By Terry Blackburn
"This is different from other races in the region. It’s a
lot less formal than the King’s Cup and that sort of thing. It fits
more into our programme. You don’t have to load your boat up with
crew, you can bring a few mates and have a few laughs and you don’t
have to work too hard at it. It’s great." Gary Foster, Skipper
of Intrigue of Stornaway, Winner of the 2nd Kata Group Andaman Sea
I’d had to wait until we arrived in Port Blair, capital of the
Andaman Islands, for Gary Foster to tell me this but by then, it
was already too late. I’d figured it out for myself. The first Andaman
Sea Rally has a lot to answer for. In the year since it started
in January 2003, interest in this small island chain in the middle
of the Andaman Sea has come on in leaps and bounds. Trade agreements
have been signed, over a hundred delegates have visited Phuket,
which Port Blair has now been officially twinned with, direct flights
from Bangkok have been finalised and phrases like ‘high-end eco-tourism’
and ‘undeveloped paradise’ bandied around with enough abandon to
have developers salivating from Delhi to London.
So what was so special about this one-time important outpost of
the British Empire, now under Indian sovereignty and actually much
closer to Myanmar and Thailand than to its mother country? There
was only one way to find out. So with photographer Travis Rowan,
I set out with the Rally’s fleet to see the islands for myself.
Nine boats were sailing this year, including two of the bigger
names on the Asian racing circuit: Intrigue of Stornaway and Stormvogel.
Both big powerful boats, they were expected to compete neck and
neck for line honours and did not disappoint.
Once out in the open sea, we were occasionally joined by curious
pods of dolphins and whales and the three day journey slipped by
in a blur of night watches, eating and sleeping. Finally, some 52
hours after we’d set sail, we arrived in Port Blair, the full moon
blazing above us.
Port Blair, for anyone who’s been to the mainland, is perhaps best
described as ‘India lite’. That means that there’s still the same
bustle of fresh markets, Hindi temples, fabric shops selling saris
by the kilo, wandering holy cows and goats, hawkers and tea vendors,
but it’s all a lot less stressful than elsewhere on the subcontinent.
Nobody hassles you, nobody begs, there’s no pollution and everything’s
Our visit coincided with the annual tourism festival at which we
were installed as guests of honour for the major dance performance
of the evening. The dancing was very entertaining, but the experience
of being the only people sitting on chairs, as opposed to the floor,
in an audience of several thousand was a little disconcerting. Still,
the attached market definitely had charm. At one point I paid 2
rupees to see ‘I Love India’ written on a human hair and a portrait
of Charlie Chaplin on a pinhead – both visible under large magnifying
glasses in an exhibition apparently approved by the Prime Minister
Earlier in the day, we’d had time to explore other less esoteric
local attractions such as Ross Island and the Cellular Jail. Both
relics of British rule, they represent opposite sides of the coin
of the Andaman experience of a little over 60 years ago. Tiny Ross
Island was the seat of British power and boasted its own church,
swimming pool, dance hall, officers club, bakery and barracks. It
now stands decaying like some Victorian Angkor Wat, the buildings
long since looted and abandoned are held together by the roots of
strangling figs. It’s a melancholy place to visit and sums up well
the decay of the Empire.
The jail, by contrast, could reopen tomorrow and still offer higher
quality incarceration than most Bangkok penitentiaries. Clearly
built to last, with four tiers of cells in two wings overlooking
a well tended garden, the jail was the repository for the most dangerous
prisoners in the Empire: politically motivated freedom fighters.
The British’s sole purpose of maintaining its colony here was to
keep these idealists as far away from the mainland, where they could
continue to ferment unrest with their unfortunate ideas about independence,
Although the freedom fighters left few direct descendants after
independence in the 1950s – most of the population is made up of
more recent Bengali settlers – the Andaman islanders still have
pride in their place in history and the island’s status as a place
of pilgrimage for politically aware mainlanders.
History on this scale though, isn’t likely to increase foreign
visitor numbers much beyond the current 10,000 per year. For that,
the Islands will need to rely on their natural charms. A meeting
with the Secretary of Tourism, Mr. Anbarase proved instructive in
evaluating what the future may hold.
"We must strengthen the eco-angle of the islands’ appeal.
We have volcanoes, mountains, tropical rain forest, coral life,
marine life, limestone caves and tribal life. It’s a unique mix,
which we call a natural theme park. Our emphasis is on eco-friendly
tourism, which allows visitors to be enriched by the natural landscape,"
he told me.
Remarkably, despite the smooth sales patter, all of this turned
out to be true. From Havelock, to Cinque, to Middle Button, to John
Lawrence and Neil and to all the other intriguingly monikered islands
in the archipelago, the clich?s of eco-tourism ring true for once.
The beaches really are deserted, the coral really is pristine, dugongs,
giant rays and dolphins really can be seen, the jungle really is
primary and there’s not a jet ski or sarong hawker in sight. The
food, a fusion of Bengali staples, like tandoori, masala and dahl,
fused with some of the freshest tasting seafood I’ve ever tried,
is worth visiting for alone.
All too soon, our exploration came to an end and it was time to
get back to the main business of the week: yacht racing. Going back
would be a little different for myself as this time I would be in
what promised to be the heart of the race – sailing on Stormvogel
going head to head with Intrigue.
The wind howled from the start line and immediately had us heeled
over on a severe reach. We were to remain this way for much of the
next 24 hours. Ermanno had unfortunately had to leave the area several
days earlier to attend to business elsewhere, leaving skipper Robin
Taylor and his young, enthusiastic and very able crew, the task
of fighting for honours. I’d like to say that I was a valuable addition
to the crew and vital to the ship’s progress. Perhaps even report
that I’d heroically climbed the mast to untangle the sail in a vicious
Unfortunately I have to admit that I found adjusting to life at
45 degrees a bit of a challenge. As the crew nimbly danced around
the boat trimming sails, consulting charts, cooking dinner or nonchalantly
reading on the cabin roof, I spent the first day sat gripping the
cockpit sides debating for an hour or so at a time whether I could
negotiate the unbalanced obstacle course to the toilet and back.
In the end, honours were again fittingly shared. Intrigue smashed
the 48-hour target, making it over the line in 46 hours and fifty
five minutes. Stormvogel arrived five hours later, but had motored
much less than Intrigue so took first place on corrected time. Intrigue
barely had the time to stick around to collect their overall winner
prize, before disappearing over the horizon to begin preparations
for the next race.
I don’t know when I’ll be back in the Andaman Islands again and
I don’t know if the Secretary of Tourism will see his dreams of
a luxury eco-paradise for the jet set realised, but it is undoubtedly
an amazing place and genuinely does represent one of the last chances
to get development right in Asia.
The Andaman Sea Rally will of course be back next year and promises
more boats, more parties, more beer, more curries, more untouched
beaches and more pristine reefs. Junket loving writers, boat owners,
sailors and anyone with a yen for exploration should take note.
There are few better opportunities to see unknown lands than aboard
one of the competing boats.