Laid-back in Langkawi

This visually striking island off northwest Malaysia is known for the graceful eagles soaring above and the wandering sailors passing through. "Passage Notes" from our May 2008 issue

Roberts Family 368

After a two-year voyage, the Roberts family sailed to Phuket to put Intrigue, an Alan Warwick design, up for sale.Herb Mccormick

Stationed some 20 miles off the coast of Malaysia, Langkawi is the centerpiece of a ranging archipelago in the Andaman Sea. Visually, the isle is stunning, with tall, craggy peaks, inviting white-sand beaches, lush jungle foliage, and vast expanses of rice paddies. It's also home to the countless sea eagles wheeling overhead: In fact, Langkawi means "strong eagle," and the bird is commemorated by a massive steel-and-concrete statue in aptly named Eagle Square, just off the main jetty in the island's principal town, Kuah.

Langkawi's duty-free status, numerous shopping outlets, and regular ferry service make it a choice destination for tourists. For sailors wandering about Southeast Asia, its central location (the popular cruising grounds of Phuket, Thailand, are an overnight sail away), relatively inexpensive food and fuel, and a population well versed in English make it equally alluring. Last fall, on a quick visit, I met three crews who'd landed in Langkawi for different reasons, but who were all enjoying its laid-back pace of life.

Airline pilot Simon Morris, who'd just finished the annual Raja Muda Selangor International Regatta with a crew that included his son, James, was certainly sailing the most celebrated vessel I encountered. His 53-footer, Sirius, was the first Australian yacht to sail around the world, having done so on a historic two-year voyage that started in 1935. In fact, one of Sirius' first ports of call on that trip was Langkawi, which she visited in November of that year.

"The skipper was Harold Nossiter, who'd won the Lipton Cup in Sydney and was already a famous sailor," says Simon. "He commissioned the design from J.D. Thistlewaite as a staysail schooner, which was quite revolutionary at the time. They'd begun to sail staysail schooners in the States, but the Brits were still sailing gaff-riggers."

Nossiter and his two sons, Dick and Harold, had an epic voyage that the skipper chronicled in two books, Northward Ho and Southward Ho. In the decades that followed, Sirius led an up-and-down existence. At one point, in the mid-1980s, she was found at the bottom of a river in Cairns, Australia, from whence she was rescued and restored. Later, she served as the mother ship for surfing expeditions in Bali. Simon, who'd owned a 1923 steel barge in London, first sailed on the boat during a dive charter; about six years ago, he came across her for sale in Thailand, and he couldn't resist.

"The boat needed a lot of work," he says. "All the beams had to be taken out and reglued together, and we added all new deck fittings, a generator, and a watermaker."

Simon plans to sail Sirius a lot more when he retires from the airline, but for now, the boat helps earn her keep in the charter trade (www.sirius1935.com). For classic-yacht aficionados, it would be hard to imagine a more rewarding trip.

Sirius looked good, all right, but just down the dock at the Royal Langkawi Yacht Club, the same could be said of Djarrka, GB and Sarah Bucknell's Norseman 447. After all, she was sporting a gleaming, brand-new topsides paint job, freshly administered in nearby Phuket, Thailand. The work cost about US$10,000, Sarah says, which represents a bargain in comparison with the cost of the same project if done in most other parts of the world. "It was aggravating," admits Sarah, "but it was worth it."

The Bucknells are in the midst of a long, leisurely circumnavigation that started in 1995 when they left their home and jobs in Morro Bay, California, and drove cross-country to New York, where they purchased Djarrka. From there, they headed straight for the Caribbean, which they loved, ultimately spending six years there. They transited the Panama Canal in 2002 and spent several more years cruising the South Pacific and in New Zealand and Australia before making their way north two years ago via the Darwin Ambon Yacht Race to Indonesia.

And what, I wondered, were their impressions of Langkawi? "I like it," says Sarah. "When we first came through, we moved past quickly and went to Phuket, which I thought I preferred. But now that we've been here a while, this is much more civilized. We actually have a lot of sailing friends, Brits mostly, who've built here or bought apartments. They're not going back."

"The biggest problem, like a lot of Southeast Asia, is that the water isn't very clear," says GB. "We're really into the water, we snorkel and dive, and it's not very conducive to those activities if you can't see very much. But the people make up for it. They're very friendly, very nice."

The Bucknells also took advantage of the good, low-cost, local medical care to undergo complete physicals, including ultrasounds, chest X-rays, and full lab work, the total for which came to US$300 apiece. It's something many cruisers do in Thailand and Malaysia. "This is the land of cheap medicals," says GB. "We prefer Malaysia because there's no language barrier."

The next leg of Djarrka's journey will take the Bucknells across the Indian Ocean and up the Red Sea. "We're getting ready for another big move," says Sarah.

As one voyage continued, however, another was coming to a close. On the island's west coast, in a basin called Telaga Harbour Park, the Roberts family-Willie and Wendy and kids Jasper and Storm-on their sensational Alan Warwick-designed 60-footer, Intrigue, were preparing to hop over to Phuket, where the boat would be put up for sale. But they'd had a fantastic adventure, covering 20,000 miles in two years on a voyage that took them across the Indian Ocean to Seychelles and back.

"Those islands were so unspoiled," says Wendy. "Visiting them was like going back in time."

Lifelong sailors, Willie and Wendy grew up in Hong Kong in sailing families. At 21, Wendy sailed around the world with her dad. And Willie, an accomplished racer, is the former publisher of Asia-Pacific Boating magazine who's done all the events on the busy regional circuit and knows the waters inside and out. He has some interesting insights on the area.

"It's quiet here in Langkawi," he says. "It may not have the clarity of water or the beaches of Phuket, but there's something special about it. And the Malaysians are such great people.

"But I reckon this entire region is an untapped resource for cruisers," he continues. "Just between here and Phuket is a fantastic cruising ground. Some people come this far on a world cruise and they never leave. They just clear in and out between Thailand and Malaysia and go up and down the 120 miles in between. Bring in Indonesia and the Philippines and you have amazing sailing. I think you're going to see a lot of growth in this region, cruising-wise. The Med and the Caribbean are great, but there's so much more here for the adventurous person."
The Roberts were bound for a new home in New Zealand after their final sail on Intrigue, but I got the impression they'd be back someday. As I left Langkawi, I hoped that I would, too.

Herb McCormick is a CW editor at large.