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Back in Kupang and attempting to sail to Australia

Written on: Monday July 28th, 2008

A journal entry from: Around The World Without A Plane

Still undecided as to what route to take next, and with only one day left before I was officially an illegal immigrant I made my way back to Kupang. Rote had presented me with many positives. I'd met many people who had advised me about sailing across to Australia, I'd met people who had helped me with my surfing, I'd met a lovely group of people involved in education in Melbourne who had said they would help me to get some teaching work if I was out that way and I met an Indonesian man who had many contacts at the Indonesian government offices in Kupang and who had offered to help pull a few strings in order to obtain another visa. I'd also met a very friendly Australian family who had organised my transport back to the port of Ba'a from Nemberella for me and also had transport to take them back in to Kupang from the port in West Timor. Again they'd been kind enough to invite me to join them and introduce me to quite an influential local who also offered to help me out by speaking to a few powerful gentlemen in Kupang to get me a new visa and to try and get me on board a boat heading to Darwin. Despite the warnings I still hadn't completely given up on the idea of sailing all the way around to Townsville with the Australian and French man I had met in Sumba. My options were becoming manyI arrived back at the L'Avalon bar owned by Kupang's tourist guru, Edwin Lerrick. A tall, slim man, looking quite malnourished with his brightly patterned shirt unbuttoned who greets new arrivees with a passionate fervour and familiar faces as if they're part of the furniture was a very helpful and important man to know. I'd spent a lot of time at his place when I first arrived in Kupang and he knew my story about attempting to get to Oz and while I was away in Rote had been trying to find a boat for me. It seemed I was now one of those furniture parts as he greeted me nonchalantly, probably down to the fact I'd taken full advantage of his offer of free internet and helped him to write an apologetic letter to his Japanese girlfriend who had taken offence to him becoming Facebook friends with an ex the last time I was here. "Simon I have a boat for you", was simply all he said as his wispy moustache twitched from one side of his face to the other. It was like all of a sudden everybody I was meeting was contriving to help me make it to Australia, all either offering me advice or putting me in touch with other people who were inching me closer and closer to accomplishing the first part of my goal. I couldn't believe that this was it, I was really going to be making it all the way from London over to Australia without taking a single plane. I began bombarding Edwin with questions to which he assuredly answered all.An Australian named Bob was taking his 40 foot steel hull boat back across to Darwin with his Indonesian wife to return the boat to his brother and had told Edwin who somehow or other had come in to contact with him that he would take me along. They would set off on Thursday and aim to reach the north coast of Australia around Sunday morning by motoring the whole way there as we would be heading in to the easterly winds. Here we would have to anchor up and wait until Tuesday to enter Darwin because it was a National holiday in the Northern Territory and would cost an extra $1,200 to enter port then. I met Bob and his wife Gina the following day for them to check that I wasn't a homicidal fruit-loop and for me to check that they were cool. To be honest even if Fred and Rose West owned the boat I would have still taken my chances. Bob was a lot older than what I had expected, the ripe old age of 63 and instead of having an eye-patch or a peg-leg he had only one ear, losing one to cancer a few years earlier, while Gina in her fifties had never been on a sea journey of this sort of length before so had no experience in life at sea. All the same Bob seemed to know what he was talking about, had been sailing for many years and would show me what I needed to do. I was buzzing like a bee that'd just his filled his pollen infested nasal passages with half a bag of cocaine. After weeks of travelling and not really knowing exactly where I was going I had a concrete destination again, something that finally allowed me to relax.On the Wednesday evening, as I was sitting once again in Edwin's bar nursing a beer and one of his onion-packed steak sandwiches I looked up to a voice proclaiming, "I know you!" to see a guy with his girlfriend enter and offer a hand. I'd shared a taxi with Danny and his girlfriend, J.C. on Lombok just before I'd climbed Gunung Rinjani and had talked with him about sailing over to Darwin, something he had also wanted to do. We'd exchanged emails and agreed to let one another know if either of us had had any luck. I'd lost his email and so hadn't been able to email him but coincidence or fate or whatever you want to call it had worked its magic and the day before I was about to set off, here he was again. J.C. was flying to Singapore in two days time alone while Danny would be making his way to Darwin by whatever means after that. Once I told him about my boat over to Oz Danny was very interested and Edwin, who instantly took a shine to J.C.'s attractive qualities, said that it wouldn't be a problem for Danny to come on the boat too. After a couple of phone calls it proved he wasn't wrong and Bob had agreed to take the both of us.We were originally looking to leave the following morning, but immigration had other ideas. Because of my illegal status, the querying of Gina's eligibility to stay in Australia and because both mine and Danny's visa were electronic and not stamped in our passports those shady characters at immigration took a lot longer to process things. Bob reckoned they were holding out for a friendly few dollars to be exchanged so as to speed things up but rightly unwilling to do this it wasn't until nine o'clock that evening that we received our passports back and were free to leave. With four days worth of food and snacks, including enough bread to open a bakery, several packs of peanut brittle and fruity Mentos, and plenty of those plastic, tasteless noodles we made our way to Tenau harbour. It was like the beginning of my trip all over again. I hadn't felt like this for a long time, the adrenalin was flowing, I was on a boat about to set sail for Australia and I felt like I was ten again about to ride the Corkscrew at Alton Towers for the first time! Little did any of us realise that from this moment on Murphy's Law stating that if something could go wrong it would, was about to set in motion and make our trip more like one continuous Thunder River.Two or three Indonesian were down below deck making final preparations, repairs and checks while five others sat at the side of the boat observing. Bob pulled Danny and I aside and explained what he would need us to do while we were onboard, and walked us through the boat's controls. The first hint of a problematic journey arose when Bob explained about his GPS system. The onboard computer mounted above the steering wheel looked impressive showing a satellite map of Kupang and several co-ordinated points along the way to our destination in Darwin. It also gave us a radar reading of the depth of water underneath us and showed a colourful animated picture of anything, such as the occasional fish passing below. The problem was, Bob told us, that the GPS wasn't giving off a signal or picking up a signal or whatever the thing is supposed to do "so it doesn't know where we are", which meant that the autopilot machine that was linked to this GPS system was redundant unless we fixed the course ourselves. Fortunately though Bob had a back-up plan and had purchased a little hand-held GPS system that would pinpoint our location and that we would or should be able to navigate with. Holding it in his hand and presenting it forward for us to admire with mouths agape he continued to press a few buttons in order to demonstrate. After 30 minutes and several now heavy bangs of the buttons Danny and I realised that Bob didn't actually know how to work this life-saving piece of equipment at all. Frustrated and annoyed at its presence and lack of co-operation Bob thrust it at us along with the instruction manual and went below deck to see what was going on there. After a few flicks through the book and some wanderings around the boat with the GPS in hand we had it sussed out and programmed in the latitude and longitude bearings of our entire trip. Although great fun and a very quick learning curve in to the navigational skills required in order to sail, neither Danny nor I were particularly at ease with Bob's lack of knowledge about his equipment and his inability to use them. What the hell I thought, in two days I would be in Australian waters. Bob and Gina had their room below deck at the rear of the boat while Danny and I had a cabin area through the kitchen at the front of the boat. I climbed down the stairs to drop off my backpack in the room, passing the Indonesian engineers and Bob who were working on the electrics just adjacent to the kitchen, when all of a sudden an almighty bang filled the air. My immediate thoughts were that I'd hit something with my cumbersome backpack as I was passing through. The room began to fill with a rich, intoxicating stench and my eyes began to burn. The first thing I heard after the explosion was Bob cursing in anger. The noise hadn't as I had first thought been caused by me, but instead was the result of one of the engineers touching his spanner on to one of the batteries he was installing. The battery had simply exploded, shooting sulphuric acid all over his face and in to his eyes. The Indonesian was pushed through the crowd of people and over to the sink where people flocked to douse his face with water. I tried to help and looked at his eyes which had already become deeply bloodshot, despite his protestations that he was alright. Bob meanwhile was furious, shouting that that was it, we wouldn't be going tonight. With the time pushing on towards midnight now I was quite relieved he'd reached this decision.The man continued to bathe his face in water, Bob was sold another battery by the Indonesians to replace the one that was cracked right though the centre and was dripping battery acid and then we all sat down at the rear of the boat to discuss where we would go from here. Amazingly the first thing Bob did was ask Danny and I what we think we should do now, whether we still set off or we wait until the following morning. I said to him sensing from the strain on his face that he was already tired and that with the delays and problems we had already had that I thought it was best we wait until the morning so that we could all get a good nights rest and be fresh to start the following day when we would have the advantage of sunlight to guide us out of the Timor Straits. Even now I'm not sure why but Bob, maybe thinking that by leaving Kupang as quickly as possible would ensure that we would leave all these troubles behind us decided to head out with darkness still enshrouded around us and the stress of immigration and blown up batteries still firmly on our minds.We cast off, reversed out in to the harbour where Bob immediately began wrestling with the wheel obviously experiencing some sort of difficulty with the steering. He shifted the gear and gave some throttle and the boat began to turn in circles in the harbour. "Something's wrong with the steering", Bob shouted and lurched past me to the back of the boat and the rudder. For some reason the autopilot was fixed on and wanted to continually turn us to the right. Every time you turned the wheel to the left the rudder just kept on turning to the right. It took Bob a while to work this out and then a further 15 minutes to cut off the autopilot allowing us to manually steer the boat, a lot safer if you ask me.Still upbeat and finding all these incidences quite comical in some ways (obviously not the guy almost losing his sight) we motored off and before no time at all I found myself at the wheel manoeuvring the boat along the south west coast of West Timor ensuring that I kept far enough away from the land as to not encounter any rocks beneath us. I was driving a boat out to sea, I was about to realise one of my dreams.I kept the Timorese lighthouse on my left and as we passed in to the choppy Timor Straits, which separate West Timor from Rote, where earlier that week I'd seen a ship sinking, and made sure to keep the Rotenese lighthouse equidistance to my right. I navigated the boat through and around the southern peninsula and took a bearing of 110 towards Darwin. The course was hard to keep especially as the current and the waves hit us trying to take us off course but Bob obviously seemed happy with the job I was doing and was about to head off to bed. At this point the whole boat was suddenly thrown in to darkness. The electricity had gone down; there were now no lights for us to see on board the boat and no navigation lights. This on top of three light-bulbs that had either smashed or blown in the short time we had already been out at sea. Bob went down to where the electrics were, but with such little light to see with there was nothing he could do. Even the moon offered no assistance, shedding no light being in its new phase. Bob went for his sleep after all.I very quickly learnt to use the stars to navigate, surprising myself with how I was doing and how much, despite the problems, I was enjoying myself. My only other real attempt at steering a boat was trying to point a friend's boat back home in the right direction on the Thames one summer. I offered to take the wheel to give him a break and then proceeded to zigzag erratically across the river in to the path of oncoming traffic whilst sporting a beaming smile at them and toasting my beer can in their general direction. Needless to say I wasn't allowed to pilot the boat again after that. Good job I wasn't slugging a beer on this occasion.Not wanting to leave me on my own Danny stayed up with me, but soon fell a victim of sleep. He startled me about half an hour later though when he jumped out pointing at the GPS system to the depth indicator that ceases to read depths below about 190 metres. At this point the reading stops and just begins to flash until you pass over a depth less shallow than this. The gauge was now reading 2 metres meaning that very close underneath us was land. Danny leapt to the right of the of the boat, while I pegged it to the left and we both checked to see if we could see any land close to us, but there was nothing but blackness. Worried that if we hit rocks we'd sink the entire boat Danny went to wake Bob. Clambering up the stairs Bob was made aware of the problem only to tell us that the gauge must be malfunctioning. "There's no rocks around here" he mumbled nonchalantly, turning and heading back to bed. As my heart rate began to return to its normal rhythm I took up the wheel once more and focused back on the sky to try and find the constellation I'd been previously following. Getting back on course I continued holding our heading through the night until the sun began to rise the next morning. At around 6am Bob surfaced again gazing over the instruments before breaking out in exclamation again, "Where's all the oil gone?" I looked at the oil indicator to see that the engine was registering that it had next to no oil in it. My initial thoughts were that it was just another malfunction on one of the instruments, but upon Bob jumping down to the engine room and then back up again it was clear that it wasn't. Before we set off Bob had put 15 litres of oil in to the engine, which miraculously had seemed to disappear. He'd now poured in another 10 litres of the remaining 15 we had left and was hoping that the engine would automatically rectify itself. Precision planning and engineering I'm sure you'll agree.We continued motoring on in to the winds and the waves, while Gina who'd had a sleepless night due to the roughness of the waves continued to throw up in to a bucket and Danny went to the back of the boat utilising yet another state-of-the-art bucket to relieve his bowels as the toilet on board was funnily enough, broken. It wasn't long though before we realised that the oil was certainly escaping from the engine somehow or other and reluctantly, but almost knowingly Bob told us we'd have to shut off the motor and attempt to sail to Darwin from our current position in the middle of the Timor Seas.After driving throughout the entire night I was now exhausted. Not only was I physically drained, but the tumultuous bad news had begun to pound me mentally, so with Danny taking the wheel I headed below deck to get some sleep. The very moment I stepped below the deck in to the kitchen area and looked out of the port cabin windows at the waves clambering in to us and lifting us up violently above them as we sat there helplessly without any engine or sails up I knew I was going to have to rush back up above deck and make my way to the rear of the ship. I'd never been seasick before on all the boat trips I'd been on and I hadn't felt nauseous at all throughout the night, but below deck the brain had suddenly not known which way was up and which down, let alone north, east, south and west and in protest decided to kick up a fuss about it in my stomach. I wretched a banana and a cup of Nescafe up over the back of the boat, and then once again retired to my cabin area to try and get some sleep.I maybe got about an hours sleep then climbed back up to the top deck surprisingly refreshed to find that Bob and Danny had put the front sail up together. The plan was now to tack across the sea back and forth, first on a southern bearing for around four to five hours, then using the wind as best as possible to head as close to north east as we could to arrive in Darwin that way. At this rate Bob estimated that instead now of taking us just over two days as it would of motoring the whole way it was now going to take us the full four days that we had actually planned to be at sea anyway. Fair enough Danny and I both thought, we had planned not to anchor up in Darwin until the Tuesday anyway so it didn't make any difference if it actually took us until the Tuesday to get there. We had enough food and water with us for five days so it wasn't a problem. Bob seemed confident in us getting there, Danny had settled in to a rhythm steering and after Bob and I had climbed up and put up the main sail, with me clambering up the main mast to attach the huge triangular handkerchief complete with its three holes, things all of a sudden seemed extremely peaceful on the seas. The sun was shining high, there were a few cheerful, friendly, thin, wispy clouds in the sky as if for our own visual effect, the waves had subsided to instead of pounding us, now gently lapped at the boat and we were really sailing, or learning to sail, not simply motoring all the way to Darwin. The experience was becoming richer and richer with every minute. Tranquilly the boat sailed on with Danny at the wheel, Bob recharging once again and me sat towards the front of the boat, just underneath the main sail, gathering my thoughts and peering out to the endless thick blue seas ahead of us. Things were about to get a lot lot worse.The gibb or front sail is secured to the main mast which in turn is anchored down to the main deck by a set of three spurs. These spurs are coils of thick steel wound together firmly that are attached to a steel girdle on one side of the deck. Each spur goes up high over the top of the main mast and is attached via another steel girdle on the other side. The spurs are responsible for holding the mast in place despite the incredible force that travels through it from the wind powering the sails. In our particular situation our sails were out to the right side of the boat which is either port or starboard but I always get those terms mixed up so I'll just call it the right side. The spurs attached on the right side of the mast are therefore slack, while on the opposite side of the ship the spurs are fiercely taught holding the mast in place in opposition to the sails. I remember the scene vividly as almost happening in slow motion. The central spur appeared to snap and fly upwards elated to relinquish the strain of the front sail. The spur flung itself around whipping at the air as if being wielded by a crazy dominatrix and as I looked up the central mast creaked at the formidable pressure the winds were now placing upon it.Danny yelled at Bob who seemed to be up on deck immediately, almost sensing that this time something bad really was up. By the time he'd reached where I was the mast was bending dangerously over to the right. "The mast is going to snap", Bob yelled. "Turn to the left, turn to the left", he shrieked at Danny. Meanwhile I'd managed to keep both my eyeballs and escape without any blood-spurting lashes and grab the end of the spur, pulling it down with all the energy I had left in a pitiful attempt to compete with the wind in keeping our mast in one piece. Bob had untied the rope securing the gibb to the right side of the ship as we turned out of the wind to release the strain from the main mast. The strain came off the spur I was holding as we turned out of the wind and Bob tossed the end of the rope to me and directed me to thread it around the other two spurs that were still attached. The bottom of the 20 foot sail was now unsecured and was wrenching to escape my hands, whipping and thrashing much more violently then the spur just seconds earlier as the wind caught it. I held on to the rope with all my might and transferred it around the spurs from one hand to another, then digging deep for what I was hoping would be the final effort of this already epic voyage, I hauled the sail that seemed to be getting angrier and fiercer with each step I took to restrain it. Bob grabbed the other end of the rope to help me and we finally wrapped it around the guard rail on the left side of the boat and secured it.We were once again just floating in the middle of the sea, the waves bobbing us up and down. Bob inspected the steel girdle where the spur had been secured and found that the steel had completely corroded away thus releasing the spur. Once Bob had reattached the spur down, we found that the boat in the struggle had spun a full 180 and the winds were now carrying us du north in exactly the same direction as we'd just been heading for the past few hours. In retrospect I'm putting it down to the adrenalin that must have been racing through my body like a 5 year old on a litre of Coca Cola running around an adventure playground. I wasn't fazed in the slightest; quite the opposite I began to laugh, joking about what could possibly go wrong next. Danny however was not in a laughing mood and the spur snapping from its girdle as it had was as much as he was willing to take before raising the safety issue, one that probably should have been talked about as soon as the engine failed, if not earlier. He confronted our drained skipper, "I'm not being funny Bob but I'm just not sure about us getting to Darwin now." Bob immediately replied saying that we'd still get to Darwin, it was going to be OK, but it was more like he was trying to convince himself of this, rather than us. Danny, feeling the strain of staying up most of the night and going through the scare we had just been through went down to the cabin to recharge while I remained to speak to Bob. Danny bringing the subject up had brought a sudden realisation to me, one that I suppose I knew but had kept tucking it to a remote corner of my brain in the order to continue ploughing through the troubles to achieve what I wanted so much, to get to Australia without using a plane. It had reached a point now though where by continuing on we were seriously putting our lives at risk. Forget dancing with the devil on several occasions over the last few weeks, I was now downing 10 pints of Stella and full-on sticking my tongue down his throat. Bob was still more resolute than he had been at any time during our journey, he was adamant we'd still make it to Darwin, whereas I was now beginning to think that at the rate we had been travelling at for the past few hours and the fact we were going to have to tack all the way there it was going to take us more like 4 weeks to arrive rather than four days. We ended our conversation agreeing that if one more thing were to go wrong in the next few hours we would head back. Right on cue Bob's chair that he was sitting in snapped and the arm rest collapsed beneath him. I too needed to lie down, gather my thoughts and decide just whether reaching Australia over land was worth risking my life.It was here in the cabin that the decision was made for me. I climbed down the stairs and saw Danny dozing on one of the beds with his back to me, then glancing to my bed, noticed that the carpet beneath it was sodden. Taking a few steps closer I saw that somehow or other a fair bit of water had soaked the carpet, but nonetheless exhausted I didn't worry much about it and lied down to get some sleep. Within seconds I was aware of a vast amount of water splashing against the inside of the boat close to where my head was lying. This wasn't the water from the sea outside the vessel though; this was water inside the ship! I jumped up and flung open the wardrobe to find the bottom part completely full of splashing water. I flew up the stairs to where Bob was manning the boat and voiced my concerns to him about the water. "It's OK", he said, "It's fresh water from the tanks that I have on board that has overflowed because the boat is tilted to one side." I went back to the cabin and lay down once again but it was no use, there was no way I was going to get the tiniest of sleep with the water splashing around right alongside me. I took the wheel and told Bob that for my own piece of mind I needed him to go down to the cabin and reassure me that it was fresh water and not salt that was filling up the wardrobe. Returning he did just that, but I wasn't in the mood to sleep now and we once again discussed the best thing to do.We had three options: Option 1 - continue with trying to get to Darwin; Option 2 - Head north and skirt the Timorese coast catching the easterlies off the north coast and anchor in at Dili in East Timor; or Option 3 - return to Kupang. I'd taken the chair collapsing and the presence of water, all be it fresh, in the cabin as omens that we definitely shouldn't continue on to Darwin, despite how much deep down I really still wanted to do this and Bob had finally agreed with this knowing it to be too dangerous. Both he and Gina were against heading back to Kupang though, as they were adamant that they would find themselves in trouble with the authorities over returning to West Timor telling me that it would be illegal and that the government could take their small business from them. I couldn't understand how an immigration department could fine, or worse, force a boat back on to the seas if it had no choice but to return to where it had embarked from because of constantly experiencing fuck up after fuck up. Dili wasn't a problem for me though and from there I could try and convince Perkins, an Australian freight company to take me on board over to Darwin or at worst fly direct to Darwin from there, so that's where we headed.It wasn't long though before we realised that following the coast against the wind was going to take us an awful long time to get to Dili, probably the same amount of time as it would if we'd have continued to Darwin so finally putting the winds to good use we angled the sails and they began to carry us back towards Kupang at a considerably higher speed than what we'd travelled at during any other period on the trip. Indonesia wasn't quite ready to let me go yet.I steered us all the way back to the south coast of Timor where we arrived just as the sun began to come down, then Bob filled the engine with the remaining oil we had left and we all prayed that it would be enough to get us back up the coast to Kupang. The drama still wasn't finished though. Bob inserted the key in to the ignition and turned it and the engine did diddly squat. We were now back at the mercy of the ferocious rips between Timor and Rote with the sun beginning to fade and unable to go anywhere. Bob opened up the engine and fiddled with a few things but on attempting to start the engine again there was still nothing. Thankfully three times lucky it was and we all gasped a huge sigh of relief as after more knob-twirling and wire fastening the engine roared up and we began our voyage back in to Kupang, arriving back in port almost exactly 24 hours after we had left. The great guys at L'Avalon hostel were extremely surprised to see me again and despite being full found room to fit Danny and I both in, then the next morning we met a smirking Edwin back at the bar, where we had to decide what to do next. Immigration wanted our passports, but instead of fining us, just issued us with another visa, even though we were told this was impossible to have done in Kupang. It seems we had met some quite influential people in our time in West Timor, with some incredibly advanced technology. The immigration officer had simply written over my visa date with a new date in black biro. The visas however took two days to get so Danny and I hired a motorbike and explored a few of the sights nearby Kupang before coming to the conclusion that we were going to have to take a bus to Dili, bite the bullet and fly to Darwin. I'd come overland over 10,000 miles and I'd come within 400 of making it to Australia but I'd finally been shown the light that risking my life was simply not worth it, especially with so much more still to see in the world.


From RE:EDWIN LERRICK on Dec 29th, 2008