Hidden Bay discovered

Apologies for the pause in blog postings over Xmas, we’ve struggled to get email access in this part of Indonesia, so now have abit of catching up to do. This was posted prior to Xmas…..

Coordinates: 0 degrees 33 South, 130 degrees, 16 East. (google-earth it if you can, should make an interesting aerial photo)

After much planning and email exchanges, and a calm 3 day passage from Numfoor Island, we arrived at Sorong to made a slick rendezvous with my sister Jules’ family. Great to bring the two families together, with the promise of 2 weeks exploring the Raja Ampat island region, renown for it’s excellent diving and diverse marine life.

Sorong’s abit of a dump, but our experience is saved by anchoring amongst a number of large local dive charter boats, all of which are large and beautiful original Indonesian wooden schooners kitted out for high-paying dive enthusiasts. They anchor in the same area, and form a tight-knit group of sailors supported by a land-based stevedoring business run out of a beaten up old warehouse that sorts out most replenishment needs, and take us under their wing to do the same. They make us very welcome, and also make the exhausting job of replenishing 600 litres of water and 200 litres of diesel ferrying jerrycans by hand somewhat more manageable.

We seem to hold something of a celebrity status, being the only yacht in town, and enjoy the feeling of being at the frontier of offshore cruising until, to our dismay, a very smart 60ft yacht sails in and anchors near us on our 2nd night. Dang, there goes our unique status! Turns out to be an Australian couple who’d been forced to stop here with engine problems. The following evening just after dark a squall goes through the bay, our neighbours are ashore and their yacht locked up when it starts to drag its anchor, drifting dangerously through the fleet of charter ships. We leap into our dinghy in the vain hope of helping, and the charter junk next to us does the same. Much larger than us, they take a heavy line from their boat and managed to leap aboard the drifting yacht, securing it to the back of their ship, and the situation is saved. These guys were very lucky to have people looking out for them…the whole event a sobering incident for all of us.

Fully provisioned, we set off with our combined families, 9 of us altogether and the boys very much enjoying the company of people other than Mum and Dad. Jules’ family have brought a large bag of goodies, and we’re groaning with chocolate bars, bottles of Pims, christmas pud and all sorts of other luxuries.

We’ve gleaned some basic advice from the charter boats, but charts are scant in detail. We know there is a hidden bay about 30 miles North West on the East coast of Pulau Penemu which sounds glorious, and set off in search. We find a very narrow entrance somewhere in roughly the right place, but the entrance looks shallow and tight so we launch the dinghy, and armed with an old-fashioned lead line (piece of rope with a weight on the end), a couple of us set off to conduct a quick survey of the passage to determine whether it’s passable. This is only the 2nd time we’ve sent an advance boat forward to determine feasibility, and it really feels like a return to the days of Captain Cook and other early explorers. This, of course, is how they managed to safely discover so much of the South Pacific’s coastline – they’d launch one of their longboats, and do exactly what we were, marking water depth at intervals to determine safe routes in. So my nephew Nico throws the leadline and Gabriel provides further advice to conclude that it’s do-able, but for a bombie in the centre that leaves less than 1.5m of water. We return to Tonga Moon, and after a quick discussion all agree to take the chance and go in. With two people posted at each bow wearing polaroid glasses, someone calling out depth readings at 5 second intervals and an otherwise tense crew, we drift the yacht into the passage, leaving jagged volcanic rock a couple of metres either side and gliding safely over the shallow entrance to discover a large deep lagoon interspersed with tiny islets and gorgeous turquoise blue bays. Much relief all round to have got in safely, in fact I think we even enjoyed a short spontaneous handclap as we came in, as we have unhidden the Hidden Bay.

And in all likelihood, this is where we’ll spend Christmas. There’s glorious snorkelling on the outer reef, good potential fishing, rock climbing for my other nephew Tom (a mad keen climber), and a beach in the corner to keep Jakey sane. Wonderful.

In case this is the last blog before we post before the festive day, here’s a wish for a VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS to all of you blog readers. May you have a wonderful new year, and may 2012 provide for your every wish (or, if not, at least not bugger things up to much for any of us).

Birthday poem

This blog posting is a birthday poem written for Jacob by Luca, our 11 year old (unedited by either Rebecca or myself).

Jacob the Fairy by Luca Nolan

Once upon a time, there was Jacob the Fairy
He had awesome wings and he was just a bit hairy.
All the animals teased him Youre tinsy, youre small!
Youre tiny, youre midget, youre not tall at all.

But Jacob did nothing, not one little thing,
He just played with his slingshot, ping ping ping ping.
But one day a grizzly bear came into town
And plonked his big bum right in the school grounds!

The coach of a soccer team walked right up to the bear
And said Hey just you stop right there!
Look out said a baby cat called Mart
It looks like the bear is about to.. PAAAAARP!

The fart echoed off houses and bounced off the walls
And knocked the poor coach all the way to Fish Falls.
Can I have a go? asked Jacob the Fairy
Who had awesome wings and was just a bit hairy.

You? laughed the animals Youll especially fail.
The only thing that can beat him is a whale.
Suit yourself, said Jacob the kind noble Fairy
Who was pretty cool and not very hairy.

He went to the bear and told him some jokes,
He told him his name and gave him some oats.
The bear was delighted! He said Noble Fairy,
With wings like starlight and not even wary.

For your kindness I shall grant you one wish,
And if you want, I Steve Hamill, shall grant you a fish.
If you want I can also grant you a nappy,
This is how nice a bear can be when he is happy!

Oh bear, said Jacob the kind-hearted Fairy
Who (like the bear said) was not at all wary,
I would love it if you would live with me in my house
Where the only thing that would bother you is one squeaky mouse.

How nice the noble great bear Steve said
Wait til I tell my best brother Fred!
Why me and you together could make a new craze.
The animals jumped to their feet amazed.

At first they were anxious and worried inside,
Then they started jumping up and cheered with pride.
Three cheers for Jacob the King of our tribe!
Three cheers for Jacob and his great bowline.
Three cheers for Jacob, JACOB NOLAN!

Birthday in Biak

Well, it’s 2:00am and we’re on the road again, leaving the navigation lights of Biak behind us (yes, finding these lit was abit of a surprise to us also, the guide suggested that officials needed 48 hours notice to light them!), and on our way to Sorong via a small island Numfoor.
We spent 3 days in Biak. This has to be one of the toughest ports for a yacht to visit: the anchorage is extremely rolly, each night we encountered 30+ knot squalls that required watch-keeping, it rains on average 28 days per month, and there are virtually no places to land a dinghy. Oh, and the shoreline rubbish is quite gupping. But despite this, we all loved it. Not enough to stay another night, mind you…ultimately we weren’t going to be able to recover from our previous passage with a good night sleep here, and I’m sure we’d all agree that sleep sits pretty high up Maslow’s (sp?) hierarchy of needs. But the town is super friendly, everyone utterly intrigued by us, and the general vibe is great.

Official clearing-in goes smoothly, other than some confusion with the Quarantine Officers who initially inform me that they’ll visit the boat at 9am the next day, but don’t show up, and a subsequent visit to their offices reveals that they don’t have a boat. Mmm. So a few white lies later (no, we don’t have any meat, vegetables, drugs, firearms or animals on board, other than our three children) seems to do the trick. Customs asked if I had any souvenirs for them which left us somewhat perplexed, but further conversation uncovers a likeness for whisky amongst the officers, and it becomes apparent that souvenirs is in fact a euphemism for, well, let’s just say solicited gifts. Nice tho’ these guys were, I wasn’t about to give up my precious Jim Beam.

A hunt for diesel in reasonable volume led us on a wild goose-chase for an afternoon, and after walking down a dusty road for some time in the sweltering heat, in desperation we approached a small roadside business selling water with a lot of useful-looking guys standing around outside. We’re immediately ushered to a seat in their office by a nice-looking Melanesian owner, who it transpires has a grunty reverse osmosis machine out back and runs a roaring business selling bottled water, a steady stream of customers coming and going with 20 litre water bottles balanced precariously on their motorbikes. He takes it as a personal challenge to sort out my diesel issues, and ends up transporting me about town on the back of his bike to source a drum of fuel. After much hunting we find an import office that sells us a rusty old drum of diesel, and arrange for a truck to deliver it to the nearest beach where we can pump it out into jerrycans and ferry it to Tonga Moon. He’s a lovely guy. Despite having a Chinese wife who speaks pretty good English, he insists on dealing with me himself and we sit helplessly looking at each other, having exchanged 2-year old level conversations and still not a grain of understanding between us.

We take the opportunity to buy some water from him, and he than marshals an army of his extended family all likely-looking lads to transport commercial-sized water containers down to the beach in a bizarre motorcade of 2 stroke motorbikes, bottles perched on pinion seat or between legs. I mention in passing that we plan to depart for the island of Numfoor on our way to Sorong, but can’t get detailed charts and therefore have no idea where to go, and he immediately produces a brother who comes from the island, and tells us about the best anchorages and villages to visit. In fact, he insists on calling ahead to arrange for one of his family to escort us through the reef. These guys are gems! Feeling hugely indebted to our new friend, we invite him onboard for tea and bickies, and before departing I drop off a bottle of NZ’s finest sauvignon blanc, to discover that they are teetotallers..of course!..no doubt one of his brothers will drink it.

We celebrate Jacob’s 4th birthday here, Rebecca having sussed out a cool little cafe for lunch within walking distance from the waterfront. The boys stayed up the night before making a crown for Jakey out of cardboard, tinfoil and stars, and off we go with the birthday boy proudly wearing his crown and a balloon in each hand. As seemingly the only westerners in town we hardly need any additional props to draw attention to ourselves, but now we’re a veritable circus act and feel obliged to repeat the words ulang tahun (birthday) to everyone we pass as some form of explanation. Once the cafe owners clock onto the birthday event, they quietly nip out to the bakery and buy a cake, which they present to Jacob on the house. Unfortunately, our little man is abit overwhelmed by the whole experience just walking to the cafe was probably enough on its own and deals with it by packing abit of a sad, poor chap. So the cake was a welcome relief and we finally got some food into him. The rest of his day was spent, well, eating more cake and generally larking around while we furiously re-provisioned. He seemed to have a good time!

Birthday in Biak

Well, it’s 2:00am and we’re on the road again, leaving the navigation lights of Biak behind us (yes, finding these lit was abit of a surprise to us also, the guide suggested that officials needed 48 hours notice to light them!), and on our way to Sorong via a small island Numfoor.
We spent 3 days in Biak. This has to be one of the toughest ports for a yacht to visit: the anchorage is extremely rolly, each night we encountered 30+ knot squalls that required watch-keeping, it rains on average 28 days per month, and there are virtually no places to land a dinghy. Oh, and the shoreline rubbish is quite gupping. But despite this, we all loved it. Not enough to stay another night, mind you…ultimately we weren’t going to be able to recover from our previous passage with a good night sleep here, and I’m sure we’d all agree that sleep sits pretty high up Maslow’s (sp?) hierarchy of needs. But the town is super friendly, everyone utterly intrigued by us, and the general vibe is great.

Official clearing-in goes smoothly, other than some confusion with the Quarantine Officers who initially inform me that they’ll visit the boat at 9am the next day, but don’t show up, and a subsequent visit to their offices reveals that they don’t have a boat. Mmm. So a few white lies later (no, we don’t have any meat, vegetables, drugs, firearms or animals on board, other than our three children) seems to do the trick. Customs asked if I had any souvenirs for them which left us somewhat perplexed, but further conversation uncovers a likeness for whisky amongst the officers, and it becomes apparent that souvenirs is in fact a euphemism for, well, let’s just say solicited gifts. Nice tho’ these guys were, I wasn’t about to give up my precious Jim Beam.

A hunt for diesel in reasonable volume led us on a wild goose-chase for an afternoon, and after walking down a dusty road for some time in the sweltering heat, in desperation we approached a small roadside business selling water with a lot of useful-looking guys standing around outside. We’re immediately ushered to a seat in their office by a nice-looking Melanesian owner, who it transpires has a grunty reverse osmosis machine out back and runs a roaring business selling bottled water, a steady stream of customers coming and going with 20 litre water bottles balanced precariously on their motorbikes. He takes it as a personal challenge to sort out my diesel issues, and ends up transporting me about town on the back of his bike to source a drum of fuel. After much hunting we find an import office that sells us a rusty old drum of diesel, and arrange for a truck to deliver it to the nearest beach where we can pump it out into jerrycans and ferry it to Tonga Moon. He’s a lovely guy. Despite having a Chinese wife who speaks pretty good English, he insists on dealing with me himself and we sit helplessly looking at each other, having exchanged 2-year old level conversations and still not a grain of understanding between us.

We take the opportunity to buy some water from him, and he than marshals an army of his extended family all likely-looking lads to transport commercial-sized water containers down to the beach in a bizarre motorcade of 2 stroke motorbikes, bottles perched on pinion seat or between legs. I mention in passing that we plan to depart for the island of Numfoor on our way to Sorong, but can’t get detailed charts and therefore have no idea where to go, and he immediately produces a brother who comes from the island, and tells us about the best anchorages and villages to visit. In fact, he insists on calling ahead to arrange for one of his family to escort us through the reef. These guys are gems! Feeling hugely indebted to our new friend, we invite him onboard for tea and bickies, and before departing I drop off a bottle of NZ’s finest sauvignon blanc, to discover that they are teetotallers..of course!..no doubt one of his brothers will drink it.

We celebrate Jacob’s 4th birthday here, Rebecca having sussed out a cool little cafe for lunch within walking distance from the waterfront. The boys stayed up the night before making a crown for Jakey out of cardboard, tinfoil and stars, and off we go with the birthday boy proudly wearing his crown and a balloon in each hand. As seemingly the only westerners in town we hardly need any additional props to draw attention to ourselves, but now we’re a veritable circus act and feel obliged to repeat the words ulang tahun (birthday) to everyone we pass as some form of explanation. Once the cafe owners clock onto the birthday event, they quietly nip out to the bakery and buy a cake, which they present to Jacob on the house. Unfortunately, our little man is abit overwhelmed by the whole experience just walking to the cafe was probably enough on its own and deals with it by packing abit of a sad, poor chap. So the cake was a welcome relief and we finally got some food into him. The rest of his day was spent, well, eating more cake and generally larking around while we furiously re-provisioned. He seemed to have a good time!

Touchdown Indonesia

Coordinates: 1 degree 10 South, 136 degrees 03 East.
Cursed headwinds continued for the rest of our passage from Vanimo, which meant an arduous and diesel-burning slog to windward for 48 hours, but arrived at Biak in the afternoon with much anticipation but low expectations. We’d chosen Biak as our first Indonesian landfall as we’d heard that all major ports East of here were either unstable, unsafe or downright unfriendly to yachties, and Biak’s officials known for not being too officious. Other than this we had very little information on the place, this scarcity probably a clue as to it’s suitability for cruisers. We arrive mid-afternoon to find an exposed, very rolly port with no easy place to land a dinghy, but nonetheless a bustling township.

This is classic Asia the way both of us remember it, down-dirty Asia with teeming markets next to filthy shantytowns, alluring spicy smells from streetside food stalls alternate with untreated & uncovered drains, locals tearing around on 2 stroke motorbikes (ladies perched demourly sidesaddle), and scary seemingly under-aged policemen strutting around like they’re in control. But this is West Papua, a long-disputed part of Indonesia sharing it’s landmass with PNG, so there remains a strong Melanesian influence, many of the population still more Melanesian than Asian in looks, bettlenut chewing just as popular. We’re anchored right between the Biak fishmarket and an Islamic temple, so are treated to both fishy smells, loud market banter and regular wailing through distorted speakers.
Based on the huge interest our presence seems to attract, it looks like yachties – perhaps Westerners generally – are not a familiar sight here, and the officials at each of the usual Customs, Immigration and Quarantine all seem initially perplexed by our arrival. Not for long, though, as Indonesian’s reputation for officialdom gone mad soon recovers itself, and form-filling commences.

I go ashore to get cash and begin the clearing in process, and am immediately bamboozled by the exchange rate which we believe is something like 7,000 rupia to 1 dollar. No internet access means we don’t know for sure…in fact, we don’t even know what time it is here without asking! Being numerically challenged as I am, my capacity for mental arithmetic further reduced by tiredness, I stand at the ATM struck dumb at the request. So I jab zeroes in at random, feeling somwhat humiliated at the prospect of having to tell Rebecca that I got money out, but I’ve no idea how much. Good job one of us has a brain, as it turns out on return to the boat that contrary to my fears that I’ve just drained our bank account, my million rupeas amounts to about $140 and is pitifully short of what we need! It seems the family motif, “don’t trust this man with maths or money” has been further reinforced.

Our first night here is interrupted by a violent squall that required watchkeeping for about 2 hours (hence this blog), and tonight it’s as rolly as an ocean passage, so I suspect we may not linger here longer than necessary. Tomorrow we celebrate Jacob’s 4th birthday, and we’ll probably move on shortly after. Thank you for the many kind birthday emails, all of which will get replies very soon. Our littlest man is all grown-up…or at least, getting there very fast.

PNG: Farewell, adieu, to ya’ and ya’ and ya’a.

Last day in PNG was spent hanging out at a village across the bay from Vanimo called Lido, locally famous for it’s excellent surfing provided by a left hand and right hand break either side of their headland. Big surf, of course, means interesting dinghy landings. Rebecca had taken the boys ashore the previous day in town, and very nearly came a cropper when a relatively small wave bowled over them and brought the dinghy round sideways, filling most of the inflatable with frothing water and scaring the bejesus out of Rebecca (Jakey loved every minute of it, needless to say).
The surf off the Lido beach is even bigger with a thundering great sucking noise as the water receded between each wave, and as we approach the usual crowd develops on the beach, gesticulating wildly as to best places to land. These guys live here, so are fully used to bringing boats ashore in these conditions, and amidst all the waving and welcoming smiles, you can’t miss a hint of this should be good entertainment as they watch yet another bunch of incompetent whities trying to negotiate their beach. Fortunately, more through luck than judgment, we choose what looks like the lull between the wave set (7 waves and then a lull, is the theory I’d heard…any surfers like to verify?) and roar in, to be met by several outstretched hands helping us in. Phew.
The boys instantly get surrounded by 20 or so local kids looking for fun and watery frolics, and off they go. If the surf itself isn’t enough for them, there’s a hugely long coconut tree that has fallen over and points out over the surf, giving the kids a fantastic long plank to walk out and dive from. Walking along a swaying coconut tree is second nature to them, and their agility is impressive.

Now we’re at sea again, this time on passage to our first Indonesian landfall at Biak. A 3 day journey, we’re on our second day after departing Vanimo at 2am in an attempt to get the timing right for a daytime arrival at the other end. 1st day has been a dream flat seas and a steady 15knot wind pushing us along beautifully. Shortly after supper we have a large seabird circle the boat in intense interest several times before landing on the foredeck railings. This can’t be an altogether comfortable position on a pitching boat, but it sits there determinedly riding the motion of the yacht with alternate neck stretches and tail feather extensions, us looking on admiringly. Discussion about what type of bird it is proves inconclusive, a large black seabird probably not doing the poor creature justice, but sadly the Young Ornithologist experience onboard doesn’t stretch to knowledge of Indonesian birdlife. This thing has taken up residence, and seems intent on hanging out with us. Another similar bird, initially we thought its mate, circled us several times, each time looking like it was going to land. Our resident regarded the newcomer with a steely and unwelcoming glare, turning it’s head on each circle (birds, as you’ll know, can’t move their eyeballs in their sockets, so must turn their whole heads, thus explaining the term twitchers, usually referring to people who share an unhealthy interest in birds). It was clear that our resident would not countenance another bird on his boat, and the second one finally gave up. It’s strangely reassuring to have been adopted by a bird (albeit a stroppy selfish little tike); this, our first Indonesian encounter.

But after a near-perfect first day on passage we made the fatal mistake of congratulating ourselves on what was shaping up to be our best and fastest passage yet. There’s a reason why seafaring is so full of myths and superstitions (other than the natural capacity for seafaring folk to overindulge their imaginations and exaggerate tall stories, this blog being the rare exception that proves the rule, of course), and that is because the sea continually confounds us in our aspirations. It is a law unto itself. And with a certain predictability, our perfect day was followed by a hellish night with 25 knot headwinds, a very nasty chop that provided repeated pounding, frequent rain squalls and a breakage (mainsail sheet block detaching from the traveller). Rebecca and I both ragged this morning with little sleep between us, although pleased with progress and looking like we’ll still make our planned landfall at Biak tomorrow daytime. The boys appear to have slept through everything…how do they do that?

Vanimo – the final frontier

02 degrees 41 South, 141 degrees 17 East
Arrived around 2am after a low stress 2 night passage, the bay sufficiently open to allow a cautious night-time arrival. No navigation lights, of course, nor a particularly revealing chart to guide us in, but depth soundings allowed a very slow approach with Rebecca and I straining our eyes to make sense out of the shapes in the darkness. Not sure, but I think that’s the wharf over there. No, damn, it’s a container ship, quick turn hard to starboard! etc. Entering an unknown port at night with no good leading lights carries some risk, so we do it as a collaborative affair, both of us up, staring furiously ahead and sharing the palpitations. We wouldn’t attempt it in a reef-strewn location, but this one looked, and turned out to be simple enough. Anchor down at 2:30am, and off for a well-earned sleep.

What a cool little place Vanimo is. It’s the last town at the NW end of PNG before the Indonesian border and even the Lonely Planet Guide, which reaches out to some pretty far out places, describes this as abit of an outpost. Two small shops, two banks, a post office and a few assorted stores, with market stalls all around. Petrol is sold out of plastic coke bottles from stalls, along with the usual bettlenut, dried tobacco and fish. Only one working ATM, so an endless queue of people stand around waiting to draw cash, entertained by a very impressive teenage boy preacher, who holds forth in a clearing like a type of speakers’ corner, mesmerising a crowd of some 100 onlookers. Of course, you have to see beyond the awful rubbish scattered mindlessly across the place and the hot fetid smell of uncontrolled drains, maybe it’s a sign of our acclimatisation that we can now overlook this stuff. Or perhaps it’s just a symptom of our ever lowering hygiene standards…who knows?

One of our early learnings from PNG is how accommodating the people are, but they sometimes need abit of time to work thru’ things. Vanimo people no exception. For example, the manager of the Origin gas company starts with a very sorry, we can’t refill your propane bottle, company policy means we only refill our bottles, but a couple of imploring looks and the guy clearly wants to help. So I stand politely by as he continues his lengthy explanation of why he can’t, how sorry he is, how he wishes he could help, until he talks himself into doing it anyway. Result! Yesterday a visit to the local oil company to source some diesel saw several guys bending over backwards to help us, driving us to the inland depot, filling our containers and helping us back. Fantastic you sort of get the feeling we offer abit of a break from their normal, often low stress workday, so off they go. Whilst travelling with them, I drop the puzzler onto their laps, confident that they’ll immediately want to figure it out for us. How do we refill our water tanks when there are no taps in town?. Much discussion and many reasons why it’s not possible, but once again given time, these guys figure out a way and soon are offering to drive our containers into the hills to refill from a freshwater creek.

Near disaster this afternoon, when Gabriel loses his spear whilst practising shooting his speargun off the beach. We are, as usual, surrounded by hordes of naked swimming kids, so I ask if they’d help us look for it. Water visibility was very poor, so odds weren’t good. The kids continue to lark around, so I up the ante by offering 10 kina (about $5) to the first kid to find the spear. This certainly focussed their attention, and 5 minutes later up pops a jubilant boy with spear in hand. A worthwhile investment I think, given Gabriel’s utter dejection at the prospect of an inoperable speargun so early in his hunting career.

We arrived early in the week in anticipation of a long drawn-out process to obtain our Indonesian visas, but as it turns out it only took 24hrs, so we’re in the enviable position of having a couple of days up our sleeve before needing to start on our next passage; so we plan to clear out tomorrow morning, and visit our last PNG village across the bay for a couple of days before heading out to sea again.