Episode 22.  Death bearing down

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

They are on their way across the South China Sea towards Singapore.  They have dodged the heavy shipping traffic in the Singapore Straits so far, but it is not all plain sailing.

Candeux has survived the Singapore Straits to anchor off the island of Pulau Pisang (Banana Island, owing to its shape).  We have had a good rest after what can only be described as a stressful day yesterday, trying to stay out of the way of numerous huge ships travelling at speed in all directions.  We were very conscious of the pilot notes which state in unambiguous terms: Vessels under 20m have absolutely no rights in the Singapore Straits.  That gets your attention.

A not-so-quiet day in the Malacca Straits

A not-so-quiet day in the Malacca Straits

Today, we plan on an early start to do an 80 nm leg from Pulau Pisang to Pulau Upeh near the town of Malacca, but we are not moving until 0730hrs.  Our delayed departure means that we may only get to the closer, Pulau Besar (big island). There’s a bit of wind from the NE so we have the main and headsail up but we still need to keep one engine on.  We do want to get there before nightfall.  At an average of 6 knots it will take us 13 hours. That’s 2030hrs. Whoops, we’ll need to push the engines a bit.

The first interest of the morning is when Hugh comes on deck to see a large oil tanker bearing down on us from our port aft quarter.  Hugh suspects that Ben and Duncan have been in deep conversation solving the problems of the universe, and haven’t looked behind them.  Ever the diplomat, he asks: We’re OK with that tanker behind us are we? Ben and Duncan turn around. Ben opines that it should pass behind.  Yes ……. what’s its current bearing? asks Hugh (the clever AIS provides this).  There ensues a lively discussion about: what bearings are, how they are made and what do they mean?  Hugh is focused on the large (correction, huge) oil tanker itself. Hugh determines that the bearing on the tanker is decreasing, thus it’s moving more to the north and so will cross behind us from port to starboard.  Duncan and Ben are still at it and Duncan is well into the world of trigonometry, angles, tangents, cosine curves and related esoterica.


Death bearing down!

The general principle here is to grab the hand-bearing compass. Point it at the oncoming ship. Read the bearing. Record that, and a few minutes later take another bearing. If the reading has changed substantially, the ship will pass safely by, either ahead or astern. That’s assuming that both vessels maintain their current course and speed. If the bearing doesn’t change, then you are on a collision course, no matter what direction your bow is pointed in, and you’d better take evasive action.

Hugh’s modified method is to imagine a compass rose around the boat while knowing where north is in relation to your boat (e.g. on the bow, starboard amidships, etc.).  If north is at the bow, then a bearing on another boat of 300 degrees has that boat on the port forward quarter.  As one’s bearing on the other boat moves down to 270, the other boat is then port amidships. If the bearing keeps decreasing, the other boat will progressively turn towards you and, hopefully, go behind you. Obviously speed and distance off are relevant factors.

Anyway, after the lively discussion over the oil tanker’s bearing, and us not having been splattered, Hugh goes below to write the log, wash the dishes and generally phaff around while Ben and Duncan are on watch on deck.  In the distraction of “bearing business” Hugh had assumed that the earlier oil tanker had come from an inshore port, materialised from the ether and/or was a one-off.  Not so.

As Hugh comes back up on deck, he sees another huge container ship passing within 150m and two more in line behind intending to do the same; either that, or just motor over the top of us.  Hugh mentions this to Ben who says he is happy to stay where he is.   In fact, Ben has the boat on autopilot and appears to have plotted a course that keeps us in the commercial, north-bound shipping lane of the Malacca Straits.  This is precisely what other yachts don’t do.  They plot a course running parallel and landward of the shipping lane, but seaward of most local fishing activity.

I think it's going to miss us!

I think it’s going to miss us!

This is a tricky moment.  Hugh actually thinks it is little short of madness for a relatively small, slow moving catamaran (with a dodgy engine/fuel system) to be mixing it with super-tankers in a commercial fairway.  Moreover, we haven’t resolved why one engine just stopped as we approached Pulau Pisang, nor why the other kept going (although we did reinstate the fuel clocks to the original settings, in the absence of a proper diagnosis).  Without an understanding of the problem, we need to assume that it could happen again, to one or both engines.  If we did have a total engine failure, there is no wind (so we can’t sail out of danger).  We could only hope to drift out of the super-tanker fairway or anchor and wait to be struck down.

Hugh is not comfortable with our current position or course.  He gets his tablet with the Navionics App and shows Ben the route inshore of the commercial fairway, but still in deep water and with a rhumb-line to Pulau Upeh or Pulau Besar.  Some words are exchanged which leave no room for confusion.  Reluctantly, Ben agrees that we can follow Hugh’s route and the skipper agrees that we will turn out of the fairway.  Ben now goes below.  Hugh says to Duncan to turn to starboard behind the next super-tanker to overtake us, if it doesn’t pulverise us first.  We take the very next safe opportunity to cross out of the shipping lane.  Whew.  The only hazards now are the fishermen and their nets which, unlike a super-tanker, won’t kill us.  We push on.

We arrive at Pulau Besar in the late afternoon and choose the gentlemen sailing option of anchoring and breaking out the beers and nuts.  Pulau Upeh and tomorrow will just have to wait.

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