Tuesday, April 21, 2009

April 19, 2009 - Watering Point, Galle, Sri Lanka

On leaving the Island of Andoman and sailing a thousand miles, a little south of west, the traveller reaches Ceylon, which is undoubtedly the finest Island of its size in all the world.
Marco Polo
Despite Marco Polo's high praise, we were not planning on stopping in Sri Lanka. In what may be the final days of the 25 year long battle between the Tamil Tigers and the predominantly Sinhalese Sri Lankan military, tensions are high and security is tight around this island nation in the southwestern corner of the Bay of Bengal. In addition, we are to hire an agent (at the obscene price of $225) to clear in here, something we've never had to do before in two and a half years of cruising. For those two reasons planned to give Sri Lanka a skip. But running from a cyclone has brought our diesel levels to the point where a stop is necessary.

The final two full days of this 9 and half day passage were almost pleasant. We were even able to sail some of the way and still make the southing we needed to get around the bottom of Sri Lanka. The radar was constantly lit up with ships transitting the shipping lane to our south, but only one was ever close enough for us to see its lights.

The last 12 hours of the trip we ran the engine hard in light wind conditions to get into a safe harbor before sunset. We couldn't make it all the way to Galle before dark, but we knew that other cruisers had anchored in a bay about 10 miles east of there, so we made that our goal. All along the south coast of Sri Lanka we were approached by numerous fishing boats asking for handouts - cigarettes, booze, food, and water. We don't smoke or carry any tobacco products aboard, so we couldn't help them there. And while requests for food and water might have moved us further from shore, within a mile of the coast, we figured that they just wanted an excuse to tie up to us and see what else they could cadge. Our desire to protect our topsides from damage overwhelmed any sense of generosity we might have felt, so we continued on, having to actively avoid several more of the fishing boats as they took up close range collision courses in an effort to get us to stop.

We dropped anchor in Weligama Bay just before sunset. While this may be a nice protected spot in the Northeast Monsoon, with Southwest winds and a big swell running it was not overly comfortable. However, after a long rough passage just about any harbor will do. We were just allowing ourselves to relax, preparing to put dinner on the grill and tucking into that first post-passage beverage, when a local boat carrying 5 young men in street clothes and a uniformed teenager toting an automatic weapon approached us. At the time, Sten was down below, skewering the kabobs. I asked him to stay there and assured him that I'd call him up on deck if I needed him.

The men in the boat announced that they were from the Navy. Despite appearances, I was willing to believe them, but made no moves to allow them aboard. After giving them our boat details, in broken English they explained that the area was not secure and that we had to continue on to Galle. Having no desire to go anywhere, especially not to a strange harbor at night, I argued that other boats had anchored at Weligama and asked why we couldn't stay. After a few minutes of them insisting that we had to leave and me asserting that we should be able to stay, they pulled out a cell phone and called up their superior officer. After a moment or two, they passed the phone to me. The officer on the other end explained that there had been acts of sabotage in Weligama and that we would not be safe there. I agreed that was reason for us to move on, but asked for a half hour reprieve so that we could cook and eat dinner before hauling the anchor. He agreed and ordered his men to watch over us until we were out of the harbor.

Fear of sabotage is not a great aperitif, and it was a bit odd eating as we knew the boys were out there in the dark, somewhere beyond the circle of light cast by our cockpit light, watching us. So we hurriedly ate, raised the main to keep us from rolling too badly in the swell, and motored west. I'd been up since midnight the night before, so I caught a short nap while Sten kept watch. We arrived at Watering Point outside of Galle Harbor at 10:30 at night. We contacted Harbor Control and our agent and they instructed us to anchor at Watering Point as the Navy had secured the anti-submarine net over the mouth of the harbor hours before. In 2006 the Tamil Tigers mounted an attack on the harbor in Galle. Ever since then, each night the Navy pulls a net across the mouth of the harbor to keep boats from entering in the dark. The Navy also sets off depth charges each night to deter Tamil frogmen from swimming into the harbor and placing explosives on the hulls of vessels in the harbor.

As we prepared to anchor, another Navy gunboat circled us. This time both young men were uniformed and a much larger automatic weapon was mounted in the bow. They confirmed our details and consulted with an officer via phone. Once they were sure we were who we said we were, they gestured for us to anchor and continued to circle us at very close range as we did so. Once the anchor was down, they sidled up to the side of the boat again, reiterated the instructions that we were to anchor here for the night and assured us that they would keep watch over us before getting to the main point of the exercise - asking for cigarettes. While we were thanking them and telling them that they were out of luck, another gunboat came up to see if the getting was good. They all went away disappointed.

We were wired from all the guns and a nighttime harbor entrance, but also exhausted and eventually we fell asleep. But then, around 0130 in the morning, Sten woke to the sound of an outboard nearby. Moments later he heard a voice outside the hull calling "halo, halo." He went on deck to investigate, only to discover that our naval guard had changed. The new guys took a minute to reiterate, once again, that we would be entering the harbor in the morning, before asking for some cigarettes. We haven't seen much of Sri Lanka yet, but we can see that this is one country with a serious jones for nicotine.

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