More Thailand Cruising, April 17-21
|Headline News: We just learned we're the first "bareboat" charter ever to visit Myanmar! Details below.
We very much enjoyed spending a few days in the Similan Islands, having passed through fairly quickly the previous three times. The Similans have beautiful beaches (photo 1) and jungle hiking trails, but what the family wanted to do most was dive. (More on this topic later.) Now that we're comfortable diving from the dinghy and dealing with currents, we were able to sample some of the best sites in the Similans, right alongside the liveaboard vessels. The diving was excellent (photos 2-6).
It was fairly windy during our stay in the Similans, which added some challenge to the diving, but allowed us to sail rather than motor from island to island. We were pleased at the prospect of a brisk sail on the 50-mile passage back to Phuket, especially given the precarious state of our engines. Unfortunately, after at least a week of steady winds, we woke up at 6:00am the morning of the passage to dead calm. It was a long day of slow motoring, but we made it. We've become quite accustomed to all-day passages by now, never getting particularly bored or restless. Overall, the sailboat is a pleasant place to be. On this passage the kids had a big job to take care of: sorting the shells they'd collected on various beaches throughout our cruising grounds (photo 7). It was quite reminiscent of the major rock and fossil sorting at the end of our time in South America, not to mention the very first sorting way back in Morocco (a small one, in retrospect).
Our landfall in Phuket was at the northwest corner, while our ultimate destination was the southeast. We spent a day going around (with a stop for some short dives along the way) -- it's under an hour to drive the length of the island, but as always 5-10 times slower in a sailboat.
Our last full day on the sailboat was a special treat, particularly for the kids. We welcomed aboard our third and final guest (photo 8): Thien, Emily and Tim's much-loved and ever-enthusiastic scuba instructor from Pro-Tech Dive College, had expressed an interest in diving with the kids again before we left Thailand. The stars aligned when we ended up with a spare day in Phuket before returning the boat, and Thien was free. Tim and Emily were beside themselves with excitement for several days prior to the big event, planning the meals, snacks, and conversation topics as much as the diving itself. We traveled to nearby Racha Yai Island for two long and enjoyable dives (photo 9), coming full circle -- two months ago, Tim and Emily completed their certification at Racha Yai under Thien's tutelage. (This time of course Thien was under their supervision.) On the way to and from Racha Yai, the kids regaled Thien with stories of our travels and peppered him with questions about the marine life we'd encountered.
We spent our last two nights on the sailboat moored in Chalong Bay, where Cyrene stays when she's not on charter. On shore there's a great bar and restaurant, The Lighthouse (in a real lighthouse), where all the sailors hang out. Over time we've gotten to know the local characters, and it was through them we learned that by visiting the Mergui Archipelago we were even more pioneering than we thought. In a previous travelog we reported that about ten yachts visit each year. It turns out that as far as anyone knows, prior to us all of them have been privately-owned or professionally-crewed. The claim is we're the first "bareboat" charter ever to visit Myanmar. We hope we're not the last -- it's a fabulous destination.
Here are some random concluding thoughts on the sailing part of our year off.
Distance. There's no odometer on the boat, but a rough estimate says we traveled between 1400 to 1500 nautical miles -- add 10% if you prefer regular miles. Our route is overlaid on a chart in photo 10, yellow for the Andaman Islands and red for the Mergui Archipelago.
Food and Drink. Provisioning worked out nearly perfectly. Trying to predict and procure in advance everything we'd need for two months, even with one shopping opportunity at the midway point, was a challenge -- a far cry from when we were in the camper with a grocery store never more than a few days away. Admittedly, by the last week on the boat we were forced (for better or worse) to delve into some of the less popular items, but we still had plenty of favorites on hand, too. In the end, the only significant leftovers were emergency backup items (peanut butter and instant mashed potatoes), items the kids gobbled down but then suddenly tired of (Tim's oatmeal and Emily's chocolate milk), and beer (miscalculated because we didn't drink on passage). After two months, that's not too bad.
Laundry. Surely many of you have a burning desire to know how we handled laundry over a two-month period with limited fresh water. We didn't. We wore bathing suits a large fraction of the time, so laundry wasn't generated nearly as fast as it is on land. Jennifer did one major hand-washing about halfway through the trip (spread over a four-day period due to limited drying space on the safety lines) and that did us. Needless to say, we'll get everything laundered before moving on to the next phase of our travels.
Dampness. One aspect of living on a boat in a tropical climate is near-constant dampness: everything, including oneself, seems to feel wet most of the time. On a rare occasion the humidity would drop, a fresh breeze would blow, and suddenly the boat deck, couch cushions, clothes, bathing suits, towels, etc. would feel oddly, unfamiliarly dry. It never lasted. If there's one thing we'll appreciate back on land, it will be dryness. We won't complain about a dose of air conditioning either.
Scuba Diving. Diving figured more prominently into our sailing life than we'd anticipated. The kids took to it like, well, like fish! We had plenty of water "toys" along in addition to the dive gear -- beach games, boogie boards, and our inimitable 5-foot inflatable orca (photo 11). But diving was clearly the first-choice activity. It would be difficult to put together a sailing-diving trip like this one as a short vacation -- dive-tank compressors are rarely for rent, and obtaining tank fills from nearby dive boats on a regular basis seems unique to this area. (Alex and Jennifer have done some diving on previous sailing vacations and tank fills were always a major obstacle, sometimes a major adventure.) The ability to do so much diving from the sailboat was a unique opportunity -- with over 50 dives for each of us, we certainly took advantage of it to the fullest.
Planning and Logistics. There's no question that this portion of the trip required by far the most preparation. We negotiated the boat charter well over a year ago, at the same time investigating whether it might be feasible to visit the Andaman Islands or the Mergui Archipelago. Going to both places was a pipe dream, but as time went by we found the various people who would help us turn that dream into reality. Months before the charter, we sent off large deposits and began the paperwork and detailed planning. As documented in earlier travelogs, the week prior to setting sail was extraordinarily busy and not without some stress. Was it all worth it? The entire family shouts a resounding yes! (An easy call for three of us, since Alex did most of the work for this part of the trip, but Alex agrees without a moment's hesitation.)
We'll return the boat the morning of April 22 and spend one night back at the Baan Suay guesthouse, which we so enjoyed for a full week prior to the sailing. (No doubt the kids will also spend plenty of time schmoozing a few doors down at Pro-Tech Dive College.) The next afternoon we'll fly to Bangkok to regroup and drop off lots of luggage before embarking on five weeks of Southeast Asia travel. Although nothing is firm yet, our tentative plan is to start with Cambodia, then move on to Laos and Vietnam.