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Malaysia: Sailing through Eastern Sabah and Borneo with a military escort

By Vern Noren — last modified Jan 15, 2019 01:28 PM The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the view of noonsite.com or the World Cruising Club.
The Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) provide an extraordinary level of support to boats transiting the waters around Eastern Sabah and Borneo. This report by Vern Noren details the gunship support ESSCOM provided to the East Malaysia Rally, and the close watch ESSCOM provided when he sailed back alone down the outward route.

Published: 2019-01-13 13:00:00
Topics: Piracy & Security
Countries: Malaysia , Indonesia , Philippines

I would like to share our experience with ESSCOM recently, ESSCOM is the Eastern Sabah Security Command which patrols the area of Eastern Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, from Kudat to Tawau. This area is known for numerous pirate attacks from the nearby Philippines.

Our first experience with them was as escort service for the East Malaysia Rally in 2018. We had about 30 boats in the rally and for many of us going on to Raja Ampat, Indonesia this was the easiest route to take. For most of us this was our first foray into known pirate territory and we were of course a little nervous. We were pretty much told where to anchor and when to move, which was for our safety. We actually had at least 3 gun boats with us at all times, men armed with automatic weapons and some boats had bow mounted machine guns. On several occasions we had navy or Coast Guard war ships with large cannons in our convoy. It did give a high level of confidence in our safety but probably also reinforced the idea that this was serious business. Shortly after the rally had left one area a tug boat was attacked there.

Two weeks before our plan to sail back along the same route a fishing boat was attacked and two crew injured by gunfire. We were much more concerned this time because we knew there would be no armed escort for one lone sailboat. Friends in the area assured us it would be safe if we followed ESSCOM's advice and rules. We were advised to send ESSCOM detailed information about us, our boat, planned stops, date of departure, and a contact number. We expected to have a face to face meeting with someone in Tawau but did not. We were feeling kind of left in the dark when were contacted the day before departure and told to send a position report twice a day, 0800 & 2000, via WhatsApp. There is a ban on vessels moving from after 1800 until dawn the next day, but AIS should be kept on. 

I have to say we were VERY impressed with the way things went. Every morning I sent a message of "anchor up & underway" and next anchorage. I always got a reply and a thank you within an hour or two, often within a few minutes. Usually we would get a message mid day asking for a position report and intended anchorage. If we were making good time and could make a further anchorage we notified them. Usually around 1600 they contacted us asking for our next anchorage. If were passing near a marine patrol post they would let us know in case we wanted to anchor in front of it. Each night I would message them with an anchor position and get a reply of acknowledgement. We never used an anchor light at night in these waters.

It was a 7 day passage and we only stopped to anchor. Every day an armed patrol boat came alongside to say hello and assure us they were watching our backs and confirming our next anchorage. A few nights we had a patrol boat anchored nearby. The one day we did not get a visit from a patrol boat we were hailed on VHF by a large warship close by to verify who we were and to notify them of any concerns.

We would not hesitate to do the trip again and we would encourage anyone who has wanted to sail this area but were concerned about safety to give it a try. Borneo is really a wonderful area to explore and so different from peninsular Malaysia. And the Indonesia Rally that starts where the MY Rally ends is also recommended. The area of NE Indonesia has many wonderful islands, cultures, and people all anxious to meet you. We made many friends here and it is difficult to leave them behind.

Here is some contact information:

WhatsApp Esscom +60192305909

ESSCOM Fusion Operation Room Command for informing them of your transit voyage over East Coast Sabah with:

Pusat Operasi ESSCOM (PUSOP):
Tel : 089-863181 - Please call and ask for the duty officer to speak to after you send your email.
Fax : 089-863182
What’s Apps Only: +60 19-230 5909
Email: bilikgerakan_esscom@jpm.gov.my

The ESSCOM Fusion Operation Centre will need the following information from your end via email:

1. Ship Registry
2. All Crew & Passenger Passport
3. Crew List
4. Next Port of Call Information
5. Voyage plans with date, time and overnight anchorages location.
6. Vessel SAT Phone Contact numbers and proposed means of communication during passage with ESSCOM Fusion Command Centre. (WhatsApp)
7. MMSI and AIS call sign Details
8. Any other means of real time SAT tracking device you may carry that can be viewed online or via encryption website information that can be monitored by ESSCOM.

ESSCOM wants to keep you safe. It is our understanding they cannot tell you where to go or how to do it but they really hope for your cooperation to insure your safety. Occasionally cruisers have decided they knew what was best and it just causes bad feelings among those trying to keep you well.

We recommend Alvin in Kota Kinabalu as an excellent resource person who can assist with almost anything marine.
Alvin Teh W L
Malaysia Yacht Support Services - MYSS
www.myss.com.my
Borneo Sabah, MALAYSIA
Fax: +60 88 232892: +60 12 820 8432 (24/7 Support Line)
Email: support@myss.com.my (Primary)

Vern Noren

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