More Andamans Cruising, March 8-13
Andaman Islands are a fantastic location to cruise by sailboat. There
are innumerable islands, bays, and beaches to explore, many completely
untouched except for occasional visits by local fishermen. The coral
are in excellent condition thanks to a ban on large-scale commercial
fishing and a general lack of visitors. The occasional village and
primitive local boat (photo 1) is a reminder that one is in exotic India. Except
for the absence of upscale restaurants and nightlife ashore -- not
something we're interested in anyway -- these islands could be in a
class with famous sailing grounds like
the Virgin Islands and French Polynesia. But, they
are difficult to reach (the long passage from Phuket is the only viable
option), and entry procedures are onerous, as discussed in the previous travelog.
The Andamans have been open to foreign yachts for only a few
years. Currently fewer than 60 yachts visit each year; we feel
pretty lucky to be one of them.
We've always marveled at how every day slips by so quickly when living on a boat. Partly it's just how much time each activity ends up taking (e.g., visiting the beach requires gathering everything one might possibly need, waterproofing it in case of a surf landing, loading everyone and everything into the dinghy, and motoring ashore), and how many unexpected problems crop up that need to be addressed (e.g., a "calm" destination anchorage turns out to be unacceptably rough, or an important-looking motor part is discovered on the cockpit floor -- could it have fallen off the dive-tank compressor?).
Our daily activities have included a mix of sailing the boat to a new anchoring spot, scuba diving, visiting the shore (beach, rainforest, villages, mangrove channels, whatever there is to see), playing in the water (sunset joyrides on a dinghy-towed inflatable orca are a particular favorite; photo 3), shell-collecting, cooking and eating, boat maintenance (never-ending!), and keeping up with photo-processing, clothes-rinsing, and all those other regular travel chores. Although we don't have oodles of "spare" time, the kids have been doing some schoolwork every day and reading quite a lot (we foresee the usual book crisis coming, for Emily in particular), and every once in a while the whole family enjoys an evening movie on the computer. Emily's piano keyboard has been seeing only light use (photo 4) -- Tim didn't bring his french horn, so there's no dedicated "music time" as there was in the camper.
One burdensome task is refilling the dive tanks. We rented a small gas-powered compressor in Phuket, which works fine -- we were actually quite lucky to find a compressor to rent at all -- but it's extraordinarily loud when it runs (beyond belief, really, but most compressors are very loud), and it can take up to an hour to refill the four tanks. Jennifer and the kids usually high-tail it to the beach while Alex does the tank-filling. It's somewhat reminiscent of those downhill bike rides in South America, where Jennifer and the kids would hop on their bikes for good fun while Alex pulled up the rear driving the camper. Alex certainly does get shortchanged. We'll need to make up for it somehow; suggestions appreciated.
After leaving the Cinque Islands where the previous travelog left off, we opted for an 11-hour pounding upwind sail to reach Havelock Island. (Fortunately, we don't have any other sails like that while in the Andamans; the rest are mostly a couple of hours, frequently downwind.) According to the Lonely Planet guidebook: "Although Havelock is the most developed of the islands, it's still very low-key and simple -- a world away from the beach resorts of mainland India or Southeast Asia." We enjoyed our stop on Havelock, admiring an elephant on the beach (photo 5, look carefully), poking around a couple of small villages (photo 6), doing a bit of tourist shopping (that would be Emily), checking up on Jean-Claude, and most notably enjoying two dinners in local eateries: one very good and the other truly excellent.
Following Havelock Island we visited a series of smaller, uninhabited islands. Each has stunning rainforest cloaking its hills and stunning undersea life just offshore. Our anchorages were calm and beautiful, and the days slipped away as described earlier. It's easy to imagine spending much, much longer exploring the Andaman Islands, although we're getting a good taste in our 12-day visit.
With so few sailboats cruising the islands, we soon became aware of the two or three others on roughly the same itinerary as ours. At check-in we ferried the immigration officials over to the yacht Drifter after formalities were finished on our boat. We saw Drifter several other times, eventually becoming quite friendly with its Australian world-cruising couple (photo 7) when we shared the same remote anchorage for a couple of nights.
Weather and Health
Like most places in the tropics, the Andaman Islands have two seasons: (1) hot, windy, and relatively dry; (2) hot, still, humid & rainy. We're currently a month or two from the end of season (1). There's been some rain but not much. It can get quite scorching in the middle of the day depending on the breeze, but we're always a short leap away from the ocean for cooling down -- the water is an ideal 82 degrees.
To handle any health issues that might crop up, we brought along a wealth of pharmaceuticals, plus an electronic guide to travel health that takes up infinitely less room in our luggage than the hefty Child's Health reference book we used to lug along on remote trips. We were most worried about strange stomach problems or festering infections from living on the water so long. Instead, our first problem to crop up was the common cold, striking Alex and Emily on the same day. Thankfully their colds were short-lived, and aside from snorkeling instead of diving for a couple of days to be careful of their ears, it didn't put a major crimp in plans or activities.
The scuba diving has been going extremely well. Both kids are very comfortable and competent underwater, and they clearly know how to admire and appreciate the marine life. (They've also gone a little nuts with the underwater camera, which they were permitted to borrow once they'd logged five dives after their training course. They now spend ages admiring their photos after each dive. Photos 8 and 9 are Emily's and Tim's, respectively.) These kids don't realize how good they have it -- Alex and Jennifer had been diving for years before experiencing reefs as lush and pristine as some of the ones we've seen here. The Mergui Archipelago promises more of the same. Truth be told, we weren't sure how it would go with the kid's scuba training at this fairly young age, or diving as a family off the sailboat. So far it's been flawless, and our daily dives are a highlight of the cruise.
The fishing hasn't gone nearly as well, but fortunately it's of far less interest to us -- we just set a trolling line behind the boat whenever we're moving to see if anything good happens. Since arriving in the Andamans our record has been even more dismal than the three caught-but-lost fish during the passage: not a nibble! Tim did catch something when he dropped a hand-line over a reef; it must have been hefty because the line broke ("hook, line, and sinker" as they say) as he excitedly reeled it in. Jean-Claude reports that he spent an entire day with some fishermen and they didn't catch anything either, so we shouldn't feel too badly. On the other hand, one night a modern sport-fishing boat anchored nearby and offered us unlimited fresh tuna -- they'd caught two 100-pounders that day and didn't have a freezer on board.
Even discounting the fresh fish, our meals on the boat have been distinctly better than the camper meals in South America. Jennifer's still the cook, the menus are much the same, and the groceries accumulated in Phuket were pretty standard. The oven on the boat is much better than the one in the camper, but that alone can't be making all the difference. Our current theory is that the improvement is due largely to a big bag of Thai roasted & shredded garlic, which makes an appearance in a surprising number of meals, to everyone's taste. A recent treat was fresh-baked bread, which Alex & Emily promise to start making on a regular basis. We'll need to visit the big grocery store when we stop back in Phuket just short of the four-week mark, to replenish a number of popular items, but overall our provisions have been holding up very well. Food management in general gets high marks so far, with satisfaction throughout the family.
Please enjoy Emily's latest podcast: Cyrene -- Too Small, Too Large, or Just Right? (3.9 MB), featuring a photo tour and interviews with everyone aboard. As always, you may need to download the file in order to play it.
Next: We'll make our way back to Port Blair where we'll load up on fuel & water, grab some internet, pick up Jean-Claude, check out with the officials (not nearly as complex as checking in, but not simple either), then embark on our return voyage to Thailand.