Ko Samui, maybe it's inhabited!
I looked at the chart and then at the island through my binoculars. It appeared lush and green, with rocky cliffs that dropped sheer into the sea. It also appeared be desolated. Not a house or a building, not a road, not a soul to be seen anywhere.
"It might not be inhabited," I said to my crew who lined the railing to get a glimpse of the land coming up on our port beam. It was our first sight of land after leaving the lighthouse ship at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River. We were on our maiden voyage to Singapore. It was an exciting moment, witnessing our first landfall aboard Schooner Third Sea.
I had just completed the construction of my schooner on a small klong down river from Bangkok, and we were heading out to sail the waters of Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. After leaving the Chao Phraya, we had encountered bad weather for several days and now welcomed the sight of land.
"What’s the name of the island?" one of the crew asked.
I looked at the chart, with all its nautical markings, depths in fathoms and swirling contour lines. The island stood a few miles off shore from the Thai mainland. It’s name appeared in neat letters.
"It says Ko Samui," I replied.
"Ko Samui Island, " he repeated.
"We’ll sail southward along the coast," I continued, "and see if we can find a cove to anchor."
"Maybe we’ll find a village," Matts, our Scandinavian crew, said. "And they might even have cold beer." Matts wasn’t the only one thinking about cold beer.
"I doubt it. It doesn't’t seem to be inhabited. Maybe on the other side of the island," I said with encouragement.
The wind died as we approached the shore due east of the island. We lowered and furled the sails, switched on the engine and turned south following the coast, cruising a hundred meters off shore.
It was a remarkably beautiful island. Dense foliage clung to the rocky hills, and the sea broke in a gentle surf along the shoreline. The cliffs suddenly gave way and a small cove opened up. The chart indicated a depth of six fathoms. Good for anchoring. The helmsman swung the wheel sharp to port, cut back on the engine, and we glided into a tropical wonderland. We watched the anchor settle to a white sand bottom. We felt we were discovering a new ‘undiscovered’ island.
As the crew lowered the dinghy, I made an entry into ship’s log. "Anchored, Ko Samui Island." And then I entered the date: "April 10, 1975." That was twenty-five years ago, and on everyone’s mind was whether or not the island was inhabited.
We quickly noted coconut trees along the hillsides, not growing wild but planted in some sort of order. We surmised the owners of the trees must come over from the mainland to farm the coconuts. We were convinced we were right when we rowed ashore and found a road, more like a dirt track, part way up the hillside. It was obviously used to haul the coconuts to the other side of the island where they could be shipped to the mainland. We decided to follow the road in hope that it would lead us to a village.
Sailors are really not good hikers. After less than a kilometer, hot and thirsty under a boiling sun, we gave up. We slumped down at the side of the road, discouraged and thirsty. Above us, clusters of green coconuts hung, ready to be plucked from the trees. We immediately remembered the shipyard where we had worked on the schooner. Hucksters passed through the yard every day selling fresh coconuts for drinking. What a marvelous drink, cool and sweet, right from the nut. With one easy swing of a sharp knife, hucksters lobbed off the tops of the nuts, and then handed them to us to drink. It looked so easy. Now we had all the nuts we wanted to drink, hanging like in the Garden of Eden above us. All we had to do was knock them down and open them.
You ever try to climb a coconut tree? It’s not easy. For someone who has not lived in the tropics, it’s impossible. All we did was skin up our arms and legs. Then trying to knock down coconuts is not much easier, although less strenuous on the body. We finally did dislodge a few nuts from the bunch, but gave up trying to tear away the husks with a penknife. We were a miserable bunch of beachcombers who returned to the schooner that day.
Disillusionment with our new found island, we decided to continue on to Singapore. So much for Ko Samui, we thought. We lifted anchor, and under engine power motored around a promontory, marked Lamai Point on the chart, toward the open sea. We hoped to pick up wind once we cleared the headland.
A light breeze came from the southeast and I have orders to hoist the main and jib staysail. As the sails filled and we heeled gently to starboard, a sigh arose from the helmsman. "Look," he called, "look at that bay."
We all looked in the direction he pointed. In deed, a great bay opened, with a sweeping curve of a white sand beach. Through my binoculars I could see bamboo stalls along the water’s edge. Food stalls, and cold beer! Under full canvas, we sailed into Lamai Bay, and fifty meters from shore, in six fathoms of water, we turned into the wind and dropped anchor.
The dozen or so food stalls, set back among palms along the beach, were primitive but the food they served was delicious. And the beer was cold.
The food stalls, we soon discovered, were not set up to cater to tourists. There were no tourists. They were there to serve fishermen. As we were having our second round of Singahs, a fishing boat entered the bay and anchored next to our schooner, and soon another boat arrived and dropped anchor. I climbed a nearby hill to get a photograph of Third Sea at anchor, and when I looked down, a half dozen more fishing boats had anchored around us. We were hemmed in from all sides.
Our first night at Ko Samui wasn’t a very pleasant experience. There was an offshore breeze but it didn’t carry the fragrance of flowers and tropical plants; it carried the stench of fish, from the fishing boats. Then, about four in the morning, when the world is still, fishing boats all around us cranked up their engines. Powerful lights flash on, and there came the sound of grinding windlasses and shouting fishermen. Relief came with the rising sun, when it was quite again and we were the only vessel at anchor.
We spent three days at Lamai Beach. In the late afternoons, when the fishing boats began to arrive, we lifted anchor and motored around the point to the cove where we first went ashore. At down we returned to Lamai Beach.
Lamai Beach then was all peace and quite. One morning we visited a copra plantation, and tired our hand at husking nuts with the workers. We couldn't complete. We got a lot of laughs, and young fresh coconuts to take back to the schooner.
When we sailed away from Ko Samui it was with sadness this time. We had made friends, and we had found our island in the sun. Over the next eighteen years that followed, I sailed schooner Third Sea some 200 thousands miles through the waters of Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. We brought up many beautiful landfalls, from Tahiti to Moorea and Bora Bora, and from Bali to Hawaii, and I won’t deny, they were all exiting and wonderful. But none will be remembered like Ko Samui, when we thought the island was uninhabited.