"Arctracer" Letters

Bay of Bengal, January 2011

We crossed the Bay of Bengal in January 2011. This passage from Phuket, Thailand to Galle, Sri Lanka took "Arctracer" eight and one-half days. We sailed 1107 miles without any major problems, just a little discomfort in swells driven by a persistent northeasterly wind. We used no sail except our jib for almost the entire trip, and never tacked. This was our first long offshore passage after five years of coastal sailing around Southeast Asia. Our plan is to spend several weeks seeing Sri Lanka, then sail to Chagos, Madagascar and South Africa this year. Here is more detail about this passage:

Weather patterns in this part of the world are dominated by the monsoon seasons. The word "monsoon" is derived from an Arabic word for "season." Arab traders were among the early sailors who used these seasonal wind patterns to make successful long voyages. Heating of the Asian land mass during the summer causes the air to rise over it and creates a large area of low pressure. This brings a flow of surface air from the southwest in the "southwest monsoon" season. During the winter months the Asian land mass cools and produces a high pressure area which drives surface winds in the opposite direction. This "northeast monsoon" creates very good conditions for sailing westward across the Bay of Bengal and the rest of the northern Indian Ocean. By mid-January the northeast monsoon is usually well-established, so that is the time we chose for our passage.

The United States used to have weather satellites over this part of the world but apparently those became obsolete and are no longer used. We have heard that the only satellites covering this area now are European and not sophisticated enough to recognize some storms. Cruisers who made this same passage a few weeks before us ran into strong winds which were neither predicted nor shown on some of the most-used weather reports. We looked at weather forecasts before departure, but knew that predictions more than a few days in advance were not reliable. We relied on the generally settled conditions and the monsoon season to give us a good sail.

We devoted much time and effort to fixing up our boat before departure. In fact, much of our time since returning from the USA in late October was devoted to boat work. We hauled out at Rebak in Langkawi, Malaysia to repaint the bottoms of our hulls and replace the seals on both ends of both propeller shafts. We replaced and upgraded much of our equipment, including sails, ropes, engine parts and electronics. Many things needed cleaning or repair, especially electrical contacts which had corroded in the salty marine environment. A boat never seems to be completely fixed, but we gradually reduced the number and severity of outstanding issues. By the time we finally raised anchor to leave Phuket we were confident the boat was ready.

We spent a great deal of time stocking up in Malaysia and Thailand because we were not sure about availability and prices in Sri Lanka. We needed to be self-sufficient for several months during passages, three months in uninhabited Chagos and months in Madagascar. Nina studied our requirements carefully and prepared lengthy lists of things to buy. We knew where to get most supplies in Malaysia where prices are generally low, so we were well-stocked before leaving there in mid-December. We completed provisioning in Phuket where there are several large supermarkets. The boat is sitting lower in the water than usual, but ours is a fairly large boat and can handle the load. We wonder how the same amount of stuff can be crammed aboard much smaller boats which are also crossing oceans.

We raised anchor in Nai Harn Bay at 8:00 on January 19 and soon had mainsail raised and jib unfurled. The wind was gusting from the northeast at 15 to 20 knots, but we knew conditions might change once we escaped the effects of Phuket's hills. We saw Frigate Birds working over a school of fish not far offshore. By 11:00 the breeze was only 12 knots from east-northeast, directly behind us, so we put away the mainsail which was shadowing the jib. This gave us a quiet sail at less than 5 knots, but was a good way to start a long voyage. Our bodies needed time to adjust to the motion, especially since we had spent so long in sheltered waters. The hills of Thailand disappeared fairly rapidly in haze. By noon we had traveled 20 miles. In the afternoon the wind shifted to east-northeast at 10 knots so we raised the spinnaker by itself and sailed with it until sunset when we put it away for the night and unfurled the jib. Just before sunset we saw a dolphin or small whale cruising past in the opposite direction. Nina prepared pasta with parsley, pepper and parmesan for both lunch and dinner.

The wind continued to ease, so by the evening we were barely moving in easterly zephyrs. Many boats would have motored but we relaxed and enjoyed a quiet night with a beautiful full moon. The wind shifted to the north but stayed very light so we raised the mainsail again near midnight. The breeze slowly veered to northeast and strengthened to 8 knots by 9:00 on January 20. We put away the mainsail and jib and raised our spinnaker to sail at about 4 knots all day. We encountered strange currents which ruffled the surface and set us as much as 45 degrees off course for a while. Most of the time we had just a slight swell from the northeast. Jerry made little Turks Heads for the engine starter keys so we can hang them up when they are not needed. By noon we had added 67 miles since noon yesterday, a very slow pace but we were not racing and did not mind. We saw a big school of small tuna at 13:30 and a few small, dark porpoises later. We put away the spinnaker at sunset and again put up the mainsail and jib as the increasing breeze was up to 12 knots. We noticed a few small holes in the spinnaker we should patch before using it again. There was some difficulty pulling the sock down, but the halyard winch handled the job. We had tuna sandwiches with lettuce, tomatos and onions for lunch and supper.

The wind dropped to less than 10 knots during the night so we ambled along at 3 to 4 knots under a gorgeous moon. We sailed into one patch of crazy leaping water and were bounced around with water splashing on deck for 15 minutes. This patch had a strong current which set us strongly to the north, but all returned to normal very quickly. Morning brought a slightly stronger northeast breeze which enabled us to sail at about 5 knots. Our noon-to-noon distance on January 21 was 108 miles. The wind got stronger through the afternoon until we were sailing at nearly 6 knots in 15 knots of breeze with lumpy seas. The motion was quite uncomfortable, and the wind was so much on our stern that the mainsail was not very effective. At 17:00 we caught a little Stripey Tuna, or "Skipjack." These fish have dark, blood-rich flesh and we do not consider them good eating except when fixed with curry for sandwiches. Nina was working in the galley making pizzas despite the lively boat motion, and the smell of the fish made her very queasy. She didn't eat much that night and went to bed early but the motion was so jerky she couldn't sleep. At 21:00 we put away the mainsail and sailed at about six knots with less swerving on the swells. We reached our waypoint south of the Nicobar Islands at 2:00, maintaining 6 knots with swells of about 2 meters.

The Nicobar Islands belong to India and are populated only by indigenous tribes. The Indian government does not allow anyone to visit there and the natives apparently act aggressively when approached. The gap between the Nicobar Islands and Sumatra further south is known as "The Great Channel". This is the gateway between the Strait of Malacca and the Indian Ocean. Tremendous numbers of ships follow the line between this channel and the tip of Sri Lanka, going to and from Suez. This is a superhighway in the sea, a major link between China and Europe. We set our westward course to stay several miles north of most ships.

The wind stayed northeasterly in the mid-teens and we sailed at seven knots all morning. With little sleep and little food, Nina was not feeling well and ate nothing but cream crackers. By noon on January 22 we had added 156 miles since the day before. During the afternoon the wind abated a little but we still maintained nearly 6 knots. We had pizza for lunch and supper.

The good wind continued all night but we started to see big clouds and some distant lightning. The next morning went by with frequent 7 knot readings on our GPS. By noon on the 23rd we had sailed another 150 miles. Nina cooked the little tuna and ate some. In mid-afternoon we could see squalls near and we were making over 7 knots so we furled some of the jib to keep our speed down. Going faster wasn't necessary and would have been even more uncomfortable. We were really thumped by waves in late afternoon. They bounced us in bed when we tried to sleep and made loud booming noises against the hulls. The waves were never dangerous but did make it difficult for us to move around the boat. We finished the pizza for supper and Jerry had jello for dessert. Just before dark we saw three small porpoises frolicing near our bows. It seemed very dark before the moon rose and there was lightning ahead as we sailed through the night.

With waves of 2 to 3 meters on our quarter we were glad to have a powerful autopilot. When we bought this boat it had a small autopilot which was fine in calm weather but not strong enough to handle these conditions. Our Coursemaster Autopilot with powerful electric motor had no trouble correcting our course whenever a swell threw us off. We would have gotten tired very quickly trying to hand steer, especially at night. It is now difficult for us to imagine long passages without a good autopilot.

The wind was a bit lighter in the morning, northeast 10-12, and we used the full jib. It was another mostly sunny day and the waves were not as troublesome. We bailed water which had splashed into the dinghy. Nina ate toast and eggs for breakfast and felt much better. By noon on the 24th we had sailed an additional 148 miles. Our speed came down into the 5-6 knot range that afternoon with lighter winds. Nina made a delicious corned beef stew for dinner. We had a mild squall at sunset but it didn't last long. The night was mostly starry and we kept sailing at a good speed in steady winds. Nina enjoyed seeing both the Big Dipper to the north and the Southern Cross to the south.

About 10:00 in the morning the wind veered easterly and dropped to about 8 knots for a while with a little rain. This was only a temporary change, and it soon came back to northeast 15. By noon on the 25th we had traveled another 131 miles. Almost 20 miles north of most ships, we were passed by a tanker named "Tenyo" which had water pouring from its decks. We suspect it was washing sludge from its tanks.

At 13:15 we hooked a nice male Mahi-Mahi ("Dorado" or "Dolphin Fish") and it fought more than 45 minutes before we got it aboard. We finally furled some jib to slow down so we could bring it in. The lure was a purple feathery thing with a single hook which Nina didn't think would ever work. We were delighted to put boxes of lovely firm white fish into our refrigerator and freezer and have big fish fillets for dinner with stir-fried rice. We had not caught a Mahi-Mahi for several years. They inhabit all tropical oceans and eat flying fish, squids, small tuna and other fish.

The swells on our quarter often caused the boat to swerve, and the autopilot had to work hard to bring us back. We raised the staysail in addition to the jib, thinking it might help keep us on course. We kept it up all night but put it away in the morning since it didn't appear to help. The wind stayed northeasterly during the night but veered more to the east in the morning with some light rain squalls. In some of the squalls we furled part of the jib in case the wind increased dramatically, but it never did. We closed the door once when rain was blowing into the main salon. Some swells were up to 3 meters high. The wind moved so far to the east that we tried gybing the jib to the starboard side for a while but gybed back after an hour when the wind went back into the northeast. By noon on the 26th we had added another 148 miles to our distance sailed. The afternoon wind was down to 10-12 knots, so our speed was 5-6. The swells were smaller and our motion much more comfortable. We noticed the ship "Al Moshtaree" coming from behind on our track, so changed course when it was still 15 miles away so it would miss us by at least a mile.

We identified ships with our new AIS (Automatic Identification System) receiver. This unit uses the same antenna as our VHF radio to pick up signals from all large commercial vessels. Information which we can view includes the ship name, its course and speed, the nearest distance it will come to us and the time until its closest approach. This was of enormous value on this passage since so many ships passed near us. Because our antenna is on top of our mast, we were able to "see" these ships with AIS long before they came up over the horizon enough for us to see them with our eyes. With our eyes it is sometimes difficult to tell a ship's course and how near it will come, but AIS gives that information accurately and immediately. We consider AIS more valuable than radar.

With our SSB (Single Sideband Radio) and Sailmail we sent and received email during this passage. We used it to keep in touch with friends and family. It is possible to receive weather forecasts through Sailmail too, but we collected only one on this trip. We did listen to two "nets" on the SSB while other boats reported their positions and weather conditions each morning. There were some boats on the same passage less than a day away. It is nice to know that others are near in case of trouble, and we are always ready to assist others.

On the afternoon of the 26th there was a large thunderstorm to the south and other big clouds around. Nina was cooking fish for supper when we saw a small fishing boat turn toward us. We were at least 50 miles from Sri Lanka but here were five poor fishermen willing to sell fish and begging for beer and cigarettes. They finally settled for a bottle of rainwater which we tossed near enough for them to get with a dip net. They yelled "Welcome to Sri Lanka" as they went back to fishing.

We were not greatly affected by the squalls and sailed into the night at speeds of 5-6 knots. As we neared Sri Lanka our course came nearer to the east-west ship channel and crossed the paths of a few ships proceeding south along the east side of the island. AIS was extremely valuable here. After midnight a squall just to the north made us furl some jib, but it soon passed. The wind increased to 20 knots in the early morning hours with fairly quiet seas and Nina averaged 8 knots for several hours with some brief periods over 11 knots. It was still blowing at 15 knots from the north-northeast in late morning and we moved at 7 knots, apparently helped by favorable current. Our noon-noon distance on the 27th was 153 miles and we were practically at our waypoint off Dondra Head at the southern end of Sri Lanka.

We debated whether to continue to Galle, 25 miles further, or anchor for the night in a protected bay near a fishing village. We did not want to antagonize the officials by arriving too late, but we were too tired to be friendly to the local fishermen. We finally decided to carry on, hoping the wind would enable us to reach Galle in good time. We hoisted the mainsail for the first time since the other side of the Nicobar Islands, The wind came gusting from the east over 20 knots at times and we sailed in the flat water lee of the island at speeds up to 9 knots. We passed many small fishing boats and reckoned they were successful since we saw many terns feeding on schools of small fish. The wind held until we were just an hour south of Galle when it shifted to 15 knots from the northwest. We didn't want to tack slowly for the last few miles so turned on our engines and motored the rest of the way.

We called Galle Harbour Control on VHF 16 and they said we could come in and anchor after contacting our agent. We called Tango Shipping (recommended by friends) on VHF 68 and they agreed to be our agent. We anchored in the harbour at 16:30 Phuket time, which was 15:00 in Galle. The Galle officials are notorious for demanding "gifts" so Nina baked six loaves of date-nut bread and made copious amounts of tea. She set the table with food and drink, hoping that would put the officials in a friendly mood. Tango prepared some papers for us and delivered them to the Sri Lankan Navy. After more than an hour two friendly and talkative Navy officers came to our boat. One looked through the boat, asking many questions, and they stayed aboard through a strong rainstorm which washed the salt off our decks. When the rain let up they instructed us to raise anchor, and directed us to mooring buoys in the inner harbor. It rained while we were tying between the buoys so most of us got quite wet but we finally got securely moored. We gave the Navy guys a bottle of Thai whiskey as a present, rowed them ashore and brought back friendly Tango agent Nulucia. She helped us fill out more forms and answered many questions.

A Customs official and another friendly Tango agent were rowed out next. The unimpressive Customs official seemed to be interested only in our whiskey. Nulucia said nine or ten bottles of spirits were usually not a problem. The Customs officer first said our 24 bottles of spirits was a problem and would have to be put in bond for our stay, but when we agreed he changed his mind and said it wouldn't be necessary. We think he just wanted to avoid the work of the bonding process. By this time it was 19:00. The Immigration and Health officials had decided that our agent could do the paperwork for them. Nulucia took our passports to be stamped by Immigration and promised to return them in the morning. We paid the $225 agency fee, and gave Nulucia a loaf of date-nut bread to share with the other Tango agents. We were the fourth boat they had checked-in that day and (like the officials) they were tired and ready to quit for the night. Our Sri Lankan check-in went more easily than others we have heard about, though it was a record-breaking long session for us. We were happy to see the last visitor ashore so we could relax with drinks and then finish the corned beef stew in this new country.