Back down to earth with a bump

Tue 7 Feb 2017 12:01
01:25.0449N 103:39.4544E


Well, a doddle was maybe understating it. Navigating our way between the increasingly busy traffic took rather a lot of concentration and interpretation of lights, radar and AIS. Of course, the lights that were marked on the chart mostly weren’t there, but there were other lights, in other places. The tankers were easy to identify but the tugs and tows took a fair amount of analysis to work out quite whether it was a tug, and in which case, whether it had a tow and if so,  quite where the tow was. Yet again radar was our really helpful ally. We muddled through and a couple of hours before day break we popped out of the strait between Batam and Bintan to find a sparkly world of lights ahead of us: Singapore. 

Fishermen seemingly oblivious to huge ships passing by.

The only problem being that between us and our destination there was, arguably, the busiest shipping lane in the world (the Dover Strait handles more tonnage but the Malacca Strait has more vessels. So when it comes to crossing the Malacca’s harder!). At first I thought that there must be hills or areas that weren’t built up across on the Singapore shore because there were big black patches with no lights. No lights? Well, perhaps a red one one end, or a green one, and a stern light the other end…. yes the huge black patches were moving, they were gigantic ships blocking out the lights of Singapore as they passed ahead of us. Scary stuff. Deciding discretion is the better part of valour, the Skipper  kept us pootling along the edge of the lanes, keeping out of the way and moving towards a narrower place to cross when daylight arrived. It was a good plan. As the light grew the scary truth of the sheer volume of traffic became apparent - it looked like Frogger Level 20 but with no central reservation! So we watched, judged, checked AIS predictions of Closest Point of Approach, waited for a gap and legged it! It felt like when you were kids taking a short cut across the bypass (oops, Mum, I never told you about that did I?) a real adrenaline rush. 

A snap of our chart plotter. All the little triangles are ships with AIS. It isn’t that there aren’t any to the left and right of the screen, it’s just that they are not yet in range. We are the boat shape under the white cross.

The next stage was easy: motoring along the edge of the shipping lane, enjoying the sights and heading for the Johor strait. We just had to wind our way up between the sandbanks - not too much of a worry as the charts are really accurate around Singapore and if we did touch bottom it would only be sand not coral, then get ourselves under the Tuas bridge - should be fine, according to the chart we had one and a half meter clear, and we’d be home and dry. Well, if not home and dry at least in the first Marina we’ve entered since going into Bundaburg at the end of May last year. There’d be electricity to plug into, water on tap, showers, a laundry, probably a cafe or two and we’d be able to climb down on to the dock instead of having to go in the dinghy. We’d have no fears of anchors dragging or someone running into us at night. We’d be able to sleep and sleep and sleep.

It’s a strange thing, but when you look up at the mast as you go under a bridge it always looks as if it’s going to touch, even when you have 20m clearance not less than 2m. It’s at times like this that I really appreciate being First Mate, not Skipper. "I’ll helm," Phil said, "then it’ll be my fault if we touch.” But touch we didn’t and we’d cleared the last obstacle and were in sight of the entrance to Puteri Marina.

A Brahminy Kite checks us out.

In my opinion Marinas always look tiny. As we turned in between the pontoons it looked like there was hardly any room to swing around into the berth that was being pointed out to us. Luckily Phil amazes me with his ability to manoeuvre Lochmarin in tight spaces. I knew how he’d do it: slow but steady, fast enough not to get blown off course, but taking it easy and smooth… although we did seem to be going a bit fast. I looked at Phil. He looked at me. I watched him push the gear lever into reverse - remember there’s no brakes on a boat, you have to go astern to slow her down, and nothing happened, in fact we seemed to go a little faster forwards if anything. You know those nightmares where you’re driving and you press and press on the brake but the car doesn’t stop? But we were awake. He tried again, not believing this was happening - it had to go into reverse. This time we definitely sped up - forwards! All 32 tonnes of Lochmarin was charging past the berth towards a dead end with no room to turn around even if we had been going slowly. I ran to the companionway, thoughts of lifting the pilot house floor to get at the engine and find the lever there to force us into reverse were in my mind… but there was no time, twenty seconds at best, before we would hit. It was a brace situation. 

Thank goodness Phil kept his head and managed to steer us around so we avoided any other boats and hit the dock square on our bow… rising 4 or 5 feet into the air before gravity took over and we slid back down into the water. If we’d hit a fibreglass boat we’d have sunk her. As it was Lochmarin had a good scrape down the paint of her bow, through to the aluminium with a little dent where we first hit, but otherwise she was fine. We weren’t holed. We discovered later that what had happened was the gear cable had chosen that moment to snap, but the throttle cable was working fine, so when Phil tried to engage reverse it stayed in forwards but increased the revs. 

Having heard the bang people emerged from boats all over and helped warp us alongside the dock - it wasn’t a proper berth, no water or electricity but it would do for the moment. We got tied up, any which way, thanked everybody for their help and as soon as they had gone we sat down in the cockpit to have that rather well earned ‘anchor’ beer: we were still shaking.