Singapore and Malaka

Before going ashore I compiled CDs of photos for four crew members that were leaving the ship to return to their families for a few weeks before being signed on to another ship. I'm going to miss those guys.

Again it was a night time docking. It was obvious from the number of anchored ships we passed on the way in that it was going to be a busy port. We were squeezed in sideways between two other container ships and it was a marvel in the middle of the night to watch the hustle and bustle of tugs, freighters, pilot boats and bunker vessels in such a confined area while the docks were an absolute madhouse with dozens of gantry cranes working the ships and articulated trucks ripping up and down collecting and delivering containers and small service vehicles dodging all over the place, everything happening at an alarming pace. In the small hours of the morning, clad only in shorts, I watched a bunkering vessel nudge in beside our ship to pump diesel aboard. Trying to sleep afterwards was impossible owing to the smell of diesel fuel blowing in through the ceiling ventilator. It was unbearable. Then a high-pitched alarm went off in the corridor but nobody responded. Were they all asphyxiated in their beds? I headed down to make enquiries and ran into a crew member who switched the alarm off but said he didn't know what it was for but would ask the Captain. He discounted the matter of fumes with a shrugging of shoulders, saying it was because of the bunkering. I continued down to the pantry and had a large glass of milk for the purpose of detoxification, took a couple of paracetamol and went back to bed. I awoke with a headache. The other passengers slept through the incident - if it was one. The alarm, I discovered later was a bridge alarm, nothing to do with fumes.

Singapore was a blast. Taxis are incredibly cheap in Singapore and flagging down the non-franchised ones gets you a driver and guide wrapped in one, although they are so helpful I was reminded of the Boy Scout assisting the little old lady over a road she didn't want to cross. We passengers shared the initial one to town and I was dropped off first at the address of the Canon agency where I wanted to have my camera serviced only to find that it had moved premises a year previously. Another helpful taxi driver advised that I would have better chance of success at a building devoted to camera houses, "Very many, all kinds, you find what you want, they fix for you," said Mohamed. OK! He was right about choices but unfortunately absolutely none of them did servicing. I gave up. Another almost non-English-speaking driver finally understood my next request when I flourished the CD package and earnestly pointed at stamps and said "Post". "Ah! Post Office!" he replied and we stopped outside the glass doors of some nondescript building with no indication as to what lay within. "You go, you go!" I went, and indeed found a white-shawled Arab woman sitting behind a small counter in a tiny room who spoke good English and had me organised in no time.

I wandered off in no particular direction and eventually found another taxi or wandered into a market area, I forget the sequence of events and they are not important anyway and I had no idea where I was most of the time and lost count of the taxi rides. It was very, very hot and humid. The taxi interiors were frozen by comparison and each time I alighted I was blinded by my sunglasses fogging up just in the way glasses do when you opening a hot oven door. I walked all the streets of China Town, saw an Arab quarter (do the Chinese have whole towns and the Arabs only quarters? they looked about the same size to me), fascinating old buildings and temples, the red light back streets of Geylang with open and suitably smelly drains. I took heaps of photographs as you will see but kept the camera hidden so as not to attract attention in the more suspect areas. Perhaps I should have been braver because there were sights to behold. Singapore has the reputation of being incredibly clean. Well the central city may be; the tourist areas may be. I didn't see those other than to be whisked through parts of them on my various taxi jaunts. An Indian man fishing in a grotty canal using a circular drop net hauled out several dozen small carp, most of which he threw back.

Having such a short visit frustratingly limited the opportunity to experience much of the local cuisine. For an early lunch I chose a typical side street place with outside awnings, plastic chairs and not a White in sight. The first photo taken from the outside shows a rather startled lady catching me in the act. I had tried to be discreet. I lowered the camera and mimed an apology and was rewarded with the warmest smile. Inside I was served by a cheerful and bombastically energetic dumpling of a Chinese woman who yelled instructions as if chastising me, which may of course been the case, though I don't think so. She handed me a slightly scungy light pink pudding plate and a set of tongs. I plucked out items pretty much at random hoping that they were mostly fish. There was a small bowl containing white noodles to one side and yellow egg noodles to the other. I was about to scoop out the yellow when, with a yell, mine host snatched the tongs from my hand and pointed to the other items and I quickly understood that for three dollars I needed to choose one more item, which I did. Another attempt on the noodles produced the same reaction. Ah, now the slow learner understood - the bowl of noodles was for demonstration purposes only - I pointed to the yellow. Done. By now I was tuning in much better and when offered curry, responded with a vigorous yes. Imagine if I had asked for an explanation as to the alternatives? I would probably be there still. The plate was returned with the ingredients heated, noodles included with a liquid of curry and coconut, and very nice it turned out to be. Three dollars for the meal and two dollars for the beer. Ordering the beer was funny too as it was done at a distance from another counter by sign language with the girl holding up a can and a bottle and then attempting to ring up both. I had to rush across before they were opened and insist on just the one.

For dinner I was determined to have fresh fish in a classy establishment, sparing no expense. How does something on Raffles Boulevard sound? My taxi guide drove around a coastal parkland road to where he said there was a concentration of special fish restaurants providing plenty of choice. That he sometimes took his family there should have made me suspicious but beggars can't be choosers and time was running out. The drive was a delight, taking us along a shoreline reserve than ran for absolute miles, beautifully landscaped and planted with coconut palms and a variety of tropical vegetation.


The complex at which I was dropped turned out to be undergoing serious renovation and extensions leaving me the choice of two places, only one of which had upstairs air conditioning. Out the front there were two smartly uniformed women looking like air hostesses without the hats but equipped with walkie-talkies, ear connections and throat mikes like secret service agents. Hostesses for the Jumbo Seafood eatery. One graciously escorted me around the back, chin tucked in, talking down the wire in Chinese. She was probably saying, "Scored a round-eye. Should be good for one-hundred dollars if you line up waitress Becky". You can see by the photos that they must cater for very large numbers, mostly outdoors but being so early there was more staff than patrons, all nodding, smiling and greeting. The view was limited by awnings but for as far as the eye could see there were anchored ships, like the ones we had passed in the dark on the way into port. I took a series of panoramic photos starting with the distant city and docks beyond, swinging around to take in all the ships and ending looking along the waterfront in the opposite direction. The photos were not keepers so I only retained the first and last. It did however allow me to make a fairly accurate count of seventy-seven in the queue not including smaller vessels that may have been local. The meal of garlic prawns was ok and the red wine good, if you didn't choke at eight local dollars per glass. It was a shame that I had to clock-watch but I'm proud to say that I was last back on the boat somewhat after curfew.

Perhaps funniest of all was my Singapore massage in a doubtful looking cubical jammed between odds and sods shops. Remember my story of the massage I experience in a Chinese booth in Victoria Street Market where I was sat on a stool in my underpants in full view of the passing public and the practitioner hooked the bum of my underpants under the seat of the stool? Well, at least this one was private. The little Chinese lady was getting her small, firm fingers in-between the upper back muscles reasonably well. Had she understood English I would love to have been able to direct them up a bit or over a bit but had to accept it as it happened. I became a little alarmed though when she started working me into some sort of wrestling position from behind that seemed to be a version of the classic half-nelson and began repeating loud and increasingly strident Chinese commands. I was desperate to understand what she wanted me to do. Was it Brace yourself, BRACE YOURSELF! or Relax, RELAX! or Pay more money, PAY MORE MONEY!? I had no idea. I decided to opt for relax but by then was a little tense to say the least and willpower was hard to summon at such short notice. Suddenly a hand cupped my chin (where the hell did she get a spare hand from?) and I was given the most violent old neck twist ever. I gave an involuntary yell but before I knew it was locked in the other direction and got the anti-clockwise twist. Phew! Then, still operating from behind, one leg was somehow pinioned by one of hers, I was leaned back at a dangerous angle; more yelling of relax! and this time it was the full xylophonic spinal twist. I surrendered. To leave without being wrenched back in the other direction was to risk looking like a cork screw for the rest of my life. Amazingly, I was able to walk out unaided and there were no ill effects, even the following day. Great.

With the cities reputation for law and order I had expected to see the place bristling with police fining gum-spitters and shooting jay-walkers, but not a one in evidence anywhere. There was a guard inside the glass doors of a bank, a skinny fellow with bulging equipment pockets and buttoned down service revolver on hip, looking pretty diffident, not anything like the threatening presence of the ones I remember seeing long ago in San Francisco. Before now I had never considered Singapore as a desirable holiday destination but this experience has convinced me that a couple of weeks there would highly desirable indeed. Comparing notes next morning I found that the other three passengers had stuck together and had taken all-day passes for a city bus tour that allowed getting off and on at any point. They had enjoyed an early afternoon meal and a bottle of excellent wine and seemed well happy with their day except to say that it was too short.

We passengers were standing out in the dark of night on F deck with the humid wind of our progress ruffling our shirts and hair and threatening to whip the red wine from our sipping lips when we noticed indefinable flashing occasionally catching our peripheral vision. I imagine that the phenomena of the electric-blue St. Elmo lights running up and down the rigging of the old sailing ships must have struck wonder into the souls of the sailors who witnessed it - the Northern Lights getting up close and personal - and must have helped weld in place the ancient myths and beliefs of the seafarer. I gazed intently at the mast and revolving radar antenna. St. Elmo was not there. Hermann fanned his hand horizontally, asking for the English word - he knew. Sheet lightening above the horizon up ahead is what it turned out to be. Portending rain or just dry lightening? Only the morrow would tell as we headed out towards the Indian Ocean.

The morning after Singapore found us in the dreaded Straits of Malacca or as it is on the chart, Malaka. When I checked our position at first light, Benny was out on the flying bridge and a couple of other crew members were on the other side, with the Captain on the bridge - extra watches looking out for pirates -obviously taking it very seriously and what wonderful conditions for pirates. It was misty again, the nearby shores of Malaysia barely discernable, seen only as a faint blocky outline of high rise buildings. We were overtaking and meeting mostly smaller ships as we made passage through the inside channel. Much larger ships, tankers, bulk carriers and container vessels were stringing along further out in the deep-water channel. A couple had a row of very large spherical storage tanks. The one photographed is a South Korean built gas tanker - not to be collided with whilst smoking perhaps? The calm surface was polluted by rubbish and oil. Small diesel or outboard fishing boats dodged the traffic. One that was close enough to photo was obviously a cray fisherman. The Captain told me that there are one-hundred-and-eighty ships handled each day through Singapore alone. Then there are all the vessels passing through these straits going to and from China, Hong Kong, Japan and so on. No wonder there is a constant stream of them in both directions.

The passage is very narrow, down to about a mile-and-a-half in one place and is also very shallow. There is a separation zone marked on the charts like an invisible median strip that ships are not allowed to sail along, devised to avoid collision. It is a very busy and highly responsible job for the lone officer on watch. I have the greatest admiration for these men. One night on the bridge I overheard the funniest exchange between the captains of two ships talking on marine radio as they approached each other somewhere in the darkness. They sounded Indonesian and it went something like this: We will pass green light to green light alright? - Yes alright green light to green light OK so you will change course to port? - No you change to port! - We both change OK? - OK but I can't move far because of that another ship - OK I change then we pass green light to green light alright?... Yes alright - What were they doing, playing chicken? Our First Officer was having a good chuckle.

Apparently drizzly weather is normal for this month but during the monsoon visibility is often terrible. Pirate watch was instituted again at night fall. According to a map of the pirate hazard regions of the world, we encounter three of them, Selat Sundra, Malacca and the Gulf of Aden/Red Sea. Actual incidents are documented showing boarding methods used, guns and or knives presented and booty seized. The really frightening ones are the cases where the pirates are aided and abetted by the authorities of the countries within whose waters they operate. You could expect no help from those governments. When the contents of containers are ransacked, the pirates have prior knowledge and know exactly which ones to open or in some cases, even off-load onto another vessel. An item in a Ships Monthly magazine lent to me by Hermann, gave the number of reported pirate attacks against merchant ships world-wide during 2004 as 325 (Indonesia accounts for a quarter of them) and sited the Malacca Straits as being the second most dangerous area in the word with 37 attacks that year involving the deaths of 4 crew members, injury to 3 and the kidnapping for ransom of 36. The Third Mate reckoned that many incidents are probably not reported because of the inconvenience of doing so and pointed out that because the Marfret had such a fast cruising speed, there were plenty of easier targets. I am not the slightest bit worried although it would be a different matter in a yacht. Moss had been enthusing about seeing a cruise ship and glancing up from typing this I spotted one passing so shot down and alerted him. He was very chuffed.

Later the hidden land of Sumatra was somewhere out to our port and we were surrounded by the tiny lights of fishing boats and the occasionally brightly lit squid boat. Fancy fishing in such a busy shipping lane; you wouldn't want to suffer engine failure with a freighter bearing down on you. I popped up now and then to chat with the pirate watch crew out on the flying bridge. I didn't interrupt Third Officer on the bridge who must have had a great deal to contend with in those conditions having to rely mostly on instruments - a big responsibility. Earlier we had been lucky enough to see the curving black backs and dorsal fins of a small pod of dolphin going gently about their business, apparently undisturbed by our passing and also occasional little flying fish levitating away to safety across the smooth water. There were a number of puzzling UFOs (unidentified floating objects) of what appeared to be bundles of lashed-together bamboo, looking like bits of broken outriggers, although I'm sure they weren't. What nay-sayer said this trip would be boring?

Thursday, 28 April 2005

Another time zone provided daylight saving yet again. I loved it. Regardless of the clock I tend to wake in time to check the dawn. This morning the decks were wet. A hint of lightening remained in the atmosphere and rain squalls arrived under black clouds proceeded by a crescent of whitecaps across the otherwise flat sea. The sinister shape of a huge container ship crept along the misty horizon while a small oil tanker slid past in the opposite direction only a few hundred metres from us. Beyond stood a loaf-shaped island devoid of detail and above, just enough blue sky to patch a sailor's pants - a good omen for a brighter day. We must have cleared Sumatra later in the day. A long lazy swell rolled up from the south but a few hours later it had reduced and by evening was down to lullaby grade. I wondered if it was the continental shelf giving it a bit of a lift earlier.

For the first time since Auckland the ship was loaded down to its marks even though it carried fewer containers. They must be full ones. Apparently there was a bit of a tussle in port with the authority wanting to put just one more container on and the Captain refusing on the grounds that they were not permitted to overload the vessel. The Captain won. After loading care is taken to evenly water-ballast the ship and I noticed when looking down over the bow that the bulb was now well below the surface. I also found that sea water was not being driven up into the hawse pipe from outside as I had previously thought but was actually being discharged from the ship's system at that point. You half-learn something every day. I'm not taking any more shots of passing ships, you will be glad to hear, unless something very exceptional comes along. The ones depicted so far however are a fair sampling of the smaller ones. There have been some absolute giants out there but none very close to us so far. The big Chinese container ships seen from the distance have the profile and grace of an old fireside slipper. Dockside cranes have done their dash as photo subjects and no more ship parts I promise. No doubt the camera will get a thrashing through the Red Sea and Suez. You will also be pleased to know that I am not about to bombard you with horrendous facts and figures on fuel consumption, cubic capacities, megawatt hours or rotunda bubbles. Food is the next topic of study. I have made a concerted effort to edit the Singapore photos so can now take a rest. Night fell with the Southern Cross framed by my porthole, its pointers vertical just above the horizon, the southern spot it indicates lying below the curve of the planet.

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