Sailing the South China Sea
‘Check this out,’ Faith said, reading a warning on our chart. ‘Vessels off the north coast of Borneo may lose buoyancy and sink.’
‘Can’t be,’ I argued. ‘Unless a boat fills with water, it has to float.’
‘It warns here, that the sea bed in the oil fields contains large
deposits of gas. Should the gas break through bottom and bubble to
the surface, the water becomes aerated and cannot support a vessel.’
‘Yah, I suppose so. A boat needs solid water to float. Put it in air and it will drop like a stone.’
And we intended sailing through this nightmare?
We were three days and three hundred miles out of Singapore. We had avoided the Anambas pirates by giving their islands a wide berth and passed well over the horizon.
Now we approached Api Passage, the beginning of our Borneo jaunt. We intended putting in at Kuching for a couple of weeks and then making the seven hundred mile non-stop voyage to Kota Kinabalu.
On the way we would have to sail through the oil and gas fields.
‘Second warning,’ Faith said. ‘There’s an uncharted rock just to the south of us. Here are the co-ordinates.’
I checked the chart and sure enough, the rock was not marked. ‘Okay, it’s there now. I’ve plotted its position and marked it in red. Only ten miles away.’
‘Hope we can navigate through the oilfields during daylight. There’s about a hundred miles of obstructions. Don’t want to find our way through them in the dark.’
As it happened, after our sojourn in Kuching, we hit the oilfields at
night. The oil rigs are something else. They are enormous, about as
big as city blocks and six storeys high.
They were well lit, but off-lying, sixty-metre-tall concrete exhaust vents lay up to five miles off the main rigs were not lit. Ha, ha, except for giant flames leaping out of the flue, lighting up the night sky and casting us in an eerie orange glow.
‘Unlit barge inshore of us,’ Faith warned.
I hadn’t seen it, but there were lights inshore of us and as we passed
the barge, it blanketed the lights behind it.
‘Very dangerous, that. It’s enormous too, probably a thousand tons. And totally invisible in the dark. If it wasn’t for the lights behind it
We kept our eyes focussed on the blackness ahead. No lights were used that night. On an open sea passage, we’ll shield the cockpit from a galley- or chart-table light. But not with so many obstructions ahead as it takes twenty minutes to regain one’s night vision. At the chart table, we used a low intensity red light, like a photographic
By first light the next morning, we were through the oil fields on our
way to Kuruman Island which we would only reach at sunset that day. Here we would anchor, sleep and swim under Senta to clean barnacles off the bottom. Ha, ha, where a sea snake came to see what we were doing and Faith and I found ourselves in the water at the same time as a snake.
What you won’t believe, is that three years later, after we’d explored the Philippines, on our return trip down the coast of Borneo, we hit the oil-fields at night, this time in rain.