United World College's Voyage in Phang Nga Bay - A Demonstration of Determination
Day #1 – 13 Nautical Miles
The weather had been quite mercurial. The original itinerary had this gang of intrepid National Youth Achievement Award students beginning with an open-water crossing from Ko Sire (Phuket) to Koh Yao Yai. Having just spent the previous two weeks in the bay and seeing the weather produce storms, strong winds and lightning, I asked Mike Gibby (teacher, tour leader, all-around good guy) if he minded modifying the plans. He was very open as this was a potential safety issue.
So, the nine students, three teachers and three Paddle Asia guides headed off to Koh Yao Noi. We launched at Laem Sai Beach and paddled the short distance to Koh Nok (Bird Island). Off in the distance, the skies were darkening. The kids would take turns being the group leader and I walked over to Ben (student) and talked about what was happening.
While we were having lunch, the calm day became tainted with wind. Launching from the lee side of the sandy point on Ko Nok, we tightened our spray decks (spray skirts if you’re an American) and headed off to Ko Pak Bia.
The quartering seas and tail wind played havoc with the kayaks. Students were struggling to paddle in a straight line and in spite of the double kayaks having rudders, I requested that they didn’t put them down so as to help them learn how to paddle without resorting to using such ‘tools’. All along the way the adults (teachers and guides) supported various students with helpful hints on technique. You could see frustration in some of their faces, but they persevered. Sweep and rudder strokes were amended and fine tuned.
The storm that was brewing to the South didn’t materialize; the storm to the Northeast didn’t either. We all relaxed in the warm water of Koh Pak Bia. Some small crabs were found clinging to some floating debris. Several students let the crabs climb onto their hands. A connection was made. The crabs were released shortly thereafter.
Changing leaders, we decided to head to the Holiday Resort instead of the camping beach that is further north on Ko Yao Noi. The change was made for two reasons: another storm was manifesting itself and heading towards us and the thought of setting up camp in a storm wasn’t very appealing. The kids had done wonderfully in adverse conditions and the Holiday Resort offered a big empty restaurant where they could both set up their tents and do the cooking. In addition, we adults got to stay in a bungalow with hot showers and cable TV. It didn’t take much convincing to persuade the teachers to choose this option. We were all happy campers.
Back to the paddle, we couldn’t see Koh Yao Noi. The storm was coming due west and the big island disappeared in the mist. In addition, there was a very stiff headwind trying to keep our progress to a minimum. Again, the kids buckled down and paddled through the storm. We were all becoming rapidly impressed with this group of youngsters… and this was just a sign of things to come. All in all, we paddled 13 Nautical Miles! How’s that for a big first day!
As part of the National Youth Achievement Award, students are expected to do their own cooking. Poo, our charming new Bangkok Admin office manager, Moo and the guides instructed them on how to make Gang Keow Wan Gai (Sweet Green Chicken Curry) and a couple of other tasty Thai dishes. The kids jumped at the opportunity to chop veggies and learn the recipe. Their hard work paid off with a delicious dinner.
Day #2 - 12 Nautical Miles
Up with the sun, the kids were packed and ready by the time when most students would have just been getting their act together. Rushing to get my act together, I met them on the beach in front of the Holiday Resort while Jason (teacher) was running through some warm-up exercises with them. Whew, I didn’t hold them up.
Paddling up the eastern side of Koh Yao Noi, the group really impressed us with how well they were staying together. We didn’t have to stop a regroup and we moved at a very noble pace. Tour leader for this leg, Ana, chose the beach on Koh Kudu Yai as the lunch spot. A lovely beach that is being assaulted by lazy speedboat tourists, Koh Kudu Yai is an island destined for ruining. Yet another fine beach falls prey to the sting of mass tourism, still, if you get there when no one else is there it’s a nice bay and beach.
After Kudu Yai, we headed over to Koh Roi to explore the cave and hong. I filled the kids in on the importance of a healthy mangrove population and the relationship between mangrove, coral, pelagic fish species, etc.
Heading south towards Koh Boi Yai, we were slapped in the face by sudden Force Four seas (white caps and strong wind), so we shot over to Koh Yao Yai to a small beach to wait out the front. The seas did calm down, but we were still faced with at least Force Three seas. Halfway to our camp, I heard one of the girls getting sick. She had mild sea sickness, but instead of hopping in the longtail escort boat, she was determined to carry on. I was impressed. She had every right to bail out, but didn’t want any part of that. Not a whimper was heard from her! She even picked up the pace!
Arriving at near sunset, the gang quickly set up camp. My team got the dinner started. These kids had fought through very, very tough conditions and we all (teachers and guides) weren’t about to make them cook. They put in a big day of activity, starting very early and lasting all day. My guys and gals got the food started and the kids still came to help a bit. We all slept well on this night.
Day #3 – 8 Nautical Miles
Ah, the last day and we were all still eager to get in the boats and paddle. I can’t truly express my utter contentment with this wonderful group of youngsters. If all school groups were this easy, I’d have a very easy life. We never had to ask them do keep their shoes on while on the beaches or while swimming (a constant problem with some school kids), nor did we have to stop a lot to keep the group together. They were all around sixteen years-old, yet more mature than some adults (like me sometimes!).
The teaches and I decided to give them an easy day… after all, they did the equivalent of two days’ worth of paddling on each of the previous days. They had all satisfied (understatement) the criteria set forth by the NYAA scheme.
We set off to circumnavigate Koh Boi Yai. I had actually never done this in all of my sixteen years of paddling in the bay. I didn’t think it was worth doing, but I was proven wrong. The island is covered with thick verdant jungle. We saw White-bellied Sea Eagles, Brahminy Kites, a lone Crested Serpent Eagle and a troop of Crab-eating Macaque monkeys. And, of course, the wind was blowing strongly against us for the first half of the paddle around. Why would we expect anything else?
We rounded the far point and actually had calm seas. What a lovely island. I need to do some more exploring as I think it would be fun to hike from one end to the other of this ‘hotdog-shaped’ island. Anyway, we made it back to the previous night’s campsite and ate some banana bread and Oreos.
The home stretch was waiting for us. This time, however, we actually had a nice tail wind and following current. We were all somewhat relieved, though I’m sure if conditions were otherwise these kids would have carried on.
Instead of having them cook their lunch, I felt compelled to buy them a nice lunch at one of Koh Yao Noi’s best restaurants. To say that they earned it would be a gross understatement.
Having met and greatly exceeded our wildest expectations for a group of students of this age, we can’t wait for another United World College gang of determined and intrepid adventurers.
Special thanks to Mr. Mike Gibby (hand in the air) for organizing this wonderful trip.
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