Sailing to Indonesia

During our sailing through PNG in the months of July through October, we have lost any faith in weather forecasts. Each time we prep for a longer passage, Mark sits at the nav desk diligently pouring over various forecasts that often contradict one another. Inevitably, two of the four models would be similar, while the other two were exactly opposite. Which one to believe? Does majority rule? In our experience, it is Russian Roulette.

The passage from Cenderawasih Bay around the corner to Sorong was predicted to be uncomfortable - winds on the nose and nasty CAPE activity that would surely result in many storms along the way. One forecast of the four, however, showed very light winds and calm seas. Mark’s mom was scheduled to arrive into Sorong in only a few days’ time, meaning we didn’t have much cushion in our sailing itinerary. We’d have to take what we were dealt for the 200-mile trek from Manokwari to Sorong. I popped a Stugeron tablet, doubled the Chana Masala I was making for dinner to use as leftovers, and mentally prepared myself for a rip snorter.

Turns out, the winds never came. The first 24 hours was supposed to be rolly and raucous, but instead it was placid and tranquil. Nada. Elizabeth kept looking out at the flat horizon sarcastically quipping, “Man, it sure is rough out here! This is one of the worst sails ever!!” Yep, this time, we were all relieved that the majority of the prediction models were completely wrong. However, I couldn’t shake off the tense anticipation, expecting the winds to pick up and the seas to churn beneath me at any moment. Turns out, the motors ran all but three hours of the trip, propelling us through glassy seas.

Calm weather
At night, we slowed down considerably from our 5.5 knot daytime speed. This stretch of ocean is notorious for drifting logs - long, robust tree trunks, some with gnarly roots still intact, that have been washed away or have tumbled off a lumber barge. In the outer islands, these same trees that cause such angst among cruisers become a celebrated blessing for the villagers onto whose shores they finally land. Every beach that we walked along had its own tree trunk breakwater. In the Ninigo Islands, folks happily await low tide when they can chop them up into planks for constructing homes or outrigger canoes. On one deserted beach, Mark found a long piece of hearty bamboo that would be perfect to mount as a whisker pole for our code zero sail. He proudly hefted it onto one shoulder and whistled a happy tune, like a young fisherman proudly hauling home his prize catch. Seeing the logs on a beach was one thing, but we did not want any close encounters of the lumber-kind while underway. During the daytime we were on the lookout always, and at night, when we couldn’t spot the logs, we figured we’d rather bump into one at 2 knots than at 5.5. In the end, logs were avoided during the day, and miraculously missed at night.

Timber wasn’t the only thing for which we were keeping careful watch. Occasionally, our radar would pick up tiny, motionless blobs. As we approached, a quick look in the binoculars would reveal a haphazardly rigged bouy, some marked with flags, others with a vertically lashed palm frond, somehow moored to the seabottom in a thousand feet of water. These Fish Attraction Devices (FADs) dotted the horizon and challenged even the most skilled radar-reading captain. All these possible obstructions required constant monitoring. Even a bathroom break warranted a substitute (usually junior) crew at the helm.

For most of our trip, our sole scenery (aside from FADs and runaway timber) had been the gloriously undeveloped, lush, towering mountains of Papua that fell right into the sea, always obscured by a smoky haze of moist, tropical air. I marveled at the absolute lack of hut-lined shores and the very few pillars of smoke that swirled from the dense canopy. I imagined tribal people living completely camouflaged within these jungle surroundings, having lived for centuries in perfect harmony with this immense forest. How many villages were actually hidden against the mountainside, invisible to outsiders? Visions of loin-clothed men wielding spears, stiff bamboo piercing their nostrils and vibrant bird feathers adorning their heads, suddenly seemed the only possibility. The misty mystery of these densely forested mountains captivated me as we sailed along - their purplish hues reminiscent of the Great Smoky Mountains of east Tennesee, not far from our families’ homes.

Houses on water in Sorong, Indonesia
Finally, on day three, we started to see signs of civilization. Others had told us about the culture shock that bombarded them the first time they stepped foot in an Indonesian port after walking along the sandy paths of the remote, sparsely populated PNG islands. Nothing could prepare us, though, for the total affront to the senses that we faced in Sorong. The harbor was crowded with huge cargo and fishing ships, ferries on full throttle with massive wakes trailing them, double-masted dive phinisis (majestic wooden schooners used to take diving tourists throughout the islands) congregated together, and small water taxis skittered busily here and there. From the shore we could hear the rattle of motorcycles and chainsaws. Then the local DJ (someone with massive speakers blaring from a house that balanced on stilts over the water) decided it was time for entertainment. What started as Indonesian music, suddenly became oddly recognizable as - could it be? Christmas carols? Well, I guess it is November, but not what I expected at all. Just when I was getting into the Christmas spirit and humming along, the music changed again. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was replaced by the mournful sound of the Muslim’s afternoon call to prayer.

Diving live aboard boats in Sorong Harbor
I hadn’t even stepped foot on shore yet, and already I was overwhelmed with the foreign sights and sounds. This would be the biggest city we’ve been to for a year and a half (since our time in New Zealand), but rather than be excited to explore and do some shopping, I found myself quite content to stay in our little floating bubble. All the unfamiliar that awaited onshore intimidated me. How would we ever adapt to this?

In the last few countries we’d cruised through, the cultures and lifestyles had been very similar to each other - Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, and PNG. I’d grown accustomed to starchy root vegetables, chatting in rudimentary Pidgin English, and the slow, easy, no-fuss island life. Indonesia, however, offered our first glimpse of Asia. Somehow the few words and phrases in Bahasa Indonesian that we’d been studying on flashcards and the travel information I’d read in the Lonely Planet guide seemed alarmingly inadequate!

I remember having this same feeling many times during our travels. Initially, our move from suburban Colorado into a downtown apartment in Buenos Aires, Argentina really rocked our world! I remember standing in the elevator of the apartment building, taking deep breaths and giving myself a pep talk just to get as far as the grocery store to buy something to make for dinner that night. Small steps. The past six years have required hundreds of similar small steps and pep talks. This travel thing is not for the weak or cowardly. We’re not vacationing here, this is an expedition into the unknown that requires extreme grit and grace. A journey of discovery about the world around us and the spirit inside us.
Field Trip's new whisker pole!

Nice beach in Cenderwash Bay
Like my response to the weather forecasts, I realized I was tense again, anticipating the challenges before they even came. My predictions about what I might encounter could be way off. It was time to change my perspective from one of fear to one of possibility - what could I discover? What foods did I want to try? Which phrases could I attempt to use? What small step could I accomplish today? It’s time to discover Indonesia. Let the expedition into the new unknown begin.


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