Destinations: Sri Lanka

The voyage across the Indian Ocean to the beautiful island of Sri Lanka was well worth the effort, reports cruiser Lynelle Parker.

Some of the happiest times on board our yacht Chappie are the first days of a new passage; filled always with so much excitement and anticipation. Pulling away from the harbour in Malaysia after months of planning, provisioning, and paying bills, leaves a sweet kind of hum in the air. This time as we set sail for our second circuit of the Indian Ocean I don't think the mud was dry on the anchor before we realised we were going to seriously miss south east Asia. It is an incredible place to hang out for a while, with lots of land travel to do, wonderful anchorages, warm balmy days, a cost of living so low we knew we would be forever making comparisons, and not once ever feeling that our personal safety was compromised.

But as we departed Malaysian waters for the second and we say now our “final” time, we had so many plans for the future that the pangs of regret didn't last long. This passage would take us to the island of Sri Lanka. A destination we had so wanted to visit in 2005. Sadly the tsunami of 2004, which caused destruction the likes of which the world had never witnessed before, closed Galle Harbour in the south of Sri Lanka, and instead we were forced to make our landfall in the Maldives. But this time we had our waypoint in and we were determined this year to drop in on Sri Lanka.

Shipping bound for the Indian Ocean and on into the Red Sea transits the northern tip of Sumatra and then makes a rhumb line towards the southern most tip of Sri Lanka passing close to both land masses. In order to stay north of the majority of this shipping we sailed quite close under Great Nicobar Island as we transited the Great Channel. As we did so, we noticed more than three knots of current as we rounded Indira Point. We were literally “spat out” into the Bay of Bengal. Chappie then continued to stay north of a direct rhumb line to the southern tip of Sri Lanka for two reasons. Firstly, this would keep the majority of the shipping to the south of us and secondly, if there is any wind at all in this area at this time of year (February) it is most likely to be higher than six degrees of northern latitude.

And this time it was an entirely different passage to the one we had encountered two years previously. Instead of the very brisk 25 knots and a rough sea behind us we had a light north-easterly breeze and we coasted along on a calm sea.

The next 800 nautical miles to Sri Lanka was probably the best sailing we have experienced since leaving our Queensland coastline almost five years ago! With nothing to do but tweak the sails and the windvane occasionally whether they needed it or not, we stood our watches and were able to spend our days doing what we do best; Reading, eating, sleeping and talking, pastimes affectionately known on Chappie as rest.

One night while I was on watch, I noticed the light of a ship, which I estimated would pass safely enough to the south of us. But then it appeared to stop moving, lit itself up like the proverbial Christmas tree, and began to turn circles. I did try to contact the ship on the VHF but received no reply. A trifle confused now because we were closing on her, I awoke Lloyd to come up and take a look. It looked for all the world like a small cruise liner, and we decided that since it was almost midnight, the lights and the 360 degree turn must have been significant to some sort of celebration they were having. Certainly a party we weren't invited to!

I don't remember another significant moment until mid-morning on the seventh day when Lloyd looked out over our stern. At first we weren't sure what we were dragging; something dark, thick and about ten feet long. Since we couldn't dislodge the baggage with the boat hook, Lloyd would have to go over the side. So the spinnaker came down and we proceeded to get totally organised for a dip. Just before Lloyd went in the water, we took another dig with the hook this time with a vengeance. Phew!! It popped literally to the surface and showed itself to be a complete coconut tree trunk, root ball and all and still attached was the old coconut from which it had sprouted. What a relief!

It was almost nightfall on our last day at sea. We were approximately 30 nm due east of Little Basses Reef on the south-eastern corner of the Sri Lanka. At this point we turned Chappie on a south-westerly course to follow the coastline around until we were about seven N.M. south of Dondra Point, and nicely set up for a daytime arrival at Galle Harbour entrance. We were encountering shipping from the traffic that passes to the south of the island and now we also had shipping coming from our stern. This shipping comes down from Myanmar, Bangladesh, and the east coasts of India and Sri Lanka. Dodging between the coastal fishing fleet and all this shipping made it a very long night.

Yachts must appoint an agent for the purposes of clearance into Sri Lanka and about three days out we emailed GAC Marine asking them to act on our behalf and we were asked to forward to them relevant information regarding the crew and our ship. We later discovered that contacting them early expedites the official process of check in.

We timed our arrival for daylight hours and called GAC Marine when we were several hours from the harbour entrance and again when we were at the entrance. Of course you can arrive at night and we usually do, but you will be refused entry into their harbour. In fact the harbour entrance is blocked with nets from 1800hrs to 0800hrs and during these night time hours depth charges are exploded to keep the Tamil Tigers from attempting entry into the harbour. Our agent instructed us to wait at the leads for a navy vessel, which would come out and guide us to an appointed anchoring position. They arrived on que; aboard a small vessel with a sub-machine gun mounted in the middle of it, smiling from ear to ear. “Welcome to Sri Lanka sir,” they beamed to us.

We anchored nearby to the breakwater wall and waited to be inspected by the Navy before being allowed to enter the small inner harbour. It was a cursory pre-inspection with all the questions we have come to expect. “Are you carrying drugs, firearms, spear-guns, ammunition and alcohol??

Just a few minutes later we were heading inside and getting our first look at Galle Harbour and the notorious wharf we had heard so much about and where we would tie up. There was a space for us, and because it was low tide and the height to the top of the wharf looked more than I was going to be able to reach, I was grateful that our agent was standing by to take our lines. We wriggled the boat in and took a look around. Hmmm, this is definitely a tie up for big ships, we realised upon seeing huge earth moving tyres rigged alongside to keep hulls off the concrete wall. But unfortunately we hadn't scored a big tyre! Instead we were sitting next to two small and very beaten up car tyres. A few hours later we could see that with our very low freeboard, a low tide and with any sort of surge into the harbour we could easily slip under the concrete wall. We mentioned this to GAC Marine. No problem, it turned out. Apparently in January of this year and to accommodate yachts travelling with the Blue Water Rally, Galle Port Authority had put in place a large steel pontoon on the other side of the wharf. We were offered a position on this pontoon. It was empty and we wondered why – it looked good!

Night-time depth charges
So we lay the anchor, and Lloyd reversed up to the pontoon. I took the lines to the pontoon and tied them on. Then another hmmm moment. Chafe. In fact major chafe; which looked like it would definitely be a problem. And what was this noise I was hearing? It's the pontoon. At times quite a surge penetrates the harbour and this was causing the pontoon to make an incredible noise like the sound of very close rolling thunder. It was fairly loud actually and I think if you sleep in an aft cockpit it would be too noisy. But we sleep forward and it didn't bother us at all. The sound of the depth-chargers going off in the wee hours when you are sleeping inside a steel hull however is another story. Something akin to a gun shot off inside your brain comes to mind and you'll be sitting bolt upright in bed with eyes like saucers the first few times it happens. We did get used to it – truly!

But the worry beads were out because we knew we could not safely leave Chappie to do our inland travel unless we could do something very positive about our stern lines. We couldn't see where we could tie our lines to avoid chafe. But while in Galle we were so lucky to find a particular tuk-tuk driver that many cruisers had told us about. His name is Batu. Batu knew what we needed and he also knew where to chase around to get it for us. Within the next 24hrs we had our 20mm nylon lines spliced into a thimble eye and shackled onto the pontoon and GAC Marine kept an eye on it.

Certainly security is not a problem and we were never once worried. Within an hour of arriving we were issued with Security Port Passes. And if you think you will be allowed in and out of the harbour confines without them – think again. Security is evident everywhere in Sri Lanka, and I mean everywhere, and Galle Harbour was no exception.

Thinking it might be a good idea to delay our land travel a few days, and see how we sat at the pontoon gave us time to refuel and place an order with Mike's Yacht Service Centre. Mike is well known to cruisers visiting Galle. His small store is close to the harbour, and since he has a harbour security pass for entry he is able to deliver most of your reprovisioning, gas refills, bottled water, and is a valuable and reliable source of information with good advice about the best places to visit inland. Our couple of days at the quay also gave us the unsavoury experience of being in a working port where ships unload concrete powder which put fine dust everywhere.

These few days in port also gave us the opportunity to wander the old port town of Galle and its old Fort promontory and to discover the influences of the many cultures and religions that have passed this way. And since cricket is a second religion in this country I wasn't surprised to find the Galle International Cricket Stadium right in the heart of downtown Galle town. Devastated by the tsunami, the grounds are currently undergoing major reconstruction. Just a few miles to the east and west of Galle on the coast roads we discovered beaches as good as those on our own Aussie coastline. The area is littered with hundreds of quaint little resorts. It seemed to us that despite the tsunami, which took the lives of over 45,000 people in this country alone, the Sri Lankans have literally stood up, dusted themselves off and are getting on with their lives, rebuilding and re-establishing a new tourist industry.

Sri Lanka hinterland
On-tour in Sri Lanka seems to mean to the locals that you have hired a car with a driver/guide and are heading up-country. Despite a similar population to Australia the island didn?t seem crowded but we passed through a lot of built-up areas. We used two different driver/guides; found on the internet, Sam and Upali. Both men are passionate about their country, their culture and the religion they have inherited. They talked endlessly of the beauty of their country, of Kandy and Nuwara Eliya, Ella, and the many tea plantations of the hill country. They talked of Adams Peak, Horton Plains and World's End and the ancient cities of Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, Dambulla and Anuradhapura. The war in the north was never far from their thoughts and they prayed that peace would come soon and that the price for this peace would not leave their beloved Sri Lanka bereft. And of course they talked of cricket! We toured with them for 12 wonderful days, which took us to all of these places, and on to the Yala National Park in the south where we desperately wanted to see the Sri Lankan leopard. We did! Upali stood for three long hours in the back of our dusty jeep until he and the driver spotted the cat walking away from a water hole to the top of a large boulder where it sat for a full twenty minutes, showing-off, right before our very eyes.

We returned to Chappie with enough tea supplies to last a couple of years I'm sure, and to find pretty much what we expected. Chappie was covered in a thin coat of concrete dust but most lines were intact.

A few more last minute fresh supplies for our passage south to Male and westward to the Seychelles and we would be on our way. Our clearance out was as painless as our inward clearance, and on the morning we motored away from our noisy pontoon the workers from GAC stood on the dock and waved goodbye.

Indelible in our minds is the gentleness of the people of Sri Lanka, their leisurely attitude to life, the kindness they showed us and of course the amazing beauty of their island. We made many friends there, Batu, Sam, Upali, Mike, and the men from GAC and would return to Sri Lanka in a heartbeat.

Web resources: for updated information.

If you can, email ahead and appoint an agent.

GAC Marine email Listening on VHF Ch 71
Windsor Yacht Services Listening on VHF Ch 69

If you don't have on-board email, several hours out of harbour call on VHF and appoint an agent, and ask for their instructions.

Clearance in and out fees are approx $175USD (Windsor company) and $200SUSD for GAC Marine payable in USD. A 30 day visa is issued on arrival and is extendable.

We used GAC Marine; we didn't have to leave the boat for any of our clearance formalities, and were very happy with them. Other cruisers had a good experience with Windsor Yacht Service.

Galle has everything you will need for your stopover, ATM's, Internet cafes, restaurants etc.

GAC Marine can deliver fuel to the harbour.
Potable water can be taken from the new abolition block nearby to the wharf and pontoon. The water when we visited appeared clear enough in the harbour to run our water maker.

Alcohol on board is not a problem, provided it is for your ship's personal stores. Friends had told us that it might be a good idea to have a list of our alcohol stores written out in case we were asked for it. During our inward clearance the customs officer did ask for this list and he asked to see some of our stores.

No power or water is available at the wharf tie up or on the pontoon.

Gas and reprovisioning can be sought from Mike's Yacht Services, and there are a couple of good supermarkets nearby as well as very good fruit and vegetable markets.
Reprovisioning: Mike Yacht Service Centre – 252 J.E. Perera Mawatha Magalle, Galle Phone: 091-2234054

We gave our laundry to any one of the touts nearby to the harbour gates.

Like any other destination, do your homework before booking your tour. Our first day in harbour we were offered $130USD per day for a car with driver and guide. We ended up paying $45USD per day.

Visitor information – Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka

Capital City: Colombo (official); Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte (legislative)

Location: SE corner of India (LAT: N 7°,45'; LONG: E 80°,45')

Currency: Sri Lankan Rupee (Rs)

Time Zone : GMT/UTC +5.5 ()

Area: 66,000 sq km

Population: 20,000,000

Languages : Sinhalese (official), Tamil (official) and English (other)

Religion: 69% Buddhist, 8% Muslim, 7% Hindu 6% Christian

Electricity: 230V 50HzHz

M.O.S.S Australia
West Systems
Jeanneau JY60
Cyclops Marine