Thursday, September 11, 2014

What I Missed About Thailand

Don’t get me wrong!  I loved every teeny tiny minute of my visit back to North America.  I got to spend lots of quality time gardening with Corie, cooking with Caity, and watching baseball with Danny!  We had many wonderful family dinners from Cotijas in front of the Padre game on TV!  We even took in a couple of games ourselves and Caity and I cheered at the ever so lively Bobby Sox slow pitch games that both Corie and Danny play for.  Six weeks at home also allowed me to fly to Vancouver and to Denver and stay in the magnificent new homes of Mark & Wendy and Ken & Taylor as well as do some hiking in some of the most spectacular mountains of the world!  Lots of extended family visiting, BBQs, beach time, sweet visits with friends and that ever so satisfying task….shopping for boat parts!  The quintessential Perfect Summer!

I wasn’t really ready to say good-bye as Corie dropped me off at SAN for my 30 hour flight back to Phuket, but you know, when you stay with family (even if it’s in your own house) it’s better to leave a day too early than a day too late!  Also, Neal had been a real prince about me going off by myself to get my dose of home, family and friends and I didn’t want him to completely forget about me!  I heaved up my two 50-lb bags full of boat parts and took a step from one world into another.

It’s pretty amazing how adaptable is the human species.  Grumble as we might about change, when it comes- we deal.  My advantage here is that after already living in Thailand I have begun to know some of the ropes.  You never know ALL of the ropes because it’s very different and well…they change a lot!  However, after descending off my Air Korea flight and entering the packed shoulder to shoulder, chaotic, full of Korean tour groups Thai Immigration room, I knew that there would be somewhere…..a very short line!  Five minutes later, after skirting the back wall, stepping over piles of carry-ons and ducking behind a sign behind a potted plant, I paid my baksheesh and my visa was stamped! Oh yeah….I remember now…..

From there on and over the following week the unusual things that I had missed about Thailand came flooding back to me.  Good or bad, this is the way things are:  Four young kids in school uniforms zipping home on one motor bike.  Chirping geckos on the walls of the open air restaurants.  The sweet, moist smell of the jungle at night.  Traffic (motor bikes and small delivery trucks) driving the wrong way down the highway.  Knowing when the current is slack because the fish swim in circles instead of up current.  Buying pineapples at the stands on the side of the highway.  Piles of flip flops outside of every restaurant and shop, including the chandlery.  Eating dinner family style at Coconut’s with a kid who grew up in Sri Lanka and a Kiwi who told a story about spending the night in a thermal pool while lost one New Zealand winter night. Not being able to buy booze between the hours of eleven am and five pm, unless you are buying a lot (cases).   And lastly, living on a boat in Phang Nga Bay- always in motion, knowing when the tide is high or low, being awakened by the long tail fishing boats, feeling connected to the sea.

A friend recently asked me what I have learned while traveling.   Fair enough, I said while trying to come up with a meaningful answer.  In thinking about this question since, I think the answer comes in what I have unlearned.  I have unlearned that there is only one way to do things, only one way to measure success, only one way to define values.  I have unlearned that bigger is always better and that busy is always fulfilling.  I have unlearned that the small things are not as important as the big things.  What I have learned though, is that relationships span time and distance.    That people everywhere love their children.  That no matter where you travel, you can always find a kindred spirit.  That the world is full of good food and good company.  That “different” holds no value judgment.  And that whenever you leave any place behind, there will always be something you will miss.

R of Rutea
September 10, 2014
Phuket, Thailand

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Phang Nga Bay, Thailand

Rutea at her berth at Yacht Haven Marina

The water is so warm in Phang Nga Bay that sea life grows at an amazing rate.  If I want to keep Rutea in a ready-to-sail-at-a-moments-notice condition, I need to dive down and scrape the barnacles off her prop at least once every three weeks.  So, after one of these excursions to Rutea’s underside, I suggested that we cast off the dock lines and do some exploring of the bay that we’re anchored in.  We had slipped into a routine that was leaving us boat-bound, reluctant to leave the comfort of our air conditioning, save for daily trips to the marina’s fitness center.  Once we had our tanks full of fuel, we headed out with our first stop to be the anchorage on the north side of Ko Boi Yai, one of the many islands in Phang Nga Bay and that didn’t even show up as an anchorage in our cruising guide.  From there we headed over to Ao Po, where our friends, Bruce and Alene, are refitting their 50’ trimaran.  They joined us for a day sail and we joined them for a dinner at a local restaurant that night.

It felt so good to get away from the dock even if we did have to suffer the heat and humidity that is the lack of air conditioning.  It had been so long since we had actually be cruising and I was pleasantly surprised at how well all of Rutea’s systems performed after sitting at idle since March.

As we had left somewhat suddenly, we didn’t have a chance to provision properly so we decided to just make do with what we had on board although we were tempted to stop in Ao Chalong, a popular anchorage for cruisers with good grocery stores nearby.  But we were enjoying being away from everything too much so we decided to press on.  As we motored south, a cloud formed over Phuket Island and I watched it grow from a puffy, idyllic, lazy-looking cloud into a monster of a thunderstorm.  Its direction was the same as ours so I wasn’t too concerned – until it changed directions and started to come our way.  At first I thought we could outrun it but we later thought it would be best if we made a u-turn and headed back north.  Oops!  The thunderstorm changed its direction again and started to come right for us!  We made another u-turn and this time we had no place to run – the storm hit us squarely.  The wind gusted from a dead calm to 30+ knots in a few seconds.  A torrential rain fell that left visibility reduced to just a few feet.  Lightning filled the sky and thunder exploded in long, rolling tolls.

A Brazilian we had met told us that some spectacular snorkeling was to be had at Ko Mai Thon, a small island that’s not even in Phang Nga Bay but rather out in the Andaman Sea.  Much of the coast of the island is roped off as a marine preserve but we found a relatively-protected place to anchor and we were soon loaded in the dinghy, making our way for some promising-looking coral.  The problem is that we have been spoiled with off-the-chart places like the Tuamotus, Tonga, Fiji, Chesterfield Reef and the like – its hard to be enthusiastic about a place where the coral is brown and lifeless and there’s just a few brightly-colored fish.  We did get a great sunset, though.

Maya Bay on Ko Phi Phi Li
We left Ko Mai Thon for Ko Phi Phi Li, the smaller of the two Phi Phi islands but a tourist magnet nonetheless.  Usually when we arrive at a place like that, all the moorings are taken and we’re left with few good choices, however, this time our luck was with us and we had got to pick the best mooring in all of the famous Maya Bay.  The bay is stunningly beautiful but the constant traffic of tourist boats coming and going was distracting.  Still, we got a good snorkel in and left our prized mooring as the wind was filling in, making the place uncomfortable.  We sailed around to the backside of Ko Phi Phi Li and soon ran out of adjectives to describe it’s beauty.  As evening was approaching, we found an incredible place to spend the night.  We toured around the area in the dinghy, barbequed an excellent dinner and retired early – only to be awoken at midnight as we had come too close to a sailboat that had picked up another mooring near us.  Protocol in this situation is well-understood internationally – the person who was anchored (or moored) first, has the right to stay.  The second or subsequent boat needs to move although in this case, we were concerned that if the other boat moved to the next available mooring, we still be too close together.  So we both took moorings as far apart as we could.  It took a while to let our sleepyness return and once it did, Ruthie and I headed back to our bunk.  It was only a couple hours later when we were woken again as the wind filled in to about 30 knots and was pushing us dangerously close to the cliff walls.  I stayed awake until daylight as one can never be sure how strong the moorings actually are.

This morning under grey skies we moved three miles north to Ko Phi Phi Don, a tourist destination of epic proportions.  Even though this is the ‘low’ season, the narrow sidewalks were crowded with people and all the shops were open.  We had a meal and a beer and another beer as we waited for the rain to lessen.  When it became obvious that it wasn’t going to, we launched the dinghy and drove back to Rutea in the pouring rain.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Phuket, Thailand

Long Tails at Dawn - Koh Rok Nok, Thailand
Ruthie and I were a little anxious as we went to clear out of Malaysia in Talaga Bay but we needn’t have been.  All of the government officials we had dealings with in Malaysia were very relaxed and details to them didn’t appear to be very important.  With port clearance papers in hand, we headed northwest on a fine, breezy afternoon for Ko Lipe (Ko in Thai means ‘island’), about 23 miles away.  It was late enough in the afternoon that we decided against dropping the dink and going ashore so we stayed aboard and got our first glimpse of Thailand.  Since we were only a short distance from Malaysia, we didn’t expect any differences between the two countries to be obvious but there were indications that things were different.  For one, the boat that the fishermen used were now ‘long tails’ – narrow, low-freeboard boats with a ridiculously long propeller shaft that extended well beyond the transom of the boat.  It wouldn’t take long before we’d notice much more dramatic differences but from our vantage point, nestled between two thickly covered islands, boats were about all we could see.

The wind had blown all night but we had been comfortable enough.  It continued to blow as we left early the following morning – our hopes that we could sail to our next stop were rising but were soon dashed as the wind died altogether and we wound up motoring in glassy seas all the way to Ko Rok Nok.  The heat was sweltering and we wasted little time in getting into our snorkeling gear after the anchor was down.  There was a very strong current running and even though the underwater visibility wasn’t that bad, there wasn’t much sea life to be seen.  We left at first light the next morning.

The Big Buddha on Top of the Hill Overlooks Ao Chalong
As we approached Ao Chalong on the island of Phuket, the traffic on the VHF radio increased and we started to hear familiar voices and boat names.  The bay is big and busy, with lots of yachts from all over the world and hundreds of boats used to ferry tourists around Phang Nga Bay.  The tourist boats zip through the anchorage, setting down big wakes which send everything in the cabin flying around.  We went ashore, bought a Thai SIM for our phone and wandered around a little.  The following morning we checked-in and felt more comfortable once our visas were validated.

Thai Script is Impossible to Learn.  Typical Wiring.
Thailand is different than Malaysia!  Generally speaking, the people of Thailand look much more Asian than those of Malaysia.  The language is completely different – instead of using Latin script like English or Malay, the Thai use their own alphabet that has vowels above, below or next to the squiggly letters.  We have an English-Thai app on our iPhone and even though I swear I’m pronouncing the Thai words the same as the woman in the app, no one in Thailand can understand anything I’m saying.  Since we eat out a lot – the Thai food is both delicious and inexpensive – one phrase I get to practice a lot is การตรวจสอบโปรด which means, the check, please. 

The Meals Can be Fantastic Especially When Enjoyed With Cold Thai Beer
Just after we got comfortable with the anchorage in Ao Chalong, we moved up to the Yacht Haven Marina on the northern end of Phuket Island.  Its much more isolated from the intensely tourist-oriented southern part of the island, a relatively inexpensive place to keep Rutea and a pretty good place to get work done.  It does mean we have to rent a car every time we want to go somewhere.

Its still insanely hot and we bought a used window-type air conditioner to help us cope.  The good part about it is that we can now be comfortable aboard but the bad part is that we sometimes hunker down and never leave the cool confines of the cabin.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Penang and Langkawi, Malaysia

Ruthie and I had been anxious about Rutea’s splash back into the water, not because we were concerned about any of her systems/components but the Sea Lift that Pangkor Marina uses to launch boats had had a major failure and we weren’t sure it would be running at all.  The staff at the marina was able to get it patched together and our splash was uneventful, other that Ruthie and I were delighted to be back in the water.  Our refrigeration worked!  We didn’t have to climb down-and-back-up a 12' extension ladder every time we needed to pee!  It was cooler (well, maybe not but we convinced ourselves that it was).

Hugh and Katie
 We only stayed at the dock in the marina for a couple of days before we cast off the dock lines and resumed our trip north.  It felt so good to be underway again.  It took a couple of days to reach Penang Island, passing underneath the new, 23-kilometer long bridge (a section of which collapsed before construction was complete) before tucking in behind Palau Jerejak for the night.  As luck would have it, we got to rendezvous with our friends, Hugh and Katie on the Kelly-Peterson 44 Elizabeth Jane II and they took us to shore in their brand new dinghy.  The following day we made our way to the north end of Penang Island and anchored in the Junk Anchorage (I don’t know why it’s called that but Rutea seemed right at home), where we went ashore for fantastic dinner.

Departing the next morning just before dawn, we had the wind fill in and soon Rutea had a bone in her teeth once again.  She was romping in the flat seas with a 20-25 knot wind and you could just feel her smiling.  We reached the Langkawi archipelago and found a very well protected spot behind one of the 99 islands.  Here we rendezvoused with more friends and moved the following morning to the anchorage in Talaga Bay.

The islands in the Langkawi group are mostly limestone and mudstone but even though the sheer cliffs would typically indicate deep water, it can often be quite shallow right next to the cliffs.  Regardless, the bottom is mostly thick mud and the holding good but hosing the sticky mud off the anchor and chain can be time consuming.

Once settled just outside of the two man-made islands that protect the marina, we took the dink in and rented a car from the marina office for the day.  “What is your boat’s name?” the woman behind the counter asked.  We told her and she handed us the key to a late-model Proton, a Malaysian-built Diahatsu.  “We’re not staying in the marina,” Ruthie offered but the woman just shrugged and walked away.  No contract to sign, no credit card or driver’s license to be checked, no warning about returning the car low on fuel.  True, we are on an island and there’s only so far we could go but it was the easiest car rental I had ever done.

With Randy and Jenny
Lucky for us, our good friends, Randy and Jenny, on the Pacific Seacraft Mariah 31, Mystic, were already anchored at Talaga and we wasted no time in getting together with them.  We had first met them in Mexico and we have rendezvoused with them all across the Pacific and Australia.  While together in Talaga, we went for a hike, ate dinner together and Randy fixed our freezer as he's a brilliant refrigeration technician.  Randy and Jenny are remarkable people; smart, unique, caring, brave - the list goes on - but even though they are not 'typical', they do typify the people we've met while cruising.  The relationships we have formed with people we've met have often developed into deep friendships that we'll treasure for the rest of our lives.  Perhaps its due to the shared experiences we have with each other but its been one of the highlights of cruising for me.

Squid boat during the day
In the late afternoon there was always a steady stream of small squid boats heading out for their nightly vigil.  From our vantage point, their bright green lights looked like a well-lit highway out in the middle of the ocean.

Squid boats at night
The town of Kuah is the largest in Langkawi and it’s a popular tourist destination.  What was really intriguing to us though is the fact that Langkawi is a duty-free port.  This means that there is no import duty on any goods that arrive there, including booze.  With the location of a wholesale warehouse scribbled down on a matchbook cover, we set out to find this Palace of Pleasure, driving into some remote parts of the Malay jungle before we found it.  This was no Costco although they did have a somewhat eclectic collection of goods.  Most of the booze was in arbitrary stacks, none of it priced and most of it looking very dusty.  The wine, however, was kept in an air conditioned room although it, too, looked more like a random collection of boxes with no organization whatsoever.  Ruthie was able to find a couple of cases of the Italian Pinot Grigio she likes and I bought a case of Absolut vodka in one liter bottles.  The wine came out to about US$14 per bottle and the vodka came out to about US$10 per bottle.  The five cases of beer we bought was less than US$10 per case.

With Rutea’s holds filled with precious but cheap cargo, we checked out of Talaga Bay and Malaysia.  Her bow was pointed northwest and our next destination was Thailand.

Thursday, February 6, 2014


One of my favorite lines in the movie Dances With Wolves takes places when Lieutenant John Dunbar (played by Kevin Costner) is traveling west with Timmons, the meatheaded mule train driver (played by Robert Pastorelli) come across a human skeleton. Timmons looks at the skeleton, snorts and says, “There’s probably folks back home saying, ‘Why don’t he write?’”

Hoisting the Malaysia Courtesy Flag

Ruthie and I have covered quite a few miles since my last post although a fraction of them were aboard Rutea.  The passage from Singapore to Malaysia, although intense, was only 24 hours long.  It was intense because we were at the narrowest part of the Malacca Straits and the constant stream of heavy freighter traffic required us to be on our toes.  Just outside of the Vessel Traffic Separation (VTS) channels were thousands of unlit small fishing boats.  Throw in the random squall with heavy lightning and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a sleepless night.  Regardless, we pulled into Admiral Marina, a Southern California marina look-alike, the next morning without incident and we did the check-in cha-cha without our nerves getting too frayed despite our lack of sleep.  There were a couple of boats there that we knew and that evening we all got together for elbow-bending exercises at the bar that overlooks the marina.  The following night all of us got together again and took a couple of taxis to a Mexican restaurant (really?  A Mexican restaurant in Malaysia?  Yup.) where the food was not very good but even our Aussie friends enjoyed the party atmosphere that seems unique to Mexican restaurants.  The main benefit, though, was meeting the taxi driver, who we hired the next day to take us on a tour of Melaka City, a 100km from the marina.

Oldest Mosque in Malaysia
Since it received it’s World Heritage Site designation in 2008, Melaka City has exploded with tourism but we still found it’s Chinatown and old Portuguese part to be filled with almost a kind of mysticism – one could tell that there was a lot more going on than met the eye but even the façade was fascinating.  We also saw Muslim and Hindu temples – its probably as close as Ruthie will ever come to wearing a Burqa but she was required to wearing a covering while in the mosque.  By the end of the day we came to the realization that we probably should have spent two or even three days in Melaka City but we had a schedule to keep so we made it back to the ship and departed a few days later for Marina Island Pangkor.

It was another 150-mile passage from Port Dickson (Admiral Marina) to Marina Island, a man-made island between the Malay peninsula and the predominately-resort island of Pangkor.  I was very disappointed when we arrived and despite the fact that we had made reservations months in advance to stay here, I immediately jumped on the internet to see if we could find someplace else.  First of all, the slip to which we were assigned was way too small – Rutea’s ass stuck way out into the fairway and the finger barely made it to her midship.  The docks were made of extruded aluminum which is far better suited to being on a calm lake somewhere as opposed to being on the edge of the Indian Ocean.  There are almost no facilities – the showers share the small stall with the toilet (there’s only cold water but in a place as hot as Malaysia, who’d want hot water anyway?) and there’s only three stalls – two of which have western-style toilets but one has the eastern style.  On one of the doors is a sign that says ‘Women’ but men are just as likely to use it.  In fact, its very obvious who has used the toilet last if you can see footprints on the toilet rim where someone has squatted.

While being in the slip was less than ideal, when we were hauled out was even worse.  Because our refrigeration system uses ocean water for cooling, once we were hauled out meant no refrigeration.  Nor could you use the toilets on board.  Or the sinks, although we did shove a hose up the galley sink drain throughhull and put a bucket underneath it so we could at least wash our hands.  The marina rented us a 12’ stepladder but advised us to pull it up on deck at night to discourage rats from climbing aboard.  The marina yard itself is dirt and weeds – with the ebb and flow of boats there are usually around 20-25 boats propped up with various types of homemade stands.

It wasn’t until we had been on the hard for a few days that I began to relax and even start to appreciate the place.  I spoke with several boat owners who said they had had work done in quite a few places in southeast Asia and found Pangkor to be the best.  This was reassuring to me.  We finally got a meeting with Jimmy, a local contractor who is known for his fantastic spray painting abilities.  This too was reassuring that we were able to find a highly-skilled craftsman with whom we could have an intelligent conversation about complex issues relating to boat maintenance.  Furthermore, we met Jo, another contractor, who was also able to give us confidence that anything we hired him to do would be done correctly.  Other than hauling boats in and out of the water, the marina offers no services.

We didn’t have too much time to complain, though, as we needed to get ready for our trip back to California.  This trip had been planned for a long time as we had even gone as far as to buy a dehumidifier while we were still in Australia to attempt to keep the boat dry and mold-free while we were gone (its so hot and humid here that mold can grow on almost anything).  Unfortunately, the unit died when we plugged it in.  This just left us hoping for the best.

Ian and Sean
Ruthie's Birthday Party
Our trip home was wonderful, starting with a traditional Thanksgiving  and quickly built to a crescendo when our son, Ian, married his partner, Sean, in San Francisco.  My sister hosted the wedding itself at her spectacular home  It was a terrific weekend and its unlikely that anyone who attended will forget about it anytime soon.  My congratulations go out to them one more time.  I took a way-too-short trip down to La Paz, BCS to see my brother on his boat.  Our family spent Christmas together for the first time in three years and we enjoyed a low-key but delicious New Year’s Eve.  Our two-month stay in San Diego was capped by a 60th birthday party for Ruthie, where friends and family from all up and down the west coast of North America traveled thousands of miles to celebrate with her.

Loaded down with six large pieces of luggage, each weighing on average 30 kilos, we carried a not-too-small chandlery of boat parts with us back to Malaysia.  I had rehearsed in my mind the arguments I was going to have with the Malay Customs officials on why we didn’t have to pay import duty on thousands of dollars worth of boat parts but it was time poorly spent as the Customs officials didn’t even glance at us as we made our way through that portion of the airport.  Maybe it was because it was 0400 in the morning?  Rutea was in great shape when we returned but the work that we had contracted to be done while we were gone had barely gotten started.  This was blamed on bad weather.  A further delay was blamed on Chinese New Year where almost everything in the country shuts down for a week.  Of course, we had plenty to do, our days filled with boat chores and whining about living on the hard.

To make things a little easier on us, we went in with some friends on the rental of a small car.  Our half share of the rental was RM175.00 (about US$60) for two weeks and this felt like a pretty significant expense, especially if you saw or drove the car.  You would have thought that the Malay builders of the car might have checked to see if the name they chose for the car had a different meaning in some other language and, who knows, they may have done so but they still chose to name the car after a deer found in Malaysia called a Kancil, pronounced ‘cancel’.  To me, ‘cancel’ and ‘reject’ are almost synonymous.  Still, it means we can run errands without having to rent one of the marina's motor scooters (even with both of us wearing backpacks, you can only carry so much on a motor scooter) and it means since we don’t have to walk to go out for dinner (which we do most nights), we don’t arrive at a restaurant soaked in sweat.

Enough whinging!  Rutea is suppose to splash on the 13th of February and we hope to get underway shortly thereafter, making our way north to Thailand.  It will be such a relief to be back in the water!