What is a Thai longtail boat?
A Thai longtail boat (Rua hang yao / เรือหางยาว) is a traditional wood built boat that is commonly seen on beaches in southern Thailand. Longtail boats, like tuk tuks are a favourite for tourist photos, they are iconic and uniquely distinctive.
Longtail boats, usually just referred to as longtails, are not only used to take tourists out on pleasure rides. They are used as ferries, cargo boats and fishing boats.
Longtails can be big or small, and builders like to get creative with designs. But they all have the same basic characteristics. They are designed to sit low in the water and have a flat bottom, ideal for beaching on the sand, or driving up klongs (narrow canals).
Longtails are wide and therefore relatively stable. They have a high bow and can cope with rough sea surprisingly well. The outboard engine is placed high and inboard at the stern. The skipper stands to steer his craft with a long tiller which also acts as the throttle.
Protruding from the rear of the engine is a long propeller shaft from which the boats’ name is derived. The whole engine block and propeller shaft can be spun around 360 degrees to enable steering. The bracket mount also allows for up and down movement. Very few longtail boats have a reverse gear.
Longtail boat design
The longtail boat design hasn’t changed much over the years. Steel nails are now used instead of wooden dowels and engines are used instead of oars. In the past local timber was used but restrictions on logging have cut supply, so new boats are often built with imported wood. This has greatly increased the price of the hulls which are overbuilt by design and can weigh over two tonnes.
The diesel engines are taken from trucks or tractors. They are reliable and easy to repair. Plus they are also considerably cheaper than a modern outboard motor found on a speedboat.
Boats are hand made using techniques handed down from father to son. No plans are used, the design comes from the head of the master builder.
Each longtail boat captain will paint their boat with their own choice of colours intended to pay respect to the water spirits who will in turn provide safe passage a a full net of fish.
The bowsprit is adorned with coloured silks and lotus flowers which pay respect to Buddha. Flowers are often refreshed on the morning of a journey and incense candles burned for good fortune. You should never touch this area of the boat which is considered sacred.
Traveling by Thai longtail boat
Some considerations for when traveling by longtail:
If you are island hopping with a longtail boat you will probably be embarking and disembarking at the beach rather than a pier. So the ideal footwear is flip flops or sandals that can be removed to wade through the surf. You may need to wade waist deep so consider you personal belongings. Make sure your bag is secure and that you can hold it above your head. Make sure your phone is out of your pocket.
To board the boat you will have to climb over the side. The sides are lowest at the middle but that will mean wading out a bit further. Some boats have small ladders that can be hung over the side. Passengers can help each other by weighing down one side of the boat so others can clamber aboard more easily.
The captain may ask you to sit in a certain seat for ideal weight distribution. Longtail boats are heavy at the rear so weight is often needed at the front. Sitting in the middle will keep you drier, or at the bow which is highest and forward of the bow wave.
Longtail boats seem to have a more relaxed approach to safety, some have life jackets and some don’t. Certainly they do not have insurance so it is your responsibility to go or not go. If the weather looks iffy then maybe you should leave it for another day.
Some boats have a cover for sun protection but you will still be exposed to plenty of UV rays from the sides and bouncing up off the water. So use sunscreen and dress appropriately if you are chartering a longtail boat for the day.
When you jump off a longtail boat check the depth of the water and check what’s underfoot.
What’s the future for longtail boats?
Increased building costs due to the cost of importing timber has made longtail boats more expensive. Speedboats are faster and carry more passengers, which makes them cheaper, so they are increasing preferred by tourists.
However the Thai government recognizes the importance of the Thai longtail boat, and the art of building longtails to Thai culture. So hopefully we will see them on the beaches for years to come, it wouldn’t be the same without them.