How to Stay out of Trouble with the Fishing Fleet

    This article is primarily for those approaching their first cruising trip through the Malacca Straits.
    Once upon a time, there were pirates in the Malacca Straits.  They were the major concern of
    seagoing vessels, both large and small.  No more: that problem has been solved, but the
    challenge now  – for small boats like cruising yachts –  is the myriad of fishing boats plying the
    Strait.  Having completed  over 10 passages up and down (from Singapore to Langkawi/Phuket) I
    would say that these nights at sea in the Straits can be some of the most stressful  you’ll
    experience. The need to be constantly alert can’t be emphasised enough, and we recommend a
    minimum of two sets of eyeballs during the night.  For cruiser couples like ourselves, we are
    generally both up at night and do our “off watches”  in turns during the days.  While fishing boat
    lighting has improved somewhat over several years ago, it’s safer to assume that many boats are
    either not lit, not lit all the time, or incorrectly lit.  The use of strobe lights is frequent (illegal in most
    seaways apart from distress purposes) and blue or purple lighting is not uncommon.  Add a good
    lightning or rain storm to this (frequent in these latitudes) and you’re in for a very exciting night!

    Whilst there are in excess of a dozen or so crew on many fishing boats, do not assume there is
    someone on permanent look-out, or that the boats have radar.  So make yourself as visible as
    possible: we use both our top of mast tri-colour and our bow navigation lights when passaging at
    night, and keep a large spotlight in the cockpit to highlight our sail or mast.  It’s also useful as a
    return signal if a fishing boat has spotlighted you, to indicate you’ve seen him as well.  As a
    general rule, it’s best to hold your course when safely possible.  Fishing boats that do have you in
    their sights, can generally get flummoxed if you are constantly moving around and it upsets their
    plans for net-laying.

    A straight run from Singapore to Langkawi is generally about 72 hours: that includes a lot of
    motoring, as the Malacca Strait is not the most scenic stretch of water on the planet, and the
    sooner its over with the better: we usually motor between Singapore and Port Klang, ensuring we
    clear the Port Klang shipping channel entry and One Fathom Bank, in daylight.  North of the port,
    the Straits widens considerably (and shallows for the first 20 miles around One Fathom Bank), the
    shipping channel ends  and so relaxed sailing is possible again, with even a play with the
    spinnaker is possible, particularly between Pulau Pangkor and Penang or Langkawi.  

    The shipping channel between Singapore and Port Klang is well marked on the chart: almost
    without exception the ships are “well-behaved” in these channels and a cruising yacht can find
    plenty of sea room between the channel and the land (i.e the inshore channel), except for one
    place when the shipping channel nears the coast south of Malacca, and caution prevails.

    We have found that on leaving Singapore it is best to sail just outside of the shipping lane on the
    Malaysian side (approx a mile). This avoids most of the fishing boats, as they tend to keep clear of
    the big boys, and you have the benefit of knowing the big boys will keep in lane. They also have
    proper lighting and tend to travel at a stable speed, so they are easier to track. This works well up
    to Port Klang, after which the divergence takes Langkawi bound yachts too far off track. Ships also
    give a good radar image which you don’t always get from the smaller fishing boats.

    Typically, the fishing fleet starts its work any time from mid afternoon, but are most prevalent
    twilight, through to dawn.  Generally, we’ve observed that these are the major types of fishing
    vessels to look for:

    (1)        The Squid boats.-These are the easiest to spot – they are medium to large sized vessels
    with several long spars sticking out from each side.  The spars are fitted with dozens of lightbulbs
    and are brightly lit to attract the squid.  These “squidders” are either bright white or bright green
    and generally stay in one place : there is often a line of them and you might sight a dozen or so at
    one time, strung out across the horizon.  When they are on the move to a more lucrative squid
    spot or to return home they may turn off the horizontal spar lights and run with very small standard
    red/green, often at a pretty fast clip, maybe 12 knots or so.

    (2)        Pair Draggers – These are two large fishing boats that are connected by a net, about
    half a mile apart.  We have seen several sets of these pairs around Phi Phi Island and particularly
    just north of Langkawi between the Bulengs and Pulau Tetoria, at sunset and sunrise.  They are
    generally not well lit, but can display a red flashing light if they are moving together with a net
    strung between them.  You can pick them up on radar : i.e. two vessels of equal size travelling in
    identical direction and speed, and also visually:  If you see one large vessel with standard lighting
    (very small and often hard to see particularly through rain) and a red flashing light, look for the
    partner ship and avoid both. If you sight them in daylight, the first clue is a sister ship close by of
    exactly the same size and style, painted in identical colours: the pair usually belong to one family
    or one fishing company. If you do get jammed in the middle or spot the pair too late to change
    course or turn around, take heart that the net between them is likely several meters below the
    surface and weighted towards the bottom.

    (3)        Individual trawlers, large and medium.  These either work alone or assume the role of a
    mother ship with smaller fishing boats coming to and fro them to deliver a catch to their freezers.  
    They can be purse-seiners, carrying a large stern looped net, or simply net trawlers.  In profile
    they look like a rhinoscerous,  with a large horn emanating from the foredeck: this is the net winch
    that pulls the net from the sea:   When the net is loaded during retrieval, the boat appears to be
    listing heavily to one side.    The net is generally laid in a circle, hence the boat listing when the
    net is both deployed and retrieved. Give them a wide berth.

    (4)        Line pullers: while long-liners are more prevalent in the Caribbean and other oceans,
    there are a few around in the Malacca Straits.  Their lines are not miles long due to the potential
    interference from other fishing vessels, but a quick check with the binoculars at their stern should
    indicate if they are dragging a stern line or net.

    (5)        Small fishing boats – These vary from 15-30 feet in length and are generally manned by
    a pair or 3 fishermen.  They will usually carry one small red or white light, often hard to see
    particularly in a seaway.  Around Thailand, some single- hander fishermen will often go out to their
    favourite spot early evening, then pull a blanket over themselves and sleep for a few hours until
    they think the fish are biting: they’re hard to see and we nearly ran over one once.

    If you do run over a net, clearly crew and boat safety are paramount, but it is generally the purvue
    of the yacht to compensate the fisherman for his net, after all, it is his only income and possibly his
    only asset.  We have seen some very angry Thai fishermen prevailing upon a sailboat who had
    severed their net.  It was quite ugly.

    Another thing to watch for, both day and night, is fish traps.  These are laid at the bottom of the
    sea, particularly in shallower areas.  They are marked on the surface so the fisherman can
    retrieve them but the markings vary from a substantial polystyrene block with a visible flag, to a
    hard-to-see 1 litre clear plastic water bottle with a string around it.

     Further north, for those venturing between Phuket and the Similan group (not to be missed!) very
    large fishing boat moorings, the size of a Volkswagon can be seen.  They’re squarish polystyrene
    blocks wrapped in black plastic where fishing boats stay rest during the day.  This 60 mile passage
    is an easy one in daylight and shouldn’t be attempted at night as these mooring blocks would be

    -        That vessels actively engaged in fishing have right of way.
    -        That there are more fishing boats out there than you can see
    -        By all means brush up on your vessel lighting before passaging, but take it with a pinch of  
            salt, as the fishing fleet does
    -        Have at least one pair of binoculars on hand in the cockpit
    -        Have at least one strong spotlight in the cockpit
    -        The VHF radio is virtually useless unless you speak Bahasa or Thai
    -        Tune your radar properly to pick up small vessels, before your first night in the Straits
    -        Don’t assume a fishing boat has someone on watch 100% of the time: their focus is their
            catch.  Collision avoidance is largely up to you.
    -        Dive your prop/rudder as soon as you arrive, or at anchor, to see if you’ve picked up any
            flotsam: there’s a lot of it around in the Malacca Straits.

    Some cruisers only do day hops up/down the Straits, specifically to avoid the nightly dance with
    the fishing fleet: not a bad idea, you just need to be detailed about your passage planning, speed,
    and available anchorages, and you need to accept it will be a 6 day passage instead of a 3 day
    one (assuming an average speed of 7 knots).

    But it is worth it!  Langkawi and Phuket/Krabi are the cruising “pot of gold at the end of the
    rainbow” at the conclusion of your north-bound passage, and Singapore the land of plenty for
    provisioning and dining, at the end of your southbound passage.  Good luck!

    Glenys Taylor & Henry Mellegers, S/Y Dreamcatcher, CAL-346, based in Singapore

Malacca Straits

A Fishy business (as publishsed in Australian Cruising Helmsman, Nov. 2012)