Thursday, August 21, 2008

August 20, 2008 - Gili Air, Lombok, Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia

The region of Indonesia that we've been exploring these past few weeks is Nusa Tenggara, which means south east islands. Between each of the islands of this archipelago is a strait. This time of year, the currents in all of the straits seem to be constantly running south. With the full moon this week, the currents are running extra fast.

Once boats have made their way up one of the straits to the north side of Flores or Komodo, they tend to stay north. Making their way west towards Bali in the protection of the islands, they don't encounter much swell. But since Sten is constantly in search of swell and the reefs it breaks against, we went south. We found swell and current and freakishly strong winds. What we couldn't find was an anchorage so that he could take advantage of the swell and do some surfing. As we discovered these past 48 hours, sometimes there is a reason why the road less traveled is, well, less traveled.

Hu'u, on the south east corner of Sumbawa, the home of Lakey's Beach, was too far from our anchorage on the north end of Komodo to make it there in a day sail. We were worried about having a slow passage and arriving after dark. So we decided to leave in the late afternoon, to navigate Selat Sape, the strait between Komodo and Sumbawa in daylight. We expected to get to the other end of the strait just before dark. Then we assumed (based on our last few passages in Indo) that we'd have a leisurely overnight sail along the coast and anchor up in Hu'u at day break. To put it mildly, things did not go according to plan.

The current was ripping through Selat Sape. We had a southeast breeze blowing against the south flowing current, but the water was relatively flat as long as we were in the strait, protected by Komodo Island to the east. We were blasting along at over 11 knots (way above Mata'irea's typical speed) in 15 knots of breeze with a 4 knot current assist. It was exciting sailing. Then we hit the mouth of the strait and ran into the 2 to 3 meter swell. And all hell broke loose. The current piled into the swell, creating standing waves. Then the wind speed kicked up to 25 knots, making those waves stand up even higher. It was the most chaotic sea state we've ever seen. We buried the bow, again and again. Green water was flowing over the deck. We furled in the jib to slow us down. But we were still moving too fast. The waves kept breaking over the bow. We were at risk of filling the dinghy, which was tied down inflated and upright on the foredeck. We rounded up and quickly double reefed the main. We slowed our speed through the water down to less than a knot. But with the current, we were still doing 7 knots over the ground. It was unbelievable. And frightening.

"Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition."

A comment that Sten made underscores how unnerving the situation was. But first some background: We've been having a debate these past few months about which way to go when we leave Asia. I'm pushing for the Med. Sten has been advocating for going around South Africa. His reasoning is that he'd rather deal with weather and rough seas than pirates. I'd rather take my chances with the odd pirate than have to face rouge waves. After we made it through the worst of the current, neither of us said anything for a few minutes. Then Sten turned to me and said "Okay, we can go through the Med." It was that scary.

Once we got out of the current, we found that we had new problem. The south shores of Sumbawa and Lombok are practically devoid of decent anchorages. The shorelines are rocky and steep-to, with very few bays that provide any protection from the heavy swell that pounds the coast. Over 200 miles of coastline, there are only three safe places to anchor. Unfortunately for us, we couldn't seem to position ourselves to enter one of the three in daylight. That first night out, we were going too fast, and conditions were too chaotic, to slow down to go into Hu'u in the morning. So we kept going. We were hoping to make it into Ekas, on the eastern end of Lombok's south shore, before dark. But the wind died during the day and we had a counter current slowing us down, so it was sundown by the time we reached Selat Alas (Alas Strait), the strait between Sumbawa and Lombok.

"Beam me up, Scotty!"

Again, conditions in the second strait were rough. Just like the night before, the wind picked up at the mouth of the Alas Strait. And again, the wind was against the current. We found ourselves in the middle of standing waves again, although they weren't as large or steep as the night before. We were sailing dead down wind, trying to make it into Ekas, when a wave kicked our stern around, causing us to round down and accidentally jibe the main. The boom slammed across the boat. We initially thought that the preventer line had broken, but afterwards we discovered that the force of the accidental jibe tore the fitting that the preventer was connected to right out of the boom. The metal fitting shot through the bimini like a bullet, and continued its trajectory, blasting out the window connecting the dodger and the bimini. Frickin dangerous. It is just lucky that one of our heads wasn't in the way. Hours later we noticed that the impact of the jibe had also bent the traveler cam cleat.

Right after the jibe, I pulled the plug on going into Ekas at night. I was too wigged out to face a lee shore with current and swell in the dark. But not going into anchor created another problem for us. We only had 50 miles of coast to go before reaching the next strait, Selat Lombok (Lombok Strait), which runs between Lombok and Bali. We needed to slow way down to reach the Lombok Strait in daylight hours. But even reefed way down, we were still going too fast. If we headed due west, we would have reached the Lombok Strait at 2am. After our experiences in the prior two straits, which were bad enough during daylight, we weren't going near a third in the dark. So we spent the night running off south of Lombok, dodging fishing boats, trying to add miles to our course to fill the hours before daylight.

At daybreak, we entered the Lombok Strait and headed north, towards a safe anchorage. We hugged the coast, staying out of the main southerly current, and actually had some current with us, for a change. Then we hit the main southbound section of current and slowed right down to a crawl. At some point, I turned to Sten and shrugged, "Med or South Africa - I think I'm done here." He promised that it was just the exhaustion talking and that I would get my nerve back after a few days in a nice anchorage. We'll see.

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