Living a Cyclone Aftermath in the Bay of Bengal – Andaman Diaries

For most of the folks living in East Coast India, it is a well-known fact that Nov-Dec is that time of the year when cyclones are formed in the  Bay of Bengal. When we chose to visit Andaman a second time in December 2016, the excitement of a girls only trip overrode every weather forecast that mentioned a depression forming off the archipelago in the Bay of Bengal.

By the time we had left Bangalore and landed in Andaman after a connect in Chennai, the cyclone turned depression already had a name – Vardah. The ominous clouds that hung over the islands could not be missed even before the flight neared the group of islands. But as it is said, when you are high on excitement, who takes notice of such irrelevant things!

We realized things aren’t going to be exactly as we planned when our ferries to Havelock islands were cancelled and we were holed up in our hotel rooms in Port Blair. The only activity was following news updates and answering concerned calls from friends and family as the eye of the storm passed through the islands with torrential rains and strong gusts ripping up trees and sending them flying around. We had gobbled up all the 4 books we carried with us after futile attempts to get WiFi connection in the hotel lobby for 3 days.

After, as our tour operator promised us, or rather, as we had successfully convinced him to send us, we were among the first bunch of ~70 very enthusiastic people who had boarded Makruzz on the first ride to Havelock after Vardah passed. The ferry was heading to Havelock islands to bring back the over 2000 tourists who were stranded there without power and diminishing food and water supplies.

Cellular Jail
Clouds gathering atop the Cellular Jail before the cyclone made its landfall

We ignored it when the waves crashed against the docked ferry and send it swaying. We also comfortably ignored the overcast sky, the rough waves and the ferries that aborted the decision to sail out that day. After all, we were 2 girls high on adventure and desperate not to miss out more days of Havelock – we chose seats in the front row of Makruzz for a good view of the ocean.

Realization hit and it hit hard when the ferry crossed the point to the open sea. The ferry was now being thrown high by 4-6 meter high waves and we could watch the hull of the ship rise and take a nose dive into the ocean. The laughs were replaced by very realistic screams and cries. The excitement on every single face was replaced by palpable fear of death as we fought hard to cling on to our seats. We now knew why the other ferries were returning – they came to this point and realized that the sea was waiting in full monstrosity and nothing was worth the risk. However – our ship captain was determined to reach Havelock and showed no signs of returning!

For the next one hour the moderately large ferry was thrashed around by a turbulent sea, rain and winds while the captain tried hard to keep it steady. Screams of 75 people who were looking into the face of uncertainty reverberated inside the closed ferry and it was only miles and miles of turbulent ocean all around us. What was otherwise a 90 minute journey turned into almost 4 long hours of nightmare – us holding onto our dear lives, the only occasional discussion being about what people would talk about us back at home and work about our miserable deaths and just hoping the ferry did not topple taking down all of us – not to mention the repeated use of sea sickness bags because our bodies were revolting the very abnormal circumstances we were subjecting it to, and hoping against hope that the captain knew what he was doing.

Havelock
The long queues of people waiting to be rescued from Havelock after 3 days or being marooned on the island with no way out

When the ferry finally docked after 4 hours of ordeal and we were on terra firma is when we finally managed to smile for the first time in hours for simply being alive to tell the story. At the jetty stood about ~2000 people waiting to be evacuated by helicopters, the Indian Navy ships and the ferry that had just dropped us. The clouds had finally begun to clear in Havelock and the smiles were returning.

Havelock
Havelock, after the storm, the day we reached.

We later learnt that the ferry was not supposed to sail in greater than 4 meter high waves. Though we had sworn not to talk about this episode to anyone, today we look back it and think of it as an experience. For one thing it taught us, we now know better than to get into sticky situations like these for certain. Like they say, travel makes one wiser!

Epilogue : The clouds cleared the next day and we had a spotless two days in Havelock. We will be posting about it soon. Meanwhile, Cyclone Vardah continued its journey to Chennai and was waiting for us at the other end when we were done with our trip. To date, it remains one of the biggest cyclonic storms to have hit Chennai in a decade. Our return flights were cancelled from Port Blair because the cyclone was unleashing its fury at Chennai. When we finally managed to reach Chennai a day later than planned, the airport had every service shutdown. all connecting flights delayed/cancelled,  without food or water supply because the city was shut down to let the cyclone pass. Needless to say, when we finally reached Bangalore, we were only too relieved to know that the cyclone had weakened and taken another path leaving us alone for the first time in 7 days.

 

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