Straits of Malacca
Straits of MalaccaReport Abuse
I first heard of the Straits when I was reading Tim Severin’s “Sinbad Voyage.” I was left with a hazy impression of languid breezes and a metallic sun, with perhaps the diversion of piracy. Severin came down this waterway in a reconstruction of an Arab dhow; he had sultry weather punctuated by those long-lasting purple squalls called Sumatras that tear up moisture-laden from the jungles of Indonesia. Irene and I didn’t get a Sumatra until we were safely at anchor in Langkawi and the Singapore-Malaysian-Indonesian authorities have taken the fun out of piracy in the Straits. But we did arrive after the weeklong passage seriously burned out.
We left Sebana Cove, just to the east of Singapore, and come down the river with the tide late one afternoon. After laying low at the river’s mouth for the night we set off with the flooding tide to negotiate the labyrinth of anchorages and fairways south of Singapore. The harbor proper takes about eight hours to cross; it is huge. There are bunkering areas, container ports, tanker and LPG anchorages – there’s an entire oil refinery tucked over in one corner. The sky was roaring with the normal flight-every-six-minutes traffic from Changi Airport and to add to the sound level the Singaporean armed forces were having exercises with the Yanks. A pair of F-16’s was kept aloft constantly to play cat-and-mouse with an AWACS plane. The sky was sometimes empty but never quiet. By the time we reached Palau Pisang, after 14 hours of ship dodging, it was a sudden revelation to hear nothing but birdsong.
Our plan for heading up the Straits was simple; we’d go out almost to the separation lanes for shipping and run right along the northern edge of the northbound lane. No big ships would be so far over to the side and no fisherman would lay nets across the shipping lanes; piece of cake, right?
Additionally, we thought we’d do an over-nighter; which is to say that since the trip was really about getting there, we’d sail right through the night and put some miles behind us. It’s sort of like saying, “I hate this; so I think I’ll stay up all night doing it.”
Bright and early we were off and heading up the lavender-colored line on the chart plotter that delineated the edge of the shipping lane. We had a soft insincere wind from behind and the genoa poled out to port – the engine ran for the entire trip, day and night. Off to the left the parade of shipping was encyclopedic; commercial ships of every stripe raced up behind and left Moose rolling in their compounded wakes. Shipping came up three and four abreast, with fast container ships passing slower bluff-bowed tankers. This spectacle was surely fascinating, but we really had no time for it since we were preoccupied with the nets and flags that local fishermen had set out across our path. Most of the nets sagged sufficiently for us to safely run over them between the floats; I’m glad they take these things in at night I thought. Well, they couldn’t just leave them strewn across the fairway could they?
The day wore on with nothing to be seen on the distant shore; the haze was getting worse as we went north. Around sunset we did a fast 180 degree turn with all sails set to avoid a fishnet that was just disappearing under the bows; we coasted out in neutral to avoid entanglement. But the games began in earnest with the coming night, because the night brought the “Greenies.”
This section of coast, which actually flanks the historic city of Malacca, abides by the custom of lighting fishing boats with two or three green fluorescent lamps on the cabin top. This works perfectly well once you’ve learned the convention. I kept looking for red and green sidelights for a while, but after a few near collisions, I happily went with the flow. I did find that Greenies would blossom suddenly around us where there had been none before. They would drift quietly, I think, perhaps having a smoke, until the masthead tricolor loomed up over them. Then a frantic illumination and escape took place. Red and green are low visibility colors at night and on top of a mast is not where fishermen normally look for lights, so we were causing each other a few alarms.
I then turned on my bow red and green lights and my white steaming light high on the mast, in addition to the tricolor.
I can think of a half-dozen objections to this arrangement, and you are perfectly correct, but I think I reduced confusion in this instance. Any larger shipping is using AIS and the local stuff is using local rules, so I’ll go with what works.
Irene and I had found that it was simply too busy to have one crewmember below sleeping, we often needed a second pair of eyes or a line handler during a sudden maneuver. The off watch party dozed in the cockpit between dramas.
One of my periods of rest was broken as a tugboat appeared on a crossing course. He had been running parallel, but now he seemed to want to cross the shipping lanes. We watched him come closer, his running lights indicated that he would pass safely ahead, the three lights on his mast indicated – oh damn! – a tow longer than 200 meters. Which meant that somewhere back there, unlit and in the dark of moon, surged along a great barge full of sand. Sweet! We did another of those “turn and motor back into the wind with all the sails up” tricks and were rewarded by seeing the loom of some dark mass black out the lights of distant shipping as it creamed by. As the stern of the tow was opened to us we could see a pale white garden light flickering hopefully. It’s only six hours till dawn, I thought.
What’s funny is that during an episode like this there will be a container ship coming up behind you at twenty knots and lit up like a city and, beyond a glance, you don’t even concern yourself with it. It’s like a bull safely in a pen; it can’t go outside those lavender lines on my plotter, and they’re 100 meters away, so relax.
That morning we crept into an estuary off the port of Kelang, near Kuala Lumpor, and anchored in a tidal current that made the chain hum. We chilled, checked fluid levels and looked for telltale signs of mechanical unhappiness and declared an early happy hour – so early I won’t even discuss it. I felt twitchy and sodden at the same time; a ferret on Prozac.
We left the anchorage by going off in the opposite direction to pick up the North Channel. This would allow us to miss a 10-mile long maze of sandbanks, which would be hidden by avocado-colored water and ripped by current – I couldn’t see the up side. Along the way we passed a village built on stilts high above the water; pastel colored houses, public offices and businesses gave a theatrical cast to it. The area just past the village was apparently the best fishing spot in the region if not the state; nets ran from tidal mud flats on both sides and met in the middle; and ahead they ran off to the hazy horizon. We got into a routine, “OK, black flag, two buoys left, leave the blue float to port, then quick left and…” It worked, but perhaps I’m just not a gunkholer. There’s so much stuff to avoid inshore that it’s hard to enjoy the sights.
First light next morning saw the island of Penang rise out of the grayness to the north. All morning we motorsailed along the high coast, fine old trees ran up to the ridgeline. We skirted the mudflat that guards the west coast, looping around nets as we had done all night long. There was really no sign of civilization along this side of the big island. We were fagged again after being awake all night. I was pissy-eyed and my sense of humor was off watch. Our plan was to duck around the northwest corner and rest up for the last day’s run up to Langkawi; tuck in, drop the anchor and flake out.
Around the corner I saw the distant shore and a peculiar gray stripe that ran like a ribbon up it, from beach to towering skyline. What is that, I thought. Then it dawned; it was a forty-story hotel building, and the beach was like a view of the Costa del Sol, hotel after hotel, ferries, jet skis, day-tripper launches. Overload!
Well, we agreed, there was no other place to go, this was it, it was a bit busy with the half-dozen jet skis, but if you could get past the jarring vision of two teams of Asians, (forty men each and all in uniform), having a tug-of-war on the beach, then it would do very nicely. Besides, it was now one o’clock, surely these people would want to be home and showered by late afternoon to be on time for the team building this evening. Actually it was all very interesting, everybody came very close to the Moose to wave and say hello; the wake generated roll was monumental, but it was all good-natured.
This resort area is very popular with tourists from the Gulf States and it was charming to see older ladies clothed totally in black, except for their eyes, fishing off a tourist boat with gay anticipation. What really amused me, in our world state of fear, were two thirty-something women who had rented a jet ski and were ripping up the waves at full throttle, their shrieks and laughter blowing back to us. Oh, and they were clad, head to foot, (well except for a scandalous flash of ankle), in black, soaking-wet burkas.