|Once again the longtails set sail|
What started as a dream has become a reality on Phuket. The traditional wooden rueua hang yao, or longtail boat, has been restored to sail in southern Thailand.
After years of mostly idle talk by the local yachting fraternity, an Australian stalwart, Captain Marty Rijurkis has proved — probably for the first time since World War II — that the hang yao can cruise with speed under sail.
History books tell of the days before the advent of the longtail engine, when sturdy wooden fishing and traditional vessels plied the coastal waters of the Andaman Sea. Southeast Asia's traditional boat building and sail technology has been traced back to the Arabian and Indian merchants, who first visited Phuket on quests for pearls and other valuable items of trade, other ships anchoring off the island briefly to stock up on supplies for the hazardous journey around the Malaysian peninsula en route to the Far East. But the coming of steam power and then the internal combustion engine was to spell an end to the era of commercial sea trade under sail.
Sail power has made a comeback over the years, but mostly on the pleasure yachts of the affluent. Today hi-tech craft cruise the waters of Phuket from the seven seas for the annual King's Cup Regatta, while the traditional hang yao sailors keep a respectful distance from the graceful craft that race the wind for the sheer pleasure and sense of adventure.
It has been Captain Marty's long ambition to experiment with traditional sailing craft and building techniques in Asia. His love for Thailand and fascination with the country's boating history inspired him to take a closer look at restoring the sturdy longtail, the workhorse of the Andaman to the glorious days of sail.
Under a hot February sun, the former captain of both the famous Darwin speedster Australian Maid and New Zealand's Wave Nine decided to interview the hang yao drivers on Patong Beach. "'A good idea, but it can't be done,' was the reply to my question of whether the longtail would take sail," says Marty. But I asked myself, why not?"That fisherman believed that their wooden boats would tip over without a long keel, but the experience of Indonesia sailing craft is that wooden craft with a low waterline can indeed be adapted to sail. And the shape of the traditional southern Thai wooden craft had for a very long time fascinated Marty. The hull is very streamlined under water, while the high bow and canoe stern give the vessel its seagoing capabilities.
A wooden-boat builder by trade, in his early years Marty worked with boat designers in developing several small beach-launched catamarans and dinghies in his home town of Darwin. Later, he developed his own marine consulting business, modifying ocean racers and building a variety of marine structures. He has clocked over 100,000 nautical miles, experimenting, cruising, racing and surveying the waters from Australia's top end to islands along the Burma border. But his task of bringing the hang yao back into the 1990s as a sailing vessel has proved to be a thorough test of his marine skills.
"Looking back, I don't I would want to go through it again," says Marty. "But at the time, I just had to do it. It was the challenge, I suppose — that and living with the Thai people kept me going."
Captain Marty teamed up with Nantiya Purnsam, who hails from Nakhon Si Thammarat. The two decided to restore a 4.8m hull purchased from the Thamdee Inn on Patong Beach. The derelict hull was then taken to the Skandia Bungalows, where the manager agreed to make room for the work. "That was the smallest seagoing hull I could find," recalls Marty. "Many boats of this size are now used to present seafood displays in front of local restaurants. What an irony."
First, they finished the scale drawing. Then, they removed the hull planking and disassembled the frames, pulling all the rusty steel fastenings and sanding each plank back to good timber. "We replaced any bad bits," Marty said. "And then we reassembled the whole lot using 12mm timber pins and epoxy glue. We had to modify the bow and stern, replacing the frayed ends and accommodating the transom-hung rudder. We designed the first-ever rotating centreboard and built an internal casing to suit." They chose a lateen rig, and constructed a mast from selected local hardwood. The two spars, each measuring 6m in length, were cut from bamboo and fitted with a Rolly Tasker sail. (An innovated Tasker underwater bilge "sucker" was a final extra).
The lanteen rig is still used extensively in Indonesia, but for the Thai model it underwent extensive design changes. The sail is in two parts with a separating, lower boom, which allows the boat to be tacked through the eye of the wind. By having a break in the sail, a crew member simply separates the lower spar and passes it around the mast. The spar is reconnected on the opposite side and the boat then proceeds on the other tack, this saving valuable distance (and time) when working to windward.
After three months of design and construction, Marty and his mate set the day to launch Nantiyar. When the day of truth finally arrived, a team of Patong boat boys carried the fully rebuilt craft to the bay, and a nervous captain and his excited crew were pushed out to sea. His love for Thailand and fascination with the country's boating history inspired Captain Marty to take a serious look at restoring the sturdy longtail, the workhorse of the Andaman, to the glorious days of sail.
Most great plans spring a few surprises, when put to the test. In this case, several flaws became immediately obvious. Nantiyar was very unstable, susceptible to the slightest shift of body weight. When inclined to one side, the rudder fell short and when sheeted the sail would head the boat up the wind.
Frantically, the crew had to paddle the boat away between bouts of strenuous bailing. Fortunately, Khun Boonchirt and his longtail Ketch 22 stood by, providing a sturdy platform in the middle of Patong Bay upon which the exhausted crew could recover.
Was Marty disappointed? Not as much as he was the next morning when he found the boat floating upside down in front of the bungalow. They had left the boat on a mooring, and rain had filled the craft overnight. So it was back to the drawing board.
A further three weeks of experimentation led to stabilizing bilge keels being added to the hull's design. A longer rudder was also fitted, and the topheavy mast was tapered down. The internal open space was enclosed to serve as buoyancy tanks doubling as a storage area.
After several more capsizes, Marty was dubbed "Captain Submarine" by the parasail and jet-ski operators who came to his rescue. Eventually, however, the bugs were worked out of the design, and Nantiyar has now found a home with the fisherman at Laem Kar Noi, on the island's southern coast.
Captain Marty is currently looking at building a 40ft traditional wooden yacht in the same design of the Henry Wagner, used by Tristan Jones and his handicapped crew to cross the Kra Peninsula and sail up to Laos. "She was a very seaworthy boat," says Marty. "I'm sure that her design would perform well under sail. She'd be a real goer, double-ended and all. She's got a sturdy design that could work up some speed with sufficient sail."And Marty would like to enter the 40-foot classic in the King's Cup Regatta. We'd be racing the clock to finish in time, but with a bit of luck, and a lot of work, we just might get there in time for the gun and the fun."