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Harlequin in Indonesia, October - December 2023

by Lisa Benckhuysen / SV Harlequin 3 Apr 23:25 UTC
Gili Laut © Lisa Benckhuysen

Harlequin is a modified 1985 Express 37. Since 2016, Henk and Lisa Benckhuysen of Sidney, BC, Canada have been sailing her slowly westabout. Harlequin is currently in Malaysia.

From October to December 2023, Harlequin went west across Indonesia. Travelling late in the season, behind the rallies, we had light sailing conditions and our pick of anchorages. After checking in at Saumlaki we made our way west along the relatively remote islands of the South Banda Arc to Alor, Lombok, Komodo and Bali. From there we moved to the north coast of Java and motored west, anchoring at night in shallow water, often several miles offshore. After checking out in Jakarta we hugged the southeast coast of Sumatra and continued up through Selat Bangka and the Riau archipelago to Singapore.

Indispensable online resources included Zuluwaterways, South East Asia Pilot, Predict Wind, Windy, and Noonsite. I had paid for the Sail to Indonesia Rally in 2020 and the organizers graciously extended my access to all the rally information although we actually travelled on our own. Several marinas did not respond to emails but did respond to What’s app. We had a paper copy of Andy Scott’s Cruising Guide to Indonesia and used that extensively.

We read that formalities in Indonesia require patience, courtesy, and conservative clothing. An online visa application became available in September 2023 and that speeds up the visa on arrival process but in my experience an agent was still invaluable. Customs and Immigration may not be open on the weekend and fees need to be paid at a bank. We learned to expect paperwork, stamps, and stickers, plus online forms, and in person attendance at government offices. In addition, Quarantine, Customs and Immigration officials came aboard, separately, to inspect and take photos, and we were expected to provide transport for them, even in Jakarta.

We checked in at Saumlaki and used an agent recommended by another yacht in the anchorage. We checked out in Jakarta and can recommend Mr Abbas at Batavia Marina (Whatsapp +62-877-8282-8837). Renewing our visa was a half day operation that we managed on our own in Marmere. If you choose a six month visa, you have to work through an agent and apply from outside Indonesia at least two weeks in advance. We met cruisers in Australia who had been waiting for 2 months for their six month visa. In our experience, WhatsApp gets a much faster response than email.

The officials we encountered were all earnest and meticulous in serving a multilayered and cumbersome process. One went to great lengths to clear us in on a bank holiday without taking cash directly. When I didn’t have exact change, another official drove to the bank to break a bill rather than keep the petty change. Another texted me at 9 pm to check on a detail about our boat. When we ran into a lengthy delay in clearing out, a marina agent stepped in to facilitate and he refused to accept payment. « I’m just helping you ». Hopefully the process will become more streamlined. In the meantime, an agent saves a lot of headache.

Access to services varies from place to place but locals were always ready to help. On arrival on a beach or dock, we soon had offers of transport, by motorbike or car, as well as tours, fuel or groceries. Only in Komodo were there overly insistent souvenir vendors in the anchorage, probably because there were no other yachts around. The one time we had difficulty finding a safe anchorage, a villager came out in a dugout to guide us through the bommies. When our anchor was fouled near Alor, three fishermen appeared in outriggers to advise us. (We spoke different languages but agreed that we needed to wait for the tide and try again, which turned out to be successful.) Gifts of swim goggles, fish hooks and lines, shoes (flip flops or crocs), t-shirts, pencils and notebooks were welcome, particularly on islands east of Lombok. Headlamps would be practical although pricier.

Groceries were somewhat limited east of Lombok. We were glad of the dried and frozen stores we brought from Cairns, Australia. Tinned foods were available in most villages as were fresh vegetables, fruit and eggs. We restocked in Saumlaki, Maumere, Labuan Bajo and Jakarta. Henk fished only once and caught a magnificent dorado.

Which brings me to fishing boats and practices. Our experience was quite positive because apart from the crossing from Thursday Island, we didn’t move at night. Some larger boats do have AIS and many have powerful lights, however smaller craft often do not. Between Saumlaki and Alor, most fishermen we saw were paddling dugouts or had outriggers (seemingly powered by weed whackers!) and they wore headlamps that were easy to miss. Fish attracting devices, FADs, are another concern. Pretty solid and unlit, these floating or stilted bamboo structures can be in depths up to 20 m or more. West of Lombok, boats were bigger and brightly lit although they often did not have AIS.

A constant watch is certainly necessary at all times. Flags in some places mark floating nets, while in others they mark a line of traps. In any case the fisherman was always close by in his boat and quickly showed us the best way around the nets. There was always a friendly wave and two thumbs up and they sometimes held up a fish to sell to us or a phone to take our picture.

We came to Indonesia for the marine biodiversity and we were not disappointed. Off the coast of Wetar we encountered a blue whale, turtles and dolphins. I was thrilled to see a pair of smooth-furred otters twirling about in an anchorage off Sumatra and again in Malaysia. From Saumlaki to Bali we snorkelled off the boat at all our anchorages and always found creatures and corals we’d not met before. That being said, a week in a resort in Alor, Komodo, Bali, or Raj Ampat might be just as rewarding if your goal is to snorkel in the coral triangle. We hired a guide at Mimpi Bay on Bali for an unforgettable day on the reefs around Medjangan Island. The park tour at Rinca Island was a great way to see and learn about komodo dragons. Having walked waaay too close to an immobile dragon while taking pictures of a monkey, I would not recommend walking unguided in dragon territory…

Although we moved quickly, we did take time to do tours in Alor, Bali and Jakarta and got some sense of the history of Indonesia and its lasting cultural influences. In the villages of Takala and Abui, on Alor, people living a traditional lifestyle welcomed us with song and dance. I was glad to see that although they live in bamboo thatched huts and use traditional subsistence farming methods, they also have cellphones, bicycles and schools.

On Lombok and Bali we visited several temples and in Jakarta we had a tour of the city highlights. The latter included a visit to the national monument and museum, a mosque, a Confucian temple, Chinatown and the Dutch Stadhuys (town hall) and a Javanese shadow puppet studio. The most fun for me was in Alor and Jakarta, interacting with school kids who were keen to practise their English. We came to appreciate the calls to prayer that we heard over the loudspeakers in most village anchorages. Sometimes we heard traditional drumming, Bali gamelan, or modern karaoke.

But what about the wind and weather? We were able to sail all the way through October and November -transition season - using diurnal winds and keeping an eye out for afternoon thunderstorms. Lightning was an almost daily occurrence and we saw a couple of waterspouts in the Riau archipelago. By mid-December we were using the iron spinnaker most of the time. We don’t have AC but the fans were a blessing as temperatures were well into the thirties and it was very humid. Indonesia is a big country. Having come all the way from Canada, we thought we knew about long distance travels, but 3000 nautical miles plus the difficulties of travelling at night, plus light winds, makes for a long journey east to west. Too long for a visa on arrival unless you simply transit west of Jakarta, which is what we did. Australians going north into Raj Ampat for a season have a good alternative. The Sail To Indonesia Rally, which starts in July, is good value vis-à-vis formalities and a nice way to find cruising buddies if you’re that way inclined.

I’m writing this from Malaysia. We are heading to Pangkor, where we will put Harlequin on the hard and do some land travel in Southeast Asia before heading home. We aim to return next November to replace the rudder bearings and redo the canvas before exploring Langkawi and Thailand.

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