Indian Ocean Sailing Adventure: Part 3 – Imprisoned in India *Video*

Yo ho ho and bottle of rum! Eleven days in and I’m telling you, a stiff drink would not have gone astray at this point.

Day 12: Earlier I mentioned we didn’t have the expected wind on our side, so we were constantly relying on our one remaining engine which was fast eating up our fuel. To rectify the situation, we made the decision to nip into the Nicobar Islands and purchase a bit of fuel and eat an Indian curry.

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What we didn’t know (but should have known) was that the Nicobar Islands, the southern-most point of India, is a highly strategic area for the country and restricted to foreigners. It’s actually off-limits to most Indian nationals too, with citizens needing a special permit to visit.

Here’s the entry in our sailors’ bible, the Pilot Book, which we maybe should’ve read:

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So after nearly two weeks on the water, excited to see land and tempted by a flavorful meal, we approached Great Nicobar’s main harbor. We elected not to notify the Indian authorities on Channel 16 (the marine radio reserved for distress calls and monitored 24 hours a day by coastguards around the world). We could’ve / should’ve radioed to let them know that we were leaving international waters and entering their sovereign territory but we decided to sneak in uinstead. A questionable decision for sure.

As it turns out sneaking in was never going to happen since the Indian Coast Guard—on high alert for terrorist activities since it was August 14, the eve of India’s Independence Day—intercepted us as soon as we crossed into their waters.

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Within minutes the Indian Coast Guard pulled alongside, demanding to know if we had weapons aboard, how many people, and specifically, how many men were among us. They boarded us, escorted our vessel into the harbor, and placed us under boat arrest while they interrogated us about our intentions.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe officials requested the passenger list, confiscated our passports and asked to see the ship’s registration (which we didn’t have printed out since it was just transferred to Vanuatu the day we left Male).

We explained that we had run out of fuel and our one engine was on its last legs—all true. What they repeatedly asked though was why we didn’t notify them of our distress and ask for assistance and permission to enter their waters. (Point 1 Indian Coast Guard.)

Days 13-15: The next morning the interrogations started again, but this time with a little less vehemence. In truth, they sort of took pity on us after seeing the shape of our boat, bringing us freshly made samosas and sweets for breakfast.

You see, these Indian officials had figured out exactly who we were: a bunch of bumbling idiots, woefully unprepared and attempting a cross-ocean sail. We were unmasked.

So instead of being angry, our captors were merely befuddled. They couldn’t quite grasp that we were a bunch of strangers (all seemingly without jobs – the idea of digital nomadism and location independent entrepreneurs was not translating at all), who met on Facebook a few weeks ago, and then decided to embark on a 1500+ miles sail in a catamaran that was literally falling apart. A remarkably accurate assessment of the situation. (Point 2 Indian Coast Guard.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI also think our decorating the catamaran with balloons in India’s national colors that morning further underscored that we were just a bunch of hapless sailors, not bandits or terrorists.

Our Prison Paradise

Because it was now India’s Independence Day, no business was to be conducted. And tomorrow was Sunday, also a non-working day. So the paperwork couldn’t get going until Monday. We had time to kill.

We passed the time easily. Swimming within 50 feet of the boat, dancing around the deck, watching movies at night under the stars, reading, napping, doing a little business planning. It was actually not at all bad. The weather and views were perfect.

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And our new-found friends, not only from the Coast Guard, but Immigration and the local police too, visited us regularly. They brought their wives and kids and the island’s bus driver to see us. We secured local celebrity status since the last boat to drift into their waters, piloted by 3 French sailors, was last December.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe local police chief even brought us a wild boar that had been illegally killed by poachers. With mainly vegetarians on the island (except for the poachers I suppose), they had little use for the fresh meat. I think a pork stew was made.

Freedom!

Day 16: In record time—4 full days—our Indian friends gained our freedom. With 11 signatures, including clearance from India’s Central Intelligence Agency, we were granted the right to depart. As a special treat, they allowed 5 of us to go ashore to stock up on food before we set sail.

With copious amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables (and junk food), we set off into the sunset. With characteristic jubilance, we danced Bollywood style on the bow of the boat, celebrating our newfound liberty.

Day 17: With us passengers starting to miss our pre-booked flights home, we hot-tailed it to Thailand. Some decent wind helped us along and just before nightfall on the 17th day we spied the Thai island of Phuket. Riding in on a decent-sized storm, we still arrived too late to clear immigration.

So we stopped just long enough to pick up another of the Coboat owners and two cases of cold beer, and then sailed on through the night to arrive at the catamaran’s new home: Yacht Haven Harbor.

We arrived just in the nick of time with the main cabin showing a disturbing mid-line crack on that last day:

Entering dry-dock the worn-old old girl would now receive a complete overhaul, including new wind-powered engines, solar panels, satellite connections and a total re-design of the cabins, galley and communal areas. I was told the refurbishing would not just be a cosmetic face-lift, but a total cranial restructuring of the vessel.

In the end, the 8 of us sailors and the Captain did our jobs as the “Original Coboat Delivery Crew.” We successfully sailed the catamaran across the Indian Ocean, all of us bodies and boat arriving—just barely—in one piece. It truly was an adventure!

Happy Crew in Thailand, photo by Lilo KlotzLasting Impression

Throughout this 3-part series I poked fun at all the mishaps that happened along the way. Although told in jest, in my opinion there was a clear lack of concern for the crew’s comfort and safety from the get-go.

Some things were merely unhygienic like the wet and moldy mattresses, broken toilets and showers, and cockroaches and mealy bugs in the food. Some were foolhardy, like swimming in open seas and deciding not to notify authorities when entering national borders.

Other items were callous, like the broken auto-pilot and the bridge navigation instruments conking out one by one. This was a problem because the more experienced sailors had to take up the slack, spending hours on the bridge and straining to navigate in harsh conditions. This took its toll and they were exhausted by the end of the trip.

Most of all there was a lack of preparation from the beginning, including the fuel miscalculation, the decision to sail before fixing / installing / testing important pieces of equipment and the fact that we headed to open waters without a proper safety demonstration, a man-over-board drill, nor a tour of the boat.

We're free, photo by Therese Barber

We’re free! photo by Therese Barber

That said, the crew was aces. I’ve never experienced such camaraderie, especially in trying circumstances. Not only was there no drama on board, we all genuinely liked one another. Hence the group hugs, movie nights snuggled under the stars, and heartfelt karaoke serenades.

There is no finer group of individuals I rather be stuck with at sea than these 7 compadres. I thank my lucky stars that we were the ones chosen to sail as the “Original Coboat Delivery Crew.” I made friends for life, have a good tale to tell, and a righteous tan. All in all, not a bad way to cap off my summer.

This is Part 3 of a 3-part series. In case you missed them, here’re the two preceding posts:

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This entry was posted on Thursday, September 17th, 2015 and is filed under Asia Pacific.

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