Monday, April 08, 2013

From India to the Maldives


Photo: Chinook just entering the North Male Atoll. Courtesy of Jamie aboard Esper

We had left Chinook in the Kochi International Marina on Bolgatty Island just off Cochin City and flew to British Columbia to escape the wet monsoon months. As it turned out we stayed six months in Canada, purchasing a small motor home to live in, tripping a triangle around Vancouver, Victoria on the Island and Squamish). Those six months went fast; the weather was great, we saw many friends and of course visited family in Ontario. The grandkids are growing like weeds and we do miss them, but we have sailing to do...

This is the third consecutive year we have left Chinook in the hot and humid places she has taken us and perhaps marks a slight change in our "permanent live-aboard" status as yachties, meaning we may sail six months of the year and be land gypsies for the other six. No laughs of derision, please - it's still a hard life...

Returning to India on November 7th we stayed in the Bolgatty Palace Hotel for five days while we made Chinook habitable. The mould and mildew farm was not as bad as we had expected, but considerable enough for us to spend days washing the teak surfaces with vinegar and bleach. Soot from the city had penetrated to form a thin black layer on most horizontal surfaces - needing much washing. The weather was still very hot, so it was cleaning in the mornings and cooling down poolside in the afternoons, a workable routine. Being the off season, hotel prices were not too high, and we did get a discount for having a boat in the marina - part of the whole Bolgatty Island complex. Anticipating the drier months, typically December through February inclusive (and they were very dry) we wanted to enjoy India while waiting for the monsoon winds to take us to S.E. Asia.

 Jamie and Liz returned to Esper a week or so later and happy hours on the dock resumed with swapped tales of the summer and some good company for the next few months.

We planned a trip to the cooler mountain region of Wayanad with Jamie and Liz to Varnam, a family-run "homestay" amid tea and coffee plantations for a few days around Christmas. It certainly was cooler and the villages a change from the bustling city of Cochin. Wild tigers and elephants roamed in the area and we did see one one of each - from the car.

The arrival of 2013 was also celebrated with Jamie and Liz and their visiting British friends at nearby Fort Cochin, an historic area and tourist destination of the city. A huge thunderstorm soaked us to the bones late on New Year's Eve and the next night we watched a parade with bizarre floats portraying the underworld and dead.

 A day trip in the "backwaters" of Kerela was a highlight, motoring through a series of interconnected canals, rivers and estuaries with small villages, their paddy fields and many live-aboard tourist houseboats.

The next event was the arrival of "Divanty" from Thailand, Antony, Divina and crew Tony and Pat ("Full Flight") whom we had known well in Turkey. And it was more "happy-houring" on the dock than was good for one's health.


We flew to Nepal for two weeks in late November and early December. Smoggy, crowded Kathmandu, clear and tranquil Pokhara and historic world heritage site Bhaktapur were visited with a hair-raising eight-hour bus trip over several mountain passes between them. Brian ran with the Himalayan Hash House Harriers up the steepest hills he ever had jogged in his life and did a couple of paragliding flights with stunning mountain views. We rented mountain bikes and further exhausted ourselves on rocky hilly tracks , hiked in the dark to view the sunrise pinks and reds of the Annapurna mountain range and ate locally, watching cultural dancing. Everest was elusive however, obscured by smog but can be seen on a clear day at higher elevations from Bhaktapur. Nepal is a country we would love to return to for a longer period of time.


The month of February was devoted almost soley to preparations for the 260 n.mile sail to the Maldives. Checking the engine, sails and rigging, electronics, planning the route, watching the weather forecasts, provisioning, filling with diesel, water, and checking, checking checking all the boat's systems over and over... The many small jobs that had been put off while we were having fun in India had accumulated to a point it seemed to be a scramble to complete them all. The hull had an thriving ecosystem of its own after six months: barnacles, weed, attendant fish and crabs - almost a floating reef - and had to be scraped as clean as was possible. This we had done professionally by a company specializing in that with divers employing hydraulic hull scrubbers. Not cheap but well worth the money. We had placed a plastic bag over the propeller for the months we were in the marina (replacing it several times) so at least it was clean and Brian had scraped most of the rudder area so it would turn and let us check the steering systems.

The Somali piracy situation in the Indian Ocean has vastly improved, for several reasons although it is still not safe for small yachts.  It is not a lucrative business any more - in fact perhaps dangerous for the pirates as freighters have been arming themselves and repelling most attacks. The coalition forces still patrol the busy freighter routes and still arrest offenders; small yacht traffic has completely ceased on the India - Red sea route.   The pirate leaders have been persuaded to give the activity up by the Somali government with pardons and induction into the running of the coutry. We also thought ourselves to be too far south and east and well out of the danger zone and had little trouble making the decision to come here.    

 Saying goodbyes were not easy. The marina and hotel staff had been sweet to us, as had Nazar and Gladwin whose families we had gotten to know. Divanty had left a week before us and Esper was set to leave a week after us (both  Maldives-bound). Nazar facilitated the customs and immigration checking out procedures on 22nd February which took the whole morning with last minute provisioning taking the whole afternoon. The previous two days had been nation-wide strike days and although we could not do as much as we wanted because of the strike, we were actually glad of the forced delay giving us breathing space. The weather reports were becoming more favourable, we were to have a moon at night and the tides were high enough the next day to exit the marina without getting stuck in the mud. By 0900 of the morning of the 23rd we had the engine running, the lines slackened and help turning Chinook around to point out through the large busy harbour.

 The passage took exactly 73 hours - three days and nights. Light winds and flat seas had us motoring for 68 of those hours and sailing only five. Sven guzzled 150 litres of diesel, chewed through one newly-replaced impeller, a primary fuel filter and otherwise behaved. We saw few fishing boats and fewer freighters - OK by us, especially at night. Not one pirate in sight. The moon was near full for most of the hours of darkness each night and the weather clear. There was a slight adverse current for most of the passage, becoming favourable for the last twelve  hours. Our night watches were three hours on/off then two hours on/off. Meals were easy to prepare with the reefed main countering the rolling tendency - and as usual, delicious. And, as usual, no fish caught.

Arrival into the Maldives at 10:00 was at Uligamu, one of the northernmost islands in the northernmost atoll. The anchorage was slightly uncomfortable as some ocean swell wrapped around the island - not fully protected by the reef. It was a long dinghy trip into the little harbour with larger wind-generated waves, so we waited another full day to go ashore to pick up our temporary cruising permit from ANTRAC our Ship's Agency. Three hours after arrival we were clearing customs and immigration with five officials (including police and a local dignitary) crammed into our small cockpit. Quickly and efficiently done and all very friendly. Later we snorkeled the coral reef in the clear, warm waters the Maldives is famous for and napped to catch up on missed sleep.

 The word "atoll" is Maldivian (Arabic derivation) - used of course globally to describe the geophysical structure of the reefs and islands. Planning an accurate route through the them is important then, as, it can be only a minute or so after coming from ocean depths of 1500 metres to 20 inside an atoll then zero onto a reef attempting to enter a lagoon. Reading the colours of the water (deep blue, light blue, green, yellow and brown) is a skill we learned in the Bahamas - the refresher course a crash one. The colours show best when the sun is high and behind us, so we must make sure we are coming into anchorages before 3 p.m. otherwise there can be loud shouting.

The Maldives is a Muslim country with an Indo-Arabic history, a crossroads of ancient trading routes, Portuguese and Dutch ruled and in 1965 independence from the British was gained. The previous authoritarian president was in power for 25 years maintaining a governing structure under the guise of democracy but it was not until 2004 that valid democratic elections were held and a constitution set in 2008. Since the real democratic change, the Maldives has lifted itself out of "Least Developed Country" status. Tourism is the main economic sector making it vulnerable to global economics. A tusnami in 2004 devastated many of the low-lying islands and with rising sea levels due to global warming a reality, we are pessimistic for any long-term future for the country. In fact the government is preparing for this eventuality by buying land in Australia.

Alcohol is not permitted in the country (apart from at resorts only). Declaration of alcohol then requires the customs to impound ship's stores and release them when checking out. Ask us later what is was like to be dry for so long and we will tell you the truth...  We were disappointed over the "rule" of not being able to visit inhabited islands - with the exception of the four that have customs officials and resort islands. This is to minimize contact between Madivians and outsiders (yachtspeople) - the fear that alcohol will be sold and women with exposed arms and legs will be seen. The rule is not applied consistently, we were to find later, as tourists from resorts frequently visit local islands.

Water, water, everywhere...At the Uligamu anchorage we began using our watermaker for the first time since the membrane had been replaced - as it could not, and did not have to be used in the marinas in the UAE and Cochin. Whenever the engine is running or whenever we have good sunlight so the solar panels are keeping up with charging the batteries we are now employing its services. We were relying on this for our water as it can be quite expensive to buy here, Maldivian water being reverse osmosis derived - using electricity which need diesel generators. The locals rely on cisterns to catch rain water and some islands actually have wells.  Working away in the background our little Katie (Katadyn) seems to be chanting "what are we doing what are we doing" and "i'm not sure I'm not sure"

Through Mohamed, the young man who was ANTRAC'S representative in Uligamu, we were able to buy limited fresh fruit (bananas right off the tree) and veges (eggplant and the greatest find: a kilo and a half of passion fruit - Brian's favourite additive to happy-hour rum! We bought a SIM card for the mobile phone with talk time and an internet data package. Mobile coverage is excellent and cheap throughout the Maldives with cell towers on every inhabited island. Mohamed gave us a tour of the small island which has a pilot project for wind-generated electricity - still after 4 years to be completed.

 We stayed four nights at Uligamu then began the 200 n.mile passage towards Male, the capital. We had intended to do this slowly, enjoying the anchorages and islands. The limiting factor was our fresh food supplies and replenishing them over the next few weeks - not being able to visit inhabited islands. On the advice of Divanty who had just stopped there a week earlier, we spent two nights tied on a mooring ball off Hideaway Resort on Dhonakhuli Island. The current passing through the reef reached 4 knots at times which made swimming and snorkeling almost impossible and actually prevented us from going ashore lest the dinghy engine fail and we would be literally swept out to sea.

Nolhivaranfaru Island and village, a further seven miles south, has a circular-reef protected anchorage where we stopped for eight nights in total. Local passing fishermen would wave; one offered us a tuna far too big for us to eat in a month. We were bound not to go ashore for the reasons mentioned previously, however we made a day trip (two hours each way) to nearby Kulhudhufishi Island which had a customs office and a dock in the port where we could, for $12 USD per day, tie alongside. No problem there about finding limited fresh fruits and veges and frozen chicken (no fish). On the second stop there we stayed overnight, reprovisioned, jerry-jugged 100 L of diesel (very reasonable prices), bought petrol for the dinghy outboard engine and hosted a family of giant cockroaches which took two weeks to get rid of. Boric acid sprinked everywhere was the final solution.

 Motoring further south in light winds we stopped at Feevah Island, Zitahi (an unfinished resort) and then at the Ira Fushi Hilton Resort where we met up with Katie, the young lady who had helped us buy supplies in Egypt's Aqaba Peninsula (see the blog of Egypt). Katie had left that job rather hurriedly during Egypt's Arab Spring (almost at the gunpoint of the Kurdish rebels) and is employed at the Ira Fushi resort as public relations manager. She is also a keen diver, underwater photographer and animal rights proponent. Keeping in contact via Facebook over the last three years we finally, and very pleasantly, met again. She obtained permission for us to pick up a mooring ball in the resort's lagoon and ashore we were able to use the pool, bars and restaurants, rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous, who pay up to two thousand US dollars per night to stay there; "posh" pretty well describes it. We were the novelty there.

Float planes are in and out from Male, a 25 minute flight, and Alan Troi, the Canadian captain of a Canadian-built Otter took the above photo. His copilot was also Canadian, as were three passengers in that flight.

The lagoon entrance through the reef is quite shallow, our depth sounder reading zero most of the way entering on mid-tide, so we had to wait for at least mid (and rising) tide to exit, which would mean reaching our next anchorage at Kurendhoo Island too late in the day to read the water, so we stayed another night, cautiously slipping out at 0600. At Kurendhoo Brian did go ashore to find that resort-based tourists visited and he was not unwelcome there. Frozen chickens, eggs and fresh veges were found and we did make a purchase at the local gift shop.

 Because the weather forecasts showed favourable winds, we decided to sail overnight from Kurendhoo to Hulhumale, a distance of 72 nm. And a slow, peaceful twenty hours under sail it was, the engine on for only six extra hours, averaging three knots on the outside of the atolls under starry night skies and the next day dodging reefs in the North Male Atoll. We passed by an anchored Esper at 0900 on entering the atoll but the fair winds over-rode a cup-of-tea visit.
 Hulhumale is a reclaimed island servicing Male with the Maldives international airport and is the main small boat anchorage for the capital. A very busy place with ferries, floatplanes and frequent flights.   The "slow" ferry took 25 minutes and cost 5 rufiya (35 cents CAD) and was an experience not to be missed for the slices of life aboard. We took the "fast" ferry once for that fun experience; 8 minutes and $2.50 CAD. The following day Esper (Jamie and Liz) arrived, a few days later Divanty (Antony and Divina) arrived so we had a most suitable reunion.

 Male is a city of 62 000 set on a squarish island approximately 1.5 kilometers each way and has all one would need. For sailors, five chandleries and a couple of great hardware shops. Restaurants and cafes (no bars of course) everywhere, a super fish market and all kinds of fresh fruit and vegetables - for very reasonable prices as most are imported.We met here with ANTRAC to renew our nearly-expired cruising permit and obtain full 90-day visas

 We ate fresh fish (red snapper the favourite for $3 kilo) most nights scaled and cleaned in a flash for an extra 60 cents.

 Ten days in and around Male with cooking gas bottles refilled, diesel jerry-jugged from town, 400 litres of water delivered by a small tanker boat alongside (we could not make water in the harbour), engine oil changed along with filters and impellers, and provisions to last a week we sailed 15 nm to the South Male Atoll, anchoring off a resort on Velassaru Island. Two nights there and we decided to explore Guraidhoo Island where we are at the time of writing.

Guraidhoo is another tourist trap for the nearby resorts and one of the best scuba-diving areas in the reefs around. It was hit hard by the 2004 tsunami and still receives financial aid from the International Red Cross. Limited fresh produce is available in the small town but we did buy fish and the ubiquitous whole frozen chicken. Deborah took the local ferry to Male for a day excursion from here - two hours each way, while Brian had coffee with Ahmed, a young man who has helped us obtain fish, petrol for the outboard and introduced us to his young family. 

So here we will enjoy another month before the two-week passage to Malaysia and Thailand. April is a "transition month" between monsoons and once the south west monsoon winds set, we will sign out and sail further eastwards. That will be the subject of the next edition.

Photos below: the famous Bhaktapur Pottery Square, Nepal; Deborah caught by a hunting falcon in Kerela; the tea plantation we visited in Wayanad;

What beer does one drink in Nepal? (trick question)