Thailand to Oman: Three Passages, Three Ports
By Liz Tosoni
We’re still in Malta, busy with Feel Free, getting her ready for the next leg, to Tunisia. In the meantime, if you read the blogs on “Pirate Alley” (January15 and February1, 2009), you were probably wondering what route we took to get there, so I thought I’d fill you in.
We’d spent two years in the Thailand-Malaysia area, visiting the many beautiful island groups and anchorages. Feel Free was in good nick after two haulouts, one in Phuket’s “Boat Lagoon” the first year, and another at Rebak Marina in Langkawi the second year. Her 36-year-old engine Yosh had been overhauled, rigging replaced, mast pulled, sails re-stitched where necessary, and it was time to move on.
|Our ancient engine had been overhauled in Malaysia, Feel Free was in ship-shape, and we were set to do another ocean passage.|
Everyone wondered where we were going next. We wondered too. We were like kids in a candy shop who wanted it all: Chagos, the Maldive Islands, Seychelles, Madagascar, East Africa, the Med. We’d done the homework and had charts for all of them. The timing was right as it was January and the northeast monsoons were starting to blow nicely.
Lockers were full to the brim including provisions to last at least six months and back-ups for all systems. We couldn’t have it all, of course, so when we departed and set sail from Phuket, we were really curious as to which direction Feel Free would point. As it turned out, winds were ideal for Sri Lanka, a destination we hadn’t really considered too seriously because of negative reports from cruisers of previous years.
Phuket, Thailand to Galle, Sri Lanka -- 1,140 Nautical Miles In Six Days, 18 Hours
How do you describe a dream passage? It was 10 to 20 knots of east to northeast winds pretty well all the way, with a brief period of 25 knots, and favorable current helping us along. The seas were slight, maybe two meters during the 20- 25-knot spell; at times, the Speedo indicated 9s and 10s. This is what we experienced en route to the tear-drop-shaped island of Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon.
The last several hours, approaching the port of Galle, the wind died and we had to keep a sharp lookout for dozens of fishing boats. We arrived at Galle at 0100 and anchored behind Watering Point outside the harbor. Here, you have to use an agent, so at 0700 we called GAC -- a recommended company, and “Tissa” came back immediately. He contacted the Navy, who met us upon entering the inner harbor in a rag-tag boat. Four friendly guys in uniforms boarded Feel Free and guided us into the harbor, instructing us to raft up to Barnstorm, which was tied to a concrete wharf. They searched the boat and left. Tissa arrived shortly, requesting $200 US which was $100 agent’s fee and $100 for all other fees. Immigration, Customs, and one other official came aboard with forms to be filled out. No fuss, no muss. This was a far cry from the old days when bribes and negotiations were all part of the game in Galle.
We booked a tour through Dee Dee's Yacht Services and through him also had laundry done, and used his tuk-tuk drivers for trips into town. The countryside was spectacular, and the driving was scary. There is so much to see, you just have to decide how much time you have, and go from there. We saw so many incredible things -- amazing temples, both ancient and modern, unlike any we've seen in other Buddhist nations -- but the elephant orphanage was the highlight.
Galle, Sri Lanka to Uligan, Maldive Islands -- 440 Miles In Three Days And A Bit
Uligan is the northernmost of the Maldive Islands and a great stepping stone en route to the Arabian Sea. From Sri Lanka, Med-bound vessels usually go directly to Uligan, or make a stop at Cochin on the west coast of India before heading toward the Red Sea. We chose the more direct route and motored the first 13 hours with very light southwest winds. Around 2300, somebody must’ve flicked a switch, as the picture changed dramatically with winds out of the north-northeast ranging from 20 to 35 knots and seas to match for the next 36 hours – the heaviest weather we'd seen in a long time.
Shipping was heavy, too. That first 24 hours we counted 27 ships. The winds clocked around to the east-northeast, and gradually diminished to 10 knots, and then to nothing by the time we arrived. A luminous full moon was our welcome friend and guide. Current was contrary or neutral the entire passage. We took the south entrance to Uligan, giving it a wide berth, and found a relatively shallow spot to drop the hook in 30 feet of sand and coral. There were three other boats at anchor when we arrived, but later we learned that just days earlier, 20 boats from the Around-The-World Rally had left. We were boat number 36 to arrive that year.
|The tiny island of Uligan in the Maldives is a little slice of paradise.|
We called Port Control and they were aboard within half an hour – five uniformed guys, efficient and quick, no fees. They require five crew lists upon arrival and give you a list of rules to follow while in Uligan, including "Local peoples are not allowed come aboard" and "If you are coming to shore or town, please dress properly."
This place was a little bit of paradise -- picturesque, orderly, and immaculate, with painted houses inside coral-walled and flowered courtyards; pristine beaches; wide, raked, sand avenues; no vehicles; a couple of humble mosques; a population of 450 slender, genial, and gentle Muslim locals; graceful women covered head to toe in lovely colorful garments, regal in bearing; adorable kids.
Fish, both edible and ornamental, are plentiful, and the snorkeling was good. Tom speared three respectable fish in as many days. You can catch as much squid as you want right off the boat. We swam with manta rays and saw sleeping turtles. There are a few shops selling a variety of dry goods and some fresh fruits and vegetables. You can definitely chill out and enjoy yourself in this delightful spot.
|The squid were plentiful in Uligan and they like to squirt their black ink in order to ruin the fisherman’s shirt!|
Uligan To Salalah, Oman -- 1,256 Miles In Under 14 Days
We departed Uligan with perfect conditions: 15 knots of north-northeast winds, flat seas, and cotton-ball puffer clouds marching across a ceramic blue sky. By 1430 though, the winds vanished and Yosh (our engine), was called to duty. Sometimes we’d give Yosh a rest and Feel Free would be floating along like a cork in a glassy sea, shimmering in the sunshine, as smooth as silk in this flat and vast sea of indigo. It was very peaceful and placid, but slow.
Late on Day 2, the winds filled in again at 12 to 15 knots, and we were able to make good progress. This pattern of north to northeast winds anywhere from 5 to 15 knots, continued for about half the journey. The second half gave us even lighter winds and from every direction. Often, the winds dropped off completely and we’d motor for a few hours and then they’d fill in again. It was very relaxing with hardly any seas to mention. And it was comfortable, like being at anchor, especially during the off watches. We slept like babies.
|The seas were flat, and the sailing frustratingly slow on the leg from the Maldive Islands to Oman.|
One night, before the moon rose, we got a surprise: The ocean as far as the eye could see became alive with glittering phosphorescence. It seemed that the stars overflowing in the skies were being reflected in the waters below, flashing and shining brightly in every direction, like florescent lights. It so affected our night vision that we had to concentrate carefully to distinguish the lights of fishing boats on the horizon. The wake alongside the hull, created by the movement through the water, was a dazzling emerald, appearing like long streamers of ribbon, mesmerizing and astonishing. On a few occasions when the wind dropped off completely, and having to conserve fuel, we dropped sail and lay ahull. Feel Free bobbed in the silent sea, enjoying the rare calm and solitude.
Shipping traffic was not heavy, but vigilance was needed as we saw about 20 large ships and freighters during the first five days, and another half dozen the last several days. Fishing boats were a concern. The nets are long, five to 10 miles in length, attached to the vessels, marked by small floats. At the end of all this is a mere tiny flag. We knew of sailboats getting caught up in them and didn’t want to find ourselves in that predicament.
We overheard a VHF conversation between a fishing boat and a freighter. The guy on the fishing boat was requesting medicine of the freighter captain. “My friend is ill. He need medicine.” The ship captain asked what kind of medicine. The fisherman just kept asking for medicine and the captain finally ignored him. These boats are large and unwieldy and imagining one coming alongside was a scary thought. We were relieved they didn’t make contact with us.
|Camels were the ubiquitous sight of Oman|
I remember our Arabian Sea passage to be slow and smooth yet salubrious. It was bizarre to be on the open ocean in a flat sea, lake-like, the entire voyage. We could make use of the slightest zephyr of wind. For hours on end our boat speed would be two or three knots as we baked bread, muffins, or pizza, read good books, listened to World Space Radio news or music, enjoyed happy hours. I’d be down below reading and I’d suddenly hear an excited exclamation from Tom: “We’re really cooking along now Liz! We’re doing four knots!” For laughs one morning, his report on the Indian Ocean Net included “today we have three knots of wind, gusting to four at times.”
Other boats heading the same way were reporting similar conditions. We were like a herd of turtles on land, plodding along slowly but surely toward the exotic Arabian shores. Oh, they were very frustrating, those ephemerally fickle and fluky winds. With the boat going so slowly, fishing was nothing to brag about. We landed three mahi mahi and a tuna but that was it. We saw schools of dolphins, a pod of pilot whales and a few sea birds. Days were balmy, nights cool. There was a finger nail moon that was pared down a little every night. Current was mainly contrary, sometimes quite strong.
We contacted Salalah Port Control about one hour out, and they got back to us almost immediately, at 0100. They were helpful, had us on radar, and instructed us on how to enter the harbor, as there was an outbound vessel that we had to wait for. It’s a huge working port, well lit, with ships coming and going at all times, and the anchorage is a small easy-to-find basin off the main harbor. Soon after dropping the hook, we were boarded by the police -- two friendly guys in a speed boat, who quickly took our particulars and bid us good night. Around 0900, Customs and Immigration came by to check us in.
|Tom’s not sure what to do here -- turn around and make friends, or run!|
Mohammed was the friendly, handsome character in traditional white robes and fez, who gave any and all info we needed, provided cars and generally enjoyed the companionship of yachties. Through him, we rented a car, sharing with Terry and Debby of Wings.
Salalah, the capital of Oman, our first town in the Arab world, and the surrounding countryside, were unlike anything we’d ever seen. Some parts reminded me of a lunar landscape. There are dramatic, mountainous areas, caves, sand dunes, pristine beaches, villages that look like ghost towns with ancient castles in ruins, camels all over the place, herds of them chewing away on the scrub.
There are some areas of huge mansions and the people seemed affluent, well dressed with cell phones and good cars. Women were in full black flowing robes with slits for their eyes, men were in white Aladdin-like turbans. Men were comfortably affectionate with one another, kissing on both cheeks in greeting, often holding hands while walking.
|Ladies rest-room sign. We were truly in a new world.|
Women were seen with women only, men with men, there was no communication in the streets between the two sexes. To be respectful, Tom and I wore long pants and long-sleeved shirts in town, and tried not to stick out too much. People stared but were friendly when we spoke to them, and they smiled easily. There were good restaurants -- inexpensive Lebanese, Pakistani, and Chinese places. English is widely spoken. The Oasis Club was the cruiser hangout, with a good variety of food, beer, a pool table, wide screen TV, internet connection, air conditioning. It was a great after-passage spot.
|Wings with Terry and Deb on board are seen here leaving Oman, setting out for the Gulf of Aden.|