Turkey to Thailand – Part 5

Part 5: Alondra finally reaches the vibrant, mystical, raw... India

The last leg of Alondra’s voyage to India. A land unknown to sailors. Rich, poor, untold culture and with a beautiful coast. Part 5 is about the journey to and within this stunning country.

“Do you have them?” I ask. “What?” Edith asks. “The visas!” After 19 days of waiting, the papers finally arrived… We decide to leave immediately the next morning, because, to be honest, Oman is nice, but we were excited to start the next chapter of our journey. We quickly get the latest weather reports from the internet, prepare Alondra and plan the route. Nothing special, keep a little north to catch the best winds. There is not much wind forecasted and there are 1100 miles to go to Mumbai.

We start off well. Nice half breeze and Alondra sails like a spear. We catch some more tuna for sushi and almost hook a marlin! We run our three-hour watch. Edith and Nadia voluntarily choose the watch from midnight to six. All good, at least I have a 6-hour sleep.

The wind dies down on the second day, so we sail on the engine and everything we have to keep it going. Then the genoa, then the spinnaker again, a little later back again with the genoa. At least we keep busy. Seven-and-a-half days long. On the morning of the 8th day, holding back a bit to arrive in daylight, we see Mumbai looming ahead. I had expected to feel the joy of the old seafarers who see land after a long voyage. But no, no great surprise. The plotter works so well that you just know for sure. There it is and there could be no misunderstanding about it.

We have heard a lot about India. In addition to being beautiful, it is also dirty and poor. I’ve always wanted to go there. On TV and in movies I saw the mystique, the beautiful sunsets, the people, religion, the culture…it’s exciting! Finally, I will get to know this country full of contradictions, home of Mahatma Gandhi, the Maharajas, the enormous bureaucracy, the 1.3 billion people, Hindus and Gods.

We sail into Mumbai Bay and see a skyline that rivals that of New York. High skyscrapers, endless office buildings and beautiful hotels. Lazing fishing boats, which don’t seem to care about any rule, simply sail around. They happily cast their nets in the middle of something like what we call the ‘Nieuwe Waterweg’ in Rotterdam (busy shipping canal). We pretend we understand and happily navigate along. An hour later, the ‘Gateway Of India’ looms up in front of us. That is the beauty of a sailing yacht. You just anchor in the most beautiful place, right in the heart of Mumbai. Yes, it is not really clean but it is no worse than an average metropolis. And the people are without exception nice. “Hello Sir!”, “Where are you from?”. “Nice Yacht!”. It is full of boats and small motor yachts but strange enough, not a single sailing yacht. No one from our group has arrived yet. Although we left later, we are quite proud to be the first to experience this amazing place. Alondra turns out to be in Mumbai more than a day earlier than the next yacht. And the last one, our friend Giorgio from Italy, sailing single-handed on his Ovni, won’t even arrive until 5 days later.

Finally, we go ashore. Curious and impatient after more than 8 days at sea, we look for a place for the dinghy to moor. Hundreds of people stare at us and we stare back. A dinghy is not something they see every day, nor are 3 blond people, at least two of which are attractive. Edith, Nadia and I feel like celebrities for a moment and take in the cheerfulness of Mumbai. Colourful, neat clothes and curious jet-black eyes that follow us. “Hello!” from everywhere. We are on our way to the ‘Royal Bombay Yacht Club’ to report ourselves and to check in. Wow! I have never seen such a yacht club. It’s like walking into a movie shot in the 1920’s. A beautiful and above all enormous building with many members right in the heart of the city, sandwiched between Gateway and Taj Mahal hotel. The yacht club was founded in 1846 and the present building was finished in 1896. A number of noteworthy people have visited the club from King George V and Queen Mary to sailors like Philip Bragg and Sir Robin Knox-Johnson.

In long pants and closed shoes (strict dress code), we go inside. We are immediately taken to the bar (where Montgomery was once evicted because he danced on the bar). Some club members (including Alexander de Grunewald, producer of the film ‘Gandhi’ who lives in the building!) open a bottle of champagne to celebrate our arrival. There is one problem in the RBYC that becomes clear to us. Although there are plenty of members, there are no sailing yachts. A few sad sailboats, about the same age as the club itself, is all there is to see. We are made honorary members. “Honourable Member of the ‘Royal Bombay Yachtclub’ ”, the card reads. “Number 0001”, haha! In the pocket, it guarantees free showers, gym, lounge, library and everything else here.

The next day we proceed for customs clearance. We turn out to be the first yacht in a long time to arrive here and so everything is unclear. Immigration and Customs hardly know what to do with us. The excessively complicated administrative procedure begins…

Stacks of files up to a metre high adorn the ‘offices’ and everywhere men are busy with nothing. Again, we are walking straight into a movie scene, a very old movie. All the forms come off the shelf. In order not to miss anything, they let us fill in everything there is, and that’s a lot! Having filled in 20 different documents with our family history and everything else, the paper procession stops. It’s been a pleasure, and we are free to go.

Mumbai is a fabulous city. Modern, old colonial, thousands of taxis in the shape of a Fiat 1100, thousands of Tuk Tuk’s and a lot of poverty. The roads are so congested but relatively clean, that is if you have sailed through the Middle East for the last 6 months and countries like Egypt and Yemen are still fresh in your memory! Once again, we gorge on delicious food. Be sure to check out the Seaside Grill on Marina Drive, the colonial bar at the RBYC and Leopold Cafe (made famous by Shantaram).

More than 12 days later we leave this impressive city. We travel along the coast with a sailing permit towards Goa to go from there to Cochin, in the south. We travel without much information, use the chart plotter and mostly sail on good luck. We moor in beautiful quiet bays where people have often never seen a yacht. Curiosity is everywhere. We see ancient majestic fortresses in the middle of the sea. We sail along lagoons, see monkeys in the trees and thousands of palm trees on mostly deserted beaches. It is a stunning coast and everywhere we make landfall people stare at us like we are from a different planet.

Finally, we sail into the bay of Goa. Goa is different. It gained a hippie status from the 1970s and is highly advertised as a must-visit destination which gives it an expectedly high reputation, but that is perhaps a shame. Much authenticity has been lost to tourism. The many churches and old buildings in this former Portuguese (and Dutch) country are lost in their surroundings. Not a place to stay long. Nadia, our crew, disembarks here. After a year with us, her time is up and she goes back to South Africa. We celebrate with a farewell party, tears flow at her departure and it feels like our ‘daughter’ is gone.

We move on and visit cities such as Malpe and Mangalore. Infrastructure for yachts is none existent and the nautical charts are bad. So with a lot of good luck, we sail into the rivers. Often following a fishing boat and hoping we don’t hit a shallow section. Only once did we run aground, but we hit the ground like a brick. Blind panic took hold of me. I know the tide will go down another 70 cm and then Alondra will certainly be heeled over to her side. I can already see pots and pans mixed up. Edith has also lost her sense of humour.

We hope for a fishing boat to come past but when one does, instead of offering help, the captain wants ‘beer’ and ‘whiskey’ in return. I would love to kick his arse, but instead, promise him anything and everything. After the necessary pushing and pulling we are back in deep water and transfer rupees, beer and a bottle of Turkish Raki to the fishing boat. Phew!

We arrive in Cochin, a lovely harbour city in the south of India. After 5100 miles of sailing, the journey is over, at least for now. We prepare Alondra for the rainy season and hopefully will be out of the water later this year, but for now, we continue. Our plan is to see more of India and finally experience the Volvo Ocean Race. Next year the Maldives and Thailand are on the program. First, we need a break. Let’s go on holiday…

Do you ever plan to make this trip yourself? If so, organise a small convoy. Information about how you can do this yourself is now readily available and with a few yachts you can travel safely. Are you joining a rally? In that case, inform yourself well about what has been arranged and make clear agreements.

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