The Serendipity of a Special Harbor

When Wild Card is delayed in Malaysia due to vagaries of the weather, a year's layover there proves to be a recharging experience for her crew. "On Watch" from our April 2010 issue

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Carolyn (second from right) gets a bird¿s-eye view of Langkawi.Gary Goodlander

The beauty of sailing around the world is that you can do it at your own pace. There are no rules. Aboard Wild Card, Carolyn and I have no schedule or preconceived plan, only a commitment to love each other and the planet. Our watery lives are whimsical, in the best sense of the word. For example, we attended the party for my mother's 90th birthday last year, and the consequence of this Stateside sojourn was that the monsoonal weather patterns ended up causing us to stay an extra year in Southeast Asia, sailing out of the tiny island of Langkawi, off Malaysia's western shore.

Why not? What's an extra year or two when you're having fun?

We've found a vague pattern that suits us: We sail hard for a couple of years, averaging 8,000 miles or so per, then hole up someplace wonderful to recharge our batteries, rehab the boat, and build back up the cruising kitty.
We weren't expecting the island of Langkawi (the name in Malay means "fish hawk") to be such an ideal spot for this, but that's how it turned out. As Carolyn often says, "The best parts of cruising are always a surprise."
The local Malays of Langkawi are extremely friendly. There's little or no crime. Weather conditions are benign (read: no hurricanes) all year long. Anchoring is free, and your vessel can stay without regulation for as long as you want. Visitors can stay for as long as they want, too, provided that they don't work and that they leave the country for 72 hours every three months, an easy task because exotic Thailand and bustling Singapore lie, respectively, to the north and the south. (Getting a visa eliminates the need to make a visa run to a neighboring country.)

Perhaps the nicest aspect is that ethnically diverse Langkawi (40 percent Malay, 40 percent Chinese, 10 percent Indian, 10 percent other), and Malaysia itself, offers the best of both worlds: the laid-back ease of the Third World with the telecommunications and creature comforts of the industrialized West.

The air-conditioned library is right across the street from the dinghy dock, and the very-observant librarian knows all the books that I've already read-and, in his opinion, should read.

We didn't even need an alarm clock since the crescent-shaped harbor rings each morning with the calls to prayer coming from the minarets of the five nearby mosques.

Sailing conditions are generally light, with flat seas. Dozens of pristine harbors are within an easy daysail; most of them deserted both ashore and afloat. Phuket, Thailand, is less than 24 hours away under sail. Empty beaches abound. Miniature pink dolphins and playful sea otters frolic. Monkeys are everywhere. Mind you, watch your soap-the imps eat the bars and drink the liquid!

Langkawi is an extremely inexpensive place to live. Food is cheap; the most expensive entrée on the menu at our favorite restaurant can be had for the equivalent of US$1.20. To use the full services of downtown Kuah's Pelancongan Jetty-the dinghy dock, security, toilet, showers, and the like-costs 50 cents a day.

Long-term, supervised, in-the-water storage can be had up the river at a place cruisers call Hole-in-the-Wall for just over a buck a day; that includes fore-and-aft mooring and daily monitoring by an experienced local boatman.

There are three marinas on the island. Our favorite is at Rebak, where US$10 a day not only buys you a state-of-the-art modern marina slip but all the conveniences of a luxury resort as well. Carolyn loves the free cooking classes on Thursdays; I dig the gym.

There are three chandleries on the island, with weekly deliveries from West Marine and numerous other international marine suppliers. Best of all, there's absolutely no duty on anything for your vessel. We just mark it "Yacht Wild Card, in transit" and it sails unmolested through customs. Thus we paid not a penny in duty on our new mainsail, engine parts, and recent electro-doodads.

While the boat boys in the harbor aren't the bargain they are in Thailand, US$12 a day per will buy you a swarm of refinishers at the snap of a finger.

Two shipyards provide haulout facilities for everything from dinghies to mega-yachts. There are canvas makers, woodworkers, and even a modest sail-repair loft. (Longhaired Erika is Finnish and, perhaps, the loveliest sailmaker in the entire world. OK, it's true: I'm smitten.)

As low as prices are, we wouldn't have stayed merely because of the delightful economics. It was the friendly, welcoming people who enthralled us.

It's no surprise that with all these advantages, Langkawi is popular as a cruising destination. Many Aussies use it as their northernmost home base. Many elderly world cruisers swallow the hook here not by moving ashore but by living aboard with no plans to leave. Example: Charlie Thomas, the 78-years-young former CEO of Jensen Marine, just carried his lovely bride over the companionway of the 65-foot Bravado.

This is also the easternmost staging area for the Chagos crowd, the crews of a dozen or so hearty vessels that spend half the year in Langkawi and the other half in those lovely and peopleless atolls in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

I write this from our breezy cockpit, within easy sight of Tigger, Aku Ankka, Brumby, Tramontana, Mariposa, and the other boats that will be, once again, heading for Chagos within the month.

Kiwi Phil is always building or rebuilding boats here, when he's not doing the same in the Caribbean. Paul the Brit is a notorious wood butcher, too. Canadian Glen helped a lot of the tsunami-battered boaters to get back on their keels and return to the water. Aussie Noel watches over dozens of boats by day and charters out of a major resort at night for lovely light-air moonlight sails. Nobody is getting rich, but everyone is having fun and replenishing the cruising kitty.

My current best friend in the harbor is Nashville songwriter Gene Nelson, who sails a C&C 48, Emelia. Gene and his brother wrote Kathy Mattea's "Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses" and several other country hits.
We sing and play our dueling guitars together almost nightly at Amanda's, a local waterfront coffee shop. The crowds might not be as large as he's used to in Vegas, but the vibe is good, and there's no dollar signs in anyone's eyes.

Amanda, a local Malay who attended college in the States, is the unofficial harbor den mother. If you need to borrow a car, have an old battery recycled, or require a translator, she's generous to a fault. Her eyes always light up when a group of us sea gypsies sail into her shop and chorus, "Where's Amanda, the Coffee Queen of Kuah?"

Her coffee shop is every bit as warm and wonderful as she is. It has both free WiFi and an in-house snake charmer; only in Malaysia would such a combo be totally unremarkable.

So we've just spent two delightful, adventure-filled years in Southeast Asia while sailing out of Malaysia. Wild Card gleams, fresh from the shipyard. Our bank accounts are bulging, and we have more friends ashore and afloat than we ever dreamed was possible. We're tentatively headed for the Med via the Red Sea, Somali pirates permitting. As we hoist our barnacle-encrusted anchors, we know only one thing for sure: Someday we'll return to lovely, lazy Langkawi.

To catch up with the Sea Gypsies, don't miss the latest installment of Cap'n Fatty and Carolyn Goodlander's video series, "Dealing the Wild Card," at CW's website (www.cruisingworld.com

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