Eve of destruction

Back in early August when we arrived in Bandneira we heard the news that Lombok, one of our scheduled rally stops, and an island described in guidebooks as “like Bali used to be,” had suffered an earthquake. We combed the news for details and asked our organizers if we would still make the stop, figuring an island struggling for basic needs didn’t need 42 foreign yachts showing up expecting a party.

A week later the same island was hit with another, bigger, 7.0 earthquake causing hundreds of deaths and heavy destruction. For weeks, wave after wave of aftershocks continue to rock the island and we asked daily if it was wise to descend on a devastated community. “We’ll let you know,” we were told, again and again.

As we monitored the situation the fleet carried on to Buton, to Flores, to Labuanbajo and Komodo. Three weeks after the largest aftershock we were assured that yes, we will still go to Lombok. In fact, we were told, the hosts begged the rally not to cancel. They were knocked down, they told our organizers, “but we can still dance.”

After Komodo we had a few hundred miles to go to Lombok, a coastal journey complicated by the usual fishing nets, unmarked floating FADS, and squid boats, plus adverse currents and less-than-ideal anchorages. Jack was still recovering from his infection and the after effects of antibiotics so we intended to take it easy to the extent we could and daysail it.

For some of the journey we sailed in the company of Lane and Kay on Mai Tai. The weather, if not the wind, cooperated for the most part and we had pleasant days and quiet nights.

The anchorages along Sambawa are deep with a very narrow shallow shelf close to shore. At night our challenge was to get over the shelf and our anchor dug in with enough chain to keep us there but not enough to swing too close to land in case the wind changed 180°. Most nights we managed. We monitored our position with our charts and also by noting where Mai Tai was relative to us.

One dark night I awoke for no discernible reason and went out on deck to appreciate the magnificent starry sky. I couldn’t see Mai Tai and became disoriented in the fun-house blackness. Were we turned around? Am I looking in the wrong place? I checked the chart. No, Mai Tai should be right over there, and yet I couldn’t see an anchor light. Odd, I thought, and I woke Jack.

“Mai Tai’s gone,” I said, and I pointed to where they should be. Jack checked our position, as I had, and we both wondered if they decided to weigh anchor and leave. It was a puzzle, but all was well aboard EV so we went back to bed.

When the sun rose we spotted Mai Tai about a quarter mile off shore, bobbing peacefully. I hailed them on the radio. “Did you move?” I asked, and after a pause Lane answered, “Yeah, we just noticed that.” Turns out the weight of their chain pulled the anchor off the narrow shelf and with chain and anchor dangling down in 200+ feet of water the heavy boat just drifted slowly away from land in the windless hours overnight. It was lucky that there were no obstacles to hit and aside from a bit of a scare, no harm no foul. But holy cow!

The next night we faced the very same anchoring conditions, and both boats took extra care to be well over the shelf with enough scope to hold but not enough to fall off into deep water. About 3am something in the motion of the boat woke me and once again out on deck I couldn’t see Mai Tai where I thought she should be. I checked our position on the chart and whoops! EV had drifted slowly away from land, chain and anchor dangling straight down and touching nothing.

In a repeat of the previous night I awoke Jack, but this time we pulled up the anchor and inched slowly back toward shore. It was inky black with near zero visibility, and with me at the helm Jack stood in the bow and called back instructions as he gently guided us toward the now visible anchor light of Mai Tai. Since they were still safely stuck to the shelf we wanted to get as close to them as we could without endangering either boat.

As you can see, charts of Indonesia don’t have much detail. We have to rely on satellite images when we can get them, EV’s depth sounders, and our own senses and experience. These two nights taught us that even in perfectly calm conditions it’s possible to drag or drift into unsafe territory and only the luck afforded to spunky fools by the sailing gods kept us from potential disaster.

We weren’t looking forward to crossing the Alas Strait to Lombok, known for a strong current and a southern inter-island venturi that kicks the seas up. We monitored the boats crossing ahead of us and marked the chart where they reported getting suddenly slammed with high winds, and also where the wind died just as suddenly. We plotted a course that would put the high wind on the best quarter and waited, as we usually do, for the most favorable conditions. Our care paid off and while it was still an uncomfortable couple of hours, we dropped anchor behind a low island in calm water for our last night underway on this journey.

The following day as we motorsailed along the northern coast of Lombok we trained the binoculars along the shore and began to see what we could only conclude was earthquake damage. Villages marked on the chart seemed to be completely missing, and it dawned on us that bright white mounds were in fact piles of rubble from collapsed buildings. We were passing the area most affected by the quake and I felt heavy in my heart.

The anchorage at Medana Bay is long and narrow, squeezed between two reefs extending well off shore. We dropped anchor toward the back of those who had already arrived, happy to be safely hooked but dreading what we would find when we landed.

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One Response to Eve of destruction

  1. Yikes! Pretty hairy anchoring conditions!

    Appreciate your sensitivity in visiting an area just hit by a natural disaster. I know you’ll find a way to help in some way while there; it’s in your nature. If nothing else, it sounds like the locals want a chance to feel like they’re doing something normal.

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