December 2001 : Thailand



This month has been quite the most stressful and traumatic of our voyage so far. Anyone wondering how we’ll cope with getting back to a ‘normal’ life on our return need wonder no more. The prospect of living in a conveniently situated house, in a first world country with a temperate climate, going off to a predictable job every day and coming home to an evening of trashy TV is currently our idea of bliss! December was supposed to have been a period of relaxation after our three months of fascinating but quite hectic and intensive experiences travelling through Indonesia and Malaysia. We were looking forward to the tranquility of west coast of Thailand - very beautiful with a choice of idyllic islands situated at perfect day-sailing intervals. On our arrival in Phuket all we would have to do was prepare the boat for our next leg – across the Indian Ocean, and to welcome our friend Jean, joining us in Thailand for Christmas and the New Year. We had planned a gentle week’s cruising for Jean around Phang Nga Bay to the east of Phuket, before setting off for three days together in the fleshpots of Bangkok.

It all started very well. While still in Langkawi in Malaysia, Chris arrived at a diagnosis of the intermittent problem we have had with the engine start. This involved replacing a dodgy looking cable – cheap, easy and apparently effective, in that once this was done, the engine roared eagerly into life whenever required. Our major preoccupation was to organise the re-rigging of the boat. This all seemed to be well in hand. The rigging wire arrived safely from Singapore, and our order for the other parts from England was being processed. It would not arrive in Langkawi before we needed to leave (the contrast between the efficiency of the firm handling our order in Singapore and the lackadaisical attitude of the firm in Britian was a little depressing), but we managed to arrange for another boat leaving for Phuket later than us to collect it. It seemed all would be ready for us to get on with the job in the new year, before setting off west across the Indian Ocean.

We took a week to sail the 120 miles or so from Langkawi to Phuket, meandering from island to island. The rather flat coastal scenery of the Malacca Strait gave way to an extraordinarily spectacular geology of limestone pinnacles, rocks and islands rising straight out of the sea like great teeth. At the same time, the murky Malaysian waters cleared to sparkling greens and turquoise – brilliant for swimming and snorkelling. A complete absence of temples set the scene for some perfect lazy relaxation. We anchored one night at the dramatic island of Ko Phetra, a limestone ridge about 3 miles long, rising over 1,200 feet straight out of surprisingly shallow water. The swifts there apparently provide the main ingredient of birds nest soup! Next stop was Ko Rok Nok where we revelled in two days of gorgeous snorkelling – the first for a very long time – lots of new and exciting species for us. We were especially thrilled with the sighting of a turkey-fish with its ‘ruff’ furiously displayed – not to mention a most bizarre little shrine of indeterminate religion we found on the beach. Then to Ko Muk to investigate a ‘hong’. ‘Hong’ is the Thai word for room; the hongs for which the area is famous are enormous roofless caverns situated inside small islands. Most were discovered from the air, only after the second world war, and can only be reached by tunnels from the sea at certain states of the tide. We investigated the Ko Muk hong by dinghying through a tunnel of about 50 metres in total blackness. Emerging into the bright sunlight of the hong made us feel literally dizzy. Circular in shape, with a soft white sand beach, the walls were some 500 feet high, sheer cliffs hung with luxuriant greenery – a most extraordinary and surreal sight more like a film-set – artistic but artificial – hard to believe it could be a natural phenomenon. The next island was Phi Phi Le where the film of ‘The Beach’ was made. We arrived to find a scene of touristic mayhem with tour and dive boats and longtails roaring around - longtails being local open boats fitted with unsilenced car engines attached to long propellor shafts which stick a couple of metres out from the stern – horribly noisy and horribly dangerous. We managed to find a space for ourselves, and once the masses started to depart and the risk of being chopped to pieces by a propellor had lessened, we ventured out for some good snorkelling. The cove – a large hong open to the sea – is certainly very beautiful but not exactly tranquil. Next morning a cruise ship arrived to disembark a hoard of Japanese passengers – and we left.

By the time we arrived in Ao Chalong, the main yacht anchorage in Phuket, in the middle of the month, the weather had begun to deteriorate with squalls and strong winds making life somewhat uncomfortable. More worrying was the fact that the engine start problem seemed to have reappeared, if only intermittently. However, before we could focus properly on this, we realised that part of our rigging order en route from England was incorrect. A day planned for provisioning and sightseeing in Phuket by car with Vagabond became punctuated by frantic (and expensive) phone calls home, in a last minute desperate attempt to ensure that all the parts we needed would be with us by the New Year. With tremendous help from family and friends, within about 36 hours the new order was made, paid for and delivered to Jean, ready for her to bring out to us – an amazing achievement for which we are incredibly grateful to all concerned. The icing on the cake was news from the friends coming up from Langkawi that the main part of our order had been collected, despite a nerve-wrackingly late delivery, and was on its way. The tide seemed to have turned for us.

Alongside the traumas over the rigging, we had been progressing well with our preparations for the Indian Ocean and Christmas. Strange though it may seem, Christmas here in Thailand gave rise to some very familiar predicaments. The vexed question of who to spend Christmas day with, and where, arose here much as it does at home. Similarly, the tendency to manic food shopping also took us over, as it does at home as we made several final final Christmas provisioning trips, ending up with a boat impossibly laden with food and drink to cover every conceivable ‘just in case’ situation! On Christmas Eve the weather took a dramatic turn for the better, reverting to its seasonal warm sunshine, and having got the boat prepared and spruced up, we moved around to Nai Harn – a beautiful bay in the south west of Phuket where many cruising yachts had gathered for Christmas day. I met Jean at the airport in the evening, according to plan and all looked set. Christmas day was perfect. We had a brilliant morning opening presents, before setting off for the beach with our contribution to a Christmas feast with a group of friends. The day was spent in a sociable haze of food, drink and chat.

However, the tide then turned again – this allegory doesn’t know when to stop! We had planned to set off for the island of Racha Yai, a mere 11 miles from Nai Harn, to show

Jean some great snorkelling in clear turquoise water. Not so easy. When we anchored on Christmas Eve, we had managed to get our dinghy painter wrapped round the propellor – very stupid indeed. Initially this had appeared to have no worse consequence than the loss of some rope. However, further investigation and the suspicion of an unusual vibration gave rise to concern and we felt we should review the plan. Although the propellor seemed to be working fine, it seemed sensible not to do too much more motoring without having the boat hauled out for a proper investigation. We re-jigged the planned cruise to give us two days snorkelling at Racha Yai, and then to return to Phuket to a boatyard where we could be hauled out. We would make a trip to the spectacularly scenic area of Phang Nga Bay on a tourist boat – ignominious though that might be. However, we had again been distracted from the engine start problem. When it came to start the engine for the trip back to Phuket, the problem went from intermittent to catastrophic in one leap. Not only would the engine not start, but it was full of water - very bad news indeed.

All these dramas occurred in the midst of what was supposed to be Jean’s holiday – planned as a relaxing break for all of us. Here is Jean’s story:

Many thanks Jeannie – and thanks too for not freaking out as we lurched from disaster to disaster!

We are currently up out of the water at the Ratanachai Slipway in Phuket – a large commercial boatyard whose main business is fishing boats.The haul-out was a fascinating and novel procedure quite unlike anything we have experienced before. Very labour intensive, it involved two divers and four line-handlers, all under the control of a foreman who conducted the operation to manoeuvre the boat perfectly on to a cradle under water, while a second foreman checked the vertical position of the boat from ahead against a plumb line. The whole procedure was carried out while we were on board, not understanding a word of what was being said or what might happen next. Once everything was ready, we were gradually hauled out of the water on our cradle on a railway track up a ramp and into the yard, to our present position. The yard has a professional and business-like atmosphere and we started feeling more positive about our situation immediately. Having got the boat safely esconced, we left that afternoon for Bangkok – relieved at the prospect of a respite from boat traumas.