One cannot circumnavigate the world without sailing to dangerous places. One of those places was Sri Lanka in 2007.  We hadn’t planned to stop at this island nation, southeast of India; we’d flown there a few years before and had taken the country tour then. Our planned circumnavigation route would have taken us across the Indian Ocean from Thailand to the Maldives. But the weather gods were not cooperating. The three of us on Pacific Bliss—my husband Gunter, our crew, Chris, and I—had endured a miserable crossing of the Bay of Bengal, six days of one rainstorm after another. We welcomed any refuge from lumpy seas, even though we knew that Sri Lanka was at war with the Tamil Tigers in the north of this island shaped like a tear-drop.

While underway, I had a pleasant SSB radio conversation with a commercial ship captain with a clipped British-Indian accent:

“Where are you from?”

“America. California.”

“Oh, such a nice place. I’m Sri Lankan. My name is Colombo. Welcome to my country.”

“Thank you. I look forward to being there.”

“Are you coming to Galle?”

“Yes.”

“It is very safe there. But do not be afraid of the depth charges they set off at night. It is to ward off the Tamil Tigers. Tamil divers could swim into the harbor to plant a bomb onto one of our navy ships. The charges will sound like a bomb, and you will feel it with your little ship.”

“Thank you for letting me know”

“It is safe to travel in my country. You must go to Kandy, in the highlands, and to Colombo. Not to the north-northeast though. That is where the fighting is going on.” 

What a pleasant exchange that was!

The following is an excerpt from my book, The Long Way Back:


An Unplanned Stop in Sri Lanka
06º 01’N, 80º13’E
Galle, Sri Lanka
February 9, 2007

Despite the miseries that we’ve endured this past week, part of the joy of traveling is encountering the unexpected…Serendipity brought us to Sri Lanka. And I’m fascinated that the country’s original name was Serendip, an Arab traders’ word applied to the land long before the Portuguese came on the scene. It reflected the lucky circumstance of their discovery and contact. Today, in its native Sinhala tongue, Sri Lanka means Land of the Blessed. For us, being here is indeed blessed and serendipitous.

Günter and I intend to understand its people and culture better—and, yes, even its continuing civil war. This war caused us to strike Sri Lanka from our original circumnavigation plan. Now, though, we cannot avoid its ongoing cruelty. We arrive at dawn’s light, crossing the shipping channels at 90 degrees and deviating course twice to sail behind giant freighters.

“You never want to cross in front of a freighter,” Günter tells Chris, “because it can take one of those monsters up to four miles to stop.”

As instructed via VHF, we prepare the ship for anchoring outside the harbor. It doesn’t take long to see the guns. We’ve never experienced an entrance like this! Two small runabouts, with mounted machine guns, race toward our boat while men wave and point to where they want us to drop the hook. Next, we spot a huge navy vessel—tons of sleek steel glinting in the morning sun—coming around the breakwater. Three Immigration Officers from the navy vessel board Pacific Bliss, while the two speedboats keep circling us. 

The officers conduct a thorough inspection of Pacific Bliss and give us forms to fill out.  These are immigration forms, and each asks the same questions over and over. The process lasts half an hour. Then, after stamping the paperwork, one officer asks for “smokes.” Wisely, we had purchased a few cartons just for this purpose. Chris distributes a pack to each officer.

We’ll have a two-hour wait before being shown inside the harbor, but we don’t mind; we’re happy to have our first onboard breakfast in a week in calm water. After breakfast, via VHF, we hire a local agent, G.A.C. Shipping, to handle the rest of the voluminous paperwork that will allow Pacific Bliss to berth here. 

Later, a navy officer boards our ship to direct Günter to a berth inside the harbor. As we enter, we note that it’s entirely roped off, except for one small lane for fishing boats and yachts. The officer presents us with three choices: to tie up to a black buoy in the center, where we’d have to use our dinghy to get to shore; to Med-moor to a floating dock, consisting of wobbly plastic sections with no handholds; or to raft to one of the monohulls along the sea wall. We choose the third option and raft to a small monohull flying an Italian flag. Now we can walk across the monohull and from there, onto dry land.

“Well, we’re finally safe,” Günter declares with a sigh. “But we’re not going to do any serious touring until we graduate to a berth directly on the sea wall. Tomorrow, we’ll just walk around Galle and mingle with the locals.”

That first night, cradled by Pacific Bliss and swaying with the current, I fall asleep feeling like we are still at sea. KA-BOOM! I jerk awake. I hear and feel the thunderous boom right through the water and the hull. Oh my God! What have we gotten ourselves into?

Günter pulls me over to him and hugs me tight. “It’s the depth charges, remember? They told us this would happen.”

Talk about encountering the unexpected!

“It feels like we’re in a war zone!” 

“We are. It’s the price we pay for taking refuge from the storm.” 

***

Touring Sri Lanka. After exploring Galle our first day ashore, we were invited to our shipping agent’s home for dinner. Later we hired a car and driver and took a South Coast tour, including a one-day safari. Then we drove to Kandy and rode a train through the highlands. A few days later, we explored Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) a pilgrimage site. Chris rose at daylight to climb the peak; I went there later and made it halfway before turning back.

A fisherman in southwestern Sri Lanka
A fisherman in southwestern Sri Lanka Photo credit: The Long Way Back, page 227
Sri Lanka Waterfalls
Our crew, Chris, at one of the many waterfalls in Sri Lanka’s interior Photo credit: The Long Way Back, page 228
Elephant near Kandy, Sri Lanka
An elephant bathing near Kandy, Sri Lanka comes right up to us on shore! Photo credit: The Long Way Back, page 231

After a week, we three were well-rested, invigorated, and ready to leave Sri Lanka. Chris provided a creative surprise: he brought local monks over to bless our catamaran! They tied a string around the entire perimeter, came on board, and gave their blessing to everything inside, including us! Now we could safely leave this magical land of Serendip.

Monks
Monks bless Pacific Bliss before we sail off to the Maldives Photo credit: The Long Way Back, page 229

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award-winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased from PIP Productions on Amazon.


Lydia and Helmut
Lydia and Helmut on Pacific Bliss, Fiji, 2003

The adventure continues. In the last blog, we left the four of us—Lydia, Helmut, Gunter and me—setting anchor alarms while we tried to sleep. Strong winds were battering our catamaran Pacific Bliss in the Tomba Naloma anchorage in Viti Levu, Fiji. This next section, excerpted from pages 224-226 of Sailing the South Pacific, continues our effort to navigate the reef-strewn northern side of Fiji’s largest island. Our goal: to sail to Fiji’s ancient capital, Levuka.

     “One wouldn’t know by the peacefulness of this morning that this is the bay that I had grown to hate only yesterday. From the cockpit, I watch seabirds soar over still waters; they fly by me in pairs. Golden light breaks through low lying clouds hugging the bay. Hills hug us on three sides, purple-gray, silent, protecting. Yes, yesterday I wanted out of here, never to return.

How quickly and easily the sea changes its face! One minute brooding, the next minute inviting. One minute savage and threatening, the next, calm and pristine. Like she is right now.

Will this be yet another cruising day that points out our vulnerability out here, how simple mistakes can lead to dramatic and immediate consequences?

This morning, Pacific Bliss faces west, pushed by a gentle SSW Force 2, 7-knot breeze. The hills brighten as the sea wrinkles.

How long before the high trade winds roar in from the southeast again, turning the sea into a monster?”

It didn’t take long for us to run into problems again. We turned Pacific Bliss to follow the path on the electronic chart, just as we had the day before. But we were in for a surprise. There was no path between the reef and the marker! From that point on, we knew that we could no longer rely on the reefs being marked. All alone out there on the Northern Passage, we couldn’t afford to take chances, so we crept along until dusk.

     “With a 20-knot wind, we’re afraid of dragging anchor. We head for a big bay instead and set the anchor with 140 feet of chain, in 41 feet at low tide. It’s deeper than we’d like and not very sheltered, but at least we won’t swing into anything.

     Lydia and I fire up the breadmaker to bake wheat berry bread while Helmut continues to fish. Toward dusk, he hauls in a trevella. We gorge on warm bread while the fish marinates, then fry potatoes and plantains. The high wind gusts cool the salon, so we sip on hot Good Earth tea spiked with rum.

     Life isn’t so bad after all!

     As we let down our guard and begin a leisurely dinner in the salon, the day falls apart. It begins slowly— this falling apart—as one event careens into the next.

     First, Günter notices that the anchor alarm shows that the boat has moved 500 feet. “Can’t be!” His face pales. “Must be a mistake—it didn’t go off. Helmut, let’s check our calculations.”

     The computer shows that we have drifted halfway into the bay! We quickly clear our half-eaten dinner. I tell everyone to shut the hatches, in case we end up on a reef today, after all. Then Günter calls us all into the cockpit for instructions.

     The night is pitch black.
     “Lois, go to the nav station. Follow our MaxSea track back to our original anchoring location. I’ll just motor slowly. Helmut and Lydia, after we pull anchor, you’ll use the flashlight and spotlight to warn us when we’re near shore.”

     Pulling anchor is difficult now with the stripper broken, but our new crew makes fast work of it. Günter inches toward shore while I direct our autopilot carefully, using plus or minus one degree, until we are a few boat lengths from our original anchoring spot. Fortunately the wind has died, and the anchor sets easily.

     I never want to see this Nananu–I–Cake Anchorage again. Our crew wanted a learning experience; well, they’re certainly getting it.”

June 4:
     “…As the day drones on, the strong wind returns. It whistles through the rigging, swinging our little home around as she pulls tight on her two anchor chains. We all know that it’s a given that we stay here until the weather cooperates.

     While the men focus on boat maintenance, Lydia and I bake up a storm, creatively using ingredients we have on board. We realize that we will need to provision soon. But how?

     We jump into the bay to cool off after cooking. The current races so fast between the hulls that I dare not let go of the swim ladder. The dinghy goes wild, bouncing on the waves.

     The wind blows so hard that we have our sundowners inside. Lydia compares her expectations with how she feels about sailing now. “I thought we’d be sitting outside, in a calm anchorage, sipping piña coladas in the sunset,” she says, discouraged.

     “Did you expect to have wind for sailing?” I ask.
     “Of course. I dreamt about sails billowing in the wind, pulling us along.”
     “But then when you wanted to sip those piña coladas, the wind would suddenly disappear?”
     “I didn’t think of that…in fact, now I wonder whether I should buy into Helmut’s dream of sailing around the world.”

     The next day, the bay is still too rough to deploy Petit Bliss, so we order a pick-up from Safari Lodge nearby. Günter opts to stay with the boat.

     The three of us take off in the skiff. It turns toward Ellington Wharf, where we receive the brunt of the east wind racing through the channel. The spray comes over the high sides of the launch. Helmut’s T-shirt is sopping, but he laughs.

     “It’s good I brought a spare,” he shouts over the shrieking wind.

     When the launch stops at Ellington Wharf, I’m amazed. I cannot imagine Pacific Bliss—or any large boat for that matter—pulling up to this dilapidated structure. We disembark. On the wharf, angry brown froth smashes against the jetty. Palms bend over in pain.

     Wind-dried and salty, we hike toward the bus stop. After a mile or so, an Indian cane farmer with thick black hair and dusty clothes offers us a lift. We pass field after field of sugar cane.

     He drops us off at the farmer’s market. What a scene! Colorful blankets cover the grass. Fijian mothers hold the babies and toddlers, while older children play games together in the shade trees across from the market. Under the shade of a banyan tree, men drink kava and gossip. The produce is laid out in mounds. A mound of limes: $1 Fijian. A mound of oranges: $1. A bunch of bok choy: $1. One green papaya: $1. Soon our canvas shopping bags are full, with a $1 bunch of bananas topping it off.

     “Bula!” Women wearing colorful muumuus greet us with wide smiles. They even smile when we don’t buy from them. They do not cajole, like Indian vendors.

     We find three grocery stores containing everything else we need, including a Fiji Times and lots of chocolate to placate Günter. After catching a taxi back to the wharf, it’s another wet ride back to Pacific Bliss, where the high winds have continued unabated.

     Finally the next day the sun shines, and the wind decreases enough that we dare to leave the bay. We navigate the reefs past Ellington Wharf and through the narrow Navelau passage to Viti Levu Bay. The process is horrendously slow. Our disturbingly inaccurate electronic chart shows us going over land in many places. We are thankful to have sharp lookouts on board. By the time we anchor twice in the bay, we are all tense and tired.

     The following day, we motor for five hours and are forced to pull in at 1315. The skies turn dark and foreboding; ominous clouds line the entire horizon. Navigating through the reefs had been tricky with full sun; no way do we want to take this route under an overcast sky. We anchor in a muddy area south of the Natori Ferry Terminal. Then we set a second anchor as well. Appropriately, Günter plays Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, one of his favorites.

     We come topsides in the morning, overjoyed to see a flotilla of 12 sailboats passing by the bay’s outer limits. This makes navigation easier; we’ll be following them. Even so, navigation is extremely tricky. By the time we anchor again, I collapse into my berth while Günter takes Lydia and Helmut to a nearby reef to fish and snorkel. I’ll have my chance to snorkel in Leleuvia, a small sandy island that is touted as a backpackers’ paradise.”

Helmut snorkeling

Little did I know then that Pacific Bliss would decide to go snorkeling herself! That story is coming up next. And in the event you didn’t read Part 1 of this Fiji series, you can access that link here.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page.