Sri Lanka at a Glance

Safely in at anchor in Galle, Sri Lanka. This was a nice passage to get done and, like the passage itself, getting in wasn’t without its twists at the end either.

We DID check the engine on the morning of our entrance, when we were still out at sea, and it DID run fine. What we didn’t check, however, was whether the engine, which was purring like a kitten, was, when in gear, TURNING THE PROPELLER. It wasn’t! Unbeknownst to us, the damper/drive plate had completely disintegrated, leaving no connection between engine and transmission.

We found this out when, about a mile out, we turned on the ignition, took down sail, and put the engine in gear. Rather than move forward smartly, or even at all, the boat drifted with the wind.

OK, no big deal. We are sailors, after all, so we’ll just, you know, sail in. It’s just that, of all the ocean work we’ve done, sailing Leander in and out of harbors is not a forte, mostly because we don’t ever need to do it. Plus, if the wind were to slacken when we got in closer, as it sometimes does near land, and there was a strong current (there wasn’t supposed to be), it can become a little bit tricky. But there was a good wind off of our starboard side, the channel wasn’t particularly narrow, and so in we went. Halfway through, the wind died to less than a puff, and then, after a bit, switched 180 degrees to our port side, and began to puff again. We tacked the sails and continued on in, chatting amiably and taking pictures of our entry.

We called the Galle Port Authority, and were told to anchor close to the protected inner harbor, just outside a breakwater, at which point the Navy would come to inspect the boat. The reason that you can’t proceed in is that four years ago, a band of Tamil Tigers disguised as fisherman came in with boats laden not with fish but with explosives. Kaboom! Much damage was caused. In an area that two years earlier had been devastated by the tsunami, this was not a good thing. So now Navy ships are everywhere, including little boats not much bigger than our dinghy, with slight motors, piloted by fellows that look like they just started shaving. The only difference between our dinghy and these things is that they’ve got a great big gun at the bow of theirs.

We sailed Leander closer to the breakwater, and, at a good distance off and in about 25 feet of water, we dropped anchor, letting out 50 feet of chain. But the anchor wouldn’t hold, as we drifted toward the breakwater. What the heck? Fifty feet should be enough. Paul went to the back, and prepared to throw the stern anchor over. But then, finally, some time before the breakwater got uncomfortably close, the anchor bit, and the boat spun into the wind. Sima payed out an additional 20 feet. “Fifty feet out,” she yelled back.

“What do you mean 50 feet? What did we have out before?”

“About 30!”

What happened there? We have painted sections of the anchor chain to tell us how many feet we have out, marked at 25, 75, 125, and 175 feet with red, yellow, green, and blue, respectively, and orange marks in between at, 50, 100, 150, and 200 feet. We painted these sections with fresh coats before we left Langkawi, because the old ones had faded to near invisibility. But the red and orange of the new paints don’t look very different from each other. So combine our anxiety and tiredness with the related delayed mental processing skills, and the new 25 and 50 feet marks were easily confused. With only a little more than 25 feet out, the anchor was just barely scraping on the bottom. But we caught our mistake quickly, had a backup ready in place, and got it right in the end.

Now safe at anchor! Well, not quite done yet. We had to get INSIDE the breakwater before we could relax, and that would be too challenging a sail, as the channel snakes and narrows considerably, not to mention that there would be more current in the narrow spaces and less wind, if any, behind the breakwater.

As we contemplated next steps, along came a Navy launch, and two uniformed Navy officials came aboard. They were nice guys and quite straightforward. Their inspection consisted mostly of chatting about America, and their actual inspection was concentrated mostly on the fridge. Not the entire fridge, but just the beer and Bailey’s. One of the fellows began picking up bottles and asking, repeatedly, “What’s this? Where is it from? Is it good?” We had some Ribena in the fridge too. Would he like some juice? “No, but how about some beer!?” Sure. We served two warm bottles (the fridge has been off), one of which was consumed on the spot.

We eventually went back up on deck, and talked for another hour about nothing much. But we did try to enlist their help with a tow.

The Navy telephoned our “agent,” an outfit called Windsors. (All boats are required to have an agent to broker the clearing-in process, dealing with customs, immigration, quarantine, and health. After we’d agreed to work with Windsors, while still at sea, we learned that it has a not-so-good reputation.) We spoke to our agent. Could he arrange a tow in? He said he’d look for help. Yes, he called back. A fishing boat can tow you (all of about a quarter of mile.) Their cost will be $200.

No, it won’t. Given that a fisherman makes about $20 a week, we refused. We offered $20. $150 said the agent, calling us back. We upped to $50, a huge number here. The agent called back. He could find no fisherman to do it for less than $150. To put this in perspective, the cost of living here is a small fraction of what it is back home. $165 is what we pay to BoatUS for a year-long membership, which includes three 20-mile tows. We were being invited to the cleaners.

With the Navy’s permission, we put the dinghy off the deck and went in to the inner harbor ourselves to look for help. We spotted a Coast Guard boat against a dock. Yes, yes, we’ll help! Go back to your boat and wait for us. But they were speaking half English, and half nonsense, and it wasn’t clear they really did mean to help. Well, I’ll wait for you to depart to my boat, please, Paul said. Five minutes passed. Then ten. Another fellow came. “Yes, yes, we’ll help! Where are you from?” Fifteen minutes, and nobody is moving anywhere, but instead are laughing and talking to each other. Another guy came. Paul repeats the story for the fourth time. Engine broken. Need help. Outside breakwater. Tow. “You must go to your agent,” said the new fellow, staring at us blankly. Yes, yes, chimed the others smiling happily, go to the agent.

We left without a word. We found a group of fishermen on a pier. The first several didn’t speak English. Finally, a younger fellow came, 21ish. He’ll help. But then, another older fellow stepped in. “What can I do for you,” he asked, pulling out a wad of rupees, and a pen, intimating that he’ll be taking notes on this makeshift pad. Nothing, Paul said. “This fellow (the younger guy) says you need help. How much will you pay? He’ll need diesel, and HE has his own engine problems, that he needs to fix. Where are you from?” But we see that the younger fellow looks pained at the new fellow’s request for money. No, we say, as the younger fellow gestures to move away from the now-forming crowd on the dock.

The young fellow and Paul talk. Look, Paul says, I’m absolutely willing to pay you some amount. But, that said, when we’re at sea, we often help folks out, especially if they are broken down, and don’t take advantage of someone else’s misfortune. Yes, yes, he agrees. Out he comes. We’re towed in, with another fellow, Bram, from a Dutch boat, who mans our dinghy to push Leander this way or that should any mop up be needed.

The whole time, our agent’s lackey is watching from the shore and then from the docks as we come in. He starts yelling at the fisherman, telling us to go to place A, which is less desirable, and not place B, where we are headed. At place A, he’ll have easy access to us, as it is on a pier. At place B, which will be more comfortable for us, we’ll be at anchor, and he can’t readily get to us. “You’re forbidden to go there,” he shouts. That’s a lie, and, in fact, another sailing yacht is already there. He then says that the fisherman towing us is not allowed to go to place B. That’s lie number two, and we haven’t even been formally introduced. We ignore him and continue on. He’d tell us another handful of fabrications before we were done with him for the night.

When the agent came on board, he asked us to describe what we had in our stores. He was concerned only with cigars, cigarettes, whisky, and beer. We have no cigars or cigarettes, not so much of the other stuff, and something like three cases of beer. He insisted on the exact number of beers. “Why exact?” we ask. “Is there a quota?” “No. It’s so customs will know how much they want to take,” he says, without a change of expression.

We got our visas and harbor passes later, and no gratuities were sought then. Customs were supposed to come today, but never showed. We did meet with the customs fellow last night, in his office. He started with asking what we had on board besides “your own stuff.” It’s all “our” stuff, we say. We chat him up. It turns out he’s going to NYC in a month, and we spend some time, creating a list of places for him to see. We exchanged emails, and told him we would be more than willing to give him more guidance. Maybe that’s why he never came today to relieve us of some of “our stuff”.

We walked to town last night, and it didn’t look so good. We need to get away from the port area, and we hear that the fort and the actual town itself are an improvement, as is a beach down the road about 3 K. We are further told that, once you get away from the port, Sri Lanka can be wonderful, and welcoming, especially because, after the scares created by the tsunami and the open fighting with the Tamil Tigers, they seek tourists.

So ends this chapter. We’ll bury our heads taking the engine apart and putting it back together, taking sails to the sailmaker, and reaching out to the locals. And our good friends from Aries Tor are showing up tomorrow, and we’re looking forward to seeing them. Even if Rob is from Vancouver, and we’re still not over the hockey loss in the Olympics. Well, that’s mostly Paul.

Looming in front is our big passage to Yemen. So-called Pirate alley worries us less than adverse winds. The monsoon is changing. But if all goes as planned, we’ll take a 500 mile hop the Maldives in a week or so, and then 1,000 to Yemen. Then we have an easy passage up the Red Sea. Well, no, that will be a challenge too, but that’s a story for another day.

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