Saturday, November 23, 2013

Storms, low fuel, across Java Sea and into South China Sea

On Passage - Bowean Island to Banka Island (part of Sumatra), Indonesia
Anchored near the town of Mangarr, Belitung Island

November 20, 2013

We had no trouble motoring the first 250 miles of the 450 mile passage from Bawean to Banka. There were very light winds as expected, electrical storms each evening and some rainy days when we collected water. The first couple days reminded me of our trip north a year ago, heading up to the Solomon Islands. Each night we drove through multiple electrical storms, often we filled our oven with the hand held GPS, a computer, a couple hand held radios and maybe the kindle. The oven is a Faraday Box and if we did get hit by lightning most electrical devices on board would be ruined permanently. This trip like the one last year made me anxious, I just wanted to get there intact.

We figured we'd have to motor the entire 450 miles. We were unable to purchase enough fuel in Bowean to fill our 4 jerri-cans that live on the rail. The only local ATM didn't work the day we were there and Owen was unable to trade a pair of high powered binoculars despite the help of the locals who stopped everyone on the road to see if anyone was willing to purchase them. So we left Bowean with a full tank (75 gallons) and none on the rail (usually we left places with another 20 gallons). According to our calculations we should be able to motor 525 miles (at 4 knots). Thus we should have enough fuel to get us to Banka - where we would check out of Indonesia before our Visa's expired on November 20, 2013.

When checking out of Indonesia, if your Visa is already expired, the fee is $25 (US) per person per day - for us that means $100 per day. So we were very motivated to arrive in Banka on time. We left Bawean on the morning of the 14th of November. We had 6 days to go 450 miles. We of-course had left ourselves with much more time than 6 days to go this distance, we had planned on going to Kalimantan to buy fuel and break up the trip, but fixing the leak in the coolant tank cost us 6 days (instead of a 1 night stop).

On the morning of the third day of the passage (Nov. 16) - about 250 miles out of Bowean - Owen woke me up at 7AM. (I usually slept until 10AM). Some storm had turned the 200 foot deep Java Sea into a roiling, boiling, helacious blue world. I could hardly see the sky, Madrona rocked so much, I mostly saw the sides of huge waves as they rolled towards us. The winds blew in the 40s and Madrona almost broached at the crest of each 3 meter wave. The wave period was about 5 seconds. We had to get the head sail in NOW! Where the hell had this come from? Why didn't it show up on the grib files?

After we got the head sail in, Owen let the engine run, but throttled down. He needed information (via sailmail.) We couldn't motor in these seas and we couldn't sail. So we sat and drifted as we were being rocked to death. Things were flying across the floor, falling off shelves, and being hurled through the air inside the cabin. Tamsyn and Griffyn tried to rescue things as they landed. Owen and I took more sea-sickness medicine and stayed in the cockpit as much as possible. As Owen sent off emails, I took the watch. I saw a huge bulk carrier approach our starboard beam. He was moving fast (15-20 knots?) I suggested Owen get on the radio. He hailed them on channel 16, "Securitee, Securitee bulk carrier, there is a small sailing vessel about 1 mile ahead off your bow. We are drifting. Please come back."

They called back and changed their course to take our stern. They came a little too close for comfort especially in those seas, but at least they spoke English and hailed us. The heavily loaded bulk carrier proceeded on their course past us about another mile to our port quarter and then held station. Owen called them to see if they had a weather forecast. The said it would be like this all day. They were also drifting to adjust their schedule (they couldn't arrive too early in Java, there would be no place to dock.) They asked us if we needed any help. Owen said, "No, we are just short of solar," (diesel). He meant we didn't have enough to waist it trying to bash into these waves and winds to try motoring out of here.

At some point I started hearing a deep rumbly skidding sound coming from below the cockpit floor. Something was slipping or breaking. Owen unloaded the quarter berth into the salon (reducing living space for Tamsyn and Griffyn dramatically,) and climbed into the engine room to investigate the steering, since that is directly below the floor of the cockpit. It was the auto pilot. One of its braces was coming loose from the bulkhead where it was anchored. We turned it off. The waves must have been too much for it. It was attached to the wall with 5200, Owen couldn't find any bolts. Another thing to fix later. We would find a way to bolt it on (It still works fine - just not in heavy seas).

It took a couple more calls to Merkar Tide, the bulk carrier, to figure out that there was a low in the Indian ocean creating all these winds. Eventually Owen pulled down a current grib file. The low was very slow moving and would continue to affect the local wind patterns for 3 or 4 days to come. We didn't have that kind of time. A feeling of depression hit both of us as we sat there trying to figure out plan B. We certainly could not go to Banka - north of us - the winds were being sucked southwest into the low. Where could we go to check out and get fuel and water? And could we drift there?

It took all day to figure out another plan while we drifted 1-2 knots/hour south east. I remember feeling grateful that the bulk carrier full of English speakers was always within sight, just drifting there too. I could always spot them at the crest of each wave. It made me feel a little safer that day. I told the kids to come up to the cockpit (we didn't need to clean up vomit too). They loved the enormous waves and played sea-saw games and "I Spy" for hours completely oblivious to their parents feelings of peril. Their giggling and cheerfulness helped me too.

We needed to check our fuel level to see if our calculations for fuel consumption matched the dip stick. That dipstick is under the V-berth mattress, the bounciest part of the boat. So as quickly as possible Owen tossed things being stored up there aside and crawled in. I thought it was a pointless considering how we rocked and pitched. We waited for a period in the wave cycle where the chains on the ports hung straight down. Then Owen thrust the stick in as quick as possible and pulled it out. There was no way we would get an accurate reading. But Owen insisted - good thing he did too. We had much less than we thought, around 25 gallons.

It didn't seem like enough. The nearest anchorage was 100 miles away and in these seas who knows how much fuel it would take to get there - the currents are so unpredictable. But we could not just stay here and drift either even though it was a safe place (meaning it was not near a reef). An hour before sunset we decided to try sailing eastward towards a town on Belitung Island, called Manggar. Through a series of emails to our homeland support team (thanks John H., Grandpa John, Wendy, and Lois & Hink), Owen found out that there was an ATM in that town (which meant we could purchase more fuel there.) It was closer than Banka and East North East - with winds coming from the north we could sail part of the way for sure. We put out a little sail and headed east at 1-2 knots. The waves preventing faster travel.

Over the next 4 days we sailed, drifted and motored towards Manggar. Each 25 miles took a day of incredible patience and frustration as we would continuously be slowed by currents, waves and winds on the nose and once again forced to drift south east - away from our goal. We were struck by squalls and watched lightning dance on the waves near by. We watched funnel clouds form and dissipate. We vacillated between spirited hopeful thinking while the boat progresses toward Manggar and despair when we were forced again to just drift away. It seemed an eon to cover just twenty miles and not loose half of it drifting again. We checked the fuel level again, the sea was calmest in the mornings. We didn't have 25 gallons as we thought, we had less. We never seemed to be able to travel faster than 2.5 knots. There was just too much that kept preventing us from going north. The town was on the northeast corner of the island.

We had 12 gallons of fuel left on November 19th. We looked at our planned course and re-drew the lines to find the shortest possible path to get there. We shaved off about 7 miles if we sailed (or drove) closer to the reefs, nearer shore. I reminded Owen that like Bali island, the currents may be much less strong near shore. At 2:23PM we started the motor for we hoped our final run. And by the grace of God, or something, we motored along at 4 knots. We had roughly 40 miles to go, I knew it would just take one more storm to slow us down and make it impossible to get there. We hand steered keeping a very straight line. Having my hands on the wheel, steering always makes me feel more in control and gives me something to do. It was hard steering because of the currents, but it kept my mind occupied. We watched a huge storm with multiple Wall clouds form in front of us for an hour. It looked terribly menacing. We had covered 20 miles with out a hitch and I decided as the storm seemed to be moving east of us that this storm was not going to get us. I decided to be positive and believe that we would get there. As the storm rotated the winds (on our nose) shifted to our port quarter. We past the tail end of it with out a drop of rain as it poured dark purple off our starboard beam. We drove the final 20 miles at 4 knots through increasingly calm waters as we approached Manggar. On November 20th, we dropped the hook at 12:25AM and fell into bed.

As I write this, Owen is in town. The ATM machine wasn't working with our card. Someone from the tourist office has offered to drive him to a town 1 hour away that has a BNI bank. We should hear from him again sometime after dark tonight. The water is calm here, the kids did some school and took baths. I am making bread. I have moved slowly through this day balancing exhaustion with a need to communicate.



We got ourselves checked out. The people from the Minestry of Tourism (Tiwi, Frans and also Fauzi who was the first person I met in Manggar) did an incredible job helping us get money, fuel, water and provisions for our trip north.

We left Manggar yesterday afternoon, and as I write this we are motoring through a dead calm in the South China Sea, on our way to Malaysia. We have more fuel on board than we have ever carried, and the seas and currents are not bad so far.

Things are looking up. We should cross the Equator and be back in the Northern Hemisphere in a few days.


1 48.074S
107 19.977 E

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1 comment:

Behan - s/v Totem said...

Sometimes our cruising adventures contain a little more "adventure" than we'd ideally like to have! Glad all is well. Curious about your approx route for the coming months and if we'll finally get to meet up? Totem is hauled in Satun, Thailand (just above the border of Malaysia)- we'll be in Phuket for most of December.