Puteri Harbour Marina > Langkawi : Day 2 (2015-11-01 - 02:15 UTC - 04:12.693N 100:32.891E), DTF 144nm
Last night on our way from Puteri Harbour Marina through the Malacca Strait to Langkawi, an island NW of the West Malaysian mainland and close to the Thai border, we had one of our scariest nights in our 6.5 years of sailing. The heavily trafficked Malacca Strait (the gateway from China to Europe through the Suez Canal and vice versa) is well known for both piracy and thunderstorms. Piracy seems mainly focussed on the tankers and cargoships travelling through, but everybody passing has to contend with the thunderstorms. And it is not so much the wind and rain, as it is the lightning that scared the sh.. out of us. The Malacca Strait is aptly called “Lightning Alley” and apparently insurers fear it as much a sailors due to the high number of claims as a result of lightning strikes.
Our first night was luckily rather uneventful, where we stayed just inside the westbound lane of the Traffic Separation Scheme (the sea highway for east- and westbound traffic where specific maritime rules apply) to dodge fishing boats and tug boats outside the TSS and the big tankers and cargo ships in the middle of the TSS. We managed to do a bit of sailing and motored when absolutely necessary.
When we entered our 2nd night, the weather looked benign, but we already saw lots of lightning far away over land. Not long thereafter it started raining, not heavily yet, but a precursor to what was to come. The winds picked up although we never had more than some 22 kts of wind, but now from the east driving the thunderstorms from land in our direction, the rain intensified and the lightning came closer and closer, ever more intense and almost as frequent as a strobe light, lighting the whole sky. This was not an isolated squall, which you could either dodge or fight through for half an hour or so, the radar indicated it was a vast area, from which we could not escape. For most sailors lightning is one of the scariest things, as there is nothing you can do to prevent it striking the mast. When it does strike, the most severe consequence is sinking of the boat, either through fire or blown out through hull fittings, leaving large holes in the boat. If you’re lucky, only all your electronics on board are destroyed, which makes navigating in the Malacca Strait quite a bit more challenging, apart from the vast expense of replacing the stuff. We put all our loose electronics, like laptops, phones, handheld GPS and VHF in the oven, which shields it from the electrostatic field like a Faraday cage does (and switched off the gas supply in case we would forget taking them out again afterwards). Since then we started counting the seconds between the flashes and the thunder and kept our fingers crossed, although I wonder how effective the latter is. Although it came as close as 10 seconds, so some 1.5nm from us, we were spared. Some of our electronics played up for a while, like our AIS (Automatic Identification System to see and be seen and mandatory in the Singapore Strait), which stopped working until I switched it off and our plotter, which indicated all of a sudden we had supposedly reached our next waypoint, which was still some 140nm away. I contribute this to the electrostatically charged air around us, which influences this type of equipment. When the rain stopped some 5 hours later and the lightning flashes gradually disappeared over the horizon, the equipment was working as it should and no harm was done. Once again a vivid reminder that you do not stand a chance against the elements, you need a bit of luck.
Partly due to this experience we decided to drop the hook in a lovely bay off the island of Pangkor for some R&R and continue for the last night sail to Langkawi tomorrow 2/11, where we’ll leave Aquamante to fly home for a month. ETA in the morning of 3/11.