Friday, March 13, 2009

March 11, 2009 - Port Blair, Andaman Islands, India

The light winds stayed with us until the night before our arrival in Port Blair. Just after sunset they came forward and piped up to 15 knots. Unfortunately, the wind came too far forward to the point that we were having to sail some 30 degrees off our intended course just to keep the sails full and boat moving. We were making good sped but not necessarily in the right direction until dawn on Wednesday morning, when the winds lightened and backed. We had heard that we should allow up to three days for clearance into Port Blair. We could have sailed the rest of the day, arriving at dusk, which would have left us only two working days for the clearance process before the weekend. We didn't want to risk having to stay in Port Blair over the weekend, so we turned on the engine, cranked up the revs and motored the last 15nm to Port Blair.

Before we left Phuket, I emailed the Port Blair Harbor Master with our boat and crew details and to advise him of our estimated date of arrival. Two days before arriving at Port Blair, we started trying to raise Port Blair Radio on the high frequency stations that they monitor, to advise them of our impending arrival. We didn't get a response until the morning of our arrival. As I gave our details, I wished that I'd bothered to learn more of the phonetic alphabet than just the letters required to spell Mata'irea and our call sign. My response to the request to spell the captain's last name was comical. "Hawaii, Alfa, err, Unicorn, Echo, India, Sierra, Echo, Nancy." Sierra was a lucky guess. The radio man was laughing as he asked his next question.

Just outside of Port Blair, we contacted Port Blair Port Control on the VHF radio to request permission to enter the harbor. This was so different than our usual arrival in a country: generally we slip into harbor unannounced, get the boat put away, have a shower and then go ashore to meet the officials - often wandering all over town and having a meal somewhere before completing the clearance process. Other than India (and it may be particular to the Andaman Islands), the only countries that have paid so much attention to our comings and goings and required us to stay aboard until the process was complete have been New Zealand and Australia.

As we motored into the harbor, we had a running dialogue over the VHF with Port Control about where they wanted us to anchor. When they weren't speaking to us in English, they were having conversations with other departments in Hindi about us. It felt so strange to be the focus of so much attention.

Port Control gave us an anchoring coordinate and we headed towards it. The whole time we were anchoring, Port Control, which can see the harbor from their station on the top of a nearby hill, was calling us, asking if we had our anchor down yet (no, because the position they had directed us to was directly on top of a large navigation buoy), telling us where to anchor ("There, there, put it down there! Launch your small boat. Immigration is waiting!"), calling to ask for our anchor position when they could see that we were in the middle of getting the engine on the dinghy and the dinghy launched, then calling again a minute later to remind us that Immigration was waiting. It was high comedy, and so different than our usual arrivals, when we go ashore once we're good and ready. In Port Blair we were definitely on someone else's schedule.

Sten went to the dock to pick up the 3 officers from Immigration and bring them back to the boat. At the dock, a young man, who was completely covered in fine red powder, took the dinghy lines and helped the officials into the dinghy. The officers explained that it was a holiday where people throw paint powder at one another. They explained that most public offices were closed for the day and that we shouldn't expect to receive our Customs or the Coast Guard clearance that afternoon. We were both disappointed - mostly because we'd really been looking forward to our first Indian meal in India.

The immigration officers were incredibly polite and did most of the paperwork for us. They were very impressed with all the documentation that we had prepared ahead of time (including completed copies of their own forms) and kept asking whether this was really our first time here. All I had to do was answer questions, apply our boat stamp to everything, and sign my name a half-dozen times. There was no suggestion at all from the Immigration officers that we should provide them with any gifts or payment for their services.

Once Immigration left, we held out hope that we would be visited by Customs and the Coast Guard. As the afternoon wore on, we contacted Port Control to ask if we should expect anyone else. They said they would let us know, but that with the holiday, it wasn't looking good. We stopped expecting to see anyone else today. Then, just before sunset, a big motoryacht arrived, complete with a harbor pilot and a large boarding party from the navy. Once they were anchored, another small boat pulled up to theirs and offloaded some men. We assumed that it was their agent. By this point it was dark. I got ready for bed, as I had been up since 2am. About an hour later, we heard a knock on the hull. It was a trio of Customs officials, being delivered by the motoryacht's dinghy. We weren't about to send them away, so while I made myself presentable, Sten invited them aboard to fill out their paperwork.

Things with Customs were going smoothly, until they noticed on our stores inventory that we had 95 liters of wine, 22 liters of spirits and 4 cases of beer aboard (knowing that we wouldn't be able to buy any alcohol in the muslim Maldives or unpopulated Chagos, and expecting the selection to be expensive and limited in the Seychelles and Madagascar, we loaded up with a year's supply of alcohol in duty free Langkawi). Seeing their concern, I showed them where it was stored. After some discussion, and making certain that we were completely comfortable with the decision, the Customs officers put half of our liquor stores under seal. Before they did so, they asked if the amount that was left available to us would be enough for our needs this month and if we needed to take any additional bottles out of the storage areas being put under seal for gifts for Customs or Coast Guard. I was so confused by the question (the whole third-person reference took a moment for my sleep-deprived brain to process) that it took me a moment to respond. "Err . . . ah, no." And that was that. A few minutes later the paperwork was complete. As they climbed into our dinghy for Sten to take them ashore, they retrieved a heavy plastic bag off of our back deck. It was then that I realized that the motoryacht had given them a few gifts for coming out to clear them in on a holiday.

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