Oh FAD it! Or, the SE Asian marine obstacle course

There’s a special boater’s hell in Southeast Asia in the FAD minefields. FADs, or Fish Aggregating Devices, range from something just larger than a bathtub to football field sized platforms with living quarters on top.

This is the big daddy of fishing platforms- look for the guys on top for scale. Photo by sv Nalukai.

Most of what we’ve seen in Indonesia so far looks more like this.

A small FAD

Even the smallest are generally made up of a few drums lashed together, some styrofoam or other floatation, with a rebar rod or three on top. They would be devastating to hit at night. But they’re not lit, and they don’t show up on radar, so doding them is a little tricky.

The really monstrous sized platforms are at least well lit. I suspect that’s part of the strategy, though- bringing fish in at night. They’ll show up on a radar, not that the Christmas-tree lighting helps them require any more distance identification.

In Cenderawasih Bay, just below where we anchor in Biak, these platforms have become interesting for another reason- they’re home to massive whale sharks. The sharks feed on smaller fish under the bagan. Thankfully they are considered good luck by the fishermen, and not threatened.

But the little FADs… these are more of a worry. Most of the FADs are near shore, which helps us avoid them, but they have no lights, they don’t show up on radar, and they would be nearly impossible to see at night. As we prepare to spend a couple of nights out on our passage to Sorong- it’s still something I worry about.

Playing Tourist in Biak

We go to the market in the morning look for a ‘bemo’ (the minivan/bus system that operates as public transportation all over Indonesia). The public market is a de facto bus terminal, and we’re quickly able to secure a car and driver for the day. It’s nice to be in a country where this is readily affordable- split between three boats, it’s downright cheap- we’ll end up spending about $10 each for our day of being driven around.

Our first stop is a large cave where thousands of Japanese soldiers hid during World War II.

WWII relics, biak
WWII artifacts are strewn around the grounds of the museum

It eventually became their tomb, when allied forces attacked the site. We’re caught in a squall during our visit, and lightning into the caves adds a spectacularly eerie touch. I decide to wait until after we exit to point out how close the bats were swooping to the children’s heads. Creepy. It’s impossible not to think about the lives that ended here- the cave opens up with a gaping hole above, where allies bombed and killed all within.

The family who has the cave on their land has built a small museum. Spread all around the lawn are bombs (unexploded?!) and shells by the dozen. The shell of an old car rusts next to a stack of equally aged fuel drums- there’s even a partial airplane fuselage.

Inside the closet-sized museum (truly, we can just fit in a few bodies and turn around) is an astonishing collection of artifacts. Everything from belt buckles to award medals, knives, guns, watches, glass ampoules (of what?), and Japanese currency- to a hanging rod of original uniforms. There are even a few swords, the brutal reminder of an execution method of choice.

Niall has become very well informed on WWII, reading everything he can get his hands on since we left Australia. The wrecks in PNG fed his interest, but these small relics are entirely different category than what we’ve seen to date. He’s so excited, he runs around photographing it all for memory- that’s one of his photos above.

The skies clear somewhat, and we head out to a bird park. The famous Bird of Paradise is endemic to this area, but tricky to see in the wild- we expect to settle for peek at the caged version.

Unfortunately, the park is closed. What happens next is completely typical. Instead of accepting defeat, our driver says he’s pretty sure the guy with the key is in the village just down the road. I have no idea if he really knows this or is just hoping, but we go trundling off and sure enough- 10 minutes later, we’ve found our keeper. He’s happy to jump on his motorbike and come back to the park to open it up for us.

I should have remembered how depressing zoos can be. The birds are segregated by species, and none of the cages seem quite big enough. They are stunning, to be sure. Ironically, the lone Bird of Paradise is the least interesting of the bunch. It doesn’t’ sport the famous tailfeathers, so really just looks like a fat white pigeon. We’re quickly getting munched by mosquitoes.

We head back into town, and I get a run at the grocery store. Our driver is a huge help. He comes with us, helps carry bags, and helps find things that I can’t locate. It’s the most efficient stock-up in a long time.

In an effort to promote hero status when we get back to the boat, we pick up dinner to bring back. I had found a street vendor selling on my first jaunt into town to track down the harbormaster after our arrival and am pretty sure this will be a slam dunk- and entertaining enough to hold the kids while we wait for them to be prepared.

Hungry kids are so patient waiting for their martabak treat!

Martabak is a pastry generally filled with a mixture of eggs, onions, and meat (street vendors usually make just one, but the storefront restaurants offer sweet and savory). The drama comes with the vendor takes his golf-ball sized lump of dough, then flattens and pushes and eventually spins it- picture pizza dough spinning- into a large, whisper thin sheet. It is lowered by one edge into a large flat wok, which the vendor folds as he goes, then pours in the egg-veggie-meat mixture until it’s a rectangular pillow around the savory filling within. Each one is cut into pieces and boxed to go. They are so nuclear, that even when we get to the boat and all collect on Nalukai for a sundowner and our martabak about half an hour later, they’re still very warm to the touch. Little savory pillows of Indonesian heaven- for about $2.50 each. We might have to go back tomorrow…

Chasing fuel in Biak

Although we’ve made most of the westing that stretched ahead of us just a couple of months ago, there’s still a good distance to get across the rest of the top of Papua- so after just a few days in the Padaidos we move on. Conditions are fair, which means we still have to motor, but at least it is board flat and we don’t have to fight adverse current. It’s starting to become apparent why one of the cruisers in company with us on this leg switched from sail to power for their second ‘tour’ of Southeast Asia… this is motoring country!

At anchor in Biak… board flat water

It’s tempting to continue straight through to Sorong, but we’re curious to stop off in Biak first. This is a big island at the top of the large bay , roughly halfway across the top of Papua. It was a site of some significance in World War II, and gives us a chance to see a small town without the pressure of Jayapura. We also need to try to get propane, and top of diesel if we can.

Fueling in Indonesia is tricky. We can’t legally purchase fuel directly. Fuel also can’t be transported in jerry cans, but there aren’t any fuel docks we can use either. The jerry can limitation doesn’t make sense- diesel isn’t terribly flammable, but this is a legacy of the Bali bombings, and logic doesn’t always play a part in regulations anyway. It all serves to complicate our access to fuel. The basic approach is to just start asking around, and eventually you’ll be hooked up. There’s often an enterprising person who will approach a foreign boat to help.

Then there’s the matter of determining price. Locally, diesel and gas are sold at Rp 4500 / liter. Because we cannot purchase from a station, there are inevitably hands and effort along the way that add a markup- like a hand in uniform that is allowing it all to happen. It’s highly unusual (although not impossible) to find someone who will sell direct from a bowser for the market rate.

When we fueled up in Jayapura, we joined forces with Sea Glass to sort out an order. We needed two drums- about 100 gallons. They needed 2 or 3 times that. Between acquiring the drums, bringing them to the waterfront, and decanting them into jerry cans- which were then shuttled to the boats, one load at a time- it was a full day’s work for his crew.

So when a fisherman comes by in a dugout painted with splashy colors within minutes after the anchor is set, we let him know we’re looking for fuel. The enterprising fellow tells us he can help us, and quotes us a good price- Rp 6500 (about $0.65) per liter. Great! We tell him how much we’d like to get, and he paddles off.

If he can pull it off, he’ll make some nice coin for the effort. Unfortunately, we never see him again. He probably wasn’t able to line up a source, and it’s not like we traded phone numbers with him. No big deal- we just keep asking.

Next, Jamie heads over to a neighboring boat, one of the rusty-crusty looking cargo boats that play waters around the area… same one in the photo above. Normally I get the translation/interpretation duties, but I’ve made him a small phrasebook for Christmas, and he’s determined to tackle this independently. He comes back having struck a deal- yes! I’m only needed to help clarify the details. One of the requirements is that they want to do the transfer (from their drums into our jerry cans, which we then shuttle in the dinghy back to Totem) after dark. Oh, right, this isn’t legal!

While we wait for darkness, Jamie tackles the LPG question. He gets together with the guys from Muscat and Nalukai, and they go off in search of hardware and gas. It’s easy enough to buy LPG, but they aren’t able to decant the gas into our bottles- the Indonesian fittings lower the pressure too much. They use gravity and try icing the bottle to get gas to flow, but it doesn’t work. We need to find a fitting that will allow a higher pressure transfer.

A search of hardware stores is fruitless, so this particular task will be put off for another place. Getting one out of two tasks accomplished here- well, that’s not bad. We’re happy enough to roll with this, enjoy a little touristing in Biak, and then get along to the west again.

Keeping the peace

This month’s raft-up topic looks into relationships on board and asks the question: how do you make a relationship work on board?

Exhibit A: the happy couple… or are they?!

Among the more common questions we get asked by non-cruisers is how we manage to live together in such a small space. At 47 feet, Totem is a middling-to-somewhat-above average size for cruising boat- but it’s smaller than the master suite in our land home, and carved up into three sleeping cabins, two heads, and our “main cabin” area. It’s snug by many standards.

This is a sign that the creature in the V-berth probably needs her space for a while

I suppose that the truth is different for every couple, for every family, based on individual personalities involved. Maybe we’re lucky, but the transition for us from sprawling house to compact boat was pretty easy. If we weren’t suited for this kind of life, we probably wouldn’t be here- and one of the big reasons we’re out cruising is because we wanted more time together as a family. But meanwhile, I think that the occasional relationship tension or family problems that crop up have pretty much nothing to do with the fact we live on a boat. They’d almost certainly happen if we were back in suburbia, too- just with different window dressing.

Jamie and I have joked that cruising adds dog years to a partnership. With more time together, the opportunity to figure out how to make things work- or not- happens faster than it might otherwise. We’ve seen some partnerships weaken, and others grow stronger…. just like we would have at home. It’s a mistake to think that going cruising can resolve relationship problems. It’s not an antidote for a troubled relationship; the work to fix it still has to happen.

We all need different things to keep our souls at peace. Expecting harmonious togetherness all day, every day, isn’t a realistic expectation. I need girlfriend time and exercise, so long walks with my friend Diane from Ceilydh before we left Mexico in 2010 were a helpful place to vent any emotional or physical steam of pre-Pacific crossing stress. When we were living at home on Bainbridge Island, my dear friend Tracey would have been the one to help me re-center on one of our morning runs: we worked through everything but world peace in those misty trots. Ultimately, though, being able to talk to your partner about issues, and understanding when they need space, is an important skill weather you live afloat or ashore. Jamie loves to get off the boat for some spearfishing. I love to tag along and try my luck, but realize this is sometimes a fun thing for him to do “away” with friends as well.

Jamie and Mike bringing home the fish-bacon, South Pacific style

Does it help that we all have space we can retreat to when we need alone time? Maybe. There’s not a cabin per person on Totem, we share three between the five of us, but anyone who needs a quiet corner can find it. I know there are bigger families in smaller boats, but three cabins was our magic number: the girls share one, Niall has one, and Jamie and I have one. It means that when someone needs a little alone time, there’s usually a place to disappear for a while and find some peace. When we’re passagemaking, we actually see less of each other, since we divide keeping watch- but that’s only a small fraction of our time.

Living together in a small space may have changed the way we communicate and interact. We haven’t lived ashore since early 2008, but in 2009 we left Totem for a couple of months during the hurricane season and drove around the US. In my parent’s spacious summer home, I remember noticing that we often stayed bunched together, or at least in the same room/area, when there really was no reason to be within touching distance- especially with all the fun and games on offer at the spread, from sandcastle building to hammock swinging or going for a walk to see the horses. So maybe, the bigger question for us will be how we’ll manage to live together if we move back ashore someday.

Overwhelmingly the root causes come down communication, and aren’t boat specific: being able to listen, being able to share what you need, and working through any differences.

Once upon a time on some pretty Polynesian beach, I asked my friend Christine from Stray Kitty how she and her husband managed to avoid relationship tension while working together in the consulting business they had before cruising. We’d already been cruising for a couple of years at that point. Really, from someone who spends all day (and night), seven days a week, in shmushed togetherness with her family- what was I thinking? Sorry, Chris!

Taking a break in the Padaidos

Once the hook is set in our little spot at Mios Manggwandi, there’s little we’d like to do more than have a nice long nap. When we left Jayapura for all we knew we’d be sleeping off some island anchorage that night- not continuing through three nights of passagemaking! But the right thing to do is launch the dinghy and immediately go ashore to ask for permission to anchoring off the village, so that’s exactly what we do.

On shore, we’re told the kepala desa, the village leader, is away in Biak. He’ll be back in another day or two. The people we meet are reticent- a complete contrast to the exuberant “Hey Mister!” vibe in Jayapura- but we’re welcomed, and told it’s no problem to anchor here.  We ask a few questions – are there crocodiles here? (yes, but not this part of the island- it’s safe for swimming) What are those floats off the reef?  (fish traps / holding pens for some, reef markers for others) We’re offered help to come inside the reef and anchor inside the very flat, and amply large, inner bay in front of the village.

The next day, we’re visited by Paul (which sounds more like “powell” in the Indonesian pronounciation). He is entirely unassuming, so it takes us a while to figure out he is, in fact, the kepala desa.  We spend some time talking in the cockpit, sharing stories. Jamie has been towing kids from Totem and Nalukai in the dinghy behind what we have fondly come to know as “the biscuit”- a big inflatable cushion that induces all manner of squealing and hysterics for the kids pulled behind. Paul doesn’t think twice about the invitation to join, just jumps in the dinghy, then hoots and hollers with the best of them while the boat does doughnuts in the bay.

Later, he brings us the Buku Tamu– their village guest book. A handful of names are written for each year. Most are Indonesian officials of one sort or another, but two Aussie researchers were here a couple of years ago. Paul is especially impressed because one of them is proficient not just in Indonesian, but the local Biak language. We have to go back several years before we find another boat listed… a reminder we’re well off the usual path here.

It’s nice to get here and just relax. We’ve been pushing to get west for months now. We wanted to get ahead -well, catch up anyway- with the seasonal winds and currents, and try to avoid contrary conditions. Between debris, traffic and less friendly villages we’d not been looking forward to this stretch across the top of New Guinea, even with the recommendations and waypoints for safe harbors from our friends on Elena and Anui if we had needed to stop each night. But it’s draining overall. Here in the Padaidos, we know we could jump almost halfway across Papua in a single shot- the rest is achievable. Meanwhile, we have earned a break! The long leg before we can turn south feels within reach now.

Sharing our experiences: Totem’s IWAC interview

It’s brilliant, really, and is exactly the kind of site I would love to have drawn from during our years before departure- when I had a lot more questions than answers. We’ve had fun reading it while we had better internet access, and are pretty tickled that she asked us to do an interview, posted this week.

It’s interesting to see how different cruisers respond to the same question- a good reminder that we all approach cruising in our own way, and there aren’t always “right answers.” 

Livia has been on hiatus for a while and isn’t adding new material regularly- just a few stragglers like us- but there is a wealth of knowledge to mine in the archives. So if you’re thinking about cruising, check it out! And if you’re already out there, well, you should still check it out- we can all learn from sharing our experiences with each other.