Transition Pt 1

The transition is the period between the monsoon seasons in SE Asia, there is no Spring or Autumn, just two periods of unsettled weather that spell the end of one monsoon and the start of the next. The end of the NE monsoon in April or May is a short sharp rainy season that is very welcome after Singapore’s two driest months. In complete contrast the SE monsoon ends late September or early October in a drawn out affair of heavy rain with severe thunderstorms that can last until late November when the NE monsoon finally establishes itself. Sailors in SE Asia watch with interest the Singapore Met Office’s fortnightly monsoon summaries. This year it seems a late transition is being predicted..

For Temptress this voyage also represents a transition from the Southern Hemisphere to the North as at some point we will cross the Equator. At the end of our trip we will check into Malaysia. Another step on our journey homeward to Europe.

Tuesday 24 September

On Temptress we have been hoping for a late start to the transition as would give a few weeks grace in which we can sail rather than motor to Langkawi. However on the day we departed from Belitung the weather was not at all what we expected.

Whatever happened to the SE monsoon? Overnight it seems it has gone. Transition? Whatever, there was wind but not as forecast. Heeled over on a starboard tack, two reefs and half a genoa, Temptress in company with Mai Tai started the next leg of the voyage north on a beat in a northerly wind with rain showers, almost but not quite making the BTW initially. Then, as the wind freed us off, we headed some ten degrees higher than course ‘to put some in the bag’ as they say.

The only positive things are that the sea’s flat and the rain’s washing away the smoke haze from the air. Oh and Temptress’ decks were getting a much needed wash too. In the cockpit it is damp and pleasantly chilly, the skipper has his oily jacket on over his shorts but no t-shirt! With Temptress making over seven knots through the water plus a knot of favourable current, our rapid progress is making a mockery of the passage plan; we left after 10:30 this morning with the aim of sailing the 120nm to the top of Banka Island in some twenty hours. Current estimated arrival time is about 2am!

The naviguesser has found things to do below where it is dry and warm. Supper has been cooked – onions, yellow and red peppers and smoked bacon sautéed with some garlic and herbs, all that will be needed later is some pasta. This blog has been started, I like to write as we sail, and the crew have had their late morning tea and coffee.

The plan is for a series of overnight sails each followed by a night at anchor. The distance to Port Dixon, Malaysia is a tad under 500nm via Selat Durian and the Straits of Malacca. I reckon nine days should see us there. En Dian departed for Singapore on Sunday, Javerne awaits parts promised for delivery this coming Thursday. So, for now the fleet is reduced to two.

Early afternoon in yet another downpour, the wind veered a little more east. Temptress eased sail to a slightly bouncy reach and the rain came into the cockpit; all the more reason to be down below making the skipper another hot tea. Our world shrank to a few hundred metres around, Mai Tai was stolen from view. The AIS showed a couple of ships or ferry’s heading south west through the channel between Belitung and Banka.

The rain stopped whilst the first mate had a nana nap, the day became grey and dull. By the time the decks had dried up so had the wind. The engine went on and a discussion with Mai Tai lead to the possibility of a first deviation from the passage plan, to whit – if the wind was good overnight, we might carry on sailing tomorrow rather than anchor at the north end of Banka. The ETA for Banka was now a more reasonable 5am.

Our afternoon tea treat was courtesy of Corinne – home made whole grain bread with her delicious mango jam. The very British greyness turned to a light drizzle for a short period and brought us a teeny passenger. Cute, feathered with a hint of juvenile fluffiness he/she hopped around the boat from low perch to low perch. Most spots were rejected until after suppertime the bird decided the traveller adjuster line under Kevin’s oily jacket was a cosy spot, whereupon he/she tucked up their head and became a fluffy two tone ball. It was observed gobbling dead insects by the skipper however it has so far ignored the broken bits of husked sunflower seeds we scattered on the aft cockpit seat and a shallow bowl of water.

From the white eyebrow and size it’s a leafwarbler but which is difficult. With the aid of the Singapore NS Bird App (highly recommended btw), the most likely candidate is a Dusky Warbler; “A small warbler with greyish brown upper parts, prominent white eyebrow and white underparts. It skulks in low vegetation and has a harsh chack call”. It certainly prefers low to high perches but we haven’t heard a peep from he/she so far.

More ships including the 180m tanker Sungai Gerong on about the same heading as Temptress but half a mile away. We’ve discovered a new hobby, akin to identifying British, Irish or French fishing boat ports from the registration painted on the bow; guessing the destination port of a ship from the codes broadcast on the AIS. In this case ID DUM. Indonesia but where? And Guo Yan 18, a 225m cargo ship is heading south to Au-GET, Australia somewhere. It conjures up modern images of John Masefield’s poem Cargoes

Watches start – it’s the privilege of the first off-watch to head off early, though tonight the skipper had to make up the aft bunk before climbing in it. At 7pm the night is moonless and with the cloud cover, starless too. Pitch black, relieved only by the instrument lights and the navigation lights of other vessels, our own offering few reflections into the boat. Temptress’ engine or motoring light halfway up the mast illuminates the furled genoa on the forestay and the underside of the radar dome then casts a ghostly glow on the flat seas forward of the mast, the foredeck remains essentially in the dark. The bird and I are alone in the cockpit with just the rhythmic thrum of the engine and the last of my evening G&T for company.

For the next three hours I will occupy myself with thoughts, writing and iPad games as well as peeking around 360 degrees every ten or so minutes. In calm weather like this George, Temptress’ well trained auto pilot needs little help to keep us moving onward. The wind is swinging eastward. If it increases some (ok a lot) we might be able to sail again.

Wednesday 25 September

One in the morning, watch change. I come on deck to wall to wall lights. Temptress is still motoring northwards and the horizon ahead is lit with fishing boats. A small cities worth of light bulbs. Whilst I slept Kevin had to dodge a net almost a mile long so there is a need for extra vigilance as we approach this lot. Just when you think you are clear of them the loom of more lights pops up on the horizon ahead. By altering course ten or twenty degrees one way then another we picked our way through the boats.

At dawn the feathery olive brown and white pom-pom tucked under the skipper’s coat woke up and resumed short flights around the boat. After a while it deemed itself awake enough to take off for Banka. Sadly Kevin reported it seemed to have a problem with a wing, probably why it had found refuge on Temptress in the first place. This time the little bird’s efforts were in vain, it dipped too close to the sea and was swamped.

By 07:30 Temptress is at anchor in four metres of water off a white sand beach backed with tightly packed palm trees at the north end of Banka, a large island off the east coast of Sumatra. The haze makes everything on the land, well, hazy and grey, but it’s a safe if slightly rolly place to stop and the air we are breathing isn’t too badly affected by the smoke as there is little or no smell. Kevin cooked breakfast – fried eggs, bacon, tempeh and tomato. We guess Mai Tai are a couple of hours behind us as our AIS isn’t picking them up. The weather forecast Kevin’s managed to download thanks to a weak phone signal, indicates that the almost windless conditions will persist until next week with an afternoon breeze the best we can hope for.

When Mai Tai is about an hour behind Lane calls us up on the VHF. Kevin always says if you have a plan you can always change it, if you don’t you go nowhere. And as always, our plans are written in the sand at low tide. Hence the skippers agreed it was more sensible to carry on. Day 2 of the passage plan would be spent at sea rather than at anchor. (It’s quite likely that we’ll not stop tomorrow, day 3, either as at this rate the next planned anchorage will be reached sometime around midnight.)

We thought, given the light winds, a spinnaker would be good. As Temptress motored out of the bay to head north towards Lingga, we set up all the lines and gear, putting the big blue and white sail in it’s bag on deck. That was all the wind needed, around the low headland it built beyond spinnaker use, or at least spinnaker use when short handed and not racing, we didn’t need to deal with a boat rolling along at nine knots. A nice SSE F3-4 is more comfortable with the genoa poled out, the boat stays flat, things stay put where you leave them.

With a knot and a half of current Temptress swished along at almost seven knots. The sun is making an effort to break through the thin grey cloud and penetrate the haze that is layered below the cloud. Poor Mai Tai, having almost caught us up briefly, our longer waterline length meant Temptress was striding away from them again. Less than an hour after departing we’d left Lane and Kay three miles behind.

The wind kept building and swung round more to the east, the second reef went in. When we later gybed onto starboard it was to a reach rather than running goosewinged. Over lunchtime we have a few conversations with Mai Tai about the next anchorage which neither boat was going to reach in daylight tomorrow as planned. It seems likely we’d be there around 2am tonight. Not a time to be anchoring even if there was a moon. It will be another moonless night so probably not the best time to attempt the narrow channel between the north of Singkep and the bottom of Selayar either.

What were our alternatives? One was to head up the east side of Lingga, not my favourite as it would take us too far east. To get into Selat Durian from there we’d have use the channel at the top of Lingga that runs north east to south west, it could be a beat to windward at best. Another option would be to the west of Singkep island through the shipping channel just east of Sumatra. Finally we could opt for the short, deep but dog-legged Selat Lima which would keep us to the west of Lingga where we might find an anchorage or two tomorrow. After much discussion and consulting of charts both crews opted for Lima.

Mid afternoon we finally caught a fish using Tan’s plane or bird set up, in fact we caught two but the first, a nice sized wahoo escaped our clutches as it was lifted out of the water. We have a gaff hook and should use it! The second was a very elongated flattish fish with a metallic purplish blue stripe running along its top, white below. Very thin for its length. Some sort of mackerel perhaps, it has white flesh. Tomorrow nights supper!

The easterly wind lasted until almost the first watch change at 10pm then it was as if a switch had been hit. From fast reaching Temptress was struggling to make three knots with the wind off the quarter. Leaving the main reefed down we unfurled all the genoa. The skipper went to his bunk and l was left playing a waiting game. Twenty five miles to the waypoint at three knots. It could be daylight before we reach Selet Lima. Or would the wind come back?

Meanwhile it seemed that there was a strong tidal current sweeping through the large channel, Selat Berhala to the west of us causing all sorts of eddies as we crossed the sand banks to the east of Singkep. Our course over the ground was varying through thirty degrees, first to the east, then back to the west. Weird stuff but essentially Temptress was slowly making progress in the right direction.

At midnight the engine was fired up, the wind had died completely. A couple of fishing boats appeared off to port and alarmed the first mate by shining lights at Temptress. All sorts of thoughts ran through my head. Was there a net, if so it would be a very big one, I peered into the gloom, no sign but I kept watching. Then one of them began to move towards us alternating between shining at us and showing a flashing light. I was more alarmed, fearing the worst, I woke the skipper for a second time in the watch. As he sleepily appeared on deck the boat veered away and continued south. I guess they were just curious, not seeing yachts very often.

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