Phuket to Cochin.
Sail due east from Phuket for 2 days until you pass through the Sombrero Channel between the two main Nicobar Islands. then slowly veer south west for another 6 days till you reach Sri Lanka. Skim around the bottom and up to the coast of India. A further 140 miles and you’re at Cochin. Almost 1600 nautical miles. About 12 days sail.
Doesn’t seem too bad does it?
We left Phuket on January 15th all set for our passage to India.
Frank had serviced the motor.
The Garmin gps was loaded with the Indian charts and our route was tentatively plotted, subject to wind and weather changes.
The dinghy had been firmly attached on the davits and the Yamaha 15hp outboard removed & fixed on to its bracket on the aft railing.
The yacht was neatly packed away to prevent items falling off shelves or out from lockers, towels were tucked inside the galley cupboards to prevent the crockery all sliding around.
The bed was made up in the more stable aft cabin because in an ocean swell, our bed in the front of the yacht can end up like trying to sleep on a bucking bronco.
I had prepared & frozen 18 meals ranging from curries to casseroles, butter chicken to boeuf Bourguignon, Cornish pasties & burritos.
I had baked another Xmas fruit cake especially for the passage and the ‘treat hammock’ was full of museli bars, mini mars & snickers, nuts & trail mix, dried and fresh fruit, ready for those munchies during the long night watches.
I should add that I know many sailors who happily prepare & cook fresh meals on passage. They are tougher than me.
We have experienced too many rough trips to contemplate this option as l’d rather nibble a dry cracker than balance in a rolling galley and end up with ‘bulkhead stew’!
After our last few days in Thailand spent at Nai Harn saying farewell to Deb & Wayne on ‘Irie’ and Andrew and charming Thai friend Poey on ‘Angel Wing’, we were keen to get going.
The weather prediction downloads seemed optimistic that we would have mild easterly winds to give us a push for the first 280 miles to the Nicobar Islands.
We weren’t that lucky and struggled to sail in light winds and sloppy conditions for the first couple of days. We reluctantly resorted to using the engine so early in the trip in order to make some headway, but once through the Sombrero Channel on our second night we were on the ‘superhighway’ to India.
We swung both sails right out ‘wing on wing’ to catch the optimum wind as frisky little waves charged across the ocean onto our aft beam and swept SE2 along at 6-7 knots plus.
As if to wish us well on our way, a huge pod of small dolphins chose to came jumping across the waves to meet us and then frolicked back and forth across our bow wave for several miles before they disappeared into the horizon.
With the favourable conditions and our consistent fast speed, the next five days to Sri Lanka gave us a satisfying daily mileage of 150-160 nautical miles.
You might well wonder what we do all day during the long days on these passages?
Obviously, we monitor our sailing.
The wind shifts are sometimes imperceptible and tweaking the sails can make the difference of a knot or two of speed, which mounts up significantly over a days’ sail.
Frank takes over the responsibilities for the engine, the batteries, the solar panels and our power usage, adjusting as necessary or even running the engine for a while to keep the batteries happy when the solar panels are in the shade due to cloud cover or the sails shading them.
Every few days, when we run low on water, we use the desalination system which makes 100 litres per hour to top up our tanks that hold over 200 litres.
We love the chance to just sit and read for hours.
Sometimes we play games on our smartphones, or I compose my blog posts, particularly at night when we’re too weary to read.
Plus we sleep a lot. Usually the first few days on a passage are the hardest, getting used to being on watch every few hours throughout the night, always feeling groggy and roly conditions often makes sleep harder, so we take it in turns during the day to catch up. It also passes the time and is a good strategy to build up our reserves in the eventuality that the next night might bring bad conditions and more broken sleep. This happens more than you would imagine.
However, after several days at sea, you seem to settle into a pattern where each day merges into the next and you feel rejuvenated after just short periods of sleep. Frank and I both agree that as we settle into this ‘Groundhog Day’ routine, we could keep on sailing indefinitely.
Thankfully, neither of us have experienced sea sickness for many years. In particularly rough weather we can feel a bit seedy but it’s a far cry from when we first started sailing in the late 1970’s and would both be constantly heaving over the side of Stars End 1.
Plus we eat on passage! That’s when we’re most appreciative of my organisational skills pre preparing appetising meals or tasty treats.
So as we slept, read, ate and raced across the Bay of Bengal at 6-8 knots, the winds seemed to increase just slightly each day and subsequent nights saw us gradually reef down our sails to be on the cautious side.
Several days out from Sri Lanka, our predicted weather maps showed that we would round the southern tip just as a nasty front would sweep down the Gulf of Mannar, the area between Sri Lanka & India.
The maps didn’t look very encouraging with vivid orange and red swirls where we prefer to see blue, green or even a little yellow. Since we had started, the winds had constantly exceeded the 12-16 knot predictions by more than 10 knots at times, so we felt it would be foolhardy to ignore the warnings.
We had made the decision not to stop in Sri Lanka as we wanted to avoid the red tape of visas, customs, an agent & port costs preferring to fly back during one of our visa runs we need to take every 90 days whilst staying in India.
So now we worked out a strategy to reduce sail to slow down our progress, hug the coast of south west Sri Lanka and try to stay in the lee of the island which was more protected from the strong winds until the worst had passed.
So day 6, SE2 was on course in strong north easterly winds under just a double reefed mizzen sail and double reefed foresail. We were surprised to see that we were still charging through the water at over 8 knots much of the time. This wasn’t exactly the slowing down we had in mind.
As I sat in the cockpit I suddenly saw a fishing boat appear on the top of a large swell behind the yacht. I jumped up in shock, looked around and shouted to Frank as I saw another similar boat just a hundred yards in front of Stars End 2 and heading straight towards us. They may not have realised we had restricted manoeuvrability racing downwind in strong winds with just sails up.
I jumped to turn off the auto pilot, grabbed the wheel and swerved violently as I saw this colourful narrow fishing boat come racing past about 50 feet away. I caught sight of about 6 men holding on to the side of their boat as it rocked and rolled in the big swells and they were smiling, shouting & waving lobsters and bunches of bananas at us.
Sailing past so fast, all we could do was wave and shout hello, but heaven knows how the friendly crew ever expected us to slow down long enough to barter and negotiate a price to buy their wares let alone deliver them across!
I just wish I’d had the time to take a photo as it was such an incongruous situation.
We didn’t have time to reflect on this for too long as we hit a squall soon after, bringing the first rain we’d seen in months. Despite little sail out, I saw the speedo hit 9.8 knots several times and with grey skies looming on the horizon, we dropped the mizzen sail completely and continued on our course. With heavy rain showers descending upon us to make conditions uncomfortably wet overnight but at least we filled up two jerry cans of fresh water to top up our tanks.
The following morning, when Frank decided to shake out one of the reefs in the front sail he noticed the boom was hanging free of the mast, supported only by the hanked on sail. The gooseneck screw that connects the boom to the mast had broken, probably with the strong winds in the overnight squalls. Frank managed to jury rig a temporary fix by sliding another bolt through the fitting and tying it all up using strong dynema rope and we were able to continue the last 100 miles to the coastline of Sri Lanka.
As night 7 approached we were not far off the city of Galle, so we decided to radio port control, who gave us permission to drop anchor in order to make a proper repair which was particularly important due to the weather we’d be facing next.
We dropped anchor in Watering Bay just inside Galle port area at midnight and didn’t even notice the slight roll as we were so grateful for a good nights rest. We woke in the morning to find this bay boasted a couple of beautiful sandy beaches that rapidly filled with tourists during the day. However, going ashore was not an option since we weren’t clearing into the country and were just appreciative of the respite to fix the mast issue and rest up.
We ended up staying a second night as no officials came to see us and it gave the bad weather time to dissipate slightly.
On day 9, we left at first light and motor sailed up the coast which was in the lee of the prevailing winds. We reached the huge metropolis of Colombo with its impressive skyline of skyscrapers just on darkness and soon after lost our protection from the land and met the full force of the wind channeling down the Gulf.
Now was the time to make the crossing and I must admit that I was full of trepidation. When you make a passage that lasts more than a few days, you accept that you must take whatever weather comes as you cannot predict so far ahead.
We had the weather maps that showed this nasty front and although we’d stalled our progress and adjusted our route to find slightly less winds, we knew we just had to bite the bullet and cope.
So we did and this will go down in our log book as one of those nights from hell that are NOT what we enjoy about sailing.
We had dropped our mizzen sail and were running under a double reefed fore sail only. Before too long we were experiencing winds of 25-35 knots from our aft beam (on the side at the back of the boat), but it was the 3-4 metre short choppy swell every few seconds that caused a very uncomfortable roll with the force of the waves slamming us over on our side or crashing against the cockpit.
Our clear covers came to the rescue once again, saving us from gallons of seawater drenching us time & time again. They make not look real pretty rolled up around the cockpit, but they have saved the situation so many times in rain or rough weather.
I was rather glad it was too dark that night to see the conditions because by morning when the winds had abated to 20-25 knots, it was still disconcerting to see the water state.
We had a boisterous day sailing. Every few minutes, the waves would push us over so far on the side that the foresail boom that was swung out to catch the wind, dipped into the water and as we leant over almost flat to the sea, water would come crashing underneath the clears into the cockpit
It wasn’t much fun, but we coped (as you told us we should Colin!) and we slowly ticked off our course of 150 miles across the Gulf where we knew we would find reprieve.
In the early hours of day 11, we rounded the coast of India and the wind died.
As Frank called me up on deck to help put up more sail, I was immediately struck with the smell wafting from land five miles away. No, it wasn’t a bad smell, it was an exotic almost fragrant spicy tobacco smell.
We had arrived in India.
After the exhausting motion of the past couple of days, it was a welcome relief to harness what little wind there was, and to sail gently up the south west coast of India to our destination, Cochin. We turned on the engine only when the wind died completely but for most of the day, we were able to sit back, relax & read our books knowing this would be our last day at sea.
It was 140 miles up the coast and we didn’t arrive to the port of Cochin until the early hours of the next morning. It was pretty nerve racking entering the port in darkness through the narrow leads with container ships, freighters, fishing boats and small local boats with no navigational lights passing back and forth. At one point we had a massive 350 foot freighter bearing down on us from behind, hooting his horn to demand we move out of his way. We weren’t going to argue with a vessel this size and pulled out of the narrow channel until it passed by. We made our way to the quarantine area and dropped anchor at 5am on Day 12.
We slept for a couple of hours and woke to find a port control boat nearby and immigration officials already on board the yacht anchored next to us.
After customs & immigration officers came on board Stars End 2, we took our dinghy ashore to complete the paperwork to clear in to the country.
We met up with a number of other yachties who were either clearing in or clearing out at the same time so at least this helped to pass the day whilst we all filled out numerous forms and paperwork and waited patiently for the formalities to be completed.
Finally, mid afternoon, we were all done and we moved Stars End 2 around to the Kochi International Marina which would be our new home now for the next phase of our travels.