Chagos to Langkawi


September to December 1997

Chagos to Langkawi, Malaysia


Senta left Salamon Atoll in the Chagos archipelago on Monday 1st September 1997 and made reasonably good progress in the moderate SE wind, keeping south of the rhumb line to stay in the wind as long as possible. After four days Senta had averaged 110 miles per day, but the wind was becoming light and fitful.


Light easterly breezes during the day forced us northwards and then disappeared in the early evening. We dropped all sails and sat rolling around until a light SW wind came through a few hours later. Senta ran goose-winged with the genoa poled out through the night until the calm returned in the pre-dawn light. We crossed the 80deg.E meridian, the magical number below which one should not cross the equator for fear of losing the wind, with still 29 miles to spare.


Poor to no wind most of that night changed to a fresh NE in the early morning. The 06h00 sight showed we had crossed another meridian, 81deg. with the equator still eleven miles to the North, though it is very possible that we may have crossed & re-crossed it during the night, with our doldrums dodging maneuvers.  Pierre had been troubled by a tooth ulcer for a few days and this started to affect his ear, which became very painful. We started treatment with a course of anti-biotic and eardrops.  The whole day was spent hunting cats paws, and in the middle of the day we drifted across the equator.  During the night Senta lay a-hull with all sails down to stop them slatting.


A week out of Chagos the wind continued very light to almost nothing, but what there was came from the East, forcing us northwards away from the rhumb line to Sumatra. The nights were scattered with rain squalls, during which we had to furl the genoa for a few minutes while the wind increased to 25 knots, then followed by calms which had us flopping around in the waves left over from the squalls.


By Friday 12 September we were within 200 miles of Sri Lanka. We heard on the SSB radio that a massive high pressure had moved up the Malacca Straits and into the top of the Bay of Bengal, effectively nullifying all signs of the south westerly winds that we should have been getting.  A tired swallow had arrived on board the previous day  and spent the night sleeping on the curtain rail above the galley counter.  At dawn the next day he left in the direction of Sri Lanka after a couple of test flights away from and back to Senta.  Before each flight he perched on my head as if to say "goodbye and thank you".  I hope he made it to dry land.  That night a light SW wind arrived & we could start on our way again.  During the early hours of Saturday morning a green flare emerged from the water about a half a mile away to starboard.  Our books told us that this is the signal from a submarine that has just fired a test torpedo and might want to surface. We didn't see the sub, but the night was very dark and it was unlikely that we would see anything so low on the surface of the sea.


The wind continued light to moderate SW and we made progress at a rate of just under 100 miles per day towards our destination of Bass Harbour, Kuah, Langkawi in Malaysia.  After two weeks of our voyage, when we had hoped to already be at Bass Harbour, we still had 725 miles to go. This was turning out to be a frustrating, tiresome trip.


During the afternoon of Monday 15th a fishing boat came towards us from our port quarter. She should have easily passed behind us, but deliberately altered course to cross less than 6 metres in front of us.  She then turned to starboard resuming her previous course. Ralph of Arjemand had previously told us that the Indonesian fishing boats do this in order to off load their bad luck onto you.  They call it ‘cutting the head off the snake’.  Without Ralph’s information we would have been terrified.  As it was we were pretty scared, but all turned out OK except for our accelerated pulse rates.


Two days later rain squalls in the early morning from the NW, then turning SW helped us on our way.  In the early afternoon we came upon a Chinese cargo vessel, Sea Diamond.  She had engine problems and after passing us stopped directly in our path several miles in front. 
The wind was blowing 25 knots and we were surfing down the waves under double reefed main and small jib.  It was great fun having the boot on the other foot and tearing down on a motor vessel.  The captain became itchy and called us on channel 16.  He said he was unable to maneuver and asked us to keep clear of him.  We gladly agreed to as we would undoubtedly come off worst in any collision.


We now had the task of crossing the very busy shipping lane carrying traffic between Malaysia, Singapore, China etc and the Red Sea and Africa. We saw the first ships on the evening of Thursday 18 September and in the early hours of the following morning a rising barometer brought a line squall and blinding rain just when we were in the middle of the shipping lane, with a possibility of ships coming from both sides.  Pierre sent out a radio message to all ships, followed by a Securite message warning of our presence, giving position, direction and speed. The nearest ship responded saying he could see us and wishing us a good voyage. He emerged out of the rain about 2 miles away. We ship dodged all morning  but worse was yet to come.


At about midday after we had seen the last of the ships we sailed into a tide-rip, thirty miles northwest of Rondo Island, which is just north of Sumatra.  The pilot and charts warn of these rips up to twenty miles from Rondo.  We had allowed a ten mile safety margin, but it wasn't enough; probably because we were going through at equinoctial spring tide.  It was frightening.  Senta was running with the twenty knot wind into a tidal current of four knots sweeping out of the Malacca Strait. The following waves caused by this current versus wind situation were vertical, standing and breaking, three metres high, with only about six metres between the waves.  The tide rip stretched from horizon to horizon, with no way out other than to carry on.  We had to hand steer to keep Senta's transom into the waves and stop her from being rolled over.  It was nail biting, hard, concentrating work.  Pierre steered for two hours, I took over for two hours & Pierre did another hour before we were through the worst.  This was a scary and threatening episode.  If anything had gone wrong with the steering mechanisms, or the helmsman losing concentration, Senta would have rolled side on to the waves, probably been turned upside down, lost her mast and sunk.  We had all hatches closed and secured, and were pooped with waves coming on board from astern.  In future we will do everything to avoid sailing through a tide-rip, including sailing a detour of several hundred miles.  It is just not worth the risk.
continued at the top of the next column ........


.......continued from the previous column


The next day a strong SW wind sent Senta racing downwind under a double reefed mainsail and a 50% working jib rolled out. We were now 240 miles from Kuah. During the night we saw no ships, no porpoises, no nothing.  Just the occasional mini tide rip to remind us of the terror of the day before, and the loom of some light houses at Sumatra.


By Sunday 21st September we were 124 miles from Kuah, with the wind a light SE whisper. In the morning a school of porpoises came by doing aerobatics. High leaps, double somersaults, triple rolls, showing us how happy

 they were to see us.



We were still troubled by mini tide rips and were in an area of confused seas. The wind remained light easterly all day, and a dragonfly landed on the deck in the afternoon, the first sign of our coming landfall.  Three weeks out of Chagos we continued to be plagued by light winds as we approached the Butang group of islands north of Langkawi. By midday these winds had disappeared into the smoke haze from the forest fires in Sumatra. We slowly drifted along being bugged by many fishing boats who deliberately went out of their way to come straight at us making us tack away as we were obliged to keep clear since they were in the act of fishing. We initially wanted to anchor at the outer Butang islands that night, but got nowhere near in the light winds, so we carried on through the night.


The next morning we made VHF radio contact with Nereid and Arjemand, boats we had known in Chagos and also Mariposa, one of our Zululand Yacht Club friends. They were in a marina at Rebak Island, just off the Southwest corner of Langkawi. The visibility was extremely poor because of the haze, so we decided to join them in the marina. A wise choice as this is a lovely, well run marina and reasonably priced. Friends were waiting at the walk on to take our lines and soon we were settled in. After a short sleep we went for a swim in the large, crystal clear swimming pool and then a dinner of local Malaysian food at the marina restaurant.




          Rebak Marina swimming pool


The rest of September, all of October and most of November were spent at Rebak marina.  This was an ideal location for the work we had to do repairing our engine and rigging.  Langkawi is a duty free port with an international airport, ideal for bringing in spare parts, and at Rebak we had access to faxes, telephones etc.


The rigging problem was easily sorted out. Pierre drew up detailed specifications of what we needed, faxed these to WesMarine in the USA, together with our credit card details and within two weeks the rigging was delivered to our boat in the marina. And what's more it all fitted perfectly. We were definitely impressed with the service.


The engine repair was a different story. We sent a fax to Volvo in Sweden describing the problem, and received a reply within 24 hours detailing the part numbers we needed and the name, phone and fax numbers of their agent in Kuala Lumpur, through whom we should order the parts. ‘Oh boy!’, we thought, ‘this looks like another example of excellent service’.  But we were wrong.  We faxed our requirements to the agent. For three weeks we phoned and faxed to chase progress. We were told they were "working on it" and "sourcing the parts from Singapore". At the end of the three weeks we were asked to send our requirements again as they had lost our original fax ! After a further three weeks the parts arrived.


In the meantime we had made contact with Terry, an Australian, living on his yacht at Rebak, who agreed to help us with the repair. He did an excellent job, explaining to us all of the time what he was doing and charging a reasonable fee.


While all the "waiting for parts" was going on we spent the time making and chatting to new friends in the marina; shopping - clothing and melamine crockery are particularly good and cheap; waiting for the haze from the Indonesian fires to clear, which it did only after we had been in Langkawi for 3 weeks; sewing - I made new curtains and a sun awning for Senta and saloon cushion covers for Nereid, a friend’s boat; and being ill - Pierre had a bad attack of some kind of fever which left him with a urinary tract infection and an inability to pass urine. By the time he asked for medical help he could hardly walk. The marina staff were very helpful, bringing a ferry to Senta, taking us to the main island, and then in a marina car to the Langkawi hospital. There we were charged R3, Pierre was attacked with a catheter, and after a few days rest and lots of medicine he started to recover. In the meantime I had an attack of gout in my big toe - the first in three years - and hobbled around for a few days.


By the start of December we had done enough work and were ready to play.


Senta took us for a three day sail to the "Fresh Water Lake" and back. This is an island South of Langkawi, in the centre of which is a cool green lake of clear fresh water.


We then stocked up the boat with duty free goodies - beer, wine & chocolates are particularly cheap - and set off for Phuket in Thailand where were to meet Ingrid, our daughter and her husband Phillip.