Port Blair and Cinque Islands, March 4-7

Checking a boat into the Andaman Islands is notoriously bureaucratic, mostly because the same regulations apply to small private yachts as to large commercial vessels. ("Even the simplest thing requires reams of paperwork," says our sailing guide.) We'd spent a lot of time over many months anticipating this process. We gathered and typed up as much of the necessary paperwork as we could when we were home, then topped it off in Phuket when we had more information about the boat and the India entry procedures. Finally, before setting sail, we visited a print shop in Phuket and made ten copies of everything.

We were quite concerned about two irregularities. First, we thought we'd be clever and get the necessary special "Andamans endorsement" when we got our India visas in San Francisco. It turns out endorsements from abroad are good for visits of up to 10 days, while endorsements on arrival are good for 30 days. So, here we were with 10-day endorsements stamped prominently in our passports, wanting to stay about two weeks. Second, we learned only after getting to Phuket that if one arrives in the Andamans by boat, one isn't permitted to check into a hotel ashore -- everyone must sleep on the boat in which they arrived. If enforced, this restriction would be a big blow for Jean-Claude who, despite the charms of living in close quarters with our family, had planned all along to travel on his own and then rejoin us for the passage back to Thailand. We were hoping, nervously, for flexibility on both of these issues.

By all accounts, check-in procedures would take somewhere between six hours and two full days. We were very much hoping for the six-hour end of things, despite our irregularities, so the atmosphere was charged the morning of March 4 before we began the check-in process. Alex and Jean-Claude shaved for the first time since leaving Phuket, and Jean-Claude briefly considered wearing the (wrinkled) sport jacket he had along for some university visits (photo 1). The rest of us put on our best clothes, which except for Emily isn't saying much, and all of us buzzed around straightening up the boat. Finally, we set out soft drinks, fruit juices, and three types of tea for our visitors.

One of the best decisions we made was to hire a local agent in advance to help us with the process. He wasn't cheap, but well worth every rupee. Ashraf (photo 2) from Island Travels is a likable "can-do" type, seemingly connected with all that happens in the Andamans, and he was excellent with the authorities. He also was very helpful with other aspects of our visit, from getting fuel for the boat to SIM cards for our phones.

The check-in procedure consisted of four parts:
  1. Two customs officials were fetched by dinghy to visit the boat, filling out reams of paperwork as promised. It took a while, but all went smoothly. They were certainly impressed when each time they asked for a document, Alex produced it in triplicate (with seven copies to spare).

  2. Two immigration officials were then fetched to visit the boat, with even more paperwork and again all going smoothly. These guys were impressed with Alex's organized paperwork, but even more so with the intricate origami flowers Tim made while they were aboard and presented to them on departure. Immigration is where our two irregularities were addressed. The 10-day restriction was no problem and lifted immediately. (Hmm, why did we spend so much time worrying about it? Alex had even considered flying to Bangkok from Phuket for a day to see if he could get the endorsements amended.) The situation with Jean-Claude staying ashore was a little more difficult -- apparently they'd never had a case like ours before -- but a paperwork "fix" was eventually proposed. Except for being whisked off to the police station on arrival in Havelock Island to explain his unusual situation, Jean-Claude has been traveling on his own without incident.

  3. The Coast Guard pulled alongside the boat (photo 3) and came aboard (photo 4). In a way they were the most thorough, taking photos of everything and everybody on the boat. Once again, we passed muster.

  4. Last but not least, Alex and Ashraf visited the harbor-master -- king of the roost here in the Andamans. In his vast air-conditioned office, he was presented with our huge stack of completed paperwork, and he generously granted his approval for us to visit the islands.
One thing that struck us is how exceptionally friendly, courteous, and respectful all of the officials were, even though they were in charge. Alex, designated captain of the boat, was referred to as "Master," a title he hopes will stick. We completed the process at about 1:00pm, which Ashraf declared to be a record short time, thanks to our (Alex's, really) very thorough preparations. We couldn't have been happier.

Even though the paperwork and check-in are done, the bureaucracy lives on. We're still required to call in our position and plans to "Port Control" every day at 8:00am and 8:00pm. (When out of VHF radio range, which is most of the time, we call in using the satellite phone we rented for the duration of our sailboat charter.) It's onerous, but we knew all along it would be like this, and we certainly find it a worthwhile trade-off for the chance to visit a frontier sailing and diving paradise.

Once the check-in was completed, we were allowed to go ashore. We had a number of logistics to take care of in Port Blair (notably money and internet), Emily was more than ready for some Indian clothes shopping (result depicted in photo 5), and we had a delicious dinner. Port Blair is described in our sailing guide as "a quaint, dirty, crowded, and friendly Indian town that looks as though it has been ripped out of the colonial 1930s and dropped into the 21st century." Having been to (mainland) India before, we weren't shocked by the crowds and cacophony, and we enjoyed our brief visit quite a bit. Much of our time cruising the islands will be in remote areas, so Port Blair is our best reminder that we really are in India.

Our first destination after leaving Port Blair was the Cinque Islands. (Andaman names the entire chain of about 300 islands; smaller island groups within the Andamans have their own names.) The Cinque Islands are part of a designated wildlife reserve, i.e., additional bureaucracy and fees are required in order to visit. They also have some level of environmental protection, and are reputed to be among the most pristine in the Andamans, both above water (photo 6) and below (photo 7, a scorpion fish). We enjoyed white-sand beaches, turquoise water, and several dives on lush reefs. These islands really felt remote -- we saw only two other boats while we were there, and we had the beaches and bays to ourselves.

We celebrated Emily's (March 6, age 11) and Alex's (March 5, age undisclosed) birthdays on board. The Master's big day coincided with a spate of annoying boat problems -- all resolved eventually -- while Emily's day was an idyllic one. The Master got a couple of presents; Emily got a pile. We'd brought from home all the makings for a birthday cake, which we baked and served on March 6 (photo 8). It does seem that Alex got the short end of the stick, but he's had many more birthdays than Emily.

Next: Leaving the remote Cinque Islands behind, we'll switch gears and visit Havelock Island, the most popular tourist destination in the Andamans.










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