With over 1,400 islands, Thailand is a sailor’s paradise
By Trystan Grace
With the wintery weather taking a grip in the UK and Europe, we travel to Thailand this month and slip the lines in Phuket, writes Trystan Grace. This is a beautiful part of the world and a great playground for sailors from all skill levels to fuel their passion for cruising. I sailed this area in 2014 with my brother, Mawgan, having been offered a weeks free sailing at SunSail. We were both at the start of our cruising journeys and, as you will read, Phuket is a safe and exciting place to explore.
Having completed the yacht charter formalities at Ao Po Marina, Phuket, we stowed provisions, slipped the lines and left the breakwater astern as the sun painted the sea gold. We were keen not to spend the first night moored alongside so I took the helm while Mawgan checked the charts for a nearby anchorage. About 6NM east at the rural island of Koh Yao Yai, we found it, just in time to pour a sundowner and see the sun slip below the horizon.
We were sailing a chartered Jeanneau 36. The boat was very basic, with a low budget fit out. We didn’t care – it was good to be at sea again in one of the world’s most desirable sailing areas.
Mawgan claimed the master forward cabin as the ‘older brother’ which left me with a small cabin aft. Unfortunately, due to the engine being right next to this cabin and a lack of hatches, it meant it was uncomfortably hot to sleep in so I bedded down in the cockpit as the nights were warm.
The next morning we hauled up the anchor and turned south for a passage of about 28NM down to the island of Koh Racha Yai. It was a lovely sail with excellent wind conditions and we found ourselves beaming with smiles at our newfound feeling of freedom.
Koh Racha Yai is a beautiful small island and is one of Phuket’s secret escapes. There is excellent diving around the island and also around its uninhabited sister island to the south, Koh Racha Noi. Both are perfect for quiet anchorages which afford great snorkelling straight off the yacht, and after the hot passage down, we decided this was just the ticket.
Having dried off in the cockpit with the obligatory sundowner, we launched the dinghy and made the short run ashore for dinner. Even being a very small island, Koh Racha Yai still offers a plethora of restaurants from 5-star dining at the big resort, The Racha, or cheap local Thai cuisine from one of the bungalows on the island. In our experience, the food from the local places often trumps the 5-star dining, so we pulled up a plastic chair and within minutes were chowing down some Som Tum (Green Papaya Salad), Pad Thai noodles and curry.
The proprietor was very friendly and we stayed chatting and drinking until the early hours of the morning. Eventually, we weaved our way back to the beach and the dingy. A slightly wiggly wake followed us back to the boat…
The next morning, following the advice of the bar owner, we raised the anchor and made the short 10NM sail down to Koh Racha Noi. We anchored in a secluded bay near the southern point. The anchorage offered good protection from most wind directions and excellent snorkelling. One of the great things about this trip was turning off the phones and disconnecting from our busy lives in Hong Kong. The silent, uninhabited island of Koh Racha Noi only amplified that feeling and was my favourite stop of the whole trip.
Staring out at the beautiful bay the next morning, I started to raise the anchor when suddenly the windlass struggled and I quickly released the button. After a few minutes of lowering, moving the boat and raising, we turned off the engine and donned some snorkelling gear to check what the anchor was snagged on. By sheer bad luck, during the night the chain had wrapped around the only rock bommie on the seabed. To make matters worse, the anchor was sitting in about 15m of water and we simply could not clear it without diving gear. So being Englishmen, the obvious plan was to make a cup of tea and consider our predicament. Whilst sitting in the cockpit discussing the situation, I spotted a boat in the distance. A quick scan of the binoculars confirmed our suspicions, it was a dive boat. Mawgan raced off in the dinghy and returned a few minutes later with a divemaster and two sets of gear. They donned the equipment and spent the next 30 minutes clearing the chain.
Looking back, I am so thankful now we carry multiple sets of scuba equipment onboard always.
When they were both back onboard, I raised the anchor and we made our way to the dive boat to drop off our new friend. With a hearty thank you we waved our goodbyes and turned northeast to our next destination, some 32NM away, where we would spend the next few nights. Being a charter yacht, we had to be at anchor by sunset so our carefully relaxed plans were now a little stretched after the morning escapades. We were also meeting a friend Matt Nicholson, who had flown in from London that morning. Soon the blissful sun was obscured by a heavy squall, we set about reefing the sails and got under the bimini. The squall blew itself out fairly quickly and the horizon cleared to show the steep limestone cliffs of Phi Phi in the distance. The timing was perfect as we turned the headland into Tonsai Bay just as the sun was setting. We found a good spot to anchor off well out of the ferry channel in the middle of the bay. As the windlass chugged away lowering the chain, a long-tail Thai boat came alongside and our friend climbed aboard.
Made famous by the Leonardo DiCaprio movie ‘The Beach’, Koh Phi Phi Don and the sister island Koh Phi Phi Le, which holds the famous Maya Bay, now sees over a million tourists a year because of the beautiful landscape, diving and party atmosphere. The Thai authorities took the decision to close Maya Bay to tourists in 2018 to help the ecosystem recover and it will remain closed until at least 2021.
The fateful tsunami of 2004 washed through the main town on Phi Phi Don, completely destroying everything in its path, but the island quickly recovered and is once again a vibrant town. An early warning system, evacuation routes, and local training are now in place, should a similar seismic event happen in the future.
That evening the little dinghy struggled as we weaved through the melee of anchored yachts to the shore. A polar opposite experience to the silent uninhabited Koh Racha Noi the previous night, Phi Phi was a hive of activity with lots of tourists strolling around the small streets. There is a great selection of restaurants and once again we picked a more local, cruiser-friendly, Thai diner which served excellent food. After dinner, we sipped a drink on the beach and watched the fire dancing
The main reason for adding Phi Phi to our itinerary was to join our friend Matt for some diving. He had never actually dived before so was taking his PADI Open Water course. We had an early start planned at the dive centre so made our way back to the boat to turn in for the night. Even anchored a good distance from the beach, the noise of the clubs and beach parties were in full swing until 4 am which made for a bad night’s sleep.
And so, bleary-eyed, we made our way to shore the next morning, the once packed streets now empty save a few locals going about their morning routine. After being handed a coffee at the dive shop, we gained some energy and boarded the dive boat. We met our dive guide, an instructor called Johanna from Sweden, and got ready
to go in.
Although there was plenty to see and some beautiful sea life, you certainly could tell that man’s influence was taking its toll on the delicate coral ecosystem, compared to the diving I would later do in Palau, where the environment is a major consideration. However, the Thai authorities are now waking up to the importance of sustainable tourism.
On our final day, whilst Matt was finishing his course, Mawgan and I stayed aboard and planned the route back to Phuket. Hearing a rustling in the galley, I turned away from the nav table and stared in disbelief at a small furry object examining our fresh fruit. ‘MONKEY!’ I shouted, at which my brother spun around and stared in equal amazement. My exclamation did nothing to faze our furry friend as he started peeling an orange and eating individual segments. We moved towards him, but instead of heading out of the companionway he ran into my cabin and sat down on my pillow, all the while shovelling orange segments into his mouth. Trying to carefully pull him out with a broom was unsuccessful, but we eventually coaxed him out and into the cockpit with more fruit. He left a soggy pillow behind and a trail of orange peel. We were amazed that he had swum all the way out to our boat to scavenge but this must have been a daily adventure for him. After a couple of oranges and apples, he jumped off the transom and swam off…unfortunately towards the busy ferry channel. We decided to go after him with the dinghy and take him to shore as he looked quite tired. As soon as we came alongside he climbed up and sat on our bow, water dripping off his fur. With the shore in sight he must have decided he was still hungry and proceeded to jump off the tender and scramble up the anchor chain of a large catamaran. About 10 seconds later we heard screams and pots clattering to the floor from within the cat’s saloon and the monkey sped out on deck clutching an apple and he cannonballed back into the water next to us. He then climbed back aboard and we dropped him at an overhanging tree onshore.
The next day we pulled up the anchor and returned to the Ao Po marina. I reflected on the trip and a newfound passion for cruising remote islands. Thailand itself is always a great getaway. The food is consistently superb and the people are among the friendliest you will ever meet. The route was a mix of secluded islands and Phi Phi’s busier atmosphere, but I would also recommend heading off around the islands of Krabi or up to the Similan Islands nature reserve for some spectacular scenery. It would also be a shame not to experience Phuket itself, each district offers something different. Phuket Town has some superb nightlife in the form of mouth-watering restaurants and some great live music bars. If you visit with your own yacht, Phuket is a perfect stop for chandlery, repair or refit, or simply to prepare for your next ocean passage.
Footnote from Dick Beaumont
I loved this area so much I ended up basing Moonshadow (my previous yacht) there for almost two years. I sailed out to the amazing Andaman Islands twice and also spent months diving in the unspoiled waters of the Similan Island and around Richelieu Rock, diving with whale sharks and giant manta’s.
If you’re diving in the area around Phang Nga Bay try and get to Hin Deng and Muang Deng. These are two sheer pinnacles that rise out of a 60m seabed just 100 mts apart. They attract turtles, sharks, giant mantas and lots of big pelagics to cruise around them. The underwater visibility is normally excellent, so don’t miss them out.
How ever long you spend in this region you’ll be sad to leave.
Ocean Sailor Travel Agency
Thailand: How to get there
Flying in couldn’t be easier as Phuket International Airport caters for flights from all over the world or a quick and very cheap domestic flight from Bangkok will also work. If you are sailing in from outside Thailand, on arrival to Phuket you will need to anchor in Chalong Bay to complete the formalities. We recommend doing this during the week as you will be charged an ‘overtime fee’ at weekends.
See below for a guide to clearing into Thailand:
Who to sail with
Telephone +66 81 945 5258
Simpson Yacht Charters:
Telephone +66 81 945 5258
Dream Yacht Charter
Telephone: +66 81 945 5258
Clearance into Thailand at Phuket
Prior to arrival in Phuket, it is now possible to do pre-registration online for your check-in. This will make the whole clearance process much quicker and easier. Remember if your crew are leaving the boat in Phuket, they should be registered as passengers. To pre-register, visit http://yachtcontrol.depa.cloud/
Thai immigration has offices at the base of the long pier housing all the officials required for clearance. This is intended to be a one-stop check-in/out service. Immigration, Customs and the Harbour Master are all based in this building.
Office hours: 09:00 to 12:00 and 13:00 to 15:00.
All crew need to be present for clearance which can take as little as 20 minutes depending on how many boats are ahead of you in the queue.
Docking at the “marina” attached to the pier is not advisable as the pontoons are breaking up. It’s much safer to find a suitable anchoring spot and dinghy into the marina. At the foot of the one-stop centre is a makeshift dinghy dock. It is also possible to bring your dinghy to the beach on the tide.
The pier shuttle buses carry passengers for 10 Baht (return) – tickets purchased at the office near where the buses park. Bicycles are no longer allowed down the pier unless they have special permission.
Arriving from Langkawi by Sail
There are many beautiful Islands between Langkawi and Phuket and most yachts do stop at some before sailing on to Phuket, but be mindful that yachts which take over 7 days to make the passage from Langkawi to Phuket may have some difficulties with Customs. There is no written regulation as to how long a yacht should take and this is what Customs take advantage of if they need some “tea money”. If you are unhappy about the proceedings don’t feel threatened – but inform the person (after writing his name down) that you wish to go to Phuket Town main office to discuss the issue of added charges, or just pay it, since in reality, it should be no more than around 300 Baht, less than €10! You might be shown a book of supposed fines receipts to convince you the request is legitimate. All you will be seeing are others that have been fooled and paid. Be cool, don’t get agitated when questioning any ‘special fees’. Anything above 200-300 Baht should be questioned. You can suggest ‘maybe 300 baht would be OK’? Keep smiling and please, please, don’t try the confrontation route, or you might not have a happy ending!
For a full rundown of clearing into Phuket & Thailand, visit https://www.noonsite.com/place/thailand/phuket-island/
Best time to go
The seasons very much dictate when to visit Phuket. The dry season and northeast monsoon starts in November and runs through to April. This is also the tourist high season due to the dry, warm and settled weather, although it may be uncomfortably hot from March to May. May to October is the southwest monsoon season, which is a lot wetter and more humid. Sailors do visit in this period to take advantage of the stronger winds for better sailing conditions and there are fewer tourists at this time too.
The more you know
Yachtsmen should note it is mandatory for all yachts to have an AIS transponder and failure to do so will result in a substantial fine.
Must Not Miss
The diving at Hin Deng and Maun Deng is among the best in the world.
It’s important to remember when dining out that chillies are used by Thai’s as commonly as salt and pepper is used in the west, so don’t forget to ask for the ‘rating’. If the waiter says its Thai spicy then be prepared for first degree burns! If you like to taste other ingredients, ask for the ‘farang (foreigner) spicy’.
Thai nightlife is world-famous and the Buddhist philosophy of ‘live and let live’ is fully endorsed throughout this friendly nation.
Where to eat
It is hard to go wrong with food in Thailand, the cuisine is loved all over the world and it is never better than from the source. Natural Restaurant in the heart of Phuket Town is fantastic, based in a beautiful wooden building and eco flourishing garden, they use only local organic ingredients and have been delivering classic Thai dishes for almost 30 years.
Try the fermented pork and fish curry. Sounds awful, tastes brilliant!
Tel: +66 76 224 287