Over the Christmas period, I spent part of my vacation on a sailing catamaran, in Thailand’s Andaman Sea.
This was my first try at sailing, and having now done it I can safely report that there is more chance of a Beatles reunion tour than there is of me ever becoming a yachtsman. I showed a near total lack of aptitude at jibbing, jibing and hoisting the yardarm (whatever that means). If it was not for the able presence of Peter, the German skipper, and Yud, the cook / general deckhand, I am sure I would have sunk the boat. Possibly, even before leaving shore.
Still, it was a wonderful experience. The weather was glorious for most of the time – brilliant blue skies and a blazing hot temperature that was kept comfortable by a constant, cooling sea breeze. The scenery was equally glorious, Southern Thailand’s natural environment at its magnificent best. We sailed crystal clear seas, along the way passing one fairy-tale island after another, each more gorgeous than the last: untouched white-sand beaches fringed by postcard perfect drooping palms, against a backdrop of towering limestone cliffs.
On the boat there was no phone or internet access, so I was cut off from the everyday world. Like on the previous (very few) occasions when this has happened to me, I suffered from massive “crack-berry” withdrawal symptoms for a couple of days. But then they passed, and I settled into a dreamily calm rhythm of doing, well, more or less nothing. The days involved not much beyond sitting on the front net of the catamaran from dawn to dusk, staring out at the water, sun-baking, reading books, doing a few crossword puzzles and listening to music. It was so blissful and non-eventful that if I hadn’t needed to cool off every now and then with a quick swim, I may well have slipped into a mild coma.
From time to time Yud would come on deck with a mug of fresh coffee, or a young coconut with a hole cut into the top and a straw sticking out of it for drinking. And three times a day, making use of the smallest galley kitchen imaginable, Yud magically produced a meal of classic Thai dishes: seafood noodles, prawn curries, beef and lemongrass stir-fry, sweet and sour fish soup.
Given how limited my sailing skills were, only two duties were allocated to me on the boat: (i) deciding where to eat meals (dining table under the hatch, or out on the open deck?), and (ii) choosing where to moor each night (deserted beach, or sheltered cove?). Not what you’d call overly taxing.
My only other notable contribution to the voyage turned out to be procurement of fresh seafood, one afternoon when we crossed paths with a Thai fisherman and his wife. They were on a small wooden boat in the middle of a beautiful bay, gathering in their day’s catch. As we sailed past, the fisherman held up a large, wriggling lobster that he had quite literally just plucked from the sea. Several other lobsters, all equally large and wriggly, were squirming in a small puddle of water on the floor of his boat.
I saw an opportunity to earn my place on the boat, and although it took a few hand signals, plenty of theatrics and twenty-five dollars, I succeeded in becoming the proud owner of five live lobsters. Plus, as a bonus, two live crabs – in the final throes of our price negotiations, the fisherman had found them lurking under the seat of his boat, and chucked them into the deal as the clincher. Later that evening, these poor creatures all came to a most delicious end, in Yud’s kitchen.
So, even on a sail boat out on the Andaman Sea, it would appear that my main value-add came down to the ability to wheel and deal. Quite sad, really. Mind you, it is just as well that I at least had this skill-set to offer. If anyone had actually relied on me catching a fish for our dinner, we would have starved: my lack of ability as a fisherman is surpassed only by my lack of ability as a sailor.
We sailed north from Chalong Harbour on Phuket Island, making our way to Phang Na Bay, where hundreds of spectacular limestone islands dot the water (including, most famously, the one where scenes in the James Bond classic Man with the Golden Gun were filmed). From there, we turned south, following the mainland coast past Ao Nang and Railay Beach, before crossing to Phi Phi Island and from there returning to Phuket.
Whenever we arrived somewhere that is well and truly on the tourist trail (notably James Bond Island, Railay and Phi Phi) the hell that is Thailand’s mass-market holiday business would almost physically jump up and assault the senses. Like in so many other beautiful spots around Asia, the peace was shattered by thousands of holiday-makers competing for space on the crowded beaches; aggressive vendors and, just back from the sand, the obligatory rows of noisy tourist bars and concrete box souvenir stores, surrounded by piles of fly-ridden garbage, the air heavy with the stench of rotting garbage and raw sewage. It is just so depressing to see how quickly the march of unchecked tourism can trash the most stunning beaches in the world.
But, on this particular holiday I was on a boat, and as I quickly learned, the greatest attraction of boat travel is the freedom it brings to escape all this. After stocking up on water and food and whatever else we needed, we could simply weigh anchor and sail away, leaving the tourist hordes and their mess behind. Within minutes we would be somewhere else entirely; somewhere quiet and peaceful and beautiful, completely inaccessible to the world except if you are lucky enough to be on a boat.
On one morning I took the boat’s dinghy and set off to explore a small cove that Peter (the skipper) had pointed out. Admittedly, it took a while to get the hang of even this most simple task of piloting a single-engine rubber boat, and I did almost get stuck in the shallows at one point. But the reward was well worth it. The cove was surrounded by high cliffs and had a beautiful, pristine beach. It was also hidden behind a sheer wall of rock formations, so completely that unless you were looking for it you would never know it was there, even if you sailed within twenty metres.
On another afternoon we went ashore to a small deserted island (having seen my prior efforts, this time Peter thankfully decided to pilot the dingy himself). It was low tide, which meant that once we were standing on the beach we were able to walk into what looked to be a small cave; at high tide it would have been completely flooded by water.
Only it wasn’t a cave, but rather more of a rocky passageway, through which we emerged into a small open expanse of trees and mangroves, surrounded a full 360 degrees by soaring, fifty-metre high cliffs. It was like we were standing right in the centre of a gigantic, not to mention very spectacular, rock cauldron. Amazingly, the only way in and out of the cauldron was at low-tide through the one small gap in the rocks we had passed through – Peter said that he had found it completely by accident one day, and he never told anyone about this special place, lest it fall victim to the tourist hordes.
Of course, many others besides Peter must have found this rock-cauldron over the years, but in that moment it belonged to us alone, and it really felt as if we were the only people to ever see it. I was the lead actor in my very own movie, an intrepid explorer stumbling for the first time onto a scene of incomparable wonder and beauty.
And then I stubbed my toe on a mangrove root, squealing “oh, fuck” in a most un-Indiana Jones-like fashion. Which did kind of ruin the mood of the moment.
Indeed, even in this most idyllic of settings, it seemed that circumstances were continually conspiring to remind me of just how fleeting and temporal life’s moments of magic can sometimes all be.
Most notable was on Christmas Day. We had sailed into the bay in front of Railay Beach at around noon, mooring the boat in a quiet cove, just round a headland from the main tourist hub. A more magnificent natural environment than Railay is hard to imagine: a long, sweeping crescent of almost pure white sand, set between two outcrops of limestone cliffs.
Jutting out into the sea at each end of the bay are a series of massive, craggy stone pillars, carved over millennia by the relentless pounding of the waves. These pillars, apart from being stunning to look at, also act as a natural barrier of sorts: on one side they enclose the calm, quiet water of the bay; on the other, they stand guard, absorbing the powerful waves that would otherwise wash in from the open sea.
Later that afternoon, as the sun began to descend and the light became soft and warm, we went out in the dinghy to explore around the limestone pillars at the far end of Railay Bay. As we approached the first of them it seemed to grow taller and taller before my eyes, until we were eventually right underneath. I looked up, and the massive rock pillar towered high above us. There in its shadow I couldn’t help but feel small and insignificant: a speck of human dust, bobbing up and down in the vast and infinite sea.
We explored for some time around the base of these pillars, where the sea has quite literally eaten away the rock to create many small caves and grottos. After a while we stopped the motor, so that we could float quietly in a wide channel of water that flowed between two stone pillars. On either side of us were caves and intricate rock formations, and above them sheer walls of limestone rose up, stained into bands of colour by seeping minerals within them.
Could it have got any more sublime? Well, yes, actually. As if on cue a daytime full moon suddenly appeared in the sky, so that we caught glimpses of it as we looked up and out through stalactites hanging down from the ceilings of the caves. Mother Nature sure was delivering the goods – one scene after another of beauty so impossible you’d normally only ever expect it in make-believe storybooks.
While we were drifting there in the water, another rubber dinghy approached, its engine coughing and sputtering. As it got closer, we noticed that it was loaded to the gunnels with rowdy tourists. They pulled up alongside our dinghy, and we learned that the rowboat “crew” consisted of a group of French students, on Christmas holiday in Thailand, and quite evidently drunk out of their minds.
At the front of the boat were two attractive young ladies, wearing skimpy Santa bikinis. Around them were half a dozen young men, including the “captain”, who was sitting shirtless on the prow of the boat wearing a captain’s hat and holding a battered old guitar; and the “ring-master”, who was standing at the centre of their boat, from where he directed proceedings. The ring-master was quite the sight, decked out in nothing but a pair of skin-tight, fluorescent-hot-pink leggings, a big afro wig, and sun-glasses.
Once alongside our dinghy, the captain began strumming his guitar and the rest of the group started singing, loudly and raucously but also surprisingly in tune. For the next few minutes this travelling troupe of Gallic minstrels entertained us with a medley of Christmas tunes, in English: We Wish you a Merry Christmas, Jingle Bells, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer.
When they finished, we clapped and cheered. The ring-master bowed deeply (and almost fell off the boat in so doing). Peter shouted out: “Do you know anything in German?” Within seconds they were again singing in unison, this time a grungy German punk song that had nothing to do with Christmas. Peter clapped and sang along.
When that number ended, and so as not to be outdone (and also to be a bit of a smart-arse, I must admit), I called out: “How about something for Chanukah?”
I expected to be ignored, or to receive a blank “no idea” response. I certainly didn’t expect the troupe on the boat to immediately break into a rousing rendition of Hava Nagila, belting it out at the top of their voices so that it echoed through the rock caves on both sides of us. The captain masterfully kept them on track with his guitar, and the ring-leader whipped the singers into the kind of chaotic frenzy normally only seen at Jewish weddings. They were all bouncing up and down and stomping, so hard that I became seriously concerned their boat might capsize.
So there we were, floating aimlessly on a small rubber dinghy somewhere near Railay Beach, Thailand, surrounded by stunning rock-pillars and sea caves. There was a full-moon in the late afternoon sky, and we were being serenaded with a traditional Jewish tune, delivered by a boatload of shit-faced French folk in Christmas fancy dress. It was utterly surreal, and while the French students sang I experienced a “moment”, of pure joy and unrestrained happiness in being alive.
And then, as if a rock-pillar had suddenly collapsed into the sea, everything changed in an instant.
In the middle of the Hava Nagila a canoe had appeared around the rocks, entering the channel we were floating in from the rough, sea-facing end. Two American men were in the water, pushing the canoe, and they were calling out repeatedly: “Tyler…. Tyler….” When they pulled up alongside our dinghy, and it was clear from the look of fear and panic on their faces that there was a problem. Nearly hysterical, they told us: “We capsized by the rocks just around the point, and Tyler went under and we don’t know where he is”.
The effect was immediate, kind of like someone unexpectedly throwing a very big bucket of ice-cold “time to be grown-up” water over all the childish fun we were having. The French students stopped their singing, so abruptly that the echoes continued for a couple of seconds, after which there was nothing but a slightly eerie, uncomfortable silence. We all just sat there for what felt like an eternity, frozen, absorbing the magnitude of the situation.
Peter was first to react. Our dinghy had the more powerful motor and was not overloaded with people, and so we were the only ones able to exit the channel on the rough sea-facing side of the stone pillars, where the canoeists had been. Peter quickly revved the engine, turned the dinghy and we headed out into the crashing waves.
He began shouting out instructions: “look for a dark shadow in the water”; “check the base of those rocks”; “the current is moving there, so a body could have been carried out in that direction”. We darted around the base of the rock pillars and out to sea, craning our necks and straining our eyes for any sign of the missing Tyler. But, there was none.
If the Hava Nagila just before had been surreal, this new twist had now kicked the surreal factor into overdrive. In the space of a few seconds, the situation had gone from a guy in pink-tights on a rubber boat singing Jewish tunes a-la Christmas, to scouring the water for a potential corpse.
After about fifteen minutes, having searched frantically with no result, we returned to the canoeists and the boat-load of French singers. They were still floating in the scenic channel between the two rock pillars, only now everyone was quiet, waiting anxiously for our return. As we approached them we shook our heads. We didn’t need to say anything more, and a horrible heaviness descended over our motley crew of strangers. For the second time in less than half an hour, we all just sat there, frozen in the silence, unsure of what to do next.
In case you are wondering, this particular story has a happy ending.
A few minutes after returning from the fruitless search for Tyler, we all parted: the French singers began a long slow return to the beach, the canoeists likewise, and we headed the dinghy back towards our boat, moored in the distance.
As we motored away, another canoe appeared, rounding the outcrop of the furthest rock pillar. It was being paddled by two men, and behind them, hanging on to the back of the canoe and being dragged through the water, was Tyler. He looked a bit like a drowned rat. Apparently, the current had carried him some way out to sea, where he had most fortuitously been spotted by these other canoeists, who had rescued him and were now paddling him to shore.
So all’s well that ends well, but for the rest of that evening my mind was churning with a jumbled, confused mixture of thoughts and feelings.
I kept reliving the emotional rollercoaster of that afternoon: one moment a feeling of pure joy just to be alive, the next the very opposite feeling of helplessness, and despair.
I also kept drifting into morbid thoughts of what it would have been like if we had found a drowned Tyler on the rocks. In my relatively sheltered life thus far I have never seen a human corpse; this was pretty much as close as I have ever come to a run in with the Grim Reaper, so to speak. I kept playing over in my mind what I would have done, and how I would have reacted.
Most of all though, I kept wondering whether the events of that afternoon were a message to me, courtesy of the Universe, Providence, God, or whatever else you might want to call it. A reminder of just how precious the individual moments of our lives can be; how it can all be snatched away in less than the few seconds it takes for a wave to crash on a rock; and how important it thus is to live fully, in the moment.