A Maritime Crossroads in Southeast Asia

On Borneo, the world's third largest island, cruisers in transit linger at the posh accommodations of the marina at Sutera Harbour."Passage Notes" from our January 2010 issue

February 11, 2010

PN Dagon 368

The crew of Dagon cut a wide swath from Asia to many waypoints throughout the Pacific, with an extended layover in Borneo. Thomas T. Bailey

If you were to free associate from the word “Borneo,” you might come up with The Wild Man of Borneo, which is the title of a 1941 MGM movie. Kota Kinabalu, a large, modern city of endless shopping malls located on the northwest coast of the Malaysian state of Sabah, probably wouldn’t come to mind.

So how do world cruisers arriving at KK, as it’s known, hear about the small marina at the five-star, very civilized, Sutera Harbour Resort?

The same way that we usually do: by word of mouth. And KK’s reputation definitely precedes it.
Living at Sutera Harbour is like having a staff of hundreds for the price of a reasonable marina berth. Of the two-dozen nonlocal boats, only one or two qualify as resident liveaboard vessels. Everyone else at this crossroads is movin’ on.


First to leave after we arrived one January were Jan and Bill Wiggins. When we pulled into the slip next door on Oddly Enough, our Peterson 44, they were busily stocking up on cases of mineral water and had the distracted air of cruisers thinking about their next port. Though hailing originally from Ohio, they’d sailed Jipz Rose, their Baba 35, down from Okinawa, a southern island in the Japanese archipelago. Bill was based there as a U.S. Marine Corps pilot. He flew generals around Southeastern Asia in Learjets, and he often had stopovers in KK. The military put him up in the Pacific Hotel, which overlooks the marina.

“I’m going to get a boat and bring it in here someday,” he used to tell his buddies, much to their amusement.
Boats hadn’t been in their past, but they bought the Baba in Tokyo from a man who was paying a small fortune to keep it in a marina.

Five years ago, they started working their way south through the Philippines. From Sutera, they planned to resume their cruise south, stopping along the Borneo coast. Then it’s across the South China Sea to Singapore. Once there, they’ll put Jipz Rose up for another season and visit their houses and families in Ohio and Hawai’i.
Though Bill is retired after 25 years in the Marines, Jan still produces a newsletter about church activities for new military personnel on Okinawa. She enjoys her work, and she’s less sanguine about sailing than Bill.


“When we’re home we say, ‘Let’s sell the boat.’ But when we return, and I’ve been on the boat awhile, I say, ‘Let’s keep on sailing,'” reports Jan. It’s a dilemma many out here have.

Tom Sager and Fran Ashton were next to leave on Dagon. We’d last seen the beautiful toreador-red, 1972-vintage Nicholson 55 yawl in 2003 leaving Îles Wallis, in the Pacific, for its voyage home to New Zealand. Both hold dual citizenship: He’s an American with a New Zealand passport; she’s a Kiwi with a U.S. passport. They met in New Zealand, where they owned a Tayana 37.

Dagon had been moldering on a mooring in Auckland for eight years when they first saw her. They hadn’t been seriously thinking of moving up, Fran says, but “she looked so lovely sitting on the water that we got sucked in.”
“‘He,'” says Tom. “British boats are male.” Hmm. Dagon was the god the Hebrews were worshipping when Samson tore down the temple; hence, their dinghies are named Samson and Delilah.


The boat really is lovely-and quirky in a British way. Her original owners raced her in the 1973 Admiral’s Cup and the Fastnet Race, then cruised her for several years. She has rod-and-linkage steering and still using the original Neco autopilot from 1972, which Tom keeps going by cannibalizing two complete units. She’s made of wood from the deck up, and Tom and Fran spent a year in a shed in Australia taking the deck off and rebuilding it. “We repainted the boat in a more sedate burgundy, but the paint didn’t hold, and after it was resanded, we found out there was no more burgundy paint available,” Tom recalls. “So we repainted her toreador red.”

Tom and Fran arrived in KK a couple of years ago, having heard of the marina from cruisers in Micronesia. Now, hoping to time their cruise to avoid the worst of the typhoon season, they headed Dagon for the Philippines, then Japan.

Adding Taiwan to the itinerary, they can day-hop almost the entire way, an amazing concept to me. Most of the marina was out to see them off.


Our turn came next. By now, we’d been at Sutera for a month while we worked on small projects and enjoyed the resort’s five pools, free movies, and WiFi in air-conditioned comfort in the marina clubhouse. In between, we’d gotten involved in some extracurricular cat trapping. Nynke Fortuin from Wal Rus had borrowed a trap from the marina office and was using it to prove that wild cats-and not the four felix domesticus residents on the dock-were using boats as litter boxes.

We’d set the trap on our finger pier for several nights, but we’d only managed to catch a boat cat that had been left out. Nynke baited the trap with dried shrimp, then made sure that her own ship’s cat, Phukat, and the other boat cats were locked in for the night.

On most nights here, we’d hear a wild cat’s challenging howl. On our final morning at Sutera, we saw that one pesky feline had managed to snag the food dish and eat all of the shrimp-without setting off the trap. Some devilishly smart cats live in these parts!

Nynke and her husband, Jim Klick, were waiting on a delivery of boat parts before leaving the marina themselves.
“Luxury problems,” she calls them. “When I think of the suffering people in Darfur, I have difficulty with my own feeling of impatience.”

Nynke solves her urge to “save the world” by addressing one small issue at a time, such as trapping wild cats and finding them homes or helping poor fishermen get by.

Having sailed on Wal Rus since the mid-1990s and on a previous boat since 1980, Jim and Nynke are one of the longest-cruising couples I know.

Their first boat was the same length as Wal Rus, 49 feet, but it was a seven-ton racer. They bought her in Perth, on Australia’s west coast, and took their first long passages heading east along the continent’s forbidding southern coast.

“That boat was like being on an eternal camping trip,” says Jim, who grew up sailing small boats in San Francisco Bay.

Wal Rus, a sturdy steel bilge-keel ketch built in New Zealand, carries the name of three boats that Nynke’s father owned during her years growing up in Holland. Jim and Nynke have continued crossing the world’s oceans in her, trying always to go east.

The couple seem at peace with their long cruising life and with each other. Every July, they give themselves time to reassess their feelings about it all.

When Jim and Nynke leave Sutera, they’ll head for Cambodia, at the head of the Gulf of Thailand. Recently opened up to cruisers, it’s only about 900 miles from KK.

That makes two boats going north to one going south-well, two south, since we’re heading to Brunei. It’s less than 100 miles away.

Our Malaysian visas are up, and we need to head out on a “visa run.” Might as well see a new country. But in a month, we’ll go north again.

Choices, choices.

Ann Hoffner and Thomas T. Bailey are using Sutera Harbour as a base for cruising in Malaysian Borneo and for catching up on boat projects aboard Oddly Enough, their Peterson 44.


More Destinations