Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Pantsing Our Way Around Indonesia

As every storyteller knows, there are two types of writers: plotters and pantsers. Plotters create beautiful outlines, fill in details, do research, and refine their story arc before they even consider writing sentence one. Pantsers pull out the keyboard and start writing, usually with no destination in mind and certainly no idea of how to get there - they fly by the seat of their pants. The concept can easily be extended to Real Life; we all occupy a position along the plotter-pantser continuum.

We began our cruising life as plotters. We consulted guidebooks, mapped out routes, and chose anchorages down to the meter before ever putting up a sail. We were organized. We knew what we would find ahead of time, and surprises were few.

We were also sailing in places that had been so extensively travelled that the unknown didn't exist. Thousands of sailboats had done the hard work for us, charting routes through the tricky reefs in the San Blas Islands, ferreting out the best cheese stores in the Marquesas, warning against rolly anchorages and poor holding and towns with inadequate bottle shops.

But then we started to visit places outside the guidebooks. Places our charts barely admitted were there. Certainly places we had no waypoints for or information about. And that meant pantsing. Oh, we tried to be as methodical as possible - entering unknown reefs when the sun angle and tide were right, using a spotter on the bow, wearing polarized glasses and so on - but, in the end, we were relying on our own observations and the depth sounder to get us through. As often as not, the electronic charts would claim we were sailing 100m inland. We needed to stay on our toes.

We fell back on our plotting ways through Australia. But coming to Indonesia put us squarely in pantser territory. For reasons unclear, not a lot of cruisers seem to come here, so advance information was thin on the ground. Oh, we have redundant charts for Indonesia, paper and electronic. And we have a cruising guide. But the names don't always match up. And, for our first month here, the guidebook didn't include any of the places we want to go. So in the end, we gave a mighty shrug and decided we'd figure it out as we went.

We left Cairns with half a plan. That is, we marked our route in the chart plotter up to the Torres Strait. As we passed that point, Erik and I looked at the chart again.
Erik sipped his coffee. "I guess we should figure out where we're actually going. Where are we supposed to check in, again?" he asked.
"Tual," I said. "In Maluku." I drew big circle around Eastern Indonesia with my finger. "Over here somewhere."
We looked at the various islands of the Molluccas, but didn't see it.
"Hold on," I said. I pulled out my computer. "I'm pretty sure one of the rallies checked in there. I might have a map." Sure enough, I had a low-quality cartoon jpeg of Indonesia. A flowing arrow cut across the country from east to west, showing the rally route. Sadly, place names were lacking, but you can't have everything.
Erik and I peered closely at the map. "Yep," Erik said finally. "That's about where I thought Tual should be."
"Me, too," I said. "And if it's the wrong place, we'll either try to check in anyway or ask for directions."
"Done," said Erik.

And our pantsing worked. Since Tual, we've been on our own. Our cruising guide is a little light (read: silent) on this area of Indonesia, so we're back to choosing likely-looking spots on iffy charts, then eyeballing our way around in good light. Pure pantsing. And we've found some gorgeous spots this way.

So if you'll excuse me, I have to hop in the dinghy and do some recon. We want to find a better way out of this reef for our departure this afternoon. We may be pantsing our Indonesian adventure, but we're doing it as safely as we can.

Pinky swear.

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Friday, September 9, 2016

Checking into Indonesia

Ahhh. We're spending a comfortable breakfast anchored outside Pulau Godan in the Moluccas. A whale just swam past our boat, puffing breaths into the sky and flipping its tail to dive. The water is clear as gin, and the kids have hardly been dry since we arrived here. Indonesia, you are a cruiser's paradise.

But first we had to get here.

We managed the 1300 NM trip in just under nine days - sometimes travelling at 10 knots, sometimes at 2 knots. We dropped anchor in Tual in Indonesia's Kai islands early Tuesday morning, and Erik and I shared a high five. It was an excellent passage for everyone, with a minimum of gear destruction, seasickness, and the other downsides of bluewater sailing.

"Tual port captain, Tual port captain, this is sailing vessel Papillon, Papillon, please come back." Erik listened for a reply on VHF 16, but no answer. Well, it was only quarter past eight. Plenty of time to sort out our check-in to the country. We gave a phlegmatic shrug and began to clear lines from deck.

By my count, this is the 14th country we have cleared into with Papillon. And while every country wants the same basic things - a piece of paper from the previous country you visited, a passport for every person aboard, and assurance you aren't carrying weapons - they all have their quirks. Some insist you email paperwork ahead of time, radio in when 24 hours from port, and will fly over you while still 20 NM out at sea to demand who you are and where you think you're going. Others create a multi-day tour of local government offices for your enjoyment. Certain countries want four photocopies of your passport and full boat documentation for each office - copies you need to make yourself ahead of time. And some just want to share a cold Coke in the cockpit before giving your documents a smudged stamp and sending you on your way. But easy or complicated, quick or time-consuming, the only reasonable strategy is to smile, relax, and go with the flow until you make it out the other side of the process.

Indonesia overhauled their cruising permit system in February, and not many people have gone through the new system yet. I ground my way through the online forms and dutifully printed the results. But I couldn't find much about what office to contact or where to start once we actually arrived, other than the strict and universal advice to stay aboard until an official knocked on the hull. Again the phlegmatic shrug. We would sort it out on arrival.

Mid-morning we tried to hail the port authority again. Silence. In fact, not a single channel had any traffic on it, which was odd. I knew the VHF was working because I'd used it the night before to talk to another boat. Erik and I kept on shrugging, and kept on cleaning up.

In the meantime, a plethora of banana boats skimmed past the hull, their smiling inhabitants waving and shouting loud greetings. We smiled and waved back. This is just what I remembered from my trip to Indonesia twenty years ago; Indonesians are as friendly a group of people as you could hope to meet.

After lunch with still no joy, Erik and I prepped the dinghy. If our big yellow quarantine flag couldn't attract officialdom, we'd just do it ourselves.

Captain Erik toodled off while the girls and I stayed home to do school. About an hour later, I spotted our dinghy in the distance. Sure enough, there was Erik, returning with a guest.

The friendly man from Immigration sat with us in the cockpit, inspected our passports, filled out forms, and finally pronounced us clear on his end. Smiles and handshakes all around, then back in the dinghy.

"The Port Captain wants to see us tomorrow," said Erik. "I'll try Quarantine next."

And half an hour later Erik was back on Papillon, this time with three officials from Quarantine. More paperwork was completed and another fancy certificate added to our boat documents. Then came the all-important request for selfies with the girls. (I'm always of two minds about these things; on the one hand, it's an innocent bit of fun to take photos with exotic-looking foreigners when said people are such a rarity in your town. But there is a disturbing subtext of veneration for white skin and yellow hair throughout the South Pacific. One pregnant lady we met kept touching Stylish's hair and then her own belly as though effecting a magical transfer. But I digress.) The group happily mugged for the smartphone in various combinations.

This important business concluded, the head officer asked, "When are you planning to leave Tual?"
"On Thursday morning," said Erik.
She nodded. "Then you have to come back to our offices tomorrow to get the check-out paperwork. You'll need that at every port."
Ah. I'd heard about this. Indonesia likes you to check in every step of the way… but only in proper ports. They have no problem with you staying on random tiny islands without informing anyone, or even anchoring up just outside of town for the same reason. But if you enter a harbour, you check in and out. And if you don't want to, just stay out of the harbour.

The next morning, we trooped up the hill to Customs. The officer took a stack of our documents and disappeared into a back room. In the meantime, one of his colleagues brought us fruit and water and set us up in front of the TV. We watched the National Geographic channel and snacked on papaya while the real work went on in the background.

Eventually, two officers emerged from the back rooms. They were ready to inspect the boat.

Back in the dinghy, back over to Papillon. The officers made a thorough check of our various cupboards and hidey-holes, and produced a sheaf of documents to sign. Then came the expected question: "When are you leaving Tual?"
"Tomorrow," said Erik.
The officer nodded. "Good. Then come back to our office this afternoon to check out."
Erik and I couldn't look at each other. I rolled the absurdity of this concept around in my head: check in in the morning, check out in the afternoon.

Back to shore, proceed to the Port Captain. We were ushered into a small office filled with overflowing boxes of paperwork and three desks. At the first, a woman typed busily at a computer. The second belonged to our current host, who lit endless cigarettes and wandered in and out of the room. At the third an older man watched internet TV at top volume on a small laptop.

Here, too, our business was eventually concluded, complete with a discussion of all the ports we might expect to visit between here and the end of our trip. As we were leaving, we asked about the possibility of an internet café nearby. Our host scoffed at the idea, pronounced the internet in Tual "terrible" (no doubt because his elderly colleague was using the town's entire bandwidth), and promptly handed over the codes for the office wifi. Erik and I were ushered to comfy sofas to check our email while a scrum of ladies surrounded the girls for a fresh round of selfies.

A quick lunch later (fried chicken and rice - a meal Indy pronounced her "second-favourite lunch ever"), it was time to commence check out proceedings. Back to Customs for a new certificate. Back to Quarantine for same. Yes, the system is Byzantine, but the people in it are kind, friendly, and straightforward.

And now we're lounging on the reef, in no hurry to get back to a town. If someone could just arrange to drop off tomatoes and oranges every week or two, we would be perfectly content with our coral and whales, and never see a harbour again.

Checking into Indonesia - a summary for cruisers (Tual, Maluku; September 2016):
Ahead of time: Complete the online forms (https://yachters-indonesia.id/), and print 2-3 copies of the final pdf to hand out.
On arrival: Fly the Q flag, as per normal. Go ashore; visit 1) Immigration, 2) Quarantine, 3) Customs and 4) the Port Authority, in that order. Have all of your boat documents and passports with you. Take photocopies of your official boat registration, your passports and your visa for Indonesia (if arranged ahead of time)
When leaving port: Visit Customs, Quarantine and the Port Captain to clear out to your next port.

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