Monday, August 15, 2011

A Race, a Mountain, a Lot of Trouble and a River

Since our last blog, we have been in a Race (the Borneo International Yacht Challenge, whee haa!!), into a wonderful mountain nature reserve (Mount Kinabalu), had a period with an awful lot of troubles, and been up a lovely river (Sungai Kinabatangan). So that’s what this next story is all about….

A Race….. The Borneo International Yacht Challenge (BIYC)

(Also entitled: Much Ado About Nothing…. Or, getting long-winded about being short of wind)

The BIYC is an annual yachting series that takes place with short inshore races in Miri and Kota Kinabalu(KK) and a long offshore race between these two cities of the states Sarawak and Sabah. Cruisers participating in the Sail Malaysia Rally are cajoled into joining to swell the numbers because, although there are some strong entrants (ie real racers) to these races (maybe…. 2?), there are so few it would be an embarrassment to the organisers. In this case, “cajole” means give dinners and a free night in a hotel…. So cruising yachties are THERE!!

In fact, even amongst our rally group there are some country-record holders (and a world..... the guys with the long-drop toilet, from the last blog!). These guys all took it seriously, unpacking all they could from their boats to have it transported overland to KK for collection after racing was finished. Not for them, racing with the extra weight of a dinghy, generator, washing machine, 8 jerry cans of extra fuel / water, compressor, dive tanks..!

Well, what a learning experience this all was for us, the Ketoro crew. These are SAILING races. Not motoring. No engines allowed. But wind is required to sail, and there was no wind. We on Ketoro like wind, and if there is no wind, we have two engines which we usually use...

Day 1.... Round-the-buoys race just outside the Miri Marina. Boats had to go off in batches, according to class, with catamarans in the second batch, 5 min between batches. Imagine 40 boats milling around and meandering in and out of others’ way to get themselves in a good place to speed off at the start but not bashing into each other. And 4 min from the start no engines allowed. And no wind.

Ketoro crew had as biggest concerns...1: don't bash people, 2: don't get in the way of a serious fellow and be called in front of the committee in protest. So our strategy was to start at the back of our group. Therefore we were some way back (and very far from the start line) when we got the 4 minute signal - and switched off engines. In our cruising, we have never practised getting somewhere under sail with no wind (rule has always been to switch on engines at 4 knots or slower), so it was with great interest we found that.... You don't. Or rather, it is excruciatingly slow.

The summary of this race is as follows: call was given for multihull engines to go off and start approaching the start line; Ketoro sits like a sloth in the water; Ketoro reaches the start line 15 minutes later, then the tide almost pushes her into collision with the starter boat / committee boat at the start line (no wind to use to get away); Ketoro happily retires from the race when other cruisers start calling in the same intention. Go get a beer.

Day 2.... 170 mile race from Miri to KK. In these passage races, you may start your engines 30 minutes after the start, but incur penalties, and must write down on-and-off times and positions very diligently to hand in to the organisers at the end. Sailors try not to motor at all; we had 48 hours to get to KK.

Picture the start... As before, but this time we were EXPERIENCED! So this time it only took us about 5 minutes to get to the start line, and we were off (well, snail-style), jostling for position with these two boats.

Actually, there was a tiny amount of wind so we made as much use as we could of it, as did most (although some started their engines at 30 minutes and switched off when they got to KK). Ultimately, we sailed for 8.5 hours in total, at a speed of at best 4 knots: however, that also included current of 1.5 knots taking us in the right direction, so you can see the wind was almost zero.

Two good things... we caught a great 3 foot plus Spanish Mackerel that fed us for ages, and also we have learned a fair amount about what we CAN do with the boat with no wind, which we had never allowed ourselves the chance to attempt. However, after a while you throw in the towel to keep your sanity, so we then motor- sailed another 18 hours to the end, as fast as we could … got in exhausted and exceedingly hot, with blinding headache.

Now we come to the funny bit…. We came second in this passage race!!! Nobody was more surprised than us, but some of the big guys gave up on the no wind and went shopping at a duty-free island en route, and it seems we actually sailed quite well too! Interestingly, one of those that shed load and boat contents to keep boat weight down, also discarded almost all his fuel... Resulting in them running out of fuel, and another boat sailing at the back (also a serious racer) having to wait and help them out.

The rest of the races at KK were an echo of day 1 (short races, no wind…) so we decided we had found our niche…. Long distance… and would sit those out!

A Mountain: Mount Kinabalu National Park

So the race had taken us to Kota Kinabalu (KK, in Sabah state), a city with nothing to show of its history since it had been flattened almost entirely during WWII.

Enjoying a free few days at its nice (expensive) marina, we took a trip into Borneo nostalgia on the recently-refurbished North Borneo vintage train pulled by a British Vulcan steam engine and were treated to a wonderful evening show displaying the cultural dances of the local minority groups.

KK is a base to visit what Sabah state offers best: nature. With a climb to the summit of Mount Kinabalu being deemed too expensive, we hired a car and wound our way up through the lush countryside to spend a few days in the reserve on the slopes of this famous mountain.
Mount Kinabalu has many peaks, but the summit stands at 4095m, the highest peak in SE Asia.
Kinabalu Park is a 750 sq km ecological paradise with over 1000 species of orchids amongst other beautiful flowering plants, weird pitcher plants, magnificent oaks and chestnut trees supporting diverse mammal, bird and insect populations, many of them being endemic to Borneo. The park is set up with lots of interleaving trails that allow you to hike as little (Rolf) or as much (Irene) as you want…. Or somewhere in the middle!! And one of the best things about the park?.... the temperature!! It is a cool 20 degrees!
Many of our cruising friends are Australian, and Borneo houses much important and poignant WWII history for them; thus it was that while we were in the area we went with some to the Kundesang War Memorial, which taught us about three terrible and infamous 160 mile death marches in which 2428 Australian and British POWs died.

A Lot Of Trouble: boat bothers and a burglary

There is a mantra in cruising that says: Don’t make plans, because they will not work out. Well, we continue to challenge this …. And have again been taught the lesson!

We left KK with a week-long trip to Sandakan (also in Sabah state)to look forward to, entering the Sulu Sea on the east of Borneo for the first time, in which we were going to sail manageable legs daily, anchor and rest and mostly MAKE BIG DECISIONS AND PLANS ABOUT OUR SAILING IN THE SHORT- AND LONG TERM.

With such anticipation, we set off and were not too disturbed when on the first evening we could not drop the mainsail, eventually managed (much associated stress) and Irene spent the last few hours of daylight up the mast doing repair work.

On the second day we were more disturbed when the water pump of one engine died and we had to get much further than anticipated, to borrow a makeshift spare part, thus anchoring at dusk where the spare-bearing yachtie friend was anchored. Rolf worked on the engine (under our bunk, hence the S/B hull was turned upside down) till 10pm, setting up a system that would carry us to Sandakan where we hoped to find someone who could supply spares, do some welding and also order a new pump.

Off to shower… and the fresh-water pump died. Now we could not get water out of any of our taps, but luckily we had two 25l jerry cans for emergencies. Not so… They had sprung leaks and were empty. The water pump is housed in the tiny space behind the freezer… remove freezer frame, remove freezer, remove pump, squeeze in and get to work. No joy. Get to bed, utterly exhausted, bruised and demoralised (and dirty and hot and smelly…. But the sea is wet and cool).

The next day Irene did the sailing as Rolf worked on the pump, and by sundown we had water. We anchored off an island (really beautiful but too exhausted to go on shore) and set off the next day to get to Sandakan. On this trip Rolf worked on the S/B toilet (also not functioning) … this task eventually took about 24 hours of solid work (including hugely fun stuff like clean out toilet discharge pipes and black-water tank and put in new plumbing: photo below shows Rolf squeezed in a locker alongside the black-water tank, sponging up the brown stuff that came out of said tank….) before he improvised a temporary solution.
The first night at anchor in Sandakan (with view from the boat seen below) we were burgled while we slept…. They (were they from the fishing village at the foot of the Mosque? Or were they illegal Philippinos, as claimed by the police?) came on board, stole money (we had just been to the ATM to be able to pay for the new engine water pump), torch, camera (yes, with photos, but not too many… the ones we would have liked to show you of Rolf in his miniscule freezer space, cursing, mostly!), a basket and cushion! They enriched themselves grandly from two other boats.

The following day was spent doing police-associated things. The next day the generator failed to charge the house batteries... this is the only task now outstanding (besides the usual myriad of normal boat tasks, including cleaning rust and mould) and needs an electrician: the skipper has now developed an incredible skill-set, but it does not (yet) extend to the electronics of generators and invertor-chargers.

There is a superstition in sailing that says: Do not embark on a voyage on a Friday. We had left KK on a Friday. Let’s not go there….

A River: Sungai Kinabatangan

The famous diverse wildlife of the 560km Kinabatangan River and its floodplains attracted us to attempt a trip up the river in Ketoro – well, to about 80km upriver, at which point there are power lines across the river that are too low for most masted boats to get under.
So, with most boat issues under control and fingers tightly crossed, we set off from Sandakan… and what a wonderful adventure it was. The river has two entries into the Sulu Sea (east side of Borneo) and we chose to enter at the northern mouth and exit the southern, with a trip (heading west from an intersection somewhere in the middle) that would take us deeper into primary jungle and its associated animal and bird life.
River trips are a challenge because of their variable depths and the fact that they are not charted, so it is to some extent hit and miss; or rather, common sense and very slow, careful forward motion on this languid water, monitoring your depth constantly and with timing dependant on the tides; in our case we also had co-ordinates for some areas. It is an advantage to sail a catamaran as they have shallower drafts than monohulls: one of the monohulls became grounded while attempting his entry into the river, and ultimately some of them abandoned the attempt to stick to ocean travel.
Many decades ago, Borneo was almost all primary jungle. Then the world’s desire for wood and palm oil was noted... and jungle was eradicated in massive logging programs, with huge plantations of nipa palm established instead. This trip up the river would take us to some original jungle. As we got deeper into the river, the oil plantations gave way to forest, and the sight of these old trees and dense layers of bushes, creepers and ground covers was awesome and inspirational, showing different faces in the brilliance of sunlight and early morning mists.
Children ran out waving from their stilted houses in the few tiny villages and it was fun to see the small painted boats of the fishermen, with names Top Gun, E-type and similar! These are communities of Orang sungai (people of the river) of whom many are subsistence fishermen but some work at resorts dotted along the river.
Apparently the lower Kinabatangan is one of only two places on earth where 10 primate species are found: at anchorages and from dinghy forays into the smaller tributaries we watched macaque and proboscis monkeys (endemic to Borneo, the latter are really weird looking: males with big noses and beer-bellies), and a rare sighting of orang utans in the wild on one of our dinghy trips was a treat. We also saw squirrels and bats, hornbills of many varieties (the biggest used to be killed for its bill, which was used for carvings), eagles, kingfishers, monitor lizards and crocodiles.
The river is also inhabited by cloudy leopards, small rhinoceros and pygmy elephant, none of which we saw... except we are probably the only people in the world to have driven over an elephant and not noticed it: the people in the boat behind us saw one leave the water after we had sailed down over where it was apparently crossing!

There is a sorry catch to this magnificent river: it is exceptionally muddy, as are almost all the rivers in Borneo. Evidently 20 years ago it was pristine.... and then the logging started, palm oil plants were established and tugs move up and down the river pulling barges with logs or sand or palm oil (like this one) . So the jungle that we saw from the water is in fact now only a few hundred metres deep, with much of the island being under oil palm plantations... and with all the logging comes erosion and mud.
Putting a white fibreglass boat into this mud meant that everything became dirty… absolutely filthy would be more accurate a description. And of course you cannot wash anything off, as the water you have in your tank has to last for the duration of the journey (you cannot use muddy river water in the water-maker as it will clog the filters).

Then, of course, being on a still river in this tropical climate increases the humidity levels enormously (above a level which is already intolerable). Sometimes you feel as though the heat has you under siege. There is just nothing you can do and nowhere to escape… no water to jump into (mud and crocodiles), no luxury of a cooling shower, besides the one daily (water rations), no aircons (power issues). Rain often looked imminent but the promise was never fulfilled: that would have been a treat to stand under, wash the boat with, and catch to put in the tanks!
However, none of this detracted from our enjoyment of this incredible privilege: to be on our own boat on this ancient river in Borneo which had seen so much history and provides a life line to villagers, wildlife and a country’s industries. To see life on the river, the shapes and sizes and vibrant greens of the vegetation of a primary forest; to enjoy the antics of the animals, reptiles, birds and butterflies, some of which are endemic and peculiar to this land – just amazing.