go to get behind the island.  So, we carefully checked our charts and radar as we finally pulled in to drop anchor for a good night’s sleep.  Due to our cautious approach, we ended up rather far away from the fishing boats and consequently did not have as much protection from the wind and swell as they did.  It was a little bit windy and rough but we achieved what we wanted, a good night’s rest at anchor.

Refreshed, we set sail again early the next morning.  The winds had strengthened during the night so we were able to sail nicely without the motor running.  We enjoyed another 4 days of sailing on our way to Belitung.  However, the depth of the sea along our course was very shallow, around 20 to 30 metres deep, so you get very short choppy waves. These are most unpleasant and living on board during a passage like this becomes quite a challenge. I call it passage Pilates. Every core muscle is used in order to stay upright when moving around the lurching vessel!!!!!

Night time navigation is another challenge with literally hundreds of fishing boats, mostly drift netting. They do not have AIS but at least they are well lit. It is up to us to remain very vigilant.

After 6 days we arrived in Belitung at nightfall at an anchorage we remembered from our visit here last year. Trusting the accuracy of our chart plotter, we entered the bay and dropped our anchor next to our friends who had arrived the day before.

September 21.

Rugby World Cup was on and the All Blacks were playing South Africa, so we went along to a local resort along the beach front, called “Wreck and Rocks” in the hope of finding a big TV screen to watch it live. No luck, but we did enjoy a delicious meal while Lane and Kevin enjoyed the game none the less on this mini screen on Kevin’s phone.

We decided to check out of Indonesia here, so we spent a day with Ringo to take us all over the place to do our re-provisioning for the next couple of weeks and the usual traipsing between Immigration, Customs and harbour master. It all went very smoothly here.

We still have over 500 miles to go up the Malacca Straits as far as Port Dickson, in Malaysia which we had planned to do in short 1 or 2day hops, but some of our chosen anchorages were not ideal so we only stopped a couple of times. The problems with the anchorages are either a swell in the bay, shallow coral reefs close to shore, with very steep drop offs, none of which we can rely on for an overnight stay, especially with the huge squalls that can blow through at any time. When we did find a lovely sandy patch to drop the hook between 2 islands, the tidal current was so strong that it swung the boats in “figure of eights”, so a good restful night’s sleep was not always guaranteed, even at anchor. We keep an anchor watch alarm to warn us of any change from our original position.

After crossing the equator once again, northbound, our next destination was Port Dickson, a 2 day sail up the infamous Malacca Straits. Infamous for the very busy shipping channels heading both north and south, fishing vessels with nets, and the strong winds and tidal currents that whip through the channel. We are here during the transition period between the strong SE trades and North West monsoon. We were hoping to catch the end of the SE trades but ended up instead with almost no wind and motored most of the way. Huge impressive thunder storms with fork lightening are almost a daily occurance. There is nothing we can do except hope we are not unlucky enough to get struck by lightning, as several of our cruising friends have had, with much damage to the boat and destruction of all electronics.

The large ships are easier to predict with their AIS systems. At one time we had over 300 vessels around us as this is the main east west shipping channel between The Indian Ocean, Singapore, China and the Pacific Ocean. Occasionally we do have to call ships if we are on collision course, but the captains are usually very pleasant, speak reasonable English, as we plan the action needed to avoid disaster.

At the beginning of October, we sailed into Admiralty Marina, Port Dickson which is in Malaysia, so off we had to trot once again to Customs, Immigration and Harbour Master with all our paperwork for signing and stamping, giving us a 90-day visa to stay in Malaysia. But we still need to announce our arrival at each and every port to repeat the same formalities.

The next stop up the coast of Malaysia is Pangkor where there is an excellent marina and haul out yard.  This is where we have chosen to haul out Mai Tai to redo the antifouling and leave her on the hard for 3 months while we go travelling to Penang, Malaysia and Cambodia, then we go to visit family in the US and NZ.

There is a very interesting cruising community here, people from all over the world, many who have been cruising for decades. The more we discuss each other’s travels, the more we realise just how much there is to see and do in this area. When we get back after Christmas, we will make plans for our next season cruising.  There are so many options and we are feeling very fortunate to be living this chosen lifestyle.


  1. WOW ! You 2 are such intrepid travellers. We do so enjoy reading your blogs. Joan & Claude xx

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