South Through Indonesia In 1975

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By John Simpson

We left Singapore heading south towards the end of July 1975 on a 550 nm passage, bound for the Sunda Strait; between Java and the bottom of Sumatra. Hoping to pick up the SE Trades, then cross the southern part of the Indian Ocean. ‘Kalayanee’ was a 40ft. Thai built, Canadian Sampson designed Ferro-cement ketch. The delivery trip was a big learning experience. It helped me become a reasonably competent sailor/skipper…

Due to lack of time we were unable to obtain a Cruising Permit (this could take up to a year!). It made this leg ‘interesting’ whilst sailing the yacht through Indonesia. I’d judged we needed be on the eastern side of the Indian Ocean before the Cyclone high risk period began in December. We would have plenty of time; provided there were no hold ups.

The country consists of 13,000 islands making it a fascinating place for sailors. Oil Production had just only started; after they’d found the Java Sea floating on oil. The wealth this would create hadn’t begun to filter down yet.

As a rag and stick merchant it was wonderful to find that virtually all the local trade between the islands was done under sail. Many of the sail trading craft we saw were quite large at 75 to over 100 tons. These vessels had hull shapes rather similar to dhows. High accommodation at the stern complete with thunder boxes on the back. They used steering oars on either side. The bigger Pinisi’s were Gaff rigged Ketches with seven sails; main and mizzen with topsails and three jibs on a big bowsprit; smaller craft were Bermudan Sloops with well raked masts.

This was the start of the SE monsoon season our route crossed the equator. I’d read we should expect head winds and frequent squalls. Some of these squalls carried copious amounts of wind and rain, and then left us in a flat calm after they’d passed. Most squalls built in the afternoon due to the large land mass of Sumatra close to starboard.

We spotted a big black squall system quite early in the trip behind a big Pinisi ketch bowling along under all plain sail. It was our first salutary lesson. He was to weather of us and would catch the squall first. I thought with our modern Bermudan main and mizzen, furling jib and boom staysail. We would be able to lose canvas much quicker, than him. He had two massive gaff sails; along with topsails and three headsails. Unfortunately my idea proved completely wrong!

The 35-40 knot squall hit him first; his sails seem to disappear like lightening before we lost sight of him in poor visibility. We struggled to dump our mainsail in the heavy wind which was already upon us, but were much too late!

Generally wind was mostly very light and headed us. Progress south was very slow. A fearsome looking bunch of local fishermen in big canoe paddled across to see us. When we anchored the first time in close to Sumatra. They proved to be very friendly, despite their looks. Giving us a bucket of fresh prawns in exchange of a few packs of cigarettes. (After they’d lit up our Virginian cigarettes they looked disgusted). Indonesian fags are full of spices!

Whilst anchored on another day resting awhile from the heat and humidity. The boat was blitzed by migrating green flying ants; there were so many the cockpit was filled up with them.

Halfway through the passage we had to stop for fuel in Muntok; a small harbour on Banka Island. Fresh provisions would also be good! Thirty or forty of these large Pinisi’s were moored close together in the harbour, without a single fender between them. Just miles of warp in a massive cat’s cradle holding the ships apart.

Closer inspection of these beautifully painted craft revealed that their gaffs were permanently set up in chains. They had no booms and the sails brailed up, rather than dropped. It was clever stuff and a rig ideally suited to these squally conditions. Allowing them a way of loosing large areas of sail power very quickly.

Bob Robert’s working spritsail barge which I’d seen as a lad growing up on the East coast; brailed her main spritsail to help the short-handed crew. 

The harbourmaster in Muntok assured us that 100 gallons of diesel would be delivered right to the boat. I thought this was impossible with no road to the jetty and ’Kalayanee’ rafted outside a large Singaporean tug. He was right! Our diesel arrived alongside, two 50 gallon drums floating in the water being towed behind a dugout canoe.

This kind of delivery is not available even in yachting Mecca’s, like Cowes or Newport, R.I.

We became friends with the tug’s crew. They asked me if I would give them a few navigation tips. They’d got a bit lost on their journey south.

Although it took most of the morning I witnessed a large 100 (ton?) Pinisi with a dozen crew warp their ship into the harbour. The ‘Buggis’ Captain, who wore a Muslim style hat, pointed and directed operations from his high stern castle. He used two anchors to walk his craft back because the wind was blowing right into the basin. Sending the dugout canoe out to lay an anchor, then trip and retrieve the windward one!

Once into the entrance. He ran plenty of lines ashore using miles of warp. The whole manoeuvre was magical to watch; at no stage did she look insecure. It was old fashioned seamanship and left me with feeling of being in time warp. Suddenly travelling back to the 17th century. These chaps’ ancestors were probably pirates!

The only downside of being back in that century was when we were night sailing. All these large sailing traders only showed one flickering Hurricane lamp. We had a few near misses…

These large wooden Phinisi’s were beautifully maintained their sailors became interested in our yacht. They came over to visit us to find out what kind of gear we used. A kind of half-conversation took place helped by a visitor; a very dark man from Papua New Guinea who could speak some English. Plus using the Indonesian/English translation in the Admiralty Pilot Book’s language guide!

Pinisi’s still used cotton sails. After feeling underneath our cheap plastic sail covers that we’d had run up in Singapore. As seamen they immediately understood all about our Terylene sails, even though they weren’t available to them. The anchors they used were fisherman types. But surprisingly warps weren’t natural fibres. They used three-strand polypropylene a strong floating rope that degrades quickly in strong UV light.

The rope might be all they could obtain and is better than natural rope. Manila or Sisal rope was used by my father when I started sailing. By the time the rope became easy to coil it needed replacing! 

The one and half inch diameter three-strand polypro used on ‘Kalayanee’ holding her Danforth anchor. Snapped in a vicious Sumatra squall on the way down! I could only assume the UV had done for it. We also lost our other Danforth when the shackle snapped and were left with just a tiny fisherman. Because of its light weight it gave us worrying problems when anchoring. Even though we’d rigged up a chum.

The most frightening night of the trip took place in the Java Sea where Oil Rigs had already spouted. During a black wet tropical night whilst beating into SE force 4 or 5. We saw a large fire ball that seemed to be floating around in the sky! Then it dissipated with a loud clap of thunder… 

Later the next day I read about Ball lightening in the Almanac. I’ve never seen it at sea since; and don’t particularly want to either!

By mid-September after a long very slow passage we were now quite close to the Sunda Strait. Anchoring in Baai van Banten on Java after avoiding all the fish traps. We set about preparing the boat to head out into the Indian Ocean; bound for the Cocas/Keeling Islands.

The high mass of Krakatau loomed large to the north as Panaitan Island came abeam. Finally we were out into longer seas of the Ocean, immediately finding those lovely SE Trade winds…

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