The huge white squaresails billow with wind from a clear and cloudless sky. Lanyards hale and strain against the sturdy steel of the four masts as we speed forward across the turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea. The wooden deck rolls gently with the waves and the breeze fills our spirits too. It is the morning after leaving Phuket on the clipper ship SPV Star Flyer and we are finally under sail.
Palm-strewn islands lie low on the horizon, silhouetted against the sky. These are Ko Surin – green gems fringed with white sand beaches, set in crystalline water off the western shores of Thailand. The sky is pristine blue and the salt spray fresh on our faces
What a contrast to the past few days. The island of Phuket, now behind us 175 km to the south, is known as a place to get away from the busyness of Bangkok, but it is still a resort destination with its own stresses. After visiting several ornate gold bedecked Buddhist temples, a lush forest park with trails leading to a waterfall, the old town’s Sino-Portuguese colonial buildings from the turn of the century and the nightlife of Patong Beach I was ready for a rest.
Last night at dockside when we boarded our four masted sailing ship in a light rain, lights strung in the rigging from bow to stern illuminated her with a triangular canopy. Haunting music echoed across the water. Some time after midnight we had slipped out to sea under engine power, leaving behind the holidaymakers. Now we were headed for the offshore islands and south towards the Malacca Straits.
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It has been over a hundred years since clipper ships sailed the world’s oceans, carrying tea and silk from Asia to New York and London, crossing the Atlantic and rounding Cape Horn with passenger service. In the mid-1840’s their new design, a narrow hull with four or more masts and up to 35 sails, allowed much faster crossings at speeds up to 20 knots. Romantic and exciting they ‘clipped through the water’ setting new speed records. When steamship service was introduced and the Suez Canal opened in 1870, the beautifully-crafted vessels became obsolete overnight. Evocative names for many sail enthusiasts, some of the finest, the Cutty Sark, the Balclutha and the Star of India, are now museum sites
Another museum ship, the Pommern, captured the childhood imagination of a Swedish yachtsman Mikael Krafft. After a successful career in shipping, Krafft commissioned two identical vessels, 360 feet long, to be built in the Ghent shipyards in Belgium. Combining historical designs and modern shipbuilding techniques, the new ships, the Star Flyer and the Star Clipper were launched in 1991. They now cruise the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Aegean and Andaman Seas carrying up to 170 passengers and a crew of 72.
Our first morning rose overcast with a humid mist, the tail end of the monsoon. Two islands lay ahead of us, separated by a small channel. On the farther island, a small community of sea gypsies, the Chao Lay, earliest settlers of the offshore waters, still make their home, their wooden houses set on stilts behind a row of fishing boats pulled up on the sand. Our launch landed on the other island, a tiny crescent of silver sand beach, flanked by mangrove trees beneath a wooded hillside. Large rounded boulders dotted the edges of the beach, continuing around the bluff to the right to another beach. A few ramshackle huts were set back from the beach in a clearing in the fores
A narrow trail led past a beach with no footprints yet, on through overhanging vines, dropping banyan trees, and curling ivies slowly being dissected by leafcutter ants. Every hundred meters a view opened out to the channel and the gypsy village on the beach beyond. As I looked a rowboat appeared, then another and another. A woman rowed one, with several children sitting in a line in the hull. As the boats swept forward their song drifted across the water. I floated on my back in the warm waters of the secluded lagoon; the tensions of travel sank to the sandy bottom. The bluegreen sky and water held me like a cradle; my eyes closed and I breathed a mantra – ‘An-da-man
The reverie ended and within an hour I was back on the boat, refreshed. That night as we set sail for the Similan Islands, the sun set a peaceful magenta over the rolling waves. One of the passengers, a Canadian from Saskatchewan, had sailed from Cairo on the long Indian Ocean crossing. ‘I love the open sea and sky,’ he said. ‘It reminds me of the prairie, but without the snow.’ The quiet of the sails and the vast spaces were inviting indeed, but I wondered about days with only the endless sea.
Turning back to the south, a day’s sail from the Surin Islands brought us to the nine remote islands of Similan National Park, known among scuba divers for their vivid coral reefs and crystal clear water. I chose my adventure above water and when we landed set off across a narrow isthmus to explore the far side of the main island. Lizards scampered over the sunbaked black rock and waves lapped against an utterly deserted shell beach. I could see the attraction of seclusion and rest which led the Princess of Thailand to construct a traditional house and retreat here
Throughout the voyage, when we were out on the open ocean passengers tried their hand at sailing. Some kept watch at night with the crew or stood with the captain on the bridge as he navigated. Others hauled the halyards to raise the sails, ever sure to duck out of the way when the boom swung across. Those less inclined to work relaxed on deck, or in the nets of the bowsprit, a long spar extending forward from the bow. Sometimes we had traveling companions directly below us in the ship’s wake, playful groups of bowriding dolphins
Sailing into Phang Nga Bay, on the eastern side of Phuket Island, I arranged to be lifted to the top of the main mast to photograph from the bosun’s chair, a small canvas seat used by the crew for repairs and observations. A hundred and fifty feet off the deck I felt suspended between heaven and earth. Only the rigging and the gentle sway of the mast kept me grounded. Ahead of me lay dozens of tall green-clad limestone outcroppings, some of the 120 peculiarly shaped islands of Phang-Nga National Park. Some have caves, natural bridges and arches, others sheer vertical walls, even overhanging, which rise straight out of the water to up to 270 meters height. Sea kayaking tours explore some of the more interesting rocks as well as small fishing villages.
Some time that night we crossed into Malaysia waters and we spent the next day exploring the northern island of Langkawi. It was the 315 nautical mile sail down the coast to Malacca, though, that most intrigued me.
This was the ancient trading route along which spices traveled from Sumatra and Java to India and China and beyond. Through these waters sailed junks from China, Arabian dhows, Sumatran schooners and ships from south India and beyond. Later came the Portuguese galleons and gun-laden British and Dutch East Indiamen the colonials used to wrest the valuable spice trade from the Malaysian sultans. What was it like for these seafarers, without modern amenities or navigation equipment, out in the open sea?
They too were headed for Malacca. First settled in the late 1300’s by Parameswara, a Sumatran prince, Malacca (or now Melaka) grew to be the largest city on the Malaysian peninsula. The old town still has an air of exotic trade. Chinese houses of wealthy merchants line Jelan Hang Jebat, the main street of Chinatown. Some have been converted to museums, and a few are restaurants serving the distinctive Nyonya, or Straits Chinese, cuisine.
Many cultures have contributed to Melaka’s mix. In one afternoon I visited a Chinese temple where a family mourned their grandfather, a tiled mosque on the same street where the imam sat cross-legged on the marble quietly reading the Koran, and the red-clad Dutch built Christ Church whose gardens look out over the main square.
For all the fascination of the port visits, though, once back on board the Star Flyer, with the wind in the sails and the taste of salt in the air, I found the wide vistas of water strangely soothing. Perhaps, I thought, this is what has attracted mariners throughout the ages.
Text and photos © David Sanger. Click on images for licensing or prints.