SSCA Ariticle on Indonesia
Sometimes a person’s expectations and reality have nothing in common. Cruising in Indonesia was one such experience – and very pleasantly so. It turns out Indonesia’s reputation and the cruising realities are two vastly different things.
The cruiser buzz from magazine articles and the coconut telegraph was not good… “Pirates in the straits of Malacca, obnoxious officials wanting bribes, you have to check in and out at every port, they steal anything that is not locked on deck, there are dangerous fishing nets everywhere, the boats come right at you and almost cause collisions scaring you out of your wits”. These were only a few of the things we had heard. Add to this the fact that we were coming from Australia where there is much talk about the Bali bombings a few years ago and the Australian government still advises against traveling to Indonesia.
In addition we knew of over a dozen US boats that had crossed the Pacific then shipped their boats home on Dockwise freighters rather than continue around the world.
In truth we were very nervous about going to Indonesia. Consequently we could not have been more surprised when it turned out to be one of the friendliest and most hassle free countries we have visited in12 years of cruising. We recommend it very highly!
We’ve sailed over 5,000 miles in seven months from near Brisbane to Phuket, Thailand and by far the most difficult part of the trip was coming up the coast of Australia experiencing 30- 35 knot winds everyday for 6 weeks. The saving grace is that it is all downwind and makes 55-65 mile days easy for most 35-45 footers.
Cruisers coming up the Australian coast from May- July can expect strong winds and following seas. As one moves northwards the anchorages get less rolly and the Great Barrier Reef provides protection from the swells. The strong winds will likely continue across the Gulf of Carpentaria and on into Darwin. From there onwards winds are light and variable though usually behind the beam.
For our trip through Indonesia we joined the annual Darwin-Kupang rally which also included automatic entry into the Sail Asia Rally for the following legs through Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia and what a bargain THAT turned out to be. In addition to getting our Indonesian cruising permit (CAIT) the rally also included events at both ends and ongoing cultural events, dinners, tours, more dinners and more tours at over 8 stops spread over 5 months. The value of the cruising permit, meals, tours and cultural events was at least double what we paid and in addition we had the benefit of meeting lots of other cruisers that we will no doubt see again and again from here to the Caribbean.
Our crossing from Darwin to Kupang, Timor, Indonesia was four easy days with moderate to light winds and a bit of motorsailing. Despite 98 rally boats arriving at virtually the same time the checkins were well organized and painless. The rally organizers had smoothed the way so that even though 5 or 6 officials came on the boat it was over in 15 or 20 pleasant minutes. Boats that had firearms presented papers showing registration and had them sealed in lockers and no further problems on that score. Several states in the US (such as California and New Jersey) have downloadable forms for firearm registration that were used.
Indonesians like their bureaucracy and it helps if you can have a rubber stamp made up with your boat’s name and registration number on it for official duties. Also make sure to have extra copies of documentation, passports, crew lists and photos.
As far as cruising information the best sources are the CD put out by the rally organizers and a copy of the assembled cruisers notes that is available from Colin at Copytime in Darwin. Colin also can provide any charts you may need. The SE Asia cruising guide provides very little usable information.
Winds throughout Indonesia were hardly ever over 20 knots and adverse weather was non existent. Rob is a weather nerd and after years of pouring over daily weather reports it seemed odd not to obsess about the weather; however the actual truth is that we cruised for 5 months without EVER receiving a single weather report. There simply is NO weather to worry about. A few days we motored but mostly we sailed in 10-12 knot following breezes. It never rained or squalled, no tropical lows, highs or anything else- not too hot, nor too cold – every day was simply near perfect. With the dry climate mosquitoes were nearly non-existent so daily malaria medication seemed unnecessary.
Anchorages abound and it was easy to leave each morning with no firm idea of where you were headed, knowing you could stop at any number of places. If you wanted to cruise in company with others that was possible but if you wanted to anchor by yourself that was also easily done. When we tired of the party scene we always managed to get off on our own for some quiet time and one on one visits with the locals.
Given Mr. Bush’s current war we were not sure how well Americans would be received in the world’s most populous Moslem nation, but we needn’t have worried. Every person we met and I do mean EVERY one greeted us with wide smiles and upon learning where we were from gave us a thumbs up saying “America Good”. The kids all greeted us with their two words of English, “Hello Mister”.
The Indonesians have virtually nothing and their economy is in ruins yet they are even friendlier than the Fijians, Tongans or Samoans. At the current rate of exchange the average lunch ashore costs about 80 cents U.S. and a dinner out for two with beers is less than $5 U.S. Whether you were buying AA batteries or having a part welded the cost was 70% cheaper than in the U.S. or Australia.
The rally had nearly 100 boats and I estimate another 30 yachts also made the passage through Indonesia this year and we had ZERO instances of piracy, ZERO unpleasant contacts with locals, ZERO midnight boardings, ZERO stolen dinghies or outboards. It was common for kids to come out in their dugout canoes and hang on the yachts talking with us when we arrived in a new anchorage and in one anchorage a few teenage boys filched small items from the decks of two boats. The other 128 boats reported no problems and on the contrary everywhere we went we were treated like visiting royalty. The locals were always smiling, helpful and willing to go out of their way for us.
Komodo National Park was a favorite place to slow down for some excellent scuba diving, snorkeling and visits ashore to see the Komodo dragons. The dragons clearly live up to their fearsome reputations. The rally CD has a list of anchorages and snorkel/dive waypoints in Komodo National Park.
Most of Indonesia is very third world but Bali of course is an international tourist destination. The standards here were like luxury resorts everywhere yet meals were still only a few dollars, while pirate DVDs were on sale for less than $1, and delightful Balinese massages could be had for $5 per hour.
In Bali as at the other stops there were diners, bus tours and cultural performances. Most of these were completely free for the rally boats and many of the tours you could not have organized on your own at any price. Bali was also an excellent place to leave your boat for a dirt cheap flight to Java for a visit to the famous temples near Yogyakarta.
From Bali we sailed on to Kumai, Borneo and went upriver in African Queen style boats to see Orangutans in the wild. This was a major highlight for everyone.
Kentar Island lies just north of the Equator on the way to Singapore and it proved to be a popular stop for impromptu Equator parties, especially for the Kiwis and Aussies for whom it was their first crossing of the line.
The last stop in Indonesia was Nongsa Point where we checked out of the country. We had used every one of the 90 days on our cruising permit and certainly wished we had more time. The marina handled the checkout here and next morning the immigration officers came down the docks, handed us our passports and waved us on our way. Other than the initial check-in they were the only officials we ever dealt with and no one ever asked for a bribe.
Crossing the straits to Singapore is a short day but an exciting one with all the big ships nearby. We felt a bit like a squirrel crossing a freeway but the traffic controllers were very helpful and told us when to cross making it simple even though at one point we had 35 BIG ships in sight. Singapore is a large modern city and is your chance to stock up on cheap electronics as well as luxuriate at the 5 star marinas. Along with Bali it is the obvious place to ship parts in and out.
Checking in and out of Singapore was done for us cheaply by the marina so we never saw officials there. After that it was on to Malaysia. Like Singapore this is a first world nation with lots of sophistication as well as an exciting history being at the center of the Spice Island trade. Stops at Penang and Melaka were well worthwhile to soak up the historical ambiance and gorge on the wonderful and cheap food.
This area of the world is home to violent afternoon thunderstorms so most days we just day hopped along the coast and tried to anchor by 3 pm when the thunder bumpers would arrive and we would all scramble to get our GPSs inside the oven. No boats were hit by lightening but it has happened in the past.
Addressing the other negatives we had heard before our arrival: yes we did see some fish nets and traps but they were never a problem. From Kupang all the way through Indonesia until leaving Bali we did easy day hops so seeing the fishermen was no problem. From Bali to Kumai we timed our 2 day passages so that we were in deep water during night hours and near the coasts in daylight. This allowed us to make daylight landfalls which is wise and also meant near shore where the nets were we had light to see them.
From Singapore to Phuket which is through the Malacca straits we did day hops so we could see the fish traps. We were a solo boat and sometimes we had fishermen come by us in their boats but we NEVER felt threatened in the least. They were simply curious and friendly and all waved to us. There have been incidents against large commercial ships but this is not in the part of the straits used by the cruising fleet. It has been many years since there was any piracy against yachts but old rumors die hard.
For any yachts planning this passage I strongly urge you to join the rally, even if you do not consider yourselves the “rally type”. In addition to saving you the major hassle of obtaining the CAIT you get far more value in the form of tours, dinners, cultural events, etc. At many stops conveniences like diesel, propane or water were specially organized and specially priced for rally boats as were help with finding mechanics, etc. Marinas all along the way had rally discounts for berths and food and bar prices.
Although the Sail Asia rally should cost a considerable sum, at this time entry is free to participants of the Darwin- Kupang rally and all the costs are being paid by the government. At stops where we had official dinners and welcomes we were usually met by the tourism ministers, governors of the individual states, or the mayor. For a change it was very nice for yachties to be treated as valued tourists rather than persona non gratta as you would be if cruising the coast of Florida.
Sail Indonesia Scholarship Program
As world wide cruisers we are regularly faced with how to contribute something to the cultures we pass through. As we sailed through the Pacific Islands in many places the people were so poor even a second hand t-shirt was a welcome gift. We try to give without turning them into beggars, usually focusing on medicines or clothes, books and pens for the school age children, fishhooks for the men and sewing materials for the women. As welcome as these gifts are we don't delude ourselves into thinking that we have made any lasting difference in their lives.
Upon our arrival in Kupang, Indonesia we were warmly greeted by a group of college students who had volunteered to act as our local guides so they could practice their English with us. Our guide, Nita, spoke excellent English and was one of the most intelligent and dynamic young women we have ever met-- had she been born in the US she would no doubt be on a full scholarship to the University of her Choice. Her family could not afford the $170 US dollars per year to send her to Kupang University but fortunately she had been awarded one of the few scholarships available there.
When the rally boats learned the yearly tuition at University was only $170 and thought about how many other kids like our guides were missing out on a college education we thought perhaps we had found a place where cruisers could make a lasting difference in the lives of the local people.
In less than a week we developed a program to help bright but needy students get to college; met with the University director and received his agreement to hold space open for students we sponsor and to waive the usual government red tape for them; met with the Headmasters of several High Schools and selected 2 schools for our initial program; set up a selection process based upon the criteria we designed and we have already raised enough money to provide a complete 5 year college education for 4 students starting next year.
As the rally occurs with new boats every year, we anticipate adding at least 4 more students per year so that by year 5 we should be funding a minimum of 20 students, 4 in each year of University.
Rally participants for the 2007 rally are already involved in the continuum and this effort will be part of each year’s Darwin-Kupang Rally. We feel confident that this program can make a life changing difference for these students, their communities and eventually their country.
For us and all the rally participants it’s good to know that for a change we are leaving more behind us than our boat's wake.
As yet we have no tax exempt status, however we are personally paying all administrative costs so every penny donated goes directly to the students. Donations can be sent via paypal to firstname.lastname@example.org
Commodores Rob and Dee Dubin
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