I try not to get too excited about any of the locations on our itinerary. Most of them are places I haven’t been to in the past, just like our guests. But I’ve found if you allow yourself to romanticize and dream too much, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. Readers might recall this was the case with Myanmar, where the guidebooks and the crazy costs to get there conspired into hype which got the better of me (see “Long Days in a Strange Land“). So as we sailed, well motored west from Myanmar across the Bay of Bengal to the Andaman Islands I left the guidebooks on their shelves, and kept my mind buried in the engine rooms, which needed attention, rather than the horizon.
Thankfully, this turned out unnecessary. Well, more truthfully- the maintenance was of course necessary, but I needn’t have worried about being disappointed. Long before we reached the Andamans’ shores it was clear that these waters were very much alive. Dolphins visited frequently on our short 2 day passage and massive schools of flying fish took nearly constant flight as we disturbed their peace with our wake. And for the first time in nearly 40 days, it looked like we might even get some wind.
We anchored off Port Blair, the main city of the Andamans exactly 24 hours before the arrival of our guests: Michael Bigger, Keith Cockrum, Russell Byers, Rogier Brand; the CEO of Best Kiteboarding Ian Huschle; and pro rider Celine Rodenas. As we were not able to procure Indian visas for our chef Bobby and First Mate Mikey before our arrival they would have to stay on board. Which brings us to a common theme on many of these logs- how in the hell would we be ready? Thankfully our agent, Salim steered us through the rather incredible paperwork and bureaucracy (all up we had over 30 people on board to complete port clearance: coast guard, immigration, customs, port control, health…) in just under 5 hours, well under the two days I’d been told it usually takes. Then I headed off with Ravi, a friendly taxi driver who shook his head in Indian fashion every time I spoke, which I still can’t differentiate between yes or no, but somehow we filled the ancient car with plenty of goods to get us by. Port Blair is a mix of religions; the dominant being Hindi and Muslim which meant the sacred cows plying the streets were off limits and of course there was no pork. The beef I was told was rather “tough” and the chicken of the “jungle” variety. “But the goat was very good sir, very good (head bobble here)!”
From Port Blair we motored a short distance the next day north west to a cluster of islands all surrounding Havelock island, where we hoped to swim with some of the retired elephants who had been domesticated in the logging trade some years previously, a practice no longer taking place. We anchored our first night at the southern end of the group near Neill island. For everyone on board, this was our first glimpse of the highly regulated and protected outer islands of the Andamans. The easiest thing would now be for me to describe in some detail, using comparison with another well-known area(s) what we saw. But unfortunately I cannot. Each of us tried to find similarities with places known. The New Yorkers found similarities to Long Island. I saw a mix of Sedona Arizona and …what? Definitely not dry, but not total jungle either. Massive- MASSIVE trees. Snow white sand. Blue, BLUE water. Not dark blue, not light blue…middle blue? Turquoise purple? We anchored, jumped in, laughed and I’m pretty sure nobody cared. It just felt good.
There are two well known hazards in the Andamans. Sea snakes and salt-water crocodiles. After the tsunami in 2004 the sea crocs had been witnessed in much greater numbers, in many places they had never been seen previously. Sea snakes I knew were potentially lethal if you get bitten (difficult to do- they have very small jaws). Both were brought up in my safety briefing by the clients before we left Port Blair and I know I responded professionally, and immediately put everyone at ease. “There is what here?” Remember when I said I left the guidebooks on the shelves? Oops.
Thankfully we never saw any crocs. We did see a number of sea snakes but even Ian didn’t get bit and considering his aversion to snakes if anyone should have been bitten it would have been him! We did however pass on swimming at one anchorage where I left us a bit close to a large stand of mangroves. Surely the area was infested by crocs. I tried to be bold and show everyone up with a long swim but didn’t make it more than 30 feet. So much for our fearless captain. It was about this time that we started playing dirty clubs. Some nasty forfeit ideas began coming up, including forcing Celine to go for night swims. This probably doesn’t sound too bad, especially under the coming full moon; until you realize that Celine is more scared of sharks than Ian is snakes, and more scared than Michael is of the government. Which is to say, PETRIFIED!
From crocville we carried on to North Button island where we found paradise. Really. It does exist, and it is in the Andaman islands. Schools of giant humphead wrasse (60 pounders), 40 pound snapper, trevally, dog tooth tuna, and massive grouper all cruise around oblivious of your presence. At one point Bobby asked Mikey to get him some fish. He jumped off the stern and returned about 120 seconds later with a gorgeous “Sweet Lips” on his spear (that’s no place for a kiss!), which we gobbled down for lunch. The island was so pretty the boys and Celine all paddled on the SUP’s to the beach with their kite gear and tried to have a kite in 10 knots of wind. I hadn’t kited since Indonesia in October, I felt their pain. Rogier was the only one to really make it off the beach, but it was not a great session. But 6 days remained on the trip and the forecast, though certainly not stellar did show some hope.
Under the nearly full waxing moon we sailed all night back to the south to an area I hoped we would at least find waves if not wind, to North Cinque island. As we are still without autopilot I put together teams to hand steer us in two hour watches down the coast of Main Andaman. We arrived just after sunrise, our track log showing a rather squiggly line in our wake. But it’s not easy steering Discovery by compass alone at night and I was happy to have the help. When the sea is calm, and the night lit by the moon, the stars pulsing in brilliant pinpoint needles of light; it is impossible not to enjoy yourself.
Our arrival in N Cinque island timed perfectly with the arrival of a bit of wind. In the coming days the trip went from very very good, to very very great. It wasn’t a hurricane, but it was enough. Everyone got a heap of time on their surf boards and we even went for a midnight moon kite, but the wind shut down before we got to the beach, which we all moaned about but secretly didn’t agonize. Sea snakes are harder to see at night!
And then we had our first rather serious accident of the expedition. He will hate me for saying this, but it couldn’t have happened to a better person. Rogier, aka “kiteboy” was kiting downwind at one point to meet the boat, but got caught behind a headland and needed a rescue. Jody screamed off in the dinghy to pick him up and while trying to kite up to the dinghy Rogier got his finger caught in the handle while still going rather too fast and…yeah, ouch. We got him immediately set up with a regular dose of Perkoset, I wrongly diagnosed that his finger was OK (turns out it was fractured) and Rogier barely missed a beat. Even after his finger turned rather black and about double the size.
It must have hurt quite a bit the next day when the group all kited 8 miles downwind, with Discovery sailing along with them. Like I said- couldn’t have happened to a better person. Rogier needs a lot more than a broken finger to keep him from kiting! It was also a record down winder for the expedition. The first time we’ve ever had 6 kiters (Jody, Celine, Rogier, Michael, Keith and Russell) in tow at one time. Ian had left the day before due to obligations at home and we all missed him, knowing he would have really enjoyed the trip. As Mikey, Bobby and I sailed along with our group I couldn’t help thinking what I knew each of the kiters were thinking. This had never been done. “I’m out here kiting where nobody has before.” Russell, who had just picked up his first surf board the day before and only just picked up kiting this season came in later with the biggest grin I’ve ever seen. This…this is why I have this job.
We finally scored the night kite further south at Brother Island. Rogier, broken finger and all put up his kite right after we anchored off one of the prettiest settings I’ve yet seen in all these years. To our west lie a strip of searing red sunset, to our west a rising brilliant full moon, to our north a flat circular island fringed with colossal trees swaying in the wind and white sand beach being lapped by rhythmic waves. Rogier took a few long tacks out as the sun faded, his kite floating like a large black balloon, seemingly pulled by two forces- heaven and earth. Down and up, up and down. He returns to Discovery as the sun fades and the moon expands and I take his kite. I head out into the swells and laugh like a hyena. A jackal, racing as fast as I can.
The water is warm, I’m wearing only board shorts. I know I should return, it is getting very dark, but I carry on. I think at one point that I should just keep going- never stop. This kind of freedom is precious, hard to find. Impossible to find. But then I fall and while the water is warm, it is also black and the mind races. Maybe it would be better to be free back on the boat?
These moments are the things that define these trips. Steering towards the Southern Cross. Eating sashimi from a freshly caught fish. Laughing hysterically at one of Ian’s jokes. Kiting at night under the full moon. Enjoying the company of great friends. Getting scared.
“I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.” ~Elwyn Brooks White, Essays of E.B. White, 1977