Sri Lanka, India and Oman
Sunday 14th January 2010 - Sri Lanka
After a journey of nine days we arrived at Galle Harbour at 10.00hrs (changed clocks from UT +7 to UT +5.1/2 hrs). The journey saw variable winds and tidal streams, as well as a couple of suspicious vessels at night, showing strange or no lights and too close.
As instructed we waited at anchor outside the harbour until the Navy boarded us for clearance to enter. Our first taste of the country was a forerunner of things to come, since the Navy personnel blatantly demanded cigarettes before giving us permission to move in.
We knew of course that Galle is a naval base, but were unprepared for the number of watchtowers with armed guards and naval vessels with large guns on deck. This country has endured a 30 year civil war against the Tamil Tigers and we did not see any evidence of the new 'peace' agreed only 8 months ago.
We were led to a 'pontoon' which was a modular plastic floating thing which bounced and swayed frantically and the three naval personnel on board sat comfortably watching as I leapt off the boat to try and tie us on. Much wobbling ensued but I managed and they all swanned off, pockets full of fags.
Our agent, Tissa, from GAC Shipping came aboard and helped us through the inevitable minefield of bureaucracy. He also insisted upon giving us a mobile phone local SIM card, so he could keep us in touch, but more about that later. We were eventually presented with our gate passes without which we could not pass the guards at the security point.
Facilities at Galle; NONE. No water tap (have to walk for some distance with the water containers to the nearest tap. No electricity, so no fans on board although 34+ degC below deck. No rubbish disposal until we asked for a receptacle which was produced, lidless, so the packs of wild dogs pulled bags apart, strewing rubbish everywhere, and the crows then came and spread it even further, occasionally flying over and dumping it back on the boat! No proper footpaths, only rough pebble strewn paths which deteriorated when they dredged the harbour over three days, dumping foul smelling mud on the dockside which spread everywhere with the daily heavy rains. All this combined with the wobbly pontoon situation did not lead to a feeling of being welcome or wanted. As other boats arrived and tied up a kind of American Barn Dance commenced between boats as we pushed and pulled each other around the plastic floating things. Pandemonium!
Every fishing boat coming in has to check in at a security point which was just beside us. Not only did this add frisson to the bouncing, but they too demanded cigarettes constantly. Apparently a few years before the Tamil Tigers loaded up a fishing vessel with explosives, entered the harbour and blew up themselves and a naval vessel causing huge loss of life.
You may think that once we exited the Harbour area we would be bowled over by Sri Lanka itself. Unfortunately, since I had to renew my passport and we both had to obtain Indian visas, we spent most of our time travelling the three hours there and three hours back from Galle to Colombo, the capital. The journey by road takes a coastal route along the stretch of country which was devastated in the 2004 tsunami. Most of the houses are left derelict with new ones being built beside the ruin, so there's a hotch potch result. The towns were bustling and busy and the women and children very smartly dressed. Personal appearance is very important to the Sri Lankans, but they have no sense of responsibility about rubbish or litter. Our driver thought we were crazy when we insisted upon using a little plastic bag to put rubbish in from the car. They just heave it out the window.
Now, about our driver; When you meet your agent he 'appoints' you to a guy, usually a 'tuc-tuc' (type of rickshaw) driver saying he will help you out with day to day things. What he fails to tell you is that you become the property of that guy, in his mind. Woe betide you if you try to get into another tuc-tuc, arrange a trip that doesn't involve him, try to shop without him, arrange your own laundry etc etc. You will also receive several texts and phone calls every day (yes the 'special' phone) asking why you don't want to do this tour, or that expedition, or visit his suggested 'interesting' places. If he is with you and you make a purchase he goes back later to claim his 'commission' for bringing you there. During our first trip to Colombo we had asked for a car (not a tuc-tuc) since it's a long journey. The car appears with Saman, our allocated tuc-tuc driver, in front passenger seat as 'guide'. This happens every time you go anywhere. We travelled to Colombo by train once since we could not take any more of Saman's endless emotional blackmail (You have to experience it to know what I mean) and somehow he found out and was waiting at the station for us. He went into a rant about 'What have people being saying about me. Am I not a good man?' etc etc.
The long and the short of it is that your at gunpoint in the harbour and trapped by these guys outside. I have not felt so miserable at any other point in this trip. Eventually Saman came right out with it and asked us for 4,000 US dollars, just to help him out. I can't print our response. He asked for our bank account details to 'repay' the money. I don't think so.
Eventually we decided to decamp to the Hilton in Colombo for a couple of nights on 23rd and 24th January a) to collect Gordon's Indian visa early in the morning and b) because it was his birthday on the 24th and c) to give Janice a good rest after her journey before she faced the horrors of Galle Harbour. This was a lovely break (no Saman) and it was great to see Janice again.
The streets of Colombo are quite intimidating with armed soldiers everywhere. Even a short car or tuc-tuc drive will see you pulled in and examined at least once or twice. There is no way this is a country at peace.
As usual we have managed to be here at an extra dangerous time, since elections are going on. If the opposition chap, a General, wins, big trouble is expected. In the run up there has been many violent incidents.
On the 26th January Janice said she was going to cook dinner. We were absolutely amazed and delighted to find the saloon decked in Scottish flags and the table set with tartan placemats. She then presented us with a full Burns supper. We couldn't believe our eyes to see haggis, neeps and tatties accompanied by a fine Scotch whisky. What a star and it didn't matter that it was one day late.
It has gradually become apparent that my new passport will not be issued in time for me to depart Sri Lanka with the boat, since once I have it I then have to begin the Indian visa application. That will take an additional five working days. Equinox cannot delay departure since Janice has a flight to catch for home in Cochin and Jonathon arrives in Cochin. Of all the countries so far where I would have loved to stay longer, this is not the one. However it transpires that Micca, an Australian girl crewing on board British boat 'Astra' (50' Swan) also had to obtain a visa, so she joined me in Colombo for a few days.
I was escorted out of the harbour on the day of departure and officially cleared for staying in Sri Lanka, since we only had permission to stay in the harbour previously. I felt really sad not to be going with Gordon and Janice for the three-day sail to Cochin.
I decided to organise a tour up to Kandy and the hill tea plantations while Micca was with me and at last saw a side of Sri Lanka which was stunningly beautiful. We saw orphaned elephants which are very well cared for in a group of about 60, consisting of bulls, females and babies. We had the most memorable lunch overlooking the river where they were all brought down from the orphanage, single file through the narrow street, to bathe, roll in the mud and generally do elephanty things. It was a beautiful sight. Micca even got to scrub a large female elephant's back as it lay in the water. Simultaneously a wedding was taking place in the hotel, the bride and groom dazzling in their traditional finery.
Our guide, officially licensed and very professional, then took us up to Kandy to visit the temple of the Golden Tooth, a very sacred Buddhist place. This had also been the site of a Tamil bomb a few years before, so once again very high security.
After attending a dance and fire walking presentation we began the slow steady climb into the mountains to the hotel where we would spend the night. It was pitch dark by now and the temperature was dropping rapidly. We went from air-con to heating in the car and arrived eventually at the hotel. It was a real blast from the Colonial past, every inch a small Scottish castle, and absolutely charming in a faded way. It was originally the home of a Scottish tea plantation owner. We had a bizarre dinner in the old fashioned dining room, cordon bleu, Sri Lankan style, dining with a bottle of wine which we had only half drunk, disappeared from our table, during ciggie break (outside). A frantic search ensued to no avail and the staff were panic struck. A group of young Indian men at another table were suspected (no love lost between the two nations) but we calmed the waiters down when I suggested that a glass of house wine would be acceptable as compensation. The bottle of wine was equivalent to a couple of weeks wages and they would have had to pay it had we insisted on a replacement.
In the morning as we were sitting on the terrace overlooking the most fabulous mountain view, the hotel manager and under manager appeared with profuse apologies for the wine incident. We had decided to forego breakfast but next thing pots of coffee, pastries and cakes appeared in heaps 'with our compliments madam'. Oh well, bang went the diet again.
Our driver appeared and we set off down the mountain which we could now see for the first time, to a plantation where we learned about the whole process from planting to picking to processing. The terraced hills are an unbelievable green and the whole area is covered with tea planting as far as the eye can see. Waterfalls cascaded down the hillsides forming clear pools to swim in. Cold though.
After lunch we continued down to Kandy again, but as usual for me, now it was Independence day, which due to the expected post election trouble (the existing President won) was shut! Ah well. We returned to the city with much lighter hearts and at last good memories of Sri Lanka.
For our fellow sailors who are continuing this journey next year from Oz, I hope you will benefit from the warnings I have given. Galle is not good and the pitfalls are many. Until yachties can be separated from the military base it is not a good place to be. At present there is no other option than this dreadful harbour and the scheming cartel of tuc-tuc drivers.
Oh yes, one final horror, before Equinox left Galle, after bringing our bags of provisions on to the boat we spotted a huge cockroach in the galley! Took us three days and gallons of insecticide to catch it. Yuck. Saman had placed our bags on the ground, a no no.
Also my camera went in the sea as we were taking photos of Gordon raising the new Port Edgar burgee. Micca tried to scuba dive to retrieve it, but the thick mud in the harbour had swallowed it. We had to get special permission to dive from the Navy and when we failed to find it they asked us to sign a paper giving them permission to retrieve it - and keep it! They would not try to get it for us. Lovely people.
Another upside. Met Sally and Jeremy, 'Astra', Trudy and Geoff, 'Stream Spirit', and Rod Heikell, 'Skylax' who writes the pilot books we have been using. All great fun. Also William and Helen, 'Out on the Blue' re-appeared in Galle having last been seen in Singapore. Party party!
On Saturday 6th February I caught a flight from Sri Lanka to Kochi via Chennai to rejoin Equinox.
Gordon's bit - Passage to India
On Saturday 30th January we said goodbye to Anne and at 1400hrs Janice and I departed for Cochin. We did not have much wind to start with but it soon got up and by 2240hrs took in the first reef and by 2340hrs the second reef. On Sunday the diesel cans came adrift and I had to go forward in a rough sea to retie them down. Our progress was good but by the early hours of Monday morning the wind died and we had to start the engine. We motored passed a small fishing boat then suddenly I heard a ripping sound, we had gone right through their net. The fishermen did not wave their arms about, nor shout, nor indicate in any way that they had a net out. In future we will keep well clear of these small boats. Later another larger fishing boat with three fishermen came over and offered to sell some fish. I said no and threw over a packet of cigarettes. They then asked for Pepsi, which I threw over, and they motored off happy. During Monday night and Tuesday morning we had to dodge lots of fishing boats with various types of lighting.
Arrived in Cochin (Kochi) at 1000hrs on Tuesday and dropped anchor off the Taj Hotel near the port office. Calum, a boat boy was our first visitor followed by the Customs officer. We filled in lots and lots of forms on the boat then he took us, in the customs boat, to the port office and Customs office for more form filling and finally Immigration. At 1430hr, high tide, we moved the boat to near the Bolgatty Hotel area and anchored with 12 other boats.
Over the next few days Janice and I explored Ernakulam, eating street food and walking round the fruit and vegetable markets and dinghied to Fort Cochin to see the Chinese nets and the Dutch Palace and Bazar Road, where everything is sold. I have been to India about 30 times over the last 25 years and it is always full of life of all kinds and all levels. Cochin did not disappoint me but it was an eye opener for Janice. On Friday 5th February we hired a car and driver and drove inland through the very green jungle countryside, on poor roads dotted with roadside villages, to an elephant orphanage. The orphanage and small zoo looked very tired and uncared for having had its hey day about 50 years ago. The three large and three small elephants were tied to trees by their ankle and did not look happy.
On Saturday morning I took Janice over to catch her taxi to the airport and we said goodbye. Later in the morning Jonathon arrived and by the evening Anne arrived.
End of Gordon's bit.
I arrived at the Bolgatty Hotel, Kohi, at 2145 on the 6th February and met Gordon and Jonathon there. It felt good to be back on the boat and to be back in India. My last visit to Cochin was about 11 years ago and I never thought then as I sat in the Taj Hotel, gazing over the bay, that one day I would be on a boat there. The town was as vibrant and colourful as I remembered but there are many signs of India's new affluence; modern buildings, futuristic bridges, waterside developments and many modern cars. They still have the Ambassador (copy of 1950's Morris Oxford car) of course and the ubiquitous rickshaw but these latter are all motorised now. We took local ferries to explore the various areas of interest. The ferries are incredibly cheap and very frequent. In true Indian style it takes two men to drive one, one on the roof steering and one below on the passenger deck changing the engine gears according to the steerer's instructions. He gives these instructions by means of a bell tied to a piece of string eg one ting for go, two for go faster and three for reverse. It works perfectly but Gordon reckons the weak point in this system is the piece of string.
Since we had decided not to go to Mumbai, Jonathon decided to fly there for a few days. A must see in Kerela are the Chinese fishing nets, an ingenious system of shore based fishing using wooden structures which dip into the water lowering large nets. After five minutes or so the nets are raised using heavy rocks suspended from rope as counterbalance. In every 'dip' they catch about five fish, so over a day with very little effort the catch is significant. From there to the Jewish quarter was a short rickshaw ride where we found a synagogue dating back to the 12th century, when the Jews were being expelled from Palestine. All the buildings in this picturesque bustling shopper's dream of a place bear the emblem of the star of David. You can buy just about anything here, particularly there are many antique shops, some antiques being a little more recent than they should be. Another aspect of India which has to be experienced is the street food. Hundreds of vendors produce the most delicious bite sized delicacies and the open-air restaurants (fly covered tables come as standard) served platters of curry and rice to be eaten of course with fingers. No cutlery is ever provided. This is a tricky business resulting in much mess. A tub of water is usually provided for communal hand washing, mouth rinsing, and spitting etc.
Although from a distance the bay looks affluent, on closer inspection you soon spot the homeless families who lay claim to areas on the banks. Rubbish is strewn everywhere, although they seem to set fire to these mounds regularly. We saw no rats in our time here but we are sure there are millions.
We were eventually joined again by Jeremy, Sally and Micca on 'Astra' and Trudy and Geoff on 'Stream Spirit' and together we took a trip into the backwaters of Kerela. This involved a long car drive out of the city to a river where we slowly puttered along in a traditional boat with a leaf woven roof. We watched Indian life being played out on the riverbanks pretty much as it has been for thousands of years. Women dressed in colourful saris washed clothes by banging them off rocks, children screamed and laughed jumping into the water, men dived to excavate sand from the river bed to sell to the building trade and everyone greeted us with the widest smiles and cheery waves. Kingfishers swooped from overhanging branches in brilliant flashes of blue. At a village we watched women weaving bed matting from pineapple leaves. These are very hard wearing, take a full day to make one and they sell them for 120Rs ie 1.40GBP. The men also demonstrated how they made rope from coconut fibre using a spinning wheel of sorts. It took less than a minute to produce a length of strong rope. This is used to bind bamboo to make huts and holds together just about everything. It is called coir and I know in the UK a coir carpet is a very expensive thing. Jonathon duly returned from Bombay, he is absolutely covered in mozzy bites, we reckon about 60 in all.
We enjoyed drinks on 'Stream Spirit' and a wonderful roast dinner on 'Astra'. Who says size does not matter, we could not seat 10 people in our cockpit.
I had an embarrassing few moments when I skinned and prepped a chicken. Since the bay is so tidal and wide we chucked the bits over the side, unfortunately chicken skin floats and the flocks of crows which hung around the bay came in black clouds to pick it out of the water and then proceeded to dump it straight back on the boat to eat it. A women on the boat behind us shrieked 'My god Equinox you are covered in crows!' and so we were. They covered the mast, the spreaders, the guardrail and decks. Very Alfred Hitchcock. I crept below deck and prayed for them to disappear, which they eventually did, leaving behind - you must use your imagination.
On the day before departure we spent ages trekking around the various authorities to check out, India loves bureaucracy and we endured endless form filling. Thank goodness Gordon had the foresight to have a boat stamp made in the UK. This saves repetition and the authorities are always impressed by it. Once again we provisioned up for what could be a 12-day journey, although the supermarket shelves here are by no means loaded with recognizable goods. Unfortunately the vacuum packer packed in, so I've had to stuff as much as possible into the tiny icebox.
Friday 12th February to Tuesday 23rd February 2010. India to Oman
On the 12th February we upped anchor at 0900hrs, we then dropped anchor just outside the shipping channel to inspect the propeller, since our speed seemed wrong for the engine revs. Gordon dived under the boat and sure enough found a fishing net wrapped around the prop. Diving many times he managed to free it but got badly scratched from the barnacles on the hull.
At 1115hrs we set off again, only 1,402 nm to go. This is the beginning of some scary sailing passing the Somalian coast. So we headed the boat as high as possible with wind direction NW. After the Lakshadweep Islands we were pretty close hauled but managed to maintain speeds of 6 knots plus. At 2120hrs on the 16th February in the dark we were doing 6.5 knots with the main sail reefed when we were stopped dead in our tracks by a fishing net. As we held our breath it rattled under the keel and we sprang forward like a pouncing cat. No damage done, but to make sure, we did it again at 2330hrs. This time we were not stopped but the sound of the floats rattling down the hull was chilling. There are no indicators or lights of where nets are placed.
On the 17th we switched off our SeaMe radar transponder and at night only showed bow and stern navigation lights to present as low a profile as possible. For the next few days we held our breath with each boat sighting until we were safely out of range.
On Saturday 20th February at 1854hrs our position was 17deg 36.24N 16deg03.28E distance to go 350nm course over ground 262 deg. We turned towards Salalah. During my watch from 5am to 8am the wind died completely and the sea became flat calm. There was no moon but a black velvet sequinned sky. The stars were reflected as lines of silver in the water. The phosphorescence was spectacular with the boat creating a luminous green skirt around it. Flying fish caused firework like streaks to radiate out from us as they tried to escape our path and the rigging was lit with an eerie green glow from the reflected phosphorescence of the sea. As the sun came up it changed the scene to candy stripes of pink, turquoise, blue and green. I looked away for a while from the sunrise and when I looked back it was not where it should be. The autopilot had switched off to 'standby' and of its own accord the boat turned slowly in a circle to point back from where we had come. Gordon said later that there had been reports of GPS anomalies here, a Bermuda triangle in the Gulf of Arabia? Very spooky.
Sadly on the trip Jonathon received an email informing him of his grandma's death, so he wanted to fly home as soon as we arrived in Salalah. We managed to sort out flights en-route.
Tuesday 23rd Februray - Salalah, Sultanate of Oman
As we sailed along the barren rocky coastline of Oman, we put clocks back one and a half hours so we are now only UT +4hrs, that feels so close to home. We anchored in a small bay which is part of a gigantic commercial dock. It was a great relief to be here in safety, although the worst and most dangerous part is yet to come. At 1800hrs we said goodbye to Jonathon as he left for the airport.
Many of the boats we have been communicating with for some time are already here, with more due over the next few days. Lo Brust, the Vasco de Gamma Rally organiser, who was also organising our convoy from here to Aden, has got stuck in the Red Sea, but a young Dutch chap has taken over so its still a goer.
Whist waiting here we took an overnight trip with Mohammed, our agent, into the Empty Quarter. This entailed an 80km drive over spectacular mountains and then a further 60km off road in a 4x4 deep into the desert. We ate camel for dinner cooked by a Beduin chappie, tasted just like beef really. We sat around a fire on cushions then went off and set up our camp for the night. We slept on camp beds under the stars or rather didn't sleep since the developing wind turned into a sandstorm. It penetrated everything and we frequently had to shake off blankets to prevent being buried. At about 2am I gave up and shivering in 14degC, with sand in places I didn't know I had, I scrambled into the 4x4. Gordon followed soon after and we dozed for a few hours. Mohammed snored all night almost turning into a dune. At 5.30am Gordon went off to photograph the sunrise and after a quick cup of Arabic coffee we headed off for home. Although not the most comfortable experience of our lives we wouldn't have missed it for anything. The desert track was bone rattling and we passed many herds of camels roaming freely in the desert.
There is an air of quiet nervousness amongst us all as we await departure. We are very aware of the risks involved in this next stretch, but feel better now that we are actually preparing for it.
We will be approximately 20 boats, travelling in groups of 5 or 6, moving at 5 knots for 5 days. We will be leaving Salalah on the 4th March.
Keep us in your thoughts.