Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Happy Chinese New Year from Phuket

There is a lot to be said for “living” in Phuket, as we seem to be doing currently, and we hope that this blog will show how we are enjoying just a fraction of it…
Firstly, an island that enjoys the presence of many different cultures is great fun particularly as each community celebrates its own festival days… and the other communities get involved in the celebrations! Hence, Phuket celebrated Christmas and New Year, celebrates the Muslim and Buddhist holidays, and recently enjoyed Chinese New Year festivities as well as a Phuket Old Town anniversary. What a bonus to be in the thick of such good cheer!

So 23 January 2554 found us in town,

wandering and picking through food stalls, listening to speeches (understanding nothing and wondering why so many people were saying “song ha ha ha”… till we realised, that is ‘two-five-five-five’ in Thai! Pronounced sawng, haa), and then…. Watched the most spectacular 2 hour display of team acrobatics, tumbling and gymnastics on stage, all with wonderful, creative costumes!

Of course, dragons were busy that night, as they will no doubt be this year, the Year of the Dragon.
This fellow greeted us at the Phuket Town celebrations, again a time to wander along the closed-for-walking streets and wonder at the stalls, people, decorations,
artworks (from large artworks celebrating Phuket’s notorious electrical wiring to intricate fruit carving and roses from banana leaves),
small parades (Jill's photo: thanks!)
and dancers.
Being amongst Buddhist communities and Chinese communities you are constantly reminded of people’s beliefs, prayers, hopes and dreams of good fortune. Shrines, from tiny ones at doorways to grand beautiful ones alongside company offices, display food and beverage put out daily for the spirits;

sudden deafening fusillades of firecrackers chase away bad spirits; fishermen would not go to work without prayer flags draped over the prow of their longtail boats, as do tourist long-tails and many of the small commercial boats;
many entrances to temples are fronted by a snake (Naga) for protection, and the temples and grounds are beautiful.
Surrounded by these daily reminders of our small part in the greater order of things, we hope to benefit from all the positive spirits in attendance!

Of course, Phuket has no end of lovely views and activities that we like to share with our visitors, as we did with Erik and Diana, who spent a week with us recently. They had previously done many of the land sights, so this time it was to be mostly the pretty, less-touristed areas,
dinghy trips up a little river accessible at high tide only,
and … plane spotting!!
With the runway going clear across the strip of island allocated to the airport, the planes coming in must get very low over the beach on approach – the runway starts where the beach ends: an opportunity to lie on the sand directly beneath the incoming plane (whee haa!) and hear and see it roar over your heads!
Of course, we also pleased the local vendors by eating local fare, drinking cocktails,
making use of beach loungers, and greeting Lucky the elephant on a beach (not sure who was the most happy!)
The island always offers special sunsets.
So now we sit at Boat Lagoon marina, and this time are moored in a different berth from before; our neighbours are a stilted fishing village on one side; noisy motor boats for day-trippers (each with 3 x 250hp outboards) that belch smoke and petrol into the water on the other, adding to the litter in the filthy water; a dredger and an excavator on a barge. It is not pretty; it is smelly; it is a working part of the marina. And it is here that we see young men under the water alongside our boat on festival days, chipping huge oysters from the pontoons which are no doubt for sale to festival revellers.
Knowing their origin, we avoid those oysters but watch the activities with great interest, and would not miss out on any festivals or celebrations for the world!
It is indeed our good fortune to be in Phuket!

Monday, January 16, 2012

On reflection: decisions, decisions…

Is it New Year nostalgia? Or is it sundowners-on-deck induced? Whatever the cause, the realisation hit that it is 3 years (9 January 2009) since we set off from land life in Pretoria to take our dreams and few worldly goods down to Cape Town in the opening move of our conversion to water-dwellers.
It’s hard to imagine what the hotel staff thought of our matching luggage (small portion shown) which almost filled the room, but we were only there for 10 days;
it’s hard to imagine what they and people at Hout Bay Yacht Club thought of our using our car boot as a clothes cupboard, Venter trailer as ‘bulk’ storage, and the rest of the car as a drying rack; it’s easy to imagine what Rolf was thinking at this point in the training (and that represents most of our thoughts during the training weeks)…
… and it’s hard to imagine us going through that two month period again! (Pass the wine please!)

Then the 6 months of waiting for the boat to be ready: being, obviously, 6 months late. Several moves between small timeshare apartments, endless re-opening and re-organising of boxes and checking spread sheets;
then an amazing apartment overlooking Table Mountain –and all this time twice-weekly trips to the factory to observe the ‘progress’;
… with, daily, an increasing fear that the boat builder would go into liquidation before we could take possession of our boat.

This fear proved unfounded (or at least premature) and on a cold, windy and memorable day Ketoro was launched and soon-after became our home. Good-bye to land living.

Thus passed eight hard months totally removed from our normal comfort zone; ups and downs, discomfort and hard training - entirely self inflicted. On reflection we wonder at our habit of making major life decisions based on little more than intuition… but it is impossible to imagine our NOT having gone through it and NOT being here now.

So, three years on, we wonder about some of the choices we have made… good or bad?

The Boat

Catamaran vs. monohull… (a decision that occupied Rolf for years). Verdict? Good decision… which we toast to daily as we watch the monohulls roll in the swell and visualise the crew sweating it out in the cramped below decks spaces.

Flappy bits vs engines. Meaning: sailing yacht or power boat…. the jury is still out as far as Rolf is concerned; this skipper likes to move the throttles forward and hear the throaty roar of engines… unfortunately when we push Ketoro’s throttles forward we get tractor noise and not much progress from our two 29hp engines. The admiral (officer in charge of all things that matter) favours the flappy bits and quiet swooshing of water against the hulls.

Plug/water outlets in floor. One endlessly wonders at the boat-builders’ placement of water drain points not at the lowest point in the floors. We assume this was not a conscious decision by them!

Canvas and water catcher. Great decision! If only because we can drink a toast to the rain pouring into the tank instead of running around catching the drops in buckets.

The microwave..ridiculous, really! If you are cruising, you always have issues with electric power and do not use the microwave, except on rare occasions when in a marina. That said, our microwave is exceptionally useful: we store computers, satphones, handheld radios, phones and ipods in it for protection from lightning… the microwave serves mainly as an effective (expensive) Faraday cage!

The egg suitcase box … great idea!! The local market sellers, who sell eggs simply in plastic bags, are fascinated, and it’s nice to not always be forced to have scrambled eggs.
And, of course… the heads. We went for the royal suite and are thus grateful that we and our guests do not simply have a long drop or even (one step higher) a manual toilet pump that will make squeaky noises as it shoots your contributions into the sea, whole. Instead, our electric macerator announces noisily to all on the boat what you are doing, but it kindly chews it all up into tiny pieces before disgorging it to float serenely past other yachts. Great decision, clearly also supported by the fish that occasionally swim with ecstasy in the processed effluent (sorry, but we live close to nature!... Good decision that one, too). Of course, we regret this electrical system when the macerator pump, with its tiny-diameter pipe, gets blocked. Mightily.

How we use our boat

We have made some spectacular mistakes (e.g. landing on a reef, the equivalent of placing your home in a mighty car-crash) and some good decisions (e.g. when to put a reef into the sails, foreseeing impending storm and thousands of dollars damage to the sails and over-taxed rigging); happily the score-board weighs in favour of the good.


Of course we also use our boat to travel to remote places that have no infrastructure at all so that we can carry out repairs to the boat in the most difficult conditions possible. At a cerebral level it is easy to contemplate boat breakages and mechanical failures and their repair; even if temporary and makeshift with whatever is available.

E.g. Diving to saw off the tops of our rudder blades to re-form the gap between rudders and boat hulls after the rudder blades were jammed up against the hulls when we grounded on a coral reef;
..repairing / replacing the water pressure pump - yet again;
..jacking a few hundred kilograms of engine back into place after a mounting bolt failed;
..using cable ties / zip ties to tension the engine water cooling pump drive belt after the bolt failed;
..upside down in engine room drawing out contaminated gearbox oil with a hand suction pump, during a howling gale;
..having one engine dead and the other dying from water-contaminated fuel; etc.

However at the time of these sort of events, you are out at sea and quite alone, with only a vague idea of what the problem might be and no idea of how to fix it, and no-one to call – but painfully aware of some possible outcomes to your predicament and acutely aware that in your previous life your hands were proficient mainly in the use of telephones, steering wheels, computer keyboards and beer cans!

A range of unhappy thoughts and emotions occupy you at the time and the memory of such mishaps (and the certainty of similarly exciting events in future) maintains a level of anxiety that is at odds with and provides a nice balance to the fairytale picture of cocktails on the foredeck at sunset! Nonetheless... “WENCH! Bring beer!”

The Route: Indian Ocean vs Atlantic

Which way, and when?

The initial plan was to leave Cape Town and cross the Atlantic, which would have been the most sensible thing to do as the trade winds blow you that way and ocean currents carry you westwards!


What a great decision it was to go “the wrong way”! Whales breaching, whales diving, dolphins playing with us, miles-long shoals of tuna, exceptional scuba diving… we witnessed the most incredible marine sights in the Mozambique Channel and the ocean from Madagascar to Thailand. This route took us to Bassas da India, Madagascar, the Seychelles (except the outer islands that were occupied by pirates at the time), Chagos, Maldives, tip of Sumatra, Thailand and Malaysia, including Malaysian Borneo… and there, we found seas with the greatest diversity of marine life on the planet.

Thus: great decision. But it placed us in currents going against us, endlessly frustrating; and the need to time ocean passages to the weather, not our wishes (making use of the monsoon seasons in the north Indian Ocean makes sailing possible this way).

Pirate areas

Of course, there were times when we regretted this Indian Ocean travel… when we were in piracy areas particularly, with our fears and dreads and what-ifs and preparing “pirate bags”! But now the piracy problem has escalated to the extent that northern and western Madagascar and the Seychelles are all on the danger list: if we had not done this route at the time, we would possibly never have managed to sail these areas.

Land travel

We decided to remain in SE Asia for a year longer than originally intended to enjoy exotic land travel. Asia cannot fail to stimulate and interest you, whilst being relatively cheap for long-term travel.

The decision always is: travel light and cheap and therefore for longer… The places we have been to were absolutely awesome; the accommodations we stayed in absolutely awful! The daily dismay and regret (albeit short-lived) of economy travel is most notable at bedtimes and meal times.

Local Cuisine

It is puzzling when people talk about the wonders of experiencing local cuisine on their travels around the world. Do they really mean western food prepared in a different way by the tourist hotels and restaurants they frequent? Or local food prepared at the tourist hotel for the tourist palate? Or REAL local food?

A first world (food-wise) background creates expectations of high quality ingredients and emphasis on meat. Therefore any low cost travel in the third world countries of Africa, the Indian Ocean islands and Asia – which are often characterised by thousands of poor and undernourished people – necessarily introduces one to ‘local cuisine’ that is crap. Cheap food that is readily accessible very often equates to some combination of rice, noodles and vegetables flavoured with oil, curry, chillie... and liberal amounts of msg (mono sodium glutamate – makes Rolf sick); local food is also normally deficient in meat.

Of course there are the rare gems when traditional dishes are prepared really well but the delights of exploring ‘local cuisine’ is a romantic notion perpetuated by travel magazines and advertisers. The only travellers I have met that wax lyrical about ‘local food’ are those on lavish budgets that really enjoy a couple of hours every day in restaurants – and positively light up on discovering a restaurant that serves western food! This one is guaranteed to satisfy everyone...

A good night's rest?

Silk sleeping bags: good decision. When we say we always pack these, it generally raises an eyebrow. This has little to do with the tactile delight of silk on skin as the silk in question is cheap stuff bought in a Vietnamese market and has as its major virtue that it packs very small. It does however provide an essential barrier between yourself and the local flora and fauna that inhabits the beds and bedclothes of the low budget hotels, trains or B&Bs we frequent. Here, the sleeping bags also have my sarongs as support in their task!
The decision to travel cheap therefore means that eating and sleeping are functional: the focus is on the people, the places, the history, politics and cultures.

On being exotic

Cruising has enabled us to experience exotic parts of the world. During the Sail Malaysia Rally we were asked to speak at some functions, once interviewed on TV. On asking the organiser why he kept picking on us, his response: “Because you are exotic.” What!? Well, we were the only attendees from Africa.

What now? - On making decisions

Luckily we have many visitors on Ketoro in the next few months, allowing us to defer most long-term planning. What’s more, some of the land travel this year is to meet the new generation in this family’s lineage!

All in all, there are some hard decisions to be made in the next few months, which we are successfully dodging for now on the grounds that, in yachting particularly, even the best laid plans are generally turned on their heads. So why burden the New Year too soon?

But we agree: that BIG DECISION? The best ever!
Now, wine or beer, Skipper? Cheers! Happy New Year again!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Back in Thailand… and welcoming 2012

Having (in our previous blog) reminisced about and much anticipated re-entering Thailand / Phuket with all that makes it familiar and “home”, we were delighted that not much had changed: the sights of entire families travelling on one scooter still astonish; nondescript and un-maintained shop-fronts may hide the most wonderful classy stores; abundant and untamed greenery balances the chaos of concrete triple-story buildings dressed with untidy and indecipherable signage and fronted by an unbelievable network of power lines… and the latter still hum and occasionally shower sparks: re-assurance that the power stations are working!
The tastes, colours and smells of delicious (spicy) food abundant in vegetables (and deficient in meat!) particularly after the disappointment of Malaysian food; restaurant service still delivers the meal orders over a 30 minute period to accommodate the kitchen – and menus still offer an entertaining range of mis-spellings (is that a word!!??) to pass the time for those kept waiting. Here, a typical Patong street.
Phuket is a delightful place to receive visitors, particularly one’s children and at Christmas time! With Ketoro at Nai Yang, we awaited their arrival from the airport at sea in a “dinghy drift” with friends… what better way for yachtie friends to gather for sundowners?
When Barry and Kay arrived we started off in typical Thai fashion: white plastic table and chairs, toes in the sand, stars above and beers in hand (except for pregnant Kay!) as we inscribed a large white Thai wish lantern (Khoom Loy), lit it and delivered it with its wishes to the black sky, watching as the orange glow slowly disappeared from sight. A quick trip to the tailor sorted out Barry’s Christmas gift: fabric and style identified at 8 pm, two tailored shirts collected at lunchtime the next day, between mandatory beach-massage (or ubiquitous Thai foot-scrub treatment that miraculously turns your feet from elephant-foot-hide to baby-bottom) and lunch … and we set off for the next anchorage.

It was Christmas, and in our book that requires a decorated tree. With a dearth of “regular” conifers around and no space or inclination for storage of the plastic type, it becomes a local boat Christmas: beach pebbles and shells surrounded the driftwood, decorated with vermillion chillies threaded on emerald ribbon, some tinsel, and ornaments were photos of Christmases past! A friend’s gift of Thai tuk tuk and wooden angels lifted the show (while the litter of cans and bottles at the base lower the tone somewhat!).
Weather proved problematic, reminding us how pointless it is to make plans when on a boat. The plan had been 4 days on the west of Phuket, snorkel-spots and beaches identified as those far from the madding crowd. This was to be followed by 3 days on the east side, among the special hong islands and anchorages of Phang Nga Bay.
A developing cyclone far NW of us pulled the air in from the west of Phuket, resulting in 30 to 45 knot gales and unruly seas; happily Barry and Kay were unconcerned with the rolly sea and the missed opportunities for snorkelling, but we would have been unable to land the dinghy safely on the beaches so needed to anchor off in those bays where jetties are provided in the tourist season. These would be the beaches of the madding crowds, corresponding to the super-yacht and cruise-ship areas.

Christmas Day saw us feasting at a seafood restaurant on Surin beach, linen tablecloths but still toes in the sand, cocktails excellent. Without an entertainingly mis-spelt menu, we enjoyed watching beach-goers playing on the jetty, which had caught us unawares on arrival.
Made of interlocking floating plastic containers, the surge up the beach turned it into a rolling walkway from which people dove into the sea at its high points and on which you had to judge the timing of your steps; our “drunken sailor roll” on returning to the boat had everything to do with this and nothing to do with Christmas beverages.

The next day had us at Patong, where the jetty is exceptionally large and stable, joining the droves of tourists from the cruise ships. We had to wait a few hours for the sea to settle somewhat before venturing in to the jetty however, having come in to the bay under 45 knot winds. Nonetheless, secure Patong anchorage allowed us to wonder at Bangla Road night-life,
and gave us a day or so of island investigation. Sitting back in your tuk-tuk, watching as one exotic scene after another passes is an excellent way to get to sights like the Big Buddha, Chalong Temple (Wat) and investigate the old streets of Phuket town.

Perhaps it is useful to be accompanied by people who have been there before: at Wat Chalong, bad spirits are regularly chased away by setting off a string of firecrackers, and an unexpected fusillade of bangs can be unnerving.

Towards the end of Barry and Kay’s stay, the weather settled enough for us to enjoy anchoring in Nai Harn for two nights and actually having a beach day.
Whilst a relaxed beach, the friendly Thai vendors of umbrellas, loungers and food are obviously very territorial - it came as a great surprise when a territorial dispute ended with one ice-cream vendor fighting another in his turf, and after being separated by others, escaping their control and chasing after his rival with a coconut cleaver! Well, without menus or rolly jetties, what was to entertain us?

While Barry and Kay enjoyed the Phang Nga Bay area on a day-tripper tourist boat, we moved Ketoro to Boat Lagoon Marina to have our generator installed: finally repaired after 4 months - a Christmas gift! Of course there will be no blog without a reference to recent boat maintenance / repair. Just prior to our visitors’ arrival Rolf had a fun day as follows:
No, this is not a post-festivity head-in-the-big-white-telephone activity: rather, the heads (loo) needed addressing in a different way: it received a new pump and motor for Christmas.

After Barry and Kay left us New Year celebrations were beckoning, with memories of the spectacular fireworks at Patong last year. Circumstances did not allow for us to get Ketoro to that side of the island from the marina, and the local hire shop was out of vehicles so, for the first time in about 40 years, this crew did not party the New Year in! Instead, it was wine, a DVD (Hamlet, at least!) and bed at 11pm. But nevertheless we still saw in the New Year in Thai-style: woken by noises that suggested military attack, we looked out to find that it was midnight…. and fireworks were sprinkling the sky above us.

A stroll of the marina shows that the owner of this almost-sunken dinghy (front) is surely hoping for a new one for Christmas, and no more bad spirits in the New Year.
In fact, as we write this, on New Year’s Day 2012, a thunderous burst of crackers has just assaulted our ears, continuing for several minutes; we are sure all bad spirits have left now.