Sunday, 21 August 2016

Kudat to Tawau with ESSCOM

After a lengthy detailed meeting with ESSCOM we were generally feeling a little more comfortable with the knowledge of how they planned to keep us safe in the vicinity of the Philippines. Along with a 'Safety Ship' the entire time, it was explained how there would also be patrol boats shadowing us constantly, aerial surveillance at various times and local support from land based authorities. As well as all this, we had decided as a fleet that we would do a neighbourhood watch system from sunset to dawn on a roster basis just as extra sets of eyes on deck. 28 boats proceeded from this point on to our final destination at Tawau and our departure time was set at 0900 out of Kudat. From this point on, all our movement was supervised by ESSCOM and we had to adhere to their wishes - all being in the course of keeping us safe. Before this stage we had the freedom to come and go and stay as long as we wanted in whichever location we desired, so this was really the first time the entire fleet would travel as one. Pros and cons go with this.

                          Our Safety Ship waiting for us in our 1st nights anchorage out of Kudat.

                                           A pair of police boats watching over our fleet.

For those who really enjoy travelling in company - this was really 'company'. Being asked to remain within a 5nm parameter meant you were never really far from the boat next to you. This made for some great photo opportunities of each other and also meant the chatter over the radio was increased. It was like travelling with a large extended family on holidays. Anchoring at night would also be tighter and we had decided to place the boats with children inside a circular perimeter set by the fleet. Often cruisers can be solitary personalities preferring to do their own thing and for those boats on the fleet, the next couple of weeks may be more taxing. I for one was revelling in the nearness of everyone !!

It made quite a spectacle as we all departed Kudat marina waving farewells to the handful of boats who had made the decision not to proceed with the rally. Once out on the open water, again a spectacle with all boats under sail - some with spinnakers, others just mains and headsails. With a large police boat leading the way and smaller patrol boat fringing the edges, we headed for our first anchorage into a channel between 2 islands. I think nerves were playing a part with most boats and there was little or no movement for the usual 'sundowners' that evening. This, combined with the 9.00pm curfew placed on dingy usage made for an early night all around the anchorage. Day 1 done and still trying to get used to the idea of it all.

                                       Some of the fleet behind us as we head out of Kudat.

        A screenshot of our AIS (Automatic Identification System) showing just how closely we were   
                                                               all travelling in convoy.

Joining the boat in Kudat was Naz and Mok - 2 Malaysian guys part of a production crew filming the entire 12 weeks of the Sail Malaysia rally from Langkawi to Tawau. Many of the rally boats had housed the boys for different periods of time, documenting the day to day life of cruisers, the rally stops and festivities along the way and our stories of how we came to be here. So now Kittani had 5 people aboard - the most she has carried for a long time. They were only to be with us for a short stay of 3 days going as far as Sandakan. We had become used to them over the past 2 months popping up when you least suspect with a camera capturing great moments on film but I found having to wear a 'wire' and do an interview was a little more intimidating. Let's hope they can airbrush the wrinkles for the end result!!!!

Our 2nd afternoons anchorage didn't go quite according to plan. We had sailed to the waypoints presented to ESSCOM and had all dropped our picks under the watchful eye of the safety boat, just about to settle for the day when Naz received a message from the commander to say that they weren't happy with the location after all and wanted us to move another 5nm into the estuary and anchor off the village. That's the last thing a cruiser wants to hear after getting the anchor set ...... so....... up anchors again and off we proceed as to their request. The good point was at least we knew they were doing their job.

Next stop was the Turtle Islands where we were to go ashore late afternoon and spend the evening watching the turtles lay their eggs, the Rangers collecting and re burying them in the sand and then releasing some hatchlings into the sea. We had previously experienced this but were happy to get the opportunity to do it again, this time under the watchful eye of the film crew. 


                  Our shopping basket of hatchlings heading down to the waters edge for release.

The days were only short hops with not much more than 4 or 5 hours to the next destination and from the Turtle Islands it was into Sandakan. Heading towards the entrance of the channel, we passed an island with sheer cliffs of red rock making an impressive backdrop for the yachts sails. At this point we had hoisted Naz up to the top of Kittani's mast with camera and GoPro in hand to get a birds eye view of the fleet arriving. Making our way towards the front of the fleet, we did a u-turn (advising all in advance by radio of our intentions) and motored back through the approaching fleet obtaining some awesome footage for the documentary. 


                            A different view of Kittani taken by Naz at the top of our mast.

Sandakan was our next official rally stop, our anchorage in the river right in front of the yacht club and now home for 3 days. The club was hosting us for dinner that night and a wonderful meal was laid on along with beer which will always make cruisers happy. After the meal followed an evening of entertainment where each represented country on the rally had to perform an act pertaining to their home. "Happy little vegemites" song was belted out by the Ozzies, yodelling by our Swiss crew member Andrea, a Xmas carol in Dutch, and Spanish dancing to name a few. After all that, we danced for hours to great music and (not so) great karaoke. An excellent evening in which we could forget for a while the security issues that had been foremost in our minds for days. 


                                    Along the cliffs heading into Sandakan Yacht Club .

Sandakan was also where Andrea was leaving us, heading for Lombok to meet a friend then eventually home to Switzerland. So with the backpack crammed full, early next morning we headed off in a taxi to the airport (along with our film crew) to see her on her way. The 4 weeks she was with us had flown by in a blink, she had been an excellent crew member, a great participant in the rally and will be missed by us and many other boats. Pete will miss his bacon and eggs breakfasts and I will miss the gentle sound of her singing along with her ukulele playing. 

                       Farewells to Andrea at the airport - a wonderful crew member of Kittani.

After seeing her off, we picked up a car at the airport and started a day of sightseeing with the first stop Agnes Newton Keith house once home to a famous American writer. Today the house is heritage listed providing insight into life during British North Borneo and serving a good Devonshire tea. 

From there we drove to the Australian war memorial built in honour of the 2400 Australian and British prisoners of war who were killed there by the Japanese in 1945. The rusting remains of an excavator, a generator and a boiler still lie in their original positions surrounded by a park that is beautifully landscaped and well maintained - a lovely quiet spot to remember history. Our last stop for the day was a Buddhist temple set high on the hill overlooking the coast, the rally fleet just in sight to our left off the yacht club. A series of Buddahs line the road to the grand arches of the entrance. For sheer extravagance of colour, ornateness, location and view this place had it all.


               Agnes Newton Keith tea house for scones, jam and cream - and not a bad view.
                         Buddhist temple - the yachts anchored in the distance (left hand side)
                                           Impressive entrance to the Buddhist temple

After a couple of free days of sight seeing, laundry, wet markets, provisioning and just chilling, it was time to head off for our next stop 17 miles along the coast to the mouth of the Kinabatangan river. Arriving in good time and crossing the bar, we slowly made our way single file and meandered from side to side as the river depths dictated. As we wound our way further up the river, the vegetation changed from Nipa palms (palm sugar source) to dense jungle and soon we had reached the village of Abai where some of the fleet had opted to stop for the night. Further upstream was Oxbow where another group were dropping the anchor and the furtherest point was Barefoot Lodge where we were anchoring for 3 nights. To ensure there was plenty of room for all in the relatively narrow river, many boats 'rafted up' - tied to each other with fenders in between. Our security escorts were split between the 3 groups so still present at each location. Dinner that evening was with Esoterica - our rafted neighbours and we barbecued buffalo fillet, sweet potato chips, caramelise onions, coleslaw and salad, all washed down with a lovely Oyster Bay wine. A wonderful meal in great company!!


                        Rafted up against Esoterica in the Kinabatangan River for a few nights.

                       Sundowners on 'Songbird' and envious of their room for entertaining.

                         Settling in for an afternoon of card with 'Esoterica' and 'Gemini Lady'

Next day just as the sun was rising, 8 dinghies headed out for an early morning ride down a nearby tributary in search of monkeys and other wildlife. The previous afternoons run had spotted proboscis monkeys, macaques, hornbills and a crocodile - the morning run not as successful but still enjoyable listening to the jungle wake up in the cool of the new day. Back to the boats for breakfast and a coffee and a lazy morning. 


                           Our convoy of dinghies on sunrise heading out to explore the jungle 

                              Some impressive tree root systems from our trip up the river. 

                                   Macaque monkeys were everywhere to be seen.

   The funny looking Proboscis monkey with their long noses

After lunch we were collected by a fast speed boat for a 2.5 hour run in search of the Pygmy elephants. Just when we were about to give up, we received a signal from another tour boat that a herd was just up around the next bend. We spent the next half hour in awe of these lovely animals in their wild environment, the boat getting as close as 3 meters. Reportedly a herd of 40, we had 10 of them on the waters edge (including a couple of their young) content to feed and drink right in front of us and what was almost in touching distance. They were larger than I expected and really just 'small elephant' size so true 'Pygmy' elephant? A few loud trumpets could be heard from further in the jungle most likely from the rest of the herd calling them back. It was a wonderful experience and one to remember. 

                                    Heading off in the speed boat in search of pygmy elephants.

                           and after nearly 3 hours of travelling ......... this is what we found !

                    One of the larger animals having a good feed from the cane like vegetation.

Back out of the Kinabatangan and on to next rally stop at Pulau Bohaydulong - one of the most anticipated destinations on the rally. Anchoring in a large lagoon, we were surrounded by islands with fringing reefs and high peaks making great vantage places for photos. A 30 minute steep climb took us up to 500m for a breathtaking view of our fleet anchored below - definitely one to remember. The next few days we enjoyed being back in crystal clear seas swimming and snorkelling after the muddy waters of the river. Those boats with water makers also making the most of filling almost empty water tanks. We were loaned a portable water maker from another boat that produced 150litres per hour so we were also able to top up our tanks. 

                   Looking down from the top of Boyah Dulong to the fleet anchored in the lagoon.

                                                 Group shot from the top of the lookout.
                   A picturesque photo opportunity with Kerryn (Esoterica) on an island circuit

We had prearranged a days outing to Pulau Sipidan - listed as one of the top 10 diving locations in the world. 3 fast speed boats collected us all at 0830 and with twin 150's on the back, we powered across the choppy waters for 1.5 hours finally reaching the our destination. A tropical atoll with pure white sand surrounded by reefs kept us entertained for the day with 3 dives scheduled (for Pete) and snorkelling for myself. I swam with reef sharks, docile turtles and the most amazing array of colourful fish. On one of our snorkels, we were swimming in and out of a school of large and giant Trevally estimated maybe 2000 or more and they didn't seem to fazed about us being there - they were so close you could almost touch them.

Pulau Sipidan

                                     The jetty at Pulau Sipidan - the prettiest of islands. 

           Our ever present security force 'hanging around us'. These guys were based on the island

Leaving our idyllic lagoon it was back to the mainland to Semporna which had been billed as a big event, this year being the first time the rally had visited this town. With not much room for anchoring, the large fishing fleet had been moved out of the harbour for 24 hrs to make room for us all. This however was still only a small area so it would require the dreaded 'med mooring' technique again, and a systematic order of rafting up would be necessary in order to accomodate all 23 monohulls. The catamarans were anchoring out in the channel and once set, they were able to assist in their dinghies with guiding the monos while they reversed into place (as many monos like Kittani go sideways in reverse)!! So according to boat draught (the area also being shallow), one by one we moored.

Pete was asked to coordinate the whole exercise and as Kittani is a heavy boat with a heavy anchor and chain, we were asked to go first. So with trepidation we cautiously entered the harbour, picked the mid point of the long concrete wall and slowly backed in with only 1 meter showing under our keel (dead low tide registered 0 under the keel for one of the largest draughted boats). It took us a good half hour to secure our spot, the anchor grating on ....... rocks? rubbish? who knows what on the bottom. Finally in place, Pete was off in the dingy with the 2-way, calling up each boat in its turn and supervising it's maneuvering into place until all 23 of us were med moored against the Fishermans wharf. It took 2.5 hours in the hottest part of the day to get the job done and boy! did that 1st beer taste good. It was all very entertaining for the locals watching on - a sight they most likely have never seen before.


                       The rally boats med moored up against the Fisherman's wharf in Semporna.


              Standing with the Chief of Police                   Dinghies assisting the reversing into place.

We had an hours break to have lunch and settle in before the festivities started. These were held on the opposite side of the wharf so we didn't have far to go. Heading ashore in our rally t-shirts, we were greeted by some of the local dignitaries, girls in traditional costume giving a token gift to each of us, and a drink of the local rice wine. Then we were escorted to a shaded area of seating where we were entertained by local and traditional dancing for a couple of hours. From there into mini buses and a short trip to climb a path that lead to a great view of the surrounding area. Group photos taken and then back into town where we could do some shopping for supplies. Showered and changed, back to the festivities where a barbecue was laid on for us along with the families of the authorities responsible for the event. 

The Chief of Police - Peter - was a wonderful host getting us all to try the local rice wine, and joining in himself playing a drinking game. All locally produced food, the spread was amazing and we ate and drank until the evening entertainment started. Beautiful Malaysian girls with their fluid hand movements, men dressed as warriors and dancing with spears, and then the heavy bamboo sticks that are smacked against each other to a tribal tempo while the Warriors step in and out and in between never missing a beat. Then an amazing acrobatic display by the Lion Dancers - hypnotising to watch and all adding to the party atmosphere of the evening. It was probably the most memorable evening of the rally, so much fun, so much rice wine and surprisingly not one hang over the next morning. Just as well as we had to clear out of the harbour in the reverse order to which we entered starting at 0600 and Kittani being last at 0630.

                                     Pete drinking his rice wine shot from the bamboo tubes.
                         Not my choice of drink but as they say ...... when in Rome .......

                                                            The Malaysian Lion Dancers 

The day's end saw us arriving into Tawau - the final destination of the rally. We had made it without incident from Kudat to here through the 'pirate' area and now Indonesian is in sight. Everyone is grateful to ESSCOM for their wonderful coverage over the last 3 weeks and allowing us to see the beauty of Sabah and what is has to offer. Again we were anchored in front of the yacht club and a good venue for celebrating the last 5 months (for those to started in Langkawi, 4.5 months for us). Time to reminis of the great moments and there were plenty of those. Then the not so great - those sleepless nights in wind squalls and boats dragging anchor. Time to swap contact details and work out which direction we were all going. As the fleet disbands, of course it also means the inevitable farewells. We have formed some special friendships with people that we know we will keep in touch with, and promises to meet up again one day. 

                                       Goodbyes to dear friends Lesley and Phil (Sagata) .......

                             and John and Kerryn (Esoterica) and will catch up in Melbourne.

With some of the anchorages in this part of the world where rubbish collection and recycling are almost non existent, what lies at the bottom of the water can be a real hazard for yachties. A couple of boats on this rally have had issues when trying to leave an anchorage, either caught around coral or other obstruction. One evening after arriving back to the boat from dinner ashore, 'Persephone' decided that they were a tad too close to us and they would quickly up anchor and move. This is what they found when they tried to lift, and it took nearly 1.5 hours with Brian and Pete in the dingy both working with gloves and knives to free the anchor chain. I don't see how they are ever going to clean up the waters in these areas - even if their attitudes to rubbish disposal changes.

From a distance it looked like an alien. A mix of metal and fishing nets.

So we have provisioned, re-fuelled, collected laundry and filled the water tanks so we are off in the morning with a dozen or so boats from the rally heading into Indonesia, Tarakan being the first stop. Farewell to Malaysia for now and southwards we go.

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