Cruising Notes: Sri Lanka

We spent a month in Sri Lanka, April 2003. We did the obligatory four day whiz-bang tour in a van, arranged by Mike, and were satisfied. Sri Lanka has some really beautiful scenery. Do not miss Sigirya, the ancient cliff-top fort. It was truly amazing. Overall, however, the place is a giant hassle and isn’t worth visiting twice – which we ended up doing!

This year (2003) there is two agencies that provide check-in services. As far as we understand, use of an agent is obligatory. Everyone knows of Windsor but the old man is dead and the company is run now by his three sons. The other agency is GAC Shipping (pronounced as a mellifluous “Gack”) which is a multinational company based in Greece that provides supply services to the shipping industry around the globe.

Due to an autopilot failure 50 miles after leaving Sri Lanka we were privileged enough to visit the country twice in one month! We were decidedly unimpressed with Windsor, they are only interested in collecting their $170 check-in fee ($100 for harbor fees and $70 for the agent), plus their office is crowded with touts who will follow and pester you about providing this tour or that tour.

On our “second trip” we decided to engage the services of GAC Shipping as we knew we had a mechanical problem and that GAC runs two supply tenders out of Galle with the attendant mechanics, pilots, etc. We were therefore able to compare the two agencies. (By the way, the above-mentioned 170 clams includes one month of harbor fees.

We had only stayed 2 weeks when we checked out 24 hours before and were hoping that we could claim that we had only used half our “rent” and could avoid paying the $100 harbor fee again. HA! No chance. They are not shy about taking your money in Sri Lanka.). GAC Shipping charges $30 more for checking in than does Windsor. They do this, they told me because I asked, as they want to co-exist happily with the local agent (Windsor) and not run them out of business.

Anyway, what do you get for an extra 30 bucks? It depends; the people at GAC were very helpful and understanding. They really went out of their way to help solve whatever problems we had. One of their mechanics spent all day ripping apart a pump of ours and attempting a repair. It didn’t work so he didn’t charge me; highly unusual behavior in that country.

In summation, if you know you only need a simple check-in then get it done quickly with Windsor but don’t expect much. If you have more complicated requirements, like we did the second time, or $30 to you ain’t much, then by all means call GAC on the radio when you approach the outer harbor.

Galle Harbor

One thing I’d like to mention is on the way to/from Sri Lanka you may be unlucky enough to meet some of the world’s most obnoxious people: Sri Lankan fishermen. Many yachts crossing the Bay of Bengal this year had problems with them. If they see a yacht anywhere on the horizon they will invariably drop what they are doing (nothing) and give chase. Top speed for the smaller, unseaworthy craft with 3 men on board is about 5 knots.

The bigger ones seem to do up to 10. They will try to approach you at VERY close quarters, as in, less than 5 feet no matter how rough the sea is! They will shout and beg for the usual; ciggies and booze. When you don’t give them all your expensive smokes and whiskey, which they seem to think they have a right to, they will follow you for one hour, two hours, three hours – up to all day long! They will try and approach you again and again delivering the same tired demands.

My guess is they figure by hassling you all day long you will eventually cave in and give something just to be rid of them. They are much like Australian flies that keep landing at the same spot on your face no matter how many times you shoo them away; they know you will eventually give up. We, and others, found the best way to deal with them is to ignore them completely. As they approach at top speed you can look at them once, do not wave or smile. Then ignore them. If they get too close wave them away.

This seemed to result in a “chase” of only an hour. Other times we just increased speed as soon as we saw one of these pests approaching. Even if we were faster, not always the case, they would still follow us for HOURS, maybe hoping our engine would break down or our sails would rip?? The good thing is they do not have radios nor do they have radar so when it gets dark it is pretty easy to avoid them.

If you see them on radar at night, turn off the running lights. If I sound a little hard and cynical, it comes from experience of dealing with them. One example of how they think was amply demonstrated to me when we spent a month in Galle, Sri Lanka.

I filled up our diesel tanks at the fisherman’s coop in the harbor and bought $350 dollars of diesel from them ($1.37 a gallon) yet they would not let me take 40 liters of water at the free tap next to the diesel dock, “NO! NO! NO! YOU PAY TOURIST PRICE!!” And these same assholes would still turn around and ask me, “Whisky? Beer for me? You have cigarettes for me?” Funnily enough in Buddhism, and Sri Lanka is ostensibly a Buddhist country, they teach what goes around comes around. Free whiskey for you? I don’t think so, Pradeep.

By the way, DO NOT SHIP ANYTHING TO SRI LANKA. Otherwise you will involve yourself in a Byzantine bureaucratic nightmare from which despair is the only outcome. Friends on FERRIC STAR had to jump through all kinds of hoops and make a trip to the capital, Colombo, just to get a package.

Customs wanted to know details of all items in the package and asked really intelligent questions like, “What is umbrella?” “What is bra?” While we were in Galle there was a shortage of Coca Cola because, we were told, customs had not yet cleared the shipment into the country!!! I emphasize in SL the problem, as always, is with the officials.

The people at the DHL office in Colombo we dealt with were all friendly and professional. Overall, the Maldives is much more sophisticated and there is less bullshit when it comes to receiving shipments.