Truly an “international hub”, our lovely island attracts all walks of life, from nearly every corner of the globe. Poor, rich, tall, short, fat, thin, old, young, dark, light, cruel, kind, ugly, beautiful, intelligent, ignorant – most of the millions of visitors that touch down in Phuket year after year are just passers by.
But for a multitude of motivations, many end up staying on. A treasure-chest full of interesting experiences and stories can be found in the marine community, with many o’ sailor who has been to “edge of the planet” and back, yet for some reason – or perhaps many – end up settling down on this small yet fruitful rock of 543 square kilometres.
The Phuket News recently sat down with one such seasoned-traveller-turned-islander, Ghislaine “GiGi” Bovy, who shared her interesting story.
GiGi – an active member of the Ao Chalong Yacht Club who has crewed and will crew any and all boats in any one of the island’s regattas and casual outings – did what many of us only fantasise about.
Mid-career, she opted out of the mundane and predictable live-to-work life, and set out to travel the world on a sail boat with a friend, Benoit Kaisin.
“I’m 59 years old, I’ve never been part of the rat race, otherwise I would have never sailed around the world. I don’t have a SUV, big house with a swimming pool – and I don’t want any of it,” she exclaimed.
But unlike those who squeeze such an experience into a single summer or year, racing against the clock, only to return to a 9-to-5 in some cubicle, Gigi was in no particular rush.
“I’ve been working in marketing ‘forever’. I wanted to have a change in career, but not only that, I wanted to sail around the world. That was a dream I’ve had since I was a child.”
Having formally learned sailing when she was 15, she complemented a life-long of practical boating experience with formal navigation courses to become a Yachtmaster when was 37.
“I finally met someone who said ‘yea, let’s go for it!’ Benoit was a Belgian guy I met at a diving school in Brussels.
“But of course it was not going to be the kind of ‘one year off from work’ around the world the trip – we wanted to go for at least 10 years.”
It ultimately took 13 years, covering a total of 64,000 nautical miles and more than 200 islands along the way.
“We’re not rich, so every couple of months, we’d anchor the boat somewhere safe, and go back to Europe to work a couple of months to earn some money and then resume where we left off.”
Finding temp work in Europe was not a problem for GiGi, whose mother tongue is French, and has also mastered Dutch, German and English, having even picked up Italian and Spanish for fun.
“Most of my initial Spanish came from Texas as an exchange student when I was 16,” notes GiGi, who grew up in Belgium, with a Dutch-speaking mother and French-speaking father.
Her father, Ferdinand Bovy, was coach for famous Belgian football club, Standard de Liège, a major feeder team for the National Team. Gigi played football since the age of 4, and played for and coached her college team at the Université de Mons. But language and the ocean have long been her true calling.
“On the weekends, while many of my friends were playing, I was studying languages and sailing,” she recalls.
And though she is thankful for work opportunities, she has always made sure not to let it take over her life. “If anyone tries to call me after 8pm, they will be disappointed,” she laughs.
GiGi went on to tell her globe-trotting route, which was often dictated by the seasons, weather and winds.
Taking their time, they got to visit many more destinations then the typical “race around the world” adventure.
GiGi and Benoit in 1996 bought their boat in Granville, France for $100,000 and then brought her to Brussels.
Minuit was a 44-foot monohull, with its retractable keel being a huge advantage, allowing them to cruise, mast down, on rivers like the Midi Canal.
The vessel was already 20 years old, but sturdy. As with any used boat, one has to allocate for maintenance, which Gigi reckons was about B200,000 a year.
“Of course it’s a lot more when you have something major, like engine repairs or replacing sails, whereas a new sail might cost B150,000; change the rigging, that’s half a million baht, and a new engine, even more. You have to take into account that something may and will go wrong along the way.”
Minuit was energy-autonomous, complete with solar panels, a wind generator and alternator on the shaft.
When they weren’t sailing, the Perkins 50-horsepower inboard engine proved to be valuable necessity.
They finally left Belgium in 1997, with their bearings south and east, through France via the Canal du Midi.
In that initial year, they visited many Greek and Turkish Islands, taking the Corinth Canal, and down to Israel, before coming round to Egypt to take the Suez Canal through to the Red Sea.
“At that time, the Red Sea was already starting to become dangerous but we didn’t have any problem. We stopped in Yemen and were welcome there.”
They spent anywhere from a couple of days to weeks at each destination. Every few months they would have to stop at a major port to do a big job for the boat – whether a major hull cleaning, replace some parts or order new sails, and “We’d get stuck there till the job was done. But it didn’t matter... What matters when sailing around the world is taking the time to visit land.”
By 2002, they made it to Thailand their first time around, and explored all along the Andaman coast, and Malaysia.
Though she was impressed with Phuket, the trip was far from over.
Meanwhile, they left the boat in Yacht Haven, flew back to Europe and worked a few months to raise funds for the next part of their trip. From Phuket, they set their bearings west.
“We met some South Africans in the Seychelles, who were shocked we weren’t going to see their country. I didn’t initially have any desire to go. As a young girl, I heard about Apartheid and it didn’t appeal to me.”
But she decided to take up the suggestion and ended up staying in South Africa 18 months, setting up base in a marina in Richards Bay near Durban, for some maintenance and a new deck.
They departed South Africa by 2003, and over the next seven years would gradually cross two of the world’s biggest oceans. They crossed the Atlantic to the Caribbean islands, before continuing on to Colombia, and through the Panama Canal to access the Pacific. From there, they continued on to the Galapagos and French Polynesia, Fiji, New Caledonia, and ultimately back to Thailand by 2010.
Asked about any special places, she recalled a three-month stop in the Chagos archipelago. “It was a sort of “Robinson Crusoe” archipelago where no one lives, it’s a British Indian Ocean Territory, south of the Maldives.”
Indeed, Southeast Asia was an ideal place to finally settle.
“We ended up selling the boat to a Canadian couple who wanted to do the exact same thing. With boats, you never get your money back. In fact, we probably put another $50,000 in it over the years. But we got the time, memories and experience out of it, which is priceless.”
In between Europe breaks, Gigi made her base in Bangkok for an initial 1.5 years in Thailand, but says she missed the sea and marine community so much that she decided to move to Phuket.
Last year, she took part in her 7th Kings Cup Regatta over the years.
Asked about what she thought separates Phuket, Thailand and Southeast Asia from the rest of the world, she said that security tops the list.
“Here we could leave our boat open with dinghy on the beach for several days, come back and everything would still be there. You couldn’t do this in the Red Sea or Africa, for example.”
She recalled how once in Madagascar, when she and her partner decided to paddle to shore to go grocery shopping for an hour, some thieves boarded their boat and stole their dinghy’s outboard engine, a computer, some navigation instruments and guitar, among other things. That was their worst loss in 13 years.
And despite reports of rampant piracy in Southeast Asia, Gigi is not phased. “Sure, there’re some cases in the Celeb Sea or even Malacca Straits but we found from talking to local authorities that many reports of incidents in this region have been tied to fraudulent insurance claims. But it’s nothing like the Red Sea, which in the last 10 years has gotten a lot worse.
“Piracy used to be a boarding party who might seize some goods – tobacco or alcohol, for example, but it was something you could deal with.
“Then, more recently, pirates realised they could get a lot more easy money from kidnapping ransoms”.
But luckily, she and her partner never had any serious incidents.
“A lot of it is also about your own perception. If you are worried about something bad happening, the energy you emit will make you more prone to what you are worried about.
“But if you are more spontaneous and trust people in general, chances are nothing bad will happen. We had an old rifle on our boat, but never had to use it.”
An optimist, GiGi always views the “glass as half-full”.
Next, GiGi says she wants to benefit the local community and environment, and volunteer to protect the ocean.
“I just received confirmation of my volunteer crew application having been registered ... so fingers crossed that I can join one of their ships soon.”
With that, The Phuket News would like to wish GiGi good luck with this and all future endeavours and and look forward to catching up again soon – at sea or on shore!