Expat Magazine

Old Man and the Sea

By Thebangtoddowenwaldorf @BangLiving

“Oh you sail?” said the man with the balding head and the crushed watermelon drink in front of him.  The tiki bar sat on the grainy sands of Koh Samui and was Old Man and the Seanearly empty, or perhaps it was nearly full, it had four chairs and the three of us left only one empty. Nearly a full-house. Tom worked for the airline. He met his wife in Thailand and comes to visit every year. In eight years he will retire and build his home here. He says that its paradise but not for everyone. “Thailand takes some getting used to.” he says with a prideful boast.

“Yeah, he sails!” Allison told him eagerly hanging on to the idea of a free sailing trip. Allison was on a short stint of a vacation in Thailand. We met days earlier in a coffee shop in Bangkok and our paths crossed again in Koh Tao. Small world. Allison wanted to get the most out of her days in Thailand and a sailing trip fit right into the theme of her trip.

“Well, would you guys like to go sailing with me?” Tom said with big excited eyes. His wife didn’t like to sail with him. She is Thai after-all, and most Thai women don’t like to tan. A far cry from the habits of the Western world that I originate.

“Sure, we’ll sail.” I replied.

I had learned how to sail in Australia. That was nearly a year ago though and sailing is a technical craft.  I had only several chances to practice since then and I jump at every chance to sail I get. I want to retain my skills after all and practice makes perfect I hear.

The man called his wife over to him. “It looks like I found a sailing partner, Kay. This guy knows how to sail!”

Allison threw a glance of uncertainty at me. I explained to the man that I hadn’t sailed since December, and I had never even been on a tri-maran.

“It’s settled. Tomorrow we sail!” he replied without hesitation.

Details and pleasantries were exchanged and the bald man and his wife disappeared.

“You really comfortable with sailing? You had a look that didn’t exude confidence there.” Allison said.

“Ya, of course. I’m excited. I haven’t sailed a tri-maran, but that’s no matter. He’ll only need a deckhand and probably just wants someone agile to run all over his boat for him and hoist his sails.”

The day passed along with empty glasses of pinacoladas. The next day I called Tom’s phone.

“He didn’t pick up.” I told Allison We weren’t going sailing. We agreed to get massages on the beach instead. As we began to walk down the

Old Man and the Sea
road my phone rang. It was Tom. He explained the weather report didn’t look good and that perhaps we would have to cancel the sailing trip. I told him I understood. He replied that before we throw in the towel he would go down to the owner of the boat and have a chat with him. Twenty minutes later I the sailing trip was confirmed. Allison and I rented motorbikes and topped them off with whiskey bottles filled with gas that were sold off of the side of the road. An hour later we were at Chaweng Beach and walking up to the tiny multi-hulled boat.

“She’s set and couldn’t tip her if you tried.” said our balding skipper. While Allison snapped away with her camera and took pictures of the boat as the skipper had a chat with its owner I took a moment to look over the boat and take in the setup of the halyard, mainsail, jib, and pulleys.  It really is a little boat I remember thinking. It’s just a small tourist boat. Boats of this size are easier to capsize, I thought wondering why Tom had said otherwise. I reminded myself that I hadn’t been on a tri-maran before and continued trying to understand how the boat worked.

The boat had a simple set-up. I didn’t have long to take in the structure of the thing, but I was able to figure out the boom arm and how to maneuver it from port to starboard from the sole chair in the rear. The jib sheet, which is the sail in the front, seemed easy too. The halyard made sense to me too. I didn’t have time to work out the mechanics of the mainsail before Tom had hopped into the chair in the middle chair for the helmsman. With Allison sitting on the starboard pontoon and I on the port, the owner of the boat untied our anchor and we were slowly sailing along.

“See, she practically sails herself!” Tom said enthusiastically.

“Maybe I should sit on your side. That way I can drop the mainsail if we need to.” I told Allison.

“No need. I can control everything from here!” Tom interjected.

I knew that Tom couldn’t drop the mainsail from where he sat, as the halyard rope was tied to a cleat on the mast, which only Allison could reach. I was a guest on Tom’s boat and I didn’t need him to tell me twice that he could control everything from where he sat. It suddenly became a non-issue and I sat back and enjoyed the lull of the boat as it slowly made its way over the soft waves.

I noticed the boom switch from a starboard to port tack, which creates wind resistance on the opposite side of the mainsail. Tom was gybing and he didn’t even know it. This thing really is easy to sail. He doesn’t know what he is doing and yet it’s still moving right along.

“I have to get myself one of these!” I blurted out as I played through a small fantasy of sailing on my own in the little boat. It would be perfect for me to practice my skills and enjoy the mechanics of sailing. If Tom could do it I surely could do it. Tom told me the price of the boat and it seemed reasonable, but we were in Thailand and I would be leaving soon to likely more Western, and expensive, waters.  As Tom spoke I looked beyond him, the bay we were exiting, its beach, and over the mountain in the background to a giant pitch of darkness that had replaced what was bright sky a moment ago. Where all of the sky was attractive for sailing to the fore, or front, of us, the aft of us had rapidly changed to something else. In fact, what I saw coming over that mountain was enough to cause a pang of alarm in my senses as this was no rain cloud but a full on monstrous storm that brought a gray wall of rainfall with it and what seemed like a vengeance with a wrath that we had clearly underestimated. I turned from Tom and allowed his words to fade out of my mind as he continued to speak. I noticed that we had gone beyond the reef point that signaled we were out of the bay. We were now in the ocean waters of the Gulf of Thailand. Technically we were sailing, and there was no doubt whatsoever that in just a moment everything about this sailing trip was about to change.

I allowed Tom and Allison to finish several more strings of their conversation. The water lapped up into the vessel and I was wet from the waist down. Tom hadn’t

Old Man and the Sea
noticed the looming threat behind us because quite simply I hadn’t pointed it out yet. The wind had eased on a bit stronger and the sailing conditions were perfect. The boat cocked toward the port side and Allison was elevated a foot or two above me.

“Is this normal?” She asked me. I explained that it was perfectly normal and that it comes with sailing. By this time I made a comment to the rain that was now over the small buildings that lined the edge of the beach of Chaweng. Tom didn’t reply and kept on his course. We had turned to our starboard side and the black mass that blotted out the sky was now recognized by everyone. There was no chance that an alarm, even a small one, had gone off inside everyone. There is one thing that is difficult for any sailor. One concept that a beginner or experienced helmsman has to master the dynamics of eventually, and that is sailing into the wind. Quite simply put, the wind pushes the sails from behind the boat. When sailing into it, the wind is hitting the front of the sails. Essentially you could go backwards, but realistically you just won’t go anywhere. That is unless you tack. Tacking is taking the wind in a zig-zag and instead of sailing straight into the wind, which is impossible, you sail side to side. I knew of this concept. I also knew that Tom had no idea of it as the man who owned the boat tried to explain it to him in a broken English Thai accent. However, when this bit of information glazed right over Tom when we were ashore I knew I could explain it to him as we were sailing back in to the bay at the end of our trip. What I hadn’t expected was that the conditions were going to turn from favorable to extremely dangerous.

I mentioned to Tom that there was an edge to the rain cloud. I had noticed that most of the rain spells on the island came in bursts and lasted only twenty to thirty minutes. Tom came to visit Koh Samui every year. His wife is from here. He wants to move here. I thought he knew that too. If he did, he didn’t factor this into the equation of formulating his course of action in dealing with the storm. Where as I told him I saw an edge to the storm I did so implying that if we sailed beyond that edge than we could skirt the outside of the storm and let it pass. I soon realized this very important suggestion was missed by our captain as soon as he turned the boat around. I dropped my head and closed my eyes as my mind heaved a bitter sigh. Tom had just screwed us. We were now going to sail directly into the storm and all of our lives were in the hands of a man who had only two hours of sailing experience.

I didn’t panic. It doesn’t help. I don’t know where I picked up that character quality but I did, and in this moment I was very glad that I don’t typically panic. I realized that maybe I had missed something. Just maybe Tom could get us back into the bay just in time for the storm to hit us. We would absolutely get hammered by the storm regardless, but maybe this man could get us back just as the tip of the beast began to pound its fist. It was a possibly. It was small, but in terms of hope you grasp at whatever straw you can.

Then Tom turned the boat around again, and again. The small alarm increased. Did Allison understand what was about to happen to us? I wasn’t sure. I damn sure wasn’t going to alarm her by explaining to her that in just a moment we were going to be hit by such a storm that would rock this boat to a point of near capsizing. I was sure that Tom didn’t have a plan of action. As of matter of fact, he was down right panicking which was only noticeable by any sailor who understood the magnitude of the situation we were about to be in.

Old Man and the Sea
“I think we had better go in.” Tom said. I told him that if we were going to go in it had better happen right now. He explained that the reef hiding below the water, which could catch our rudder if struck, was at a point near a floating plastic canister that signaled itself as a marker buoy. A floating blue fishing boat was our other marker. With that I understood we needed to stay within those two markers. “I can’t figure out which way the wind is coming from.” I explained to Tom that the wind was coming from exactly the direction we needed to go. We had to sail into the wind, and as if sounding a gong the rain came.

The boat swayed violently. The waves were now a meter or more and lapping up over the boat. The mainsail was hard on, tight, and full of wind and we were ripping along the water at speeds that were beyond Tom’s comfort level and quite frankly my own. This boat wasn’t built for these conditions and it seemed that the sands were running out of an hourglass before something tragic might occur.

“Get on this side!” I told Allison. She was hysterical and screaming but she obeyed my command. We needed to displace the weight to the port side of the boat so she didn’t capsize. The only thing about this that was alarming was that I knew this would increase our speed as the boat leveled out in the water by having both of our weight on this size. It was necessary for our survival. Tom would have to helm the boat and it was about to start going a lot faster.

“Release the jib! Bring it in immediately!” I screamed to Tom. There was a tone that came from me that commanded this man to do exactly what I say. He did good. He didn’t question me and he complied and brought the speed sail from the front of the boat in. This would slow us down a bit, but not much. “Stick to a course just south of that blue boat!” We were just passed the floating buoy and needed to nearly reach the blue boat before tacking from a port to starboard tack. Tom had no clue what I was talking about and instead of listening to me he turned the boat straight into the wind. We stopped. The rain came harder. The boat shook violently and began to moan in desperation like a dying dog. I saw a flash and a crack of thunder came. I took Allison’s expensive camera and bag and shoved it up into the nose of the boat where it would stay dry. I couldn’t see through my sunglasses and knew that we were going to capsize soon and so I put them in Tom’s backpack. I looked to the nearest shore amidst the screams of Allison pleading for it to stop and for me to tell her everything would be okay. I told her to stay put in the center of the boat. The one thing that could have saved us in this instance was dropping the mainsail, which was what Tom shrugged off at my mention of the beginning of the trip. Had we dropped that mainsail we would have turned into a buoy ourselves and only had to live out a rocky drift as the storm passed over us. With our sail up and the grip of the storm grasping us completely we didn’t have that option.

“We need to heard starboard again!” I yelled at Tom commanding him in a way that would save his life.

“Stop talking to me in that sailor talk!” He said and I explained to him to position the rudder so we go right again. We needed the wind to fill the sail again so we could move. We hadn’t reached the blue boat and if we went left we would surely be out to sea again and that was almost certainly a fatal option. The man didn’t know why, but he listened to me, and it saved his life.

“Bring the boom in tight!” I told him. As he did the mainsail came closer to the boat and the wind immediately filled it like a baseball into a catchers mit. The boat jerked to life and in an instant we were skipping over the crests of the waves. “Okay now use my hand as your guide and go exactly where it is pointing! Now let out the boom! That’s it Tom! There she goes! That’s it! That’s it! This is what we want!” I yelled as my mouth filled with water from the sky. My hands gripped a handle that I had realized earlier could be used to bring the mast into the wind and help upright the boat. Nearly blinded by the downpour, with all of my weight dropped onto the handle, I looked at Allison and allowed my face to exude a calmness. “Allison” I said, “Everything is going to be okay.”

Just then we had reached just south of the blue boat. I snapped my head back to Tom. “Now turn your rudder left! Bring in that mainsail right now!” He brought the rudder left and the boat lurched to a stop as the bow faced into the wind. He hadn’t brought the boom in fast enough and we hadn’t turned as quickly as we needed. We would have to wait a moment as the bow slowly came around to a starboard tack and the wind filled the opposite side of the mainsail.

“We’re not moving! Should I let out the jib?”

“No!” I explained. I waited as the boat sat in the water and the wind went around the sail. We didn’t move and we bobbed in the water.

“Okay I don’t care about getting this boat back. Take me to the shore. I’ll run it ashore!”

That’s all I needed to hear. I explained where to point the bow and where to place the rudder. I pulled on the chord and helped right the boat and instructed Tom to bring in the boom. We were hard on the wind and the sail was full. We skipped over the water at an incredible rate.

“Allison, look over there.” I said and pointed to a man wading in the water. “Do you see that man?”


“He is standing up in the water. It is shallow here. Get off of the boat and head to the shore.”


She moved to the edge of the pontoon and hopped off the boat. She was safe.

The boat did go ashore. The rudder caught on the ground before we got to the sands of the beach. Tom eventually hopped out of the boat and I did as well. He wanted me to help him pull the boat to the man through the storm along the beach. I didn’t even acknowledge him and told him I was

Old Man and the Sea
pushing the boat up onto the beach. Allison eventually came for her camera bag. It was dry and fine. The man hoisted his bag onto his back. I took out my sunglasses. He stood there with the boat dumbfounded on what to do next. I wasn’t much concerned. Everyone was safe. Tom asked me what he was supposed to do next. I told him I would go get him help. I ran for about a mile and found the Thai man on the beach. I told him where Tom was and then I ran back, thinking about the 5k that I had run just weeks earlier in Florida. It made the two mile run a lot easier. Tom later explained to his wife that I had saved him and Allison cheerfully told me I had saved the day. I also gave myself a pat on the back for the skills I had retained which we needed to sail us back. As we walked along the beach and away from the boat I thought about Ernest Hemmingway’s Old Man and the Sea and for the rest of the day about a friend who once told me that when he had read it he could taste the salt from the sea.

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