A Charter Catamaran Exploring Thailand’s Andaman Sea

Phang Nga Bay

The crew sailed north through the surreal limestone towers of Phang Nga Bay

You almost have to pinch yourself sailing around Thailand’s Phang Nga Bay. It’s like entering a lost world in a Hollywood movie. Rising dramatically from an emerald sea are surreal, gravity-defying limestone towers (karsts) which have been sculpted by millennia of monsoon rain and winds into spectral spires. The surrounding seascape is dotted with islands cloaked in forests of greenery. Many islands have sea caves and hidden lagoons that can be entered at certain states of the tide by kayak or on foot. It’s like sailing into a fantasy world. Having been fortunate enough to sail five of the world’s Seven Seas, I can report that only the fabled South Pacific islands come close to matching the Andaman Sea’s spectacular, exotic backdrop.

If the combined age of our motley five-strong crew of farangs (Thai for foreigners) had not been 316 (averaging 63 years each!) we could have been stars in one of those famous “Five Go” adventuring novels by English author Enid Blyton. Our skipper, Peter Nielsen, eminent editor of this publication, had invited along as crew two retired Brit sailing magazine editors (myself and Andrew Bray), plus two greenhorns, Ralph, who owns a flooring business in Marblehead, Massachusetts, and Bill, a Kiwi biker friend. Bill and Pete hadn’t seen each other for more than 20 years.

map-andaman-sea-2-175In the second week of December we each flew into Phuket from different parts of the world and met up by a Christmas tree in the lobby of a downtown budget hotel. The next day we crammed into a taxi to head for Ao Po Marina, on the northeast corner of Phuket Island, where The Moorings Charter fleet is based.

Aboard Apakorn, a Moorings 4800 catamaran, our home for the next seven days, we were given an orientation tour of the boat’s systems, plus a briefing on the cruising area and do’s and don’ts. Do keep a watchful eye on the ubiquitous longtail boats, used by fishermen and water taxis. They’re fast and, unnervingly, they prefer to pass across your bows, believing they’ll inherit your bad luck if they cross your wake. Don’t sail at night. Do watch out for the potential hazard of numerous fishermen’s nets strung across bays and waiting to catch props and rudders. Any demands for compensation from fishermen could put a dent in your cruising budget.

Pilotage in this area is not dissimilar to ordering a Chinese meal. Anchorages in Thai cruising guide are listed by numbers (1-114) and have a tidal range of 11ft. Having pre-ordered provisions and basic supplies before our arrival, we just needed to top up the water tanks and supplies of gin and tonic before casting off and heading for Number 6, on the nearby island of Ko Yao Yai, hoping for a side order of jasmine rice and prawns. 

The only flies in the ointment were gray clouds and wet weather. It was meant to be the dry season (November to April) promising northeast winds at 10-15 knots. With a plaintive cry of  “This wasn’t in the brochure!” we set off with 26 knots of wind and a forecast of occasional rain squalls. At least the air was warm. It was a short hop to number 6, Loh Paret Bay, where a host of wooden villas clung to the verdant terraced hillsides. Dropping the hook just south of a pier belonging to the posh Santhiya Resort & Spa, we went ashore in the tender for a beer. That night we ate at a table on the beach with our feet in the sand, choosing our food by touring the kitchen and pointing at what took our fancy as the cook threw it on the grill. “Street food,” or even beach food, in Thailand, like many countries, can be a delicious bargain. The “restaurant” was Muslim-run and non-alcoholic, but it was a pleasant stroll in the moonlight down the beach to buy beers from a bar and bring them back.

Sea cavern

Ralph, Peter and Bill venture ashore in the dinghy to explore a secret sea cavern

Next morning, fortified by Ralph’s hearty scrambled eggs and bacon breakfast, we weighed anchor for the famous island of Phi Phi Don. A fresh northeast wind got a lot fresher as Apakorn rounded the southern tip of the island and squared up to a nasty short, sharp chop of waves. We put one reef in the headsail and mainsail, then two, but down below there was mutiny in the galley. The cooker drawer slid open and shut with each big wave, and the crashing of pans and clatter of plates could only be silenced by stowing them in the sink.

The final straw was when the beer cooler capsized in the cockpit, sending our precious cans of Chang beer and ice cubes skittering perilously close to the edge of the stern deck. As two-crew rugby tackled the cooler, Pete turned the boat around and we ran back to shelter in the lee of the island. We anchored at Number 10, Loh Jark Bay, off the town jetty. Exploring ashore, we licked our wounds with a few lunchtime beers under the palm trees on the beach beside a less well-known White House…hotel. No politicians here. Supper was BBQ burgers aboard Apakorn.

The muezzin’s call to prayer from the local mosque at 0500 next morning signaled the start of our second attempt to get across the bay. With 23 knots on the beam and 10-12 knots boatspeedabout as fast as the big catamaran could go in these conditionsthe inflatable dinghy swung in the davits being thumped like a punching bag by angry waves rising up astern. Bill deployed an Alpine hitch to shorten the davits and lessen the blows. Bill, also known as “The Man With the Dragon Tattoo,” became our Mr. Fix-it for the next few days. Armed with his prized titanium multitool, there wasn’t much he couldn’t fix.

As a spectacular skyline of towering jagged rocks and islands slid past to port, our next challenge loomed on the horizon: fishing pots, some marked by orange and black flags, stretched across our path. Were they marking solitary pots or long nets, we wondered? After a few minutes of anxious dodging a cry came from the foredeck, “Follow that ferry!” and we followed in the wake of a big motorboat, our pathfinder as we rounded a headland to our next anchorage.

Street food

Street food cooked while
you watch

Ko Phi Phi Don has been described as one of the most beautiful islands in the world. Its twin sandy bays are like two emerald butterfly wings separated by a fragile body created by a sandbar, or isthmus, covered in coconut trees. Its neighboring island, Ko Phi Phi Leh, astern to the south, was made famous as the backdrop for the 2000 Hollywood film The Beach, with Leonardo DiCaprio playing the young American backpacker in Alex Garland’s best-selling novel.

As we motorsailed into Ton Sai Bay, surrounded by swarms of water taxis, long tails and three-deck passenger ferries, it was sobering to remember that we were traveling the same path as a notorious wave that visited this island and sent devastating ripples into people’s lives around the world.

Not long after 1000 on a December morning just like this 12 years ago, American sailors Ed and Helen Muesch were standing on the beach just ahead of us getting ready to board their inflatable tender to return to Tahlequah, their Hans Christian 43 anchored in the bay. Ed noticed the water had retreated and on the distant horizon a white crest was rapidly advancing. It was the morning of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. In seconds Ed and Helen suddenly found themselves swept up and away in a sea of corpses and debris. “Twenty feet away I saw a man raising a young naked woman into the canoe. I knew she was dead,” Ed recalled. “Drowned people were floating past us everywhere. Looking toward the island I couldn’t believe the destruction: all the hotels had collapsed and were sliding into the sea.” Ed and Helen miraculously survived and Ed wrote a moving book, Rising Above the Wave, one of many extraordinary tales of survival and heroism that day when the 20ft tsunami wave rose in the bay.

Today, it’s almost as though it never happened if you weren’t there or didn’t read about it afterward. Phi Phi is back to its irrepressible, insatiable, life-affirming hustle and bustle. Boarding our tender, we joined boats of all sizes buzzing to and from the town’s dock. Ashore we found the town thronging with tourists, day-trippers and backpackers. Swept along with the crowds in a spirit of joie de vivre, I explored a maze of back alleys hosting restaurants, beach party bars, dive shops, souvenir stalls and massage parlors.

It’s hard to comprehend that in the days after the tsunami 23,000 tons of debris had to be removed from the twin beaches7,000 tons cleared by hand in a search for passports and anything to identify the dead and missing. A tsunami memorial built to honor the dead was removed in 2015 to build a new hotel. Life goes on, as the cliché says, but when the time came for us to weigh anchor it was humbling to think of so many lives lost (an estimated 2,000 died) and others changed forever in a few shocking minutes.

Leaving the crowds behind, we pointed our bows east and sailed in search of tranquility. It must have been serendipity, or karma, that brought us to our next stop, which proved to be an oasis of peace and my favorite island of the entire trip. Please keep it to yourself. Technically one island, the hilly north is called Koh Pu, while the flatter south, where we landed on a white sand beach, is Koh Jum, sometimes referred to as Koh Jam, just to confuse!

Chart work

Chart work on boat

Idyllic and unspoiled, the island had a hidden, secluded feel with jungle villas and verandas built into the cliff sides and camouflaged by undergrowth. The island lies between Krabi, to the north, and Ko Lanta, to the south. We almost had Ao Si Beach to ourselves, and as we strolled along the shoreline in the late afternoon the sun broke through the clouds for the first time. Alas, the rustic Rock Bar, built mostly of driftwood and perched on rocks at the southern end of the beach, was closed. We returned that night and ate ashore at the northern end of the beach at a villa straight out of Swiss Family Robinson. Handrails and furniture were made from twisted branches and tree trunks. Cocktails came with a moonlit view of Phi Phi Don silhouetted on the horizon. “Restaurant” might be too fancy a description, but the food was good and there were huts up the hillside for rent.

By now we’d lost track of days of the week, a sure sign of a relaxing holiday. A perfect, lazy 4-knot beam reach in bright sunshine took us north the next day to bustling Ao Nang, to stock up on beer, ice and eggs and change money. We escaped the midday crowds, rounding Laem Hang Nak cape as the setting sun glinted on the gold roof of the King of Thailand’s hilltop summer palace, and celebrated a great day’s sailing by opening a bottle of champagne.

We couldn’t miss calling at Koh Phing Kan, made famous as the secret limestone lair of villain Scaramanga (Christopher Lee) in the James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun, starring Roger Moore. We made sure we arrived early and succeeded in avoiding the daily invasion of longtails and tourist boats from mainland resorts.

Our final highlight was more Indiana Jones than 007. We spent a magical night anchored off Koh Hong, Phang Nga Bay’s biggest hong. “Koh,” if you didn’t know already, is the Thai word for island and a hong (room) is a collapsed limestone open-air cave or sea cavern. These magic places attract hordes of tourists who arrive on ferries accompanied by flotillas of canoes. Traffic jams in the caves are common, they say.

But for liveaboard sailors like us, the advantage is you can plan your arrival before the crowds get there or stay after they’ve gone back to their hotel rooms on the mainland. The tides weren’t right to enter the hong in our tender that evening, but we explored one nearby the next day. High tides can shut off entry (or exit!) but it was low water as we walked from the beach through an arched entryway into an enclosed world. Rich vegetation and trees hung from the cliffs. Wading up to my thighs through mangroves in murky water, small fish swam between my legs. Not piranha, I hoped! I was glad to read later that piranha are indigenous to South American rivers. Was it screeching monkeys or fruit bats rustling in the branches and sounding a chorus?

In Thailand the sailing is otherworldly and discovering it all at your own pace from the deck of your own boat with friends or family makes it extra special. The living is easy, the food is delicious and the locals are friendly. It’s been called the Land of Smiles. Our voyage seemed timeless. But time had flown so fast it was time to sail back to the marina. No time for a Thai massage on the beach. No full moon party. I didn’t even see a Lady Boy. But who needs an excuse to return to paradise?

Ko Phi Phi Don

Tourists browse the maze of back alleys in Ko Phi Phi Don

FACT FILE

Sailing season: Phuket is 8 degrees north of the equator, so the season is all year round. The “dry” monsoon season (November–April) makes a great winter break with light to moderate northeast winds. The “wet” monsoon season (May-October) has southwest winds, adding a swell on the open sea. Most of the time winds are typically Force 4 or less and rarely exceed Force 6, though you can get squalls.

Temperatures: These average between 75-90 degrees in the daytime. We found that mosquitoes were no problem in the northeast monsoon season, but beware of the critters in the mangroves.

Navigation: Don’t rely on GPS and chart plotters in Thai waters. They should only be used as a support because the GPS position is not as accurate as in the USA. Eyeball navigation with paper charts and an awareness of currents when sailing in narrow areas between islands is essential.

Longtail short story

Like New York’s yellow cabs and Venice’s gondolas, Thailand’s longtail boats are their most distinctive form of coastal transport. The wooden boats, 20ft-30ft long, are powered by secondhand car or truck engines and get their name from the driveshaft extending 10ft or more to put the prop in the water and keep the engine dry. The prop is mounted directly on the driveshaft that swivels and lifts out of the water to provide neutral gear.

The multi-colored ribbons and garlands wrapped around the prow are Buddhist prayer scarfs offering good luck and protection. You’ll hear the drone of an Isuzu three-liter truck engine long before you see the longtail. Sadly, progress and the price of wood means fiberglass speedboats are slowly displacing this iconic traditional craft.

See the More Images in the Slide Show HERE

MHS Summer 2017

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