Away to the Andamans Part 2

12/15/2011

By Tom Morkin

The next islands on the itinerary were the uninhabited John Lawrence and Henry Lawrence Islands.

Wind and waves sculpt the low cliffs, which characterize the southern end of both these islands. Elsewhere, mangroves dominate the shores. The resplendent reefs provided coral trout and sweet lips and our first lobster in 4 years.

Long Island is just 1 mile east of Middle Andaman Island. Once a booming lumber town, it has fallen on hard times since the virtual ban on logging was instituted 10 years ago.

Although the village is blessed with 2 lovely sandy beaches, mangrove shores are the predominant feature of this part of the Andamans. It looks like prime crocodile real estate which explained why over the 3 days anchored off the village we never saw the locals swimming, a fact that went a long way toward persuading us to wet our toes only in the shower, on board.

At Long Island, we were befriended by the Chief of Police/Radio operator, named Dube, who led us on a 12 km. hike through tropical rainforest to Lalaji beach. During the hike, Dube told us about the security concerns the Islands faced with their northern neighbor, Myanmar (formerly Burma). We learned how the Burmese can easily slip onto the islands to illegally fish and even log the remote areas. These illegals are often armed and will often take extreme measures to avoid capture and deportation. Ironically, on the return portion of our hike, Dube spotted 4 such Burmese squatters who had taken up residence not far from the trail. So now what does he do? There are 4 of them and 3 of us, and 2 of us are just a pair of Canadian tourists who tend to sympathize with underdogs anyway.

Well, not much. He confiscated one of the lobster poles and let them off, promising to return with uniformed reinforcements. But at the end of the day, it sure looked like the score was Burmese squatters-1, India-0.

After 3 days, no diving and no fresh fish, it was island time again. This time, North Button Island was the destination. The effortless 9 mile beam reach in 15 knots was all too short, but long enough to land wahoo # 3. Oh god, could we get tuna for a change?

North Button was clearly an “Oh Wow!” kind of place, definitely the prettiest island yet. Glorious reef rimmed the entire shore and snow white, super fine sand punctuated the cream and salmon shaded sandstone cliffs, which share the island with dark basalt cliffs and rugged rock formations. To complete the picture, many hues of green of the rainforest were thickly scattered throughout, often on impossibly steep cliff faces.

Snorkeling on North Button’s reef revealed the regular cast of submarine characters. Moray eels, groupers, coral trout, lobsters, rays, sweet lips, turtles occupied their usual haunts on or near the bottom and in or close to their wet lairs. Meanwhile, their less reclusive neighbors, the parrotfish, surgeon fish, trevally jacks, Moorish idols and angel fish nonchalantly ambled by as we awestruck but aquatically challenged humanoids fumbled along in our blissful manner.

It was here during a sundowner gathering that we learned of the death of 2 hapless Indian fishermen a week earlier, who were speared to death on Sentinel Island, 30 miles west of our anchorage. The news was reported by the international press, mainly because the indigenous Jarawa people who occupy 80 % of the west coast of the Andaman Islands, also repelled with spears and bows and arrows, the first detachment of police who were dispatched to the island to recover the bodies. Only when the military arrived did the Jarawa retreat into the forest and the bodies could be recovered.

To prevent such events, large parts of the western side of the Andmans and 100% of the Nicobar Islands are off limits to foreigners and Indians alike.

To the credit of the Indian government, these tribal people were not and are not pressured into assimilating into the modern world. It is one of very few places on earth where the indigenous people are protected by the government from the encroachment of modern society.

The area south and west of PB was next on the agenda. Like most of the visiting yachties, we made 2 critical mistakes for our trip south. First, we mistakenly assumed that when we submitted our mandatory itinerary with the Harbor Master and he approved it, we thought we were good to go. Wrong-o! What we didn’t know and what he didn’t tell us was that permits from both the Forestry Dept. and Parks Dept. were required for the choicest of the island anchorages in this part of the Andamans. Furthermore, wading through 2 bureaucracies to procure the permits takes up to 2 full days and about $100 as our friends later found out. To make matters worse, they were shocked to learn that after all the hassle of getting permits, they realized the permits were stamped “NO SNORKELING” and there was no landing ashore! Good grief, why did they think we wanted to visit these places? They just don’t get it!

In our case, ignorance was bliss as it was only after visiting a couple of these anchorages did we learn we were ‘outlaw cruisers’. Our first hint that something was amiss came while snorkeling on the reef in Middle Cinque anchorage, when we were twice buzzed by a Navy fixed wing airplane. This didn’t come as a complete surprise since friends on SHAZAM reported during their stay on Cinque, on 2 occasions a helicopter hovered so close to their boat they had spray coming into their cockpit.

After 3 hours anchored here in surely the most beautiful islands in all of India, why were there no people on shore or any place around us? So, up came the hook and we headed west to the west side of Rutland Island. 30 minutes out of Cinque, beam reaching at 6.5 knots in 20 knots with only the jib unfurled, we were intercepted by an Indian warship. We were promptly informed that a rib would be deployed and a boarding dispatched to view our non-existent permits.

What followed was a comedy of errors that could have come out of an episode of ‘Keystone Cops’. After taking over 45 minutes to launch the navy inflatable their outboard repeatedly died en route to Feel Free. Fortunately for us the mother ship got preoccupied with rescuing the dinghy crew and sent us on our way. After our close call, we realized that without proper permits, we’d best limit our stops to those that were clearly legal and pass by those whose status was questionable. As we sailed past the idyllic Twin Islands, Red Skin Island, Malaya and countless others which show no sign of human activity, we realized how successful the office bound bureaucrats had been in ensuring no one enjoyed these remote and pristine island paradises.

Harboring more than a modicum of bitterness, we thought ‘the hell with it’ and headed back to PB to begin what was to be an agonizing 3 day process to check out and head back to Thailand.

So, after a month in the Andamans, could we recommend it as a cruising ground? Yes, but a qualified yes. Certainly the 350 miles from Thailand are easy miles; the line fishing and spear fishing were the best we’d encountered since PNG; the anchorages are many and secure; the reefs are untouched and vital; the water visibility is good, but not great; the locals are warm and welcoming and many speak English well, and the cost of living is low.

As for the negative side, I’m sure you can guess. They both begin with ‘B’: bureaucracy and ‘big brotherism’. Unfortunately, neither problem is going to change any time soon. Maybe with a billion in India, a gigantic bureaucracy helps keep some of them employed. The officials themselves are incredibly polite and often apologetic about the inefficiency of the system. As for the big brotherism, if you have Myanmar as your closest neighbor, it’s understandable that security will be an issue for the military. However, that only goes so far to explain why the Indians seem bent on aggravating those they wish to welcome.

During our time away from PB we experienced almost daily surveillance by fixed wing aircraft or helicopters, we had 3 boardings by Coast Guard not to mention one botched attempted boarding by the Navy.

There is a certain comedic Kafka-esque aspect to all the rules and regulations. For the most part, most cruisers recognize this and learn to sit back and appreciate the sheer absurdity of it all, and don’t let it interfere with the tremendous cruising experience most have in the Andamans.