New horizon

Kep has long boasted many forms of daytime activities, from swimming to buying crabs freshly plucked from the sea to cycling up the mountain ridge buttressing the small town against the waterfront. Visitors now have another option: to sail the sea themselves and view the environs in another light

Words by Amanda Kaufmann

Photograph by Jack Malipan

Gliding along the smooth waters, you feel a gentle breeze blowing through your hair while you are effortlessly pulled forward, as if being led by an imaginary tugboat. One hand is on the rudder behind you, the other is lightly but firmly holding a rope, feeling it tighten as wind fills the sail above you. And then a sense of amazement as you look over your shoulder to see how far you are from shore and the realisation that you brought yourself out here, into the clear blue waters of the Gulf of Thailand.

This is the feeling of sailing solo from the small town of Kep on Cambodia’s southern coast.

Until recently, the only way to get out on the water was to hire a boat and have someone else sail you around on an island tour. Now, thanks to the Discovery Centre at Knai Bang Chatt, those who seek to make their own adventure can learn to sail, take a boat out and take a personal tour of the bay, going off of chartered holiday territory.

At the Discovery Centre, beginners learn to sail Hobie Cats and Optimists. Optimists, or Opis, are basic single-person “tub” sailboats that are perfect for children. Hobie Cats are catamarans, two hulls connected by a trampoline in the centre. They are ideal for learning to sail, said Discovery Centre manager Neil Wilkinson, because the traditional metal beam that swings from side to side as the wind changes (occasionally knocking the inattentive sailor on the head) has been replaced with a hollow baton inside the main sheet – “so it’s just like getting hit by material.” They can be righted easily if capsized (wink).

Not that being capsized in this area is something to be worried about. The entire bay is rather shallow, the water is always warm and “there are no biting things, like sharks”, noted Wilkinson. There’s also only one small tide a day, which means there’s very little variation for learning sailors to contend with. Constant winds all year round – from trade to monsoon winds – mean one can enjoy a jaunt on the water anytime. The monsoon winds blow strong during the tourist low season, so it’s an ideal time to learn to sail, said Wilkinson. Naturally, the prices are lower then, too.

So how long does it take to learn how to sail? “It really depends on the student. Generally, they’re fine with three hours on the boat with a person and having had a little bit of land theory,” and practice is key, said Wilkinson. There are four lessons in the Discovery Centre course – each includes an hour and a half on the water, so by the end of the second beginner course, one should feel comfortable leaving and returning to shore and sailing alone. Lessons three and four cover man-overboard and right-of-way rules.

“The emphasis is on practice and experience. Theory is important, but hard to understand unless you actually do it.”

After that, it’s open waters. You can rent a boat with or without an instructor and enjoy a day cruising to the islands, making your own tour, at your own pace, on your own time.

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