Episode 16. Mis-directed in Miri; breezing to Bintulu

Ben, Hugh and Duncan are making their way down the west coast of Borneo aboard spanking new Mumby 48 catamaran Candeux. They are heading from the Philippines to Thailand via Malaysia, and have so far encountered more than their fair share of misadventures. Luckily, it’s not all chaos and disaster (otherwise who would go sailing?).

Having braved the bar at Baram River, the trio tackle the next legs to Bintulu with brio!

After we escape the log thrashing and bar bashing of the Baram River we are on our way to Miri Marina, only 15nm south. It should be a short and an uneventful trip.

Of course, in hindsight, we should have pushed on to Miri in the first place and sailed past the Baram River.  We would thus have avoided the perils of both the river and the bar.  But like all planning, it can always be improved upon after the event.

Anyway, it is 1330hrs and we have arrived at the entrance to Miri marina.  It looks like an easy entry, made all the better by the welcoming presence of a large statue of a seahorse (well quite, us being in our very own sea horse) at the start of the seawall fairway.  This bodes well.  The marina is small but it is fairly full and there are actual sailors busy on their boats.  It all seems a bit tired but at least there is boating activity (unlike Labuan).  We couldn’t raise anyone on the radio so we find a suitable spot and tie up.  All good.

Our plan here is to complete some boat admin and general maintenance this afternoon and do some sight-seeing tomorrow. We will then continue the voyage on Friday morning.

But, first things first.  We set off on foot in search of lunch and adventure.  Now Hugh knows that Ben and Duncan are absolutely starving because they are both very committed to taking us through a number of clever, not-so-short cuts.  Hugh assumes this is because Duncan used to be in the army survey corps and careening around the landscape is what he loves.  Ben has no such excuse – he’s just a can-do, short-cut kind of guy.  Hugh is thinking that there’s a road going in the same general direction and there are probably taxis.  Anyway, we decide to ask a local who gives us some very detailed, but somewhat contradictory, directions as to how to cut right at the corner on the left, through the houses on the right, turn left at the brown one, right at the palm tree, then left again to cross over the bridge then right through the creek (no, don’t worry about crocodiles) and then straight across the field.  It’s easy.  Not far.  We’ll give it a go.

It sort of works.  We try to follow the directions the local provided but none of the landmarks seem to exist or are just cleverly disguised as something else.  Still, after various bridges, fields and wrong turns we arrive at some shops.  There’s not much here, besides a hotel, which is not a bad find.  But the food is pretty poor.  We’ll definitely get a taxi tonight to Miri town centre.

We spend the remainder of the day doing a boat tidy up, drying out Ben’s bedding from the soaking it received crossing the Baram River and generally idling around.

Now that’s more like it.  We phone a taxi and head into town.  This is a fairly large centre.  There is a main street lined with shops and restaurants.  We are spoilt for choice but we finally choose a popular pub/restaurant and are well content.  There are plenty of people around because Miri is a sizable regional hub servicing the oil and gas industry.

The next day Captain Arifin (Fin) arrives and goes through various customs formalities.  He is very helpful and assists with clearing us into and out of Sarawak.  He also arranges fuel and transports all the fuel for us, plus takes Ben to the local market.  Good man.  He has also done a fair bit of sailing himself – having delivered boats to and from Australia – and he has his own set of tales of dealing with Australian Customs inspectors.  Not all of them flattering.

The day is spent waiting around and doing boat maintenance.  We again have dinner in the main night life street at a Chinese restaurant recommended by Captain Fin.  Ambience zero, food fine.

Decent dinner at last, in Miri

Decent dinner at last, in Miri

The last thing we do before bed is to plot our route for the next anchorage – Bintulu.  Hugh is using the Navionics app on his tablet while Ben is using a chart (Open CPN) on his laptop, which is only viewable within the bridgedeck.  We also have a small Garmin GPS Map located at the helm.  This is how we receive AIS signals but it does not transmit an AIS signal.  Thus, we know which AIS equipped ships are around but they receive no AIS signal from us.  A half-good system.  Ben and Hugh tend to plot the course on their respective equipment and then compare notes and adjust courses to match (although variations always remain).  This has the advantage of two independent views spotting hazards that the other person might miss.  The disadvantage is that the course then has to be roughly transposed into the small Garmin GPS Map at the helm.  This can be both frustrating for whoever is the helmsman, and also dangerous if the necessary coordination between both electronic charts and then the transposition to the Garmin isn’t rigorous – and the helmsman can also find himself being asked to make course corrections based on three different sources.  Not good.

Ben’s Open CPN has some good features but also has limitations, particularly the variable quality of the data, and the laptop’s position on the saloon table is not visible from the helm.  It also lacks good, or sometimes any, detail at lower zoom levels.  Indeed, as we look for the supposed anchorage at Bintulu, Open CPN actually does not show the double commercial port of Bintulu.  Fortunately, the Navionics app does show the second port area and we plot a course to this on the Garmin.

Duncan and Hugh reflect that the navigating system is seriously flawed and frustrating for all.  Each of the chartplotters has utility, but none of them have all the functionality which is really required on a long voyage in challenging waters.  Indeed, Duncan and Hugh decide that the basic requirements for safe navigation for gentlemen sailors in these circumstances is that all courses are plotted on one system, that the navigation station must be at the helm, is easily viewable in all weather, shows depth, uses current, quality charts, and incorporates AIS which both transmits and receives.  Radar, forward-looking sonar, and all the other attractive toys fall into the nice-to-have category.

Miri to Bintulu

After lazing around in Miri, we set out in the dark at 0430hrs for Bintulu so that we can cover the 91nm distance and arrive in Bintulu before the evening dark and make a good anchorage.

Bintulu is a busy commercial port with north and south harbours and separate approaches.  The cruising sailor’s online bible Noonsite reports that the harbour master is welcoming and that we can probably anchor in the south harbour.  We will find out.

On our way we pass numerous oil and gas wells, again with quite a few unmarked, and other unlit hazards.  We would not want to be doing this at night.

Late in the afternoon, we approach Bintulu, where the gas and oil infrastructure and storage is  very prominent.  We duly call harbor control on VHF. The harbor master replies promptly and is very helpful.  We identify ourselves and our intentions.  He says that we should hold our current position and he will send out an escort.  He clearly does not want us anchoring just anywhere with so much commercial shipping in operation.  We feel like a bit of a nuisance but are happy to be so well treated.  In no time at all, we see a power launch speeding out from the harbor.  Strike Force, our escort boat, surges up, does a circle, waves and then sprints away.  We power up as best as we can and follow it to the anchorage.  Great assistance.  After a brief wave and then our final communications to the harbor master with our thanks, we break out the beers and nuts.

Tomorrow we will push straight on to do our first overnight passage on Candeux to Kuching, about 200nm south along the west Borneo coast.

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