29-Dec-2005 -- Confluence point hunting has, in the last two years or so, become somewhat of an obsession for me, so much so that my travel plans usually begin with a visit to The Degree Confluence Project website (http://www.confluence.org/) to see if an uncharted confluence point (cp) happens to lie nearby my next destination. Quickly find out who close family and dear friends are by explaining what cp hunting is and why you like it; only the truly loyal endure the explanation. Funny, however, is that every person whom I’ve managed to drag along on a hunt for the unlogged has become a convert. Do I smell comparisons to the early explorers? Like the conquistador of old, with a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other, I find myself pushing into strange new places with my GPS in one hand and…other stuff in the other. Actually, the conquistadors were trying to convert the people already living in the locations that they were conquering while I am trying to convince wary friends and acquaintances to join me on excursions into nowhere. I guess that maybe the comparison kind of sucks.
Anyway, for my 29 December 2005 attempt at logging the previously unvisited cp 12N 102E, I enlisted a close friend—Sam Linker (aka, Sammy, Linker, Slinker, Gollum, Slink-Dog, OK-Love)—and a close family member, my sister-in-law—Wendy Maher (aka, Wendle, Wendelitis, and more recently, Wanda). Although I am writing about this event in the first person, I want to make it perfectly clear that the reason that we succeeded in conquering 12N 102E is due far more to Sam and Wendy than to myself, as will become clear later on. I was privileged to be along for the ride.
This hunt began back a couple of months ago when a group of friends started to plan a winter break trip. We originally planned to go to Bali but then the bombing last fall waylaid those plans. For those of us who live in India (all of us except Wendy), Thailand is a good default vacation spot—close, convenient, tourist-friendly, yummy. Because we had all been to Thailand before, we decided to explore a part of the country new to all of us. After a couple of days up in Chang Mai, we decided that we should check out the island of Koh Chang in the Trat Province in far eastern Thailand. Of course, when planning began I immediately checked The Degree Confluence Project website and discovered that one of Thailand’s few remaining virgin cps sat off of the coast of Koh Chang. I crosschecked the spot on Google Earth (http://earth.google.com/) and saw that, in fact, it was almost exactly twenty mile directly west of the beach where we’d be staying. The Google Earth picture leads one to believe that 12N 102E lies like a pretty pearl in an azure pool of a tranquil, tropical waters, ripe for plucking. To be sure, I left for Thailand thinking that this was going to be a matter of hiring a small, cheap boat, zooming out to the cp, nailing it and heading back for a day at the beach. The reality of the open sea would soon sweep away that silly idea.
Sam Linker, Sarah Fang, Luke Walbridge, Paola San Martini, Dominic Walbridge-San Martini, Jennifer Maher, Aniket Irvin Maher-Mabie and I left New Delhi, India (where most of us work as teachers at the American Embassy School) on 17 December, 2005. We flew to Bangkok and there met up with Wendy Maher, who had flown in from her home of Denver, Colorado. We then flew up to Chang Mai (an arts and crafts village in the north of Thailand) for five days of cooking classes, shopping and touring. Then, the nine of us flew (via Bangkok) to Trat, Thailand. From the airport, we took a taxi and car ferry to the island of Koh Chang. We stayed at an awful rip-off of a joint (The Sea View) for a couple of days; having paid down a deposit prior to arriving, we needed to use up the couple days-worth of credit before we could feel good about leaving. Then, we all moved down the beach a ways where accommodations were cheaper and better.
After we had all spent a couple of days diving, hanging out, shopping, and playing on the beach, I decided to start sniffing around for a boat to rent. There was no dearth of places from which to choose. Many small-time operators rent out speedboats on a daily basis; people use these for diving, snorkeling, fishing or sightseeing excursions. I had originally arranged a deal with Dolphin Divers (http://www.dolphinkohchang.com/) to use their captain and boat for the 29 December attempt. The dive shop would be closed that day as it was going to be the one day that all of the foreign dive masters at their shop scoot over the boarder to Cambodia to renew their Thai tourist visas. It is easier to do this on a monthly basis than trying to obtain a work visa. I imagine that this is probably good for everyone except the government, as it is an effective way of avoiding pesky taxation issues. Anyway, I did not lay down a deposit quickly enough; consequently, a family of snorkelers pinched the boat from under me. Originally, the idea that Sammy and I contemplated was renting some scuba gear, taking it out in the boat with our buddy Luke, doing the cp and maybe even trying to zero out under water as well as above water. Maybe on the way back we would then stop and dive a bit at a legitimate dive site. Luke decided to hang with the family on the day of the attempt. This ended up working out, however, as renting scuba gear would have been a complete waste of money. Why will become clear soon enough.
The next dive shop that I checked out was called OK.Diving; it sitson the road just slightly north of the Chang Park Resort on Kai Bae Beach (where most of us were staying). The small shop is run, in part, by Mayuree Yuyuen (aka, Tuk) who has lived on Koh Chang for about four years. Tuk’s English is good and her disposition lovely. At about five foot nothing, she’s cute like the multicolored buttons on my rayon print beach shirt. When I happened into her shop, I slightly dreaded the unavoidable explanation of cp-hunting that always accompanies an attempt. Whether I need to rent a car or boat, ask directions or pass a military check point, I always find myself having to explain (usually unsuccessfully) cp-hunting and the reasons for it. Anyway, Tuk understood GPSs, but needed some convincing as to why we wanted to boat twenty miles out into the open ocean. Ultimately, I think that the prospect of making 7000 Bhat (about $175) spoke louder than anything. That said, she listened carefully to what we wanted and relayed the message carefully to her captain over her cell phone. The existence of a map of the Trat Province (with lines of latitude and longitude) on her shop wall aided us quite a bit in the explanation of where we wanted to go. I explained to her the difficulties involved in zeroing out in water (due to currents and wind) and asked for her to beg of the captain some patience once we neared the cp. Watching her describe to the captain over the mobile what he would have to do when closing in on the cp was a hoot. She was physically gesticulating back and forth in the shop as if she were the boat nudging to and fro, trying to find her spot. She assured us that the captain would be at the beach with his 200 horse power-motored vessel at 7:00AM the next morning. She also agreed to be there as well to send us off. Tuk rocked.
7:00AM would roll around soon, but not before I began to worry. While I had not shared my feelings with Sam and Wendy, the night before I had already begun to fret about this ride into the deep blue on what would, undoubtedly, be a tiny boat. Twenty miles is a long way. I have found myself on the open ocean on boats, ships and in scuba gear. I was even once caught in a rip tide off the coast of Ecuador. I’ve been around saltwater enough to harbor a healthy fear of its tremendous power and inexorable movements. Not wanting to seem yellow, though, I quaffed my beer, and dissolved my trepidation in another icy Chang beer.
Tuk appeared, as promised. She carried six small Styrofoam cartons of fried rice, six bottles of water and the Trat map from the dive shop wall. Clearly, she had not been completely confident in her powers of explanation on the phone the day before. Soon, Captain Sakchai arrived in his eighteen-foot speedboat with the promised 200 horse power motor—a Yamaha. I’m not sure what make the hull of this vessel was but I was sure that I was unimpressed with its diminutive size. The captain, and I use this word loosely, used the area under the bow as both fuel storage and apartment. Three large vegetable oil containers (perhaps ten gallons each) held backup fuel and occupied the tiny walkway; they were surrounded by cushioned seats upon which Sakchai undoubtedly sleeps each night. After a brief review of where, exactly, he was supposed to go, Tuk sent us on our way. We waded out into the surf, climbed aboard and zoomed off into the Gulf of Thailand at thirty miles per hour.
Prior to leaving, Sam and I had expressed doubts as to whether or not we would be able to see land upon reaching the cp—a prerequisite to the successful primary logging of a cp. It did not help that the day had begun as overcast; so, we were a bit glum as we headed out to sea. Not long after throttling forward, Captain Sakchai handed the wheel over to Sammy. Why not? He didn’t really know where we were going. Sam was doing well, but was clearly focused more on driving than navigating. We were heading too far south, according to my trusty Garmin E-Trex. Sammy soon started adjusting our direction. With his own Garmin in one hand and the helm in the other, Sam pushed ahead at a nice thirty mile per hour clip. Sakchai cupped his hand over his lighter and lit up a gritt. It seemed that this might be easy after all.
A couple miles out from the beach, we were still enjoying relatively calm waters as we cruised between two small islands, Koh Rom to the north and Koh Suwan to the south. What we did not realize was that the large island of Koh Chang (at 429 square kilometers; in Thailand second only to Phuket) effectively blocks the Gulf of Thailand’s movements. After we split the Koh Rom and Koh Suwan, things started to grow ugly. The waves that a moment or two before were soft and rolling gradually begin to grow. I noticed this more from the salt water that was beginning to spray into the boat with each plunge of the bow into a new wave. The waves were rolling in a south-west direction. Thus we were moving with them in so far as we were moving west, but we were gradually being pushed south as well; this movement is clear on the GPS track. As Sam would try to correct the direction, the waves would fight back. Large fishing vessels were present but still far off. Funky vehicles, these small ships possess long, folding arms adorned with oval, high wattage light bulbs. Tuk had told me on the beach that when spread over the night waters, they attract squid that fishermen easily harvest from the sea. As we continued to take on water and feel the slam of the small hull against the incessantly moving mountains below us, fears that had begun brewing at the bar the night before began to be realized. I glanced about for safety devices—life jackets, a life ring, a radio, Queequeg’s coffin. Nope. Nothing. We were free-ballin’ it. I started to assess the distances of the few fishing vessels in the area. I knew that if we went over, there was no way that we would be able to swim to these boats. The day before, my scuba dive had ended short of the diveboat due to some questionable navigation on the part of the dive master. Michael, a German dive master who was already up on board, shouted in his thick-tongued English, “svim, svim hart.” Sam, Sarah and I struggled to make the surface swim with our buoyancy devices fully inflated. For every kick of the fin we drifted farther away from the boat that was up current from us. It was hopeless; the boat had to pull anchor and come pluck us out, exhausted and peeved. If we capsized on this cp hunt, I doubt highly that Sakchai’s cell phone would have worked in the water. We’d be done for. I began to clutch the side of the boat, think about my son and rock back and forth as does a child who has been abused. Was Sammy nervous? Did Wendy waver? As the boat absorbed another kidney-pounding roller and I began to suggest that we might think about turning back, Sammy, a southern boy from small-town Oklahoma, let loose a rebel yell: “Woooeeee! Damn, that was a biggun.” Wendy cackled uncontrollably while Sam donned his scuba mask and snorkel. I felt like Captian Willard in Apocalypse Now, you know, when we reaches the station farthest up the Mekong before arriving at Kurtz’s camp, where the nightly battle of the bridge is fought while carnival music and what seem to be circus lights offering a maniacal backdrop, no commanding officer, pointless shooting and killing, Bedlam, Willard an island of sanity in a senseless world. “Why do they not care?” I thought. “Don’t they know we might die?” This thought grew into quiet panic as Captain Sakchai grabbed the wheel from Sam and pointed his now mildly concerned face into the on-coming spray. We still had fifteen miles to go.
Sammy and Wendy are clearly adrenaline junkies. They whooped, hollered and laughed as if they were protected by a force field; their enthusiasm and excitement never abated. I applaud their courage. For me, the entire fifteen miles to 12N 102E was a kiester-clenching, white knuckle, life-reviewing experience. As we closed in, however, I must say that the dark cloud of my fear began to be slightly broken by rays of excitement. Further, the last ten miles of the journey did not change much. Yes, it was terrifying but the terror stabilized—plateaued, if you will. As the miles ticked down into feet, thoughts of zeroing out came to mind. From personal experience (see 32N 76W at http://www.confluence.org/confluence.php?id=8737) I know how difficult it is to zero out in a boat. Indeed, it’s hard enough to do on land. Because Tuk had talked extensively with Captian Sakchai before we took off, he was prepared for what was sure to be a tedious experience. And it was. After forty minutes of throttling forward, backward and side to side, yelling out “I zeroed out on north but now we’re too far west, etc,” we hit it. My picture of the GPS is fuzzy but visible; Sammy’s is clearer. For a moment the fear totally dried up and the exuberant, intoxicating, addictive rush of another one down washed over us like the large rollers we crashed through to get there. We snapped shots of land. The fears of being able to see land were unnecessary. Though a bit hazy, Koh Chang was easily visible. More beautiful was what I am fairly certain was Koh Khlum (slightly south of Koh Chang). The patch of clear sky to the south and the low sun in the east highlighted this island in a fuzzy orange hallow. We made sure to capture the four cardinal directions with our cameras.
It was time to skeedattle. The ride back proved even more perilous, for we were now driving into the waves. Eighteen miles of fifteen mile per hour propulsion peppered interspersed with thrusts of throttle as we sped down the crests of on-coming waves convinced me that my diet of only two non-drowsy Dramamine had been a good decision. Without question, I would have horked; in addition to being a pansy when it comes to danger, I get motion sickness quite easily. The horror of the experience was almost made worthwhile by Sam and Wendy’s reactions. Yes, they too became cp-hunting converts. Galvanized by the chase and the conquest, they glowed all the way back to shore. 12N 102E was the scariest yet, but still worth it.
As indicated earlier, 12N 102E sits twenty mile almost west of Koh Chang in the Gulf of Thailand. It seems silly to talk much about the land, for the cp is water-based, with land a distant sight. Koh Chang, the second largest island in Thailand, is surrounded by smaller islands. Tropical and lush, it is still being developed for tourism, an industry which has sprouted up with great speed in just the last ten years. Clearly, the Thai government wants this to become another Phuket or Koh Samui in order to draw in the tourist Euros. Waterfalls, beaches, mediocre diving and elephant trekking are all part of Koh Chang. No doubt, one could do worse for a beach holiday.