The boat slipped off the west coast of Malaysia at dusk, around 7 pm. But thanks to a tip-off, its departure did not go undetected.
Police, immigration officials and officers from the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) trailed the vessel by land and sea and closed in on it near Pulau Perjudi, a tiny island off the coast about 90 km (60 miles) south of Kuala Lumpur.
"As it got dark, the enforcement team had only the wake patterns and engine sounds to rely on," said Kuala Linggi district MMEA chief Captain Ibrahim Mohamed, recalling the events of January 31st.
The 19-member law enforcement team already suspected that the boat was smuggling Pakistani nationals to Australia via Indonesia. But they were still surprised by what they found.
"Upon nearing the vessel, the enforcement team had tried to board it by force, but on seeing two women and a 10-year-old girl on board, they pulled back," Ibrahim told Khabar Southeast Asia
The chase ended on land. The migrants and boat skipper tried to flee on foot only to be nabbed by enforcement officers.
Eight Pakistani nationals, the Indonesian skipper and two Malaysians were arrested. Officers also found the equivalent of ringgit 45,000 ($14,700) in currency from the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, according to the state news agency Bernama.
The case is being investigated under the 2007 Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants Act. If found guilty, the boat skipper could face 10 years in jail, a fine of 8,000 ringgits ($2,600) or both.
Ibrahim told how the Pakistani women – a mother and her daughters aged 20 and 10 – were distraught at their capture.
"During the interrogation, we found out that they had each paid about $6,000 to the syndicate for passage to Australia," Ibrahim said.
"They were visibly upset for their hopes to land in Australia were dashed, but I told them that this may well be a blessing in disguise," Ibrahim said. "From our reports, we know that human smugglers are known to deposit their passengers in the open sea leaving them to swim to shore. Many have drowned this way."
Each of the migrants had paid around $6,000 to a trafficking syndicate to arrange passage, he added.
Malaysia is well-known as a transit point for people fleeing countries mired in poverty or conflict. Their hope is often to reach Australia in order to start a better life.
Human smugglers encourage such dreams, the experts say, though the reality seldom lives up to expectations -- even for those migrants who make it across.
"These syndicates are well known for painting rosy pictures of job prospects but I doubt that they will make good of their promises. The fact that they can put a child's life at risk on a boat without life jackets is an indication that they are cheats," Ibrahim said.
The dangers of illegal boat crossings were demonstrated last month as police in the state of Johor discovered nine dead bodies on a beach.
Deputy Home Minister Lee Chee Leong said they were part of a group of 25 Afghan and Iraqi men seeking asylum in Australia whose boat capsized as they travelled from Malaysia to Indonesia. The others managed to swim ashore. None had travel documents.
In an effort to prevent such tragedies, Malaysia has stepped up its coastal patrols – including by launching the MMEA, which began operations in 2009 – and is urging regional governments to work together.
"Malaysia urgently calls for bilateral as well as trilateral co-operation between countries in the region to collectively and systematically deal with the rising problem of irregular migration," Lee said in a statement issued February 2nd.
Captain Ibrahim agrees that the problem crosses national borders.
"We know that we are not just dealing with the skipper alone but syndicates with international connections. To arrange for these Pakistanis to come all the way to Malaysia and then to Australia, you need a connected network," Ibrahim said.
"In the past, I have seen skippers having their bails paid and being represented by lawyers and I know that the money is not coming from their own pockets but another sponsor," he added.