PIRATES OF THE MALACCA STRAITS
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
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
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
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
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.
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DEBRIOSAURUS REX - THE TREE THAT WANTED TO EAT MY BOA
Once upon a time there was a tree that wanted to
eat my boat. At least thatís the way it seemed to me. You have a right
to be skeptical about trees eating boats, but after you read my story,
you will come to believe in this dastardly denizen of the deep called