The Big Crossing: Bali to Mentawais

It was time to start the big crossing to the Mentawais – 1 100 nautical miles across the south of Java and north along the south western coast of Sumatra. First we needed to extend our visas – again. We thought we’d do the extension in Bali, giving us enough time to get to Padang on Sumatra for the next extension. Unfortunately the Bali immigration officials seem to have gotten onto the tourist band wagon, and charge an “expediting fee” (aka bribe) to get the extension done in 3 days. Given the numerous upcoming public and Hindu holidays, we would’ve had to wait 2 weeks to get ours – so reluctantly paid more so we could set off as planned.

Whilst waiting for our visas, we got into the rhythm of Jimbaran, where we were anchored. There is a real energy here – with brightly coloured fishing boats coming and going, fish being offloaded and hauled to the bustling market, and (mainly Javanese) street vendors selling interesting and delicious food. I discovered Rujak Lontong – rice cakes, crunchy greens, cucumber, tofu and bean sprouts, all mixed together in a delicious creamy spicy peanut sauce. Amazing!

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Colourful Jimbaran
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My favourite food van
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Rujak Lontong

The boys enjoyed watching the constant stream of aeroplanes, and got a closer view when they surfed “Airport Rights”. They also played with some of the local kids – Josh enjoyed beach soccer games, and Noah was fascinated by their homemade kites (and promptly made his own on the boat). Marco sourced a couple of spare parts and gave the boat (and particularly the engines) a thorough once-over. He also chased up Julia, a lady who was making a cover for our dinghy. She did great work in the end, but was rather difficult to make arrangements with, and required a lot of patience on his side.

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Plane-spotting

 

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Waiting in the line-up at “Airport Rights”

 

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Our completed dinghy cover – with Julia and her team

With visas in hand, we were ready for the big crossing. We had tried to find some extra crew but nothing quite worked out, so it left Marco and I to share the night watches. There are not many safe anchorages along the way, but we planned to stop at those we knew of to rest and recover:

·        Leg 1: 1 day to Grajagan (50nm)

·        Leg 2: 3 days and nights to Cilacap (320nm)

·        Leg 3: 3 days and 2 nights to Panaitan (260nm)

·        Leg 4: 2 days and 2 nights to Enggano (200nm)

·        Leg 5: 2 days and 2 nights to Sikakap, Mentawais (250nm)

Map

First stop: Grajagan, where we’d been before with Matt and Jade. The sail coincided with Marco’s birthday, and we celebrated en route with presents (including new boat towels!) and boat-made cupcakes (using half a block of our precious butter). We even caught a birthday-fish in a similar area to where we caught that lovely big mahi-mahi – but this one wasn’t quite as impressive.

Marco was able to enjoy a birthday surf at G-Land just before sunset, and woke up to a humungous swell (8-10 foot) pounding down the reef the following morning. It wasn’t possible to get onto land as the waves were closing out across the channels, but the boys managed to get a surf at 20-20. The following day was my birthday, and the boys had gathered a range of thoughtfully chosen goodies from Bali. We unfortunately weren’t able to get to a surf camp for lunch due to the thundering waves, but Marco did get us onto a beach where we played beach bats, swam and enjoyed a change of scenery.

 

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My turn to be spoilt

 

Leg 2: Grajagan to Cilacap. There wasn’t much wind, so we motored / motor-sailed most of the way. We were glad to be leaving at full moon, so had good visibility at night. We passed a number of fish-attracting-devices (basically big buoys/drums drifting out in the open sea), and narrowly missed an unlit unmanned wooden fishing boat that was tied to one of them. We could see the lights of a couple of fishing boats on the horizon, and hoped and prayed that they would all be lit so we could avoid them. I really battled to stay awake that first night, and the hours just dragged by. The second night was much better – probably as I’d slept during the day, and also decided to be proactive and do things during my watch, rather than sitting and staring at the chartplotter. I dug out a whole lot of worship music and sang under the starry night, which was amazing. I also finished “Anne of Green Gables” on Josh’s Kindle, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

 

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Sunrise coffee

 

After our planned 3 days and nights we arrived at Cilacap. It’s quite an industrial town with oil refineries and cement factories, and is centrally situated on the south coast of Java. We approached the beaconed channel and were dwarfed by many anchored tankers and container ships. In true Indo fashion, we had to skirt around fishermen with their nets out right in the middle of the channel – and then followed the leading lights in to a surprisingly beautiful anchorage.

 

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Tankers and dolphins at our arrival in Cilacap

 

 

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Impressive tug-boats in Cilacap

 

The anchorage was right next to an island covered by virgin rainforest, away from the busyness of the working harbour. This island is apparently the site of a number of maximum security prisons, and is where the infamous “Bali 9” were executed. You’d never think it, as it looks like an unspoilt national park! It was wonderful to be able to rest and recover, without constantly being on alert and watching the horizon.

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Anchorage between the 8 and 10 port beacons
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Beautiful unspoilt island

Marco and the boys took the dinghy with our empty jerry cans and went to fill up on fuel. The place they were directed to was tricky to get to on low tide, and the boys had to jump out into the shallows at the end. Marco said they were horrified to find themselves knee-deep in black sludge! The place was disgusting – full of rubbish, oil and fuel, but that didn’t stop curious children from wading out to meet them. They got fuel at a ridiculously low price, loaded the dinghy and rushed back – straight into the shower.

The next day Marco and I braved the sludge again as we needed to stock up on fresh fruit and veg. We tied up next to another boat, and clambered across to avoid the filth. It was rather interesting for me to get down off this high wooden boat, and the villagers all stood watching as I hesitatingly slid down a make-shift bamboo support and onto a rickety chair. We found a driver who took us to some lovely markets, where we even found oyster mushrooms! Fully loaded we headed back, the villagers watched me do my boat-clambering trick in reverse, and off we went.

Feeling rejuvenated, we were ready for Leg 3 – across the western half of Java to Panaitan Island. All was going well, until we caught a massive fish … which turned out to be a shark (probably a black-tip reef shark). It was pretty tired out by the time we reeled him in, so Marco was able to dislodge the hook and release him. I’m not superstitious at all, but that shark seemed to be a bad omen (compared to dolphins, that seem to bring blessing).

Not long after that, we decided to put the main sail up. As usual, I was at the helm and Marco was at the mast winching the sail up. I turned into wind, and battled a little to hold my course. Noticing that I was actually in neutral, I went into gear and accelerated … bad move. We had fishing lines off the back, and I’d unknowingly motored over them – and accelerating just sealed the deal and wrapped them tightly around both propellers! The lines snapped and then the penny dropped. #%^@*!

As you can imagine, I was not very popular. Also, as Murphy would have it, the sun was just setting. Marco jumped overboard with a snorkel whilst I held our emergency light underwater, pointed down at the props. He pulled off what he could, but there were many metres of line tightly wrapped around the shaft and right under the propellers. He managed to get enough off the port prop to enable it to turn, but with a lot of resistance. The starboard prop was a mess. We couldn’t do much more until morning, but needed to get as far away from land as possible. We were 8nm off shore, but prefer to be 25nm offshore at night – and didn’t want to drift into land now that we had no engines to get us out of trouble. Thankfully the wind picked up and we were able to sail out to sea, and make some progress in our intended direction.

The next morning we heaved-to, and Marco scuba-dived under the props to attempt to remove the remaining fishing line. He loosened the props from the shaft – which is a 3-step process, involving loosening a safety bolt with a spanner, then loosening the fittings with an allen-key, and then using a ratchet to loosen the actual prop. Now imagine doing all of this whilst under the water, with big swells coming through so you can’t stay in position, and having to be ultra-careful so as not to drop a tool or any part of the propeller. It looked almost impossible – and the tension of watching made me feel totally nauseas. Marco was amazing. He managed to do it all on about 60% of a tank of air, and got enough line off so that the props could spin freely. There was still a tiny bit that he couldn’t get out, but it didn’t seem to impede the props and he felt that we could use the engines when necessary.

The rest of the crossing to Panaitan was painfully slow. There was very little wind, a 2-3 knot current running against us, and we didn’t really want to use our engines. We ended up sailing at 2-3 knots a lot of the time, and took 4 days and 3 nights to make the crossing. It was long, boring and tiring, but uneventful – thank God.

Panaitan was a welcome paradise after our ordeal at sea. It’s a crescent shaped island that’s part of the Ujung Kulon National Park, with a number of beautiful anchorages and many epic surf spots (including the famous “One Palm Point”). Our anchorage was picture perfect – in a large sandy patch with turquoise sea and a lush jungle in front of us. It was also steamy and hot – so we immediately dived into the sea for a refreshing swim and to wash off the stress of the journey. After catching up on some sleep during the day, we took the dinghy to the beach in the late afternoon and were amazed at the huge trees with low spreading branches covered in ferns, mosses and creepers. This was more like the Indo jungle I’d been expecting all along!

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Stunning Panaitan
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Boys returning from One Palm Point
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Gorgeous jungle beach

 

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Mom’s happy!

 

The following day we took the dinghy to a stunning white beach further along the island, where a couple of fishermen came up to meet us. They seem to be the only people that periodically visit the island (and the odd surf charter) – and confirmed that there really are saltwater crocodiles in the area. They all wade in the shallows to catch fish though, and laughed when we asked if the salties are dangerous to humans. Apparently these ones only eat fish! Later on they gave us 3 fish, which we braaied on the beach – perfect. We strung up some hammocks and spent the afternoon relaxing in paradise – until my hammock strap snapped and I tumbled down onto a piece of bamboo, coccyx first. No boat injury after the thousands of miled we’ve sailed – but a sprained foot from tripping on a pavement in Labuan Bajo and a bruised coccyx from a hammock in Panaitan, how’s that!?

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Blessed by fish
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Exploring the beach and amazing trees
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The dodgy-hammock
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Fish-braai time!

The boys found a couple good waves to surf. The first was fast and hollow, and Josh got the hang of grabbing his rail and almost pulling into the barrel. The second was right near our boat – and was pretty heavy. The boys were out there for hours, and Marco said they handled themselves really well. The swell was too small for One Palm Point, but the potential was evident – Marco reckons it’d be amazing when it’s working.

Marco did a thorough check of the propellers in the lovely calm water, and felt they were working pretty much perfectly. He replaced the belt for the starboard salt-water pump (which always seems to come loose), and did another all-round check of the engines. We would have loved to stay at Panaitan longer, as it’s definitely one of the most pristine places we’ve been to, but had to get going.

 

Next leg: to Enggano, the southern-most island off the west coast of Sumatra. We were hoping the current would ease as we left Java, but no such luck. We fought it the whole way to Enggano, and this, together with light wind, made our progress very slow. We started noticing the build-up of clouds each afternoon, and encountered a couple of rain squalls – typical of the equatorial region which we were now entering. Our radar started becoming really useful at night as it picked up patches of rain and we were able to get the genoa in and close up the boat before the rain and stronger winds hit.

By this time we were all longing to get to the anchorage, get off the boat and explore the island. Imagine our disappointment when we came into the anchorage – it was rolly, windy (marvellous, the wind finally picked up) and onshore, with a gnarly reef about 100m away. It really didn’t feel very safe, as we’d have little time to react if the anchor started dragging. We monitored the situation during the morning whilst resting and relaxing on board, and then headed to land for the afternoon. We found a little rumah makan near the ferry terminal that had a delicious range of dishes, including beef – what a treat! Marco chatted to the owner and he managed to organise 2 rather dilapidated motorbikes for us. On we jumped and headed off into the interior.

The villages were amazingly cute! Tiny little wooden cottages with ornate doors and windows, like dolls houses, with bright green manicured lawns in front and rows of potted plants on the patios. Very unlike any other village we’d seen in Indo, they seemed to take an extra pride in their homes, and there was significantly less litter around. It was such a delight riding through the countryside, which was lush and a mix of jungle and farmland. Unfortunately Marco’s bike died a quiet death, and we ended up trying to fix it with a friendly brick-maker from the nearby village. It was getting late and we needed to get back to the boat before sunset, so left the bike there and all climbed on mine. We looked like a true Indonesian family – 4 people squashed onto one bike, Josh squeezed behind the handle bars, next Marco controlling the bike, then me with my legs held outwards so as not to touch the exhaust, and then Noah hanging on the back for dear life! I would have loved a photo of that scene!

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Definitely not the cutest house on Enggano – but the only one I have a picture of!
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Motorbike blues

The night at the anchorage was horrible, as we kept waking to check our position and monitor if we were dragging. Our drag alarm went off just before sunrise, but we were actually still secure. Either way, we decided to up anchor and use the strong wind to get to the Mentawais. I would have loved to explore Enggano more – the little we saw was amazing, but we’d need a better anchorage.

Finally we could hoist the sails and get some speed. It seemed like the current disappeared north of Enggano, so we averaged 6 knots with the genoa up. However, now we had another stress to worry about – electrical storms. The sky was constantly flashing and flickering, lighting up ominous looking clouds, and it was quite spectacular to see. Being in a yacht with a huge lightning conductor reaching up into the sky does make one rather nervous though. A lightning strike could fry all our electrical equipment – including navigation, autopilot, depth sounder, and possibly engines and batteries. At worst it could blow a hole in the boat, or shock us if we’re holding anything metal (like the tiller). We put rubber-soled shoes on and tried to stay away from anything metal. We had our paper charts out on the table and manually plotted our position every half hour, and also put our waypoints into our handheld GPS as a backup. Most of the lightning was quite distant, but we did sail closer to a couple of storms and saw bolts hitting the ocean in front of us.

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Stormy skies dwarfing the big ferry
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Traditional chartplotting as a back-up

The wind died after the first day and we ended up motoring the rest of the way. Thankfully our engines seemed to be in perfect working order, and we arrived at Sikakap soon after sunrise after our planned 2 days and 2 nights. Sikakap is on the south of Pagai Utara, on the narrow channel that separates Pagai Selatan and Pagai Utara. It was wonderful to gently motor into the calm protected channel and know that we were finally in the Mentawais!

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Sikakap town
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Peaceful calm anchorage

What an ordeal! I can honestly say that I do not enjoy sailing for days and weeks on end – especially with the stress of electrical storms and entangled propellers. The endlessness of it gets to me – we go pretty much at a fast-walking pace, and time becomes a neverending mundane blur. We really felt that we deserved a Bintang in Sikakap that evening, and are so looking forward to being at anchor at a beautiful spot near a perfect wave – and staying there for weeks on end!

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