Tambisan to Tawau

12 – 23 August 2019

It may be the last couple of weeks of the rally but they have been packed with activity. Leaving Tambisan ESSCOM had to make the reluctant choice between having the fleet make an overnight sail to Lahad Datu or to anchor for the night tucked up behind Tg Tunku. The latter was in an area where 16 fishermen were kidnapped in June. It was decided we were safer at anchor there than breaking the night curfew so the fleet made the 53 nm passage from the lovely and unexpected anchorage between the island and the headland at Tambisan to Tunku. The following morning we departed at first light for Lahad Datu some 35nm further on. This latter leg we noted more than our usual quota of escort boats; seemingly extra ribs from navy and marine police as well as a coastguard cutter and more assortedly armed craft.

The bay at LD is not particularly well protected and quite a chop builds up with the afternoon breeze over the tide. Sheila did not like it one bit, one of the few times we wished she was a rib not a tinny but thanks to the kindness of Libby and John on Nautilus we made it ashore for the festivities the following morning. Hosted by the local district officer and various other dignitaries in the hall of the marine police head quarters we were treated to some incredible entertainment and a wonderful lunch. This was the first year the rally had put into LD and despite the shortcomings of the anchorage probably not the last if the townsfolk eagerness to welcome us is anything to go by.

Afterwards all 60 odd of us were loaded into minibuses and with a blues and twos police escort raced through the town and on to Mt Silam. There, close to summit, is the tower of heaven which on a clear day offers spectacular views over the bay as the combined height is almost 700m. Today the cloud closed in below us! We were happy to be chilly but our hosts were rather dismayed. Then there were refreshments in the form of various local fruits including rambutans, lychees and mangosteens which are all in season just now.

On a tree by the cafe hung large fibrous globes, on asking what they were one was picked and brought to our table to be hacked open. Nestling inside were delicious little white fleshy fruits. In appearance like small jackfruit segments but in taste sweet and pleasant like ice cream or a banana. This is the Borneo Tarap, found only here and in the Southern Philippines. Our table happily devoured as many as could be picked for us until we were stuffed again.

The next morning it was time to up anchor again for the short trip around to Silam where entrepreneur Mr W hosted the fleet for a bonfire and we provided a potluck supper. Karin joined us after a mammoth series of flights from Singapore via KL and Sandakan but arrived in time for another brilliant evening with more local entertainment including Lahad Datu’s own pop star hero Kuan Torres who joined in the karaoke as well as singing his own hit. Apparently his presence had had to be kept secret so the place wasn’t inundated with fans! Having shared some photos I’d taken earlier in the day when he’d sailed round on Site I can say he is a lovely young man and not at all spoilt by his fame.

After a great night ashore the three of us and Karin’s luggage piled into Sheila for the trip to Temptress. Once everything was put away we turned our attention to lifting Sheila onto the deck ready for the following morning’s departure. As Kevin unscrewed the outboard and lifted it off he heard a hissing sound. Peering into the frame under the engine just a few inches from his knuckles was a small snake. It hissed once more and his neck expanded…. a cobra! Turned out it was an Equatorial Spitting Cobra (called a Black Spitting Cobra in Singapore), small they only grow to a couple of feet so this was an adult!

As the engine dropped to the deck it slithered off to the dark recesses ofTemptress’ false deck. Quickly Karin and the First Mate closed all the hatches. We put out a call on the VHF – Rod, Grant and Tan responded. Tan brought welding gloves, Grant a boat hook and I handed Rod our BBQ tongs before ensuring the washboard was in place. Us girls were safe below. Kevin undid the 16 screws that hold the false deck in place, checking our unwelcome stowaways position Kevin carefully lifted a corner, Grant pounced and secured it with the boathook then Rod-Steve-Irwin wearing the gloves, grabbed it with the tongs which it promptly attacked and threw the snake over the side. Phew. The boys returned to their boats and Kevin, once he had calmed down a bit fastened down the deck again. It was several hours though before he stopped shaking. The next day he looked up the cobra – a spit in the eye can cause complete blindness unless rinsed immediately with copious quantities of water, a bite usually results in the victims death. That was one close shave for the skipper!

After Silam the fleet motored the 55 nautical miles to Tun Sarakan Marine Park where we anchored off Bohay Dulong. It should have been a beautiful spot located as it was within a magnificent lagoon however the heavy tourist presence meant every day boatloads of single use water bottles and lunch boxes were thrown into the sea. Each morning we awoke to find Temptress surrounded by plastic. Worse each trip anywhere usually resulted in plastic getting tangled around the propellor of the dinghy. Reports of a mountain of discarded bottles at the top of the hill overlooking the bay dissuaded us from making the trip up despite our desperate need of some exercise. On our second day a bunch went off to dive the newly discovered Blue Hole a few miles away. Those of us who remained took Sharman and Nautilus to a nearby island for a snorkelling party, our ESSCOM escort came too complete with black balaclavas and machine gun! Just a reminder that we were not to drop our guard.

On August 21 Karin headed off with a group from the rally fleet on the thirty mile trek by open speed boat to Sipadan. This is supposedly Asia’s top dive spot but most found it quite disappointing. Rubbish featured large in their reports together with damaged coral. It seems that fish bombing which destroys the reefs and is illegal still goes on with in the marine parks here. Whilst the majority of folk were away the remaining crew took to dinghies to explore the reefs around the bay. Though the coral looked interesting in the crystal clear water the quantities of rubbish put us off snorkelling. Venturing around the outside of Bohay we did though discover a ‘sea gypsy’ village on stilts. The tattered attap huts were tiny, each had several naked small children stood on the platforms waving shyly. Washing hung from a line suspended above one anchored boat. Quaint perhaps but I felt sad that these people don’t have anything we consider a right; education, fresh water or probably even a legal right to be in Malaysia, trapped between countries whose borders were drawn up at the end of WWII by the Allied Forces.

In complete contrast a bunch of us gathered on Sharman to party the afternoon away, a middle aged karaoke session ensued. Joined much later by those who had been to Sipadan. The following day a dozen or so of us desperate for a walk rather than provisions boarded two speed boats into the local town Semporna, it was a bit hair raising planing at speed over the reefs in shallow water, we had to trust our drivers! It was Karin’s last day with us as with a change of rally  destination from Semporna to Tagassan Bay she needed to make her way to Tawau a day early to ensure she caught her afternoon flight to KL.

 Semporna is the Wild West; a scruffy border town full of dive and snorkelling shops, tatty restaurants and cheap hotels. The pavements are broken, small grubby barefoot kids hang around begging and the stench in the narrow streets lined with market stalls was horrendous. It seems no one is expected to linger here and no one is investing in the things that would improve the locals lot. The channel between the town and the islands is lined with wooden houses on stilts. Everything – sewage, plastic, rubbish – is discarded directly into the sea. I was rather glad the fishing fleet had this year refused to move out to make way for an overnight stop by the rally fleet. But we had a wander through the streets lined with parked cars and queuing traffic, I managed to top up my phone but the skipper decided the lengthy queues for the ATMs ( there are only two banks in town) was just not worth it. After a good lunch at the Dragon Inn Hotel we saw Karin into a taxi and headed back to the anchorage.

For a change during Fridays trip to Tagassan the wind was actually sufficient and from a good angle for sailing. We managed 7 nm under genoa alone until we reached the north end of the Semporna Channel. Then Temptress motored the remaining miles to Tagassan. The bay was not quite as expected from the various charts and satellite images but somehow everyone found a spot they were comfy with. What a contrast, the previous night we had had 100m of chain out, here 15 was more than plenty!

Satellite view of Tagassan Bay

Saturday proved eventful, the previous day Halo’s impeller had blocked the raw water system so they’d gratefully accepted a tow by Fiddler and despite many hours overnight they still hadn’t solved it so were undertow again. Saturday morning after an early start in choppy seas Ananda II engines failed, due to fuel blockages in both engines presumably the rolling around had stirred up muck from each of their fuel tanks. We stood by whilst Steve tried in vain to clear one or both engines then Sharman arrived and took the stricken catamaran under tow. Fortunately the windy, rain abated and the seas calmed down making the towing easier. Charmaine then managed to run today’s quiz from the back of the fleet! And today Temptress had the highest score with a credit worthy 27 out of 30. The VHF conducted trivia quiz has been a great way of relieving the tedium of motoring since we left Kudat as well as building the camaraderie amongst the crews, our thanks to Charmaine and Geoff for all their hard work.

Our turn for a mishap came mid afternoon when a hessian sack wrapped itself round the prop. Usually, being self pitching, running it in reverse shakes things off but this time the skipper had to go in the water to complete the task. The water was reasonably clear but the green of a river estuary. Now wasn’t the time to think of crocs. Armed with a snorkel  and mask and with a line tied midships to hang onto the skipper dived under. A few grazes and bumps later the prop was clear and we were underway once more.

Tawau proved to be another open roadstead. The fleet anchored off the yacht club. Nothing to do until the offices opened on Monday. We looked up places to eat on Tripadvisor and took ourselves off to the Olive Bistro for a pizza. The food was great, the staff efficient and friendly and being a Saturday night the place was heaving. Highly recommended if you ever find yourself in Tawau.

The last official function of the rally was a steam boat dinner in a local hotel on Sunday 25 August. Almost everyone attended and the communal effort of cooking our own supper was thoroughly enjoyed by everyone. Afterwards there was a comic round up of rally events as seen through Aussie eyes, some funny but some a little too close to home for comfort for a few boats. We took the dig at us in good heart but others weren’t so impressed, it’s a cultural thing and with so many boats from one nation in this fleet it has been at times rather painful for the minority.

Monday everyone turned up at the Indonesian Consulate when they opened at 9am, rather overwhelming the staff who usually limit visa applications to ten a day. Their boss took one look at the situation an hour or so later and decided put several staff on the case. Our paperwork was collated and checked, we were given a receipt for our passports and paid the cashier. We headed off to the supermarket to finish off the dry good provisioning. Our visas would be ready tomorrow.

John on Nautilus asked if anyone wanted to go see the tallest tropical tree in the world so early Tuesday morning Kevin and I joined him in a taxi for the 25k trip to Tawau Hills Park. We were eager for a decent walk. The tree itself is magnificent but lost its title in June this year to another a few miles away. Expect more claims to the title as National Parks Malaydia have been overflying their Borneo properties spotting specimens as prt of a research project with two British universities and then climbing the trees to measure their heights accurately with lasers!

Back in Tawau we collected our passports and started the round of harbourmaster, customs and immigration to collect the paperwork and passport stamps needed to leave. It’s always a social time as various boat crews meet up in the different offices. Enroute we had a roti lunch with Il Sogno’s crew. Afterwards a quick trip to the central market got us some fresh veg but no meat.

That night an hour or so after we’d gone to bed a storm swept through the anchorage. The anchor alarm going off woke us, Temptress was dragging towards the shore.  In the north or northwest winds the fleet was completely exposed. As the bow bounced around in the big wind driven waves the chain slipped out of the bow roller and jammed. Imagine standing in a bouncing powershower fully clothed with someone hurling buckets of seawater at you. My glasses were impossible to see through as I tried to work out why the windlass wasn’t able to bring the chain in and to add to our woes one boat decided to shine a powerful searchlight at us which did nothing for our night vision plus the resulting shadows made it even harder to see what was going on over our bow but eventually I spotted the problem. I swapped roles with the skipper so he could sort it out which using the snubber he was eventually able to do after an hour of driving round dragging the chain trying to avoid other boats both at anchor or dragging themselves. All the time the tropical downpour was horizontal and painful even in the shelter of the cockpit. Soaked to the skin but free we set off into the bay, deciding that our best bet was to motor back and forth on a reach until the storm abated.

 The radio was full of chatter as concerned skippers tried to protect their boats, worse some crews had been still ashore when the storm broke, the conditions were too perilous to venture off the yacht club jetty in a small rib. They had to listen helplessly as others reported the boats dragging. At around 3am we finally got the hook down again and went to bed. What an eventful end to the rally.