After a long, yet surprisingly comfortable bus ride to Phuket, complete with on board hostess and chilled beer, I managed to track down Sailing Yacht Nomadess and her crew.
This was no small feat since in the chaos of my departure from Bangkok, I also managed to leave my phone in a taxi and so I had no way to contact the boat and no way to collect the text message that told me where to go.
Once aboard this beautiful boat I spent a day with her permanent crew, Captain Ed, Navigator/Purser Mary, First Mate Jason and owners John and Arlene. Over the next two days the race crew arrived, a motley bunch of five Australians bringing the nationality count to four Americans and seven Australians, so while we flew under the American flag, us Yanks were outnumbered and outdrunk every day.
To allow for travel delays due to the airport closures and subsequent overthrow of the Thai government, the race was delayed one full day meaning that we would all have to sail each day regardless of weather conditions, wind or no wind. Sunday we sailed the boat around to the western side of the island, giving everyone a chance to get their bearings on the boat once jobs were officially assigned. My job for the next week would be grinder.
On less luxurious boats this station is a hard one. The grinder gets a handle and their task is to crank on it pulling the sails taut as need be. On this boat however the grinder pushes a button and hydraulics do the rest. Not to shortchange my difficult job... I do have some residual finger cramping and some new bruises from hopping from one side of the boat to the other.
My world during races consisted of kneeling over two buttons, one high speed the other low. When told, I hit the corresponding button. All conversation was limited to “little grind”, which meant hit the low speed button, “GRIND!” which meant hit high speed and don’t you dare let go until told, and “hold”, which meant resume kneeling and try to stay out of the way. I am happy to say I was able to complete this job with some proficiency and it allowed me to feel like I actually contributed to the crew.
The first race day I realized just how little I knew about yacht racing. This is a pro’s sport and as such they know full well the boundaries of their vessels, their crew and their competition. Mid-day of race one we were hauling along at around ten knots, nothing to sneeze at, all of my crewmates were very busy pulling, hoisting, tidying and whatnot. A quick glance over my shoulder revealed another large yacht coming right for us. By my calculations they would T-bone us in approximately 15 seconds.
I said to the captain, “Ed do you see that boat?”. No response. A bit louder this time…“Um Ed, do you see that boat?” No response. Screaming now with a decided inflection of panic “Does anyone see that boat?” this was met with hysterical laughter from my crew mates and a moment later the approaching boat turned on a dime and headed off in a new direction.
It seems everyone but me knew that boat and its able-bodied crew and none of them so much as batted an eye at two 40-ton vessels on a high-speed collision course. I was advised later… “if it scares you, just look the other way.” And that is exactly what I did for the rest of the week.
Yacht racing is tense and stressful stuff. There is a lot of money involved, the slightest margin of error could cause two boats to collide, at any moment a dozen lines are under enough pressure to make diamonds and A-type personalities abound. Having never experienced such a setting before I didn’t know what to think that first day. There was cursing, yelling and verbal abuse by the bushel full and I wasn’t certain that mutiny wasn’t on the horizon.
After the race was over everyone seemed to forget the harsh words, tones and glares of the day and partied together like life-long friends. I just sat shell-shocked for about an hour and tried to come to terms with it all. From silence to political unrest to this… maybe it is time I start allowing for more gradual transition periods.
Over the next four days as everyone began to fully settle into their jobs, the tension subsided to a large degree and while the races were still stressful at times, they started feeling more like sailing and less like diffusing a nuclear weapon in ten… nine… eight… After each race we all relaxed on the boat, swimming drinking and telling lies. The afternoons were my favorite part of the day.
This particular race is a celebration of the King of Thailand's birthday and His Royal Highness hands out the final awards. On Friday each boat sails past a navy vessel that the king is reported to be on. As each boat passes, the crews salute one another and flags are dipped in respect. The king is absolutely adored here, so to be in his presence is a big deal.
As luck would have it the King stayed in the same hotel as we did Saturday night and we kept passing him in the halls.
Seriously, there he was just walking down the hall with his attendees and nurses following behind, he was no more than five feet from me at times and there was nothing aside from decorum that would have prevented me from reaching out and touching him. I am pleased to report that I had the opportunity to curtsey in the presence of royalty for the first time in my life.
Yet again I cannot believe the life I get to lead. What an amazing experience. I have made new friends, (Laura, Erin, Dan, Carl and Byron the Australian crew - all of whom I hope to get to sail with or grab a pint with when I head down under this May), I got to spent more time with my beloved Ed, Mary and Jason and got to know John and Arlene whose love for sailing is what has made this all possible. My sincere thanks to all of you for giving me this experience.
And now my luck continues. Jason is heading off to Uni (Australian for college) next month and this was his last stint on Nomadess. He finds himself with a month off in Thailand, so now I have a traveling companion through the holidays for which I am very grateful.
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