Trip recap: Singapore to Langkawi

A brief summary: after a much longer than expected journey, Oia is in Langkawi on the hard stand at the B&V yard a few miles from Kuah.  It was quite an adventure: we departed One 15 Marina at dawn on October 20 and the boat was finally out of the water around 3pm October 29.  The trip was probably around 450nm plus or minus a few dozen.  Unfortunately I don’t have the GPS track yet as I forgot to pull it off the chartplotter before heading back to Singapore.  I’m working this week and heading back up to Langkawi next week to oversee some of the refit work.

The night before departure Charlene and Wayne helped me get everything all tidied up and ready to go.  Wayne, who found us via this blog and is thinking of buying a boat himself, was the only crew aboard for the trip.  He and I powered out of the marina right on time around 07:00 on the 20th and left berth M3, where Oia‘s been for over a year and a half, for the last time:

I was a little sad to leave One 15 and won’t be “living aboard” in Singapore anymore; but it’s exciting to move forward.  The next time the boat is back in Singapore we’ll really be cruising.

As we got underway there were zero issues with the engine and we timed our departure with a nice westerly current of at least a couple knots, so we were well underway pretty quickly.  We cleared immigration at the Western Q&I Anchorage before 9am.  Here’s the immigration boat coming alongside to collect our paperwork:

Wayne posed for a quick shot while we waited for immigration:

We made quick progress on the first day of the trip thanks to timing the tidal currents effectively.  We were mostly motorsailing in light winds.  We got out of Singapore and around the corner of Johor with a helping current, and were making way well to the north by nightfall.  After we cleared the westernmost anchorage in the Singapore Strait I took a nap and left Wayne at the helm.  He saw a couple water spouts in the afternoon:

The autopilot had control of the vessel for the vast majority of the trip:

I have to say I was a little disappointed in the autopilot this time around.  It really struggles in light winds, which is fair enough.  But I found it struggling in various other situations too.  In particular, any time it needed to make a fairly large correction; or any time I turned it on without completely straightening out the rudder first; it really had issues keeping a course.  Perhaps I can tune some parameters.  The autopilot may also have a wind vane mode which I should try.  I really wish there was some way to have different control strategies based on wind speed and angle of sail, but I guess that’s asking a little much.

By sunset we were nearing Batu Pahat and still motoring and motorsailing:

Overnight things started getting “interesting”.  Right around sunset the NDC-4 NMEA multiplexer died after just about 12 hours of service.  I was not happy, having spent a lot of the previous weekend getting it all wired up.  It was multiplexing GPS, AIS, and wind instrument data.  Luckily I had a spare serial cable and opted to just hook the AIS directly to the chartplotter.  We were without a wind instrument for the rest of the trip.  I need to get in touch with Actisense to see if there’s any chance the item is still under warranty.

Just before dawn on the 21st a nasty grinding noise came from the gearbox and I took the engine out of gear.  When Wayne woke up I spent some time trying to diagnose the issue.  I had been regularly topping up the ATF over the course of the previous day since the gearbox has been leaking oil.  That was not the issue.  We were in light winds so I strapped on a snorkle to take a look at the prop.  It wasn’t fouled.  We resolved ourselves to sailing the rest of the way, with 380+ nm to go.  We were still able to run the engine in neutral on occasion to keep the batteries well charged, but were never able to get the engine back in gear.

After that the big story of the trip was tidal currents.  In the Malacca Straits tidal currents are really strong, often over 2 kts.  On flood tides the current is to the SE into shore; on ebb tides to the NW away from shore.  We were heading generally NW, so a lot of the trip was 6ish hour periods of decent progress followed by 6ish hours of total frustration.  As it’s the inter-monsoon period, winds were light and variable most of the time — a lot lighter than I had expected from forecasts.  Frequently we found ourselves sailing in place or drifting, calling approaching tugs and fishing boats on the radio and asking them to avoid us.

There are a couple busy ports along the way — Malacca and Port Klang — with quite a few ships anchored or approaching from the main channel.  We got lucky in both cases and were able to sail through the anchorages in daylight:

North of Port Klang the Strait opens up and traffic eases.  There are fewer big ships and tugs around, and many more trawlers:

In some spots between Port Klang and Pangkor we ran across big gangs of trawlers in many-mile long lines, heading out from port and then back again one after another.  Breaking through the trawling convoys took some care in light winds.  You can’t come too close to the boats since they’re dragging nets that are hundreds of meters long; but if you try to give them too much space, there’s always another one bearing up behind.  The most annoying thing about these boats is their curiosity.  In the daytime, it’s not so bad if a fishing boat rolls up within a couple hundred meters to take a look and wave hello.  But in the dark of night when all you can see are lights and a blip on the radar, an approaching vessel that’s not answering on the radio and is heading right for you faster than you can dodge is a little nerve wracking.

In contrast, cargo ships and tankers like this one from Vietnam, the Thai Binh Bay, are pretty easy to deal with.  They show up on AIS so you can address them on the radio directly (“Thai Binh Bay, Thai Binh Bay, this is sailing vessel Oia, come in please”); they’re actually listening and usually respond; and best, they can see us on AIS too and tend to actively avoid.

As we transitioned from the Malacca Strait to the Andaman Sea in the Indian Ocean, the weather entered a distinctive pattern: dead calm or very light winds most of the night and through the morning; then a breeze picking up from the WSW in mid afternoon and building up to 10-12 kts around sunset, allowing for some decent progress:

Every day, the air was being sucked from the WSW into a low pressure system building over land to the NNE.  Either just before or just after nightfall, the system would decide it had enough strength and head out to sea.  When you could see them coming, the squalls would look pretty nasty:

These are essentially the famous “Sumatra” storms, except at this time of year they seem to be coming from the NE instead of the SW.  They’re known for blowing around 30-40kts for a couple hours, stirring up a lot of commotion, and then fading away as quickly as they came.  During the first of the squalls, when we weren’t quite sure what we were dealing with, we rode the storm out reefed and mostly hove to just trying to keep things comfortable.  The wind was about 30-35kts for each of the nightly squalls.

Usually the squalls brought along some driving rain.  Here’s a shot of the radar imagery from the heart of a squall about 15mi north of Pangkor island:

One of the squalls broke a becket on one of the mainsheet blocks.  Luckily it held out until morning and Wayne noticed it.  I replaced it with a spare.  Unfortunately the only spare blocks I had lying around were all on swivel shackles, so we had to periodically untwist the mainsheet:

Over the course of the trip we were pretty frequently accompanied by various little seabirds.  Often they’d fly right into the cockpit and relax for a few hours.  The first one appeared in the middle of the night and I didn’t notice.  I saw something dark on the deck and grabbed it; it squawked angrily and fluttered a bit in reaction.

The birds were very friendly.  Here’s a shot Wayne took while I was asleep:

They were also just kind of funny to watch.  Silly bird, you are not a bat, you are a bird!

By the time we were within range of Penang it was already the 26th, a couple days after I’d been planning to get to Langkawi.  Wayne needed to disembark — he needed to be in Penang for a meeting by the evening of the 27th, and it was clear we wouldn’t make it to Langkawi in time for him to catch a ferry back.  Unfortunately offloading crew is not as easy as just sending them to shore with a passing fisherman: we had yet to do immigration clearance into Malaysia since we had been planning to sail straight to Langkawi and do the paperwork there.  For Wayne to get into Penang it seemed like the boat would have to go into Penang too.  I made a lot of calls on the 26th and 27th trying to arrange a tow into one of the marinas.  We were unable to sail in because the current in Penang’s main channel often exceeds 4+ kts.  The only semi-firm offer I ever got to give us a tow was from a tugboat that wanted to charge us 500 MYR/hour starting from when they mobilized.  At the time we were about 8 miles W of Penang and would probably need to pay them US$2-3k for the tows in and out of a marina on the E side of Penang.  Not very feasible.  None of the actual marinas themselves seemed at all capable of either towing us themselves or even finding someone who could.

In the end Charlene found and forwarded me some info about Marina Batu Uban, which is run by Jabatan Laut (the Marine Department of Malaysia’s Ministry of Transport) and I gave them a call.  Didn’t seem very promising at first, but after some time they called back and said they’d sent a “rescue boat”.  That was alarming because we weren’t in any distress and I was concerned we’d be liable for some sort of mobilization, but it was too late.

A little over an hour later a big Maritim Malaysia RIB with two huge outboards and a crew of four powered up to us and did a little tour around Oia to check us out, then approached.  The captain asked simply, “How can we help you?”  I explained our situation and we resolved that I (the master of the boat) could hitch a ride back to shore with them, run into town, and do immigration paperwork; then hitch a ride back out with them to Oia; and then send Wayne off with them back to shore.  So around 12:30 on the 27th I hopped into their RIB with our passports and other paperwork and left Oia with Wayne and a Maritim Malaysia officer to sail around (or mostly drift in dead calm) while I zoomed into Penang:

That was quite an experience.  With a combined 500HP or so we made it almost 30 miles around the N of Penang and into Tanjong City Marina near downtown Georgetown in a little under an hour.  I had stopped there overnight before on the original trip from Langkawi to Singapore, but never really went into town.  The captain said they’d wait for me at the marina for half an hour or so, but he didn’t know exactly where the immigration office was.  To make things even more exciting, it was about 13:30, right in the middle of the usual Malaysian extended lunch hour when almost nobody is around.  There was no one at the marina to ask for directions, so I just went running off into town.

I got lucky and spotted a Customs (“Kastam”) office quickly; but there was nobody there.  I wandered through the whole building just looking for someone, and luckily ran into a clerk on his way out the door.  He told me the immigration office was “down the street, then turn right, then go to the end and find the brown building”.  That was good enough for me to track down a building a quarter mile away with a little sign with the word “Imigresen” which was bustling with activity.  Turned out to mostly be people waiting around for the Imigresen officers to come back from lunch, but a kind soul was nice enough to point me to the shipping office and miraculously they weren’t out for lunch.  It didn’t take them long to stamp our passports.

After that I wasn’t sure if I should find the Harbormaster’s office and do port clearance, or if I could get away with just waiting until Langkawi.  The Imigresen officers told me the Harbormaster was just next door and with a little effort I found it, up a few flights of stairs in back of a nearby building.  Out to lunch, but just as I was giving up a clerk returned.  I started filling out the paperwork while explaining the situation and she seemed to think I could get away with waiting until Langkawi, so I apologized and ran off and down the street and found the marina again, and dashed down the dock, hopped in the RIB, and chatted for a minute with the crew while they waited for the captain to get back to the boat.  Then we zoomed off and an hour later found Oia safe and sound.

What little I saw of Georgetown seemed nice; maybe while I’m in Langkawi I’ll have time to take a ferry down there for a day or two to give it the visit it seems to deserve.

In only a few minutes Wayne and I exchanged places and all his gear was loaded onto the Maritim Malaysia boat; then they turned off and zoomed away with lots of waving and smiles.  Here’s a photo Wayne snapped of me as they powered off:

So, the moral of that story is that Maritim Malaysia are friendly guys and if you’re ever in trouble near Penang, give Marina Batu Uban a call and they’ll probably find a way to help you out.

All that happened in just a few hours so by 15:30 or so I was all alone aboard Oia, a little bewildered, and with not much breeze, and still 60 or so miles south of Langkawi.  We’d only made about 45 miles in the last 30 hours, but I was still hoping to get to Langkawi by the following day.  To start with, since the seas and skies were clear, I took a shower, aired the boat out a bit, and made myself a nice big pasta dinner.

The usual afternoon breeze from the WSW didn’t really materialize until around 17:30 or later so things weren’t looking promising at first.  But after dark around 20:00, just as I was getting ready to start a cycle of 20 min nap; alarm; look around; repeat, the evening’s squall roared in from the NE and it was a good one.  I decided to sail instead of heave to, and with 2.5-ish reefs in the mainsail and about 1/3 of the jib I sustained 6-7+ kts for much of the night:

The wind never really died and in the morning it was still pushing 15-20 kts, and as the sun rose Langkawi was less than a mile away.

To get into the yard I needed to enter the channel between Pulau Langkawi and Pulau Dayang, and I decided to do that from the east which if timed well would be with a helping tidal current.  I had to beat upwind and against current a bit to get to the channel entrance just S of Kuah.  Around then I called up the yard and found out they weren’t open: Friday is the Muslim day of Prayer.  So I wasn’t getting out of the water despite my breakneck overnight sail.  Barry told me to anchor just S of the yard and we’d figure the haulout out in the morning.

The channel entrance is a bit narrow and cluttered:

But with a helping current of 2+ kts I didn’t find it particularly difficult.  I turned through a nice reach and then into a dead run as I cleared the channel:

I passed RLYC and various anchorages off Kuah town and continued westward for a couple miles.  There were some big square-riggers anchored in the channel for some kind of regatta or other:

Anchoring off the B&V yard turned out to be really hard.  The current was still pushing through the channel at 2+ kts to the SW, and the channel was open enough that the NE wind was still around 15 kts.  As I approached the spot I reefed all the way down to a small sliver of mainsail but still found myself moving at 2.5 kts and unable to turn upwind against the current, which was pushing the boat ashore really rapidly.  In 18ft about 300m from shore I decided to just drop the anchor rather than try to get any closer.

Somewhere over the course of the trip the chain shifted over on itself.  The anchor dropped about 10ft and stopped dead and the boat continued drifting into shore.  I very quickly hauled it back up; dashed back to the cockpit; unfurled the sails; and jibed through to turn away from shore.  Then I had to fight against the wind and the current for about 1.5 hours to get another chance.  In between tacks I managed to unshift the anchor chain.

The second time around was equally harrowing but the chain was free and the anchor caught in deep mud, stopping the boat with a very noticeable lurch.  Since the anchorage was very unprotected and the current bimodal I let out almost 150ft of chain and put on a snubber.  No dragging all night and I ended up getting a great night of sleep.

In the morning B&V arranged for a RIB from RLYC with a nice 40HP engine to buzz over and tow me into the wharf.  That went quite well except for a small slip and fall while I was running around tying fenders.  I cut up both my feet on some shrouds, the right worse than the left, and bled all over the deck for a few minutes.  Finally just went to a doctor back in Singapore this morning and picked up some antibiotics, but it seems to be fine.  I should’ve had my deck shoes on: no excuse.

B&V then worked on getting the crane ready for the haulout:

There was some brief confusion over whether the yard could handle a boat as heavy as Oia (15 NRT) but that seemed to resolve itself somehow.  (Maybe just with “eh, whatever, let’s try and see” — hard to tell.)

By around 14:30 the boat was out of the water:

And 45 mins or so later it was on stilts next to the wharf (here in progress):

The boat was supposed to be Travelifted away from the wharf and into a semi-permanent spot in the yard later in the day, but I had to pack up my stuff and zoom off to town to do port clearance paperwork before the offices closed; and then I buzzed over to the airport and got standby on a flight back to Singapore.

Pete, my repower engineer, is over looking at the boat today and putting a plan together for the engine installation.  I’m planning to fly back up to Langkawi next Tuesday to get all the other random jobs (painting, some fiberglass work, some welding, some carpentry, and so on) underway.


Filed under deck, electronics, hull, maintenance, mechanical, paperwork, photos, trips

6 Responses to Trip recap: Singapore to Langkawi

  1. Lee

    Pretty extreme. You make us seem pretty soft be comparison. Waterspouts, squalls, lighting – things that would really freak Rachel and I out. Glad you are not reliant on your engine though, as many cruisers often are.

    About your autopilot, I set very low gains on ours. I also usually end up changing them depending on wind speed/direction. It doesn’t take much input to steer the boat on a straight line, and the autopilot often over corrects, especially downwind in seas. I did have the same annoyance as you when I first started using the autopilot, thinking that it would be smarter.

    How’d you find sailing vs. heaving to? Did you delete Charlene’s posts?

    • None of the waterspouts, squalls, etc actually felt all that bad when we were out there. The first squall was a bit nerve wracking because we didn’t get the main well reefed in time; but hove to we still never found ourselves at more than a 20 deg heel.

      I’m definitely going to tinker with the autopilot gains. Setting them isn’t too hard so I can see doing something like you describe and just adjusting them depending on wind.

      Sailing vs heaving to: I think my boat is heavy enough that it doesn’t mind sailing in some pretty heavy winds, and it’s actually decently comfortable as long as the waves aren’t too huge and the sails are well reefed. You can tell when you’re overpowered for sure. Heaving to was working great when we saw shifty conditions near the beginnings of a couple squalls. It’s nicer when the sails are well balanced; if the jib’s well reefed and the main isn’t, like I had them in the first squall, then you’re still doing quite a bit of sailing and the jib’s just slowing you down, not really keeping you flat at all. If a squall seems like it’s lasting long enough and is consistent enough, I can’t think of a good reason not to sail if you’re trying to get somewhere without an engine. It was definitely the best wind of the trip.

      Charlene deleted her posts after she decided they were a little too negative. She wasn’t on the boat and was having a tough time judging the severity of the situation (not as severe as it seemed from her perspective).

    • Hi

      My name is Fabio. First of all thank you for the blog, I found it very interesting for me that I’m in looking to buy a sailboat with the intention to live into the boat. Is possible to see in concrete how is living in a boat? the facility, fees and all things concerning? Thank you very much.



  2. Char

    Hey that’s not true. I still think it was dangerous!

    Kris made me take it down! Or rather guilt-ed me into taking it down because he was afraid his mommy might worry!

    I was reporting via what I gathered from sporadic text messages!

  3. Julie your aunt

    hi Kris – your uncle Bob fiddles around with the autopilot too – I’ll have him explain what he does…glad you made it there!

    Aunt Julie

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