Trip Reports

How We Ran Aground (27-Nov-2001-10-00):
1000 AM local time, Tuesday, November 27 (0200 Nov. 27 UTC) 02 46 S 111 42 E. Temp. 84, Humidity 80%, Cloud Cover 100%. Anchor down, Kumai, Kalimantan, Indonesia.

We left Bali bound for the Kumai River in Kalimantan, famous for its orangutans, which we hoped to see in the wild. You geography sharks will already have figured out the colonial name for this large island and remembered its most notorious resident. But first, we had to get there. Four days into the voyage, we decided to sail north, to the lee of Kalimantan, to seek shelter from the high winds and seas we had encountered, right on the nose, along with adverse current, that had halted our progress. Our reasoning was that in a northwesterly, the south coast of that large, low island, which ran east and west, would provide flat seas, being protected from the swell raging down the Java Sea.

As happened on this passage with a regularity that was hard to convince oneself was not diabolical, the wind had outwitted us. As it came around the southwest tip of the island, it veered east, as winds not uncommonly do, so that it blew right along the coast. There was no lee. There was no shelter. We were tired and tiring more as the hours wore on and we made the decision to fall off slightly to a river on the coast that would take us to Banjarmasin, a town that actually sounded pretty interesting. There we could rest, regroup, and top off the fuel. We hadn't planned to go there, but we had reasonable charts, it seemed: a coastal chart, an electronic chart, and a pilot that described the approach and included a drawing of the channel. We've successfully entered harbors with less.

On the morning of the 22nd of November, which, although we were too busy to notice, was Thanksgiving, we closed the land and approached the channel, tired, but in high spirits. Sailing was easier in the high winds on a close reach, we would soon be there, and we had no worries about negotiating the channel, which was said to be well marked.

As we looked down the channel we noticed that there were red and green beacons (red left returning, here), and, inside the green beacons some green buoys. But there were no corresponding red buoys marking the other side of the channel, as our charts indicated there should be, and this meant we had to guess where the middle of the channel was. The waypoints we put in the GPS put us on a track very close to the green buoys, and as the channel looked narrow in the charts, this seemed ok. It was also pretty shallow, say eight feet; and that's also what the chart said. There was a strong current setting us to the right, making it necessary to point the boat about 25 degrees to port as we crabbed our way along. The buoys were very far apart and a sharp watch was necessary to not drift to the right. But the second buoy, we then observed, was not in a line with the other two as the charts indicated. It stuck out in the middle of the channel. Why was this? Either it was purposely moved to indicate a shoaling of the channel, or it had been moved by storm surge or current (which might run the other way on an ebb, this being the mouth of a river) and may just be out of place. There was no way of knowing. We worried that if we ventured too far left to stay well clear of it, we may run out of water on that side. We stayed with the GPS track, and as we got close to that second buoy, but still within the line between the buoys, we touched bottom.

We'll discuss how dumb it was to run aground in a minute. But in any case some stupid stuff was to follow. We of course tried to back off, but were pretty well stuck. We weren't going to give up easily, so we tried some cute stuff like raising the main and heeling the boat, etc. Hey, Captain! Remember that current? By the time we realized we were having no success, we had drifted 100 yards from the channel. (A hundred yards, as we were to find out, is a long way to move a boat that is aground, upwind against a strong current, with only the power of your arms.) It was time to give up and drop the anchor, all of about six feet down.

Here I started thinking, "Maybe, after all, this is a job better left to the professional." As if on cue, a tug in the channel towing a big old barge lost power and, therefore, control of its barge, and he was just upstream from us. Aha!! Now, there's a professional for you. Well, being smug wasn't going to stop that thing from hitting us, but it didn't, or I wouldn't be writing this.

So we're helpless. The radio brought no response. We hailed a passing tug, and he slowed to contemplate the situation, then realized we were too far from the channel for him to get a line to. It was time to launch the dinghy and kedge off; getting out of here was up to us alone. It's always true, but it seems a little truer when you're in a semi-civilized country where you no speaka da language, 10,000 miles from home.

We hurriedly pumped up the inflatable and Search and Rescue Squad Leader Terry Shrode got in it. We lowered the outboard into the dinghy in three feet of chop, and this is something I hope you all get to experience someday. I handed him the 25 lb. Danforth and 175 feet of rode. The Captain insisted, against some complaint from the dauntless Mr. Shrode, that he wear a PFD and harness himself to the dinghy in the current and rough conditions. If he lost his balance and fell out of the dinghy, which was totally a possibility while trying to deploy the anchor, and was not connected, he surely would not have survived, as we would have been out of floaty things and he would not have been able to swim back to the boat. So, tethered in, off he went.

Some local fishermen, Muslims no doubt, in a type of open boat I will have occasion to describe in a later dispatch, tried to help by taking the line from Terry and trying to move us, but it was hopeless. The fact they even attempted it showed much more empathy and generosity than common sense. I couldn't figure out whether their effort was more encouraging to international relations than their failure was disappointing in our immediate circumstances.

So Mr. Shrode went back to plan A, or is it B, and dropped the anchor. We ran the rode over the bow roller and back to one of our primary winches. It takes about seven rotations of the winch handle, each about the equivalent of lifting a twenty-pound bag of sand, to bring in one foot of line. Since we had about three hundred feet to go we had to run the anchor out twice in the dinghy. I'll do the math for you: that's 2100 reps on the winch, of which Mr. Shrode did more than his fair share. On our minds at the time was the sailor in Tonga this year, about our age, who kedged his boat off the reef but had a heart attack, and died. By the way, the 25 lb. Danforth had enough holding power to stay put while we dragged ten tons of boat through the mud and the chop jerked the bar-tight rode.

Why not just wait until high tide floats you off? Well, maybe that would have been a good idea. But here's what happens when the tide rises in a decent chop: twenty thousand pounds of boat is lifted up a few inches by each wave and then dropped like a piece of pie on a diner floor. The higher the tide gets, the farther the boat drops. This is unpleasant. A boat a football field away from a channel is going to experience a lot of those before all is said and done, and the Captain thought he could not endure the thought of this, and was not sure the boat could endure the actuality of it. Action had to be taken.

We finally dragged the boat the whole way and got off after an afternoon of dangerous and exhausting physical work, and if we were tired on the way in to Banjarmasin, I don't know what we were then. We motored back out of the channel, relieved but chastened, and about that time had a radio contact with Okiva scheduled. The voice of Paul Moore crackled over the airwaves from out there in the welter, and he told us it was tough going and they were tired. We told them what happened to us, and that we were also very tired and not sure what we had the energy to do. We traded advice. Captain Paul said, just anchor offshore and get some rest. Put out all your chain, says he, and the Bruce will hold, even in five feet (now) of chop and twenty-five knots, taking waves over the deck, near a shipping lane, on a lee shore in a bunch of current. It went against just about every rule of anchoring, but we set it anyway, using 40 feet of 5/8-inch nylon as a snubber, and it held when we challenged it. We did not want to make another mistake, so the Captain watched it for quite a while. We set the anchor alarm on the GPS (I doubt if it would have awakened me, really) and got some rest, but it was a bumpy night. Paul was right; we didn't move an inch, although it got pretty rolly when the current put us beam-to the seas. A modern anchor is an amazing piece of technology, and both the Bruce and Danforth had proved themselves on this day.

My advice to Paul wasn't so good, but he had little choice. I told him to head our way and seek shelter somewhere along the coast and then work his way along the shore to Kumai. Close in, the seas were a little smaller, I told him, and it would be possible to find a better anchorage, at least, than we had, up the coast. It was pretty true.

Before we went to sleep we reviewed what went wrong. We at first assumed the obvious, that, exhausted and wishing to be in port, we had done some sloppy navigation. But a review of the GPS waypoints showed them exactly in the middle of the channel according to both charts and the drawing in the pilot, and our track down the line between the waypoints, as recorded on the GPS and brought up for review, was spectacularly accurate. The channel had simply been moved to the left, or all three sources of information were wrong.

When we woke up the next morning we decided to abandon altogether the idea of getting into Banjarmasin, and to face the music and tack west along the south coast of Kalimantan, following Okiva. We arrived at the mouth of the Kumai River, a distance of about 160 miles, three days later. (The current, with the wind, now set along the coast.) On the last day of our passage we were introduced to the impressive thunderstorms for which this area of the world is well known. In another dispatch, I'll have more to say about this experience.

Okiva had made it in the previous night and was anchored in a small bay. We hired a guide to take us through the shallows and about ten miles upriver to the town of Kumai and the Orangutans. After we safely anchored across from town, we got together with the Okiva guys for dinner and sea stories. We were grateful to be on land.

The next day Gilang hired a boat and crew for us. I said to the skipper, "Sir, I'm sooooooo tired. Would you be the Captain for a while? Be a good fellow, then, and take us up this jungle river to the heart of darkness or whatever, for we have come on a long and arduous voyage to see, and take the measure of, The Wild Man of Borneo."

Next report from this location: Kumai

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