Koh Chang Exploration - 23 Feb 2003

Sent: Sunday, February 23, 2003 7:00 AM
Subject: Chapter 9 - Koh Chang Exploration

We left the Leam Gnop dock at about 5 pm.
I made an assumption that the starter would work fine because I had had it tested, so I did not take the time to install it. We just left the dock.
The engine we have in this boat is a small 15-horse power diesel engine. It is 26 years old but still runs like a dream. My father had not run the engine much the years he had it. It is incredibly simple and would be perfect for a beginner diesel engine class.
Even though it is quite small it manages to propel us at about 5 knots and occasional 6 knots in smooth waters. Compared to sails this is pretty good. We can make almost 7 knots with a good wind in fairly flat waters when sailing. So, 5 knots is quite good. I was quite amazed to find such a small engine could move us that effectively.
The great thing about this engine, besides all these other things is that she is small enough to hand start. She is a little two-cylinder with a large flywheel and it is very easy to start her by hand. It takes the same amount of energy to run down a flight of stairs to get the morning paper. It can be done in about 30 seconds and the engine is up and running.
If something happens to the electrical system on the boat we can still start the engine without the starter. That is a huge advantage in all kinds of emergencies. It was also an advantage at the time we left the pier because I didn’t have to install the starter for us to get rolling.
Don’t worry. There is no imposing danger that I am working up to. I just got on a sidetrack about the utility of our little Volvo Penta engine.
We motored south along the east coast of Koh Chang and enjoyed another serene sunset. As it got dark I became a little afraid. It was getting difficult to see Chang Island and we had two smaller islands to avoid on our way down.
I decided we should stay fairly close to Koh Chang Island. The depth was fairly easy to work off of from our depth gauge and on most of the east coast of Koh Chang the depth decreases slowly and steadily to the shore. We worked a course down the coast at about 30 to 40 feet deep, fairly close to the island. Jeff got quite worried about hugging the island and questioned my decisions. It was good in that I had to stick to my guns and it made me realize that I feel pretty sure about my decisions while navigating. We spotted the island Jeff was paranoid about around one of the points and it seemed very close. Jeff was piloting the boat so he was a bit more agitated than he normal.
I knew the island was not as close as it seemed. I was keeping a close eye on the chart and was running two ranges off two other islands. We still had at least 25 minutes till we were close to it.
We headed out into the channel to avoid it and I watched land points, which I needed to use to get to our little bay. We had previously entered our bay into the GPS and this was helpful for night cruising but it definitely required a lot more skill than that. It did give me a good idea of our destination though and that was useful.
After we passed “looming island” I spotted a small island peak just outside our bay and did a range to some mountain peaks on the opposite side of our bay. We progressed slowly and smoothly through the mouth of our bay and the wind grew really gentle and the water calm. Ahh.
We found the right depth for anchoring and since the bay was fairly small I put up near the middle just toward the windward side. It was hard to visualize anything but huge black mountains still I put us into a nice position. We did a forward set with the kedge anchor and dug it into the sand.
It felt nice to be anchored well, safe from the wind and any more navigating. I realize now that night navigation is very tricky and requires a lot of resources, especially good charts. My charts are pretty good for the Koh Chang area but I could always use more detail. There are always small rocks that one could plow into at 5 knots. I don’t like to consider those kinds of consequences.
We enjoyed more stargazing and relaxed.
Jeff jumped into the water and found that a huge amount of Phytoplankton were out. He glowed like a giant firefly as he swam and dove down to the bottom. I could see him the entire time. We had galaxies below and above. I jumped in too and we floated around fascinated. The water was a bit warmer in the bay and we spent about 30 minutes swimming before we got out.
We ate some ramen to warm up and used Jeff’s excellent star gazing book to find more constellations. I found Aries, my sign, for the first time. It was rather disappointing; just three stars in a triangle. We found Taurus and Paladins and I found Canus Major.
We awoke the next morning to a stunning bay. One of the pleasures of arriving at night is the sight you arise to in the morning. A mystery until you peer out the cabin door bleary eyed at the light green / blue water and steep cliffs with a small strip of sandy beach, palm trees and all. Beautiful. Jeff just had to role over and crack open his eyes. It’s nice sleeping on deck, I hear.
I prefer the cabin. The captain’s bed in the main cabin is where I sleep. I am still losing weight and have acclimatized to the temperatures here in Thailand. That is nice because I can stand the higher temperatures but I get cold very easily. I have been trying to fatten up a little. I want that layer of insulating fat so I don’t feel cold in the ocean.
What I need is burritos. Many chunky carne asada burritos. You hear that Craig? I need help from the International Burrito Association. Breakfast burritos, chicken burritos, bean and cheese burritos. Fresh lime squeezed over carne asada with spicy salsa fresca.
I must admit I miss Southern California. All that great Mexican food.
Back to the story.
We spotted some old junk barges on the other side of the bay. I asked one of the fisherman anchored near us what they were. He said they were old barges that were used to transport liquor, cigarettes and more often than not, people. They were from the Vietnam War period when a lot of people were fleeing the country into Thailand.
Before I get into that story though, I have to relate a particularly touching segment about this Cambodian kid. There were a few fishing boats anchored in the bay, a good sign of our wise anchoring choice. They re-anchored closer to us at one point and we chatted and they laughed at Jeff’s naked sunbathing. One of the fishermen said “Dam Sabai” which in Thai means do what makes you most comfortable. “Do as you wish” is more accurate or maybe “enjoy yourself.” The fishermen showered and then went to sleep. We played around for a while and then this young Cambodian kid swam over from the fishing boat. He was holding something out of the water and we thought it was cigarettes. We invited him onto the boat and he climbed in with his parcel. It turned out to be a small block of weed. Great. He mixed it with tobacco and packed it into a cigarette and we smoked it. He made a few more and then gave us the whole block.
I pulled out food and he said he had just eaten. Jeff offered him packs of cigarettes but he wasn’t interested. I pulled out snacks and chocolates and offered him plenty of other things but he didn’t bat an eye. It was strange because in Thailand it is customary to return a gift with a gift. After a few more tokes and some silence he asked us if we had any reading material. Reading Material? Was that what he wanted? We had stacks and stacks on the boat so I shuffled through the hard stuff and found a copy of “Alice in Wonderland” which I had put on the boat after a recent read. I also found an extra “Dive Thailand” book with plenty of sharp pictures and a decent amount of print. His face lit up as I brought them out. He proceeded to study them while we smoked a bit more.
Jeff and I laughed and laughed for hours after that. The more we thought about it the funnier it became. Exchanging pot for books. “I need some literature please.” “I have some pot in exchange?” “Do you have any books?” We told him if he needed more we could supply him any time.
It wasn’t that much pot and we smoked it all. I generally have a No-Drugs-Onboard policy on this boat because we are a good target for Thai police and Water police. I have heard enough stories of Farang getting busted by Thai police over small amounts of drugs and getting harsh punishments. Often the dealer will inform the police and then they will split the payoff the farang makes not to deal with the system. Thai police are about as corrupt as they come. Therefore I choose not to deal with the drug issue at all. Everyone can drink as much beer as they want but not drugs on the boat.
In this case I made an exception. I also chose to tell everyone about it because it was hard to keep something that touching to myself. A Cambodian kid teaching himself English with only a dictionary and a few books he can wrangle along the way. Exchanging pot for books.
Don’t get me wrong though. It was nice to smoke a joint.
After he swam back to the fishing boat with his new bundle we swam over to the Vietnamese junks.
They were skeletons below the water but still intact above. It is amazing how long good teak can last, even under water. We explored the insides and outsides and scrambled around on the decks. I kept an eye out for rusted nails and bolts but still almost ran into a few.
I was tempted to come back with a hammer and take some of the teak. It was good stuff.
We then swam to the beach and spent some time exploring the little sand bar with palm trees lining it. It was actually a little spit with another beautiful bay on the other side and a beautiful channel between our island and Koh Chang. It was one of the nicest bays we had been to. It just gets better and better.
I installed the starter at noon to find out it didn’t work. It worked fine in the shop but then it didn’t work now. Why? I started to think it could be other things.
We were fine cranking over the engine and decided to continue on. At about 2 pm we headed south to Koh Mak where we were supposed to meet my father. Just before we got there I pulled out my cell phone to call him. We had minimal reception but it turned out he was in Salak Pet bay where we came from before heading to Leam Gnop! Why wasn’t he at Koh Mak where we agreed to meet?
I found out he had talked to Tony while we were in our little protected bay with no radio contact. Tony was in Pattaya with his friend John. He said we had had engine trouble and couldn’t have left Salak Pet Bay yet. My dad listened to him and went to Salak Pet Bay. I now realize that I should have explained myself better to my father. “The boat and engine are in good condition and we will most definitely meet you on Koh Mak.”
The cell phone was a curse. We had to motor around an area the size of a football field for me to get any kind of reception. I managed to talk to both Tony and my dad and let them know that we would be at Laem Gnop Pier at 6 pm, in two days time and that we would pick up my father in Salak Pet bay along the way at 1 pm in the afternoon of that same day.
I set this up because I knew more repairs were required on the boat and we had to restock for our trip across the gulf of Thailand. Until then Jeff and I had two full days to explore with.
While we were motoring around in circles Jeff and I developed an excellent, naval communication. I would give commands like 25 degrees to port and he would work off the compass to get the right direction. “15 degrees to Starboard,” and he would move on the ball. It was a powerful means of communication, which allowed me to command the direction of the vessel quickly and precisely.
Did I mention Jeff had a bit of Naval training? It came in handy more than once.
By the time all the arranging was completed it was quite dark and a semi strong Northeast wind was starting to blow. Again we had to anchor in the dark in a tricky bay just inside an island. It was difficult and we had to do it three times. After the third I felt fairly safe but the wind kept increasing.
We cooked dinner and enjoyed the evening.
Jeff went to bed at about eleven or twelve and I stayed up. The wind continued to increase and I wanted to see what it would do. We were not behind the island when we anchored but we were somewhat protected at the beginning. The wind slowly shifted around to the east and blew directly into our channel and continued to increase. The boat was rocking a lot.
I tried to sleep but couldn’t. I knew in my mind it was a good test for our kedge anchor. We should know what our secondary anchor can do. Still I couldn’t fall asleep. The wind really started to howl and I was getting nervous. It was blowing between 20 to 25 knots and the waves were getting serious.
At 2:30 am I made a decision.
We must motor around the island to a sheltered location.
I woke Jeff. He was a good crew member and responded quickly. He did not question my decision. I think he knew the severity of the situation and I had given everyone on the boat a short lecture about my position as captain in emergencies. He was very good about it.
It took us about 30 minutes to get the anchor up in pretty fierce wind and waves. We both had to be on deck to get it up. When it was up we headed out of the bay. I asked Jeff to stand next to the mast and watch for fishing boats and small long-tails. I could not see anything in the dark. The boat was rocking all over the place as we motored west. We were taking waves on the Starboard hull. They were knocking us around a lot. It was a wild ride, in the dark, with lots of white caps. I had already taken a good look at the charts earlier in the evening in case this event arose so it was not that difficult to navigate.
Before this event, I had to hassle Jeff quite frequently about leaving his stuff all over the deck. His bunk was on the cabin top so it was sort of understandable but I knew that the boat should be clear in case emergencies arise. This time most of his stuff went flying; some into the sea and some all over the boat.
Afterwards he told me he could now understand why I kept hassling him about it.
The down wind leg was also scary with whitecaps rolling up behind the boat. We weren’t rocking so heavily though so it was easier.
We made it around the island to find that it was really flat with not that much shelter from the wind. There was good shelter from the waves though and after a bit of motoring around we set anchor in our original position, close to a fairly shallow reef. It was the best we could do.
It was 5:30 am. I knew the set was solid and I felt extremely exhausted so we went to sleep.
I slept soundly until around 10 am and awoke to Jeff thumping around on deck. He had been exploring the reef and was pretty excited. The wind had died down dramatically and was getting lighter as the day progressed.
I snorkeled the reef later and saw quite a few fish. We were near a reef pass so a lot of water was flowing in and out during the day.
A really nice French guy pulled up in his little Zodiac. It turned out he lived on the island for part of the year. He was retired and spent his days fishing and swimming and hanging out with the Thais. He looked about 55 or 60. We talked for a while and Jeff grilled him on fishing in Thailand. We had a good laugh about how terrible it was living here in Thailand.
Later, he told us that he was 72. Good lord! He was motoring around on his Zodiac alone, fishing and enjoying the ocean and he was 72. Fantastic! We oohed and aahed about his age and he laughed some more.
I think that was it. He laughed a lot.
I hope I am strong and kicking, at his age.
After he left we pulled up anchor. I want to become more proficient with the sails so we raised the Genoa and Jeff pulled up the anchor. I miscalculated a bit but we made it out passed the reef, safely, on just the power of the Genoa in a fairly light breeze. It takes practice to get good. I would like to be able to handle this boat in tight spaces on just sails but my crew and I are not proficient enough yet.
We sailed out from behind Koh Mak to find a nice gentle Northeast breeze which carried us most of the way to Koh Rang. I was most interested in this island because we were told it had really good snorkeling and fishing.
We pulled up to this little island off of Koh Rang that had a stunning reef and sandbar. It was actually three islands interconnected just under the surface of the water. The visibility was amazing. About 30 feet. We could see the bottom perfectly as we pulled up to the mooring ball. It gave me the willies as we could see all the coral heads as if they were only 6 feet deep.
We moored and then dove and dove and snorkeled and played with the fish. After about two minutes swarms of this bright yellow and blue fish rushed the boat. They then hung out around the hull for hours and hours. We ate some lunch there and I threw something off the boat. The fish were all over it before it even hit the water.
Apparently they were used to being fed. We didn’t help this much as we proceeded to jump in the water with handfuls of bread and create a literal feeding frenzy. They would even attack your hand, and nibble on it until they realized it wasn’t bread.
I am a strong believer in protecting the environment where ever we go but in this case I couldn’t resist.
We stayed there until 4 pm and then motored around Koh Rang to look for a safe and mellow place to anchor. We found a nice spot and as we were pulling into the bay made by two outer islands a tour boat was leaving the beach in the bay. They drove past us and I couldn’t help but feel a bit of pride in my baby and our ability to sail and explore. We were arriving for our evening and they were going home to their bungalows.
We anchored and Jeff worked on the switchboard some more and I set up our third anchor with 110 feet of anchor rode and 18 feet of chain. I then stowed it in the rear locker behind the cockpit. We now have three anchors. Number one; a solid Plow Anchor which works very well in sand, number two; a Kedge Anchor which works very well in rock and reef and pretty darn well in sand, and number three; an imitation Plow Anchor which works moderately in all conditions. How do you feel about that, mom?
After a stunning sunset we swam to the beach and watched all the colors deepen. As we explored, I found a funny pack of hermit crabs trying to scale a wall way to steep for them. They would get up about half way and hold on for a while. After a minute they would give up and let go. They then rolled down the whole hill and ended up about three feet away. It was funny because there were droves of them, 30, all doing the same thing. Crawling over each other, climbing up past each other, and all rolling back to the end of the beach to start the scramble over again.
What drove them to get up the beach to the trees? Mating or food or just the genetic command? I felt I was watching a little circus of rolling acrobats in their crusade to climb the sand cliffs of Koh Rang. It made me laugh. It put my little life in perspective. How much of our time is spent in such similar pursuits?
Later we swam back to the boat in the dark. Creepy!
I cooked a quick Thai meal and we sat around and talked. We talked about the crossing of the gulf and preparing for it and shifts and many little details.
The next morning Jeff said he didn’t want to rush to cross the gulf and he didn’t mind if he didn’t go. I felt offended and hurt that he would want to bail out at this point in the journey. We were just winding up for the serious stuff and he wanted to bail out? I felt hurt and I was a bit too quick to show it. I think I reacted too strongly. I learned another good lesson at that point. Don’t be so quick to get angry or show your reaction especially when you are captain. Jeff reacted to my anger and we had it out for a while. He explained his position and his thinking and slowly it settled into my mind that he was only concerned with the safety of the boat and our trip. He was offering to sacrifice his place on the boat so we could cross the gulf at our leisure.
We had purchased him a ticket from Koh Samui to BKK about two weeks before. It was scheduled for the 15th of Feb. Koh Samui is on the other side of the gulf.
I had made my own calculations about crossing the gulf and estimated about 50 hours going at about 4 knots. That was two full days. I had also heard from other sources that it could take as long as five days. I wanted to plan everything out for five days just in case but it was already the 6th of Feb. By our scheduling we would be leaving to cross the gulf on the 9th. That would leave only 6 days to make his flight to Bangkok.
I felt sure about my calculations but was afraid to stand anything on them from lack of experience. I also felt Jeff was implying that I would jeopardize my crew to get him to Koh Samui in time. I felt he was not giving me any credit for getting us as far as I had. We had been cruising for over a month to totally new places all the time.
Needless to say we quarreled about it for a while but slowly worked through it.
These considerations were arising because our exploration trip was coming to an end. The next morning we pulled up anchor and motored through lake-like calm back to Salak Pet. It was a quick journey and we picked up my dad. We then motored through that beautiful channel I talked about earlier and headed up the east coast of Koh Chang for the second to last time.
Jeff and I had been using the flywheel to start the engine this entire trip and it was becoming very easy. I knew though that I wanted the electrical system up and running well before we crossed the gulf. This meant a functioning starter.
As we motored back I noticed that the engine was not charging the batteries. I played with the ignition key for a while and began to feel that that was part of the problem. It was not the starter after all.
It was nice to have my father on the boat. He is a great storyteller and a wonderful entertainer. He and Jeff sat on the foredeck and talked most of the trip back to Leam Gnop. He is wonderful to have around if you can get him to come around. One of those busy busy people.
He is an initiator of action, a creator of associations, and a motivator of people. He and his friend started the United Nations Retirees Committee, which is now quite a powerful group within the UN family of organizations. He started the Stanford Alumni Association of Bangkok and set up joint events with the Harvard Alumni Association.
He is a talker. He is a connections maker. He gets people together to help them get what they need.
He is also very funny. A Buddhist in belief, he talks about all kinds of fun ways to kill himself before death can.
Have himself propelled into orbit around Mars so he can push his own button and descend into the atmosphere and burn up in flames.
Have a huge party and overdose on something euphoric.
He is a bit of a joker but I think he has some things right.
You have to laugh at least a few times a day to make life worth it.
We arrived at Leam Gnop Pier at 5:20 pm. Tony and John showed up a few minutes later and we were again united.
We ate a spicy meal and some of us went back to sleep on the boat and some of us went to sleep in bungalows in town. I made it clear that we had a long list of things to do to prepare for our trip and we were in for a solid day of work tomorrow. Everyone was ready to work. The next day I laid out the list on deck and everyone chose a few tasks they could work on. I called that electrician and asked if he could make it out to the boat. He had to go to the temple in the morning but said to call him around 1 pm. I told him I wanted to have the work done today and if he could recommend anyone else I would gladly look them up. At this question he had an interesting reaction. He said that he was the best in town and that he would do it in the afternoon. He didn’t want to recommend anyone else. I couldn’t figure out why but got a feeling he would definitely make it down to the boat so I said OK.
I later realized he wanted to come down to the boat and he cared about how bad a job another electrician might do. I guess he was concerned in a friendly way. I think he also wanted to see the boat to get a better feel for what I was all about.
With Jeff’s help I changed the oil and filter from below. It was very difficult and took a lot of time. The oil has been very dirty during our trip even though I have now changed it 3 times. I decided to take it from the bottom to get out as much of the gunk as possible. The engine has sat too long for years and years without running and I think there is a layer of old oil and gunk a few centimeters thick on the bottom of the oil pan.
In Bang Pakong, before we started our travels, I flushed the pan about 5 times with diesel fuel and put in new oil and a new filter.
The prow lights were out again. Someone worked on that and Jeff did more work on the switchboard.
My father called Volvo Penta in Thailand looking for a few engine parts, which I have needed for a while. He found out that Volvo can’t get the parts because they are too old. He did get a lead to find the original manufacturer of the parts.
Tony and John worked on the dingy oars some more. Making them floatable and easier to row with.
My dad and Jeff put a new rubber foot on our ladder in a pretty innovative way. It remains on the ladder solidly at this moment.
Jeff helped me fill out EPIRB forms so we could fax them to the correct authorities. Tony and John worked on fixing the Propane tank down to the rear deck in case of rough seas. My dad found a good place to securely tie up all the fishing poles we had. Tony, John, Jeff and my father went shopping for parts and food in Trad while I stayed at the boat mounting the EPIRB in a good location.
The electrician arrived while I was about half way through that job. He arrived with two of his younger kids. He came with only a few tools and testers and we set to work. We pulled up almost all of the floorboards and were all over the cabin pulling out wires and equipment. He tested the Alternator and found no problems. He tested the ammeter and voltmeter. He found out that the Regulator was scorched. It was still working but marginally. I was sure something was up with the ignition so we took that apart. Three out of five wires were pulled loose. The ignition key was working fine and so was the starter. We corrected the wiring and the starter popped to life. We could charge and not charge but we were still marginal on the amount of amps. We explored the wiring some more and found that about half way to the ammeter the wire changed from 6 mil gauge to 2 mil gauge. Shit! Who did that wiring? I knew who did it and realized that he had run out of wiring at the time but didn’t say anything to me about it. The 2 mil wire was shorted in three places. We replaced it and had my pop buy new wire of the correct gauge over the cell phone. After 3 hours of sweaty, hard work the whole system was up and running. Yes. I felt proud and thankful.
Chang Moo asked for only 300 Baht because we were friends. I said “No way!”
“At least 1000 Baht.”
We argued for a few minutes and finally I insisted he take 700 Baht. I could not believe he wanted to charge me so little. I was charged 3 thousand Baht for that much time, by the electrician who didn’t tell me about the 2 mil wire.
My pop, Tony, John and Jeff rolled up about an hour later. We finished stocking the boat with food and water.
We were almost ready to go.
We needed ice and some fresh food the next morning.
We all went to my dad’s bungalow and had a fresh water shower. One of the ladies who worked on the dock selling drinks invited us into her house to shower as well.
We all came out clean and refreshed. My beard was not itching too much. I had been growing it for a few weeks and it was about as thick as I have ever had it.
We ate a nice dinner at a fairly expensive seafood restaurant but it was not as good as Charlie O’s place. Fresh out of the water there.
We returned to the boat and slept well.
The next morning we were up early and my dad and Jeff were already doing the shopping. I had told him I would do it the day before. Jeff was pissed because he thought I was going to do it but backed out. It turned out my dad was just up early and ready to go so he pulled Jeff out of bed and packed him along, not explaining why.
We got the boat ready to go and left at about 9 am on the 9th of Feb. I had set up a “meeting” to discuss whether to leave for the gulf crossing right away and sail from Leam Gnop or if we should make a stop at Koh Rang, which was on the way, to snorkel and relax for an afternoon and night. Then we would set out the next morning about 12 nautical miles closer to our destination.
We got a consensus on choice number two and headed for that beautiful island with all the great coral and the feeding frenzy fish.
The Ocean was calm with almost no wind at all. “Sheet glass,” as we call it in surfing lingua. Not a bad start.
Yours Truly,
Captain Andy