How to hire a boat in Indonesia: Without drowning

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First published 22nd February, 2011

Travelling off the beaten path in Indonesia, there will, almost inevitably, come a time when you need to charter a boat. Want to spend the night on a white sand desert island, like Dodola, off Morotai in Maluku? You'll need a boat to drop you there and pick you up. Looking to visit a pearl divers village, snorkel with manta rays or whale-watch? You will, most likely, need to haggle with a boatman.

Bali to Lombok ferry under stormy skies, Indonesia

In parts of the archipelago, boat charters are essential to getting around: the small boat that brings you out to sea to board the big boat that takes you back to (relative) civilisation; the vessels that carry you up jungle rivers into the dark heart of Kalimantan or Papua.

Even without the regular news of carnage on overloaded ferries, a trip to an Indonesian waterfront is an illuminating experience. You don't need to spend long peering across the mire of plastic to realise that boats come in a very broad degree of seaworthiness.

Dive boat, Togian Islands, Indonesia

Nippy, freshly painted fibreglass outriggers bob merrily besides terrifying patchworks of mouldering staves, their outboard motors wired with duct tape and held together by a solitary rusting screw.

It would be easy to assume — at least if you are new to the Alice in Wonderland world of Indonesia — that no boat owner would rent out his pride and joy for a journey to which it is manifestly unsuited.

Because that would just be crazy, right?

Like piling six people plus backpacks into a tiny wooden outrigger that's trickling water like a peeing cherub, and attempting 25 kilometres of choppy sea...

It happens.

It happens a lot.

Estuary boats, Halmahera, Indonesia

Ever snorkelled a small wreck?

Ever wondered how it got there?

And those are just the shallow ones...

The first rule of boat club is this. Never hand over any money, not even for petrol, until you've seen your chariot close up, and checked it.

Boats in the harbour at Pulau Derawan, Indonesia

The second? Know what type of boat you need.

For a small group of people popping up an easy stretch of river, a canoe with an outboard will do just fine. Surprisingly small outriggers hop fast and safely between sheltered islands.

When heading out through open sea, however, or negotiating narrow channels through an exposed coastal reef, you need something with the size and power to cope with chunky surf, heavy swell and nasty chop.

Big fish and marine mammals, such as whales and killer whales, cruise on serious oceanic currents, requiring, generally, a relatively hefty boat. Nervous mammals, like dugong, may feed at sea but shy away from engine noise: meaning you'll need to be towed in a rowboat, canoe or other human-powered boat to where they're grazing and then be left to spot them.

Wreck in Makassar Harbour, Indonesia

How to find a boat? Look for a promising one, then ask about the owner. The best value boats are often moored away from the main jetty, by the shore.

Basic safety checks are critical.

For example... Is the boat watertight?

Now, a bailing scoop hacked from a jerry can is an essential piece of boating equipment across Indonesia. Canoes, longboats and outriggers throw up spray as they cut the water, which accumulates in puddles in the bottom of the boat.

Puddles of water should be no cause for alarm unless you're carrying electronics and have yet to plastic-bag your pack.

An inflow? Now, that's the sort of thing to walk away from.

Skiff on Danau Temple, Sulawesi, Indonesia

Another pertinent question... Does the engine work?

If the boat has an outboard motor, take a look at it. Are all (or most) of the external bolts intact? Can you see rust? Does it start convincingly (ideally first tug, first time)?

If not, move on. If the owner borrows a reserve engine from a friend, check that one too.

The safest boats feature lifejackets (at least one per person, including crew) and a working, two-way radio (with someone on the other end). Outside regions with a developed tourist culture, these are like hen's teeth.

Storms at sea, especially during the rainy season, can kill. Take advice on the weather from a local who has no financial or familial interest in your transaction — delay or cut short your trip as necessary.

Boat from Menjangan Island to Bali, Indonesia

Finally, you'll need to negotiate the price. For short hop charters, such as trips to nearby populated islands, or out to sea to meet a ferry, there is often a standard local price. Find out the figure from a local and use it as your starting point.

For other deals, prices are calculated on a combination on the type and size of boat, the time you're hiring it for and the distance the boat will be covering (including any returns to base).

Fuel is normally included (though owners often like a contribution to fuel paid upfront); normally, it's form to feed the crew. Confirm these details when you haggle.

And, finally? Enjoy. There are tens of thousands of islands, and hundreds of thousands of islets across Indonesia, just waiting to be discovered. The only way to get to most of them? A boat of your own.

About the author:
Theodora has travelled extensively in Indonesia, often by boat, and you can read more of her writings following her travels with son Z, at Escapeartistes.

Read 6 comment(s)

  • even the cheapest boats between Bali and Lombok are dangerous. they can only survive their cheap prices by overloading the boats, bribing port authority to look the other way, not maintaining their boats. business is a here today gone tomorrow philosophy, unfortunately that could be your story too.! one rule of thumb is if the fuel up the boat while smoking, choose another operator.

    Posted by Peter Dundas on 23rd February, 2011

  • Witty and informative.

    Posted by Marc Jacobs on 23rd February, 2011

  • Life jackets? That would be pure luxury!!

    Posted by busylizzy on 23rd February, 2011

  • Some excellent rules to go by here from a very, very experienced traveler in this part of the world. Heed them and live.

    Posted by Michael Hodson on 25th February, 2011

  • Thanks for the tips! I had no idea it was normal to feed the crew for example.

    Posted by Matt | YearAroundTheWorld on 28th February, 2011

  • Great advice. When I took my first boat ride to Pulau Tidung I wasn't sure the boat was gonna make it. I will take your checklist with me on my next boat ride.

    Posted by Dianao617 on 1st July, 2012

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