A boat ride from hell – Delft Island (Nedunthivu) to Jaffna

I woke up to the thundering rain, my only worry – would the boat operate in this weather? But it had been raining the previous day as well and everything ran on schedule. So, I woke up when I had to, packed my bag which I hadn’t prepared for an overnight stay, and left when the rain slowed down. 

The Delft island jetty was a 5-10 minute walk from my room, a walk that I had to carefully take under the trees to protect my bag as much as possible from the rain. I had forgotten the umbrella in the hostel back in Jaffna. 

Delft Island: 

I first heard of Delft island only a few days ago from my host in Sigiriya. Upon seeing the pictures, I was sold. I had to visit this beautiful island where horses ran wild, corals were strewn across the beaches, and the beaches themselves were in all shades of beautiful. 

I found my way to the island on the first day of 2022, An hour to Kurikattuwan from Jaffna (which is no ordinary bus ride either, it’s stunning), then an hour on a small ship being operated by the Sri Lanka Navy got me to the Delft island. The nausea from ship journey kept me from hopping on a tuktuk and instead taking a walk. The return boat was only at 3 pm which meant I had six hours on the island. I could walk the length and breadth of the island in that time, okay, may be only the length. 

An abandoned house with red roof tiles surrounded by coconut trees.
What most houses look like on the island (only not abandoned)

The narrow roads had houses far in between. Almost all were traditional houses with red roof tiles, and a big compound surrounded by a wall. It’s this wall that I found fascinating, The entire length of the wall was made of corals. Some covered in creepers, some darkened by moss, but all looked like tiny pieces of art out on display under the blue sky.

Island tour on a tuktuk:

yellow colored tuktuk parked in a green patch with nothing else in sight but rain soaked grass and a trail of tuktuk filled with water.
My tuktuk ride for the day

About an hour later, I saw a tuktuk parked outside a house, I checked with the person regarding tour charges and if I could rent a bike or bicycle. While renting was not an option, the person agreed to take me on an island tour for SLR 1500. This was not a complete tour which costs SLR 2500. I only wanted to see a certain things, this was the cost for that. 

The tour started with the usual Boabab tree, the growing stone, queens tower, amidst all this what I was most captivated by was the beauty of the island itself. For long stretches we didn’t see another soul, the rocky beaches emerald in color and soft sand reminding me of Andaman Islands. 

The canal was overflowing with rain water so we couldn’t go to the other side which is known for horse spotting, we did see a bunch from distance and a little later from up close as well. Horses in the wild, what a delight. These horses were brought by the dutch and have continued to exist peacefully on the island. 

A woman standing in the middle of an overflowing canal.
Outside the monsoon season one can cross this section to reach the part where horses run wild

By the time the tour ended, I had made up my mind to stay the night on the island. It was too stunning to leave so soon. Even though I was not travelling with my pyjamas or toothbrush, I intended to take the morning boat. 

Three wild horses in a green pasture
I still got to see the wild horses around the canal

The morning of the nightmare:

It’s the next morning things started to fall out of place. I did make it to the jetty shed with little damage, now I just had to wait for whenever the boat was going to operate. The 6:30 boat didn’t happen, they started lining us up so I guessed 7 am boat would operate. We formed two queues, Identification proofs were checked and we were let on through the ill-formed queue but what awaited us was not the small ship we took the previous evening but instead a rickety boat that had sheltered seating for about half a dozen people which were taken by pregnant women and people with newly borns. The queue disintegrated soon afterwards and people started jumping into the boat to take their place, I followed suit. My first thought was to sit on a wooden pallet by the motor but then a man sat on top of the deck in centre which seemed ideal. I would have a clearer view of the ocean and wouldn’t be bothered by the dangling feet of people sitting over the wooden pallet. 

I sat on the corner of this deck with two other people, a man and a young lady in the middle. The railing I wanted to hold on to on my right was soon gone as people started sitting anywhere and everywhere.

There was a scooter and a motorbike in front of me along with the sight of many many people. 

As soon as the boat started, I knew I had picked the wrong place, it floated through the massive waves and I struggled to find a hold. I held the platform with my left arm and whatever tiny part of railing I could find through my right. Rain picked up within minutes of our embarking, at first I was under the umbrella of my neighbour but very soon both my neighbours slid down to sit on the wooden pallet I had first considered sitting on.

Nose of a boat with people wearing orange vests sitting and standing with two bikes in the center amidst sea
This was when we had passed the storm and were about to reach the destination jetty

There was no more place for me sit there, and I had no confidence in my balance to slide down without falling on my face. The bikes in front of us started to slide back and the entire boat turned into a sinking titanic. ‘Bike jacket, bike jacket’ was being yelled across the length of the boat and it looked like nobody had it so a couple of people tried to keep the bike in place while also trying to brave the storm.

A guy, local tourist from Kandy (another big town in Sri Lanka) moved from the left to the right side, away from the bike and held on to the side of the boat with his might. People were under umbrellas but there was no dry square inch on the boat that day.

Someone offered me an additional life-jacket for shelter but I had to decline as there was no way I could keep my balance with only one hand. Both my hands were tightly holding on. So, I closed my eyes and sat through the thrashing of the rain. At various points, I felt as if I was sinking, my cloth mask getting showered in the salty sea-water. 

At first I was worried for my phone and my passport but soon I knew I should be worried for my life. My life-jacket was only strapped at one place, I wondered if it would help me survive. I mustered the courage inside of me to prepare for a very possible capsize. 

Some people around us had started vomiting on the boat too, but what’s hygiene in the face of death. We were getting battered by rain and ocean water anyway. 

The previous evening, I had been entertaining the idea of coming back with my backpack to spend a week or two on the island. But through the storm, I wanted nothing more but to get away to a dry place, far far away from the northern part of Sri Lanka.

I wondered if it would be difficult to get a new passport in Sri Lanka. There was no way my passport could survive this this nightmare.

In the madness, the scooter fell on the right side, thankfully, not causing any serious injuries. But the madness was killing. 

After what felt like a lifetime, the rain slowed down, I could open my eyes and in distance we could see a faint skyline. The skyline of the island we had left behind.

While we were all hoping to just get through the hour-long ordeal, we were also lost at sea.

Calm ocean looking with dark clouds
All shades of deadly

With the visibility getting better, the boat veered off in the right direction but it meant we had more torture to get through, rain picked up again, and it felt like a cruel joke to be sitting there even after an hour in the middle of the ocean. When the staff came to get ticket money, I almost yelled, ‘we have to PAY for this?’. But of course, I quietly paid my SLR 100 for the adventure of a lifetime that I’m happy to not repeat. 

A woman's selfie wearing a mask and orange life vest surrounded by locals on a boat in the sea.
When I knew I will live to tell the tale (It was also my birthday)

Just before reaching our destination island, the rain was reduced to a drizzle and people started to move around, I stayed at my place (not as if there was much place to move to). The first thing I wanted to see was the state of my passport and to my very pleasant surprise, it was dry. The rain had been thrashing us from the left at an angle which protected my passport.

Later I would notice that my daily journal which was on the left side had completely disintegrated in my bag owing to its practical drowning in the storm. A novel I was carrying was also torn from the middle but I’m grateful, I survived and so did everyone else.

I got to my hostel, picked my bags and got the hell out. 

My word of advice: 

Delft island is an absolutely stunning place but you shouldn’t have to survive a storm at the sea to get there or get out. I would say, don’t get on the small boat if it’s raining, just wait for the 3 pm boat or for the rain to subside. Also, if you’re not time-crunched then just stay another night?

Oh, and of course, hold on to your umbrella and find a place on the boat that has something to hold on to.

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