January 2002 : Thailand



Despite our hopes for a better month than December, January has been a dismal – though it may well seem in perspective - fascinating month, as our run of bad luck persisted. We spent a total of four weeks at the boatyard – far longer than even our most pessimistic estimates on arrival there.

We arrived back in Phuket at the beginning of the month after a spectacular three days in Bangkok. Straight off the overnight bus we ploughed into the jobs feeling positive and invigorated by the purposeful atmosphere of the yard. Confronted with our variety of problems, it was hard to know what to focus on first – the engine, the rigging, the prop shaft, or anti-fouling. Confusion and frustration began to cloud our focus. In fact the various jobs moved along concurrently, albeit at a snail’s pace, as time and labour were available. This period was difficult and frustrating, but probably no worse than could realistically have been expected. Everything took longer than we’d hoped, but gradually it all started coming together. The engine problem was diagnosed, damaged head repaired - by a mechanic, and the engine put back together again – by Chris. The new rigging was virtually completed, without any great difficulty – having become rather a sideline in this greater scheme of things. Following email communication with Hallberg Rassy in Sweden, the prop shaft was investigated after our incident with the fouled propellor, and found to be only superficially damaged – which was a great relief. Both diagnosis and repair however, took a disproportionately long time. I put on two coats of anti-fouling, trying with frustration to fit in around the work to prop. After 12 days of very hard work we were provisionally booked to go back into the water pending an engine test.

Disaster then struck again. On its first test, the engine started – a bit reluctantly - and then gushed oil violently all over itself. This disappointing new twist took another seemingly unending two weeks to sort out. The cause of the problem was a total mystery – certainly to us, but also to the few other yachties in the yard and the two mechanics involved in the earlier repair. This was a very disheartening time for us. Chris had to set to and dismantle most of what he had just put back together – but could find nothing wrong. Eventually we received advice from Volvo in Australia that the problem might be a seized valve in the oil pump – ‘conveniently’ situated under the engine. This turned out to be right and it was fantastic to arrive at the good news of a definite diagnosis. However, even this was not quite the end of the story, as a broken spring in the pump could not be replaced in Phuket and we had to wait several days, on tenterhooks, for a new one to be delivered from Bangkok.

We took this four week delay very hard. Partly because of the uncertainty involved – so much seemed to go wrong. Mainly though we felt under a constant time pressure. Conventional cruising wisdom has it that early January is the time to head westwards from Thailand across the Indian Ocean towards the Red Sea in order to pick up the most favourable wind conditions there. Our mates on Vagabond left early in the month, arrived in Sri Lanka and left for the Maldives way before we even got back in the water. Other friends left later, but are now also far ahead of us. There were several yachts in the boatyard with us – but most undergoing expensive and planned refits with time on their hands and no plans to continue west this year. Our worst nightmare was that we would miss the ‘window’ for leaving Thailand, which would be catastrophic in terms of family and finances. The boat and this voyage are our whole focus, taking the place of job, leisure, home, car and friends – albeit temporarily. We felt quite bereft at being stopped in our tracks like this. Of course, much worse things could have happened – we are both fit, well and safe and we should have been more robust about the whole episode, treating it like a spell of bad weather – something we could have expected. I felt we were unlucky to suffer so many problems at once. Chris felt we were lucky that they hadn’t occurred while we were in the middle of an ocean or somewhere without repair facilities. I guess that is the right attitude…..

The boatyard itself was a most fascinating environment. Basically a traditional yard catering for fishing boats from quite far afield, it was astonishing to see how quickly a large labour force using traditional skills could turn leaky looking old hulks into shiny shipshape vessels. The yard rang by day, and sometimes by night too, to the sounds of grinding, sawing, drilling, hammering, spraying, welding, etc. etc. More exotic was the frequent crackle of firecrackers being let off as boats were launched – to get rid of evil spirits. All very bustling and noisy. With a large modern machine shop on site, we found it easy and convenient to get various tricky little jobs done – we had a couple of special tools made up for us, the prop shaft checked, and a seized part freed up. . The yard is expanding its business into yachts and made us feel very welcome – including us in the daily coffee break – incredibly sweet coffee and bizarre little sweetmeats. The only problem in arranging for work to be done was the language barrier. Overall the yard, with its expertise and facilities – ranging from the most basic traditional crafts to the use of computers and digital photography - and its friendly and ‘can-do’ atmosphere was the very best place possible for us to have been to deal with our variety of problems.

However, even such a fascinating environment can wear thin after too long. Living conditions at the yard were difficult – not just the constant noise, frenetic and stressful atmosphere, but also the sooty ash deposit and repellent smell from the fish factories on each side of the yard, the onslaught of mosquitoes every evening and the sanitary arrangements, geared more to the expectations of tough Thai, Malay and Burmese labourers than soft Westerners. Perdika’s interior came to resemble a garage with pieces of engine and tools strewn everywhere making it impossible to move around the boat or find any uncovered surface. Eventually, as our period of ‘hospitalisation’ extended, we decamped to a very basic hotel in Phuket town. At £6 per night well worth it, we felt for the sake of our sanity and physical well-being.

At last, after these four long weeks, the time came for us to be launched – to the accompaniment of firecrackers naturally! Testing the engine, we motored the boat north into Phang Nga Bay for a night, and then returned south the next day to formally clear out of Thailand – just within the limit of our specially extended visas. The engine so far has started and run well for 63 miles. However, we still feel on tenterhooks, always listening for noises and vibrations.

We are now back in beautiful Nai Harn Bay on the countdown to departure across the Indian Ocean and should be ready in a couple of days – Friday. However, sailors are superstitious about Friday departures, so we consider ourselves already to be officially en route from Ao Chalong – where we cleared out a couple of days ago, to Aden – via Nai Harn (7 miles from Ao Chalong), the Maldives and Oman! Wish us luck!