Crossing the South China Sea

Peregrina's Journey
Peter and Margie Benziger
Fri 6 Jul 2012 05:37

01:42.9N   110:19.6E


The South China Sea separates Peninsular Malaysia (South of Thailand) from East Malaysia  which shares a border with Indonesia.  The city we are headed to is Kuching.  This region is commonly known as Borneo. Please see the map below because, if you are like us, this part of the world is not very well known…In the map Penninsular Malaysia is the white territory on the left, Borneo Malaysia the white territory on the right.

Peregrina sailed as far as Kuala Terengganu, in northern end of Peninsular Malaysia. Then we backtracked a little to the island of Tioman, which is an excellent jumping off point for the crossing to Kuching. 

However, the rhumb line (direct line) between Tioman and Kuching passes through the Indonesian island groups of Keputauan Anambas and Keputauan Natuna.  Here’s what the cruising notes say about this area:

“There have been a number of recent reports of piracy off the Indonesian Anambas and Natuna Islands. To date these attacks have been restricted to merchant ships but yachts are vulnerable. It is suggested that a route be chosen to keep well away from these islands.” 

The route we chose was to pass south of the Anambas island group and then turn back northward a little to round the northwestern end of Borneo.  The trip would be about 410 miles.

We decided to travel with our good friends, Will and Margaret from Scotland, who cruise aboard their 51 foot Formosa ketch, Atlantia.

In the weeks leading up to our passage, Atlantia had experienced a number of mechanical mishaps. Most worrisome was the fact that Atlantia’s generator had been malfunctioning. At stops along the way, a myriad of mechanics had come to “fix” the problem. In one town, EIGHT people showed up, although Atlantia’s engine room has space for only one person.  Please note that, although the Malaysians are quick to respond to a call for help, real knowledge about marine systems and hands on experience with pleasure yachts is almost non-existent.  By the time we got to Tioman, Atlantia’s generator was officially dead and may have been killed more by the mechanical “help” than its’ original problems.  On top of that, the night before we left Tioman, Atlantia’s raw water hose sprung a leak.  Her skipper patched it up with epoxy and emergency tape and hoped that it would hold.

 Atlantia’s VHF radio also stared malfunctioning so that, during our crossing, all communication between our two boats would be distorted by large amounts of static making it really hard to understand them.

Nevertheless, we departed at about 0630.  (6:30am to all you landlubbers!)  Once we left the protected shelter of the island of Tioman, we encountered 1.5 meter seas and winds of 20 knots very close to our bow which made holding the course very challenging. In addition, there was a stiff northerly current so we decided to motor sail at about 45 degrees.  Normally, we would just “crack off” a few degrees so that we could sail but that meant heading directly toward the pirate-prone Indonesian islands.  Margie would have none of that!!!
 Thus, our first day was quite uncomfortable with the bow plunging up and down the steep seas, water continually coming across the deck and everything down below finding any excuse to fly from its designated location. 
Shortly after dark, we entered the shipping lane which runs to the northeast from Singapore.  This is a very busy area as you will see from all the AIS targets in the picture below. The map on the left shows the chart with the AIS targets. At night, we split the screen to also show the radar since some boats do not have AIS. On the radar screen, you will see twelve ships and three rain squalls surrounding Peregrina.

In the shipping channels, some ships answer when hailed and some do not. The AIS is a great advantage because it gives us the name of the ship and the CPA (closest point of approach).  We spent about five hours crossing the shipping lane.  Often the conversations we had with the vessels were challenging. One vessel (564 feet in length) stated; “hold your course we will pass clear ahead of you.”  After the distance separating us had been reduced to about a mile away (remember they travel about 18 knots) and the CPA indicated a collision course I call the vessel.  They answered:   “Peregrina, correction, it looks like we will pass close astern…ok,ok?”).  One ship passed so close that we actually had a 7 foot bow wave reach us.  I HATE shipping lanes!

Later that night, Atlantia’s skipper, Will, called on the VHF radio to say that the raw water pipe to his engine had started leaking again and they would have to slow down.

The route we charted would to take us to the south of the Anambas Islands, but not by much, since every mile we traveled to the south was distance lost.   Margie’s watch started at 1100 and ended at 0300. All was well.  I came on deck as we approached the Anambas Islands. Not long after, I noticed that there was a  light behind Atlantia but it did not broadcast and AIS signal which was a bit unsettling.  Most likely, it was just a fishing boat, but, late at night your mind conjures up all sorts of things…

About 0400, Atlantia slowed dramatically and started changing course frequently.  I called to ask what was going on.   I could not hear Margaret very well so I decided to speed up Peregrina to place us nearer to Atlantia and the unidentified following boat.  My mind was racing as I thought that Atlantia could be a target for boarding by an inflatable launched from the mystery boat.   I got out our million candle power search light and started to shine it directly at the intruder but it was too far away to illuminate the vessel. I then went below and brought on deck our police baton, flare gun and riot control size pepper spray. I loaded the flare gun with a white magnesium flare. I was “ready for action!” but quite uncertain of what was, in fact, happening.

I called Margaret and asked if everything was alright. She replied “yes” but the radio transmission was too broken up for a conversation.  Late at night, with not a lot of sleep, your mind goes to dark places and I thought: If Atlantia was boarded and had to answer a radio hail, would Margaret be able to respond "no"...probably NOT. I gunned the engine and inserted Peregrina right in the middle of the two boats and started run through “action plans” which I knew would be quite useless. 

Well, Atlantia proceeded slowly, with us following behind ready to do battle until, shortly before dawn, the mystery boat veered to port towards the Indonesia islands. By sun up, we were alone again.  Were we being followed or was it just a fisherman toiling away at his livelihood in the middle of a dark and stormy sea?  I guess we’ll never know…

Overnight, Will had fixed his water leak so they were up to speed again.  As we proceeded eastward and the day wore on, the breeze veered more towards the south and the waves diminished. We had a great sailing breeze now and Peregrina was really “kicking up her heels” with speeds between 6.8 and 7.5 knots.  We were racing towards Borneo on Day Two!

As night fell, we reefed down (reduced sail) and continued at a slower speed for safety.  We had some brief thunder cells come through accompanied by strong wind and lightening. Even with radar, thunder cells can be hard to spot at night so Peregrina generally reduces sail shortly before sunset.

Poor Atlantia’s challenges were not over though… About 2100, (9pm) the second night, they called to say that they thought they had a rope or some sort of sea debris tangled in the propeller. They shut the engine off and said they were going to wait to try to fix this problem since Will was desperately short of sleep.  He had successfully reduced the water leak to the main engine earlier that day but was “knackered” and needed to rest.  We slowed down again to match their speed.

About three hours later, they called and said that they had put the engine into reverse and thought that the rope cutter attached to the propeller shaft had freed the entanglement. But now, they were concerned because the engine was running very rough and they might have contaminated fuel!  What more could go wrong? Will was back in the engine room and had changed his main engine filters 3 times already.

 We continued to plod along slowly until about 0530 when they called again to say that they had re-directed their fuel supply to a “day tank” and that the fuel seemed to be ok.

During the night, and all through Day Three, we were crossing popular fishing grounds and had to avoid  large fishing boats all around us.  It is important not to pass too close to the sterns since they often are pulling very long nets.

We also encountered a large number of blue or black plastic bottles tied together every few miles marking some type of deep-sea fish traps or nets.  A week earlier, the Polish catamaran, Azzura, had snagged one of these “bottle buoy” networks and had to spend 8 hours waiting for the sun to come up before diving overboard to cut the ropes free.  It should be illegal to have these buoys in the water with no flag on a pole … although at night I doubt we could not see them anyway.  On Peregrina, if we have the motor on, the person on watch has to be ready to throttle down and take the prop out of gear.  A broken prop would be a disaster out here in the middle of the ocean so far from any shipyard.

Anyway, moving onward, the next day dawned a golden red.

During the day, we tried to fish and Peter caught the monster shown in the photo below.

We finally made it to Borneo and anchored off a small island called Pulau Satang Besar. 

It is a National Park and a working Turtle Sanctuary.  At night, Green Turtles come ashore to lay eggs. You can see the tracks in the sand. The park rangers then remove the eggs from the nest and place them in enclosed pens to ensure as many hatch as possible.  The night we arrived, two turtles laid 214 eggs between them and the rangers also released 18 newborn turtles back into the water.  It was a great day for Mother Nature!

We will spend at least the next two months in Borneo and, as usual, we have not really decided what we will do next.  You’ll just have to stay tuned…!