|nonoctave.com / Rebel Yell / Part VI / Chapters 2-3|
|Rebel Yell||Jason Scott||Part VI - East of the Sun and West of the Moon|
The Sultanate of Brunei, Land of a thousand and one nights.
A place where the ghosts of Sinbad the Sailor, Omar Kyham
and Brooke are still permitted to permeate the air.
An uneventful trip from Labuan if it were not for the annoying habit the engine had of consistently spitting and surging. Full power was never possible at any time. Something was very wrong with our Iron Spinnaker. Brunei, with its entourage of Brits certainly would have someone to work on a Perkins engine, I told myself.
We had just passed inside the beautiful artistically executed pylon outer marker which showed the way through the dredged channel leading to the port of Muara. It was then that the exhaust cooling manifold system finally split out completely throwing steam and soot all over the bilge again. I had been through this before! Taiwan quality again. The only answer was to tear the whole thing out and start over again with somebody who knew what they were doing.
There was enough water in the cooling system to limp into the docking area of the recently developed deep water port at Muara. Things were definitely looking up! There, standing on the dock, merrily motioning us to come alongside, were Treavor Clark and his wife Gloria, two delightful Brits.
They took the lines like a couple of old pros and secured the sick REBEL YELL to the pier just as she gurgled, spit, gasped a couple of times, then quit altogether. With typical British cool, Treavor comforted me, saying he would take over the almost terminally ailing diesel in the morning and send someone to “ave at it.”
“I’m mighty grateful, podner,” I drawled. “Ah was just gettin fixed to get out the hawg-leg and put it out of it’s cotten pickin’ misery!”
It turned out that he was the man in charge of all ship maintenance for the Sultan’s navy, such as it was.
We were able to hook up to water right at the dock. This was the first pace since the boat had been launched that we had such amenities. One thing for sure, no matter where the Brits are in the world, they always manage to provide for the little things in life wash make up for the lack of civilization.
Even though it was 1600 by the time we secured, our new friends drove us into Brunei City to secure necessary landing papers. This was our first view of the spectacular capitol itself . . . and what a view it was! Even at dusk.
This absolute monarchy is a small wedge on the north coast of the island of Borneo and is bounded by Saba to the east and south and Sarawak to the west. It existed as a sultanate from the 16th century when it was taken over by various European nations from time to time. The famous British adventurer, Brooke, whose name graces settlements all over the erstwhile Dutch East Indies, helped the Sultan put down an insurrection in Sarawak and was proclaimed the Raja of Sarawak. The Sultan of Brunei, knowing where his friends were, signed a treaty with the British for protection. In 1883 Brunei was put under Britain as a protectorate and the wily Sultan agreed to let the English do what they have always done best: conduct all of their foreign entanglements as they saw fit. Brunei has since been given complete independence but still remains under their protection. The primary source of the Sultan’s great wealth is oil and gas discovered off his shores. He is listed in Guiness as being the world’s most wealthy man.
While the country is predominantly Muslim, the good Sultan is most benevolent to other practicing religions as long as it is not his people who are practicing. He is, as a matter of fact, so magnanimous that, for the most part, his people do nothing but live off the fat of the land. He provides everything. He hires the British to run his airline, his navy and his national police force. The Dutch are hired to run his oil fields. Everything is tax free and the salaries and living conditions he provides are amongst the best in the world.
The Sultan has a taste for architecture of the Arabian Nights persuasion. Downtown Brunei City (Bandar Seri Bagawan) is graced by mosques which look as though they had been designed by Walt Disney (who knows, perhaps they were; he certainly had enough money to hire anyone he pleased) complete with golden domes (real gold), minarets, marble and side walks graced by ornamental tiles. The traditional minarets spotted around the main mosque still are being used as in the days of old. At the appropriate hour the wailing chants of the Muslim Murpzaks can be heard throughout the city from first one and then another perch high in the minaret itself. At the call, throughout the city, the faithful can be seen kneeling on their prayer rugs and bowing towards Mecca.
One piece of architecture which does not fall within the traditional Arabic style is the tastefully modern Winston Churchill Memorial Museum. It seems that the old Sultan was a great fan of Churchill and erected the structure which he filled with memorabilia of his relationship with Winston.
Visitors to the Sultanate (far too few) are encouraged to go into the interior of the mosques and minarets and can take photos of the innermost sanctuary at any time except during the holy hours. This is a Muslim concession unique to Brunei. (Don’t try to do this in Saudi Arabia!)
The Sultan also has built one of the most modern airports in the world. When he was asked how long to make the runways, he asked, “How long is the longest one now?” When given the answer he said, “Then build mine a bit longer!” Traffic into this little-visited jewel of Islam does not warrant such an airport, but the Sultan always goes first class! Along those lines, the local privately held airline itself has a few problems unique to its position. It seems that when the Sultan wants to travel, he will, on a moment’s notice, cancel a scheduled flight, eject all the riders and take over the plane for himself and his entourage.
With all his good humor and benevolent behavior, there must be no question about the man’s life and death authority. He is a devout fundamentalist and insists on his people following his lead in that direction. This mandate is enforced by a special religious police force run by the Muslim holy men. Whatever they do is blessed by the Sultan. An incident of how this force operates is worth repeating.
A young airline stewardess (a Muslim) came back late at night on a flight and was escorted back to town by the pilot and a co-pilot (non-Muslims). As they were walking her to her hotel, the religious police arrested her and charged her with fornication. By their law, an unmarried girl of her faith being in the unchaperoned company of an infidel man was, by definition, fornication.
The time spent the next two weeks was one of reveling in the throes of hospitality which only the people of this little kingdom could manage. The word was passed quickly that we had arrived and we were never lacking in willing people to show us the sights of this delightful and out-of-the-way pace. The weather, contrary to what we had heard, was warm but comfortable.
One family with whom we spent time as guests at their house were really down-home type folks. He was the Chief Surgeon at the hospital and his wife, Ursla, was the head nurse. Before we left we discovered that they were not the ordinary commoners they seemed. He was Lord Ian Harris, first cousin to the Queen of England. This is not an extraordinary happening when you cruise. People from all levels just seem to be exceedingly hospitable to yachtsmen.
As the citizens have nothing to worry about, their ambitions are exceedingly limited. Any social life around the capital, if it exists, is fostered by the foreigners. Outside the city in the still amazingly primordial land and way of life, the natives choose to live as they have since time began, Sultan or no. Their social life centers around family, each having a living partition in the long house. We took one trip up the river to see first hand one of their villages.
The entire population of a settlement lives, literally, under one roof. Wide hallways outside the apartments were used by everyone for all things except sleeping and, it is assumed, copulation. Even there, however, anything special any citizen wanted or needed was provided for by the Sultan.
The surrounding dense jungle (and I mean dense!) teemed with life forms extremely dangerous to man. Snakes dropped on you from the trees and tiger and orangutans (orangutan means man in native dialect) were plentiful. Needless to say, we didn’t venture far into the jungle! The snakes and animals were not the most dangerous thing which still existed in this jungle. Head hunting and cannibalism had been outlawed but rumors persisted that those things were still being practiced in the hinterland by some of the Dyaks.1
We were offered a shrunken human head as a souvenir but declined. The offerer assured us that it was very old and not recently taken!
The jungle land Dyak (as opposed to Sea Dyak who were all pirates by trade) culture is brought to town every once in a while by the sultan to rid the town of an excess of stray dogs and cats. As firearms are strictly forbidden, it seems only logical to place a bounty on the animals which prey on the streets. When the situation becomes worthwhile, native Dyaks appear through the towns and villages with their 6 to 8 feet long curved bow guns and proceed to fire, with extreme accuracy, poison tipped darts into the unfortunate beasts. The poison, as old as antiquity, is concocted by the natives and had previously been used against the Japanese invaders. It kills silently and in just a few seconds.
Across from the modern part of the city exists the old city. The capitol is at the southwestern end of Brunei bay (more of a swampland of slow flowing rivers than a real bay). The river itself is dredged to be navigatable by ocean-going transports by a tortuous route all the way to the capitol itself.
The old village, Kampong Ayer, is populated by some 12,000 Malays and lies in the bend of the river with a conglomerate of rickety thatched roof houses all perched on individual stilts or a common stilt platform. Garbage disposal and toilet facilities pose no problem to any household. All the businesses and abodes are connected by walkways also constructed on stilts over the river. Transportation is handled exclusively by hundreds of individuals driving small skiffs powered by outboard motors. The scene at any time in the midst of the river was one of harrowing chaos as the water taxis crisscrossed each other much as the drivers do in Mexico City . . . with sheer abandon!
It is hard to understand why this port of Brunei has been so neglected by world cruising yachtsmen. We were welcomed as long-lost relatives and had a hard time spending a cent of our money. We participated in everything from shallow water races in a borrowed boat (if you tipped over the depth was one four feet)2, to picnics and even cultural events such as the ballet theatre. A true but unsuspected Eden.
The entire exhaust cooling system of the yacht was rebuilt by the Brits. We made ready to embark on our next leg. In consideration of the nonexistent winds for the some 690 miles, we were provided two 50 gallon drums for spare diesel and brimmed our main tangs with 33 cent per gallon fuel. Florento didn’t help much. It seems that he had gorged on almost the entire two bushels of fresh fruit we had been given in Labuan and, because his system was not used to all that exotica, he developed an acute case of something which made him spend most of his time in the head. It took a goodly amount of Lomotil to rid him of his self inflicted malady. In spite of this last minute delay, we were all going to miss Brunei.
Let what-will happen. The voyage is now on record.
Sailing, if you can call it that, for the first few days out of Brunei, was mostly motoring. Finally on Friday at 0300, a wind picked us up to 15 knots from 210° and slacked off slightly at 0900 to a steady 10 knots. At that time up went the Genoa and we flew along on a perfect reach until the last westerly land jut, Point Tatu was passed. Now all we had to worry about was one small island south of the Natuna Islands which was on a direct course between Tatu and Singapore.
The island itself was not so much of a problem . . . it could be seen. Just north of the island, however, in a line some six miles long and running almost directly north, was a dangerous shoal area. The depth of water over this hidden shoal ranged to as little as four feet at low tide. It was important to estimate our time of arrival accurately. By calculation, we should arrive somewhere around midnight in the danger area. We had been averaging about 95 miles per day up to now and, if my estimates were proper, we would see the light at Horseborough (Singapore) just before midnight on Sunday. We almost didn’t make it!
I was sleeping soundly in the quarter berth and awoke with a start. Something was wrong! A glance at the cabin clock showed 0130. We should be at or near the hazardous area. In a moment my harness was slipped on. Since the pirate incident, most of us slept in our sweat suits at night to be in a state of readiness.
Pushing open the an hatch door, I took a look-see. Sure enough, there was Florento at the wheel looking directly ahead. It appeared that everything was all right . . . still, something was amiss. Stepping out on deck, the problem was immediately heard. WHITE WATER AHEAD! It was the sound of the white water which had awakened me! The telltale hissing of the Gorgon Medusa’s sisters as they swirled and broke over the hidden rocks! And there, about three miles due south of us, was the island we were supposed to be passing to the south. We were heading right to where the shoal was! What in hell had happened?
Florento was still staring straight ahead even though I was shouting at him to bring us about. His eyes were wide open but he was fast asleep. In this condition, he had steered us right to where the reef was! I broke for the wheel shouting, cursing and waving my arms to catch his attention. . . no response. My God! He was sleeping on watch with his eyes open! I knew that he slept with his eyes open because I’d seen it before and laughingly shared the phenomena with the rest of the crew. This guy could not only be dead to the world on his feet but he could fool everyone by appearing to be alert. By the time I reached him, the combination of my shouting and shaking roused him but he was like a zombie in a stupor. I grabbed the wheel and pushed him aside.
“Damn it, Florento! Look where the hell you are!”
He still didn’t respond. Under hard over the boat turned and headed back towards where we had come from in order to be sure to be clear of the dangers then south-eastward to clear the south end of the island where the deep water lay. By this time Ernie, who slept like a cat, arrived on deck and saw the island. He had been briefed on the dangers and knew the implications of what he saw.
“Get your ass below, Florento. You’ll never be on watch again at night.”
After calming down a bit I turned the wheel over to Ernie and sat down beside him in the gloom.
“I can’t trust him, Ernie. This is the final straw with him. His laziness, his stealing food, and now sleeping on watch in a critical area. I’m going to have to put him ashore in Singapore.”
There was going to be a problem with this decision. Ernie was an outstanding seaman but one nautical nurd on board would destroy us all. If the relationship between him and his cousin was too strong, Ernie might leave when Florento did. In any case, this problem would come to a head in Singapore.
Even during the dead of night, long before we could see land that Sunday, the glow in the western sky announced that shortly ahead was a real city. Like a mirage in the sky, the lights of Singapore were the herald announcing that we were fast approaching the legendary crossroads of the world. The excitement of reaching, without major mishap in spite of our problems and encounters, the half-way port was a significant milestone. We were about to fulfill half of our dream. Only another sailor, one who had experienced failures, near disasters, discouragements and then, final victory could really appreciate what Slocum meant when he closed that chapter on one of his great adventures. Now, it was just one more ocean to cross.
We moved dead slow into the eastern approaches to the harbor itself. We came in under restricted sail to a position where we could anchor amongst the other ships and wait for the sun to rise before continuing on to the pier where customs and immigration could be cleared.
At early light, before the tropical sun had actually cleared the horizon, we moved on inward toward the main city. As we wended through the maze of ships anchored off, the skyline of this, the fourth largest port in the world, came more distinctly into view. The city itself, that dowdy old harlot who now wore a tight fitting shift of silk, was even more beautiful and enticing in her old age. The eastern approaches sported high rise modern apartment complexes pouting their glistening white selves to the sky and sparkling in the orange of a rising sun as the windows reflected what they saw. Row upon row of these apartments lined the shore reaching all the way to the old city.3
As we moved slowly inward, our way was delayed by a swarm of motor launches from the ships at anchor and the water taxis which plied their trade to and fro in the busy waters. We passed numerous fueling barges as they lolled, anchored somewhat haphazardly, near the entrance to the inner breakwater. They were floating service stations which most of the smaller craft used for refueling. Signs above them designated their affiliation by displaying the world recognizable escutcheons of the Seven Sisters . . . Shell, Exxon, British Petroleum and on infinitum.
The harbor seemed to be clean enough until we reached the approach to the inner breakwater itself. Even though Singapore had strict regulations concerning the cleanliness of the city, it seemed as though no one concerned themselves much as to how dirty the harbor was. The reputation of the city as being the cleanest in the orient was well deserved, but the bay was just another dirty bay. But, then again, it would have taken something away from the mystique of this most exotic port if the dirty dhows, the half sunken derelicts, the floating debris and the hustle-bustle were not there. I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps a youthful Bob Hope and his cohort Bing Crosby might be ashore dotting in the Raffles Hotel sipping a Singapore Sling served by a sultry Dorothy Lamour. But, to face reality, coming into this city brought me back to the real world. It was here where the experiences of the voyage just past prepared me for the trauma of what was to come.
|Part VI||Part VII|
|Chapter 1||Chapters 2-3|