Essential repairs on the SY Esper gives Liz and Jamie a chance to catch up with old friends – and reflect on the plight of others less fortunate...
Early on Friday morning, we lifted the anchor to the sound of chattering birdsong and an occasional fish flopping on the surface of the glassy water. Koh Tarutao had sheltered us overnight in its tranquil anchorage, but the blissful peace would soon be shattered. It had been a couple of weeks since our collision at the anchorage at Phi Phi Don, and now it was time to head to the boatyard for repairs.
Phithak Shipyard and Services (PSS) is a small boatyard near Satun, at Thailand’s most southwestern point. A short hop by ferry to Langkawi, the town is better known as a stop-off for travellers making a visa run between Thailand and Malaysia.
PSS is situated seventeen kilometres north of Satun, on the tidal estuary of Chebilang, next to a Muslim fishing village of the same name. PSS employs local and migrant workers from Myanmar and Cambodia, and has built simple homes to house the families. There is now a colourful community of mixed cultures thriving on its doorstep.
We had spent over a year living in the yard with the workers and transient yachties while our boat, SY Esper, was refitted from top to bottom. Fundamentally a yard for fishing boats, it is industrial, noisy and dirty.
Over the past few years canny yacht owners have eschewed the fancy and more expensive haul out facilities in smart marinas in Phuket for this no-frills place. You won’t find a swimming pool, posh restaurant or gleaming shops here, just a couple of restaurant shacks, a machine shop and some ducks in Mr Pong’s back garden.
Despite the circumstances, we were looking forward to going back to a place we had called home, it was good to know we would soon be sharing a Leo (Thai beer) or Sangsom (Thai ‘rum’) with old friends.
With no wind, we motored out of the island anchorage and made our way across the water to the mainland estuary. The water in this area is dangerously shallow, and unless you have a good nautical chart and some local knowledge it is easy to become stranded on a mud bar, or even to hit rocks.
Like many places around the world, there are channels in wide expanses of sea from which you must not stray when entering the river mouth. These snaking routes – particularly when they are unmarked with buoys – can cause confusion to some landlubbers, who don’t understand why boats can’t take a more direct approach.
We had arrived at Tarutao on a full moon, which means a spring tide, the water rising highest and falling lowest at this time of the month. So we took the rising tide towards PSS, studying the water and the navigation charts all the way.
Local fishermen in longtail boats don’t worry too much about the deeper channels because they can operate in very little depth. This can lead to problems when they drop their fish traps and nets directly in your path. There is nothing for it but to go round the obstacles with clenched teeth hoping you hit nothing. Approaching on a rising tide meant that if we touched bottom, the tide would carry us off.
As always, we kept channel 16 open on the VHF radio. This is worldwide accepted practice. It is known as the ‘hailing channel’ from which you call other boats before moving to a less busy channel to have your conversation.
It is also the frequency vessels use to call for assistance and from where a boat will send out a may day call. Everyone is supposed to keep the channel open and be ready to go to a boat in distress. We had been hearing regular announcements all morning from what appeared to be the US Navy.
Rohingya refugees, mostly from Myanmar, had been floating in the Andaman Sea searching for sanctuary for weeks, but no country would accept them. They had been abandoned and set adrift by unscrupulous crews and were now dying of thirst and disease.
The world had been alerted to their plight and was at last trying to intervene to provide aid. The announcement asked all shipping to keep a look out for these tragic vessels and to report their position if spotted. We scanned the horizon but saw nothing suspicious.
Our spirits dampened by this reminder of the deprivation and disaster so close to us, we made our approach upriver towards the PSS slipway in silence.
When we arrived, our friends came down to wave and invited us to a yard party that evening. They took photos of us with their phones and we took video footage of them on the dock. There were smiles all round. It was good to be back.
The yard was too busy with other boat to haul SY Esper that day, so we tied up alongside a fishing boat by the dock to wait our turn the next morning. As we lowered our fenders to stop any chafing and rubbing of the hull I watched the first intrepid cockroach launch itself onto our deck.
Writer Liz Cleere and photographer Jamie Furlong are travellers first, sailors second. Their blog, Followtheboat, is a travelogue about two people and their cat Millie sailing around the world in a non-specific zig-zag. They also publish video diary updates on Patreon and YouTube every week.
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