One of the real joys of sailing is taking your experience and skills and employing them in a new, foreign and exotic place. In February, 10 boat loads of OCSC sailors flew to Phuket, Thailand, to do just that.
The sailing location is in the Andaman Sea, south of Bangkok and east of Phuket, Bangkok’s biggest beach resort area. Hundreds of islands are in this area, all with quite striking geologic formations, often with tall, thin posts of rock with their bases at the water, thinned out by water erosion leaving them quite top heavy and fragile looking. Also, there are ‘hongs’ (room in Thai) that are small inlets into islands from the Andaman Sea whose access is a tiny cave or narrow entrance that acts somewhat like a door. The world inside that ‘door’ in the hong is remarkably different than the edge of the island outside. We dinghied into some and snorkeled into others, seeing vegetation and animals quite unique to ‘hongs’. Our first venture was rewarded by a big group of noisy and swimming monkeys eating leaves that fell from trees into the water. Funny and beautiful creatures!
The sailing conditions were quite unusual from what I’ve experienced in other parts of the world. First, we did have a drought and a heat wave while we were there, so that probably changed things for us compared to the norm. However, we were struck by the fact that the NE tropical tradewinds (we were at around 8 degrees N Latitude, so in the tradewinds zone) blew the hardest between 7PM or so until 11AM or so the next day. Times varied from day to day as much as a couple of hours, but almost invariably, the wind was at its lightest at 2 or 3 PM. AND, on occasion, about that time, a slight SW breeze would come up, dying around sunset. After lots of speculation on what created this unusual weather pattern, a few of us concluded that because we had a large landmass to the east of us, in the afternoons, a westerly seabreeze would try to set up, fighting the NE trades. Talking to the local seamen, we weren’t able to confirm or refute this theory, but that’s what we are going with! After I belatedly figured this out, we had great sailing days for the rest of the trip as we just made sure to get underway a bit early for our next destination and take advantage of the early tradewinds. Also, the evening breeze kept things cooler on the boat at night.
We had great Thai food all over the place, from street vendors to nice restaurants in the touristy areas. Yes, it is a bit better than Thai places here in the states! Speaking of touristy places, we had so much fun in those areas. Food, drinks, beaches, cheap (and great) massages, very decadent. RaiLai Beach, Phi Phi (pro. Pi PI) Don and the NW coast of Koh (Thai for island) Lanta were highlights of ours for food and entertainment. Shops of veggies, fruit, trinkets were ubiquitous.
We found that we were able to do initial provisioning in Phuket and supplement it along the way as there were several places to get fresh fruit and veggies. Bread and meat were a little harder to find out in the islands, when you weren’t in the busiest ports.
There was one place on the SE side of Koh Lanta, called Old Town Lanta, that was a Thai version of an old Western Town from the movies. Great weathered wooden buildings, shops selling silk, leather, trinkets, chimes, Buddha statues as well as great restaurants and bars overlooking the water. Very rustic but exotic.
We had our moments of challenge, for sure. Our first night, I chose to anchor in a location labeled as a ‘preferred’ anchorage, but which looked a bit open to the prevailing trade winds. There was a island to windward for protection, but just not that big. Since the trades had not returned by the sunset, we were feeling pretty comfortable there. After about two hours, however, the easterly picked up to 18 knots or so and soon a foot and a half chop flowed into our anchorage making it bumpy and hard to sleep. Oops. Next morning, I apologized to my crew, but they were very forgiving! After all, it was a beautiful place!
We and the other boats had tons of fun in the water, of course.. it was cool enough to be a relief from the midday heat but warm enough to prevent any shock when diving in. just perfect. In the north it was a bit turbid to see great distances under water, but as we moved south into the middle of the Andaman Sea, visibility, fish and coral increased. In fact, at one location in the middle of nowhere, we did some snorkeling at one of the most remarkable spots I’ve snorkeled in (and, I’ve been in a few great places). I think its name was Koh Lah, over 10 miles from anywhere, with depths 200 feet just 50 yards off the three tall rocks which comprised this ‘island’. There was no anchoring there, but there were some dive buoys available. Once we were in the water, we were overwhelmed with what felt like an IMAX movie! 100 foot visibility, the island cliff disappearing straight down into the depths, tons of fish cavorting on our ‘screen’ with beautiful coral on ledges throughout our view. Quite special.
One important lesson for our crew and that of others in the flotilla was how easy it can be for a skipper to rely totally on the chart plotter when navigating. We took a photo while tied up to a water tank filling raft about 50 feet off of the beach in Phi Phi Don. It shows how the chart plotter showed us as being aground on the shoreside roadway! Just remember when using a chart plotter on a charter boat or a friend’s boat, to avoid putting yourself in a position where you need precision for safety. Nothing takes the place of a good set of eyes and a chart.
An interesting maritime cultural quirk of SE Asia is the ubiquitous ‘Long Tail’. These pangas are powered by re-purposed Nissan car engines mounted on a huge tiller/drive shaft balanced on the transom of the panga. The tiller forward of the precariously mounted engine is about 6 feet long and the drive shaft extending in the other direction is at least 15 feet long, maybe longer! The whole assembly is precisely built to allow the helmsman to horse around this huge, heavy engine, with relative ease. However, it did not provide for extremely precise maneuvering, so we were careful when we used those long tails as water taxis.
I had heard that SE Asians are very kind and friendly by nature, and we experienced that very thing. Thais were wonderful, helpful, with a warm smile every time. Shop keepers, cabbies, Tuk Tuk drivers and even general pedestrians.
I want to make a shout out to the Supalai Resort and Spa, nearby the Moorings/Sunsail Base, where we stayed to recover from our jetlag before the charter. Wonderful pool, friendly staff and nice rooms with views. Because it was on the east side of Phuket Island, it was quiet, as opposed to how rowdy it can get on Phuket’s more famous West Coast beaches. And affordable!
Our final dinner during the charter was at one of the nicest resorts in the Phuket area, called the Naka Resort. John Slater and Mike Chirhart had organized dinners there for their crews and our boat hitch hiked on John’s reservation to spend that evening with John and his merry crew. This place was very nice. We took our dinghies to their dock, where they greeted us with a couple of large golf cart like shuttle cars to take everyone to the restaurant. The food was wonderful, the service very nice and the conversation spectacular. Afterward, we strolled to their pool. The pool chairs and lounges were IN THE POOL! So fabulous to dangle your feet in the water while sipping on a cocktail and engrossed in a thriller. It was a wonderful end to our charter.. thanks, John, for letting us join you!
The following morning we had to deliver the boats back to the base, where the Moorings/Sunsail staff made the process of checking back in as efficient as possible given nine of the 10 boats were coming in at once! (Captain Frank Lossy’s crew had extended their charter for a couple more days, and, I would advise that 14 days might be a better number than the 11 that we did.)
Thailand’s Andaman Sea is a beautiful, magical place. We marveled at the geologic formations, the wonderful Thai people, the great food and intriguing sea life we saw. It was exotic, educational, challenging and inspiring. I invite each of you to put this area on your bucket list. OCSC will most certainly be going back in the coming years so stay tuned!
Of course, Cecilia and I took the opportunity to travel to Chiang Mai, Thailand (temples, silk, elephant and tiger sanctuaries), Singapore (incredible bustle and excitement of one of the most vibrant cities in the world, including an original Singapore Sling at Raffle’s, drinks atop the Marina Bay Sands Hotel a 56-story high infinity pool and incredible lightshow downtown) Siem Reap in Cambodia (Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and dozens of other incredible temples), Bangkok (great tailors for our Chiang Mai silk, temples, great restaurants, beautiful river and floating markets) and a day in Hong Kong (Lunch at the Royal Hong Kong YC, view of the city from the Peak and the top of the Peninsula Hotel) But, that will come in a future post! We still have Burma, Malaysia and Vietnam to visit as well as mainland China on our bucket list.. Are they on yours?