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Martin & Sue


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Sail Morotai 2012 part 1:

Rediscovering Indonesia's hidden charms



Having signed up for the Indonesian rally, Sail Moratai 2012, we were on a tight schedule to cover the 800 or so nautical miles in time for the festivities in Moratai Island in only 12 days time.

It had been over 3 years since we had last entered Indonesian waters and during our time in Malaysia and Thailand we had not been boarded by the local navy or water police at all. So as we headed out of Tawau (our exit port from Malaysia) in company with several other rally boats we pondered how long it would take for the Indonesian Authorities to 'notice' us.


Well, we found out in record time! Only an hour after leaving Tawau and just into Indonesian waters one of our buddy boats encountered a small Navy vessel who lost no time in boarding them and asking for papers.

Luckily for us all the mention of 'Sail Moratai' had the required effect - especially after the Skipper showed them the official Jellyfish momento we had received at a farewell dinner the previous evening attended by several high ranking Indonesian officials. One glance and they were so impressed they immediately wished us well, retreated back to their boat and left the entire fleet alone. Who would have thought! It is good to be going on event sanctioned by the cream of Indonesion authority !


Our leg of the rally (the Western Route)  involved 3 official stops: Tarakan Island (our point of entry into Indonesia), Derawan Island & Moratai Island.

The first days sail only took us to within 10 miles of Tarakan Island so we arrived early on the second day and dutifully displayed our yellow pratique (quarantine) flag and awaited the officials to arrive to check us in to Indonesian waters.


As luck would have it, we were the first of the yachts to be boarded and the other crews watched in amazement as 17 enthusiastic officials crowded into our cockpit!

While Martin duly used our official Mandolin Wind stamp with gay abandon as he completed the paperwork, Sue accompanied one of the Customs officials as he 'searched' the boat. He was obviously disappointed when assured that we had no whisky or cigarettes on board (especially after a hint of any spare!) but took the news with a big smile before rejoining the rest of the officials in the saloon. They were a great bunch, efficient and very polite.

Above: Indonesian officials ready to come aboard. There were several more people inside ready to crowd into our cockpit!



Above: Completing the paperwork!
Above: The first of many photo shots with the friendly officials
Below: The welcome dock at Tarakan. Looks unstable but the bus driver trusted it enough to collect us for the tour and dinner!


Once the paperwork was completed it was photo time - and we were asked to pose on the front deck for several shots. I don't think they get many foreign yachts into Tarakan so we were a bit of a novelty.

With all our paperwork quickly dealt with we went ashore where we were welcomed by a group of enthusiastic Tourist Office reps and volunteers and were quickly whisked off to town to find sim cards for our phone and modem. This may sound like a simple task but finding the right place to firstly buy sim cards in Indonesia can take several hours - and then trying to explain exactly what we want is very difficult when no one speaks any English. Again it was very well organised and the staff delightful.


The next day we boarded our bus for a tour of the area, the highlight of which was the visit to the Proboscis Monkey sanctuary where we spent several hours walking through the mangroves (where it was thankfully cool) playing spot the Monkey. There was also lots to see beneath the boardwalks, especially the acrobatic mudskippers wallowing in the mud.



In the evening we were entertained at a sumptuous welcome dinner and during the Indonesian speeches we crossed our fingers that we were nodding and smiling in the right spots since there was no translator. We felt doubly pleased that we had made the effort when we were each presented with our very own proboscis monkeys and even the most macho of the male sailors, who would not normally have been seen dead cuddling a soft toy, seemed moved by the generosity of the gesture.
Above: Being welcomed at the entrance to the Official Dinner
Above: All dressed up for dinner with covered arms and legs out of respect for our Muslim hosts. We had forgotten how short the Indonesian people are - or are we just very large!
Perhaps the free flowing Bintang Beer assisted the sailors in their response to the gift of the Monkey's but I think we had just forgotten the generosity of our Indonesian hosts, who like last time, treated us as royalty.
Below: I know, they were only stuffed toys, after all! But the locals were so friendly and their enthusiam was infectious.
Below: Well, it seemed funny at the time!

Next day, with our monkey mascots proudly displayed on board, we headed for the Derawan Islands. We were very much looking forward to this stop as the area had been described as a marine paradise and we were hoping we had not set our expectations to high.

Derawan Island is surrounded by coral reef and we had been told it was tricky to find a way into the lagoon so we waited outside the reef for the Port Captain to guide us in to the anchorage. Anchoring space was very limited due to the depths so we were all forced to anchor much closer to other boats than we would normally be comfortable with. With so much coral about, we were also fearful of fouling our anchor coral but the Port Captain assured not to worry as the island had lots of divers who would help us should we get stuck.

Resigned to the inevitable, we dropped our pick in 32 metres of water and hoped that our anchor windlass had the power and fortitude to pull up 32 metres of dead weight when the time came. Deep anchorages are a fact of life in Indonesia although this was the first time we had been forced to anchor in waters deeper than 25 metres. Luckily we carry 100 metres of chain although in these depths this was only just enough if we experienced strong winds.  Most other boats in the fleet only carried 50 - 60 metres so they could only anchor safely by supplementing this length with rode (rope).

Above: Too close for comfort? Rubican Star looking for a place to anchor off Derawan Island.
Above: Sporting our Sail Moratai T-shirts during a welcoming lunch
Above: The water at Derawan Island was so clear it was impossible to guess depth and our water taxi appeared to be sitting on glass

No sooner had we anchored when we were collected from our yachts by a speedboat and whisked off for lunch followed by a visit to an inland lake on nearby Kakaban Island to 'swim with the jellyfish'. Now normally we have a marked aversion to jellyfish of any description but we were assured that these creatures had been isolated in the inland lake for thousands of years and had evolved into a stingless variety. Kakaban Island is one of only two places in the world where this phenomenon has occurred.


Above: These huge jellyfish were very colourful and there were so many of them they literally 'swarmed' around us
Above: Some of the jellyfish were almost transparent and were the size of a dinner plate

On our return to the yachts none of us were surprised by the fact that two of the boats had dragged – luckily into deeper water. Once these boats were safely re-anchored we were once again collected and taken ashore to the dive resort for dinner with the local government authorities.


The next day we were once again collected from our boats and set off towardsMaratua Island for a ‘drift snorkel’ on a reef called Turtle Alley.

A 'Drift Snorkel' - as we were to find out - is where the speed boat drops off the snorkellers to drift with the current.

What followed was an absolutely mind-blowing experience where we drifted above an underwater wonderland surrounded by literally dozens of turtles.


With visibility at 30+ metres in the gin clear water, we started counting the turtles soaring, as if in slow motion, around us.  When we reached eight we thought we had hit the jackpot – that is until we looked down and focused on the colourful reef and realised that five more were resting below us, their mosaic shells providing perfect camouflage with the coral background.



It is hard to describe the sensation of swimming amidst such a marine fantasy. It was almost an ‘out of body experience’ and time seemed to slow down as we drifted along counting more and more turtles, all of them totally unperturbed by our presence.

We lost count at 70 turtles

It was a buzzing group of cruisers who compared notes on the return trip. Most of us had been cruising for several years and had many outstanding memories of marine experiences. We all agreed, however, that Turtle Alley was at the top of the list. For us, it was right up there with the visit to the Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre in Kalimantan as a highlight of our travels to date.  

Above & Below: The coral was pristine & the fish were plentiful but we were too focused on the turtles to appreciate it!
Above: a cuttlefish trying its best to blend in with the sand - later as it swam over coral it changed to a deep purple



The next step of our journey required an overnighter across to the North-west corner of Sulawesi. As we upped anchor the next morning at first light, we reviewed the forecast for 20 – 25 knots across the salat between Borneo and Sulawesi and decided to move to a more protected anchorage 30 nm south and sit it out for 48 hours. Of the eleven boats in this part of the rally, eight headed south with us while two decided to remain at Derawan island and attempt the crossing the next day. Unfortunately, the eleventh boat could not lift their anchor and had to call on the resort divers for assistance. 7 hours later the anchor chain was finally freed from its stranglehold where it had tightly wrapped itself around a large bommie, forcing the divers to remove the anchor from the chain before they could untangle the mess. With not enough light remaining to head south, Jemima joined the other two remaining yachts and re-anchored at more suitable anchor spot north of Derawan Island.


Below: Before leaving Derawan Island our hosts delivered diesel orders to the boats
  As we rested down south the next day in a beautiful little protected bay, the other 3 yachts left at Derawan Island decided to make a run for Sulawesi. As predicted, they were hit with 25 knots from the SE and had a miserable trip. We were luckier and had a very fast, smooth trip in 10 – 15 knots 24 hours later. Such are the highs and lows of cruising.
Below: Passage planning....Hmmmm - looks pretty exposed to the SE Winds out there - let's wait another day! With fellow yachties Chris from Braveheart & Jim from Bach & Byte
Below: The overnight passage across to Sulawesi
Above: Off the coast of Indonesian Borneo - a fishtrap in the middle of nowhere....
Above: A lonely life for the fisherman living in the tiny hut atop the trap!
For the next several days we day hopped across the top of Sulawesi to Manado where we restocked and prepared for our next overnighter that would take us to Moratai Island.
Below: Sundowners aboard Rubicon Star
Below: Beach BBQ
Below: we anchored off the main commercial area of Manado and were lulled to sleep by the flashing of the neon KFC sign
Below: Luckily as well as American fast food restaurants we were able to find local fare - seafood kebabs washed down with Bintang Beer!

After setting off early in 15 – 20 knots on a beam reach, and with a good push from a 2 knot current, we had a great sail under a double reefed main and a handkerchief of a headie. These conditions seemed to really suit Mandolin Wind and we had a great sail, bounding along at 10 knots as we lapped up the miles. The monohulls in our fleet were not so comfortable as they tended to rock and roll in the 2 – 3 metre swells and some ‘therapy’ was required by several ‘first mates’ once the passage was over!

Above: A nasty cross-swell ...
Above: and a bit of water on the decks!

Above: Are we having fun yet? You bet! Despite a Double Reefed Mainsail (below) we were still flying along as the seas flattened.
Below: Still too fast - we did not want to reach the other side until daybreak as the passage through the islands there is very narrow

Above: Daybreak as we approach landfall!
Above: The passage across from Manado (on Sulawesi) to Helmahara and Moratai Island

Finally - after a very busy 3 weeks we were able to drop our pick off Moratai Island. In that time we had travelled 915 nm - but we had made it in time for the start of the official Sail Moratai activities.

It was now time to relax and enjoy the festivities! It looked like much was prepared for us as we joined the many other yachties who had come from several other directions to converge here for the festivities.

Above: The new blue dinghy dock constructed for us
Above: A well earned beer!