Ranong to Similans, April 11-16

After leaving Myanmar, we spent a full day in Ranong across the border, hosting the charter company mechanics who drove up from Phuket to replace the broken engine. The previous day, a few miles out of Kawthaung, to everyone's horror the one remaining engine had started sputtering. Negotiating the Kawthaung-Ranong channel under sail alone, with its heavy boat traffic, shallow waters, little wind, and strong currents, would have been a nightmare; fortunately the engine hung in there. While on board the mechanics did a bit of work on that engine as well (it was a minor problem, they said), so we were feeling pretty confident on the engine front.

While Alex was managing the boat doings, the rest of the family hunkered down in Sophon's Hideaway, an atmospheric restaurant and bar where they spent a full nine hours catching up on everything internet, playing pool, meeting a good fraction of the local ex-pat population, and venturing out for a bit of grocery shopping to top up supplies for the last leg of our sailing adventure.

We then began retracing our steps back to Phuket: first a day-long sail to the Surin Islands, then slowly making our way south to the good old Similans. That's four times to the Similan Islands now -- once each to and from both the Andaman Islands and the Mergui Archipelago. On the previous three visits we treated the Similans as a well-located stopover. We spent only a day or so each time, but they're a lovely chain of nine islands with excellent diving and a couple of hiking trails. This time we plan to stay longer and explore a bit, above and below water.

We stopped at two islands
between the Surins and Similans that we'd skipped on the way out: Ko Tachai and Ko Bon. These islands are known primarily for their diving, although Ko Tachai appears to be gearing up for day-trippers. Ashore we discovered a newly built low-key tourist area and some very friendly staff, but no tourists in sight. The staff were more than happy to show us their resident baby fruit bat and take us on a short hike, although they didn't speak a word of English.

In a recurring theme of our year off, Emily has been craving more contact with people outside of our family. We were so isolated in the Mergui Archipelago that she would have been happy with civilization of any type -- meaningful communication wasn't a requirement. We promised her we'd work on making friends with other boats once we returned to more heavily-trafficked areas.

Paying a random visit to a neighboring sailboat in an anchorage is considered normal among cruisers, but we didn't see any sailboats for several days after leaving Myanmar. Finally we decided to dinghy over to a friendly-looking liveaboard dive boat, the Dolphin Queen, moored next to us at Ko Bon. The visit far exceeded our expectations. Aboard we found incredibly welcoming staff, several from California, and friendly customers too. We enjoyed some refreshments and lots of chit-chat; Emily was in heaven. When the sun went down, one of the dive guides, Ami, invited us to join their group for a night dive. Emily had some trepidation about diving in the dark, but she was having such a great time with our new friends, and she felt so comfortable with Ami, that it didn't take long to convince her. They loaned us lights, hauled our gear, and treated us like royalty. The night dive was great. What a treat that whole experience was -- thank you Dolphin Queen!

Now for the bad news. Just when we thought nothing more could break with only one week remaining on the boat, something did. (Actually more than one thing did, but let's take one thing at a time...) The dive-tank compressor had been taking longer and longer to fill the tanks, as usual with no obvious cause to us non-mechanic types. Ultimately, a critical cooling coil cracked right through, and there's no way to replace it except in Phuket. (Real dive boats carry a minimum of two compressors for this very reason.) We hadn't planned on returning to Phuket until the last two days of the charter, while we had planned to do a lot more diving before getting there. Fortunately, when the compressor broke we'd just arrived in the Surin Islands, and numerous dive boats ply the entire route from the Surins to Phuket. So far every dive boat we've approached has agreed to fill our tanks, for a modest fee that we assume ends up in the staff tip box. We've lost our self-sufficiency, but amazingly we've lost very little diving.

Now for the other bad news. It's the engines again. Let's not even go into it. Suffice it to say that a mere three days after Ranong, at which point we'd been certain we were golden in the engine department, we were back down to one engine, and even that one isn't exactly in peak form. It's possible we got some bad fuel somewhere (Kawthaung being the most likely culprit), but after multiple remote-engine-diagnosis satellite phone calls to the charter base, the suspicion is that bad fuel isn't the entire problem. Around this time we finally decided we might actually be entering the realm of the unlucky (or maybe the realm of aging engines?). We also decided that even in our partially crippled state we'd be able to make it to the end of the charter without huge inconvenience -- especially if the recent winds keep up -- so we'd just hobble on and not worry about it too much.

Our long series of breakages have uniformly caused some anxiety, created many challenges, taught us aspects of analysis and improvised repair that we aren't likely to use again, and with some amount of perseverance have not ended up affecting our plans or daily life in any profound way.

A new addition to our daily life has been the "one-day game" -- an evening ritual started by Tim where we all lie on the front deck under the stars, taking turns describing one memorable day from our year of travels so far. We're not very introspective in general, but the evening reminiscences do hint at what a wealth of memories this year will provide.

Speaking of memories, the faithful among you who've been reading our travelogs from the very start might recall that for the first few months, in Europe primarily, Emily was quite focused on convincing us we ought to acquire a pet dog when we return home next fall. She even named the prospective dog Apollo (while we were still in Greece). Thankfully the dog idea has been waning, but it's been replaced: Despite failing to see one during any of our dives so far -- or perhaps because we've failed -- both kids are desperate to get a pet seahorse. Greece hasn't left us entirely; the hypothetical seahorse's name: Atlantis.

Our photos are starting to have a sameness about them, so this time we decided to feature exclusively diving photos, all taken during the period covered by this travelog. In order: Emily; butterflyfish; coral trout; fusiliers; soft coral; clownfish (a.k.a. anemonefish); lionfish; batfish; sea snake (or maybe a "krait"); school of barracuda

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