Friday, April 20, 2012

Passage to India (March-April 2012)

Passage to India

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Our previous post related the trucking of Chinook overland through Saudi Arabia to the United Arab Emirates from Jordan in June 2011. This "desert sail" was to avoid the Somali piracy activity of the southern Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the increasing number of piracy incidents off the coast of Yemen and southern Oman in the North Indian Ocean.

Chinook spent five months alone in the Al Hamra Marina (Ras Al Khaimah) in the high heat and humidity of an Emirate summer while her crew (Deborah and Brian) spent the time in a cooler British-Columbian summer. Because no sailing was done in this time- and since this is essentially a sailing blog - there is a noticeable "gap" in blogs.

Returning to Chinook in late October we began preparations for the sail to India planned for early in the new year (2012) and, at that time, had intended sailing further east on to Thailand. Chinook was registered with the Maritime Security Organizations, particularly Dubai-based UKMTO, the co-ordinating office to obtain their current advice to yachtsmen and initiate the process to participate in the voluntary reporting scheme for support. Their first response to us was: " is our advice NOT to make this passage" Piracy was still spreading and there was no decrease in activity this year in the South West Monsoon due to calmer seas than usual and the use of "mother ships" increasing the range of the skiffs used by pirates. UKMTO further added that small yachts like ours have absolutely no defence against the Somalian automatic weapons.

Deborah's comfort level suddenly dropped to zero. Brian was still OK about making the trip, but not to single-hand due to the high numbers of ocean freighters and fishing boats - which required a vigilant lookout. The search began looking for a crew member among our sailing friends, as well as contracting paid crew and possibly an accompanying "guard boat" for the more dangerous leg of the journey. We even explored the costs of shipping Chinook on a freighter with companies specializing in "lift-on-lift-off", but the costs were very high.

Our Swiss friend Gil, whom we had met first in Lebanon and then again in Egypt, was very keen to crew with Brian but would not be available until early March as he had other commitments. Gil, 73, an inveterate and experienced singlehandler and world traveller, saw the threat of piracy in the intended route as being almost non-existent - and wanted a little adventure. We decided to wait for Gil to crew even though it meant a later start than we wanted.

And it really was quite pleasant at Al Hamra - pleasant weather at that time of year, the friendly  marina atmosphere, people we were meeting, being able to bike, jog and swim, a large modern supermarket nearby, easy access to Dubai when we wanted. Brian ran a 10 K race in Dubai and jogged with the RAK Hash House Harriers.

Coffee with John and Aileen from "Nismah" in Al Hamra Marina, Eric and Vicky, Canadians working in Fujairah.

An Australian yacht in the marina, "Sailing Grace" with Brett and his undaunted crew of three was preparing to sail the same route (Brett's wife was of the same mind as Deborah and was not sailing). "Grace" set off in February and had no difficulties after a delayed start due to high adverse winds.

 In the meantime, Deborah's UAE Visa was due to expire and as she could not renew it without leaving the Emirates for a month, we hired a car and explored Muscat, the capital of Oman, before she flew to India to rejoin Chinook.

At the Royal Palace in Muscat, Oman

Five days after Gil's arrival in UAE, provisioning was shopped for, last-minute boat jobs were completed, goodbyes said - and after two days waiting for high winds to lessen, we left Al Hamra Marina at 0630, motoring in lumpy seas to the Coast Guard and Immigration docks at the Ras Al Khaimah Port, 12 miles north for the check-out procedures. 1100 saw us motoring out of RAK into calming seas and light winds. A cup of coffee and photographs with the officials had completed the formalities - very endearing.

We managed 42 miles that first day before dropping anchor at 1815 in Kwahr Hanah (Bay) just inside the Omani border. Red wine, lamb stew and early to bed for the early start the next day to take us through the Straits of Hormuz and around the Musandam Peninsula. At exactly midnight we were woken by the searchlight and loudspeaker of an Omani Police boat (the police do coast-guard duties) questioning us on our intentions. They were courteous but a reminder that they knew who was in their waters.  Photo: Musandam at Hormuz

Day two, the anchor was up at 0630 after a wakening cup of tea and the next staging leg of 55 miles began. Light winds and an adverse current of up to 2 knots at times had us creeping into Al Limah Bay in the dark, anchoring at 1930. During the day we navigated through the starkly spectacular scenery of steep barren cliffs of the Musandam, had another Omani police boat check us out, saw local ferries and many "Irani Runners" (smugglers in small fast skiffs operating between Iran and Oman) as well as a few fishermen. Red wine and Beef Stroganoff in the anchorage.

For the following nine days it was "leg one", the passage along the coasts of Iran, Pakistan and northern India. Keeping 20 - 25 miles off the coast of Iran in international waters to avoid being arrested as spies, we saw only fishing boats and freighters. The fishing boats were lit at night and not a hazard and the AIS radio showed us freighters' position, course, speed, and closest point of approach, almost making being run-down a non-issue.

The Iranian Navy had been recently missile testing in their waters and in the same broad area (but in international waters) the USA and British Coalition forces were also engaged in firing practice. Warnings on the VHF radio were a constant reminder that muscles were being flexed...

Gil practising his new saxophone

Winds were generally light and apart from a few hours of sailing in the afternoon sea breeze effect, we had the Volvo-Penta panting. With slow sailing, a slight current against us, the daily average was about 85 miles (24 hour periods) We stopped for a swim (well, OK to wash our smelly man-bodies) a couple of times. The phosphorescence at night was spectacular and the sea surface was rich in plankton and long coiled sea-cucumbers. Dolphins accompanied us one morning. Although the fishing rod was always strung out from the stern, nothing was caught.

The head (toilet, landlubbers!) decided to stop working due to blocked hoses and in spite of a couple of valiant attempts to clear the line, it was "bucket and chuck it" until reaching port.

Reaching the Pakistani border late afternoon on the third day after leaving Al Limah, the winds began to pick up and for the next few days we were able to sail under the genoa most of the time in 20-plus knots of a following breeze. The swells became larger and due to our course, Chinook rolled a lot, triggering Brian's sea-queasiness. By late afternoon of the next day it was very "hazy" until we realized the haze was fine sand - a sand-storm 20 miles off shore - it penetrated and coated everything.

One afternoon, napping, reading, a rogue wave/swell caught and slewed Chinook, filling the cockpit, ripping the dodger and breaking part of the bimini frame. Books and tools flew from cupboards, for the second time a laundry detergent bottle spewed over the sole (floor) and three drawers in the head emptied their contents. Although the companionway hatch was closed, some water did find its way down to the nav. table but apart from the ripped dodger, no real damage was done. Complacency during the calmer periods of the passage had lulled us.

Pakistani fishermen were most curious and came out of their way to look at us - some staying with us for half an hour. We bought a nice fish from one fishing boat, the price a six-pack of cola. Nothing that looked remotely like a pirate skiff approached - that is, skiffs with powerful outboards, extra fuel jerry-cans, boarding ladders and guns.

Daily position reporting was made to the Maritime Security organization (and various family and friends) by texting on our satellite phone. It was some comfort to know that someone knew where we were, although we were never too far from shore and there were many fishing vessels in proximity. The Indian Coast Guard actually paid us a visit not long after crossing the Pakistan-Indian border, 20 miles offshore.

After five days it became apparent that we would not reach Mumbai in time for Gil to catch his flight home, so we decided on Porbandar as our Indian landfall where Deborah could meet us and effect the crew change. She (Deborah) flew there, hired a shipping agent and although we felt we were overcharged, check in and out procedures were effected quickly and efficiently.

Arriving in Porbandar, we initially tied alongside a large, old wooden dhow unloading dates from Egypt. The various agents, customs and immigration people clambered down a rickety ladder from it to visit. There must have been ten officials aboard at one stage, all polite and courteous. Being a "dry" Indian state (Gujarat), all alcohol aboard was sealed by Customs into lockers although three partly-empty bottles were left as our allowance.

Quite the novelty in Porbandar as very few foreign sailing yachts ever stop there, Deborah was interviewed by the local radio station, Brian was interviewed by a local TV crew and there were literally crowds (all men) who came to look at us - often sitting for several hours just looking over Chinook.

In-out formalities were completed within 28 hours. Deborah boarded with fresh provisions and extra drinking water. It was now time to say au revoir to Gil. Had it not been for him we possibly would have shipped Chinook. We are both extremely grateful to him for giving his time generously and happily.

The following morning we sailed out of the harbour with five fresh fish we had bought from early-returning fishermen for one USD, two packets of cigarettes and two coca colas. That was the real deal; the other was the thick layer of black soot from the nearby cement factory that had settled overnight, covering every inch of Chinook. It took time to be washed off with many buckets of seawater as we hit the open seas. And the head hoses were now cleared...

The second leg (500 nautical miles) took six days. Again the winds were very light (the afternoon breeze always came) so much motoring was done. We should have purchased more diesel in Porbandar, but the agent could not guarantee the quality and told us it would be expensive, so we left there with only 250 litres in total; possibly not sufficient to reach Goa if we had to use the engine a lot. We accepted slower sailing speeds to conserve fuel. The gennaker was used several times, Chinook gently drifting along at 3 knots, ten to fifteen miles off-shore.

At nights there were waves of fishing trawler fleets to avoid - as many as 30 boats strung in a tight line abreast. Usually we managed to sail around the end of the line but sometimes having to slip between two of the trawlers. And the AIS radio showed us where the large freighters were - on average about six per day, often passing us within one mile. We never had a problem with fishing nets - the smaller, individual fishing boats were closer inshore, but we dodged many set pot markers. The fish offered by several boats were always much too large for us. If we had a freezer...

It was not our original intention to stop in Goa but our fuel was now critically low and we had to obtain more. Creeping into Goa's outer anchorage in the dark, we dropped the hook for the night and the next morning moved through the shallow entrance channel to the anchorage off the north of the city on the incoming tide. Putting down next to a floating casino, three dinghy trips were made into town, jerry-canning back 100 litres of diesel at a time (cost 83 cents CAD per litre). The diesel seemed clean enough but we used the baja filter when decanting into our fuel tank. We (illegally) did not check in at Goa, staying for three nights in the inlet with passing barges and party boats - the casino keeping late nights. No officials came out to visit but a police boat waved to us. Oil and filters were changed (long overdue) and the water-pump impeller was found to have lost three of its six blades - the remaining three cracked and ready to come off also.

The final 400-mile leg from Goa to Cochin was five days, and as for the previous legs, the light winds kept us motoring often, we dodged large freighters and nocturnal fishing fleets, staying 10 miles offshore. One small tuna tried our lure and ended up in the frying pan with butter. The temperatures were becoming noticeably warmer and there were nightly shows of lightning over the land - the storms dissipating as they moved over the ocean.

"Breadcrumbs" are not just what Goldilocks left, they refer to the track created on a GPS by the boat's path - to be followed back if necessary. In our case the breadcrumbs could also mean about 200 tea bags left floating behind us over the journey - carefully dropped every three hours along the way. We drank tea copiously .

Chinese fishing nets at harbour entrance

Arriving at the Cochin Harbour entrance mid-afternoon on March 5th (22 days after leaving the UAE) we obtained permission to enter and were directed to the anchorage off the Port Authority building. The police and customs were waiting there to meet us and boarded to carry out their inspections. The following day being Easter Friday everything was closed so we would have to wait until Monday before completing the Customs work. Immigration we were able to do the following morning, however, and then get "special" permission to move Chinook to the Kochi International Marina in the Bogatty Island Resort, India's ONLY marina, opened two years previously (2010).(See pic below)

Our "agent"/helper, Nazar, prearranged by Jamie and Liz (SV "Esper") took us to the various official offices ashore and guided Chinook through the skinny water to the KIM where Esper helped tie us to the dock. Jamie and Liz had sailed to India from Turkey (where we had met them) two years previously with the Vasco da Gama Rally, liked Cochin and were traveling extensively within India allowing them to write (Liz) and  photograph (Jamie) - as well as broadcast their own podcasts. Really worth a look at with a super newly released app for android.

India is still deeply mired in the British Colonial tradition, reflected in the paper-work - handwritten and in triplicate (with carbon paper - "Please press hard Sir"). Time-consuming and tedious and judging by the condition of the high, teetering mounds of dusty, discoloured files piled on the floor of the dimly-lit offices we sat in, the paper work has been there since the Brits left. However, it still seems to be giving many, many people office jobs (where a few computers would do). Change will not come easily due to the autonomy of each of the 28 states, stated one official we chatted to. And the power of the "boat seal" (stamp) in India is absolute!
Photo: Nazar, Jamie and Liz (and Brian) - hot curries at lunch.

First impressions of India: "Chaotic" is a good word to begin with - at least until we discover any hidden order there may be. Everything is crumbling, decaying, broken, falling-down - left-overs from the Colonial days. Traffic rules are few - in fact three: whoever is in front has right-of-way (meaning there is a constant race to get in front - cutting your opponent off is expected practice); horn-blowing is mandatory at all times and pedestrians have no rights whatsoever. Fumes from the thousands of vehicles - motor cycles, auto-rickshaws (tuk-tuks) trucks, buses and the occasional private car combine with the heat and humidity to make breathing the other hazardous activity. The smells from the open drains, garbage, discarded produce and urine walls finish you off. And yes, there are many beggars. At least in the cities. On the other hand, the people are friendly and helpful, inexpensive tropical fruits and fresh vegetables are available at markets and roadside stands, the culture is fascinating, the history is amazing and the many varieties of dishes are hot hot hot! Deborah arrived a month earlier, as mentioned before, sightseeing in Mumbai and Delhi: the Ganges funeral pyres, elephant riding, tiger spotting and of course, the Taj Mahal, We have yet to see more of the cooler, countryside and mountain areas and look forward to that.

Rather than continue (rather rushed) eastward this sailing season, we have decided to leave Chinook in the Cochin Marina for the hot, wet monsoon months and, again enjoy a cooler Canadian summer. We will return in October and sail more leisurely via Sri Lanka to Thailand and Malaysia. That is, if we ever get through the paperwork to leave... 

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The only fish caught...
Hitchhiker 20 miles offshore
Gil happily cleaning fish
The powerful boat stamp - don't leave home without one...