The worst thing that can happen to a boat isn't bad weather; it's other boats. Specifically, big boats. Big, gigantic, monstrous cargo ships. I get the shivers just thinking about them. So you can imagine my trepidation as we prepared to sail through the Strait of Malacca on our way to the yard in Malaysia.
We have a fancy system aboard called an AIS (Automatic Identification System). The AIS transmits our vessel information (size, speed, heading and so on), and receives similar information from other vessels in the area. All commercial ships have AIS (although I can tell you from experience they don't always turn the system on), which is handy when you're trying to determine whether someone is going to run over you in the night.
Normally, we're alone out there. Near port, we'll see a few other boats. The stationary triangles on our screen show boats at anchor; those with a dotted line off the bow are moving, and the line shows you the distance that boat is expected to travel in the next half hour.
When we left Indonesia, our screen looked like this. (You can find Papillon halfway up the screen and 2/3 of the way to the right - it's the solid black boat the end of a blue line. The blue line behind us is our track, and the dark red line with the circle on the end shows our expected path for the next half hour.)
|Busy, but not too bad...?|
But our handy scale bar is only at 1 NM. Let's zoom out a little bit.
|Menace on the high seas.|
So what could be more fun than sidling up to these massive ships, making a sharp right and crossing the street?
Our cunning plan was to stay on the shoulder of the road, as it were, and wait for our moment to strike. We skirted the shallows along our route, and watched the ships zoom by.
What we hadn't realized was that every fisherman and his uncle also occupied the shallows. So we spent most of our time trying not to a) run over tiny fishing boats in a fractal reflection of the cargo ships not running us over, and b) avoiding long, strung-out nets. With a headwind. In choppy seas. It was a pain in the neck.
The magic moment came as darkness fell on the second evening. Our plan was to make a dash for the median, turn parallel to traffic again, then complete the other half when possible.
|Run, Lola, Run|
Ninety nerve-racking minutes later, we made it to the other side. During each half of the crossing, we passed just astern of three ships, then just ahead of two more. We came within a quarter mile of ten cargo ships, all at right angles to us.
Erik and I never drink on passage. But that night we split a beer after we made it to the shoulder. And I slept like a dead person during my off watches that night. Danger avoided.
Of course, Erik had to deal with waterspouts at dawn, but that's another story.