Passage making: Malaysia to Sri Lanka


Coastal Cruising has dominated the last couple of years in Southeast Asia. Our passage making skills are rusty. Before we left, I wondered: what habits would we have to relearn? What would come back like muscle memory?

Day 0

When you take off for a voyage, sometimes, it’s best just to tuck around the corner instead of going directly into the event. The final weeks we spent in Langkawi, Malaysia, were so jammed with projects and shopping runs and goodbyes: our last hike to the waterfalls, our last evening with friends at Mare Blu, our last barbecue on the harbor islet. We honestly needed a break before embarking. So when we raised anchor from Telaga Harbour, we only sailed 30 miles to Thailand’s Butang Islands, tucked into a pretty anchorage by a deserted beach, and spent a day (and a couple of nights) resting up and doing our last tasks at a more relaxed pace.


Day 1

When we finally did take off, it was a rolly ride dead down wind in 18-20 knots. Not the most comfortable point of sail, but after all the motoring we’ve done in Asia, it felt really good; the dolphin sendoff from the last point of land didn’t hurt either. We play with various sail combinations, and end up with a single reef in the main and a poled-out genoa, as in the photo at top.


Around 50 nm out, we started crossing bands of current every 5-10 nm. I’ve never seen anything like it: they run perpendicular to our westward path, as far as the eye can see. Inside them the sea state changes from relatively smooth swells with a few wind waves, to washing machine chaos. Oddly, it seems to have little effect on Totem, although it looks like we should be thrown around or have our speed affected.  At night, the frothy wave crests in these rivers glow green with bioluminescence and make for an eerie stripe in the ocean.


Day 2

The wind goes light and we end up making about 150 miles in our first 24 hour run. It’s typical to get lighter as the NE monsoon season progresses, and the weather data we’re getting on our new Iridium GO! from PredictWind indicate we’ll have less and less breeze as the passage goes on. We’re anticipating about 10 days to landfall, although with better wind we should be able to manage it pretty easily in six or seven. This day we just want enough to propel us between Sumatra to the south and the Nicobar islands to the north, after which we can alter course and point more northwest towards Trincomalee. That will give us a better angle on the wind, both because of our heading and because of an expected wind shift west of the Nicobars. Until then, there’s a nice boost from the current and we’re squeezed like a watermelon seed between Indonesia and India into the Bay of Bengal. It’s a good 1.5+ kts and helps keep progress in the light air.

There’s nothing but ocean in every direction, but we’re far from alone. Just after dawn, I have to alter course so we don’t bump into an Indonesian fishing trawler. Passing just a few boat lengths away, work stops for the men hauling a large net on deck as they whoop and wave. One man holds a tuna aloft, another waves us over. Siobhan and I clap and yell and wave but decline the invitation.


Ships pointing to the Malacca Strait funnel here in a wide band that requires constant vigilance. It’s amazing how quickly a 700’ cargo ship goes from horizon speck to behemoth when moving at 20 knots. I’m grateful for the AIS transponder we added to Totem last year. Previously, we had a receiver, as transponders were not yet available to private boats when we left the US. But having made the switch, we can see how the large merchant ships alter course for us, and never reach the point we need to make a radio call to alert them our presence. It is tremendous peace of mind.

The wind gets lighter and lighter, so we motorsail a few hours to try and get to the point where we can turn up towards Trinco.

Day 3

Shortly before we left Malaysia, a package arrived from my parents. Inside, a grand treat among many goodies: a chocolate babka from Zabar’s! They’ve had it shipped from New York City to surprise us. If you’ve ever had one, you know how special this is- but it’s extra special for us. When I lived in the East Village years ago, and Jamie would visit from Connecticut on the weekends, we’d rollerblade (hey it was the early 90s!) to the upper west side delicatessen / specialty grocer regularly to indulge in this chocolatey delight. Now we dole out slices for breakfast, and manage to get three days from the loaf.

The wind picks up a few hours after sunrise and we’re treated to spectacular sailing conditions: relatively flat seas, and 10-15 kts on the quarter. As if we weren’t having enough fun yet, a pod of a half dozen whales – humpbacks? – pass nearby to bless our progress, although it’s a little sobering to look beyond them as they pass between Totem and a tanker that’s more than four football fields long. The only downside to these great conditions is that we’re sailing too fast to catch any fish. I’m not going to complain.


Day 4

We’re a little out of sorts for the first few days, getting used to disrupted sleep patterns and the motion at sea. But by the fourth day the mental fog clears, and with such comfortable conditions as we’re having the daily routine becomes even more enjoyable. And truly, it is glorious! Our new angle puts the breeze more squarely on the beam most of the time, a fast and flat point of sail on Totem, and gentle seas keep the motion very comfortable. As if we weren’t already on a high, the dolphin escort joins us in the early hours of the fourth day to lift our spirits again. The half dozen common dolphins aren’t always visible in the dark, but puffs of breath at the surface remind us of these constant companions. The pod stays until just after dawn, and then disappears to the north.


Nighttime watch has a magical quality when you’re not fighting to stay alert. We’ve left with a waning moon: not ideal, since it will give us little light for the back half of the passage, but great for stargazing. In the wee hours, I can see the Big Dipper and North Star to starboard; to port, the Southern Cross stretches up into the sky.

During the day, we cross the halfway mark in terms of mileage. But we’ve had a good breeze, and the forecast still shows it getting lighter ahead, stretching out our expected days at sea. That’s OK: we’re in the passage making grove now. And in truth, conditions are so pleasant, we just don’t care if it takes us longer to make landfall. Thankfully, it seems we haven’t had to re-learn passage making lessons the hard way…yet.

Next post: the last 500 miles to Sri Lanka.

Passage-ready readers always click to the post on Sailfeed – thanks for kicking a little change in our cruising kitty!

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