Fishing boats, commercial ships, cruising yachts and tourists have been kidnapped and killed for years by Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist group operating out of Sulu province, Philippines. The group has stretched its tentacles as far as east Sabah on the island of Borneo which has become known as a no-go area for many sailors.
The sad part about this is that the region is also home to some of the most beautiful places in Malaysia: world-renowned dive sites, pristine rainforest and unique wildlife. Until recently, we believed we would never be able to take SY Esper to the area, at best we would make our way overland if we had time.
But this all changed when we were invited by the organisers of the Sail Malaysia Passage to the East Rally 2020 to join them in the last leg of the passage. The rally begins early April in Langkawi and finishes at Tawau at the end of August. We have agreed to film from Kota Kinabalu to Tawau and will be covering it here in the blog and on our YouTube channel.
Now, we’re not big on rallies, in fact the only time we took part in a rally (of sorts) was in 2010 when we joined a motley group of sailboats from Turkey to India through the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden at the height of piracy. At that point all the advice from MSCHOA (Maritime Security Centre- Horn of Africa) was NOT to go. We had no military escort and it was bloody scary. “Never again,” we said.
But this is different.
Malaysia has zero tolerance on kidnapping which is why ESSCOM (Eastern Sabah Security Command) is taking the lead throughout the passage from Kudat to Tawau. They will escort us for the entire period. Now that is commitment! Knowing this has put our worries completely at ease.
There is a small price to pay for notoriously independent cruisers (we’re all skippers and don’t like taking orders!) because we are required to register and sign an agreement saying we will adhere to ESSCOM’s guidance in eastern Sabah.
In the past there have been rogue yachts who wandered off with total disregard of ESSCOM’s guidelines. This causes extra work and potential danger, so the instructions are clear, “If you think you are likely to be the next ‘wanderer’ then eastern Sabah and this rally is not for you.”
For the rest of us who are grateful to follow instructions from the military, there will be the anxiety-free opportunity to see places like this:
- Turtle Islands Seldom visited by tourists because it’s such a dangerous area, 1000+ baby turtles are released each night during the time we will be there.
- Sandakan Home to many conservation parks, including the Sun Bear Conservation Centre, Orang Utan Sanctuary, Labuk Bay Proboscis and Rainforest Park.
- Kinabatangan River The vast floodplain forest contains a rich mix of vegetation supporting a diversity of wildlife, including proboscis monkeys, orangutans, gibbons, rare pygmy elephants, tarsiers, slow loris, macaques, crocodiles, freshwater sharks, Irrawaddy dolphin, hornbills and a variety of other birds.
- Tun Sakaran Marine Park Dive and snorkelling heaven.
- Sipadan An area of previous kidnapping, but one of the most beautiful diving spots in the world
Yes, our current plans are still to sail to the Philippines, but we will be steering well clear of the danger area in the Sulu Sea. And we will be back in Kota Kinabalu in time for the full ESSCOM briefing in July before we join the rally towards Tuwau.
We can’t wait to get started on this fantastic adventure!
Peace and fair winds!
Liz, Jamie and Millie xxx
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