Storm in the South China Sea

Peregrina's Journey
Peter and Margie Benziger
Wed 24 Jul 2013 02:07
01:14.5N   103:50.4E

Recently we sailed from Kuching, Malaysia across the South China Sea to Singapore. Kuching is on the Malaysian part of the island of Borneo (seen in color green) and Singapore is to the west.

Since it was July, the Southwest Monsoon was beginning which essentially meant the wind was coming from close to our destination. We knew we would be sailing ‘close to the wind’ with a lot of heel in the boat and the bow would be pushing into the waves. This also meant that storm cells would hit us almost head on.

Fortunately, it was only 389 miles and we calculated that it would take us no more than three and a half days ….that was before the storm!

When we left Kuching, which is the most western large town in Borneo,  we passed an upended barge that had been lost a few weeks previously in a storm.  Storms are pretty exciting here!

Small fishing boats were at sea so we felt good and began to enjoy the trip.

We had also received weather forecasts, from two separate sources, predicting the weather for the next 72 hours. Both forecasts indicated winds from the Southwest at 10 knots. 

We looked forward to a peaceful sail and Peregrina began to kick up her heels while heeling to starboard at about 15 degrees of tilt.


The first night went smoothly with a beautiful sunset.


Towards late afternoon, of the second day, we noticed a storm cell forming. We rolled in the genoa completely and put the first reef in the main.Often, when a storm cell approaches, the wind will drop prior to the arrival, then increase dramatically for about 45 minutes, then diminishes again as the cell blows through.  This is what we expected and prepared for as the sky continued to darken.

In this case, the wind did drop and then, just as the sun was setting, the increase hit us like a hammer blow. The wind jumped to 20+ knots, then 30+ knots, then 40+ knots then into the 50’s.  As we steered into the wind, with the engine going and the mainsail reefed, the rain was driven under the bimini and we became very wet. Why we did not go down to get our foul weather gear at this point I really don’t know. Probably we thought that it would just last a short time and frankly neither of us had showered in a couple of days! 

By the end of the first hour we began shivering which depletes your body strength quickly.  The waves had grown considerably and the auto pilot was not able to steer the boat.  I was at the helm when ,after two hours, Margie brought up the foul weather gear.  We both put the “foulies” on over our soaking wet clothes.

During the third hour of the storm, the wind hit the highest point registering a top speed of 57 knots. It was also during that time that the fiberglass mainsail batten ripped away from the sail and started banging on the boom above our heads.

Up forward the dingy, which resides on a cradle on deck, was receiving the direct impact from waves breaking over the bow. With each wave, the dingy would levitate off the cradle to the extent of its tie down ropes and then come crashing back down on the cradle. The dingy cover blew apart which allowed water to flow into the dingy. We were very concerned that the dingy would rip away from Peregrina.

Behind the helm the deck box protective cover split and started flapping wildly. There was cacophony of unwelcome sounds above deck. Below deck we could see everything flying about and the engine room access door fell out as the wooden frame twisted.

After about three hours at the helm, I was shivering quite violently and actually got sea sick for the first time in 20+ years. The fine lunch Margie had made hours before became flying gourmet fish food.

People always ask us to show them pictures of Peregrina in storms. We do not have many pictures of Peregrina in storms since we are usually quite busy. In this case, it was the blackest night and the water splashing into the cockpit would have ruined the camera.

Here a few “after the storm pictures.” From the PFD (Personal Floatation Device) or lifevest there is a tether with a snap shackle to attach ourselves to "strong points" on the boat.

The broken batten pocket (see the folded white canvas hanging down) after I had removed, during the night, the long fiberglass batten.


Down below


Since the storm blew us way off course we added additional time onto the passage and arrived at the entrance to the Singapore Straits about 4am in the morning of the fourth day. We still had about 24 miles to transit, during coming daylight, to get to the quarantine anchorage.  The Singapore Straits is the busiest shipping channel in the world with approximately 50,000 vessels transiting a year.  While most of the traffic is orderly, the main VHF channel #16 becomes almost useless as countless vessels have extended conversations in many different languages.

Every once in a while the maritime police will break in, when there is a pause, to try to clear the channel or issue a formal warning to a particular ship who is acting dangerously. The maritime website has the following statement at the beginning:

“The recent increase in collisions occurring in and around Singapore waters is of concern for the whole shipping community. A significant number of the collisions are related to the congested conditions in and around the Singapore approaches, including anchorages outside port limits and close to the Singapore Straits Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS)."

Here is a picture of our chart plotter showing the chart with AIS contacts (other ships) on the left as small triangles and the radar signatures on the right.

At night, while we can see these boat miles away, from their very bright deck lights, we are quite certain they can not see us easily. Peregrina has small sailboat running lights, red (port) and green (starboard), which are about three inches in height.  We carry a round radar reflector about 12 inches in diameter. We probably look like the size of a pelican sitting in the water to these behemoths…if they can see us at all. We do carry AIS (Automatic Identification System) so that, hopefully, we appear on their electronic charts.

About 5am, Peregrina crossed the shipping channel at a right angle from the South heading north. We needed to cross the southern shipping channel, which was headed east, and merge into the northern shipping channel traffic which headed west.  This was exciting since it was still a moonless black night. This picture shows Peregrina (at the center of the screen) crossing the lanes of traffic. All the triangles are ships moving in the darkness.

After we crossed the channel and successfully merged into the westbound traffic the dawn broke and we could take some pictures of the vessels around us.

Three vessels passed us at the same time in the photo below.

The largest vessel (which passed us a night) was the 1102 foot ‘NYK Olympus’ traveling at 18 knots.

During our day passage up the straits several rainstorms passed. Here is picture of a vessel  hidden by the rain.  When the rain storm eliminates visibility the vessels sound their fog horns and the sounds seem to come from ALL directions.  It is quite unnerving to see a 900 foot vessels emerging from the rain.

Later, we anchored in the west quarantine anchorage and when the immigration boat came along side we were tired but really happy to have arrived.

The English language name Singapore comes from Malay translation of  "Lion City,"  The  word Singa derives from the Sanskrit word siṃha (सिंह), which means "lion".  Pura (पुर) in Sanskrit means "town or city.” The other point of interest is that there are not now, nor apparently ever, were Lions in Singapore….only Tigers!

Peter Benziger
01:14.5N  103:50.4E