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Inflatable sea kayaking micro-adventure: Sentosa to St Johns Island

Fresh and flushed with inspiration after the maiden voyage of the Divorce Machine the week before, Stephanie and I decided Sentosa Island would be the location to launch our next inflatable sea-kayaking micro-adventure.  I enjoy testing and challenging things to the limit and today I managed to find the limits of both the Divorce Machine, how fast I can paddle against strong currents, and my relationship with my long suffering wife Stephanie.

The official Sentosa Island website describes the island as follows:

“Located just 15 minutes from the city, Sentosa, Asia’s Favourite Playground, is home to an exciting array of themed attractions, award-winning spa retreats, lush rainforests, golden sandy beaches, resort accommodations, world-renowned golf courses, a deep-water yachting marina and luxurious residences. Spread over 500 hectares, the vibrant island resort is ideal for both business and leisure.”

Asia’s favorite playground?  I wonder what they were smoking when they came up with that line?  Asia’s most artificial playground with overly inflated property prices would probably be a more appropriate name.  The original name of Sentosa Island was actually a Malay name “Pulau Belakang Mati”.  This translates to “Island of death from behind”.   Since then however it went through a few name changes.  As you can probably imagine not many people wanted to hang out on an island with that name.  Now Sentosa translates to “peace or tranquility”.

We found a car park located at Tanjong beach and inflated the Divorce Machine.  We then carried her down to the rock breakwater and scrambled down the slippery rock wall to launch her.   Our destination today was St John’s Island island to the south-east of Sentosa.  I had been told by a professional oceanographer (Mr Blair Spendelow who also happened to come up with the name for the Divorce Machine) that the currents around these islands are very strong.  So I was a little apprehensive about today’s paddle.

Getting to St John’s was not a problem as the current was whistling along from west to east.  We cruised along easily with the current, making speeds of  6 – 8 km/hour.  There is a high number of fast ferries cruising around the coast of Sentosa, and we had to cross the strait from Sentosa to Tekukor Island in gaps between this vessel traffic.  This was a little hairy and we paddled hard to get across here.  The day was overcast and windy.  The wind was whipping the sea into a choppy mess and coupled with the swells from the vessels zooming fast at high-speed we soon had water pouring over the side of the Divorce Machine.  Compared to the relatively calm water at Pulau Ubin the week before it was definitely a more intense experience.

We island hopped from Tekukor Island over to St John’s Island and pulled into the small bay and beach area.  What a beautiful little island is St John’s.  There were only 2 people on the island, a Chinese chap fishing, and the Malay caretaker named ‘Supar’. Supar was a very friendly chap who had 30 cats and told us he had been there since 1954.  He had one large tom cat with him on the jetty which was more the size of a baby tiger.  We chatted for a while.  I was surprised that here – so close to Singapore was this tranquil little island with only 2 people.  When I Google’d St John’s island when I got home I found it is haunted – maybe that explains it?

St John’s Island is actually located in a group of 4 islands known as the ‘southern islands’, St John’s, Lazarus, Kusu and Seringat. Seringat, Lazarus and St John’s are all connected to each other.  We spent a very enjoyable 2 hours slowly paddling around the perimeter of the islands. We stopped off on Kusu island which has a Chinese temple and a Malay temple on top of a small hill.   You can see more from the photos below.

Around 1300 hrs we started to paddle back to Sentosa.  Immediately the going was harder as we headed into the current.  Paddling hard we were making around 3 – 4km/hr on the GPS.  But it was tiring work.  The current was pushing directly against us.  To make matters worse the islands cause the currents to do strange things and in some areas the water gets very wild where currents from differing directions meet.  This twisted and rocked the Divorce Machine and more water poured into her.  She soon become quite heavy with water and I attempted to bail her out in between paddling.  When I stopped paddling and bailed water Stephanie continued to paddle but I noticed that the current was so strong we were not making any forward progress at all. It took two of us paddling to even move forward.  Things got worse as the wind then picked up and a huge thunderstorm  came swooping in with torrential rain.  So there we were, out in the middle of the shipping channel, in a half sunk inflatable kayak, paddling as hard we could into a head wind and head current, in the pouring rain with very poor visibility, while high-speed ferries zoomed past.  We were making around 1 – 2 km/hr.  It was terribly good fun, however I was starting to get a little concerned as we became more and more tired.  Eventually we made the decision to head into Tekukor Island to wait out the storm, drain the kayak and wait for the tide to turn at 1443hrs and hopefully the current would reverse direction.  Two very tired and relieved kayakers pulled into a small beach on the deserted Tekukor Island and found some shelter in a small rock cave for 90 minutes while the thunder/ lightning and rain passed over head.

While waiting on Tekukor Island we made friends with a little hermit crab which brightened up our day (See the short YouTube video below). At 1440 the rain had gone and we emptied the Divorce Machine of water and relaunched.  With a rest and the currents easing off we made good time and paddled hard across the strait to reach Sentosa Cove.  From here we had another 2 km of hard paddling to get back up to Tanjong beach.  We pulled in at 3PM, pretty tired and with sore hands from paddling.  The trip was just over 18km in total.

The next time I attempt this trip I will pay more attention to the tides and make sure we have the currents in our favor for the return journey.  And I strongly recommend anyone trying this for the first time to take care with the currents.  They really are very strong and the water can be rough and choppy with large swells.  We had fun, but it was a battle and a good reminder of the power of mother nature.  Enjoy the photos below.

Map of the route - 18km in total

Map of the route – 18km in total

Leaving Tanjong Beach behind and making good time paddling with the current. Some big black clouds behind Stephanie's shoulder would eventually catch us out later.

Leaving Tanjong Beach behind and making good time paddling with the current. Some big black clouds behind Stephanie’s shoulder would eventually catch us out later.

A high speed ferry whizzes past in the distance.  These travel so fast they are on you within a couple of minutes.

A high-speed ferry whizzes past in the distance. These travel so fast they are on you within a couple of minutes.

Sentosa Cove in the distance on the left hand side.

Sentosa Cove in the distance on the left hand side.

Stephanie takes a dip in the bay at St John's Island.

Stephanie takes a dip in the bay at St John’s Island.

Arriving at St John's Island.

Arriving at St John’s Island.

The signboard for St John's Island.

The signboard for St John’s Island.

The Divorce Machine on the beach at St John's Island.

The Divorce Machine on the beach at St John’s Island.

Stephanie checking out this guys catch.

Stephanie checking out this guys catch.

He had caught a lot of these small Pomfret which he says he steams and eats and taste great.

He had caught a lot of these small Pomfret which he says he steams and eats and taste great.

The Malay caretaker 'Supar' who has worked in the island since 1954 with one of his 30 lovely cats.

The Malay caretaker ‘Supar’ who has worked in the island since 1954 with one of his 30 lovely cats.

This guy was super fat and super cute.

This guy was super fat and super cute.

Stephanie arrives at Kusu Island jetty.

Stephanie arrives at Kusu Island jetty.

The signboard on Kusu Island.

The signboard on Kusu Island.

Kusu means 'turtle' in Chinese apparently.

Kusu means ‘turtle’ in Chinese apparently.

Paddling home - Marina Bay sands in the distance.

Paddling home – Marina Bay sands in the distance.

A fishing boat passes us.

A fishing boat passes us.

That white water just infront of the boat is a sign of two different current streams meeting.  Was hard work paddling through this and it filled the boat up with water.

That white water just in front of the boat is a sign of two different current streams meeting. It was hard work paddling through this and it filled the boat up with water.

Stephanie's legs showing what it takes to be an outdoor girl! Tan lines and scars, and sitting in a boat full of water as we paddle hard to make Tekukor Island.

Stephanie’s legs showing what it takes to be an outdoor girl! Tan lines and scars, and sitting in a boat full of water as we paddle hard to make Tekukor Island.

The view across the straight to Sentosa Island from Tekukor Island in the pouring rain.  You can see how the visibility dropped and made it dangerous to paddle amongst the high speed ferries.

The view across the straight to Sentosa Island from Tekukor Island in the pouring rain. You can see how the visibility dropped and made it dangerous to paddle among the high-speed ferries and strong currents.

Living the dream.

Living the dream on Tekukor Island.

Stephanie finds shelter on Tekukor Island from the rain and lightning.

Stephanie finds shelter on Tekukor Island from the rain and lightning.

My hands after 5 hours immersed in water.

My hands after 5 hours immersed in water.

Some of the million dollar properties at Sentosa Cove.

Some of the million dollar properties at Sentosa Cove.

Finally back at Tanjong beach - very happy and a little tired.

Finally back at Tanjong beach – very happy and a little tired.

This blog is listed under a section on my website called ‘Micro Adventure’.  Micro-adventures are cheap simple adventures close to home. A chap named Alistair Humphreys coined the phrase ‘micro-adventure’.  You can read about him here.  I will continue to add more micro adventures to my website to give people idea’s and inspiration to go on your own adventures.  If you do go on your own, I would love to hear about them and do drop me a line!

Maiden voyage of The Divorce Machine – a kayaking micro adventure from Changi to Pulau Ubin

After living for almost 15 years on this beautiful tiny little Island, Singapore yet again surprised and delighted me this morning.

The story actually starts some weeks back.

A wise man once said “Every man wants three things in life, beautiful woman, the company of good friends, and an inflatable kayak”.  (I just made that up but I am sure wise men would say stuff like that).

So it was with much anticipation and excitement three weeks ago that I took delivery of my brand new Sea Eagle Fast Track Inflatable Sea Kayak, mail ordered from the USA and delivered to my office as it was too large to fit in my home post box.

I lumped the 3 large boxes into my car and ferried them home and set about setting up the paddles and inflating the kayak in the small lounge of our 1000 sq foot apartment.  I had deliberately kept the purchase of this little pleasure vessel a secret from my wife Stephanie as I wanted to surprise her. (A secondary reason was that I knew she may stop me doing it).

Surprise! Trying out 'The divorce machine' in the lounge.

Surprise!!!

It definitely did turn out to be a surprise for her when she came home and found me sitting in the inflated kayak in the lounge watching television.  In fact she was so surprised she made me pack it up immediately and get it out of the lounge before I smashed the glass ranch slider with my paddle.   After my few pre-prepared lines such as “Its got two seats, one for you and one for me” and “god you look beautiful when you are angry” did not seem to enable her enthusiasm for the purchase, I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to get her out on an adventure to prove just how much of a good idea this whole thing actually was.  All Stephanie seemed concerned about was tiny little details such as  ‘where are we going to store it?’ and ‘how are you going to clean it?’ and ‘what will you do it when it gets a hole in it when you are in the ocean?’.  All things I had never actually thought about to be honest.

After completing our ‘1 star kayaking course’ two weeks previously with the lovely people from Xtreme kayaking (I strongly recommend them if you want to learn how to kayak as they are very patient and run professional, well taught courses at Manamana on East coast parkway), we ventured to Changi Village on Easter Friday morning and set out on the maiden voyage.  During the 1 star kayaking course, our inflatable kayak has been fondly  christened ‘The Divorce Machine’ by good friend Mr Blair Spendelow.  Stephanie seemed to think the name was quite appropriate.  So I decided to stick with it.

Pumping up 'The Divorce Machine' at Changi beach carpark.

Pumping up ‘The Divorce Machine’ at Changi beach car park.

The plan was to start at Changi beach, and paddle ‘The Divorce Machine’ across the Singapore straits, and around the eastern half of Pulau Ubin (an island located just off the North East coast of Singapore).  Pulau Ubin means ‘Tile Island’ in Malay.  This is because of the granite that was quarried from the island and used for building purposes on the Singapore mainland.  The granite quarries closed in the 1960’s and the island has since become one of the few placed in Singapore where you can experience a relaxed kampong (village) atmosphere in some beautiful natural surroundings.

After some extensive research and pre-planning (2 minutes on the computer checking the tide tables and a quick sketch on a piece of paper to work out the currents the day before), my calculations showed that high tide would be around 12:26PM, and we could therefore do a counter clockwise loop around Pulau Ubin, paddling with the current as we headed west, then cut straight down through the island through the river mangroves as we reached high tide then could paddle back across the strait to Changi Beach in a south easterly direction with the current as the tide started to go out. (The current direction in Singapore is directly related to the tide, when the tide comes in, the current flows to the west and vice verca).

The Singapore strait happens to be a very busy shipping channel, with some very large boats and very many ferries travelling very fast which all made me very nervous paddling very slowly in a very small rubber kayak filled  with a very small amount of air laden with a very precious cargo (i.e. my wife).  However the water surface was calm and with no wind it was ideal conditions for paddling.  We set off at 10AM and crossed the channel in between tug boats pulling huge barges full of sand, large merchant vessels and many smaller ferries. Stephanie even seemed to enjoy the excitement of dodging these huge vessels.

Some of the things we decided to give way to in the Singapore Straits

Some of the things we decided to give way to in the Singapore Straits

Here we paddled around the perimeter of an area known as Chek Jawa.  Chek Jawa is a marine reserve and full of rich bio diversity.  I had read the day before that it is possible to see dolphins in Chek Jawa.  We were having a small rest from paddling and enjoying sitting in the boat when suddenly only 10 feet from the boat something surfaced and let out a whoosh of air.  It scared the crap out of both of us, “what was that?!” Stephanie squeaked in alarm.  “It must have been a dolphin” I excitedly shot back.  I couldn’t believe our luck!  We eagerly scanned the water  surface for the next few minutes to see if we could spot the creature again but alas it was not to be.  Since coming home I have done some research online.  It may have been a dolphin or a dugong, it is hard to say as we did not get a good look at it.  I would love to hear from anyone else who reads this, if they have had other similar experiences.

We set off leaving Changi beach behind.

We set off leaving Changi beach behind.

The beauty of Chek Jawa's rocky foreshore. A rich ecosystem and one of the last natural rocky shorelines in Singapore

The board walks along Chek Jawa’s rocky foreshore. These help protect the rich ecosystem and one of the last natural rocky shorelines in Singapore

We continued our way around the island.  It was a beautiful morning for kayaking, slightly overcast which meant it was not to hot and glary.  I marvelled at the beauty of the rocky shoreline of Chek Jawa.  I could not help but wonder why I had never visited this area in 15 years of living in Singapore.  As it turned out the day just kept on getting better and better.  My current and tidal predictions turned out to work out about as perfectly as I could have hoped for.  We moved easily with the current around the northern end of the island.  Here there is a fence along the rocky shoreline – I presume to stop people swimming in from Malaysia?  There is also quite a lot of garbage floating in the sea.  My view on this is that instead of moaning about it, if everyone picked  a bit up then the situation would naturally improve.  We ended up picking up a large bag full of plastic bottles, wrappers and all sorts of bits and pieces which we took back to a rubbish bin on Pulau Ubin.

We paddled on past some floating fish farms or ‘kelong’ in Malay (not sure if I spelt that correctly so please do comment if I am wrong).

A 'Kelong' or floating fish farm.

A ‘Kelong’ or floating fish farm.

Finding the mouth of the river was interesting as from a distance the entire shoreline looks fenced.  It is not until you get closer up that the entrance to the river is apparent where there is a gap in the fence. Once in the mangrove system, the scenery changed completely.  The tide was pushing hard up the river so we floated along with a few easy strokes every now again to keep direction.  Stephanie at this point became a little concerned about the presence of crocodiles.  Every log and stick floating along in the murky water soon took on the resemblance of a crocodiles head and our minds raced with wild thoughts.  I tried to sound confidently reassuring to Stephanie by informing her the only wild crocodiles in Singapore were a few km further west in the Sungei Buloh nature reserve.  But I do admit wondering to myself – if they are up there, then why are they not down here?!

Finding the whole in the fence to access the mangroves and the river mouth entrance

Finding the hole in the fence to access the mangroves and the river mouth entrance

Paddling through the mangroves - I imagined we could have been in the Amazon!

Paddling through the mangroves – I imagined we could have been in the Amazon!

The scenery was beautiful though and was we followed the many twists and turns of the river, not a sight or sound of another soul, just us, the river and the mangroves lining the banks.  I imagined we could have been anywhere in the world. Floating down the mighty Amazon in South America even.  From the small map I had printed the night before, I knew we had a short portage (portage means carry the kayak) of a few hundred metres to access the river system draining south through the island.  I popped the divorce machine on my head and headed off while Stephanie carried the paddles and other bits and pieces.  Soon we were in the second section of river and were paddling out into the Singapore Strait on the south side of Pulau Ubin, heading back for Changi beach.

Carrying the divorce machine on my head for a short distance across the interior of Pulau Ubin.

Carrying the divorce machine on my head for a short distance across the interior of Pulau Ubin.

By now the wind had picked up, the tide was going out, and the current had reversed direction.  The shipping channel was busier and the wind and the ship wakes caused the swell to pick up.  It was great fun and even felt a little exhilarating as we paddled hard in between breaks in the vessel traffic to get across to the mainland side.   Here we had a relaxed paddle following the coast back down to Changi beach where we had a well deserved swim.  I mapped our route using GPS  and the RUNTASTIC application on my blackberry phone.  We paddled just over 17km and it took a total of exactly 4 hours.

The great thing about an inflatable kayak is they are so portable.  Back at the car park, I simply deflated the boat and rolled it up and stuck it in the boot.  This took no longer than 15 minutes.   My first impressions of ‘The Divorce Machine’ after her maiden voyage are really very positive. She tracks in a straight line very well.  She is very stable even in boat wakes and larger swells. She is made of tough material that seems very hard to puncture, and is fast to set up and pack up.   The biggest bonus of all – Stephanie loved the trip!

We are really looking forward to more kayaking exploration and adventures over the next few months.  Happy Easter and may you also have some exciting adventure to put some sunburn on your body, a smile on your face and some happy memories in your heart before you go back to work on Monday!

Stephanie arrives back at Changi beach after completing the maiden voyage of 'The Divorce Machine'

Stephanie arrives back at Changi beach after completing the maiden voyage of ‘The Divorce Machine’

'The Divorce Machine' all packed up in 15 minutes flat fits into this fairly small bundle.

‘The Divorce Machine’ all packed up in 15 minutes flat, fits into this small bundle.

Map Pulau Ubin

Our approximate route around Pulau Ubin, 17km and 4 hours paddling time in total.

This blog is listed under a section on my website called ‘Singapore Micro Adventure’.  Micro adventures are cheap simple adventures close to home. A chap named Alistair Humphreys coined the phrase ‘micro adventure’, you can read about him here.  I will continue to add more micro adventures to my website to give people idea’s and inspiration to go on your own adventures.  If you do go on your own, I would love to hear about them and do drop me a line!

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