Episode 21. Dire straits

Ben, Hugh and Duncan are starting to see the home stretch of their journey from the Philippines to Thailand, aboard Ben’s new Mumby 48 catamaran Candeux.

After making their way down the west coast of Borneo to Kuching, they have set out on the longest passage of the trip – across the South China Sea towards Singapore.

We are almost across the South China Sea.  It’s been a long if somewhat dull few days – in fact two nights and three days from Malaysian Borneo to the Malay Peninsula.  There was a lot of sea, not many boats and a fair bit of lightning getting very excited towards the horizon at times, but we encountered no storms. Unfortunately, there was still very little wind so there was a lot of motoring.  Fortunately, the engines performed without a hitch.  Thank goodness for that since there was no one to rescue us and no wind to drive us anywhere.  It could have been a long, hungry, thirsty wait if the diesels decided to give up.

Our destination today is the River Santi (Sungai Santi) around the bend on the eastern edge of the Malay Peninsula in Johor State. We expect to arrive by mid afternoon.

While things may have been quiet in the South China Sea, it doesn’t remain so as we approach the entry to the Singapore Straits.  There are lots of ships, both anchored and moving.

There are ships coming from port, starboard and astern.  They are not small ships.  They are big ships, moving quickly.  It becomes obvious both from the chart and the vessels around us that we actually have to cross a supertanker fairway.  Eek!

The traffic approaching the Malay Peninsula

Bedlam on the high seas! Traffic approaching the Malay Peninsula

There’s no especially good way to do this.  It basically requires just looking for a gap (difficult to determine) and plunging in.  It’s a good idea to keep a straight course.  You have to assume that the other, very much larger, vessels can see you on their radar, if nothing else, and will not willfully pulverise you. Then again, we are (relatively) the size of a fly, and probably to them just as annoying.  Still, it pays to make any course corrections clear and obvious and to ensure that you do not go anywhere near crossing the bows of a supertanker.  It should be unambiguous very early on that you intend to pass behind them.

Naturally we listen intently on the VHF radio, ready to broadcast with great urgency and persistence our own inconsequential existence prior to any imminent destruction.  However, notwithstanding our fear and the probable loathing of the larger ships, we manage to get through without too many anxious moments.

We arrive at the entrance to the Santi River and plan to go to the Sebena Marina and Golf Resort about 10nm further up river. It’s a long way, but we’re here for adventure so we push on.  When we eventually arrive we find a marina that is big, but effectively empty. And, of course, it’s falling apart (as we have found are a good number of Malaysia’s marinas). There are only about four boats, and only one – a 65-foot catamaran – is occupied.

We tie up and wander up to the main building.  There’s no one around except for one lonely receptionist who seems overwhelmed by our arrival.  We appear to be the only living things she has seen all day.   Eventually, we manage to organise some beers and some very basic stir-fry and rice and that’s about all we can manage for one day.  I suspect that it’s all the resort can manage too.  It’s barely nightfall when we wander back to the boat and a well-deserved early bed.

After a big sleep-in we venture out the next day to the nearest town.  This is Rengit.  It’s modest with only a few main streets.  But we discovered a very popular Chinese restaurant which has lots of people, food and, of course, cold beer.  All is right with the world.  The mussels are spectacular and we order them and more food than we should eat.  We are feeling a bit like we have defied the elements and crossed vast oceans.  And, well we have, so the rewards are ours, such as they are.  And some rewards are particularly are special.  Hugh spots a man selling durian fruit from the back of his car.  During Hugh’s time in Indonesia he has had the mixed pleasure of tasting durian, which is very popular with the locals.  However for westerners it smells like something that’s been dead for a few days (although the taste is more like custard apple).  Hugh naturally encourages Ben and Duncan to try durian. They are reluctant, rightly suspecting some trick, but show courage regardless.  Yes, it does smell foul but they survive.  Needless to say, Ben – who enjoys shopping locally whenever we stop – resists the urge to buy some to bring back to the boat.  Good.

In the afternoon we are visited by Hyko (a retired German jumbo jet pilot) and Rose, his Singaporean wife, from the nearby 65 foot catamaran which is the only other floating boat in the marina.  They are an odd couple.  They have been in the marina for quite a while, all on their own, and yet seem quite content.  Their boat is big but looks sort of oddly put together, rather like it has been repeatedly patched by an increasing less capable and/or disinterested owner.  Time and money perhaps.  Still, they are good company and share lots of knowledge and, unfortunately, some truly appalling red wine.  It is rather embarrassing because it is so awful (Hugh suspects it’s been on board for years slowly cooking in the tropical sun) that Hugh just can’t drink it.  This is where Duncan’s special skill set comes in to play.  Not only is he very knowledgeable about wine, he is also as tough as old boots, and a good liar.  He manages to consume enough of their wine and lie sufficiently convincingly to save the occasion.   Hugh pities him the awful hangover which must await, but not enough to come to his aid.

The next morning, not withstanding that Duncan is barely firing on any cylinders this morning after his mighty efforts with Hyko and Rose’s wine, undaunted and lacking any sympathy we depart the marina.  Our intention is to stage ourselves at anchor overnight just outside the entry point to the Singapore Straits proper so that we can make a straight daylight run and then anchor again peacefully on the western side unless, of course, we are pulverized en route.

However, we need to find diesel first.  On the way back down the river we stop at the local fuel barge.  This is actually a collection of rusting boats rafted together on the bank.  One of these is actually the fuel barge, although which one is not immediately obvious.  It’s a very primitive set-up in what is a steel ship in an advanced state of rust, but the folks are friendly and helpful.  The fuel is accessed not by a pump but by lifting a metal lid and then lowering a bucket into the dark repeatedly to bring up what we hope is fuel, which is then poured into our jerry cans.  We try not to think about the quality and intend to change the filters regularly. The fellow who serves us is a young man from Indonesia who will only be here another year before returning home.  It’s a pretty ordinary set-up, living on board this rusting hulk.  Still, it’s a living and he tells Hugh that, relative to what he could earn in his village in Indonesia, he is doing well.  We naturally reflect on the vast disparity in comfort and opportunity that we passing sailors represent.

We finally exit the river and anchor at the river mouth just off a Malaysian Navy training establishment.  The current is running very strongly and the anchor drags, but we finally settle.   But of course, as soon as we are sorted, a boat speeds out from the naval base and we fear the worst.  We have probably broken some rule and we and Candeux will be impounded, interrogated, thrashed within inches of our precarious and wretched lives.  Not surprisingly, they simply explain that we are too close to the base and we need to move.  OK.  We are only asked to move 500 metres so we are very happy to oblige – not that we had any other options of course.

Before downing tools for bed, we set about plotting a course for tomorrow.  Usually Hugh plots the course and Ben and Hugh then transfer this to Ben’s own plot on his laptop’s Open CPN.  We then copy this agreed course to the Garmin chartplotter at the helm.  It’s a bit awkward and inaccurate but it works, in its way – sort of.  However, tonight’s plotting has Ben and Hugh developing quite different routes.  Ben’s route is to follow the main shipping lanes while staying just outside of them and then crossing where we need to.  This is a standard route and, with proper care crossing the shipping lanes, will get you through.  Hugh has plotted a different route that was recommended by Mike, a sailor we met at Puerto Princessa on Palawan Island.  Mike has transited through the Straits on several occasions and recommended threading a path through the interspersed islands, rather than getting involved in the shipping lanes with the supertankers.   Ben and Hugh discuss the routes but no happy resolution emerges.  Maybe it’s the prospect of potential oblivion or just too much collective misadventure, but Ben, in a fit of passion, declares he is the skipper of the boat.  Not a revelation, but an awkward moment and Hugh, in kind, reminds Ben that the final decision is his, pointing out that Hugh’s recommendations are just that and that if his views are not required they should not be sought.  A retreat to our personal oblivions of sleep seems the required antidote before we tangle with the tankers, and not each other, tomorrow.

We awake to find that it is going to rain and it’s windy.  It actually rained heavily last night and the forecast is rain for the rest of the week.  Damn.  This will be uncomfortable.  But the main issue is the loss of visibility in tropical monsoon downpours in the heavy traffic in the Straits.  We may have to stop and wait until we can see, if stopping is an option, and we are not just waiting to be run down by tankers.  The pilot guide explicitly states that vessels under 20m have “…no rights whatsoever in the Singapore Straits”.  That’s a comfort.  We also don’t have any kind of signaling horn (nor are we transmitting an AIS signal), so if visibility becomes a problem, we won’t be able to alert other boats (and there are many of them) to our presence.

Still, there’s nothing for it.  We are off at first light so that we can cross the Singapore Straits from east to west and get a safe anchorage before dark at Pulau Pisang (banana island) just off the south west tip of the Peninsula.

The Straits are busy: boats at anchor, boats moving in both, all, directions.  There are also short, sharp seas and strong currents with the occasional rain to obscure our vision.  Fortunately the currents are with us – for now – as the tide floods north at this point.  As we set out we encounter numerous very big ships as well as small, some travelling at speed, some anchored.  It is stressful and demanding.

Still, unless we are crushed under the bow of a super tanker, not impossible, we will be able to calm our jangled nerves with cold beer when we eventually anchor at Pulau Pisang.  Although as soon as Hugh thinks this, Duncan advises that he forgot to put beer in the fridge.  Oh, give me a break.  What was he thinking?  This critical issue is immediately rectified and we push on.  That could have been disastrous.  Still, it’s a good fridge and the beers will be cold by the time we anchor.

Towards the end of the day, we are at last through the death trap of the Singapore Straits and we can see the commercial fairway of the Malacca Straits veering off to port.  On the starboard bow is Pulau Pisang (not far off the south west coast of the Malay Peninsula).  We are starting to salivate for cold beers and nuts to celebrate our safe deliverance.  We are nearly there.  Then, one nautical mile from a safe anchorage, for no apparent reason, the engine just stops.  No. Not happening! But it is. Still, the good news is that this didn’t happen in the middle of the supertanker superhighway; the bad news is that there is no wind and we are just bobbing about.   Ben tries to get the engine started again.  Amongst other things, he checks the fuel tank.  On opening it, we hear (again) an in-rush of air.  This probably shouldn’t be so, we think.  Anyway, for some reason, we get one engine to restart, so we nurse Candeux to anchor at Pulau Pisang.  We are tired.  We decide to put off all engine investigation and repairs until we celebrate our delivery from the Singapore Straits with a cold beer, or several.

However, from down in the galley an existential groan issues from Duncan, quickly followed by a truly shocking statement: “The beer is not cold”.  All eyes turn to Ben. “I turned it on”, he cries.  An intense investigation ensues to determine whom we should kill.  It becomes obvious that Ben had earlier mistakenly turned on the spreader lights instead of the fridge.  There’s little that can be done now.  So Duncan and I agree to kill him.

The tepid beer is a suitable metaphor for our mood.  Having decided that killing Ben is just too much effort, Duncan and Ben decide to attack the engine instead.  Probably wiser. They give it a thorough ‘thrashing’, check all the filters and all the myriad of checkable things; but find no fault.  Bugger and damn.  Mystery in a critical component is always annoying.  The only thing which was recently changed was switching fuel cocks between each of the separate two-hundred litre tanks, so that we can draw on each separately.  The fuel tanks have persistently given readings (using a calibrated stick!) that don’t accord with reality. We fill one 200 litre tank, use 100 litres (the engine fuel consumption being known) and find we still have 180 litres.  Something is amiss.  They remain a mystery.  However, Hugh believes that, even though the tanks are meant to be separate (unless the cocks are adjusted to link them) they are, in fact, joined, allowing fuel to slosh between them.  This would explain all of the confusion to date (fuel being in a tank that should be empty, and both more and less fuel being used than can be possible, individual tanks having less fuel than was just put into them, etc).  It’s all too much.  But we do analyse that the hissing sound which we have heard twice now when we open the fuel filler is mostly likely the result of a vacuum having been created.  Hmmm.  That’s not good.  It suggests that the fuel tanks aren’t sufficiently vented causing pressure to build and thus preventing the fuel pump from drawing diesel from the tanks.  Thus, the hissing on opening the tanks.  Anyway, in the absence of any other issues, we put the tank cocks back to their original configuration, and plan to open the filler caps regularly to allow manual venting.  It’s a problem that can only really be resolved at a shipyard.  There have been a number of unsatisfactory aspects to Candeux’s build and it won’t surprise if there’s inadequate venting (and perhaps free movement of diesel between the tanks which should be separate).  Anyway, we hope we don’t have yet another unexplained engine stoppage.  Stopping and/or drifting, anchoring in the Malacca Straits shipping lanes is certain death.

We all head to bed.  Hoping that tomorrow brings leisure and pleasure in equal measure instead of fear and frustration for the duration.

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