In some recent blogs I gave updates on a trip I took through southern Thailand. I revisited several towns I’d already been to, the farthest south of which was Trang; just an hour from the coast, so a good base for exploring the southwest and the islands offshore in the Andaman Sea.
One of the goals of my trip was to see if I could find a relatively unknown beach there, with a simple, quiet resort, similar to the place I stayed at on Samui island on my very first trip to the kingdom in 1990.
The trouble was, by the time I got to Trang, I was pretty tired of life on the road, checking in and out of hotels, and the intense tropical summer sun. So, I only made a single trip to the coast, and that one was disappointing; the only beach I found seemed to be a place for local Thais to party, and the few other beaches were either lackluster or hard to get to.
However, I’d joined a couple online groups based in south Thailand and they had some ideas. One was to get out to the nearby islands. I looked into that, but it seemed they had either already been commercialized or had become high-end getaways for the rich.
Then another guy said, “If you have a boat, you can anchor off one of the uninhabited islands and have an entire beach to yourself.” Since I’d already been thinking of renting a kayak or getting a local fisherman to teach me about boating, I started to think about how else I might get on the water and enjoy the freedom of going wherever I wanted.
When I got back to Bangkok, I started watching sailing videos and found one YouTuber who was enthusiastic about a sailing course he’d taken at a place called Island Spirit Sailing School near Pattaya. The course was called Zero To Hero and took eleven days.
I found the school online and sent them an email, asking when the next course started and if they had any room left for another student. I didn’t hear anything for several days. Then, on April 9, one day before the course was to start, I got an email from one of the owners. He said they’d had problems with their internet server, but that yes, since one student decided to postpone taking the course, they had room for another student.
I transferred the $1900 fee to his account, got up at 5:00am the next morning and drove to the south side of Jomtien beach, making it to Ocean Marina Yacht Club by 9:00am for the first day of the course.
Ocean Marina in Na Jomtien, south of Pattaya
Average price of boats in the marina is probably a half million dollars
When I was in college, my dad got a family membership at a sailing club in Kirkland, on Lake Washington, across the lake from Seattle. We all had to take their classes and learn to sail a dingy before graduating to their 21-foot sloops. I’d invite friends down to sail across the lake while playing guitars and drinking beer. But that was forty-five years ago and I hadn’t sailed since. A lot of it did come back though, as the course went on.
What’s a “Bareboat Skipper?”
Many people charter boats for a vacation which include a skipper and crew. A bareboat is just that; a boat only, which you skipper by yourself (or more likely, with some other people who know how to sail). In order to rent a bareboat, you need to prove to the charter company that you’re qualified to skipper one of their boats by yourself. Obtaining an International Yacht Training (IYT), skipper card by taking a qualified course is one way to do this.
The other guys who finished the Bareboat Skipper course with me. (There were a couple Thai women and their western husbands who did the first half of the course only.)
The 11-day course was actually in two parts:
Days 1–5 were the Competent Crew course, in which we learned the parts of the boat, basic sailing skills, a few useful knots, etc. This included one night on the boat.
Days 6–11, the Bareboat Skipper part, which included three nights on the boat.
A few people took only the first course, leaving me and seven others to continue with the second. They were all professionals (civil and software engineers, a couple diplomats, one banker). All had lived in Thailand at least three years, and one as long as thirty. (I’ve been here fifteen years.)
Head instructor Craig has been in the sailing business for thirty years and was a fountain of knowledge on the subject. Jim and Adam had passed advanced sailing courses but were relatively new to teaching.
Lectures were conducted at the Lake House restaurant on the marina grounds.
White Squall, a 51-foot, 1997 Beneteau traditional monohull
The school owns two oceangoing teaching boats; a 51-foot traditional monohull and a 40-foot double-hull catamaran (or “cat”). The monohull is named White Squall. It was made by the French company, Beneteau, in (I think), 1997.
A popular YouTube sailing channel is Sailing Doodles, created by an American named Bobby. A few years ago, one of his boats was destroyed in a hurricane. Since one of the owners of Island Spirit, Ron Patston, was a fan of Bobby’s channel, he contacted him and asked if he’d be willing to sail White Squall from the Gulf of Mexico to Thailand and he accepted. (You can view his series of videos documenting the trip here.) White Squall (probably named by the original owner), still has the Sailing Doodles logo on its side.
Bobby, from the Sailing Doodles YouTube channel on the first day of his 18-day passage from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico to the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia (about half way across the Pacific Ocean to Thailand).
You can see White Squall‘s galley (kitchen), behind Bobby on the right in the photo above.
To the left (or port side, in boatspeak), is the salon area.
Like the school’s catamaran, White Squall has four cabins (or staterooms), each able to accommodate two people. Unlike the cat, White Squall has one head (bathroom), per cabin. The cat has just one head on each side of the boat. (Two cabins share one head.)
White Squall has a $3000 electronic chart plotter in the cockpit, which gives up-to-date info on water depth, wind speed and angle, other boats in the vicinity, and more. Still, the instructors kept stressing we needed to be able to sail competently using the old, traditional methods.
Craig, Martin and me having pasta and chicken on White Squall while anchored off of Bang Saray
Me, taking a turn at the helm of White Squall
The big monohull has a sunshade (called a bimini), which provided welcome protection from the intense tropical rays. The disadvantage is that you can’t see the sails well, so have to ask other crew members about how they’re acting in the wind.
My cabin on White Squall. I loved the gorgeous teakwood interior. I slept four nights there. Only the first night was a tad uncomfortable, but I think that was due to the spicy dinner we had ashore in Bang Saray.
Rangiroa (“Rang Gi ROW-a”)
Rangiroa in her Ocean Marina berth
Rangiroa is the name of the 2003, 40-foot Nautitech catamaran. (The name comes from an atoll 350 kilometers northeast of Tahiti.)
Cat Or Mono?
Sailing enthusiasts continually debate which is better, a cat or a traditional monohull. Personally, I don’t think there’s any dilemma: If comfort is your primary concern, a cat is the way to go (it’s basically a house on two pontoons; it stays much flatter on the water than a monohull). On the other hand, if you love the excitement and “romance” of feeling the wind heeling (leaning), the boat and enjoy trimming the sails for maximum angle into the wind, then a monohull is the way to go. You can feel the trim of the boat much more easily on a mono.
There’s a time and place for both. If, for example, I had friends visiting Thailand and wanted to take them out for an easy and enjoyable cruise (and we could come up with the charter fees, which are considerable), a cat would be the obvious choice. If, on the other hand, some other competent sailors and I wanted to charter a boat for a few days of sailing in, say, October, when the winds are stronger, we might well opt for the excitement of a monohull.
The fact that more people are finding themselves in the first category is why Island Spirit’s homepage says,
“Although the exhilaration that comes with rail-down sailing on a powered up keelboat [monohull] will never be replaced, we are today, without doubt, in the age of the Catamaran.”
Because, in a sense, a cat, with its two hulls, is two boats in one, they are much more expensive than mono’s to buy and maintain; and moorage costs are also generally much higher than for a mono.
As another student lamented, “I’ve got catamaran dreams, with a monohull budget.”
Still, those with experience agree: If you’re planning to buy, get what you can afford now, so you can get out there and enjoy the sailing life. After five years, you’ll probably be ready for a different boat anyway.
Jim and Peter in the cat’s comfortable solon
The beds in the cat run across the beam of each hull. A few commented they were quite high and difficult to jump down from in the middle of the night.
On the front of the cat was an interesting trampoline between the hulls. Here I’m holding onto the furling headsail. In heavier winds it can be wound in (furled) a bit, for safer sailing.
A lot of the course dealt with stuff that, while not as exciting as racing across the waves, is essential for safety and responsibility on the water. Here we’re back at Lake House restaurant learning how to read navigational charts.
We learned to use a special ruler called a Breton (or Portland) plotter and a tool called a divider to measure distances in nautical miles (equivalent to 1.15 statute miles on land).
Other things we covered were:
• learning how to raise and lower the dingy from its bracket (called a davit), on the back of the boat, then start it up and maneuver around
• backing up both the cat and the mono to a mooring buoy or dock using their diesel motors (which we had to inspect before each outing). Steering a big, expensive boat while facing backwards can be tricky. Because of all the million-dollar boats populating Ocean Bay Marina, only the instructors were allowed to park the boats there.
• lowering and raising the anchor using an electric windlass winch, while the person at the helm motors slowly backwards or forwards into the wind
• sailing in a circle (tacking and jibing in the wind)
• man overboard drills: immediately turn the boat 180° and pull them back onboard (called a Williamson turn)
• how to fix a position using a hand-held compass and drawing lines on a chart
• taking weather, tides and currents into consideration for trip planning
• maritime collision regulations and right of way
• understanding the different buoys, lights, and day shapes on vessels
• medical emergencies at sea
• legal responsibilities of a skipper
• types of: boats, life rafts, lifejackets, automated distress signal devices, sails, clouds; radar, horn and bell signals, trailering…
Three nights we all went ashore for dinner. This night we went to a place called Pan & David’s Restaurant after anchoring off of Koh Sichang island, near Si Ratcha. Earlier that day we sailed through an area with a lot of big tanker and cargo ships and learned about the special rules you need to obey in that situation.
This was one of the few times when we got enough wind to get White Squall heeling (leaning), and making decent speed.
The current hot season is not a particularly good time for sailing in Thailand, as there’s not much wind. But as the instructor’s kept telling us: It’s easy to sail when there’s wind; it takes a skillful sailor to set the sails for optimum sailing when the wind is low. Still, there were several times when, especially toward the end of the day, winds were so low we made very little progress. Then, one of the instructors would decide to start up the motors so we could reach the day’s destination well before sundown.
Left to right: Martin, Hendrik, Craig and me in the cockpit of White Squall (the boat I spent the most time on). Once we get the dingy off the davit, we often just towed it behind.
During the Competent Crew part of the course, we anchored one night off of Bang Saray, then took the dingies to shore for dinner. Except that Rangiroa’s dingy had motor trouble and cut out half way. We had to go back and hold onto it, while the one good motor brought it back to the cat. Craig thought it was just out of gas (oops–supposed to check that beforehand), but it turned out to have another problem, which got resolved later.
Besides the books for the first and second halves of the course, there was also a small book on how to use a VHF (Very High Frequency), radio. We had to pass a short exam on how to use one to make the all-important MAYDAY calls to All Stations in case of grave and immanent danger. We also learned that if you make a MAYDAY call, and you’re not in grave danger, the skipper of the boat can be held legally responsible. (An expensive helicopter rescue could be sent out for no reason.)
We were required to download five boating-related apps, and have the WhatsApp messaging app, in which Craig created a private group for the class. There we shared photos, videos and important schedule info. The last app above, Star Map, was suggested to me by Mike one night as we were checking out constellations on Koh Larn after dinner. I tried it briefly, but think it’s not yet calibrated right. When working correctly, it’s supposed to tell you the name of whatever constellation you point your phone at. Pretty cool!
Eight new bareboat skippers (and one spouse) !
After passing the final exam at Lake House around noon of Day Eleven, I rode my bike back to my hotel and wrote the following message to a friend in Seattle who used to sail around Puget Sound thirty years ago:
Will have to digest for a while everything I learned, the whole experience. No burning urge to do more sailing right now….
He misinterpreted this as meaning I had “not caught the sailing bug,” and so probably never would. But that’s not what I meant at all. This course was not about “having fun, cruising around the Gulf of Thailand on a sailboat.” It was about learning, in just eleven days, much of what you would need to know in order to safely and competently take an expensive, and potentially dangerous sailing vessel out on the open sea, and return it to its owners in the same condition you found it in.
The Sea of Siam is hot, humid and rather becalmed in April. I learned a tremendous amount over the course, but in no way do I feel like I became a sailing “hero.” Many of the skills I performed only once; I would need to do each many times, and log several hundred nautical miles before I could ever make claim to any sort of mastery.
Sailing recreationally during the November–January cool season, or from September to October at the end of the rainy season, or in some cooler/windier part of the world, without having to study and pass three exams would probably be very enjoyable indeed. Or, maybe I’ll find, say, a used 20-foot boat on a trailer to launch and sail around on sometimes. That’s about all I might reasonably be able to afford at the moment.
I also met some pretty incredible people. And now, if I want to, I can rent a big, beautiful oceangoing sailboat and sail it to some uninhabited beach with some friends…do some snorkeling, have some beers, play a little music…. And I think that’s pretty awesome. 🙂
Permanent card should arrive in six weeks 🙂
A Few More Shots
Two Thai women, Muu and Dew, who were with us for the Competent Crew part of the course. Muu’s husband, Laurent, from France, is behind Dew. Behind them is Michael, also from France.
On the first and second days of the course we all went out on the catamaran, which was a bit disappointing. But it was primarily for those who’d never been on a sailboat before. Afterward, we always took out both boats, and split the group in two. During the second, Bareboat Skipper part of the course, each boat had just four students, which was a good number.
Two nights we tied the sides of the boats together at anchorage. This made it easy for us White Squall guys to jump over to the more spacious cockpit of Rangiroa for exam cram sessions in the evening.
Head instructor Craig on the cat during the Competent Crew course.
Doing the compulsory “WOBBLE” on one of the cat’s diesel engines. Checking levels of Water and Oil; inspect the Belts, seeing if there’s water in the Bilge, a general Look around, and Electrical check.
Our fearless leaders: Head Instructor Craig; Instructors Adam and Jim
The introductory email I received from Island Spirit Sailing School included a couple suggested places to stay near the marina. One was Layla’s Marble Studios. [Tel.] My first question upon contacting a prospective accommodation is always: Are there barking dogs in your area? Layla, a former flight attendant from Holland, answered honestly that, yes there were; but also offered to let me have her “honeymoon suite” for the price of an ordinary studio, since it featured a bedroom with no external walls. Since I could find no other local hotel without dogs (not too surprising, unfortunately), I decided to take her up on her offer.
Suffice to say, it’s been an amazing room for an incredible price, and Layla herself is a lovely and intelligent host. While I can still hear barking often outside of the large bedroom, I’ve been able to handle that. Mostly I stay in the glassed-in bedroom, which is where I currently sit, tapping on my laptop. The course ended three days ago, but I’m loving it here so much, I can’t leave. 😉 (But will need to fairly soon.)
Layla said she designed the interior of the room herself, around twenty years ago, when she retired to this part of Thailand.
Simply one of the most gorgeous rooms/views I’ve ever experienced
The glass-walled bedroom keeps out the sound of barking dogs on the street
Spacious kitchen. (There’s a microwave, coffeemaker, electric hotpot; but no stove or oven.)