Our Pirate Encounter

Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka – Fill up my tanka! Well, we are here in Galle, Sri Lanka – an unplanned stop on our Indian Ocean adventure. We were hoping to leave Malaysia and make the 1800 mile passage to the Maldives in one shot but the wind gods had other things in mind. As a result we broke all records for just about the slowest EVER passage from Malaysia to Sri Lanka.

1200 miles in 12 long days! Usually, boats make that run in 6-7 days. It is our fault leaving so late in the season. But it wasn’t entirely our fault as we had a “PIRATE ENCOUNTER” along the way that caused delay. About 50 miles offshore of Sri Lanka in the middle of nowhere, I noticed a fishing boat ahead on radar at lunch time. Nothing unusual in that. He was slowing down, I could see, so we would catch up with him.

I altered course to avoid this and he did also. Then he turns toward us and comes zooming over. Now we had six men on board coming at us at a 90 degree angle. I gun the engine up to eight knots, our top speed under power, but they are much faster so I slow down as they approach and smile and wave. They wave back and start making monkey gestures and begin shouting.

Smoking? Oh, you want ciggies? “I no smoke!” I shout back. Ariel came up from below to watch. Then they make more monkey gestures, “No whisky either,” I shout. They come closer about 20 feet away as we are powering along in the waves at six knots. I wave them off. They back off and then come closer still. I wave them off and tell Ariel to get the fire extinguisher and my machete.

I wave to them and then ignore them and after trying to peer into the cockpit and all the windows they slowly move away. I alter course slowly as they power ahead. Nothing abnormal. Just a bunch of curious fishermen, or so I thought.

They go ahead of us about two miles easily as they are a faster boat. Then they slow down to our speed and maintain that two mile gap all afternoon. I slow down, they slow down. I speed up and change course, they do the same. Finally, after about three hours of this they turn around and come toward us again.

I swing the boat over 180 degrees, hoist all sails and gun the engine again to make the obvious gesture to them that we do not want them coming over. We do eight knots in the opposite direction to our destination and yet they follow. After half an hour, they stop, I keep going and then slow down and turn around. There is about 3 miles between us now. They then turn around and come after us again.

Now I am pissed off. This goes beyond plain curiosity, it is getting dark and they are now a threat. I bring my Guatemalan machete into the cockpit and the big fire extinguisher is at hand. Just below I have my axe. I tell Ariel to keep out of sight and to get on the radio to put out a call to any ships in the area that we are being chased by a suspicious boat for the third time.

She does this three times to no answer. Well, we have the initiative now and I know they are Sri Lankan and want to go home not back out to sea so I maintain our course out to sea as it gets dark and they slowly disappear on the horizon. When it is pitch black after retracing our hard earned steps for about two hours I have all lights off, navigation and interior, and turn 90 degrees to the north. We had originally been on a westerly course to Sri Lanka and I figured those idiots were probably waiting for us to turn back. So we went north. We had a nice breeze and we were invisible. We had radar and they didn’t.

I could see them but they couldn’t see us. We were flying along to the north, I even had a towel over the radar display in the cockpit to minimize any light source in the cockpit. We felt like rum runners from the prohibition era. I continued north, then north west and then by 10:30 PM I resumed our course figuring we were about 15 miles north of what I estimated to be their current position. And we had a quiet night of it.

As we approached land we were sick of running the engine and we were getting low on diesel so we thought, what the heck, why not pop into Sri Lanka and fill up? The problem with Sri Lanka is it is probably the most expensive country to check into in the entire world. It costs US$170 for a one month permit. Compare this to Malaysia where for two bucks you can stay three years!!! So this is an expensive pit stop for TGS Tehani-li but we didn’t relish drifting another 800 miles to the Maldives so we are here to see it, do it and buy the T-shirt.

When you hear the words “Sri Lanka” it conjures up romantic notions of tea plantations, water buffalo and friendly, white-toothed natives in colorful costume. So I thought it bizarre to get off on a weird start with the agent who picked me up. All boats require an agent to check in and we went with the oldest and most venerable, Don Windsor Company. Don is long gone but the family business is still run by his three sons.

Santosh, who picked me up, was excited I was from America, “I worked in New York City for three years, sir!” He told me as we bounced along dirt roads to the customs office in his white truck. “Really?” I asked. “Yes, you know X-rated video shops on 42nd Ave? Well, all those places are run by Sri Lankans. We used to work with the Italians and Jews but they do not like to do that business any more, sir.” (!) “I thought those were Bangladeshis who ran those shops,” I asked (never having been, just walked by, you know!). “No. All Sri Lankans, sir!” he told me proudly. Then if it couldn’t get any more bizarre he went rambling on, “Oh yes, I work downstairs in video booth area. Then we open gay video shop….” By the time we got to the customs office I kind of felt I now knew really a lot more than I needed about the New York porn biz.

Checking into a country when you arrive by boat is different than coming off a plane at the airport. There are many more forms and offices you have to go to and it takes the better part of a day. For my 170 clams it only took about three hours. Careful readers may remember the amazing questions on some of the ship entry forms in Thailand but Sri Lanka takes it to the next level: “Did any crew die on voyage?” “No.” I wrote firmly in the box. “Did any crew show symptoms of the plague?” Ah, “No,” again, I wrote. And my all time favorite so far: “Did you notice any abnormal mortality among the ship’s rats and mice?” (!!!)

We are tied between two mooring balls in Galle harbor and I have an anchor out as well. Last night a big squall tore through the harbor and the resultant surge almost ripped out one of my deck fairleads. So we moved the boat to a calmer corner (only about six boats are here now) and put out more lines.

Even though the civil war here is about over, the navy still places depth charges in the water in the harbor – all night long. This is to prevent Tamil Tigers from swimming in here and blowing up navy boats I guess. These charges are dropped about every half hour. I had been told that they no longer do this, wrong. No big deal, as long as you know what it is. It kind of sounds like somebody dropping a box of hammers on the floor above your head.

And it was a little hard to sleep through at first. We are waiting for friends Dave and Ann on Ferric Star to arrive. We left Malaysia together with them and Rick, a singlehander on Sea Wolf (now is that a great name for a singlehanded boat, or what?). Both of them are still out there drifting as they ran out of fuel a few days ago. Hopefully, they will arrive and we can arrange some land tours together.

In the meantime we have lots more work to do. On the crossing my exhaust elbow for the generator blew up. I need to make a new one which means running around to different machine shops to find somebody competent who won’t try to rip me off, too much. Also we have mounds of laundry and our new mattress needs cleaning! This is the largest mattress on the boat, a king sizer up in the V-berth, that is BRAND new with BRAND new covers.

As we were bashing into waves the watermelons that were stored up there in nylon bags (my fault) were slowly turned to pulp and leaked through the entire mattress, cover and all, to the other side. Then it began to ferment. It smelled like we were baking bread up there.

Under the V-berth is where we also store our 250 pounds of flour and yeast and I was afraid the flour got wet somehow and we had this huge blob of dough transmogrifying into some flesh-eating Marlon Brando-sized being. Horrible. Ok, who can wash a mattress in Sri Lanka?