Pop the corks and sail on sailor. Champagne celebrations will be the order of the day both on land and water when the sailing fraternity descends on tropical Koh Samui, Thailand’s “second” island, for the Samui Regatta starting this weekend and ending on June 1.
While it can’t compare in scope or stature to its big brother the Phuket King’s Cup Regatta, held on Thailand’s largest, busiest and most developed island, the 18th edition of the Samui Regatta will nonetheless bring out the biggest and best boats in Asia and beyond.
Billed as Asia’s favorite “Tropical Island Regatta,” the race was founded in 2002 and what it may lack in prestige, comparatively speaking, it makes up for in hospitality and festive ambiance.
A mixture of passage and set course racing in the Gulf of Thailand, there will be more than 500 competitors from over 20 countries. The regatta is also the season-ending event in the 2018-19 Asian Yachting (AY) Grand Prix, a circuit consisting of 13 races around the region featuring regattas in Hong Kong, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand.
Trophies up for grabs
Of course, it will be properly ornate – as only the most refined of leisure activities can be – with a gala reception honoring the AY Yacht of the Year with the AY Trophy, while the AY Skipper of the Year will be similarly feted as he dons the traditional navy blue blazer.
However, the sight of these magnificent craft gliding over the azure waves off this tropical paradise framed by cascades of luxury resorts, merely reinforces the obvious: both sailing in Thailand and the island have come a long, long way, baby.
From the 1960s through to the early ’90s, Koh Samui was spoken of in almost reverential tones in hostels from Sydney to Sri Lanka. It was an integral part of the three-pronged Hippie Trail: Bali, Samui and Goa.
Renowned for rubber, coconuts, fishing and hippies, at a mere 15 kilometers wide, it could take a whole day to go from one side of the island to the other because there were few roads back in the ’70s.
There were no catamarans zipping around the island back then either. The slow boat from the port at Surat Thani would take more than two hours to get to Koh Samui and once there you were captive to the electromagnetic, cosmic vibrations unique to the island.
Reputable scientific research in regards to the earth’s energy grid – the electromagnetic field that surrounds the planet – states that there are energy meridians intersecting in “power spots.”
One of those major power spots is Koh Samui, along with the Pyramids, Stonehenge, The Bermuda Triangle and Macchu Picchu, which helps explain why kindred spirits would flock there to recharge their forlorn souls with cosmic energy.
Former hippie paradise
There was also the allure of Koh Phangan, the island next door which served up a psychedelic breakfast featuring magic mushroom omelets and where the full moon rave party would attract a handful of revelers.
By the early ’90s, the airport came to Koh Samui followed by a golf course and a series of high-end resorts. Alex Garland would write his novel The Beach, Leonardo DiCaprio would star in the movie and the full moon party on Koh Phangan would soon swell from a couple of hundred hipsters to more than 50,000 tripsters.
Now that the luxury infrastructure was in place, the yachts would come as well. Of course, not everybody who sails is straight out of the pages of Vanity Fair. In places like New Zealand, sailing a dinghy is as common as riding a bike and despite the requisite wealth necessary to support the sport at the highest levels, it is very much an athletic activity.
In Thailand, sailing became the most noble of pursuits thanks to the noblest of people. The recently deceased, and still very much loved, King Bhumibol Adulyadej was a keen and accomplished sailor who even built his own boats from scratch.
In 1967, he won a gold medal along with his eldest daughter in the OK Dinghy Class at the Southeast Asian Peninsular Games, which is now called the SEA Games, in Thailand and helped inspire a new generation of sailors.
Back in the late ’60s, sailing in Thailand was mostly the domain of officers in the Royal Thai Navy. There were no competitive regattas to speak of, which was something of a shame considering how the waters and winds of this maritime playground were tailor-made for sailing. Most of the competitive sailing in those days was held in the waters off the Royal Varuna Yacht Club in Pattaya and involved dinghies.
When the King was awarded the International Olympic Committee’s Insignia of the Olympic Order for his contributions to sport, it became the catalyst for a number of local regattas culminating in the first Phuket King’s Cup Regatta in 1987. Originally a mixture of everything from keelboats and catamarans to lasers and windsurfers, it is now one of the most prestigious events in Asia.
More than 2,000 sailors racing a variety of craft are dutifully cheered on by an armada of yachts, including live-aboard sea cruisers, in an annual event that would write the template for the Samui Regatta, founded 15 years later.
There will be few hippies aboard the towering yachts racing around Koh Samui over the next week or so. In fact, there aren’t many left onshore anymore either. Gentrification has taken care of that.
But the cosmic energy that drew them there in the first place is still both geologically and spiritually embedded in the island. Combine that with the beloved royal lineage and the soul of sailing in Thailand and the boats in the Samui Regatta can’t help but fly over the water. Being in a true power spot will ensure the wind beneath their sails is both kind and mighty.
Tim Noonan is a writer based in Bangkok and Toyko, covering sports and culture. Follow him on twitter @T_NoonanEast