Martial discord, economic decline, trouble in the Swat Valley: none of this could deter the participants of Gulf Charter’s 5th annual Koh Chang Cruising Rally from enjoying themselves and having a great time over Songkran, the Thai New Year.

Typical evening shower of colour

This year 14 boats took part in the four-day Flotilla through the Koh Chang- Koh Kood Archipelago. The boats traversed one of the most beautiful and unexplored cruising grounds in Thailand. The Koh Chang-Koh Kod Archipelago has much to offer cruising yachtsman with its fair winds and protected waters. And good anchorages are abundant; you can moor off uninhabited beaches, or off exclusive secluded beach resorts and restaurants. On Koh Kood, you can take a dinghy ride up the mangrove-lined river estuaries, and swim in a spectacular freshwater waterfall.

The Songkran Flotilla is the brainchild of Gulf Charter’s Phil Harper, who spent weeks scouring the area in a kayak looking for the best possible stopovers. The Flotilla was designed to bring together a cross-section of sailing enthusiasts, as it offers those that are not yet ready to cruise alone the chance to captain their own vessel with the comfort of having support near by. To the seasoned cruiser, it offers camaraderie at evening parties and a fast track to the best locations. Phil’s rationale for holding the Flotilla during Songkran is, “the Thai holiday doesn’t match with any other major international holiday, so many people stay in Thailand, but with all the traffic chaos, the marauding hordes and their constant bombardment of water, the ocean is just a better place to be.” (Although, it should be noted that Gulf Charters staged its own Songkran with each participant boat being given a water gun and allowed to collect points if they “tagged” other participant boats during the rally.)

Phil Harper & staff aboard GC tug

If you are joining the flotilla in your vessel, the fee is 3,000 baht per head and 1,500 baht per child (under 15 years). This price includes evening meals and on-the-water support throughout the cruise, including ice runs and rubbish disposal. A single evening ticket price is 1,000 baht. If you don’t have a yacht and want to join in the flotilla contact Gulf Charters as they can rent you a cabin, or cabins. The martial discord mentioned in the first paragraph occurred when after an argument a woman threw her husband’s grandmother’s wedding ring into the ocean. The ring was three generations old and worth thousands. The husband was understandably upset and spent hours looking for it. Luckily, even though she did throw it into the ocean, she threw it into the shallow ocean near Captain Hooks. The following morning, he resumed the search and unbelievably found it. Talk about looking for a needle in a haystack; imagine finding a diamond ring in an ocean?

Also, worth mentioning is the man with the mike: few people are as gifted with a microphone as Captain Tim McMahon, who regaled the participants with nightly recaps and pep talks. He puts it down to all the sailing schools he’s conducted, but there’s no doubt that he can wow and captivate a crowd. Hosting the Oscars is a definite can-do with this skipper. Friday the 10th of April Gulf Charters kicked off the event with a low key BBQ on Friday night at its base at Island View Resort at Ao Salakpet in Koh Chang. People chartering a yacht had access to the pier on Friday and were welcome to sleep aboard. Alternatively, participants could also rent rooms on the pier Saturday the 11th of April The first day of the Flotilla started off at a leisurely pace; with some participants still arriving, doing their briefing, etc. The Flotilla headed out around lunch time for the sail across to Koh Mak via Koh Rang for some fabulous snorkelling. The evening’s party was held on the beach in the northeastern bay, a BBQ at the Koh Mak Resort & Pool Bar.

Day is day, gone the sun

Sunday the 12th of April The Flotilla headed out for its journey to Ao Yai, a fishing village on the southeastern end of Ko Kood. The night’s festivities were held at the Aroy Sabay restaurant, run by Khun Wasana. This sleepy little spot rarely sees foreigners, never mind a fleet of yachts and they take the opportunity to host this event very seriously. Seafood lovers were treated to a special treat as the ladies of the village drummed up a memorable feast.

Monday the 13th of April The first part of the day saw the flotilla take a detour to take in the aforementioned freshwater waterfall at Klong Chao. Floating bungalows line the mangrove swamp, which leads you to this scenic vista. Many had lunch at the Away Resort on Koh Kood, while the evening’s activities were held at Captain Hook’s, a spectacular resort, located in a picture-perfect tropical island setting, with a coconut-tree lined white sandy beach. There was another spectacular buffet dinner on offing at the sunset-viewing platform overlooking the beach and nearby islands and a spectacular fire-dancing performance, featuring a twelve-year-old firetosser, was staged for entertainment that evening. Not far from Captain Hook’s lies Neverland Beach, where part of the movie Hook was filmed.

Beach near Captain Hook's

Tuesday the 14th of April The last day, and the Flotilla cruised the 25nm back to Bang Bao in Koh Chang at a leisurely pace, with most yachts arriving back on the dock at around 2:00pm. That night, a swank dinner was held at the nearby Nirvana Resort. After dinner, good laughs were had by all who watched Kurt Russell and Martin Short start in Captain Ron.


The southern border of Thailand, close to Phuket, is some 400 miles north of the Equator at about 7 degrees N. The famous Doldrum Belt stretches from the equator north and south by 600 miles, or 10 degrees. In this belt, the wind and weather is unpredictable since it is the meeting of the southerly winds in the Northern Hemisphere and the northerly winds in the Southern Hemisphere. Koh Samui lies right in the northern limit of the Doldrum Belt, so for half the year it is clear, and half the year it’s inside the belt. North of Samui you are clear of the Belt at all times of the year, but subject to the monsoon winds that blow for half the year from the southwest and the other half from the northeast.

In the northeast monsoon, you get drier winds blowing off the continent of Asia with crystal clear days and flat seas in the lee of the land mass. In the southwest monsoon, you get a bit more swell and a southwest wind that has picked up moisture from the Indian Ocean. This time sees more showers and squalls but plenty of good sailing wind. Koh Kood at 105sqkm is the second largest island in Trat Province, has ample anchorages is accessible only by water. Ao Yai Village (where the Flotilla stopped on the third night) is the last Thai fishing village before you hit Cambodian waters, and is inhabited by many Cambodian fishermen. Koh Mak is the third largest island in Trat Province and covers 13sqkm. It is surrounded by small islands (Koh Kham lies due west off the northern tip and is joined to Koh Mak by a sandbar). It has been inhabited for over 100 years, and coconut farming is the island’s primary occupation. Trat is only 50 minutes by air from Suvanabhumi. From there it’s a short van ride to the Laem Ngop pier, where you can take a ferry across to Koh Chang, the largest in a group of 40 islands stretching over 30 miles to the crystal clear waters to Koh Kood.

Koh Chang is the best preserved holiday destination in Thailand as 70% of it is still virgin rainforest, but that may not last long. Gulf Charters Gulf Charters manages its fleet of 10 catamaran and keelboat sailing yachts ranging from 32-52ft directly, but not through an add-on agent program. It offers yacht charter options ranging from bareboat through to complete sailing holidays. In 2006, it established the first bareboat charter base on Koh Chang at Ao Salak Phet (116 miles from Ocean Marina) on the southern end of Koh Chang. Phil Harper & Gulf Charters staff Besides teaching people how to sail, Gulf Charters trains staff for megayachts and is doing so through the International Yachtmaster Training Program ® (IYT).

The company is Asia's only certified IYT facility, offering courses from beginner through to Yachtmaster. These courses can be combined with yacht charter options to deliver complete learning sailing holidays, giving you accreditation that is recognized in over 24 countries and by major yacht charter companies and sailing groups such as Sunsail® and Moorings®. Gulf Charters’ sailing school doesn’t generate huge amounts of money, but it produces people who charter boats, and then buy them and those who even go into business with Gulf like current CEO Ron Patston, a graduate of the school. Gulf Charters was started by Phil, George Romanyk, and Robbie Gilchrist back in 2001, because they couldn’t believe how difficult it was to rent a yacht in the Pattaya area. Back then Ocean Marina was only running at about 40 percent capacity and only had a handful of proper sailing boats. Gulf Charters started out by bringing up Seraph from Ao Chalong in Phuket and running day cruises because that’s what the tour agencies in Pattaya wanted.

Firethrower putting on quite a show

The skipper of Seraph back then, Tim McMahon, now runs Gulf Charters’ sailing school. Then with the dropping of the high import duty in 2003, Gulf Charters was able to pick up several ex-charter yachts and from there went on to build their bareboat charter fleet. Phil, who learned to speak Thai by working as an installation engineer on the shop floor of a cement mill, said the company eventually decided to set up a second location in Koh Chang because “it’s a beautiful location. People can sail for a couple hours and then go have dinner ashore in a nice restaurant at a fancy resort. The anchorages are also protected, there are steady winds, fairly predictable seasons and we are above the doldrums.”

Phil sees the opening of Vietnam and Cambodia as a significant event in the yachting world and says it won’t be long before the boating lane down from China to Ocean Marina becomes one of the most popular in the region. Yachting in China is booming and those yachtsmen need somewhere to go. And Gulf Charters is already offering tours into Cambodia. (Phil is also contemplating a cruise to Alaska where participants could actually chip the ice off icebergs to chill their drinks).

Phil, who likes to refer to Pattaya as Bangkok Beach, says Pattaya has a great reputation as a water-sports centre. Some of the countries best windsurfers and kiteboarders are based there and Ocean Marina has a yacht racing series that no other marina in Thailand can match. He sees the future for sailing along the whole Eastern Seaboard as very bright indeed.


1st Day: Koh Chang Gulf Charters Base.

2nd Day: Koh Mak, northwestern Bay.

3rd Day: Koh Kood, Ao Yai fishing village.

4th Day: Koh Kood, Captain Hook’s Resort.

5th Day: Return to Koh Chang, Bang Bao, Nirvana Resort.

Captain Tim McMahon’s top sailing movies

Cutthroat Island

Summer Rental

Captain Courageous

The Bounty

The African Queen


Captain Ron

Moby Dick

Master& Commander

The Old Man & the Sea

(Ed note: Tim McMahon has left Gulf Charters to start his own company, Sail Quest, also based out of Ocean Marina, just outside of Pattaya)


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