Bali to Dili by rowing boat – what actually happened?
I attempt to summarise in words and pictures here ,those precious 15 days spent on board Simpson’s Donkey, as Charlie Smith and I attempted to row the massive 1,250nm (2,300km) journey through the east Indonesian Island chain, past East Timor and across the Timor Sea to Darwin, Australia.
We departed Bali after an enforced 13 day stopover on day 40 of the expedition (Saturday 11 Feb). Our stop-off was initially meant be a little over one week as we re-stocked food, rested and made our CIQP paperwork (customs, immigration and quarantine processing) to officially exit Indonesia. However bad weather with strong winds coupled with the local harbor master’s decision to delay the issuance of our port clearance until the weather improved, meant we had a longer break than anticipated.
We were completely ready to go by departure date – I think we were actually over ready with both us getting jittery and finding it hard to relax properly when we knew what was coming up. The boat had been sitting ready and packed for some days, bobbing away in the strong winds happily tied off to a dodgy mooring bouy some 100m offshore in the small bay of Amed on the North East coast of Bali. At 0600hrs we walked out of our little backpackers in the dark for the last time, carrying a tiny bag of possessions each, and made our way down the beach for 1km until we reached Amed Bay. The morning was calm with no wind, only a handful of other people were up at this hour – walking quietly along the beach and enjoying the special type of peace and calm that only this time of the day brings. I could not but wonder about our differences in situations. They would be returning shortly to their relative hotels – for a comfortable breakfast and coffee, whilst we would be swimming to the boat and rowing out into the fearsome Lombok strait, a body of water which has intrigued me (and intimidated me) for years, with its tales of massive current streams that even boats with motors cannot move against and are actually driven backwards. Also its propensity for terrible sea conditions where the sea floor passes over a ‘sill’, rising abruptly from over 1000m depth to only 300m, causing standing waves that can over turn small boats like pieces of balsa wood.
It is always the toughest part of adventure for me – sitting in the tent or standing on the shore in the dark in the early hours of the morning, thinking about what I need to do. This is the time of the day where I have learnt over the years is my weakest mentally – All sorts of demons enter my head. I have learnt that action is the best way of dispelling the fears. I had gone over and over the departure routine in my head for the past three days. Borrow a small skiff off the beach, row out to the boat with mine and Charlie’s bag of personal possessions around my neck, drop off the bag, put on goggles, jump into water and untie blue back-up rope from mooring bouy which we borrowed from fisherman, row back to shore with skiff and return rope, swim back to boat, Charlie to swim to boat and set-up rowing position, ensure cameras are running to record departure, untie final bow line from mooring bouy while Charlie holds position with oars – DEPART!
Things went very smoothly with the departure and we rowed off at a pleasant 1.4 knots at a heading NE of 60 degrees. The big question of the past few days which had been impossible to get a confirmed answer was – what direction was the current flowing in the strait? It either flows North or South – nothing in between. The weather had been so rough that no boats had come in during the last two weeks so our agent had no fresh information, the harbor master was also unsure when I asked him so together with Dave Field we had looked at current models (which some are accurate and some are completely inaccurate and contradictory). I also observed the speeds of vessels on the web based AIS tracking system (marine traffic) and noted vessels heading north were by and large all travelling 2 – 3 knots faster than vessels heading south. Which was as much indication that we we were going to get that the current indeed was setting North as we needed. If it was setting south, at speeds of 4 – 5 knots as is common with the straits, then we would have no chance to fight this and would be sucked down and out into the much rougher seas to the south of the Island chain. We would then have a beast of a time on our hands trying to work against adverse currents for a few hundred miles reach to Kupang in the south west of Timor Island. We really needed that north setting current.
After two hours of rowing, and on Charlie’s 2nd shift he began to notice we were getting a slight push from the currents to the north east. This gave me confidence and as we progressed further into the strait the current increased. We encountered a 10 knot northerly wind in the middle of the strait, which was going directly against the current flow, potentially a situation which creates a dangerous sea state known as ‘wind against tide’ or ‘wind against current’. The sea was confused and angry but fortunately the little Donkey handed this with ease, never once feeling unstable. I must admit that without even rowing – we were being pushed NE at a rate of just over 4 knots, sometimes even 5! What an incredible force of nature it was and for me a feeling of massive respect and awe at this huge invisible force smashing us along through the water at the pace a human being can run. The Lombok Strait is also VERY busy with shipping traffic and we kept a keen eye on the AIS tracker with one massive ship coming within 1nm of us at 14 knots as we crossed diagonally across its path, which is as close as I was comfortable with in these conditions.
The Lombok Strait is a major milestone in the expedition. We crossed the Wallace line – so named after Sir Alfred Wallace – a naturalist who in 1854 traveled to spend 8 years of hardship living, exploring and discovering much of Indonesia and Singapore. One of his most profound discoveries was two separate groups of animals living in the Indies (Indonesia was known as the Indies back then), and there was an invisible line which separated them. On the western side were mammals, apes and monkeys, flying lemurs, tigers, wolves, civets, mongooses and deer. On the east were marsupials, kangaroos, opossums, wombats and duck billed platypuses. Difference also extended to birds. Wallace noted “The contrast is nowhere so abruptly exhibited as on passing from the island of Bali to that of Lombok,… In Bali we have barbets, fruit thrushers, and wood peckers; on passing over to Lombok these are seen no more, but we have an abundance of cockatoos, honeysuckers, and brush-turkeys, which are equally unknown in Bali and every Island further-west”. Wallace realized the reason for two such biological diversity was geology. He had inadvertently discovered the meeting place of two continental shelves. His efforts provided the first clues to the study of plate techtonics in the twentieth century.
For us in our little rowing boat – the difference in species was not clearly evident as we were so far from land, we could barely make the mountainous coast of Lombok. Instead the change became immediately apparent in terms of weather. Gone were the stormy, rainy and windy weather we passed through in the Java and Bali sea, to be replaced by the smooth, glass like conditions, along with swelteringly hot and still sunny days. By 0700hrs, the temperature under the shade cloth on Simpson’s donkey was touching 35 degrees, by 1000hrs it would be 37 degrees, and often it would be touching 40 during the hottest part of the day which seemed to be always between 1400 – 1700 hrs each day.
The first two days of rowing was very tough emotionally for me as homesickness weighed over me like a dark cloud. I missed Stephanie and our twin daughters Kate and Rachel immensely. I could not stop thinking of them – this in turn made me think of how much longer we had to get to Darwin before I would see them again and it depressed me enormously. It was not until 3 days after leaving Bali that I managed to start shaking off this feeling and get back into the groove of being at sea.
I had been looking forward to this leg of the journey for the remarkable mountainous coastline that we would be following. However this was tempered by our requirement to find the ‘conveyor belt’ of easterly setting ocean currents which we wanted to make use of to ride our way east, in order to make it with enough time to cross the Timor sea before our food ran out. And it turned out that the conveyor belt regularly had us 30nm (50km) or more offshore – so far we could only at times just see the coastlines as a faint outline in the distance and often we could not see land at all. I was at the time very disappointed with what we were missing out on. With the dead flat sea, life and the view became somewhat mundane. I was itching to see volcanoes and ridge lines etching their outlines in the sky 3000m above our heads. Instead there was nothing but dead flat blue horizon all around.
For the first three days, we were blessed with an occasional rain shower at night – which if only a few minutes in duration was refreshing and beautiful. If we were lucky enough to be the rower on deck at the time, we would take the opportunity to shampoo our hair and wash ourselves in the rain. Fresh water for washing is a rare commodity onboard- swimming in the sea whilst refreshing at the time often leaves our skins feeling itchy and scratchy as the salt dries. If the rain lasted longer than a few minutes, then our naked bodies became quickly cold and it was a great motivation to continue rowing as fast as possible until the end of one’s shift. During one prolonged storm, I was so cold at the end of my shift I retired to the cabin wet through and teeth chattering in the darkness. I eventually warmed myself up with a meal of Back Country Cuisine’s venison casserole. Food never tastes as good as when you have worked for it and you are cold and hungry.
On days 41 – 43 – we struggled to regularly stay on the conveyor belt of currents, as the natural tendency was to stay south closer to the island chain. When progress slowed to below 2 knots, we would be forced to point Simpson’s Donkey north east for some hours until we found the current streams again. However we were making great progress still and constantly kept the boat moving, 24 hours per day, in our well rehearsed shift patterns. We really were a picture of efficiency on the boat by this stage of the expedition. All of our systems, from rowing in shifts, eating, sleeping, toiletries, communications were fully routine and performed almost without thought.
On day 44 and 45 – we really found the conveyor belt and made unbelievable mileage. We averaged well over 3 knots for long periods of times and during the evening of day 44/morning of day 45, I made distances of 6.8/7.0 and 8.0 nautical miles during my 3 x 2 hour night shifts. Charlie on his last shift got caught in a large rain storm which on top of the currents, bought some westerly winds coupled with the fact he was motivated by being very cold made a fantastic run of 9 nautical miles
in his 2-hour shift. That day we made a total distance of 90nm in a 24 hour period! It was our best efforts to date on the entire expedition.
There were three main islands of the Nusa Tenggara Island chain we were passing along, Lombok, Sumbawa then Flores. As we neared the end of the last major island, Flores, our daily 0800 hrs satellite phone call with Dave Field revealed some interesting information. Little did we know but our dream run of the previous 5 days was about to be over. We had two options in terms of routes to take from the end of Flores Island. Option one was to take a route directly east across the north coast of the Alor Island group to Timor Island and drop south into the Timor Sea. The problem with this route is that it crossed a number of selats or straits and from the research I had done previously and what Dave Field had access to – the currents were generally not in our favor along this route.
Option two was to stick with currents. But from this point the conveyor belt made a turn to the North and headed 45 degrees in a north easterly direction which would effectively take us us on a 150nm detour. We would need to follow this far enough east to where we hoped we would hit a strong southerly setting current stream which would pull us down into the Timor Sea. This route although longer, would possibly be faster and bring us into the Timor Sea having burnt less energy than we would have used fighting currents on the shorter routes. It’s downside was it took us into a very remote area – well away from land and what land we were close to was very sparsely populated. The second downside was if the southerly currents streams were not there as predicted or even worse going in a different direction (North), we would be in effect “up shit creek without a paddle” – hundreds of miles away from where we wanted to be and forced in the wrong direction. It was a tough decision to make based on limited information. Initially we decided to investigate the shorter route staying further south. However after a night of slower and slower progress and a great deal of thinking about the route options – we made a decision to head north and follow the current streams. My main concern with option one was running ourselves up a dead end street – getting into a position where we could simply not row against the currents and were stuck. The northern route even though longer seemed a safer bet IF the currents acted as predicted.
If you see the SPOT TRACKER Map, you will see exactly when this decision was made – about 35km north of the western tip Pulau Lembata (an island in Alor Island group). Remoteness in a rowing boat is an interesting concept – as we are so prone to currents and winds that if blowing or flowing the wrong direction, then a distance as short as only 2nm away can be as impossible to reach as getting to moon. Change this distance to 150 miles of adverse currents and winds and you see the problem magnify. So we need to be extremely careful with our planning in area’s of high current flow that we don’t get ourselves into uncontrollable situations.
Some of you maybe thinking – hold on – people row these boats across the Atlantic Ocean – hundreds and even up to one thousand miles offshore? Why is 150 miles a problem? I need to remind you that Simpson’s Donkey is an ocean rowing boat – designed specifically for ocean routes. She is not designed to be rowed close to land or especially through island chains with fierce current streams as we are trying to do. Why? Because she is so large and heavy and too ‘under powered’ to fight these currents. The sailing directions for the eastern Indonesian Island chain we are passing through are liberally noted with the term ‘vessels of low power are to avoid this passage’. And they are of course referring to vessels with engines. We are just one (or occasionally two) people trying to move a boat of at least 800kg with our own human power. Currents are either our worst enemy or our best friend – depending on what direction they flow. Knowing what direction they flow in this part of the world is very tricky. The reason for this is that, current streams around islands are affected by many environmental factors, some of them are easy to predict like tide for example. However some of them are impossible to predict in advance like wind speed and minute sea-level changes due to monsoon’s and other weather patterns far away. These conditions all combine to cause often seemingly random current movement in strange directions which is impossible to predict with any accuracy. Generally the type of decisions we need to be making on this journey are much more complex and important to the success of the expedition than what would be needed to be made on a typical ocean rowing crossing across the mid-Atlantic trade-winds route for example.
As we made the decision to turn north east, we came across an area that was teeming with dolphins. There must have been one hundred of them swimming and frolicking and pointing their tails directly into the air like underwater ballerinas. We even changed course to get closer up to them but they always stayed at east 20 – 30nm away from us. It was amazing to see them like this – jumping and playing.
It was a committing feeling heading further north, however we were rewarded with reasonable progress, it was day 47 and we initially seemed to have made the right call as we happily rowed at a pace of 3 knots. During the early evening, we were rewarded with our closest encounter with land for 7 days as we passed just 2nm off the most amazing tiny volcanic island rising out of the depths of 4000m+ deep ocean to a height of 700m above sea-level. Pulau Komba is a deserted volcano and it was eerily peaceful and beautiful to glide silently by it under our own human power. It was also lonely to pass by this deserted spot, with the knowledge that our route was taking us into even more remote territory.
Day 48 was another great day of progress with speeds above 2 knots, but day 49 was where everything started to come unstuck. Around 1800 hrs, we slipped off the conveyor belt and were working hard to make only 1.2 knots of speed. All night we battled hard and our speed slowed even further to only 1.0 knot. We are now starting to fight against a current pushing us backwards and it seemed we may have been caught in an eddy. All through the day, we kept slow but steady progress – sometimes making 1.3 knots, however by 1500hrs the situation had not improved so a quick call to Dave Field who suggested we head a further 10nm North to where the models were showing a stronger easterly setting current stream. It was not the nicest feeling to be heading even further north at this stage but turn we did and I started to second guess our decision making. From my memory of the current streams, I knew there should be massive easterly and north easterly setting streams in this area but it seems we had slipped off them? Maybe we should have stayed another 50nm north and be riding them? Why were we battling away at 1 knot exhausting ourselves in this heat? On the other hand I was asking myself – go even further North? Further away from Darwin? Is that a good option? What if the southerly streams are not there in 150nm time? However we put our faith in the current models and after 6 hours of rowing and 10nm, almost like magic, we found the easterly setting stream and increased speed to over 2 knots. For a few hours, we were almost deliriously happy.
Unfortunately the happiness was short lived as at 0400 hrs on day 51, we hit another eddy. Our progress slowed to 1 knot again and after battling away slowly until 0700 hrs, we decided to resort to 2-up rowing. This means we have 90 minute cycles with both of us rowing together for 30 minutes, then one of us will row for 30 minutes each while the other rests for 30 minutes. The problem with this is it does not give us enough time to rest and recover properly so generally we would only try to use it for short periods to get through obstacles. Anything more than a few hours of this has detrimental effects in the long run on our physical conditions.
That day we rowed 2-up in 90 minute patterns all day long, for over twelve hours until 2100hrs that evening. We were exhausted by this stage so resorted back to one-up rowing, with Charlie taking the first shift for 90 minutes. During that entire 90 minutes, he made a total distance of a dismal 400m. I came on and made exactly the same distance of 400m in my 90 minutes. The wind was directly us against us and blowing up to 11 – 12 knots in a constant stream. The current seemed to be pushing us north west, and the wind is behind the current. It was very apparent that with only one person rowing we could not make any progress, so at midnight we once again resorted to two-up rowing, this time we shortened the rest period from 3o minutes to only 15 minutes. So in one hour, we row together for 30 minutes, then rest for 15 minutes and row solo for fifteen minutes each. We continued this exhausting schedule for seven hours until 0700 hrs on day 52 when even rowing 2-up our speed has dropped to less than 0.5 knots and it was proving almost impossible to keep the boat heading in the right direction. Every time we stop rowing for even a few seconds or get slightly off course, the bow is blown around 180 degrees in the opposite direction and we have to work like crazy with one oar and the rudder hard locked off to even turn the boat around. It was evident that this is not working – we needed to change the plan.
Charlie suggested we put out the para-anchor. Initially I hate the notion of the para-anchor as it seems like our even tiny progress is being stalled and it is an admission of defeat. But after some discussion, we agreed it was at least worth a try to see what happens. And interestingly, a very strange thing happens. Whilst drifting without rowing, we are being blown north west at a speed of close to 2 knots. As soon as we deployed the parachute anchor on its long 70m rope, it sat maybe 3 – 5m below the water surface and we started to be pulled in a direction of 200 degrees, at 0.5 knot, almost directly south. So the surface current is acting completely different to the current just a few metres below the surface. A phone call to Dave Field further confused the situation in that all his information told him we should theoretically be in this strong easterly flowing current stream still which I most strongly assured him we are not!
By this stage, it was day 52 and it was the first time we had stopped the boat moving after 12 solid days of 24 hour/day rowing. At first we had a few hours of rest, and as the heat of the day started to bake us, we waited for the 10 knot south easterly wind to abate. We both had rashes all over our bodies from the sun, heat and salt but poor Charlie was really suffering with massive rashes appearing under his arms which were becoming infected. We called our expedition doctor in New Zealand (my sister Helen) and she advised a course of antibiotics, avoiding the rubbing alcohol he had been applying and some water based creams along with wearing a shirt to stop the skin on skin rubbing. Within 24 hours, her advice had worked wonders so thanks Dr Helen!
By 1500hrs, the wind had dropped to less than 5 knots which I was very comfortable we should be able to row against this. So we hauled in the para anchor and I took the first shift rowing. Unfortunately, it was immediately apparent that the surface current was still being driven mainly by the wind and I struggled to make even 0.5 knot and controlling the boat direction was really difficult. We experimented with the centre board and resorted after a short time to two-up rowing again which in our tired state was not ideal. After less than an hour of two-up rowing, we were continually fighting to stay on course and during one quick water break, the bow was quickly blown 180 degrees and we were sent backwards. As we fought hard to try and turn the boat again, I noticed that as we turned, we actually made over 2 knots in a south westerly direction. I zoomed out from the chart and saw Dili, the capital of East Timor, some 120nm away in that rough direction. The seed was immediately planted. Maybe we should turn and head to Dili, rest, regroup and rethink the strategy to make the Timor Sea. As battling into this current for the 120nm, we needed to reach the southerly current stream was something that was probably not going to work. We discussed on board and Charlie was in full agreement to the change in plan, so a quick phone call to Dave Field who also agreed with the concept and the decision was final.
Turning the boat south, we immediately started making good time while only needing one person to row. The only problem now was that whether or not we could actually make it to Dili. There were two main selats or straits to negotiate and we needed the current to be favorable for these which Dave told us from his models it looked to be. At this stage, I was getting very wary of the models however.
I had one contact person in Dili – an Australian lady called Kim who runs the Dili Central Backpackers, has lived in Dili for 20 years, is an experienced sailor and basically is the most helpful and loveliest person we could have possibly hoped to have as a local point of contact in Dili. I called her on the sat phone and she said she would help organise the paperwork for our arrival.
For 24 hours, we rowed the 50nm down to the Island of Pulau Weta then followed its west coast around to the small island of Pulau Kisar where we anchored outside a tiny fishing village for around 10 hours during the daylight hours. The small bay was full of coral and fish and we rested and tried not to bake to death under the intense sun, while spending some time snorkelling in the water. The reason we stopped here was that we wanted to time our entry into Dili harbour so that we could arrive in the daylight as we were not familiar with the entrance and turning up night time without the ability to see where we were going would be dangerous. Around 1700hrs, we hauled up the anchor just as the local fisherman came out to fish for the evening – we beckoned them over and I had a good chat in Bahasa with them and gave them a poster each and one of our freeze dried meals to try.
That night we made great progress- first being pushed south through the small Selat into the much larger Selat Weta. Here we made a direct line for Dili Harbour, the last 10nm our progress slowed as current worked against us – but we rowed 2-up, all the way into Dili Harbour arriving around 1200 hrs on day 55 – 15 days after we departed Bali. We had travelled 815nm (1,500km) in 15 days, completely by human power, with a pretty awesome average of 100km/day. I was very proud of what Charlie and I had achieved with the support of our team, Dave Field, Alistair Harding, Monique, Stephanie and Colin Quincey who sent some very encouraging words of support and also I enjoyed a great chat with on the sat phone on day 53.
True to her word, Kim had arranged our paperwork in advance for our arrival in Dili, she sorted moorings for the boat, accommodation, a welcome party of the NZ embassy staff, food, beer, you name it! What a great lady. It was beautiful to step onto land again – even if I forgot my shoes and my feet almost burnt off on the boiling hot pavement.
Dili seems like an absolute oasis to me – I love the laid back, non touristy and down to earth atmosphere. I love the environment and the surrounding hills and mountains. I love the feel of the place and every person we met had a special and interesting story. I fell in love with the place almost immediately. On our second nights stay, we were invited to the house of the ex-president of East Timor – Jose Ramos Horta. He is also the former prime minister and a co-recipient of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize, and a survivor of an assassination attempt which saw three bullets enter his body. What an honor to spend some time with him, and such a down to earth and relaxed man to speak to. He was interested in our expedition, shared some jokes with us and in return I shared one of my jokes with him which will now go down in history as my most famous joke.
Did we make the correct decision to divert to Dili? If we had continued to fight that current for another one mile even – would it have turned to the east? Or would we have worn ourselves into exhaustion as it would have stayed opposing us for the next 100 miles? No one will ever know. The fact of the matter is we made a decision and it worked out to get to Dili – the expedition lives to fight another day. One interesting thing that has occurred since we made landfall is the development of a tropical cyclone in the Timor Sea which will cross the exact path at about the exact time we would have been there IF we had kept going and managed to break through the currents.
For now – we are enjoying some rest and relaxation – Charlie is spending time with his family and I have returned to Singapore for 7 days to collect a new supply of freeze dried food. Our food rations on the boat – even though we did a great deal of testing before we left, have not worked out perfectly. We find the freeze dried food has rapidly become the staple. We cannot eat much of the other dried food as much of it had become contaminated by fumes from the holds to the point it had to be thrown away. So to this end, we consumed much more freeze dried back country food packs than I had budgeted for and hence I needed a resupply of another 60 ration packs to ensure we have enough to make it to Darwin. I also am taking the opportunity to get some modifications to certain fittings on the boat made up whilst here and am doing some intensive research into the strategy to get across the Timor Sea safely and quickly. The Timor Sea seems to be strongly affected by tides and it definitely needed more thought than I had initially given it. Dave Field has been a superstar as usual with information and advice.
We hope to aim to depart Dili next Friday 10th March. Time is of the essence as I would prefer to be finished this crossing before the end of March. As can be seen from the average wind vectors for the month of March and April here – April the winds have generally turned in the opposite direction to where we want to travel. We also need to try and avoid a nasty cyclone – which is not something we want to be caught up in. Having said that – this year seems a very weird year in terms of wind, so honestly – who the hell knows what the hell is happening? The weather and currents have certainly confused the jolly roger out of myself and Dave Field over the past few weeks!
So a very big thanks to all those who have sent positive messages of support and followed our progress. I am now very much looking forward to getting back into the boat and taking on the final and maybe the toughest push of the expedition to date.