Ocean Hermit – sailing, solitude and stories

My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.

* Sailing the Andaman Sea – Finding paradise in Thailand and Malaysia

Lake Ontario, Canada, of course, is the perfect place for sailing; plenty of wind, on occasion, local storms to entertain, no tides, and close to home.  But if, in March, you found yourself staring into the bright sunshine and yearned to be already on the water, you might have wondered where else in the world you could go for a warmer experience and a long sailing season.  You might have thought of crystal clear waters, navigating to any of numerous islands, cheap alcohol and on occasion too much sunshine.  No – not the Caribbean.

Exactly on the other side of the world stretch the turquoise waters and emerald islands of Thailand and Malaysia in the Andaman Sea.  That may seem a long way away, but apart from the length and cost of the flight (about 19 hours and $1200 return) once you get there, everything else is much cheaper and much more relaxed.  In all, the total cost is likely much the same as the Caribbean.

The delights of sailing in Asia include not only some superb sailing (more later) but a complete change of environment – welcoming people, outstanding foods, pleasant climate, fascinating cultures – but also all the comforts of home.  All at prices that can make a dollar go a long way.  Yachting in Asia is well developed in the key locations, with excellent suppliers, service in English and access to the wider world through the internet and couriers.  First-time visitors are always surprised at the infrastructure.

Most sailors arrive in Asia either to bare-boat charter from one of the companies, such as Sunsail, or for a private charter arranged via the internet; or to buy a boat to liveaboard and cruise the region or cross oceans.  A few Canadians, often retired couples, arrive from Vancouver after crossing the Pacific, the South Sea Islands and often Australia and Indonesia on round the world cruises that may take a decade or more.  The two main centres, which almost everyone calls in at, are Phuket, a small island in Thailand and well developed for tourism, and Langkawi, a tax-free island in Malaysia.

Between Phuket and Langkawi stretches 125 miles of crystal clear waters, dozen of sparsely inhabited islands and plenty of interesting sailing.  Major international races take place in both Phuket and Langkawi every year, as well as in several other places in Asia.  Malaysia is especially welcoming to visiting sailors – no limit on how long a boat can stay, no import taxes on boats and no visa requirement and three-months’ entry for visitors.  Foreigners who buy property in Malaysia (many sailors end up settling ashore) get automatic residency.

The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami hit this region very hard – more than 5000 people died in Thailand and more than 250,000 people died on the island of Sumatra, across the Malacca Strait in Indonesia.  Two of the three marinas on Langkawi were completely destroyed, and several boats sank at the docks.  However, visiting Phuket or Langkawi today, you would never know the tsunami had ever occurred.  Marinas have been, or are being, rebuilt.  All the hotels and businesses have reopened.

Sailing conditions in the Andaman Sea are varied, from serene to terrifying, depending on the season and local topography.  An approximate truism is that there is “either too much wind or not enough”.  The North-East monsoon brings dry winds from China that blow offshore from November to April;  ideal cruising weather with steady winds and little rain.  This is the season when cruisers depart for the Mediterranean or to the Chagos archipeligo in the middle of the Indian Ocean.  Winds tend to be light to moderate.  Temperatures only become very hot in late March and April.  Storms and rain are rare.  Motorsailing is common if you really want to get somewhere.  This is the busy season for sailors meandering between the islands in the Andaman Sea.

The South-West Monsoon, April to October, blows across thousands of miles from the south Atlantic and Indian oceans, bringing onshore winds, regular 1 – 3 metre swells and periodic tropical downpours and days of strong, variable winds and confused seas.  Because of the relatively shallow seas and local catabatic winds, the SW Monsoon is the season when sailors must pick their weather windows.  Sailing from Langkawi to Phuket, the most popular run, can change from heaven to hell depending on exactly when you choose to sail.

When the weather does worsen in the SW Monsoon people are on the lookout for “Sumatras” – localized tropical storms originating from the mountains of Sumatra, less than 200 miles west of  the Malay coast.  The ferocity of a Sumatra has to be experienced to be believed.  The sky turns black all across the horizon and the winds can exceed 90 kms an hour – the pellets of heavy rain “fall” horizontally.  Visibility is zero.  Caught out at night, if the approaching storm system has not been spotted on radar, is likely to test any sailor’s mettle and equipment.  Fortunately, there are usually only three or four Sumatras each season.
One challenge that can take some getting used to is the number of nets in the water and the number of fishing boats on the water, especially at night.  Few show conventional navigation lights (often only a paraffin lamp or, worse, a flashlight if they see you approaching), others take no notice of what a sailboat is doing.  Near misses can make for anxious moments.  I have counted more than 60 lights around my boat at night.  Good watch keeping at all times is essential.  Pairs of trawlers do not give way and three-decker fishing boats, each with crews of two dozen men (often illegal Burmese migrant workers) are always eager to reach fishing grounds by the most direct route, cutting across your path.

One big difference between North America and South East Asia is the absence of navigation markers or emergency services.  There is no Coast Guard monitoring for boaters in distress.  You rely on yourself and the goodwill of other yachties and local people.  Perhaps because of this, people are very supportive and helpful.  On one occasion, when my steering cable snapped and I was using the emergency tiller and could not control the throttle to be able to enter a marina, I radioed for assistance as I was passing the mouth of the inlet to the marina. Within a couple of minutes an inflatable appeared with two yachties to assist me.
On another occasion, another sailor hit the local “pet rock” in Langkawi and six yachts went to his aid.
Accurate charts (the “pet rock” not withstanding) are available, as well as helpful cruising guides to the region.  Many charter sailors take a week to sail around Langkawi or to sail north to Phuket.  Meandering among the islands, diving on coral reefs, stopping in different anchorages every night, or laying undisturbed in the same spot for a few days, the region will quickly seem like paradise.  A paradise that many sailors find hard to leave, whatever their intentions when they arrived.

These days, newcomers from North America are often concerned about visiting a Moslem country and about pirates in the Malacca Strait (the part of the Andaman Sea laying between the Malay peninsula and the long island of Sumatra).

Malaysia is racially and culturally very mixed, so that although Langkawi is strongly Moslem and local standards are very conservative by Canadian standards, the South Asian, Chinese and Westerner communities get along amicably.  Alcohol is cheap (so too the mixes) but there is little drunkenness.  Theft is rare.  I know of two sailors who left their boats on swing mooring in front of the main town and returned months later to find that only birds had been aboard and that nothing was damaged or missing.  Several of my friends who arrived in their boats have opted to retire in Langkawi and feel completely welcome and secure.

By all accounts, the pirates in the Malacca Strait are located on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, about 200 miles west of the popular coastal cruising route of yachties.  The pirates target high value prizes such as ships.  The Strait is the world’s busiest shipping lane and today’s pirates are mostly highly organized teams with international intelligence and methods of disposal.  This is not to say that a lone yacht sailing close to the shore of Sumatra might not be menaced by locals seizing an opportunity for plunder.
However, cruising in Indonesia requires an expensive cruising permit; most sailors stay in Malaysian and Thai waters, where the governments welcome foreigners and their strong navies do not tolerate criminal activity.  In Thailand or Malaysia, when a local fishing boat approaches you, almost certainly they want to sell some fish, buy a bottle of whisky or need medical assistance.

If you do go sailing in Asia, two details that may help you have a wonderful time.  Both may be obvious, but they are worth checking, especially if you are chartering.  First, make sure any vessel has sun awnings over the whole length of the vessel and preferably wind scoops to help keep you cooler at night (especially in March and April).   Not only is there more sun but the sun is a lot more intense (the UV spoils brightwork within four months).  Second, take a top quality diesel filter (such as a Baja) with you or make sure one is available on board.  Fuel is not expensive but it is not always 100% clean.  Other than that, there is little to do but the usual preparations for any trip and just go!  Local yachties, at all the marinas and the popular anchorages, are very welcoming and helpful.  Fair winds, but watch out for Sumatras!

©  2007 Dennison Berwick. This article may be republished for noncommercial purposes, with full copyright attribution and notification to the author. Any other use is a violation of copyright.

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This entry was posted on January 3, 2010 by in Sailboats, Sailing and tagged , , , .
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