Our Thailand charter boat’s name was Ratana but we completely ignored that fact focusing instead on the haphazardly lettered boat’s home base hastily applied just below its meaningless moniker.

Based on the clear disregard for detailed workmanship, we could imagine the boat name applier using the English phonetic pronunciation, essentially giving up on the effort: “Phuket”. Every single time we left or returned to the boat in our dinghy and came face-to-face with the misaligned letters we would joyfully cheer “Phuket!”,  mispronouncing and cursing like, well, sailors. It never got old.

The “whatever, who cares” tone of our boat lettering extended in some ways to the boat itself. Our boat’s Bimini was made of cheese cloth, I am certain of it. We were aware of this immediately upon arrival at the Ao Po Grand Marina in a torrential rain storm. As we grimly assessed the rain pouring undeterred through what was theoretically to have been our sun and rain protection for the next week, the base manager apologetically explained that it was *supposed* to have been waterproofed.

Fail.

The next morning a spritz of completely ineffective waterproofing spray was applied, more for show than substance, and we were handed two large blue tarps and some string. With that, we were on our way.

Did having a non-functional Bimini put a damper on the experience? Literally and figuratively, yes. Did it keep us from enjoying this exceptionally beautiful, unique landscape and deeply appreciating the special chance to experience first-hand the storied limestone cliffs and Thailand island culture? Not a chance.

Over the next couple of weeks, I will share a series of blogs with day-to-day itinerary details, paying close attention to information and Intel that we wish we’d had. What to look out for and places to explore. For now, we’ll take it from a 30,000-foot vantage point and showcase the things that, bundled together, encompass our core observations and experiences of this spectacular spot.

1. Aquamarine water everywhere – The warm, green-blue, Goldilocks water is reason enough to sail in Thailand. It was impossible not to take 100’s of photos of the water itself, almost to prove to ourselves that it really was that lovely. Not Caribbean blue exactly, but more greenish blue. This translated into refreshing end-of day dips, exceptional snorkeling, stunning Hongs (Hong means “room” and these beautiful coves are everywhere), and vivid 360-degree views.

2. Tidal changes are a big deal – We really connected with our tide chart on this journey, observing immediately that the giant shifts in water level could be devastating to our keel boat if not carefully managed. In one instance when we were anchored at Ton Sai Bay near Koh Phi Phi Don, we walked over to the other, arguably more picturesque Loh Dalum Bay and felt disappointed. “Why aren’t we anchored here?” Our answer came when we returned five hours later to find the water essentially drained from the entire bay, as though someone had lifted the stopper of a bathtub. These tidal swings were most deeply felt by our crew when trying to go ashore, particularly at high tide which fell close to our cocktail hour. This segues nicely to the next and closely affiliated topic:

3. Dinghy navigation is more important than you’d think – I’ll be honest, I’ve never really given dinghy parking much thought since it has always been so obvious. Dinghy docks are the mainstay in the BVI and Belize, and we didn’t really use the dinghy so much in Croatia since we were Mediterranean mooring. In Thailand, we only anchored and went ashore to explore the charming islands every night. Aside from one spot, there was no dock, so driving right up on shore was the plan. No big deal, we’ve done that before. Not so fast. It WAS a big deal as the waves made approach more like a surfing competition and in two cases, hidden rocks not mentioned in our charts were encountered a bit later than ideal. I will outline all of this in upcoming blogs so you’ll have the information we wished we’d had. In addition to the unexpected obstacles, we witnessed on more than one occasion free-floating dinghy’s where the owners had not paid attention to tide charts. Thailand tip: pull your dinghy way up onto the beach and anchor it.

4. Plan to go solidly in the Northeast (read: “dry”) Season – We were in Thailand for my 50th birthday, and when I read about sailing in late October all information green-lighted this choice. And it wasn’t a bad choice, it just wasn’t the best choice. Here is why. The best sailing is done November through April, and the more you get to the middle of that season, the better it is, apparently. The wind is better for sailing, the rain is substantially less, and you’ll have more clarity on anchorage protection. As we approached most of our anchoring spots for the night, our notes read: good for Southwest season, bad for Northeast season. Or vice versa. Problem was, we were right at the tail end of October, the shoulder season of confusion. We got lucky for the most part and primarily followed the advice of our charter company, but even that advice left us a bit more exposed on occasion than we would have liked. The wind on our trip just wasn’t to be, and with our giant tarps tied down everywhere (more to come on that) we were pretty much in motoring mode. While we largely had the place to ourselves, which was a plus, the better bet is to go when the conditions are more predictably conducive to sailing.

5. The mid-day destinations are not to be missed – You are on a sailboat, so make sure to take advantage of snorkeling and sightseeing stops along the way to your nighttime destinations. Checking out the iconic James Bond Island, giant fruit bats in the Hong at Koh Roi,  clear water and Instagram-photo shoots galore at Koh Dam Hok , and snorkeling around Phi Phi Lei wove enjoyable and entertaining layers into our experience. Regarding those photo shoots which, don’t get me wrong, are certainly entertaining for onlookers and no doubt yield gorgeous pictures…here is smidgen of sage advice: ladies, please take time to enjoy the moment, don’t just model and photograph and leave. You will thank me when you are older. PSA over.

6. Ditch your boat at least once for a more traditional ride – The long-tail boats in Thailand are a big, authentic, very cool deal. They are also the major transportation for tourists to visit the various islands and key spots. Since you are on your own boat, you’ll have ample opportunities to have these places to yourselves, but there is value in experiencing a ride on a long-tail boat and using the captain to help you get into spots that wouldn’t be possible with your bigger, chartered ride. Our group of four hired a long-tail boat for a 3-hour snorkeling trip from Ton Sai Bay to spots around Phi Phi Lei island, and it was a highlight of our trip.

7. Purchase fresh shellfish from a local fisherman en route – The food in Thailand was incredible. Just incredible. I was in spicy food heaven! Eat as much Thai street food as you can and gobble up as many different dishes as you are able. Do it. Bring a few antacids and do it! That said, when you sail North to navigate the impressive limestone outcroppings, plan to spend a night grilling fresh seafood and shellfish on your boat. I promise, fishermen will approach you and offer to sell you their daily catch. It is worth it. Craig, who performed our boat check, told us about this plan and said “it will be your best night on the boat”. He wasn’t wrong.

8. Easy anchoring and free mooring balls – We have never sailed at a location where we exclusively anchored, and knowing this might be the case in Thailand we brushed up on the process so we would be as ready as possible for anything that came our way. Wasn’t really necessary. The anchorages in 5 to 10 meters of water had good holding and we imagine that even in the busier seasons, there will be ample space for all. On one occasion we found an uncharted dumping site and caught two large rusted drums, but otherwise, anchoring was easy as could be. Another bonus were the red mooring balls, primarily at day spots. These are maintained by the government and are free. One word of caution, not all mooring balls are in depths appropriate for a keel boat, so pay close attention to your charts and depth.

9. The local Thailand people are terrific – When we asked about the potential for crime during our boat briefing, they laughed. It seems 95% of the people in Thailand are Buddhist and believe strongly in Karma. We found the local community to be smiling, friendly, helpful, never pushy, and accommodating at every turn. On most islands, especially the larger ones catering to tourists, you will find English is spoken at least on a moderate level. I often marvel at how spoiled we are in that regard. On some of the more remote islands, English was understandably less strong, but always we were met with a clear desire to help.

10. Gratitude, plain and simple – This trip to Thailand was a big deal for me because it was for my 50th birthday, a milestone I wasn’t exactly eager to embrace. When the downpour on my birthday had us sheltered in place and initially unable to head to the resort for dinner, I was a bit disappointed. It wasn’t going according to plan. But then, what does? Isn’t “the unexpected” part of the adventure after all? We ultimately found our way to the resort after an impromptu scooter ride with myself, Charles, and the driver squeezed onto one scooter and our friends close behind on their borrowed ride. It ended up being a great night spent with our cherished and fortunately adaptable friends who joined us for the trip, my husband who supports and loves me without question, though not without occasional exasperation, and the weighty realization that I am lucky beyond measure. For the love and companionship of exceptional friends and family, for opportunities to explore and learn, and for the ups and downs of a life’s journey that is only getting started.

After a week on the water and armed with gratitude, several damp items, and memories to last a lifetime, we left “Phuket the Bucket” and headed to Chiang Mai.

Traveling to Thailand should always include time on both land and sea. On our trip, we volunteered with rescued elephants, spent time exploring Northern Thailand, and sailed the green-blue waters off the coast of Phuket. It wasn’t enough. Thailand offers its visitors a varied and rich palette of options, and for everything we experienced we left behind so much more that will need to wait for a future trip. Some day, we will be back.  It isn’t easy to get there, but it is worth it, and if you are looking for a place that is unlike any other, set your sights on Thailand.

Join The Crew!

Thanks so much for visiting Escape Under Sail! We would love to stay in touch. Subscribe to our mailing list and get blog, website, and updates on exciting projects we have on the horizon for charter and bareboat sailors everywhere!

Thank you for subscribing.

Something went wrong.