Tuesday, March 31, 2009

March 27, 2009 - Interview Island, Andamas, India

The charts for the west coast of the Andamans are basically a joke. Coming north from the Homfray Strait we passed entire islands that are not on our charts. The poor charting was compounded by the earthquake off of Sumatra (Indonesia) that caused the 2004 Tsunami. This far north in the Andamans the damage didn't come from the Tsunami itself, but rather by a massive aftershock that originated under the Andamans and tilted entire landmasses six feet. When sailing, if an area is six feet deeper than expected, that's no problem. But when navigating shallow, reef strewn waters, the combination of poor charts and waters that are six feet shallower than you expect could be tragic, especially for a keel boat with a six foot draft. I've spent a lot of time the past few days standing on the pulpit (the stainless steel structure on the bow of the boat), gripping the forestay, peering down into the water ahead of us, and shouting "Port!" and "Starboard! Hard!" as Sten steers and calls out the depths shown on the depth sounder.

Interview Island uplifted during the aftershocks of the Tsunami. As a result, the huge coral reef surrounding the island, which used to be submerged at all tides, is now exposed at low tide. Anchoring in the natural harbors created by channels in the uplifted reef is a surreal experience. We looked around and felt like we'd landed on the moon. All those coral structures that we regularly snorkel around, over and through, surrounded us, above the water. We decided that in navigating these waters it is best to arrive at a new anchorage at low tide when the uplifted reef is dried out. The water is just too murky to clearly see the reef edge or rocks at high tide.

The murky water made snorkeling more challenging. I'm happy as a clam floating around in clear water, but when I can't see what might be coming towards me until it is very close, I get anxious (particularly in saltwater croc territory!). Sten has no such fears, and was thrilled with the sheer numbers of large (even for the Andamans) snapper, grouper and crayfish that he encountered.

One of the challenges of cruising the west coast of the Andaman Islands is the distances between acceptable anchorages. Much of the land along this coast is tribal territory, and anchoring is not permitted. Therefore, to get back south, we were faced with the options of either a) going back through the straits to the east coast, b) transiting the west coast during the day and arriving after dark in a strange anchorage, or c) doing an overnight passage. Because of the iffy charting we decided that a night passage, well off the coast, was our best bet for an uneventful passage. How wrong we were.

An hour after Sten went to bed, our radio crackled to life. A warship from the Indian Navy (which had been shadowing us for several hours before sunset) announced that it was about to commence live fire exercise. They advised all vessels to keep a distance of 8 miles away and aircraft to maintain an altitude of greater than 15,000 feet. I didn't quite get their coordinates the first time, but they sounded very close to us. I wanted to call and confirm their coordinates, but I was hesitant to bother a warship. So I was relieved when they hailed the vessel five miles to their north and gave coordinates that were very similar to our current position ("Hey, they're talking to me!" - but then, I don't know who else they would be talking to as we hadn't seen another vessel in days). I responded with our actual position. We switched to channel 12 and commenced a discussion about how much distance we should keep from them during their exercises. I asked if we should alter course to the west, but that suggestion was turned down as that was the direction in which they would be firing. ("Right, west, bad idea.") The radio officer suggested that I turn around and head back to the North. I responded with an offer that we just slow down instead. Sometimes I shock myself. Here is a warship telling me to stay away because they are about to blow stuff up, and I'm thinking, 'well, I don't really want to alter course, so how about if I just slow down'. Surprisingly, the Indian Navy was fine with the suggestion, and asked me to keep 5 miles away from them.

When I woke Sten (U.S. Navy Lieutenant Ret.) up to tell him what was happening and what I'd done, he was not amused. Then the fireworks started. A big flare lit the night as red tracer fire arced out into the western sky. For the next half hour there were intermittent bursts of light from the warship. Then the show ended with another round of red tracer fire. Never a dull moment on board Mata'irea! (Okay, actually, there are lots of dull moments, especially on passage, but the exciting ones more than make up for any tedium we experience.) When the fireworks were over, the warship contacted us again to let us know we could resume our course and speed and to ask us some questions about our vessel (registration number, tonnage, recent ports of call) and crew. I responded with the requested information and thanked them for an impressive show. Again, the U.S. Navy was not amused, but the Indian Navy was. After a cheerful farewell, we switched back to channel 16, the listening frequency.

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