As the ITCZ is at its southern most position in February; February and March are the driest months with the least amount of thunderstorms, this sounded good to us! Our forecast was for northerly winds 10 – 15 knots with a 1 meter swell. What more could one ask for? The latter had been up to 4 metres in the South China Sea due to adverse weather. A chopper had been lost to the sea off Bintulu trying to get to the rigs. So waiting for our weather window was not an issue.
The swell mostly under a metre, but the occasional wall of water would hit us and almost stop the boat. The windward deck was continually awash, but the cockpit remained dry, with only the spray over the dodger. However, some of the windward windows leaked and the old leaks – well they are still there! Surely the leaks cannot be through the new toe rail with the amount of sikaflex we put on! There is nothing like a passage to highlight your next boat project! (We are happy to report the leaks were soon gone!) All was not lost. Starry nights, fair weather, wind at 60 degrees off our bow and an almost full moon– how could we complain?
Crossing the shipping lanes at Horsborough Light was an easy task given our fair conditions. Others who had done this passage indicated to us that once across the straits you are clear of shipping! No idea how anyone could come to that conclusion!! We were in the shipping lanes until around 2300 hours! Although the traffic was not too heavy, it was consistent. We ended up cruising along in the east bound lane and put out an ‘All Ships’ bulletin on VHF Ch 16 to say who we were, our course and speed. Ships responded well to this and steered around us, as I guess you would when you indicate to a ship you are on their bow 2 miles ahead! Once out of the shipping lanes, we saw only a few fishing boats until we were further north along the Borneo coast.
We passed close to an Indonesian Island that was indeed chartered incorrectly; located only 0.7 miles from its chartered position! After 3 days we sighted Tg. Datu in the distance, however with the wind bending more NE, we struggled for a day to pass the cape. Given the wind direction and our need to arrive in KK in time to meet Barnaby, we decided to give Kuching a miss for the time being, although the thought of bearing away and running down the bay was appealing.
We headed across the bay to enter the Paloh River. There was the occasional ship coming out of the river and one going in – so on a flood tide, our timing was perfect. We had good notes from another yacht and found that the channel was actually marked. As it was getting on dusk we were anxious to get the pick down and have a break from night watches. Due to the extensive river systems around here and the general terrain, the bar was quite extensive, being relatively shallow (7 meters at HW) for 5 miles. We finally anchored at 2100 hours, surrounded by jungle, had diner and fell into a deep sleep.
We were actually circumnavigating Bruit Island which saved us rounding yet another cape on a NE wind. The island being a nature reserve had of course been subject to some logging! Large floating logs (and small islands with palm trees) are indeed numerous; both in the rivers and out to sea. Like the burgy bits in waters somewhat further from the equator, logs go away at night as by some stroke of luck, we never hit one.
Although river traffic was quite prolific, we only saw a few villages over the two days we were in the river system. The river was well marked with poles and leads indicating where to cross. This made the confluence of the Muara Lassa River easy and we were able to negotiate our way around the mud banks with ease. We tried to anchor out of the main tidal flow which meant that the little island floating towards us at day break did not actually land on our bow! Our northerly course exiting the Muara Lassa River was a little challenging as we had 4 meters of water for 7 miles with wind and swell against us. We left on a flood tide but as it took us more than 6 hours to actually complete the 20 miles needed clear the mouth, the tide finally turned just before we made it to deeper water! We did this with 10 knots of breeze and less than a 1 meter swell – maximum conditions for this exit!
Although the forecast was for rain for our night passage to Bintulu, (those black lines on the grib files again!) it was more important for our exit from the Muara Lassa River to have light winds, so our choice was limited. Sleeping was definitely out of the question as we had a busy night with heavy rain, large fishing boats that were well lit, smaller ones that were impossible to see, oil rigs and Indonesian junk boats at anchor! In the end we had our huge spotlight and kept lighting the sails when we saw a boat in the hope at least they could see us somehow.
The maximum wind gust was only 20 knots for a while and warm and wet is still preferable to cold and wet! We were thundering along! Away from the capes the wind is more north/north west, which made for some good sailing.
Our early morning arrival in the very busy Bintulu Port was welcomed, as was the Police Boat coming out to meet us and escort us to ‘yachtie corner’. Our instructions from the police were very precise – drop your anchor on THIS spot and take a warp to the wharf and one to the trees! It is a tight squeeze, but luckily there was no-one else to share it with. If the weather was not settled, we would not have stayed. Peter cut up one of our round plastic lids to use as a rat deterrent on the bow line. Container ships were just forward of us and we had the loading and unloading of these ships to entertain us 24/7.
A small town near Bintulu, Medan, provided us with some good supermarket items whilst the fresh food market at the former was the way to go. We had one day of rest whilst the showers passed us by and a day to re-provision. Having a good expat population is a dead cert for finding cheese and other western ‘must haves’. During our short stay, there was a large bang in the middle of the night. I woke Peter up to investigate, who assured me it was the wake from one of the tugs! Hmm! Not totally convinced. On departure, the said noise revealed itself to be the centerboard strop responsible for its raising and lowering. So now we draw 3m!
Our night sail to Miri was uneventful with a star studded sky and very few fishing boats. We slowed down to arrive outside Miri Marina at first light, as there had been significant land reclamation which was not shown on the chart. Our instructions said to look for the giant seahorse outside the marina entrance – and yes, there it was! We anchored outside the marina wall to wait for the tide and had time to reflect on what to do with the centerboard, not knowing the depth inside the marina. The water had a high tannin content (well, that is what we told ourselves), low visibility and generally not looking good! The big decision was to run a rope under the boat to pull the centre board up a little. Definitely a job for the master, rather than the owner – so Peter very bravely and quite blindly got in the dark brown water! Mission accomplished and off we went into the marina. We had 5 other yachties greet us and take our lines! What a welcome!
Miri, also having a significant expat population was a great place for restaurants and supermarkets. This is also the place to shop for whatever you desire! The down side was that the car hire was twice as expensive as what we were used to. Our week stopover was very busy with visits to national parks and sorting out the necessities, the very important social contact and swapping of information. Niah Caves were a worth while visit, despite the slippery boardwalk, as was the waterfall at Lambir Hills. Feeling a little tired from the 4 hour walk the previous day, the walk in Lambir Hills was, according to Peter, only a short 15 minutes. Not so. We were sent off on an hour plus hike up the mountain, on a very picturesque jungle walk, albeit, very, very steep. The waterfall proved to be popular with the locals, who seemed to carry all but the kitchen sink! The amount of food and possessions that people were struggling with was a constant source of amusement for us. The whole, plucked chicken Malaysian style (very dead but still with head and feet attached), 20L water container (full) and the ghetto blaster gave us a good laugh. At least we were on the way down whilst this mass of humanity were still struggling to get there!
Although there was some confusion as to where we had to go to check out of Miri, (Customs had moved into town from the Port the same week as the Harbour Master had moved out to the Port!) immigration and customs were very kind to us and smoothed the way, giving us our port clearance so we did not have the very expensive drive out to the port.
Departing Miri, with only day sailing ahead of us, we felt more like we were in cruising mode. Kuala Belait, Brunei was our next port of call, a mere 36 miles away. We needed to round a point/cape which had a major river running out from its centre. Due to extensive logging inland, there is significant silt being washed out to sea. As we rounded the cape, there was a distinctive line of blue/green sea water against the brown river water. Kuala Belait is another very busy 'port' which services the oil rigs. Huge rig tenders and tugs are constantly on the move.
As we were not planning a stay here, we anchored in the river for the night and departed at first light for Juradong. The latter is an interesting anchorage created by a huge breakwater with an artificial island inside the entrance to keep out the swell. It would have covered the same cumulative area as FSC, the Fishing Boat Harbour and the RPYC Annexe! Anchoring off a small white sandy beach (as per our information) with 360 degree protection from the elements, we were in absolute awe at what this place could be! The Sultan’s younger brother had it built for his ‘yacht’, but the plans for a super marina were abandoned when younger brother Jeffrey was caught pilfering the State purse to the tune of 30 million USD! (Young Jeffrey fled to the UK but was pursued through the courts and most of the money has been recovered!)
Waiting for the morning showers to clear with the local fishing boats, we finally departed for our main destination in Brunei. It always makes you feel warm and fuzzy when your time of departure coincides with the locals – a good guess that the weather is clearing.
The anchorage off Royal Brunei Yacht Club, Muara offers good protection and good holding in sticky mud. They yacht club itself is a haven for the expats with free WIFI, a swimming pool and great food! Always a good draw card for the yachties! How times have changed!
Interestingly, one cannot purchase a drop of alcohol in Brunei – even in the hotels after it was banned in 1996. Fortunately for the yachties, that the duty free port of Labuan, Sabah, Malaysia is only 20 miles away!
The Sultan of Brunei has a cattle station just south of Darwin and often liked to fly direct from Brunei to his station. Australian Customs finally caught him out, took offence at his actions and now make him check in and out of Darwin. So, as a result, Australian passport holders can only stay for 2 weeks in Brunei for the cost of $30 pp. Everyone else gets a month for free! Bugger! So we paid out money, hired a car, re-fueled for 25 cents/l (AUD!! – there had to be an up side!!), visited an amazing mosque and a few other sights and departed for Labuan.
Our visit to Labuan was primarily to check into Sabah and to do a booze stock. To our delight they had a much improved selection of wine (chateau cardboard) than Langkawi. We also visited the War Memorial Park, which is partially maintained by the War Graves Commission in Australia. The park is immaculate and a local woman spends every day polishing the placques. They are the graves from the men who died on the Sandakan Death March.
From Labuan we had only one more anchorage before Kota Kinabalu. Palau Tiga – ‘Survivor Island’! This was an absolute gem – we dropped anchor in clear water and sand, with a back drop of virgin rainforest right down to the white sandy beach! A small eco friendly resort had the odd punter staying. The coral along the NW reef was sensational, with many different corals we had not seen in the Indian Ocean. Walk trails circumnavigate the island through the pristine jungle and the wildlife is very noisy!
The island was formed from volcanic mud pools, which was still happening today. Knowing that people pay a fortune for mud baths, we took Barnaby back there so the three of us could immerse ourselves in the rejuvenating mud! It was very squishy, with clumpy bits from leaves and small twigs. A challenge for me!! The density of the mud made it easy to half sit/lie down in the mud. Barnaby somehow kept one hand clean to mark the occasion with suitable photos! (or not!!)
So on to KK and the amazing Sutera Harbour Marina, set between 2, 5 star resorts. For the same price as other Malaysian Marinas (around $400 a month) we have a choice of 5 swimming pools, (including an Olympic pool) free movie theatre, gym, 10 pin bowling, discounted food, cheap laundry and an hourly free shuttle into town! We really feel like we are on holiday!
We of course had to climb Mt Kinabalu, (because it was there!) with the summit, Lowe’s Peak, at 4100m. Barnaby practically ran all the way up and down! Peter and I took 5 hours to climb the 6km to base camp at Laban Rata with a gradient of 2:1. Arriving there at lunch time, we spent a glorious afternoon lazing around on the granite boulders at an altitude of 3200m, in a cool 10 degrees C, watching the clouds swirling around the summit. As we had to carry all that we required for the two days, we packed the bare minimum. Although we had thermals, gloves, beanies and jackets, a few more layers would not have gone astray. It was strange being so cold knowing that in the afternoon you would be hot!
For the final summit, we left at 0200 hours, in a cool 2 degrees C. The climb was very steep and arduous.
Most of it requires the climbers to pull themselves up along a rope. Peter exerted himself keeping up with the young son and they reached the summit 1 hour before sunrise. So, huddled in the freezing cold, we waited for sunrise, took the necessary photos and made it back to base camp at 0730 hours. I have never seen Peter so exhausted! He had the famous grey waterproof poncho we purchased in Lombok a few years earlier. Huddled under his poncho, someone sat on Peter as they thought he was a rock! I wonder who got the biggest fright!!
The clouds swirling in the air currents at the top were always amazing.
A quick breakfast saw us ready for our descent at 0830 hours. We had purchased a walking stick for me to use on the way up and for Peter on the way down!! A young Indian man we passed on our descent found Peter to be an inspiration – ‘if an old man can do it I can!’ The ½ km pegs were a welcomed sight as we counted down our 6km. We could not believe that the previous day we had even made it up the mountain!
At the end of t he month, Barnaby returns to Perth and we take Stolen Kiss another 100 miles north to Kudat for haul out, where she will stay whilst we return to Perth for a few months. More yachts have arrived here over the past few days, so on with the continual sharing of information and endless stories to be told and the big decision for the day is which pool shall we visit?
Meeting Barnaby at Sutera Harbour was a bonus in many ways, least of all being the gym. A very special time for us all to spend together. It was here that Barns met ‘Fiona’ a dentist, who had been schooled in Perth and had completed her degree at Cambridge University no less. Barnaby was a little in awe as he discovered her other achievements over the next few days – a dive instructor, elite athlete who can actually run up and down THE Mountain in three hours! We felt a little in awe of this beautiful young lady as well! As we had a dentist visit on our plan, we all went and sought her professionalism! Fiona very kindly came to Sutera to pick us up and dropped us off. (Barnaby organized this as he thought we would get lost!) We had a few moments to enjoy Fiona’s company and appreciated her kindness. As Barnaby had a friend, we did not feel too bad about sending him off early on a Sunday morning (0900 hours) to spend some time with Fiona so we could leave for Kudat.
Our first bay was 36 miles north, but with very little wind, we felt it could take some time. (Are we justifying our actions??) Usukan Bay, our first anchorage was a well protected bay with a great view of 'The Mountain' and one that is being developed to accommodate the supply tugs for the offshore rigs. More time permitting would have allowed us to explore this bay. However, our haul out was now foremost in our minds. We decided to push on past Agal Bay and see if we could make an anchorage further north, just under another ‘Great Cape’; the north western tip of Borneo where the South China Sea meets the Sulu Sea. This would enable us to round the cape early next morning before the breeze picks up around noon.
With only 17 miles to go to Kudat ship yard, we were off early, anxious to get there and organize our lift that was to be happening in two days time. The anchorage outside the Golf Course ‘Marina’ was Med-moore fashion as the jetties have yet to be installed. We had heard that the holding was not good due to the plastic bags on the bottom. By the number of said bags that came up on our anchor, we think that this is probably the case. The ship yard is owned and operated by a Chinese family. Very busy with fishing boats and ship building. A 50 ton travel lift (that was in Penang) with double slings and an experienced operator gave us a lot of confidence. Stolen Kiss was hauled out very professionally and chocked with huge cement blocks (used for building protective breakwaters). Whilst facilities are basic, there is a guy who does an excellent job straightening props (we had a small ding in ours from hitting a log), we can get our anchor and chain re-galvanized, yachties have their own individual washroom, laundry service and they yard being a short walk from town, easy access to cheap meals and internet.In our absence the yard had organized our chain and anchor to be re-galvanized for a very small fee and had all the antifouling paint we had ordered waiting for us on our return. Had to be happy with that! Once again, we have met many yachties who have come from all corners of the globe, with 10 yachts hauled out in total. Some people from the Philippines who say once you are there you are nowhere else! Interesting concept for us who seem to be unable to stay in one place for any length of time! One American gentleman spends 3 months every year in Antarctica, where he has been doing a yearly krill count over the past 20 years.
As usual, there is the never ending swapping of information and stories. The young crew of a Japanese yacht wanted to adopt Peter as his brother and sail with us. He said his captain was very mean and Stolen Kiss was like a home, not like his yacht which was just an uncomfortable boat. He was a diesel mechanic and did not like the ocean, but liked the places they visited. He was a very energetic and excitable young man who would go off and get involved with life around town. We hear the wildlife is a bit challenging and have various anti-rat devices in place. It is hot and dry and have never been so grateful for having an air conditioner on board!! (As it turned out, the worst Stolen Kiss experienced in our absence was dirt. A small price to pay.)
|Our short stay on Mt Kinabalu before the final ascent.|