Boat People – Sailing from Christmas Island to Bali, Indonesia.

Elliot Press

Four crew. A 41ft wooden Ketch with a damaged mast. Water damaged electronics. Approaching storms and a 600 nautical mile journey. What could go wrong?

It was December 2013 and I’m on my way to Trigg Beach lying to myself that there might be a wave. A call comes in that I wasn’t expecting. James, owner and skipper of S.V. Kelolo, is on the other end of the line; “Can you get on a plane to Christmas Island on Saturday?”…it was Thursday afternoon. He explains that Kelolo is stuck in Christmas Island on a mooring designed for naval frigates and time is running out. He had hired a incompetent delivery crew to bring the boat from Malaysia to Fremantle and things didn’t turn out well. Storm damage and insufficient diesel dictated a ‘rescue’ by the Australian NAVY offshore of Christmas Island. Kelolo was abandoned on a mooring and the delivery crew flew home. James was stuck with little option but to sail the boat himself…something which admittedly, he’d been doing for years.

What was the plan? There would be the skipper James, myself and two of Jame’s old mates, Archie and Brendan. With a yacht full of surfers, Fremantle was quickly replaced with Bali as our intended destination. With Indo barrels breaking in my mind, I was in and tickets were booked…despite the fact I was to be a groomsman for a friend’s wedding that weekend. Explanations were thought up, blessings given and I was boarding a plane Saturday morning for Christmas Island instead of driving south for a friend’s wedding. Anyone who’s flown to Christmas Island knows it’s not always plain sailing (flying). 3 days, 6 flights (with diversions to Jakarta, Cocos-Keeling, Port Headland and even back to Perth for fuel) later we finally get a runway clear of fog and touched down. James and Brendan had flown ahead of Archie and myself so we met them there. However, with flight delays and tropical cyclone Bob (yes, Bob) bearing down on us we had only two days to prep the yacht for an international journey. Who needs sleep anyway?

Utilising the yacht’s tender and kayak we spend two days battling shore breaks to ferry 40 jerry cans of diesel, 400L of freshwater, plus cartons of food, onto S.V. Kelolo.

With a final call to a friend at the Bureau of Meterology we made the call. Wednesday the 18th of December 2013, we unshackled our trust little wooden boat and set sail for Bali. Spirits were high but our bodies were tired and the skies were getting darker by the minute. Less than 2 hours into our 600 nautical mile journey the ocean greeted us with a slap across the face. The next 12 hours became an ironic battle of keeping ourselves dry and keeping ourselves hydrated. Brendan was quick to be crippled be seasickness and that was essentially him out for the trip…confined to sleeping between bouts of vomiting and being on watch.

 

But before I put you off the idea of offshore sailing; it wasn’t all doom, gloom and 24 hour orbital assaults of rain drops big enough to give you a black eye. We were blessed with days of blue skies and decent winds. Keen eyed and hungry for a feed, James spotted a piece of floating wreckage and knew it would be a fish aggregation point…and before we knew it he had his speargun in hand and was reading to go over the side. Freediving in 6km deep water is not for the faint hearted and pretty soon we had a feed of Yellow Fin Tuna, Kingfish and Mahi Mahi. With Tiger Shark shaped shadows approaching from the depths it was time to move on.

Our progress was slow. Winds were light and infrequent and we spent much of the 7 day journey listening to the sleep inducing drone of Big Blue, the ships trusty diesel engine. With a midnight gust we had a heavy knock down that threw us about and reminded us that open ocean sailing isn’t a game and we limped on with a broken auto pilot system demanding round the clock hands on the helm.

Days turned to nights and those nights consisted of desperately scanning ahead in the pitch dark, looking for hints of danger. Indonesian pirates, wreckage, shipping containers barely breaking the surface, hiding their true danger like steel icebergs; navigation by night with no visible horizon. Is that a star or an Indonesian squid boat on the horizon?

I was shaken awake in the early hours of the 24th of December. Land ahoy on the port bow! Our first glimpses of land revealed the cliffside of south Bali. We had made it just in time for Christmas. The game wasn’t over yet. We still had to navigate our way around the island, Big Blue protesting as we pushed against the Lombok Strait and into Serangan Harbour, temporarily beaching ourselves on a reef on the way in. As we prepped out gear for disembarking we talked immigration strategy and did mental arithmetic; how many Bintangs can we fit in before dinner?