Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Paddling with a Legend: John Gray's Sea Canoe

"Sometimes I think I'm responsible for what Phuket has become," John Gray sighs as we stare out at limestone cliffs looming on the horizon. "It was so quiet and beautiful when I started here in the '80s. That's the problem with being successful."

With his full white beard and hulking physique, 70-year-old John Gray cuts an imposing figure, the sort of man who makes an impact wherever he goes. Affectionately known as Ling Yai (meaning 'Big Monkey' - not 'ugly monkey' as I mistakenly thought!) by his Thai crew, Gray is indeed a legend, a name synonymous with the island of Phuket. His sea kayaking tours through the 'hongs' of Phang Nga Bay are one of the most popular day trips out of Phuket - a classic Thai experience that, in my mind, should be on every traveller's bucketlist.

Myself and John Gray on board his tour boat

John Gray's Sea Canoe tours have been part of the Phuket experience since 2001, when this Californian-born adventurer decided to expand his successful Hawaiian sea kayaking business into South East Asia. "I started the business on just 700 baht," he recalls. From the start, the focus was on the environment, with Gray keen to share his love of nature, science and low-impact exploration. He was the first to delve the caves and hongs of Phang Nga Bay, discovering hidden openings into the magical and surreal world inside the limestone karst islands; but, of course, many since have followed in his wake.

"Did you know there's no such thing as a sea canoe?" Gray asks me. "They are kayaks, of course. I just registered the same 'sea canoe' to throw off imitators. It didn't really work!" he laughs.

The yellow kayaks used by John Gray

Today there are several other operators offering "sea canoe" trips from Phuket; Gray is the only one, however, using the distinctive yellow SOTAR kayaks, safe and untippable rafts which can be easily manoeuvered through tight cave openings. Gray's tours are also recognised for their safety, use of local guides and for the quality of food - which is indeed excellent.

Gray himself tries to join at least three or four trips a week, with his clients always keen to hear his stories, ranging from riding huge waves in Hawaii, to kayaking in a typhoon, to hand-rearing a sea eagle that one day flew away to freedom - a tale that leaves the big man fighting back tears. But on the days he can't personally join the tours, his guests can rest assured that his all-Thai team are doing a great job, being personally trained by Gray in safety, environmental practices and eco-tourism.

John Gray explaining the geography of the 'hong'

The day of our tour is a landmark occasion for Gray - it's the first time he's paddled his own kayak in five years, with arthritis, a knee injury and a blood clot to the brain as recently as last year rendering him less-than-fit.

It's also one of the first times his company has hosted a baby under the age of one - my granddaughter Ellie.

I must admit to some nerves before our tour: tiny lifejackets don't seem to exist in Thailand, with the smallest being suitable for three-year-olds; while the Hong by Starlight tour is a long day for a baby, setting out from our hotel at 11.30am and not returning until 9pm.

After lengthy consultation with Gray, however, I was assured Ellie would be safe. We could bring along her pram for her to nap in on board the mothership, while Gray promised to allocated a dedicated staff member to her care and attention. So while her parents Jo and Nic paddled off on the first kayak excursion, I stayed on board with guide Toy, watching Ellie snooze in her pram during her afternoon nap.

Ellie with Toy

On the second kayak outing, however, Nic decided that holding Ellie would be quite safe; and indeed it was wonderful to watch her bouncing in his arms with excitement, leaning over to touch the water and fascinated with the sounds and sights inside the hong.

Ellie enjoying the kayak experience

"Who knows, maybe she'll grow up with a great love of caves and the water," Gray reflects afterwards. "Hopefully, subliminally, she'll retain a memory of this. Wouldn't that be incredible?"

I have to agree...

Happy baby! Pics: Julie Miller

Further information: www.johngray-seacanoe.com

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