Friday, December 26, 2008

Surin Islands; Christmas and Boxing Day

Waking up in our beautiful anchorage on Christmas day was a real treat. Up early once again, and in the early morning light we got a clearer picture of our bay and its surroundings. It was more a combination of bays really with several idyllic looking sandy beaches interspersed by rocky outcrops dropping into the sea. The hills all around were covered in lush tropical forest and the morning sounds emanating from it were intriguing. Above the general murmur of the forest we could make out more distinct animal noises - who knows whether they were the bats, or crab eating monkeys, or...

The water was calm and Ian took an early morning row across to the shore in the dinghy. The transition from deep to shallow was indeed rapid - and the water itself appeared clear, but different from Similan in that without a sandy bottom it was less obviously clear. There also appeared to be a big variation in depth.

Back onboard Kika Kristin was busy inflating the kayak, and set off the across bay in the general direction of the treacherous rocks in the centre, then across to the other side and along the opposite coastline towards the Park HQ. Nick and Ian relaxed on Kika's deck reading, occasionally pausing to track the progress of the Viking conquest in the binoculars. After some time Kristin disappeared from view and after some debate the boys assumed she'd made it into the channel between the 2 islands...but had she?
On board the kayak Kristin was busy paddling towards the white sand of the beach. It'd been a long paddle across the bay and her mind was focused on the mojito or caipirinha she'd have when she arrived. Perhaps she'd also have a massage on the beach to relax those muscles tired from all the paddling. And then a nice plate of Tom Yum soup for lunch would be perfect...ah how envious the boys would be when she returned later! If only she'd bought those prescription sunglasses she'd be able to see beyond the line of Longtail boats on the beach and onwards to the bar and restaurant. As it was, she was practically ashore before she noticed the boats were not in that great a condition - perhaps though paint and spare parts were in short supply out here in the Surins. As she waded ashore a group of kids arrived - and she took one of them for a short ride in the kayak which he loved. And then dragged the kayak onshore and walked up the beach. A group of men appeared not to notice her although they appeared friendly enough when she spoke to them. Having realised this was not the normal village 'resort' she asked if it was OK to look around, to which they said 'yes'. There were groups of huts arranged in rows behind the beach, and wandering around it became clear there wasn't much in the way of cocktails on offer! The idyllic beach was not quite so ideal and Kristin felt for them. And so after a gesture of goodwill to buy some small bracelets they'd made, she beat a hasty retreat away in the kayak, relieved to be paddling towards the 'real' village resort.
Meanwhile the boys had decided to do some snorkelling off the boat. First off the boat in a new environment is always Captain Nick, who in the first instance dived down to check the anchors. Back on the surface and snorkelling he was quickly swimming away. A somewhat reluctant Ian was quietly preoccupied with the fact he couldn't see the bottom of the water around the boat! After Nick's early reports that the coral was 'amazing' Ian persuaded himself into the deep and swam off towards Nick. The water was clear dark blue and within about 30m the coral rises up suddenly in front of you to about 1m from the surface.

The colours and variety of coral were indeed amazing. Imagine any illustrated book you've seen of a reef, all the coral varieties and colours on a page, and you have some idea of what it was like to swim on this reef. From blues, to purples, to pinks, to greens, it was a fantastic example of a garden at sea. Perhaps not so many large fish as in the Similan Islands but such abundance of coral and many many small fish living out their lives amongst its branches and tentacles.
Interestingly as we swam closer to the shore the water became deep again so by luck we'd actually managed to anchor alongside one of the best sections of reef. After a while we headed across the bay by dinghy to the area most frequented by other snorkellers and realised here too it was vibrant and beautiful. It also became very shallow and it was a challenge navigating between the coral heads without touching them. Interestingly when the bottom looms up like this one experiences similar anxieties to when it is too deep to see the bottom. The ideal snorkelling comfort zone appeared to be of 2-10m!

In anticipation of anchor raising faff Nick took the opportunity of visiting a dive boat in the bay for them to check his regulator. Generously they replaced the regulator and the hose for him without any charge.

As it was getting later in the afternoon, and there was no sign of Kristin, the decision was reached to go searching in the dinghy. Across the bay was easy and speedy but as we rounded the corner to head up the passage between the two islands it became extremely shallow. Scanning the horizon as sharp-eyed Nick spotted an orange spec on the beach and as we slowly closed in on the beach it was clearly our Viking crew preparing to launch herself home. Our arrival meant a Christmas Day beer on the beach and a chance to get some mobile phone reception for those Christmas messages. And then heading back home we noticed huge schools of jelly fish ominously in the water. Hmmmm, perhaps not what some of the crew wanted to see!!

Back on Kika, we treated ourselves to a variation of Coq au Vin, followed by Spotted Dick! Yes, what's Christmas Day without a pudding and Nick eagerly created our own using a recipe kindly supplied by Mrs Jenny Ager herself!! And the crew can confirm it was a fitting tribute from a son to his Mum!
Boxing day

Just another day in the tropics, waking up at dawn and gradually watching as the world around wakes up. We actually had some rain overnight so the spray hood was up over the hatch. As Ian unsecured it and pushed it down there was a nasty tearing sound. Closer inspection revealed a split along one side! Having just watched Nick repair the damage to the wind chute caused the day previously, it was a case of picking a suitable moment to confess to today's misdemeanour. No sense in waiting and Ian broke the news to a Captain who appeared close to boiling point! with a slightly furrowed brow and a 'hmmm that is nasty', Captain Nick spared Ian the fate of being keel hauled and instead stormed below. Anxious moments on deck fretting about the punishment and then the Captain reemerged promptly handing over a sewing kit and a book on how to stitch sails! Phew, fair and just punishment!

Today we planned to move around the island, but Nick is keen we wait for nature to be on our side ie. the wind to be blowing us off the reef, as we have the complication of raising two difficult anchors. Not having to fight the elements to keep us off the reef whilst possibly having to dive to free them, was very sensible. Stubbornly refusing to move from the stern all morning, the wind finally moved round about 11. Action stations - Nick and Kristin off in the dinghy to haul up the stern anchor, leaving Ian at the helm with engine on tickover anxiously watching the depth gauge. After several minutes of hauling, the dinghy crew returned tired but stern anchor in hand. No time to rest though we still had the normal anchor to raise. Thanks to the electronic windlass (winch) it would be a less physical task but there were still anxious moments whilst we waited for it to free itself from the depths. But free it did, and after much less of a struggle than anticipated we headed out of the bay and raised the sails.

Our plan to tack our way round the top of the island to the other side was going well. The wind was in our sails offshore and a single tack brought us back into the channel between our island and the next one north. It was a relaxing sail but we were covering good ground (or sea!). As we entered the channel though the wind died and we spent the next hour or so drifting through with the current. There's nothing like a diversion to keep us occupied whilst waiting for the wind and Nick pointed out the fishing boat about 300m away, suggesting Kristin might want to try a Viking raid and procure us some fresh fish. Never one to turn down a challenge, our Viking loaded her weapons into the dinghy, and with a rush of blood to the head as she hurriedly lowered the outboard, managed a well choreographed head over heels straight over the back of the dinghy. And wouldn't you know it, that was just the point where a big gust of wind lurched us forward at 1.5 knots! At last a proper man over board drill although we were lucky the dinghy was still attached. As Kristin plaintively called 'I won't reach' Nick leapt aboard the dinghy only to find young Kristin had the key round her wrist! Improvising well he held the cutout switch and motored the 50m to pickup her up.

Returning to Kika a few moments later, the fishing boat was now a further 100m away. A soggy but undaunted Kristin headed off on her quest. As she got further out the waves grew but our Viking bravely fought on. What might these fishmermen think we wondered as they woke from an afternoon doze to the sound of an outboard? Expecting to see another motor boat they instead see the mirage of a bikini-clad blond Norwegian approaching by dinghy. Is this the stuff of dreams? They pinch themselves hard and wipe their eyes, only to find the image has become clearer. A semi-naked woman drawing alongside and gesticulating wildly. After days at sea it must be unbelievable! Apparently it then took several minutes of gesticulation for Kristin to make them understand she wanted fish, although one suspects they knew straight away and prefered to maximise the time they had with our supermodel. Understood they did though, and what's more they generously threw fish of all shapes and sizes into the dinghy, and then refused payment! A triumphant Kristin returned to the mother ship seemingly empty handed, but then revealed 12 fresh fish including several grouper and the biggest squid we'd ever seen. Their generosity was humbling, although Nick and Ian suspected they might not have procured quite so much of a catch if they'd been in the dinghy! A return gift was in order though and a bottle of gin was raised from the depths of Kika's liqueur cabinet and Kristin despatched to deliver it. It proved to be the perfect return gift.
Fish processing began in earnest on deck and after an hour of gutting, deboning, deinking and filleting we had fish prepared in all shapes and sizes. We motored the last couple of miles to our new anchorage and picked up a mooring buoy right in the middle. Forests ran down to the edge of the water and in the distance the beach actually had people on it. It seemed to satisfy everyone - we were the only boat there, we had better access to facilities and mobile reception and we could see the bottom in the water around the boat!

That night we feasted in squid cooked in Thai style, and goujons of grouper fried in breadcrumbs. Delicious!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Similan to Surin Islands

We set off just before dawn, slipping quietly out of the bay. A larger navy ship had arrived on one of the outer moorings, and down on the beach a group of the Burmese were sitting in the water. We felt relieved to get away so we wouldn't have to witness their leaving.

As we headed out past Island 9, the most northerly of the Similan group, we were treated to a beautiful sunrise, and already the day felt like holiday again. There was a healthy wind but unfortunately it was over the bow and of little use to us to complete the 45 miles to the Surin Islands before dark. And so we were motoring. Although often more efficient than using the sails, as you can head directly for your destination, the use of the engine is more tiring. Outside on deck Kika's diesel hums nicely, at a constant 2000 rpm she can usually cruise at 5 knots. Below deck though the noise is less calming, and there is little that is relaxing when down there whilst motoring, unless of course you don't want to hear what is happening upstairs!

The boys spent the first part of the journey on deck practicing Christmas carols! When you're out at sea it doesn't really matter if you don't know the words nor if you only hit half the notes. Full marks were awarded for enthusiasm, and singing the first verse of every carol they knew constituted a good attempt at a Christmas carol service.
Kristin remained blissfully unaware of events down below catching up on emails.

Not content with frightening the fish with their singing, Nick headed below and returned with his trumpet, and a music book. This dress rehearsal (for the main concert was scheduled for the evening) got under way with 'Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer' and progressed quickly on to 'Happy Birthday to you', followed by the first few lines of a multitude of Christmas-themed Easy Listening tunes! Lack of breathing practice ensured that the concert was a fairly short one!

Our first note-worthy event was early morning fish drill. The clicking of the line as it went out sparked us into action. Our bait - a sparkly plastic pink squid - had only been out an hour and was quickly delivering results. Nick reeled in close to the boat and we could see the largish silvery fish fighting hard just off the stern. And then the line went slack...the prize of our first fish eluded us for now. The squid went back in and we returned to amusing ourselves. A couple of hours later fish drill no. 2 ensued. This time full crew were in attendance and whilst I tried to keep us on course, Nick and Kristin reeled in and fought with a large fish with nasty looking teeth just to my left. It turned out to be a barracuda, the hook well embedded in its vicious looking jaws. After a struggle the fish was landed, and it was an impressive specimen, but sadly not one we could eat because of the potential toxins they carry. Fishing success still eluded us!
The head wind continued to strengthen all morning and we were making just over 4 knots when our first man-overboard drill was initiated. In one gust Nick's swimwear, disappeared off the side and the crew swung into action, slowing and turning the boat and heading back over the wake. All eyes on lookout but to no avail. It seemed we'd been too slow to react and they'd sunk quickly. We reset the course feeling a bit deflated!

To avoid further mishaps the other washing was removed from the rails, but less than an hour later Nick's hat was taken by another gust, and we were into our second man-overboard drill. This time the reactions were faster and we got the boat to within a few feet of the it sunk! One hopes that our success in retrieving a crew member over board would be more successful. Joking apart it was a very good lesson in how quickly you need to react and work together to mount a successful rescue!

Nick's wardrobe was getting more and more depleted by the hour but luckily we were making good progress to the Surin Islands. We arrived late afternoon in a beautiful calm bay surrounded by hills covered in lush forest. The bay was fringed by golden beaches. We took the advice of the sailing guide and approached with caution - but even we were unprepared for the change in depth...from 45m, 30m, 20m, 11m, 4m, to 1.7m...all in the space of 3 boat lengths. Without a sandy bottom it was hard to see what lay below until you were right on top of it. There was also a huge boat at anchor close by making it hard to find a suitable spot. After a couple of approaches we decided to try one of the free moorings the other side of bay, but after easily picking the buoy up we realised the boat was a couple of metres away from dropping onto the reef. And so we very quickly moved off, flirted briefly with another dodgy mooring further out, but then decided to head back to where the large boat had just vacated its anchorage. Now against the clock, we sped over and found a spot. To feel comfortable we had to drop our normal anchor on the bow, and another from the stern. A few mins later though we were secure just as the light faded completely! Just-in-time anchoring.

As if they'd been waiting for us to arrive the Park Ranger boat arrived from nowhere - three friendly rangers wishing us Happy Christmas and then asking us to part with 1400 Baht. Our experience of Rangers is that they have some of the most appreciative smiles you'll ever see if you offer them alcohol, and these were no exception. A half bottle of gin waved in their direction elicited 'ooohs and aaahs', dazzling teeth and most importantly the offer of a discount. And so we finally parted with 1200 Baht and a pledge not to charge us anymore however long we stayed!

Kristin had been busy all this time preparing a delicious Christmas Eve dinner of marinated chicken, rice, pineapple salsa and vegetables. We cleaned up, showered, put on the best we had for dinner and enjoyed another great meal on deck. We also broke into the Christmas panettone and the evening finished with the trumpet reappearing. We weren't entirely convinced our neighbours across the bay appreciated the renditions quite as much as we did...but we hoped they had some Christmas spirit on board!

Surin islands anchorage: N9deg25.6' E097deg53.5'

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Kristin joins Kika

Astrid from Antares convinced Ian and me that we needed to invest some quality time cleaning prior to the arrival of Kristin, with her unambiguous verdict on the standard of hygiene below decks: "make sure you boys clean-up before she arrives, otherwise she'll take the first plane back to Norway". A harsh judgment which might have been more fairly levelled against the post galley improvement dusty interior that greeted Ian, but I felt that a week's worth of dusting had returned the cabin to almost pristine condition. Still we worked conscientiously, transforming the fore-peak from storage area into a livable cabin, the heads from ship's toilet into an area of surgical sterility and the randomly filled food lockers into clean logically ordered food storage areas. Surprisingly this took the whole morning, leaving just enough time for me to make my second back-of-a-scooter dash to the airport and for Ian to relax with a Thai foot massage.

It had been over five years since I'd last seen Kristin, however I didn't think there'd be a problem identifying the tall blond Norwegian from the other disembarking passengers until it turned out that the majority of the arrivals on her flight were also Scandinavians. Still it was fun searching the faces of other fair-haired tourists for a flicker of recognition. I need not have worried, instantly spotting Kristin as she burst out of Arrivals in a whirlwind of energy, projecting her trolley into the alarmed crowd of patient greeters before her. Months ago, when I was in Darwin, we began to discuss Christmas/New Year plans. Back then it seemed improbable that flights would be booked, I'd arrive in Thailand in time, the boat would be functional, and we'd all manage to meet-up, but against the odds our plans had come together and the scene was set for a couple of enjoyable weeks exploring the waters off Thailand's west coast.

Once Kristin was on board we headed across the bay for the calmer waters of the neighbouring anchorage and food at the beach restaurant. As with all new arrivals Kristin was promptly handed the wheel and given the rough direction of our intended destination. Kristin made full use of her elevated status at the helm to check her crew's preparation - was there sufficient depth across the bay?, were there any dangers to be aware of? rocks?. Ian and I reassured her; we'd made the same trip a week before - there were no hazards to avoid. Inevitably, a minute later, we ran aground. Not the most auspicious start, but with deft use of reverse, we rapidly extracted ourselves from the muddy bottom and continued cautiously on a subtly altered course. Once the anchor was down, Kristin introduced us to a Norwegian custom - "anchor dram" - celebrate the new anchorage with a shot of potent Norwegian spirit. A custom we enthusiastically embraced over the following weeks until we finished the bottle.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Rayleigh beach

Guest Entry: Kika Sailing Adventures TM Part 1

Like all customer-focused tour companies, showing up at the airport to collect your guest is a good first step, and Kika Sailing Adventures TM is no exception. Sparing no expense, the top man was despatched for the job, using luxury local transport (back of a scooter for 30km) and arriving well in time to be stationed along with all the other greeters just through Arrivals. Adhering to the local Thai custom of smiling at all pasty white foreigners, KSA's man was suitably beaming and after greeting formalities were completed we headed off into town by shared minibus.

We carefully explained to the driver that we wanted to go to the boat pier, and then sat and chatted along the way until the bus reached its last stop - only to be told our stop - Ao Chalong - was the first one of the journey - about 20 mins back! Nick has acquired many skills whilst overseas but bargaining does not seem to be one of them! We hastily agreed to the first price the taxi driver offered to take us back to the pier and soon we were heading out across the harbour to Kika.

Nick had dropped a few hints that he'd been working on the boat and things might not be as ship-shape as normal on board. One of our first tasks was to top up the water tanks onboard which involved ferrying 170 litres of water across the anchorage by dinghy and then lugging them onboard! I wondered what else might be in store for the new crew?
Well there was also the trip to Tesco's Lotus Market - yes Tescos with practically a whole aisle devoted to fish sauce. Job done we headed across the bay to a quieter anchorage, dropped anchor and headed ashore for beer and delicious Thai food.
Up bright and early we headed for Koh Pi Pi managing about half distance under sail before having to resort to the engine. A good time for some refresher training perhaps? KSA are an unconventional sailing company and they have a pioneering approach to crew training. On being welcomed aboard all crew are handed and asked to memorise the 'Competent crew' Handbook. Normally one might then expect to start work on menial tasks like hanking ropes and swabbing the decks, but no, not on Kika. Kika's approach is that all new crew get to stand at the helm and bark orders at Nick to hoist and trim the sails, raise the anchor etc. Unconventional eh? but who am I to complain!

We arrived late afternoon and after dropping anchor were all set for a swim until Nick pointed out that the boat was surrounded by small blue jellyfish! 'They'll be fine' said Nick. I obviously appeared reluctant. Not a man to be easily discouraged Nick offered to swim with his wetsuit on to see if they stung him! Off he went, returning to report gleefully that he hadn't been stung - although he later revealed it had in fact been like swimming in jelly! You won't be surprised that I decided to postpone my first experience with my new snorkel for clearer waters!!

Meanwhile we heard the distant rumble of a large diesel engine, and a Thai Long Tail boat plied across from the opposite side of the bay. There's no doubt they look great and in these local waters they are one of the best ways to travel - but you need ear plugs! They are really noisy, generally consisting of dubious adaptations of diesel engines from motor vehicle to boat, precariously mounted high up on the back of the boat with a long tail (drive shaft) to the rudder and propeller. Our tranquil anchorage appeared to be on the equivalent of the M25 for Long Tail boats ferrying tourists around Pi Pi, so it wasn't the quietest spot! As night fell we also had the nightclubs on the beach (about 500m away) to contend with. It was an interesting night's sleep.

An early start next day saw us heading under sail for Pi Pi Leh, in an attempt to beat the tourist rush. The elements were not on our side though and we were being overtaken by all manner of other craft, so we switched to engine. Pi Pi Leh is a beautiful island - high cliffs and hills rising vertically from the sea. It has achieved latter day fame as the location used to film 'The Beach' and when we arrived at our next anchorage - a beautiful bay surrounded by cliffs with a white sandy beach, it was already busy. We picked up a mooring buoy and I got to finally christen my snorkel, scaring the many fish and exloring the coral in a tiny sandy bay near Kika.
But then carnage ensued. Boats of all sizes began arriving en masse. In the space of just 15 mins pandemonium had descended on this tranquil spot. At one point there were probably more people snorkeling than there were fish in the sea. We decided to head off in the dinghy around the edge of the island, and when we returned an hour or so later it was already quieter. And by about 3pm there was almost no-one left. A few other yachts arrived late in the afternoon to stay for the night and you could suddenly appreciate how beautiful a place it was. We were joined onboard by an entertaining Aussie couple moored across the bay. Grant & Les, who were cruising on a local yacht, had stopped by for some ocean passage stories as they were thinking of doing a long voyage themselves. Nick was happy to oblige, particularly as the beer flowed. I toyed with the idea of pretending I'd been onboard for a while but I think given my skin colour and general lack of boat coordination it would have been a joke hard to carry off. No matter, we laughed the afternoon into evening anyway.

Oh and at least we now knew the secret of Thai anchorages - get there early or late, hide up while the tourist rush is on during the hottest hours of the day, and maximise the enjoyment from early morning and late afternoon tranquility.

Monday, December 08, 2008

King's cup challenges

My arrival in Phuket coincided with the start of the King's Cup Regatta - a week of yacht racing and apr├Ęs race socialising. My timing wasn't entirely coincidental. However I faced a small conflict of interest when Eric "the Viking", won two tickets for the evening social events and gave me one. Now my best intentions to ensure the boat was in tip-top condition for the arrival of my festive guests faced an unanticipated hurdle - the social events featured free food and drink, resulting in rather unproductive mornings.
The social events were held in up-market hotels around the SW coast of Phuket. Initially the world of plush hotels seemed somewhat alien after my mimimalist lifestyle onboard. However it's amazing how quickly one can adapt to the luxury and a few days in, the main race hotel began to feel like a second home.Still somehow I managed to balance the demands of the nocturnal partying with an engine service, sail repair, hunting-down some marine stainless-steel and nearly managing to put the galley back together after a frantic few days of sanding, varnishing and painting before Ian arrived.
OK I hadn't cleaned the boat as much as I'd planned, or filled up with water, but I think lugging 10 x 20 litre bottles of water via dinghy back to boat, gave a jet-lagged Ian a good introduction to the cruising life-style....
Kuta beach: N7deg 49.10' E98deg17.5'
Ko Phiphi: N7deg44.8' E098deg45.92'
Koh Dam Khwan: N7deg57.6' E098deg48.5'
Rai Le (Laem Nang) N8deg 00.67' E098deg 49.9'