Published on August 4, 2007
The whole idea behind Phuket Raceweek is to catch the fierce southwest monsoon winds right at the southern tip of Phuket off the Evason Resort. It's billed as "Asia's Windiest Regatta", but this is tempting Fate. It's like calling the Titanic "unsinkable".
So on the first day of this year's race in mid-July the sea was glass, without a breath of wind. The fleet of 31 yachts sat under luffing sails as the race committee delayed the start from 10 to 11.
"The only wind in this race is from the organisers," growled skipper Richard at the wheel.
"Too right!" agreed Kiwi Graeme and Brockie on the foredeck.
We were aboard Anjuna, a 47-foot ketch that had come in third in the Classic class last year. Our rivals now were the big 101-year-old Seraph, the tiny Dutch-crewed Kerida, and the square-rigged Idiom.
Down in the galley I found owner Graeme Chuck dumping Stolichnaya vodka into five plastic tumblers.
Graeme had bought the boat 11 years ago in Bali. He soon left his mining job in Indonesia and sailed up to Phuket to start a new business and family. His company, Shades, makes awnings, one of which we sat underneath now.
Brockie had run a 10,000-man construction company in Bangkok for 17 years before retiring to Trang with his Thai wife to raise rubber, oil palm and fruit trees.
Richard had been the human-resources manager of another huge company in Sydney before throwing it all up a decade ago to become a professional yacht skipper. This gave him the freedom for a bit of sartorial splendour: cowry shell bracelets, fat wood-bead necklace and a huge multicoloured hat with a wide serrated brim. This could only have come from Khao San Road.
We took off an hour late in weak winds, threw up our spinnaker upside down, and finished last.
The second day was more promising. We moved off the line at 10.50, second behind Seraph. But the wind dropped and we fell back to last again. Our course was to Ao Chalong, around a concrete marker and back. As black rain clouds towered over Phuket, our speed picked up to 5.7 knots and we began to catch up with the rest of the fleet.
"We're not going to beat them," Richard cautioned.
"That's okay," Graeme said. "I just want to see them again."
Brockie was manning the stay sail today and Richard kept ordering him to keep it in shape. "And do it smoothly," he reminded him constantly.
A sudden gust of wind had Richard screaming: GET THAT SAIL UP, UP, UP! NOW, BROCKIE!"
"But you told me to do it smoothly."
Kerita was first around the mark, followed by Idiom and Seraph. At noon, just as we were bearing down on the mark, a big cruiser came up behind and tried to slip in between. There was a lot of shouting confusion and we nearly hit the concrete mark, forcing Graeme to turn on the engine for a few seconds.
Later, we honourably performed a 360-degree penalty lap. We could have pretended nothing had happened but, as Graeme said, "We are sporting gentlemen."
Bearing down on the finish line, we halved the distance between us and our rivals, but again we came in last at 12.46. We set course with main and mizzen for a leisure trip south and the boat simply steered itself.
"Who needs you?" Graeme asked Richard.
Out came the Bloody Marys. We rolled about on deck, screeching with laughter. Many tales were told of expensive divorces.
"My ex-wife in Australia text-messaged me yesterday," Graeme said. "The message read: 'A long, long time ago there was a man who was not a shit. But that was only one man for only one day. And it was a long, long time ago.' "
Which led to the sole feminist joke of the day:
"What do you call that useless piece of flesh on the end of a man's penis?"
More drinks were called for.
"No more Bloody Marys till the sails get taken down," Graeme decreed, setting off a mad dash to the foredeck - the fastest we'd moved all day.
That night there was a big party aboard Kalizma, the former luxury yacht of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, followed by yet another party onshore at the Evason.
As I sat woebegone on the pier the next morning, a wag named Chris from Seraph swaggered up and said, "Jim, aren't you tired of looking at transoms all day?"
It took my befuddled state a while to process this remark. When I reported it back to the lads aboard Anjuna, they were outraged and galvanised into action. Today we'd show them!
But no wind again. We didn't get off till 12.40 on a long course down Koh Hi, around Koh Aeo, past Koh Lon and to the finish line in Ao Chalong.
We were in good position at the start but missed the cherry buoy and had to go around again. Twenty minutes later our three rivals were a mile ahead, but we threw up our spinnaker, tacked flawlessly around the headland of Koh Aeo and caught up with them after an hour. We were running a steady 56 knots.
Then, off Koh Lon, everyone fell into a windless black hole. Kerita drifted off to the far shore of Ao Chalong. We passed Idiom and were 50 metres behind Seraph. Next came a huge amount of confusion: where was the committee boat which should have been flying an orange flag but wasn't.
Kerita turned out to be in perfect position for the finish, followed by Idiom. In a sudden blasting 18-knot wind, we barrelled down toward the finish with Seraph, beating her across the line by two boat lengths.
I was given the privilege of yelling: "A! N! J! U! N! A! CAN YOU READ OUR TRANSOM?"
The next day was an anticlimax. A sprint didn't take off until 1.40 and lasted less than an hour. Again we came in last, but the crew was funnier than ever: two Aussies, a Kiwi, a Yank, an Irishman and his Thai wife.
"All we need is a Jew and we've already got a joke," Richard said.
We asked the beautiful Pavinee why she married Bernard Moran, the ugly Irishman.
"I knew he was ugly," she said, "but he tricked me!"
She explained that 10 years ago she had been the sales representative of a French paint company that wanted a contract with Bernard's construction company in Bangkok.
"He invited me to Delaney's on Convent Road to discuss the deal," Pavinee said.
"The French paint was six times more expensive than its competitors," Bernard said, "but I should have bought the paint. It would have been a lot cheaper."
Boy, is he going to get it when he goes home tonight.