Go With The Flow

When we departed Bali on 19 June, we had a straightforward plan: Sail east across the Lombok Strait to explore Lombok Island, then north up the strait, northwest to the island of Bawean and on to Kalimantan (the southern part of the island of Borneo), a total distance of roughly 520 miles. We knew that traversing the Lombok Strait would be a slog. This is where the Asian continental shelf on the west meets the Australian continental shelf on the east and the Java Sea pours—and I do mean “pours”—into the Indian Ocean. The south-flowing current can run as high as 8 knots, but with a push from the southeast trade winds and some long hours on the engine, it can be done.

Indeed, we slowly but surely made the first short leg from Bali to the intermediate island of Lembongan, 11 miles in 6 hours. There, we dinghied to the pontoon bar where we enjoyed some lively company, cold beers, and a serendipitous turtle rescue. The turtle had swum its way right into a discarded pair of men’s shorts, and without a second’s hesitation one of the bar staff jumped in and lifted the struggling creature onto the pontoon. Willing hands cut and ripped away the encumbrance, and the liberated turtle swam off to cheers and applause.   

Plan A – Bali eastward to Lombok. Lembongan is the island in between.
One lucky turtle

But when we tried to cross the 32 miles from Lembongan to Lombok the next morning, we were confounded from the start. With the sails taut and the engine running hard, we stared in disbelief at our Speed Over Ground readings as the fiendish current pushed Corroboree backward at two, then three, then five knots. For one crazy moment the reading actually leaped to 10 knots backward. Shaken, we turned tail to Lembongan. It is supposedly easier to cross the Lombok Strait on a rising tide during a certain phase of the moon, and if we could wait at Lembongan a week, conditions might pan out. But we didn’t have a week to spare. Now what?

Simple: Go with the flow. In short order, we set a new course around the south coast of Bali, across the less frenetic Bali Strait, and up the east coast of Java to Banyuwangi. Three daysails with two intermediate anchorages did the trick. We tied up at the Banyuwangi International Yacht Club and promptly rewarded ourselves with libations from the bar’s list of tiki drinks. We were sorry to miss Lombok, which is said to be beautiful, and the chance to meet up with cruiser friends there. Instead, we made some new friends and got a glimpse of Java, a most intriguing place.

Plan B – Lembongan westward to Banywangi, Java, with two anchorages en route.
Banyuwangi International Yacht Club
Sailors’ reward

Unlike Hindu Bali, Java is Muslim, the most immediate giveaway being the women’s clothes. Though we saw no covered faces, hijabs (headscarves) and robes or long-sleeved shirts and full-length pants were the norm. One exception was the yacht club where the young female manager wore trendy, sleeveless attire, the female bar staff wore shorts, and all went bare-headed. The men’s clothing everywhere was unremarkable: shirts or T-shirts, slacks or shorts. There was no sign of submissive behavior by women or domineering behavior by men. On the contrary, the women zipped around on scooters, ran shops and other businesses, laughed, chatted and went where they pleased.

Instead of Bali temples, Java and the rest of Muslim Indonesia sprouts mosques. We first encountered them in Banyuwangi and later in Bawean and Kalimantan. They come in various shapes and sizes, and five times a day they broadcast adhan, the call to prayer, via loudspeakers on the minaret or roof. Regardless of the local language, adhan is always in Arabic, the language of the Quran. The first call is at dawn, and it is repeated when the sun begins to descend from its highest point in the sky, at the midpoint of its descent, at sunset, and when the last light disappears at nightfall. The exact time of the call in any given place therefore varies day by day throughout the year.

In Indonesia in July, the dawn calls begin as early at 0400 with overlapping broadcasts from two or three mosques. This five-times daily assault on the ears can go on for an hour or more and carry for miles. The calls may be live or a recording, and supposedly the muezzin is chosen for his melodious voice. I’m sorry to be disrespectful, but most of the calls we heard better fit the description of “caterwauling.” Interestingly, although we sometimes observed some people pause and turn toward the sound when a call started, they quickly resumed their business.

The sound emanating from this mosque in Kumai, Kalimantan, is not as whiny as most we heard. Street-front shops called warungs also proliferate in Indonesia.

As with a contrary current, encountering a different culture also is best navigated by soliciting local knowledge and going with the flow. Thanks to other sailors and ex-pats in Banyuwangi, we topped up our diesel, water and fresh provisions. We are especially grateful to Aris, who manages the yacht club docks and has captained a variety of vessels. On his Sunday afternoon off, he took us on a drive to a coffee plantation in the mountains north of Banyuwangi where we sipped real Javanese coffee—very strong, with grounds in the bottom of the cup—and savored kue cucur (sweet cakes cooked with green pandan leaves) and fried cassava dipped in salted egg yolk.

Thank you, Aris, for your assistance and friendship. Corroboree is to the left.

Aris also helped us plan our next leg up the Bali Strait and into the Java Sea, pointing out the hazards of high traffic areas and oil rigs. To exit the strait, we again had to motorsail north against a south-setting current, but the distance was only 8 miles and the current less strong. Go on a rising tide, Aris and the other sailors advised. We did and we made it, though not without some stress. One of the biggest challenges of sailing in Indonesian waters is dodging all manner of vessels–fishing boats, small freighters, tugs towing barges, ferries, dredgers–both by day and by night, and the straits are particularly crowded.

Traditional Javanese “Double Slerek” fishing boats are works of art.
Three’s a crowd in the Bali Strait. Stay out of their way!
Tug towing a sand-laden barge in the Kumai River. Notice the small fishing boat between them.

It was a relief, therefore, to escape the Bali Strait into the Java Sea. Here we rejoined our original route to Bawean, where we rested overnight, then completed the journey to Kalimantan. The sailing en route was a mixed bag: good wind, no wind, a drenching squall, and still more boats to dodge on the 10-mile leg up the Kumai River to Kumai Town. And why Kalimantan? Because this is the home of Tanjung Puting National Park, the only place in the world where you can see orangutans in the wild. Our boat trip into the rain forest to see them will be the subject of the next blog.

No beer or tiki drinks on arrival in Kalimantan. Outside tourist areas like Bali and the Banyuwangi Yacht Club, alcohol is illegal in Indonesia.
Anchored against the backdrop of Tanjung Puting National Park, Kumai, Kalimantan. The only sailboat in town.

So despite the failure of our original route, we reached our goal. And once again, everywhere we have gone in Indonesia, the people have been overwhelmingly warm and welcoming. Indonesian tourism was hard hit by Covid, and especially in the more remote places, like Kumai, they are delighted to see visitors return. When we walk ashore, they smile, wave, giggle, jabber, beckon us over, and exhort their friends in neighboring houses and shops to join the excitement. Eric described it best–“We’re a walking sideshow!”–and I can only imagine what they are saying. “Look at the white people in their silly hats! Look at his fuzzy face! How tall and funny they are!” They whip out cell phones for photo ops, flash peace signs and mug for our camera. Luckily for us, some Muslim employees at the Banyuwangi Yacht Club showed us the crossed thumb-and-index finger gesture that means “mini love.” When people gave us that sign in Kumai and we quickly responded, their surprise and pleasure knew no bounds. Neither did ours. May the flow be with you on your next voyage.

East meets West in Kumai. The individual coffee packets over our heads are for sale in many warungs.
Thumbs up, the peace sign, crossed fingers (mini love) and the ice creams bars in Eric’s and my hands say it all.