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Trincomalee, Sri Lanka: From war zone to cruising port

By SV Totem — last modified Mar 09, 2015 12:16 PM
A dozen boats so far have called in at Trinco instead of Galle this year- and at least another half dozen are on the way. Behan of SV Totem reports on their experience of this alternative clearance port to Galle.

Published: 2015-03-09 00:00:00
Countries: Sri Lanka

Trincomalee, Sri Lanka: From war zone to cruising port

The fleet in Trinco from the masthead of SV Rutea, courtesy of Neal Schneider

Trincomalee, Sri Lanka: from war zone to cruising port
Posted 1 March, 2015

Trincomalee so far has been a feast of sights, sounds, smells, experiences. It has been both friendly and jarring, and I wake up wondering what each day will bring. But that’s getting ahead of things a little. First, we had to get here!

For years, cruising boats pointing to Sri Lanka all called in to Galle on the southwest side of Sri Lanka. Trincomalee – the fifth largest natural harbor in the world – was in LTTE (Tamil Tiger) territory on the northeast coast, and not considered a safe destination during the civil war that dragged on from 1986 to 2009. It’s a pity, because this natural deepwater port  has been visited by seafarers from Lord Nelson to Marco Polo to Ptolemy. The only two other international ports were industrial, and not appealing as destinations.

Although the civil war ended nearly six years ago, cruiser habits seem to die hard, and only a couple of boats (literally, two) called on Trinco last year. Still, it’s a little surprising that the flow to Galle remained steady considering cruisers had descriptions like this one of the facilities:

“No matter how nice the people were ashore, especially on our travels around the island, the fact is that 70% of our time in Sri Lanka was spent sitting in a dirty, noisy, sewer; surging up and down with the swell, getting rocked around by passing launch and boat traffic and continually worried about sustaining damage. That, unfortunately, is the memory we will take away with us more than anything else.”

Way to sell Galle, right? But this is a typical reaction. And that doesn’t even mention you get to walk about a half mile just to get from the harbor gate to your boat (lots of fun for provisioning), or how risky it is to leave your boat unattended in the inadequate mooring setup (boats get damaged).

So last year, when friends of ours told us about a boat in Galle that had also gone to Trinco, I was interested. VERY interested! Larry was motivated to go to Trincomalee because his boat had been built nearby, and he hoped to find the yard. By pure chance I met him last June at the Rainforest World Music Festival in Borneo, and hearing how favorably he compared Trinco to Galle, from that point on it was decided in my head: we were going to Trincomalee. I just had to get an agent (required for clearance in Sri Lanka) that could help us, since the one Larry worked with was a gross disappointment at best.

Emailing major shipping agents brought a few names forward, and GAC stood out as a better communicator; after some weeks of emailing we established a working agreement. It was slow only because they are accustomed to dealing with large merchant vessels here – tankers or cargo ships – and little sailing boats like ours are a completely different beast, and took some adjustments. For starters, we needed a different fee scale: our initial quote was for $2,000! We needed to be exempt from providing many of the information “required” by the port that simply isn’t followed by small private boats (like IMO security certificates and declared security levels). It provided interesting questions in advance of our arrival, such as the request for our draft at the forward and aft ends of Totem. I sent a line drawing and gave them our keel depth.

As the problems became more apparently surmountable, I wanted to get other boats in on the Trinco action! So I shared all the details with a loosely organized list of boats planning to cross the Indian Ocean. Momentum built around Trincomalee, and as a result, a dozen boats so far have called in at Trinco instead of Galle this year- and at least another half dozen are on the way.

Trincomalee: from war zone to cruising port, II
Posted 4 March, 2015

We approached Trincomalee with excitement and trepidation. This port is run by the Navy; it’s new to cruising boats after decades of civil war: officials don’t understand our needs, any more than cruisers understand theirs.

The first boats to arrive didn’t have the freedom they’re accustomed to at most cruising ports of call (such as not being allowed to anchor overnight and wait for clearance, but required to proceed to a specific location). There were concerns about the lack of transparency around fees, and ensuring that there is parity with the fees levied in Galle. Boats received services from the port (such as piloting, or dockage) which they didn’t realize they’d later be charged for. The port isn’t trying to duck on setting expectations, but they’re also not used to having line items questioned on a fee schedule. Cruisers aren’t used to having to wait 3-4 days to clear out (weather windows make this problematic). Those are just the highlights! Cruisers like to operate independently, and want things to be predictable and fair, and with early arrivals in particular, much of their experience was not predictable, and didn’t feel fair. We’ve had to get used to working more closely with the agent than is typical in other countries.

What we failed to appreciate before our arrival is the role Trincomalee played during the protracted civil war, and how that has influenced our reception. We toured a museum on the grounds of the Navy base, where much of the local action is documented- an eye opening visit. It’s sobering, and shocking. Beyond the tragedy of thousands upon thousands of human casualties, it is the harbor itself- as a major point of entry for supplies for the rebel Tigers- that was deeply affected. I lost count of how many ships were sunk, with methods like human torpedoes (basically, a person on an armament powered by a small outboard, driven at speed into the target), ‘limpet’ mines (stuck by divers onto the hulls of boats), and other suicide diver tactics. This explains the intense Navy scrutiny, and why the first boats arriving actually had divers checking their hulls for explosives. It’s just unheard of in our experience, but we can’t begin to imagine the war that is very recent memory here. It was disconcerting to have the very young looking Navy cadet with an AK47 on our aft deck while we cleared in. After the museum visit I could better understand where that caution comes from.

GAC (local agent) facilitated meetings, with their senior representative driving seven hours over from Colombo to meet with the Deputy Harbormaster in Trinco. Jamie and I were invited to participate to represent the cruising fleet. And we found at each turn, as miscommunication and misunderstanding was unraveled, that both agent and port were for us, not against us. They want to find a way to ensure Trinco becomes a more welcoming place for boats, and to enact the changes needed to improve the experience for cruisers. The Deputy Harbormaster said that the last time a fleet like ours came through was thirty years ago, so the lack of familiarity is pretty understandable.

Some issues (like net clearance fees) were solved on the spot. A few were remedied within days (like putting processes in place to handle fuel, water, and garbage without incurring the fees levied merchant ships). Others need more time, because they involve legislative approval (as in domestic port-to-port clearance). It’s still not easy, but cruisers should be accustomed to being flexible with the uncertainties of traveling through foreign ports, and prepared to work a little for the benefits- or at least be good guests in the interim. Now, fees are on parity with Galle. The harbormaster understands we want relief from the technical Port requirements to work through our agent for things like a few cans of fuel or water, and we’re able to get them delivered to the dock now. And we see the changes in action with the progressively easier process for boats checking in and checking out. What took two days for the first arrivals is now being completed in just a couple of hours. We no longer need to leave our passports with police when we go to shore.

One boat decided they’d rather not follow the guidelines and ferry their own jerries on the beach, which was all observed by customs officials across the water. Jamie ended up in an unpleasant sandwich between an irate customs official’s wrath and the frustrated disappointment of the officials we had worked hard to establish norms for boats with. It’s blowing over, but that was all we needed to appreciate the delicacy of what’s being established.

Meanwhile, Trincomalee’s bay is the counterpoint everything I’ve heard about the mooring arrangement in Galle: we have a gorgeous harbor to swing at anchor, our boats are secure, there’s no 700 meter walk from the gate to the pontoons, and no cement dust corroding our gear from the nearby factory. But very much like Galle, there’s a delightful town to explore, the market is near bursting with beautiful produce, the culture is fascinating, the food is delicious, and the people we’ve met have been welcoming and friendly: it’s been well worth the effort to explore. It’s just plain that we’ve got to step in patiently, with respect for the people we’re working with, and the war atrocities that filter their handling of boats.

Behan
SV Totem

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