Crew: Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon
Thailand to Sri Lanka - Spring 2006
Anchored in the Andamans
The pace of our voyage has speeded up dramatically since we left Thailand on 4 January. We sailed away from murky coastal waters and fishing boats out into the clean, open sea, Tokomaru bustling happily along in a good breeze. Before the eight day passage to Sri Lanka, we had two detours planned; first to the uninhabited Similan Islands, washed by the crystal clear waters of the Andaman Sea. The islands are smooth granite, very different from the limestone ‘karsts’ around Thailand and weather-beaten trees cling to the boulders, bent over by the west wind which batters them during the monsoon. But in January they lie serenely in the sun and the fantastic marine life attracts loads of dive boats. We anchored in gin-clear water and right off the boat we could swim amongst rainbow parrot fish, yellow butterfly fish and float around in a shoal of bright blue fusiliers. This is the clearest water we’ve seen anywhere and we lingered for three days.
Parrot fish camoflaged Stone fish
Our second detour was to the Andaman Islands which belong to India. With the Nicobar Islands, they lie in the Bay of Bengal. The islands and their capital, Port Blair were in the news a lot last year when the tsunami washed over them. Thousands died in the low-lying Nicabars, tragically reducing the already diminished population of aboriginal people who still live how they’ve lived for 1000s of years, hunting and gathering and fishing in these remote and beautiful islands. The Indian government is fiercely protective of the area because of the indigenous tribes and also, the pristine marine life; you are not allowed to visit the Nicobar Islands and it’s very restricted as to where you can go in the Andamans. (We had obtained a special permit as well as our Indian visa to go there at all). Few yachts pass this way; (people are deterred by stories of tedious bureaucratic procedures and corrupt officials) so we, together with Australian friends on board ‘Double Vision’, were the first arrivals this year. It was indeed a complicated business. We reached the harbour at 10.00am and were instructed to anchor a mile away from the jetty. Immigration and customs had to be collected by us in our dinghy (two separate trips across the choppy water) and they ensconced themselves in our cabin for interminable form filling; then the coast guard, at least four guys, came on board (more forms) and then the navy came by… until it was finally dark and we were left in peace. But these people were so delighted to see us, so courteous, welcoming and genuinely interested in us that we actually enjoyed our day, (though Nick was completely soaked from his ferrying duties). Only the customs boss asked for a bottle of wine, and since he has the authority to lock up our liqueur, (which he didn’t), we thought that fair enough!
Entering Port Blair Andaman islands India Down town Port Blair
First day ashore we had more formalities with the Harbour Master, all very civilised as he offered us tea, apologised for all the duplicating by different departments, and gave us permission to visit Havelock Island. Before this, we explored Port Blair, a quaint old-fashioned little town with dirt roads where an astonishing number of cows roam unconcerned amongst crazy traffic. With no western tourism, not even a coca cola sign, there was no hassle at all. We strolled in the bazaar, lunched on tasty vegetarian talis, bought our rice and lentils from sacks in the market and gave our laundry to the dobi wallah. Our clothes have never been so clean, and for the first time, ironed! Ravi the friendly taxi driver (a 1940s looking Ambassador) took us along pot-holed roads to picnic on biryani take-away at beautiful empty beaches, picking our ‘plates’ from handy banana trees. In places the road was completely washed away by the tsunami. Port Blair had also felt the earthquake; outside the harbour office a concrete shelter has collapsed, smashing a row of scooters parked underneath. Many people had stories to tell us.
Unique Andaman swimming elephant Andaman sea sunset
An unusual tourist attraction (there were many visitors from mainland India) is the ‘sound and light’ show at the jail built by the British in 1896 to lock up political activists. The practice of incarcerating trouble makers in the Andamans dates from the 1857 ‘mutiny’ and the jail was in use until 1945. It’s now a national monument to the indomitable spirit of India’s freedom fighters and the sound and light show (every evening) tells a story of British brutality, the resonant voice of the narrator booming accusingly across the courtyard. A bizarre entertainment, throwing a very different light on the history I was taught at school!
Anchored off Havelock island Andaman islands India
We spent three nights at Havelock Island, anchored off a beach claimed to be one of the ten most beautiful in the world, which it probably is. The shore is bordered, not by leaning palms, but an impressive forest of massive, ancient trees, 150 feet tall, called ‘mowhar’, with shady spaces between, like an English beech wood. With ‘Double Vision’, we explored the marine life in more gin-clear water, anchoring our dinghies to snorkel over great spreads of healthy coral gardens, and abundant fish, and never saw another soul. Inevitably though, tourism is developing here on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. There are some discrete resorts amongst the trees off the main beach and the enthusiastic young manager of the ‘Jungle Resort’ entertained us to a free lunch as his guests were intrigued to meet the ‘intrepid sailors’ off the yachts in the bay. One evening we walked inland and encountered a pastoral scene where subsistence farmers grow rice and vegetables, goats graze, lads play cricket and groups of girls stroll and chat. There’s even a haycock or two. These people are Bengalis who were settled in the Andaman Islands at the time of partition, (not wanting to be part of Muslim East Pakistan). They were not particularly welcoming. They are no doubt aware that tourism could destroy their way of life, taking their land and leaving them with no alternative but to work in the hotels they build there; the same sad story the world over.
Jetty Port Blair Local fishermen
Back at Port Blair we filled our water tanks, ferrying 25 litre containers across the bay with much enthusiastic help from bystanders on the busy quay. Then we spent an afternoon obtaining clearance to leave, and on 21 January we set off officially for Sri Lanka. But unofficially (with a nod from the harbour master) we had one more stop in the Andamans at the remote, off-limits Cinque Islands. Here we spent our last night, anchored in the raw beauty peculiar to uninhabited islands. Unfortunately, as often happens, we were distracted from our surroundings by boat repairs, this time to our steering wheel which had become inexplicably stiff. (In the Similan Islands it was rewiring the alternator….it’s not all fun in the sun!). Neither our mechanical wind-vane (Fred) nor our fine new electronic autopilot (Charlie) was able to turn the wheel. An evening and a morning spent dismantling the binnacle and oiling everything solved the problem and by mid-day we were on our way to Sri Lanka, 850 miles to the south west.
Orchids Sri Lanka
During the day a boisterous wind got up and the seas built and we thought, ‘Here we go again!’ It’s a long time since we had a comfortable ocean passage. The Bay of Bengal, being so much smaller than the big oceans, seems to have shorter, steeper swells. By evening the wind remained strong and gusty so we were well reefed down for the night when a nasty wave smashed into the wind vane and broke it, putting Fred out of action. To our great relief, Charlie (electronic pilot) was able to ‘take the helm’ and swung the wheel with ease. It’s quite stressful enough surging through the ocean on dark, moonless nights without having to stand out in the wind and spray to steer! We made good time (often 130 miles a day) and closed with the coast of Sri Lanka at dusk on 28 January. In the lee of the land, the wind died away, the seas became flat and we ambled along amongst the fishing boats at 2 knots so as to enter our next port, Galle, in daylight. In the darkness we lowered our Indian flag and raised the Sri Lankan flag and the yellow customs flag, ready for clearance into yet another new country.
Ramprt hotel Galle Mountain railway
Next morning the navy came alongside to escort us into Port Galle. The harbour is guarded 24 hours and at dusk they tow a barrier across the entrance, leaving a small manned gap for fishing boats. Then during the night the navy detonate underwater bombs to deter frogmen, members of the LTTE (Tamil Tigers), and all this is happening about 20 meters from our stern; we’ve never been in a ‘war zone’ before! Outside the harbour, however, all is normal. Galle is a lively commercial centre with an impressive Dutch fort along one arm of the bay, its wide ramparts enclosing an attractive old town with red tiled roofs, two fine churches and a mosque. Outside the ramparts and all along the coast, this area is still in post-tsunami disarray, and there is much reconstruction going on. But people are cheerful and chatty and very pleased to have our business. As in the Andamans, they are keen to tell visitors what happened here. Everyone has a story about where they were, how they survived, who was lost. We do a lot of listening.
Fruit bats Spider hunter
Galle harbour is big enough to receive big cargo ships, and the cargo they bring is cement and gravel. Four ships came and went during our two weeks, covering everything in dust and grit. The half mile walk from our boat to the port gate took us past an inferno of noisy dusty unloading and we became permanently coated in grime. So we especially enjoyed a trip 1500 meters up to the cool fresh hill country. Here, a three hour train ride took us slowly through the mountain scenery and acres of tea plantations – much more dramatic than the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. The local way of life played out beside the tracks where people pick the tea, till their vegetable plots, wait at the little old-world stations, walk along the tracks. The tea pickers are stick thin and ravaged by the sun. They are contracted workers and must pick for hours every day to get a living wage. The train was full, and the younger kids loved to scream and shout through every tunnel. Great fun. We enjoyed the cool hills, but there were temples and ancient cities to be seen, so the second phase of our 4 day trip was down in the heat again and strictly cultural. We climbed the Sigiriya rock to see the ruins of a 5th century palace, explored the cave temples at Dumballa and wandered amongst 12th century ruins at Pollonaruwa. The ancient Sinhalese kingdoms date from 4th century BC to the most recent kingdom at Kandy which resisted European control up until 1815. So, plenty of historic sights and we are definitely ‘templed-out’ for the time being.
Pollonaruwa Apsara Sigiriya
On Sunday 12 February, we left for India, and a four day sail has brought us to Cochin (Kochi). We certainly copped it on this passage! The north east wind roars through the gap between Sri Lanka and India, throwing up mountainous seas and blowing a screaming force seven for 36 hours. Furious waves bashed against our hull and poured over the decks, sluicing down the other side. Salt water penetrated every port and hatch and the noise of wind and water was awesome. We bore away out to sea to make things marginally more comfortable and Charlie steered away magnificently so we could lie low. To add to the excitement there were big container ships around and we twice called them on the radio to make sure they’d seen us. A stressful passage indeed! The only compensation is the total euphoria when it stops. The wind gradually eased and we sailed peacefully along in the sunshine in the lee of India. Fishermen in little open boats came alongside asking, in a very entertaining and good-humoured pantomime, for food. Our stocks of biscuits are somewhat reduced! We reached Cochin on 15th February, only the eleventh yacht to come this way this year. We’ve done the Dickensian paperwork with charming, welcoming officials, and are now anchored in a peaceful harbour and looking forward to three weeks in Kerala. So we’ll tell you all about it in our next letter. Meanwhile, best wishes from Liz and Nick.
Teapickers Sri Lanka
|Website © Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon 2008|