Chartering: what is it really like?

We wanted to go sailing for ten days or so as a tester for longer-term cruising ambitions.

I have a fiancé in my life who has done virtually no sailing. We share an Oceanis 45 in Sydney Harbour, which we use occasionally but her sailing experience until now has been very limited despite having spend 20 or so years living near Pittwater at Palm Beach.

With a break in her busy work life, we looked around for a bareboat charter holiday, her requirements were that it be warm, not too far to travel to, and involve snorkeling.

My first choice was Tonga, which I hear is great. But the cyclone season was tailing off and March is considered one of the worst times to go to Tonga, so our next choice was Phuket.

I had never been to Phuket so I had no idea what to expect. We flew Jetstar, not my favourite airline, but it does fly direct to Phuket.

We chose Sunsail as they had a yacht that was similar to what I have been planning to buy for some world cruising, so we could test out what it was like for short-handed sailing with two of us aboard a 41 footer. I had also chartered with them before in the Whitsundays years ago and found them reliable, with good yachts.

Interestingly, Sunsail and the Moorings group are owned by the global tourism colossus the Tui Group. Formed in Germany in the 1920s, it now has over US$30 billion turnover and operates airlines, ships and resorts as well as charter yachts.

Let’s get the party started

I tried to find out what Phuket was like before we left but had little success. The Sydney staff of Sunsail, while enthusiastic, are not very experienced sailors or at least gave me that impression. While they had visited Phuket, they had not been involved in provisioning so did not know the lie of the land or really where to get stuff.

A good friend of mine had done a lot of cruising in the area but mostly in larger crewed yachts and, while his suggestions were great, they tended to be biased towards yachts with crew and also suited someone with more time at their disposal. We never went to where he recommended (Home Supply) which is probably excellent as he has great taste, but it was not practical getting to the anchorage given our route to the southeast.

We chose a basic starter pack from Sunsail for provisioning which was helpful. Their wine choice was very limited (unlike their Caribbean choices), as was their food. So we needed to find out where to get fresh food to augment the basic package.

I eventually tracked down the local Sunsail manager Mark Roy, who I rang from Sydney. He was, as it turns out, very new to Phuket and so he too did not really know where to go. Mark is a former superyacht captain from South Africa and is extremely capable. He is busily working through some of the logistical issues about the yachts, which appeared to have been let run down. Under his management I think the operation will run a lot better.

He recommended Tesco, about 35 minutes in a taxi from the Ao Po Grand Marina, which is where Sunsail is based. Taxis are good and cheap so its no big deal to get one from the marina for a few hours. Phuket is not the prettiest place from an urban point of view with similar looking grungy shopping areas and massively overloaded power poles with hundreds of wires stuck to them.

Tesco is a UK-based supermarket brand spread throughout Thailand and Phuket but, while it has most things, it is not great for fresh food, particularly meat. There is no frozen meat at Tesco we could find and they seem to have only fresh meat, which is left out unrefrigerated, the chicken in particular. This does not work if you are going away for ten or so days on a yacht in a very hot place and the meat section stank, to my sensitive nose, of rotting meat.

Opposite Tesco was another supermarket, a bit like Aldi, called Makro Cash and Carry. Here they had fresh food laid out in a logical manner with huge rows of frozen meats, ideal for yachting. The only issue with the frozen meat is they tended to have larger quantities, so better for larger groups. Sadly we had already bought the vegetables but the frozen meat was great.

Our taxi driver had left the taxi with the air conditioning off and the doors open as we went into buy our frozen meat, so our fresh food was baking in 35+ heat.

At the shopping centre we bought a fresh barbecued duck which was sensational later that day for a late lunch as we motored to our first anchorage.

Good wine is hard to find in Tesco and Phuket generally. Tesco has a large range of Australian wine plus some Chilean and Argentinian and a very small selection of French wines. They are not super-pricey but you do not get liquor stores in Phuket like at home. They don’t seem to exist. The Marko Cash and Carry had a bigger wine selection but our frozen food was melting, so I did not look closely at it.

At the airport we stocked up with duty free vodka, which was a good call and bought a little wine, which saw us through. Sunsail has Singa Beer and Heineken, which proved to be great, icy cold in small cans, which did not heat up halfway through drinking them. Beer seems to suit both the tropics and the local food, as do Mojitos and Bloody Marys.

Heat is a big thing in Phuket. Being only eight degrees north of the equator, it is hot. Bloody hot. The heat is something that the locals do not seem to understand, particularly when you are trying to keep something cool, like ice. I don’t think that the local Thai understand there is ice and then there is cold ice. They don’t store it in cold rooms but just let it drip and melt in the scorching sun.

Back at the Ao Po Grand Marina, our three bags of ice that we had preordered were also baking in the sun with the very pathetic cooler also on the transom, heating up to maybe 40+ degrees. The ice curiously was not in the cooler.

Getting ice was a major factor in our trip because the ice boxes supplied by Sunsail are pretty rubbish, where the ice melts overnight. The fridge in the Sunsail 41 did not like being turned off, which you had to do otherwise the batteries went flat overnight. The yacht had no freezer, which would have helped and on our yacht. The shore power didn’t drive the fridge due to a fault so our fridge was not cold. It only worked off the engine.

This lack of understanding that things get hot seemed to permeate all around Phuket and the Andaman Sea. How they survive is a mystery as everything literally melts or rots before your eyes. But survive they do. There are now 70 million people in Thailand and many of them operate day boats it seems on the Andaman Sea.

So the lesson about provisioning is that you can get great fresh food and frozen meat about 30 minutes from the marina, but you need to allow half a day to get sorted and bring a cold bag with you from Australia to keep things cool while shopping.

So with basic provisioning done, some from Sunsail and some from our excursion into the wilds of Phuket, we packed the boat in the 35+ heat, got a briefing, much of which I forgot like where the water tank switch is, and set off.

Fortunately the Sunsail is a Jeaneau 41 and similar to the Oceanis 45 so it wasn’t completely foreign to me.

Amazingly it did not have a boat manual. In fact it had no manuals on anything, such as the sound system.

It did have an excellent guidebook with a chart and numbering systems for recommended anchorages. Although it was a bit out of date, with recommended hotels that have changed hands, or missed some gems such as lunch at Six Senses. Also, an anchorage it recommends you can not stay at now due to increased thievery. Plus, we never found some famous Hongs near the James Bond islands.

There are several things to bring if using Sunsail: a sound jack to play your music from your iPhone as their system (Fusion) did not have Bluetooth; a corkscrew as theirs broke, but we made do; a good cooler/esky as mentioned before; some sail ties as there were none; a decent torch; and a decent pair of binoculars; snorkelling gear etc. you bring anyway.

The yacht came with a dinghy and outboard, which were essential as you have to anchor quite a ways offshore in places. We also had a paddleboard, which we used a lot; and a double kayak, which we never used.

The daily hordes of tourists infect pretty much all places and the longtail boats with their deadly props out the back, thus the name, whizz by very close. So, when snorkelilng, you need a dinghy or a paddleboard over you so you do not get run over. The larger outboard-powered tourist boats are the same and simply will not alter course, so you need to be careful a lot of the time. They belt along at about 30 knots and are about 50 feet, so they are big and fast. The good news is they rarely appear before 10am and mostly are gone by 4pm, so you get a lot of time at anchorages where you are alone or with a couple of other yachts.

Our anchorage at the Rok Islands was nothing short of spectacular. We also stopped by some isolated smaller islands that were not on the tourist stopover trail and again, they were amazing. Beautifully clear water, few people around.

We originally were going to go out to the west to the Similan Island group. It is about a 75 nautical mile sail to the northwest from the bottom of Phuket, which is an island itself. On advice from Mark at Sunsail, we elected to do the opposite and went to the southeast making our way over several days to the Rok Islands.

I think this was sound advice. The wind is very light and you are also pretty much in open ocean, so our 75 mile sail would have meant a lot of motoring and what little wind did come in, tended to be in the afternoon from the northwest, so our trip would have been dead to windward.

The open ocean thing gets a little getting use to. Basically the anchorages are off beaches and as the wind tended to swing through 360 degrees every day, they offer little shelter. Fortunately the wind is pretty light but one night we had a very uncomfortable ride as our bed turned out to be on a bucking bronco until the wind finally shifted offshore at about 3am. The ‘Bride2b’ was not seasick and was good humoured about her bed being a wild horse.

The yacht

What is amazing about Sunsail is they give you a yacht and let you go: “see you in a week”; or in our case ten days. They do not even require a daily check in.

As a result of the tsunami that devastated much of the area in 2004 there is excellent mobile phone coverage pretty much in all the huge cruising area of the Andaman Sea. It is way better than in Pittwater and much of Australia.

The Raymarine GPS is also invaluable, but you have to be careful as the reefs can be a little different in reality. One in particular on the Roc islands extended several boat lengths further to the southeast than was marked.

The condition of the yacht we had was OK-ish. The forward toilet began overflowing at the end of the trip, which was pretty disgusting and much of the running gear was very tired. The lazy jacks were nearly impossible to tighten and some of the furling gear was broken. The standup board had the wrong bung in it and the outboard sounded like a diesel engine, suggesting that at some point the wrong two stroke oil had been mixed in, not marine grade I suspect.

A potentially really big problem was the propeller had rarely been cleaned. I dived the boat on advice to check its condition and found huge barnacles on the prop. This created cavitation on a big scale and vibration in the shaft, which was disturbing. The skeg could fail with that type of movement in the shaft. I cleaned the prop as best I could with no scraper on board.

Mark the Sunsail manager is onto that detail so it should not be a problem in the future, but checking the boat underwater was a good tip.

The charter area

A huge looming problem in the area is the overfishing and lack of any regard for the coral reefs by the tour boats.

The overfishing is evident as every day and night armadas of fishing trawlers strip-mine the oceans of everything. We saw no marine life other than what was on the reefs. Hundreds and possibly thousands of longtail boats with one or two fisherman aboard back-up the trawlers. The fish stocks must have long been exhausted. I have no idea what they are catching now.

While not a fan of regulations, it is desperately needed here as their fishing communities will collapse and when that happens desperate people tend to do desperate things as they did in Somalia when the fish were taken there. Now, the fisherman there are pirates, which is not good and maybe that could happen in Phuket, I hope not.

None of the longtail boats are marked and if one came up on you in the night (they are always very close) it would be impossible to identify them. My view is they need to enact a five-year ban on all fishing, but I am sure some fishing experts would have better informed plans as to what to do. Certainly something needs to be done and quickly.

The other pressing issue is the complete destruction of the coral reefs. The tour boats just come up and dump their anchors on the very thing you are coming to see. The numbers of boats every day is unbelievable.

When snorkelling the most common thing you see is smashed coral. There are patches of good coral and some of the national park areas are managing to survive, but there are few pristine areas left.

The water is super clear in the southeast and gets murkier the more north you go up to the ‘James Bond’ islands where the river estuaries meet the Andaman Sea. That being said the water quality is pretty good everywhere and very, very warm. We did not have a temperature gauge but it would have been 28 or even 30 degrees.

The charter and cruise was well worth it. The islands in the Andaman Sea with its dramatic limestone cliffs are, well, very dramatic. It is very special, sailing to a remote island, dropping anchor and having a fabulous meal.

We had a great BBQ which we used a lot. In the morning you get up and jump over the side and then enjoy a transom shower. The yachts are pretty luxurious and with just two of you on board, there was loads of space.

You can self cater for some of the trip and there are opportunities to dine ashore at some excellent resorts. You normally have to ring and book or check in, which we did. We went to Six Senses for a very swank lunch and some other resorts for fabulous dinners, notably the Naka Island Resort near Ao Po Grand Marina and the Pimalai Resort and Spa on Ko Lanta.

But we also found we wanted to limit our time ashore as we found it busy and very, very hot. Being on the boat tended to be cooler with the wind blowing over the seas to cool the air.

We sailed nearly every day, sometimes for only an hour or two, but it was easy and a great introduction to extended cruising. One day we scored a 13 knot norwesterly and sailed for nearly 35 miles averaging about 7.5 knots. In fact the Bride2b scored the top speed of the cruise at 7.8 knots, although Sol the self steerer was pretty good at 7.6 knots.

Final thoughts

I would recommend the cruising around Phuket. But allow plenty of time as the distances are big.

If your budget can stand it, I would maybe go for a cat as they have ample power systems and they are also air conditioned, which may be a little like cheating to some purists but would make for more enjoyable night sleeps.
It is bloody hot. Plus, if you are with others, you get a little more privacy being able to close your cabin door.

The pick of the area is definitely the Rok Islands about 45 miles to the southeast of the Ao Po Grand Marina. But overall it is very spectacular cruising with surprisingly few other yachts.

After ten days of cruising we opted for a little lux at the end and booked in the Point Yamu by Como hotel for three nights. This was a really good way to finish off the cruising. The Como is perhaps the best hotel I have ever stayed in. Long time Singaporean hoteliers own the Como group. They now have Como resorts around the world and they are fabulous.

The Bride2b is keen on more cruising and we had no dramas; except we lost the paddle board at sea only to have it miraculously appear on the fishing boat next to us at the Phi Phi islands anchorage some hours later.

And the corkscrew broke.

Gordon Hinds

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