Features September 1, 2000 Issue

Offshore Log: Paradise Lost

Trouble in the western Pacific and Southeast Asia gives cruisers pause when planning itineraries. The crew of Calypso, for one, plans to scoot on through to the Indian Ocean with little time for looking around.

Events on small islands on the far side of the world have little impact on most Americans, but they can dramatically change the plans of cruising sailors. This year has been particularly bad in the far western Pacific and the islands of Southeast Asia. Areas that have long been a type of paradise for cruisers have been wracked by political and religious violence, rendering them marginal or clearly unsafe for cruising.

Unlike the peaceful, idyllic anchorages we
visited, such as Bora Bora above, problems
in the western Pacific like the Solomon
Islands, Fiji, Timor and elsewhere, have
forced cruisers to change their plans.

East Timor
It all began in Timor last year. The Indonesian government has for years kept East Timor, with its longstanding independence movement, off limits to cruising sailors. It took an international peacekeeping force to halt fighting between East Timorese liberation groups and the Indonesian military, and it probably will be a long time before the region is open for cruising. Kupang, at the western end of Timor, was a logical entry point for cruisers wishing to visit eastern Indonesian islands such as Komodo on the way north and west towards Bali and Singapore. You’d think twice about it now.

The annual race from Darwin, Australia, to Ambon in the Moluccas was a great way to gain entry into eastern Indonesia. You can forget about it. Fighting between Christians and Muslims has torn Ambon apart and left unknown numbers dead. It’s almost too dangerous even for journalists, much less cruisers. As of this year, the Darwin to Ambon Race is no more.

Eastern Malaysia
Muslim rebels from the southern Philippines invaded an island dive resort in May, and have since held a group of westerners and Malaysians as hostages in their fight for independence from the Christian-dominated Philippines. There’s no sign to the end of that struggle, although the government in Manila claims to have overrun the main Muslim headquarters. In the meantime, don’t take a dive vacation in the Celebes Sea, and don’t even consider taking a sailboat there unless you have a strong wish to become a pawn in a long-running quasi-religious insurrection.

The Solomon Islands
The Solomons have special significance for many Americans, as it was here that the US finally began to turn back the inexorable Japanese advance toward Australia in the grim days of 1942. As a cruising ground the Solomons have been a benchmark separating truly adventurous cruisers from the rest of us.

Riddled with malaria, with waters infested with saltwater crocodiles and sharks, the Solomons have never been easy cruising. Just last year, a cruiser was taken by a croc as he snorkeled to check his anchor.

But these are still enticing islands, strewn with the wreckage of war. Henderson Field, carved out of the hostile jungle by the US Marines, is still the airport for the Solomons. Anyone who has read Guadalcanal Diary will know Henderson Field, and the sacrifice it took to capture and hold it. The battle for Guadalcanal and the rest of the Solomons was a major, costly triumph for the Marines and the US Navy, and is one of the defining battle campaigns for the Corps.

This year, there are other dangers. Conflict between natives of Guadalcanal and neighboring islanders who have settled there erupted into violence featuring homemade guns and a makeshift tank adapted from a Caterpillar tractor encased in sheet-metal armor. The prime minister was taken hostage, and an Australian naval vessel was dispatched to try to quell the disturbance by buying off the combatants—a remarkably pragmatic approach.

It would take a pretty gutsy cruiser—a lot tougher than this son of a Marine—to cruise the Solomons this year.

Perhaps the saddest of all is the fate of Fiji, a classic cruising ground for generations of South Pacific sailors. In May, a failed businessman and hoodlum masquerading as a Fijian nationalist invaded Parliament, deposing the democratically elected government. His racially charged rhetoric struck a chord with many ethnic Fijians, and the country began to come apart at the seams.

The hostage crisis dragged on for months before resolution. The ouster of the elected government and the creation of a government appointed by the military has led to sanctions from overseas trading partners, particularly Australia and New Zealand. Ethnic violence directed towards Fiji’s large Indian minority, which dominates the country’s business dealings, deteriorated into random violence and chaos, including prison breaks.

Many cruisers remained in Fiji during the troubles, expecting a peaceful resolution. It’s not likely to happen, and the prospect of civil war threatens to completely destroy a country held up as an example to other developing nations. “Nationalists” seized the airport at one point, and shut down power and water to the capital, Suva. Several upscale resorts were invaded by locals, with Americans and other tourists held hostage until settlements for “land claims” were paid. That’s another term for ransom.

Fiji, a true bit of paradise, is headed down the tubes, and will probably become a place to avoid.

The Rest
In none of these places is violence directed at cruisers, but they may well become targets of opportunity. Civil unrest breeds gratuitous violence. The chances of getting caught in the crossfire of local conflicts is simply too great for most of us to deal with.

And then, or course, there is the violence which may directly target cruisers: piracy. With its narrow straits and tens of thousand of islands, Southeast Asia is a pirate’s heaven. Cruising in some of this area is the nautical equivalent of a walk in Central Park at night. You may get away with it, but is it worth the risk?

Sadly, our trip up through Southeast Asia over the next few months will probably be the equivalent of travel to the pyramids of Egypt via armed convoy. We anticipate leaving Darwin, Australia at the same time as several other boats to cover the 1,000 miles to Bali, Indonesia. From there, we may well make the 1,000 miles to Singapore without stopping, and in close company.

Our cruising from now until Christmas will require more vigilance than normal. Once we leave Australia, we have more than the usual concerns of navigation in constrained waters with rapidly changing weather. Sadly, we have to worry about human predators as well.

Having boat insurance is no consolation, by the way. Our policy through an underwriter at Lloyds of London specifically excludes acts of piracy or rebellion. If we get caught in the crossfire or have our boat taken by pirates or revolutionaries, it’s our tough luck. That’s not a particularly comforting thought when your boat and its contents constitute most of your worldly possessions.

Instead, we have to be pro-active: travel in company, avoid trouble spots, and when in doubt, just keep moving.

The next few months will definitely not be a leisurely cruise through paradise.

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