Features — November 14, 2011

Yachting awaits development in Penang

The Junk Anchorage.
Photograph: Ong Ee Lynn

Penang’s rich history evokes images of well-known seafarers, such as Zheng He, Sir James Lancaster and Captain Francis Light, yet most modern Penangites are disinterested in boating. The international boating industry is a highly lucrative one and PEM looks at whether Penang has the right ingredients to become a regional boating hub.

By Herbert Poenisch and Oh Kean Shen

When you gaze out over the sea around Penang, there is emptiness, the absence of boats of various shapes and sizes, save for the ubiquitous ferries, the occasional fishing boats and the unregulated water sports activities in Batu Ferringhi [1]. Contrast this with other historic islands in the vicinity, such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Phuket and Langkawi. The contrast with the other place where I live, Houlgate in Normandy, France is even starker. You sometimes wonder whether anybody is left on shore.

To understand why the local boating scene is rather sleepy and why so few Penangites venture out into the sea it is necessary to examine Penang’s boating infrastructure, the state’s human resources and Penangites’ general ambivalence for the sea.

Penang’s potential as a yachting1 hub
Penang, “one of the 10 islands you need to visit before you die”, could be developed into a “Yachting Base”; the time is right for this to become a development priority for both the public and private sectors. Boat owners will be happy to come and stay if the right facilities and services can be provided. Penang certainly has the natural charm to attract foreign tourists to visit and even make it a second home. Geographically, it lies at the gateway of the yachting grounds of the western group of islands from Penang to Phuket, leading into the unexplored Mergui Archipelago at the southern border of Myanmar.

The area of sea that stretches between Myanmar, Singapore and across to Kalimantan and the Indonesian Islands to the Philippines could be marketed as the world’s “last unexplored cruising frontier”. The vast biodiversity of marine life habitat, species of corals, fauna and flora is greater than that of the Mediterranean and the Caribbean combined.

The yachting industry has coined the word “Aseanarean” to describe this relatively unexplored yachting destination. Aseanarean has the potential to be promoted as a major marine tourist destination for a number of reasons: South-East Asia enjoys conditions fit for sailing throughout the year; the costs of yachting are relatively low (contrasted with soaring costs in Europe and the US) and diversity of cultures and traditions. As Asian economies continue to boom and yacht moorings become scarcer and scarcer in the Mediterranean and the US, Asia is well-positioned to become the next preferred playing ground for yacht owners.

However, boating around Penang has two drawbacks; the infrastructure is still underdeveloped and the weather is less than ideal. While power boats perform bett er in sedate calm waters, yachts need strong winds which around Penang can only be counted on in June, July and August.

Getting facilities and services right [2]
The yachting business needs a well-organised infrastructure – safe and convenient moorings, preferably marinas. Necessary back-up services include water and power supplies, marine information as well as maintenance facilities and supplies for the weary boats and sailors. At present, Penang off ers three anchorages and two public marinas (one existing private marina and another in construction). Th ese are of varying quality, refl ecting the jumble of public and private initiatives. Arriving from the south, sailors can take the Western Channel (between Penang and Pulau Jerejak) to the Seagate Anchorage or the Marina Batu Uban. Alternatively, boats pass through the Main Channel (under the Penang Bridge), to reach the Tanjong City Marina or the Junk Anchorage. Arriving from the north, the Tanjong City Marina, Junk Anchorage and E-Gate are easily accessible.

The Seagate Anchorage
The Seagate Anchorage is in the Western Channel at about 05º19’N 100º18’.5E. Quah Th ye Hock aka Uncle Quah supplies water sports services and rents moorings for a few Ringgit a day. He is also a good source of information and assistance.

Marina Batu Uban
Marina Batu Uban at 05º21’N 100º19’E is not a fullservice marina, but Jabatan Laut officers are helpful, when their official duties allow them to be, and they have helped skippers find services ashore. The Marina has no seawall; wind, waves and wake from commercial traffic have burst fenders on occasion and skippers are advised to make sure that their masts are not aligned with their neighbour’s.

Tanjong City Marina.
Photograph: Ong Ee Lynn

Tanjong City Marina
Tanjong City Marina, based around the century-old Church Street Pier, offers more than 100 berths. At about 5°25’N, 100°21’E, it is located in the heart of George Town’s World Heritage Site. The marina has a floating breakwater that partly shields boats from ferry wake and wave. Tidal streams can be significant at spring tides. Berths at the northern end of the marina offer the best shelter from ferry wash. It offers clearance services, water, electricity, showers and toilets, laundry, Wi-Fi, restaurant and repairs. A fuel berth and a provision store are being planned. Until further protection is installed, berths at the southern end of the marina are not being used. At the moment there are technical problems with this location, such as siltation and ferry wakes which need to be resolved to allow it to become a truly world-class facility.

The Junk Anchorage
The Junk Anchorage, just south of the Tanjong City Marina and ferry terminal lies off the historical clan jett ies. Diesel fuel is usually available from a fuel barge nearby. Th e Junk Anchorage is exposed to weather from the north and east.

E-Gate Anchorage
The E-Gate Anchorage lies at about 05º 22’N 100º19’E, after proceeding south down the Western Channel from the Junk Anchorage. Vessels can anchor off shore from either the E-Gate building (prominent cupola) or the blue-roofed building housing the Jabatan Laut headquarters for the northern region of the Malaysian peninsula. Be alert for submarine cables and the associated no-anchoring area.

Yachts at Straits Quay Marina.
Photograph: Ong Ee Lynn

Straits Quay Marina
E&O Property Development recently launched the Straits Quay Marina at 05º27.46’N 100º19.025’E, the first in Penang with a fixed breakwater, making it very safe for expensive boats. The Straits Quay marina has 40 pontoon berths that can accommodate boats from 10m to 25m in length, with the approach channel and marina basin dredged to three metres below chart data. This is expected to fill up very quickly because it has a limited capacity.

All berths have water and electricity supplied via pedestals. A boater’s centre is located within the Marina Management Office with an information office, Wi-Fi access and shower rooms. Prior booking of berths is highly recommended and they will only be allocated subject to availability.

Another property developer in Penang, IJM Land, is developing waterfront properties north of Penang Bridge, which will eventually provide some berthing facilities for the residents of that area.

Penangites and the sea – a queasy relationship
It has been estimated that the majority of Penangites (as high as two-thirds!) cannot swim. Given that it is hazardous for non-swimmers to get too close to the sea, this could explain why very few Penangites are interested in watersports or sailing.

In landlocked European countries including Austria and Switzerland, it is mandatory to teach children to swim, thus avoiding unnecessary accidents in fast-flowing mountain streams and Alpine lakes. There is even more urgency for local education authorities to follow this example as Penang is an island.

Apparently urban Penangites do not want to run the risk of being mistaken for fishermen!

Perceived health risks (poisonous jelly fish and waterborne diseases) and the fear of these also keep Penangites out of the sea. Finally, another likely reason is the stigma attached to water activities. It has been reported that on sea outings, local passengers prefer to stay inside the boat and risk sea sickness, because they do not want to be exposed to sunlight, fearing their skin will tan. Apparently urban Penangites do not want to run the risk of being mistaken for fishermen!

Encouraging water activities in Penang
To remedy the first obstacle, the inability to swim, we urge the education authorities to introduce mandatory swimming lessons for all school children in Penang, not as part of aft er-school activities but as part of the curriculum, such as gymnastics.

The private sector including property developers could make a major contribution by offering aquatic facilities to young Penangites for a reasonable fee. The planned water park currently being built by E&O Property Development in Tanjung Tokong is a case in point. Other private institutions which have sizeable swimming pools on their premises should be reminded of their social responsibility and open their facilities for schools during off -peak hours.

With time, access to the right facilities and training, more and more young Penangites may be seen out at sea, boating, windsurfing or even kite-surfing (I think parents secretly want to see their children spend less time in shopping malls and more time enjoying sporting activities with their friends).

Business opportunities and careers on the water
The economic benefits of the yachting industry in Penang are multifaceted, ranging from marina development, yacht repairs, yacht building and yacht sales to yacht insurance, yacht financing, shopping, pubs, restaurants and hotel accommodation and well-paid employment for crews.

It is an industry that generates revenue for the state even when the owners of the yachts are away; berthing charges and crews still have to be paid. Developing Penang as a yachting hub will att ract a diff erent type of tourist, yacht owners are people who are potentially willing to make Penang a home for themselves and their yachts.

Penang’s Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng observed in his speech at the Penang Outlook Forum 2009 that for the state to move ahead it is necessary to trust in “the ability of Penang’s greatest resource – our human resources by investing in retraining and human development” [3]. As part of a long-term initiative to introduce Penangites to a career on water, a private initiative (Shunfeng) is currently developing a comprehensive training programme; the three-stage programme will train individuals to crew pleasure boats on a part-time or fulltime professional basis.

The first stage will involve cooperation between Shunfeng and six Penang schools to spot and develop boating skills at the age of 15–18 years; this should be underway in early 2012. The second stage will involve boat training – both power and sailing boat training – for youngsters in their early 20s; aft er the completion of the training they will be awarded an internationally recognised certificate. Th e third and fi nal stage will involve professional training lasting several years which will allow graduates to helm ships such as cruise ships, container ships or even oil tankers.

It is envisaged that part-time crews will be able to earn extra income (on top of their fulltime careers) by crewing power and sailing boats which can be chartered by visitors to Penang during weekends. The professional skippers will be available on a fulltime basis to crew power boats and sailing boats, and day trips or weekly outings can be marketed as a new Penang tourism feature. Malaysia would also like to see national teams taking part in international competitions [4].

The present situation is far away from serving as a starting base. It is, rather, a patchwork with no end result mapped out. An integrated, coordinated approach is needed to put boating on a sound footing in Penang. Similar to road traffic which needs a good infrastructure, reliable vehicles as well as well-trained drivers, a combination of public and private eff orts is needed to promote yachting. Ideally, the government together with private interests should cooperate to create the necessary infrastructure and train responsible personnel [5]. In the process, someone or some organisation should perform the coordinating role and move the project forward from various angles.

[1] Quah, Jeffrey Hardy and Heah, Marisa (2011): “All is not well on Penang’s beaches.” In: Penang Economic Monthly, September 2011.

[2] The information was kindly supplied by Eileen Burton, an authority on boating in Penang who also runs the Blue Whale Cruise from the Straits Quay Marina

[3] Lim Guan Eng (2009): “A Blueprint for Sustainable Development.” Speech by the Chief Minister of Penang at the Penang Outlook Forum 2009. In: Ooi Kee Beng & Goh Ban Lee (eds): Pilot Studies for a New Penang. Institute for South Eastern Studies, Singapore 2010, p xvi.

[4] Datuk Ahmad Shabery Cheek, Malaysian Minister of Youth and Sports: “I would like one day to see our athletes taking part in professional sailing events such as the ISAF World Match Racing Tour and possible the America’s Cup”. A modest effort to train a sailing team is under way at the governmentsponsored Watersport Centre in Penang.

[5] The Penang authorities seem to veer from one extreme to the other. The recent ban on water sports in Batu Ferringhi is a case in point, how can you promote tourism while banning water sports? A long-term solution is to pass sensible regulation and strictly enforce it.

[1] The terms yachting and boating refer to recreational sailing or boating (sailboats or motorised craft).

Dr Herbert Poenisch is a former senior economist at the Bank for International Sett lements and an avid sailor; Oh Kean Shen is the managing director of Pen-Marine Sdn Bhd.

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