April 2006


The Malacca Straits..........

Of all the worlds’ sailors, not many get to sail the Malacca Straits – perhaps a hundred
circumnavigators a year and of course, that handful of Singaporean ‘salts’ who plough up and
down annually for the regatta season in Thailand.

It’s an age-old waterway plundered and plied by traders for more than ten centuries in search of
spices, silks, exotic foods and women.  (The last part hasn’t changed much!)
Now, more than 60,000 ships a year, carrying half the world's oil and a third of its commerce,
use the route bordered by peninsular Malaysia on one side and the Indonesian island of
Sumatra on the other, enroute to the largest port in the world, Singapore.  Dangerous and
heavily congested, it is one of the most tense passages in the world.

So, now for the pirate part!   Cruisers cringe most specifically at two pieces of water: The Red
Sea and the Malacca Straits….the latter has long been associated with pirates – some
professional, some often just waterborne thieves.  The Straits have been pirate infested for at
least ten centuries and during the last couple of decades of the 20th century, big ships carrying
payroll and valuables were the target of larger scale, well organized pirate operations.  
Recently, though, a co-operative surveillance and apprehension effort between Indonesia,
Malaysia and Singapore has all but stemmed the once-dreaded pirate.  Sorry about that, we
know you wanted blood curdling tales of being lashed to the mast and violently threatened,
plundered, pillaged, ….  Aaarrrrrrrrrggghhhh  !!!

So, when good friends asked if we would be interested in delivering their yacht down the Straits
from Langkawi (scenic northern Malaysia) to Singapore, we were delighted to do so.  There
were to be 3 of us including the boat boy who is resident aboard and had been in the employ of
our friends for several years.  Hence, each time we asked about the boat, our friends said ‘don’t
worry, Lek knows the boat back to front’….
The plan was for us to fly one way to Langkawi and with the addition of some fresh produce, Lek
would have her ready to go on our arrival.  “She” is a lovely 54 foot,  classic Herreshoff ketch
that GT has spent many a happy Kings Cup on.  A pretty, seaworthy little ship,  we were looking
forward to the 450 mile ride south to Singapore.   On arrival, the boat boy was no-where to be
found…. Later that afternoon after the last ferry from Thailand had arrived (we thought he may
be returning from visiting his wife there), still no boat boy, we checked his cabin only to find it
completely empty.   With no subsequent appearance the next morning, we, and friends at the
marina, had come to the conclusion that Lek had “done a runner”.  What drove this, we don’t
know, but we rather suspect it was his reticence to go and live in Singapore, putting much more
distance between he and his new wife.    This put a different spin on things: we had already lost
12 hours – should we forget the whole thing and just hang out in Langkawi for the long weekend,
or should we “go for it”?.  After several phone calls with the owners and a supporting “help” fax,
they were more than OK with us bringing her down unaided and we decided to run with that
plan.  Now, that doesn’t sound like a big decision given our 14,000 mile cross-Pacific passage
but there were two important considerations that made it risky: one is that you need 3 sets of
eyeballs while passaging the Malacca Straits at night as it is one of the busiest and most
congested shipping lanes in the world, and the other was, it wasn’t our boat.   One gets to know
one’s own boat intimately and can read it like braille in the darkest, roughest nights, but this was
a boat “new” to us both.  Our inauspicious start included Henry dropping the boat’s bench lid
(weighing about 10 lbs) onto his finger and splitting it, with an instant black nail and blue
language.  Just what you need for the start of a trip in the tropics.   Nevertheless, we pulled out
of the marina at 2.30pm and settled in for the full-moon passage.  We settled for a tuna
sandwich for dinner that night as we couldn’t get the stove to light! (this was remedied later)
We’d put in 11 waypoints for the 450 miles into Singapore, 8 more than the 2,800 miles to the
Marquesas!  The Malacca Straits is filled with wrecks, shoals and shipping lanes and it’s vital to
keep clear of them all.  Our track took us between the Malaysian coast and the main shipping
lane, on occasion having less than half a mile to both.

This ITCZ (inter tropical convergence zone) is a weather belt a few degrees north and south of
the equator that is characterized by long calms and short severe electrical storms.  It moves a
bit but tends to occupy about 5 degrees of latitude north of the equator; hence, the entire
Malacca Straits is in the ITCZ.  Added to that is the geophysical presence of the large, high
island of Sumatra to the west.  It’s the only thing between Malaysia and the vast expanse of
Indian Ocean and for that reason took the brunt of the tsunami.  Sumatra generates violent
weather cells called “Sumatra’s” – they’re quick to form, pack winds of 40-55 knots and bear
drenching rain.  We were in these latitudes for a week or more when crossing the Pacific so the
notion and experience of lightning storms was not new to us.   Our first evening in the Straits
was uneventful until about 10pm.   This is when the equatorial cloud belt thickened up and the
storm started.  By 11pm all hell had broken loose and we were surrounded by masses of
lightning with several fishing vessels in sight before we lost visibility in the dense rain.  We were
drenched, the boat cockpit and everything in it was soaked and we were battered for 2-3 hours
of roiling storm.  Conditions calmed in the early hours of the morning, dawn eventually broke and
we sorted ourselves, our wet clothes and the boat, out.  

The dawning day was to be stiflingly hot and still with even more vessels around: we were now
1/3 of the way through the journey and entering the start of the narrow part of the Straits.   More
trading vessels could be seen and we motored along, windless in Malacca, for the rest of the
day, gaining short relief from the frozen hand towels around our necks and heads.    Late
afternoon heralded the arrival of a plethora of fishing boats and trawlers, and followed by a
substantial dinner we settled in for the night.  

Our normal routine, X-Pacific, was to have a general watch system of 3 hours on, 3 hours off.  
However, with the volume of traffic in the Malacca Straits one person up at night is not enough
for safety, thus we sought our sleep during the day and both were up most of the night.  At the
same time, 10pm, the clouds thickened quickly, the sky went black and what ensued was
probably the worst 4 hours we have experienced at sea.   When one tolerates a storm mid
ocean, there’s room to move.  In fact, one night in the Pacific we turned the boat around and
back-tracked 30 miles to avoid a nasty storm cell.  In the Straits, there’ little room to move and
what room there is, is thick with vessels.   When you lose visibility because of the rain and
lightning reflection, there is nothing to do but to hold course and drop speed so as not to go
ploughing into another boat…. and hope that everyone else does the same, thus maintaining a
‘status quo’ of vessel positioning for the duration of the storm.  There are about 150 moving
commercial ships in close quarters per day in the Straits, add to that dozens of local fishing
boats and you have a potential for a major disaster.  Neither of us gets freaked out at high
winds and heavy rain, not even big seas, but the lightening we experienced that night was
unbelievable and gut-clenching.  It was on top of us, all around and in the distance, blinding,
unrelenting, constantly accompanied by deafening thunder.   We flinched as blinding bolts struck
the water within a boat-length while massive horizontal flashes and arcs filled the sky.  The effect
was that of a constantly flashing and blinding strobe light.  We were completely at the mercy of
this phenomenon, a 60ft lightning rod in the form of the mast above us, and nothing we could
do.   A sailor’s biggest fear is being struck by lightening….not just losing all electrics and
electronics  but the potential of fire on board and blowing out a thru-hull resulting in a sinking, is
frightening stuff.  We had thought the Friday night storm was bad – but this one was incredible :
the lightening was enveloping us – we could not see more than a meter because of torrential
rain, almost zero visibility and our vision was blinded by the unrelenting lightning.  Slowing the
boat down meant she was more vulnerable to the violent sea chop kicked up by the 35 knot
winds.  We turned her for a more comfortable ride and shuddered at the lightening, being
careful not to touch anything metal in case of shock.  It was like being in an awful disco –
constant strobe effect, bad loud sounds, and soaked to boot.    We were very tense and “wired”
the whole time.   Conditions calmed for a couple of hours after 3am, but we had another
electrical tantrum with lots of rain for an hour, pre-dawn.   We don’t know how much rain fell, but
the bucket tied to the deck contained 4”of rainwater in the morning.    We were soaked to the
skin again, despite having offshore foul weather jackets on, were completely wiped out and
were very happy to see the back of it, but we had one more night to go.  

Additionally, we discovered we had lost our green starboard running light and our mast light
during the storm.  Passaging through the Straits at night without navigational lights was risky
and we evaluated the notion of abandoning passage and going into Port Klang. We were able
to get a wireless signal offshore and sms’d Alan on the mobile phone who advised there were
spare bulbs for the running light.  Thus Henry started the delicate operation of changing the
forward running bulb while leaning over the bowsprit bouncing around in a sloppy sea, complete
with bucket and screwdrivers tied on to the boat…the operation was successful and we were
confident of continuing the passage.

We were now off Port Klang, the shipping port for Kuala Lumpur (KL), the capital of Malaysia.   
Many ships, fishing boats and nets, fish traps, and sadly, too much waterborne garbage formed
the scene.   Ships’ crews purge the bilges or simply dump rubbish over the side – the
unfortunate second-world characteristics of the surrounding countries.  The concern of the
mariner here is picking up a line of garbage or fouling the boat propeller with a previously
severed net, rendering one impotent in the Malacca Straits.  Henry counted 27 vessels in
constant sight that day.  We ate a simple meal early and braced ourselves for the third night at
sea, tense in the expectation of more severe electrical storms.   Thankfully they never came.   
Sunday night was a gift – a wonderfully clear balmy night with perfect visibility and not a drop of
rain.  Enormously relieved, we sat on the elevated aft deck and viewed the massive ships
passaging under the stars, while the autopilot kept Turmulin on course to our destination.

Unfortunately we realized the storm claimed another victim : Henry’s camera – although in it’s
pouch and hidden in the cockpit, it got infused with storm rain and has now joined its
predecessor – also a victim of a sea passage – in the camera boneyard.  Hence the dearth of
photographs on the final run in to Singapore.

A favourable current pushed us south ahead of schedule – we SMS’d Alan with several ETA’s,
always earlier than the last!   We entered the TSS (trans shipping system) marked by two huge
markers and  eventually found ourselves off our destination, the Raffles Marina, around
lunchtime on the third day, a 71 hour run and we have been told a “record” for a two man crew!  
One GT decided to shower on deck prior to arrival but picked a bad time as the Malay to
Indonesia ferry clearly took a detour to get a glimpse of GT’s naked flesh!!  Cowering in the
cockpit, butt naked, wasn’t on the agenda!

So we arrived in ship-shape condition, the lovely boat having looked after us and Lynn & Alan
were there to greet us with champagne, happy to have their “baby” back after a 3 year absence
from Singapore
Click on link to view   PHOTOS FOR JOURNAL 25
Location and Sail Plan