Passage to India

Hey, we’re finally underway again after three long months of hard labor at Boat Lagoon in Phuket, Thailand. Our next destination – India. We are setting sail for Port Blair, the administrative capital of the mysterious Andaman Islands. This is a passage of just over 400 miles across the Andaman Sea.

Writing this later at anchor in the Andamans, I can tell you about our ‘Passage to India’ – we drove! There was no wind to speak of and we had the engine running almost the entire way. There was one spot on our second night out around 2 AM when the wind piped up a bit and I gleefully let out all sails and shut down the damn engine.

We were racing along at nine knots when Ariel awoke and came out to the cockpit to tell me to slow down! It seems like the wind heard her because it died after another hour and never came back. We had to pay for our few moments of joy under sail by dealing with a sloppy swell left by the wind for the rest of the trip.

The boat was rolling from side to side with the mainsail slatting, filling with air with a bang! then a wave would come from behind twisting our stern around (back of the boat) and spill the air from the sail until it collapsed and then filled with air again with a bang! Picture this over and over for a day and a half.

So the trip across the Andaman was uneventful but not overly pleasant. This sea has a reputation for “washboard waves” which we experienced and also strange riffles in the water in the middle of nowhere with breaking seas which makes it appear you are approaching an uncharted reef.

It must have been quite intimidating for the first sailors in the area. These riffles, if that is what you call them, are caused by sea mounts abruptly rising from 13,000 feet to shallower depths. This, coupled with tides, causes strange things to happen to the surface water. In calm weather no big deal but in a stiff blow it might be something less easy to deal with.

Our first stop was Port Blair, the only real town in the islands. Checking in was an experience itself and we were amply warned by other cruisers who had been here before us. Our adventure began by requesting entry on the radio to the harbor twelve miles out. No answer.

Ten miles out, no answer, etc., etc, until we just entered the channel and then told them we were here. We were directed to a tiny anchorage behind a bridge next to cement wharves and large steel ships where there was room for maybe four sailboats to anchor. A rally was coming in behind us and this anchorage quickly swelled to around ten vessels. The holding was ooze and absolute crap.

We were tired after our passage (I must have had four hours sleep in the last three nights total) and gingerly motored into the tiny area weaving our 52 feet in between other anchored boats. That was nerve wracking itself. We dropped the anchor, set it unsuccessfully and finally pulled it back up a total of thirteen times! This must be a new record. It took almost two full hours before I finally got the hook to set slightly out of the anchorage.

The whole time Port Control bureaucrats on the radio kept calling me, Customs officials on the dock kept gesticulating to impossibly small unsafe spots of water for us to anchor and the rest of the boats were just watching the anchoring ballet continue. Ariel was concerned that we may offend the officials by not anchoring where they wanted us to. I responded that they are not sailors, know nothing and more importantly are not responsible for the safety of this vessel – we are.

If anything happened to Tehani by us anchoring stupidly just to please a paper pusher would the Indian government compensate us for our loss? I think not. In the very end we got the hook to set and rafted next to a boat, Sunrise, we knew from Langkawi who had been there a few days. Ron and Carol on Sunrise, were very helpful and we were most grateful to finally come to a stop!

Back to the bureaucracy. As PB is a naval port the Indians are quite sensitive about visitors. Yachts are allowed a one month visit only while you can stay up to six months on mainland India. There are a list of approved anchorages around the islands you can visit and the islands are patrolled by ships and helicopters to ensure compliance.

If that isn’t enough, you also have to call Port Control on the radio twice a day (!) to inform them morning and night of your position and intentions! All this after you pass the check-in hurdles placed in front of you. These hurdles called for us to trek from one office to another with bits of paper and receipts and took a full three days to complete. You have to approach the Andamans with an attitude that “It’s all part of the experience.

I admit though, after three days of running around and then being told we needed to visit another office I was getting a little tired of the experience. But the officials were all very friendly and nice. Nobody asked for any “baksheeh” or bribes like we heard in the past and everyone was very professional.

I travelled around mainland India ten years ago and thought I would never go back but the Andamans are special. There are NO BEGGARS! This fact is amazing considering the only people you meet in India proper while travelling are beggars and thieves. The town is relatively clean and the islands are unspoiled. The food is good too and knock on wood (tapping my head now) we haven’t had any tummy trouble yet either. I guess one could conclude this is the best part of India from what I have seen.

One of the neat things about coming to India as a tourist is how quaint many things are. The most obvious examples of this quaintness are the cars. All taxis are the same make, in fact until very recent Japanese JVs set up in India, all cars in the country were the same model, the Ambassador, designed and built in Britain right after World War Two.  Proving again a living consequence of a closed economy is zero technological process. These cars run all over the country and all are white, unless they are a taxi.

Imagine making the same car, unchanged, for 50 frickin’ years and as a consumer not having the ability to choose something else. Fortunately for the poor Indians, the heavy closed door to their economy is slowly creaking open and foreign companies are being given an (uneven) welcome. Classic B-school case studies are Coca-Cola’s experience in the country 30 years ago.

They were told by the Indian gov’t that they must divulge (to the Indian gov’t, of course) their secret ingredients for Coke. The reason was “to protect the health of the population.” This, of course, was not on at Coke HQ and they promptly pulled out of the country entirely politely telling the Indians to stuff it. Surprise, the Indian gov’t proceeded to make its own cola, “ThumsUP,” which can be found everywhere.

Don’t call me a cynic but perhaps entering this business was their original intention? Anway, politics have matured and economics is emerging from a dusty veil of disgraced old British liberalism here so I believe things will only get better for the long-suffering local populace.

Back to our adventure. We decided to head south of PB and explore some islands. Unfortunately, every place we spent the night had an uncomfortable swell come in at 1 am causing us to roll from gunwale to gunwale (side to side for you land lubbers) making sleep impossible. I rigged a stern anchor and winched it in tight to hold us bow into the swell so we only moved up and down making the motion more comfortable but it still sucked! After several unsuccessful night’s sleep Ariel was getting cranky so I knew we had to do something.

We followed Sunrise with their forward looking sonar through rock-strewn MacPherson (MacFearsome) Straits and headed for Havelock Island. There we have found paradise. Havelock No. 7 (all beaches are numbered on this island, I don’t know why) is where we are now and it is quite the most beautiful beach I have seen in years; white, wide, with a gentle slope that stretches for over a mile backed with huge jungly trees.

The water is so clear we could see the shadow of the boat on the bottom as we were coming in. That was when it was 50 feet deep. We have done some snorkeling and the little reef area to our starboard is alive with coral and many colorful fishes. The water temp is just right and, probably most importantly, NO SWELL! Ariel is back to her chipper self and I am enjoying this spot as well.