Florence is in Dire The Malacca Straits
Filthy water, no wind, squalls, horrendous lightning storms, an overhanging yet no longer prevalent risk of piracy, problematic fishing boats, nets and rafts, all in what is one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. Just a few of the reasons we have been dreading these congested, dirty waters for months. Can it really be as bad as we have been led to believe? Or are the tales just scaremongering?
The only way to fully answer this was to find out for ourselves. Real or over egged, rumours of these waters have been circling around us for months. Months that have been spent debating the best way to get through the area safely, with the least hassle. It has been one of the most difficult routes to decide on so far as the standard advice is conflicting at best:
- Avoid sailing in the shallower waters outside the shipping lane as they are filled with nets, fish traps and fishing boats
- Avoid sailing in/near the shipping lane as it is heavily congested
- Avoid anchoring overnight as anchorages are open and fishermen often ‘accidentally’ catch you in their drift nets then demand compensation, threats have become violent
- Avoid sailing at night as nets, fishing boats, traps and tug tows are often unlit and not on AIS
- Although piracy in these waters tends to be robbery targeted at anchored commercial ships, not yachts, it is recommended that you stick to the more policed Malaysian side of the strait.
- The Malaysian side is much busier with tugs/tows, fishing boats etc.
With 500 miles to be covered to get through the strait and very few marinas with space for an overnight stop, this basically left us gambling on what will be the best outcome from the bad options.
The advantage we had gained by checking out of Indonesia in Belitung and avoiding the busiest shipping area around Singapore, was countered by the fact that we would be unable to cross the shipping lanes to the Malaysian side of the strait until much later. The mild anxiety of being surrounded by fishing boats on the Sumatran side of the strait was real but only temporary. These boats were courteous, friendly and caused us no issues. As the morning progressed they made their way into port and we were left surprisingly alone working our way up the ‘wrong side’ of the straight to a point we felt was safe to cross. As safe as you can be crossing a busy highway where you have no right of way and the vehicles approaching could take a whole mile to stop with their engines in full reverse.
Like crossing all traffic lanes, it was all about picking your moment. This was made much easier by our AIS displaying the ships headings and speeds. The 10 miles across the shipping lanes was sailed on a reach at 7 knots with some helpful current improving our speed.
Safely across the highway, we were on the ‘right side of the tracks’ but not out of danger yet. The traffic here was smaller but much more chaotic; tugs, barges and fishing boats all travelling in different directions. Choosing to sail at night in deeper water with a keen watch meant we were not going to get hit/snared at anchor but made for eventful night watches and little time to recover.
Days of being on constant high alert, coupled with the anxiety and anticipation of hitting nets, fishing boats, tugs, ships or being hit by lightening was exhausting. Brief moments down below trying to sleep were inevitably interrupted by constant changes in boat speed, thunderstorms, the person on deck changing sails, turning the engine on/off or just generally muttering loud profanities into the mass of oncoming shipping and boats.
Despite the challenges, it was constant anticipation of what could happen that was most exhausting. Anxiety and anticipation that had built up from the months of horror stories about these waters. Crossing a ship, passing through a fleet of fishing boats or being hit by a squall wasn’t nearly as bad as the build up to it coupled with the lack of a break from the last hazard.
The prospect of meeting up with Kev (a good friend who happens to be Matt’s first boss after graduating) and seeing more of Matt’s old workmates from his time working in Malaysia was the only thing that kept us going.
Exhausted yet overwhelmingly grateful for having made it so far unscathed, we pulled into Port Dickson Marina to check into Malaysia and take a much needed breather. Malaysia is the first place we have visited since the Canary Islands 3 years ago that one of us has been to before this trip! This area, near Malacca and KL is where Matt used to spend some of his work trips back in the days we had real jobs.
The hassles and stresses of the last few days at sea soon drifted away as Kev kindly collected us from the marina to spend some time in his nearby, beautiful, air conditioned house. A week flew by as we hung out with Kev, enjoyed house life, visited the new company offices, caught up with with old colleagues and friends and shared a wide variety of delicious Malaysian food.
All too soon we were out of the marina and making our way North again.
So are the Malacca Straits as bad as the horror stories?
For us no. However in the time that we have been in the Malacca Straits many boats have been caught in nets and had close calls with ships. One unfortunate catamaran collided with a fishing boat, breaking their cross beam and taking down their mast. This is certainly not an area to take lightly, yet nor is it an area to fear or avoid. Around 100,000 vessels pass safely though these waters each year. Statistics on their anxiety levels are much harder to find.