So Many Islands, So Little Time


By Liz Tosoni

I’m sitting in the cockpit, staring out at all the boats in the yard, contemplating my next task, and daydreaming. We’ll soon be back in the water and I can’t help imagining how nice it’ll be to hear the water lapping against the hull, feel the quiet motion of the boat at anchor. Soon… But first, I sift through memories and think back to another special landfall we made not too long ago.

Indonesia, a land of balmy breezes and gentle seas, just what Tom and I were looking for after months of sailing with strong trade winds on the east coast and over the top of Australia. The Australia-Indonesia-Malaysia-Thailand route suited our itinerary perfectly, as we planned to eventually sail to the Red Sea.

The map shows the route we took from Darwin, Australia, through the islands of Indonesia and on to Singapore and Malaysia.

Indonesia’s size and diversity always fascinated us. The largest archipelago in the world, the country has an estimated 14,000 sun-drenched tropical islands and more than 160 million people speaking hundreds of distinct dialects. We were excited by its wondrous natural attractions. One of the most diverse and biologically fascinating corners of the planet, the islands have an astounding variety of trees, the world’s largest flower and lizard, thousands of varieties of butterflies and wild orchids, and rare animal species found nowhere else.

The 500-nautical mile passage was very relaxing, with light airs and calm seas.

The routing was not without concerns however. An Australian friend cautioned, “Take care sailing the pirate-infested waters of Indonesia” — a sentiment echoed by family and friends back home. The Bali bombings had occurred less than two years earlier, and the fear of terrorism couldn’t be denied. We worried about the lack of wind sometimes experienced in those latitudes; the phenomenon of thick haze and smog brought on by the burning of the forests of Borneo and Sumatra, reducing visibility and causing health and shipping hazards; and the prevalence of deep anchorages and strong currents.

One has to be alert to fishing nets and the lack or incorrect use of navigation lights on fish boats. The Indonesian government is restrictive with cruising permits, meaning you have to pick and choose your landfalls very carefully, covering a huge distance within a short time frame. Malaria is endemic to the area so prevention has to be considered. I’d be lying if I said that it wasn’t without a little anxiety that we put Australia’s safe shores to our stern back in late July 2004.

July through September is the optimum time for sailing this area because of the prevailing southeasterly winds. October is a transitional month when electrical storms can occur. Most boats depart the country for Singapore and/or Malaysia during that time, then wait for the northern hemisphere’s northeast trade winds to fill in, in early November, before heading north to Thailand.

The Timor Sea was a pleasant surprise. The 500-nautical-mile passage from Darwin to the island of Roti, south of Kupang, was probably our easiest and most relaxed to date — soporific, almost like a retreat, after the frenzy of preparations in Darwin. We experienced light winds, slight seas, sunny days, and starry nights.

While at anchor off Rinca Island, Tom watches for the famous komodo dragons on shore. Observing komodo dragons (largest lizard in the world) in the wild was one of the many highlights of our Indonesian voyage.

From Roti, we sailed west between Flores and Sumba to reach the islands of Rinca and Komodo. Surrounding slopes were smooth textured, tawny like the coat of a lion, contours interrupted by tufts of green bush and angular, stately palms. Once anchored securely, Tom mused, “I feel like I’m inside a painting.”

Sailing is a way of life in Indonesia.



Then came thump, thump, bang, bang! What the hell?! It was a frenetic feeding frenzy of great numbers of Trevally jacks surrounding Feel Free, bumping the hull, leaping and darting towards shore, chasing greater numbers of smaller fish, forcing them to one corner of the bay, causing many to fall to their fates, flopping on the beach.

Then it was our turn for a feed so we quickly dinghied to shore and scooped up about a dozen nice bonito for lunch, leaving more than a dozen bony barracuda behind. These, we hoped, would be bait for the Komodo dragons, over 1,000 of which inhabit the island. We were not disappointed.

We had to be ever alert to fishing nets, unlit boats and fish houses like this one.

At dusk, with binoculars trained on shore, we were mesmerized by our own private Komodo dragon show. Skulking slowly towards supper, this three-meter lizard approached, picked up, vigorously flicked from side to side and devoured every one of those tasty barracuda morsels, as well as more he found lying in and amongst some rocks. We could view his darting yellow tongue clearly from the cockpit. We read that with that tongue they can smell a meal 11 kilometers away.

We were delighted by the art and culture of Bali. Around every corner there was a dance or concert to attend or a display of art of every variety to enjoy.

Throughout our journey, we saw a wide variety of traditional fishing vessels, large and small, colorful and elegant. Every island seemed to have its own design and style. However, fishing nets, shipping traffic, unlit boats, and even large, elaborate fish houses or stockades are a very real part of life when cruising Indonesia.

Interestingly, fishermen are very curious about foreign vessels and have the habit, night or day, of speeding directly for your boat just to get a good look, waving hellos, and then speeding off again. It was unnerving, especially at night, but we came to realize it to be a harmless practice.

Our journey took us west along the northern coasts of Sumbawa and Lombok and on to the east coast of Bali, where we managed to take the last spot in the rather ramshackle marina. After three weeks in remote areas it was a bit of a shock to see so many commercial boats, cruise ships and general traffic as well as signs of a big city. A road trip by bemo (minibus) and motorscooter took us to temples, shrines, waterfalls, volcanoes, and rice paddies, while we also enjoyed festivals and dances.

We then sailed west to Java’s east coast from where we headed northwest to the mountainous island of Bawaen. En route, hundreds of sailing canoes and other craft peppered the horizon like Monarch butterflies and dozens of bamboo FADs (fish aggregating devices) had to be avoided. At one point, Tom counted 55 fishing vessels in the distance between the bow and the port beam so there was no dozing off during night watches.

From Bawaen, we sailed north to Kumai on the southwest coast of Borneo (Kalimantan). For years we’d read about and imagined coming to visit the orangutan sanctuary at Camp Leakey in Tanjung Putting National Park. The face to face with the orangutans in two separate areas of the Park on the island of Kalimantan was unforgettable. We met adult females and their adorable, clinging, fluffy orange infants, playful adolescent males and females, and two dominant adult males, with circular cheek pads and large throat pouches, bold and regal looking with high foreheads and vibrant, flowing coats of fur, staring at us as if to say “I rule. Don’t mess with me.”

It was totally a pleasure to spend time with the orangutans at Camp Leakey.

They posed naturally, performed acrobatics in the trees, played with one another, all at close range and in slow motion. A female played footsy with Tom and a mother and her babe leaned against our friend Karin like old pals, and another entertained us by attempting to put a pair of thongs on her hands.

Our friend Karin of Luna became fast friends with this Mom and her young one.

We met ‘Princess’, who in 1975 was famously on the front cover of National Geographic with Dr. Birute Galdikas — and knows sign language. This matriarch greeted tourists as they arrived and departed as if it were her lifetime job. We were smiling the entire time we were with these charming creatures.

Information On Camp Leakey

Camp Leakey was established in 1971 by Canadian anthropologist Dr. Birute Galdikas, and named after legendary anthropologist Louis Leakey. It supports the research activities of Tanjung Puting National Park, is the base for scientists and students conducting studies on orangutans and other rainforest species, and functions as an orangutan rehabilitation center. For an in-depth look, read Reflections of Eden, My Years With The Orangutans Of Borneo by Birute M. F. Galdikas. One and two-day tours can be arranged in Kumai through several companies offering the service, and the price can be negotiated.

Our cruise then took us to Serutu Island and on to the Riau-Lingga archipelago south of Singapore before ending this part of the journey in Danga Bay in Malaysia. The lowest point of the trip occurred en route to Serutu. From our ship’s log:

Sept 15, Serutu Island: Two days and one and a half nights at sea to arrive here (256 miles), with strong winds, hazy skies, boisterous conditions. Loss of steerage came after a tug and barge encounter in which we doused the jib, hardened the main, turned off the autopilot, and altered course to avoid collision. The tug and barge passed to our stern when steerage was lost. While doing a couple of 360s, and thinking it was hydraulic fluid that was needed, Tom started pouring fluid into the oil reservoir on the binnacle, which spilled all over the cockpit sole turning it into a skating rink. Like drunken sailors we slipped and slid. Finally, steerage was regained.

Approaching Serutu around 0150, the night sky was ink black, thunder roared in the distance, and the only visual evidence we had that we were where we thought we were, aside from radar and C-Map, was intermittent lightning which lit up the sky like a torch, clearly pointing out the high, cliffy outline of the island. Then came the buckets of rain, poured from the heavens, on our small boat in a big ocean.

Because of the rain, radar became cluttered and therefore useless. Then, the depth sounder failed to show depth and the winds began to blow onshore. Whining that the gods were conspiring against us, drenched and discouraged, we slowly circled the anchorage with spotlight on the other yachts tucked inside, talking about heading offshore, when the depth sounder miraculously returned, the winds clocked around, and we gratefully dropped the hook in front of Luna in 65 feet. Relief.

This fisherman had lots of help repairing his sail!

Our brief but memorable interlude in Indonesia initiated the crew of Feel Free into a new ocean and an entirely new world. The worries we’d had before leaving Australia had been managed successfully, there had been absolutely no sign of pirates, and no one in the cruising fleet had contracted malaria. We experienced very little haze and smog, mostly contrary current, and overall sailing conditions were good. The only serious motoring was at the end of the voyage as we neared the equator, at the western edge of the archipelago.

In just over two months, we visited 15 islands, each with its own unique characteristics, like separate countries; covered more than 2,000 nautical miles; saw some amazing wildlife and landscapes; met some of the world’s friendliest people, while barely scratching the surface of this complicated and fascinating country. Would we recommend it to others? Absolutely!