To celebrate Chinese New Year (year of the horse), we saddled up our sea kayaks and took to the sea for an exploratory mission to Pulau Pisang Island (literally translating to ‘Banana Island’ in Malay). Pulau Pisang is located 14km off the coast of Malaysia in the Malacca Straits. The island officially belongs to Malaysia. However in 1900, Singapore signed an agreement with the Sultan of Johor which allowed them to operate a lighthouse from the Island in perpetuity. This has recently caused some political tensions between the two countries, mainly over sovereignty issues. We did not care too much about international politics as I believe the Island was there long before men were running around laying claim to certain pieces of the earth.
I had managed to convince Stephanie my wife and long-time rugby mate Andrew Glass (a.k.a ‘Glassy’) to join me. We set-off at 5:15AM from Singapore with two kayaks loaded up ( a double for Stephanie and myself and a single for Glassy). After an obligatory ‘athletes breakfast’ of roti prata (aka rote canai) in Gelang Patah in Malayia, we were in the water by just before 8am at the small town of Pontian and paddling.
It is a 14km open water paddle to reach the island. At this time of the year the prevailing winds are north-easterly due to the monsoon. Our paddle out to the Island took 2 hours and 30 minutes. Wind induced short period choppy swells sweeping in from behind made an uncomfortable journey as we were pushed and rolled around without warning. Stephanie and Glassy were amazed when I told them after 1.5 hours of paddling that the Island was still 7km away as it looked deceptively close.
We landed on the Island and had the company of some friendly Malay families who had come over in a boat and were swimming and enjoying themselves. We took a short walk to the lighthouse at the top of the Island which is permanently staffed and operated by Singaporean’s. They were very friendly to talk to and told us they work on a ten day on/ten day off shift. It would be a beautiful part of the world to have your office.
We enjoyed a tranquil lunch sitting on the small jetty on the Island before gearing up for the paddle back to the mainland. My water proof camera and waterproof GPS both gave up life on the journey meaning we steered mainly on a compass heading back the first half of the journey. The mainland looks so featureless from 14km away that it is hard to recognise features for navigation purposes. As we got closer Glassy recognised one of the landmarks to head for onshore. It was a good lesson not to completely rely on GPS or electronic navigation devices.
We arrived back after 2 hours and 15 minutes of paddling. Paddling across open water is a very different experience to coastal paddling (paddling alongside and parallel to the coastline). The scenery changes much slower in open water paddling. The conditions can get much worse and the commitment level is higher due to the fact if something goes wrong offshore then you can’t easily get into the safety of dry land. It can be an intimidating yet exhilarating feeling when you are so far from land with the weather conditions worsening. Stephanie’s arms were very tired and I was exceptionally proud of her for having the physical and mental strength to paddle for 5 hours, on her first open water crossing.
For anyone contemplating this paddle in the future, my advice to be wary that is longer than it looks to the Island! If anything goes wrong out there you are pretty much on your own. Cellphones do work from Pula Pisang so if you had a phone in a waterproof bag this would be a good back-up (and of course you must know who to call!). Navigation is also a challenge, especially if the visibility is poor. So prepare and train properly so that you have enough strength to paddle in choppy/windy condition’s for at least 5 – 6 hours, and enough experience to know what to do in the event that conditions change or something went wrong.