It’s not just any dodgeball. The ships I am dodging in the Strait of Malacca are displacing up to 500 million pounds. A collision with one of those is gonna leave a mark. Underway on a rainy night in poor visibility, it is all I can think about. That, and the dozens of unlit fishing boats in front of me laying nets and longlines from the edge of the shipping channel to the shoreline.
I had always known that getting adequate sleep underway aboard Flying Fish was going to be the greatest challenge of sailing alone. A neurosurgeon who moonlights as my health counselor suggested that lack of rest might become more dangerous than any other risk I would encounter on this voyage around the earth. Until this week, lack of sleep had not been an issue. Then I entered the Strait of Malacca.
The Strait is a narrow, 550-mile stretch of water between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. As the main shipping channel between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, it is one of the most important–and busiest–shipping lanes in the world. It is only about 1.7 miles wide at its narrowest point near Singapore but nearly 100,000 vessels pass through it each year. This shipping traffic accounts for one-quarter of the world’s traded goods, including some 16 million barrels of oil each day. In addition, in 2018, there were eight reported piracy and armed robbery incidents in the Strait of Malacca and near Singapore, according to ReCAAP Information Sharing Centre, an agency that tracks attacks against ships in Asia. In 2019, China raised the alert status to its highest level of security for their flagged vessels transiting this choke point.
So what was Flying Fish doing among this volatile mix? Answer: Trying to get from Point A to Point B without coming into contact with rocks, drift nets, long lines, high-speed ferries, or tankers displacing a half-billion pounds of crude oil.
Flying Fish covers an average of 130 miles per 24-hour day. The 550-mile leg from Singapore to Langkawi is about four days of sailing. No big deal on a journey that has already taken me halfway around the globe, right? Wrong.
On the open ocean, I can sleep. I go over a formal checklist before I close my eyes: I review my charts for shallow water. I do a thorough horizon scan. I look at my radar and check for AIS returns. I check current satelite weather charts, I set a course and confirm the autopilot is holding accurately. Then I arm multiple alarms–depth, wind, shipping, proximity, and time. I set two alarm clocks with different tones and I wear a watch on my wrist that shrieks and vibrates like a creature in extremis. Then I can sleep for an hour or two and sometimes longer in the open ocean with good weather. This is how singlehanded sailors rest offshore.
Inshore there is always high anxiety when I close my eyes. I still use the formal checklist but the alarms are set for 15 or 20 minutes. In the Strait of Malacca I would sometimes find traffic converging in less time than that. In the 15,000 miles until now I had never encountered such busy water. Anchoring outside of the Strait was not always an option so I decided to stay awake at night and take quick catnaps during the day. That didn’t work, either. I became deliriously exhausted.
From the log of Flying Fish 14 January 2020:
“All is well at 03:00. There is traffic in the Strait, commercial vessels and fishing boats, but the spacing is good. An overcast sky hides the moonlight. There is light rain and a fresh breeze. Flying Fish is sailing well to windward. I am tired. There is no place within 20 miles to anchor. It is only three hours before first light, daybreak always energizes is me.
In the next moment it is 03:08! I stare at my watch in disbelief. What just happened? Proximity alarms are blaring. Control lights at the helm are flashing. I immediately look to the bow and see a bright green starboard running light directly in front of the mast. What is happening?
As I jump up from the cockpit seat my head, and then my mouth, collides with force against the hard fiberglass surface of the spray dodger. I hear my front tooth crack and then taste shattered enamel.
I disengage the autopilot and swing the boat hard to port. The rain on the windscreen of the dodger distorts everything. I brace for impact.
Within seconds I realize that I am looking at MY starboard running light. There is NO collision imminent. The shipping traffic priority alarm is just notifying me that a fishing boat has entered my radar’s Guard Zone perimeter a mile ahead. Everything is working just as it should—except for the captain.
I lost 8 minutes somewhere. I fell asleep sitting up. I was disoriented and nonfunctional when the alarms went off. It is unquestionably the worst mistake a helmsman can make. I fell asleep at the wheel. In a busy sea lane. With poor visibility … The blessing is that I did not hurt anyone.”
When I am finally at anchor in the lee of a small Malaysian island I put myself through a mental review to understand how to prevent this scenario from ever happening again. I realize that publishing this log opens me up to a rush to judgement regarding this mistake. A ship’s log is something different to each captain but I believe it should be a personal testament. Writing it helps me to organize my thoughts. In this situation, it is also a catharsis.
I understand I must better manage fatigue at the helm when I am sailing alone. I have also decided I am not going to fix my tooth. Every time I look in the mirror and see the chip out of my front tooth it will be a visual reminder to me of how a simple mistake can have serious consequences in a place like the Strait of Malacca.
NOTE: On passages when I have no cell or WiFi signal, I activate a satellite tracking link that shows my daily position, current weather, and includes a few personal thoughts from the daily log of Flying Fish. I will not be able to respond to messages via satellite but I love the idea that you are sailing along with me. If you would like to follow the daily progress of Flying Fish into Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean via satellite you can click this link: https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/Flyingfish
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To see where Flying Fish has sailed in the past year click here: https://cruisersat.net/track/Flying%20Fish
Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2020