Missing kayaker may have capsized in area called 'washing machine' where water churns you around

Sarah Koh and Carmen Sin
The Straits Times
Oct 23, 2023

Tour operator Kayakasia founder Sim Cher Huey had returned to shore after a four-hour kayak outing off the coast of Sentosa just before noon on Sunday, when he found out his friend had gone missing at sea.

He jumped right back into his kayak and joined the search for the woman, who went missing during a kayaking expedition with three other companions. Her name and other details have not yet been made public by the authorities.

In response to queries, the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) and Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) said both agencies were alerted at about 10.25am on Sunday that someone was reported missing off the coast of Sentosa.

SCDF officers deployed a rescue vessel and team of divers, while MPA sent a patrol craft for the search-and-rescue mission and is coordinating efforts with the Police Coast Guard and SCDF.

MPA has also issued a navigation broadcast to ships in the area to report any sighting of a person in distress, a spokesman said.

Speaking to The Straits Times on Monday, Mr Sim, 48, said he met the missing woman about five years ago through kayaking activities, and helping out in the search was the least he could do for his friend.

He added that he had just returned to shore at about 11.45am after a kayaking trip between Sentosa and the Southern Islands when a man – who was part of the missing woman’s kayaking group at sea – told him what had happened.

Mr Sim said: “I was told a male kayaker had capsized first, and she was trying to help him but she, too, capsized. Both of them were then swept under the currents.”

The man whose kayak capsized was later rescued by a passing boat, he added.

Mr Sim then decided to send his tour group back to Tanjong Beach with an assistant guide, and sought permission from MPA to join the search operation.

He said: “We kayakers know the currents well, and we might have a different perspective of where the missing kayaker could be. We wanted to help in any way that we could, and we don’t want to give up hope.”

Mr Sim and another kayaker took their kayaks out to sea again and kept their eyes peeled at places where currents are known to flow. They also kept a lookout for items that the woman might be able to cling to – like the anchor chain of tankers or boat tyres.

After about 90 minutes, they were asked to return to shore while the authorities continued the search.

The woman’s kayak is believed to have capsized in the waters between Sentosa and Pulau Tekukor, in a patch of sea known as the Bulan Channel, reported Shin Min Daily News on Monday.

Mr Sim said: “It’s a spot where moving waters hit fixed objects – the blue floating drums pinned to the sea floor, known as floating sea barriers. So, if you’re in between, it’s pretty risky because you’re pinned between two objects with forces pushing against them.”

These barriers are put up by the authorities to help deter and delay intrusions by high-speed craft and illegal immigrants, ST reported in 2020.

Ninja Kayakers Foilers founder Clarence Chua said the Bulan Channel is a “notoriously difficult” stretch of water.

“We call it a ‘washing machine’ because the water just churns you around – left, right, up and down,” he added.

Mr Chua, 39, who has more than 20 years of kayaking experience and has run kayaking tours in Singapore for about a decade, said: “I got into trouble there myself. We paddled as hard as we could but the current kept sweeping us backwards.

“It’s hard even for experts, and definitely not a place for beginners.”

In 2021, six people were rescued after their kayaks capsized in the same tricky spot. The group was on a guided tour with Kayakasia to the Southern Islands when they were thrown overboard by swift currents.

The Straits Times

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.