We are cruising in a different world.
After nearly 3 wonderful months away travelling, visiting family and friends, we got back to Mai Tai which we had left hauled out in Pangkor boat yard for all those necessary jobs, ready for the next couple of years of cruising. We had some of the work done by the boat yard crew while we were away, but for 5 weeks we worked long hours to have Mai Tai ready to go again.
Pangkor is a hub for cruisers so we enjoyed catching up with friends from all over the world at Yacht Club BBQs, Chinese New Year celebrations and enjoying local restaurants.
We all have our own agendas, our own dreams to chase, but the cruising routes are governed by weather and seasons, so we are sure to meet up again somewhere.
After launching and completing all the necessary paperwork for clearance out Malaysia, we set sail for the Island of Penang, to apply for our Indonesian visas at the Indonesian Embassy there. Penang is a very busy hub for shipping and tourism, so our trip up the Straits of Penang, ducking under 2 bridges that connect the island with the mainland of Malaysia, was challenging. One of these bridges is 24 kms long. This will be the last of city lights and high rises for a few months. We enjoyed a few days in the Straits Quay Marina in Penang, before continuing on to the Island of Langkawi, in Malaysia.
Another day of officialdom to check back in to Malaysia. Then we do the rounds of local supermarkets, topping up our already full food storage areas with lots of basic foods, as we don’t know what shopping will be like in the remote Islands which will be our cruising ground for the next 3 or 4 months.
We are sailing with an Indonesian Government sponsored rally called the West Sumatra Rally. Of course, the rally was planned ages ago, long before Covid 19 hit.
A month ago, there was no problem here. Well, we knew that China was having a problem with the Carona Virus but it hadn’t affected the planned rally here in Indonesia. So, we signed up for the rally and applied for our Indonesian visas, which were granted. This was the 25th of February. A week later we left Langkawi, Malaysia for Sabang, (a clearance port into Indonesia), on the island of Pulau Weh. Pulau Weh is a small island off the north coast of Sumatra, near Banda Aceh (known for the 2004 tsunami destruction).
The passage across from Malaysia was very nice, tropical breeze and a full moon. Two nights and three days later we arrived and cleared in. The Indonesian authorities took our temperatures, asked some questions and declared us healthy – we were allowed to land. We are now officially in Indonesia.
It is stunningly beautiful here and since we are almost on the Equator (02 degrees north) it is hot, muggy and everyday there is thunder, lightning and rain showers.
Two days later we were touring the island of Pulau Weh on motor scooters and swimming in a natural pool under a waterfall in the jungle, dining at a beachside restaurant for lunch, and enjoying the lush tropical rainforest.
The next day, back in town, we were called to a meeting with the harbour master to be told that the island was closed and that we could no longer come ashore. And that we had to leave the port within 24 hours. The world as we knew it had changed.
That was on the 17th of March. They were very polite and apologetic but they had no choice. They did arrange for some of the locals to take our shopping lists and do our grocery shopping for us. They also brought diesel fuel down to the dock for us. This was supposed to be the starting point of the Rally so there were about 30 boats in the harbour from around the world. Luckily, the cruisers are a flexible bunch and everyone just adjusted their plans to the new reality. Some of the boats decided to sail back to Malaysia or Thailand before they closed as well. Others, like us chose to stay, even though the rally was essentially finished. We figured we could find a quiet bay somewhere to ride this out for a month or so or until our visas run out.
As days passed, Malaysia and Thailand closed their borders. We were now officially stuck in Indonesia. The Rally Coordinator, Raymond, has become our helper and guide through this mess even though the rally was finished. He is Indonesian and works for the Department of Tourism. He is also really well connected throughout the country. With his help we are able to get to villages that will help us re-supply and buy fuel even though we cannot go ashore. So, for two weeks we have not left the boat accept to join a couple of other boats for dinners a few times.
No one in the rally knows when things will open up again and we are all living a bit on the edge anyway so we are making the most of a very bad situation. There have been a few situations where the locals are causing problems. These instances are few and far between, but a few days ago one of the rally boats had rocks thrown at them by the locals while they were trying to anchor and they were yelling “f##k off”. Another instance was when a police boat approached one of the rally boats at anchor in a remote bay with spot lights flashing at midnight yelling that they had to leave the bay immediately. Rumours have it that the Aceh Provence (the northern half of Sumatra) is the home of a radical Muslim population. It seems they would like to see all westerners leave anyway and are spreading a rumour that westerners are spreading this dreaded disease through their country. Who knows?
We have not experienced anything like this personally. Our experience, so far, has been of wonderful, friendly, smiling people that are very sad to lose the tourist dollar, which definitely affects their livelihood. They are all suffering much more than us.
The rally boats don’t move around together in a large group. We travel in sort of loose groups of two or three boats. That gives us some security while not overwhelming the small villages.
In a few days, our rally group as a whole, which is now only about twenty boats, will meet up for the first meeting since we were all kicked out of Sabang. We are meeting in South Port, on Nias Island. Hopefully we will receive good news about access to food and fuel. We could use a walk to stretch our legs as well but that is unlikely to happen. It seems so strange to be able to move Mai Tai around to different anchorages but not be able to go ashore and meet the locals as we did two years ago in Indonesia. We do swim everyday around the boat, unless there are crocodiles in the area. And daily yoga stretches for kay.
What does the future hold for us? We really don’t know. If things close down so tight that we can’t get food and fuel here then we would have to try and sail back to New Zealand. However, that would be a real ordeal if we are not allowed to stop on the way to re-provision. Also, assuming we would only leave if we could no longer buy food and fuel in Indonesia it would stand to reason that we would already be low on provisions before even starting for NZ. In the other direction, all of the countries ahead of us are closed as well. We would either go around South Africa or up the Red Sea to the Med. All the countries we would sail through on these two routes are closed to foreigners. We have sailing friends currently stuck in countries all over the world. Who said there is freedom in cruising the world?
As we write this the Indonesian Government have just offered the rally group the use of a small private island. It is only 70 miles from where we are, offers a safe anchorage, where we can go for walks, swim, snorkel and share BBQs on the beach.
The downside, (even paradise isn’t perfect) There is no cell tower so no internet coverage. We will just have to live without these luxuries for a while. So, we are well stocked with food and fuel and tonight we will leave Teluk Dalam and head to our own island so we can concentrate on chilling out for a few weeks or so.