06. Indian Ocean, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Aden 2009

This blog runs from Phuket, Thailand in January 2009 with sailing westward in the northern Indian Ocean calling at Sri Lanka, Maldives, Oman and arriving at Aden, Yemen by April. Crew were for the first leg to Sri Lanka were Scotsman Colin Laidlaw and Canadian Leon Lee. Both returning for a second taste of the lash. Colin continued on to the Maldives where he was meeting up with his soon to be wife, Belinda. For Maldives island hopping, old friends Mike Barker and Jacqui Clemson flew out and for the ocean passage to the Arabian coast I recruited an old university friend, Tim Relton and a Liverpudlian, Steve Rolands. All blog posts were originally emailed, in more or less real-time by satphone, to the http://blog.mailasail.com/graptolite site.

07:49.25N 098:21.25E Chalong Bay, Phuket, Thailand Sunday 11th January AM

Now all fully crewed with Colin and Leon now back onboard we had a fine cruise around Phang Nga Bay and did some ‘cave boating’ in the dinghy. The sea caves here are real caves with stalactites and everything and with a bit of hunting around you can usually find one to paddle into with a torch for a few hundred metres until popping out into a big open space in the hollow centre of the island.

We had the usual feast of giant shrimp on the barbie for dinner and then we were back in Chalong Bay to clear out to go to Sri Lanka. After a last night out ashore the weather had blown up and Bonnie ended up submerged after unsuccessfully boarding the bouncing dingy (1). Returning to where we had left Grapto in the crowded anchorage we found she had dragged her anchor some distance but cleverly managed to miss other boats on the way (2). After re-anchoring, the bracket holding the engine alternator on snapped off and our current problem is where to find a welder who will do a house-call on a Sunday (3). Problems with this boat usually come in threes and always seem to happen at night in howling wind.

07:45.53N 097:47.73E Andaman Sea, Wednesday 14th January PM

The welder was way too busy for a house-call. We solved it by propping the engine up on paperback books so we could take the mounting to Mohammed (the Volvo-Penta agent) for welding. It took a couple of goes and the first try had it, not usefully, welded on upside down. Several taxi rides across the island later and we had the engine going which was just as well as were dragging anchor again and starting to bang into a dive boat next to us. We said farewell to Bonnie who was going home to the US and Colin, Leon and their intrepid skipper headed out of Chalong Bay in the early evening. It looks like it will be a fast sail to Galle, Sri Lanka and we should be there in six or seven days.

07:27.38N 092:36.48E, Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean, Friday 16th Jan 20:30 UTC

We had a glut of yellowfin tuna yesterday and one lucky fish got thrown back as it was too big. We passed through the Nicobar Islands about 60 miles ago. Yachts are not allowed to stop there unfortunately; something to do with hostile natives and Russian/Indian military stuff.  From a distance what we saw seemed ok apart from a cruise-ship wrecked on a beach. It’s a bit bouncy but we are making good speed in these NE Monsoon winds.

07:23.91N 091:51.90E , Bay of Bengal Saturday 17th Jan 0300 UTC

No sooner had we reduced our stock of yellowfin than we pulled in an enormous 14kg dorado (aka mahi-mahi). Now we look and smell like fishwives. Should keep us going for a while though. Cap’n Birdseye 

06:20.55N 084:06.17E Bay of Bengal 230 miles east of Galle, Sri Lanka, Monday 19th January PM

We are still screaming along under full sail at 7-9 knots in excellent winds. Leon is producing raw, grilled and curried fish dishes as fast as he can, and Colin is trying not to catch anything too big. We are expecting to arrive at the old Dutch fortress city of Galle sometime Wednesday morning. We could be there earlier but arriving at night is not recommended as we hear they have a tendency to assume you are a sneaky Tamil Tiger attack and start lobbing depth-charges around in the harbour. We saw a ship earlier, the first one in days. It’s starting to get a bit busy again.

06:02.06N 080:13.83E Galle Harbour, Sri Lanka 22 January early AM

We arrived outside Galle harbour early morning and contacted the Harbour Master and the Yacht Agent then we had to sit outside the harbour for the next eight hours waiting for Navy clearance to enter the harbour. This is partly as they have a problem with Tamil Tigers and partly as they couldn’t care less about us yachties. We then had a parade of officials who are, without putting too fine a point on it, are a bunch of thieving bastards. When Customs people come aboard and start using your ship’s stores as a supermarket and filling up their empty briefcases with your booze you know you are in a country that has some problems. I’m trying not to let this influence my opinion of Lankans in general but first impressions usually always count. It has taken from sun-up to sunrise to get most formalities completed and we are promised free-pratique tomorrow when somebody else comes along to see if we have plague or not.

This evening a plausible spiv on the streets called Joseph has already taken us on a tuk-tuk tour of the town and has also promised us laundry, flag-making and tour services and anything else we want. And he also plied us with arrak, a local spirit made from coconut sap toddy. We’ll see how it goes.

06:02.06N 080:13.83E Galle Harbour, Sri Lanka Friday 24 January PM

We fixed up a few things on the boat yesterday and got a supply of courtesy flags made up for Sri Lanka and most of the other new countries coming up down the road. Later Joseph took us to his house to meet his family and have a cup of spiced tea. His original house was destroyed in the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 and he showed us his album of photos of the aftermath. Joseph is a somewhat self-appointed guide for us but he’s a nice enough chap and this place is difficult to deal with without help or using excessive violence. Colin and I tuk-tuk’d into town yesterday afternoon. It’s a chaotic place with tuk-tuks and motorbikes everywhere; Bollywood music blaring out and piles of tuna and other fish being chopped up at stinky beachside stalls. In the evening we all went with Joseph and Leman, the tuk-tuk driver, to sit on the old sea-walls of Galle Fort as the sun went down and we drank arrak and coke and ate cashews and fried chilies. Very cool. Back on the boat I carelessly slipped over in the heads and I think I’ve done a bit of damage as it hurts like hell to move around. I had to delay our elephant trekking trip. Seems to be improving though. Leon left the boat today and returned to real-life; his version of it anyway. Thanks for the crewing, Leon. I hope to see you back on the boat again sometime.

06:02.06N 080:13.83E Galle Harbour, Sri Lanka Sunday 25 January AM

We had an all-day white-knuckle ride with driver Darsana up through the hill country to Kandy and then in the evening went to a very kitsch Sri Lankan dance show and then on to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. It’s an important and busy Buddhist site so we were not able to get very close to the tooth itself. We had dinner with Americans Bill & Phyllis off ‘Gaia’, who are parked alongside us in the harbour. Kandy could be a very nice city. It is around a lake and is surrounded by wooded hills and has a nice Spring climate but there is the usual Lankan chaos all around. Few buildings look like they have ever been completed properly and the roads are a nightmare. Along the coast road there is still evidence of a lot of partially wrecked property from the 2004 Tsunami but up in the hills, I’m not sure what excuse they have. It is hard to describe the roads properly, partly because I had my eyes closed most of the time and partly because there is so much going on that defies explanation. The roads themselves are narrow and bumpy but it is the variety of things using the road that is the real problem as everything jostles for space each going at different speeds. The slowest moving things are cows, feral dogs, children on bicycles, little old ladies with parasols and sometimes elephants. The cows and old ladies go wherever they please. The next speed bracket includes pedestrians, cyclists and tractors. These usually travel against the flow and seem to need no more than an inch or two of clearance. A faster group are tuk-tuks and motorbikes. They think they are the kings of the road but everybody else thinks they’re invisible. The fastest stuff are cars and vans, trucks and buses and they differ only in the size of the gap they can squeeze through at high speed. Double white lines, blind corners and hills usually start a frenzy of overtaking and horn-honking involving all the speed categories. This morning, after a night in a hotel in Kandy, we went elephant-riding. It’s a painful process even without a bad back. Colin and I had big black bristly beast each and a mahout to poke at it. Then on to the Elephant Orphanage to feed the babies and wander down to the river with about 80 of the big ones to have a swim and wallow. Followed by another white-knuckle ride back to Galle.

05:19.64N 077:36.36E Northern Indian Ocean, Tuesday 27th Jan AM

After a last bit of being ripped-off, this time with overpriced provisions and half-filled gas bottles, we escaped from Galle under the suspicious eye of the Navy machine gun post. I don’t expect to be back any time soon. So now we are enroute to Male in the Maldives and should make landfall in a couple of days. There’s not really much land to fall onto though and rising sea levels are likely to cover the whole string of atolls by the end of the century. As the tourism people almost said “Come and see us while we are still here”. There’s almost no wind but we are getting some whales and dolphins under the boat to look at.

04:10.25N 073:29.43E at anchor, Male Atoll, Maldives Thursday 29th January AM

After a fairly gentle sail for a bit over 400 miles, we arrived in the Maldives at first light. Male, the capital, looks to be a cluster of pastel coloured high-rise buildings squeezed on to a tiny island. I wondered aloud why the Dutch chose that particular island for the capital out of the hundreds they had a choice of. Colin said probably as it’s near the airport. It’s been a long trip with just two on watch.

04:13.17N 073:32.31E Hulhumale, Maldives, Saturday 31st Jan PM

We have been having a bit of trouble recently with the engine not going as fast as it should. After spending a couple of days eliminating all the very expensive and unlikely causes like seized up gearboxes, we cracked and tracked down a Volvo-Penta engineer who took a few minutes to diagnose blocked injector nozzles from dirty (almost certainly Sri Lankan) diesel. Should be up and running tomorrow. Male, the capital of the Maldives is not exactly party-central being completely alcohol and pig-free. The place seems relatively prosperous but that will be almost entirely due to the income generated from the booze and pork-rib fueled partying in the 90-odd resorts up and down the Maldivian atolls. There is a form of apartheid going on here which I hadn’t really appreciated before I came where foreigners are mostly kept separate from locals. Just as well really as the locals think swimming fully-dressed is a neat idea.

03:55.18N 073:27.27E Maldives

It’s been a while since I did a blog but there’s not been much of interest going on apart from polishing the deck. I had some problems with the watermaker not working which was a concern given the dusty dry desert countries coming up. A local agent for the watermaker company turned out to not exist so I got in somebody from another company who hadn’t a clue but thought it might be part of the pump. I ordered a new one for a mere £800. Friends Mike and Jacqui came bearing the said part and water was flowing inside an hour. The pair of them are working their way through my Middle East booze supply as we explore the islands and resorts in the sunshine. There is a difficulty in anchoring here as the water is either too shallow or hundreds of metres deep. We hit on a way to anchor on a vertical wall of coral by dropping 10m of chain in the water and driving to the beach until it sticks.

Ms J. wants a word….

It’s totally untrue, we have only made a small indent into the Captain’s cocktail locker. However we have only been here 48 hours. So far the resorts have saved the day by being wet (remember we are in dry territory). If things get really tight we will have to throw the Skipper into a long boat and confiscate the grog! Why are pirates called pirates? …..Cause they arrr-harrh-haha-arrh!

Capt’n Jack xx 

04:13.17N 073:32.31E Hulhumale, Maldives, Sunday 22nd Feb PM

Mike, Jacqui and myself have been busy exploring the resorts of South and North Male’ Atolls for the past couple of weeks. Not a lot to say about them as they are all fairly similar. They are all perfect little islands with thatched bungalows, palm trees, white sand, swimming pool blue sea and a surrounding coral reef with lots of pretty fishes. It has to said though that after the steel drums of the Caribbean, the hula of Polynesia and the didgeridoos of the Outback, there seems to be a lack of any indigenous musical culture hereabouts and the ‘soundtrack’ of the place seems to be missing. But still, nowhere is really perfect. Mike and Jacqui left on the afternoon flight today back to the frost and rain of Blighty. Sounds nasty but I’ve only got a vague recollection of what being cold is like. I’ve got a couple of days now by myself back near Male’ to do laundry and one or two boat repairs then I get more crew.

04:13.17N 073:32.31E Hulhumale, Maldives, Sunday 25th Feb PM

Tim Relton turned up yesterday to crew to Egypt. Tim once lived in a room opposite me in a student house in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1975. We did a bit of climbing and caving as students and as a graduation present to ourselves in 1978, four of us went to the Northern Indian Himalayas to bag and unclimbed mountain. The mountain very nearly bagged us but that is another long story. Since then, job and family got in the way and I completely lost touch with all of them. Partly as I had convinced myself (with no evidence at all) that Tim at least had met an untimely end involving gravity and a hang-glider. Over 30 years later, the t’internet and a few idle moments got us back in touch. It seems both of us have found jobs and families to be more ephemeral than expected and it’s obviously a good time for more epic adventures. He looks very old though!

04:13.17N 073:32.31E Hulhumale, Maldives, Saturday 28th Feb AM

Steve Rowlands flew in to Male’ yesterday and that should complete the crew for the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea legs. My main engine alternator is unfortunately in bits on some workbench somewhere which is cramping our style. They have had some public holidays here which are slowing the repairs down. But when that’s done, we just need a bit of food provisioning and we can be off. Maybe after a bit more snorkelling in the atolls. Provisioning here is not going to be easy and everything will need to be hand carried on two ferries and a dinghy. They only seem to eat bananas, coconuts, tuna and rice here. The only cheese available comes in tins with Arabic writing on it. From past experience I know it’s pretty disgusting, but we’ll be getting some anyway for emergency munchies.

04:37.74N 073:23.90E Akirifushi Island, North Male’ Atoll Wednesday 4th March

Yesterday we were able to make an escape from Male’ after paying some more huge bills for repairs and official rip-off taxes. First stop was Bodubados Island where I knew there was a fairly pleasant resort which I previously visited with Mike and Jacqui a couple of weeks ago. We had dinner and a few drinks in the bar with a Bob Marley clone entertaining (it was Reggae Night). This morning we had a snorkel on their excellent coral reef. Then we headed north and just before dark anchored off the small uninhabited island of Akirifushi in the northern part of North male’ Atoll. We had another snorkel in the twilight where several lobsters narrowly avoided be coming dinner. Tim is cooking something vegetarian as I write. The plan now is to meet up with another boat, called ‘Traveler’, in Uligamu and sail in a small convoy with them to Oman in few days time.

04:13.17N 073:32.31E Hulhumale, Maldives, Sunday 8th March PM

Everything seemed to be going so well. While heading north to Uligamu on Thursday, the expensively and recently repaired alternator unrepaired itself. It left us no choice but to return to Male’ overnight. On Fridays here it’s no use expecting any activity unrelated to Islam. Saturday also came and went with no sign of Rizza the engineer. Sunday too now is almost over. It’s all getting to be a bit irksome. How does one exist on a boat with no alternator and no shore power? Lots of power is needed for all kinds of creature comforts, like making drinking water and playing DVDs. The answer is to have a generator as well. However, last night while watching a Korean War movie (in Korean, thank you Mike & Jacqui) we suddenly had a blackout due to overheating. We found a sticky clear jelly filling the inside of the sea water cooling system of the generator. It had also wrecked the blades in the seawater pump. People will say it could have been a careless passing jellyfish that had been pureed through the mesh but we are sure we had been attacked by the dreaded Maldivian Snot Monster. After picking up a few tips on generator repair from my brother Duncan while in Australia it only took a few hours of cursing this morning to get it up and running again but the busted diodes of the alternator needs more than amateur attention. Where is that Rizza? 

04:15.30N 073:19.08E running north Friday 13th March AM

Tempting fate yesterday, I started the paperwork to leave the Maldives without having a functional boat. When I got back from Male’, I found Rizza and an electrician had been toiling away to get things sorted out now their equivalent of Christmas was over. In the nick of time too, with another Friday around the corner. The root cause of the alternator failures turned out to be a dodgy electronic battery switch. Naturally no replacement for it was to be had in the Maldives but they cobbled some more old-fashioned switchgear together and by late evening we were away. The plan now is to call into Uligamu but just for some top-up fuel. There will be no boats to convoy with as they all left days ago but I’m expecting to catch up with them in Salalah.

08:50.31N 069:33.15E Arabian Sea 1030 miles from Salalah, Monday 16th March AM

Nothing much is happening out here in the Arabian Sea. There is not much wind, no big waves, no ships and no fish or any other kind of wildlife come to that. All pretty dull really. There was a bit of excitement yesterday when Tim pointed out ‘smoke’ pouring out of the engine room. A pipe with engine coolant in it had burst and sprayed out green-coloured water. Everything had overheated and turned it all to steam. It was fun while it lasted. Tim and Steve seem to be on the same page as me as far as Life, the Universe and Everything is concerned so I can’t get my usual amusement by shocking the captive-audience with lurid theories on the origins and follies of Homo sapiens. We have also had some very closely fought games of ‘Trivial Pursuits’. How come we all know the same stuff?

11:00.05N 065:33.45E Arabian Sea 750 miles southeast of Salalah, Wednesday 18th March PM

Still no fish. I’m glad I have the photographic evidence that fish do get caught off this boat. The winds are still light, and the sea is like a mill pond but the asymmetric spinnaker has been doing good service and we’ve been making around 5-6 knots. We’ve seen only a handful of tankers and freighters in the distance since setting off but no other yachts. Nothing much to do here but read and sleep. ‘Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ is nearly finished. What a strange book. I don’t think it’s going to be changing my life though as the blurb suggests.

13:42.78N 060:44.99E Arabian Sea 435 miles southeast of Salalah, Saturday 21st March AM

We finally dragged a couple of fish up from this watery desert. The first fish looked a bit nasty with a skinny body and huge head and teeth but the second one was a reasonable-sized dorado. The dorado disassembled over two days into some sashimi (raw and wriggling) with wasabi, barbequed kebabs with lime and traditional fish, chips & peas. It will do lunch today and then we will be needing some more. I’ve just been reading ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ about a sunken whaling ship in the Pacific and cannibalism among the survivors. I doubt it will come to that. The wind has been light to nonexistent for a few days now. The asymmetric spinnaker has been useful in winds around 6 knots and the engine in anything less. Last night it was so still that the stars were reflected in the sea and the last time I saw that was in the Coral Sea and that time we had to do so much motoring that we ended up running out of diesel. We’ll eat Steve first.

16:36.12N 055:03.86E 60 miles ESE of Salalah Tuesday 24th March AM

If this wind keeps up we should be there sometime this evening. The luminous bugs in the water have been giving good displays recently and it looks like the trail from a rocket behind us in the night. Apart from that there has been no marine life worth speaking of. The useless fishing lines got tangled under the boat the other day (again) and required a raid by Commander Pickup of the SBS to cut them free. The mini-scuba gear comes in handy now and then. A helmet as used for canoeing would be a useful addition as I usually seem to bash my head on the boat bottom, judging by the antifouling paint that gets on my scalp.

16:56.19N 054:00.35E Mina Salalah, Oman Wednesday 25th March AM

We arrived at Salalah yesterday evening. The coast is mountainous desert, but the port looks like a modern, well run place with a big busy container terminal. And there is me thinking it would be just a couple of Bedouin tents and a few camels. The available cruising guides for the area are a tad out of date. Everyone seems scarily very helpful and laid-back. Also, everyone seems to be called Mohammed. We just got the keys for a hire car from a Mr Fix-it called Mohammed without doing any paperwork. We’re off to see Customs and Immigration now which is always a good test of a country’s character.

16:56.19N 054:00.35E Mina Salalah, Oman Saturday 28th March PM

On Friday we took a drive up into the mountains. It’s just a completely Martian landscape without a blade of grass but there seems to be enough of something for the camels. The landscape on the coastal strip near Salalah is not much better. Everything looks like building rubble. Some of it is in fact building rubble but mostly it’s just the natural state of the ground here. Just dry dusty and rubbly. The architecture in town is not particularly inspiring, to my eyes anyway, as it is just a sprawling mass of concrete boxes with the odd Arabic flourish. We have been eating some fine Omani meals recently. I’m usually not much of a fan of Middle Eastern cuisine but this stuff has been really good. Tonight, we turned up an Omani restaurant and were surprised to be shown into a small room with just a carpet and some cushions. Eating off the floor using fingers is something most westerners have forgotten how to do by adulthood. The only ‘oasis’ of Western life near the port is the Oasis Club which is one of only a handful of places you can get beer. Carry-outs are not allowed and now we have tragically almost completely run out of booze on the boat. We have had a few delays with irritating and possibly insoluble problems like the fresh-water pump needing a replacement, but we should be off to Aden soon.

16:05.40N 053:41.33E Gulf of Aden Tuesday 31 March

After a final flurry of provisioning, money-changing, battery and flag-buying we left Salalah yesterday evening and steamed out into bandit country. The Royal Navy are tracking our progress to Aden, or at least I’m telling them where I am. There is a time delay though on this blog posting in case you were wondering about the advisability of telling everyone else exactly where we are. The crew were getting a bit on the smelly side without hot and cold running water so during my night watch I fiddled with the burnt-out pressure-switch on the pump. It seems to have worked and now we are all fragrant again.

14:01.88N 051:47.93E Westbound Transit Corridor, Offshore Yemen Wednesday 1 April

We entered the Transit Corridor earlier today. Or at least the one-kilometre wide strip between the eastbound and westbound convoy routes. The idea is that it makes things easier for the naval forces around to patrol the area for pirates. Apart from convoys of big merchant ships scuttling through, we’ve seen nothing so far of either bad guys or good guys. Which I suppose is OK.

13:19.00N 049:31.12E Westbound Transit Corridor, Offshore Yemen Thursday 2 April

OK so far. We’ve had NATO helicopters and warships circling around and calling us all day. We did hear the warships blasting out VHF warning messages for the pirates and we also heard the Maersk Alabama sounding a bit panicky on the radio (Note: The Maersk Alabama was soon after to be attacked by Somali pirates as shown in the movie “Captain Phillips” starring Tom Hanks)

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