THE Large patrol boat HTMS Pattani departed from Tablamu at 5.45pm for the Similans where it is expected to pick up about 400 tourists, stranded in an Andaman storm. Passengers mostly from Europe were rescued as the storm sank one dive boat. All the tourists are expected back at Tablamu pier north of Phuket between 1am and 3am.
PHUKET: A large Royal Thai Navy vessel set off tonight towards an island in the Similans group north of Phuket to rescue ''hundreds'' of tourists from Phuket, stranded as a heavy storm struck.
One dive boat, the Jaoying (Little Princess) sank on the way to isolated Tachai island, where the large number of tourists face a night without food and water.
Two islands in the popular Similans have facilities for tourists but Tachai is one of the natural, undeveloped islands.
This afternoon's dramatic storm was forecast at 5am, with Phuket-based meteorologists advising small boats not to venture out today.
Just why so many small boat ''captains'' chose to risk the lives of their tourist passengers despite weather warnings is likely to be a question asked by marine authorities and envoys tomorrow.
The dive boat Jaoying was on its way from Bon island to seek shelter at Tachai island when the full fury of the storm caught it three miles offshore.
Fortunately other vessels in the vicinity were able to assist and rescue all passengers, a national marine parks ranger told Phuketwan tonight.
Most of the speedboats in the area carrying tourists sought to shelter off Tachai island.
Navy rescuers are expected to take three hours or more to reach the island in three-metre seas - as forecast by meteorologists this morning - and at least the same time to bring back the stranded tourists.
The vessel is likely to deposit the tourists at Tablamu, a pier where the Navy base is located in Phang Nga, the province north of Phuket. Most of the tourists are likely to have gone from Phuket on day trips.
Tourist speedboat sinkings occur occasionally off Phuket and they are almost always attributable to ''captains'' who go to sea without considering bad weather forecasts.
Calls by envoys to shift the decision-making from the ''captains'' to a more responsible harbormaster or some other authority have so far gone unheeded.
Phuket's last major sinking was in March 2009 when the new dive boat Dive Asia sank off Patong on a voyage back from the Similans with the loss of the lives of six tourists and the Thai cook.
Twenty-three survivors who abandoned ship in two liferafts eventually hailed a passing fisherman and used his mobile telephone to call in the rescuers.
Mobile telephone connections between Phuket and mainland Thailand and the tourists on Tachai were only working intermittently because of the weather tonight.
The forecast for Wednesday is the same as today: small boats are advised not to put to sea. Tourists should take note and adapt their plans accordingly.