A Slow Boat Around Sri Lanka

C’est la vie

I could not sleep. At best I had a disturbed night, given the excitement that was building up for what the morning would bring. Many many months of planning was finally coming together when two slow boats would start out on a journey that had so much time, effort, resources and money invested in it. Not to mention the sheer joy of paddling around an island that is one of the finest tourist destinations in the world.

The plan was to reach Timm’s hostel around eight in the morning and launch latest by nine. Sumbal and Ammar would be with us. When I woke up and got ready, they were still in slumberland and I had to shake them awake. Thilina, my friendly tuktuk driver had to pick up the tuktuk from tuktukrental at eight and meet us at Timm’s hostel. I readied up, and called the Uber. A few minutes later everything was loaded in the vehicle and we were moving towards the sea a few kilometres away.

Timm was ready and waiting. His board was all inflated and ready to hit the water. My canoe was unloaded and we inflated it with Timm, Sumbal and Ammar lending a hand. To be honest I was nervous and apprehensive. I had never ever been on an ocean before and from all that I had heard and read, I expected crossing the surf zone to be a challenge for me. I was not too worried about the waves and the swells, what I was nervous about was the wind. Given that I had never been in the ocean paddling before, I was justifiably concerned about how I would fare. Nevertheless, life carried on in fast forward (or was it slow motion?) for the next few minutes.

The beach was a hike away from the guest house and it was quite a chore to lug the inflated canoe to it. Technically the canoe is a little over 30 kg in weight. But even with four people lugging it on a tarmac road to the beach was a chore. We stopped multiple times. Finally we were at the beach. I strapped on my GoPro mounts to find that the batteries of one of the cameras had run out entirely, despite me having charged in fully a few hours ago. Changed the batteries, put on my life vest much to the amusement of Timm, delayed hitting the water as long as I could (it was about nine now), and finally after some nudging from Timm gave myself the go ahead.

Carried the boat to the water’s edge, sat in it, heard the surf though did not look at it, got a push to help me on my way and I was off. The seat back needed to be adjusted and as I was doing that my boat went broadside to the surf, a wave hit me, I was thrown to one side and I saw my boat rushing away from me. Fortunately, this was right on the beach and I could walk towards the boat to attempt a re-entry and paddle the next 1,500 odd kilometres. A friendly local helped me and I was back on the boat. This time I was much more careful, rode the surf perfectly and headed out into deeper waters. Timm soon joined me and we were off on our expedition.

But I realised something was wrong. Everything did not seem right. For one, my boat was almost six inches deep in water. Also, the drag was much more than what I had experienced when on the Ganges. The wind was felt, it was from the front left, and paddling was not as easy as I thought it would be. I surmised that I would need some time to get into the rhythm and paddled on as I watched Timm paddle on ahead of me. I had him in sight though his silhouette tended to get smaller with each passing minute. Then he kind of disappeared altogether. Scanning the horizon I spotted a small blot of white and realised he had sat down on his board and was waiting for me. He was almost a kilometre in front of me by now. I battled on. The wind was building and the drag was becoming more acute. The small white blob on the horizon became a little bigger and continued to grow in size. I realised that Timm was paddling towards me. Once he reached, we tried to rid the canoe of the water that was sloshing all around. Took a few minutes. Once done we started again. Timm tried to keep up with me but found it not to be something that was desirable since I was much slower in speed than what he needed to be on his board. We mutually decided that he paddle on and that we would meet somewhere ahead. Again, the white blob of his T-shirt started becoming smaller and smaller till the time when I lost sight of him entirely. I battled on.

I had the cranes of the new port that is coming up in Colombo in sight. I had the coastline and the road to my right. There were cars passing, there were building under construction, there were people swimming on the beach. After vainly trying to focus on the cranes ahead of me since they were not getting any closer, I decided to focus on the building to my right. A few minutes later I realised that despite whatever paddling I was doing, the building on my right that was my immediate target to cross, continued to remain ahead of me. I was trying to cross one building at a time, and not even the first building was cooperating with me. This reduced my adrenaline level with each stroke and raised my frustrations substantially. I took out my Brunton ADC to check the wind speed to find that it had stopped working entirely. I realised that despite what  manufacturers might state, nothing is waterproof, everything is water resistant at best. Also, despite my changing the batteries of my GPS, they had died. The GoPro too had run out of batteries. Everything seemed to be falling apart. Even though I could see land a couple of hundred yards to my right, I felt alone and frustrated. The feeling of frustration and loneliness I had expected a few days into the paddle was happening within the first few hours. This was not good. Timm had disappeared around the bend in the port and I was by myself trying desperately to keep moving forward. The wind kept coming from the front and left. I had to continually paddle on one side of the boat to stay in a straight line. If I stopped paddling weather cocking resulted, turning the boat into the wind and it was extremely hard and time consuming work to get her back on course. The buildings to my right remained where they were, refusing to get behind me. I battled on.

There was a fishing boat anchored near the boat. It had been forever ahead of me, and now it was to my right. I had made some headway. There was another boat ahead of me in the water and I was deciding whether to pass it from the left or the right. I had all the time in the world since it took me forever to reach anywhere close to that boat. Seeing my predicament and noticing that I would probably never reach it, I saw them start their engines and come towards me. I realised it was a Sri Lankan Navy boat and they were beckoning me towards them. They had their propeller whirring and I was concerned about my flimsy inflatable. Gestures and some shouting made them realise my predicament and they turned off the propeller. The wind and the waves made sure that I had to grow some muscles to get close to them and grab hold of the gunwale to start a conversation. Meanwhile Timm called and told me that another Navy boat was giving him a hard time. I told Timm to hang to while I dealt with the issue with the guys on the boat that had stopped me.

A conversation in extremely broken English, coupled with a lot of gestures ensured. My phone was working and I showed them the soft copies of the permits and permissions I had. These documents were downloaded by them, a couple of phone calls happened and finally I was given the go-ahead. I requested them to tell their counterparts about Timm and allow him to go ahead since both of us were covered by the same permits. It was a go.

I asked them where I could beach my boat ahead and they informed me that I would not be allowed to beach anywhere in or near the port and that I would have to paddle at least two or three kilometres, go ahead of the port before I could even think of beaching. That was not working for me. I had to beach. I decided to paddle back and head for a sliver of beach that I could see to my right. I turned the boat around and headed for a beach that looked about twenty feet wide but had people on it. I did not see too much surf and that was good considering what I had been through when we launched. I headed for the beach with a prayer on my lips and a hope that I would not embarrass myself once again by capsizing.

It was perfect landing. I rode the surf and rushed on to shore. I felt the boat scraping on the sand and I got up and prepared to get off the boat. That was when the next surf came and hit me and the boat. Fortunately I had the painter line at hand and managed to hold on to the boat which had almost filled up entirely with water. As I considering my next course of action, the next wave hit the boat and filled it up entirely. My gear that was in the boat, with a fair bit of buoyancy was threatening to part company from the comfort of within the boat and I desperately tried to pull the boat to drier land. Difficult, since the beach was only a few feet wide and the surf was ending at the wall that marked the end of the beach. I desperately hung on to the painter line as I watched successive waves hit the boat which was now entirely filled with water. The buoyancy of my bags ensured that they stayed above water but with the third or fourth wave that hit the boat, managed to go overboard. This was not good.

I saw my bags floating in the water, at the mercy of the ocean and the waves that were coming with increasing frequency … or so I thought. I hung on for dear life to the painter line while I tried to make my way towards one or the other bag. One kind soul stepped forward as a knight in shining armour and started rescuing my bags. He picked one up, kept it next to the wall and went to rescue the next. By the time he got to the second bag, the wave came in again and took the first one away. My paddles were way out in the ocean, I had a broken skeg, the soles of my floaters had parted way with the rest of the slippers, I was thrown against a rock quite violently scraping my shin pretty badly, while I hung on to the painter line. It was more than an hour of sheer physical activity and finally I managed to get all my stuff over the wall thanks to the help of the many people who had by now gathered to watch. Among them the Police, the Coast Guard, members of the Sri Lanka Commandos and sundry other people. Finally everything was safe except my skeg and I was on dry land chatting up with curious people and members of the administration who again wanted to know who I was, what I was doing and whether I had the permits to do what I said what I was doing. Everything fortunately was a-ok and it was time for me to think ahead.

I called up Timm to tell him that I was aborting. I told him that I would go to the guest house to leave my luggage and would meet him a couple of hours later. He had already beached a few clicks ahead. The boat was deflated and packed, the Uber was ordered, and I made my way to Groove House Hostels to leave my stuff. I would now be the road support to Timm who would be continuing the Slow Boat Around Sri Lanka.

This certainly put a crimp in the plans. I landed up where Timm was and had a discussion on the immediate future. I told him to paddle on. I would be his road support. He wanted to sleep on it and take a final call the next day. Which was fine by me. Whatever happened to me and my decision to abort the rest of the expedition was immediate. Maybe a good night’s rest would change my mind.

By this time I realised that my rugged phone that was supposed to be bomb proof had stopped working. It was refusing to charge. I busted a couple of chargers trying to plug it in and realised that I needed a new phone. The current one was down to a single digit charge and was refusing to behave. The shops had shut and I would have to wait for tomorrow to buy a new phone. Timm kind of convinced me to give it another try. I told him to start paddling in the morning and that I would join him in the afternoon after I had worked out my phone woes.

When I woke up the next morning I found a message from Timm on Thilina’s phone that he too was aborting. He believed that this expedition was not meant to be and that he did not want to continue on his own. Since he could not speak to me, he was on his way to Anuradhapura to do some meditation and that we would put together this expedition another time, another day.

That is how the ball bounced and the cookie crumbled. It was devastating that after so much effort and work that had gone behind putting this expedition together, we were not going ahead with it. But everything is for the better, even though we may not realise it to be so. The ocean is not going anywhere in a hurry. The wonderful country of Sri Lanka is going to be there in the foreseeable future. All I needed to do is to equip myself in sea paddling … way more than what was my current level of expertise. And certainly on a boat that did not allow water to flood it. It was a sea kayak that should be the vessel of choice, not my canoe that seemed more suited to flat water. I decided to push A Slow Boat Around Sri Lanka to this time next year by which time I would put in a whole lot of practice, putting in at least a couple of hundred hours in the sea learning the intricacies of paddling in the open ocean.

Till then…

Note: I managed to get back to Delhi beating the travel ban by 24 hours. Like I said, whatever happens, happens for the good. As of today, the entire world is on lock down, Sri Lanka included. Wonder what the situation would have been had we carried on with the expedition and the lock down happened and we were quarantined in a completely isolated part of the island.

C’est la vie.


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