PHUKET: A spokesperson for the Royal Thai Navy suggested today that tour operators needed to monitor weather forecasts more closely before putting to sea in bad weather.
His comments mirrored those of Phuket Governor Maitree Intusut after one of the largest mass rescues in memory off Phuket. It could so easily have been a disaster for Thailand's tourism industry.
A severe storm that had been forecast a week in advance sank one live-aboard vessel and trapped more than 400 passengers from about a dozen other vessels, mostly speedboats, on a remote island.
Sailing to the rescue, the Thai Navy patrol boat Pattani scored rave reviews from most passengers for providing hot food and warmth - and a safe voyage back to the mainland coast at Tablamu, north of Phuket.
Some day-trip passengers have since told Phuketwan that before boarding a speedboat on Monday, they questioned whether it was safe to put to sea. A tour operator told them:
''Sorry, there can be no refunds. Everything is going to be ok. Just take some seasick pills.''
Reports that this was some ''freak storm'' are far from accurate. The bad weather had been forecast for days.
Many boats put to sea from Phuket and the province of Phang Nga to the north with the people in charge of passengers' safety knowing exceptionally bad weather was predicted to arrive that afternoon.
It did. Oh how it did. The dive boat Joaying (Little Princess) went swiftly to the bottom and other boats braved the wind and rain to rescue all 25 passengers and crew.
Plucked from the sea were two Thais and divers from Britain, Sweden, New Zealand, Italy, Germany, Singapore, Austria, Japan and Spain.
Meanwhile, the tourist vessels that took a chance on the forecasts being wrong sheltered at Tachai. The hundreds of tourists could have been stranded in difficult conditions there for days if the Royal Thai Navy had not sent HTMS Pattani on its mission.
The bedraggled tourists encountered by Phuketwan's reporting team at 3.30am on Tuesday morning were immensely grateful to be safe.
Rumors were circulating yesterday that tour agents who let their customers go to sea on Monday would be made by the Royal Thai Navy to pay the bill.
Not such a bad idea under the circumstances, but not correct, Captain Thammawat Malaisukkarin, of the Naval Civil Affairs Directorate, said today.
''There have been some murmurings about where the money for the rescue is coming from,'' he said. ''But the Navy is not seeking compensation.
''As well as patrolling the seas and guarding Thailand's borders, protecting residents and tourists is something we do.''
He added that the rescue voyage would have not been necessary if the tour company boats that took to the water had taken notice of weather forecasts.
''They shouldn't have taken the tourists far out to sea if they knew that the storm was coming,'' he said. ''They shouldn't be selfish and greedy and only care about the money.''
Honorary consuls on Phuket have recommended a harbormaster system be established so that a responsible official makes the decision on whether boats go to sea, not people who are keen to make money each day if possible.
Phuketwan has been told by tourists that refunds are difficult to come by from trip operators.