Episode 15. Baram and buggered (or how not to do a bar crossing!)

Now with a crew of three, new 48-foot Mumby catamaran Candeux is well into its maiden voyage from the Philippines to Thailand via Malaysia.

Skipper Ben, first mate Hugh and newly-arrived third man Duncan are threading through the oil and gas platforms around Labuan.

As we clear Labuan, we are making good time sailing through impressive, but very alien, gas and oil platforms in the middle of the sea on the way to the Baram River.  We had considered pushing on to Miri Marina, a bit further south again.  However, we would arrive there after dark and this could be unnecessarily risky in an unknown port, with unlit oil and gas infrastructure en route, a plethora of poorly lit fishing boats with nets and uncertain navigation marks in our path.

We arrive at Baram River in the late afternoon and can see that the river is wide and in regular use by varied commercial shipping.  Still, it’s nothing like Labuan’s congestion.  We cross the bar and anchor in about nine metres.  It’s a beautiful night and after a fine meal cooked by skipper and good cook Ben, we all head to bed.

However, by 3 am Duncan has woken the skipper and we are all on deck.  The in-flood Baram River, ebbing at about six knots, is pushing Candeux downriver and back out over the bar.  We also discover that a four-metre lump of wood from the upstream forestry has been washed onto the slack anchor chain behind the bridle and is now a horizontal brake between the two hulls.  This has most likely contributed to us being forced about 500 metres from our anchor point.   The good news is that we are now holding, but there is still a lot of water and logs banging against the boat, the rudders, the propellers and their supports, and the wedged log is adding extra pressure on the hulls, chain and anchor.

Fortunately we have a good anchor, plenty of chain, enough depth and we are not on a lee shore (other than shallow water over the bar).  In our current position, the worst-case scenario is damage to the rudders, propeller, their supports and perhaps a grounding in mud (unless we get wedged side on….).  Anyway, there’s not a lot that we can do at this minute in the dark: both the ebbing tide and the possibly flooding river are running out at full bore, we can’t see well and (with the water pressure) we can’t dislodge the log wedged between the forward hulls, and we can’t risk trying to move the boat under the circumstances.   We decide to wait until morning when the tide will be low and, hopefully, slack and maybe the apparent flooding will ease.

We awake to discover that the log wedged across our anchor chain across the hulls has shifted slightly with the reduced water pressure.  We finally manage to push it down and the ebbing waters then lever it away.  Great – in a way.  As it lets go it bangs its way down the hulls and out to sea.  It doesn’t sound good but an on-board inspection reveals no apparent damage.  We now need to await slack water, which will come towards the low tide at 0750hrs, so that the pressure on the boat eases and we can get the anchor up and motor safely away.  Given that the river is 300 miles long, there is probably also a significant overflow, meaning that dead (unfortunate phrasing) low tide will actually be somewhat later than the official time.  However, by 0750hrs the skipper is keen to be going, so we up anchor and motor across the bar, even though the tidal overflow is still running.

Bars are always dangerous, especially at low tide with a river now ebbing out at three knots against an incoming sea.  Unfortunately, we don’t really prepare properly for this.  We haven’t actually talked it through, nor fully prepared the boat. The hatches are not closed, cabin items are not secured and we are not wearing life jackets.  Still, Candeux is now moving and we are following our chart plotter track in as the route back out.  Hugh is in the saloon watching his Navionics tablet and the laptop chart and giving the skipper course directions and calling the depths.  This is working OK, but Hugh can’t see the sea-state, and it is getting worse.  We are soon experiencing breaking waves in crossed seas caused by the outflowing river against the incoming sea.  The depths are varying between three and 0.6m in the troughs (our draft) – nowhere near the nine metres we had coming in.  Water has been hitting under the bridge-deck but we are now getting water over the bow and up to the top of the bridge-deck.  This is pouring into the skipper’s cabin at the forward end of the bridge-deck, the head, the galley and the saloon onto the navigation table and navigation laptop, where Hugh is.  So we are a bit out of control.

While the skipper stays on the helm, Hugh tries to save the laptop and electronics and also goes to secure the port hatches.  Duncan (who is feeling seasick) and has been helping Ben in the cockpit, has now rushed into the starboard hull to secure that side.  He seems to be taking quite a while about this.  Hugh wonders whether he is being spectacularly seasick in Ben’s cabin, or whether he is knee deep in water and floating debris.  However, Duncan does emerge.  While he restrained the urge to personally decorate Ben’s cabin with the residue of Ben’s cooking, it was very wet down there – and so is he.  Oh dear.  Anyway, we are now committed to the crossing and have no choice but to push on.  The immediate concern is simply not to hit bottom which could damage the rudders, propellers and/or the structural integrity of the boat.  The waves are uncomfortable and the troughs dangerous, but now that we are belatedly properly secured, the waves themselves are not big enough to overwhelm Candeux.  Hugh decides to abandon our track (which in the ebb tide keeps us in shallower depths for longer) and plots a direct route to deep water.

The risks were obvious in this bar crossing.  We had just been driven by a run-out ebb tide 500m from our anchorage down river, had logs hitting the boat at anchor (and one stuck in the anchor chain), it was only just low tide (so the river’s ebbing overflow tide was opposing the sea, causing steep waves), LAT depths were only just enough at low tide, we were in an unknown commercial port with no navigational/channel marks, we could expect to encounter large commercial traffic (often towing huge barges) and there were numerous natural hazards in our crossing; and finally, we had not secured the boat for sea.

We do know better than this.  But the concern over damaging logs, the skipper’s desire to move and the flat (if fast moving) conditions in the river, lulled us into complacency about the bar.

It could have ended badly.  We are reminded, yet again, that sailing is a challenging business and that the sea and weather must always be given the greatest attention.

Crisis? What crisis? Hugh takes a catnap to recover

Crisis? What crisis? Hugh takes a catnap to recover

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