We are sailing towards a country renowned for its delivery of headaches and we aren’t even on her shores before we are tipping paracetamol into our mouths. If India is as much trouble before we are even in the country, what is it going to be like when we set foot on soil?
We spent a week of hassle getting the appropriate visas re-issued, after the hassle a week prior of getting them issued in the first place — an effort that not only cost us money, but precious time. We were headed to the northern atolls in the Maldives when we discovered the visas we had on hand were only valid for arrival by airplane; entry by boat required a different category of visa. The only place this was issued was in person in Mále, so after a number of far-flung impractical ideas we turned the ship around and headed back to where we’d come from.
We applied for a six-month tourist via and indicated to the embassy that we expected to be in India a month; we would learn that we shouldn’t have been so specific about dates but we didn’t realize the implications yet. We then headed out as quickly as possible with a one-month stamp on our new visa for the short 270-mile passage from Mále in the central Maldives to Kochi on the southwestern coast of India. Whilst waiting for our visas we’d watched prime sailing winds ebb through the week to flat calm and our fast outbound march was actually a lazy slog without a lick of wind to fill our sails and a running current against us. India ahead. More paracetamol down. Were these two things going to be synonymous?
PASSAGE NOTES DAY 1:
We’ve spent a fantastic two months in the Maldives but I look forward to a change of scene – something that India will definitely offer us. I’ve heard that one must physically and emotionally prepare for travel in India, and I am not sure what to expect. Though I have heard to expect the unexpected, and I’m drawn to anyplace that can claim that. As for the Maldives, we will be back – and that is something I feel quite fortunate to be able to say. Ying, India. Yang, the Maldives. Let’s see if somewhere in their difference lays a balance.
Calm seas and a lazy breeze defined the weather for our five-day passage. The sailing was pleasant and easy, and we filled our days with both old and new traditions. For one, we departed the Maldives on the 21st of December and Christmas was quickly descending on us unawares. Quite unlike my fellow associates madly scrambling to stockpile presents and negotiate parents and in-laws, we were at St. Nick’s countdown and hadn’t even hummed a holiday tune. While we were delayed, we were also prepared. We’d sent the kids out prior to departure with a bucket to fill with shells and I’d found a suitable sick of driftwood that was now safely stowed on deck. It wasn’t going to be a recognizable effort to anyone outside my clan, however inside it was the makings of a very traditional Christmas.
On our first day at sea we pulled out what we’d scavenged and set to making the season merry. The driftwood “tree” was tied to the maststep and shells hung from its gnarled branches. It was another year that location might be a slight challenge for Santa and his elves, so we wrote letters to the jolly man, stuck them inside a plastic bottle on which we’d painted “Santa Collect Here” and towed it in our wake. The kids wrote about what they’d done this year, things they’d learned and things they wanted to improve. They were told to write a list of presents they might want Santa to bring and they could only come up with one request: In direct quote they said, “a bar of chocolate, if he has one.” Ahh… long may our children hold low expectations. We were set. Our Christmas buildup was going to last a full four days, a sane number when confined to a small boat.
PASSAGE NOTES DAY 2:
Less than a week to Christmas and we started our ramp up to the holiday. My own childhood memories are made up of a series of homemade creations: playdough ornaments, a macramé tree covered with red fluffy balls and a small styrofoam tree covered in a green wool. I remember cutting and pasting brown grocery bags to the wall and placing colourfully wrapped gifts under it. I love that my children’s memories will be filled up with these oddities. Today we raised a flag up the mast broadcasting “Braca and Ayla are here,” and put Santa’s letters in a bottle. The bottle now floats behind Atea in the guise of making it easier to see, and two sets of hopeful eyes keep a lookout for their collection. The elves have yet to come but the children remain optimistic. It isn’t the first Christmas Santa has had to find them at sea.
Of new traditions, this year we began giving the kids a passage present on their first day at sea for any offshore voyage. It works well to build their excitement and has become quite a fun ritual. This time the kids delighted in an assortment of treats: a magnet set, a storybook, an origami book and a mini basketball and hoop. Championships may take some time to come, but indoor practice is a good say to burn off some energy.
PASSAGE NOTES DAY 3:
Wind came in the night, and we finally put Lucy [the engine] to rest and raise the sails. There is such beauty in the silence, and the gentle roll of the waves. We now have a dead slice of tree tied to our maststep bedecked in broken shells and the incessant tune of Jingle Bells in our ears. The jingle of the bells must have called in the birds, as a large seabird somehow managed to swoop through our aft hatch and now sits in our cabin. Let’s hope it doesn’t leave us its own White Christmas.
We’d set out a beacon for Santa and his elves and while they did finally locate us, the more immediate response came from another equally unlikely creature. Seabirds are frequently sighted any distance out to sea, and they usually fly in for a glance and fly off again. This trip was marked by some pretty unusual behavior. We had birds enter the boat three out of the five days we spent at sea; they would come in and perch on the window in the galley, on the bookcase, in the forward and aft cabins, and on our Christmas stick – probably a more accurate reference to our driftwood tree. At first I was worried they were injured or unable to find their way out and I delicately shoed them out from a distance. As each subsequent bird entered my tactics to free it relaxed, to the point that I eventually walked up and stuck my finger to its chest and the little bird would hop on without hesitation. I would walk it out onto the deck and point hand to wind, whispering the inspirational “free at last,” but none showed any interest in moving onward. I’d gently nudge them off my digit and they’d fly back into the cabin ahead of me. At first I thought it must be a domesticated bird that’d escaped the confines of its cage, however it was not only a different bird over the course of a few days, it was also difference species. Somehow we’d been marked as Fowl’s Arc and it was indeed wild seabirds that we had as guests. Our sail towards India was so unique; it was like a precursor to the country itself.
PASSAGE NOTES DAY 4:
Four birds invade our cabin throughout the day, comfortable as guests. The last is insistent and re re-enters as quickly as I take him out. He perches on our Christmas tree, content. Not until he drops a little poop on our floor do I decide to move him out again, for the fifth time. But he returns, this time to the forward cabin. I slide my finger up to his belly and he hops on, as if he and I are old friends. I carry him out again; he knows the routine. This time he changes tactic, and flies into the steering wheel as if to say, “I’m the one who owns this ship.” If he stays in the cockpit, I’m happy with the deal.
As the last of the birds depart, Santa’s elves made their way in on a surprise visit. Santa’s cards were gone and in their place were thank you notes for each of the kids and the gnawed ends of the beans we’d placed in the bottle for the reindeer, and a mess of tracks – better known as white flour – left from their footprints. The kids were ecstatic. We also spent our final day wrapped up in another new family tradition, which is a theme day during one of the days at sea. This time the kids chose Rainforest Day, after a Cat in the Hat book by Dr Seuss. Origami birds hung from the ceiling and our Christmas tree stood as a giant emergent. Ayla dressed as a hummingbird with pink wings, flowing tutu, and an origami beak. Braca dressed as a multi-colour ocelot, complete with curling tail, my leopard print nightgown and body paint. John played the roll of howler monkey, with a dress-up beard modified to form a hairy chest and a stuffed snake curling out from behind as a tail. I transformed myself into the Cat in the Hat, complete with black nose and whiskers, neck scarf and tall hat. We scattered nuts on the “forest” floor and foraged for our meal, and hooted, buzzed, howled and growled through the afternoon with flapping wings and flicking tails. It was a riot onboard and a great way to whittle away the afternoon. The four of us really got into it, and the kids carried on in character while John and I moved on to more pressing matters – entering the busy port of Kochi.
PASSAGE NOTES DAY 5:
8:00 in the morning and already the smog that extends out from China envelops us. A tanker, four miles on our port side, is barely visible in the haze. Another tanker heading in our direction, seven miles distant, isn’t visible. The sun is shrouded in haze and the sky is covered a murky light. I pop up on deck 10 minutes later to check our surroundings and the tanker to our port is now invisible to us, hidden in the haze. It is busy today; the normal 15-minute check is down to 5 as ships and fishing boats appear in in patches with much more regularity. Fishing boats chase us down out of curiosity. All hands crowd the rail to wave hello, and after pleasantries they slow their speed and the distance spreads.
We’d pulled out of the calm ocean abyss into one of the busiest international shipping ports. The crowded shipping lanes and congestion of the local fishing fleet fulfilled all expectations of a busy and bustling India, even from 20 miles out to sea. However, where the mayhem could have easily made one feel lost, the friendly smiles and enthusiastic waves from the passing fishermen made it feel like a homecoming.
PASSAGE NOTES DAY 5
A quick scribble of notes for the day. It is evening now and we are surrounded by fishing boats, lots of them. We put our flashing light forward and navigate through the patches. We are under sail, though wind is light. At 3PM the winds shift and we put the engine on. The engine low water flow alarm shrills in our ears. We raise the sails again and John spends the next several hours replacing the impeller.
What should have been a midday arrival was delayed as we worked furiously to get the engine repaired. In the meantime, we proceeded down the shipping lane towards the harbour entrance and the smog of the day left me with an expectation of featureless high rise buildings and industrial cement compounds; I was greatly surprised, therefore, when we sailed into the entrance and a green colonial city unfolded itself in front of us. Chinese lanterns swung and lights glittered in the trees as people strolled down the promenade under them, crossing over small walking bridges that laid across narrow canals that lead back into the city. Old Chinese fishing nets of yesteryear lined the waterfront set against centuries-old Portuguese buildings. As we sailed deeper into the harbour entrance I was buzzing with excitement, eager to explore the beautiful city that lay before us.
Before any of that could happen, however, we needed to slog our way through port control, immigration and customs. At 4PM we notified port authority and customs of our intentions and they said they would meet us on arrival. We anchored off the historic Malabar hotel and were soon greeted by a boatful of officials, all whom clambered onboard and handed out a myriad of redundant forms. As we sat there filling out form after form, I noted how incredibly friendly everyone was, with vigorous head bobbing and generous smiles. While the process was lengthy, the officials made it a delight. It wasn’t until they left that we realized that they, too, received their own pleasure throughout the meeting for there I sat, oblivious to the fact that I was in full Cat in the Hat kit complete with black nose and cheek-lined whiskers. I just might have been the oddest-looking cruiser they’d processed, but it seemed they were all the merrier for it!
To view a collection of photos: Passage Photos