Andaman Sea Rally, Thailand

The Andaman Sea Rally

 Vibrant Phuket

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 Rally.

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 relatively clean.

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 himself.

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, as possible.

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 squall.

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.


 From Benjarong Magazine – September 2004, Volume 7 Issue 9

This month features
 Thailand and Asia
 phuket travel info
Phuket Travel and Tours
  Tropical Living Magazine
  Koh Samui
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 Benjarong Magazine - October 2005, Volume 8 Issue 10


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