Welcome to Borneo

006 degrees 18′ 64 N 116 degrees 18’17 E Anchored in Teluk Ambong, Sabah

Well, I made it to Borneo. After a great send off from the Indy and meeting up with friends to say last minute goodbyes I got on a plane to Kuala Lumpur and then Kuching, in Sarawak, one of the Malaysian sections of Borneo. Seventeen hours, £100 sterling in excess baggage allowance and three very small aeroplane meals later, I arrived in Kuching. I’d had text instructions from Steve to get a taxi to Santubong, to the Datuk Linggi’s dock, whatever the hell that was, and to ask the driver to drop me off at the police station. One long cab ride later and I was getting out of the air conditioning in a dirt lane in the pitch black with a big bag, a wheelie case and a rucksack. I called Steve, who told me to go through a white gate and along a road. OK. Went through the gate, ominously marked with a sign saying “Private property”, and found another dirt track, blacker even than pitch, with what, judging by the squeaks, I could only assume were bats wheeling about above my head. “What on earth have I done, leaving London, to walk down a dark path in the middle of nowhere to meet a bloke and get on his boat, having answered an advert for crew wanted on the internet?” was the more printable of the thoughts running through my head.

But this was part of my big adventure, so I dug out my head torch, then found I couldn’t fit everything back in my bag so had to kind of saddle myself up with yet more bags and try to wheel my case (containing a cat flap and a home brew beer kit for Steve) down the dirt track. It was about 30 degrees and very humid, and I was wearing jeans and my Dubarrys (an unsuccessful attempt to reduce the excess baggage which probably saved me 75p) After about 100 metres I found myself in what seemed to be a working farmyard with floodlights and machinery scattered about. Was Datuk Linggi a big Malaysian industrial firm? Two men were eyeing me from across the grounds. One got on his motorbike and started to come towards me. Shit. Bracing myself for the inevitable attack from guard dogs, I rang Steve to tell him I didn’t think I was in the right place. The guy on the motorbike had reached me. I got ready to try to explain what I was doing but “You go sailing?” he asked. Er, OK, maybe this was the right place after all. Then Steve showed up. Turns out the Datuk Linggi is the local dignitary and he had let Steve anchor off his dock.

One dinghy ride, two glasses of orange juice, a beer and a cold shower to stop the sweating later and we were lifting anchor to sail overnight. It was about 10pm and by 7am we were anchoring off a turtle sanctuary, where I got an hour’s sleep before we were off again.

We had to make it to Miri, further east in Sarawak, before Friday ready for the start of the Borneo International Yacht Challenge. For the next three days and nights we sailed and motored constantly, only sleeping for a couple of hours at a time, passing thunderstorms and oil rigs, going through an area by a river estuary where the water changed from blue to yellow along an exact line, narrowly missing floating palm trees large enough to rip a big hole in the hull and having a visitor in the form of a tiny bird stopping to rest his wings for half an hour during his long journey.

We caught a tuna on one of the lines we’d been running off the back as we approached Miri and I had to run the gaff hook through its gill and out of its mouth to pull it on board. Not your usual behaviour for a vegetarian. I was anticipating how it would taste, plucked straight from the sea and barbecued just a couple of hours later on the back of a sailing yacht on a sultry evening in Borneo. I hadn’t eaten tuna steak for four and a half years, since going vegetarian. It was a big deal for me and Steve was very excited he’d managed to land a 5 pounder. Layla, the ship’s cat, was even more excited and was allowed to tuck into some sashimi.

Steve popped a large chunk of meat on the barbecue, along with some potatoes, whipped up a salad and popped the cork on a bottle of fizzy wine. And how did the tuna taste after all that build up? Exactly like it had come from one of John West’s tins. Sigh.

Claire and Lizzie, our other race crew members, arrived on Friday and after a seasickness-filled practice race on Saturday (not me being sick for once) we started racing – round the cans outside Miri marina on Sunday (we only did one race as they needed us all back in on the high tide because of the shallow entrance. On our arrival the day before we’d only had 20cm clearance under the keel). We came third, and that with a seasick novice on the crew. Monday/Tuesday was a 95-mile, 22-hour passage race to the duty free island of Labuan. Wednesday saw another passage race to Kota Kinabalu, this time 65 miles, but it took us 24 hours and we had to motor the last three miles to make sure we got in before the maximum time limit. Massive wind holes meant we didn’t do well in either race. But on the last day, a windward/leeward off KK and a mini passage race with lots of spinnaker (and me on the helm!) we did a lot better and took third place again. Overall we came fourth in Cruising Class A, out of 20 boats. There were some proper race boats taking part in the racing category but cruisers were divided into two groups. Most of the people taking part were couples in their 50s and 60s, who live on their boats and are cruising around Asia.

We drank a lot of beer, sat through hours of speeches by deputy ministers of this and that tourism department and what seemed like days of cover versions of pop songs blasted out the equivalent of Malaysian X Factor contestants, ate a lot of buffet dinners (stir fried fern leaves are very tasty; fish paste on rice for dessert is not), didn’t get a whole lot of sleep and made some new sailing friends. Oh, and I burst a balloon with a 6ft long blowpipe, held up for me by a young man in ceremonial feathered head dress and grass skirt.

Since the race end we’ve been anchored off Sutera Harbour Marina, with use of its country club facilities – its marble showers are even better than the famed ones in East Cowes – and have become very familiar with Kota Kinabalu’s shopping malls while we tried to get mobile sim cards, laptop dongles and food for the boat, including weird fruit and vegetables we don’t know the names of or how to cook. I wouldn’t recommend KK city as a holiday destination, as it’s not the most beautiful of places. In fact there aren’t many Westerners here, but Mount Kinabalu seems to be a big draw but as we didn’t have time to make it up there I can’t really comment. I do know I am sick to the back teeth of the inside of shopping malls, though. Strangely, The Body Shop is very popular here.

We said goodbye to Claire and Lizzie at the weekend and hello to Canadian John, a traveller who’d been sailing on Blue Steel, the Cruising Class A winner, and who looks like the Norse god Thor, and set off last night for Sandakan, on the east coast, where we’ll meet up with about 10 other boats and hopefully go to see some orangutans and wild elephants.