Family Magazine

Safe Passagemaking in the Straits of Malacca

By Behan Gifford @sailingtotem
beautiful sunrise

There’s a long history of piracy in the straits of Malacca, and plenty of modern bandits too- this area currently has more pirate activity than any other part of the world. But those aren’t our concerns as we sail south from Langkawi toward Singapore. Unlike the Gulf of Arabia, the piracy is focused entirely on commercial vessels- not private boats like ours. Thank goodness, because we’ve got plenty other things to worry about.

fishing boats not pirates of men, but pirates of fish

There’s a lot of traffic here. Close to shore, small fishing boats are everywhere. At night, they are improperly lit, or not lit at all. They trail long nets behind the boat, and you can’t tell how far they reach behind the boat in almost every instance. Others run buoyed, flagged nets like these- sometimes attached, sometimes drifting. These long nets keep us on constant watch during the day and would be impossible to spot in the dark.

fishing nets
the best-marked nets look like this

Fishing boats stay out of the shipping lanes farther offshore, but we don’t want to sail there either: massive commercial vessels bear down at tremendous speed. Between these zones, tugs lumber along with their tows. These boats are also poorly lit, if they’re lit at all. Totem’s radar expired last year and has yet to be replaaced. We have an AIS receiver, but only the container ships transpond around here. You have to use your eyeballs, all the time.

bit o traffic
Tug and tow, just… you know, hanging out

Debris is a serious problem, too. At no time during our passage south have we been able to look at the water without seeing plastic garbage: water bottles, Styrofoam take-out containers, bags, and more. Then, there are the fishing nets: some attached to boats, some just drifting. Friends of ours sailing straight through last month ran into nets and timber multiple times along this stretch, and were lucky to get away with nothing more than a bent prop.

my lovely assistant
my lovely assistant showcases some of the larger traffic in Port Klang

Then, there’s the weather. Because our delays pushed us into the transition to the southwest monsoon season, there’s a higher incidence of squalls and storms, and (lucky us!) they will come from the direction to which we are most exposed. This area has earned the name “lightning alley.” Great! Most of these happen at night. Radar is a huge help for tracking squalls at night, except… well, we need a new one. So we watch the clouds, and use our eyeballs, and we have another reason to stay put at night.

grim clouds
grim clouds

The upshot of all this: day hops only. It’s not a big deal, and protected anchorages are within ranges we can easily manage during daylight hours. Sure, we’d like to get south sooner, especially after all the delays with our engine service, but are happy to trade the hazards for a more cautious, slower pace.

Vigilant passage makers know we love it when you read this on the Sailfeed website.

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