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Singapore to Sri Lanka: Consumerism, Opulence and Sumatras

In the last article from Memories of a Circumnavigation, Hugh and Heather explored the Java Sea and had some amazing encounters with orangutans [1].  This segment of their world cruise sees them arriving in Singapore, exploring the Malaysia and Thailand coastlines and preparing to head to Africa.

Lets continue to follow the adventures of Argonauta I, from when they began their journey in 1997 in the Caribbean, until the completion of the circumnavigation in 2006, when they crossed their 1997 outbound Caribbean track.


We soon recovered from our harrowing transit of the Singapore Strait. Opulence would be an accurate description for marinas in Singapore and Malaysia. Yes, we enjoyed a Singapore Sling or two at Raffles Hotel as we toured the City State. There are many historical sites to visit, several associated with the Japanese occupation of World War II. We made a point of seeing the Allied Headquarters, which presided over the unsuccessful defense of the Island and the museum near the Changi Prison site where so many allied military forces were interred. Today Singapore has become a mecca for shopping, offering the very latest in technology as well as high end consumables. Excellent health care is affordable and easily accessed. It is a great ‘pit stop’ for the circumnavigator.

Raffles Hotel.

Raffles Marina was blessed with the best imaginable yacht support. In short order, we upgraded our battery charger to 50/60 cycle input, installed a new alternator while refurbishing the one that had fried, and re‑wired the anchor winch to operate off the battery bus. At the last minute, the forward hatch hinges failed so we installed a top quality Lewmar Ocean Grade replacement. Nothing had to be special- ordered and the price was amazingly low. On November 6, 2002 after twenty days in the marina, we tore ourselves away from the font of consumerism and headed up the formidable Malacca Strait towards Thailand. Good anchorages were infrequent and security somewhat iffy, so we opted to do the first 110 NM leg as an overnight trip to Port Dickson, Malaysia. We would be sailing north with Indonesian Sumatra to the west and Malaysia to the east. Traffic lanes northbound meant we would be close‑in to the Malaysian coast. Our Imarsat C had routinely been receiving piracy notices such as this:

NAVAREA XI WARNING NAVAREA XI 0715. MALACCA STRAIT. PIRACY ATTACKS, 291825Z OCT, IN POSITION05‑23.4N 097‑37.1E, MALACCA STRAIT. WHILE UNDERWAY A SMALL UNLIT CRAFT CAME CLOSE TO A SUPPLY SHIP. ALERT DUTY A/B DIRECTED SEARCH LIGHTS AT THE CRAFT. CREW RAISED ALARM AND MUSTERED. PIRATES SHOT AT THE BRIDGE DOOR AND FLED. THE BULLET HIT THE CONSOLE SYSTEM FOR ELECTRONIC CHARTS. NO INJURIES TO CREW. SHIPS IN VICINITY KEEP A SHARP LOOKOUT. NNNNAVAREA XI WARNING

There were several others such reports from The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) Piracy Reporting Centre (PRC) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Some involved kidnapping and murder. Thus motivated, we developed a strategy to navigate the Malacca Strait to minimize our exposure to piracy. We decided to limit overnight stops in isolated anchorages in favor of high end marinas. A point in our favor was that most incidents seemed to occur on the Indonesian side, as Malaysia maintains a rigorous anti-piracy operation.  Lines of thunderstorms aptly called Sumatras, occur during the southwest Monsoon season from May to October each year. We hoped that by November such storms would be infrequent.

We anchored for a couple of nights close to Singapore, at Pisang Island (banana in Malay) and then ventured back into the heavy traffic of the Malacca Strait. We departed at 1100h local and arrived at Port Dickson the next day at 0900h local, November 9. There was very little wind in the Strait at that time of year but we did manage to sail for about five hours. Weather was good; no sumatras! We kept just east of the north bound traffic off the fairway. All night, we were passed on our left by a constant flow of monster freighters, tankers and cruise ships. Traffic was equally heavy in the southerly lane about 5 NM to our port. At one time on radar, 16 NM scale, I counted over 20 large returns.

To describe Admiral Marina at Port Dickson as opulent is an understatement. Reception, clubhouse and hotel were reminiscent of Venice with a neo‑classical influence.  There were at least five other Canadian boats there, mostly from Victoria. We stayed for a couple of weeks using it as a base to tour Malaysia.  As car rental was straight-forward, we drove up to the Cameron Highlands, toured tea plantations and marveled at giant poinsettias. Later we continued to Malacca City, historical capital of the state of Malacca, on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula.

Giant poinsettias.

With a month to go before Christmas, on November 23, we departed Port Dickson for the Island of Langkawi, north of the Malacca Strait, at the approach to the Andaman Sea and very close to Thailand. Once again we chose to sail the 281 NM passage non-stop as most viable anchorages were 70 NM plus apart, too far for us to sail during daylight hours. We considered stopping at Port Klang and Lumut. Both are excellent but both have long access channels, so we continued on. Penang was reportedly usable but not great.

We did encounter what must have been a late season sumatra.  At least the lightning made traffic recognition easy! At times in heavy squalls during a night one, we wondered if we would suffer a strike. Radar was essential for both traffic and thunderstorm recognition. We motored/motor sailed about 80 percent of the time, as there was either no wind or light winds on the nose. In November, gurus say winds should be north easterly, consistent with the North East Monsoon. Not so for us. Finally on the second night, a 15/20K NE wind cut in, and from 1830h to 0330h  we had a great sail right on the wind; lots of crashing and bow burying in steep choppy seas. In the northern part of the Strait there was much less traffic so we could relax and enjoy it. No squalls either. With a crew of two, inevitably there will be two points of view, especially when it comes to passages.

Here is Heather’s email report:

“The last passage could be summarized in two pithy words: WORST EVER. Come to think of it, PITHY does nicely: yeth it wath! First night: blinding rain, lightning bolts bouncing off water; then, illuminated directly in front of us, a huge tanker. Motor, motor, motor. Night two; WIND is a four letter word. Lots of it, right on the nose, then “Good news, we can sail!” Motion: bucking bronco on a roller coaster. Go below, BARF BARF BARF. Sleep, wake drenched in sweat, parched, and dehydrated. Hugh got no sleep for twenty four hours. The anchorage in Langkawi looked like paradise.  Jade green water, high limestone cliffs, thickly wooded with a plethora of monkeys, kingfishers, hornbills and eagles. FINALLY: time to relax.”

Langkawi anchorage.

We spent three days on the hook in this idyllic spot among the Islands of the Langkawi Group, then we headed for civilization to check in at the Port of Kuah. We found a slip at the Royal Langkawi Yacht Club, where we awaited delivery of replacement electronic navigation cartridges, a spare rudder feedback sensor for the autopilot and a satellite radio receiver. With the boat secure on the dock, we backtracked by fast ferry to visit the Island of Penang. We found the colonial legacy fascinating and the many ethnic dining variations a real treat. Heather especially enjoyed being whizzed about in a bicycle powered rickshaw. Incidentally, we saw nothing wrong with the yacht anchorage off the main city of Georgetown.

We had planned three weeks of major travel over the Christmas period. Since Langkawi is a tax‑free port, with no constraints on leaving the boat for long periods, we made arrangements to dock at nearby Rebak Marina. Rebak Island is a resort and marina. Facilities surpassed those of any other marina and boatyard we had visited; everything from a brick mosaic hardstand for about 100 boat slips with all services, and a 60 ton travel lift. A commitment by management to cater to yachty needs seemed high on the agenda. This included a dedicated restaurant and bar next to the hardstand named (you guessed it): “The Hardstand Cafe”. Access from the sea is by a winding channel, so no swell. Happy hour drinks at the swim up bar were about CAD $2. Heather loved the pool. We found many and varied hiking trails, abundant wildlife: horn bills, eagles, monkeys, excellent cove beaches too. Slip cost was about CAD $12/day including free electricity and water. There was a reasonable level of technical assistance, mostly expat. We had sail repairs done and some minor electrical maintenance. Some people seemed to be permanent fixtures. At the time, this was indeed where most of the yachties stayed long term in Malaysia. One could tell the extended stay residents by the second hand hotel air conditioner grinding away on deck.

Rebak Marina long term resident

We secured Argonauta I and departed for Bangkok, with land travel planned in Vietnam and Cambodia. We spent Christmas week in both Saigon and Phnom Penh, Cambodia and later boated up the Mekong River to Siem Reap to see the ruins of Angkor Wat. We had arranged to meet touring relatives in Thailand for the New Year holiday, which meant from Siem Reap we flew back to Bangkok and then took a taxi to Hua Hin. The town is a golfing center and also the location for the Thai Royal Family summer palace. We met the “rellies” at a posh hotel for New Year’s Eve and then a couple of days later we took an overnight train back to Malaysia and a ferry across to Langkawi. We were only away from the yacht for just twenty days but it seemed like half a lifetime.

Christmas in Cambodia.

Heather recounted:

“It’s easy to give a glib summary of our trip. But it is much more difficult to convey the emotional impact of a brief glimpse into some incredible horrors of the last few decades. Cambodia’s history is beyond imagination. The present society, struggling to find a place in the modern world had what seemed like insurmountable challenges. The people we met were kind, gentle and humble. There were beggars and hawkers of course, but they were not at all aggressive. I had one experience which still haunts me. In the tourist area of Phnom Penh, a little boy was very persistent and I finally gave him a small sum of money. He did not go away. He ran along beside my trishaw, clutching at my arm, repeating the same syllables over and over in an ascending whine. Everyone looked at us with a kind of resigned compassion. Finally as we came to a busy thoroughfare, I had to give him a gentle push to keep him from running into traffic. He was tough and dirty and he had tears running down his cheeks. When I got home I looked up the word he had been chanting. MAK means Mummy.”

January 6, 2003 we left Rebak Marina to sail the short distance to Phuket, Thailand where we had arranged to pick up nephew David on January 12. He would be joining us again, this time to sail from Thailand to Turkey. We made for Yacht Haven Marina near the airport. On this short 174 NM leg, we traveled in company with Karaka. The Aussie crew had spent several seasons in the area and knew all the good anchorages. It was a convivial sail as we anchored each night at one of their favorite islands in the Andaman Sea: Bulan, Ko Muk, and Phi Phi Don. The latter was near the location where the Leonardo di Caprio film ‘The Beach’ was filmed.

Enroute to Phi Phi Don Island.

We collected David at the airport and spent the following days provisioning, sightseeing and clearing in and out. It was a wrench to leave Thailand. We could have spent another year in the country. The people were lovely and life was easy and inexpensive.  Still, it was time to move on, as it was the season of the North East Monsoon, which brings northeasterly winds and dry weather to the Bay of Bengal. It is when most west bound vessels depart for the Red Sea. We spent a final day at anchor in beautiful Kata Bay and set off on January 22.

Our routing for this 1089 NM leg took us westbound through the Sombrero Passage in the Nicobar Islands and then a straight shot to Galle at the southern tip of Sri Lanka. Weather conditions were good. There was not much wind the first night, a northwesterly at 5 to 6K, just enough to keep us moving. With sunrise, we picked up a steady northeasterly of 10 to 12K, which made for a comfortable beam reach and a 6K boat speed. The forecast was for more of the same. Conditions held and winds continued from the NE or NNE variable 10 to 20K for the remainder of the passage. We were underway for a week. The passage was incident free, but we did encounter an Australian yacht that had lost its rudder following a collision with something submerged. The skipper had jury rigged a solution using a spinnaker pole as an extended tiller and was making three  knots. We were waved on but said we’d be available to tow the vessel into harbour with our dinghy.

Late morning January 29, we anchored in the outer harbour in Galle. At the time, Sri Lanka was embroiled in civil war although the intensity in early 2003 had reduced. Still, we were not allowed into the inner harbor until the yacht was searched by the military.  This was done in short order and soon we were moored to a pontoon to check in ashore with the Don Windsor Agency. They handled everything for USD $170.00.  Happily, Argonauta I  was completely serviceable!

As anti-personnel depth charges were exploded throughout the night to discourage terrorist swimmers, we soon vacated the yacht to live ashore. That suited us as we had planned an extensive tour of the country.  We tuk tuked into town and did a bit of shopping. The next day, we hired a motor tuk tuk for a tour of the area and later we went inland, visiting an elephant orphanage and historical sites while staying in the high country among tea plantations. We went on to visit Colombo and St Thomas’ College, where in the 1800s a relative was Headmaster. Finally, as depth charges were still going off in the harbor at night, we stayed in a local hotel and prepared for departure.

Timing our arrival for the south end of the Red Sea was key, as we needed to catch southerly winds, which prevail there from late March. On February 20, fully loaded with provisions and fuel, we departed Galle for the Maldives, about 435 NM to the west.  From there we planned to sail non-stop some 2100 NM to Massawa, Eritrea on the Horn of Africa. The objective was to remain as covert as possible in known areas of active piracy. We hoped that in bypassing Oman and Yemen, local spies would be unable to alert pirates down the track to our presence. We were aware that yachts had safely passed through the area within the previous weeks without incident. They too had bypassed Oman and Yemen.


Stay tuned to the next episode: an Indian Ocean island paradise, evading pirate attacks, war, and landfall in Africa.