Thursday, February 10, 2022

Escape from Davao for Good!

After 2 full years stuck in the Philippines due to Covid 19, we finally left Holiday Ocean View Marina at the top of Samal Island off Davao, Philippines, on 12 January. We had used this marina as a base for our multiple SE Asia cruising trips for the last seven years. It was well past the time to head further west through Indonesia, this time all the way to Singapore and the Malay/Thai peninsula, approximately 3,000 nm.

Our Rough Route Plan for 2022

Our plan was to go south to Bitung, on the northeast corner of Sulawesi to check in to Indonesia, and do a little diving and sightseeing. Once cleared in, then we would make our way SE around Halmahera, and then on to Sorong, on the north tip of West Papua at the top of the island of New Guinea. After a few weeks of diving and exploring in Raja Ampat, we plan to cruise down the west coast of New Guinea via the McCluer Gulf to Triton Bay, one of our favorite dive spots that we last visited in 2017.

From Triton Bay, we must sail south to Tual, in the Kai Islands in the SE corner of Indonesia to extend our visas. Once the paperwork is finished, we plan to cruise west through the Tanimbar Islands, Timor, Flores, Lombok, Bali, Java, South Borneo and Sumatra to Singapore.

Visa Extensions Control Our Schedule: The current Indonesia tourist visas allow 60 days on entry and then four 30-day extensions, for a total of 6 months. This sounds reasonable for a tourist staying in one area, but is a real trial for a cruising boat trying cruise Indonesia. The recommendation is that you submit your extension paperwork approximately 5-7 days in advance of your current visa expiration date. So this leaves you only 3 weeks to get from one visa office to another. Cruisers continually are hurrying to their next visa extension—sometimes having to ignore the weather to make the schedule. This is not a good situation which we hope will be corrected soon!!

We will do our first visa extension in Sorong. Then we have about 3 weeks to get to Tual in the Kai Islands for our next extension, about 450 nm away. It is dangerous to travel at night in most of SE Asia, due to the proliferation of unlit nets, fishing boats, FADs, and large logs and other debris. At a long travel day of 45 miles a day, 10 of our 21 days are taken up moving—long days motor sailing in the mostly wind-less equatorial environment. You see the problem??? And Indonesia is huge—2,300 nm East to West and 1,000 nm North to South, comprising over 17,000 islands! Once your 6 months are up you HAVE to leave the country to get a new visa (this was waived during Covid as all neighboring countries were locked down). Pre-Covid, most cruisers either cruised or flew out to a neighboring country to get a new visa.

There ARE talks of a true 6 or 12 month visa for cruisers that doesn’t require monthly extensions, but so far it has only been talk. We are not sure whether the Covid-era “on shore visa” after your initial 6 months are up is still possible. We’ll find out in July!

The Trip South from Davao: From Davao it is possible to day hop south via the Sarangani Islands at the southwest corner of Davao Gulf, through Sangihe Island and all the way to Sulawesi. Sarangani offers at least 4 good anchorages and is a favorite stop for cruisers on their way south. We also anchored overnight at Kawio, Sangihe, and Ruang along the way, but did not venture ashore as we were not yet checked into Indonesia. This is pretty cruising grounds because islands are volcanic in origin, and at least one volcano is still smoking.

The Route from Davao, Philippines to Bitung, Indonesia

The Ruang Volcano Smoking in the Distance

A "Recent" Lava Flow (over 10 years ago)

Bitung, Our Clearance Port: This commercial shipping port has a number of attractions for cruisers. Foremost of those is Lembeh Strait, “muck diving” capitol of the world. The black sand, somewhat littered bottom, is home to some of the most unusual small critters in the underwater world.

While checking in and diving there, we anchored off Solitude Resort which is located a few miles north of the port of Bitung along the coast. Out of about 25 dive resorts operating when we were last there in 2017, Solitude is one of only 3 that are still operational during Covid lockdowns.

The managers of Solitude, Patrick and Virson, were very accommodating both with their warm welcome and competitive pricing for our many dives with them. Patrick is a well-respected underwater photographer who gave Dave constant instruction to improve his underwater images. Virson, as assistant manager and an Indonesian, was extremely helpful with local knowledge and arranging for our land trips.

A One Inch Long Nudibranch

A Juvenile Ribbon Eel

Formalities: But before we could dive or go ashore we had to check to Indonesia. Although we had checked into Indonesia four times before on earlier trips, Covid 19 has changed things a bit.

Previously, we could secure our own visa through the Indonesian Consulate in Davao for $50. But these overseas offices were all closed down in 2020 during Covid lockdowns. Instead, you can now arrange a visa electronically, but it requires the help of an official agent to obtain a visa that is good for longer than a 30 day stay. We used a visa company, Lureta Visa in Bali, to arrange the available B211A 6 month Visa.

The current price for obtaining a visa varies widely depending on which agent you talk to, from $500 USD to $215 USD (per person). We shopped around a bit and managed to get our visas for $215 each. Newbies to Indonesia should choose the best sponsor, Raymond Lesmana, not the cheapest, as Raymond provides tons of support for cruisers who run into issues with formalities and language. One of the reasons the agent fees are so high is that the agents are guaranteeing your behavior and expense for deporting you if you misbehave.

In addition to the normal paperwork (boat papers, passport copies, etc), we also had to submit proof of full Covid vaccination. For the boat paperwork, we also had to submit all the boat particulars on the online Customs Vessel Declaration System. This serves as our “notice of arrival”, as well as documents our boat details and valuation for Customs.

On our previous visit to Bitung, we anchored in the port area and without contacting anyone, took our dinghy ashore and walked around to the various offices to do our clearance. (Immigration, Customs, Quarantine, Harbormaster). Back then, Quarantine was an afterthought! Not anymore!

When we left Davao, the Covid procedure for entry into Indonesia was:
- Negative PCR test within 72 hours of departure from last port
- Covid test on arrival
- 7 day quarantine
- 2nd Covid test after 5 days
- THEN all the officials would be permitted aboard to complete the clearance.

So our first challenge was arranging for the Covid testing and quarantine on arrival, without going ashore. In a US port, contacting officials would be easy—VHF 16 would be the method, of course. But a friend who had preceded us into Bitung had called and called on Ch 16 and not received any reply. He eventually made contact with a taxi driver who’s number we had, who acted as his agent, arranging for a PCR test, and calling officials. This taxi driver eventually presented our friend with a bill for $500! We were shocked at this price, but had contacted a professional yacht agent, and were quoted $1,000 USD for the same service.

After this experience, we asked around for ideas from our cruising friends. We found a friend who had a contact in the Tourism Office in Bitung, and this contact came through for us big time. Our Tourism helper was an energetic young man named Jeffrey. He was spectacularly helpful arranging for our Covid testing, interaction and transportation of officials and advice regarding resources in town and inland attractions. All this at no charge, as his boss assured us and him that this is their business (facilitating tourism).

Jeffrey and the Quarantine Officials

A bonus… by the time we had island-hopped down the island chain between Davao and Bitung, the Bitung mayor had declared that yachts checking in to Bitung—because of the time required to get to Bitung from anywhere outside of Indonesia—did not need to quarantine. This was also due to Bitung’s high vaccination rate and low Covid incidence. (Cruisers at other ports in Indonesia were still required to quarantine at that time).

Besides the diving in Lembeh Strait, we spent a day up in the highlands with Patrick and Virson seeing the area around Lake Tondano. The highlands area with a large lake, cool air and local culture are major tourist attractions to most tourists. In addition to the normal tourist sites, we also wanted to see the Japanese storage caves, historic Dutch Seaplane Base and nearby Langowan airfield, all used during World War 2 by the Japanese.

Caves built into the mountain by the Japanese
during World War II

The details of the WW2 sites in the Bitung/Manado area are documented on the Pacific Wrecks website.

The other inland trip we did was to nearby Tangkoko National Park for an overnight stay to see the Tarsiers (small squirrel-sized monkeys), Cuscus, monkeys, birds, and other wild animals in the jungle. We travelled by private car, arranged by the Solitude Resort, to Tangkoko Lodge. After a 3 hour drive, we arrived in time for lunch at the lodge. It’s also possible to make this trip by a relay of public transportation (motorcycle to town, mini-van to the transport hub, and truck to Tangkoko). This is much cheaper, but would take the whole day to accomplish.

After lunch we used our pre-arranged guide, Mansuar Dalambide (look for him on Facebook) as our guide for a 5 hour afternoon hike in the park. He was able to find various birds, monkeys, lizards and the elusive Tarsiers and a Cuscus for us to photograph. The lodge arranged local less expensive car transportation back Solitude for us.

The Tangkoko Park Entrance

A Nocturnal Tarsier Hiding in His Tree

A Pair of Cuscus in the Forest

It was a comfortable and enjoyable trip except for a load of chiggers we both acquired on our legs and feet. We had been warned about “bugs” and took precautions—wearing long pants and shoes with socks, but that didn’t deter the chiggers at all. It took over a week to finally rid ourselves of the itching. Socks and long pants are necessary, but more important is a coating of strong bug spray underneath!

Meanwhile, we’d communicated the warm welcome we received in Bitung back to our cruising friends in the Philippines, and two other boats followed us to Bitung in the following weeks. Several more we know of are planning to use Bitung as their check-in port in the next few months.

After two weeks in Bitung, we needed to head out for Sorong, as our visa clock was ticking.

We have written a very complete Indonesia check-in guide, with details, recommendations, costs, and links. It is posted as a PDF on our website in the Files section under Indonesia.

Anchorage List
Date Latitude Longitude Depth/Bottom Cell? Comments
12-Jan 06°30.04’N 125°34.34’E 70 ft Sand Yes
13-Jan 05°27.24’N 125°28.29’E 65 ft Mud/S No
14-Jan 05°25.76’N 125°27.32’E 65 ft Sand Weak
18-Jan 04°39.64’N 125°25.88’E 25 ft Sand Weak
19-Jan 03°24.51’N 125-31.85’E 55 ft Sand No
20-Jan 03°36.30’N 125°30.13’E 45 ft Sand 4G
21-Jan 03°10.52’N 125°30.37’E 70 ft Sand No
22-Jan 02°19.26’N 125°22.95’E 60 ft Sand Weak
23-Jan 01°28.62’N 125°14.16’E 65 ft Sand 4G Solitude Bitung
-------- 01°26.15’N 125°12.70’E 45 ft Sand 4G Bitung Port
-------- 01°27.49’N 125°13.86’E 45 ft Sand 4G Serena Besar
-------- 01°27.38’N 125°14.50’E 60 ft Sand 4G Off Lembeh Resort

Note: All anchorages have been sent to Terry Sargent on s/v Valhalla, and can be downloaded as part of the Indonesia Anchorage waypoints, via this link: Download the doc file from that page, and it contains links to all kinds of useful information for cruising SE Asia.

Friday, December 31, 2021

Back to Oceanview Marina

The trip back to Holiday Oceanview Marina, down the coast of Mindanao was relatively uneventful.

We stopped in Bucas Grande for a couple of days, and got the drone out.
Beautiful Bucas Grande

Most of the trip south was a wind-less motorsail. Some days we didn't even take the awning down.
Motoring South with No Wind

We met the usual wide array of fishing boats.
Fishing Boats

And some friendly kids who wanted us to stay and visit their village.
Friendly Kids!

I dropped my cell phone from the helm station--about a 4 ft drop--and it landed on the corner. Eventually this purple stuff crept all the way up the screen, making the phone unusable. I was forced to move to a standby, a very old Samsung Galazy S3. I see a new cell phone in my future!! (I did end up buying a new phone, but also got the screen on the old phone fixed).
Broken Phone

One of our Last Sunsets

We arrived back at Oceanview Marina on Nov 15 and COVID protocols were still in place. We were told we had to go to the health center on the island for a COVID test. But when we got there, they said we didn't need it. We also were told we had to quarantine for 5 days. But 4 days into the quarantine, they also removed that requirement.
Soggy Paws and Meikyo Sharing Quarantine

We spent most of December getting ready for our leap into Indonesia in January. The requirements to enter Indonesia were still a moving target, but by god, we were going to get going!
Required Provisions for Us and the Cats

Checking out PCR Testing Facilities in Davao

We Had a Very Nice Christmas Eve Dinner with the HOV Gang

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Diving Bohol (Not!)

As we started to think about heading back to Samal Island, we wanted to try to dive in "legendary" Bohol. We contacted a dive operation on the east coast, and they were excited to have us come by and dive with them. At this point in time, the Philippines were still not letting foreigners into the country due to COVID fears, so all the tourism-based operations were absolutely dying.
The S Pass

Bohol had been rigidly closed during the pandemic for over a year for all but Bohol residents. But the Bohol local government had recently "opened up" with a requirement for an "S-Pass" for visitors to Bohol. This is an online "check your vax status" mechanism.

We were fully vaxxed and had the paperwork to prove it. The S-Pass site wanted verification from the Philippines Government site. Everyone giving vaccinations were supposed to be uploading completed vaccination information to the central government website. But our vax site was apparently WAY behind in uploading the data, so the S-Pass site said we were not vaccinated. As we had paid $100 USD to a private clinic to get Moderna vaccinations, we were pretty upset that our vax confirmations were still not registered on the Philippines Government site. So, we could not get an S-Pass.

We provided copies of our vaccination proof to the dive resort on Bohol, and asked them if we could just anchor off their resort for a couple of days and dive with them. We asked them to get approval from the local council. Well, they couldn't manage getting around the government beauracracy and the insistance on an S-Pass. So sad, for them and for us.

So, we called up our old friend at Southern Leyte Divers at Padre Burgos, and asked if we could come dive with him. Actually, I think the same restrictions were in place in Leyte as in Bohol, but at this point, this guy didn't care. He knew if we anchored off, just dove with them, and didn't go into town, nobody would question him or us. So we stayed there for 3-4 days, had some nice dinners ashore, and some nice dives.
Southern Leyte Divers Dive Boat

An Anemone Showing its Colors

A Nice Nudibranch

A Ferocious Looking Lizard Fish

We also met up with Mike and Liliane from SV Meikyo, who were also on their way back to Samal Island.

On 4 November we started the trip south to Samal Island.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

US Ham Exams in the Philippines

Once we were finished having fun in Catbalogan, we spent most of October bouncing between Camotes and Carmen. During that time, we held 2 ham exam sessions. Amateur (aka Ham) radio licenses are regulated by the US Government. But they have delegated the process of actually giving the exams to "Volunteer Examiners". Dave and I are a member of the Laurel Volunteer Examiner group in Maryland in the USA. About 5 years ago, the Seven Seas Cruising Association partnered with this organization to allow roving SSCA members with the correct credentials to give ham exams wherever in the world we are.
Laurel VEC

All the exam materials (randomly generated multiple choice exams) are generated online (we have to download and print), and once scored, we have a program to enter the pass/fail information to submit the results electronically to the FCC.

We have held ham exams in Palau, several times in the Philippines, and New Zealand.

We started talking to one guy who was asking about communications when sailing offshore. This guy was on a really tight budget, so we told him about doing email using HF Radio via Winlink. The equipment to do this is about the same cost as an Iridium Go, but once you are set up, you can sent and receive email, and download weather for FREE. Besides the equipment, the only requirement is a valid ham license.

So one thing led to another, and we organized a ham exam session. We needed 3 "Extra" class ham licensees, and as luck would have it, another cruiser in the bay had the credentials to become our 3rd examiner. This worked well on the first session, but on the 2nd session, our 3rd guy had moved on. We miraculously were able to hook up with a Filipino in Cebu who was also an Extra Class US licensee, so he was our 3rd guy on the 2nd session.
Examinees Taking Tests in Zeke's Bar at Port Carmen

First Session Sep 20 Successful Examinees

Second Session Oct 10

Two of the examinees were able to test their way all the way to Extra Class!

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Adventures in Samar - Caving, Canyoning, and Sightseeing

Sep 2021, Samar Island, Philippines

We actually made 3 short visits to Catbalogan, the capital of Samar Island, Philippines in September 2021. The initial reason was to go caving with Joni Bonifacio of Trexplorers. Dave loves caves, and Joni is THE caving expert in the Philippines. I am not a big fan of caves unless it is a big lighted cave with handrails and a nice walkway (ie Luray Caverns in the USA). So, with the cat off to the vet for emergency surgery, I took advantage of the situation and stayed onboard to "wait for the cat". Dave went caving with our friend Paul from s/v Ttaack, and Paul's girlfriend.

Joni Bonifacio's Trexplorer Shop

They had a blast--hiking to 2 different caves and then exploring each cave. But it was a strenuous day, and Dave's shoes were not up to the slippery cave floors. He came home with a fairly significant gash in his forehead from a slip and fall. Joni arranged everything, including motorcycle transportation to the starting point, porters to carry gear and food, and proper helmets and good headlamps. Joni carries an iPhone in a waterproof box and takes prolific pictures. At the end of each adventure, he put together a short video about the adventure. There are a few pics here you can scroll through (and click on each picture for a bigger version if you want), but if you're into video, here's the Youtube link for Dave and Paul's Trexplorer caving adventure:

Transport to the Start of the Hike

Kids in the Village Where the Hike Started

Hiking in to the First Cave

The Entrance to the Lobo Cave Complex

All Properly Kitted for Our First Cave

Some Serious Cave Exploration!

Cave Pearls!

So we hiked in to the first cave, then came out, had lunch and hiked to the second cave.

A well-deserved lunch before our next hike!

And Onward and Upward to the Second Cave

This Cave Is Even Bigger!

At least it's bigger in some places!

Whew! Finally done and resting before hiking out!

This was really an exhausting trip--way more strenuous than they had imagined. (I was really glad I had opted out for this one).

On a second visit to Catbalogan, Dave and I went "Canyoning" with Joni. We only had a vague idea of what this was, but it sounded like fun--rappelling down into a river canyon and walking down the river. What it actually turned out to be was a series of 7 waterfalls as the river descends into the valley, and we rappelled down some of them and jumped down others. And waded and swam down to the next one. It was a fun trip--a little physically challenging, but not too bad. Besides the actual rappelling, there was a 2 hour hike up along the river bank to the top of the canyon. (This part Joni never mentioned in his description of "canyoning").

Starting Our Hike With the Porters Who Carried all the Gear

Getting Kitted Out with all the Gear

We Practice Rappeling On a Tree

Our First Rappel Looks Pretty Scary!

Dave Sez "Ladies First!"

Joni Requires a Thumbs Up (Dave not so sure!)

We Made It! Only 6 More to Go...

In Some Places There Was a Lot of Rock-Scrambling

More Rappelling--This One With a Jump at the End

And Jump!

In Other Places We Did Some Serious Swimming

Joni Had Packed in a Nice Lunch for Us!

We did a total of 7 descents, and a lot of rock scrambling and/or swimming in between each one. Lots of fun, but we were glad to finally reach the bottom. I kept wondering... what if there's a heavy rainfall? But I'm sure Joni had that figured out. We felth very safe with him. He has led a number of international caving, mountain biking, and canyoning expeditions. And his gear was top notch.

If you want to see a play-by-play of our canyoning trip with more detail, Joni made a 30 minute Youtube of our day of canyoning adventure.

On another day, our new friend Gary invited us to go hiking over on Daram Island nearby (SW of Buri). We went in his speedboat. On arriving in the little town at the base of the hill, we asked for a guide to show us the way. We ended up with 4 nice young men.

Gary's Speedboat

The Town at the Base of the Hill

Narrow Streets Along the Waterfront

Someone's "Car" Parked by their House

We Go Searching for a Guide

Our Guides

It was a nice day, but hot up on the hill with no trees. Great views, though!

The Long Hot Hike Up the Hill

Friendly Fellow

At the Top we Find a Big Monument

And a GREAT View

We loved hanging out at Buri Beach and Catbalogan Town. Sorry we didn't have more time to hang there. For those of you who want to know where it is... here's a Google Maps Link

Next... some of our "inland adventures" touring around Samar and Tacloban.