Passaging west (Vanimo to Biak)

Dec 16th 2019

48 hours after setting off from Ninigo, we motor into Vanimo harbour around 9am on 16 December, right on schedule (this never happens so I remember). Vanimo is the first town we visit on mainland PNG. When prompted, Ninigo Islanders gave Vanimo the thumbs up for safety but warned us not to go to Wewak, which is further east on the mainland. We haven’t necessarily heard of any specific security incidents here but there is a general consensus in the cruising community that it’s not safe so we don’t want to spend the night unless we have to. How fair or unfair this is to the people of Vanimo is still in question - during the day at least, everyone was super friendly and we encountered nothing but wide smiles and warm welcomes wherever we went.

First task of the day is a visit to the Indonesian consulate to submit our visa applications. A kind man offers to walk with us there when we ask for directions. Zig Zag and Family Circus are already there, having arrived earlier. A key person responsible for visa sign off (the consul?) is away for most of the day but they take our applications and are unfailingly polite. After checking out with PNG authorities, we are to return with our passports at 2pm for the visas to be finalised. Next items on the to do list are checking out of PNG, getting enough diesel for three boats and shopping for food. We split into specialised teams and tackle each challenge with gusto. Can this be done in a day? I had my doubts but the ever optimistic Chris from Family Circus is a believer. We can do it!

.A few supermarkets and pharmacies later, the boats are loaded with provisions. Barrels of diesel are sunk into each boat using a local long boat for delivery, a painful process which takes half a day. There is a lot of waiting around on the beach loaded with stuff waiting to be picked up by the designated dingy driver. Not sure what the curious locals made of it all, a bunch of whites radioing from the beach every 10 mins “boat name boat name this is shore team, ready for pick up”. Must have looked pretty funny. I was way too tired and busy to take any photos at the time so you will have to imagine all this.

Some dramatic looking sky in place of non existent Vanimo pictures
At 3pm we realise we are about an hour late for the Indonesian consulate with our passports, so Sayo, Irene and I run back. The reception at the consulate does not look promising with a PNG security guard informing us that they are closed for the day - everyone is gone and we should wait outside. We know this isn’t true as I spot a couple of officials walking in the back garden. After some good natured arguing and refusing to leave one of the Indonesian officials finally relents and comes out to talk. It is now after 4pm, we have not paid and they haven’t even seen our passports yet and as if that wasn’t enough - we need 13 visas to be issued in total. I have all but given up on getting out of Vanimo that day but my companions thankfully have not. Could we travel without visas and tell Indonesian authorities that the consulate was not issuing visas on the day we were there? We are concerned about our safety in Vanimo. We have young kids. The weather is looking bad. And so on and so forth. Let’s just say, this story ends well. The official takes the passports, jots down our mobile numbers and promises to call as soon as the visas are ready - the absent official should be back by 7pm at the latest to sign them off.

We return to the boats to check the weather and await the call. I am not feeling confident but some time after 6, he calls. Visas are ready! Not just ready but will be delivered to the beach only metres from where we are anchored. Miracles do happen! We are all relieved we don’t have to spend the night in Vanimo and as if to prove our point, a suspicious looking long boat lurks around Family Circus after dark.

We have a quick dinner and set off around 9pm. The weather forecast looks bad with westerlies hitting us the whole time and getting stronger every day. The plan is to be somewhere nice for Christmas, but first stop is the island and town of Biak in Papua province, to check in to Indonesia. That’s 330 miles motoring straight into headwinds. We are too tired to be sentimental about leaving PNG after a long passage and running around all day. But once I have time to reflect (and we have a lot of time on this slow, painful passage), it is bitter sweet saying good bye. PNG, I will miss you.

We bob painfully for five days rejoicing at any speed over 3 knots. At one point, I swear we are actually going backwards. The jungle covered mountains of Papua all look the same (prehistoric & achingly beautiful - but not for 5 days straight).

Cloud covered Papua
After Jayapura which we pass a few hours after leaving Vanimo, there are no towns or villages visible on the coast. Very early on the first morning, Irene from Zig Zag radioes to say a speed boat of 7 men motored up to their boat, shone a torch inside and yelled when she came up to check things out. She thought they were getting boarded for sure. I like to think they were fishermen warning her about fish attracting devices ahead (of which we have spotted several as soon as we sailed into Indonesian waters). This is pretty much the only interesting thing that happens on the entire trip and in my sleep deprived and hallucinatory state, I almost wish several times someone would board us. Preferably a rescue boat but anyone faster than us would do.
Fishing boats gathered around a fish attracting device on the left, marked by a flag

We try some sailing one day (in the wrong direction obviously) out of a desperate need to feel the boat actually moving. This is all me, as Graham prefers crawling in the right direction.

This passenger ferry was a bit of a novelty
When I read sailing blogs which rave about passaging I often wonder if we are doing it all wrong. Is there a magic formula for enjoying headwinds? If there is, I am sure it involves lots of crew and horse tranquilisers because no matter how tired I am, I cannot sleep with waves smashing into the boat. It’s irregular, loud and extremely annoying. I lie in bed after my watch in a sort of daze, nodding off only to be woken up every few minutes. On watch, my eyes settle on a landmark, perhaps a tall tree or a big rock,and an hour later, I am still looking at the same thing. Well the passage picture has been painted folks. But we did get some nice sunsets.
Boat bobs up
Boat bobs down

Bruised and battered, we arrived into Biak town on the morning of 21 December. Our joy cannot be sufficiently expressed in words alone. We are greeted by the call to prayer coming from every mosque in town and it feels like a personal welcome. Yes, we have arrived Indonesia. Thank you!

The anchor is finally down in Biak
The place gives off an exotic feel and although tired, I can’t wait to explore.