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Sailing back to Australia from SE Asia

By Sue Richards last modified Feb 29, 2012 02:15 PM

Published: 2012-02-29 14:15:33
Topics: Routing
Countries: Australia , East Timor (Timor Leste) , Indonesia , Malaysia , Palau (Belau) , Papua New Guinea , Philippines

Posted 16 December 2011

Our trip back through Indonesia to the east coast of Australia is practically complete now with all 9 yachts who started from Borneo being on the east coast and heading south to their various destinations. The trip was enjoyable, comfortable and a relatively easy route with plenty of towns and villages for provisions. I intend that my cruising notes be hosted on the Sail Indonesia web site as many yachts using that rally would be interested in read how they might return if not continuing on to the Med or Africa. There is not a lot of relevant information easily available at this time although I wrote an article on our 2010 trip when we followed this route and it has just been published in the November edition of Cruising Helmsman. The 2010 passage was a fast delivery trip with few stops.

I have included my recent notes on the 2011 experience and recommendations below.

Dave Bowden
SY This Way Up

Sailing Back to the Australian East Coast from South East Asia


The trade off in a return to Australia from south east Asia is getting to the east coast of Queensland late enough in the year that the south east trades have lessened but before the cyclone season picks up. Rounding Cape York in mid to late November is a suitable compromise while as late as December can still be OK but early tropical depressions and cyclones can develop at that time. The passage down the Queensland coast always involves waiting for a suitable lessening of the prevailing south east winds of 20-25 kts. A south east wind at 15-20 kts is about standard conditions for November but periods of lesser winds or with more easterly component can occur if the ridge of high pressure along the coast is modified.

There are four basic routes that can be considered but not all involve crossing the Gulf of Carpentaria. Jimmy Connell of Noonsite is often asked questions about this area and a review of that internet site is recommended as there are excellent cruising notes on Indonesia, weather and routing discussion.

The following information and recommendations are based on personal experience of two trips from Borneo to Brisbane in 2010 and 2011 as well as information from numerous yachts that have returned by the other routes. An account of the 2010 fast yacht delivery trip can be seen in the 2011 November edition of Cruising Helmsman. The 2011 passage was organized as a cruise in loose company with 9 yachts based on the experience gained in 2010. The absence of an overarching formal Rally organization was a benefit as villages and authorities did not ramp up for events with inflated expectations, prices for fuel and services etc.

Navigation using OpenCPN and Cmap charts was used. Cmap charts were reasonably good but with limited detailed coverage of bays and anchorages.

See OpenCPN website here for downloads, discussion forums etc.

Option 1 (to Darwin)

Many yachts have returned in the past by retracing the west bound Sail Indonesia route back through Bali and clearing out at Kupang then heading to Darwin to clear in to Australia. You can either head direct from Kupang to Darwin or track along the north coast of Timor until you reach the eastern end of the island before heading south. Other yachting events use Saumlaki as a point of departure but it is not normally a clearance port. The currents in this area and around the north tip of Timor are fierce. This route gives you a better sailing angle into the south east trades while the direct route from Kupang is almost head to wind and will involve tacking. . If you have cleared out of Indonesia and wish to take a break on your passage east you can stopover in Dili in Timor Leste, please see the “Sail Timor Leste website”: for details about visiting Timor Leste with your yacht. However once you have reached Darwin, the route to Gove is all upwind unless you are very lucky with the weather pattern. The first challenge is getting out of Van Diemen Gulf and past Cape Don. Then head upwind to the Hole in the Wall and on to Gove. From there it is across the Gulf of Carpentaria then down the east coast of Queensland, all of this is upwind during October and November. Experienced local sailors say that by leaving Darwin in late November better winds are more likely to be experienced.

Option 2 (to Gove)

Depart from Borneo (Sandakan or Tawau) and sail over the top of Sulawesi and down past Ambon to clear Indonesian authorities at Tual (Kai Islands) then head for Gove. While Thursday Island is a possible entry port for Australia the wind conditions in Torres Strait are likely to be worse than at Seisia. In past years yachts have reported that sailing to Thursday Island was very tough unless unusually light wind conditions occur. One yacht spent 3 weeks in Horn Island waiting for a break in the winds after it used an unusually light wind opportunity to clear in at Thursday Island.

Option 3 (via Palau or Helens Reef north of equator)

This option involves heading east from Borneo or the Philippines and sail over the top of PNG staying north of the equator till far enough east that you can turn SW and sail against the south east trades. The aim here is to find the east running counter equatorial current on the north side of the equator. Some yachts sail as far north as Palau but Helens Reef is nearer and may be used as a stop but there is only a Palau government outpost here – no fuel or food. This route may require you to sail a long way east past Bougainville Island as once you come south of the equator, the trade winds hit you together with an adverse current and it is hard yards. Sailing through PNG has security implications although there is a trade off between how much continuous sailing you wish to do versus island hopping along the north coast. This option could involve almost a month of continuous sailing if you do not wish to stop at PNG islands but it avoids the need to cross the Gulf of Carpentaria and face the south east trades down the north Queensland coast.

Option 4 (over PNG via Louisiades)

The final option is to depart from Borneo and cruise along the northern islands of Indonesia and clear out of Indonesia at Jayapura and enter PNG at Vanimo or some suitable PNG port. Again there are security issues when island hopping along the north PNG coast. This route will require an Indonesian CAIT and two sets of Visas. The best time to travel this route is early to mid year but even so there are likely to be strong adverse currents and head winds encountered. Starting later in the year (eg October) is probably worse and can be most difficult encountering strong headwinds and adverse currents till turning south towards the Louisiades. 2010 was a particularly bad year and all yachts reported it as the trip from hell with motoring into strong winds and current for weeks on end without any chance of getting an angle on the wind.


If there are no other objectives apart from an easy, safe return to the east coast of Australia with minimum overnight passages, Option 2 is the recommended route. A clearance and departure from Sandakan or Tawau is fairly routine but Tawau is recommended as there is an excellent Indonesian Consulate there which will issue a 2 month Social Visa in less than a day (2011 experience). Additionally the Malaysian port clearance and immigration offices are within walking distance of the anchorage outside the Tawau Yacht Club. International yacht clearances in Sandakan require a taxi to the main port centre about 11 km out of town. Both ports have good support services, fuel, markets and supermarkets as well as a yacht club. While a direct track to the north tip of Sulawesi is straight forward and involves about a 4 night sail, there are many steel ‘torpedo’ mooring buoys located across the Celebes Sea. These FADS are regularly found in over 4000 m depths and occasional fishing boats may be seen attached to these buoys. They are moored to a 200 litre drum of concrete – amazing. Departure from Tawau heading for the nearest north-west corner of Sulawesi (crossing Selat Makasar) minimizes exposure to these hazards and involves a passage of about 2 nights but some mooring buoys will still be encountered. The additional benefit of this route is the opportunity to day-hop along the north coast of Sulawesi. While winds through Indonesia are generally light (less than 10 kts), squalls with rain and stronger winds should be expected particularly while the crossing to Sulawesi.

There two basic ways to transit through Indonesian waters along this route.

The fastest and most direct route but involving continuous motor sailing between refueling stops, is via Kima Bajo (just north of Manado as anchorage at Manado is virtually impossible because of depths and exposure) or Bitung (good protected anchorage in good depths and a clearance port), then south east past Ambon (unless stopping for fuel and provisions) to Banda (a delightful group of islands), Tual (clearance out of Indonesia) and on to Gove. Saumlaki has no clearance facilities (in 2011) but all locations have fuel, markets and basic to very good services. Manado is a very large and congested city, Bitung is smaller but a major port, Ambon is big but unattractive for yachties and Tual is basic but is the only clearance port after Ambon.

The more enjoyable route is to day hop along the above route to Tual and on to the islands of Aru before departing for Gove. All the villages along this route had fresh markets, fuel and some basic services. There is a need to do a few overnight passages. Anchorages will be found on average about 50 nm apart but some legs will involve longer days. The OpenCPN route files for this option are numbered and named by their start and end points. In OpenCPN select the Route Manager Icon and import these routes. Anchorages are shown with additional information contained in the properties dialogue box.

Fuel and Provisions

Regardless of the route, fuel and provisions are readily available at most villages and certainly the bigger towns. Fuel for yachts is not generally available from service stations but good reasonably clean fuel was available at most villages. Transfer to jerry cans is via an open 200 litre drum using a dipper. Filtering is recommended. Fuel biocide treatment is not generally used in Asia so ensure you have obtained plenty from Australia before starting on this voyage. Only one yacht claimed to have been given bad fuel.

Clearance Ports

A search of the internet to check on Indonesian clearance ports can be confusing. While yachts have used a variety of ports, the recommended procedure is to clear in at Ternate and out at Tual. The only difficulty encountered was at Ternate. Customs procedures for handling transiting yachts in Ternate were undeveloped, complicated and confusing. However clearance in (without any reference to a Customs Bond) was achieved after several return visits and lots of form filling. Other yachts used Manado (not recommended) Bitung (an authorized clearance port). Ambon was avoided because of harbour pollution and the extra miles involved in accessing that harbour. Saumlaki is not a clearance port but has fuel and provisions. Tual is a protected anchorage with easy access to Government offices. Polite patience was the key to a successful outcome.


A departure from Borneo in mid to late September with a 6-8 week cruise through Indonesia should position you at Aru in late October or early November for the crossing to Gove via the Hole in the Wall or possibly north of Cape Wessel. The Arafura Sea crossing involves a 2-3 overnight passage and if good conditions are encountered it is an enjoyable port tack trip all the way. The most easterly comfortable anchorage in Indonesia to start this passage was Pulau Enu on the south east corner of Aru. Dobo (north west coast of Aru) is the last town of any significance where provisions and fuel are available. Some fuel (at a premium) may be had at the abandoned Naval Base on the inlet at the south west corner of Aru. There seems to be no village or habitation on Pulau Enu apart from itinerant fishermen and their boats..


Wind conditions in Indonesia will gradually lighten through October and November but motor sailing will be the norm. However the Arafura Sea is affected by pressure patterns in Australia and south east trades prevail and strengthen as you approach Aru. Ideal conditions for the crossing to Gove are likely when there is no high pressure system in southern or eastern Australia, a large trough or front has passed through north eastern Australia and/or a low pressure system is established in the Kimberleys. All these systems help to stem the prevailing south east trades and generate a weaker more east/north east wind. The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) regularly transmits (by HF voice and weather FAX) forecasts and prognostic charts. If internet is available interactive weather patterns of many Australian and Asian areas can be viewed through the BOM site.

Internet and phone

Phone and Internet coverage through Indonesia is extensive but with almost no internet download capacity in more remote areas. Larger cities (Manado, Bitung, Ambon, Tual etc) have good download speeds but elsewhere along this route internet is unreliable. While phone coverage is good the quality of service is poor resulting in some difficulty in getting clear communications. There is no phone or internet coverage in southern Aru.

ATMs, money etc.

ATMs are available in the larger towns but not the villages. Most large banks support Visa and some support only Mastercard (e.g. at Banda). It is important to budget and have the necessary funds available to buy fuel, provisions and support services. Cash is king in the villages and smaller towns and money changers incur a premium if they can be found. Fuel is the major expense as there will be lots of motor sailing so be prepared with plenty of cash for fuel.

Spares and yacht maintenance

It is important to have your yacht in good condition with a suitable range of spare parts on board plus oils, filters and other consumables. There are no facilities for sail repairs on this route so if you have doubts about your sails’ robustness, ensure you carry a good supply of contact glue, Dacron, webbing etc to effect repairs. Gluing seams may not be pretty but the result is strong and should get you home. Likewise adhesives such as Sikka are worth their weight and space when the need arises.


While a transit through Indonesia without a CAIT and Visa is possible in an emergency, it is not recommended and sets a poor example for later yachts cruising the area. A CAIT can be obtained from a number of reliable and efficient sources at a modest cost. A 2 month Social Visa was quickly obtained in Tawau when supported by the CAIT, a short letter explaining why the Visa was required and the usual forms and passport photos. During the 2011 voyage all yachts were asked for copies of passports or had papers examined at some stage by Police or Navy. All of this was managed politely and routinely and generally without requests for additional items or ‘gifts’. There was particular emphasis on whether we carried any weapons.

Locals & Security

The people in the villages, towns and cities along the way were invariably helpful, interested in our activity and hospitable. As few yachts visited these areas, we were always a major attraction and although often overcome by the number of canoes and visitors, they were mostly delightful and polite. We had no incidents of theft in Indonesia, but several brazen night boardings with serious theft occurred in Kudat and Sandakan. The lesson is to have external alarms fitted if possible, do not leave items on deck or unsecured and lock the doors and hatches at night.

OpenCPN and Google Earth

OpenCPN is a cooperatively developed free and very capable navigation system utilizing Cmap and other charts. It is readily downloaded from the internet and has some very useful plug in features. One of these is the ability to link OpenCPN to stored downloaded Google Earth (GE) image files for later use enabling zooming, panning etc with good detail around the selected area of interest. This feature was used extensively to find, refine and even navigate into good coral free shelving anchorages which were not obvious from chart information. It became routine to select anchorages by reference to these GE images and when required with actual GPS data feeding into OpenCPN/GE plugin we could navigate to the anchoring position along a reef edge late in the day. Not an ideal situation but better than any other system or procedure.

Routes, tracks and waypoints can be exported and imported in GPX format which is a developing non proprietary standard.

Many thanks for getting in touch re. the missing files. We have been unable to link to these via noonsite, however your email has prompted me to make a note on the report for anyone interested to contact us, as you have done.

(Editor's Note: Dave provided noonsite with 6 OpenCPN routes of his trip in GPX format, which can be imported into OpenCPN. Please contact us if you would like to be sent the GPX files.)


The return to Australia passage along the recommended route outlined above can be a pleasant and enjoyable trip. By traveling in company using HF skeds to maintain contact and exchange information, maximum support can be obtained. In 2011 almost every yacht experienced some event which was resolved by tools, equipment, information or assistance from one of the group. There are no yacht services along this route so self sufficiency is required. Typical events requiring group assistance involved sharing information, communications backup, sail repairs, anchor winch failures, fibre glass repair, plumbing and water maker repairs, fouled anchors, holed dinghy, propeller problems etc. These were the additional benefits flowing from a wide range of sailing experience as well as contributing to the selection of anchorages and safe routes through reef areas to match the weather, current and other conditions. The day-hopping route minimized the number of overnight passages but naturally took a bit longer.

Dave Bowden