Adventures in sailing on the South China Sea

  • May. 8, 2011 8:00 p.m.

When I worked for Brunei Shell in the 1970s the company sailing and rowing club had a 38-feet Swiftsure class sailing sloop called the Makan Angin‚ which in the Malay language means Wind Eater or Eats the Wend.

Intended for recreational use by members, when one had some free time from one’s duties in a busy production onshore and offshore oil and gas field, it was not just a pleasure craft for swanning about the South China Sea! It was under the overall direction and control of the Marine Craft division headed by two fully certified Master Mariners, Captain Tony Doran and Captain Ralph Armstrong (a Geordie like myself).

In my spare time I went through the relevant classroom and practical courses and finished up with an official certificate licensing me to act as first mate to a certified skipper in the South China Sea. That is as far as my nautical education went as my Shell duties prevented me from taking my skipper’s qualification. I suppose that I still have that hard-won certificate somewhere even though I never put it to much practical use!

For the practical lessons one had to take Makan Angin out from its regular mooring at the Shell Marine Craft Division in the Belait River (sea snakes and crocodiles being avoided!) and out to sea over a sandbar at the river mouth. A Perkins diesel engine helped but one was expected to be able to do it using the sails alone! Once at sea we would sail to the various offshore drilling rigs and production platforms as directed by the ever-watchful skipper. Sometimes our sailing took us north-east up to Brunei’s capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, or south-west along the coast towards Sarawak. This may sound like an easy wandering about like tourists but one had to be fully aware of one’s surroundings, duties, and of our ship specifically. We never had any worries about crossing in and out of any country’s territorial boundaries as Shell operated regularly in both Malaysian and in Brunei waters.

Swimming in the water was not encouraged as although the sea was like a warm bath the presence of jellyfish, sharks and other marine life could not always be easily detected.

Although my mate’s ticket did not permit me to go far out of Brunei waters, some of the much more experienced skippers with the time to spare went as far as Hong Kong and Singapore. Apart from time I was never sure enough of my nautical abilities to go out of sight of the coast of Borneo.

As a Briton I have an inborn liking and respect for the sea. My granddad was a fisherman on the North Sea out of Grimsby, my father served on destroyers and cruisers in World War One out of the Tyne shipyards, and my eldest son was a boatswain in the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve. I broke the pattern and was in the Royal Air Force! But I took to sailing without any bother. I also enjoyed rowing at school and in Shell. In addition I was also officially responsible for looking after the major maintenance requirements of Makan Angin and her engine, so I had a special interest in her!

My last experience of Makan Angin did however leave me not with a bad taste in my mouth but with a really bad smell up my nose. Not very long before we left Brunei I was asked by my friend the company dentist to act as mate for a weekend cruise. I accepted his invitation and our family turned up with his at the dockside mooring. Off we went north-eastwards following the coastline to Muara, the entry port to Bandar. As mate with my engineering capabilities anything involving maintenance or repair naturally fell into my remit. So when we tied up at Muara for the night I went below to verify that all was in order ready for our return trip the next day. It was but I detected a slight odour that had not previously been apparent while the boat was sailing and well- ventilated. I thought that I would find it and eliminate it. This was a decision that I was to regret.

I discovered some small lockers intended for tools and spare parts storage built into the sides of the boat. Curious I opened the secure top of one and found the smell. Or rather the smell found me! Somebody, I never found out who it was or when they did it, had left a varied assortment of shellfish and other marine life in the locker. To call it “life” was a definite mistake as it had been there for at least a week in tropical heat that usually reached at least 100 degrees F in a securely closed compartment. I presumed that it had been used for bait when fishing.

Hurriedly slamming the locker lid shut, I fled up to the deck and wrapped a clean cloth round my mouth and nose to help counteract that vile stench. Before I could think too much about it I rapidly removed the most and worst of the mess. It took at least four buckets to do it, plus the cleaning water. I was not helped by the rest of the crew who gave me as wide a berth as possible, although they gave me plenty of advice from the relative safety of the quayside!

By our departure time the next morning I was still feeling the effects of that smell and during the trip back to our home base, with the rest of the crew up on deck, the sea was rather choppy. I have just been seasick that one time in my life and it is an experience that I most definitely do not recommend! The result was that when I got back I left the boat very hurriedly, leaving instructions to have it thoroughly scrubbed out and disinfected before anybody used it again! It took me a couple of days before I was totally clear of it all!

That was a rather sad ending to my relationship with a splendid ship that gave me much pleasure and knowledge of her natural elements‚ “the sea under her keel and the wind in her sails!”

Peter Kendal is a freelance writer in Vernon.