Surfing from Darwin to Ambon

Caroline Strainig shares some memories and pictures of the 2008 Darwin to Ambon Yacht Race & Rally and reports on plans for this year's event.

Surfing the net can get you into trouble. For years I had thought it would be great to sail to Indonesia, fuelled by the stories I had edited in CH. Then one day when I was skimming through boat-related websites I saw a skipper advertising for crew on a share-cost basis. It didn’t take much for me to decide that the time was ripe for me to put in my leave form and abandon my desk for the 600-odd-nautical-mile passage from Darwin to Ambon.

Two months later I was at Darwin airport lugging a boat bag, rucksack and camera bag and a few days later I had the honour of being on the helm of the Wilf O’Kell-designed 33-tonne ferrocement sloop Maralinga as we crossed the start line of the second annual Darwin – Ambon Race & Rally. On board in addition to myself were skipper and owner John and his wife Jenny, couple Marie-Eve and Mathieu from Canada, Vicki from the UK and Anthony from Melbourne.

Light winds
The 2008 race was plagued by light winds, so it took us almost a week to get to Ambon instead of the expected four days, with one 24-hour period where we were drifting backwards. A heavy ferrocoment displacement boat does not go well in non-existent or one or two-knot winds — a fact we had much time to dwell on during the almost one week of four-hour-on, four-hour-off shifts. We had crew meetings a couple of times to discuss whether to abandon the race and motor, but opted to hang in “just one more day”.

Eventually the point of no return had been reached, and we had to just keep sailing, come what may, or face the fact that all the hours of hand-steering in the doldrums had been a waste of effort.

Not surprisingly given the weather and her displacement, Maralinga finished last over the line by a long way, but she surprised us all by coming a creditable eighth on handicap. With any breeze she will rocket
along, and I would be surprised not to see her right up in the placegetters this year.

Once we made landfall, we had several days in Ambon, a regional centre, before cruising around to Hila on the north of Ambon Island (home to Fort Amsterdam, an ancient fort) and then onto Nolot on Saparua Island. We then headed south to the world-renowned diving spot of Banda, where Marie-Eve and Mathieu and I had to leave the next day to catch a ferry back to Ambon to make connecting flights to Bali and on home. The ferry goes only every week and a half or so and plane flights are unreliable.

A monsoonal trough settled over us and the weather was almost non-stop drizzle or worse, but the sun did manage to poke its head through occasionally for a moment and let us appreciate what a special region this is. Ambon is somewhat industrial, but the Indonesians really pulled out all the stops for the race festivities, and there were some natural local attractions, such as the hot springs out in the countryside. The more out-of-the-way villages and islands were unspoilt, the people friendly and the children beside themselves at having yachts call in.

The three of us who had to leave Banda early all delighted in the quick snorkel we managed to slip in. Gliding through the water gazing at the bright coral and fish made all the hard yakka of getting there worth it. Other cruisers we spoke to raved about climbing to the top of Banda’s volcano.

I cannot wait to return to Indonesia with more time and in hopefully better weather. (Apparently it fined up as soon as we left — Murphy’s law.)

What did I learn?
• Don’t leave anything to chance. Our skipper had cruised Indonesia 10 times before, and fellow skippers had been painstaking in preparing their boats, but there were still problems and the radio in Ambon was a litany of “Does anyone know a good diesel mechanic?” “My batteries aren’t charging”etc etc.

• Do a shakedown cruise and fix anything that might conceivably be nearing its service or use-by date. Not that that helps sometimes — even our brand-new portable fridge broke down and the electrician on
board, Anthony, was unable to fix it, at least by the time I left the boat. Take spares for anything and everything because you will find them hard to get in Indonesia.

• Don’t skimp on the anchor gear. Because of the steep drop-offs most boats have to anchor stern-to the shore. You need a really good-sized, good holding anchor like the Rocna reviewed in the March issue of CH, plus a stern line of 100m that is light and strong and you can deploy easily.

• Likewise, ensure you have a good rain catcher unless you enjoy lugging water.

• Disposing of rubbish will be a real headache, so try and provision with this in mind and minimise non-biodegradable stuff. Race officials organised rubbish disposal in Ambon but elsewhere it was non-existent.

• As Maria Grigg has mentioned in past stories on Indonesia, take the trouble to learn at least a few basic phrases of the local language. You will not find many Indonesians who speak English, particularly in the more outlying villages and islands. You will be a magnet for the local school teacher and his class, and they really enjoy interacting with you. The standard greeting is “Hey, mister!” and we had great fun in one village teaching the children the difference between mister and missus.

• You are going to be sharing a small space with other people for a fair while so chill out and go with the flow. You need to be tactful and not take negative comments to heart. This not only applies to crewing on a boat with strangers, but also many cruising couples who suffers cabinfever.

• Take seasickness tablets with you that you know work for you. We were lucky in the respect waters were very slight, but bashing to Banda with the wind on the nose several of us started to feel sick. I’m told in a normal race you can get seas up to five metres and because of the spray the boat has to be shut up tight, turning it into a pitching sauna for some of the passage.

• Be careful with your laundry. The hotel in Ambon lost some of mine, and I know other people who were given the wrong laundry. Luckily, they noticed in time to return it. However, I was not so lucky and someone out there is wearing my favourite CH zip-up sloppy joe!

• And last and by no means least — You cannot get a 30-day visa on arrival at Ambon port — only in Ambon airport, a fact the two Canadians aboard and I discovered the hard way, spending 24 hours upon
arrival in Ambon confined to the boat while the hardworking race organisers tried to sort out the problem with Indonesian officials. Play it safe and get an extendible 60-day social visa in Darwin before setting sail.

Plans for this year
The organisers of the Darwin to Ambon are hoping for a strong fleet of yachts this year after receiving more than 30 expressions of interest as of mid-February.

Colin Blair of the Dinah Beach Cruising Yacht Association said exact numbers would not be known until entries closed on June 12, but the early strong interest augured well for this, the third event.

“The event had six entries in 2007 and 17 in 2008 and we hope the fleet will gradually increase to around 80–100, although this year might suffer slightly due to the current world economic crisis,” he said.

Blair said the event had a lot to offer cruisers, both as an event in its own right and as a stepping stone for exploring SE Asia.

“The event is fully supported by three tiers of government in Indonesia and Australia and the costs are partly offset by the financial support of the Northern Territory Government, Darwin City Council and the Dinah Beach Cruising Yacht Association,” he said.

“Ambon, the capital of the Spice Islands, has a population of around 300,000 and the yachties are warmly welcomed because they generally support all sectors of the community when they relax after the trip and shop for family gifts and yachting supplies.”

Blair said last year some cruisers who visited Kupang ran foul of authorities, who tried to charge owners a bond, but high-level negotiations with ministers from the Indonesian Government in Jakarta should hopefully fix the problem as far as rally participants were concerned this year.

“Every skipper will carry a letter requesting that no bond be required provided the yacht complied with the duration and conditions of the CAIT,” he said.

After the presentation in Ambon this year the majority of the fleet are expected to sail north via Ternate Manado to participate in the Sail Bunaken regatta.

“For those skippers tracking towards Asia they can sail the waters of Brunei (see,” Blair said.

Blair reminded would-be entrants that July was the busiest time of the year in Darwin and berths at the marinas were scarce, so many would have to anchor in the harbour and commute with their dinghies.

The race will depart Darwin on July 18 at 11am.

Interested skippers can access full details at At the time of going to press there were still some skippers advertising for crew on (this is where the editor found her berth last year).

Sail Indonesia Rally
The Darwin to Ambon is not the only Oz-Indonesia event, and the Sail Indonesia Rally will also depart Darwin on July 18. This rally traditionally heads first for Kupang, but because of the bond problems
last year organisers may instead offer participants a choice of Ambon, or Saumlaki (290nm north of Darwin) as their clearing-in port instead. This rally will also act as a feeder to other SE Asia events.

For more info visit

2008 Handicap Results

1st Kishka
2nd Cruise Missile

1st Jasmin
2nd Marjani
3rd Lothlorien
4th Balladier
5th Marrawudi
6th Cloudy Bay
7th Hepzibah
8th Maralinga
9th Sea Fox
10th Malaika
11th Serenity
12th Helsal
DNF Enigma, Diva and
Warna Carina

Third time lucky in 2009
While this year’s event is being promoted as the third, it is only the third in the current series. The Darwin-Ambon Race & Rally started in 1976 and was held until 1999, when it was suspended due to unrest in the Ambon region.

A deputation from Ambon visited Darwin in 2006 with the view to getting the event established again.

The Dinah Beach Cruising Yacht Association Inc were approached and undertook to organise the event, provided that Ambon was a safe and secure destination for the skippers and crews.

Three Dinah Beach members flew to Ambon and spent a few days looking around and speaking to officials and the two main religious groups, on their return to Darwin they had no hesitation in recommending that the classic race be recommenced.

The Cruising Yacht Association of the Northern Territory Inc (CYANT) were the main organising body until 1999.

In memory of Ali van Os

CH would like to dedicate this article to the memory of Ali van Os, 16, who competed in the race last year in Malaika with her mother and father and was killed earlier this year in an accident in Thailand.

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