Hung up in Thailand

Bewitched by the siren’s call of Thailand’s hidden, watery caves, the crew of Ganesh barely escapes the grip of a sudden, angry white squall.

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Ganesh, the Goodlanders' 43-foot Wauquiez Amphitrite ketch, anchors among the spectacular rock sculptures in Thailand's Phang Nga Bay.Cap'n Fatty Goodlander

There's a consequence to spending 55 years cruising: Life becomes too perfect. When that happens, you're forced to reassess and refocus on the big picture. And so it was not long ago that I reluctantly decided our lives were becoming too tranquil. We had enough money. The local weather was perfect. Our ketch-rigged Wauquiez Amphitrite 43, Ganesh, floated right on her lines. Thailand was still the Land of Smiles. We had no problems.

“Are you happy?” I asked my wife, Carolyn.

“Absolutely,” she yawned from the other side of the cockpit.

“Me too,” I said. “Damn it!”

We were in the dreaded Paradise Rut, and I sensed trouble. I knew my job as skipper was as much about keeping it fresh as it was about keeping it going. And bliss, in too large a dosage, can be wearisome. So I decided to radically shake things up. First off, I needed an entirely new cruising venue and style, and then I needed some shipboard confusion tossed in for good measure.

The latter was easy; we just had to invite numerous old and new friends aboard. Camaraderie and confusion would surely result. But find a new approach to cruising, after all these years? Was that even possible? What could mix boats and water in an entirely different way for us?

My lifelong friend Dave, whom we call Lovik the Lazy, is like Travis McGee, the protagonist of John D. MacDonald’s paperback thrillers, sprung to life. He lives quietly in the shadows, where danger is high, money loose and life expectancy short. He has no — nor has ever had — a fixed address (well, except for when he was an occasional guest in the big house). Lovik is beyond all borders, outside the law and far in excess of any common sense. He’s raw male adventure personified, regardless of whether he’s at the helm of the motoryacht Foxy Lady in Minnesota, the racing sloop Rocinante in New Orleans, or the schooner Gracie in Cartagena.

He’s the man I’d like to be — if I wasn’t so married, could hold my liquor and didn’t mind shedding a few grams of morality. He’s also currently in poor health and staring the Grim Reaper in the eye. It was time for our last hurrah.

It is only a day’s sail northward from Ao Chalong Harbor in Phuket to Koh Phanak in Phang Nga Bay. The sou’west monsoon was firmly established, and we started out with a brisk westerly breeze that faded away to nothing in the afternoon as we ghosted amid the spire-shaped rocks.

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Other hongs are entered through narrow cavesCap'n Fatty Goodlander

Our first attempt at gaining entrance to a hong — a pool located in the middle of an island and accessible by cave — was a dismal failure. Lovik the Lazy ­occupied the kayak’s co-pilot seat, wheezing heavily. The problem was that our quest was doomed because the tide wasn’t right. Only at midtide was the water low enough at the chamber entrance to pass under it, but high enough to float on in.

We were unaware of how small our window of opportunity was. All we knew was that a deserted private lake was hidden inside the mountain before us, and yet open to the sky. Navigating the cave mouth leading to it wasn’t ­difficult. We had light. But the light gradually faded. Still, we kept going in our tippy boat, until Lovik screamed and something hard and sharp hit me in the face. I tasted blood. We’d paddled right into a gigantic stalactite, and almost tipped over into the inky brine.

“Can’t see a thing,” said Lovik the Lazy, obviously rattled at being entombed in the dark. Then we heard the bats and sensed them flittering and flapping above. Hey, bats don’t bite. Not usually. Unless … There was also the sound of dripping water, as if eternity itself were somehow on trial just ahead in the velvet blackness. Something large splashed into the water just astern. “There are no crocs in Phang Nga Bay,” I told Lovik, to reassure him.

“Probably just a water moccasin,” said Lovik.

“I don’t like snakes,” I said steadily, making sure my voice sounded calm.

“Are you sure you know how to navigate back out?” Lovik asked. “We’re not going to be, like, trapped in here, are we?”

“I think the entrance to the cave is over that way.” I pointed into the black ink as the kayak heeled slightly. “Or, perhaps, more to the left.”

“This is impossible without light,” Lovik said. “I thought the caves were short. It’s noon outside. I thought we’d see the light of the interior hong before we’d lose the light of the entrance.” “Me too,” I sighed.

Poor Lovik the Lazy. He’d flown halfway around the world, and fate, it turned out, would dictate that he never saw the interior of a hong before flying  home.

I'd known him since I repaired his boat's engine with a beer can and a pair of tin snips in 1970, along the banks of the mighty Mississippi — in other words, a long time ago. But before he left Ganesh at the conclusion of this latest visit, he told Carolyn and me that he'd read one of my stories — it was about ditty bags — with great interest. Then he shyly regifted us the intricate ditty bag Carolyn had hand-made for him 45 years ago.

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Under a hong in Phang Nga Bay.Cap'n Fatty Goodlander

“I’ve cherished it every day since,” he said with a smile, “but now it’s time to return the bag to active duty on behalf of its rightful owners.”

“Is that a bullet hole?” I asked, sticking a finger through the frayed fabric.

Lovik the Lazy shrugged noncommittally.

Old friends are the best.

A few weeks later I sat bolt upright in my bunk and said, “Google Earth!”

“Go back to sleep,” Carolyn said groggily. “You’re crazy!”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” I said, and slipped out of our bunk in search of my cellular-connected iPad Air. As I suspected, Google Earth clearly showed where the hongs were via satellite imagery, so I had them all at my fingertips — but not their entrances. I was closer in my quest to see them all, but not yet confident I could find my way into every one.

Later that day I was ashore in Ban Kho En, a tiny village awash in a sea of Thai Buddhists, and asked a fisherman about the hongs.

“You going to deserted, rarely visited hongs first,” he said. “No good. Go James Bond first, then follow tourist cookie crumbs into busy hongs. Easy!” James Bond? “It’s a tiny vertical island in Phang Nga,” Carolyn told me later. “Some call it a nail. Anyway, The Man with a Golden Gun was filmed there. Remember the dueling scene on the beach with Roger Moore?”

“Not really. I’m more a Sean Connery kind of guy,” I replied.

Still, we did as we were told, and soon discovered numerous large excursion boats filled with white-skinned farangs and multicolored kayaks. These dispersed to nearby isles, launched their kayaks, and loaded them with said tourists, and then everyone disappeared into the side of the mountain, like a magic trick.

We anchored next to an empty excursion boat late that afternoon, and noted the nearly invisible hole in the mountain that its crew and passengers emerged from. Once the head boat was gone, we had the area to ourselves. Carolyn chose the front seat of the kayak. This time we both wore headlamps. Light made it far less scary. Bats covered the cave’s ceiling like fluttering, slumbering fur. This entrance was narrow; often it was difficult to paddle without hitting the cave walls. We fended off frantically with paddles, as the rock was razor-sharp. Crabs scurried. Water bugs slithered. Fish jumped. We paddled deeper and deeper, and then made a 90-degree turn to the left. Both of us nearly jumped out of our skins as a congress of startled monkeys laughed at our clumsiness.

Then, with another turn to port, we emerged from the gloom into bright sunlight overhead, and the strange and wonderful world within the near-­vertical walls of the hong.

“Holy moly,” whispered Carolyn in  awe.

“I’ll be damned,” I said, attempting to gulp it all down at once. “It’s our own personal Jurassic Park!”

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One visit was all it took for Paddl’n Sue Chaplin to be sold on hongs.Cap'n Fatty Goodlander

Over the next few days we fell head over heels in love with hongs, blown away by their beauty. There’s a strange eeriness that cloaks them, as if raucous mankind rarely intrudes. The air has a strange quality to it: fungal and moist. Since the sides of the mini-canyons are almost vertical, the floors don’t get much sun except at midday. Thus ­lichens and slimy, creepy-crawly things abound. Inside, there’s almost perfect silence, save for the occasional noisy monkeys and birds. Clouds of butterflies swirl.

We barely managed to squeeze into one cave by lying back in our kayak. Once inside, we discovered to our chagrin that we could have come in its eastern entrance with a dozen 43-foot ketches rafted together.

Whatever our expectations were, they were always both shattered and exceeded. I couldn’t get enough. I had to see more, and knew just the person to call.

Paddl’n Sue Chaplin was born to great wealth in Philadelphia, and threw it away at her debutante party when she realized her parents already had her husband picked out. She balked and walked. Then she asked the first man she met who smelled like a billy goat to marry her. He said yes, she said I do, and her parents fainted while redrafting their will.

Susan felt she’d been too coddled and too entitled. Since her new hubby smelled like a mountain goat, Sue decided to become one. She climbed the 13,766-foot north face of Grand Teton in Wyoming with Irene Ortenberger; they were the first pair of females to do so, and they’re still casting bronze plaques to celebrate the accomplishment. (Susan came off the mountain, fell, and ended up dangling from a swinging rope in free space twice ­during the arduous climb, much to the dismay of Irene, her belaying partner.)

Next, Susan fell in love with surfing. Then, as she aged, she slid into being an endurance athlete via Ironman events. Her chosen method of insanity is now offshore paddleboarding, using solely her hands. (“Paddles make it too easy,” she claims.)

I met her when she was paddling, on her stomach, down the Lesser Antilles.

“Do I smell like a goat?” she asked me.

“Yes,” I said.

“Thanks,” she replied.

It was love at first whiff.

Perhaps I'm not being clear. Susan is a tough ol' broad. Carolyn calls her the "70-year-old, 120-pound muscle." Nothing stands in her way — not mountains, caves or hongs. She's notoriously fearless. "Just make sure you're always aware of what the tide is doing," I told her as we headed off from Ganesh, bound for her first hong.

“Why?” she asked.

“There’s a 6- to 9-foot tide here in Thailand,” I explained. “If you paddle into a low cave at dead-low water and linger too long, you can’t get out. You’re trapped, perhaps with limited air or perhaps with no air at all.”

“But you’d have found a new, way-cool spot, right?”

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Phang Nga Bay has hundreds of good anchorages.Cap'n Fatty Goodlander

“Yeah,” I said.

“Good enough,” she replied.

Susan is one of those people who live totally on the edge. She firmly believes the idea isn’t to escape injury but rather to live life fully, and has a body full of pins, posts and other stainless-steel parts to prove it. She was completely gobsmacked by the hongs. “They’re like whole new private worlds,” she reverently whispered. “Totally awe-inspiring!”

After our first visit to one, she never allowed an opportunity to see another hong to slip by, regardless of how long the paddle or how dark the cave.

One day we were amid a crowd of idle men in a small Muslim coastal village, and they were watching us intently at the village water pump. Carolyn filled our jugs. I held our inflatable just off the beach. Susan, 70 years young, swung one of the heavy jugs onto a shoulder of her diminutive frame, to the utter astonishment of all.

The men’s mouths were agape.

Susan stopped to chat, just to show them her load was insignificant.

“Keep moving!” I shouted to Susan as I lounged on the dinghy tube while inspecting my nails. “Especially if you’re going to be so lazy as to only carry one jug at a time.”

"Well, aren't you the gentleman," Susan huffed, but I could tell she loved being the macho-muscled one on ­Ganesh.

The good news is that I can earn my living anywhere I go. Enough pennies drip out of my pen to buy jasmine rice by the kilo, we catch plenty of rainwater, and the sea is filled with fish. There’s a downside, of course: Wherever I go, I do indeed have to earn my living. I’m never on vacation, especially while in the middle of yet another cruising adventure.

“Goddamn it!” I shouted, while punching the send button on my Mac Air. “Why won’t this book manuscript leave?”

“Outta cellular range,” said Carolyn, adding, “Don’t have a cow, OK?”

“Well,” I said in exasperation, “do something! And, hey, don’t forget to order those self-steering blocks from Budget Marine as well.”

A few weeks later, Shai and his wife, Lorraine, were welcomed aboard. Shai is an Israeli marine electronics technician who owns The Wired Sailor service company in Dutch Sint Maarten, and who also just happens to live aboard an identical Wauquiez Amphitrite 43. This is fortunate, as it saved time on crew training when he and Lorraine joined us for a hong adventure of their  own.

Lorraine sits on the bored (sic!) of Budget Marine, but that’s a whole other story. The important thing is that she dutifully toted down the high-tech Harken blocks I requested for my Monitor windvane. Later that day, I grinned as I heard Shai happily click together his wire crimpers and say, “Perfect. Your coax measurements were spot on.”

He'd designed and built an entire Wi-Fi and cellular system in his workshop back home at the Simpson Bay Yacht Club, and it had taken only 20 minutes to install it aboard Ganesh. It consists of a wide-band Bullet antenna and a 12V Pepwave (Max BR1) router. With these, I could grab distant Wi-Fi signals and occasionally get blistering Internet speeds from 20 miles offshore via a SIM card. "The installation went well," I agreed. "Technically, we didn't get hong up once!"

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Carolyn paddles toward the mangroves that often line the hongs.Cap'n Fatty Goodlander

“That’s what I’ll do if a bill collector rings up,” Carolyn chimed in. “I’ll just hong up on him!”

“Our flight was a long one,” said Shai, who knows how to go with the flow. “Now Lorraine and I are ready to get hong over!”

Lorraine is a business and accounting whiz. She has many employees and 160 clients besides Budget Marine. This means she is sharp as a tack, and able to converse on any and all topics, including James Bond movies, which she adores. So we decided to take her to the island set of The Man with the Golden Gun. Before going in search of the hong, she and Shai would be able to re-enact the dueling-on-the-beach scene with our flare guns.

But it was difficult to get close to where we wanted to land on said island — impossible, actually, with 6 feet of draft. So we anchored 2 miles away, with a submerged rock to port and a shoal to starboard. The current was strong between the countless ­vertical-sided rocks, almost 5 knots at full ebb. Navigational dangers were everywhere. None of this overly concerned me, though, as I have good anchor gear and the knowledge to deploy it.

In fact, I wasn’t even concerned when Carolyn (who was bailing the dinghy astern) pointed forward and said, “White squall!”

As the 38-knot gusts hit us and visibility dropped to zero, I stood in the middle of my deck just forward of the mainmast and surveyed my whole world. It looked good despite the zooming currents and serrated dangers that surrounded us.

The white squall receded and the wind dropped back to 20 knots. Visibility returned, and I puffed up my chest just a tiny bit, proud of my boat and its gear. “Fatty!” shouted Carolyn from the dinghy. “The padded backrest from the kayak washed overboard! I can still see it in the current. Can I go?” “Sure,” I said automatically.

Lorraine stood next to me as Carolyn cast off, cranked up our 5-horsepower outboard and roared away.

“Bastard!” said Lorraine, as she pretended to slap my head. “Sending your wife into danger for a cushion!”

“Danger is her middle name,” I said dryly. “Besides, she’s a sailor as much as a wife, and that backrest is worth 20  bucks!”

At that point, everything was perfect. I was master of my universe, my ­vessel and my marriage. Then, in a moment of panic, I saw that the squall line was coming back, and more intense than  ever.

What happened next occurred in freeze frame: Carolyn zoomed for the backrest, waves building, winds gusting. The bow of Carolyn’s dinghy ­pointed up and began to fly away. There was Carolyn with her long hair. And there was the spinning prop and the over-revving airborne engine. It was spinning, spinning, spinning, and then disappeared upside down into the white wall of the squall.

I dived into the cockpit and hit Ganesh’s starter button. The Perkins M92B sprang to life.

“Do not let her out of your sight!” I shouted at Lorraine. She later told me she couldn’t see the kayak 10 feet away, let alone Carolyn 200 yards astern. “Shai,” I said while dashing forward, “I’ll need you to grab a boat hook and make sure my anchor chain doesn’t  pile.”

“Aye-aye,” he replied, already in ­motion.

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An otherworldly light filters into one of the larger hongs, which has a multitude of smaller pools along its periphery.Cap'n Fatty Goodlander

Because of the strong current and 40-knot gusts, Ganesh reared wildly at the end of the anchor rode. I had to be careful not to get a windlass jam. Every second was precious. Carolyn’s life was in danger. I had zero visibility, and there was no time to find a chart.

Beset by dangers, I risked it all, without even making the decision to do so.

“The anchor’s off the bottom,” I screamed to Shai, as we were pelted by rain that felt heavy as hail. “You finish!”

Back aft, I snatched off the compass cover as I rammed the Perkins into gear. The wind howled too loud for me to hear the engine, but the tach read 2,000 rpm.

The trick was to find Carolyn amid the white murk before we ran aground. Ahead I saw circular ringlets of water emerging, and threw the helm over to starboard. The tip of a razor-sharp rock slithered by to port, and I shivered.

“There!” shouted Lorraine. “I see the upturned prop. It’s white, right?”

“Carolyn?” I asked.

“No,” Lorraine said. “The prop.”

I zigged and zagged, and tried to form a logical search pattern, but with ­visibility at only yards ahead, a strong current, and severe gusts, it was ­impossible.

“There she is!” screamed both Shai and Lorraine at the same instant, pointing off the port bow.

Carolyn had on only her panties and bra, and sat atop the overturned dinghy, calmly scraping the barnacles off its bottom with an oar — never one to sit idle while work was about. I smiled. “That’s my girl!”

“Shai,” I said briskly, “I’ll take her on my leeward side. You concentrate on getting Carolyn aboard, but be careful not to slip on the varnished cap rail. Lorraine, you focus on the dinghy. If I get that painter or dinghy cover wrapped in my prop, we’re doomed.”

I managed to fully stop just to windward of Carolyn, and took Ganesh out of gear so the propeller couldn’t cut her if she came in contact with it. Shai lifted her aboard, but when she grabbed for the lifelines, she missed and started to fall backward, as if pole-axed. Lorraine grabbed her and wrestled her on deck.

Then, instantly, there was giddy camaraderie, the sort that only real danger, survived, can birth. Each of us bear-hugged a dripping Carolyn, then hugged each other, all while jabbering away excitedly, going over each detail of the rescue again and again and again.

We weren’t just friends any longer; we were a crew forged in fire.

Later that evening, Carolyn and I lay on our backs in the warm sands of a dark hong. We stared straight up at the star-studded night sky and said little. Eventually, there was a ghostly glow on the eastern ridge of the hong, and then a fat full moon peered over the edge of the crater and light poured down on us.

We held our breath. Then Carolyn smiled in the darkness and said, “Thanks for rescuing me.”

“Us,” I said. “I rescued us.”

– – –

Cap’n Fatty and Carolyn can’t seem to get enough of Asia, and have decided to stay another year. “The beauty of having no plan is you don’t have to change it,” quipped Carolyn.