Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Labuan – The Island of Gardens

We arrived on the island of Labuan after a comparatively short and pleasant 3 day and 3 night sail/motor 390nm north from Kuching, we had made it to the northern most state of Malaysia – Sabah. Labuan is famous as the location for the Japanese surrender of the island of Borneo at the end of WWII and is now popular due to its duty free port status. We seem to stumble across these in Malaysia, a tax-free haven where tourists travel here to go crazy buying beer, spirits and chocolate at prices 20% of the remainder of the country. 

Previously owned by the Brunei Sultanate until being ceded to the British in 1846, Labuan is just a stones throw west of its historical owner, though we were not going to visit there this time. The Bruneians do come here to enjoy the free and cheap flowing alcohol and weekender boat trips escalate until quieting down ahead of Monday, as Bruneians make their way back to their oil rich state.

So while Hugh was neck deep in engine maintenance my focus shifted to the small tasks on the boat, planning our provisioning needs upon leaving Malaysia and visiting the beautiful parks and gardens of the island. The number of parks and their immaculate management was such a stark contrast to other parts of the country where nothing but a dust bowl or overgrown patch of land could be found when one was seeking some pubic space refuge. Well tended flower beds, manicured gardens, trees planted to create shady boulevards and colourful paving marked the open space strip which ran for a length of 3 kms through the east side of the town. The inclusion of a meticulously maintained botanical garden is also impressive. 

The strangest part of it all is that the locals just shrug it off, because this is business as usual. To see the locals playing soccer or badminton at the end of the day loving their parks was a great thing to see, or during the day just sitting in their paved plazas’ having a chat, giving the town a vibrant feel. 



A fabulous surprise to experience and an obvious distinction to towns and cities in Peninsula Malaysia. A large income source for Malaysia are drawn from its rich oil deposits mined from the South China Sea. Labuan houses oil refining for easy dispatch via boat, south to Singapore or north to China. The open spaces and parks on Labuan balance out the noxious refining processes that go on here, a dichotomy of land uses.

Other fun features which we came across while wandering through town was the weightlifting ‘strong man’ competition on the weekend and the central market which closes the streets to cars and scooters and bursts to life with fresh cooked food, fresh produce and plants. The music booming from the loudspeakers made me giggle as the song ‘Gangnam Style’ was rewritten to be ‘Sabah Style’. Classy.

We wandered the 3kms east to the Commonwealth WWII War Memorial, which is one of the places where Australian, Indian and British soldiers or POWs who died during the war were buried. We left a flower at Hughs’ family relatives’ plaque, a POW captured with the fall of Malaya. Labuan seemed like an apt place to bury them, as this was the location for the Japanese surrender of this theatre of war. I was leant a book from a fellow cruiser here at the marina on the POW camp at Sandakan in northern Borneo, where 2,424 Australian and British soldiers were worked, starved and marched to death as part of a ‘leave no traces’ Japanese plan. Only 6 men (Australians) survived due to extraordinary escapes and help from local Malay people who were unsure who to trust – the new oppressive ruling Japanese, or the British who were bombing and strafing the land in an attempt to drive out the invaders. Such a tale of a grim 3 year existence of the POWs and their torturous deaths is still today a reminder of the tragic hopelessness of war. 


Commonwealth WWII Memorial, Labuan
The provisioning was another experience, but as usual I had fun at the market. Because Labuan has a mix of Islamic Malaysians, Hindu Indians and Buddhist Chinese, the full range of meats are available you just have to scout them out. Muslims hate pork, Chinese love pork and any meat really, while the Hindus wont touch beef and don’t seem to be that interested in pork. Hugh is feeling a great need for some pork, so as the quartermaster it was my job to solve that crisis. At the fresh market (the pasar) I had to hunt out the pork (babi) seller…I knew they would be hidden in a back ‘sin’ alley somewhere, out of sight and passage of the local Islamic population. So there I stumbled across the babi shack, a small building where the chinese proprietors sold chunks of pork as you order. I ordered with a point and showed how big a piece I wanted and that was that, dinner sorted! Then I wandered through the fresh vegetable market and as usual, the locals were friendly and saying welcome and asking me how I was. I responded with the usual morning greeting and answered their question posed in English with a Malay answer. They always get a kick out of that. It’s easy to get a grin out of the locals, usually by mispronouncing something in Malay or saying good morning instead of good afternoon. 

So Labuan turned out to be another interesting point on our marathon journey through the Malaysian lands, a surprisingly green and recreationally focused town. Next stop, the busy tourist haven of Kota Kinabalu. 

28/5/14

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Kuching - Cat Bizarre

Borneo, the island known for jungles, Orangutans, Probiscus monkeys and some serious environmental degradation threats. But I am getting ahead of myself...we last left you at the Tioman Islands, lapping up the sunshine and gorgeous aqua water. Trade that for being becalmed in the South China Sea, drifting and hoping against hope that some wind would come around and give us a lift. It never happened. We experienced some squalls which had some very short lived blasts of wind, but nothing to transport us the 400nm east to Kuching, the capital of the southern Malaysian state of Sarawak - Borneo. We even spotted a water spout (in the distance, thankfully) before a 40kt squall blasted through.


Water spout and accompanying squall in the South China Sea
One afternoon we were drifting, approximately two thirds the way to our destination and there was not a breath of wind. The water was so flat we could see our reflections in the glass. Such a strange experience to be in a sea, open to all the elements and there was not a wave nor a tremor on the face of the water. A pod of dolphins came by to say hi, it was one of those special moments and we got some neat snaps of our reflection in the water off the boat.


Reflections in the glass like Sea
So 6 days and 5 long nights after we left Tioman we motored into the grubby Sarawak River and anchored next to the small town of Sajingkat. Excited as we were about getting to land and eating some food off the boat (we had failed to catch even one fish on our long journey), we had heard and read warnings about boat safety and we took a measured approach to leaving the boat on the first night and enjoyed a few coldies to celebrate arrival at a new and mysterious destination.

Kuching the Malay word for 'cat', is a busy town, dominated by port comings and goings, logging and oil shipping. The town was given its name by a British merchants' nephew, Charles Brooke the Raja here from 1868-1972, not entirely sure why but it has become a great reason to theme the town with cat related paraphernalia. Borneo is an intriguing island, divided north/south between Indonesian and Malaysian ownership, with Brunei having its own northwest segment and not a party to either of the other two nations. This eastern part of Malaysia has quite a checkered history of land ownership battles with Japan, federated Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia. The intervention of British and Australian troops to maintain the Malaysian border during the Indonesian Konfrontasi in the late 1960s exemplifies the strong links that Malaysia maintained with its former Colonial ruler.

But onto today...Hugh went off to town to check-in with the Port Master and Customs, while I stayed and minded the boat. It was now 7 days since I had been off the boat and I was getting a bit tetchy. But it was all training for the longer legs that we would be doing as we made the big journey eastward. Turns out that Hugh had made a new 'friend' in Mr Wan, a guy with a car who was hanging around the jetty, who would drive him around to get 240lts of diesel to fill up our tanks, for a modest tip. Filling up the boat with fuel is always fun, as it involves obtaining enough containers and transporting them to the petrol station, back to the dingy, from the dingy to the boat and then filling up the tanks, one laborious jerry can at a time. This level of 'fun' is always enhanced by inclement weather which can have the dingy bouncing up and down against the side of the boat, making the lifting of the jerry cans onto the boat quite a challenge. Sometimes getting fuel can take a whole day...imagine if it took a day to get the fuel for your car every time you filled up!

Incident free, the fuel was procured and the boat was now full. Hugh also managed to check us in in one day, which is not always the case as it can sometimes take 3 days to check in and run around town to all the different officials who can be 'at lunch', 'on a walk' or just 'finished'. So now we were free to get on the internet (excited face!), check out the town and buy some vegetables. We didn't want to leave the boat for too long, so we were not going to go to any of the number of National Parks to do any trekking, this time. So we made our way out to the main road and it looked like the last bus had been here sometime in the 1990s, and Hugh had found out the day before that taxis are a bit expensive, so we tried the old fashioned 'thumb out' trick and managed to strike gold with a lovely lady called Lily, a Chinese Malaysian, who turned into our tour guide for the day. She took us to the cat statue, a restaurant for Chinese breakfast and the fruit and vegetable shop. We were not your average tourists!


Kuching sight-seeing with our new friend Lily
Cat Bizarre. The next stop was the Kuching Cat Museum which was, well, quite kitsch, in a quality Malaysian way! The displays containing family photos of pet cats, the cat food section and the birthday cards with cat images left me in stitches. Next was the taxidermy cat section with sad disjointed cats looking mournful with their crooked glass eyes. It was all too much and time to go back to the boat. With a teary wave, we said goodbye to Lily and got back to the boat ready to depart for our next Borneo stop - Labuan. On the way out we could hear the commercial shipping captains' calling the Kuching pilot, calling on the radio with "meow pilot, meow pilot, meow pilot" followed by their call sign. Good to see that the locals enjoy the humour of the town's name as much as we did.

The 370nm northward trip to Labuan was comparatively quick, taking 4 days and we were even able to sail most of it. The coast was busy with fishing boats, merchant ships carrying lumber and oil and the enormous oil/ natural gas drilling rigs which we were weaving in and out of. Some of the structures were in 50m of water, such incredible infrastructure connected on the sea bed by a pipeline which delivered the crude oil or natural gas to the mainland for shipping or refining. 


One of the dozens of drilling rigs we sailed through on the west coat of Sarawak
We arrived at Labuan and are now in the marina, another Government constructed and owned facility. There are about 7 of these dotted around the Malaysian coast, all brand new and yet in a state of disrepair. It looks like one bloke drew up the plans for the marina on the back of a napkin while on a 3am caffeine high then had his brother and cousin build it before the weekend was out. The designs are always quite strange, usually with little consideration of the local weather effects and only a few of them include sea walls, such that they are suffering badly from swell impacts or wake from passing water traffic. This marina has the visiting yachts tied up on the farthest arms, and you walk along a 200m long 2-foot wide concrete 'gangway' with no rails to exit the marina. Here's hoping that I don't slip and take a dip in the nasty marina water after having a couple of G and T's!

20/5/2014

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Tioman Island – Picture Perfect

The day that we left Johor and the Johor Strait was a fabulous day. The sun was shining, there was not a breath of wind but we were leaving and that was all that mattered. North and east to the Tioman Island group was our plan, though we had to go out and around Singapore waters to get there. Hugh had just painstakingly installed our new AIS transponder (radar type device that identifies and locates boats) a gift care of our very generous cruiser friends on Tahina, so we could see and count this time just how many boats were transiting through the Singapore Strait and it was a LOT! 

AIS screen shot of the waterway around Singapore, the yellow and green arrows represent the shipping
vessels = LOTS of boats (the purple arrows indicate the lanes for travelling)
The day was long and uneventful and we decided to anchor not far from Changi airport on the eastern side of Singapore and were surprised and excited to see some porpoises swimming around looking for dinner near EJ. We awoke at 5am the following morning to get going and we had a monster of a squall come through, thunder, lightning and a torrent of rain to boot as we motored our way east. Thankfully the electrical storm stayed some distance off and we just hoped for the best. The rest of the sail was uneventful and particularly dull. With no wind about and therefore no sails to tend to, I sat in the cockpit being numbed by the sound of the engine. We dropped anchor at 7pm at Pulau Sibu, the first of the Tioman Island group. 

The anchorage was quite rolly so early the next morning we decided to go and anchor across the bay at Pulau Tinggi which was visible for miles with its jungle covered dormant volcanic peak rising out from the water. But one glance at the water and we knew we had arrived, just 140nm from Johor Bahru. The water was a clear aqua colour and there were gleaming reefs visible ringing the islands. A dive into the water and we were quickly refreshed and loving being in some nice water again, it had been January when we were in Thailand, the last time we had gleefully jumped in the water for a swim. It is a kind of torture being on a boat and unable to enjoy the water that you sit on, some of the water that we have been through I wouldn’t dare touch for fear of what might be lurking below or how thick the oil slick on the top is, blurgh.  

Port Klang, Selangor...nice water yes?

We ventured ashore keen to grab an iced tea or some nasi goreng. To say that it was a sleepy place is an understatement, you might have to put your ear up to the locals face to hear if they are breathing there was that little going on. No iced tea for me. I love visiting these remote islands that are so small and have such difficult terrain that there are no cars, just bicycles and motor bikes. The ‘town’ was two streets deep and it was obvious that they relied on regular ferry or boat deliveries as there were no shops or cafes about. While it was a nice place, we decided to move on 30nm north to the most famous island in the group – Tioman Island. 

Once again with the motor loudly humming away, we made the 6 hour journey to Tioman. It was a sight to behold visible for miles off, mountainous peaks covered in dense jungle that you would have to slash with a machete to get through, ringed by golden sand and crystal clear water, atop lively reefs. Tioman Island was indeed picture perfect. Apparently voted in the top 10 islands in the world in the 1970s, I wouldn’t be surprised if the buildings here hadn’t changed since then. A fabulous place to visit with a chilled vibe and small timber cottages were as commercialised as the accommodation got. We could get used to this. We planned to stay a day and wait for some wind that was supposed to come the day after next…10 days later we were still erring about when we would leave.

Tioman Island
We anchored outside the marina and got to enjoy the 5 knot breeze that came at 3pm and left promptly at 3:15pm. While it was truly beautiful it was no less hot than Johor, but the relentless sun beating down gave us good reason to seek shelter under the water. It was time to go diving! We went on a commercial trip with one of the local company’s and spotting moray eels, clown fish, rays and going through some rock formation swim through’s was great. But we could one-up that by taking EJ, some dive gear and Jo & Jason from Labyrinth, two Aussie Cruisers who were now ‘locals’ after getting lost here almost a year ago, we went off diving at Pulau Tulai. Spotting a huge green backed turtle, sea snake and some fabulous coral fan formations topped off the trip. We enjoyed a mezze platter of flat bread, boat made tzatziki and hommous and a bean and rice mix to pass the surface interval. We even managed the 5nm sail back to the anchorage before dark.

One final set of sundowners at the Cabana Bar with our new friends was rudely interrupted by a storm system that sent all its might onto the Island. Hugh was last seen running along the beach to take the dingy back to EJ to check that she was still holding tight. The westerly wind turned our lovely anchorage into a lee-shore and that made seconds of reaction time if the anchor did not hold to the boat being washed up on the beach. Thankfully all was fine aboard except for our sail shade which got a bit of a beating from the 40kt gusts that were ripping through. We had a tense night on anchor, but the wind let up about 1am and we were able to get some rest.

While the island geared up for a busy weekend with the Sultan coming to visit for the Sultan Ahmad Shah (SAS) ‘eco challenge’ the 8hr mountain endurance race that was being held on the weekend, we did our last fresh food supply run, scoffed down some more roti canai and grabbed a few more cheeky bottles of duty free wine.  Some quick goodbyes to our new friends and we were ready for the big 400nm South China Sea crossing to Kuching Borneo, we could only hope that the wind would come along for the journey with us!

The Cabana Bar, our friend Dale off Freeform’s pick for the best banana bread,
 our pick for a nice shady spot for lunch


14/5/2014

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Lightning, Very VERY Frightening

Most of my posts have some level of humour or are derived from some small personal sense of achievement. Not this one though, this is seriously serious. There are not many things that make a sailor weak and go pale at the thought of, but a lightning strike to your boat is one of them. Not only can it disable the electrical system on the boat (navigation, instruments, radar, radios, lights, onboard devices like phones, computers, laptops etc), but it can shoot through the boat and out the other side leaving a catastrophic hole in the hull. In the book Moby Dick there are timber whaling ships and a lightning strike sets off a blaze in the mast and engulfs the whole boat. So it was that one otherwise ordinary Thursday morning, loitering around in the waters of Johor Bahru that a thunderstorm that would wake the dead and have them shaking with fear, came to show its might.
Hugh had just disappeared off to the north, leaving behind a trail of froth as he dingied towards Johor Bahru to go and free his laptop which had been kept hostage by the Apple Service centre. I was in charge of the boat, a day of leisure while at anchor ahead of our departure to clearer waters. I pottered about the boat, making tea, doing some chores and reading a book. I could hear the thunder rumbling which it had been doing all morning, though the sun was shining and bearing down with all its might, so I thought the thunder was just flexing its muscles but would roll off to disappear into atmospheric oblivion soon.

As the morning wore on, the sky turned a dark shade of grey and the humidity reached a level of unparalleled discomfort. This was the sign that things were going to change. I made my way through the boat, closing all the hatches and portholes, pulling in items off the deck and generally making sure everything was ready for a rain downpour. I returned to my seat to continue reading my book. A loud BOOM brought me quickly back to reality, and as I got up I kicked over my glass of water, sending it running through the sole of the boat. It was not the rainclouds I should be protecting the boat from, it was my elephant like feet that were making a mess of the interior. I scrambled around to mop up my mess and emerged from the cabin to see the ugliest, fiercest looking cloud and a wall of rain that was steadily making its way northward, to me. I checked everything was closed up and waited. I could see the rain pounding into the water and I knew this was going to be one good deluge. I picked out a towel to make a dam and got ready to open the water tanks to take advantage of such a decent downpour.

The wind came before the rain, I turned the instruments on to see a reading of 25kts. Then the rain came forth and dumped, I waited a while for the deck to wash off and opened the tanks to top them up. I was quite pleased with the amount of rain and was chuffed with myself for being on the ball to take advantage of the situation. The rain created a wall of white, preventing me from seeing very far. I was saturated from opening the water tanks and sat in the cockpit and shivered as a bright white lightning bolt stung the water like an angry snake not but 400m from the aft of the boat and the heavens released an almighty B O O M of thunder. The boat was dancing on anchor, fighting between the pull of the current (at about 3kts) and the wind which was whipping up from the opposite direction. I quickly turned all the instruments off and all of the other circuits on the switch panel and popped the phones, cameras and spare GPS in the switched off oven – our onboard faraday cage (providing a shield from static electric currents and distributing it around the cage instead of through our electronic valuables, and touted by cruisers as a great way to try and protect your devices). Sheets of lightning lit up the sky giving me plenty of light to see the fury of the storm as it spun around the boat in a circle like fashion. Another lightning bolt struck the water and let of an enormous CRACK upon impact, followed immediately by a bone shaking B O O M of thunder. This was the time when the terror set in, expecting the storm to come closer I realised that I did not have any options for escape (except to dive into the water and swim for shore). We were only anchored in 6m so if the boat sank, I could just climb up the mast and hang around for someone to come by, or launch the life raft...a particularly comical way to be seen emerging from a liferaft I would say, with the boat not 200m from a safe shore? But what seemed just as bad was the thought of our electrical system being fried and having to spend countless weeks in the area fixing all the downed systems.

But I was distracted from this line of thought by the screaming of the rigging, the boat was heeling from the pressure of the wind, the angle and speed of the wind (I estimate at about 45kts) created the 'singing' of the rigging as the wind whipped through it. The boat came upright again as the wind eased off, but heeled again as another gust blasted through. I thought the bimini would fly off or some other attachment to the boat. But they all stayed strong and suffered the wrath of the rain that once again hammered down. Sailors have talked for hundreds of years about the 'singing' of the rigging in the wind and I had not heard it on our boat before and thought that maybe ours did not. It turns out that it just needed the right provocation.

Just as the wind laid off, another lightning bolt hit the water with a CRACK and the earth vibrated with the B O O M of the thunder. I thought that this was it, that an otherwise uneventful day would be the end of the sailing adventure and all would be lost, and we were only at anchor! I was shivering in the cockpit, with hands about my ears like a small child as the lightning struck. It was the most chilling feeling and make no mistake, I was terrified. The feeling of helplessness was overwhelming and I just watched the lightning smack the water time and again like a live wire dancing about without hope of stopping it.

About 30 minutes after it started, the storm started to dissipate. The rain moved off in a northerly direction and the thunder and lightning gave one more 'who's the boss' show before heading off in the same way. It was over, we had survived and the boat was none the worse. Our friend Bill on Solstice had sailed through a fierce storm on his 1000nm crossing from New Caledonia to Sydney and had had a similar experience where he watched the lightning strike the water close to his boat. He had a plan though, to throw a line of copper overboard connected to his backstay to direct the lightning strike overboard rather than down the mast through his electrical system. Fortunately he did not get struck. We had heard a boat surveyor who was preparing to x-ray the rigging of a boat which had been struck by lightning to see the internal damage to the stainless steel fixtures. We had also met Frank and Karen on Tahina who were on anchor and a lightning bolt ran up their anchor chain and fried their electrical system, keeping them grounded in Malaysia for one more year before their big crossing to South Africa. Lightning strike is real and has expensive consequences if you are lucky enough to not be physically hurt as well. Such are the perils of the active weather systems of the area, being in the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ – which is dominated by stagnant calms and violent thunder storms).

Departing lightning alley the clouds finally look less foreboding
Thankfully we made it unscathed and we would soon be out of lightning alley - this area very close to the equator. While lightening can strike anywhere, the convective thunderstorm cells of the ITCZ significantly increase the risk. It was indeed a fearful experience, and what a tale of risk of death while on the high seas of the flat and calm Johor Strait on anchor!

Update:

In response to questions received, below is more information on the technical side of lightning strikes to boats and the inclusions on our boat.

  • We do not have a lightning rod (pointed conductor) atop the mast. Nigel Calder in his book ‘Boatowners Mechanical and Electrical Manual’ refers to including a pointed conductor to the mast and running a low resistance path through the mast connecting it to the ocean through the hull of the boat, thereby providing a clear (preferred) path for the current to flow.
  • We do not have ground plates in the lightning protection sense. Again, Calder refers to a ground plate that is connected to the hull (generally at the base area of the mast) as a clear line for current to pass through and out of the boat. This is debated as to the size and design of the plate so it is sufficient for the current to be directed (and not too small such that the current will blast the plate off the hull and create the ‘hole in the hull’ issue).

There is much debate about what should or shouldn’t be included on a boat to increase its protection from a strike, however there are consequences of those decisions, such as increased galvanic action and whether such inclusions will increase the attraction of a strike to the boat.

4/5/2014