The recent news of the Indonesian tourist boat sinking and the missing foreign tourists spurred discussion and concern in our office, and particularly at home. My partner, Steve, travelled to the Komodo Islands a few years ago, with a similar boat tour company. When we saw the latest news of the 15 foreign tourists missing after an Indonesian tour boat sunk, Steve told me about his own experience. Hearing about his trip made my hair stand on end. 

Indonesia boat cruise to Komodo Islands
Incredulity on seeing our boats arrive at the dock. Photo credit: Stephen Lerch

While on a diving trip in Indonesia, Steve signed up for a two-day boat trip to the Komodo Islands, east of Lombok. He chose a flotilla of three boats escorting a wide array of foreign tourists, including one family with small children. When he got to the dock, he couldn’t believe that the small, rickety wooden boats were the ‘cruise ships’ advertised in the brochures. Not only was he stuck on one of the three questionable vessels for 48 hours, they were unlucky enough to get caught in a storm.

Lombok Island Boat Tours
Boats leaving Matarem City on Lombok Island. A lovely ride if the weather is nice, but a different story in poor conditions! Photo credit: Stephen Lerch

Rough waters and a top heavy boat made everyone seasick and fearful. When the waves started splashing over the sides onto the deck, passengers started to panic, asking the crew about lifejackets and life rafts. They discovered the life vests were stowed below deck, and had to convince the crew to bring them up only to discover there weren’t enough for everyone. They also discovered the captain’s only navigation tool was a rudimentary compass―they were without a GPS or depth sounder in the middle of the night. Steve could hear screaming and yelling from the other boats in the dark.

Rustic boat to Komodo Islands
This simplistic main deck is pretty much all you see for 2-3 days. Photo credit: Stephen Lerch

Steve said he started to mentally prepare himself for the worst―the likely possibility that if they capsized, he would have to swim ashore in rough, dark, shark-infested waters. His ship miraculously made it, and he got to visit the famous Komodo dragons. Upon landing, he heard the family on the other boat had initiated a vote to turn around in near mutiny. The other passengers actually outvoted them and their boat continued on. The parents must have been terrified.

When Steve thinks back to that stormy night, he still wonders how they managed not to capsize, and how the family with small children ended up on the trip in the first place!

The Indonesian archipelago is one of the world’s most popular diving locations, but most launch points for diving companies can only be accessed by boat. Planes are very infrequent and costly; this leaves limited options for tourists. Many opt for the same rickety boat trips as Steve did, over the slower island-hopping method, which follows a series of buses and ferries

Here’s what the boat companies may not always divulge: many islands are so remote and the reefs so difficult to navigate that many are uninhabited, or at best, have very limited services and medical clinics. With an estimated total of 17,508 islands, of which only about 6,000 are inhabited, the archipelago is also one of the most dangerous in terms of water travel and marine navigation.

View of tour group of boats heading to Komodo Islands

A great trip on a boat in Indonesia. At first travellers don't realize the potential dangers of the open deck Photo credit: Stephen Lerch
A great trip, if the weather is nice. At first passengers don’t realize the potential dangers of the open deck, top heavy design, and lack of life vests and life preservers… Photo credit: Stephen Lerch

From the thread following the BBC article, you can see that the track record isn’t good for boat trips in Indonesia. At the time of this article: two foreign tourists remain missing. I can only imagine how hard it must be for their families right now.

Canadians are used to high safety standards, but we need to remember that not all countries follow suit. Travelling to Indonesia can indeed be a safe, valuable experience, but do your research before you sign up for any boat trips.

Lucky to make it to the Komodo Islands after all, and finally see the Komodo dragons! Photo credit: Stephen Lerch
Lucky to make it to the Komodo Islands after all, and finally see the Komodo dragons! Photo credit: Stephen Lerch

Follow these tips:

  • Don’t book “blind”. Ask to visit the boats, question the company’s safety standards, ask to see and count the life vests and lifeboats.
  • If you’re travelling with children, think especially twice.
  • Take the ferries and buses instead of the cruises. It will take a bit longer and may cost more, but the ferries are larger boats, more seaworthy, and better equipped (with GPS, radar, or depth sounders). You’re less likely to capsize if you run into bad seas.

Good travel insurance can be a safeguard for most emergencies, but the best approach is to be safe from the start.

Learn more about Indonesia and water safety:

Happy travels, and stay safe

What Indonesian Boat Tours Don’t Want You to Know

Aug 21 2014