Kuching's Similan Island Idyll
After a quick trip to Thailand via Koh Rok Nok where we had a great dive, we headed for the Similan Islands to finally get a dedicated diving vacation. We made the trip up in two legs - the first was 35 miles mostly under sail to a delightful anchorage at Laem Sae. We had good winds and sailed the entire way. The second leg was about 50 miles to the middle island of the Similan group - Miang. We had great winds until noon and then had to motor sail the rest of the way. Still it was enjoyable and we did the trip in just under 10 hours. We took a mooring in the recommended anchorage and spent a wild night with fierce winds working up a confused sea. These winds were typical of the nights for our entire stay and we thereafter sought moorings on the westerly sides of the islands. Though not recommended in the sailing guides, we dived the moorings and found them substantial and our nights were quiet.
The Similans are islands of smooth boulders - some small, some huge. On the eastern side of the nine islands there is sand and coral and on the western side there is just boulders. The diving is varied, fascinating and fun. We dived twice a day for the first 6 days and then alternated snorkelling and diving for the last two. Every dive was different although we do admit to doing one dive site twice. The fish life is spectacular. We saw species that we had not yet seen in the Indo-Pacific area plus we saw turtles, shark and a large (2 metre wingspan) eagle ray. We soon learned the rhythm of the dive boats and were able to dive the sites in relative solitude by diving outside their schedules.
There are lots of dive boats around the islands. They fill the main anchorages at night and occupy most of the moorings. Still we could always find a mooring and didn't find their proximity annoying. However, we took moorings in unusual places and usually had no-one around us. There are moorings around the majority of the dive sites and given that there are more than a dozen dive sites this means there are lots of moorings.
,The dive boats conglomerate in the anchorages at the top of Koh Miang (NE and N sides) and the top of Koh Similan and bottom of Koh Bangu. We weren't hassled when we did take moorings in those places but we preferred the quiet of the less popular moorings.
We met up with the owners of a dive cruise charter boat "Ilala" returning from the Andamans and were enticed with tales of diving there and in the Mergui Peninsula. Next year we will splice 100 metres of rope to our 45 metre of chain and venture up there where the anchorages are deep.
Our food started to run out and business called so we had to leave the Similans. How could we be beating into a southeast wind? Unseasonal as it was, it combined with the ebbing tide and almost stopped us in our tracks for a couple of hours. We motored eastwards to the coast and finally caught enough wind to finish our long day's sailing in Freedom Bay just outside Karon Beach.
The Similan islands were a wonderful way to end our sailing season. Now our minds are turning to packing up the boat and heading for Europe for the long and wet SW monsoon. See you all soon.
Kuching - Thailand
THESE ARE THE VOYAGES OF THE ....SHIP KUCHING ITS ..YEAR MISSION TO SEEK OUT...
We arrived in the beautiful and expansive Bass harbour in front of the main town of Kuah on Langkawi Island and reflected that it had to be friendlier than the Straits of the same name between Tasmania and Australia. Passing the immense statue of a Sea Eagle which guards we found an anchorage amongst dozens of other cruisers, an increasing number of whom we now recognize.
Lacking the charm, history and cosmopolitan nature of Penang, Kuah nonetheless has most of the facilities we need-no theatre or cinema but joy! oh joy! it is duty free and the booze (stocks are running perilously low) is cheap and plentiful. Tiger beer is a heady 1.25 ringgits a can (18 pence!) whilst spirits are 3 pounds a bottle. We even find a bar where the draught is less than a pound a pint with a decent curry for the same sum. Admittedly the food is not as good or as varied as Penang but all-in-all this area could take some beating for helping stretch the pension. Checked in once again in the relaxed Malaysian way, we bought provisions, boat maintenance items and some extra dive tanks before hiring a car and joining Tony and Serena on a drive around the island. A scenic day revealed a remarkable lack of development, lots of green space still and a number of stunning locations, including the most magnificent and attractive public loo which we all thought was a luxury beach side chalet. Then our lunch stop, a a beach to die for overlooking several of the celebrated limestone karsts for which this region is famed (think James Bond ' A Man with the Golden Gun') The lunch was fresh fish and trimmings for less than 2 pound a head.
Despite the fish for lunch we finished the day by buying a magnificent Spanish mackerel (3 pounds) and inviting Tony and Serena to join us for barbecued fish steaks with enough left over for another meal for us all. For benefit of our 'amigos' this so called Spanish mackerel bears little resemblance to our European version - looking more like a barracuda (3-10 kgs)but tasting like upmarket swordfish.
We continued our land exploration with an interesting day looking at building land - guided by a delightful Dutchman who has sold his 120 foot schooner and built himself a home whilst starting to make a living by helping other ex pats do the same. The system here is undeveloped as there is no land for sale in the normal way, but Marius has discovered that it can be obtained on leases of up to 99 years and is incredibly cheap to buy and to build on. He estimates a 2 bedroom 2 bath European standard house with pool on an acre can be achieved for 100K euros. Very interesting but. the plots all have drawbacks. We task Marius to keep looking and our feeling is that Langkawi represents a reasonable mid-term gamble as it is begging to be developed as the Phuket success spills over into this region.
Ten days slipped by and we woke up one morning desperate to get out of Kuah. We sailed out of Bass Harbour to anchor a scant 5 miles away off the delightful limestone cliffs of the so called 'Princess Lake' or lake of the 'pregnant maiden', a remarkable fresh water lake a 10 metre climb from the seaward beach. Legend has it that a divine princess used to bathe here where she was spied by (you'll never guess!) a handsome prince who fell in love and sought a magician's help to win her. Bathing in a mermaid's tears he bewitched her, they married and had a child who tragically died at birth. The Princess discovered the deceit used to win her and cast her dead baby into the lake bestowing on it her magic fertility powers before returning to heaven. We are keeping our fingers crossed and so far neither of us are pregnant but we did enjoy the swim!
We moved on up to the northern harbour of Telaga - in an even more stunning setting. We were anxious to get going to Thailand but the weather did not cooperate. Deep into the so called dry season a deluge of monsoon rain fell for 3 days. We whiled away the time enjoying an impressive cable car ride and hike to the nearby waterfall and seven springs.
Finally the weather broke and we headed off to Thailand via Koh Lipe, Koh Rok Nok and Phi Phi island. We travelled in loose formation with a couple of German friends in 'Irama Duna' (he it emerges is ex East German and at one time a special forces trained diver 'Stasi'?). Now a fit 70 we naturally treat Siegfied with due respect!!
We tried diving but there was still no visibility although we had a lovely snorkel (too shallow to dive)at Koh Roki Nok in the clearest waters to date and see reasonable light coral and an interesting moray. We never did find the alleged fertility symbols on the island (perhaps just as well considering our earlier fertility lake immersion!), but had another great sundowners - distracted slightly by what we took to be a few midges. The Midges turned out to have been sand flies whose bites cover us and are far worse than the mozzies!
We finally have some fabulous sailing from Rok Nok to Phi Phi flying along at 9 knots into some uncomfortable seas with slightly strained grins on faces. After 5 hours and 35 miles odd we opted to go to Phi Phi Lae (the small southern island) and tore in towards the narrow entrance thinking to down sails just in the lee before making a 'nonchalant' entrance to the spectacular enclosed bay. But I hear you say, "What about the accelerator effect of mountains as you approach their lee?" We..ell the resulting 35 knots had a remarkable effect on our unreefed rig as we 'took off' and Laurie's "oh sh." seemed to catch the moment of that interesting pre- hull lift zone which hobie catters so love (and cruisers don't). Gliding serenely (ha!) into harbour having dropped jib and main in record time we were stunned by the beauty of the sheer cliffs encircling the famous (movie 'the Beach') bay. Moored up seemingly against the cliffs we relaxed with another sundowner and watched and listened to the fish eating the hull! This is the only spot we know where if you stay long enough the parrot fish and others will trim your bottom of weed and barnacles free of charge (who needs antifouling!).
We had a quiet Christmas in the Racha Islands with a celebratory couple of Christmas dives (bah humbug!)and then set off to Phuket to check into Thailand. The extra bureaucracy of Thailand was discouraging but we filled in the endless forms all requiring the same information and the same photocopy attachments . Ashore we discovered a different and a much more developed island than Langkawi- nonetheless with its own charms much better food supplies and equally good eating ashore. Met up with British ex Pat Keith (from Christchurch) who had sailed from Florida in 7 months to retire to Phuket. He invited us to his house warming and we had a great evening with some other friends of his including his child hood sailing chum - they had won their class at Cowes several years running and been sailing ever since. Also in the party was a charming guy who was introduced as ex QE2 Captain, ex Navy ex Marines all by the age of 40 - impressive!!Whatever the truth he w as a genuinely nice guy!
Took advantage of the time in Ao Chalong to have our Jib and spinnaker repaired. Excellent work and very reasonably priced at Rick's Palm Marine sail repair shop.
Only mishap was when we nearly lost out dinghy underneath Chalong pier - a lesson to secure with aft as well as bow line!! Amazingly despite immersion - once dried and cleaned our trusty Tohatsu fired up with no ill effects.
With the repaired sails aboard set off early to r/v with Tony and Serena for the a New Year up in the islands of Phang Nha bay - the spectacular area of Limestone Karsts which include the celebrated and now renamed 'James Bond' island where the Man with the Golden Gun was filmed. With a meeting at Koh Hong arranged we were enjoying a great run across close hauled but making 8-9 knots, when we thought we had better check GPS coordinates with Tony. Turns out there are 3 Koh Hongs and we were headed for one of the others. Unfortunately our revised course was straight into wind(!) so progress slowed to 5 knots. Nonetheless anchored 1530 in time to explore the spectacular Hong of the eponymous island. A Hong is a limestone Karst island hollowed out by the sea so that aside from the narrow and often underwater tunnel entrance you are surrounded by limestone cliffs - truly spectacular and there were three in this one Karst.
With New Year duly seen in (have to watch first footing when in a boat!!)including the release of some outdated emergency flares, we set off for lunch in the floating Muslim village of Pan yi. This was a fascinating isolated mainland village of Muslim 'sea gypsies' existing entirely on stilt and floating houses with access only by sea.
From Pan Yi a short motor sail hop to Koh Kudu Yai another group of Karsts with interesting and noisy wildlife - monkeys sea eagles and hornbills and another Hong!!
We then set off for the Koh Hong we of our original courser to find a good mooring and another group of Karst and hongs (does this sound like too much of a good thing?). Actually we were really enjoying this beautiful area and were only surprised at the complete absence of fellow yachties (they seemed all to be staying in Phuket!).
We continued eastward and spent some time at Koh Dam South (an interesting anchorage perched off the edge of a reef) where we enjoyed some quite good diving and some spectacular sundowners. We went to Krabi -Ao Nang)-a tourist town but with a chance to eat well at an excellent restaurant and to reprovision. Attempting to escape the noise of the long tails we headed for the quieter back packer Rai Le beach only to find that since it was only accessible by boat the dreaded long tails were here in abundance as well.
Returning to Ao Chalong on Phuket to reprovision and prepare for a haul out we were caught by a squall. It would not have been a problem had the shackle holding our dinghy to one of its davits not given way(!) and we were suddenly trailing a dinghy by one davit and its aft securing line and trailing falls. In the process we lost the dinghy pump, one oar, one of each of our sandals (!),and our nice new dinghy pump but at least we had the dinghy and despite partial submersion the engine was fine. I think the dinghy must be getting a persecution complex.
We then spent a week hauled out at Ratanachai shipyard on a slip. This is a real working ship yard with a fascinating mix of work boats, ferries, fishing boats and a few yachts. They took great care with the haul out and we had a productive week . This included cleaning and sanding and then painting our bottom (4 coats of a 'chocalate brown ablative anti fouling') - apparently far more effective than the blue! We relieved this with a blue waterline stripe and the finished result looks surprisingly good. We also had our sides cleaned and polished - we painted our dinghy (as it turns out with the wrong paint!), had a lovely new teak floor to replace the rotten shower one, had some lovely teak storage bins and a chopping board made and put in through hulls in the port hull in readiness for a new head and basin (Guests will now have their own facilities!!). All in all a great week only slightly marred by the constant smell of dried fish from the cat food factory next door!! We got to know the local restaurants with their 30 baht (45 pence) main courses really quite well Laurie even introduced some new dishes to their menus!
Now it was time to start thinking about going back to Malaysia as our visas were running out. We returned to Ao Chalong to check out (more bureaucracy and we had accidentally overstayed by one day - 30 days not a calendar month). Fined 400 baht (6 pounds) we set sail suitably chastened.
We thoroughly enjoyed island hopping down to Langkawi again with stops at Phi Phi Don (noisy and not our favourite but great to see it completely on its feet again since the Tsunami). Also Lanta Yai, Muk, Phedra and Tanga mostly sailing and now we're back in Langkawi and catching up with friends - more in the next installment..
Kuching's Singapore to Langkawi Leap
KUCHING'S SINGAPORE TO LANGKAWI LEAP
It all came together at the last moment. The starboard engine repaired (ok patched) but still having a leaking oil seal and the compressor delivered at the last moment. Away for the 600 mile trip to Langkawi. We had to make 30 miles the first day which we did motoring on the Port Engine. We anchored on the S E end of Pulau Pisang at 1"a 28.063N 3"a16.022E in 3.4 metres.
The next morning we set off with Mokoko et al in unfavourable conditions for Pulau Besar 67 miles away. We motored and motorsailed all day but by 8 pm were still 2 hours away from the anchorage. The boats ahead reported numerous fishing nets in the water. We¡¦d already dodged a couple and decided not to venture into the anchorage in the dark and risk getting our one good engine caught by a net. We changed course and headed for Port Dickson arriving at about 11 am after a slow trip with wind and tide against us ¡V sometimes only making 2 knots! We had some difficulty finding the entrance to Port Dickson as the chart and coordinates didn¡¦t seem to match. We called Admiral Marina and once we had their waypoints it all made sense.
Later that day Mokoko et al arrived and Ray from Fontana persuaded us to beach the boat the next day and he would help us do the oil seal. To make a long story short we did change the oil seal at midnight under torch light. It was an educating experience and heaps of gratitude to Ray without whom we certainly wouldn¡¦t have completed the job in a single tide!
Resting up at the pool, a figure from David¡¦s past arrived ¡V Tony Bolingbroke who had been his training officer when he was a midshipman and was now circumnavigating with his charming wife Serena. With our minds at ease on the engine front we planned a trip with Tony and Serena to the Cameron Highlands to see the colonial tea plantations. We set off early one morning taking a 1.5 hour taxi ride to KL and then a 4 hour bus ride to the town of Tanah Rata. We found a clean and comfortable room at the Hillview Inn and arranged a tour of the tea planations for the next day having discovered it rained every afternoon and there was nothing to do but have cream teas (life is hard sometimes!). We changed hotels the next night to the Junin Inn run by the delightful Mr. Mari. It is immediately behind the Hillview Inn and we would recommend it.
The tea plantations were gorgeous and we enjoyed the tour, bought tea, had a great lunch (the small town has surprisingly good restaurants) and planned our return for the next day. We were up early to take the VIP bus (24 RM with plush wide seats) to KL and then the bus to Seremban where we did some provisioning.
The 21st of November we left Admiral Marina headed for Pulau Pangkor off the mainland town of Lumut having decided to skip Port Klang. Another marathon motor trip and we arrived about noon. What a pleasure to be at anchor again! We relaxed and enjoyed an afternoon spin around the anchorage in the dinghy looking at the extensive resorts that have been built on Pangkor Laut. However just as we neared the boat the outboard died and refused to restart. The next day we took the 30 minute ferry over to the mainland for the startling price of 3 RM return (less than a dollar) where we walked around the newly built waterfront and checked out the rather down-at-the-heels yacht club who gave us some up-market estimates for long-term berthing (with the assurance that it was negotiable).
We were rudely awakened the next morning when our anchor dragged. We hadn¡¦t anticipated leaving Pangkor that day but we decided we would since the anchor was up anyway. We set off for Penang and, wonder of wonders, the wind was blowing and it was on our stern quarter. Hurray! Sailing again. We sailed off and on all day dodging (and sometimes not dodging) rain squalls. Arriving at the southern tip of Penang we found a minefield of fishing nets and finally just motored through them. No one complained and we didn¡¦t foul our props. We anchored at the Seagate anchorage (5"a18.82N 100"a18.42E). It was a very still anchorage close into the west side of Pulau Jerejak. Right above us in the trees a sea eagle had made its nest and we heard the young squawking madly as the parents returned to feed them.
Next day we sailed under the Penang Bridge and into the new Georgetown marina. A great location in the heart of the old town that we thoroughly enjoyed walking around looking at the commerce and industry and discovering some great restaurants. Penang is cool - not tarted up for tourists yet so there are lots of fascinating shops and industries being run out of two storey shop houses. Over the five days we were in Penang we wandered about finding a wonderful variety of enterprises from a newly opened art gallery in a converted shop house to an anchor maker and a handmade beaded shoe shop. A favourite spot was the clan jetties which are ramshackle wooden jetties extending out into the East Channel along which families are living in one to two storey houses that don¡¦t appear to have changed much since they were built in the late 1800¡¦s. A few have been renovated to an upmarket level and are likely indicators of what will happen as the Penang economy strengthens.
We can¡¦t mention Penang without talking about food. We ate wonderfully. Indian, Chinese and Malay meals and all delicious and costing ridiculously small amounts. Out last night we had take-away from a Malay-Indian corner restaurant and had four courses for under a pound. All in all our experience of Penang was wonderful ¡V it is truly like Singapore of at least 30 years ago ¡V the people were universally friendly and really helpful and everything was such good value. As an illustration D had spent a morning struggling to repair the ouboard ¡V changing the fuel and concluding that a blocked slow running jet was the culprit. Attempts to clear same with wire having failed we phoned the local outboard repair man. 5 hours later having collected from us, stripped and serviced the carb, changed the oil and spark plugs returned and checked that it was running perfectly ¡V he charged us the ringgit equivalent of 13 pounds sterling ¡V why did I bother to get my hands dirty(still at least I diagnosed the fault!)??
We thoroughly enjoyed our visit and look forward to going back but Langkawi beckoned so we set off on November 30th and motorsailed our way to Pulau Payar Marine Park. We had hoped to dive in the marine park but that night a huge storm blew through and we decided visibility would be poor. We did snorkel off the Marine Park centre and were pleasantly surprised. We saw the largest population of Gropers that we¡¦ve seen in anyone place, a good variety of other fish and had a visit from a small but inquisitive black tip shark.
December 1 we set off for the short trip Bass Harbour which we sailed and motorsailed. And here we are! Almost in Thailand ¡Vonly 120 miles to go!