Indonesia Makassar voyage lures intrepid Hood River traveler

JP Harrison takes a ride on the ‘Valkyrie’

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JP Harrison is about to embark on a big adventure. He leaves today to fly to Indonesia, where he will join the crew of a 75-foot Makassar trading schooner to sail through the Indonesian Archipelago for 2 1/2 months.

It’s a dream come true for the Hood River resident, who has always wanted to voyage on a large sailing ship. But it’s hardly new territory for the inveterate traveler and adventurer who has visited 85 countries so far in his travels — including Indonesia, where he’s spent several months over the course of the past three years. He’s lived and worked in seven countries, including New Guinea, and spent a decade in Australia. His hobbies include climbing active volcanoes — he’s made it to the top of 18 so far — windsurfing and deep sea diving. And he’s sailed on small sailboats across the Pacific Ocean from Panama to Australia and around the Caribbean.

But he’s never had the chance to sail on a large ship.

“To do a sailing trip on a big ship is almost impossible these days,” Harrison says. Big sailing “ships” these days are either large racing yachts or replicas of sailing ships that are mostly powered by engines.

The Makassar schooner Harrison will crew on is built just like the traditional schooners that have been used for trading in the region for centuries. Indonesia is spread over 17,000 islands, so until the spread of motorized vessels — which was relatively recently in this third world country — sailing ships were the most viable means of transporting goods. The Makassar schooners, named for an Indonesian ethnic group renowned for their boat-building skills and distance-trading prowess, still ply Indonesian waters; many have been converted to engine-powered trading ships while others are used for tourist charters.

Harrison learned of the “Valkyrie,” the ship he will sail on, from friends. The ship was built about three years ago to take tourists on charter trips through the islands. Unfortunately, due to last year’s terrorist bombing of a night club in Bali and the recent bombing of a hotel in Jakarta, tourism has dropped way off throughout Indonesia. According to Harrison, the British owners of the “Valkyrie” have decided to take the vessel to India, offering a few spaces for paying passengers and experienced crew along the way.

The “Valkyrie” will depart from South Sulawesi, in central Indonesia, sail south through the string of small islands east of Java, then head west and north past Java and Sumatra. The ship’s course is still uncertain as fighting in northern Sumatra could force the ship to sail farther north — most likely along the west coast of the Malay Peninsula — before turning west toward India.

Harrison has a return ticket on Nov. 18, so he will probably leave the ship on the Malay Peninsula.

Some aspects of the trip have changed since the Jakarta bombing. Several of the tourists who planned to crew on the boat have canceled, and the departure has been delayed by a couple of weeks.

“The Bali bombing just devastated the country,” says Harrison, who was in Bali last year at the time of the night club bombing. “Now, the bombing in Jakarta has made it even worse.” Harrison says it “doesn’t make any sense” not to travel to Indonesia because of the incidents.

“People don’t stop coming to the U.S. because of 9/11,” he says. Harrison, who spent a month living with a family in Bali last summer and learning the language, says Indonesia is one of the friendliest and safest countries he’s visited.

“Violent crime is very rare,” he says. “You almost never see policemen with guns, although it’s more common these days.” The Indonesian people are “astonishingly friendly,” he says.

The “Valkyrie” is equipped with an engine, but the plan is to sail as much as possible, despite the notoriously light winds in the region. It’s the season of the east monsoons, so the chances for wind to power the ship are greater than normal.

Aside from a few two- and three-day passages, the ship will anchor near land each night, allowing Harrison and the rest of the crew to explore the rich diversity of Indonesia.

“Indonesia has just about everything from a third world point of view,” he says. “You can go from here to there — a very short distance — and see incredibly different things.”

JP Harrison plans to send dispatches from his voyage that will be run in the Hood River News throughout the fall.

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