|The Sublime Bay|
Stunning scenery, competitive racing and a different exotic island every night makes Phuket's Bay Regatta a sublime event, reports Kevin Green
In Thailand's busy racing scene the Bay Regatta is unique and has drawn returning sailors for over a decade, in fact 15 years for some participants. Its uniqueness lies with the breathtaking location of the limestone stack studded Pang Nga Bay where these huge karsts are used as marks of the passage-orientated courses. Originally conceived to attract visiting and local cruising yachts, and to capture racing action against stunning backdrops, the Bay Regatta has been described as "a party that sails around", yet another unique characteristic; and this year was to prove no different. Attracting sailors from all around the world, who came to charter both multihulls and monohulls, a 43-yacht fleet anchored near the The Village Coconut resort on palm covered Mah Phrao Island for the five day sojourn. Taking place in Phuket's "high" season, a time of milder northeasterly winds, unlike the stronger SW monsoon conditions, the event has a reputation for light airs. Organized by the Ao Chalong Yacht Club (ACYC), with racing run by the very experienced race officer Simon James, a convivial briefing took place in the grounds of the The Village Coconut resort before the opening party commenced. A veteran of many Bay Regattas, James obviously knew what participants needed – clear sailing instructions, well illustrated course guidelines and a generally friendly and fun approach to the racing. "I don't really want to hear about protests and please do not bump into the committee boat!" were words that had everyone clapping. Thanks to the manageable size of the event plenty of friendly banter ensured over huge flagons of Chang Beer as sailors enjoyed a sumptuous buffet of Thai and international food.
Fast multihulls and new trimarans
Anchoring at a different location every evening, there is plenty to see and the first mark of the course was an iconic limestone stack several miles to windward. Our 13-boat multihull fleet was an interesting mix, which included two Phuket built Andaman Cabriolet fast cruising cats, four Phuket built Firefly 850s, a new Marc Lombard designed Seacart 26 trimaran with America's Cup style reverse bows, as well as a variety of cruising cats. My job as bowman on ACYC Commodore Grenville Fordham's 38-foot Andaman Cabriolet, Nia, gave me a good view of the mixed fleet as we bashed away north in the 12-knot northeasterly breeze. The horizon was filled with the jagged shapes of mist-covered islands and the foreground dotted by longtail fishing boats. Fishing floats and fish traps lay all across the channel, ensuring that a good lookout had to be kept. Up far ahead the race leader Fantasia, a home built 51-foot cat, was striding away while being closely pursued by the carbon sailed DaVinci, a 39-foot Andaman Cabriolet; sister ship to Nia owned by the regatta's main sponsor, DaVinci Yacht Charters. At 700 kg lighter than Nia, and helmed by Firefly designer Mark Pescott, DaVinci was out to give Fantasia a run for its money. Back on board our boat Nia, well down the fleet, the fickle wind had us tacking on headers and carving a course through the fishing float minefield until our luck ran out and we spun in a circle – a sure sign that we'd been snagged. Cursing our luck but aided by the fisherman and his wife we extricated the net undamaged from our dagger boards, gave the man a couple of cold cokes and resumed the chase. But it was in vain as the dying breeze, which traditionally blows early but only until around midday, left us stranded to study the amazing cave formations and tiny secluded beaches at Koh Phanak Island, several miles short of the windward mark.
At this northern most point of our voyage about five miles in the distance jutted the tall peaks of Koh Ping Kan, more famously known as James Bond Island (from the movie set, The Man with the Golden Gun). Traditionally, the fleet had sailed up here but these confined sheltered waters invariably held little wind but had plenty to see. Islands of particular interest near the top of the bay include Koh Pan Yi, known as the Sea Gypsy village.
Actually a Muslim fishing village built entirely on stilts it is a popular tourist stop and with shallow anchoring according to the cruising guide, the Southeast Asia Pilot. Not far away from it, at the Koh Khao Khao some of the caves have drawings dating back to Neanderthal times.
On board, the sun baked Nia the outgoing tide was starting to push us south and with little prospect of wind we cranked up the twin outboards. "We may not have done much in the race but we should win the best anchorage spot at the Paradise Resort", I shouted from the foredeck. But up ahead the clouds were gathering and one by one the distant islands were obscured. A boom of thunder was followed by forked lightning as the wind rose then heavy rain crashed upon us, obliterating any visibility as we sped past the Koh Roi anchorage towards the towering mass of Koh Yao Noi and its northern sheltered bay. Using the iPad with Navionics charting installed I watched the screen as we skirted shallows before laying a course for our anchorage.
Within an hour calm had descended on the anchored fleet as we waded ashore for the evening's buffet and prize giving. As the popular local jazz singer Bonnie belted out hit after hit the complimentary gin, rum and other spirits kept the sun burnt revellers mellow.
Our second passage race the next day turned out to be a glorious kite run with a 12- mile course. The highlight was the twisting leg through the deep, narrow channels of karsts. One could smell the salt vegetation and feel the cool air blowing out of the myriad caves and savour the mist from soaring waterfalls. Small birds darted from caves – swifts - who built their homes there and whose saliva constructed nests are prized dishes.
Clearing the atmospheric area, on the foredeck of Nia I hoisted our smaller kite in the stiffening 17-knot breeze as we sped towards the Thai mainland and the popular tourist destination of Krabi. With a free evening and no party most of our crew chose a relaxing Thai massage, followed by a sojourn through the themed bars – football bar, guitar bar – before a nightcap at the pool bar. There is more to Krabi than bars though with plenty of dive boats and the limestone peaks are a climber's mecca while the caves draw kayakers on guided tours to see the hidden swifts' nests and shapely rock formations.
For our third race the crew of Nia werehoping for more wind to give her a chance against the lighter, faster opposition and so it turned out with a 15-knot breeze keeping us in touch with the backmarkers of our division. Far ahead the eventual winner, the affable Aussie Andrew Stranksy and his family strode away on Fantasia, using only a Dacron screecher, which was enough to keep the chasing pack of asymmetric flying opposition at bay.Winning homebuilt cat
Built about two years ago, Andrew said he'd lofted the eight-ton Fantasia lines by hand and had based the shape to some extent on a Crowther design. "We had a Harrier and developed the design from that with full bows and nice, flowing lines to help it go fast downwind." Built using a layup on frames with one-to-one lofting at Bay Island in Brisbane, Andrew took a low-tech approach to the construction of the epoxy strip planked hull. Setting off from Australia and winning the Darwin Ambon, Andrew and family was joined by his parents, themselves accomplished round the world sailors. "Our fastest point of sail is reaching and we prefer longer legs because she's 8.5m wide and slower to tack," Andrew explained. He declared himself pretty happy with his All Yacht Spars rig as well. "We will fly a kite but only on longer legs, like the run back from Krabi to Phuket."
The plush surrounds of the Sheraton hosted our second night in Krabi while on stage a Filipino cover band belted out Abba's "Mamma Mia" as everyone gyrated on the dance floor, no doubt helped by the copious amounts of seven percent Chang beer.
Among the throng were several Australians including Richard and Clare MacFarlane. The Perth couple purchased Aida, their Beneteau 411 new in France back in 2001. They took three years to sail back to Australia via the Caribbean and the South Pacific before moving her up to SE Asia to compete in the King's Cup Regatta and the Bay Regatta. "There's a good variety of windward sailing, downwind spinnaker runs and plenty of wind shifts to keep us concentrating on taking advantage at every opportunity; and the courses took us through the gorgeous islands of the Bay," said Richard.
Other visitors included Paula and crew from London who'd chartered a Bavaria from Elite Charters. "Coming from London to such dramatic scenery is amazing and the charter price is cheap, divided between our large crew, "explained the Italian-born sailor.
The next day our final 12-mile passage race had us heading west but not before we did a windward/leeward around a rocky archipelago with plenty of unmarked shoals – an unimaginable nightmare for any night sailing. Down to windward the peaks of the famous Phi Phi Island, location of The Beach movie, jutted above the hazy horizon. As I hoisted our masthead kite in the 15-knot breeze our boat Nia sailed the angles gybing our way to yet another set of low lying shoals where the committee boat marked the finish of a very enjoyable regatta.
That night the casual and friendly surrounds of the open air Ao Chalong Yacht Club was the scene of our final party and prize giving and a good time to chat to some of the winners. Niels Degenkolw, on his X-Yachts three-quarter tonner won the nine-boat Cruising A division for an amazing fourth time with his yacht Phoenix. The Phuket-based Dane, who has competed in nearly all of the 15 events held since the regatta's inception put his success down to having a boat that did very well in light winds. The experienced roundthe- world sailor said he particularly liked the friendly atmosphere of the Bay Regatta.Plenty of charter options
Niels success placed him just two wins behind Mark Pescott's record number of victories in the Bay Regatta. Pescott came in second on DaVinci behind Andrew Stransky's Fantasia. The tall Australian designer said he'd made the podium on all of his 14 Bay Regattas, mostly on his own designs, including the Firefly. The strip planked Firefly can be built for well under AUS$80k and they're ideal race boats for SE Asia waters, while the very comfortable, fast cruising 39- foot Andaman Cabriolet he helmed to second place in this year's regatta is built by Composite Catamarans in Phuket for around AUS$300K. "The Cabriolet was designed specifically to suit cruising and racing in the kind of tropical conditions you find here," said Grenville Fordham, ACYC Commodore and partner in the companies that build and charter the Andaman Cabriolet.
For visiting sailors there are several multihull charter options – both for cruising and for regatta entry – including the Andaman Cabriolet from either Faraway Yachting Charters or regatta sponsor DaVinci Yacht Charters or, for those who want a pure racer, the exciting Firefly from the Andaman Sea Club – which is also available for short cruises, although with limited accommodation. Another fairly unique fact about the lovely Bay Regatta is that it's a non-profit event run by the ACYC, so entry fees and general costs are reasonable and on a par with Phuket Raceweek, another Phuket regatta held in Chalong Bay in July each year.