Having waved off s/y ‘Chinook’ last Saturday s/y ‘Esper’ is now one of the last visiting boats in south India. When we depart for the Maldives next week we’ll be leaving behind an almost empty marina, which is a shame. There is a lot going for liveaboards in India and, despite teething problems with the set-up here, Kochi Marina is a great place to base yourselves as you explore India inland. This sub-continent is a land of contrasts and not for everyone, but the more adventurous and open-minded will get used to the lack of croissants, continental wine and western conveniences as they absorb themselves in one of the most fascinating countries on earth.
We’ve been living here for three years and we’d like to share the knowledge we’ve built up in order to help others who may be considering a visit. It is not called ‘Incredible India!’ for nothing!
The biggest obstacle the visiting sailor encounters when entering India is cutting through the swathes of bureaucracy. Visas must be applied for and granted before entering. Under no circumstance should you arrive without a visa. Even boats entering under emergency conditions have been stopped and the crew duly frogmarched to the airport and flown out.
Checking in anywhere in India is a convoluted process. Here in Cochin your first port of call, after anchoring by the Taj Malabar hotel (you must do this), should be Nazar 72 (+91 98 95 164090), whose English is broken. His son, Nisam, speaks better English so ask to speak to him. Nazar understands the process and where to go and in what order. Nazar is a useful contact for other things too (see below).
If you arrive on a Saturday afternoon, or the afternoon before holidays or strikes (there are many of either), expect to have to stay at anchor by the Taj Malabar. Normally you will be expected to stay on your boat until all paperwork has been finalised, but depending upon how far you get into the paperwork you may be allowed to moor up at Kochi Marina and continue the paperwork next day.
You will hand over your ship’s papers and be issued a receipt. Make sure you have lots of photocopies of your passport, visa, ship’s papers and have plenty of passport photographs to hand out. Get used to the word ‘triplicate’.
Fortunately checking out is a simpler process but you must ensure you retain all receipts from when you checked in. Contact Nazar who will be able to assist with the whole procedure. As you leave the river and join the main channel you may be stopped by coastal security who will wish to see your letter from the authorities. Do not expect one department to be in communication with the other. You have three days to leave after checking out.
A Note On Coastal Hopping
Our plan was to spend a couple of years anchoring up and down the Indian coast but as we made our way from Mumbai we quickly realised that coastal hopping was more hassle than it was worth. You will be accosted in every anchorage by any number of official or unofficial vessel as the coast guard and local police maintain their paranoia of anything that isn’t a local fishing boat. Since the Mumbai bombings in 2008 every vessel is treated with suspicion. Fishing boats use all manner of lighting configurations not recognised by the Colregs and channel 16 is awash with drunken abuse and singing, making navigation at night uncomfortable. In short, until these issues are addressed we would not recommend coastal hopping unless it is necessary.
Entry To The Marina And Anchorage
Once you leave the main channel to come up to the marina, your depth sounder may read zero. The river is silty mud. Although it is dredged, entry and exit to the marina itself should only be attempted at slack high water, so know your tides and time the approach well (approx 15 mins from Taj Malabar to marina). Make sure you have contacted the marina manager, Jose, beforehand. They do not have a VHF channel and they do not have marinaros.
When coming up the marked channel we’ve found it prudent to stick to the west side (the one closest to the sea) as parts have silted up. If you run aground, don’t worry, it’s just soft mud. Reverse the engine and move over west.
The channel is only busy with day-tripper boats but the main obstacle is the ro-ro ferry (called Lots Bridge), which transports lorries up the river day and night.
The marina pontoon fingers are tight. Boats over 38ft will probably need assistance from the dock. Do not attempt to enter or exit when there is a tide, which easily hits 2 knots.
Kochi Marina is set in the grounds of Bolgatty Palace Hotel, a state-run resort, based around an old colonial Dutch Palace with swimming pool, bar and restaurant. It is idyllic and a welcome retreat from the hubbub of Ernakulam (Cochin main town). The restaurant is expensive but their evening buffet is one of the best in town. The bar is rather staid. Currently there are no discretionary rates for yachtsmen using either of these facilities.
You will receive a warm Indian welcome by Jose Verghese (+91 999 589 5310), the marina manager. The marina pontoon isn’t quite up to the five-star status as the hotel; it’s constructed out of teak-like wood that splinters and is rotten in places. The staff have done their best to patch up the offending planks but if you find you are moored up next to one, inform Mani, the foreman, who will make repairs.
A new toilet block has been built for yachtsmen, and there is a useful storage room next door. The toilets are unisex with urinals with no hot water, but in the tropics this isn’t that big a deal. If female crew wish more privacy, speak to the hotel to see if you can use an empty hotel room instead.
Water is potable and charged a flat rate (approx Rs400 per month) and electricity charged by the unit.
Security was an issue, with security guards sleeping throughout the day. Most commercial buildings in India have security guards and many are there simply for show (get used to the hysteria regarding security across India). Fortunately Kochi Marina now employs men who patrol the pontoons day and night. Theft isn’t normally a problem but items left on the deck are easy to nab and one or two small objects have gone missing in the past.
On the whole the marina is a safe and secure place, well protected from the tropical monsoon storms. Cover the boat in tarps during this period because when it rains, it really rains! Kerala is one of the wettest places on earth.
A Word On The Tropical AtmosphereWhen the Vasco da Gama rally arrived in 2010, almost every boat purchased a cheap AC unit within two weeks of their stay. The tropical atmosphere can play havoc with your woodwork. If you can afford the electricity and intend to stay a while or leave the boat, buy one (Samsung do a small two-piece unit, and Voltas do a one-piece window unit, both around $250). Yachtsmen who don’t have complained of ‘black stuff’ growing on their woodwork. That’s mould, and unless you clean it regularly (watered-down bleach), it’ll become an annoyance. We know of one boat who attempted to cover every gap in their boat when they left for monsoon. Upon their return they had to throw away or clean every item of clothing and furnishing. They bought an AC unit after that. For those who can’t afford or don’t want to buy an AC unit, just keep all hatches open and invest in a good fan. Mozzies are a minor irritation but not dangerous.
Alternatives To The Marina
Yachts are free to anchor in the same area as the marina but you should be aware of the ro-ro ferry and its path. Anchor outside the channel to the east, but it gets shallow. Sadly the hotel/marina complex ceased supplying water to anchoring yachts but there are stand pipes on Bolgatty Island in the village and by the ferry jetty (look for the ‘Life’ sign).
John Crabtree also offers a concrete jetty to moor your boat on Fort Cochin. At Rs500 a day it seems a little steep for what is on offer since it is in a busy shipping channel prone to wash, but there are plenty of yachtsmen who have used it without complaint.
For engineering and mechanical work, speak to Bryan (+91 99 47 224835) or Gladwin (+91 9567 228718) of BVTE Plant. Bryan works in a commercial boat yard and has access to a lot of heavy-duty tools. He has even hauled out two boats and arranged shipping to Australia and the States. This was not without its problems so if you are looking to ship your boat, Bryan’s your manGladwin, Bryan’s assistant who speaks perfect English, will put you in touch with most boat-related services, including anything involving R134 gas (fridges, AC etc), and will help oversee projects or translate with locals when necessary. Gladwin is a rare local who understands western expectations; he will not tell you ‘your repairs will be finished tomorrow’ (because rarely they are!).
Gladwin and Bryan also have an engine filter source. Give them your filter number and they’ll match it. Expect to pay premium prices for imported filters if you have no luck getting them on Banerjee Road.
For smaller repairs, welding, woodwork etc Nazer often knows of cheap labour, and Nazar will always side with the yachtsman if work is not up to expectation. He has his ‘stitching man’ who will make repairs or create new things from most materials. Do not include sail repairs in this. For sail repairs contact North Sails in Mumbai. Sunbrella is available from Mumbai but remember everything foreign is subject to a 30% import duty. Nazer’s friend, Anil, is a competent engineer who will make things from stainless, repair 12v motors, braze copper etc. The Indians are industrious and do not like to waste anything, so objects you might throw away, they will repair.
Also, if you have pets, Nazer will happily come to the marina to look after them if you’re planning to leave the boat. We were so confident in his abilities that we left Esper for four months, leaving him in charge of feeding Millie, our cat. To say he loves animals is an understatement!
Resources Around Town
Ernakulam is an industrial city where you will find almost anything. The problem is knowing where these things are. I have attempted to put together a very rough map of services and shops the yachtsman might find useful. Shops of note are:
Krishna Bhat – a hardware store with a massive collection of everything: stainless screws, cargo straps, tools, silicone. This should be your first port of call for almost anything, and make sure you ask the two gentlemen who sit on the left of the shop who speak English and know their store inside out. The only downside is the service: the slowest this side of the Arabian Sea. Krishna Bhat is split into two, aim for the one on the right as you look at the building. Sandpaper may be bought five shops down from Krishna Bhat.
Safe Industrial And Marine Stores – if you can’t get your items in Krishna Bhat, go here. It’s a little more expensive but the proprietor, Murtuza, speaks excellent English and has a large catalogue from which to order items.
TD Road – furnishings, canvas, sponges. Royal are well stocked with three different shops
Chittoor Road -Runs parallel to MG Road. Useful for heavy duty tools (drills, angle grinders etc), 240 pumps. Can find Makita, Bosch, De Walt. Also look out for Leela Coffee, a fantastic coffee shop which sells fresh coffee beans.
Jos Electrics – MG Road. The main Jos shop does cables, plugs (including 35amp marine plugs and sockets), switches.
ITNET – computer shop. Surprisingly well stocked including ipads, Galaxys, netbooks, adaptors etc
Medical Trust Hospital electrics – around Medical Trust hospital (to the south and south west on the other side of MG Road) are various electrical and 12v shops. Wander off MG Road either side to find electrical components, and Electronics Street for car audio and other 12v related stuff including LED lights..
Ashis – pronounced ‘ash-shish’, largest, closest supermarket (although nothing like the supermarkets we are used to in the west). If they run out of items, find the manager and ask him to stock up.
VDO Marine Instruments – based on Willingdon Island contact Sunil Shah (9447068469) for flags and also has a chart contact based in Gujarat.
Below is a simple map of all resources. Click on each icon for an explanation. Alternatively you may view the map in Google Maps, which includes the index of all resources and their description. Paste this link into your browser:
You can also download the kmz file to view in Google Earth. Paste this link into your browser and it should download automatically:
Tata Docomo and Airtel provide good 3G service. There are others but you must ensure the provider covers Bolgatty Island. There is a Tata Docomo shop just by the Bolgatty ferry terminal, which is useful. You have to physically go to the shops to top-up monthly credit. Take in proof of residence (a bill from the marina), copies of passport and visa and passport photographs.
Very cheap tariffs release you from the pain of Skyping family and friends! Take passport documents, photos and proof of address. Activation takes a couple of days. Airtel has the best coverage but be aware that different states have different sim cards, so whilst you can use your Keralan sim in Tamil Nadu, for example, you will be charged roaming rates. If you are staying anywhere for a period of time outside of Kerala, get a local sim card for that state.
Many cafes and restaurants are called ‘hotels’. Aim for the full ones where the workers eat. At lunchtime the kitchens are often busy serving up either biryani or thali to the locals, so if you order off the menu your food will take a lot longer to come. Eating on the street is perfectly safe, as is drinking tea (milky and sweet – you get used to it) and lime soda, the staple soft drink.
Since restaurants are a matter of taste I won’t recommend any here. All you need to know is that Keralan food is the best in the world, in my humble opinion! Fish is a staple, since we are close to water. Keralan fish curry is a delightful and hot experience, washed down with lime soda.
I couldn’t begin to list the things to do here. The obvious ones are Fort Cochin, where you’ll find all the other tourists, and Cherai Beach, though we much prefer Kuzhupilly Beach just down the road (pronouned ‘coor-pilly’). If you like watching elephants subjected to loud bangs and marauding crowds, look out for the frequent elephant festivals throughout the year. Thrissur has the biggest in India every year at the Thrissur Pooram.
The highlights of Kerala are Wayanad (our fave, and undeveloped compared to the rest of Kerala, stay at Varnam Homestay), Kannur (the Kannur Beach House is one of the best homestays in India) and the other hill stations. The backwaters are a must, though as a liveaboard you may find this a little too familiar! Take binoculars, zoom lens and your ornithology book.
Liz was commissioned by Wanderlust to write her Top 10 Tips for a Trip to Kochi, which you can read here.
Travelling around India is surprisingly easy, once you’ve booked your seat. And there lies the rub. The ever-increasing population has put a strain on the train network, so book as far in advance as possible. Try and join www.cleartrip.com and get your head around the website. It allows booking of flights and train journeys and will serve you well.
The local language is Malayalam, spoken by almost everyone. A high proportion of Keralans do not speak much English and no one speaks Hindi, so put the translation book down! It may sound like a joke but we found the best way to get understood is to put on an Indian accent and wobble the head. Don’t believe us? Try it next time you are not getting your point across!
We love and hate India in equal measures, though the fact we’ve been here three years says something of India as a place to live. For us it has been the biggest cultural difference we’ve experienced and sometimes you can find yourself red-cheeked or blue in the face as you struggle to get yourself understood. The moment you shout is the moment you lose.
Time-keeping takes on a different meaning here and you’ll often be told that the mechanic will arrive in one hour. An Indian hour can take up to a week, but there are conscientious, hard-working tradesmen who take their profession seriously. If you find them, the workmanship will be excellent.
Indians, and especially Indians on holiday, are curious. They will stare, point and laugh, but it is never offensive. Smile back and you have a friend for life. Expect impertinent questions like how much you earn or how much your boat is worth. Expect to be asked where you are going or how many children you have. Expect to be invited into strangers’ houses for tea (we rarely decline).
Women should cover their shoulders and wear clothing that comes down to at least their knees, preferably with long shorts or trousers underneath. You can dress more scantily, but this will be an invitation to get stared at or, worse, groped.
India is a country on the up with a lot to offer both the traveler and the liveaboard. Food and transport are cheap and it is culturally diverse, but prepare to have all senses assaulted.
The marina offers a safe place to moor your boat, if it’s within your budget, and access to the five-star facilities of Bolgatty Palace Hotel make it a gem of a place to stay. Our three years here have been an ‘incredible’ experience.
As the piracy situation slowly wanes I have no doubt that some day Cochin will be squarely on the cruisers’ international passage plan. With the Maldives and Sri Lanka just down the road it has the potential to become part of a ‘golden triangle’, especially to circumnavigators looking for something new after Malaysia.
If only the authorities would just make the bureaucracy less painful…