Family Magazine

Chasing Fuel in Biak

By Behan Gifford @sailingtotem
Although we've made most of the westing that stretched ahead of us just a couple of months ago, there’s still a good distance to get across the rest of the top of Papua- so after just a few days in the Padaidos we move on. Conditions are fair, which means we still have to motor, but at least it is board flat and we don’t have to fight adverse current. It’s starting to become apparent why one of the cruisers in company with us on this leg switched from sail to power for their second ‘tour’ of Southeast Asia… this is motoring country!
Resting in Biak At anchor in Biak... board flat water
It’s tempting to continue straight through to Sorong, but we’re curious to stop off in Biak first. This is a big island at the top of the large bay , roughly halfway across the top of Papua. It was a site of some significance in World War II, and gives us a chance to see a small town without the pressure of Jayapura. We also need to try to get propane, and top of diesel if we can.
Fueling in Indonesia is tricky. We can’t legally purchase fuel directly. Fuel also can’t be transported in jerry cans, but there aren't any fuel docks we can use either. The jerry can limitation doesn’t make sense- diesel isn't terribly flammable, but this is a legacy of the Bali bombings, and logic doesn’t always play a part in regulations anyway. It all serves to complicate our access to fuel. The basic approach is to just start asking around, and eventually you’ll be hooked up. There’s often an enterprising person who will approach a foreign boat to help.
Then there’s the matter of determining price. Locally, diesel and gas are sold at Rp 4500 / liter. Because we cannot purchase from a station, there are inevitably hands and effort along the way that add a markup- like a hand in uniform that is allowing it all to happen. It’s highly unusual (although not impossible) to find someone who will sell direct from a bowser for the market rate.
When we fueled up in Jayapura, we joined forces with Sea Glass to sort out an order. We needed two drums- about 100 gallons. They needed 2 or 3 times that. Between acquiring the drums, bringing them to the waterfront, and decanting them into jerry cans- which were then shuttled to the boats, one load at a time- it was a full day’s work for his crew.
So when a fisherman comes by in a dugout painted with splashy colors within minutes after the anchor is set, we let him know we’re looking for fuel. The enterprising fellow tells us he can help us, and quotes us a good price- Rp 6500 (about $0.65) per liter. Great! We tell him how much we’d like to get, and he paddles off.
If he can pull it off, he’ll make some nice coin for the effort. Unfortunately, we never see him again. He probably wasn’t able to line up a source, and it’s not like we traded phone numbers with him. No big deal- we just keep asking.
Next, Jamie heads over to a neighboring boat, one of the rusty-crusty looking cargo boats that play waters around the area... same one in the photo above. Normally I get the translation/interpretation duties, but I’ve made him a small phrasebook for Christmas, and he’s determined to tackle this independently. He comes back having struck a deal- yes! I’m only needed to help clarify the details. One of the requirements is that they want to do the transfer (from their drums into our jerry cans, which we then shuttle in the dinghy back to Totem) after dark. Oh, right, this isn’t legal!
While we wait for darkness, Jamie tackles the LPG question. He gets together with the guys from Muscat and Nalukai, and they go off in search of hardware and gas. It’s easy enough to buy LPG, but they aren’t able to decant the gas into our bottles- the Indonesian fittings lower the pressure too much. They use gravity and try icing the bottle to get gas to flow, but it doesn't work. We need to find a fitting that will allow a higher pressure transfer.
A search of hardware stores is fruitless, so this particular task will be put off for another place. Getting one out of two tasks accomplished here- well, that’s not bad. We’re happy enough to roll with this, enjoy a little touristing in Biak, and then get along to the west again.

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