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Martin & Sue

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Back to the real world - murky meanderings in Singapore and the Straits of Melaka

 

We had not been looking forward to crossing the Singapore Straits  which has ships from all parts of the globe thundering down it at 10-15kts in both directions separated only by a small ‘median strip’ of the traffic separation scheme. There is generally only 3-4 mins between the ships going in each of the directions so crossing the strait was a little akin to running across a freeway during peak hour (not the South Eastern in Melb. as that would be easy because it would be stopped!!)  

Now 3-4 minutes may sound like a long time but when these office blocks are coming towards you it seems like they are nose to tail, and of course the ones going in either direction do not line up either! However, after much trepidation of ‘now...no, not now..’,  we were able to target an opening between the large ships and make it through the gap with ample room to spare. Not a very pleasant experience.

 
     

Our self-congratulations were rather premature for we very soon found ourselves surrounded by scores of anchored and moving ships en-route for the Port of Singapore itself.  These weren’t moving in any traffic separation scheme but seemingly transiting in a random fashion. To make matters worse, by the time we realised that our C-Maps (2001) were out of date for this area we had spent a frustrating hour or so trying to find our way ‘out’ of a seemingly landlocked harbour that didn’t add up to what our charts told us. The constant shrill of the AIS alarm identifying collision targets only added to the frustration. We finally switched it off as with over 150 targets it was impossible to use properly. The only useful object was the old Mark 1 eyeball!  ( x4 !!)

 

     
 
Above: the AIS screen with a sample of the crowded targets in a 2 mile range   Above: The radar 'blob' showing the multitude of ships surrounding us! Again in 2 mile range

 

Finally, after a lot of searching through this apparently endless void, we realised that several kms of land had been reclaimed to produce a huge new bay and because we had followed the old maps we had inadvertently entered it to become landlocked. Our only ‘escape’ was to backtrack 5 miles and find our way around the reclaimed land. Needless to say, we have now obtained a copy of the latest version of C-Map ( 2008 ) !

     

 
Above: Old version of CMAP before land was reclaimed - the red line shows our plotted course that skirted the original entry to the Port (marked as A)   Above: New version of CMAP showing in red the course we had plotted. The blue circle indicates the 5 miles of reclaimed land.
     

The Sail Malaysia rendezvous point was the town of Johor Bahru– just across the causeway from Singapore – and gradually, over the last week of October, most of the Sail Indonesia fleet reassembled in readiness for the trip up the coast of Malaysia. Some of the boats hadn’t been seen since Darwin as everyone pretty much chose their own time and routes for the rally, so it was a friendly reunion with many stories to tell. The final hop across the Straits of Singapore had proved to be a challenge in more ways than one for several of the boats who, having delayed maintenance and repairs until leaving Indonesia, limped into Johor Bahru. In fact, the list of boats requiring significant repair work grew by the day and we began to count ourselves as extremely lucky to have survived the 7,500 nautical miles relatively free of trouble. Mechanical and prop problems topped the list of issues, followed by Auto Pilot and Refrigeration troubles.

Two yachts needed total engine rebuilds: ‘Meridian of Sydney’ had to be towed for the last 200nm after seizing an engine and being in the convergence zone meant little if any wind; and the English yacht, ‘Reflections’, required a warranty fix (turned out to be a whole new engine) after breaking a cam shaft on their 9 month old engine and dropping some valves onto the pistons. A few other yachts had less serious mechanical issues, many relating to gearbox problems. Not surprisingly, several boats had bent or damaged running gear after running into fishing nets, hitting reefs or colliding with floating debris, including in one case a half-submerged 44 gallon drum.

 

 

Above: a floating tree in the water - lucky it was daylight

  Above: even in the Straits, the large ships have to compete with fish farms!
     

The ‘near escapes’ and ‘tall stories’ also did the rounds as sailors retold and embellished battle stories. First prize went to the tale of a ‘near death’ encounter with a large container ship. During the telling no mention was made of the slack night-watch keeping that led to the incident – only the horror and dread of suddenly realising that thousands of tons of metal, with clearly visible port and starboard lights, was rapidly approaching on a direct collision course. The wife had time to broadcast an urgent message to a nearby yacht asking them to tell her children how she died. Fortunately, although caught in the forward wash of the approaching vessel, the small craft somehow survived its bumpy ride along the side of the ship. Evidently the container ship was aware that they had hit something (maybe they heard the farewell radio call?) for they actually turned around and shone bright lights in a search for wreckage! Fortunately very little damage was done to the yacht and all ended well. That particular yacht is now searching for an AIS alarm system as a matter of priority! (Better watch keeping may also help!)

 

 
Above: Night watchkeeping has its moments - especially at sunrise.   Above: Another obstacle to be aware of - oil rigs under construction near Singapore
     

Our base in Johor Bahru was a brand new, luxurious, very much first world marina called Puteri Harbour.  It was nearly empty but for the rally boats. The money poured in here and to the surrounding area has to be seen to be believed with huge new estates and shopping complexes being built, apparently mostly with Chinese and Middle Eastern money. This was our first marina stop since leaving Port Douglas several months previously so we took full advantage of the ample water and power to pressure wash the boat to remove 6 mths of accumulated salt and grime.

During the rally stopover berthing was free and special rates were being offered for long term berthing. Our friends from Morning Star VII, who had decided to leave their boat for 6 months so they could fly back to Aus and replenish the cruising kitty, negotiated a rate of only $A1000 for six months! (In Brighton we were paying about $A1000 / mth )

 

Since we were so close to Singapore we decided to leave the boat for a few nights and head over the causeway to the Island. Getting there was an adventure in itself. We found the bus OK and paid our 4 Malaysian Ringgits (about $1.30) – but we were a bit bemused when ten minutes into the journey the bus stopped and the local passengers unloaded and started running. By the time we realised it was the Malaysian Immigration Checkpoint and had found the foreigners section, the locals had reboarded the bus and it had taken off! Luckily the buses come every 15 minutes so we jumped on the next one for the brief ride over the causeway bridge where the procedure was repeated on the Singapore side – and yes, we missed the bus again!

 

 

Below: Chinatown with the modern Singapore skyline in the background

 

Above: Stilt houses near the Causeway in Singapore - how they use to live?

 

  Eventually we were deposited at a main railway station and found ourselves standing in front of ticket vending machines that only took coins or small denomination notes – and since we had only just changed some Aussie dollars into larger Singapore dollars we had neither. After finally sourcing some smaller notes we were able to enter the immaculately clean and ultra efficient rail network. By this time it was close to 1pm and feeling thirsty and hungry we sat down on a bench to share a water bottle and a few dry biscuits. It was only then that I noticed that no-one else was eating or drinking – and also spied the posters alerting passengers to the $500 fine for eating or drinking on the platform or on the trains - oops!  

After 4 months cruising in some of the poorest villages in Asia, it took some adjustment to cope with the wealth and ostentatious consumerism of Singapore. On Orchard Road we walked passed shopping mall after shopping mall (imagine several Chadstone’s lined up end to end) – all housing exclusive designer houses such as Pierre Cardin, Tiffany’s, Prada, etc , the full who’s who of the fashion world and all full of eager shoppers. Most were open until 11pm but quite a few were open 24 hours. After viewing the subsistence existence of many people in Indonesia just 50 miles away, there was something almost obscene about a handbag with a price tag of $A5,000.

 

   
Below: Some Shop names just don't work, do they!
 

Other areas housed huge technology shopping plazas and it was in one of these complexes that we succumbed to the widespread shopping fever and visited an Olympus dealer to ask about a zoom lens for our SLR Digital camera that we had purchased duty free in Darwin. Unintentionally we fell into the perfect ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine – for neither of us was totally convinced we needed the lens and as we hesitated and waivered about buying the shopkeeper kept lowering the price. Finally in frustration he started throwing in extras, including a free $A40 filter. So, despite our ‘no shopping’ intentions, we came away with a 200 – 600mm factory telephoto to match our other two smaller lenses.

Our hotel in Little India was clean and functional - and for our $A80 a night we could stand on our bed with out-stretched arms and nearly touch all four walls! Breakfast was included, except it was Indian and the sight and smell of dhal for breakfast was a bit much to take so we saved our Indian food fix for the evenings.

 

   
 
Above: Raffles Hotel - still retains some of it's old world charm  

Above: Afternoon High Tea at Raffles Hotel

Below: the foyer of the Raffles marina - yes Marina !

Whilst in Singapore we took the opportunity to visit both the Raffles hotel (for high tea) and Raffles marina (which has a marble foyer and looks like a grand hotel with marina fees to match, at least by local standards!) We traipsed around taking in all of the sites of a modern world and visited several of the historical areas including the original fort that was built to defend Singapore from the sea (...unfortunately the Japanese came by land). By the end of day three we had had enough of consumer civilization and were happy to return to Malaysia and prepare the boat for the passage up the Malaysian Coast.

 

 

 

 

The Straits of Malacca are one of the busiest stretches of water in the world. However, the shipping lane is well marked and we set our path between its channel and the mainland. Unfortunately this area is also popular with large barges being pulled by tugs – and with fishermen for their nets! As a consequence, we tried to avoid night passages where possible.

     

After the crystal clear water we were use to in Indonesia, it was a shock to encounter the murky waters of the Straits and possibly our biggest disappointment.  The entire area is very shallow, usually no more than 30m and the muddiness is fed from the many brown-water river systems along the Malaysian West Coast. We have been unwilling to swim for nearly a month now - however, this was not as much of a problem as it could have been since there are almost no offshore islands along the Straits so our only option was to either hop between major ports and towns or to anchor close to shore in the shallow waters.  The 5m depth line was still sometimes 2-3 miles offshore so at times it felt like we were sitting in the middle of nowhere.

Our first stop was the historic town of Melaka that was a major port during the spice trade days of the 1600’s and changed hands several times between the Portuguese, Dutch and British.  It retained some parts of all of their cultures. It was an easy motor up from Johor, apart from the regular encounters with fishing nets cunningly disguised as floating rubbish in the form of foam cups to mark the nets!

 

  In addition to the floating nets, we continually played ‘dodgem’ with large fishing trawlers trailing excessively long nets. Braveheart found out the hard way just ‘how long’ when they suddenly stopped with a shuddering jolt so violent that it lifted the back of their multihull up. They had judged it safe to pass a mile or so behind one of these trawlers and suffered a bent prop as a consequence as they caught the tail end of the net. After that we made a point of always passing in front of the ubiquitous trawlers.

Above: Here they come - the trawlers tend to hunt in packs, making them doubly difficult to avoid

Below: safely in front of at least one of the trawlers. Note the new rear cockpit shade - our industrial sewing machine has been working overtime.

 

Below: Mandolin Wind sporting her new boom shade tent - a life saver when staying in airless marina berths

 
     

Due to the distance from Johor Bahru we had to make an overnight stop behind a jutting headland – not an ideal anchorage but given the calm conditions and the shallow water, adequate. We were anchored with plenty of daylight to spare so were able to dodge the fishing nets – or so we thought! After dinner we had just settled down to watch a movie when we noticed a light from a small fishing boat not far off our stern and became somewhat disturbed as it gradually moved closer and closer until it was only half a boat length behind us. We stood in the darkness of the cockpit and watched in amazement as the fishermen pulled in their net closer and closer. Evidently we had almost anchored over their unmarked net. We held our breath, wondering what the next move would be if we were over the top of it. Fortunately, despite coming within 4-5m of our hull, they were able to lift it in without any drama.  You can keep the best lookout in the world but around here it often just comes down to luck.

 

Word had circulated through the sailing fleet that Melaka had a new marina so as we approached we tried to call them on the VHF radio. Eventually a yacht responded and advised that, ‘there is no use calling, there is no one here. However, there is plenty of room and we just organise ourselves!’ In fact, once we had tied up and had a chance to take note of our surroundings we realised that the marina was so new that it was not actually opened yet (meaning we could stay there for free!).  The floating marina arms looked ready for occupancy and we even had access to power and water and the surrounding sea wall (constructed from a series of concrete piles – each separated by only a few inches) seemed more than adequate to protect us from the swell.

 

 

  Above: Safely tied up in Melaka - note the seawall
     

Unfortunately, this last observation was to be sorely tested during the first of several squalls we experienced during our stay. Those few inches were enough to allow the sea swell to surge through and create uncomfortable conditions within the marina. Being a Catamaran we did not fare too badly since we could ‘spider’ our lines to both arms and therefore ride the swell securely tied up on each side. However the monohulls were unable to do this (since they had another boat beside them) and as a consequence they were rocking so violently that their gunnels were nearly in the water as they jerked from side to side. Several boats rocked so violently that they tore the cleats out of the marina walkways. (A poor design I might add but better than ripping them out of the deck ! ) There was also a constant problem with the monos of hitting rigging so it was important when they tied up that this was taken into account.

     
  The lightning that accompanied the squalls was perhaps more of a worry for us as we had heard several horror stories about boats being struck by lightning. Apparently this area is one of the most lightning prone parts of the world with an average of 250 days of lightning for any given year! One unlucky boat was sitting in Raffles Marina in Singapore after being repaired following a previous strike ( $A30,000 of electricals ) – only to be hit again during a severe storm that damaged 5 other yachts (this occurred the day after we visited the marina).  At that stage I would think that someone was trying to tell me something about sailing and perhaps it would be better to stay home!
     
Above: View of Melaka from the river   Below: Waiting out a rain shower

Between the monsoonal, convergence zone squalls, it was steamy hot and we were grateful for the access to power so we could run our air conditioning. The only hiccup came when the sea water compressor cooling stopped pumping – necessitating a trip over the side for Martin (luckily this is definitely a ‘Blue’ job). In zero visibility he had to use the Braille technique to feel for the blocked through-hull inlet and finally remove the slimy fish that was blocking it! Not a pleasant experience, he informs me.

 
     

 

 

Fortunately we only encountered a few short lived but violent squalls during our week long stay in Melaka – and along with a friend Kelli, who had flown in from Aus for a visit, we made the most of our close proximity to town by enjoying daily walks through the historic sea port, meandering along narrow laneways and visiting museums, ancient forts and gravestones dating back to the 16th century.

 

In the evening we enjoyed the very cheap and tasty food – on one occasion we asked the waiter to check the bill for us as we could not believe that the five of us could eat our fill of Indian food for a total of $A25 – including soft drinks.  We were sure he had missed several of the courses !

 
 
Above: We also discovered a Korean Steamboat restaurant that Martin particularly enjoyed!
 
 
Above: An invitation to barter   Above: Fancy a fish foot Spa - where the fish nibble away at your dry skin as you relax with a foot bath!

Eventually we reluctantly moved on and with Kelli lazing on the front deck (and getting sunburnt to prove it) we headed 50 miles further north to Port Dickson where the marina is part of a luxury resort. On arrival we took the opportunity to swim in the pool and generally soaked up the unexpected luxury.

 
 

It was lucky we did for the next day the monsoonal rain clouds opened and we were happy to enjoy an enforced rest day on the boat catching up on jobs, reading and taking the occasional nana nap while the heavens opened. The only excitement for the day resulted from a ‘sighting’of a crocodile in the water (‘what, are there crocs here? I was in the water yesterday fixing the air conditioning!’) Luckily our diagnosis was incorrect and the critter turned out to be a large monitor lizard taking a leisurely swim!

     
The next hop was meant to be an overnighter to Lumut so we could keep out far enough from shore to miss the fishing nets.  However, with 20 knots of wind on the nose the shallow waters of the Straits became very uncomfortable with 1 -2m short backless waves so we decided instead to head for Port Klang, the main shipping port for Malaysia. After dodging several floating blocks of flats (well, that is what the ships looked like laden with their multiple stacks of containers) we made our way up river to the inappropriately named ‘Royal Selangor Yacht Club’.  

The floating pontoon along the front of the club house had seen better days and was partly broken – but we could live with that. However, the absolutely filthy water and the foul smell from the rotting garbage floating down the estuary sorely tested our tolerance and we gazed in distaste as the loads of indescribably disgusting flotsam banged its way passed our hulls in the strong tide. As an added insult, the ‘Royal’ club had the audacity to charge $AU30 a night for the privilege of tying up – a real rip off considering how cheap the luxury marinas were in the rest of Malaysia.  This was, however, in complete contrast to the club house itself that had been rebuilt after a fire in the 90’s. It was very ‘Raffles’ like with open plan, exposed beams, comfortable couches, good food and pleasant staff.  An ‘A+++’ club house in a ‘D---‘ setting !

The next day we caught the train to Kuala Lumpur with Kelli so she could catch her flight home. Although it was only a day visit, we had plenty of time to get the feel for the large, traffic clogged, characterless city filled with shopping malls, office blocks and the obligatory Chinatown district. Only the architecturally magnificent Petronas towers made the journey worthwhile.  

What’s more, on our return to the Mandolin Wind we were less than happy to find that a large Norwegian boat had hit us while attempting to back in beside us at the height of the tidal flow ( 2-3 kts ). Luckily there was no structural damage – just a bit of chipped gelcoat. However the incident only added to our negative impression of Port Klang (aka Port Kalamity) so we set the alarm for a 3 am start and by first light at 7am we were well clear of the shipping channel and on our way to Lumut – the second rally stop for Sail Malaysia.

A glance into the water and the sight of a swollen dead rat floating by did nothing to endear Lumut to us. During our first attempt at anchoring our Rocna anchor dragged for the first time ever but on closer inspection we found a large woven plastic bag wrapped around the point of the pick – no wonder it didn’t set correctly. Luckily the second attempt was more successful and the water quality did improve ever so slightly over the next few days. Lumut itself is a nothing town – neat but with little going for it.

  The main attraction here is the island of Pangkor – a 20 minute ferry ride away. As part of the rally activities we enjoyed a tour of the island and particularly liked the visit to the traditional boat building yard. Having encountered these strange looking trawlers at sea, it was interesting to see how they were constructed. The beaches were clean but still had the murky, sediment filled, waters that we had become use to and were certainly not our idea of a tropical paradise. In fact, the water is so sediment filled along the Malaysian coast that we have been unable to run our water maker for nearly two weeks as the filters block up in very short time. Luckily we are very frugal with water.

Next stop Penang (the pearl of the Orient) – this was one place I was really looking forward to visiting. We were offered a berth at the marina right in the heart of Georgetown – which is the original Chinese/Malay township that has not changed very much since its heyday as the Queen of the spice trade route. As in Melaka, we spent several enjoyable days wandering around on foot exploring the sights and sampling the cheap food. In fact, it is far cheaper to eat out then to cook on board since most Indian or Malay dishes cost between $A2 and $A5 a meal – although we did lash out on several occasions and indulge in BBQ king prawns which were expensive at $A12 for 10 very large ones in a very tasty sambal, garlic and tomato sauce.

 
Below: Obviously observing strict health regulations whilst preparing meat for sale!   Below: chicken for dinner anyone?
 
     
   We hired a small buzz box car and explored the more remote parts of the island. It is certainly picturesque but the milky green waters are still not that inviting. On another day we took the Cable tram up to the top of Penang Hill – at 1000 metres high it was a long, slow trip to the top but the reward was a spectacular view over Penang Island and the nearby mainland. As an added bonus, we were able to partake of afternoon high tea at a very English country hotel that was obviously left over from the days of the British era.
 

As part of the organised activities we had a bus tour that took us to two very interesting places. Firstly, we were guests of honour at a brand new private hospital that had facilities and medical equipment to rival anything in Australia. Ironically, one of the yachties had chest pains during the tour and was rushed off to the cardiac unit for an overnight stay and observation! Targeted at the Chinese and Western market as well as the local rich, a hospital bed in the Presidential suite cost only $A400 a day – all inclusive. This room was bigger than most houses – and certainly larger than any rally boat.  The standard, large single room with ensuite would set you back around $A60 / day. Most of the doctors and all of the surgeons are western qualified so if you are thinking of a facelift, liposuction, infertility treatment or a heart job Penang is the place to have it done! The second tour visited a display village where we were introduced to the ‘Malaysia is my second home’ program. This government initiative is designed to bring foreign currency into the country and allows non-malaysians to have a 10 year visa if they invest in housing in Malaysia or keep $A150,000 in a Malaysian branch of any bank. Given its first world feel, the cheap cost of living and the very reasonable price of luxury housing a lot of yachties found the presentation very attractive. I was particularly impressed with the maid’s room in the display homes – and the fact that the program entitles participants to the services of at least one servant as well as your first car here completely tax free. Mmm ! requires some thought that one.

 

Below: examples of the differing styles used to decorate temples - on the left, a Chinese dragon & on the right the Indian style.
 
The only downside of our visit to Penang was the marina itself. Although relatively new it had three issues that reduced its attractiveness for a long term stay. Firstly it was adjacent to the Butterworth/Penang Ferry terminal and from 5am till midnight a steady stream of traffic moved on and off the large boats. It was not the noise of these vehicles that caused the inconvenience but the wash from the ferries as they backed out that caused a major problem for the monohulls – as in Melaka, they were prone to rocking from side to side – making life on board unbearable. We didn’t discover the second drawback until Friday and Saturday nights when the nearby disco started at 11pm and went on playing its loud duff duff techno music until after 3 am at hull vibrating volumes! Thank goodness we had shore power and could run our Air Conditioner with all the hatches closed up tight.

Lastly, but perhaps the most problematic, emerged a few days after our arrival. Judy from Braveheart, who was in the berth opposite us, was lying in bed during the night and happened to wake up and glance through the open  overhead hatch – only to be met with the steady beady gaze from a very large, inquisitive RAT looking down at her! The next day, on finding a dead rat floating in the water, we were able to accuse Judy of frightening the rodent to death with the vision of her sweaty, naked body in all its glory! No laughing matter of course, since a rat on board is no fun – and again we were thankful for the ability to lock up the boat and turn the air con on. However, they were obviously aboard Mandolin Wind for the next time we opened the sail bag to fly the mainsail, several rat like deposits fell to the deck (but no rats !!)

 
 

From Penang it took us 2 leisurely day sails to Langkawi (yes, we actually managed absolutely perfect sailing conditions for the first time since leaving Bali! – 14kts of beam winds, 1m seas and sailing along in the low 9’s without the motor; I had forgotten what it was like ! ) Waking up that first morning at anchor off one of the many small islands that make up the LangKawi chain, I almost felt I had been transported back to Australia.

 
  The steep, heavily treed, deserted landscape is reminiscent of the Whitsundays and the water is finally starting to take on that magic turquoise hue that is associated with tropical heaven. Strangely enough, the monsoonal rains have also retreated and for several days we do little but relax on board or take non-strenuous strolls along isolated beaches teeming with monkeys, sea otters and overlooked by soaring sea eagles. Langkawi is getting back to how we remember cruising paradise. We are pleased to be through the Straits of Melaka despite the beautifully historic and interesting towns of Melaka and Penang.   Only clearer water would make it perfect !