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Malacca Straits

Click on the map to go to that page Visited:  We sailed the Strait of Malacca from Singapore on 3 December, 2006 until our arrival in Langkawi, Malaysia, on 19 December 2006.

The map shows our 6 stops up the Straits, including stops in marinas in Port Dickson (just north of Melaka), and Pinang.

(Jon)  The Strait of Malacca is the narrow channel between Indonesian Sumatra and the Malay peninsula.  Virtually all shipping between the Far East and the Mediterranean / Middle East has to pass through this channel, and has done so for hundreds of years.  This concentration of shipping means that within the yachting community, the Strait of Malacca (along with the South China Sea) have long been associated with piracy.  Stories circulate about power-boats passing 500 meters off and then suddenly turning towards a yacht, slamming alongside, grappling hooks going over to lash the 2 boats together while the crew leaps on board.  Even the Malaysian Navy has concerns, as they offered to escort all of the Darwin-Indonesia Rally boats through the Straits.

Fishermen were the main navigational hazards
Fishermen were the main navigational hazards

But we went back to the US for a couple months and missed that service, so I had a few trepidations about going through the Straits alone.  Thankfully, the stories seem to have grown somewhat with the telling and things aren't nearly as bad as one hears.  Still, the prudent mariner stays on the Malaysian side of the Straits and doesn't venture too close to the Sumatra side.  So we traversed the 400+ miles from Singapore to Langkawi in 6 long day-sails, keeping out of the shipping traffic by hugging the Malaysian coast.  We had no incidents at all (and neither did any other rally boat) despite our spending 3 nights essentially on our own.

One stop we made was in Penang, just 60 miles south of Langkawi.  Although Penang is an island, it's connected to the mainland by a long bridge.  The main town is a bustling metropolis where just about anything can be bought.  We ended up staying a few days as we needed an alternator bracket made, so everyone spent some time in the malls to do Christmas shopping.

The strange cars of the Penang Funicular
The strange cars of the Penang Funicular

One evening we decided to ride the old-fashioned funicular railway to the top of the mountain.  The track is so steep that the cars are custom built (in Switzerland) on an angle, with each successive platform higher than the one before it.  They're pulled up the mountain on a thick cable that runs on rollers between the tracks.  The tracks are steep enough that you really don't want the cable to let go!

Penang lights from our dinner hotel on the mountain top
Penang lights from our dinner hotel on the mountain top

Each section of track has a single big loop of cable with a car on each end.  As one car goes up, the other goes down, and they run on the same tracks.  Where the cars meet is the only place where the track has been split into 2, and once the cars pass, the track rejoins itself.  There are 2 such sections of track, and passengers have to get out at the mid-station to continue their journey on another car.

The view at the top was superb, with the whole city of Penang spread out at our feet.  Since we'd gone up in the afternoon, we decided to have dinner at a small hotel, watching the colorful lights of Penang come on below us.  Delightful.

A quiet stretch of the Strait -- Pangkor Is.
A quiet stretch of the Strait -- Pangkor Is.

(Amanda) Sailing up the Straits of Malacca would have been a lonely proposition if it weren't for my friend Rachel, who flew in to join us in Singapore.  Because we had all gone to the United States for the month of November, all the boats that we'd been traveling with all through Indonesia had long since sailed to Thailand.  So we were facing a long, potentially dangerous trip along the coast of Malaysia.  Rach couldn't do much about the danger (though we had no problems with piracy whatsoever) but she sure made the days went by a little faster.

A glorious dawn on the Strait of Malacca
A glorious dawn on the Strait of Malacca

There wasn't really much cruising to be done in the Straits, especially because we were on a deadline to get to Langkawi in time to bus to Kuala Lumpur to pick my brother up.  So each day was mostly spent trying to get to the next anchorage.  There were a couple beaches to walk, like on Pangkor Island, but the massive jellyfish we saw washed up on the sand were enough to persuade us to stay out of the water.

The exceptions to our unspoken move-every-day rule were Port Dickson and Penang.  From Port Dickson we taxied to the town of Melaka, where we spent three days exploring the colorful little shops and museums.  In Penang we had fun with malls, as well as riding the cable-car to the top of the hill, and Dad spent time getting an alternator bracket made.

Pirates? No, just covering faces  from the sun. This is very common.
Pirates? No, just covering faces
from the sun. This is very common.

When we got to Rebak Marina in Langkawi, it was weird to realize that just over one month of cruising (discounting our trip to the States) we'd been in five separate marinas - Nongsa Point (Indonesia), One˚15 (Singapore), Port Dickson (Malaysia), Tanjung Puting (Penang, Malaysia), and Rebak (Langkawi, Malaysia).  We're not really marina people, usually visiting one maybe every year to refuel, but on this coast they sure made it convenient to get ashore to do what needed doing.  Plus we were part of the Rally (if very, very far behind everyone else) and all the marinas had discount prices for Rally boats.  And most of them had wireless internet right to the boat, which was a joy after the dearth of such things in Indonesia.  One night in Penang while Mom and Dad were off the boat, Rach and I turned the music up way loud and sat for hours on the internet, searching for our dream boat.

All the mod-cons at Admiral Marina, Port Dickson
All the mod-cons at Admiral Marina, Pt Dickson

(Sue)  The closest Malaysia came to meeting my pre-images of this Southeast Asian country was the motor/sail up the Straits of Malacca when we passed mile after mile of low, mangrove-bordered shore and wonderfully colorful, net-laden fishing boats.  Sometimes whole families were aboard working the winches, or coiling lines and hauling in nets.  As we went north we saw more and more elevation to the land, and huge thunder clouds loomed overhead many afternoons, reinforcing our knowledge that we were sailing up the Straits during the transition months when "Sumatras" pour down buckets of rain amidst lightning and thunder.  The land smelled rich and earthy.  The sea was a shimmering gray-green, and often flat.  We were lucky to have very few encounters of the Sumatra-kind, and the passage of dozens of local fishing boats and hundreds of freighters, tankers, and bulk-carriers was endlessly interesting.  What's more, we were able to sail outside the shipping lanes closer to shore most of the time, so we weren't worried about too-close encounters of the freighter-kind.

Flower-covered trishaws in Melaka
Flower-covered trishaws in Melaka

Pulling into Port Dickson's Admiral Marina was a real eye-opener.  Modern buildings, condos, cool white tile floors, fast internet, strong docks, helpful personnel and a nice swimming pool.  What more could we want?  Yes, the mid-day walk up the busy road towards the port to buy fresh food and a SIM card for the phone proved it to be hot and humid, but I wasn't prepared for the late model cars on the road.  Call me naive...  The main intrusion from the "outside world" was the new requirement for all mobile phone holders to register (with passport info) in order to get a SIM card.  It was a precaution against terrorism, or should I say, a way the government thought to keep track of who was using what phone for what purpose.

The two cities we visited on the Straits, Melaka and Penang, were old, beautiful, and wonderfully restored seaports.  With our handy Lonely Planet guidebook in hand, we spent several days exploring the towns with their Chinese shrines, back streets, museums, shops and restaurants.  Knowing we were in a Muslim country, it was surprising to find so many Taoist and Hindu temples mixed with European architecture of the 1800's.  Everywhere we turned we felt the influence of the Chinese, Indians, Malays and Europeans and felt the bustle of enterprise that has made these seaport towns viable through the centuries.

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