Thursday, 31 July 2008

Kuching to Singapore, With AIS Onboard

After two months with our friends on the Tulai River, Crystal Blues departed Santubong (Kuching) at 11.00am on Tuesday, bound for Phuket (Thailand) via Singapore, Penang and Langkawi. As I write we are just 125 miles from One Degree 15 Marina in Singapore - it has been a magic run across the South China Sea. We covered 180 nautical miles in the past 24 hours.

Good winds have kept the boat speed well over 7 knots for hours at a time, and the forecast is for these conditions to hold. Right now we have 11.5 knots of true windjust aft the beam, boat speed is 7.5 knots and a favourable current is giving us 7.8 knots over the ground. Magical sailing, although its pitch black outside and the new moon won't rise for another hour - just before dawn.

On this voyage we're testing and commissioning our new Comar AIS (Automatic Identification System) installation. The system uses small vessel mounted VFH transceivers to transmit and receive vessel data - position, speed, course, name etc. This data is automatically received by other AIS equipped vessels, and the data is displayed on dedicated screens or overlayed onto electronic chart displays.

In our case the AIS targets and data are available on our Transas Navigation software chart display - so we can see our own vessel, plus all AIS equipped vessels as real time targets on the electronic chart. Check the image at right - or click here to download a larger hi-resolution screen image. Radar targets can also be overlayed and compared, making this an ideal active safety system. Right now we're receiving data and safety messages from vessls over 100 nautical miles away, so I'm very impressed. Its a real step forward in collision avoidance, a major concern for all cruising vessels. More on this in a future story on the web, once its fully commissioned.

AIS is already compulsory on larger vessels, and is moving into the recreational boating area. It's now compulsory on all private vessels in Singapore, and we think it will become compulsory in many other countries quite soon.

We should arrive in Singapore late tonight, with a planned stopover of four or five days. Our telephone number in Singapore is +65-9122-8094 (see the right hand pane).

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Cruising Internet Access Improved

fiogkaomjonDiGi have simplified registration requirements for "foreigners" who wish to take advantage of their excellent 3G / GPRS data services here in Malaysia. You can now buy a post-paid SIM card for only MR$100.00 up front, from which the first months service charge will be deducted.

You'll need your passport and a Malaysian billing address to sign up, but you don't actually need the monthly invoice .... just remember to go to any DiGi office each month, quote your service number and pay the bill. Sixty six ringit for unlimited and reliable data access is great value. We departed Santubong earlier today, bound for Singapore. The DiGi service has worked continuously since we weighed anchor, and we're now more than half way to Tanjong Datu - its rock solid. Click here for info on the system and the equipment we use. We've noted some folk using 3G cell phones are having trouble with access - 3G service is limited to the big cities, so you must configure the phone to down-shift to GPRS if you want wide area coverage. If your phone can't do that then you should consider a stand alone modem that will.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Births, Deaths & Marriages

This is our third year visiting our friends on the Tulai River, and we thought we'd seen it all....regular readers will already know about the marriage, however life here has a way of grabbing you by the throat and forcing you to face reality.

A few days after our Aussie visitors headed back to Australia we were relaxing in the cockpit when a local longboat approached ... "Uncle, can you help us ?" they asked. "Of course, what is the problem ?" we said. "My wife is having a baby" he said ... "When ?" I asked ..."Maybe now" he said !!!

Wow .. They needed a fast trip to the clinic, and our Caribe dinghy is the fastest boat on the river. Quickly I threw some clothes on, Ley checked the fuel tank and the wife and husband climbed aboard. The grandparents were left in the longboat to travel down stream at a slower, traditional pace. So off we went, with me busily thanking God that we'd serviced the Tohatsu outboard and there was good air pressure in the tubes.

Always the wise one, Ley had spotted the storm clouds in the distance and thrown in our largest umbrella. As the rain started I slowed the boat and set the umbrella up as a kind of dodger ... mother-to-be and father sheltered behind that and off we went again, flat out to Bintangor town. Dodging logs and flotsam at 20 knots in a rain storm proved kind of challenging, but we got there OK. The clinic put them in an ambulance to Sarikei Hospital, and a healthy baby girl was born about two hours later. Thank heavens ! That's Grandmother at left, in the photo above, with a nervous mother at right.

The following Sunday Ley set off to church early, and was immediately aware of a loud keening and wailing coming from the longhouse. On arrival she learned that our friend Lucy had passed away in the early morning ... suddenly everything had changed in the longhouse. Lucy was 60 years old, had eight children, the youngest being only 13. She was regal and proud, a beautiful woman. Unfortunately she had high blood pressure, as many Iban do, and suffered a stroke in the early hours. With no transport available, the family sat with her until she passed away around 6.00am.

Lucy was laid out in the public area of the longhouse for two days while visitors and family arrived from all over Sarawak and Malaysia. We sat with the family, next to Lucy, while friends and relatives arrived and completed there lifetime relationship with her. Each person was able to sit with her, to talk, to sing their memories and to hold her hand. The family never left her side, sang to her, burned candles constantly and still managed to look after the dozens of visitors.

Frankly I've never been so moved by a social process - the ability of these folk to deal with death and face it positively, actively combining Christian and traditional practices, was awe inspiring. After 48 hours so many people had gathered it felt like a party ... the locals erected a special kitchen just to cook for the visitors, who all slept in the public space of the longhouse.

For three days no one in the longhouse worked - no fishing, no agriculture, no hunting. Then Lucy was buried by the community and her family, who asked specially that we take the final photograph of her, as seen above. As a practicing Catholic her final resting was organised differently to traditional Iban practice, which would have seen her laid out on a platform above ground. For another two weeks, the children in the longhouse must now be careful - no running, no music, no television, no entertainment. Life will be quiet.

We departed the Tulai River last Wednesday, on the outgoing tide. Given our close relationship this was a very sad departure - many tears were shed for days before, yet on the day our friends were all there on the river bank, wishing us safe travel. We really do love this river, but we love the people even more - they're family now, and it is very hard to leave them.

Crystal Blues is now anchored on the Santubong River, near Kuching, and will depart for Singapore tomorrow morning. The passage should take three days. Our next six months will be spent in Phuket, Thailand, refitting and painting Crystal Blues. Our refit booking starts in September, so we need to get a move on ... we have to cover 1000 nautical miles (about 2000km) in the next 2 weeks.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Did We Tell You About The Crocodiles ?

Late in May, Crystal Blues returned to the Tulai river, and found the children surprisingly reluctant to swim in the river. Then we discovered they had spotted some juvenuile crocodiles living down stream. It looked as though swimming was off the activity list, which was quite annoying given our hassles with crocs in Santubong.

Next day, the afternoon heat and the lure of the cool river overcame the crocodile fear. We all swam then, two or three times a day and our friends from the longhouse came down to the river each afternoon to bathe, swim and socialise. The crocodile threat appeared to be forgotton.

One night in the longhouse we asked if there had been any crocodile attacks on the Tulai River. The answer was a resounding NO - crocodiles are friends to the Iban people, and they live in harmony with the crocodiles. One day Ley, with young Jabu and Beretin, was coming back from town in the dinghy. They passed one of the smaller crocs sunning itself near the river bank. Jabu waved and said hello to the crocodile, maintaining that respectful relationship. Note that it took us five days of serious effort to eventually capture a photograph of that animal (about 2.5m long), as seen at right.

The Iban don't kill crocodiles, unless absolutely necessary. When we said we had actually eaten crocodile flesh (back in Australia) there was some consternation amongst our hosts....was this a bad omen ? The Iban who catch fish further upstream told us the crocodiles up there often damage their nets - so now we knew there were beasties both up and down the river. Yet we continued swimming, as did the locals, content that the respect between the animals and the people was real. Sitting back now, I can't tell you how we rationalised that, but it worked for us.

Service That Shines .... From Pelican

About 6 years ago we purchased the first of three Pelican re-chargeable torches. They're waterproof, lightweight, robust, very bright and have a lifetime guarantee. Best of all, the model we chose comes with a small 12volt re-charging cradle, which we installed at the Nav. station and wired into the switchboard supply. So the torch was always fully charged when we needed it.

After several years of service we experienced a few charging problems, and one torch stopped working after its first salt water immersion. So we sent all three units back to the manufacturer. To our delight they agreed to replace all three units at no charge - and they let us upgrade to the new LED versions for a small fee. Full points to Pelican for honouring the lifetime warranty without any questions - service like that is hard to find these days.

We use the Pelican Stealthlite 2460 Recoil LED (see the manual here). Its waterproof, though they say its not a diver's light - they have other models for that. Our thanks to Pelican Australia for the prompt service and great support.

Friday, 25 July 2008

BIYC & Borneo Cruising Update

With a little under 4 weeks to go, preparations for this years event are moving ahead. Two local entries in the racing division will have local Sarawak Sail Team crews on board. A record number of visiting boats (over 20!) were anchored at Santubong for the Rainforest World Music Festival, with most now heading on to Miri and Labuan for the race start.

Dancing On The Tulai River

SV Harrier and SV Quoll 2 visited Sungai Tulai late in June for the "End Of Gawai" celebrations at longhouse Rumah Lidam. The local population worked hard to welcome everyone, and the Tuak was flowing. Harrier have moved on to Miri after Dennis stole the show with his own unique Ngajat (dance, at left), while Quoll 2 moved back to Santubong for the music festival. Ask Tim about his sumpit (blowpipe) skills - he placed third in a competition among many locals last week.

Unusual Weather

Some boats have experienced unusually heavy conditions on the crossing from Singapore and West Malaysia, with some damage to sails and canvas reported. On the Rajang Delta we've had an unusually wet two months. I'm told the south west monsoon is stronger than usual. Some dry season! With only two sailboats registered in the whole state, there are no sailmakers or sail repair services in Sarawak. Canvas workshops are available in Miri and Kuching, but straight stitch only. If you want zig-zag, you'll need to find a boat with a suitable machine onboard.

Santubong Wrecks

SV Blue Tango, one of many vessels to visit this year, had the bad luck to pick up a wreck on their anchor chain. We're told this happened off the Marine Police jetty, an area suggested to us for anchoring by the locals....and we've seen fishing boats anchored there in the past year. Never the less they had a serious problem, resolved only after hiring a diver and barge etc. Most unfortunate. We're now told there are two wrecks in that area, plus a sunken Japanese aircraft on the other side of the river.

A Visit To Sibu, Sarawak's Second Biggest City

Anchor opposite the express boat terminal, immediately downstream of the sawmill on the opposite bank. Sibu produce markets are exceptional, with unique packaging for live chickens. We recommend a visit to The Fisherman Restaurant, on the waterfront near the water taxi depot (downstream from the express boat terminal). They serve a unique blend of Chinese and Melanau cooking, lots of seafood, and the special Assam Prawn Soup is a must. In daylight hours your dinghy can be left safely on the long express boat pontoon - go around the upstream end of the pontoon and then come back towards the terminal building between the river bank and the pontoon. However that dock is locked up each evening, so at night we use the public dock immediately downstream from the water taxi depot (its right opposite The Fisherman Restaurant). Again we use the shore-side of the floating pontoon, leaving the river side open for commercial traffic. Be sure that your dinghy is locked in both places. Fresh water can be obtained from a tap at the water taxi / fuel depot - if you go in at high tide the tap is only a few metres from your dinghy (I wouldn't recommend putting your yacht anywhere near that dock).

The night market in Sibu is a delight, with many types of local food, clothing, jewellery, gadgets etc. We shop at the council market in the heart of town for vegetables and fruit - the range is fantastic. If you want to see the country further up river, you can take an express boat from here to Song and Kapit, 120km inland. I recommend a visit to the Tun Jugah Museum at Fort Sylvia in Kapit. Coincidentally, it is Datuk Linggi, son of Tun Jugah, who makes available the floating dock at Santubong that is so valuable to visiting cruising boats.

Haul Out Facilities

SV Court Jester arrived in Santubong with a persistent leak - they needed to dry out to access the source. In the end they careened on the piles at Santubong, quite successfully. There is a concrete hard stand area at Miri Marina, serviced by mobile crane. Whilst it is quite full at the moment, Captain Fin advises they would do everything possible to help a distressed vessel. Next stop after Miri for haulout is the big travel lift at Kudat. Prices there have risen recently, but are still reasonable. Check our Marine Services Directory (right hand column) for contact details.

More Boats Visit Sungai Tulai

Whilst the annual Gawai festival is officially over, our Iban friends on Sungai Tulai continue to extend hospitality to visiting boats. Last week we met cruising yachts Circe, Dream Catcher, Millenium and Callala in Bintangor and arranged for them to visit. They came up stream in convoy the next day. Donations from the boats to the fire victim at Rumah Suring were graciously accepted, then the crews were hosted with traditional wine, music and dance at Rumah Labang. That evening the Rumah Lidam families provided a traditional Iban meal inside the longhouse, followed by hours of conversation and tuak (rice wine).

Miri Marina Arrival Information

Head for the giant Seahorse - if you miss that, the next most obvious landmark will be the big smile on Capt. Fin's face (just joking). We sounded the entrance to Miri Marina on October 10 last year, and measured 1.45m on a 0.0m tide (this depth occuring well within the sea walls). Captain Fin recommends using a minimum 1.0 metre tide for entry, and believes there is more water now than we measured last year. The bottom shelves gradually on approach to the entrance. We recommend keeping around 75m clear (SSW) of the sea walls before turning into the entrance. Plenty of water in the pond itself, but don't swim there - I've personally seen a crocodile in the canals beyond the marina, though Capt. Fin tells me thay caught that one a few months ago....

Brunei Anchorage Update

Patrick & Elizabeth on SV Labarque have confirmed that Allan Riches' notes (offered via Sailmail and also included in Envy's compilation) seem to be out of date. According to the Brunei Police, the only authorised anchorage in the Brunei River is now off the Royal Brunei Yacht Club at Serasa (05-00.2N, 115-04.1E, or thereabouts). Labarque tried anchoring up river (in town) but met problems with garbage, officialdom and locals. The holding at Serasa is very good and the club welcomes visitors. From the anchorage you can take the dinghy to the ferry terminal to check in.

Fuel is available at the Shell marine station some five miles inland from Serasa (04-55.98N, 115-01.12E). Subsidised fuel is no longer available. Diesel for foreign vessels costs B$1.30 a litre. You'll need a barge board to lie alongside the fuel wharf comfortably. We've re-fueled Crystal Blues there many times - best to arrive at high tide, slack water. Brunei is well worth a visit. We know of one boat that was hit by a barge when anchored in town, so the yacht club anchorage at Serasa is definitely the place to be. Do lock your dinghy and outboard motors though .... we lost an outboard motor there last year. See our stories here & here.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Blowpipes, Mushrooms & Friendship

Seven weeks have passed since our arrival on the Tulai River. The first few weeks were frantic, including a wedding here at longhouse Rumah Lidam plus the Gawai Dayak celebrations. In early June we were also invited to our first Gawai Antu (Festival Of The Dead), held at nearby longhouse Rumah Labang. The images from Gawai Antu are available here, and in the photo gallery in the right hand column.

Life settled down just a little after that. With help from local friends Hillary & Jampie we were able to acquire a good quantity of hand made "laja" (blowpipe darts), and the people of Rumah Lidam turned their hands and lungs to a very unusual competition. This was a first for almost all of them - a blowpipe hadn't been used by these people for more than a generation. After the first day's entertainment several old blowpipes appeared out of the local biliks (homes), though all were warped or damaged, and unuseable. Using Neil's new (& straight) blowpipe, the competition final was held on June 30.

On June 28 the world turned upside down again with the arrival of family friend Diana Farrell and her friend Charlotte (at left). Two 18 year old aussie girls certainly caused a stir on the river, and in the local towns. They were delivered to the longhouse in great style, carried aboard an Iban longboat. That night was the end of Gawai, and the celebrations included dressing Ley and both girls in traditional Iban costume. Thats "Princess" Ley in the photo at right.

Our friends here keep us well supplied with local foods and are eager for us to sample everything from local river snails to Pangolin and tapioca leaf. The wild mushrooms shown here look red and dangerous to the newcomer, but taste delicious when cooked (lightly spiced). Last week Jampie cut a large bunch of fruit from the Napa Palm along the river bank. The nuts were separated from the bunch and then cut open on the dock. Inside is a delicious clear milk, just like coconut milk. Surrounding the milk is a clear gelatinous layer that can be scraped out with your finger nail. To our surpise it tastes like Lychee fruit, only milder. Two days in a row we slurped and scraped our morning tea of fresh nappa fruit, sitting on the dock, with Jampie wielding his long knife to keep everyone fed. Incidentally, if you want a knife sharpened really well, give it to an Iban ... Jampie has honed our large galley knife to a very fine and dangerous edge. His own long knife knocks the top off green coconuts in a flash, as Charlotte & Diana saw last week. The girls returned to Australia yesterday, though the local boys are still asking after them...see the photo's here, or in the gallery at right.

Our presence on this river sometimes generates an unusual amount of interest - in the past month we've been visited twice by local Chinese language newspapers, who each devoted a full page in colour to our presence here. Read about it here, & here. The courtesy and generosity of the local people is difficult to describe - I've lost count of the food and drink we've been offered by locals, both Chinese and Iban. Even in local restaurants we sometimes find our meal is paid for before we even finish it .... Sarawak is unique.