Rebel Yell Jason Scott Part VI - East of the Sun and West of the Moon



We had come looking for a Wayward Wind and found its bad side. Now, it was time to ride it to the good side.

Map: Brunei

It was June 19 when we left the Phillipine side of Danger Strait on our way toward the Malaysian state of Sabah. Sabah is a part of the great island of Borneo, bordered on the east by the Sulu Sea and on the north by the South China Sea. The approach to landfall proper is guarded by a scatter of low lying islands which are, for the most part trying to decide whether they are land or sea. The sea is very shallow. So shallow in fact that the charts of this area cannot keep up with the shifting sands and bars. A careful watch must be kept at all times to prevent running aground on some hidden shoal. Most of the time we were bare pole and under power. From time immemorial the area has been known as The Land Below the Winds. It was so dubbed by the native privateers who plied (and still do) their trade in the strait that most merchant ships had to pass through en route to China. Old sailing ships were sitting ducks, as anything except very light winds is rate and typhoons are unknown.

Because of the close encounter we had just experienced with Moro pirates things were unusually quiet aboard. There was no need to remind anyone of whose watch it was. All hands were wide awake.

As the wind which had picked up during the wee hours of the morning continued to bless us we stayed under sail. Even though there was a light breeze playing with the sails the surface of the sea was unruffled except for the wake we were creating. As dawn approached we could malte out the outline of high mountains dead ahead in the distance. Low lying islands lay off to the port side. A morning mist started to develop obscuring both island and mountain from time to time as the sun broke in the east. About 0900 the breeze abruptly died and we doused all sail and started up the engine again.

Switching frequency of the RDF to the beacon on Champion Shoals we found that it was coming in loud and clear. There was no need to take a cross bearing as the mist disappeared quickly and visibility became unlimited. Now we could see the very high ridge of mountains running parallel to the coastline of Borneo and sloping upward from both east and the west toward the highest point on the island; the magnificent and spectacular Mt. Kinabalu. The peak stood 13,455 feet up from the sea and pierced a white petticoat of clouds which protected its green shirt about half way up the side.

By noon the full beauty of the scene lay before us in contrasting colors of the turquoise tropical waters, pure white beaches and the dense green lushness of the tropical rain forest which reached all the way up to a sparse cap of snow on the mountain’s head.

Continuing to approach the main island we passed small tropical islets randomly scattered between five to fifteen miles offshore. They too were surrounded by crystal white sandy beaches, tropical trees and brush. Pleasure yachts and fishing boats were anchored in the bays. Some were bobbing offshore in the placid waters. The glasses revealed small thatched native hut villages and the usual cadre of outriggers pulled up on the snowy sand.

As much as we were tempted to go ashore, after our close call with the unfriendly natives in the Battle of Balabec, we sailed on toward the Island of Labuan, our planned refueling stop for going into the Sultanate of Brunei. A sigh of relief was breathed when we saw, through the glasses, the SAGGIN' DRAGON which had been accompanying us from port to port. How she got there ahead of us was hard to understand but there she was, safely anchored in a sheltered cove evidently having avoided the pirate show-and-tell of the Phillipines.

We continued to motor on. There was not a vestige of wind. The land structure of this part of the world sits astride the equator between the two continental land masses of Asia and Australia. This position has a decided effect on the weather. There are no violent storms and the winds, for the most part, are light and variable to non-existent all year long. Even though it forced us to listen to the noisy diesel, the relief from hard sailing was sorely needed. Only one thing marred our tranquillity.

Chris discovered that Florento had been sneaking into the food supplies at night completely disrupting her menu planning. He had gone through six cans of beef, three cans of peaches, two cans of baked beans and no less than ten cans of sardines! The theft of food brought up another problem which Chris had been silently fuming about: The Long Black Hair Incident!

“That creep has been combing his hair over the sink in the bathroom (she still never used the proper term so that we would never forget how much she hated boats) and has scattered long black hair from one end to the other.” (Pause while she caught her breath before the next barrage.)

“For the last few mornings I have found those same coarse hairs in my hair brush! Is there no privacy or common decency left on this tub?” (Oooh, that hurt! Calling REBEL a tub? I sighed in resignation.)

“This is really too much,” she said. “If you don’t do something about it, oh fearless Captain, you will discover one crewman who will never be able to procreate!” (Those were not exactly her words but after all, children may read this book!)

On the 21st day of June the winds were so inconsistent that we just left the fluttering sails up to catch whatever blew. The bottom, mostly visible, seemed to undulate and care had to be exercised continually to work our way through the deepest channels of these shallow waters. The depth sounder rarely registered beyond 50 fathoms.

We were trailing a flutter-lure behind the boat and had caught some very large fish. Tuna, Mahi-Mahi, Dorado and a fantastic local fish called the Tsanguigui. All white meat! Most of the fish weighed in at over 20 pounds. We would cut steaks off the center portion then throw the rest back in. Fresh fish every day!

We woke up the morning of the 22nd to the smell of fish all over the boat. The crew had cut up the latest catch in strips and hung it any pace it would fit to dry. The smell permeated the entire yacht. Ernie was summarily advised that this was a yacht and not a fishing boat. Unless we were in dire need, no more fish was to be left drying on deck. Their desire to conserve was understandable but not necessary in such prolific waters.

REBEL had just wended her way into a narrow channel between the peninsula off Champion Shoals (a world renown oil field) and an offlying island when a squall came in off the mountain and hit us full force. In the tropics, these squalls come up suddenly but almost always can be spotted well in advance of the onslaught itself. The crewmen were sent on deck to quickly scrub and soap it down in anticipation and we laid in wait with all sails down and the engine turning over slowly. Mother Nature was going to give us the sailor’s equivalent to an automatic car wash. All hands also were now on deck with soap in hand for their anticipated shower.

The wind, when it arrived, was forceful enough, but the rain came in with such energy that it was akin to standing in a waterfall. It hit so hard that the sea remained flat. Nothing could be seen through the deluge beyond ten feet. It didn’t last long but when it cuts loose in these latitudes, it really cuts loose. After both REBEL and the crew had their shower, we sailed on towards Labuan.

The final night before making landfall, we were able to approach through a narrow channel between two cays. The moon was not out and, with the cloud cover, it had become exceedingly dark. It was difficult to make out the outline of the known hazards in the channel area so, after sitting in silence in the cockpit for several hours fretting and talking to no one, I gave the order to heave to and drift. It was 2320 hours and we would make the passage in daylight when we could see both the bottom and the land. One person was kept on watch with an admonition to play close attention to the depth sounder. If we drifted too close to shore, the sounder would give us adequate warning. It was important to maintain a least depth of 10 fathoms. Inside that line there were outcroppings of rock and coral which could rip us to shreds given half a chance. I stayed on deck, pulling a light blanket over myself to protect from the dampness always present at sea during night hours.

The next day we pulled into Labuan for refueling. The decision to wait until dawn to pass through the channel had been a good one, as the daylight hours showed. The passage had been only about 60 feet wide and had a least depth of 20 feet.


Labuan was an interesting group of islands clustered around an open anchorage where literally thousands of boats were anchored. Most of them were oil tankers. The main village on the island was called Victoria.

Swinging around the south end of the mainland, we entered the port’s inner anchorage. Sails were doused and we picked our way slowly to the town quay. Several measured passes were made to find some spot to come alongside but to no avail. No room at the inn! Even though the yellow flag of pratique was fluttering from our starboard yardarm, no official customs or immigration boat approached us. Upon questioning, a tug flying a U.S. flag advised us to anchor out opposite the yacht club just inside the harbor entrance.

“Watch the depths,” the Captain shouted across the water. “It shoals off right smart. Let the anchor go in about 60 feet of water. Anything less and you’ll run out of swing room from the shore.”

As we turned and left to follow his advise he shouted, “You can check in to Customs tomorrow.” So much for tight controls on immigration.

There was a decrepitated looking building with a faded half torn down sign hanging from it which announced to all the world that this was the “Yacht Club”. The usual precautionary pass parallel to the shore was made with Jeff calling out the changing depths to determine the bottom contour of the anchoring ground. At a distance of approximately 150 feet from shore, the depth shoaled up, cliff like, from 60 feet to less than 7 feet. Following the sailor’s good admonition we layed anchor in a respectable 60 feet of water some 200 feet off shore. It wasn’t any too much.

It was 1520 hours the 22 day of June when we secured and Jeff was raring to go ashore. After observing people sitting around outside the club having an afternoon cocktail, Chris, the imbiber, was also enthusiastically ready to go. Ernie and Florento volunteered to stay aboard and square away the boat. The GD Dinghy was placed in the water and we three proceeded to row the very short distance to shore. Less than 100 feet from the beach it was so shallow that I was able to roll up my pant legs, get out, take the painter in tow and wade the rest of the way pulling the GD dinghy astern.

We were quick to discover, once inside the club, that the grand total of people enjoying the social hour consisted of what we had seen outside . . . all three tables of them. The Victoria Yacht Club certainly could not boast that it was The Place where the upper crust of Labuan came to loll their evenings away. The bar exuded all the excitement of an afternoon at Forest Lawn Memorial Park and Crematorium during a morticians conclave. The decorum inside, like the people outside, matched the mood. It soon become manifest that, while this was nominally called a yacht club and knowing the free swing outgoing nature of yachtsmen, there weren’t many, if any, real sailors around. Chris and I each had a double martini and left somewhat subdued by the presbyterial atmosphere.

The streets and buildings were a tropical, musty aberation so typical of the outback towns set up in haste by western trading companies to temporarily serve their immediate purpose but which somehow became permanent. There was no form to the architecture and no visible order to the layout. The town catered to a brand of man who worked hard in the interest of the company and, when off duty, he was not particularly interested in aesthetics. Only getting serviced! Booze and Babes; that was their thing. If there was any national or native culture to influence the city planners and builders, it was quickly abrogated and obscured by the immediate task of taking care of the problem at hand: Booze and Babes!

As we strolled down the street, I started looking more carefully at the seeming preponderance of women who were walking up and down the streets with a defined determination so familiar in all ports of the world. Hundreds of them. Well dressed . . . highly made up . . . fairly good figures. . . . open and friendly. They giggled too much and were quite forward with their flirtations even though I was accompanied by wife and child. In this town which catered to the needs of oil workers and tanker sailors, there was distinctly an ample supply of good looking women plying their trade. There should also have been lots of men walking with these girls. Something just didn’t set right!

“Did you ever see so many good looking, well dressed women walking the streets?” I observed most casually.

“I haven’t seen any women. You better take a closer look,” she retorted without changing her pace. “Then again,” she continued with a flippant afterthought, “perhaps this is what you need.”

Talking note of the depreciative rhetoric, I did take a closer look. She was right about one thing. These weren’t real women at all. They were transvestites in full and glorious drag! The whole damned town was full of them. Now it made sense why there weren’t many real men hanging around. I laughed aloud and this puzzled Jeff.

“What’s so funny, Dad?”

“Son, you’re seeing something here which not many boys your age get to see. These women are not women at all. They are men dressed up like women and pretending that they are.” He took a closer look.

“I thought that it was kinda funny that most of them needed a shave,” he said solemnly. “Why do they do that, Dad?”

“Hell, I don’t really know.” He looked to his mother for the answer. “I don’t think she really knows either, son. It’s just one of those things.”

“I’ll tell you one thing,” Chris said as we continued our exploratory walk through town, “I’d sure feel perfectly safe any time of night on this island.”

“Don’t be too sure about that,” I laughed. “With the kind of stuff I’ve seen available, if some burly oil field worker found out you were the real thing, you might find yourself in one hell of a compromising situation.” She gave me a testy look and continued on her way.

We swung around and headed back to the yacht club. By the time we reached the beach, the wind had shifted and was kicking up quite a surface fuss. Mutually deciding to leave the racy night life of Labuan for others, the GD dinghy was launched for the short distance back to the boat. We carried a bucket of ice and some beers from the club.

The chop was not high in this sheltered bay but it was extensive. Because of the shallow depth Chris manned the oars as I pushed the thing out to where they could be effective. The state of the water alarmed Chris and she got the boat abreast of the chop. Each time it broached, it characteristically took on water. The situation frightened her to the point that she stopped altogether and just hung on. It was necessary to climb aboard much before we were ready. It was too late . . . we floundered and Chris panicked.

“I can’t swim. I can’t swim,” she screamed. “I’ll drown!”

A nonplussed Jeff stepped out of the now filled boat and was standing in no more than three feet of water.

“Get out and stand up, Mom. You won’t drown!”

Somewhat chagrined by her sudden display of fright, she waded ashore in silence. . . fuming. Jeff and I retrieved the dinghy and brought it to dry land, the only place where it seemed to be comfortable. Chris stood ashore looking much like an extremely unhappy wet cat.

“Look at me! Salt water and mud from one end to the other. And,” she said running her hands over her body from top to waist, “I smell fishy!” Her attitude wasn’t helped when Jeff went over and smelled her with obvious disapproval but it was me who received a look intended to shrink heads.

We spent an uncomfortable night in a flea bag hotel, the only one which would take us in looking the way we did. Before dozing off, I determined to fuel up and leave this transvestite haven early in the morning. Our next stop, the Sultanate of Brunei had the reputation of being quite civilized. After a month of primitive living it would be nice to experience a few amenities of the good life.

Not enough interest could be aroused the next day for the customs and immigration officials to concern themselves with our arrival or departure. We had pulled alongside the American tug boat and, while Ernie and Florento went to town for three jerry cans of fuel, the Captain of the tug gave orders to transfer some three bushels of fresh fruit and other perishables such as bacon and bread to our boat. His refrigeration had gone out and the goods would have spoiled quickly in the tropical heat. It was he who informed us of the tragic details of the end of the other cruising family by the hands of the Moro pirates off Balabec.

“I got word this morning through the Maritime Net” (an amateur radio line operating in all oceans), he said. “It seems that they found the 52 foot ketch beached on the southwestern corner of Balabec itself. The entire hull had been raked by 50 caliber machine gun fire. The inside and outside of the boat were a bloody mess . . . literally. The Captain his wife and two children were all murdered.”

“Good God!” I exclaimed, thinking back that it had very likely been the same boat we had set afire which previously attacked the German ship. “Did they strip the boat?”

“No, funny thing, though,” he mused as he sipped his hot coffee. “Not a single thing was stolen as far as anyone could determine. It seems that they just shot them up to be passing the day. The Captain was chopped up pretty badly with knives but they left the women and children pretty much alone after they were dead.” He paused for a moment. “Guess they needed the target practice.”

At this word, all the misgivings after sinking the boat without knowing for sure that they would really have done us harm disappeared.

“Can you point out just where the yacht was found?”

He rose and went to the chart table. After shuffling papers for a bit, the proper chart was retrieved and laid out. “Here it was, as far as I can determine from the reports.”

He pointed to an area within 5 miles of where we had been intercepted. They had undoubtedly been attacked just a few days earlier by the very same crew which we had encountered. I shuddered at the thought.

“I don’t suppose there will be a word of this in any of the world newspapers,” I commented with some bitterness at the control governments like Marcos’ exercised over the press about unpleasant things. “Any problems further on?”

“No. You’re clear now until you get into the waters around Sumatra and if you stay clear of Cambodia. I can’t understand how come you weren’t attacked. I guess some people are just lucky.” Little did he know!

“A man destined to hang will never be shot,” I said as I thanked him and left his tug.

That same day we pulled out of the Finnochio’s of the South China Sea for the Sultanate of Brunei some 60 miles away.

^^Rebel Yell
^Part VI
*Chapter 1 >>Chapters 2-3