Sailing in Koh Lanta – Thailand

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A picture of the Sunset at Koh Lanta Thailand

Sanctuary was one of the most picturesque hostels that we stayed at in our trip across Asia. It was a series of bungalows, wrapped with trees, with the ocean for a front yard. If you walked off of our limited front porch, the only thing between you and the water was a large outdoor cafeteria. On the right was an upscale hotel, to the left was one of the dozens of beach bars that make Koh Lanta a great place to exist.

I loved being able to walk out off the front porch, across the scorching sand, and step into the ocean. And even though I enjoyed swimming, I hadn’t ever considered sailing, until we met Xaviar.

We had seen him walking around and both me and Joanna mistook him for a local. The implication being that were we to talk to him, we would be limited to the most primitive conversations. That turned out to not be the case. After we had been at Sanctuary for a few days he came up to me and didn’t beat around the bush.

“Would you guys like to go sailing?”

Surprised at his English, I replied “You have a boat?”

“That one down there” Xaviar said, pointing to a twelve foot sailboat resting on the edge of the beach.

“That sounds like fun. What do you think?” I said, turning to Joanna.

“Do you know how to sail?” She asked him skeptically.

“Sure, I’ve been out a lot. It’s not actually my boat, it’s my Uncles, but he taught me how to sail it.”

“Ok”. Said Joanna.

“I don’t know when we can, maybe in a few days. I’ll let you know.” I said.

Xaviar smiled, “Cool.”

Going to School

The day came, and I had to talk Joanna out of bringing her phone.

“We’re going on a boat, crazy shit happens. I would definitely say don’t bring the phone.”

She agreed, and we left our electronics in the bungalow. We met Xaviar on the beach as he was preparing the miniature sailboat. Without flipflops, walking on the sand felt like walking on top of a pizza oven. We jumped around like lizards that only ever put two of their feet on the ground, and the moment when we pushed the boat into the water brought quick relief.

We shoved a few Nordic tourists out of the way, and pushed the boat out to chest level before jumping aboard. Xaviar got the sales up, air collided with cloth, and we left land behind. Similar to chess, learning how to sail took only minutes, but mastery comes after a lifetime. In a sentence, we tacked in one direction, running far off course, then we ducked under the boom, scooted to the other side, and started tacking back. The most exciting experience was catching the wind just right. The boat would lift out of the water on one side and we would make incredible time. How exciting! When I retire I’ll leave the golf to everyone else, I think sailing is the true sport of champions.

Tacking west along the beach, it took us twenty minutes to reach a formerly hidden beach.

“Two years ago the only way to get here was by sail boat. Now there’s some kind of trail that you can take.” Xaviar informed us.

We pulled the boat directly onto the beach, just twenty feet to the right of a forty-something white man throwing a ball with a twenty-something Thai girl. Regularly seeing such “relationships” was one of the most depressing aspects of being in Thailand. I felt bad for the girls, and let down that a man would let himself get to the point where he has to come to a foreign country and spend money to feel loved. A personal failing of sorts, in my view.

Joanna swam far out into the ocean, and I stayed close to the sand. Laziness. Unrepentant relaxation. Xaviar with his shoulder length hair, crushed sand flat with his back. I bobbed up and down in the salt water, actively working to savor the moment. While waves were tumbling over me, my entire family was back in New York, being molested by blizzards and that awful puke-colored slush that accumulates as the snow melts.

The Physics of Sailing

Leaving the man and his Thai mistress to their intrigues, we sailed out half a mile offshore. I watched out for sharks, of which I am terrified, and Joanna failed miserably to light a cigarette. We sailed the better length of the most popular beaches along Koh Lanta, then decided to turn around.

An elementary lesson in sailing may be in order. If there’s one thing that you should be aware of, it’s that sail boats aren’t actually good for anything unless there’s wind. That’s a fun lesson to learn the hard way. Just as we had our hopes up of a swift return and a cool beer, the leaves in the trees stopped moving. Our sails hung limp, like curtains in a widow’s mansion.

After several minutes of drifting with the current, Xaviar suggested “Let’s swim the boat to shore and get a beer.”

So we did it. And we had the beer. And there was no wind. And we were a mile from our hostel, with a sail boat that feels feathery on the water and obese on land. A speculative mood developed.

“I think I saw a few leaves move” I said. We all looked at the trees. A single leaf moved a quarter of an inch and everyone shifted in their seats. It was the most attention I’ve ever given to foliage in my life. But a single leaf didn’t turn into a cascade, as we were hoping for. The sun was setting and it was time to take action.

The Last Resort

If hearing Xaviar speak English was surprising, hearing his ten year old sister speak even better English was the real surprise. A precocious kid, she had the personality of a firecracker. The sun was keeping other parts of the world light and the four of us were eating pizza at a restaurant across the street from our hostel.

“Is that a standard sailing experience?” I asked Xaviar, in between bites.

Laughing, with a tinge of guilt, he said “No that’s not usually what happens. Most times I don’t make my guests push the boat back home.”

“I’m not complaining, I’m just wondering if you do everything different in Thailand.” I said absentmindedly.

We were tired because we had pushed the boat back, and it had taken us an hour. Xaviar on the right side in the deepest water. Joanna behind the boat, pushing way harder than you would ever give a 110lb girl credit for, and me on the left side, closest to the beach. It had been a hell of a site, and at least a dozen tourists took pictures. An American guy, a Dutch girl, and a half Thai, half English dude pushing a sail boat through the shallow water, going as fast as a man on crutches.

When we reached the hostel it was a beautiful moment, we felt like marathon runners who had just crossed the 26. 2 mile mark. The sail boat was back safe, the light was almost gone, and our calf muscles were wrecked. There was the heroic struggle of pulling the boat up onto the beach, and then the day ended with beer and pizza. A lesson to all would-be sailors. If you’re going out, it’s essential to realize the limitations of your boat. If it’s too small to have an engine, it should be small enough that you can push it. Being stranded by the doldrums is a good story, but when you’re pushing your boat down the beach it doesn’t feel that heroic at all.

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