Singapore to Penang through the Straits of Malacca (Selat Melaka)

The Malacca Straits has a history that is far from cruisey. This article from gives a good insight into what to expect from this stretch of water.

Published 6 years ago, updated 4 years ago

This report from

Californian film-maker Bill Babington and I were intrigued to cruise the 850 kilometre stretch of the Straits of Malacca (Selat Melaka), a passage connecting the Indian Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. Our six-week journey up the coast of Malaysia was on a warm-timbered monohull, a Liberty 485 called Solstice.

When we departed Raffles Marina Singapore around 8:00 am, the humidity was already sticking to our skin. We snaked our way through the ‘waiting-room’ of rusted tankers and overloaded barges with anchor chains thicker than our mast, my eyes glued to the binoculars looking for any sign of movement. The ship fenders alone were three times the size of our dinghy.

We knew first-hand that big ships and cruising yachts were not made to play. A near collision in Indonesia with a tugboat pulling an unmarked ship in the night and an encounter with a thundering wake created by a cargo ship in Singapore that almost threw me out of the cockpit and submerged the front deck was enough fun for us. However, we were in their territory, in possibly the busiest shipping lane in the world and had to find a way to get around.

Getting into Melaka

We were on our way to a historical city listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Melaka.

Sailing in between the cargo freeway to our port and the fishing boats on the coast, assured us a close-to comfortable passage. We were sharing our water with the tugboats and they proved no issue chugging along at a snail’s pace.

The most dangerous element in the water was something that should have stayed on land; trash. Islands of wood, plastic and rubbish even caused the radar to voice its concern.

The Strait used to be home to the shy sea-grass eating sea-cow or Manatee. It was clear to see why it was not so anymore. Bafflement filled me every time I saw yet another fisherman hauling out a net. We never did see anything substantial caught and my question always was, “who are they selling to?”

Singapore requires all commercial and private vessels visiting to have a class A or B AIS transponder and boy were we relieved this was so. Knowing the speed and position of ships gave us enough information to safely manoeuvre our way around.

We were attempting an overnighter, against all good advice, to catch up with cruising friends on another Liberty 485, called Hokule’a. During daylight, we resorted to hand steering, with the amount of garbage in the water. This was not so much an inconvenience since the auto-pilot had been playing up for months, we had become used to standing at the helm.

When night fell it was in the hands of King Neptune and we forced ourselves to stop worrying about the trash.

We were sailing atop of the watery graves of men and their sailing-vessels lost to bloody battles, piracy and storms. It was November, the beginning of the north-east monsoon. We had made it through the first night safely and were heading into our next when the western sky bruised. Lightning sliced across and Bill mused, “you don’t think it’s coming our way do you?”

With that Bill disappeared to get some shut-eye.

The breeze picked up, Solstice was punching along at a solid pace, it was fantastic sailing. But I knew the good times were not going to last. When 25-knot winds began to whip I knew we were in for a ride.

Suddenly a tremendous gust drove Solstice to port and toward the congested shipping lane. Bill did not need to be roused, the sudden jerk was enough. There was not the time to think of wet-weather gear, as the sky buckled.

We scurried and scampered like drowned rats, slamming shut ports, throwing items undercover and steering a wild bucking horse. Bill took the helm as I searched for the harness, of course, the one time we needed it, it was not in its home; the side compartment of the cockpit. With no luck finding it I gave up and took the helm.

Bill did what we should have done earlier, reefed the sail. Sheets of rain were slamming into us as Bill fought with the flapping main. Lightning lit up the face of a man determined and desperate.

We were in complete white-out conditions, being tossed around like a cork in a washing machine of cargo ships. Eventually, we had done what we could and spent the remainder of the night rocking and rolling until the sun-exposed an overcast day.

Varied history

Delirious and exhausted we finally cast our weary eyes onto Port Dickson Marina. I preferred an anchorage over a marina any day, but arriving into a calmly protected berth with our friends happy to see us, was a godsend.

A long hot shower and a hot meal with a stiff drink were exactly what the doctor had ordered. Port Dickson was our port of entry and a great base from where to explore. Melaka was only a few hours away by taxi.

Anchorage outside of Melaka was possible, but how secure we did not know, so we left the yachts in the marina for two days to creak amongst themselves.

We arrived in Melaka to be surrounded by a swarm of rickshaws on cobbled paths and decaying buildings; stooped like old men overlooking the wide streets of a city frozen in time. A free historic tour about town uncovered a tale around every corner.

Stories from the Japanese occupation were harrowing; the Malaysian population forced to learn Japanese within six months or be decapitated. A climb up to St. Paul’s Church revealed old Portuguese headstones engraved with skulls and crossbones of men who had fallen too young; grasping at fortunes too big.

The Chinese, Indian, Portuguese, Dutch and the British had all made a mark; delicious authentic Baba-Nyonya cuisine came from the Peranakan, the Straits Chinese; descendants of the very early Chinese immigration to the south-sea region.

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