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Malacca Straits - A Fishy Business

By Sue Richards last modified May 23, 2012 11:23 AM

Published: 2012-05-23 11:23:09
Topics: Malay Archipelago
Countries: Thailand , Indonesia , Malaysia , Singapore

How to Stay out of Trouble with the Fishing Fleet

This article is primarily for those approaching their first cruising trip through the Malacca Straits.

Once upon a time, there were pirates in the Malacca Straits. They were the major concern of seagoing vessels, both large and small. No more: that problem has been solved, but the challenge now – for small boats like cruising yachts – is the myriad of fishing boats plying the Strait.

Having completed over 10 passages up and down (from Singapore to Langkawi/Phuket) I would say that these nights at sea in the Straits can be some of the most stressful you’ll experience. The need to be constantly alert can’t be emphasised enough, and we recommend a minimum of two sets of eyeballs during the night. For cruiser couples like ourselves, we are generally both up at night and do our “off watches” in turns during the days.

Lights

While fishing boat lighting has improved somewhat over several years ago, it’s safer to assume that many boats are either not lit, not lit all the time, or incorrectly lit. The use of strobe lights is frequent (illegal in most seaways apart from distress purposes) and blue or purple lighting is not uncommon. Add a good lightning or rain storm to this (frequent in these latitudes) and you’re in for an exciting night!

Whilst there are in excess of a dozen or so crew on many fishing boats, do not assume there is someone on permanent look-out, or that the boats have radar. So make yourself as visible as possible: we use both our top of mast tri-colour and our bow navigation lights when passaging at night, and keep a large spotlight in the cockpit to highlight our sail or mast. It’s also useful as a return signal if a fishing boat has spotlighted you, to indicate you’ve seen him as well. As a general rule, it’s best to hold your course when safely possible. Fishing boats that do have you in their sights, can generally get flummoxed if you are constantly moving around and it upsets their plans for net-laying.

Navigation Tips

A straight run from Singapore to Langkawi is generally about 72 hours: that includes a lot of motoring, as the Malacca Strait is not the most scenic stretch of water on the planet, and the sooner it's over with the better: we usually motor between Singapore and Port Klang, ensuring we clear the Port Klang shipping channel entry and One Fathom Bank, in daylight. North of the port, the Strait widens considerably (and shallows for the first 20 miles around One Fathom Bank), the shipping channel ends and so relaxed sailing is possible again, with even a play with the spinnaker is possible, particularly between Pulau Pangkor and Penang or Langkawi.

The shipping channel between Singapore and Port Klang is well marked on the chart: almost without exception the ships are “well-behaved” in these channels and a cruising yacht can find plenty of sea room between the channel and the land (i.e the inshore channel), except for one place when the shipping channel nears the coast south of Malacca, and caution prevails.

We have found that on leaving Singapore it is best to sail just outside of the shipping lane on the Malaysian side (approx a mile). This avoids most of the fishing boats, as they tend to keep clear of the big boys, and you have the benefit of knowing the big boys will keep in lane. They also have proper lighting and tend to travel at a stable speed, so they are easier to track. This works well up to Port Klang, after which the divergence takes Langkawi bound yachts too far off track. Ships also give a good radar image which you don’t always get from the smaller fishing boats.

Types of Fishing Vessels in the Malacca Straits

Typically, the fishing fleet starts its work any time from mid afternoon, but are most prevalent from twilight, through to dawn. Generally, we’ve observed that these are the major types of fishing vessels to look for:

(1) The Squid boats - These are the easiest to spot – they are medium to large sized vessels with several long spars sticking out from each side. The spars are fitted with dozens of lightbulbs and are brightly lit to attract the squid. These “squidders” are either bright white or bright green and generally stay in one place: there is often a line of them and you might sight a dozen or so at one time, strung out across the horizon. When they are on the move to a more lucrative squid spot or to return home they may turn off the horizontal spar lights and run with very small standard red/green, often at a pretty fast clip, maybe 12 knots or so.

(2) Pair Draggers – These are two large fishing boats that are connected by a net, about half a mile apart. We have seen several sets of these pairs around Phi Phi Island and particularly just north of Langkawi between the Bulengs and Pulau Tetoria, at sunset and sunrise. They are generally not well lit, but can display a red flashing light if they are moving together with a net strung between them. You can pick them up on radar: i.e. two vessels of equal size travelling in identical direction and speed, and also visually: If you see one large vessel with standard lighting (very small and often hard to see particularly through rain) and a red flashing light, look for the partner ship and avoid both. If you sight them in daylight, the first clue is a sister ship close by of exactly the same size and style, painted in identical colours: the pair usually belong to one family or one fishing company. If you do get jammed in the middle or spot the pair too late to change course or turn around, take heart that the net between them is likely several meters below the surface and weighted towards the bottom.

(3) Individual Trawlers - large and medium. These either work alone or assume the role of a mother ship with smaller fishing boats coming to and from them to deliver a catch to their freezers. They can be purse-seiners, carrying a large stern looped net, or simply net trawlers. In profile they look like a rhinoscerous, with a large horn emanating from the foredeck: this is the net winch that pulls the net from the sea: When the net is loaded during retrieval, the boat appears to be listing heavily to one side. The net is generally laid in a circle, hence the boat listing when the net is both deployed and retrieved. Give them a wide berth.

(4) Line Pullers - While long-liners are more prevalent in the Caribbean and other oceans, there are a few around in the Malacca Straits. Their lines are not miles long due to the potential interference from other fishing vessels, but a quick check with the binoculars at their stern should indicate if they are dragging a stern line or net.

(5) Small Fishing Boats – These vary from 15-30 feet in length and are generally manned by a pair or 3 fishermen. They will usually carry one small red or white light, often hard to see particularly in a seaway. Around Thailand, some single- hander fishermen will often go out to their favourite spot early evening, then pull a blanket over themselves and sleep for a few hours until they think the fish are biting: they’re hard to see and we nearly ran over one once.

Things to Watch Out for

If you do run over a net, clearly crew and boat safety are paramount, but it is generally the purvue of the yacht to compensate the fisherman for his net, after all, it is his only income and possibly his only asset. We have seen some very angry Thai fishermen prevailing upon a sailboat who had severed their net. It was quite ugly.

Another thing to watch for, both day and night, is fish traps. These are laid at the bottom of the sea, particularly in shallower areas. They are marked on the surface so the fisherman can retrieve them, but the markings vary from a substantial polystyrene block with a visible flag, to a hard-to-see 1 litre clear plastic water bottle with a string around it. Further north, for those venturing between Phuket and the Similan group (not to be missed!), very large fishing boat moorings the size of a Volkswagon can be seen. They’re squarish polystyrene blocks wrapped in black plastic where fishing boats stay and rest during the day. This 60 mile passage is an easy one in daylight and shouldn’t be attempted at night as these mooring blocks would be invisible.

Remember:

  • Vessels actively engaged in fishing have right of way.
    - There are more fishing boats out there than you can see.
    - By all means brush up on your vessel lighting before passaging, but take it with a pinch of salt, as the fishing fleet does!
    - Have at least one pair of binoculars on hand in the cockpit.
    - Have at least one strong spotlight in the cockpit.
    - The VHF radio is virtually useless unless you speak Bahasa or Thai.
    - Tune your radar properly to pick up small vessels, before your first night in the Straits.
    - Don’t assume a fishing boat has someone on watch 100% of the time: their focus is their catch. Collision avoidance is largely up to you.
    - Dive your prop/rudder as soon as you arrive, or at anchor, to see if you’ve picked up any flotsam: there’s a lot of it around in the Malacca Straits.

Some cruisers only do day hops up/down the Straits, specifically to avoid the nightly dance with the fishing fleet: not a bad idea, you just need to be detailed about your passage planning, speed, and available anchorages, and you need to accept it will be a 6 day passage instead of a 3 day one (assuming an average speed of 7 knots).

But it is worth it! Langkawi and Phuket/Krabi are the cruising “pot of gold at the end of the rainbow” at the conclusion of your north-bound passage, and Singapore the land of plenty for provisioning and dining, at the end of your southbound passage.

Good luck!

Glenys Taylor & Henry Mellegers
S/V Dreamcatcher, CAL-346, based in Singapore

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