Selat Makassar

4 – 10 September

Selat Makassar or the Straits of Makassar is the 60-100 odd mile wide strip of sea between Borneo and the island of Sulawesi. The lower end is almost 200 nm wide and in the SE Monsoon the wind is funnelled directly up into the selat, making a passage south under sail a hard beat to windward. By using the lee of the Sulawesi coast we hoped to find flat seas and the wind possibly more east than south east as it passes over the island to reach us. Bounded by the Celebes to the north and the Java Sea to the south, from top to bottom the selat is around 350nm long. Temptress’ intention is to turn west towards the southern tip of Borneo as early as possible after Mamuju a town located at around 225nm south on Sulawesi, just above where the channel widens but first we had to travel down the selat.

Reaching Sulawesi

As dawn broke on September 5 Temptress, in company with Mai Tai and Javerne, reached the Sulawesi coast. The black outlines of the mountains silhouettes against the reddening sky. The magic of approaching land at the start of the day has not been lost.

It had been a passage without drama; plenty of favourable current and a good wind that mostly enabled the two monohulls a beat in the right direction, the seas were sometimes a little rough and bumpy but we’ve known worse. Javerne opted to motor sail much of the time to keep the heading close to the bearing to the waypoint, it’s a fact of life that catamarans don’t go to windward. Her time will come when we turn the corner westwards at the southern end of Borneo and have the SE monsoon behind us for the rest of the month.

We’d not seen Il Sogno since a few hours after we left, her 10 feet or so of additional waterline length meant she had romped off down the north coast of the atolls and was soon out of sight yesterday morning! We guessed she is heading nonstop for Labuan Bajo on Flores for her rendezvous with friends coming up from Australia on the rally from Darwin. The decision by the rest of the group of boats that departed Maratua together was once across the top of the strait, to day sail 40 or 50nm, stopping every night in a suitable anchorage. Hopping down the coast like this also would give us a chance to see something of coastal Sulawesi and perhaps buy fresh provisions enroute.

Corals and turtles

Our first destination close to Pangasiliang, suggested by Lane after consulting Google’s satellite maps, turned out to be pretty with crystal clear waters and even turtles swimming below our bow. However the only areas less than 50m deep were filled with beautiful corals in 8-10m. Temptress, having arrived first, conducted a brief survey. When Javerne and Mai Tai caught us up 30 mins later we all motored around for a bit more but failed to find any sand or mud to drop the hook in. The channel between the islands which looked inviting had power cables across quite low down so also wasn’t suitable. Soon after 8am we gave up in favour of another reported anchorage 30nm further south.

Teluk Biru straddles the Equator and again was not an easy place to drop the hook in. The high steep wooded hills that enclose the bay indicate just how deep the water is. The suggested waypoint proved to be such a small patch of sand that dropping an anchor on it would have been nigh on impossible, the immediately surrounding area was exceedingly deep, beyond our soundings! More like a bullseye than an anchorage. Yet again three boats wandered around the shoreline hunting for some sand. Just south of the Equator we found a stretch on the edge of the drop off that might be possible. Three anchors went down in 10 or 15m, ours fell off the edge but somehow found something to dig into. With the wind onshore we felt safe enough, 40m or chain had to be dragged up the steep wall and the really shallow part of the reef was a good 200m or more a stern of us. The snorkelling just off the boat was amazing with lots of new highly coloured corals amongst the devastation that told of earlier fish bombing and a huge and varied fish population.

Corinne and Michel celebrated becoming Shellbacks by inviting everyone to a spaghetti supper, Corinne had even made a lovely tangy tart au citron for dessert. It was a delightful evening in a pretty fairly isolated bay. Ashore is a small village of wooden huts and a birds nest building for the swifts close to which was parked a large lift back truck painted in pastel greens and orange. At the other end of the beach we spied an ox pulling a cart along the sand. Various local guys paddled by in outrigger canoes to say hello on their way to fish. In the evening little fires appeared along the beach, it seemed the locals were burning their rubbish. Sadly there is also a family living in a makeshift shack under the nipah palms that line part of the beach. I wondered what their story was; are they undocumented sea gypsies or perhaps survivors of last year’s Donggalu earthquake or the resulting tsunami that decimated Palu some forty miles south?

Rolling south

The coast is hilly, foothills to the mountains behind, the seaward slopes are covered in coconut plantations fringed with a few trees. Behind and above are rows of tall trees looking rather like poplars, slender tops with silver grey trunks, rubber trees perhaps? The swell on Friday morning as we motored south was uncomfortable, one train coming from the direction of travel,the other not quite on the beam. Temptress lurched from side to side as the two met us, Mai Tai with her long keel was rolling almost from gunnel to gunnel, now was the time to own a catamaran, Javerne plunged up and down a little but seemed to main fairly steady. The forecast was good, a light variable moving from south east to west as the day progressed then back again. Out in the Selat and across on the Borneo side the SE monsoon was being accelerated by the land to some 25 knots. It might be lumpy on the Sulawesi coast but a little discomfort was an acceptable alternative to slogging into a 25knot headwind.

Having completed my latest knitting project, the very pretty Wheldons Irish Lace Shawl whilst at anchor in Maratua, this morning I dug out of my project box the mammoth Mandala Madness rug I’ve been making for ages. Crocheted in the round I managed to complete rounds 79 and 80 plus make a start on the next one. Only another 20 or so to go. I reckon this wonderfully knubbly textured piece will be approaching two metres in diameter when complete. The downside is it is now quite heavy and hot on the lap when crocheting however I’m determined to do so. Q I’m looking forward to having it finished and in use as a pretty throw for the bunk when we reach cooler climes. The colours in shades of blue from aqua to turquoise plus some creams, pale green, earthy brown, bright orange and primrose yellow are supposed to represent the tropical sunset. It will be a cheerful reminder of our time in SE Asia.

An unexpected delight

Friday afternoon the three boats arrived together at the head of the long narrow bay that funnels down to Palu. Near the southern headland on the inside is the dive resort of Prince John. They have several robust moorings and it turned out a warm welcome for yachts. Once secure the skipper’s donned snorkels and flippers and swam down to check out the mooring blocks. All was fine, we would be safe. That night the resort restaurant, though officially closed sent out to a nearby cafe for Ikan Bakar (grilled fish) and vegetables. The six of us enjoyed a lovely supper from their upstairs terrace.

Saturday we hired the resort driver Wawi and all but Michel piled into his 1993 Toyota 4×4 for a trip to the nearby town and the market. Michel stayed to attempt repairs to an engine. Donggala is a pastel pretty but tired town, Wawi said that 30 years ago it was a thriving place until everyone moved their businesses to Palu. Cycle trishaws still ply the streets and we spotted an ox cart too. The market is out of town up in the hills and though it didn’t have a wide selection, all three ships cooks were happy with the fruit and vegetables on offer. We also all bought chicken so fresh it was still clucking when we ordered it! I took ours home and poached it that afternoon so Temptress now has four ziplock bags of cooked chicken in the ice box! Kay’s was enjoyed as a curry on Sunday night.

Recovery in progress

In town a few buildings are still in a state of collapse from either the quake or the tsunami or both but a lot are being renewed, there were piles of timber for reconstruction everywhere. At least one hardware store had a massive display of the ceramic tiles so beloved by Indonesians for their outside living areas. Many of the fishing boats are new because the government provided cash to build them, helping the local economy twice that way. UNHCR emergency tents still stand by the road on the way into town but the people and pupils they housed until recently have moved into rebuilt homes and schools. The tarpaulins are already being repurposed, at least one fishing boat has an awning emblazoned with the UN logo! Apparently Palu an hours drive south at the head of the bay is still in ruins though we haven’t been there to see. They bore the brunt of the tsunami that increased in force as it was squeezed down the bay

Mid morning Sunday we heard En Dian on the radio some 25 miles or so distant heading our way. The beach along the headland became very busy – boat rides, banana rides, inner tubes to float in. It seemed this is the place to relax in the area, it felt like a British beach in summer. By evening the waters edge was teeming with people. Amazingly Tanjung Karang escaped the worst of last year’s earthquake and tsunami. The water did come up the beach and into the holiday cottages behind, up to a metre or so deep but slowly as the bay is wide here, meaning the wave was not so destructive. The cottages are mainly wooden beach huts with a verandah arranged around a courtyard as a “resort” with a cafe and communal areas; very pretty but basic places to stay and obviously popular at weekends.

Best snorkelling yet in Indonesia

After lunch the six of us went for a snorkel along under the nearby cliffs. The coral was incredible both in colours and in size, huge plates many metres across of flat coral as well as highly coloured smaller soft corals. The fish population was also huge and varied, shoals of black and yellow stripped angel fish, scores of ‘Nemos’, hundreds of fish I couldn’t identify but very pretty almost all in large shoals. Some large like a medium sized barracuda that swam warily past at a distance, some tiny like the brilliant blue teeny ones darting in and out of a coral head. And to crown our snorkelling trip a turtle watched us patiently from the bottom until Lane with his go-pro got just a little too close and it swam off to deeper waters. As the sea was chilly, afterwards to warm up we attempted to scrub Temptress’ waterline. It looks a little better but needs more work. Kevin also needs to don his diving gear and scrape off the barnacle population multiplying on the keel. We’ll go a lot faster without them! Perhaps we’ll get a chance in one of the anchorages later this week.

That evening with En Dian added to our number, eight of us had supper in Mai Tai’s cockpit. We all contributed something to the meal and had a lovely time catching up with Rose and Tan and making plans. Sadly the first of our plans was thwarted the next morning when the forecasted light breeze did not materialise. Instead we had a steady F3-4 from the south kicking up quite a chop over the few miles stretch of water within the bay. Once around the headland the fetch from the south would be several hundred miles and the sea rough. The skippers’ agreed 7am wasn’t a good time to leave, 8am came and went, the wind showed no sign of abating as we sat and bounced on the moorings.

Delayed Departure

Eventually the wind did abate but too late for us to make the trip. Instead we made ourselves busy changing the bed, doing the laundry as it was a good drying breeze. Then after lunch Kevin dug his diving gear out, borrowed Lanes BCD as his own had developed a large hole and scraped the barnacles off Temptress’ underwater part. We should go a lot faster now. I carried on with my crochet, determined to complete the rug before the end of the year if possible. With only 28 more rounds to go the end is in sight!

Having not left, the eight of us decided one last supper at the dive resort was in order. What a beautiful setting, a table on the sand laden with food and lit by hurricane lamps. I chose grilled fish again whilst the others ordered squid – their plates were brimming with a large grilled squid each, my fish would have fed two! The rice bowls were refilled as we emptied them and to accompany the seafood, steamed morning glory, a tomato and onion fresh sambal and a spicy mango salad. Delicious food (and cheap at 128,000 Rp a head, ie around seven quid), great company, a wonderful setting by the sea; what more could anyone want? We felt thoroughly spoiled. It was a night to remember even more so because it was a bonus.

Around 2am in Tuesday morning the tide changed, and with the land breeze at full pelt again, the moorings became quite uncomfortable for a second night. Eventually the skipper fell asleep in the cockpit, under a rug as it was also a chilly night. I closed the hatches and slept fitfully as the boat bounced and the odd wave slapped the hull with a bang. I must have slept more soundly than I thought as the 04:30-ish call to prayer from the local mosque behind the cottages didn’t disturb me.

Just after 06:30 Lane from Mai Tai called everyone on the radio. With the wind having a bit more east in it he was still going to leave today, what were others thinking? Javerne was a little uncertain about their ability to motor clear against such a strong wind with their one good engine but we said we’d wait a little if need be. In the end though Michel and Corinne managed to drop their mooring and make a clean getaway.

Temptress too was leaving but first we wanted to finish our coffee and work out a plan to avoid becoming entangled in the lengthy and muddled pickup lines that our mooring had. Most of it was on deck in a heap to prevent it wrapping itself around Temptress but yards of thin line plus three floats still bumped around the bow. With Kevin steering the boat until our bow pointed out to sea, I sorted our line that went through the loop on the mooring line itself and held a bunch of the pickup mess in the other hand. When we pointed in the right direction I dropped the mess and pulled our line free. The mooring freed from it’s load obligingly bobbed away to starboard several metres towing it’s bundle of lines and floats so Temptress motored out, clear of any danger of wrapping anything around the prop. It’s still a mystery why there was so much line!

Ships Log: Maratua to Donggala 235nm