By: Bill Jennings
When I first saw James Bond driving a longtail boat in the movie “Man with the Golden Gun," I decided that I needed to drive one. That desire stuck in my mind until a recent four-week Thailand tour by motorbike. On every canal and waterway, I saw longtail boats being used as family transportation, food sales, taxis, and cargo vessels.
For non-James Bond fans, the longtail boats of Thailand are low, flat bottom crafts between 14 and 28 feet in length. A small diesel or motorcycle engine is mounted at the stern on a gimbal mount that permits the motor to rotate freely. On the front of the motor, a long control stick is bolted to the motor. When moved, this ‘pipe’ can tilt the entire motor, up, down or sideways. The motor has a drive shaft that protrudes on a downward angle from the back of the motor and into the water. A two blade propeller bolts to the end of this shaft. This long driveshaft out the back of the boat is where the name “longtail” originated. Only the largest of longtail boats have bench seats. The normal seating arrangement is just wooden boxes, or the floor of the boat.
Travelling Thailand, it became obvious that these longtail boats were the mainstay of on-water transportation. I assumed, therefore, that a simple request along with a little cash to a longtail boat owner would get me a drive in his boat. To my dismay, every owner I approached believed I was looking for a taxi and would reply, “50 bot." Every communication attempt failed, until two weeks into my trip when I found myself in Chang Mai at its government headquarters. In a spur of the moment plan, I walked into a large state building and asked to speak with the director of tourism. To my surprise, out walked a pleasant gentleman in a black suit. I explained to him that I needed his help to find a longtail boat that I could test for an American boating magazine. Two quick phone calls and I was on a bus to Chiang Rai in northern Thailand where a Mrs. Tipp owned a fleet of longtails from which I could choose a test vessel. But when I arrived, Mrs. Tipp had a different plan. She wanted to take me by pickup truck to an annual music festival on the borders of Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos. This area is called The Golden Triangle, because of the gold exchanged there for heroin. It sounded interesting, but I reminded Mrs. Tipp of the purpose of my visit. Following a flurry of hand signals and one syllable words, Mrs. Tipp and I agreed to a compromise. We would go to the music festival, but in one of her longtail boats.
Sitting in a longtail is much like sitting on a large surfboard with a diesel engine perched on the back. Speed and steering controls are both via a five-foot control pole. Moving the pole was more sensitive than I had figured. I worried about moving the pole too sharply and spitting everyone out of the boat. But when I concentrated on steering input, I would involuntarily change boat speed. I finally got things into balance and only had to worry about hanging on. Sitting sideways on a low stool, with no instrumentation and no wind protection, it felt like we were travelling much faster than we were. From the feel of it, I figured 80 mph, but I was later told we were doing 35. The boat trip up the Mekong River was long and tedious. After the first couple of hours my mind began to drift and with the jungle foliage and tropical temperatures, I began to picture myself in the movie “Apocalypse Now." Finally, we arrived to meet our contact, who drove us by truck to the nearby music festival outside Doi Sa Ngo.
Mrs. Tipp was right. The outdoor music festival was the most amazing combination of odd instruments and costumed talent that I have ever seen. Far more impressive than driving a simple longtail boat --- but at least I had done it. And to my relief, I was able to ride back to Chiang Rai by car.
Longtail boats may never be popular in North America, but on the flat waters of Thailand, they are a very practical choice. According to Mrs. Tipp, a good six passenger version can be purchased complete for around $6,000 U.S. And for a parts comparison, a new stainless two bladed prop sells for around $150, with aluminum props only $30. For performance buffs there is even a popular racing circuit where turbocharged longtails top 100 mph. Mmmm – food for thought.