ndonesia is often described as a paradise on our doorstep for yachting and boating enthusiasts in Southeast Asia. However, to the majority of us, it remains off limits and effectively unexplored. Wrongly, in my opinion, as with good planning, a brave heart and a few kegs of beer there are wonderful experiences to be had.
Yachting around the world continues to evolve and make life easier for the cruising yachtsmen, technology and creativity bringing easy to handle and safe yachts into the reach of most. But destinations have to keep apace and people expect modern facilities, infrastructure and simple regulations for cruising new waters. Indonesia struggles on these critical three points.
Having such incredible natural beauty and the most diverse marine biology in the world also presents its problems: how not to ruin this without piling tons of steel and laying millions of cubic metres of concrete into a pristine environment.
Several groups have successfully held rallies and cruise in company gatherings (the more the merrier), particularly in the near to Singapore waters of the Riau Archipelago, a stunning area of over 4,000 islands (out of a total of 17,500 islands across the country). The problem is that these are infrequent and require a lot of planning on behalf of each individual yacht owner and an extensive crew. And what if you don't own a yacht? Exploring the islands any other way has been practically impossible. Waking up at the weekend and simply setting off to explore the islands is not an option. Until now that is.
Enter The Equator Club, an islandhopping experience, so the brochure tells us. The Equator Club is creating floating and fixed destinations across the Riau Islands and beyond to provide permanent, eco friendly and locale sensitive destinations for yachties and non boaters alike. The club aims to be a low key, rustic experience providing quality destinations, immigration clearance and permits, somewhere to park your boat, food and beverage, water sports and toys but most of all fun among a large group of like minded people. For those that are not yacht owners a range of water craft will be available at each destination and bigger ocean going yachts for transport between the destinations and beyond.
It's far more than just a pipe dream and my investigations into the club found them to be well down the road to opening the first destination and a number of vessels already completed or close to completion. The club hosted its first large group of boaters in October this year for a preliminary visit.
The first destination is a floating clubhouse (surrounded by later to be added mini villas) in a quite fantastical spot just off Numbing Island, south east of the main Bintan Island. The channel has superb clear waters and with a width of 200 metres across the channel can take pretty much any vessel. The floating clubhouse will be the epi-centre of activities with moorings all around for visiting yachts. Fuelling, food and beverage and a range of additional services will be on hand for members.
In addition the club has taken a lease on land based buildings very close by to provide a support base and keep the bulk of staff and equipment away from the serenity of the clubhouse. This existing facility was the base from which the first group of yachties explored the area in October.
For those without a boat, a fast ferry to Tanjung Pinang from Singapore will connect to a club express cruiser to whisk guests direct to Numbing in minimal time where accommodation will be available in the main club house (prior to additional floating villas coming on stream later). From this base, kayaking, dingy sailing, canoeing, beach barbecues (a superb beach is just minutes away) and eventually diving and more will be available to members.
Numbing is planned to be fully operational by early 2012 and the evidence shows the club are well on the way to achieving this. Thus club has several founding members who have committed funds and experience to the project. As in any project of this nature, there is always a visionary leader overcoming endless obstacles and in this case a French couple with contrasting styles and backgrounds.
Olivier and Genevieve Benoist have been in the region for over 30 years. Olivier comes from a background of offshore oil and gas marine engineering and Genevieve from fashion, jewelry and antiques. Add the engineering and marine skills to the style and design skills and you begin to see how the Equator Club has evolved.
Both have extensive experience of Indonesia (Olivier is near fluent in Bahasa and recently gave a 90 minute presentation to Indonesia's marine tourism industry solely in Bahasa) and have built yachts in remote places in Indonesia and sailed across the region. This included building and operating one of the most successful traditional style charter yachts ever to operate in Indonesia.
This eventually led them in 2004 to purchase three hectares of land just south of Tanjung Pinang on Bintan Island to create a boat building yard, which they have since named Lokasi.
I have visited this yard on two occasions and it is both a miracle of creativity and a wonderful destination in itself. Located on the bend of a secluded river, Lokasi provides a main house, staff and visitor accommodation and endless workshops and boat building bays. Don't expect luxury and stunning beauty, it is after all a working yard minutes from the island chain's busiest port and city, but sit on the dock in the evening with a cold Bintang, with the distant hum of prayers from multiple mosques, and one begins to relax and understand the attraction of the Riau Archipelago and where the Equator Club is going.
On probing Olivier why he is doing all this you get a simple answer, "What else would I do? I'm supposed to be retired but would have gone crazy and I wanted to enable others to have the incredible experiences of Indonesia that I have been lucky to have." Olivier and Genevieve have provided 90% of the funding to date and a very relaxed Olivier quickly becomes an addictive character to those around him.Founding members have been regular visitors to Lokasi to both enjoy the atmosphere of the place and to catch up on the latest plans and see the progression of the yachts under construction (the club is still open to Founding Members who not only get unrivalled access to the club's facilities but a share in the future financial returns). If the Indonesian dishes served up by the resident team are a sign of things to come then club members are in for a superb culinary ride.
Lokasi has delivered a stream of great looking dinghies. I tried my hand with the club's local operations manager (an American/ Singaporean marine biologist and dive instructor) and managed to successfully traverse up and a down the river on the flood tide in 2 knots of wind. As with all yacht building, if the small ones work then it's usually a good sign for the bigger ones.
The club has just completed (in just 3 months) the construction of its first 10m speedboat which will be used to shuttle guests around the Numbing destination, to and from the beach and for general purpose. The much bigger 15m Mushu is under construction and will be used to ferry passengers to and from the ferry terminal as well as undertaking much longer voyages to explore the hundreds of islands within touching distance of Numbing.
The next vessel under construction, the 36 metre Impian, aims to bring a mix of traditional style with modern facilities. More than 70% complete and beautifully styled, Impian will be the first in a series of vessels that can take members between far flung destinations across Indonesia and will also operate as cruising vessels in their own right. Open to investors on a fractional ownership basis, these vessels show the ambition of the club and its genuine intention to go far beyond just the Riau Archipelago.
The whole project goes way beyond being a playground for yachties. Local communities have been involved in every step of the process which will bring both investment and new skills to them without trampling their pristine environment. Operation of eco-friendly fish farms at each location bring not only a commercial opportunity for the club (as well as super fresh food in the clubhouse!) but also the chance to involve schools and research groups to really open the club to everyone.
At last it would seem that the long hoped for Indonesian island odyssey is real.