Monday, 24 November 2014

Crossing the Water Super-Highway to a New Land

A flash back from our arrival in Johor Bahru - Malaysia, the second country as we sailed west through Asia, just over a year ago.

So many milestone events had occurred in the last week, we had crossed the equator for the first time in a sailing boat, visited our last Indonesian city and were now sailing away from Indonesia for the short 30nm crossing of the Singapore Strait to arrive in Malaysia, the second country on our adventure.

The Singapore Strait is a tricky piece of waterway, our maps identified lanes for direction of travel, eight lanes in all and a turning area just at the entry to the Johor Strait - our target. It was like a water freeway all chopped up with waves and intensely filled with enormous cargo boats and we had to make our way across it without getting in the way of these boats that travelled at such speed, they really meant business. The Singapore authorities said that we were only to cross using motor, though we sailed for some of the way until the typical midday windlessness set in. Dodging cargo boats that were steaming south at about 15kts, we were crossing to the west and trying to make the jump across lanes without getting run over by any ships, 'look left', 'look right' and all that trying to figure out how fast a moving boat was travelling.

The first thing we noticed was the smell, a not so subtle fragrance of diesel fumes that hung in the air and left a fine layer of black soot on any horizontal surface. The next was the sky; a grey haze filled the atmosphere, a combination of heat haze and pollution caught in the inversion layer. The lack of any discernible colour or differentiation from east to west or north to south was a big difference, we were definitely in the doldrums now - the place adjacent the equator, notorious for little wind and hot hot heat. And it was hot. We were melting as we slowly chugged our way west. The next noticeable thing was the plastics littering the surface of the water.

We marvelled at the sheer number and size of ships and the business that revolved around it. Imagining the days when the waterway was filled with sailing boats waiting for weather systems to change or to pick up supplies kept us entertained on the slow hot crossing.

Shipping infrastructure in the Johor Strait
As we made our way up the Johor Strait the immense size of the cranes and other docking systems that supported the shipping was mind-boggling. We were skirting the edges of the Singapore island and far removed from the internal busyness of the goings on in the city. Next was what would become a common sight, huge barges and accompanying conveyor belts, sending thousands of tonnes of sand shooting into the water for land reclamation. 

Land reclamation that happened day and night to get the sand dumped and
manicured into shape, hopefully before the daily rain downpour

Our anticipation was mounting for our arrival to Malaysia, just across the 2nm wide waterway (the Johor Strait) from Singapore. We landed in Danga Bay marina and promptly made our way via the convenient local bus service into Johor Bahru town for the first of many local Indian food gorge-fests. Lights glimmered at us from tv sets booming Bollywood movies into the street from the Indian quarter and we were drawn in like moths to a flame. The food was very exciting, a big change from the standard rice or noodle dishes of Indonesia. Dozens of curries were on show in huge vats, no information on what was in the mix and I just pointed and tried to make some assessment of what would be a good dinner. I would try to ask the attendants if it was panas (hot) or not and find out if it would blow my head off. Unfortunately my understanding of what was 'hot' was not theirs. Time would show that my judgement on what looked hot or not was not always on song and on more than one occasion I would have smoke escape from my ears as I was overwhelmed with the amazingly hot dish. There seemed no limit to the level of mouth burning chilli that the locals desired.

The big change from Indonesia was stark, Johor Bahru (JB) was just a short bus ride from Singapore and it seemed that the city was looking up to its modern neighbour and had embraced the cosmopolitan feel and modern features of a land that they were at war with for so many centuries. Large, modern unit blocks filled the streetscape and new luxury condominium developments were sprouting up where there was water last week via the land reclamation work. Progress was happening and nothing was going to stand in the way of JB reaching for the same status that Singapore held. The proposed Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (SMRT) line that would come through JB soon was bound to increase the value of Malaysian land for Singapore commuters that could not find housing there. 

The arrival to a new country was most satisfying and lit the flame of excitement and intrigue just as we had felt a few months previously on our approach Indonesia. 


Thursday, 13 November 2014

The Day the Dingy Went for A Solo Adventure

We were busily enjoying a 'pot luck' dinner aboard the catamaran SV School's Out while penned in by weather at Island Head Creek. After a fun night and much re-telling of our overseas cruising adventures, it was time to go home as we were preparing to leave the following morning for the 60nm southward journey to Great Keppell Island. We walked onto the starboard hull as Ros the host started pulling our dingy's painter to find that there was no resistance to our red line...there was no dingy attached to it. Disaster. 

Where the dingy would be...unfortunately just a chaffed
through line now swung

The dingy is, like many other items essential to cruising. How else do you get from your boat to shore? Swimming is rarely an option, especially if you want to be sociable at the other end or when the waterway is patrolled by crocs and jellyfish.

Avid readers would recall the loss of 'The Krissy I' complete with outboard in week 2 of our cruising adventure, a terrible loss due to a wayward knot when the dingy was tied to the boat. After that we bought 'The Krissy II', a PVC soft bottom inflatable from a bloke in Yamba, which turned out to be quite inappropriate in the tropics and the weekly application of 5200 glue couldn't hold that thing together after 5 months of use. Some cruising friends of ours and their kids affectionately referred to our dingy as 'the pool'. After that we were fortunate to be gifted a hypalon dingy from some cruiser friends who were retiring it from their use. This dingy came pre-named as 'Maxx' and turned out to have aged more than its previous owners knew and unlikely to last much longer. So that left us in Phuket, month 7 of our adventure and we were presented with a brand new fibreglass hard-bottom and hypalon pontoon dingy that was just the right size and just the right weight for our boat. We snapped it up and together with a new 15hp outboard, we were finally in the business of getting from A to B in comfort (ie, somewhat dry) and speed. We even filled it up with diving gear and dived off it with success. We had become somewhat attached to 'The Krissy III' as she had lasted with us for almost a full calender year and was in superb condition considering the tough life afforded to plastics and glues in the relentless tropical heat.

So as the feeling of dread rolled over me about the potential loss of our beloved runabout, we turned to our company for help. Thankfully we were amongst a group of able fishermen who loved taking their fully kitted out tenders (ie. tinnies with 20hp+ engines compete with seats and full safety gear) along with their cruising yachts whenever they went on trips. Our new mate Trev jumped to the rescue and went to get his incredibly bright 12v cable-powered spotlight and after a short tactical discussion about tides, currents and wind direction, Hugh was leading the charge off hunting for the dingy. We were anchored in an elaborate river system and were fortunate to have been at dinner the whole time the tide was rising, which meant that the dingy was hopefully inside the waterway and not taking a rough ride out in the ocean just beyond the heads. There were many little inlets along this so-called 'creek'  (an 8nm long meandering waterway) so it could have been a long night of checking each one. While the moon was high, clouds shrouded the creek, which was at this point 2nm from one side to the other. While we could see the rock formations hemming in the waterway on the other side, their was not enough light to see a pale grey dingy floating off on a solo adventure. This was where the 12v ridiculously bright spotlight came in and lit up the rockwall like there was a diva about to come out for a performance.

And there she was, as luck would have it, 'The Krissy III' was floating off the nearest point, right where Hugh thought it would be given the way the elements would have affected it. A speedy rescue and Hugh was off hooning her around reminding her how much we loved her. 

A new painter line attached, and we were not going to let her out of our sight again...between us we again made the pact that if we see something and think about doing it, we should just go right ahead and do it. In this case, do not wait for the line to chafe through before replacing it otherwise you could be left high and dry and stranded on your boat!


Friday, 7 November 2014

A Welcoming Home

We sailed through the Grafton Passage of the Great Barrier Reef at dawn and while a sea bird preened itself on our pulpit, we started to realise the emotions of returning home to Australia. While we were not ‘home’ yet, we still had 2000nm yet to sail down the east Australian coast to Sydney, being back in Australia was like returning to a comfortable old shoe.  We knew how to get things done, had the currency sorted and we could again watch the ABC.

It seemed like a lifetime ago since we were last here, but it was only 18 months. We had seen the best and worst of humanity, met the most warm and welcoming people who would give you everything they have when they have very little at all; and seen the development of nations who were champing at the bit to be more prominent on the world stage (some struggling and bounding awkwardly like a growing puppy whose legs are too long and unwieldy for efficient locomotion). We had experienced a lot and worried that Australia had become increasingly conservative with the ISIL dramas and increased terrorist alarmism. Political rhetoric barely touched Cairns, the big city that feels like a country town, filled with 4WDs and long HF antennas. It was thankfully going to be a slow reintegration back into society for us.

We made our way into the Cairns Marlin Marina and awaited the arrival of Customs and Quarantine to do our check-in. We were not quite sure what they would be looking for and I had pre-emptively given away a lot of our food in the Solomons (like rice, flour, herbs, spices, tea, coffee, milk powder etc), but it was hard to know how much to keep because I still needed to make sure that we had enough food for the 8-day sail home, which could have become elongated if conditions were adverse. But in the end we had very little food that I thought would be confiscated. Customs asked lots of question about where we had been, if we had contracted any illnesses and whether we were carrying any guns. They asked questions about having any animals on board and they listed things like dogs, cats, birds and then asked if we had a snake. I could not help but laugh, it sounded like a nightmare sequel to ‘snakes on a plane’, if we had a snake on the boat after the passage we had just done, that snake would be rabid and ready to rip the head off whoever came near it. Really?  A snake on a boat? No sir, we do not have a snake on the boat. They also told us that customs and quarantine would be joining forces in a new super department called ‘Border Force’ and they would get new uniforms one shade darker in a navy colour…only a short step from black. The new name sounded like some kind of a cheesy reality TV show. After customs we had quarantine, a bloke called Peter came aboard and we went through the items that looked sus from his perspective, he took the garlic and inspected the other food on board, no dramas. Then he spent the next 40 minutes pouring over the timber on the boat, he was looking for evidence of termites and other wood borne infestations. He was also inquisitive about whether we had had any swarms of bees attack the boat, apparently a relevant risk in the Solomons, thankfully no. We had also picked up some timber carvings in the Solomons, but they were all fine being made of kerosene, palm and ebony hardwood timbers. The Australian government charged us the royal fee of $380 for our quarantine inspection (Customs and Immigration was free).  All told it was comparable to what we paid in Palau and the Solomons for the various bureaucratic box ticking and paper stamping. Once we got the tick we were free agents. 

What to do first? Well, we walked on the footpath (the one dedicated to feet *gasp*), went to the pub and had a steak and a draught beer. What a treat! We were on stable ground, with a big, beautiful open sky, enjoying someone else’s cooking and a cold beer! The idea was floated that we should go to the Telstra shop and deal with lapsed mobile phone arrangements. After 8 days of disjointed sleeping, dealing with Telstra was put in the ‘too hard’ basket, we just used the WiFi internet at the pub to call my sister via skype to tell her we were in Cairns, her home town and looking for her! But she was at work … of course, people go to work on weekdays.  So we stayed for a few more refreshing ales.

We marvelled at the park that lined the Esplanade. Cairns really is the victim of unfortunate geography, planted next to a mosquito and croc infested swamp and drying mud flats, the waterfront does not offer much in the way of a nice beachfront. So the Council invested in the ‘lagoon’, an unfenced public pool with sandy edges for their own little faux beach, surrounded by immaculate lawn areas and BBQs. It is the social heart of the city centre and an actual meeting point for locals and visitors alike and is absolutely packed on weekends. We ended up taking my niece and nephew there a couple of times and they had lots of fun standing on Hugh’s shoulders and doing a ‘rocket ship’ which landed them in the water from where they emerged coughing and spluttering after drinking 2 liters of water, gasping ‘again, again’.

We were penned in by the strong 30kt trade wind sou’easter so we stayed put, filling up on cheese, wine, beer, meat, bread and all manner of food that we had missed so dearly while being away. I also went to the Rusty’s market and bought fresh fruit and veggies that had me overwhelmed with their quality and abundant variety. Not only could you get oranges, but you could pick which species too! The two weeks had us buying boat bits, finding a wood guy who could cut and shape some replacement pieces of teak to mend our companionway door so veraciously nibbled through by Russell the Rat 8 months ago. We also took the opportunity to advertise in some backpacker places for anyone seeking a ride to the Whitsundays, it turned out that Grace, a German/Australian who was here on a holiday would love to come and became our friendly companion for a week.

With many hugs we waved off my sister and her family and weighed anchor, taking the short window of the northerly breeze to get some southward miles under our belt. A delicious Spanish Mackerel caught off the back of the boat was a nice reminder that we were back in Queensland waters and the glorious sun filled days gave way to a star studded canopy as the night set in on the 300nm trip. Three days later we anchored off Whitehaven beach at dawn and watched the sand grow white and the aqua coloured water twinkle as the sun rose. It was nice to enjoy the beach before the daytrippers arrived on large powerboats from Airlie Beach or Hamilton Island, sent down ramps in their hundreds to touch the sand for 2 hours before being herded back on board. We took a dingy trip late in the afternoon to the northern part of the beach where we revisited Hill Inlet and Tongue Bay to admire the breathtaking beauty of the waterway as the tide changes and drifting sand expose an array of colours in the water ranging from aqua to light blue through to dark blue all adjacent white silica sand. This was something we relished as the last time we were here 18 months ago, it was blowing like stink and completely unbearable. At least we got to enjoy it this time.

Whitehaven Beach and Hill Inlet with the lovely Grace, our guest deck scrubber
A short hop to Hamilton Island the next day and we were waving goodbye to our new friend Grace as she continued her Queensland trip and we grabbed the continuing favourable wind and made for the Percy Islands, some 100nm south. When we tried to come here last year the sea was so whipped up that we could not launch the dingy and we sat penned in being seasick on anchor at South Percy Island as 40kt winds whipped around.  This time the weather was just right, we jumped off the boat and swam for shore to check out the A-frame that had been erected in the 1970s and had become a visiting spot for cruisers over the years to leave a piece of memorabilia to mark their journey. We found the board posted by our friends aboard Hokulea and left a message in a bottle that would be set free and float to an unsuspecting recipient in the event of sea level rise due to global warming.

One more day trip had us tucked in at the head of Island Head Creek, a protected little spot not too far north of Rockhampton. The wind was predicted to shift back to the southeast and pack a 35kt punch, so we opted for a rest as that system blew through. We thought that we had reached a most spectacular spot, indeed it seemed so at first with an amazing sunset enjoyed with a glass of wine and some cheese to snack on. It was only the next morning when we awoke covered in hundreds of sand fly (midgie) bites that we regretted our anchoring location. Continual dabbing of tea tree oil or vinegar was no good. 

Sunset in a comfortable anchorage, what a treat!
Hugh went off to drop his crab trap, adorned with the fish head from the Span Mack we had caught a week ago as bait. Hugh was definitely looking forward to some good crabbing feasts! We were invited over to ‘smoko’ on Saltwater Dreaming which is a blokely invite for morning tea. I made a chocolate cake and we were accepted into this group of Island Head Creek regulars who came here to go crabbing and fishing for a week at a time. We couldn’t spot our crab trap and the blokes reckoned that the crabs around here are so big they probably walked off with it. That lead to a vision of a couple of crabs walking through the mud with a trap on their back as they yelled instructions to the other crabs so that they didn’t drop it before getting to open it up and feast on the fish head. It turned out that it probably got washed away in the tide which varied by more than 4m between tides, no crabs for us. The bites were still bothering us, on the first night post-bite I was so itchy I did not sleep until after 3am, there was no relief in sight until a neighbouring cruiser recommended rubbing vicks vapour rub on the bites. Bingo, finally I could sleep. Welcome home? Yeah thanks flies, real sweet of you.

The red hives are 10 of the 100 midgie bites that drove me mad for 3 days