A ship's log from the Indian Ocean - Part 2

In this second instalment from the Calypte ship's log, Aiyana Powell describes the journey she‘s sharing with her partner Torren Martyn as they explore the remote wilderness of Malaysian Borneo, then take on a new crew member to navigate one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, the Malacca Strait to Sumatra. needessentials will continue to bring you updates as Torren and Aiyana make their way from the southeast Asian tropics into the Indian Ocean.

We arrived in Puteri Harbor after being on the water for nearly three weeks, with our diesel and freshwater tanks almost empty and eager to stretch our wobbly legs. Puteri is just on the other side of the river from Singapore, and the harbour is surrounded by enormous high rises. The marina was almost completely empty of boats except for five or six yachts in varying stages of disrepair, clearly abandoned during the two years when Covid-19 made travel impossible. Calypte felt like a lively little burst of action, and it was interesting to realise that we were some of the first traveling sailors to come through Puteri since the pandemic hit. It is complicated to check in and out of countries by boat, especially with all the new quarantine and testing rules, but the Malaysian officials were kind and accommodating. The city of Johor was not far away, and showcased a vibrant melting pot of cultures from across Asia. We had some of the best Indian food ever, visited night markets full of every imaginable thing to buy, visited temples, explored rambling streets, and soaked it all in.

While the boat was safe in the marina, we decided to take a quick plane ride to Malaysian Borneo to explore. Borneo was a world within itself, entirely different from the Malaysian mainland and brimming with wildlife and culture. After spending time at sea, the bird songs and cicada calls filled our ears and hearts. We visited Mount Kinabalu National Park where we hiked around the tallest mountain in Southeast Asia. None of the trails had been maintained for a few years, and we spent a day semi-lost, bushwhacking for twenty kilometers through leech-infested jungle. It was magnificent.
After Kinabalu, we took the bus (which was an adventure in itself; the driver must have gone 130kph through torrential rain and over zillions of potholes) to Kinabatangan in northern Sabah. Kinabantangan is in the lowlands, and is famous for its resident populations of proboscis monkeys, orangutangs, elephants, and endangered bird species. We stayed at a sweet homestay and took little boat rides up and down the river. At dusk, we watched hornbills glide across tropical skies. Crested Serpent Eagles hunted for prey from high in the canopy. Harems of proboscis monkeys watched us from above their big, nobby noses. One morning, we were lucky enough to see a traveling herd of pygmy elephants make their way along the riverbank. They looked like a tribe of lost wizards, wise and ancient, and it felt like a true privilege to be able to see them in the wild. 

It was not lost on us, however, the impact of deforestation on this rare and magical place. Driving through Sabah, the road was sandwiched between vast monocultures of palm. Even at Kinabatangan, only a tiny corridor of rainforest persists. Palm oil plantations have taken over most of Borneo, and the impacts of habitat destruction are debilitating for the local plants and animals. Most of Borneo’s endemic wildlife is critically endangered. It is tragic to see the loss of so much biodiversity, to witness firsthand how industrialisation can decimate entire ecosystems, and to see the impacts on local people. Traditional ways of life, which are absolutely integrated with the health of the jungle, are rapidly being lost. In the cities, we saw a lot of poverty and displacement. Many of the people struggling the most are either indigenous jungle people or sea gypsies. The sea gypsies are a fascinating group of people who live entirely on and from the ocean. Because they are not citizens of any country, it is difficult for them to work or access social services. Thus, their health is entirely reliant on the health of the oceans. 
After Kinabatangan we visited an orangutan rehabilitation center, where orphaned orangutan are rescued and eventually re-released into the wild. We walked along boardwalks through lush rainforest. Suddenly, the trees would shake and the leaves would rustle and one of the bright orange apes would come swinging towards us. In Indonesian, orangutan means ‘people of the forest,’ and it does seem that these animals are close to us in many ways. Their eyes are wide with understanding, their movements purposeful, and (maybe this is stupid to say) but they seem infused with good humour and deep emotion. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life to see these animals go about their daily rituals. Many of the mothers had small babies who nearly exploded my heart with their cuteness. The mad scientist hairdos, the lanky limbs, their strange calls - it felt impossible to encounter the orangutan and not be filled with hope and awe. Despite the destruction of their homes, despite poaching and deforestation and climate change, despite every hardship, they remain. This resilience, as well as the work being done at the rehabilitation centre and by so many activists/environmentalists throughout the region, is so inspiring. We left Borneo feeling deeply compelled to do what we can to advocate for the environment through making responsible consumer choices, staying educated, supporting environmental justice initiatives, and raising awareness. The solutions to deforestation in Borneo are nuanced, and I can’t pretend to understand how or why political structures, corporate greed and the global market support and perpetuate the destruction of so much primary rainforest. It is difficult and confusing to figure out how to be a part of the solution, especially as a traveler, moving through a place without having the time to truly connect with the people living there or understand the complexities of issues they face. We never want to impose our narrow viewpoints on people or places without taking time to understand them, and all we can do is try our best to keep our eyes open and operate as responsible, conscientious, and kind people as we explore the world. Our experiences in Borneo reminded us of that and of how important it is, as a global community, to appreciate and protect our wild places.

When we returned to the boat we met up with filmer and sailor Kelly Foote. Kelly would come with us for the next month up the Malacca Strait and into Indonesia. Together, we worked on the boat a bit, provisioned, and headed out of the comfy marina and into the treacherous straits. Before this trip, everything we had heard was that this would be the most difficult and dangerous crossing we would face. The Malacca Strait is home to the busiest shipping channels in the world. It is heavily trafficked by freighters and fishing boats, and is infamous for strong currents and unpredictable localised weather patterns. It would take us approximately four nights and five days to travel up the strait from Puteri to Langkawi, hugging the Malaysian coast on one side and the shipping channel to the other. 
Our first night out at about 1am we hit a big squall. Kelly was on watch and we were cruising at five knots with the headsail up, when almost instantaneously the wind picked up and lightning started to strike all around the boat. We were beating straight into the wind, and waves were breaking over our bow and washing through the cockpit. The wind was blowing about 45 knots and our little boat rocked and crashed up and down throwing everything in the cabin off the shelves. One of the hatches wasn’t latched properly and a particularly big wave forced it open, absolutely swamping both our beds. The squall lasted for about two and a half hours before moving away and leaving us to mop up the mess. The Malacca Strait was living up to its reputation. 

The following days and nights are a blur. We hugged the shipping channels, and sometimes one of the huge boats would come scarily close. We got broad-sided by a few of their wakes and had to be on constant alert. At night the entire horizon would be lit an eerie green colour with the lights from hundreds of fishing boats. It was like a maze, with Calypte dodging and weaving between them. The creepiest ones were the tiny canoe-sized boats with no lights at all. A couple of times, I would be scanning the horizon during my watch and not be able to see a boat until it was literally right next to us. Nerve wracking. We trawled the entire time, but didn’t catch any fish. 
We made it to Langkawi at about 2am after four days at sea. Langkawi is a beautiful island and a bit of a hub for cruisers coming in and out of Malaysia. We spent a few days in the marina there, refuelling and provisioning and checking out of Malaysia. Our next crossing would be across the top of the Malacca Strait to Sabang, where we would officially enter Indonesia.

It took three days and two nights to reach Sabang, the northern and western most point of Sumatra and one of the areas hardest hit by the 2004 tsunami. During this time, we had to cross perpendicular to the shipping channels. Before, we had been following the ships up the strait. Now, we had to time our crossing and cut in front of and behind the ships. It was intimidating, and we got pretty close to some massive boats a few times, but we made it.
The days passed both slowly and quickly. It’s like that on a boat. The horizon stretches out, the wind shifts and the ocean moves. Clouds come and go. We cooked roast dinners, baked bread, read our books, tinkered around. One morning a fishing boat zoomed towards us at full speed. We were in an area famous for piracy, and had been told before the trip that we should bring firearms on the boat. We definitely hadn’t followed that advice, but the thought kept us on our toes. The boat came right up on our port side, and pulled alongside us. Our chests were thumping with adrenaline, and I was getting prepared to do I’m not sure what. Karate or something. Luckily, it was just a few extremely friendly local fishermen who wanted cigarettes. The relief was palpable as we chatted with the men, out at sea for two weeks in a small boat with no shade. We gave them a bottle of whiskey and some fruit. They gave us two fish. It was my birthday, and that night Torren cooked the fish whole in the oven with roasted potatoes, garlic and lemon. Quite the turnaround. 

The afternoon we approached Sabang, we were joined by a big pod of dolphins who leapt and danced at our bow. As we neared shore, the current switched and we hooned into the harbour at a whopping 7.5 knots. It felt monumental to finally be in Indonesia, and we were all in good spirits.
In Sabang, we had to deal with the port authorities and check into Indonesia. It turned into a hilarious ordeal. The customs and immigrations officers came onto the boat, where we all ate birthday cake, and they sat around making jokes and having a full on party while they ‘looked over our papers’. Initially, the quarantine officers told us we would have to stay on Calypte for three days before being allowed on land. We knew that Indonesia had changed their Covid rules a month prior, and we told the officials that we didn’t think we should have to quarantine. One of the guys googled it as we all sat around drinking soda and smoking cigarettes, and chuckled as he realised we were right. I guess that they hadn’t checked the rules in a while. Needless to say, we were overjoyed that we got to stretch our legs and eat some nasi goreng on land the next day. 
In Sabang, we anchored behind a small, picturesque island that sheltered us from the variable winds and squalls. It was a beautiful spot where we met some of the first other traveling boaters we had encountered. There are not really any surfable waves around the town, but by a stroke of luck we woke up the next morning to find a tiny, perfect little left and a right breaking about 300 meters from our anchorage. It was Torren’s birthday and felt auspicious. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, birds sang in the jungle around us, friendly fishermen waved hello as they went by. We spent all day in the water, ate big fruit salads and drank cold beers. After a few months of challenging crossings, learning a lot, and feeling on edge more often than not, that day felt like a gift.
The journey from Sabang to the Banyak Islands was about another 300 miles down the coast of Sumatra. We hadn’t spent much time thinking about this bit, but the other boaters we met in Sabang warned us that they had encountered pretty gnarly weather there. Word on the water was that Sabang was cursed. Apparently, of the ten boats who had tried to leave in the last few months only one had made it out. The stories were intimidating, and we braced ourselves for shit to hit the fan as we made our way out of Sabang. 

The first day was a bit of a challenge. We were going into a bottleneck between the islands and the open ocean, and we had swell, wind and current on our nose for about eight hours. It was a bumpy ride as we fought the energy of the Indian Ocean wrapping its way around northern Sumatra. We were happy when we made it out the other side and lucked into a good weather pattern. During our night watches, it felt like a huge relief to not constantly be surrounded by marine traffic. We made good time and arrived in the Banyak Islands a few days later. This was our first real surf destination, and as we approached the islands it felt like we had finally made it
The islands looked like something from a dream. We arrived at dawn and a thin mist sat over the ocean. The jungle rose up suddenly from the crystalline ocean, impenetrable and vibrantly green. It was exactly like you would imagine a tropical island paradise, but somehow better. These islands are remote, and we saw no signs of other people at all. It wasn’t long before we laid eyes on the first real surf we had seen since the trip began. The waves were about three foot, and peeled perfectly along the reef. The water was absolutely crystal clear, and there was no wind. It was a crazy feeling to know how far we’d come, that we could drop the anchor and jump off the boat and go surfing. We were finally here, over 2,000 nautical miles later. For the first time since the start of the trip, we had nowhere else to be and we finally thought we could relax and soak it all in. The next day… we ran aground. Then our windlass broke. Then the mosquitos moved in. The adventure continues…