Indonesia – Riau Islands

Sunday, November 11th, 2007
From the outset we knew Indonesia was going to be interesting, we just did not realize how interesting! Just getting into the country is a challenge in itself as the government flip flops over the rules (and rates) and local officials offer a highly flexible and varying interpretation. Add to this traversing the busiest sea lane in the world, our virgin equator crossing, a direct lightning strike which fried the electronics and tried to fry Jon, almost running out of provisions and a delightful stopover on a private island to watch the rugby world cup final. What more could you ask for in 6 weeks!

Returning from a delightful two month land trip to the UK and Canada, we found Tui Tai in sparkling condition having been cared for by the very dedicated Yai in Sabana Cove, Malaysia. The boat looked so good that a family of cockroaches had decided to take up residence. Two tins of Baygon put pay to their cruising ambitions. After a short trip round to Singapore we set about sorting out the paperwork for Indonesia. The scarcity of cruising information for where we wanted to go should have sent out loud warning signals. The Indonesian government makes it difficult, expensive and time consuming to get a boat and crew into their country – it’s no wonder many cruisers do not bother. After 21/2 weeks, over USD 500 in fees and numerous pieces of misinformation, we eventually secured a cruising permit (CAIT) for the Riau Islands and 2 month visas for the crew.
The Riau Islands sit just south of Singapore on the east side of Sumatra – there are purported to be over 3000 islands in the area. To reach the islands from Singapore requires crossing one of the busiest sea lanes of the world. Crossing this akin to crossing a motorway, on your hands and knees and in rush hour – not for the faint hearted! The fairways are 4 lanes wide in each direction and ships, mere specks on the horizon when you start, bear down on you at alarming speed every few minutes. Knowing the bigger vessels take several miles to turn or stop focuses the mind as you duck and weave between ships over 12 storeys high and as long as two football pitches. Fortunately the central reservation allows for a breather.
Immigration and Port Clearance is done at Nongsa Marina on Batam Island. Curiously officialdom here accepts US and Singapore dollars but is not interested in Indonesia Rupia – go figure that one. It was here we heard about our first act of piracy against a yacht – 6 months earlier a vessel had been boarded by a gang wielding AK47s. The immigration officials proudly explained they were now behind bars and we were perfectly safe. It did explain the huge naval presence and given some 120 yachts would be traveling up through the area en route from Bali to Singapore as part of the Darwin Rally that presence was to be stepped up – we therefore set off, albeit a tad apprehensively. The satellite phone was primed and sat ready for emergency use. As it turns out we need not have worried for we met delightful and friendly people everywhere we went.
From Nongsa our route took us east to the northern beaches of Bintan, the weekend escape for many Singaporeans, and south through the South China Sea to the island of Mapor and then further down to the town of Kijang for provisioning. Kijang is one of the bigger towns in the area so when we tried shopping for fresh produce at a nearby village we were a little surprised at how little was on offer. Having virtually brought out both village shops, we headed south again taking our time passing through the islands of Baru, Limas and Kantar. The weather was delightful, the scenery spectacular but the currents were phenomenal so tide tables had to be read with care. It certainly was nice to be at sea again.
Throughout the islands little villages were tucked away with many of the pretty but basic wooden houses on stilts over the water. In the evenings the gentle tones of the crier calling people to pray at the mosque would drift over the water. We found many kelangs – floating bamboo houses – anchored offshore for fishing. Many of the islands have extended reefs making it difficult to anchor close by so typically we would dinghy in to be met by the whole village with sign language and smiles for communication. The gifts of sweets we bought for the kids usually got us accepted pretty quickly. Our second village in we realized that fresh produce was going to be a challenge. At best we found garlic, onions and chillies – no fruit, no veg! Admittedly it was Ramadan but one got the feeling this was the norm. It looked like the emergency rations – the tins of baked beans and 1 minute noodles – would have to be dusted off, much to the delight of the kids. At least we had plenty of meat which we vacuum packed in Singapore to prolong its life and had caught a solitary good size Spanish Mackerel (hooked by its tail!). By the time we reached the Island of Seyalar, over a hundred miles further south we were out of all fresh produce except eggs, there were even no lemons for the G&Ts – sacre bleu! The villagers at Baruk were delightful and after much sign language they agreed to take us to the next ‘big’ village by motorbike. 10 kms later, with 3 per bike, we arrived at the bustling (not) village of Penuba to find all the shops closed as it was Sunday. Fortunately one industrious Chinese shop keeper was sort of open and we relieved him of almost everything resembling a vegetable. The motorbike ride was a highlight for the kids and how Sandra got a tray of eggs back unbroken remains a mystery as does the villagers’ diet.
Crossing the equator is steeped in tradition with sailors from generations back developing a series of offerings to placate the various sea gods, primarily Neptune, and a series of initiation rites (often unpleasant) for virgin crossers. Fortunately for all the Tui Tai crew this was a first crossing. Dad dressed as Neptune complete with trident whilst the girls kitted out as mermaids. Offerings included marshmallows, a small tipple of beer and assorted nuts – nothing fresh! The kids were thrilled to watch the chart plotter move to 00° 00’.000 S having spent the whole of their sailing lives in the northern hemisphere. It was about this time we starting meeting the boats coming up from Darwin. Some, to the delight of the kids, had families on board. We spent a happy couple of days in the company of Good Hope with the Alex and Nics making friends with Chicken Joe and Cody Maverick Penguin who taught Alex to surf off the back of a dinghy. Surf’s Up is now on the Christmas list as is a surf board!
For the return trip north the weather turned highly variable, something we expected during the transition from the SW Monsoon to the NE Monsoon. The wind increased giving us some excellent sails but its direction became increasingly temperamental and rain more common. Threading our way through a complex set of island passages we were pleased to return to a familiar anchorage off the island of Limas having skirted a dark set of clouds. Within a couple of hours the heavens opened and the wind picked up first from the north, then with real vengeance from the south. Lightning was all around and the proximity of the thunder told us the storm was right overhead. A loud crack and suddenly we had no instruments, Jon who was tidying up the cockpit took a jolt and a mangled VHF antenna from the top of the mast landed on the deck. We had just taken a direct lighting strike. 2 hours of miserable weather followed with visibility down to a few yards, all we could do was monitor our position on a handheld GPS and hope the anchor held. As evening calmed a stiff G&T settled a few nerves before we set about pulling the boat apart and stripping down the electronic systems to assess the damage. Net result – auto helm, course computer, wind, depth and log instruments all fried along with one sorry looking VHF antenna. The good news was the chart plotter and GPSs seemed to have survived – at least we knew where we were. All said and done we were very lucky in many respects.
Slightly unnerved we headed back to Kijang before mooring off the private island of Pangkil which four families from Singapore had rented for a few days and kindly invited us to stay. We unwound in the very pleasant company of the Ropers, Pauls, Hirsts and Galeas downing copious quantities of wine and some excellent food interspersed with some fishing, volleyball, snorkeling and even the rugby world cup final. What bliss. After 4 days and with the weather deteriorating again we headed back to Singapore to deal with insurers and piece the boat back together. A fabulous 6 weeks which will be remembered for many reasons – most of them good!

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