By Capt. Duncan Warner
Southeast Asia, and specifically Indonesia, offers a baffling plethora of cruising grounds, volcanic atolls, dizzyingly steep drop offs, crystal clear waters and tens of thousands of islands, many of them uninhabited. The Indonesian archipelago alone boasts more than 13,000 islands richly varied in culture and language.
The interested visitor doesn’t have to spend too much time on the Internet to learn what’s on offer. Places such as Komodo Island and the Raja Ampat region in West Papua are now becoming more accessible to visiting yachts of all sizes.
However, there are several other factors that often overshadow the region. The most frequent questions I get asked are about dealing with bureaucracy, security (specifically piracy) and the lack of available services such as fuel, provisioning and technical assistance. Many yachts simply bypass the region through the safe port of Singapore on their way to Australia and the Western Pacific.
With some caution and careful planning, many isolated and scenic places can be enjoyed safely and comfortably by yacht owners. It is common for me to spend several days cruising without seeing another private vessel and not unusual to see no other large vessels of any kind. In this and a following article, I will try to allay the most common fears that visiting captains may have and point them in the direction that will provide the safest and richest cruising experience of these waters.
Where to cruise
I have spent more than 20 years cruising the region and am still excited to visit new places and revisit old ones. I recommend the following as must-see destinations.
Komodo Island. “There Be Dragons” was written on charts in days gone by to warn sailors of the unknown. Well, on Komodo there really are dragons that prey on buffalo and deer.
These enormous reptiles have to be seen to be fully appreciated; photos do not do justice to their scale. Below the surface, Komodo’s exceptional diving is world renowned and what many visitors come to see.
Raja Ampat, West Papua. Diving with large marine life here such as sharks, mantas and large fish is common. Birds of paradise dancing in the trees, wild orchids over the water and the incredible local culture are among some of the other attractions.
Banda Island. Explored by Jacques Cousteau on the Calypso in the 1960s, the history of the original spice islands runs back to the 15th century. Once exchanged by the British for Manhattan Island, these tiny volcanic atolls have been entwined with European exploration and trade for hundreds of years.
Bali Island. Bali’s Hindu culture is unique to this small Island often called the “Island of the Gods” or “Morning of the Earth.” It is a truly fascinating place to visit. Though growing more commercially exploited, many areas remain unchanged.
With so many worthy sites I will not attempt to cover them all; for this, there are ample cruising guides and travel books that detail anchorages and local attractions. Visiting yachts can tailor their route to suit their guests and time available.
I would strongly suggest that the point of entry into Indonesia be carefully considered. There are specific ports that have CQI (Customs, Quarantine and Immigration) facilities. The most commonly used port of entry by yachts is Bali. The more frequently yachts visit, the easier the procedure is becoming. The port of Benoa in Bali probably offers the most convenient and trouble-free point of entry.
When to visit
Indonesia has two specific monsoons, the dry southeast monsoon and the wet southwest monsoon. Generally speaking, the further north one travels, the less these monsoonal winds are felt.
The wet humid west monsoon starts late in the year, September or October, ending around March. During this time, a period of poor squally and rainy conditions of a few days will be followed by fairer conditions until another front passes over. Often, the heat and humidity builds up over a day and is relieved by a torrential downpour in the late afternoon, with the whole cycle repeating itself the following day.
The dry and cool east winds begin to blow in May through to August. These winds come from southern Australia and provide comfortable conditions with low humidity. However, the winds can blow up to 30kts from the southeast for several days without let up, kicking up some uncomfortable seas. The dry monsoon often offers the cleanest water for diving due to the low rainfall and runoff.
The transition period between monsoons is often the best time for cruising, with light and variable winds. As Indonesia stretches over some 2,500nm, predominantly in an east-west direction, it is wise to plan a trip with guests going down sea, depending on the monsoon. If schedules allow, flying guests into a location is often preferable. Local airports are well spaced as Indonesia is an Island nation.
Dealing with bureaucracy
Indonesia has struggled with a reputation for being extremely difficult to visit, due to the mountains of red tape and documentation required for entry.
The most important decision a visiting captain will probably make will be the choice of agent. A bad agent can ruin what should be a pleasurable experience. A good agent will act as an effective buffer against many of the regional authorities such as port, immigration and customs, and will enable the captain to get on with the job of managing the vessel.
It is prudent to contact a reputable agent a few months before an intended arrival. Expect the agent to request lots of ship and crew documents to start preparing for the yacht’s arrival.
Having said all this, things are becoming easier for visiting yachts. A customs bond is no longer required, and the whole process is being streamlined.
As previously mentioned, Bali is probably the most convenient point of entry for yachts. Make sure a thorough quote for all services is provided by the agent. The two I would recommend accompany this article.
On arrival, I advise setting aside at least one whole day for the clearance-in procedure. Customs, port authority, immigration and quarantine are all separate departments and will all send their representatives down to the boat. Customs and quarantine may well make a thorough search of the vessel, so be ready with lists of meds and a whole ship’s inventory from food and beverage to electronics. These will more than likely be requested and typing them up as you deal with half a dozen people in the salon is not time efficient.
At no point should the captain or members of the crew offer a gratuity of any kind to CQI personnel. This could lead to complications and even criminal charges. Having hats and T shirts close to hand after all procedures are completed is fine, but anything other than this I would not recommend. A good agent will take care of any unofficial payments.
Any requests by CQI officials made directly to the crew should be passed over to the agent. Be patient, be respectful and enjoy the experience.
All ports down to the smallest fishing port will have a syahbandar (literally king of the port) or harbor master. Vessels are required to report in and out on each visit. If in doubt, check with your agent. Sometimes port clearance can be arranged in advance for convenience. This is especially helpful if guests are on board.
Much has been made of piracy in Indonesian waters. Indeed piracy in the Malacca Straits is still a problem. However, this is almost exclusively aimed at large commercial vessels with nothing like the level of violence experienced off the horn of Africa. For this seaway between Sumatra and the Malayan peninsula, I would advise visiting yachts not to drastically elevate their security threat level. A sensible precaution would be to check the regional incident reports. I use the International Chamber of Commerce website (www.icc-ccs.org), and local reporting authorities contact details are readily accessible on the bridge.
An area that I would avoid, unless I had armed and trained personnel on board, would be the waters north and east of Kalimantan bordering Borneo and the southern Philippines. Pirates are active in this region, many coming under the guise of terrorist groups. There are so many places worth visiting, places that don’t have any history of piracy, that to go to this region would be pointless folly.
For the most part, I would say the majority of incidents experienced by visiting yachts are either petty theft or miscommunication. The former being the theft of small desirable items taken off the back deck or swim platform. This can generally be prevented by the usual levels of vigilance and keeping an effective watch.
Miscommunication usually occurs when smaller vessels visit isolated places, the locals paddle out to the yacht and climb aboard asking for T-shirts, waste oil or cigarettes, already-nervous crew become aggressive and the situation escalates. By the time the yacht arrives back in Bali several weeks later, the crew are convinced they had a bonafide piracy incident.
Thankfully, Indonesia has strict gun laws so owning and keeping a firearm at home is almost impossible. This ensures that gun crime in Indonesia is almost non-existent. But this also means that customs authorities take possession of firearms on vessels seriously, much more so than masters are probably used to in Europe or the U.S.
Prior notice of firearms onboard is required, and vessels may find that clearing in and out of ports takes time due to the paperwork that comes hand-in-hand with having guns on the boat. I don’t keep guns on my vessel (despite a stint in the British armed forces and being pretty comfortable around firearms). I believe that if you have a gun on your boat, you should be ready to commit to its use (this subject has and will continue to be enthusiastically debated). The hassle and restrictions they cause here are not worth the possible (unproven) security benefits.
A realistic alternative for captains who don’t want the hassle but want the security of firearms on the boat would be to request their agent organize an armed police escort. This can come in the form of an escort vessel or, for a larger and more spacious yacht, one or more armed police on the vessel
The great attraction of cruising here in Indonesia is the splendid isolation. On the flip side, this means that there is no MTU, Cruise Air or Onan rep just a phone call away from showing up on the dock with his van of spare parts. Outside of Singapore, it is most likely that any parts will have to be flown in and cleared through customs. Getting a spare fuel pump to the engine room when the vessel is anchored 60 miles up a river in West Papua is going to take some frantic logistics from your agent, considerable expense and considerable time.
Captains and engineers need to plan ahead and keep a good stock of spare parts onboard. And plan for the worst. There are only half a dozen marinas in Indonesia; only two or three can offer three-phase shore power to vessels over 60 feet or so (that’s not a misprint). For a country of over 250 million people, that’s not a great deal, so be prepared to put lots of hours on your gen set(s).
Provisioning can be tricky here as well. Fresh crispy veggies and salads are infrequently available outside of the major towns. Supplementing the pantry by buying local produce from local markets or fishermen can realistically only cover a few meals. The chef is going to have to get creative to turn out fresh food after a few weeks with no access to a supermarket. Your agent should be able to assist here, though. I often ask for produce to accompany guests flying in or out.
Getting clean fuel can be problematic. Indonesia has a notoriously high sulphur content in its diesel fuel, with levels of particle suspension that would not be tolerated in Europe or the U.S. Have lots of spare fuel filters on hand. A fuel polisher is a must for larger vessels; mine often runs constantly. Be sure to top off the tanks when good clean fuel is available as the next port of call may not have it.
The availability of fuel (not necessarily clean fuel) is often several hundred miles away, so trip planning by the engineer and captain is also important. Check with your agent; they should be kept updated on your schedule and any changes, as fuel often has to be paid in advance.
Most of all, I would advise visiting yachts, crew, captains, owners, and guests alike to enjoy the experience of cruising Indonesia. Hope to see you out here in the wild East of Asia.
Capt. Duncan Warner is master of the 86-foot (26m) Nordhavn M/Y Koonoona and has cruised Southeast Asia for the past 25 years. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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