Tuesday, January 10, 2017

A Tortoise Crosses The Freeway

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...?
Lots of boats at anchor. Lots of boats in the shipping lanes to the north of us. Lots of boats crossing our path. We need to keep on our toes.

But our handy scale bar is only at 1 NM. Let's zoom out a little bit.
Dang it.
Right. That's Singapore. See all of the boats? Of course you can't. There are so many of them that the little black triangles have congealed into a blobby black mass. Boats, boats everywhere. And not nice little 60-footers like ours. Oh no. Cargo ships. Tug-and-tows. Monsters that wouldn't fit through the Panama Canal until they opened the new locks this year. The biggest ships we saw were 400m long and 60m wide. For comparison, Papillon is 17.5m long and 4.5m wide, ie. you could fit three Papillons end to end across their width. They can travel 25 knots; we can do about 5 knots under those conditions. These are boats we can't outrun, and that would roll over us without even noticing.

Howdy, neighbour.

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
Friends, I haven't spent a scarier dusk. As Papillon galloped along at 6 knots, our heads swivelled between AIS, radar, reality, AIS, radar, reality. As the sky darkened, we could only see the ships by their lights fore and aft. And when two ships were close to each other, it was sometimes hard to tell where one ended and another began.

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.