Our recent crossing from Borneo to the Malay peninsula is probably the last multi-day passage we’ll have for a while. Breezes funneling up from the Indian Ocean give us a nice angle to reach across, so hopes were high for a good sail. We've had precious little of those here in the land below the wind!
This is also a stretch of the South China Sea that has been a significant contributor to Indonesia’s current status as the highest piracy rate globally. Before anyone worries that we’re taking foolish risks, consider that not a single one of those attacks has been against a private cruising boat. Commercial ships are the target. We did not feel that we were compromising our safety by taking this route, but we did feel a heightened sense of awareness for our surroundings.
As it turns out, we had the only negative experiences in six months of passing through Indonesian waters.
The first came from a motley looking boat. It was a pretty typical Indonesian fishing boat: mis-matched paint, tired on every dimension, fishing gear hanging off the back, national flag snapping in the breeze. They were running a longline out the back, and staying relatively stationary when we spotted them ahead of us. As we approached, they moved to try and cut across our bow- despite having extensive gear behind the boat.
We were carried about sixty degrees over before getting enough oomph (thank you, Yanmar 4JH3TE) to get in front of them, and cut back over. At that point, they waved. Yeah, thanks a lot guys.
We’ve heard that this is a ploy used to try and extort money: having crossed a boats line or nets and ruining them (not to mention, completely fouling the sailboats prop and likely stopping progress), you are kind of at their mercy to make things right. Not cool. A second boat, nearly identical boat waited about a mile ahead- but we diverted to put distance between us and their effort to cut our way was relatively meager.
It was the second incident that was somewhat sobering, although it had less direct affect upon our boat and little crew. As we sailed south of the Anandas island group, we were approached by a relatively small, unmarked wooden boat. With a lone crew and no fishing gear, but a very large VHF antenna strapped on top, we assume this was a scout for a larger pirate vessel. Small Indonesian fishing boats do not use VHF, and they certainly don’t mount monster antennae on their little coach roof to boost the reach.
It zoomed up to us, checked us out, but didn't try to impair our progress. We continued reaching comfortably across the glassy seas. Claire and I smiled and waved, and eventually coaxed a friendly response. A few miles later, a virtually identical boat appeared for a repeat performance. Unnerving, unusual, but not threatening.
Would we go through here again? Sure. Does it make me think about how piracy could evolve in this area? Absolutely. There are very different dynamics in place than off the horn of Africa, but it's not hard to imagine how pirates could make the leap from merchant ship targeting to ransom-value small vessel targeting.
Thanks to Claire Suni for the photo.