Sailing In The Sticks




By Tom Morkin


Killarney, Ont. Canada (at work)

This past summer, while working as Dockmasters at Killarney Mountain Lodge, we met numerous boaters who imagine sailing away in their own boats. Inevitably, they ask the question: Of all the places you’ve sailed to, what is your favorite?

Well, I gotta say, it is a difficult question, but one place that definitely comes to mind is the Riau group of islands in Indonesia.

Straddling the equator between Singapore and the island of Sumatra are 1,000 small islands of the Riau province of Indonesia. A signature of these low lying islands is the hundreds of coastal villages built on wooden stilts. Just offshore of the villages, extensive fish traps dot the shallow waters.

Unlike the fishing traps seen in southern Indonesia these are much more substantial, often supporting houses, and usually, but not always lit at night.

The northernmost island groups of the province, the Lingga and Riau Groups are really not far off the often sailed track used by boats sailing the Bali to Singapore run, and offer countless secure anchorages in a country where secure anchorages are often hard to find. Yet, few cruisers visit these islands. Not many boats carry the large scale charts necessary for negotiating the reef strewn area where currents often exceed 3 knots. Also, rumors of piracy and malaria put many would be visitors off, plus most cruisers don’t have much time left on their Indonesian visas by the time they are in northern Indonesia.

In our case aboard Feel Free, our electronic charts provided reasonable detail of the islands. We had plenty of time left on our visas and the thought of day sailing the rest of the way to Singapore with secure anchorages every night, was very appealing. Finally, we asked ourselves: when will we next be able to sail through an area where thousands of people live 3 meters above the ocean or where whole villages go about their day to day affairs aboard tiny motorless boats, seldom even going ashore? Singapore would have to wait a couple of weeks.

Sure enough it looked like the lovely days and nights of trade wind sailing that marked the approximately 800 miles from Bali, were coming to an end. Within 20 miles of the equator enroute to Kentar Island in the Lingga Group, and 150 miles from Singapore, the wind left us and didn’t return for the entire circuitous trip to Singapore . At first light, in oily seas and leaden skies, the low, rolling and heavily wooded Kentar Island came into view. As we approached the shallow mint green waters, the first of what was to become a maze of fish traps appeared. It was with considerable caution that we meandered through these wooden fish stockades to our anchorage, until it became obvious that most of the structures were in over 40 feet of water. We later learned that some of these traps were found in depths of over 60 feet. Just how they planted poles of over 100 feet in 60 feet of water and secured them in the sand and coral and made them secure enough to support the large platforms and houses, often in areas where the current ran at 3 or 4 knots, remains a mystery.

Onshore, the village appeared nestled in the mangroves, and sure enough, the mostly unpainted buildings were indeed suspended over the water. We were truly cruising “in the sticks”.

Within minutes of dropping the hook, we were surrounded by islanders in canoes, welcoming us to Kentar.

Never before had we encountered these highly efficient craft propelled by one person standing aft, pushing forward on the long oars thereby utilizing almost their entire bodies for each stroke of the oar.

Together with our cruising buddies Karin and Fraser from the Aussie boat LUNA, we accepted the invitation to visit our first “stick village”.

Our welcoming committee of a couple dozen young and old awaited us on a platform that linked the several huts perched about 2 meters above sea level


Our self appointed guides took us from building to building where we witnessed the goings on one would see in any small settlement- laundry and dishes being washed, fish being dried, fish nets repaired and a boat engine being overhauled, but strangely, all about 2 meters above the ocean, and surrounded on 3 sides by mangroves.

The precarious nature of the platform quickly became apparent. Despite spacing ourselves so as to minimize loading, the platform wobbled nervously. Images from the “Popeye the Sailorman” film came to mind, as did the unwelcome image of the hordes of malaria carrying mosquitoes that must invade these homes at dusk. At this point I stopped to apply yet another coating of insect repellent.

Two days with the sun high enough to see the fringing reefs that surround all the islands, we set off for the island of Mamut. Surrounded by a multitude of islands, we were now motoring in swell free water for the first time in months.



The town on Mamut, much bigger than the villages on Kentar, boasted a police station, an elementary and secondary school, and several Chinese shops selling everything from biscuits to bicycles. Of course the waterfront was lined with homes and businesses, all on stilts.


Unlike Kentar though, these platforms were much sturdier, in fact, these platforms were so robustly built we didn’t even worry too much about falling through them as we walked from shop to shop. Naturally we had to visit the boat building facility where a typical wooden fishing boat was in the final stages of completion. It’s simple but elegant lines depicted functional beauty. After the inevitable oohing and ahing, Fraser, who built LUNA, and is an accountant in his other life, inquired about the price of the finished product. At $650 USD for a 26 footer, and another $1,000 for a one cylinder Chinese diesel engine, the drive away price of $1,650 had Fraser and me fantasizing about filling a shipping container or 2 for the North American market.

Our tour of the village bordered on surreal. The one village street/sidewalk accommodated only pedestrians, bicycles and wheelbarrows. The clapboard structures often with elaborate facades, were reminiscent of the ol’west, but here, mosques, Chinese dry good stores, and food stalls stood in place of saloons, banks, and churches. The melancholic Islamic chants piped from the speakers at the 2 mosques, 5 times a day, enhanced the already exotic ambience of the village.

Satellite dishes and large TV screens were juxtaposed with bamboo fish dryers and kerosene lamps. All manner of flotsam and jetsam that are carried by the tide and wind came to rest under the elevated buildings, often to rot and putrefy, definitely the down side of living on the water where littering is not the taboo behavior it is in other parts of the world.

 The Islamic high school was our next stop, where the mission was to introduce BINGO to these poor bingo deprived souls. As expected, our offer was quickly accepted by the teachers and students, and within minutes 40 students, were listening raptly for their numbers to be called, in English of course. Over many years of cruising, our $3 BINGO game has made us many friends in many countries. It is easy to carry, is a great language teaching tool, and is great fun for staff and students alike. The only downside is trying to make a getaway once the kids are hooked on the game.

The next day, we were off to the Asunde islands. 20% of the 7 hours of motoring was spent conning from the spreaders. As we moved north, water clarity worsened. Eventually, even from the spreaders, the reefs got increasingly difficult to see. The increased frequency of afternoon thunderstorms didn’t help much so the plan was to get the hook down before the sky got too angry.


At Asunde Island, we just got the hook down when the skies opened up and the deluge began. After it let up, there came was a steady procession of visitors who mostly wanted simply to socialize and see first hand how these strange foreign sea gypsies lived.  

On three occasions, visitors presented medical problems and requested medical supplies. In one case, a father visited us with his kids. He quickly pointed out an infected sore on his arm, imploring us to give him medicine. The best we could do was to give him a tube of antiseptic cream. The others who needed malaria medication and one who complained of a problem in his chest were not so easily helped.



It was at this village that we had our worst Indonesian encounter. Three drug or alcohol crazed youth motored out to Feel Free and amid shouts and laughter, gestured for whiskey, cigarettes and food. From their canoe they peered into our ports and eyed the deck gear. Their repeated requests to board the boat were politely but firmly denied. After 15 minutes of requests/demands, Liz discreetly handed me a can of pepper spray which I pocketed and kept at the ready. The pepper spray had been on the boat for 4 years and largely forgotten. I lamented not spending more time reading the instructions and hoped I didn’t shoot myself in the nose. Fortunately, I was spared that fate by their eventual departure. In retrospect, the incident was more unpleasant than dangerous.

Our next day was a 14 mile trip to the landlocked. waters of Tanjung Dahan. No depth information was available from C-Map, so it was back up the mast for the entry to the anchorage. To eliminate the need to yell from the spreaders to the cockpit, Liz and I communicate using VHF radio. I take the portable up the mast and we talk on a pre-selected channel. The entry was straightforward and we soon had the hook securely buried in mud in 25 feet. Surrounded on all sides by heavily wooded islands, we had complete protection from wind and waves. This wonderfully placid spot became home for 3 days. We swam, hiked, toured gardens, collected rain and made beer, appropriately tagged Lingga Lager.

During our week in the Lingga Group, we visited 4 anchorages. We made good only 50 miles towards Singapore- a very sedate 7 miles a day.

We got no more than a glimpse of the fascinating people and their customs. We were entranced by the uncomplicated lifestyles of the people and their strangely exotic floating homes.

Karin and Fraser aboard LUNA enjoyed plenty of visitors too.

We luxuriated in the unbroken sleeps made possible by the tranquil anchorages. However, we were not blind to the incredible lack of medical attention and the toll it took in runaway infections and malaria. No fewer than 70 miles from a first world city state like Singapore, where the vapor trails of its arriving and departing aircraft could be often seen, yet people live lives not unlike their ancestors of hundreds of years ago.

If the good ship Feel Free ever takes us back to this part of the world, we’ll know enough to allocate more time to try to unravel at least a bit of the mystery of this intriguing archipelago of Indonesia.