Cruising

A Taste of the East

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You know you are in for a different kind of cruising experience when a) the guide book says: “Do not go ashore onto either of the Koh Liang islands. They are sites for the collection of swallow’s nests to make bird’s nest soup. They are patrolled by local Thais armed with automatic weapons;” and b) the charter base manager (ours was Andy Middleton, who runs the Sunsail base in Langkawi, Malaysia) tells you to watch out for monkeys stealing from the dinghy.

And what a different experience it was!

We were scheduled to cruise a Sunsail 384 catamaran from Langkawi to Phuket, Thailand. The crew consisted of myself, my wife Terrie, our children Pippin and Paul, and their friend Jonah.

The two Sunsail bases in Thailand and Malaysia are only a few degrees north of the equator. The heat and humidity slam into you the minute you emerge from the plane. A pre-arranged taxi service was waiting for us, and we arrived at our boat around mid-afternoon to find it decorated with gorgeous tropical flowers.

We waited until the relative cool of the evening to go exploring and do some preliminary grocery shopping. Walking into town, we were accompanied by a troop of monkeys, including mothers with babies, swinging through the trees and along the power lines beside us. Hornbill birds were flitting from branch to branch. At an open-air night market with rows of dimly lit stalls we sampled a dozen spicy delicacies and exotic fruits that were new to us. Everything was amazingly cheap. We were off to a good start.

In the morning, Andy spent hours driving Terrie and the others to an assortment of grocery stores for more provisioning, while I pored over the charts and guide books. Paul and Sheila, a couple who run a nautical supply business, brought drinking water, ice, beer and wine to the boat. We set sail in the early afternoon in protected waters close-reaching on a perfect 10-15 knot breeze with stunning scenery all around us. Little did we know that the farther we went, the better the scenery would get.

This was very much like sailing in the Virgin Islands, but with several eagles to keep us company. The boat itself was a pleasant surprise. The 384 is a replacement for the old Moorings 3800. By comparison, it is sprightly and fun. It easily accelerates to 8-plus knots and moves respectably to windward when necessary.

There are fundamentally two sailing seasons in this part of the world, with northeast monsoon winds from November to April and southwest monsoon winds from April to November. The southwest monsoon features stronger winds and larger seas. We were at the tail end of the northeast season (the word “monsoon” is derived from mawsim, the Arabic word for “season”), with predominantly light and fickle winds, so unfortunately for much of the charter we were unable to make the most of the boat’s performance.

During the northeast monsoon you tend to anchor on the west side of the islands, and during the southwest monsoon on the east side. We had a quiet first night dug in off the west coast of Langkawi, with a gentle breeze to mitigate the heat. The tides in the Andaman Sea peak out at 10 feet, with substantial currents running between and around the islands, so it’s important to set the anchor well. In general, though, we found the holding to be excellent, so this was no problem.

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