Sailing Through Hell – Part I

If you’re going through hell, keep going – Winston Churchill

Let me be the first to say it: Nobody twisted my arm and forced me to get on this boat. So in writing about our 3,900-mile voyage from Borneo to the Seychelles, I will try to report and not complain. That said, it was the most miserable, frustrating, frightening leg of our circumnavigation so far. It’s best told in three parts, spaced over three blog posts, beginning with the 638-mile leg from Borneo to Enggano Island, Indonesia. Here’s how Part I went down:

We left Kumai, Borneo, on 14 July and headed southwest toward Jakarta and the Sunda Strait, the shipping channel at the west end of Indonesia that connects the Java Sea and the Indian Ocean. Though nervous about transiting these notoriously congested waters, we were looking forward to escaping the flukey winds, squalls, traffic and garbage of Indonesian seaways. The first 48 hours brought a grab-bag of good wind, no wind, choppy water, and a two-knot current against us, despite the cruising guide’s assurance that the only current in this area was one knot in our favor. Nothing we couldn’t manage, however.

But on the morning of 16 July, in the middle of the Java Sea, the sun didn’t rise. Instead, we faced a line of nasty black storm clouds stretching across our path as far as we could see. We had just enough time to lower the jib when we were hit with 30-knot winds, lashing rain and spray. I kept the helm while Eric tried to control the flailing mainsail. Visibility was no more than a boat length ahead. We battled the weather for almost four hours, and when it finally eased a bit I went below to dry off. In an unguarded moment, I let go my grip, and at the same moment Corroboree fell off a wave. I was flung across the boat from the navigation station into the galley and against the stove. I hit so hard, the oven door sprang open, and I banged against it repeatedly as I fell to the floor, gasping in pain.

Morning,16 July. It all went downhill from here.

Out on the helm, unable to see where I was or what had happened, Eric began calling, “Where are you? Talk to me! Are you okay?” I shouted back that I was, but with pain shooting down my left arm and stabbing my hip and ribs, I was terrified I’d broken something. More than storms, collisions or pirates (a greatly exaggerated danger), getting sick or injured when far from port is our greatest fear. It’s not just that you’re hurt, but that your partner must now take on the double physical and mental stress of driving the boat and tending to an injured person.

Luckily, I could move my tingling arm, wrist and fingers, so those were okay. Not so my ribs. I heaved myself into the aft cabin where I curled up in agony and tried to fend off the shaking. It felt like someone had taken a sledgehammer to me, and I talked to myself the way TV doctors do when a patient is going into shock. “Focus! You are not going into shock! Do you hear me?” It worked, and after gingerly easing out of my cold, wet clothes, I wrapped myself in the blanket, leaving poor Eric to deal with the weather outside. When the worst was over, he rigged the mainsail and helm so the boat hove-to, drifting on its own, then he came below to check on me. Between our medical book, Eric’s own case of broken ribs from a childhood sledding accident, and my yelps in response to some delicate probing, he diagnosed 2-3 of mine as being broken. He encased me in the body wrap from our medicine chest, and I took a couple of pain relief tablets, which is about all one can do.

Afternoon, 16 July. The wind had dropped somewhat, but the Java Sea wasn’t done with us yet.

We spent the rest of the day and overnight hove-to in a cocoon of windless gray overcast, me in bed and Eric popping out periodically to check around. At 0430 the next morning he called me up. He looked aghast and with good reason. Corroboree was all but encircled by hideous black thunderclouds emitting crackling sky-to-sea bolts of lightning. We started the engine and headed for the one opening to the north that showed clearer light. But as we approached, the weather closed against us. We tried another direction with the same result. There followed three very tense hours during which we dodged and darted in search of an escape. My thoughts were along the lines of “Go ahead and strike us. It can’t get any worse.” When we finally broke free into mere overcast and spitting rain, Eric turned to me, white-faced, and said, “I thought we were goners.”

We’re not sure how we got into this mess. Squalls are common in the Java Sea and usually of short duration, and we had encountered them before with no problem. This was different, a widespread storm system with no harbor in reach. We felt helpless and bullied by the elements; you will understand why there are no photos or videos of the worst parts. When a light wind returned mid-morning on 17 July, we got the double-reefed main back up and resumed our course. The sky stayed an eerie white the rest of the day. I wrote in the log: “This is the worst weather we’ve had anywhere on the trip so far!”

The next day brought blue sky and a southeast breeze. You’d never know we’d been in dire straits only 24 hour ago. That evening we passed Jakarta, a nightmare of crisscrossing freighters, ferries and fishing boats jockeying in the dark. Kudos to Eric for calmly steering us between two very large ships going in opposite directions, as if we were the stuffing in a sandwich cookie. Complicating matters, the fishing boats don’t always display the regulation lighting of green starboard and red port running lights. They are simply ablaze with white lights, making it especially hard to judge which way they are heading. Two came heart-thumpingly close in the wee hours of the morning, and we had to throw on the engine to avoid them. Technically, when operating under sail alone Corroboree has the right of way over anything of any size using a motor. But the truth is simpler: The bigger you are the more right of way you have.

We entered the Sunda Strait the next morning. By daylight, the passage became less menacing, the traffic gradually thinned, and by mid-afternoon we were through the strait and out of the Java Sea forever—Hooray! We made for an anchorage called Bakauhuni on the south coast of Sumatra where the ferries from Java dock and found a sheltered spot behind some small mountains for the night. We even got Internet, not to mention a decent dinner and a full night’s sleep. The next morning, our spirits much improved and my achy ribs securely wrapped, we motored the windless 22 miles to Krakatoa. Famous for the 1883 eruption that obliterated two-thirds of the island and had devastating climatic effects worldwide, the volcano remains active. The terrain is a moonscape of sharp black rocks, and we anchored at the small, forested island opposite. In a surreal twilight, we heard a low rumbling and watched a funnel of smoke emerge from the cone and puff skyward. No further volcanic manifestation required, thank you.

Krakatoa sunset

We departed the next morning for Enggano, a small island off the southwest coast of Sumatra. In a brisk wind and under reefed sail, we covered the 190 miles in 35 hours. For Corroboree, that’s fast! According to the Indonesia cruising guide, Enggano promised a calm anchorage beside the jetty in 40-50’ of water, protected from wind and swell. The guide did caution that supplies were limited and should be obtained soon after the twice-weekly ferry arrived—duly noted. Shoreside attractions included caves and waterfalls, nature hikes and birdwatching tours. Excellent! With a tropical revolving storm then swirling in the eastern Indian Ocean, we could rest up and have some fun exploring Enggano while waiting for the storm to run its course.

In short order, all our expectations were dashed. Instead of a calm harbor what we found on arrival was an imposing, eroding commercial jetty and an 80’ deep anchorage wracked with surf and occupied by two large fishing vessels. With the sun setting and unsure where to go, we crossed to an outer island and anchored near two small, open boats. You can always look to the local fishermen to determine a safe place to drop your hook. It was still 65’ deep, but the little island blocked most of the waves and Corroboree didn’t roll too badly overnight.

We were elated to see a ferry arrive in early morning—go get those supplies!—but when the ferry departed and we tried to dinghy ashore, the surf proved too dangerous and the jetty offered no place for a dinghy to tie up. The only stretch of beach on which we might land was a bit far off, and we’d have to run the surf with no guarantee we’d be able to get back out. The ferry terminal building, which had looked impressive from afar, turned out to be a deserted and derelict shell, and there was no sign of a town or settlement in the mangroves beyond. We returned to Corroboree, stumped. Had the author of the cruising guide even been here? To cap it off, despite a communications tower in plain view on shore, the phone router we’d bought in Bali and the data plan we’d purchased in Java, both supposed to be effective throughout Indonesia, didn’t work here.

Then about an hour later we had four visitors from one of the two large fishing boats. We had passed their vessel in our dinghy earlier, and in the usual effusive manner of Indonesians on the outer islands, they had lined the deck, waving to us and shouting madly, “We love you!” Now, having observed our failed landing attempt, they had come alongside in their tender to see what we needed. Only one of them, Abdul, spoke English and that very limited. “I am fisherman, no school,” he apologized, unnecessarily. Aided by sign language, we offered to pay the men a ferry service to take us ashore to buy food.

Friendly fishing boat
Eric and Abdul
The rest of the crew

The wild ride that ensued outdid anything at an amusement park. Just getting into the heavy wooden tender without it bashing against Corroboree required some fast maneuvers. Then we bounded to the jetty where even the sturdy tender had no place to tie up. A military vessel had taken the ferry’s place, and a few men chatting on the jetty stepped in to catch the tender’s lines as it bounced and lurched against the pilings. The men reached down and grabbed our arms, we leaped for all we were worth, and miraculously they hauled us up unhurt. Eric said later that he had seen stark fear on my face as I jumped. He’s right. One wrong move and we could have been crushed. For the Indonesians, however, it appeared to be a run-of-the-mill event. 

From the jetty, a rutted dirt road led inland, and we were pointed along it to the nearest store, about a kilometer distant. The fishermen would wait for us meanwhile. We set off walking, seeing nothing but more mangroves along the way. Minutes later, however, a scooter putt-putted up behind us, and we turned to see a skinny little man from the dock. He now indicated he would transport us to the store. Was he serious? He was a head shorter than me and probably didn’t weigh more than 90 pounds. Nevertheless, he was insistent, and with the two huge Americans squeezed on behind him, he expertly skirted the ruts and potholes and brought us to an open-front shop. A few houses were tucked among the greenery nearby, but nothing else.

Welcome (Selamat) to Enggano
Kind Scooter Man. I squeezed between him and Eric on the seat.

The selection of produce displayed on the shop’s counter yielded cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, bok choy and a stalk of broccoli that would be okay if used that night. We also bought a half flat of eggs which the two giggling shoptenders elaborately packaged in cardboard and tied using a nylon string they coaxed from a bystander, carefully burning the string ends with the man’s cigarette so it wouldn’t fray. Of course, photos had to be taken, and we hope our visit gave the ladies something to talk about for a week.

Produce from the ferry

Then Kind Scooter Man piloted us back to the dock where, smiling broadly, he refused any payment. The fishing tender had gone back to the mother ship, leaving Abdul to phone them when we returned. While we waited, Eric happened to mention that we hadn’t found any bananas at the store. Immediately a stalk appeared—we think from the military vessel—and while we were trying to clarify whether it was meant for us, Kind Scooter Man disappeared and reappeared with a second huge stalk of green bananas crawling with ants. It took some doing to convince everyone that we didn’t have room to take all the bananas—there were well over 200 of them—and we accepted the bunch from Kind Scooter Man, which seemed to make his day complete. When the tender returned, we and our bananas dropped from the jetty into the tossing boat, and back to Corroboree we jounced. We paid the tender captain a very reasonable fee and offered something extra to Abdul for his translation help. He declined. “Money is a small thing here,” he said, pinching his fingers closed. We thanked everyone, waved goodbye, and dunked the bananas into the water until every last ant was annihilated.

Ant-free bananas

Then we collapsed. “Yet another day in which we didn’t get ourselves killed,” I said to Eric, and indeed, some might question whether we were foolhardy even to get into the fishermen’s boat. But having experienced spontaneous acts of kindness throughout our stay in Indonesia, we never doubted that these men meant us well. I will say that none of this activity facilitated the healing of my broken ribs, and I spent the next day, my 72nd birthday, on my back. Yet I wouldn’t have missed that crazy escapade for the world. Repeatedly on this voyage I have had my faith in the goodness of people reaffirmed, and that is by far the best birthday present I could get.

We stayed at Enggano six days in all, waiting for the storm to fall apart. One rainy day enabled us to top up our water supply and do laundry. The two fishing boats left, and we did telephone calls with family on the Iridium phone, read, listened to podcasts, and completed a jigsaw puzzle. The ache left my ribs, and the other bruises from my fall began to fade. Eric had spotted some little boats using a break in the surf, and on 29 July we copied them and got ashore on the beach to restock fresh food. No other ferry had arrived, however, and all that was left at the store were some limp green beans, potatoes, and two wilted carrots. We bought beans and potatoes, and as we started back to Corroboree, a breeze arose. At noon we hoisted anchor and departed. Enggano was not at all the place we expected, but it is a place we will never forget.

Ahead lay 1,800 miles across the Indian Ocean to Addu Atoll, the southernmost island of the Maldives. Above, I wrote of the Java Sea: “This is the worst weather we have had anywhere on the trip so far!” Oh, wait. Just you wait.