Cruising Indonesia - South of Sulawesi

by James Baldwin

Indo_3

Sailing canoes are standard family transport in Indonesia.

Indo_1

Various types of sailing craft of Wangi-Wangi Island.

The odd-shaped island of Sulawesi resembles a giant wind-blown spider lying in the azure seas east of Borneo. On the southwest side of the island is the port of Ujung Pandang, formally known as Makassar, a large bustling city with several new tourist resorts. It is also the traditional home of the Bugis people who have long been known for their skills in seamanship …. and piracy.

The islands south of Sulawesi, such as Buton, Wangi-Wangi and Bone Rate, are of particular interest to cruising yachts because they provide good anchorages and are directly on the sailing route from Australia and the Moluccas westwards towards Bali and Singapore. Each year dozens of cruising boats pass through this area while taking part in the Darwin – Ambon – Bali yacht race. Many cruisers join this race for the added safety of traveling in a group as well as making it easier to obtain the necessary Indonesian cruising permit. But most of the yachts passing through these central island groups of Indonesia stop only briefly at the main ports, leaving the vast majority of anchorages unvisited by cruising boats for weeks or months at a time.

After spending several years cruising between Hong Kong and the Philippines, in May 1994 we sailed south from the the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, through the heart of Indonesia and on to spend a year cruising the western Indian Ocean. High on our list of intended stops were the smaller, lesser visited islands.

The favored time for sailing here is during the dry season from May to October when the southeast monsoon blows persistently. Between November and April the more unstable northwest monsoon brings variable winds with frequent rain squalls. Surface currents tend to follow the prevailing winds, generally at a rate of less than two knots or slightly more during spring tides near the straits between islands.

Indo_4

Red line marks Atom's course through Indonesia.

The first port for yachts approaching southern Sulawesi from the east is at Wangi-Wangi island. A natural harbor is formed between Wangi-Wangi and Kapota island which are connected together at one end by an extensive reef that is nearly dry at low tide. The harbor is five miles wide at its entrance and entirely too deep for anchoring until very close to the reef. Care must be taken when approaching because in places the reef rises up vertically from waters over 100 meters deep.

There is one narrow channel through the reef which leads to an anchorage off the main settlement of Wangi-Wangi. Food, water, and general provisions can be found here, but otherwise this busy port is not a particularly attractive place. The constant coming and going of fishing boats and long visits by the police and navy to check your clearance papers can be tiresome.

A more peaceful anchorage can be found across the harbor in front of the village on Kapota Island. From here, you can view a variety of sailing craft as they pass in and out of the harbor. Trading schooners and fishing boats of assorted sizes and rigs travel among the islands as far as Makassar on regular trading routes. Local fishermen in outrigger-less sailing canoes skim lightly across the water, looking like primitive windsurfers, especially when the wind freshens and the men stand up, leaning out to windward, grasping a line connected to the masthead to keep it upright.

Visiting yachts are something of a rarity here. Curious islanders come out by canoe to greet you and fishermen drop by to offer their morning catch for sale or will offer to trade for cigarettes. Always hopeful to trade, young men in frail looking canoes will bring out baskets of lemons, grapefruit, coconuts, even live perkutuks, a dove-live bird having the double misfortune of being easy to domesticate and having a flesh that tastes like chicken.

The school teacher at Kapota, Mr. Ali, was the only person in the village who spoke English. Fortunately, he came out and offered to guide us around on our first visit ashore. When we landed at the village pier, a friendly kind of riot broke out as the entire population of five hundred or more people pressed closely around us, chattering loudly as children shouted with excitement at seeing these strange foreign visitors. Mr. Ali led us to a shack where a small, wide-eyed boy scooped cups of paraffin out of a drum to fill our container.

Our boisterous group moved on to the water well next to a plain, white-washed mosque. A thin old man in an ankle length sarong graciously filled our water cans from a bucket on a rope that he lowered repeatedly into the deep, nearly dry well. While we waited, someone in the crowd produced a pen and due to a lack of paper we were kept busy signing temporary autographs directly onto the children's outstretched palms. Escorted by several hundred persistent admirers we next stopped at the kios, whose owner, the local police chief Mr. Latoka Ulfa, sells rice by the liter can – a practical method because he lacks a scale for dry measures.

Indo_2

Building a perahu on the beach at Bone rate.

Indo_7

Be prepared for a riotous welcome at Kapota Island.

Surprisingly, all this time no one tried to control the screaming and pushing youngsters in the crowd, making communication nearly impossible. Even our interpreter, Mr. Ali, was for a moment carried away and lost in the crush. Unfortunately, these noisy, pressing crowds are the typical reception for foreigners who visit away from the beaten tourist path in many parts of Indonesia. It’s impossible to relax in this kind of atmosphere so you soon learn to anchor a good distance from settlements whenever possible.

From Wangi-Wangi we made an overnight sail to the island of Bone Rate (pronounced Bo-Nay Ra-Tay). Anchorage during the southeast monsoon is taken on the west coast of the island just to seaward of the line of reefs. The channel through to the inner lagoon is shallow and suitable only for small boats. The island has a population of about 10,000, a majority of whom are the seafaring Bugis people who have settled among the islands of southern Sulawesi.

In the Buginese language Bone Rate means “sent from above”, a reference to the myth of the Bugis man from Makassar who first discovered the island. It is said he put a handful of powdery white sand in his pockets when he left the island as proof of his discovery. When he launched his boat he became confused and could not find his way home. Only after he returned the magical sand did the fog before his eyes clear and allow him to reach his home.

For a thousand years the Bugis sailors traveled as far as Burma and northern Australia, trafficking in everything from birds nests and sea cucumbers for the discerning Chinese palate, to later smuggling guns and opium. The Bugis were also known as the Sea Gypsies and have long been regarded as skilled shipbuilders, sailors, traders, slave-runners and pirates. They became the most feared pirates in and around the Java Sea, making the name “bogey man” synonymous with the nighttime fears of children around the world.

The Bugis hunted their prey in packs, in ships armed with cast-bronze bow rammers. Traditionally their perahu craft were square-bowed and carried up to seven sails. Steering was done with one or two heavy oars trailing from the stern. Nowadays, the larger boats are often fitted with engines, lesser auxiliary sailing rigs and stern-hung rudders. But the old sailing perahu can still be seen transporting goods and people between hundreds of otherwise isolated islands in central Indonesia.

Along the curving beach at the town of Bone Rate is a thriving boat building community. At low tide the beach is unspeakably filthy, as the shoreline serves as the town’s public toilet and rubbish dump. Lined up along the shore are dozens of wooden boats of different designs, in various stages of completion. The rhythmic sounds of mallets striking wood and two-man rip saws cutting planks drifts across the cove each day as it has for generations.

Many types of boats are built in Bone Rate, including special racingperahus. These have a long narrow hull, a single outrigger and a huge triangular sail that is up to twice the length of the boat. When the wind blows they are capable of making good speed as they gracefully make their daily passages among the islands.

Larger craft reflect a mixed Portuguese – Chinese influence: half schooner, half Chinese junk with jib sails, 12 to 20 meters in length with wide beam and shallow draft. Weighing as much as 50 tons, they carry from one to three masts. Papan, holasa, and jati (teak) logs from the forests of nearby Kalao Island are towed over and hewn by hand into thick planks for the hulls.

There are no electric tools on the island and only a few metal fasteners are used, the planks often being fastened to the ribs with wooden pins. The fitting is remarkably close considering all measurements are taken by eye with a piece of knotted string. At high spring tide, with much confusion and shouting, the partially finished ships are winched and pushed into the water, hauled through the shallow lagoon to deeper water where they are anchored until the fitting out is complete.

Two years previously, a French couple came to Bone Rate and had a twelve meter perahu built. It took six months to complete and reportedly cost US$4,600 including engine. Upon completion, they sailed through the islands until reaching Singapore, where they sold the boat for a modest profit. They had been well prepared and unusually fortunate. More often, innocent foreigners with fantasies of having a beautiful local sailboat built for them at a bargain rate end up broke and disillusioned.

These Indonesian boatbuilders are not the easiest to deal with. Every detail must be bargained for and argued over. There is likely to be some deceit, incompetent workmanship, broken schedules and overrun cost estimates, as well as bribes to police and harbor authorities to contend with. Admiring the local boat building scene is fine, but I'd consider carefully before getting involved in it.

The Bugis of Bone Rate and south Sulawesi are generally friendly people, but can be surprisingly coarse in their behavior. They are quick to laugh and equally quick to fight. Although we never felt threatened, isolated incidents of piracy do still occur in these waters. For security it is wise to travel in company with two or more yachts in this area and it is best not to leave a yacht unattended. With these common sense precautions, the islands of south Sulawesi are well worth visiting.