SINGAPORE STRAITS + SUMATRA SQUALL = NOT GOOD
Peter and Margie Benziger
Mon 28 May 2012 07:32
SINGAPORE STRAITS + SUMATRA SQUALL = NOT GOOD
The Singapore Straits is one of the two most important “chokepoints” in the world. The other one is the Strait of Hormuz, leading out of the Persian Gulf. Chokepoints are narrow channels along widely used global sea routes. They are a critical part of global energy security due to the high volume of oil traded through their narrow waters.
The international energy market is dependent upon these sea routes for reliable sea transport. The blockage of a chokepoint, even temporarily, can lead to substantial increases in total energy prices. In addition, chokepoints leave oil tankers vulnerable to theft from pirates, terrorist attacks, and political unrest in the form of war or civil hostilities, as well as shipping accidents which can lead to disastrous oil spills.
At its narrowest point, in the Phillips Channel, the Singapore Straits is only 1.7 miles wide, creating a natural bottleneck with a high volume of marine traffic. On average, a staggering 60,000+ vessels transit the Singapore Straits every year.
This is the story of Peregrina’s recent passage through the Singapore Straits. But, first a brief history of Singapore:
This strategic island, now called Singapore, was first inhabited by regional fishermen and pirates, and later became part of the Sumatran Empire of Srivijaya. European control of the area began in the 16th century, and in 1819, Singapore was founded as a British trading colony. At one time, it was the site of one of Britain's most important naval bases. Malaysia came into being in 1963 when Singapore and the states of Sabah and Sarawak joined the Peninsular Malaysia Federation. However, Singapore left in 1965 to become a separate nation which has become a major worldwide banking, ship-building and petroleum center. This modern economic powerhouse's seaport is one of the busiest in the world.
Peregrina had previously crossed the Singapore Straits in late 2011. At that time, we crossed the Straits at a right angle, directly from Indonesian waters to the Raffles Marina in Singapore. Then, we headed north along the west coast of Malaysia to Thailand. Now, six months later, Peregrina was going to transit the Singapore Straits the long way - heading West-to-East and passing the whole length of Singapore Island until we turn the corner and sail northward to the east coast of Malaysia.
Here is a picture of the AIS (automatic identification system) overlay on Peregrina’s chart plotter. Each grey triangle is a large ship with an AIS transmitter. Peregrina is the black boat in the center with a cross on it. These ships are either at anchor or moving. You will notice one grey triangle with a slight red outline, directly in front of Peregrina, which means our AIS system has targeted this ship as a pending collision.
Some of the ships are over 1000 feet long and take miles to turn or stop so you don’t want to get in their way!
There are also some very unique ships
Also at anchor, or moving very slowly around, are large derricks - some are self-powered and others require tugs to pull them from location to location.
At any one time, there are around 400 ships at anchor. In addition, there are barges, tugs, small lighters, military vessels, custom vessels, pilot boats, passenger ferries etc. transiting at all angles between the major shipping lanes and Singapore Island.
Transiting the Singapore Straits was a stressful time for Peregrina because the commercial ships will not change course, even if Peregrina has the “right of way.” We are so small they just don’t care. Thus, the passage is one of constant vigilance, weaving and turning in the near coastal zone between the shipping lanes and Singapore Island. We did not even consider joining the traffic in the main shipping channel with large ships doing 17+ knots compared to our 6 knots. Instead, we transited the near coastal route in which the vessels were going closer to our speed. The challenge was that there were still hundreds of vessels maneuvering here with less organization than in the main channel and no clear routes for a “pleasure vessel” to follow. We had to constantly change direction to avoid collisions.
Sound like high tension? Well, how about adding a “Sumatra Squall” to the mix? A Sumatra Squall is named because this type of storm usually develops in Sumatra and over the Straits of Malacca, before sweeping into Singapore. The Sumatra Squall can strike up to three times a month during the south-west monsoon season which is between March and November. Sumatra Squalls can be extremely violent thunderstorms with high and changing winds, lightning and heavy rain.
Peregrina was moving eastward, when we looked back to the southwest, and saw the world disappear. The sun disappeared, the horizon disappeared and one by one, the ships disappeared. The rain formed a complete “white out.” We had zero visibility, interspersed by high cracks of lightening and thunderclaps. All the while, there were still very large, very hard, steel ships sailing in the area which could sink us and not even know it! Plus, we had to be on the lookout for the hundreds of smaller fishing boats and personal watercraft cruising along the coastline. I turned on the radar and overlaid the radar image with the AIS signal on the plotter. This is a picture.Peregrina is in the center.
Radar is our eyes when we can not see. It is less effective in the rain but, at least, it helped us identify the smaller boats that don’t have AIS. For almost 45 minutes, we dodged anchored vessels, vessels coming from behind, coming from in front and others crossing our path at angles. To say it was un-nerving would be an understatement. Our little fiberglass Peregrina was not build to play in the same playpen as these behemoth!
Finally, the lightning strikes moved ahead of us and the thunder seemed further away. Slowly, the clouds began to lighten and the rain diminished, allowing the sun to shine through. A few of our brown hairs had turned to grey during the passage but, as we rounded the southern tip of Malaysia and left the Singapore Straits traffic behind, large white smiles extended from ear to ear and the blue azure waters beckoned Peregrina onward.