We left Sabang at sunrise, all set for our 3 day / 2 night sail to Langkawi. We’d plotted a course that hugged the Sumatran coastline, crossed the shipping lanes the following afternoon, and then caught the predicted southerly winds up to Langkawi. The winds were expected to be light, the moon was full, and sporadic thunderstorms were only expected on the second evening.
Unfortunately our plans were immediately thwarted and we headed into a strong 3-4 knot current as we left the Sabang bay. It took us a lot longer than expected to actually leave Weh island and make it back to the Sumatran coastline, but we made up a bit of time in the afternoon when the breeze picked up. There were a lot of fishermen about, as well as floating FADs (fish attracting devices) which are such a hazard for us. They are basically big polystyrene “buoys” that are anchored to the sea floor, even at a depth of 600m, and may have a variety of nets/ropes attached to them. We really didn’t want to foul our propellers, so headed further offshore for the night and only used one engine at a time. The sea was pretty choppy and uncomfortable, and I had a bad headache, so the night watch was quite difficult for me, but fortunately the wind and weather were mild. Marco was on watch until 1am, I did the shift until 4:30am and then again at 7am.
As the sun rose we spotted a number of FADs between us and the horizon, many with a local fishing boat nearby. So much for avoiding them 20 miles offshore! We were extra thankful that we hadn’t had any incidents in the night. A couple boats were curious and came right up to us, or followed in our wake for a while before heading off back to the fishing grounds. With all this activity around, we had to have someone constantly on watch.
Given our initial delay, our planned route would have taken us through the shipping lanes at night. To try and avoid this we left the Sumatran coastline at lunchtime and headed directly north – perpendicularly across the shipping lane, intending to then turn east again at night once we were across. Again, our intentions didn’t work out as planned. To our west I spotted what looked like a line of breakers in the middle of the ocean. It turned out to be a line of current that we would eventually intercept. As we reached it the sea became very choppy and rolly and it was very uncomfortable on the beam, so again we changed plan and headed east, this time in the middle of the shipping lane – running parallel to the traffic.
Now the fun began. Our chartplotter looked like a computer game – up to 20 ships all around us, going in various directions, and we had to weave our way between them all. It’s actually a lot easier than it sounds when you have the modern tools available – our chartplotter warns us of a possible collision course based on current speeds and bearings, gives us time to collision and expected passing distance. All the big ships have this technology too – so we would have been showing up on their AIS, and hopefully they would be monitoring it. What’s quite freaky is that you often can’t even see the ships that may hit you in half an hour – they travel so fast! It was quite interesting to spot them in the binoculars, check their bearings, deduce whether they’d pass in front or behind us, and possibly call them on the VHF to confirm that they were aware of us. The size of these giants is mind-boggling – up to 380m in length, 60m wide and a draught of 20m! One was on its way to Saldanha Bay – probably to pick up iron ore that had travelled on our Elands Bay train.
Night fell and we kept manoeuvering between the ships, with our AIS becoming the main navigational aid. Clouds were gathering, and we got the mainsail and jib down just in time before we were hit with 30 knot winds – fortunately from behind. Marco wanted to put the jib up again to give us some extra speed, but the wind was so strong and it didn’t unfurl properly – leading to a tense moment with me frantically winching it in and Marco trying to control the boat in howling winds. Then came the thunder and lightning, probably the closest an electrical storm has passed by us. Our biggest concern was that our instruments would go down if we were struck – which would make us invisible to the many passing ships. Thankfully the thunderstorm was fairly short-lived, and after an hour or so we could breathe easier. There was quite a bit of rain, and we were amazed at how even light drizzle reduced our visibility to zero. A couple big ships passed within half a nautical mile of us (900m) and we couldn’t see any of their lights – and they are pretty well lit up. It was quite unnerving knowing that a massive ship was so near and yet totally invisible, and we just hoped our chartplotter was right!
The rain cleared after an hour or so, the moon came out and the number of ships eventually reduced as we finally exited the shipping lane. The shipping lane does seem to be a suggestion more than a rule, as there were still many that we had to watch out for later on, but the official shipping lane is definitely where most of the traffic flows. I was quite pumped up after all the action and managed the night watches without too much strain.
The final day was quite uneventful. We realised that we weren’t going to make Langkawi by sunset, so deliberately reduced our speed to arrive just after sunrise. The wind was predicted to strengthen and turn south from midday, but remained variable and light the whole way. The final evening was so beautiful. Not a cloud in the sky, a beautiful full moon and a sea like glass. We motored slowly and just enjoyed being out in the ocean for one final night.
I was on watch as Langkawi came into view. We had been warned to look out for bamboo fishing traps, but the water was clean and free of hazards the whole way in. The island looked beautiful – tall pointy mountains provided the backdrop, with lower jungle-clad hills in the foreground. We had decided to anchor in Telaga Harbour, and slowly motored into the shallow anchorage in front of the 2 man-made islands. A bank of clouds had appeared behind us early that morning and suddenly blew in over the anchorage, and we had to hurriedly find a spot and anchor in strong winds and driving rain! A bit of a dramatic end to the whole journey! We took advantage of the squall to sit down and enjoy a hearty breakfast of eggs, potato griddle cakes and a tomato/kangkung relish, and give thanks for the safe crossing.
We had decided to move into a marina as it would be much easier to sort and clean the boat that way, rather than at anchor. Marco just wanted to sleep, but I convinced him to take the dinghy into the Telaga Harbour Marina to check it out. We also had to officially “check in” to Malaysia, part of which could be done at the marina. The marina entrance is flanked by an old stone lighthouse (supposedly a replica of the original), and the buildings in the harbour precinct are grand and stately with an old-world charm. We motored around the marina itself and were really impressed with the cleanliness of the water, quality of the pontoons and general atmosphere. It’s such a beautiful setting, surrounded by big mountains and quaint buildings – and was apparently the setting for the movie “Anna and the King”. The marina staff were able to find us a berth (which was quite lucky as they were pretty full), and we immediately returned to the boat and brought her into the marina. We had to dig out the mooring lines and rehearse our docking procedure – we hadn’t been into a marina since March and were so used to anchoring!
What a wonderful feeling to be tied up to a dock and to be able to step off the boat! To me it felt like we were at a hotel! There were showers and shore power and ample running water, what a treat! And restaurants nearby, paths to walk on and people to talk to – all accessible, without having to lower the dinghy, motor to shore, find a good beaching place, secure it and then walk to the activity. To not keep checking co-ordinates and wonder if we’re dragging was an extra weight off our minds too. It’s hard to explain, but coming into the marina felt so marvellous and well-earned after the months and months at sea. Marco said it felt like a huge weight had been lifted off his shoulders. He had been subconsciously bearing the pressure of keeping me, the boys and the boat safe. It’s not easy going to sea with a bunch of novices when there are so many things that can go wrong. We feel so thankful and blessed that we had no major problems, that we were all healthy and that the boat functioned well and was safe.
After checking in with Immigration (which was a minute’s walk away) we celebrated our arrival at the nearby Indian restaurant – lamb Rogan Josh, butter chicken, mutton breyani, chicken tikka masala, wonderful flavours that we hadn’t tasted in months.
We were awoken the next morning by the clock tower playing an eastern-sounding tune and chiming 8 times. This was to become our time-keeper, as it strikes every hour between 8am and 8pm. We caught a taxi to Kuah (the main town) to check in with the Harbour Master, and then to Customs at the airport. Each visit was super-efficient – under 10 minutes each, rather different to Indonesian formalities! We also started sampling some of the renowned Malaysian food – delicious!
We had a big task ahead of us in the coming weeks – sort, pack, clean and get the boat ready for sale. We decided to take a couple days’ break – which would also coincide with our 16th wedding anniversary. There are so many hotels in Langkawi, but I didn’t want to spend money on some bland non-descript place. Eventually I discovered a place called “Kunang Kunang” (meaning “firefly” – just like our cute cottage in the rice paddy in Ubud) with beautifully restored heritage villas. Our villa was a complete work of art and a real treat to stay in – from the texture of the walls to the rustic shutters, the wooden bathtub to the batik bathrobes, the sunny lounge to the cosy reading nook, every detail was artistic and so good for the soul.
We had numerous baths in the cute bathtub, spent a lot of time reading and sleeping in the villa and relaxed by the unusual floating pool. It really does float – the bottom is soft and held up by a couple of buoys. The kitchen staff were off in the afternoon, but were quite happy for us to concoct our own milkshakes – so Marco got creative and whipped up a storm.
Most importantly of all, we raised our glasses to 16 years of marriage and the end of our epic sailing adventure. What a journey it’s been – with many highs and the inevitable lows, but such an amazing experience. We’ll always remember this special time we spent together, how we got through the tough times and relished the gems, the wonderful people we met and the stunning places we visited. Cheers to the future, whatever it may bring!