A Not So Uncomfortable Trip to Malaysia

We’ve arrived in Malaysia, just across a river from Singapore, at Puteri Harbor Marina. The facilities are quite nice, and a break from the wilds of Kalimantan and the anchorages in Lombok. The marina is the first part of a multi-billion dollar development, which, according to models, is Las Vegas like in its scale. It has wide docks, a chandlery, a cafe, lots of folks running around offering help, and free shuttle service everywhere. It’s also dirt cheap, as they are trying to lure people here to build up a name.

The passage here was pretty good, especially given our low expectations. We always do a lot of research about passages and places before we go, and this trip, up the Karimata Strait in December, was supposed to be a grind, with two distinctly challenging parts.

The first supposedly tough bit was to be the sail up Karimata Strait, sailing northwest against the Northwest Monsoon. The second challenge was to be crossing the major commercial traffic zones around Singapore. But the reality was not as bad as the hyperbolic warnings we’d read. To wit, regarding the first and second parts respectively:

“In November the wind shifts to the northwest and coupled with the violent and spectacular weather, the voyage up the Karimata Sea and the Riau Strait becomes a source of lively conversation . . . . [B]y late October and early November, some unsettling changes may become eminent. . . . . In late October, in the Karimata Sea and the Selat Riau, squalls of longer duration, two to three hours, and stronger winds, 60 to 70 knots with waterspouts, have been experienced.”

“Early October seems to be OK, but those who left later than that seem to have encountered more frequent, longer lived, and stronger squalls as they progressed into the Karimata Sea and the Riau Straits. . . . Boats transiting the area in November or later have arrived telling stories of days of heavy head-winds and short choppy seas. It is just not wise to dally beyond the change of the monsoon!”

But we’d heard this advice before, such as how we were supposed to cross the Pacific at such-and-such a time, and how we were not supposed to cross as late in the season as we did. When we researched beyond the dire warnings into the actual weather patterns, regarding the Pacific, we found that our planned late Summer and Fall passage was not only do-able, but we would be rewarded with good and consistent winds and less traffic. And we were. We had good, fast winds just about the whole way, and we had whole anchorages and even entire islands to ourselves, because the crowd had followed the conventional wisdom and was long gone.

So it was with this passage. In Lombok, we were the only boat in the anchorage for most of our stay. Up the Kumai River, we were one of two boats. And the Kumai River region is typically beset by smoke from burning crops and forest fires from August to October each year, with visibility supposedly so bad that boats have needed to use radar to get up the river during daylight. By waiting until the start of the rainy season, we got no smoke/smog, and we got the anchorage to ourselves for most of the time, and went into the rain forest to search for orangutans without big crowds.

Certainly, in the passage, we did lots of motoring, and got a fair amount of rain, but that happens year-round on this route. The 70 knots of wind never materialized, nor anything beyond a 35 knot gust now and then. We did get short choppy seas when a squall came through, and there were a good number of them, but things generally quieted down and we got back to motoring along our way.

The second challenge, crossing the Traffic Separation Scheme around Singapore, was more fun and exciting then it was dangerous. We had been warned about “an endless stream of bumper-to-bumper shipping in both directions with merging traffic” which is “the busiest in the world.” One cruiser warned of “more than 50 blips on our radar screen” during a crossing that was “unnerving” because it entailed “crossing six (+) lanes of freighter traffic from both directions with other boats merging from anchorages along the coast.”

It was a challenge, and the warnings provided by others here were accurate and quite helpful, in getting us prepared for the trip. We worked together, keeping track of two or three ships at a time, monitoring their bearings to determine our respective course, and stealing glances down to at the radar and AIS systems in the cockpit to watch things unfold. But we got it done, the biggest thrill being in crossing just in front of a huge LNG tanker.

Weaving and dodging through the heavy shipping lanes reminded us of a particular “Far Side” comic strip. A pack of dogs is gathered on one side of a major highway. Another dog has just joined them, and, from the squiggly line in his wake, it is obvious he has just darted through six lanes of highway traffic in a mad dash. “OK,” the apparent leader of the pack announces laconically, “Rusty’s in the Club.” That’s what we felt like after the crossing — we’re in the club.

All boat systems did well. At one point, however, Paul heard a hissing sound from the area of the engine, a bit like a high pressure pipe that has just burst and is giving off steam. He approached the engine compartment with dread. In the sink, though, was the source of the sound – a gallon jug of orange juice that had gone off was continuing to ferment, and had expanded the plastic container to bursting. The high pressure had caused the cap to start to give, and was causing the loud “whhssshhhh” that we heard. Sima was asleep at the time, so Paul did a silent dance of joy. Oh, happy orange juice bottle!

We did have some long nights. The rain kept us up, because the downpours blot out everything else on the screen, and make distance-related radar alarms useless. But we also had long periods of calm and easy going, and, in the end, was not a bad voyage at all.

It feels like another transition point for us. We’re on mainland Asia now, and the people, language, and customs make it feel that way. We’re also back in the Northern Hemisphere for the first time in more than a year. And we’re at just about the half-way point in our journey around the world. Too late to turn back, we guess . . . .

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