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Down To The Sea in Ships




(Author’s note: This article appeared in Phuket Magazine in December, 1995, during the annual King’s Cup Regatta. Phuket Magazine was on the bedside table in every hotel room on the island. The article got me black-listed at a restaurant I enjoyed quite a bit and I was never able to go eat there again. It also got me into a couple of heated arguments with people in Regatta-sponsored cocktail parties. I post it here because I think it paints a nostalgic portrait of a Phuket that no longer exists, and because I know that I could go back to that restaurant now, twenty years later, sit down and order a hamburger and a beer, and nobody would recognize me, or care at all what I had to say. Time heals all wounds.)

I hate boats. I figure that if God had wanted us to float around on the ocean, he’d have made us all from Styrofoam Big Mac cartons. I’d rather take a purgative than take a cruise. For me, the concepts of romance and travel never mingle beyond asking a pretty flight hostess if she has Dramamine. The fact that three quarters of the world’s surface is covered by salt water doesn’t so much invite me to explore as it does beg the question: How much pasta could we cook if only we had a pot big enough? But, as much as I hate deep water, living on Phuket I am forced into daily contact with a sub-class of expatriate for whom boats are an all-consuming passion: The Chalong Bay Yachtie.

The local Thai population of Chalong Bay refer to the Yachties as Chao Talay, or Sea People. This is the same moniker they hang around the necks of the poverty-ridden but post-card quaint Sea Gypsies who have been the chronic underclass of Phuket for at least seven hundred years. To the locals there is precious little difference between a man eating goose liver paté aboard a 42-foot Beneteau Oceanis and a man eating smoked fish and sticky rice aboard a 20-foot open long-tail boat. In the eyes of the average Phuketian, if you have to live on a boat it’s because you can’t afford to buy a house. If you are seen in public wearing only topsiders, shorts and the odor of Plexiglas resin, it’s because you’re a bum, QED.

In truth, there seems to be no middle class among the Chalong Bay Yachties. To own a boat you have to be rich, at least at the time of purchase, and to make your way around the world by working on other people’s boats for only food and passage makes you, by definition, poor. There’s no in-between. Boat owners get their Silom Road condos photographed on the glossy pages of Thailand Tatler while the guys who scrape the hulls, or the rather bedraggled girls who “crew” their way around the world, get stopped and searched by the police merely because of their appearance.

Still, these two tiers of social status coexist, usually to each other’s benefit, in a world bounded by the coastlines of the seven seas, regulated by the tides and described by a language all their own.

The social life of a Yachtie on Phuket revolves exclusively around two venues. The first, active 365 days per year, is Latitude Eight Restaurant, situated right on the beach at Chalong Bay. The kitchen serves good farang food, which is important to a tribe of wanderers who spend their lives in the far corners of the globe but require a diet of familiar foods where the only thing foreign is the beer. From the open deck that forms the dining room of Latitude Eight they can watch their boats ride at anchor on the bay, and they can gossip and boast and drink knowing that ten steps on soft sand and a minute in a dinghy will bring them safely home.

On the cluttered note board at Latitude Eight you can find a page of four-color Corel graphics, generated on a laser-jet printer, advertising a Vagabond 47 fiberglass ketch for US$185,000. Sharing the thumbtack that holds this classy advertisement onto the cork is a cocktail napkin, on which someone has scrawled “MUST SELL!!! Nikon 35-mm camera, (body only, no lens), Timex watch, assorted paperback books and one pair of almost new Adidas running shoes. Meet seller at the south end of the bar evenings after nine o’clock.”

If you fancy a pair of used footwear and come looking for the vendor at the time instructed, you’ll most likely find the bar crowded with scruffy, unshaven mariners trading lies in an atmosphere of cigarette smoke, body odor and brine, any one of whom would probably sell you his shoes for the price of a beer. However, no matter their appearance, these same latter-day-salts will turn up their nose and give a cold shoulder to anyone who didn’t just come ashore for the company. The decent kitchen and cliquish social scene at Latitude Eight have earned the restaurant a nickname among the non-buoyant foreign community on Phuket: “Attitude Ate”.

The second networking nexus for the seafaring crowd is an annual event, and it resembles the scene at Latitude Eight as much as the Titanic resembled the Raft of The Medusa. This is, of course, the Annual Phuket King’s Cup Regatta. Held each year in the first week of December, the races are always run at a glacier’s pace and followed by parties held at a fever pitch. It’s a chance for the yachting elite, who are for most of the year desk-bound in their roles as Chairmen of the Board, lawyers or surgeons, to drink Chivas under the stars and stroll barefoot in the powder-fine sand of Nai Harn Bay. Journalists in Bangkok begin petitioning their editors for the Mother of All Junkets as early as July.

I have the advantage when it comes to reporting on Asia’s Premier Yachting Event. Most years some editor in Bangkok, angry with his stable of staff reporters for some infraction (usually involving non-admissible items on an expense account), will opt to save the plane fare and commission a story directly from me, giving me the coveted Press Pass and a visa into the world of Mumm’s champagne and the Mom Chao.

On the rare occasion that I don’t have that magic piece of laminated cardboard hung from a string around my neck, the fact that I live on Phuket year-round gives me an entree to almost any soiree, whether it be held on a beach or in a ballroom. I know the staff at the Royal Phuket Yacht Club and Le Meridien Phuket, from the General Managers to the pig farmers who collect the kitchen scraps. When confronted with a liveried doorman asking for embossed invitations, I say “Hello Elder Brother, how’s the wife’s pleurisy?” I suffer a short but graphic description of the afflicted relative’s symptoms, and when the people in line behind me begin to grow impatient, I am inevitably waved on inside. It is often harder for me to find a seat at the bar of Latitude Eight than it is to crash the gala Awards Banquet of the King’s Cup Regatta.

Between the opening ceremonies, always attended by the Prince of Denmark, and the awarding of the trophies by His Majesty The King’s Representative, the two strata of yachting society mingle freely and without social barriers. Ambling through the crowds swilling beer on the beach after a race, it is not uncommon to see a man whose speed-dial lists the CEO’s of multinational conglomerates in a heated tête-à-tête with a guy who is known only by his first name and whose last international communication was an unanswered post card sent to his mother from Calais. With the fervor men usually reserve for discussions of sex, they say things like “The gelcoat on her bottom was covered with pinholes, but she had full length battens and lazy jacks and when you were on her, furling and reefing, aaah… it was heaven, mate!” Sigmund Freud would have loved the King’s Cup Regatta.

Sadly, while the sea has inspired classics from the Iliad through Moby Dick to The Old Man And The Sea, the King’s Cup Regatta tends to produce only 1,000-word magazine articles that mention each corporate sponsor once, a half-hour video of colorful sails against the cliffs of Koh Phi-Phi and perhaps a bitchy column in the Sunday life-styles section of The Nation.

When the regatta is over the beautiful people go back to Bangkok or Brussels or Beijing, and the Chao Talay go back to bumming cigarettes off each other at Latitude Eight. The King’s Cup Regatta, though it may be worth ten minutes of film on cable TV stations in a dozen countries, has absolutely no effect in the lives of Phuket’s non-yachting population. Coming at the beginning of high season, it gives no boost to hotels that would be full anyway, no boost to airline reservations that have been booked solid for months anyway, and no boost to the local cultural or culinary venues that never see hide nor hair of a Yachtie anyway. The local press ignores it, the local expatriate community looks down their nose at it because they’re not invited, and the local Thai community is blissfully unaware that it even exists.

But things are changing. In recent months the local authorities have been struggling with a moral dilemma. They recognize the benefits of good public relations that the Kingdom enjoys from the King’s Cup Regatta, and want to encourage the idle rich to continue seeing Phuket as their personal playground, but at the same time they have the millennia-old Thai aversion to people who are not rieb-roi. The Chalong Bay Yachties have been described in the press as being guilty of crimes ranging from over-staying their visas to transporting drugs, weapons and prostitutes into Phuket.

In a recent interview with The Nation, Immigration Division Commissioner Pol. Lt. Gen. Jaruk Mekwichai said there is “strong suspicion” that the yachts of Chalong Bay were being used to transport cocaine into the Kingdom and heroin out. His belief seemed to be based on the statistic that 300 yachts checked into the Immigration Office on Phuket last year, but only 100 checked out.

The comments caused a furor among the wind-blown crowd at Latitude Eight, and among local government as well. Phuket Governor Mr. Sudjit Nimitkul rejected the accusation, saying that he’s never received any information on this problem from law-enforcement agencies. The local chiefs of the Customs Bureau, Immigration, and even the Thai Tourism Authority jumped in with their two cents’ worth, though the head of Phuket Immigration later denied the quotes attributed to him and said that he’d never given an interview to The Nation at all.

Locals question the statistic of 300 boats to begin with. They say that there were only 71 entries in the Regatta last year, and probably another 100 boats parked long term on the island. Blaming the discrepancy in check-ins and check-outs on drug smuggling seems to be like hearing hoof-beats and shouting “zebra” instead of “horse”. Most can be explained by simple ignorance of the law, or more likely, common laziness. And a large percentage of boats that checked in to Phuket last year are still here, so they haven’t checked out.

Having observed the yachties in their self-made ghetto at Chalong Bay for several years now, I can only say that a few may be negligent on their visa renewals, but I doubt that many people would use a million-dollar boat to transport bales of marijuana or sixteen-year-old Cambodian girls. It is much more likely that, given the depressed health of the fishing industry at the moment, cargoes of an illegal nature are being transported in the enormous, smelly holds of trawlers captained by savvy locals who can pilot a boat into a mangrove-choked inlet at low tide on a moonless night. But that’s just my opinion; please don’t quote me on it.

Whatever the merits of their argument, the powers-that-be are going to make life at least a little more difficult for the Chalong Bay Yachties in the near future. If nothing else, new visa restrictions will make it difficult for them to stay on Phuket long enough to make their way through the menu at Latitude Eight, while the international racing crowd who comes for only two weeks in December will find little different on their next visit. Soon the long-term yacht-based expatriate may be an endangered species, and Chalong Bay will once again be the exclusive home of the long-tail boats and the commercial fishing or diving charter vessels. The resident Yachtie will become a rarity, and perhaps one day you’ll only be able to see them in zoos, alongside the gibbon, the tiger, and the elephant.