Hello from NEPENTHE

Similans and Surins, Thailand islands up north near the Burmese border

We are so excited to set sail again. We cleared out of PHuket, stocked up on fresh veggies and fruit ……the ususal.  We are on our way to the Andaman Islands. This is 400 miles west, belongs to India.  On the way we will sail NW up the coast of Thailand and visit two National Marine Parks, noted for their diving and snorkeling. The Similans are a group of nine islands 40 miles off the coast. They are granite round smooth rock piles. The bigger ones have wooded areas.  There are a few restricted places for turtle sanctuaries. The one we stopped at had these huge boulders, crystal clear water the likes of which we have not seen in a long time,  and the number of  fish was beyond description. It was like swimming in an aquarium. What fun. They have buoys around to discourage anchoring, but you need to be there by about 4pm to get one. The dive boats come in after that and then they are all gone. Our buoy was in over 70 feet!  It would be impossible to find a place to safely anchor.  When securing the buoy…………….I dropped the one and only boat hook. This is the long aluminum pole needed to reach down and pick up the line off the buoy. Down it went. We asked one of the dive boats if they could help us and one of the instructors graciously restored peace on Nepenthe.
These are some of the underwater life we see here that takes our breath away with it’s splendor!

It feels so good to have long day sails again after our short 10-15 mile passages of this past 2 months.  This first one was 50 miles and the next two days were 30 mile days. We get up at 5AM as the wind is best then, and dies out about mid day. We stopped at a little island mid way to the final destination, the Surin Nationa Park, where we are now. Found this neat buoy close to the reef and did our snorkel to check the lines and new fish. We have fishing boats anchored around us, but we are the only yacht. We have to spend a few days of searching a stray current that is eating up the sacrificial zincs on our shaft. Need to find and eliminate this nomad before it could damage something on the boat. Zinc is the least noble metal that stray current eats up before it disintegrates something important like the propeller.  Thus the hunt.
   We found this marvelous bay to do “ the hunt”. The coral  here is again better than we have seen in years and I can snorkel from the boat and thus be out of Sparky’s way while he hunts. (sparky is the Australian name for an electrician). Two other cruising boats that we know ended up here also and it was great to see them again this year.  Jimmy worked every day………………….he is a terrier when it comes to problem solving.  The fish and clear water and coral gardens kept me occupied.
   We have had 4 days of almost no wind, and finally it started to blow a bit today, so in the am ………..early dark 0430 we will leave. The wind is better at night, stops about mid day in the heat, so we will try for a good start. The Andamans is now the  destination! Middle Andaman is where we check in. We are right below the “Mergui Archepelagio” on the map.

  They are 400 nautical miles to the northwest of here. There are over 200 islands, mostly small ones and three main ones that make up this marine mountain range from Burma to Sumatra on the west end of Indonesia. The 2004 Tsunami hit them hard. We hear that only the indigenous people that kept to the old ways faired well. They “ knew it was coming”. There are still pockets of these folk around, but the numbers are dwindling. These islands were virtually untouched until WW II when the Japanese held them for three years. The Brits had  used them as a penal colony for the political dissidents of the “ mutiny of 1858 in India. The old jail is still here, now a tourist site.  Fascinating place to visit and read the history, and sit in the cells.

       There are specific areas where the old tribes are off limits to tourists to try and preserve the culture, and the Nicobar islands south of the Andamans are restricted altogether, although we will ask about getting a permit to sail them.  Although they are deforesting the place now, some trees inland are said to be over 1,000 years old. Would love to see them! The weather here is supposed to be about 78-97f daily and the waters clear and the fish abound! Therefore, we go and face the Indian bureaucracy. They run on India time so it will get light about 5am and dark about 5pm. Lovely! There is still one active volcanic island that has been active since the tsunami. We may try and avoid that one.  We found out in our research that there were aftershocks, like 10,000 of them for three months………=<6.5. Some 300,000 died in these islands during the tsunami.  This section of the  Pacific rim plate of  1,300 km  in the Indian western plate and Burma/Sumatra plate was ruptured in this 2004 event. Two islands were raised 6 feet! These numbers are staggering. For you history buffs, Marco Polo, Potolemy and the Chinese explorer Xuang Zang visited these islands.  The Andamans lie between latitude 6-14 north and longitude 92-94 east.   That’s it for the history, just setting the stage for you.
    We are SO excited to see them.  Not many yachts go here each year, and we are hoping for a pristine adventure.  Their season for sailing is only about 3 months and they only get  about 50 boats then. If the winds hold we can make it in three days, otherwise, who knows. I takes 2-3 days to clear through this redundant paper work.  Hours of it we hear.       We had fun flying the spinnaker for two of the days of our passage!

These are the “spinner” dolphins we were fortunate to see, They do not swim with the boats like the other ones do, just put on shows!   Today we were gifted to a performance by them! These  little guys  jump way out of the water and do spins and other acrobatics. What a spectacle to watch this group of 20 “doing their thing”!

   Passage notes:  The first day was great and the spinnaker was good to fly again. Now it is SO slow…….it is like  watching paint dry. There are hours with no wind…….like 1-2 knots and dead down wind most of it. We are having to motor a lot. Ugly.  To counter balance this is the nights.  No population or lights within  miles, and an old sliver of  moon that rises like a gold crescent from the east. At this latitude we see both the Southern Cross and the Big Dipper. The stars are endless and so bright. Shooting stars are counted for each shift………… “the heavens declare His handiwork”………………..   We do watches of three hours, that seems to work for us.   As we write this, it is day three of a 331 mile passage with an average speed of less that 4 knots. I’ll bet you all want to be on this one with us!
     Day 4. The wind came in last evening and we are flying! Forgot how much more fun this is to be actually moving fast.  Now the protocol for the bureaucrats begins. Before we left Phuket we had to fax them and email them with all  our information: passport numbers, visa numbers, Itinerary, documentation forms, etc etc………..  Now we have to call them 50 miles out and give it them all again. Then again at 6 hours out we had to call again to update our ETA. We do not need to call again until we are at the mouth of the harbor.  What a deal, and it has not yet started.

  Street scene in Port Blair

   We are truly in India.  We wait by the radio for the Port Control to organize our clearance. What loss of control. Waiting.  Finally the Coast Guard  arrived here late  in the am, three people for 1 ½ hours. The other four were tied off our stern waiting in the patrol boat.  Our documentation form expired one week ago and they do not seem to understand mail at sea. We are cleared with provisions and need to bring them the form when it arrives.  At 6pm suddenly Customs and Immigration were ready for us, so actually we cleared in 24 hours which is a miracle in itself.  Now, just tomorrow for the Harbor master visit ashore.  Just walking through the streets is an overload of sensation: smells…… sights……….. sounds! The ladies in their gorgeous saris, and me in my Capri pants. They look so feminine and I feel like the ugly duckling.  The Harbor master of course was “out” and we must return this afternoon. So, a day in town exploring. We did find him at 3pm, and  then we rushed to the Forestry Office on the other side of town for our permission for a special Island we wish to visit. They think it will be a week to get permission, “sorry, but maybe he could try and have it tomorrow, very busy. “ All their desks are loaded with files and papers abound. Many files have old dirty stings binding them together with stickers that say urgent.  A frightening frenzy of details. Shuffling and reshuffling of papers. No final answers, vague rolling head movements that are a fascinating combination of yes and not shakes, that end up looking like those wobbly ducks you used to see in the back of car windows. I must try and perfect this for my own use.
  We did our grocery shopping where we could………………….
   Our first stop was an island only 20 nm NE of Port Blair. Beautiful place with trees along the shore and an elephant that comes to join in with a swim each day. Interesting, that at this time there is huge surf and dinghy landing is not an option! We had to taken to the surf point by someone and then swim through the surf to get to  shore. We did one day ashore and hired a car to explore. Quiet for the typical Indian towns we hear, really like any third world little villages. They had a good market at one village, but swimming eggs and bananas through the surf was not a good idea. We will live on what we have. From here we chose to take a neat water way around this  one central island, it is strait. Part of it is in native territory and we can only anchor in certain places. We mapped it all out and still were wrong in their eyes, as we got a visit late at night by a small boat that asked us to move ½ mile east. We had a discussion with them and they agreed that since it was not safe to move at night, we could move in the AM.
This waterway circumnavigates an island called Baratang.  
  This is the ferry crossing across the river:

     The charts are ”ify”, for this waterway as they are old and post tsunami and shifting sand bars………………it’s that adrenalin rush when depths get close and we weave side to side across the width to find the deeper spots. Of course, we must admit to liking the sharp corners of adventure. I got up at 0330 thinking about being in the wrong place, and now unable to explore by dinghy in the am into places we are not  supposed to be………..just  know  they will be watching. So,  I plotted a new way out and with the tides , it means we leave at 0530, just at dawn. So, we did and had a grand tacking sail to our first island on the west coast. This is an isolated coast which is why it was selected versus the more frequented east coast. South Reef island was our destination, 30 miles to windward. It is a postcard perfect island. In the morning we walked the island and found a multitude of turtle nests……………this is laying season! We also found many snakes paths, but saw none. After two nights here we moved on the North Reef island. Another 30 miles to windward. It is supposed to be the time for NE trade winds, but we are getting strong N winds. This island has an extensive but  poorly charted reef all around it and we picked our way in cautiously  under reduced sail in 15-20 kts of wind. We found a place far out but safe and anchored in 56ft. Very deep.  What  fun to walk the shore and find shells again, these islands here in the Andamans are the first ones with shells in a long time.   There has been a proliferate birthing of jelly fish here, with 4 touching purple circles, they are beautiful, no real streamers on them to sting us, but so many we had to move around a bit to find a place to swim where they were not around. The fish here are so curious about us, they stay right there and look at you or swim laps around and check you out, even the big guys!
Sunsets at  Reef Island

   Our next island was another good one. Isolated except for a few day fishermen. Our last day there we saw three Israeli tourists, that had come out in a local boat. Neat to talk with them. They  told  us that the owner of their guest house took them here, and he had said that he has never seen anyone out here in his 40 years! They were so surprised to see us………………and disappointed, so were we actually and we each had a bit of a laugh about that. Going all this way for isolation and finding someone there.  The snorkeling was not real good but !!!! we saw these little pigmy deer and found a horn on the beach. These are wooded islands with park like areas that make it good to hike around. The sand flies are awful and I am besides myself with itching. I am swabbing myself with everything I have to no avail. Ended up having to take antihistamines to sleep.

Jimmy has “ gone off” eating fish, so fishing and cleaning them has become added to my meager list of duties. Since I LOVE fish, this is a new challenge. Today I caught and mutilated  a lovely small tuna which was delicious.

We made it to the top of North Andaman Island….tacking tacking tacking  tacking our way to windward. We were exhausted by the end of the day. Our 20 mile passage took 8 hours and 34 miles to achieve. (I should speak to the lady that planned this windward leg.)  All to see the place at the top in it’s pristine beauty. We think no one comes up here. The police that stopped by to check us out certainly thought we were a bit strange,  asked us if we were scared to be here. We said “NO! We had heard nothing but good things about the Indians of these islands. “ They said they were all honest. There were no uniforms, just them in an old local wooded boat, but they had guns…………………

We exited in the am through this Strait with up to 3 kts of current with us and tide rips and overflows and jumping water all around us. Rocky bits all over that we wove through. Once we were through we thought it was great fun.

We spent three days at Excelsior island,  a most beautiful place. There are shells here also, it is such fun to pick them up and set them down. We did find a huge perfect nautilus shell, a prize!  Saw our small deer again.  Today, the 26th of Feb, we departed at 0600 and are having a grand downwind sail, going “wing and wing” which means the main sail is way out to one side and the foresail is out on the spinnaker pole on the other side. Downwind is so much easier.  It will take us two day sails to get back to our next destination, then in  about 4-5 days and we need to get back to Port Blair to clear out. It will take again  3 days to clear out, same procedure in reverse. Our one month visa gets eaten up with 6 days of getting to know the officials.

    We heard on the VHF radio this morning from a fellow cruiser that there was a tsunami warning for this area yesterday. He had called the harbor master to see if there was a process for alerting us…………………….there is none, none for alerting the people either we think. One of the high tech boats out here connected to CNN and that is how we know things like this. Amazing, so many died in 2004 and the warning is available, but still no way to disseminate it here, just like Malaysia.
     It is unbelievable that we can still find a place like this to cruise! Three weeks of uninhabited islands with white sand beaches and fringing coral reefs………..and have all anchorages to ourselves but one. Heaven. Of course we went to the “ off the beaten track” area, but that was the point. Why come way out here and not see it at it’s isolated best!
     Clearing out was easier than getting in, but still an exercise in futility. This country has survived in this manner for 10 times longer that the USA. You need to just sit back and observe and be amazed that it functions at all. The people are so very pleasant, all with a smile and helpful.

     The last day I met this neat family with two young boys, ages 9 and 12. We had a chat , it would have been great to get to know them better !
They were delighted to have their picture taken!

       We leave with good wind today, March 6 at 0700. Met the Immigration boys at 0630 on the jetty. Local fishermen were coming in and delivering their catch to a van…………! ! ! little sharks, hundreds of them. NO wonder we have not seen any. They told us they are processed here in a “factory” for their oil  which is then sent to Singapore for medicine. Go figure.  We returned to Nepenthe, still feeling saddened to see this . Then is was only to  radio Port Control for permission to leave……….. Off we go, 340 miles to next anchorage at 120 degrees. The weather forecast is for east winds for 5 days……………….so we may not make landfall where we plan. Who knows………………..
     Our first two days were perfect, then the east wind came in with determination. During the second night  I was awakened with the worse noise, from my deep sleep I heard……….”.Roberts……. you’re on, and get your foul weather gear, best hurry. This is a big one”. The thrills of passage.  It was a huge black squall cloud that kept me awake at the wheel for the entire shift.
      About 5pm that day a small bird, looks like a barn swallow, but of course there  are no barns here so it is something else, not in “the” book…………….. he circled us and tried so hard to land for over 15min, swooping and diving and getting so nervous with the ships movement that he was scared to land. Then, in he came with fierce perseverance and flew below! Imagine that. He let Jim pick him up and he was ensconced in the head (bathroom) for the night. When I had to get the foul weather gear from the closet in there he just kept his little head tucked under his wing and ignored me. He stayed with us for 12 hours , poor little mite must have been exhausted. He tried to find his way out and was fluttering around the V berth area and again let Jim pick him up and set him in the cockpit…..off he went. His name was Amos by the way.
       Late after noon we went over a “bank”, an area of shallow water, like 900ft instead of 3000…………. 4-6 ft waves that were short and confused and breaking ………… some broke amidships and I was doused a couple times! After one hour we were back in deep water and the seas decreased to 3ft and evened out.  The wind stays off our bow . All night was squall clouds that kept us on our toes but delivered nothing. All in all we are making good time. It looks like the pre transitional monsoon time is here. This SW monsoon is the rainy one and we can now expect more unsettled weather and will need to pick our anchorages with that in mind in the future.
    Land HO ! !  85 hours, the first 48 a dream, the second, well, typical I guess.

Take care………………………Carole and Jimmy

We found this great definition of the word Nepenthe: “that which banishes fear and sorrow and elevates the spirit !”