BY Stuart Heaver on 6 Jul 2023

Its irresistible mix of attributes for both sailing and motor cruising makes Peninsular Malaysia an especially popular sailing destination.

“Malaysia is blessed with a combination of diverse heritage, natural beauty and excellent infrastructure,” says Sail Malaysia’s Sazli Kamal Basha. Sail Malaysia is a private Malaysian initiative sanctioned by the Cruise Marine Tourism Association of Malaysia, which promotes yachting, provides vital local sailing information via its website and organises popular sail rallies in Malaysian waters. Government support for yachting is a key part of Malaysia’s tourism offering, and this official support is often lacking within other jurisdictions in the region.

Malaysia’s Maritime Heritage

Like all the finest sailing grounds in Asia, the 2,000km coastline of Peninsular Malaysia offers cruising vessels attractive palm-fringed white sand beaches, secluded anchorages in crystalline water sheltered by jagged limestone cliffs, and jungle-covered mountains. However, very few Asian destinations can match the impressive range of marinas, boatyards and yacht-friendly resorts, or the rich maritime culture and heritage of Malaysia.

The Malaysian archipelago has attracted seafarers since the area was dominated by the Srivijaya Empire in the 7th century, the first unified kingdom to dominate maritime Southeast Asia. Merchants from Persia, Oman, China and Vietnam all plied their trade in these waters for centuries, sailing in junks and dhows.

There are many worthy contenders for the accolade of the most attractive yachting destination in Southeast Asia, but Peninsular Malaysia’s irresistible mix of attributes for both sailing and motor cruising makes it an especially strong one.

Later, Portuguese, Dutch and British merchant ships dominated the strategically important Strait of Malacca, which connects the Indian and Pacific oceans. The Chinese mariner and court eunuch Admiral Zheng He brought his massive treasure fleet here and visited Malacca in the 15th century, when it was one of the most vibrant and cosmopolitan entrepots in the world; these days, it’s an impressive UNESCO world heritage site. According to legend, the small coterie of Ming dynasty Chinese courtiers that remained ashore after the Admiral’s visit founded the influential Peranakan ethnic group, which has left its mark on Malaysian commerce, fashion, food and architecture.

History & Royalty

Every November, it’s possible to sail along that historic route through the Strait of Malacca by participating in Malaysia’s second oldest and most challenging offshore sailing race, the Raja Muda Selangor International Regatta (RMSIR). The event, which has even seen Malaysian royalty participate, is organised by the Royal Selangor Yacht Club (RSYC) and enjoys official sponsorship from Selangor Tourism. This year’s regatta is scheduled for 17-25 November.

Even experienced and enthusiastic sailors will need to be prepared for the sleep deprivation and varied meteorological conditions that are a feature of this gruelling three-legged offshore race to Langkawi via Pulau Pangkor and the historic former British port of Penang. Monsoons dominate the Strait of Malacca and in November, racers might be lucky to benefit from steady north-easterly monsoon winds. More likely though, they will also witness the unforgettable experience of sitting in bright sunshine on the windward rail as their yacht ploughs north, admiring competing boats under a clear sky, only to find themselves suddenly immersed in a deluge of rain as a dark squall envelopes their boat without warning.

There are many worthy contenders for the accolade of the most attractive yachting destination in Southeast Asia, but Peninsular Malaysia’s irresistible mix of attributes for both sailing and motor cruising makes it an especially strong one.

Pulau Tioman

Of course, sailing in peninsular Malaysia is not dominated by racing and regattas. According to chairman Jeff B. Harris, the RSYC is regularly used by cruising yachts that are making extended trips around the region. “Typically, these are family-run sailing boats in the 36-50ft range, equipped for longer passages and stopping off to visit Selangor and Kuala Lumpur,” he says.

For those who prefer a more comfortable pace, the Sail Malaysia Passage to Langkawi Yacht Rally kicks off from Johor Bahru in November, arriving in Langkawi a month later. The rally makes many port calls en-route with fun social activities and an opportunity for sightseeing ashore, including historic Port Dickson and the UNESCO world heritage site at Malacca.

A Sailor’s Dream

Langkawi is something of a sailing paradise. With more than 100 islands in its archipelago offering picturesque anchorages, three marinas, good boatyards, luxury beach resorts with five star facilities, friendly locals who speak English, fabulous food and a convenient airport connection, it’s hardly surprising that it’s quickly becoming established as an international luxury boating destination. As a duty-free port, fuel is cheap – as is a decent bottle of malt whisky, which can be procured from the many local duty-free shops.

The centrepiece of the local sailing scene is the Royal Langkawi Yacht Club (RLYC) and marina manager Mazrizal Othman says that the appeal of Langkawi is extending to motor cruisers and superyachts.

“Around Langkawi there are many good anchorages for superyachts; Langkawi is also good for superyachts stopping for refuelling and resting,” says Othman, who adds that the RLYC can provide berthing for superyachts up to 80 metres in length. “The marina has grown together with the island’s development, emerging as the heart of sailing and yachting on Peninsular Malaysia’s northwest coast.”

Pulau Tioman

Langkawi is increasingly seen as an ideal cruising destination for superyachts and Othman says that Pulau Payar is a particularly popular hotspot. The Pulau Payar Marine Park is Malaysia’s oldest marine sanctuary and comprises four small islands: Pulau Kaca, Pulau Lembu, Pulau Segantang, and Pulau Payar, which is the largest of the four. All the islands are uninhabited, none of them offer any accommodation or much in the way of shore services, but they are exquisite and ideal for experiencing the unspoilt majesty of nature.

Heading East

More adventurous sailors who prefer less charted waters are also exploring the eastern coast of the Malaysian peninsula, which is gradually developing as an alternative cruising ground. While the area cannot boast the same levels of shore services as the Langkawi archipelago, what it lacks in infrastructure it makes up for with stunning scenery and precious tranquillity.

“The eastern side of Malaysia is where the fun is,” says Basha of Sail Malaysia, which organises a rally from the east coast of the peninsula all the way north to eastern Sabah. However, he admits that the quality of marina varies.

There are many worthy contenders for the accolade of the most attractive yachting destination in Southeast Asia, but Peninsular Malaysia’s irresistible mix of attributes for both sailing and motor cruising makes it an especially strong one.

Aerial view of Langkawi kilim Geoforest park taken in Pulau Langkawi, Malaysia

The east coast of the Malaysian peninsula is best cruised in the south-west monsoon season and one increasingly popular location is Tioman, the largest island of the 64 in the Seri Buat group, with many beautiful beaches overshadowed by a 1,000-metre-high mountain. It’s close enough to Johor Bahru and Singapore to have developed several good quality resorts and was the location for the movie classic South Pacific and more recently for Kong 2: Son of Kong. However, the movie stars and monsters have since departed the island.

Most cruising yachts will head further north up to more remote Terengganu or the tourist islands of Redang and the Perhantians, which offer pretty overnight anchorages. However, the only two marinas currently operating on the east coast at the time of writing are at Pulau Tioman and Terengganu.

Basha insists it’s impossible to ever be bored while cruising in east or west Peninsular Malaysia. “From unique unspoiled places waiting to be discovered to world-class marinas, you’ll find Malaysia full of wonderful surprises,” he says.

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