Helena Marina is a great place to store a boat, but not somewhere you want to spend any length of time – despite the picturesque sunsets it’s hellishly hot and breeds ferocious midges, so we’re keen to move out of the river as soon as possible.
Thankfully both engines are still working, so on a rising tide we motor out to Sorong Harbour and back into the duck pond at Tampa Garam. Ahh, that feels better, just a bit strange to be the only cruising boat around. A few of our cruiser friends have remained in the area but they’re all out in the remote islands waiting for us to join them for Christmas.
Gradually, things start looking up. Our old patched and torn bimini cover is replaced by Pak Nyong, using the new Weathermax 80 material we’d brought with us from Sydney. Rudi, the mechanic, comes to replace the oil seals on the starboard motor, Wick and his team are able to repair the dive compressor (another casualty of our time away), and the boat gradually fills up with enough supplies to hopefully last us 6 weeks out in the islands. It’s time to go cruising!
True to form for Raja Ampat, what little wind there is, is on the nose, so we motor all day and finally arrive in Besir Bay on the southwest corner of Gam Island. It’s empty, as the other boats are out and about diving, so we get to pick the prime anchoring position and settle in to wait for our friends. It doesn’t take long – over the course of the weekend the bay fills up with familiar faces and boats – Carol and Murray on “Jams”, Rob and Muzzi on “Lalamanzi”, Craig and Judy on “Sundust”, Chris and Leah on “Savannah”, and Kevin on “Aguabago”. Except for Muzzi, who got stuck overseas like us when Covid hit, everyone else has hunkered down in this bay for pretty much the last 9 months. Amazing! Whenever a boat had to go into Sorong, the others would get Ayu and Wick to provision for them and get their supplies delivered to the dock and then back out to Besir Bay. Cruisers are a resourceful lot.
The weather patterns are very different this year than last Christmas when we hardly saw a drop of rain. Now we get daily downpours and squalls that don’t last long but cause havoc with laundry and re-initiate us into the ‘hokey-pokey hatch dance’ – open, shut them, open, shut them, that’s what it’s all about.
Before we left, we were having regular music nights with “Jams” – Carol, Murray and Bruce on ukelele and me on guitar. What we lacked in talent we made up for in enthusiasm, and it was always good fun. We’ve missed it while we’ve been away, so it’s great to hear that not only have they continued to practice but they have a new recruit, Kevin, and a plan for the inaugural Besir Bay Yacht Club Christmas Concert. Carol and Murray do a sterling job as bandmasters, and those who don’t play an instrument are involved in singing or playing percussion with bells, shakers and drums, with Chris treating us to solos on his clarinet and violin (just not at the same time!). What a wonderful reintroduction to cruising. The stress of the last few months starts to slip away, and it feels like we’ve never left. Times like these are truly the best bits of cruising.
A plan is hatched for a dinghy tour of the hongs on Christmas morning, accompanied by coffee and other treats. For those of you unfamiliar with hongs, the name comes from the Chinese word for ‘room’ and is used to describe the circular-shaped open-air lagoons often formed from collapsed limestone karst caves. They’re magical serene pools surrounded by lush foliage clinging to the sheer cliffs enclosing them. The entrances are often hard to find and even harder to access, with narrow shallow archways of limestone rock that you have to pull yourselves through with your fingertips. It makes for a great adventure on Christmas day. Miraculously the skies are clear, so bright and early at 7am the flotilla of seven dinghies heads off down to the head of the bay. “7am on Christmas morning?! What is this madness?!” wails Bruce (toughen up buttercup, it’s a good time to go before the sun gets too hot). I bring a version of Christmas cake with icing, Leah brings homemade scones with butter and jam, and we have great fun finding and exploring as many hongs as we can (I think the final count is five, with many more inaccessible or missed).
Later, everyone congregates on Toucan for a ‘potluck’ Christmas dinner which exceeds all our expectations. We may not be able to conjure up the traditional turkey or ham, but a veritable feast magically appears from the galleys of all the boats – cajun fish, honey soy chicken, beef wellington, vegetable flans, salads, breads, and desserts to die for.
It’s never easy being away from family at Christmas time, but truth be told had we still been in Sydney we wouldn’t have been able to catch up with either of our boys and their partners anyway due to the recent outbreaks and lockdowns imposed by COVID. It never feels like a complete celebration when you can’t hold your nearest and dearest in big, warm, loving bearhugs, but this year’s Christmas wasn’t a bad substitute. We’re exceptionally grateful to be back on the water, back home on Toucan, and doing what we love most with like-minded cruising friends.