The Honeymooners of PhangNga Bay
Knowing the precise moment at which an important life-changing event takes place is sometimes difficult, especially on a sailboat: Daily shipboard routine has no bookmark, no laugh track, no freeze frame to commemorate the exact time of our triumphs or tragedies. But it might've happened for me with Christian on the morning of the third day of our Thailand cruise. Our 38-foot S&S-designed Hughes sloop, Wild Card, was already under way when I realized that a knot had worked its way into our dinghy painter.
"Christian," I said to my freshly-minted son-in-law, "I'm gonna take the strain while you untie it, OK?"
"Sure," he said.
It wasn't a complicated job. There were no mistakes. He wasn't particularly heroic. I certainly imparted no great wisdom. Just two very different men, brought together by one very special woman, doing a simple, mechanical task for the mutual benefit of their watery tribe.
It's the small, unremarkable events that make up the velvet chains of family, isn't it?
I've never seen my wife, Carolyn, happier. Our daughter, Roma Orion, a third-generation liveaboard when she left for Brandeis University in 2000, was back aboard. We were a complete family again. Even better, we had an eager new crewmember: Christian Rojas, our daughter's Colombian-born, German-nurtured, British-raised, Spanish-kissed, Austrian-scented, newly naturalized-American husband. ("It's like marrying the United Nations," Roma says.)
Most parents aren't asked by their newlywed daughter and her grinning groom if they can honeymoon with them-but we Goodlanders aren't "most parents," are we?
When Roma first suggested chilling out from their nuptials by cruising with us for a couple of weeks, it wasn't easy to decide just what country and sailing venue would be best. We were in the lonely, windswept Federated States of Micronesia at the time.
We thought that the distances between these tiny Pacific islands and their potential for heavy weather were both too great. They were utterly mesmerizing, true, but not user-friendly. The Philippines were our next stop, but the poverty and corruption ashore could put a damper on things afloat. Obviously, we wanted this get-acquainted cruise to be perfect-as perfect, at least, as two goofy, nutty, wind-blown, tie-dyed, salt-stained parents such as ourselves could manage.
So the Philippines and Micronesia were out.
Forget the hyperspeed of commerce-clogged Hong Kong. Indonesia is a wonderfully diverse and exciting destination, but it's too politically volatile and potentially violent. Nix on Vietnam because of its systemic corruption and lack of due process. Ditto Cambodia. As for Myanmar, a.k.a. Burma-well, not until the courageous, Nobel Peace Prize-winning, under-house-arrest-so-long-her-house-is-falling-down Aung San Suu Kyi walks free among her liberated people!
This left Malaysia as a strong possibility. We love the Malays, a kind, gentle people. We always feel perfectly safe and very welcome there. The country has a million good harbors, and air transportation is excellent-but the problem with Malaysia is that it's so civilized and economically advanced a global destination that you don't feel you're really somewhere exotic.
Also, Islam is the official religion of Malaysia, and public displays of physical affection (called khalwat, an Arabic word meaning "close proximity"), including sitting too close-are strictly against the law. Even Carolyn and I, after 38 years of wedded bliss, have to be careful when sitting on a romantic, flower-canopied park bench at the Lumut Yacht Club not to forget ourselves. And I'm afraid our two newlyweds were exactly that and couldn't go more than 10 seconds or so without severely offending Sharia law.
This left tiny Brunei. We'd enjoyed our recent stay there immensely. The sultan is quite a dude, with his 64 Rolls-Royces, his flying force of 747s, his palace of 1,773 rooms, and his dining table that seats 4,000 on formal occasions. Not to mention his fleet of megayachts scattered through the world.
But there's something eerie and spooky about Brunei. Downtown has everything a modern city should have: shopping malls, highways, street lights, even parking-meter maids. It only lacks a single ingredient: people. Oil money can mimic the free marketplace by purchasing its exact, picture-perfect façade, but it can never quite duplicate it.
Brunei seemed to us like the movie set of the 1960's TV show The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGoohan-a bit too weird and surreal to be true.
So Carolyn and I decided, after careful consideration, to host the newlywed charter in the most dramatic, most unusual, most visually exciting, most breathtaking place to sail on this planet-Phangnga Bay, in Thailand.
It's difficult to describe the otherworldly beauty of Phangnga Bay, the northern end of the body of water that lies between the resort island of Phuket and mainland Thailand. It's as if you've sailed to another planet or another geological dimension. The water there is shallow. Because the bay is landlocked, there's no swell or sea, just perfectly flat, calm water. There are hundreds of deserted islands, each one boasting a perfect anchorage on one side, depending on whether the nor'east or sou'west monsoon is blowing.
Except for the well-traveled trench between Ko Phing Kan-known locally as James Bond Island since The Man with the Golden Gun-and Phuket, the bay is completely devoid of cruising yachts. We occasionally spotted a sail on the horizon, but we never shared an anchorage with another yacht.
But it isn't the sailing or the water that's so unique in Phangnga; it's the islands-the improbable rocks themselves.