Sabah, North Borneo

Labuan to Tawau

15th to 30th August

Musings on the Rally, meandering along the coast of Sabah,  around the top of Borneo, wildlife, walks around Mount Kinabalu, Kinabatangan river, clearer waters and so on…

State flag of Sabah

Just as a week sharing space on a sailing boat very quickly shows you most of a fellow sailor’s fine qualities, skills, personality and blemishes, so a few weeks with a sailing rally soon uncovers the truths of our fellow boaties: the very good, the sometimes bad and, alas, occasionally the teeny bit ugly; national stereotypes confirmed, dismissed or, more usually, just a bit modified.

But I tread carefully; the British have more blemishes than many. And above all, sailors, all those on the sea, help one another, share a wonderful life and always learn from one another.

Rally fleet at anchor, Pulau Bohaydulong


We join local people for beach clean-up near Sandakan

I loosely joined the rally from Langkawi, West Malaysia to East Malaysia (i.e. Sarawak and Sabah, North Borneo), nearly 2,000 miles, mainly because of the security offered whilst sailing the final few miles close to troublesome islands in the Southern Philippines.

Little wind at dawn as we motor off together
Watching local dance at the top of Borneo
…and trying to follow the rhythm and steps…

In this smallish area extremists have kidnapped unfortunate souls for ransom, and occasional execution – though not, I think, yachts from Malaysian waters – thanks I suspect to Malaysian security forces, acronym ESSCOM, who have escorted us for the past two or three weeks. The escorted bit around northeast tip of Borneo meant decisions about when to leave, where to anchor, where to stop, where to go etc. were out of our hands; we sailed within a grouped flotilla never more than four miles by two miles, maintaining a speed close to 5.5 knots almost all the time, with accompanying ESSCOM vessels and shore stations watching over us.

The reality for the whole rally, covering over four months since April, has been a lot of fun, many new friends and a wealth of experiences.

But, were it not for the security offered for the final three weeks, I’d choose not to join such a rally. Rallies run contrary to the nature of the independent free spirited souls who form the bulk of long distance sailors.

Laundrette – always an early stop in new towns – this one Lahad Datu


Over the past  months happiest times have been when away from the fleet of up to 29 yachts, pottering alone upriver in Sarawak, anchoring in secluded bays, snorkelling with one or two others, meeting local people, making our own decisions and choosing our own timetable. Above all I’ve loved land travel with Armelle (who’s been with Henrietta for most of the past two months in Borneo – but alas will not become a global sailor).

We visit and are entranced by proboscis monkeys and, here, silver-backed monkeys (their babies start out ginger and change to silver grey after 6 months)

The above simply summarises my view of the Sail Malaysia Rally to the East. It’s not meant to sway you towards or away from taking part should you be heading this way. But another time, I’d go alone.

Dinghy docks and anchorages sometimes get busy when on a Rally.

From here this post is just a hasty summary of a full month sailing and exploring Sabah, the Malaysian state that covers the northernmost patch of Borneo.

The best way to do such a summary, given I’ve run out of time with internet, is with a series of photos….


From Sarawak, Henrietta pottered northwards overnight to the island of Labuan, a busy stretch of sea cluttered with oil and gas rigs and boats zipping hither and thither at all hours. No chance of sleep.

I bypassed Brunei, a proposed rally stopping place, unwilling to visit a country run by a strange dictatorial zealot, however benevolent.

Labuan, like much of North Borneo has historical interest, local colour and a marvelous mix of helpful and friendly indegenous people. Labuan also has duty-free status; yachts sit a little lower, burdened under the weight of beer.

Approaching Labuan at dawn


Mount Kinabalu (Borneo’s highest peak) and, below, world’s largest flower, and we do find one…

On next to Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu, and from there land travel to spend a couple of days in Gunung Kinabalu National Park.

Some eye catching sculpture adorn the roundabouts

here it is

A moving memorial to those killed by Japanese cruelty and neglect on the Sandakan death marches


After Kudat, we’re disciplined into following the instructions of ESSCOM, though still with some freedom to do-our-own-thing when moored in the larger towns of Sandakan and Lahad Datu.

Pictures from Sandakan and around…..


Scones and cream cannot compete with Devon’s but setting is beautiful – near Agnes Keith house


Ashore wiith an ESSCOM officer

And from Lahad Datu and around….

Borneo’s biggest gong. Not allowed to bong it as someone had just died in the gong-making village
We spent a night in this ‘homestay’ with a few fellow cruisers, as guests of local and ASEAN Homestay director, Kobra (on the right)


Plus there’s a pleasant few days pottering up the River Kinabatangan, and a day’s speedboat trip to the Marine Park island of Sipadan for diving and snorkelling before the final week heading on to Tawau, last port-of-call in Malaysia, and close to the border with Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan).

…a little tributary of river Kinabatangan…in search of monkeys and birds

Images from Kinabatangan River

Martin joins me while Armelle goes to meet her daughter….…  and at the end of the rally, it’s wonderful to have a few days with A and Josephine…… (Here’s a link to Armelle’s version of Sabah )

..who join in heavy rain

Sociable evening, as guests aboard Swiss catamaran Javerne,



Soon the curtain will close on Tawau and I’ll leave Malaysia – for    a while

Next stop for Henrietta will be Kalimantan, and then I plan to sail further east through more islands of Indonesia….Sulawesi, Raja Ampat and Papua.

Yes, I know it’s going the wrong way for England. But I’ll turn around somewhere and head west again……


7 thoughts on “Sabah, North Borneo

  1. As ever – a fascinating account of your most recent travels Michael.- much enjoyed.
    Was reminded of you today as me & Martin onboard Sandpiper found ourselves berthed alongside a Najad (SY Spirit) in Vila do Porto, Santa Maria, the easternmost island in The Azores.
    Earlier in the month we sailed by the small island of Monchique off Flores, Europe’s westernmost point … & interestingly, equidistant from Portugal & Newfoundland! Our next stop is Madeira tho’ we’ll never catch up with you.
    Enjoy your onward ESSCOM & rally-free sailing,
    SY Sandpiper


  2. Great blog Michael. Best way to start my day. Happy Birthday for tomorrow. Wish I was able to spend the day celebrating with you and buying you new sun hat!!!!
    Margie x


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