AWAY to the ANDAMANs

12/1/2011

By Tom Morkin

I have to tell you about the Andaman Islands.

After spending one season on the west coasts of Thailand and Malaysia some time back, Liz and I found ourselves pondering the pros and cons of sailing there.

Pros: only 335 miles from the Surin Islands of Thailand and you are in India, that is, India without the three Ps: pollution, population and poverty. The northeast monsoon season, between December and April make it a beam reach there and back. Located so far offshore, the water visibility and coral reefs are excellent. With virtually no commercial fishing, fishing promised to be first rate. Tourism is still in its infancy so, it’s uncrowded.

 

Cons: horror stories about the hassles brought about by layers of Indian bureaucracy while cruising the Andamans: Port Control, Harbor Master, Navy, Coast Guard, Customs and Immigration. Visas are required in advance, are costly and good for 6 months in India, but visitors to the Andamans get only one month with no extensions allowed.

In the end, we thought: what’s a little bureaucratic hassle? After all, it’s character building, right? So we set off from Thailand in late January. The promised NE winds of 15-20 proved to be about half of that so it took 67 hours to cover the 335 miles, a very comfy 5 kn. passage under azure skies by day and starry, moonless nights.

60 miles east of Port Blair, our port of entry and the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, we hooked the first of 4 wahoos caught in the Andamans.

We first met ‘Big Brother’ in the form of Harbor Control on VHF radio at 0400 when we radioed our arrival and requested to enter the harbor. We were informed that harbor entry was denied at this time and that we could try again after 0600. The tone suggested that permission to enter Port Blair should be considered a privilege and not a right. Eventually we were cleared to the anchorage. After dropping the hook, we dutifully radioed our GPS position and were informed to call again should we seek permission to re-anchor. Are we in India or North Korea?

The dreaded check-in procedures (which took 4 days for one unfortunate cruiser) proved relatively painless. 2 dinghy trips ashore were required to bring 2 Customs officials and then 2 Immigration officials back to the boat. Unfortunately for the immaculately uniformed officers, they were fairly choppy dinghy rides resulting in “dinghy butts” for all participants.

 

After 30 hours, we were cleared in and entered the time and culture warp that is Port Blair. Rows of Ambassador automobiles made in the UK in the 50s but still made in India lined the ferry terminal along with motorized rickshaws.

Our auto rickshaw ride into town was a full on assault to the senses. Color and noise were the hallmark of Port Blair, a town of about 200,000. No sooner had we climbed in the 3 wheel wonder and the horn honked and barely ever stopped as the driver swerved around hoards of people, packs of dogs and herds of goats and Hindu holy cows.

Bovine heaven- we’ve arrived and I quickly learned the hard way that this was a place to watch your step. Within 30 sec. of leaving the rickshaw I landed in a large, fresh and very slippery holy cow pie. Despite my best efforts to clean the offending flip-flop, I was relegated to remain 5 paces downwind of my shipmate for some time to come.

Nowhere in our travels have we seen such fantastically colorful clothing. To see a gathering of sari clad women would guarantee seeing all the colors of the rainbow, but shockingly brighter. The married women were decorated with streaks of magenta dye on their hairlines, red dots and gold ornaments on their foreheads, pierced noses and ears. In many cases, the widespread use of betel nut produced dark red smiles as well as red patches on the roads and sidewalks. The ubiquitous and well stocked fruit and vegetable markets provide a veritable kaleidoscope of colors. Even the heaps of garbage on the street where the cattle and goats rummage offer splashes of color and over time became less and less offensive.

This myriad of colors was set with a backdrop of a multitude of green hues from the verdant hillsides immediately surrounding Port Blair under the brilliant cerulean blue and sun drenched skies. To be color blind here would be worse than being deaf at a Miles Davis concert.

After 3 days in Port Blair, we were ready for some island time. Havelock Island, 22 miles to windward, was our first stop. Although we had over 7 miles of sandy beach along the leeward side of Havelock Island to anchor in, we chose “Beach # 7” at the northern end. It boasts 2 eco-resorts and a string of very low cost food stalls which serve a variety of Indian dishes along with a concoction of betel nut, lime, chewing tobacco and leaf for those looking for a post-prandial buzz.

20 rupees or 50c will get you an elephant ride along the beach or through an incredibly beautiful virginal hardwood forest. And yes, some even swim with (or under) the long legged Andaman elephants!

For those wishing an even more sedentary pastime, one can watch the busloads of Indian tourists that flock to this renowned beach to swim in the surf in their most peculiar fashion- fully clad. Bare in mind that for women, that means a sari which is about 6 meters long by1.5 meters wide, plus the undergarments. That’s a lot of bathing suit.

Three days were easily taken up snorkeling with 1.5 meter long. hump headed mauri wrasses, checking out the resident dugong, scootering around the gorgeous island, practicing eating without cutlery (everything is finger food in the Andamans), and occasionally sampling varieties of betel nut.

It was here that we learned the wrong way to catch squid.

One afternoon, no fewer than 2 dozen squid surrounded FEEL FREE. We quickly dropped our newly acquired squid jig in their midst. Immediately we hooked one and it soon squirted black ink everywhere, so once its ink sac was empty we brought it aboard. Wow, that was easy. Let’s do it again. Sure enough we got a strike right away. Our second victim was much bigger than the first and fought for 5 minutes but never released any ink. Must be an inkless squid. So up it came. Big mistake! The second it hit the deck, the ink bomb exploded. Imagine dropping a liter of motor oil on the deck from the spreaders, and imagine the oil lands on your head en route and then you get the picture. The clean up took an hour. We’ve since learned the trick is to hang a bucket of water over the side and land the squid in the bucket where it should discharge its ink.

Next time I’ll fill you in on our adventures (and misadventures) in all the other cool places we visited in the Andaman Islands after Havelock