Freezing In Germany To Sailing In The Tropics – How a German mechanic swapped cold feet for a dream life.

Kunta Samui

How many times have you been told it’d be good for you to leave your comfort zone? There’s this idea it’s in your interests to go out and suffer; that in some earnest and vague way it’ll do you good. But how about the opposite? Imagine someone telling you it’s time you left your discomfort zone? Without further ado, here’s the strange, quirky and altogether unexpected story of someone who refused the popular idea that it’s good to tolerate vexing situations.

As a young German, Armin Kundke, like all men in that country was ordered to do military service. Since he was a trained mechanic, it fell to him to repair tanks and trucks. Hardly a glamorous job, not that he was expecting one, but then the winter came. As you no doubt know, winter in Germany can be brutal, but this one took even the natives by surprise: temperatures fell to minus 22 degrees. In the worst of weathers, Armin, or Kunta, as he’s been known since he was at school, was ordered to go check on the tanks, make sure they were all working and to dig them out of the snow. It was 6:00 am in the morning. He started digging a route through to the snowed-in tanks and his feet started freezing. It was fairly unbearable, but instead of putting up with it, he vowed to himself that he’d do something about it. And so, at that precise moment, a dream was born: he vowed to himself that he’d go and live somewhere warm, and exchange his army boots and socks for flip-flops – forever!

Kunta Samui

He hadn’t been to the Tropics before, and certainly didn’t have enough money to finance a life away from Germany. What he did have was some experience of travel. He’d hitch-hiked and taken cheap trains through Europe, and more notably, had bought a second-hand Peugeot and driven it from his native Nuremberg down south to the Sahara Desert, crossed it, driving the whole way by himself, and ended up in Togo.

Similarly, for his new dream, he just got going. The German economy was strong; shift-work paid well and if you had willpower, then you could save quite a lot. Kunta was soon backpacking round Asia. He travelled through India, Nepal and Indonesia, and on the way heard about Samui. A small, beautiful, and in the late 80s, relatively unknown island.

Kunta samui sailboat

“There was only one way to get there from the mainland,” Kunta recounts. “It was a night ferry that left Suratthani, travelling down the river and then crossing to Samui. I bought a ticket, and in the morning I awoke to see Samui. We arrived at the tiny port of Nathon. The island looked to me exactly like paradise, even the port. I was amazed. I returned to Samui several times, staying three weeks to a month on each occasion. You could rent a small hut in Chaweng – they all looked out onto the sea. There were no bars in those days, no entertainment of any kind at all. I loved it.” So far so good. But there was a problem. “I had time,” says Kunta, “but no money.”

Kunta had to keep returning to Germany to work seasonally and save for his next trip. He also went to The Philippines, and Sumatra, but always gravitated back to Samui. He was already realizing his dream, but he wanted to find a way to live it full-time.

He had the drive and also found he had an entrepreneurial spirit. The idea came to him that he might be able to rent out some windsurfing boards. He bought five of them, second-hand. “I didn’t know a thing about windsurfing, or even the boards themselves. I had absolutely no idea. Luckily, the people who sold them to me were honest; they didn’t rip me off and the boards were good quality. I didn’t even know enough to be able to be sure of that. They were driven down to Samui and unloaded on the beach. There they were. I looked at them. I didn’t have the faintest idea how to put them together.”

Kunta isn’t the sort of person who’s easily fazed, and found some backpackers to teach him firstly how to assemble the boards, then how to use them. “I’d rent out the surfboards in exchange for lessons. It took me a long while to learn, but after six months I was teaching others.” So he found himself in business, although he didn’t think of it that way. “My only goal was to get by; I just didn’t want to have to keep returning to Germany.”

Beach Samui

With a good friend of his, Khun Chee, he set up the first souvenir shop on the island. “It was a lot of fun,” he recalls. “We’d go far afield to get beautiful things. Sometimes to Chiang Mai or Indonesia. Like the windsurfing, it was a low-key affair. We didn’t buy in bulk and just carried everything we bought with us.”

Kunta soon found he had enough money to live on Samui full-time. He’d work all day at his windsurfing business, take an hour off to eat, then at 7:00 pm, he’d switch hats and settle down to selling souvenirs in his shop. “For the first ten years on Samui, I lived like a local. I had little contact with foreigners; all my friends were Thai.” And even though he’d now fulfilled his dream, he still kept on going. If Samui was paradise, then it was surrounded by other equally beautiful spots, all of them close by, yet unreachable. “I realized that if you had a boat, then you could explore so much more. There were an unbelievable number of places I couldn’t get to so easily. Not just Koh Pha-Ngan and Koh Tao, but also the Angthong islands. I wanted to see them all.”

Kunta just had to get a boat, and the only way to do that was to work hard and save for one. He did this, found a boat in Hua Hin, and bought it. As with windsurfing, he knew nothing about boats, but with a friend set sail for Samui. On the third day they saw it in the distance and gave wild whoops of joy.

A boat also marked a new phase of life for him. Kunta recounts: “About a month after I got my new 26 foot sailing boat VIVA2, I was extremely proud to be able to ask my new girlfriend, Irene, a beauty from Norway, if she would like to go sailing down to the east coast of Malaysia. She was crazy enough to say yes, without knowing that I had very little knowledge of yachting or any navigation skills. So we took off after a last dinner. I don’t remember why I had chosen night time to leave, but we sailed into a pitch black night heading south. There were no weather forecasts we could get hold of in those days. After about half an hour, we could feel the temperature drop and the smell of rain approaching. We got into a very nasty storm, mainsail all the way up and flapping in the wind, with the boat sometimes going backwards for about an hour at a time. We managed to stay upright. I was on the wheel the whole night thinking about our coming adventure, cruising along the south coast of Thailand, and remember looking into the boat, seeing Irene having a cosy sleep on the front berth, the sunrise to the left on the horizon. But when I looked behind me I saw this big island with a shining beach, just a few miles away. I realized then that this was still Koh Samui; I was looking back at Lamai beach and thinking how the hell I would ever get down to Malaysia if it took me the whole night to sail just round the island a few kilometres?”

Kunta wasn’t put off, nor was Irene; they kept going, and somehow they did very well after this rather slow start, and managed to sail all the way up and down the east coast of Thailand and Malaysia. One of the storms was so bad that they were unable to sleep the whole night, with continuous lightning and massive waves. It was hardly the stuff of first dates, but as Kunta says, “It was an amazing way to get to know someone. We had three weeks on a very small boat, 8 metres long and 2.5 metres wide which became our little world. This journey bonded us to the extent that we’ve never parted since. We started a life together on the island, and have two wonderful daughters, who were both born on Samui.”

The boat meanwhile started coming in handy. Kunta started taking people out on charters. Gradually, over the years, that number grew … and grew. It was enough for him to stop all other work and concentrate on sailing. He re-invested his profits and gradually built up the number of yachts he has – there are now a half dozen.

Over the years, Irene became an important figure in building up their charter company, Samui Ocean Sports & Yacht Charter, to the size it is today. “She’s kept me out of trouble,” says Kunta, “and more than that, she’s been this great consultant in all kinds of situations. A lot of things have happened over the years and she was, and is, my rock for life.”

Kunta has stayed faithful to the dream he had. That same sense of adventurousness that brought him here in the first place is still the cornerstone of his life. He’s forever out and about on his boats, taking people on private charters, sometimes just for a few hours, but equally for a few days, staying overnight on beautiful islands and visiting beautiful, deserted beaches.

Every day brings something new, and life is always exhilarating. All of this is due to the fact that one day, long ago, Kunta decided that enough was enough, and it was time to get going with a dream. The rest has been epic.

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