Travel: Maiden Vietnam Pt. 1

By: John Ford, Photography by: John Ford

Presented by
  • Trade-A-Boat

Following the launch of the Seawind 1600 in Vietnam, John Ford sets off with the owners and crew on the initial stages of the journey home to Australia.



Travel: Maiden Vietnam Pt. 1

The first indication of something amiss was the unexpected sound of my phone beeping into life. At the halfway point between Vietnam and Malaysia, over 200NM from land, picking up a mobile signal seemed peculiar. When I looked at the 'Welcome to China Mobile' message on the screen things became even more intriguing.

Nothing showed on the GPS, the radar identified a shape, and soon unusual structures came into view on the horizon. The VHF radio burst into life with the sounds an agitated foreign tongue as we all exchanged quizzical glances. We realised we were in trouble when we heard clear directions spoken in English; "Vessel Double J you are in firing range! You must change course immediately to 30 degrees!" Oops!


Such was our welcome to China’s contentious land-claim in the middle of the South China Sea – or the Southern Sea, according to the Vietnamese. At least the AIS was working as it should, giving our identity and country of origin to the Chinese authorities who seemed upset by our intrusion. They wouldn’t risk a war by blowing us out of the sea, would they?Nevertheless, we changed course as directed. Best not to take any chances.

This was the third day of Double J’s maiden voyage to Australia from Vietnam’s Nha Trang, and it was proving far from the leisurely sail we had hoped for. It followed a soaking-wet baptism on our first night, along with winds of 39kt and 4m seas that lasted for twenty hours. The wind backed off to 25kt on the beam for some exciting sailing, until the self-steering suddenly failed and we were forced to take the wheel with a distinct weather helm.


The high winds and seas tested our faith in the Predict Wind weather forecasting system, while the broken self-steering left us to tend the wheel next 1000NM (Seawind eventually sent a helping hand and with parts to fix the steering). Such is the reality of venturing into remote territory.

The prospect of collecting your new Seawind  from Vietnam (where they have been built since 2010) and sailing back to Australia sounds like a romantic one, but we were amongst a small minority who have actually done it. And while it promised to be an adventure, none of us doubted the challenges of learning the ropes on the go – not to mention the ambitiousness of covering more miles than most sailors would travel in years of cruising.


The many unlit fishing boats in the dark near the Malaysian coast seemed rather tame after our rousing experience with the Chinese military. But due to their lack of AIS and their wooden structures being too small to show up on the radar, we still had to keep a close lookout at all times. Most would shine a torch if we came close but even so we found it difficult to get a feel for how far away they were in the darkness.

Sunrise of the fifth day rewarded us with a stirring view of the 4,000m Mount Kinabalu silhouetted by an orange glow, and by mid morning we settled into the resort-like atmosphere of Sutera Marina.


Kota Kinabalu is the capital of Sabah on the island of Borneo and, as our port of entry into Malaysia, it meant our first encounter with immigration officialdom. Luckily co-owner Juanita took on the collective administration duties, because even with the help of an agent the task proved time-consuming, expensive and complicated. However, it all passed by without the thorough customs searches I had anticipated (not that we had anything to worry about).


The city offers modern shopping malls and high-rise living, positioned alongside traditional fishing villages that are being pushed into 21st century development. The highlight of the stopover was a seemingly endless taxi ride up the World Heritage-listed Mount Kinabalu, punctuated with panoramic views, crisp air and enchanting rainforest. Throughout Malaysia and Indonesia we found it relatively easy to hook up with private taxi drivers who possessed enough English to understand our desired destinations, while many even had their own itinerary of recommended tourist spots. Cost for a larger vehicle averaged about $60 AUD a day. 

We bypassed Brunei due to confusion about entry permits and safe anchorages, so our next stop was Kuching – about eight kilometres up a wide river on the southern coast of Borneo. Kuching has a basic marina that caters for visiting yachts where we were soon welcomed by a couple of old salts from Melbourne. They told us they had been inundated by rats and mosquitos, and warned us to avoid a cobra that resided on the rickety floating jetty. 


Kuching – what a town! Beautiful architecture, endless history and stunning countryside. I’m ashamed to admit I had never heard of it. We were lucky enough to visit at the end of Ramadan so we could experience the annual celebration of music, traditional dancing and local food. Among the festivities we met taxi driver Rudi, who led us to sites that included breathtaking mosques, the English Raj-era Fort Margherita, a very entertaining cultural village and the Semenggoh Orangutan Reserve.


At night we joined hundreds of families to enjoy the festival atmosphere, as the centre of Kuching exploded with colour and sound. Parks along the river overflowed with traditionally-costumed revellers against a background of rhythmical music, while the beautiful cantilevered Darul Hana Bridge and the imposing parliament building provided a modern contrast.

Our self-steering woes persisted, so Seawind arranged to fly head of production Mark Waller to our next destination in Belitung, where he would endeavour to bring the system back online. We also planned to utilise his expertise to look into problems with the generator, a mysterious leak in the master cabin and replace a jib halyard that had chafed at the mast. It was looking like we might be laid up in Belitung for quite some time.


Read Part Two in our December issue.

This review was originally published in issue #509 of Trade-a-Boat magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest boat news, reviews and travel inspiration.


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