I didnít intend to sail through the Malacca Straits.Honest.It just happened.
Like everyone else, I knew the Malacca Straits were dangerous because of the pirates.Pirates and terrorists are at the top of my list of things that I want to avoid.When I talk to non-sailors around the world, they usually ask me two questions.What about storms and pirates?Hollywood and the media have convinced everyone that storms and pirates rule the lives of everyone who sails on the seven seas.
Alas, Hollywood and the media have it wrong once again.The average cruiser has never seen a pirate or a storm with winds over fifty knots.That isnít to say we donít have bad weather from time to time, but, usually itís only an inconvenience rather than a true threat.And itís not to say that pirates donít exist.Rather, itís that most pirates are living in metropolis preying upon their victims through internet, muggings, subway assaults, and armed robberies Ė all the typical things you see in large cities around the world.Pirates are on the doorstep of everyone who lives in big cities.But pirates on the seven seas Ė itís way too much work and too uncomfortable, and too dangerous to do old fashioned acts of piracy.I worry about pirates when I am in Los Angeles, Cairo, London, and Paris.When I am on my sailboat, there is plenty of distance between me and those modern metropolitan pirates.I reckon itís safer out here on the seven seas than it is to walk into a Seven-Eleven convenience store at high noon anywhere in the world.
When I was in Mooloolaba, Australia, I planned a voyage that went into the Indian Ocean via Christmas Island and Cocos Keeling Island, and then I planned to sail west of Sumatra to end up in Thailand.That way I would miss the deadly pirates of the Malacca Straits.It was a good plan, except that is not what happened.
In the real world of sailing, we were seriously behind schedule.Our fourth crew member did not arrive in Brisbane until late July, and that made us two months behind the sailing season.We were short on time as we had to be out of the Indian Ocean by the end of October to avoid tropical cyclones.We sailed at an accelerated pace up the Great Barrier Reef off the Australian coast, hitting the high points along the way.But we kept moving all the time.We had to be north of the equator before cyclone season began in November.
By the time we reached Darwin, Australia, the handwriting was on the wall.We still had more than two-thousand five hundred miles to sail to Thailand if we sailed out into the Indian Ocean.Our other option was the inside route through Indonesia and the Malacca Straits.That would cut one-thousand miles off the journey.We had been motorsailing about seventy-five percent of the time because there had been very little wind.So cutting one-thousand miles off the trip looked good Ė except for the scourge of the pirates of the Malacca Straits.
So we changed our plans.We were in cruising mode trying to sail in the tradewinds, but the tradewinds never bothered to show up.The shorter route through Indonesia would probably be quicker and shorter and hopefully with less risk of meeting up with an out of season cyclone.
We motorsailed up to Bali, continued on to Borneo, and finally arrived in Singapore at the mouth of the Malacca Straits.I had heard many fearful things about these straits over the years, and nothing that I heard was good.Fortunately, what I heard was also wrong.Most of what we hear about places like Malacca are fodder from Hollywood fear mongers who make movies and the evening news.I should have known that the fear mongers had gotten it wrong once again.But each time I face a new challenge, it seems that the fear mongers are the first to beat a path to my hopeful, but apprehensive ears.
When you face a challenge, you have a choice.You can either get the facts, or you can listen to the voice of fear.Itís hard to get the facts.It takes effort, sometimes a great deal of digging, probing, testing, checking, and cross-checking.But the good thing about facts is that they are true and you can build your life on them.You can grab them and go with them knowing they wonít let you down.
Itís much easier to find a fear monger than it is to find the facts.There is an endless supply of them that are more than willing to tell you everything that you donít want to hear.And, they donít need the facts.All they need is fearful fantasies that they can start pumping into your mind.They remind you that pirates have been plying the waters of the Malacca Straits for more than two hundred years.I remember thirty years ago hearing the dangers of the Malacca Straits, and I have been listening to the fear mongers ever since.Fear mongers are always short on facts but strong on fear.They flash the word PIRATES in capital letters on the motion picture screen of my mind again and again.
We were in Singapore getting ready to head up the Malacca Straits, and we began asking around Ė talking to people who had spent years living and cruising in their yachts in this area.I talked to one man who had sailed his yacht forty times through the Malacca Straits without any piratical problems.Everyone I talked to told me the same thing.They could not remember the last time a yacht was attacked by pirates.Strange.How could the fear mongers have gotten this one so wrong?
We went to a cruising seminar in Raffleís Marina, and Phil Blake, the marina manager told us the facts about piracy in the Malacca Straits.Everything he said was bad news for the fear mongers, because by the time the seminar was over, everyone understood that piracy was not a problem unless you were the Captain of a ship or tugboat.The reason was simple.Bank robbers rob banks because thatís where the money is.They donít rob piggy banks because itís not worth the effort.Pirates rob freighters and tugboats because that is where the money is.Yachts are mere piggy banks and offer nothing more than petty cash.Robbing a yacht wouldnít even pay for their gas.
Thatís the long and short of it.Since our twelve meter catamaran is neither a freighter nor a tugboat, we sailed confidently up the Malacca Straits not worried about pirates.We did take precautions.Specifically, we sailed on the Malaysian side of the Straits because the seaborne marauders come from the Indonesian side of the Malacca Straits.It was massively unlikely that someone would come all they way from Indonesia to rob our tiny piggy bank.
The real irony of this story is that the pirates in the Malacca straits are minor league compared with the pirates found in Indonesian waters.We had just blissfully sailed through Indonesia not knowing that there had been four times as many acts of piracy against merchant vessels in Indonesian waters than in the Singapore Straits and the Malacca Straits combined.But the time we arrived in Singapore, we had gone through the greatest danger zone for piracy without incident.If you contact the International Maritime Bureau Piracy Reporting Center in Kuala Lampur, you discover that in the past year, merchants ships were attacked 121 times in Indonesia, 2 times in the Singapore Straits, and 28 times mainly on the Indonesian side of the Malacca Straits.There were no attacks directed against yachts.Chalk up a victory for the crew of Exit Only.
What are the real dangers of the Malacca Straits?It turns out that the real risks come from lightning strikes and shipping traffic.While we were in Singapore at the entrance to the Malacca Straits, five yachts were struck by lightning in a single week.When lightning hits your yacht, the electronics on the boat are history.Say good-by to your radar, VHF radio, high frequency radio, GPS, autopilot, depth sounder, wind instruments and possibly your lap top computer.If a pirate robs your piggy bank, you lose a few hundred dollars.When lightning strikes, it vaporizes your bank accounts.It takes ten to fifteen thousand dollars to replace destroyed electronic equipment.Pirates are much less expensive than lightning.
The other major danger is the shipping.There are thousands of ships, trawlers, tugs, and fishing boats plying the waters of the Malacca Straits.Day and night, there are always at least ten or more vessels in close quarters, sometimes too close for comfort.If a ship runs you down, you are history.Your yacht will be pulverized and you will be lucky to survive.Every minute day and night, you keep a sharp lookout with your eyes and your radar to stay out of harmís way.Shipping is scary.
If you want to know the meaning of fear, try sailing in the middle of the night on the edge of the shipping lanes with torrential rains pouring down and zero visibility, with twenty-five to thirty knots of wind blowing and lightning coming down all around you.I had to go forward on deck in such conditions to take down a sail.Now that kind of thing puts fear in your heart.But then, that happened only once in four-thousand miles of sailing.
So there you have it.Nary a pirate and our piggy bank survived intact.But the lightning, thunder, and shipping, those guys put fear into the heart of the most stalwart sailor.Now that we are in Thailand, weíre glad that we escaped unscathed from the clutches of the Malacca Straits.