Birthday Trip – 2013

Phuket Sailing (Birthday, Dec 13th, 2013) from American McGee on Vimeo.

During the week leading up to Friday, December 13th, 2013 we sailed around the Andaman Sea, East of Phuket Island. Over the course of four days and three nights we stopped at four different islands: Koh Phanak, Koh Yao Yai, Koh Kai Nok, and Koh Rang Yai. We spent the night at three different islands (all the previous ones, except Koh Kai Nok, where we only stopped for lunch and snorkeling). The video above shows some of what we did and saw, though we kept finding the camera's battery dead, so there's a lot left out. Here's a quick overview of where we sailed and stopped:

Phang Nga Bay - Trip Map

Phang Nga Bay - Trip Map


Problems Starting Off

We arrived on Phuket at 3AM, Wednesday morning. Our plan was to spend Wednesday getting the boat ready for adventure - cleaning, shopping, stocking provisions, and putting things in order. We expected the unexpected, but still figured a full day would provide enough time to prepare. We were almost proven wrong.

The first problem, discovered shortly after hopping onboard Wednesday morning - dead batteries. The two house and single starter batteries were completely flat. I'd noticed our mast light was ON as we drove along the road above the marina the night before - but figured someone working on the boat must have done this for a good reason. Turns out many things (radar, VHF, radio, interior lights) were left on... who knows how long... and the batteries run down. We charged the batteries from shore power, started the engine and left it running a few hours, thinking this would resolve the issue.

After a few hours of running the engine, I realized the batteries weren't getting a charge. I checked the wiring only to discover the alternator wiring harness was completely detached from the alternator! Later poking around revealed an even bigger problem: one of the house batteries was connected backwards! Insanity! It took from late afternoon on Wednesday until early morning on Thursday (our planned departure date) to unravel all this. The electrical repair guys came, scratched their heads, and got to work fixing everything.

(I still have no idea who disconnected the alternator, put the battery in backwards, left everything turned on - or why. ????)

We'd set a hard departure time of 1:30PM on Thursday - leaving any later we wouldn't have enough time to get to Koh Phanak (and anchor) before the sun went down. The electrical problems were solved by 1PM... but I then discovered the depth gauge and wind instruments were not reading correctly! "Ah, F it!" I said. We have a manual depth log on board (a weight on a string attached to a reel with a mechanism for measuring how much line has been let out) - that would suffice. Sails work? Motor works? We have food and water? A manual depth gauge? Enough! We left!

Leaving Problems Behind

We could have stuck around the marina trying to diagnose and repair the instruments - but I'm glad we didn't. Over the next couple of days the depth gauge proved itself to be sentient. It worked flawlessly until moments before it was truly needed (to anchor), at which point it would lose its mind. After seeing it repeat this behavior twice, we just gave up on it - relying instead on the trusty manual depth log.

Keep in mind, this was my first trip out alone - not just on this particular boat, but on any large sailing boat, ever. I was nervous about a LOT of things, not the least of which was running into shallow water and ending up on a sand bank. As a result of the broken depth gauge I stayed as far away from shore and shallow water as possible - we were always anchored further out than any of the other boats in sight.

Once out there - away from the marina - things did start to feel a lot better. We motored, then sailed, to Koh Phanak. Being one of the nearest big islands with an overnight anchorage, it would be our temporary home for Thursday night. We arrived before sunset, dropped the anchor, then hopped in the dinghy for some exploration. The island is home to a massive cave, the entrance to which can be found on the Western shore, up at the Northern end of the island. We only explored inside for a short distance before the darkness was too much and we were forced to turn around. I want to return to this place and explore more in the future.

Fun Sailing and Birthday Dinner

Friday morning we started off towards Koh Yao Yai - the largest island to the East of Phuket. Sailing South for several hours, we eventually arrived at a white sand beach along the Western coast of Yao Yai. There's a newly built beach resort here - along with a small Muslim village. Not many tourists have found this location, so we had a quiet time anchored here - and enjoyed a yummy dinner at a small cafe on the beach. I turned 41 on my own sailboat, so I was quite happy!

Next morning, we headed South again, looking to explore Koh Kai Nai or Koh Kai Nok, two tiny islands renowned for their clear waters and excellent snorkeling. The pilot guide suggested possible anchorages and mooring buoys - and Navionics showed other sailers commenting on anchorages around the islands. Clear warnings go along with these suggestions - "reef rises suddenly from the deep water" surrounding the islands - how suddenly, we'd soon find out.

We approached Koh Kai Nok and sailed around at some distance, looking for a suitable place to drop anchor. I'd heard from others that picking up mooring buoys is a BAD idea, so that wasn't an option. I selected a spot in the lee of the larger island and began a slow approach. Without a depth gauge, the manual log line had to be thrown over and checked frequently - an idea I later realized was foolish.

The reef here rises like a wall from the depths - water under the keel going from 50+ meters to less than 2 in a matter of meters. Still, we got the anchor down (somewhere!) and then sat on the boat, watching to see if we were dragging - or if the wind was going to shift.

Things looked stable, so we headed for shore. It's a shame the GoPro's batteries were (again) dead at this point, because we enjoyed some beautiful snorkeling. An awesome lunch was had at a secluded restaurant (truly secluded - you can't get to it without a boat!), and we then returned to our own boat.

Upon returning, I realized what a precarious position the boat was in. The stem was less than 5 meters from the edge of the reef - such that any shift of winds would have put the boat on the reef in seconds. Luckily, the wind held and I was able to get the anchor up and our keel away from potential disaster. As if to illustrate just how dangerous it is to go in near to this island - as we sailed away, I watched a chartered (Sunsail) boat get up on the reef and stranded. They went in too close. I'd NOT recommend this island as an anchorage unless you're feeling really brave and/or lucky.

Last Night

By the last night out, I was much less nervous and much more comfortable with being out on the boat. I'd not crashed into anything, nothing had caught on fire, the batteries and engine performed as expected, and no one got seasick. After exploring Koh Rang (where we'd anchored for the night) I relaxed in the cockpit and thought about the trip so far. I'd learned a lot - experienced a lot - and been challenged more than a few times. In short, I'd done and felt the things I'd hoped to do and feel when aboard my own sailboat. It had been a great birthday trip.

Returning Home, Things to Do

Safely back the marina, I made a list of items to repair or improve (on the next trip):

- A new set of Nexus sailing instruments have been ordered from Hong Kong.
- Install new instruments on next visit.
- A handful of old lines have been replaced (main traveler, jib furling, topping lift).
- LED lights still need to be installed (next trip).
- Order new fresh water pump, replace on next trip.

The next trip (during Chinese New Year) I'll be going alone. Most of the time will likely be spent on repairs and improvements, but I do hope to get some (solo) sailing in for at least a few days. More to come...