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Repairs to Kialoa II in Sri Lanka

Frank Robben - August 1993
Vilamoura, Portugal

My last newsletter ended with the dismasting of Kialoa in the South Indian Ocean about 1000 miles west of Australia, on the way to the Cocos-Keeling islands. The top part of the mast had been broken off, and in Cocos (beautiful low atolls with white beaches and swaying palms) we cleaned up and re-rigged the broken mast so that we could sail with small sails; the main double-reefed, a small jib, a staysail and the mizzen. We then sailed (some) and motored (mostly, because the winds were generally light) to Galle in Sri Lanka, leaving Thanksgiving day and arriving in Galle 09 December.

Galle, on the southern tip of Sri Lanka, is a medium sized city situated on the principal sailing route between the Pacific Ocean and the Red Sea. Many sailing yachts stop there for a brief rest, food and fuel; it is a pleasant and hospitable city. Sri Lanka, formerly called Ceylon, is an island republic off the southern tip of India and is basically a beautiful and somewhat exotic country, but overpopulated with about 16 million people. The jungle and mountains are beautiful and the culture interesting. It is poor, a third world country, but the people are friendly and reasonably well educated and the suffering one might associate with poverty is not in evidence.

There was a small Sri Lankan Navy ship repair yard in Galle which had the aluminum welding equipment necessary to repair the mast, and the commander was willing to help me. Ali, my first mate and a very experienced sailor and boat owner, advised against attempting such a major repair in a third world country but I persisted. I found I liked the people in Sri Lanka, it was a quite different place and culture. It has an ancient history, like India, but not so vast in size and population. The people were friendly and I was not really bothered by the many touts on the streets who tried to earn some money by acting as tour guides or selling something. It would be difficult to be lonely in Sri Lanka. Also, I looked on the repair of the mast as an interesting challenge.

Shortly after arriving I made a several day excursion to the hill country where they grow the best tea. It was beautiful, cool with steep hills often covered with terraced tea plantations. There is also much gem mining, which I did not investigate. Christmas did not go so well, there had been some friction among the crew, Ali, Sheila and Audrey, which also extended to me. There was going to be a long and indefinite delay in Galle for the mast repair and everyone would have preferred to be either sailing or anchored in some beautiful location with clear water teeming with sea life and beautiful beaches, not a dirty, hot harbor and much repair work to do. So Ali decided to leave, followed by Sheila and Audrey. Sheila and Audrey were signed on as crew on a beautiful large Swedish schooner, a charter yacht on the way to Europe, and so were able to complete their trip. At that point only Christopher, Sheila's son, remained with me. He stayed until March when he returned to his previous job on a yacht in the Mediterranean.

Things proceeded slowly. Some time after Christmas I found out that the Navy yard was required to charge 25% more than their estimate, some regulations they had overlooked. So I looked for alternatives, starting a long and slow series of contacts for the welding of the mast. Basically, the firms that had the expertise to do the job wished to charge too much. So a long, frustrating and tortuous project was begun to accomplish what should have been a two week project. I will try to summarize.

Wages in Sri Lanka are very low, women who pick tea may get only $2 per day, factory workers maybe $3 or a bit more, and the labor available in Galle for helping on a boat was about $4 a day. As a result in addition to the mast repair I decided to carry out a bit of painting, varnishing and general maintenance on Kialoa. For this I hired the best worker in the harbor, Sunil, as foreman at $8 per day, and three others.

Before Christmas I had met Rohita, who was basically a tour guide but had done some boat work. I found him to be a quite bright and competent fellow who was also honest and dependable. He was married, had three children, was from a lower class and quite poor. Eventually we became good friends. With his help as foreman I could supervise the mast repair and use mostly unskilled local labor, and only the welding would have to be carried out by a qualified professional. I also had good support from the Navy yard commander and the chief engineer, who arranged a sheltered area at the fisheries complex next to them to carry out the work. So in February we removed the mast and laid it out in the Fisheries building, helped by a number of the local fisherman who used the harbor complex. From then on we had a constant stream of observers and would- be helpers.

The removal of the mast, stripping the paint and preparing the section for welding went reasonably smoothly. Obtaining the proper marine grade aluminum plate for the section, and finding someone qualified to carry out the welding, was most difficult and frustrating. I ordered new rigging, electrical wiring and instrumentation and other necessary items from the US and England. I arranged for new wooden spreaders to be constructed at a small local boatyard with a very honest and kind owner. Meanwhile the varnishing, painting and other work on Kialoa proceeded and took up much of my time. Towards the end of February Frank Ansak, a good friend and skilled sailor who had travelled many miles with me (and the first part of this present voyage from San Francisco to Tahiti) came to be first mate. He immediately took over the work on Kialoa and I was more free to concentrate on the mast repair.

After some very difficult encounters I finally obtained the proper aluminum as well as a reasonable welder, and in the beginning of April we joined the two pieces of the mast by welding in a short section and an internal sleeve. The job was not done as well as I wished, but it was satisfactory and passed official inspection requirements. There were then additional complications in painting the mast, which did not come out well at all but at least it is white and will last for a year or so. We re-stepped the mast without mishap, fitted the new rigging (some of which was a bit incorrect in length for reasons as yet not understood) and prepared to leave.

Lest you think this was nothing but frustration, I also had many interesting and good experiences with various people and learned quite a bit about present day Sri Lanka. I took time to talk to various people, have good dinners (at local restaurants) and generally be available to socialize as I saw fit. Rohita was extremely helpful, looked out for all my interests, hired and paid the shore crew and saw that they did good work, and took care of obtaining local supplies. Without his help the job would have taken much longer; it would have been virtually impossible without a local, competent foreman.

Copyright 1996 by Frank Robben