The SVP Star Flyer is patrolling the islands like a dame in a crinoline skirt amid a riot of pre-schoolers. Our SVP (Sailing Passenger Vessel) is a true tall ship; a reprise of the classic clippers of the 19th century. The islands we slalom slowly amongst are the upstart creations of time and limestone that jut in wild array from the waters of southern Thailand’s Phang Nga Bay.
We range out from the Star Flyer in a small fleet of Zodiacs. For the benefit of our eager lenses, the captain breaks out her full wardrobe of 16 sails – some 3345 square metres of canvas – and, framed by the anarchic coral sculpture of the islands, provides us with an incomparable photographic feast.
Built in 1991 in Ghent, Belgium, the Star Flyer is a romantic creation; a 110-metre barquentine with all mod cons, plus fine food. She became the first clipper ship since 1911 to be granted a SPV certificate by Lloyd’s Register of Shipping. The Star Clipper line, headed by Swedish entrepreneur Mikael Krafft, operates three of the largest fully-rigged sailing ships in the world: The four-masted barquentine Star Flyer and her sister ship, Star Clipper, and the line’s five-masted flagship, Royal Clipper. Their aim is to offer the activities and amenities of a private yacht at a price lower than one pays on a cruise ship. And, there are no faux-Vegas revues, insomniac slot machines or natty cruise directors complete with white shoes, tragic toupee and blazer.
We join the Star Flyer at night. Our first sight of her is as we are ferried out into Phuket’s Patong Bay, half a kilometre offshore where she waits glowing in the blackness, her cat’s-cradle rigging ablaze with a thousand lights.
I explore the ship. There is teak, mahogany and brass everywhere, as well as four towering masts – a square-rigged foremast preceding three fore-and-aft rigged masts. The bowsprit nets are a must-do, I note, for sprawling in tomorrow; the bridge is a cavern of glowing screens and radar eyes. Passengers are welcome to step in and watch after asking permission. I discover two small swimming pools, a tranquil library and deck bar that’s already humming, almost literally, as the resident musical maestro on an electric keyboard works out to Rod Stewart’s Sailing. Going below, I find three accommodation decks, with some 83 cabins for 170 passengers. The dining room looks elegant, though not intimidating, and has open, as opposed to allocated, seating.
I spot several passengers toting house-brick-sized novels; a telltale indicator of the German-on-holiday. On closer inspection, the titles of these bildungs roman and airportepics, indeed, are mostly in German. The majority of the Flyer’s passengers on this voyage are from Germany, with the next largest group being British, followed by a scattering of Australians and others. The crew is clearly multinational. Captain Juergen Mueller-Cyran tells me that his 72 men and women are from 19 different countries, with most of the officers being German or Russian. And then there is the flag she sails under – the great ‘port’ of Luxemburg.
We weigh anchor. Dinner is served. Drinks drunk. Acquaintances made. The maestro segues to Sailing perhaps once too often and after a last inspection of the deck and the night’s stars, I fall asleep. The ship can do 14 knots under full sail, far exceeding her nine-and-a-half under mere diesel power. Using a combination of both, by morning we are 100km north of Phuket amid a lifting Andaman Sea mist and approaching a Thai marine national park, the Ko Similan archipelago.
Since 1982, nine Similan Islands have been a protected zone where, other than tents and a few bungalows, commercial development has not been permitted. In this realm of storeyed forest canopies and grand, sculpted granites, the waters are similarly protected. In fact, the Star Flyer is the only foreign-flagged vessel allowed to sail in Thailand’s marine national parks.
We anchor and transfer ashore in the ship’s tender to a white sand beach. The crew rapidly erect shade awnings, drinks are served and the chef whips up an impressive barbecue buffet lunch. Soon the shallows are dotted with our snorkellers hovering over corals whose colours flash undiminished through the clear waters. While the bommies we swim above are not as vivid as the ones I recall from a visit several years ago, I remember the comment of a fellow swimmer back then who surfaced, exclaiming: “Who needs scuba tanks when you can see all this with a snorkel?”
When 19th-century sailor and novelist Joseph Conrad worked these Andaman waters, there were no all-suite spa resorts, live-aboard dive boats or full-moon raves. The inspirations were of a more subtle order. Conrad wrote, “Suddenly, a puff of wind…laden with strange odours of blossom, of aromatic wood, comes out of the still night – the first sigh of the East on my face.” Some things remain constant. That “sigh of the East” touches each face on board the good ship Star Flyer during our trip. At different times for each of us, to be sure, but it is definitely there; definitely felt in places like the Similan archipelago or later, the Batong Islands.
Star Flyer doesn’t try to compete with its surroundings. The ship’s pony-tailed cruise director, Bavarian Peter Kissner tells us at one of his early briefings, “We have no casino, no Las Vegas show and no big shopping – and we don’t want them.” The Star Flyer offers a luxury holiday, not a pseudo-celebrity experience. (Nevertheless, the King of Sweden has sailed on her, as has actor Roger Moore, though it is said that the ex-James Bond seemed disappointed when no one recognised him).
With four masts and 3345 sq metres of canvas, the Star Flyer’s sail plan is a challenge in nautical nomenclature. In full flight, she carries a fore staysail, inner jib, outer jib, flying jib, fore course, lower topsail, upper topsail, lower topgallant, upper topgallant, main staysail, upper main staysail, mizzen staysail, main fisherman, jigger staysail, mizzen fisherman and spanker. Just in case you wondered…
For three days our ‘mega-yacht’ rambles among the wreaths of Thailand’s Andaman Sea islands, including Phang Nga Bay in the lee of Phuket, where we explore, via the Zodiacs, its Jurassic riot of limestone islands. On the same day, other passengers take an optional excursion north to the celebrated James Bond Island, featured in the movie The Man With the Golden Gun. Beforehand, Peter advises me frankly that, in his opinion, “James Bond Island itself is crap; a tourist trap. But the excursion is special, through the shallow waters and up to caves, villages and islands that our ship can’t reach.”
It’s this lack of pretence I like about the Flyer. On it, no one is too precious. You can’t colonise a poolside deckchair all day by leaving your towel on it. Jackets aren’t required at dinner, just collars. Passengers so inclined are encouraged to help with hauling sheets when the sails are raised.
The Flyer’s cabins vary in size from an enormous, aft owner’s suite down to standard cabins of under 10 square metres that, with twin beds and an ensuite shower (WC head), are on the small side, though not claustrophobic. Each cabin has a private safe, television (with very limited selections) and telephone. When cabin fever strikes, the ship offers plenty of walking areas on its teak decks, plus the get-away-from-it-all bowsprit net. This extreme for’ard area of a sailing ship was formerly known as the ‘widow maker’, such were the dangers of falling from the bowsprit while clewing the fore staysail or jib. On the Flyer, a broad, taut net stretches back from the bowsprit to the hull. At most times of day and especially around sunset, passengers sprawl here in pre- or post-cocktail abandon. This becomes my default position for siestas or long-haul reading sessions, with the blue waters of the Andaman Sea hissing by just metres below.
Thailand’s southernmost islands, the Batong Group, are not far from the Malaysian sea boundary. Here, the towering rock formations and crystal waters of Ko Tarutao National Marine Park, a 61-island group some 30km from the mainland, are still off the radar for tour groups and full-moon ravers. I learn that parts of the celebrated 1973 movie, Papillon, starring Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen, were shot here. So little has changed, they could still shoot a remake here.
We go ashore for half a day on a nameless beach on Ko Adang; its empty shoreline and untamed jungle are a reminder of how Thai islands like Phuket, Samui and Phi Phi once were. Before we land, several of the crew are dispatched to clean up the trash left by previous day-trippers. The water sports staff takes some passengers on optional scubadiving excursions and directs others to good snorkelling spots. Everyone has access to complimentary watersports, including waterskiing and windsurfing, even – groan – a banana boat! We swim, snooze and amble, woof down another of the chef’s lavish barbecues, then leave the beach cleaner than it was before we arrived.
The Star Flyer’s seven-night Far East voyages usually start and end in Phuket, taking in the Similans, Phi Phi, Phang Nga, Batong and other islands. Our voyage, also of seven nights, is one of its occasional cruises to Singapore via the Thai islands and the Malaysian ports of Malacca and Penang. I have made arrangements to disembark several days before the end of the voyage, when the Flyer docks for the day at historic Georgetown, Penang. I go ashore to my hotel – the beautifully restored Eastern & Oriental – then later stroll back to the pier to watch the great white ship head back out to sea on a near windless afternoon.
Below distant clouds, she moves across a mirror sea. I search for the words to describe the scene: “On the equator and under a low grey sky, the ship, in close heat, floated upon a smooth sea that resembled a sheet of ground glass. Thunder squalls hung on the horizon, circled round the ship, far off and growling like a troop of wild beasts.” The words, however, aren’t mine. They belong to that venerable sailor-scribe, Joseph Conrad, who knew these waters over 120 years ago. Some things remain constant.
The writer travelled courtesy of Star Clippers.
SPV STAR FLYER
Passenger capacity: 170
Length: 110 metres
Beam: 15.24 metres
Draft: 5.6 metres
Mast height: 68.9 metres
Facilities: Dining room, two pools, water sports equipment, bar, piano lounge, Zodiac tenders, library.
Cabins: 83. All have ensuite shower and WC facilities.
Cabin dimensions: There are six categories ranging from nine to 14 sq metres, plus an owner’s cabin of 21 sq metres.
Season: Emirates flies daily to Bangkok non-stop from Sydney. (Visit: www.emirates.com). Bangkok Airways then connects to Phuket, (www.bangkokair.com).
Sister ship Star Clipper cruises the French and Italian Riviera, and the Caribbean. Flagship of the fleet, Royal Clipper, cruises between Rome and Venice and along the Croatian coast, and in the Caribbean between October and April.
Ex-Phuket: Similan Islands, Phang Nga/Ko Batong, Dam Hok, Ko Adang, Penang, Malacca, Ko Lipe, Khai Nok, Phuket.
Phuket to Singapore (and vice-versa): Phuket, Similan Islands, Phang Nga/Ko Dam Hok, Ko Adang, Penang, Malacca, Singapore.
Price: A seven-night cruise starts at around $2700 per person.
Contact: Creative Cruising in Sydney, tel: 1300 362 599 or visit: www.starclippers.com.
Getting there: Star Flyer operates seven-night cruises from Phuket between November and March each year (and from Athens to the Greek Isles and Turkey from May to September).
Additional info: Tourism Authority of Thailand, tel: (02) 9247 7549 or www.tourismthailand.org.