Extreme cruises: Sailing through the Mergui Archipelago on 37m Escapade
by Sam Fortescue
Some people buy a boat just for glamour or racing. Others buy a yacht to embark on the voyage of a lifetime. The owner of 37.5 metre Escapade talks to Sam Fortescue about his family's epic adventure in the Mergui Archipelago.
The best plans can take many years to mature. In the case of Escapade’s owner, Christophe Albin, it was 24 years. He first visited Myanmar in the early 1990s when it was still a very secretive country, and obtaining a visa was a struggle. “It was a very interesting trip from the cultural point of view,” he remembers.
So, when Escapade was completed by New Zealand builder Fitzroy, he realised that he had the opportunity to return, this time with his wife, Lily, and son, Pierre-Alexandre. “Frankly, we didn’t really know what to expect as we knew it was hardly developed, but we were hoping for some beautiful virgin islands and beaches as well as lively and colourful underwater life.”
With the boat already in round-the-world cruising mode, no particular preparations were required. As before, entry formalities were intense, but an agency took care of everything. They filed an itinerary in advance and were not allowed to venture into the militarised zones, mostly located in the north. Visiting yachts must take a local guide, and on Escapade he served two purposes: he helped them make sense of the poorly charted waters of this 800-island archipelago; and he reported the boat’s movements and activities to the authorities. “The guide was a good help, knew his country well and spoke good English,” says Albin.
The purity of the beaches was a highlight. “We found some of the whitest and finest sand beaches of our round-the-world trip. Only three islands out of about 800 are inhabited. We saw sea gypsies that live on board dugouts, going from island to island. They were really interesting to observe.”
The few locals they did meet were friendly and helpful, he adds, leading to the simultaneously best and worst moment of the trip. “Our tender’s fuel pump broke down at sunset near one of the inhabited islands, and local fishermen, using sign language, immediately offered us help,” he says. “We were able to have our guest tender towed back to the yacht by our crew tender, but we were unable to find a spare [pump] until we were back in Langkawi.”
Skipper David Rawlinson says this sort of problem is the toughest part of such cruising. “Like all off-the-beaten-track cruising, [it’s a case of] managing technical breakdowns and finding solutions with the spares and resources you have.”
In terms of remoteness, owner Albin compares the Mergui Archipelago to the Banks and Torres islands north of Vanuatu. Sea life was disappointingly scarce owing to the local habit of fishing with dynamite, which has only recently been halted. However, the deserted islands gave ample opportunity for beachcombing and barbecues ashore – all just 225 kilometres north of Thailand’s mass-tourism destination, Phuket.