Outer Andamans to Port Blair to Similan Islands, March 14-19

Our long journey from the Andaman Islands back to Thailand began with a pleasant day-sail from the Button Islands (three small islands in a row -- beautiful anchorages and great diving; photos 1 and 2) back to the city of Port Blair (photo 3), where we had a full day of pre-departure chores and activities:
  • Refueling the boat, which entailed lugging numerous enormous "jerry cans" on the dinghy and to a gas station by taxi.
  • Refilling our fresh-water tanks, requiring an advance appointment to make use of a fire-hose, literally, located on a freight dock. Once our tanks were filled, we took advantage of our remaining time and water (minimum purchase: one ton) to hose down everything and everyone (photo 4; spraying Tim is our Australian friend from Drifter).
  • Internet, of course.
  • Important errands (boat lubricants and parts), and less important ones depending on your point of view (souvenirs, postcards, fresh vegetables).
  • A last two excellent dinners out -- we certainly did enjoy the delicious Indian food.
Thailand is very cheap for things like food and souvenirs, but India is even cheaper. Not surprisingly, Emily really went to town with her souvenir shopping. T-shirts ran about a dollar each so even Jean-Claude got into the spirit, blowing the bank and buying nine of them. As seen in photo 5 (snapped by the camera's self-timer just minutes after we completed the long passage), the rest of us bought a few as well. At that price it's tempting to buy a new shirt every day instead of doing laundry.

The formal check-out procedure to depart the Andamans is where our agent Ashraf really shined (though he was great throughout our visit). Most of the same officials we met at check-in were involved in check-out as well, but at the leaving end the agent can visit most everyone on his own. We only needed to meet the immigration guys on the dock to get our passports stamped, after which Ashraf revealed our special exit code. Back at the boat we radioed the code to our by-now good friends at "Port Control," who after a short bit of checking granted us permission to be on our way.

The return crossing from the Andaman Islands to the Similan Islands differed from our crossing out in a number of ways. First, we were experts now and we knew what to expect -- there was no apprehension on board when we pulled out of the Port Blair harbor. Second, on average the winds were even lighter on the return than they were on the way out. Here too our past experience was helpful: The light winds didn't surprise us, and although we weren't delighted to bob away some hot afternoons, we didn't worry about it either. We'd left plenty of time for the passage, and we'd purchased an extra jerry can of fuel for peace of mind. The crossing from Port Blair to the Similans took 92 hours.

Around midday on the second day of sailing, we must have passed through an evil electronic cosmic field. Without warning, Jennifer's laptop abruptly stopped working, and no end of fiddling was able to revive it. (Fortunately, only a grant proposal draft was lost -- she should never have been trying to do that on the boat in the first place.) Far more disturbing was that only minutes later, again with no warning whatsoever, the boat's autopilot went out. Some of you may have been imagining us hand-steering the boat for days on end, but that's just not done any more. Once you're on a stable course, you set the autopilot and merely keep an eye out for other boats and for wind changes requiring an adjustment to the sail settings or direction. On the open ocean, leaving the boat to its own devices with periodic checks is no problem. Thus, we were convinced that the autopilot was about the worst thing that could possibly fail on the boat, although in fairness losing the steering altogether, or losing the engines, would obviously have been much worse.

We spent a good part of that afternoon not moving, attempting to fix the autopilot (another contributor to the long 92-hour crossing). We ran experiments trying to deduce what had malfunctioned, made satellite phone calls to various (quite helpful, actually) people, and Alex climbed into a hold containing all of our garbage (yum!) to disassemble and reassemble some parts; photo 6. Alas, it eventually became clear we wouldn't get the dratted thing fixed and we'd be hand-steering to Phuket. We weren't thrilled and it was demanding, but we made the best of it. Over time we found creative ways to maneuver the helm (photo 7), and it certainly added interest to the night watches trying to steer a straight course in the dark.

The computer came back to life a few days later but unfortunately the autopilot never did. The technician will meet us on the beach when we arrive in Phuket; let's hope all goes well. And yes, we were just joking about the evil cosmic field.

Our activities on the crossing back were much the same as on the way over: reading, talking (you wouldn't believe the topics one gets to after days at sea), napping (Jean-Claude excelled once again), playing games, doing schoolwork, watching movies (in memory of our long camper trip in South America, the kids watched RV five times), looking for boats (one really big one passed very close by -- wow! -- photo 8), cooking, eating, and cleaning up. We're proud to report that we finally landed a fish -- a good-sized tuna (photo 9) that our resident French chef cooked up for dinner. Tim instituted an on-board exercise program, cruise-ship style. To his mild disappointment only Emily was convinced to sign on, but the kids took it very seriously: they ran in place 30 minutes a day, did calisthenics, and weight-lifted a 6-liter water bottle 100 times (photo 10). Good for them!

We were fortunate to have a full moon for the return crossing -- it's quite striking how bright the ocean is under the moonlight, lending a different feel to the night sails. One night when the kids were trying to get to sleep they asked about some persistent squeaking on their side of the boat. (In general there are all kinds of noises in a boat under sail, but this squeaking was a new one.) Soon we realized it was the sound of dolphins, who swam alongside us for hours that night.

Next: We'll spend a day and night at Ko Similan (also known as Similan #8), a different island in the Similans chain from the one we visited on the way out. There's snorkeling, diving, beach, and hiking trails to keep us busy. Then it's a one-day sail back to Phuket where we'll all immigrate back into Thailand, those of us continuing to Myanmar will emigrate right back out, we'll get a few things fixed on the boat, exchange our sheets & towels, make a trip to the big grocery store, bid farewell to Jean-Claude, then head north to the Mergui Archipelago.

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