Singapore Redux

We took a bit of a break from cruising, from late April to late June, to visit friends and family in the United States, and see a bit of Hong Kong and China. Returning to Moonshadow, which was lying in Langkawi, we were staring at a pretty long list of things to do and get before we ventured off westward towards the Mediterranean Sea next year. Finding the sorts of things we needed in Malaysia was, at best, a very challenging scavenger hunt. So in our usual form, we decided to back track a bit, down through the Straits of Malacca to Singapore, where it would be easier to do and get the myriad of “stuff” we required. As a side benefit, we got to hang out in the city that we enjoyed so much last year, and spend a bit of time exploring the historical Malaysian port cities of Penang and Malacca, which we only just touched upon during our trip north last year.

Our good friends Phoebe and Bill from Auckland joined us in Langkawi and spent a few days on board as we made a leisurely trip south to Penang. There they enjoyed a couple of days with us before carrying on with their holiday on a river barge in England.

We berthed Moonshadow in the Tanjong City Marina, adjacent to Georgetown, the main city on the island of Penang. The Tanjong City Marina is modern, beautiful, well-located and first class in almost every way. Almost, I say, because it lacks one of the primary features of a marina, that being some sort of breakwater to protect the boats inside from the waves, wakes and currents outside. At times, the motion at the dock was worse than an average day in the middle of the ocean. One night during a squall, the swell coming through the marina made it so uncomfortable, bordering on dangerous, that I was a few minutes away from casting off the lines and putting to sea. Fortunately, the huge swell quickly abated before Moonshadow sustained any damage or our guests and we became seasick. I followed up our unpleasant stay with an email to the owner/management of the marina, pointing out its many positives and the one big fat negative, which as of this writing remains unanswered. I suppose this lovely marina will sit there, with its average occupancy at less than ten percent, till someone decides to spend those last few bucks and make it right.

We had the opportunity to spend ten days in Penang, enjoying the multicultural and historical aspects of Georgetown, and particularly the great food in the local cafes and restaurants. We were joined by two more friends from Auckland, Vicky and Andrew, and after a couple of days began to make our way down along the west coast of the Malay Peninsula toward Singapore

I don’t recommend that anyone come to Malaysia purely for the sailing. The winds were mostly light for the trip, too light to sail any faster than we could have walked. Whenever the breeze did freshen up to more than force 2 (4-6 knots), it seems it was bang on the nose. On an average day, it wavered and wafted from almost every direction. For the next 200 miles south to Port Dickson, we managed to actually sail for just two hours. The rest of the time we burnt up gobs of dinosaur juice. Just when we got relaxed and were enjoying some music or a good book, we spotted fish traps planted dead ahead that required serious evasive maneuvers to avoid. If one decides to head out for deeper water to avoid the fish traps, you can expect too spend the day playing chicken with an endless parade of huge commercial ships. At one point, sailing through the Straits, we had no less than twelve moving ships in our range of visibility. The Malacca Strait is sort of like a huge liquid freeway with a never-ending rush hour.

As a destination, Port Dickson itself doesn’t offer the cruising sailor much besides an excellent marina and reasonably priced fuel for those heading to or from the high prices of Singapore. It is a Malaysian port of entry, and Veronica, the manager of the Admiral Marina and Leisure Club, will efficiently and inexpensively handle one’s check in/out in while you relax beside the pool or in the Sailor’s Drink Shop. The best thing about Port Dickson is its close proximity to the Malaysian capital city of Kuala Lumpur and the historic port of Malacca, both less than two hours away by car. We decided to leave “K.L.” till later and spend a few days exploring Malacca.

The first thing that we noticed about Malaka, is that it spells its name at least five different ways, interchanging the a for an e and double c’s for a k or the occasional q. Even the official Tourism Malaysia brochures we read had two different spellings.

What was once the busiest trading port in Southeast Asia back in the 15th century is now just a quiet little tourist town which beautifully blends the Chinese, Portuguese and Islamic influences that make up its roots. Along with some tacky touristy stuff, the old town has many superbly restored Chinese shop houses, Baba Nyonya (Straits Chinese) mansions, fascinating shops and excellent cafes and restaurants. Around every corner seems to be some colorful feast for the eyes, weather it be a 600-year-old Chinese temple, a wildly decorated tri-shaw or a busker offering the tourists photo opportunities with a giant iguana or ten foot long albino python. The local shops offer a huge array of merchandise from Balinese furnishings, tasty pineapple tarts (a local specialty) to Chinese delicacies like sea cucumbers and shark fins. We spent a few days strolling the streets, perusing the museums, art galleries, antique emporiums and local shops, staying in a converted early 20th century Chinese shop house and sampling the local cuisine. This was undoubtedly the highlight of our backtracking trip. We feel Melaqa is definitely one of the must see places in Malaysia.

Back on board Moonshadow, Merima and I two-handed the rest of the way from Port Dickson to Singapore in three easy day-sails, overnighting at two decent island anchorages along the way. If the trip down from Langkawi was relatively easy, by contrast the approach to Singapore can be just a bit like a first time visitor to China getting behind the wheel of a car in Beijing during rush hour. It can only be described as orderly chaos.

By the time we rounded the corner at the south end of the Malay Peninsula, the visibility had deteriorated significantly, due to the combination of smoke from rain forest clearing in nearby Borneo, smog from the factories and cars in Singapore and the thick black smoke from the mass of shipping traffic crammed into that narrow shipping lane called the Singapore Strait. At best, we could see perhaps two to three miles, which made landmark and moving ship identification a bit of a challenge. There are so many navigational marks, designated anchorages, traffic separation schemes, submerged cables and pipelines, ship moorings, reefs, islands and reclamation projects that navigational charts of the area tend to resemble paint-splatter art. I had to zoom in the chart plotter to no more than 1:5000 so that I could view just one layer of data and make any sense of it. At the west opening of the Johor Strait, which separates Singapore from Malaysia, is a huge anchorage, covering perhaps ten to fifteen square miles. There are literally hundreds of anchored ships of all shapes and sizes that we had to weave our way through to reach the west coast of Singapore. And, of course, not all the targets are stationary. Tugs and small refueling ships going about their business were darting in and out of the anchored ships like flies working a herd of grazing cattle.

Clear of the anchorage, we found ourselves on the shoreward perimeter of a shipping channel, with an assortment of tugs, patrol boats, fishing boats, pleasure and other small craft, whose skippers were apparently all thinking the same as we were-stay the heck out of the way of the big ships! Commercial ships pass thought the Singapore Strait at a frequency of, what appears to be, about one per minute, usually traveling at double or triple our speed, so navigating out in the middle of the shipping lanes would have been about as intelligent as taking a leisurely walk down the middle of Park Avenue during rush hour.

Having made it around the southwest corner of Singapore and avoiding becoming paint marks on the bow of some supertanker, we cut though another lesser used anchorage between the two main shipping lanes, dodging numerous moorings, reefs and shoal patches. Popping out on the east side, we managed to see a break in the traffic enough for us to dash across another main shipping channel to the Western Immigration checkpoint. Breathing a brief sigh of relief, we then had to maneuver Moonshadow close enough to hand over a plastic bag containing our passports and documents to the Singaporean Immigration authorities sitting on a small patrol boat tied up to a dock in a narrow passage between two small islands. In typical Singapore fashion, we were quickly processed and cleared to make our way the last two miles to our berth at the new One° 15 Marina (so named as it is located One degree, 15 minutes north of the Equator) on the resort island of Sentosa. Meaning “peace and tranquility” in Malay, the name Sentosa is very appropriate, particularly considering its proximity to the hustle and bustle of the Singapore with its four million inhabitants jam-packed into one small city-island-nation. It is literally a beautiful green rainforest oasis connected to the concrete jungle of Singapore by a short bridge.

The One° 15 Marina is to be part of a massive residential/recreational complex that is in the early stages of development on the eastern end of Sentosa Island. For the yachtie, it currently offers very reasonable berthing rates, a nice marina complex offering basic facilities, with more gradually coming on line, and close proximity to golf, beaches, downtown Singapore, shopping and Singapore’s excellent public transportation system. While lacking in some of the excellent amenities on offer at Raffles marina where we stayed last year (pool, pub, restaurants, newspaper delivered to the boat daily, WiFi, on site hotel, fuel dock and chandlery) we felt that the low cost and closer proximity to the City was a good tradeoff for us.

We had quite a lot of things to do and get, and we just managed to cram it all into one month to the day, when our visas expired. The “to do” list included repair of some electronics items, engine and genset maintenance and repairs, repairing the inflatable dinghy, making new canvas awnings, sail repairs, spinnaker pole repair, reconditioning the leather upholstery, just to name a handful. The “to get” list included spare parts, filters, paint and supplies to last us till we reach the Med next year. We also topped up on some hard to find food items in Singapore’s great “ex-pat stores” and of course spent a bit of time on Orchard Road updating our wardrobes a bit. All work and no play makes for dull cruising, so we managed to get out a bit to sample some of the great food, drink and entertainment on offer in a big modern city like Singapore, and catch up with a few ex-pat friends who live and work there.

As we’ve said before, Singapore is a very user friendly city in which to operate. The transit system is inexpensive, clean and efficient. English, or at least “Singlish,” (a Singaporean dialect of English), is widely spoken. Virtually everything is sparkling clean and well organized. For the most part, we found the locals to be warm, friendly and helpful. There is an endless variety of cuisine on offer, and if one eats at the local food stalls or “hawker’s stands” as they are affectionately called, you can enjoy an excellent meal for just a few dollars. The one outstanding treat, is of course the black pepper crab, and we returned for a couple more rounds. One can find almost anything one desires in Singapore, and if you can’t find it here, you probably won’t be able to find it anywhere in Asia.

The day before our visas were to expire, we made a ten minute stop at Singapore’s model of efficiency, the “One Stop” Customs/Quarantine/Port Authority center and checked out, destined back to Malaysia. After checking back into Malaysia and Port Dickson, we made our way up to Batu Maung on the south end of Penang Island, where we would haul out Moonshadow and do a bottom job.

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