"Arctracer" Letters

Passage from Singapore to Kuching, July 2008

In July 2008 we sailed from the tip of the Malay Peninsula near Singapore to the Malaysian part of Borneo near Kuching, crossing the South China Sea. We traveled a total of 424 miles in just over three days. We had mostly southeast winds of about 15 knots for the first two days, then a day of no useful wind as we approached Borneo. The passage was relatively uneventful, but the autopilot failed so we had to hand-steer the last half of the trip.

We left the dock at Sebana Cove Marina [1 degree 25 minutes N, 104 degrees 10 minutes E] as soon as we could see, 6:55 on July 5. We followed "Rampant" out of the estuary, using the last of the ebb current. We stayed well north of the main shipping channels until we were past the Horsburg Lighthouse. The current was against us on this stretch, and we moved slowly with little breeze to help our engines. Crossing the shipping lanes was a challenge. The traffic through the Singapore Strait is very heavy, and it was not easy to find a "hole" in the stream of ships. We crossed perpendicular to the flow of ships as fast as we could, using both engines to power straight into the southeast wind which was now about 15 knots. It was a period of leaping over waves and wakes while watching monstrous ships zooming towards us from both sides. We were a bit nervous, but had no close calls and didn't come near any ships. It was a relief to turn onto our course, unfurl the jib, and turn off the engines.

By 2:00 in the afternoon we were sailing with full mainsail and jib, close-hauled on the starboard tack with the breeze southeast to south-southeast. This was predicted by www.buoyweather.com when we looked the previous day. We almost put a reef in the main just before dark, but decided (correctly) that the wind probably wouldn't get too strong during the night.We did furl part of the jib when the apparent wind got up above 20 knots, but kept making six or seven knots according to the GPS. We saw a few ships traveling in various directions, and several fishing boats. Nina made lentil burgers for our first evening meal, which was not easy on a bouncing boat when we were not used to the motion.

At 7:00 on July 6 we had traveled 135 miles from Sebana Cove. An intermediate waypoint was just north of Acasta Rock, and we passed it at 10:00. Our course was through Indonesian islands, passing below the Anambas where there were a few reports of piracy in past years but none lately. We stayed far from all islands, never getting within 20 miles of the smallest rocks. When the wind veered more to the south-southeast, we turned with it. Our concern was that the wind might back more to the east, forcing us to tack, and sailing south of the rhumb line gave us some "insurance" against that possible bad wind shift. The sailing was quite pleasant on this second day out. We were becoming used to the motion, and the waves seemed smaller. We trolled a lure and in the afternoon hooked a large fish, probably a wahoo. It had been so long since landing one that we had difficulty finding our gaff. After ten minutes we found it and started reeling in the fish. Halfway to the boat it shook the hook. We were disappointed because we could almost taste those beautiful fillets.

Suddenly the boat turned sharply to port! The autopilot malfunctioned. We think the problem was a failure of the rudder angle transducer. We checked wiring and tried disconnecting the transducer, but the autopilot refused to steer. Oh well, we just had to hand-steer the rest of the way. This was tiring, since the wind and waves conspired to turn the boat off-course and the helmsman needed to keep adjusting with the wheel. Lashing the helm sometimes kept us on-course for a little while, but our quick trips inside usually resulted in getting way off course. We both got quite tired on our night watches. We came fairly close to a fishing boat in the middle of the night, but the other captain politely stopped until we were safely past.

By 7:00 the next morning we had sailed another 135 miles. The breeze was less and we were only making four or five knots over the ground even with the staysail added to our sail area. It was a lovely day, and we were not complaining. A huge container ship came from the south on a collision course, so we turned into the wind and stopped while it passed about half-a-mile in front of us. It probably would have changed its course to avoid us, but we always assume big ships will hurtle straight on without noticing us. At noon we sailed near the Muri Islets. A few fishing boats were anchored in the lee of the larger island, but probably nobody lives there. (view Muri Islets photo) The breeze continued to dwindle, and by 2:00 it had almost entirely disappeared. We turned on one of our engines and started chugging at about 4-5 knots. We passed south of Merundung Island, and had the Borneo mainland in sight before dark.

Motoring up the Api Passage towards Datu Point during the night we had to deal with a variety of other vessels. Fishing boats came and went, but of greater concern were a few tugs pulling barges. We stayed well away from them. We used our radar to understand the distances between ourselves and other boats because this is not always easy to tell just by looking at lights in the night. While watching one tug on radar, Jerry noticed another boat coming up behind us. This boat showed no lights at all, but showed up very well on the radar screen. He guessed it was a patrol boat. Sure enough, a boat perhaps 100 feet long came near and shined spotlights at us. It then got on our starboard bow and essentially forced us to turn out to sea, further from the Kalimantan coast. Perhaps we had gotten too far inside its territory? Perhaps it showed no lights so it would be more able to catch smugglers, illegal fishermen, or other evildoers? They never contacted us on VHF radio, and we can only guess at their intentions. They stayed just a mile or two away until we passed Datu Point, the border between Indonesian and Malaysian sections of Borneo, at 2:00 am July 8. Past this point we turned southeast towards the Santubong River and headed right into the light breeze, so sailing seemed pointless. Our port engine kept chugging, and by 7:00 we recorded another 123 miles traveled.

(view Santubong peninsula photo)

The Santubong River has an outer bar and an inner bar which we needed to cross. We decided to wait for an incoming tide to cross the bars, so when we arrived near the entrance we just shut off the engine and drifted for several hours. Jerry took this time to check both engines, so they could be relied on during our entrance. By 2:00 when the tide was starting to flow in, there were four other boats ready to enter. Our sister ship "Muscat" left Sebana Cove with "Court Jester" a few hours after us and both had now caught up. The recommended course is 162 degrees towards a navigational marker (with a light) on shore. We were never quite sure where that marker was, but starting from a waypoint of 1 degree 47.085'N and 110 degrees 16.558'E (waypoint thanks to "Muscat") we had no trouble. We led the parade, finding more than 12 feet at the outer bar. We turned almost 90 degrees to port when we got in line with the leads which guided us over the inner bar. The turning point is at about 1 degree 42.857'N and 110 degrees 17.738'E. Both wind and current tended to push us to starboard, but we held on the lead line because of a reef to starboard. We found 3 meters of water on the inner bar, and much deeper water as we approached Santubong Village. "Muscat" followed us, and also reported 3 meters of water on the inner bar. However, when "Court Jester" (a keelboat) followed they hit coral and stopped. Perhaps they had been pushed a bit off-line? They circled back and followed "Quoll II" in when the tide was higher, but had to beach their boat for repair later.

Anchoring was a challenge. The villagers set nets at night, and don't want visitors anchored directly off the village. There is a big dock with a police boat which must be avoided. There are several long floating aquaculture rafts with many anchor cables to be avoided. Tugs push barges up and down the river, so anchoring is only possible near the shore. Depths of forty feet are typical, and the holding is apparently not always good. We finally decided to anchor beyond all twenty other boats, up the river. While rowing to the dinghy dock may sometimes be a chore, it is better than dealing with boats in a crowded anchorage with strong currents and thunderstorm wind possibilities.

(view Santubong anchorage photo)

We'll stay here for the "Rainforest World Music Festival" which will be held at the Sarawak Cultural Center, three miles away. Two minibuses have been arranged to transport cruisers to and from the festival grounds at a reasonable cost. There are also buses running regularly to Kuching, and we will explore that city from here. We aren't sure how long we'll stay, but it is a lovely spot and we expect to enjoy it.