Kudat to Kuching: A Rainy End to a Spellbound Voyage I

This was supposed to be a relatively easy one. Not counting the passage from Taiwan to Philippines earlier this year, the voyage from Kudat to Johor Bahru was to be our first voyage ever when we would be actually sailing in the right season with the prevailing winds and currents and not against them. Marcello, an Italian sailor we met in Kudat, told us that last year the same time of year he sailed the whole way from Kudat to Phuket, had the engine running maybe for 2 hours during the whole trip. Not bad at all! Yet for us it just somehow didn’t happen… Instead of NE monsoon winds, we had either calms or were fighting headwinds, countercurrents, squalls and heavy rain. Ideally by now we should have been in Johor Bahru on peninsula Malaysia, yet here we are exactly 17 days after we left Kudat, sitting in rainy Kuching, capital of Sarawak, on the northwestern part of the island of Borneo. Not only is Kuching “the wettest populated area (on average) in Malaysia with an average of 247 rainy days per year”, the rainy season is in full swing now and most of the days it hardly stops raining. And when I say raining, I’m not talking about some minor drizzling but regular downpours. Simply put, the journey so far can only be described as downright miserable…


First of all, leaving Kudat was not easy. After all we did spend almost 4 months there and that’s a long enough period to become attached. Many cruisers boast of a nomadic spirit but I guess from time to time even they don’t object to a spell of familiarity and some kind of a settled routine in their lives. It’s exciting to explore new harbors and anchorages, but it also feels good to know where you get a spare part in case of emergency or when they bring in a fresh catch of prawns to the local fish market and above all that if you need some help, your friends are just “next doors”. Often after a while the familiarity starts to feel too ordinary and you begin to long to go to sea again but when the time really comes to leave and say good-bye to new friends, this, especially for me, is perhaps one the most difficult parts of cruising. And this time it was even more so. Kudat may seem like an enchanted harbor in the sense we were trapped there for such a long time – first the weather and then the troubles with the engine bed etc.; but for me it will always be remembered as a special place – after all when Petr went to Taiwan interpreting for 3 weeks, I stayed there on my own, the longest period I ever stayed on the boat alone and thus have many personal memories of the place and above all the people. Memories that shan’t be forgotten.

Janna also underwent major metamorphosis there. The whole interior is now painted, joints between hull and bulkheads re-glassed and our engine got new mounts and above all with help of our friends a proper engine bed instead of just being screwed into the fiberglass as it was before. So in a sense Janna also was changed during our stay in Kudat. Something we are reminded of every day…

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The last night we spent in the Kudat marina it rained a lot, but we were so tired from the last days’ preparations that we hardly noticed the pounding of the raindrops on the coach roof. The plan was to get the boat ready by the end of the week and apart from checking out with the local authorities take the Monday off and have some rest before the voyage. But first our house batteries mysteriously got themselves discharged, almost failing to start the engine, and then we found out that salt water is leaking into our diesel tank! So instead of resting we were shopping for a starter battery – something we should have done a long time ago – and tracking the source of the salt water coming to the engine room and the crack through which it was leaking into the diesel tank. These are not tasks you should be doing 2 days before a long passage across South China Sea! Maybe this should have warned us, that our problems were far from over. Yet at that time we interpreted it the other way round – hopefully after all these troubles, we are now more or less predisastered and the voyage itself will be just fine. Or so we hoped…

On Tuesday morning, our departure day, everything seemed alright. Even the rain stopped and so we cast off our mooring lines and waving to our friends slowly sneaked out of the still sleepy marina. One last look at the familiar masts in the marina and the adjacent boatyard that were slowly disappearing behind the horizon and there we were again almost 2 months later after our last attempt to leave Kudat, sailing in direction of Singapore and then through Mallaca Strait to Langkawi and Thailand.


Same as two months ago, there was almost no wind so we engaged our tiller pilot and kept motoring towards the Tip of Borneo. While the autopilot was doing its job, we sat back, watched the occasional fisherman and kept staring at the mesmerizing blue color of the sea. Janna was gently rocking and our engine was running as it should. Then after two hours our quiet sea meditating was suddenly interrupted by a weird clicking sound, after which our tiller pilot started violently veering off the course to port and then to starboard. First we thought it’s the bad contact in the socket acting again, but it soon became obvious, that it’s more serious than that. It’s not a good thing to lose your autopilot just at the beginning of the voyage, but we were hoping to encounter some monsoon winds soon. This way we could hand over the steering to our windvane Capehorn and so we decided to press on and hand steer in the meantime.

In the afternoon some wind did pick up but from the south-west, plus there must have been some weird current coming against us, because even though the sea was relatively flat, we were barely making 3 knots. Originally the plan was to go from Kudat straight to Labuan but now with the broken tiller pilot and no winds we decided to anchor for the night in Ugus Bay. Moreover we noticed that for some reason it’s really hard to hoist the mainsail, so it was prudent to drop anchor and see into the problem. Unfortunately Ugus Bay proved to be a very rolly anchorage and not even two glasses of red wine after dinner were enough to keep us asleep till morning. At 3 am I got up tired and frustrated to find out Petr was not exactly sleeping either and so we heaved the anchor and continued towards Kota Kinabalu. By leaving that early there was a good chance we might make it to KK still some 60 miles ahead before sunset.

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Again the winds were against us but at least we didn’t encounter any squalls and after 14 hours of motoring and hand steering we dropped anchor in front of Sutera Harbor next to our friend Gevin on St. Jacob. It was his last night in KK and before he went ashore for a farewell dinner with his friends, he told us to come into the marina next morning and tie up the dinghy next to Patrick and Janice on Obsession, whom we briefly met before in Kudat. After taking the autopilot apart, Petr found a broken circuit, potentially the source of our troubles, so the plan was to go to town and try to have it repaired somewhere. Next morning Patrick and Janice first treated us to some coffee and then they lent us their bicycles, which was a real blessing. We spend the whole day riding all around KK’s highways, trying not to get ourselves killed by some insane Malaysian driver, and after being repeatedly send from one shop to another, in the end we actually found this tiny Chinese repair shop, where they managed to repair the circuit. Patrick, who works as a captain on merchant ships, only just got reunited with his family after another voyage, so we didn’t want to spoil their family dinner, but he and Janice insisted we stay and we spent a very pleasant evening on their boat. Before we finally left in our dinghy some time after midnight, Patrick tried to avert our next day’s departure by inviting us to a barbeque on Saturday, but we politely declined and promised that we will try to meet with them again on Monday when they come to Labuan to have their life raft tested.

It was Thursday and we wanted to heave the anchor and get back to sea, but after most Thursdays, Fridays follow and we’ve tried to leave port on Friday before with bad consequences…

2 comments to Kudat to Kuching: A Rainy End to a Spellbound Voyage I

  • As someone now living in Kuching (been here 10 years) – sorry about the rain!

    Generally it’s not so bad, just a brief thunderstorm in the afternoon, with the rest of the day sunny. But yeah, the rainy season sucks! Strange to hear about the lack of wind though? I keep my own boat (a 200 HP petrol-guzzling beast) firmly ashore during rainy season, as I’m told there’s large waves and strong winds?

    I dream, one day, to afford a sailboat such as yours. Possibly a trimaran, for easy beaching but certainly something more practical than my gas-guzzler.

    Happy sailing :)

  • At least we had a really clean boat :)
    We had all of the above: unreliable and shifty breezes and strong winds. When we got close to the shore, we opted for Kuching marina, because the waves were quite big and we were worried that we might not get into Santubong over the reef.
    Happy boat finding 😉

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