Oman to Sri Lanka & Malaysia – 2008

Sänna - Marie Sri Lanka

‘We spent a truly enjoyable six months in Sri Lanka before again crossing the Indian Ocean eastwards to Thailand and Malaysia, passing through the amazing Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The ocean passage from Salalah in Oman to Galle in Sri Lanka was by far the longest voyage we’d ever done – over 2,100 miles in a little over nineteen days. We learned to love long ocean passages, just the two of us living side-by-side day after day, relying upon each other in a way that’s difficult to describe to you. And in Sri Lanka there was a nice surprise waiting, a celebration, an occasion I will remember for a long time…’ Marie

Oman to Sri Lanka

Aden in Yemen to Salalah in Oman was by now a dangerous passage. Our six-month layover in Aden had seen a general deterioration in the piracy situation in the Gulf of Aden region, although we ourselves experienced no problems with the Somalian pirates who came into the port of Aden to buy diesel. They’d come into harbour in pirated fishing vessels they used as mother ships, it seemed they were well acquainted with the local Yemeni fishermen as many of the Somalians at this stage were fishermen too. Only later did organised crime take over the piracy using largely Nigerian funding – there were huge profits to be made from pirating oil tankers and cargo ships, though only rarely would lives be at risk.

My new best friend in Aden, Navy Commander Muhammad, who had taken a real shine to me by sending flowers most days with notes attached saying that he was allowed more than the two wives he currently had, explained to us that he let the Somalis into Aden because they were simple fishermen taking serious matters into their own hands. Their coastal fishing grounds were being fished-out by large foreign flagged fishing vessels and factory ships that absolutely decimated local fish stocks. The money the Somalis raised by piracy went directly into their local communities, paying for schools and livelihoods in a far more efficient way than worldwide charity support donations which were ruthlessly plundered by corrupt officials and presidential leaders. He was a good man was Commander Muhammad, he told us that we would have no problems with the Somali or local pirates in Aden, we were under his protection and we were well liked by the fishermen who said that Dave looked like the man in movie. We could never figure out which movie, though later we found out from Dagmar, who spoke Arabic, that they meant Richard Attenborough in ‘Silence of the Lambs’, which for some reason was a big movie in Yemen.

We arranged to leave Sänna swinging on anchor for a short while in Aden, Commander Muhammad assured us we would have no problems leaving her there while we returned to England, I needed to spend time with my son Henry and talk to his father about Henry joining us on Sänna for longer periods of time. I was travelling frequently between our various locations and England, but the further we got from the Mediterranean the more difficult it is to travel. One solution was for Henry to spend more time with us, but that meant arranging for his onboard education and welfare once we arrived in a more safe location than Yemen. In England we booked a skiing trip to Austria – but unfortunately Henry then broke his leg in ski-school which meant more time in the UK than we anticipated. Dave returned to Aden to checkup on Sänna, Peter & Dagmar had been keeping an eye on her along with Omar, a local fixit guy who we used extensively for supplies. Dave said that Commander Muhammad told him the fishermen pirates regularly checked that Sänna’s anchor was secure, they even started her engine to keep her batteries charged. We first didn’t believe this but it turned out to be true, when we returned to Aden after around eight weeks in England with Henry, we spent time with these fishermen and their burka covered wives who were always keen to tell us that we were fine and safe. Dave’s brother Gary then travelled to Yemen to help Dave sail north to Oman, which meant that I could be with Henry for longer.

Leaving Aden to sail up to Oman was potentially a dangerous voyage, Sänna would not be under Muhammad’s personal protection. Peter & Dagmar onboard Iltis, and the Swiss Romeo & Lucy on Meaux De Mer were making the same passage though not sailing together at the same time. We all agreed to meet up in the port of Salalah in Oman, from there we would each make the long ocean passage across the Indian Ocean to Sri Lanka. From Aden, Dave and his brother called into the Yemeni port of Al Mukalla, reportedly the birthplace of Osama Bin Laden, the notorious terrorist still on the run from the Americans, but found no sign of him in the picturesque little port that had few facilities for visiting sailboats. The harbourmaster was friendly enough, the food traders even more friendly but no signs of anywhere serving alcohol or beer – both strictly off limits in this hardcore Muslim country. As with Aden, all the women were completely covered head to foot in their black burqas – but this did not prevent them excitedly offering their friendship to western women.

Sänna stayed on anchor in Al Mukalla for a few days. Dave was waiting for Iltis to arrive with Peter & Dagmar, but a German flagged boat was rumoured to have been involved in a midnight collision with Somalian refugees escaping to Yemen in illegal skiffs. The harbourmaster confirmed that the foreign sailboat had returned to Aden, but was now making directly to Salalah. We later learned the horrific story of what had happened to Iltis – I will tell you more of this later.

I returned to Sänna in Salalah, which turned out to be a strange place. A large port, there is a designated anchorage area for visiting yachts that is notorious for poor holding and dragging anchors. Again strictly muslim, there is at least a seaman’s mission that serves alcohol. With all the visiting cargo ships – and two huge British and American aircraft carriers tied up in port in transit to the war zone in Iraq, the seaman’s mission is in heavy demand, heaving every single night. Bizarrely, while we were there, fights broke out late most evenings between the British and American navy servicemen – the large British crew could freely drink alcohol, who then taunted the US crew mercilessly because of their aged over twenty-one alcohol licensing laws which were rigorously enforced by the onboard US military police. Eventually, unable to withstand the English tormenting jibes, the Americans rectified matters using the traditional saloon bar-fight method – joined enthusiastically by their military police. It was absolute enjoyable mayhem, even the mirrors were smashed – just like a scene from ‘How The West Was Won’.

In Salalah, we learned from Iltis what had happened in their voyage from Aden. During the night, running without navigation lights to hide themselves from pirates, they collided with a large skiff loaded with refugees running from Somalia to Yemen. The collision almost cut the skiff in two, large numbers of Somalians were thrown overboard into the sea. Dagmar & Peter called in the rescue services trying to do the best they could, rescuing some onboard but the nighttime darkness made their efforts supremely difficult. With no idea how many people were in the water, it inevitably turned into a horrible human disaster before a French warship arrived to take over. This was a terrible tragedy that affected both of them immensely, but what could they do? Coalition naval forces were by this time advising small vessels like ourselves to run without lights for our own safety, in only a few months time several sailboats would be attacked – culminating in the piracy of the British yacht Lynn Rival and the kidnapping of Paul & Rachel Chandler. Worse was to follow, early in 2011, the US yacht Quest was ruthlessly attacked and four American crew killed. But for now, in Salalah, we were all safe.

The worst we suffered was the danger of dragging anchors – high winds made Meaux De Mere drag while Romeo & Lucy were having a good time drinking in the Seaman’s Mission. Dave and Peter plus the crew from a nearby French yacht climbed onboard to start their engine but were unable to pull up the anchor. In desperation Dagmar and myself radioed the Seaman’s Mission to broadcast a message to Romeo & Lucy, to return to their vessel immediately. Later, we learned that, over the club’s tannoy system, they announced ‘O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?’ in reference to Shakespeare’s famous lines. When Romeo then called in a panic on the club’s VHF, we could distinctly hear the sounds of yet one more bar-fight between the British and US navies in the background. By the time Romeo & Lucy arrived, their boat had been safely re-anchored by Dave, Peter and the French. We planned to leave to cross the Indian Ocean the next morning, we would leave with Iltis but did not expect or plan to sail together, it’s just not possible to ‘buddy boat’ with another vessel on a long ocean passage.

Provisioning for a three to four week passage, we upped anchor after clearing customs & immigration. Iltis immediately struck a problem, their anchor was fouled and could not be raised. We circled them several times, then Peter told us not to wait, he would need to scuba dive their anchor to see what the problem was. We departed alone on our longest voyage yet, into reliable north-easterly trade winds which should be with us for virtually the whole passage, or until at least two or three hundred miles out from Galle in Sri Lanka. These trades would put the winds onto our starboard bows, meaning that we would be on a lean to starboard for almost the entire trip. However, these trades rarely blow more than fifteen to twenty knots, almost perfect sailing conditions – and so it proved. In the event, we averaged around a hundred and twenty miles a day, sometimes more, sometimes less. We quickly got ourselves into an informal watch system, we’d take watch together throughout the day then split the nighttime into three or four hour periods, with myself taking the watch until around one or two in the morning, Dave taking over until maybe five or six. There were never any rigid set hours like those found on many other sailboats, even short-handed two person crews. We got into our stride, it was extremely enjoyable without any major storms to threaten us. From time-to-time it rained but most of the passage was in sublime sunshine with deliciously cool evenings.

We’d been warned in both Aden and Salalah about Iranian fishing vessels. They fished a long way out into the ocean, laying incredibly long nets usually around five or six miles long. They were unmarked, not seeable in any way shape or form and a real danger – fouling a prop or a keel more than a thousand miles from the nearest land is no joke. Thirteen days out from Salalah, around two in the morning, there was a crunching scraping sound from our keel, it was perfectly obvious that we’d hit something. It didn’t take much to figure out that it was a net, Dave made the wise decision not to start the engine or anything, we were still making more than seven knots under sail and, thankfully, we didn’t seem to have been slowed by anything snagged on our keel or prop. Dave reasoned that, if we started the engine for any reason, then we could end up wrapping a line or a part of a net around our propellor – we’d wait until daylight then dive under the hull to see what was what.

The next morning we readied with snorkel and fins, dropped all sails and stopped the boat. We then argued about who would go into the water, it made sense for me to dive the boat leaving Dave onboard to manage everything onboard if there was a sudden emergency. Sänna was drifting in the ocean swell, we threw an emergency line overboard over the stern, then formed a semi-loop by bringing the other end back onboard. This created a safety line for me in the water if Sänna suddenly took off for some reason, I wouldn’t be left behind in the middle of the Indian Ocean. At this point I asked Dave what the depth was, he laughed, asking why that mattered. I told him that to me it was important although I realised it made no sense, I felt that I needed to know how deep the sea was. Dave checked the charts – four thousand metres, he said – that’s around twelve thousand feet for you none-Europeans. I jumped in. The sea was gloriously warm, there were no signs of any nets or lines fouling anything and there was a ton of colourful fish swimming around our keel. I told Dave that everything was fine, the sea was glorious and that Sänna was dead stopped in the water. I told him to jump in, there was no need for swimming costumes – so we spent around two hours swimming around the boat completely naked more than fifteen hundred miles from land. But still, the twelve thousand feet depth bothered me.

We made Galle in nineteen days from Oman. The first thing that struck both of us was the dramatic scenic change from the dry arid desert landscape of Arabia. Here in Sri Lanka we found lush jungle, ample rainfall every day and high humidity. It was an easy entrance towards the harbour but the last night before our arrival we had to negotiate our way through myriads of small fishing skiffs, all brightly lit. By this time there was no wind, we were on engine with our alternator belt slipping and whining like a screeching buzzard, threatening to snap at any point. We’d even forgotten to bring a spare – a bad failing that we quickly learned from. The belt fortunately held, we entered harbour and anchored outside the breakwater. We were not allowed into the inner harbour until we’d completed customs and immigration, there was also a strict quarantine and security situation in force – only a few weeks before, the infamous Tamil Tigers had scuba-dived into this same harbour, attached explosive mines to the hulls of all four Sri Lankan navy ships and sank them. The war between the Sri Lankan government and the independent seeking Tamils living in the north of the country was still in full flow. More about that small point later.

We completed all formalities without any problems, then we were allowed to enter Galle Harbour. We were instructed to drop our anchor, then reverse to moor Mediterranean style to a huge steel barge which itself was moving with the swell like no ones business – it was horrendous. The harbourmaster apologised, saying the main harbour wall had been washed away by the Boxing Day tsunami three years previously. Galle and Sri Lanka suffered enormously, tragically over thirty-five thousand Sri Lankan’s died, there was still huge amounts of damage throughout the harbour and in Galle town.

Soon after arriving in the harbour we were in deep trouble. Dave sensed our anchor situation was bad, the incoming surge was horrendous, Dave insisted in taking the dinghy out to drop a second anchor from our bows – just as a fallback safety measure. It was a difficult and dangerous task in the surge, no sooner had he returned to take a shower to clean himself up then our main anchor chain snapped and parted. The second anchor saved us. Retrieving our lost anchor became a three month ongoing saga, it was never successful.

Next came my amazing surprise, my fortieth birthday party. On the harbour security gate there is always a group of ‘fixers’ hanging around to attach themselves to incoming sailboats, they arrange for everything – repairs, supplies, travel – everything, they can be either a pain in the ass or extremely useful. They are known as ‘gate boys’ and are organised to a tee, around ten to fifteen of them have formed themselves into some form of cooperative, they each own tuc-tuc motorcycle carriers to transport sailors anywhere – we had been allocated Saman and Bannat – although we had no prior knowledge of this, nor had we ever agreed anything. We were intercepted at the gate, told that Saman & Bannat were our allocated guides and that we would not want for anything. Unbeknown to me, Dave later went to see Saman about arranging a surprise birthday party, complete with cake, a Sri Lankan band, fireworks – the lot. Saman did not disappoint – in two days he arranged everything, the whole lot. In Saman’s own house his whole village turned out to celebrate – over one hundred Sri Lankan’s including the local eight-piece band. It was a fantastic evening – only tarnished later in the night by the sight of Saman and Dave arguing fiercely over Saman’s bill. I was well sloshed by this point on local spirits and beer, I danced through the whole night but Dave, pale and somewhat demoralised, never told me how much he’d paid out to Saman.

Saman, something of a likeable scoundrel, then offered to guide us on a tour around the interior of Sri Lanka – he happened to have a mini-coach which we later found out was stolen. Together with Bannat and his ‘friend‘ the driver, we agreed to his tour price for seven days. It was wonderful. We toured the highland rainforests, the Mackwoods Tea Plantations, saw wild elephants while at the same time devouring amazing food in small local restaurants that Saman had negotiated himself for free but charged us an extortionate rate. We loved it. We stayed in old English colonial houses, visited the ancient capital of Kandy where we happened to see a rare opening of the monument supposedly containing one of Buddhas original teeth. It did look old and worn. Even now I consider Sri Lanka my favourite country, sailing into Galle under our own steam after a three week ocean passage, is the highlight of our sailing adventure so far. But, for now, we returned to rather overbearing naval security of Galle Harbour.

We had moved Sänna to a more secure location in the harbour. We were experiencing sleep problems – because the Sri Lankan navy lobbed live hand grenades into the harbour every thirty minutes. This was to deter more Tamil Tiger scuba attacks, on the theory that underwater blast waves would render attacking Tigers insensible, the explosions also travelled through the water and through Sänna’s hull, meaning that every thirty minutes or so both Dave and I would lift bodily off our sleeping bunk and hit our heads on the cabin roof. We couldn’t get anywhere near a good nights sleep – also, the navy divers trying to recover our lost anchor had to ensure being out of the water when the next round of hand grenades were thrown in. Of course, we never recovered our anchor.

Galle, Sri Lanka to Langkawi, Malaysia

We made two attempts to leave Sri Lanka, our first attempt failed, our second followed three months later when the monsoon winds changed. We first left in June in the northern monsoon, the eleven hundred mile voyage across the Bay of Bengal supposedly straight forward. After eight days of being becalmed in long periods of no winds, and nowhere enough fuel onboard to motor all the way to Langkawi, we returned to Galle having made the decision to stay three more months in this beautiful country to wait for the southwest monsoon winds. By this time both Peter & Dagmar in Iltis and Romeo & Lucy on Meaux De Mere had themselves arrived in Galle, Iltis by way of the Maldives Islands having been blown south with no fuel. I returned to England to again spend time with Henry whereas Dave stayed on in Galle. The harbour and the exploding hand grenades, the horrendous swell conditions and the supremely tight navy security made the harbour untenable. We arranged to haul Sänna out of the water onto the dockside, a ten-hour operation involving two cranes held down by forklift trucks and an acute shredding of nerves when both cranes began to tilt due to being overloaded – thankfully the forklift forks strategically positioned on the rear of each crane saved the day.

There was no sense in staying onboard Sänna while hauled out of the water. Both Romeo & Lucy and Peter & Dagmar had found cheap local accommodation in Galle town. When I myself returned to Sri Lanka after spending time with Henry, we found an amazing room right on the beach in the small village of Unawatuna just outside of Galle. We stayed there while readying Sänna once more to cross from Sri Lanka to Malaysia. From Langkawi in Malaysia we would then head north to Thailand. I’d also agreed with Henry’s father that Henry would join us onboard once we had reached the safety of Langkawi, my son would stay with us for an extended period of time which would include his self-education by home schooling. Henry’s existing primary school were simply amazing, they would put together lesson plans so that he could follow the existing school curriculum which would then allow him to spend time back in school when staying with his father in England. Dave’s youngest daughter Louise, a schoolteacher, would also join us onboard in Langkawi to help with Henry’s education. This would turn into a dream time for us, but first we had a long ocean passage to make from Sri Lanka.

This time we left Sri Lanka in the southwest monsoon. Although much wetter than the dry northeast monsoon we’d attempted three months earlier, we were assured regular and reliable trade winds across our starboard stern quarter – this was our first experience of prolonged downwind sailing. Although extremely nice if the wind stayed on our quarter, if the wind moved directly onto our stern then it quickly became relentless rock’n’roll sailing – which has the ability to drive you crazy after several days. In the event, everything proceeded nicely for the first seven days or so, but approaching to the south of the Nicobar and Andaman Islands we became embroiled in increasing bad weather in the form of relentless thunder storms with unbelievably torrential rain. One storm in particular was bad, the lightening heading towards us striking the sea every thirty seconds or so. We turned all electronics off, disconnected our radio antennas and isolated the batteries, a lightening strike struck the sea around what seemed twenty metres or so from our starboard beam, sending both of us flying around the cockpit in frightening confusion. Then came rain like you wouldn’t believe, we were totally incapacitated for around fifteen minutes or so until we could reconnect everything and restore power. Everything was okay, all our electronics powered up and our radio worked. We’d got away with it – but it was a truly frightening experience. Two days later we sailed north of the Indonesian Island of Sumatra to finish the last hundred miles or so to Langkawi on engine, the trade winds had totally abandoned us. Both Iltis and Meaux De Mere were already tied up in Langkawi harbour, they had left Galla a week or so ahead of us. It was a great reunion.

Langkawi is a fine gateway to Southeast Asia. North is Thailand, southwards is the Malacca Straits to Singapore and Indonesia. Malaysia is an incredibly friendly country, with sincere and helpful officials always keen to help. The Malaysian people are also colourful food addicts, the culinary diet of these people is truly amazing. In less than a year we’d gone from the simple meat & rice dishes of Yemen and Oman, to the wonderful spicy curries of Sri Lanka to now experience the daily delights of Malay and Thai cooking. We also made brand new friends, increasingly coming across Australian and New Zealander sailboats who frequent this part of the world in big numbers. There was also a sprinkling of the more adventurous US and Canadian yachts, this was a brave new world for us, one that we would grow to love and find extremely difficult to leave.

North to Thailand would be our next adventure, but for now we savoured the delights of Langkawi and the delightful haven of Rebak, a magical small island paradise with its own harbour marina, landscaped gardens and the famed hard-dock community of sailors and travellers who had decamped there to turn native.

We simply loved Rebak

Marie – January 2009

Read more – Malaysia, Thailand & Singapore 2009 >


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