"Arctracer" Letters

Sri Lanka to Maldives, February-March 2011

We sailed from Galle, Sri Lanka to Gan on Addu Atoll, the southernmost of the Maldives. We left Galle on February 26 and arrived in Gan on March 6, sailing 623 miles in those eight days and crossing the Equator under sail for the ninth time. Here is an account of our preparations and the voyage.

Preparations in Galle

After our land tour of Sri Lanka we concentrated on getting ready for several months away from all stores. Nina made lists of things to buy and we made several expeditions to town to get everything. We tried to get non-refrigerated vegetables thinking they would last longer, but we had difficulty finding any. We did some price comparisons before buying and discovered that food prices are controlled by the government. On every can and box is printed the government retail price, and that is what we were charged. Some items cannot have prices printed on them but are still price-controlled. For example, Sri Lankan potatoes cost 55 Rupees per kg (kilogram = 2.2 pounds) one week but the price jumped the next week to 90 Rupees per kg because of floods in potato-growing regions. Potatoes from Pakistan cost 70 Rupees per kg. We bought a 50 kg bag but found many inside to be past their prime so bought some others "loose" so we could select just the best. One shopkeeper charged us 110 Rupees per kg for Pakistani potatoes, so we didn't return to his shop. Some vegetable sellers used balance scales with little brass weights and always wanted the amount to be easily calculable. Nina spent quite a while selecting tomatoes at one stall and when her back was turned a double-handful of randomly selected tomatoes was thrown on top to make a good weight. Of course some of the added ones started going bad very soon. It was clear that the vendors really didn't care about anything but our money. It was a real "buyer beware" situation but we eventually got everything we needed aboard.

Preserving and storing fresh food for a long time in the tropics is a formidable challenge. Nina coated 270 eggs with Vaseline. She wrapped potatoes individually in newspaper. She spread onions out in the sun, used a fan inside to dry them out, and finally made a hammock of netting in which to store them. She checked vegetables every day and used the ones starting to spoil. She found one of our 12 pumpkins starting to go bad and made pumpkin soup. She blanched and froze greens. She put 12 cabbages in green bags in the refrigerator. She juggled space in the freezer and refrigerator for best effectiveness with both these spaces crammed full. She bought ripe and green bananas, estimating how long they would last, and then we were given a huge stalk more. She made several loaves of banana bread and tried drying some, but there was no way we could eat them all. We gave away some vegetables which we did not think would last long. Nina really worked very hard on food both before and after our departure. She was generally not pleased with the quality of vegetables available in Sri Lanka. We may run out of fresh food but we have plenty of dried and canned food so we will certainly not go hungry.

We did not need much diesel and completely refilled by taking two 20-liter jugs in a tuk-tuk to a filling station. We carried water in jugs from a tap on shore to our dinghy and topped up our tanks. Jerry put a couple little patches on our spinnaker so it would be ready for the light breezes of the doldrums. He replaced the rest of the plastic slides on our mainsail with stainless steel ones. Two more plastic slides had broken during the trip from Phuket and we were happy to eliminate them all.

We were invited for dinner at the home of the naval officer who had come aboard when we first arrived. Phil "Meridian" went with us. We met Lalith's wife, daughter and two sons. The meal was traditional Sri Lankan fare of curried chicken, curried fish, steamed vegetables, rice and bananas. Everyone drank the beer we provided. It was a very pleasant evening. They asked if we had a computer to give them, so we donated our old printer and old laptop whose display screen has many vertical lines and is difficult to read. It still works and perhaps they will get it repaired so it will be easier to use.

Leaving Sri Lanka

Our 30th day in Sri Lanka was February 25. We had 30-day visas so told our agent that we wanted to check out on the 25th and leave the next morning. Our agents came to take us to Immigration at 6pm. Then they informed us that if we stayed overnight we would have to pay the Port Captain another $100. Apparently a 30-day visa only allows 29 nights. If we had known about this earlier we would have departed in daylight. We think our agent simply did not keep track of the days and was not aware that this would happen, but having dealt with many Sri Lankans we were not sure if they would also profit if we stayed through the night. It would certainly be nice for agents to keep track of their customer's days and make sure leaving would be without problems. We arranged to leave our mooring before midnight and anchor in the outer harbor until morning when the Navy would come aboard to check for stowaways. There was no additional fee to pay, except to our agent who asked for a bottle of wine as a parting gift. We had already given the agent a substantial fee plus two loaves of banana bread and some potatoes, and we were not sure we had enough wine. She was delighted when we gave her a bottle of Extra Special Arrack, the most popular booze (60 proof) in the country. There was very little wind so we were able to leave our mooring and motor slowly out in the dark. We anchored and slept well despite quite a swell rolling in from the open sea.

Our friend Lalith was the naval officer who came to see us off in the morning. We exchanged email addresses and plan to keep in touch. We ate a leisurely breakfast and got everything shipshape for our passage. Two boats arrived and anchored near us, returning to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia instead of continuing on toward the Red Sea. The northern part of the Indian Ocean has so many pirates now that it is very dangerous for any yacht to go that way. We were anchored near the Galle cricket ground where a World Cup cricket match would take place the next day. Sri Lanka is very proud to be a host (along with India and Bangladesh) for this year's event. We weighed anchor at 11:00 and motored past the little naval gunboat which is always on duty. We went out through the entrance channel, past the old Dutch fort, and left Galle after a month's visit.

The Voyage

We hoisted the mainsail, unfurled our jib and sailed way in a light breeze from the west-northwest. This took us south of the rhumb line to Gan at the southern end of the Maldives but with so far to go this was not important. There are a tremendous number of big ships which pass near the south end of Sri Lanka, and our main objective was to get across the shipping lanes before dark. In the afternoon the breeze increased to 10 knots from the west, so we added the staysail and made about 5 knots over ground. By 15:00 we were across the main shipping lanes. At 15:30 we saw two enormous Blue Whales swim past. These are not uncommon in these waters and excursion boats take people out from Sri Lanka to see them. These were the first Blue Whales we have ever seen. This species has been severely depleted by whale-killing fleets and may become extinct in a few years.

Nina made a great fish chowder for supper using the last of the Mahi-Mahi we caught on the trip from Phuket to Sri Lanka. The night was dark and starry. We watched the AIS display for ships, but few came near. One, however, changed course to come within one-half mile of us moving at 20 knots. The AIS told us its name was "President Truman." We could not see the ship well but guessed it was a big US navy vessel and they were scanning us with all sorts of fancy equipment. We were not worried about pirates while that ship was nearby. Much later we discovered on the Internet that "President Truman" is a container ship of APL, American President Lines, whose ships all have names of American Presidents. It is over 900 feet long, too big to go through the Panama Canal, and can carry more than 2400 40-foot containers.

The wind died away during the night and returned, weakly, the next morning. This was the pattern for the next several days. The little swells did not bother us and we kept moving slowly. Our noon-to-noon distances sailed were 80 miles and 99 miles for the last days of February. Nina baked three loaves of date-nut bread during her first night watch so we had plenty to snack on. We saw another whale (smaller than Blue) and a few large groups of porpoises, probably Spinner Dolphins. The breeze shifted more to the north and northeast, and we sometimes flew our spinnaker instead of the jib and staysail. The days and nights were clear but hazy. We could see both the Big Dipper and the Southern Cross at night. As we were sailing along one morning we noticed a big fish following right behind the boat. It was about six feet long with a lovely blue back, long fins and vertical stripes on silvery sides. We think it was a Striped Marlin. It stayed around for at least 15 minutes.

March came in like a lamb, with a day of calm. By noon we had only made 74 miles in 24 hours and by afternoon the sea was glassy. This continued for the next three days (61, 71 and 58 miles). We ate really well. Nina made pizza, guacamole, ratatouille and pumpkin soup. As we approached 1 degree north there were many more clouds and some distant lightning. On the afternoon of March 4 a small squall passed over with winds never reaching 10 knots but rapidly changing wind directions. We were flying our spinnaker and the wind shift blew the sail back towards the mast and shrouds. When we turned the boat so the wind would be behind the sail again, the spinnaker filled and ripped down both sides. It was an old sail and the cloth was weak but we did not expect it to self-destruct so dramatically in such feeble winds. Oh well, we bagged the rags and tried a smaller light-air sail made for the schooner. This worked pretty well, but when the breeze picked up to 10 knots we took it down and switched to roller-furling jib and staysail. A big cloud approached from the west so we anticipated another squall. It arrived, and the wind quickly rose to nearly 20 knots. We thought it might get even stronger, so started furling our jib. It was only half-furled when it suddenly tore vertically about three feet, all the way across one panel of sailcloth. We furled it the rest of the way and continued with nothing up front except the staysail. We had asked for a new jib before crossing the Indian Ocean but our Thai sailmaker told us the old one would be fine after he put on a few patches. We were depressed at losing two headsails in one afternoon in conditions we thought they should be able to handle. With big clouds all around we reefed the mainsail before dark, hoping to preserve it even if a strong squall should hit.

In the early morning of March 5 we did get a strong squall with gusts of over 25 knots. We turned downwind and flew along until it passed by after half-an-hour. Another came through after sunup, and we ran downwind again for about half-an-hour. At noon the day's run was 94 miles and we were only six miles north of the equator. We crossed the line at 13:44, our ninth time under sail. The weather continued squally, and huge clouds surrounded us. Another squall with gusts over 25 knots hit in mid-afternoon. Just before sunset a Bridled Tern landed on the side deck and hopped into the cockpit. We tossed it back into the air and it flew a little and then settled on the water. Another big squall hit at sunset. In a lull we took the mainsail completely down and sailed all night with just the staysail. We had fewer than 40 miles to go to Gan and didn't want to arrive there until there was good light for entering the lagoon. There was lightning in several directions and big clouds around all night. Another strong squall came through at 22:00 and we had a good bit of rain. Jerry got chilly steering downwind through the rain, even with his raincoat on.

Arrival in Gan

March 6 brought gentler weather. The breeze steadied at about 10 knots from the northwest and we raised the main at 9:00 for the last few miles. We took all sails down outside the southern pass of Addu Atoll and motored in. The entrance was very easy with at least 60 feet of water under us all the way. We tried to contact the authorities on VHF 16 without any response. We motored past the airstrip and found the tiny harbor beside the causeway connecting two islands. The entrance was marked by a pole but it wasn't obvious which side of the pole had deeper water. A local boat which carries customers between airport and resort showed us the pole should be kept to starboard going in. There were two sailboats anchored inside: big catamaran "Nakamal" from Thailand and a 24 foot Wharram catamaran named "Ravanne." There was just enough room for us to anchor in 16 feet with nice clear water and a sandy bottom. [0 degrees 41.1 minutes South, 73 degrees 08.6 minutes East] When we pulled back on our anchor to set it we swung near a small raft whose purpose we could not fathom. Later we learned it was the "dinghy" of a local boat, tied to the big boat's mooring. If we had known we would have anchored a little farther away, but it still seemed safe enough for a short stay. Our last day's run was 86 miles. The total distance sailed from Galle was 623 miles in eight days.

We eventually got a call on VHF from agent "MNS" who contacted the authorities for us. The official delegation arrived at 15:45 (Maldives time, GMT+5, one-half hour different from Sri Lanka) and Jerry brought all five of them aboard in two dinghy trips. Two were military security and the others represented Health, Immigration and Customs. Nina provided banana bread which they liked so much they requested the recipe. They said the most important paper described our alcohol and we must not give any to local people. We were not to have any local on board either, perhaps because that might be a way for them to receive alcohol. It was a pleasant session. They acted professionally and did not ask for "presents." After they were back ashore we relaxed with blue cheese, crackers and wine for the first time since leaving Sri Lanka. Most enjoyable was the long uninterrupted sleep of that night!