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.