The trip to bring Oia from Langkawi down to Singapore was pretty eventful, so this is a really long post. I should have expected as much, since I was new to the boat, as were all of the rest of the crew. In the end I was really lucky to have the crew I did.
First, here’s a brief overview of the crew for the trip:
- Me, of course.
- Major Tan, a really well-connected Singaporean with a history in the Navy and expertise in marina building. He designed One 15 marina and seems to know almost everybody involved in yachting in Singapore. A very experienced sailor and navigator who’d sailed between Langkawi and Singapore a bunch of times.
- Thomas, another Singaporean Navy guy from the same class as Major Tan, also with a lot of experience. Quite a good instructor too, I found.
- Bert, CEO of a rather large local garment maker and owner of Constant Wind, who’s taking a year-long sabbatical to do sailing. More of a racer, and really into proper sailing (i.e., with sails, and no engines), trimming, etc.
- Duke, a Vietnamese-American who was a student for this trip. He’s working with Major Tan on a marina project in Saigon. A former refugee in 1975, returned to Vietnam as a successful businessman, really fascinating guy. Also, luckily, reasonably experienced with diesel engines.
- Jeanette, a Singaporean mother of two who decided to come along as a student for the trip, almost on a whim. Her friends told her she picked the wrong “S” (sailing instead of shopping or spas), but she thought it’d be a fun experience and something different.
We all met early at the airport on Wednesday, chatted a bit, and then flew to Langkawi. We grabbed some lunch at the airport and a few people did some duty-free shopping before taking a taxi to Telaga Harbour. At the marina, we headed straight for the boat since everyone was excited to see it. We dropped off our bags, everyone got a quick look at the boat, and Major Tan said, “You got a really great deal on this boat. It can go anywhere in the world.” It’s nice to hear a little reinforcement on that account from someone who knows what they’re talking about.
I grabbed the boat’s documents and set to work on checking out of the port. It was surprisingly easy: Telaga Harbour has offices for port clearance, customs, and immigration all in one spot, so you just walk down the line and fill out all the forms. Our passports were all stamped out only a couple hours after we were stamped in at the airport. Once that was done, we all headed back to the boat and set about preparing it to move. Mainly that involved taking down the awnings, stowing the air conditioner below, washing the deck, and lashing down everything loose, including the dinghy. Here’s Thomas and Major Tan working on the dinghy while Jeanette takes some photos with her new iPhone:
The adventure began when it was time to head over to the fuel dock. I’d never moved the boat before. I started up the engine, we cast off, and we reversed out of the berth. Thomas talked me through a sort of k-turn to spin the boat more or less in place, since space was limited. And then the engine died.
That led to some excitement, since we were quite close to the boardwalk. Luckily the water was quite deep. We drifted to the boardwalk, fended off, and lashed ourselves there while a nice British guy at a nearby berth called for a tow on his VHF. The marina sent a little boat over, which pushed us into the fuel dock. A mechanic came by, spent a few minutes poking around the engine, and then opened the fuel valves, which I guess the previous owner had shut and whose existence I didn’t even know about. Shows how much I know about engines. I gave the mechanic RM 50, which was enough to earn some more favors: he noticed a valve in the raw water system was also closed.
While everyone else worked on fueling and provisioning the galley, I went up to the marina office to clear out. They also got me the original copy of the Langkawi registration certificate and gave me a Langkawi registry ensign flag, which is a bit different from the plain old Malaysian flag. In all, the Langkawi registration cost about US$550 up front, including agent fees since Telaga Harbour took care of everything for me. The annual fee is around US$120. Not bad. My final verdict on the Telaga Harbour marina: superb, with a really friendly and helpful staff.
Later that evening we walked over to a nearby restaurant for a good dinner. Jeanette and Major Tan on the boardwalk:
And Thomas and Bert relaxing at dinner:
We slept a little too late, some on the boat, others on the dock since it was a nice night. We woke up before sunrise the next morning to head out. I steered the boat out of Telaga Harbour and we headed south under motor since there wasn’t much wind. Major Tan napping as we leave Langkawi behind us:
Before too much longer a slight breeze came up, so we decided to unfurl the sails and do a little motorsailing:
Not too long after this, we encountered our first problem. The instrument panel’s “water temperature” alarm sounded and the engine shut down. We started the engine up again, and the same thing happened after a few minutes. Duke and I played with a valve in the raw water system, but later found it to just be a bypass that needed to remain closed. After a little more tinkering and some more motoring, the alarm went off yet again and when I opened the engine compartment, a bunch of hot steam billowed out. When that cleared, we saw radiator water puddling in the bilge. Oops.
We sailed for a while to let the engine cool down, and then Duke and I set to work. We poured bottle after bottle of water into the cooling water tank, which was seemingly bottomless. Then I noticed that soon after each bottle, the bilge pump switched on. After a little more looking we found the culprit: a cooling water hose between the holding tank and the engine block had ruptured. The hose was short, at a 90° angle, rubber, and obviously ancient. Our first instinct was duct tape, which wouldn’t hold on the rubber. I had some spare PVC, a little too small, but we used a cigarette lighter and a screwdriver handle to widen the ends, and some dish soap to help slide the hose over the fittings. After clamping it down, we tried the engine again and found it worked fine, and water was visibly flowing through the system. So, first crisis averted.
Here, you can sort of see our quick fix, the clear PVC with cooling water and antifreeze flowing through it. You can also see the spilled coolant in the bilge beneath, and the general clutter of the engine compartment, which I still haven’t found time to clean. In the top left is the alternator, a future cause of dismay.
The rest of the day was thankfully less eventful, and we made decent time, around 5.5 knots motorsailing carefully to avoid upsetting the engine, arriving at City Marina in Penang around 9:30 PM.
One more thing I learned very quickly on the first day of sailing: despite my previous dislike of the hard roof/bimini over the cockpit, I quickly came to appreciate its protection from the tropical sun. All six of us could easily sit in the shade in the cockpit. Without the bimini, the trip would have been pretty brutal. So for now, it’s staying.
We had another good meal in Penang but found we’d have to stay until at least 9 AM to wait for the marina office to open so we could pay for our berth. We decided to skip our next scheduled stop of Pangkor and go for two days straight to Port Dickson to make up some time. We stocked up on quite a few provisions in Penang, which is a big city, with the marina near downtown. We also grabbed a big pot, a big kettle, some nice metal bowls, and some utensils to use since there wasn’t much on the boat already. Here’s Oia resting at the end of the dock in the morning sun, near the bustling ferry terminal:
Leaving Penang, we passed under the Penang Bridge with a clearance of about 10m and started to run into a lot of fishing vessels. Here’s the approach to the bridge, with Bert striking an heroic pose:
There are hundreds of fishing vessels up and down the Malacca Straits. Some of them are big trawlers; others are little one or two person deals with an old truck engine for power. The most common of them are boats that drop a net, mark it with a small black flag on one end and some kind of minimalist float on the other end, and then hope nobody runs over it. We nearly ran over one just before the Penang bridge, but the fisherman saw us coming and came to us at top speed, waving us away. When we realized what was up, we veered hard away and missed the net by a few dozen meters. In general, running over a net isn’t pretty, and can quickly ruin the prop or shaft. Another common type of fishing boat is the trawler, which drags a net around 1km long behind it. Here’s one:
The biggest problem in general with the fishing boats is that it’s hard to see their nets or lines; at night, it’s sometimes hard to see the boats at all: there’s no guarantee they’re properly lit or marked. We found that in general, except for the huge vessels in the shipping lanes, you really can’t rely on any of the boats in the Straits to be properly marked, properly lit, or adhere to any of the rules of the road. We were nearly run down by one tug with a huge barge when we were under sail, with no working engine, despite repeated attempts to warn away the tug with an airhorn and the VHF.
Speaking of shipping vessels, after Penang we started to see a lot more of them (although not nearly as many as we encountered in the final approach to Singapore). They’re big and scary and generally we avoided them at all costs. When crossing the shipping lanes, we adjusted our course to get it over with as quickly as possible. A lot of the ships we encountered were 800 or more feet long, like this container ship. Each of the containers is 40 ft:
By and large, the leg between Penang and Port Dickson was uneventful; we mostly motorsailed, kept to the edge of the shipping lane, and stayed out of the sun. Jeanette whipped up a great chicken pasta meal for dinner on Friday night, which was the first use of the LPG stove in the galley (worked like a charm). Overnight, we settled into two watches with four-hour shifts. The next day, it was more of the same. Here’s the whole crew (except me) lounging in the cockpit. From the left: Jeanette, Thomas, Major Tan (at the helm), Bert, and Duke:
The water along the edge of the shipping channel was mostly deep (a few hundred feet), but at times it was really green. Here’s a shot I took while we were motorsailing along with a decent breeze:
We did run into one problem late Friday night: the plumbing stopped working. We had mostly filled our water tanks (200G capacity) in Langkawi, so I didn’t think we could possibly have run out of water. But no water was coming out of the faucets, even though the pump was pumping. Luckily we had some extra water in jugs on the deck to use for washing up. I shut off the pump in the meantime and decided to look again once we got to Port Dickson.
As the sun went down on Saturday night, we were a few hours outside of Port Dickson. Approaching shore, my cellphone reception was spotty but not terrible, so I called ahead to the Admiral’s Cove marina to ask them how late we could fuel up at the fuel dock. Our plan, since we were still running behind schedule and trying to reach Singapore by late afternoon on Sunday, was to fuel up, make a quick grocery run, and head back out within an hour or two for the final leg to Singapore. The dockmaster was really friendly and although we were arriving after closing time, she agreed to get some staff back to the marina so we could refuel in the early evening.
And then, of course, the engine died again. At first, the water temperature alarm sounded and the engine shut off. But there was nothing obviously wrong with the fresh or raw water systems, no leaks, etc. I cranked the engine again, and this time it shut off again after a few minutes with an oil pressure warning. Sure enough, we checked the dipstick and the oil sump was empty. Oops. Important lesson learned: check the oil in a big old engine like my Westerbeke 4-107 every 8-12 hours. Luckily there were a couple quarts of oil onboard; we poured those into the engine and hoped for the best until we could get to Port Dickson and buy more. The lack of oil also explained the initial water temperature warning, since the lack of oil in the system increased the temperatures quite a bit.
Immediately, we ran into the next problem: the engine wouldn’t crank again. I looked at the battery voltage and realized it was at a seriously low 11.8V. The alternator hadn’t been charging the batteries. This also lined up with the fact that the RPM gauge had stopped working earlier in the day: it’s powered by the alternator. In addition to the alternator woes, we’d somehow been drawing enough current to deplete almost 700 amp-hours from the batteries despite 5-8 amps of charge coming from the solar panels all day. Bizarre.
Initially, I called up Admiral’s Cove again and asked them to send a boat out to tow us in. That would have taken a long time — we were still 10 miles out. Nonetheless, they rounded up staff and a boat and sent them out. Then, I thought again, and turned the battery switch to “BOTH” — normally, the starter motor only draws current from the starter batteries, but it can also draw from the house bank. There was enough voltage to crank the engine. The oil pressure was decent, so we called off the tow and motored into Port Dickson. It was tricky entering the marina at night as there are a few sand bars and other shallow spots, piles, mooring buoys, etc. We took a lot of navigational fixes and kept a close eye out for silhouettes, and finally arrived at the marina around 10:30 PM. We gave up on the idea of heading back out again quickly and got a good night’s rest.
The next day, after a big breakfast, Jeanette and Major Tan headed out to stock up on some food, oil, etc; Bert and Thomas filled up the water tanks and hosed down the deck; and Duke and I took a look at the batteries and the alternator. The situation there was pretty bleak. Somehow, the battery water was completely gone; we filled the batteries back up, but they weren’t taking much of a charge. Duke tightened a few bolts on the engine, particularly around the alternator, where a few wires were quite loose. The big question was whether there was enough juice for the engine to crank. Luckily, the answer was yes; we maneuvered over to the fuel dock, refueled, and cleared out of the marina. The one consolation prize was that after filling up the water tanks, the plumbing was working again. Somehow, we’d used up all our water. Maybe that’s where all the amp-hours went: to pumping our water over the side? (A few days later I figured out that somehow, a bypass valve had probably gotten opened in the head, which lines up with my pumping-over-the-side theory.)
Again, we had a mostly uneventful day. Here’s a shot of Thomas at the navigation table:
Early on, we realized there was no fixing the alternator, and that the batteries weren’t taking much of a charge. We decided to conserve electricity. Off went my computer with its electronic charts; off went the house GPS — we switched to my eTrex Venture instead; off went the fans in the cabin; off went the fridge; and so on. It was now that I started to appreciate the importance of the paper charts which Major Tan brought along, although in truth they were more useful than my electronic CMAP/93 charts from the beginning because they were more detailed. Here’s what the nav table looked like:
Having never done all that much navigation, I was surprised how straightforward it was. Most of the time we took GPS fixes every hour or so, plotted them on the chart with the parallel ruler, planned compass headings, and figured out approximate speed over the last hour and distance to go using the divider. We also practiced taking handheld compass fixes when we were near enough to shore. I will definitely not go anywhere without paper charts after our experiences on this trip.
Just before sunset Sunday night, we ran into a final engine problem we couldn’t fix. The battery voltage dropped to a ridiculously low 10.4V and the engine shut off. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what ties the engine to the batteries (normally, it doesn’t matter since the alternator generates electricity while the engine is running), but my best guess is the solenoids attached to the water temperature, oil pressure, and oil temperature monitors were drawing current from the batteries and the voltage dropped so low that they cut off the engine as if the alarm had tripped. Either way, there wasn’t enough voltage left to crank the engine, so we were without power. Pretty quickly the batteries returned to around 11.4V and stayed there; still not enough to crank the engine. We decided to stop trying and wait until morning, when hopefully the solar cells would give us some more juice.
That left us without an engine, and essentially no electricity, near the shipping lane, with darkness falling. Luckily we had sails and the wind was picking up. I flipped off every breaker but the bilge pump — even the running lights — to try to save some amp-hours. We armed ourselves with bright LED flashlights to aim at the sails to warn off any approaching boats, and continued with our two-watches-in-four-hour-shifts schedule.
Strangely, this ended up being the most peaceful part of the entire trip, sailing in good wind through the night. We managed to make around 5.5 knots all night. For a few hours, I sat at the bow with a life jacket on, hunkered down low to keep an eye out on both sides since the genoa blocked a lot of the view from the cockpit:
Later, I slept like a baby for three or so hours. Apparently during that time there were a couple of close calls with fishing vessels. Around 5 AM, I woke up and took over the helm from Major Tan. The boat was surrounded by a pod of dolphins, their silhouettes just barely visible as they broke the surface, took a breath, and went back under. At 5:30 or so, a few of them started breaching. Really amazing. I wish they’d stuck with us after sunrise so I could take a photograph. Instead, here’s my gloved hand at the helm just before sunrise, snapped in a quiet moment when everyone else had dozed off and I was all by myself:
As the morning wore on, the wind started to die. Here’s the boat sailing along in light winds with nothing much in sight:
And here’s a look at the rigging a little later — at least there was still enough breeze to fill the sails:
By 11 AM there was no wind left and we were actually moving backwards with the current, which sometimes helps and sometimes hurts depending on the tide. But luckily, help was on the way: Major Tan called for a boat and some crew from One 15 marina to come bring us in. After some early morning prep work, they headed out in the marina owner’s S$7M yacht Hye Seas I around 8:30 AM and met us 60 nm outside of Singapore around noon. We sent Jeanette and Major Tan over to Hye Seas I, rigged up a tow line, and set off for Singapore:
The tow was actually kind of pleasant: we quickly found that the boat steered itself, so we mostly relaxed, did some cleanup down below, etc. It was nice to have some time to chat with Duke, Thomas, and Bert for a few hours without having to worry about some kind of crisis or other. As we sailed into Singapore, the density of the shipping fleet got pretty mind boggling, and Hye Seas I had to do a lot of dodging to get us to the Western Immigration and Quarantine Anchorage. There, we were met by an immigration vessel in rather rough seas, I filled out a bunch of paperwork, and we made the short trip into One 15 marina. We opted for One 15 over RSYC since One 15 is quite near the immigration anchorage, it was late in the evening, and the towing vessel and crew were all from One 15.
Oia is still at One 15. The day after we returned, I swung by to do a little cleanup and introduce the boat to my lovely First Mate:
Unquestionably, I learned a huge amount on the trip. Now, there’s a lot of work to be done to get the boat back into shape, but at least I know where to focus. And I managed to make a great bunch of friends in the process. So, despite a lot of failures enroute: