Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Crossing that sea again

It generally takes us a while to put up a blog posting, because we like to reflect on a place and how we feel about it objectively before sharing our feelings and telling the tales (alternatively, we simply didn’t get around to it earlier!)
But sometimes it is necessary to just vent!!

This is that time: exhausted, having had many intense experiences, we want to get the story off our chests and the head-pictures onto paper; so here, unpolished, is the story of our latest crossing of the South China Sea. This sea evidently has a reputation for sudden tantrums because it is fairly warm and shallow (lots of energy waiting for destructive release), compounding the usual wind and pressure factors. We were to go from Miri in Sarawak (Borneo) to Singapore across this same sea that we wrote of in “Moving House” (June). We hoped it would be a more gentle voyage and allow for more sailing; the grib weather files told us the wind would initially be “on the nose” (that’s not good) but fairly mild and then from the south (“on the beam” – that’s good). There had been a typhoon in Japan to trouble the waters but we set off on Thursday at the back end of this, knowing (!) it would clear.

We expected discomfort, so accepted it: not to say that this fact made it any less uncomfortable… we needed to get our sea legs back, clearly, and also our sea tummies! But the day passed uneventfully with our watches proceeding well; with the wind and the sea “on the nose” a bit, sails were up but it was difficult to maintain a course so we used engines as well, and went uncomfortably into the waves. Then the dolphins came. Very few things can beat the sight of a fin or two breaking the surface of the sea and coming towards your boat…. then the sight of many more as they come from all around to leap and roll and play in the bow wave of the boat. We stand or sit on the front and beam at the dolphins like idiots, certain that they turn and look at us and smile, and also certain that they are a good omen: we will make this passage.

Some time later the sea was a bit calmer, and we hoped the rest would be plain sailing. We so loved one whole day of just the sounds of the sea and the rigging, no noisy engines, and the wind speeds gave us flight. However, early the next morning an ominous, pitch black sky coming at us from the west warned us to deal with the sails (we were going to put in two reefs but during the operation at the last moment decided to drop the sail entirely) so we were reasonably prepared when this incredible black line of squalls thundered into us with their 40 knot winds. The transition from 14 knots to 40 knots is literally a few seconds. This meant that the sea was now ultra-grumpy for many hours after the storm passed and Ketoro went into them, crashing and banging, rising and falling and rolling over. We got grumpy too, but heard on the radio from friends, slightly further north than us and in stronger gusts, who ripped their main sail in the winds. We were at least intact.

So it went. Faring as well as we could, eating well and often and healthily but not gourmet stuff, sleeping on our off-watches when we could and trying to make forward progress, but frustrated at the mind-numbingly slow speeds imposed by sailing into big seas and big winds with strong current against us too. Everything was sodden: sea water came over the top of the deck and up into the windscreen, it came round the sides and saturated us and all it could find. It is difficult to describe what it is like when every surface you touch is encrusted with slippery salt grime, and that includes us too. Then the rain came from all sides and finished off the job of saturation - but at least washed off some of the salt grime. The boat inside was in as much disarray as it has ever been, with things falling and tumbling about. We have subsequently found that after the Japan typhoon, a major typhoon set up north-west of the Philippines and our weather was being affected by this.

The shipping out here was easily manageable, although it always needed careful monitoring and action: in this case the AIS triangles show 2 boats on a collision course with us (and the pink dot without triangle is a fishing boat without AIS – his speed and direction we must estimate differently). Mostly other boats see what is around and ahead of them and adjust course accordingly; sometimes we called them up by radio to ensure they had seen us and to confirm a strategy.

All passages have golden moments, and this one offered us the dolphins which came in many pods to visit us and boost our morale. The tuna also kindly gave themselves to us (5 in 3 days) so the freezer is full and we are fish-replete!

At the western side of the South China Sea are the shipping lanes providing for ordered traffic leaving and entering Singapore for or from the east (Hong Kong, Japan, China, Bangkok, etc). There are also huge areas where these giants simply anchor off to await instructions. We needed to cross these shipping lanes and had planned to get there at dawn on the Monday, cross the channel in daylight, anchor for 30 minutes nearby in order to do some necessary boat things, then set off alongside the shipping lanes to reach the marina in Singapore in the late afternoon.

Plans? Oh well. We got to the start of the shipping channel about 4am on Tuesday, having picked our way in the still-grumpy sea around the edges of the giant “car park” and (and dodging those ships that were suddenly getting underway themselves). Near the shipping channel, the storms hit; massive winds, huge rains, visibility miserable both actual and on the radar screen: all we saw was rain-reflected smudge across the screen. Excuse the terrible photo, but it gives an idea of the usefulness of the screen on the right to us... normally we would see the ships as yellow blips here!

The shipping channel is about 3 miles wide, traffic going one way down one side and the other way down the other (if you know what we mean…). We figured we would need about 40 minutes to cross (at the speed we could maintain in the current conditions), and knew that some of these ships travel at up to 24kn, so we needed the closest ship to be 3 miles away or we could not set off. That of course was for one lane; and we needed the same thing for the other lane, and the second gap needed to occur exactly when we reached the middle…

We turned round and dawdled on the outskirts, thinking to wait for the storm to pass. BUT. All shipping in the channels around Singapore are supposed to use AIS, hence we see them on the screen as little triangles pointing (mostly) in the direction they are supposedly going. We spotted a gap in the outbound traffic nearest us and a big gap the other side, so hopefully that would give us time to cross. We decided to make a run for it…. Oh my word! A fairly torrid experience, playing chicken with the big boys when you cannot see anything around you and are using your chartplotter and helm as if it is playstation… and the sea is huge and the winds come in with reinforcements when you are half way and the current is massive and it is a fight to hold your course.

But the job was done remarkably well by Rolf, and a few hours later we anchored in a bay so Irene could go up the mast and untie the Malaysian flag - it was in knots around the rope hence could not be pulled down, and we need to go into any new country with its flag and the yellow Q flag flying before we have been through immigration… certainly not flying the flag of another country! This job was achieved with ease but when we tried to pull up the anchor we could not: a long, heavy fishing line and net had been brought down in the massive current and wrapped itself around the chain. The fisherman was angry and spoke poor English; we were angry and spoke worse Bahasa Malay. Rolf tried going under water to release it but the current was so strong he could not get down and back; another option involved getting our dinghy down, pumping up its flat pontoon and dragging the other end of the net around, but that was abandoned…. The fisherman, observing our efforts and the futility of fighting nature’s whims, took out his machete and cut his net; here he is (now with two nets... or some repair work to do). We gave him a solid amount of Malaysian ringgits and he was happy… and we “raced” off for the marina, still 7 hours away.
The rest of the trip, in terms of our experience of the sea and the sailing, was calmer and less eventful: well, that would be for us. But for the two ships in an incident that happened about 100m off our starboard side it was not….
The guy on the right had hooted: we thought at us, so adjusted course… turns out he had hooted at the other ship on the left, which was simply blundering into the traffic…
They both try to turn and we watch it as if in slow motion, knowing they are not going to make it…
We see the impact and the crumpling and water pouring out and only later hear a massive boom.
They rebound off each other in a slow turn-away; they seem to take forever to stop. The whole thing seemed surreal, distant and removed due to the slow unravelling quality of the picture... but it was very close!

And it was very real; here is the damage on the one that ends up close to us: (buckled steel and pouring water apparent…. What else was wrong inside?).
(What if, at the start, the guy on the right had turned to his port (left) side?)

We raced away at the end of this episode, only able to imagine the thoughts that went through the heads of all those involved – on the bridges and down below in the ships – and also imagining the result were a small yacht to be involved in an incident like this.

Adjusting our course many times for other big guys and slowly getting to the end of our passage, we were overtaken at very close quarters by this monster;

… seeing him approaching us and unable to turn away because of oncoming vessels, we had been in awe of his bow-wave, but now we were about to be in it.
Rolf steered the boat over the waves, but nonetheless again we had water over the bow and deck… and this time, of course, the hatches had not been closed, because the seas had settled, we were in protected harbour waters, and the rain was gone and we had dried and cleaned earlier!

No matter, we were soon round the corner from “home”, and dealt with immigration in the Singapore way: this immigration boat approaches (after having been called and of course, seeing the yellow flag), you switch off and the boat drifts while your passports and papers go to the immigration guys who hold out a long-handled fish net for them. Efficient and simple... and easy for yachties.

We were accepted in, and tied up at the marina late yesterday evening; we are SO happy to be still, to catch up on lots of lost sleep… and to clean up, de-mould the boat interior, fix a torn sail (old news), stitch two broken sail pockets (again), get the generator charging problem fixed by the agent (hold thumbs - third time lucky?), shop for provisions, calculate whether we can make Malaysia before refuelling as Singapore diesel is very expensive, and meet John, who arrives soon to join us for the next leg.

But we DO have another posting to go up: on the one good passage day, I jotted into a notebook the story of our last visits in Mulu, Sarawak, and last perspectives on Borneo, which we had just left… but those thoughts need tuning and working on and polishing, not simply to be thrown and tumbled out like this… watch this space!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Borneo voyage continues

The surface of the Celebes (Sulawesi) Sea hides a curve of land stretching about 30 miles roughly west-east. In a few isolated places the land lifts its head above the sea but it occurs mostly as reef below the surface (olive patches in the chart below). Head your boat southwards (on the safe blue patches) and watch the depth reading as it changes dramatically from less than 10m to more than 500m: you have driven over the drop-off of the reef, a wall that plummets to the sea bottom along the length of this land. Continue and the sea bed gradually drops to well over a kilometre, then rises to 700m and Pulau Sipadan, a tiny rainforest-covered tropical island, suddenly appears from the abyss.
This area is under-water heaven: the Indo-Pacific basin is the richest marine habitat in the world, a centre of marine bio-diversity, and P Sipadan is one of the world’s top dive sites… a marine reserve where the range and variety and numbers of marine life is astounding.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.The last stop of the Sail Malaysia Rally was Tawau - a functional town if ever there was one, but they had more fish at their market than we have seen anywhere else; asked where they obtained their fish, as stocks are dwindling throughout Asia, their terrifying answer was “night fishing off Pulau Sipadan”! Here we got another introduction to bad Malaysian anchorages: strong currents and strange eddies in which boats moved around in unpredictable fashion and poor holding in thin, soft mud. On our second night there were only two yachts; a storm blew up and a very disorientated Ketoro crew woke in shock with sirens directly behind us and bright spotlights on our rocking, rolling boat... provided by the other boat that was being blown and pushed down onto us and only metres away! We survived that heart-stopping experience but it set a trend for anchorages over the next few weeks: there was not to be peaceful sleep for some time!

Into this space came Geoff, Sue and Nikki Candy, our guests for about two weeks, who had come to experience the diving with us and also some Borneo land travel.
On a previous visit to Ketoro (in the Maldives) their mettle was tested by having no fresh water on board (water-maker was broken); this time we had water (although the normal boating restrictions applied, particularly with 5 sharing the facilities and resources) but no battery charging from the generator and furthermore, we had sliced a hole in the inflatable dinghy on the non-dinghy-friendly jetty of the Tawau Yacht Club, which we were unable to fix. The dinghy is our car, our means to get anywhere from the boat… critical! Rolf’s many attempts at repairs had all failed (quite hard to keep all those little air molecules trapped inside!) but he got it to a stage where, with big pump on board, you could pump up the offending pontoon as you travelled (and were we imagining it, or did the escaping bubbles give us a touch more speed in our progress, albeit in circles!?).

Night 1 at sea was on Horn Reef (left red X in chart photo) where we saw nothing but a single stilted home of a fisherman above the water, while underwater there was coral and fish we had not seen before: an auspicious start to the marine promise of the area.

As much as the dinghy problems were out of our control, so too was the endless set of lessons then forced on our guests in “the ups and downs (challenges and headaches) of anchoring”. Night 2 saw us off Pulau Mabul (second set of red crosses in chart above), with the anchor happily ensconced in good white sand near some lovely bommies at the end of a resort jetty, and planned so that dawn would see us wiping the sleep out of our eyes with a refreshing snorkel from the back steps.

Not to be… that was the first storm night. The storm arrived at about 2am and whipped up the sea; resulting in us scurrying around ensuring all was safely stowed and closed, then checking the instruments to see if the boat anchor was holding. A few further attempts at shut-eye were futile, as we saw that the boat was slowly but surely being dragged from its initial anchoring position. On this occasion, being dragged was not a crisis as it was away from shallow areas and there were no boats near us, but necessitated a move to new anchorage the next day.
Night 2 at Mabul came and… so did a storm. The previous night’s checks were repeated, and she was firm. Well, what that means is that our anchor was not dragging... Ketoro was CERTAINLY not firm!! Our new position gave us the dubious joy of a variety of large swells, reflected round the sides of the island, meaning: roll to left, roll to right, slam forward and backward and… repeat! We had this dance nightly for the next three days, and the only thing that dragged was our bodies as we tried to get them out of bed in the mornings after the disturbed nights!

Amazingly, the days were lovely and allowed us to enjoy them fully… despite the fact that (as we subsequently learned) the weather was due to a “super typhoon” over the Philippines. Those days saw us being collected by a dive boat and being taken for two day trips, with three dives each day. Diving at Mabul and nearby Kapalai was a wonderful day; diving at Sipadan took our breath away…
The island is a tiny tropical paradise: a dense deep-green rainforest that is fringed by sparkling white sand; stroll into the turquoise water until knee deep and suddenly the ground gives way to a 600m drop-off. Diving alongside this wall is astounding: look up and see turtles gracefully swimming way above you, a reef shark searching for tasty morsels above or alongside you, large predators searching for their meals; along the wall, a diverse range of spectacular healthy coral of vibrant colours and sizes hosts millions of marine creatures, while hundreds of fish continue their lives unconcerned by your presence. Look straight down… and wonder at what else the further 575m beneath may hold!
We saw huge shoals of fish, a tornado of barracuda, incredible huge individuals and the tiniest, brightest-coloured or most odd creatures. Thank heavens Geoff had an underwater camera with him... all these photos are his handiwork.
The wall holds secrets: a series of caves where turtles over the ages (and a few divers) have become disorientated and drowned; it provides ledges and small caves where you come upon sharks or turtles resting, and you need eagle (or a predator’s?) eyes to distinguish some of the creatures (like the "sea dragon" in this photo, on the right) from the corals in which they are hiding.
On each occasion we came up from the depths filled with awe, with every expectation having being met. This experience was incredible and we felt very privileged to have been here…. and very sorry that we had only a day scheduled at this particular island!

The conservation of this marine park area is managed very carefully and the numbers of divers per day is strictly limited to 120. There was also once trouble in paradise (in 2000, a Philippine terrorist group, the Abu Sayyaf, took tourists hostage from Sipadan Island), resulting in the few resorts on this remote island being closed down and dive operators having to function from afar, each operator only given a certain number of permits per week.

Illegal Indonesians and Philippines appear to threaten the safety of life on this coast of Borneo Malaysia: the police believed that such outsiders were the culprits in the burglaries on our 3 rally boats as well as another 3 yachts that were burgled at another anchorage. We regularly saw the Malaysian Marine forces patrolling the waters, mooring near our boats or calling us up when on passage; although locals laugh and believe they are ineffective - we enjoyed the visual deterrent of them being near us. Some rally boats went no further than the top of Borneo Island, not venturing down this east side at all as their insurers did not cover them in this area.

After a champagne dinner to celebrate our Sipadan dive day, it was time to move on… but not so fast: first there was another anchoring lesson and test.Trying to lift anchor from our hold-fast-in-Mabul spot, she was stuck FAST: no wonder we did not drag! However, a chain that will not lift is an unhappy situation, and the anchor was 16m below us, so Rolf had to don scuba gear, Geoff his snorkel gear for surface work and to convey progress reports and instructions, and Irene had to drive the boat to get the anchor chain dislodged.
Mission accomplished, and we said farewell to Mabul, moving on to a beautiful forested island further north that rose high from the sea, just to show our friends that there is land above the water too.

Sea travel in Asia is interesting because of the variety of fascinating fishing villages and boats seen on the water.
Taking the Candys to Lahad Datu where we were to abandon them to their own explorations of orang-utans, proboscis monkeys and other strange and lovely creatures endemic to Borneo in the jungle along the Kinabatangan River (and see for themselves the massively encroaching palm oil plantations: see our previous blog), we saw another different fishing structure: what we believe to be a small shrimp-fishing village that is moved between fishing grounds by being pushed by a small motorised craft, then anchors until those grounds are depleted.
We spent three days sailing Ketoro to Sandakan, where we met our friends again. Sandakan was established in the 1870s when a Scottish adventurer delivered guns to the Sultan of Sulu who … basically gave it to him as a base. The town grew but then “ceased to exist” as a town after WW2, when it was flattened by the Allied forces in an effort to liberate it from the Japanese, and subsequently the rest was burned down by the Japanese. However, there are some lovely excursions: the self-guided trails of the Rainforest Discovery Centre gave us all a chance to enjoy the sights of rare plants and birds, endemic to Borneo; giant and tiny squirrels, and flying lizards (seen below, wings in but giving a display of aggression), often seen from the canopy walkway at the top of this magnificent forest.
Most oddly, the town has an English Country Tea Garden in the grounds of the home of the British Conservator of Forests and his wife: tea and scones in Borneo overlooking the grubby, ugly city seems strange… but lift your eyes and see over the large bay to rolling hills and forests the other side… and wonder at what is hiding away! Agnes Keith, the authoress wife, wrote “Land below the Wind”, her story of Borneo, the island that does not become beset by the terrible typhoons and storms that pummel the Philippines: well, maybe they do not lay siege to Borneo but we now know that this island feels the edges of those storms, and sometimes friends visiting yachts are subject to these trials to give them a taste of one aspect of this cruising life! With the visitors departed, it was time for us to set off back around the top of Borneo and start on a long return journey. We gave ourselves a treat at the start:
Lankayan Island is a marine park and resort with a wonderful turtle conservation programme, monitoring the many turtles that lay eggs on their island, collecting the eggs and placing the hatchlings into the sea. With two nights firmly attached to their mooring buoy, we had the privilege of seeing about 300 baby turtles being introduced to their new watery home (unfortunately also witnessing some of the little creatures becoming tasty morsels) and also watched a huge green turtle digging a massive hole in the dark. After more than an hour, she gave up on one hole as it had too many roots and moved to start on another; we left to return to our boat and a good sleep (no fears of dragging nor struggling with anchors!) and heard that she finally laid her eggs into her fourth hole.
On the dive the following day, we looked at the turtles with renewed respect and understanding of their trials … and are in awe of the fact that any survive at all. Borneo has a way of making one very aware of the balance of life and how tenuous so much of our world’s heritage really is.