YOU are in Penang; the beaches are alluring, and the sea beckons.
Camping by the seaside can be a lot of fun, but first, you need to know what you are doing.
Here are some tips to help you understand the weather better and ensure you can have fun by the sea – or at sea – on the southern end of the island.
Knowing that the north-east monsoon will kick in at any time next month will help you decide the places to go and those to avoid for camping or hiking.
Knowing the phases of the moon will tell you more about the rise and fall of the tides, so you can plan your day at sea or by the beach.
I realised that people leading urban lives are not attuned to weather patterns when I went tarpon fishing a few weeks ago in a brackish canal on mainland Penang.
My partner, someone who had just picked up the sport, was dismayed by the sight of the nearby river, which was shallow and muddy.
We had driven by the river when the tide was at its lowest, so the river would naturally look yucky.
Six hours later, we drove past the river again on our return trip. He was shocked to see the river full and green (the high tide was back). I had to give him a quick geography lesson.
With the north-east monsoon starting soon, knowing how to read the tidal phases is important.
Compare the points of the compass to the face of a clock; the northeast direction is somewhere between one and two o’clock. From Penang, that is where Perlis, Kedah, Kelantan and southern Thailand are.
If you are on the southern coastline of Penang island, the hill range shields the coastline from the winds coming from that direction, and the waves will not be whipped up.
This means the coastal waters here will tend to be calm. Those who like being at sea can have a relaxing time paddling at sea under such conditions.
The calmest areas will be Teluk Kumbar and Gertak Sanggul because these two bays are the most shielded by the island’s hills.
There are several gently sloping, sandy beaches for you to comfortably launch kayaks or boats.
In Gertak Sanggul, you can even paddle 1km to 1.3km to a couple of small beaches on the western end that are without road access; you get there either by boat or hiking over the woods.
You can dig for clams, cast a net for shrimp, do a bit of fishing and photography, and even camp at those beaches. But here’s a bit of advice: Get to know the locals and do some research before doing that.
The best days to go out to sea in either of these two bays are during the neap tide, as opposed to the spring tide.
Sea currents during the neap tide season tend to be much calmer with low swells.
It is no fun paddling at sea during the spring tide, keeping an eye on the swells and another on the tides, although some adrenaline junkies just may love it.
For the purpose of having fun, here are a few things to know about the tides.
They rise and fall every six hours. The times when the tides are the highest and lowest change every day. In fact, they even change for each location.
Indeed, when you check the tidal time for Penang, it is really zeroed to the point near Fort Cornwallis in George Town.
Take note that there is roughly an hour’s difference between the tidal times for the fort and the southern end of the island, meaning that if the chart says the tide will be highest at 2pm in Penang that day, it will be highest at Gertak Sanggul only around 3pm.
There’s no need to plot the angles of the sun and moon in relation to Earth to anticipate the tides; there are many websites where you can get accurate tide charts for free; just tolerate the banner ads.
One such good website is tides4fishing.com. You get plenty of weather information and in the tide chart section, choose a day when the lowest tide of the day is not below 1m.
This is especially important for Gertak Sanggul, because on days when the lowest point of the tide is below 1m, all you will get at the beach is a mudflat stretching around 300m.
You could end up having to wait for hours for the tide to turn before launching or returning.
Ideally, choose a morning when the tide is above 1m because early mornings are when the coastal winds are weakest, allowing you to launch from the beach with gently lapping waves.
Plan your return time again when the tide is above 1m, for a smooth landing.