Extreme Sailing – Phuket to the Philippines

Extreme Sailing, Phuket to the Philippines

“I think we should do something a bit mad with the Bavaria” said Tony to me over a gin and tonic at the bar of the Banyan Tree hotel on Phuket. We drink there quite regularly, as it attracts other sailors, due to having in-house yachts. “We’ve been cruising round Phang Nga bay for a month now, on and off, which has been great, but it’s all so safe here – I need more of a challenge”.

“You’re not serious are you, boss?” I complained. “What could possibly be better than island-hopping round here with our better halves decorating the yacht? It’s the best tropical scenery on the planet”.

“I knew you’d say that, but I’ve made my mind up. I’m going down to the Philippines during the cyclone season to test the boat against some real winds. We never get any serious wind or waves anywhere near Phuket, only the occasional squall. You remember that one we anchored behind Railay to shelter from? It was gone before anybody even spewed. Boring.” “Hmmm, how odd, my memory must be playing tricks with me.” I replied. “I could almost swear, when you were tucking into the surf and turf at Rayavadee ashore on Railay, that you said something along the lines of “ahhh, what bliss, life doesn’t get much better than this, does it?”

Tony is used to getting what he wants and this case was no exception. It took him a while to persuade me that he wasn’t so bored with life in paradise that he wanted to end it prematurely. He promised me that we would stay out of the way of any cyclones and managed to convince me that the boat was up to the challenge of riding out a major storm and that he knew how to handle her (which is just as well, because I’m no sailor, I’m just his long-suffering dogs-body – aka PA).

Several months later we headed down to the Philippines to find some decent storms while dodging the cyclones. The crew consisted of Tony, me and Tony’s nephew James, who claimed extensive nautical knowledge. After a bit of (in my case way overdue) detox and rejuvenation at Borocay’s exquisite Tirta Spa resort, we sailed away under calm and clear moonlit skies, the implausibly long beach eventually dwindling to nothingness behind us as a profoundly peaceful sense of serenity settled over the boat and its occupants. Tony told us to both get some rest, so James and I turned in.

Unfortunately for James, he decided to get undressed first, whereas I just lay down on a bunk. This meant that, several hours later when we woke up to heavy seas and the boat started throwing us violently round the cabin, he was at a distinct disadvantage, as he was stark naked and unable to get dressed. Not that I felt so lucky at the time: I have never been so sick in my life. I must have thrown up a good ten times or so, until there was nothing left inside me but bile and until it felt like my insides would permanently part company with me at any moment. The Bavaria was being hurled around like a cork in a dishwasher. Up and down she went like a supercharged elevator. The glasses that I’d neglected to stow the night before were hurled across the galley and they all smashed, worsening James’s problem, as he was now barefoot and confined to his cabin by the broken glass all over the galley floor.

Tony let himself into the cabin, followed by a lot of seawater. He looked in a bad way, drenched and with blood on his hands (from, he later told me, rope-burn). He went up to the Japanese GPS, swore, hit it with his fist, then swore again. “I think we’re running directly towards an island chain” he yelled, with a scared look I’d never seen on his face before “but I’m not sure – the GPS is broken. We need to tack hard to starboard for more sea-room and you need to help me do it. Come on, out on deck with you, now” he shouted, disappearing back up on deck.

I pondered my job spec. Representing him at meetings, organizing his schedule and helping him avoid his ex-wife is work that I mostly enjoy and which is I feel within my abilities. Going above-decks on a yacht that was being hurled around in what was obviously a humungous storm was most definitely not part of my deal. I do a bit of scuba-diving for my thrills and feel pretty safe at it, but this was another thing entirely. I had just managed to self-justify this cowardice when a particularly violent wave smashed into the yacht and heeled her way over to port, so far that I felt she must surely capsize. The Bavaria seemed to spend an aeon deciding whether to sink or swim before finally clawing her way back out of the water’s grip and righting herself. After I had stopped screaming at the top of my voice at the pure terror of this experience I thanked God for German engineers, then realized that maybe Tony really did need someone to help him up top.

On balance I realized that I was more likely to survive the night by dragging my petrified backside up top, so I opened the salon doors and emerged into the most dramatic sight I have ever seen, before or since. The raw fury of this boiling, savage water made even the summit of Nepal’s Island Peak, in a storm, seem tame by comparison. Gigantic waves were hitting us from the starboard beam, one after another of the monsters swamping the cockpit. At each deluge I had to hold on for dear life (I wasn’t tied on) and hold my breath until the water subsided. Tony gave me a rope and told me to pull, which I did, quickly tying off the rope before each wave hit so that I could hang on for dear life.

After a while, we were running from the storm towards open sea and I realized that we were going to survive the experience. The waves, though they swamped us, didn’t threaten to capsize us as they had previously. It was then that a huge wave of, not water, but euphoria swept over me – what a stunning place to be, what an experience to have, what a story to tell. The feeling of having just survived what had plainly been a touch-and-go situation added to the high. This lovely feeling went on until the storm passed over us and the seas started to calm, but didn’t disappear, it lingered on for the whole of the rest of the day.

Several hours later the storm had abated enough for us to be able to hear moans and groans emanating from the cabin. Tony and I looked at each other, both of us realizing that we had completely forgotten about James down below. I went below to find him black and blue all over his naked body and completely covered in vomit. I cleaned him up a bit, then, after we realized he was basically OK, Tony and I started reminding him about his boasts of the previous evening about his sailing prowess. I’m not sure what was most painful for him, his bruised body or his injured pride – he certainly looked really miserable for the rest of the day. He didn’t even cheer up when Tony got on his sat-phone and booked us all a stay at the swish Maya Ubud Resort on Bali. Maybe it was only stress-relief endorphins or some other similar phenomenon, but the more he moaned, the funnier Tony and I thought him.

Whilst in Thailand, why not visit one of the country’s currently best three beach destinations:

  • Koh Lao Liang
  • Ao Nang
  • Railay/Tonsai