Saturday, April 24, 2010

A tale of two hemispheres.... or: Best-laid plans - How your world can be turned upside-down

The grib files (weather) predicted light S/SW winds for a few days, so we saw, in our heads, gentle sailing under our beautiful code zero (asymmetric spinnaker sail), a “crossing the line” ceremony that involved swimming in the deep blue sea at the equator and then smooth passage north, with appropriate anchorages for R&R planned.

So, we set off north for Male. After a rainy start the winds did as they were told and the enormous blue, red and white sail filled with wind and pulled us smoothly and quietly north under a brilliant hot blue sky. At dusk we decided to stow this sail and use the headsail and main (with one reef) rather: we have learned that in this area the squalls come up incredibly quickly and require brisk seamanship to deal with rigging; the code zero is not easy to work with in a hurry and is also a more vulnerable sail. Clever little planning sailors…. Always in control?

The skipper went off watch and all was well in the darkened cockpit. For the shortest of periods. Ketoro’s crew (shark master) has developed a reputation for calling the wind: a squall arrived and hastened things up a bit; a short time later several squalls conjoined to cause a measure of chaos in the seas that, combined with the winds, contributed to a very uncomfortable rock and roll. Called on to help put in another reef, Rolf thereafter returned to bed to await his turn on watch. And the weather for Rolf’s subsequent watch? No storm, little wind, just a wobble, roll and dawdle generally forward!
However, this was good as the time was nigh to cross the line …. a lot earlier than anticipated! So after a serious go-slow to allow Irene to sleep, at about 0620 at 00:00.000N and 73:39.670E we crossed to the other side: it was cold after the storms (JACKETS for heavens’ sake!) so our early-morning celebration saw a unanimous vote to cancel swimming and indulge in a grand culinary breakfast feast. This saw our early-morning, dry-boat-for-passage bodies plied with vodka orange/ whisky, chocolate and an apple upside-down cake Irene rustled up while rocking and rolling on midnight watch! Self-portrait below… Of course, despite the fact that we believed King Neptune to have let the team down somewhat by giving us a disrupted sea state, he was given his share in the hopes of future comforts. Ha.

Somewhat giggly and showing no respect at all to the squalls and strong west winds that persisted in coming onto her watches, Irene wanted proof of her powers of squall-summonsing in her next watch period so here is a photo taken of her radar screen. For newbies to these interpretations (as we were until recently): the purple shows anything returning the radar signal, e.g. a ship or in this case a storm. Now it could have been drizzle….. but it was not, ok!? It raged around us… luckily we were fully reefed (main and headsails) for the experience! After she got through these Irene embraced her off-watch periods with more-than-usual enthusiasm.

And so the next night rolled forward. Well … best-laid plans etc! We had originally decided to rest over on an east-side anchorage at North Huvadoo atoll, knowing that they would provide good shelter in most weather…. except strong west winds, which had not been expected! After a slow drive in the atoll, east side, we did not want to risk being blown onto a lee shore and it was too late to get to the west side (you cannot travel the atolls in the dark: the bommies will get you!). So we exited the atoll again… to spend another night on the water. Ah, how hearts can sink!

This time we hove-to outside the atoll: crash-tack sails so the boat comes to a stop / drift allowing you to get more rest than while travelling. Or so the theory goes. Irene’s watch: Rolf’s crash-tack is good but strong gusting and squally winds combine with current to get us moving at a pace faster than Rolf’s sail the previous night!! Irene got off watch, handed her crash-tack over to Rolf…. who had no winds and the most peaceful night almost stationary on the water!

The following morning saw us hauling our tired bodies off to a lovely anchorage the other side of the atoll. We were initially challenged by the fact that the chart plotter, generally very accurate, left us to our own devices in finding an anchorage: you can see that the spot where we are anchored (little boat) is apparently in a drying area! Well, happily we were very safely on water….

We became rejuvenated by a swim, great snorkel and fish lunch (rainbow runner for 2) which we got from these fishermen in exchange for cigarettes and cokes (good barter stock to have on board); we congratulated them on their sailfish (although were happy to reminisce by ourselves on the one that got away from our accidental catch in the Seychelles) and declined their turtle eggs.

A good night’s sleep saw us ready for the next leg and pulling up anchor the following day. Well, that is… until 30 seconds after starting the process! A red light fault indicator on the S/B engine sent skipper into the S/B engine compartment. Unmake the bed, throw everything (bedding, mattresses, pillows) into the hull, lift the boards and climb into the hole (sorry, engine compartment)! Office-boy Rolf is learning to be a mechanic (as well as a sailor and fisherman) and identified the problem. The photo shows the remains of the v-belt for the water pump… but does not show the bolt that was sheared off in the process of fitting new belt, nor the jerry-rigged straps to hold the system together. We eventually got going again…. and at last found the winds and conditions originally promised us!

More tiring overnight sails were alleviated by two other magnificent overnight stops, at Mulaka and Felidhe atolls, giving us a taste of the beauty of the Maldives and its potential for cruising.

So here we now sit, in the in the other hemisphere, enjoying different scenery, different aquatic life, a sky that currently has both the southern cross and the big dipper in it so we can use these tools to find where we came from and where we are going. Turns out it is lovely this side, too.

And, from the Hulhumale Lagoon (airport harbour) at the SE tip of the North Male Atoll, we wait for formalities and repairs to be completed and watch tremendous activity around us… Safari boats with their support boats with crew and guests coming and going, ferries transporting people to and from Male (in the background) and planes using the airspace directly above us and runway close by. We are making plans for the next forays into exploring the Maldives archipelago … all just plain sailing!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A first time for everything

Some new experiences are truly amazing once-in-a-lifetime events that live with you forever; while others are amazing more in the fact that the gods must have been smiling and ‘forever’ still has a future. Our brief time in the Chagos Archipelago and the first few days of Maldives provided a number of First Time events.

40+ knot winds at anchor

First time to experience 40+ knots of wind complete with wave slam against the bridge deck and solid water coming over the bows – whilst at anchor!! A squall had become a storm and the wind had changed direction to turn the reef into a lee shore, just as night fell. One option was to blunder around the rock and reef strewn waters in the dark during the storm, to hopefully arrive in the shelter of another island and then get the anchor set in a suitable place – all without losing body parts or expensive boat parts. That happy outcome seemed improbable. Instead, we spent an anxious night with eyes glued to GPS and hands poised over engine controls, but survived without a painful inspection of the reef and crashing surf that beckoned a few metres behind us, with nothing more serious than a caffeine hangover.

A few days later 40+ knot winds struck from dead ahead while we were travelling within the atoll under engine (we had cunningly taken down the sails when the horizon disappeared. We are getting so clever that way.) – and another first: the disconcerting experience of having both engines churning along at 2,000 rpm (about 50% power) and finding that our speed over the ground was precisely zero! Of course the catamaran is hardly the last word in sleek Italian design and it generates wind resistance like a small warehouse. It was really interesting to drive this box around in a lively sea with almost no steering – to the amused gods watching from above it must have appeared like a graceless, and rather fast, Viennese waltz. In these circumstances the skipper’s dignity was best preserved by declaring a desired course that coincided precisely with the wishes of wind and waves. It eventually needed the engines flailing away and spraying diesel with gay abandon to persuade the warehouse to see things our way.

Lots of firsts with the dinghy

Dinghy Dolphins: Playing with dolphins that break away from feeding (or playing) to accompany the dinghy and play in the bow wave or come alongside, close enough to touch. On one occasion we simply drove the dinghy backwards and forwards for a couple of kilometres each way while the dolphins took turns to come along for the ride. When we tired of this, we jumped in and swam ‘with’ them: these are incredible animals; huge and amazingly fast and graceful and intelligent. You see them actually eyeballing you in the dinghy and in the water and interacting with swimmers with their antics. This really was a rare privilege.

Dinghy Fishing: Fishing from the dinghy, with Irene trolling for fish and naturally hooking and hauling in a rather large Trevally (probably the biggest fish ever hooked by Ketoro) only to have a determined shark latch onto it and be dragged along to the side of the dinghy by our able crew – newly nicknamed sharkmonster / sharkmaster. A friend accompanying us in the dinghy patiently explained that this was our fish by repeatedly pounding the shark on the head with a gaff handle, finally dislodging it and Irene hauled in the 50% of the fish that remained. This was however not the end of it because the shark was not stupid – it knew where the fish had gone – and it tried to launch itself into the dinghy as well. We were now already three people plus a half fish and a whole lot of blood and water sloshing around in the little vessel, and the cheated shark had been joined by three more that were all loving the smell of blood. Disinclined to give up any more of our catch, or any of our own body parts, we urged the little dinghy to new fishing grounds.

These were reef sharks that we are assured are harmless! I struggle to get through the backbone of a big fish with all my weight behind a sharp knife; and this little reef shark (only about 1.2m long) ripped through this Trevally – spine and all – effortlessly. These ‘only’ reef sharks have dozens of those typical nasty triangular teeth and the same nasty eating habits and we did develop a new respect for these fellows right away.

A few minutes of fishing later a black-tip shark attacked my brand new Rapalla lure and spun it off before we could control the idiot and remove the hook. Lures are indeed precious out here, however, I considered it a reasonable outcome as I do confess some misgivings about the usual technique of removing a hook from a shark in these circumstances - three people pitching around in a little inflatable dinghy in the open ocean beyond the reef, leaking bloody water from the drain plug and no doubt under keen observation from several interested shark onlookers – who will attack their own kind without hesitation if the victim appears vulnerable (endearingly human aren’t they?). The ‘usual technique’ involves bending the shark backwards over the side of the dinghy (curiously, they generally remain fairly still once they have been persuaded into this position) and then ever so gently retrieving the precious lure – with pliers if not too deep in the mouth or by judicious gum surgery with sharp knife if deeply embedded. Shark and fisherman often go their separate ways relatively unharmed and well satisfied after such encounters.

We finally re-established our credentials by catching another Trevally and hauling it (all of it) into the boat before the sharks got close. Sharks 1: Ketoro 2. No - the first encounter was not a draw!!

Dinghy Safari – plotting the positions of a selection of bommies (submerged rock / coral pinnacles that reach almost to the surface) within the atoll and then visiting them in the dinghy, fishing en route and diving around each bommie when we get there; then onto the next one, etc. with the occasional floating refreshment stop while watching the sea life and the coral on the sea floor through 15 – 20 metres of incredibly clear water. This pleasurable pastime ends only when the beer runs out, the sunburn becomes intolerable or the light finally fades - a wonderful way to appreciate this remote, marine wilderness.

Dinghy Diving – a first for us was to dive with one of us towing the dinghy (or, depending on the current or wind, being towed by the dinghy). Previously we would anchor the boat or leave it on a nearby beach and return to it at the end of the dive. However, being attached to the vessel enabled us to range widely and freely – and of course confuse agitated sharks by miraculously disappearing from the water.

Dinghy Driving – it occurred to us that the very first time we climbed aboard a dinghy and / or started an outboard motor was when we arrived in Richards Bay after completing our maiden voyage from Cape Town. Possibly a little late to develop such basic and essential skills? Now the dinghy is ‘the car’ and it seems the most natural thing in the world to hop aboard this wet and bouncy platform and yank the outboard to life and almost never fall overboard.

Beachcombing and Salvaging

Participating in beachcombing and salvaging expeditions with a contingent of yachties armed with machetes and with acquisitive glint in the eye. Notwithstanding that the Chagos islands are hundreds of miles from anywhere, the spring tide high water mark on the outer reef beaches is defined by hundreds of plastic water bottles (what did people do before the advent of the designer water bottle?) and dozens of slip-slop sandals (the mental image of unseaworthy rustbuckets overloaded with luckless refugees is unavoidable) and other plastic stuff – mostly debris but also some semi-useful jerry cans, planks, bits of material, etc. that for some inexplicable reason assume great value, even if only until the rich haul is dragged all the way back to the yacht. At this point sanity sometimes returns and most of the stuff is promptly consigned back to the sea.

Even more cherished are the piles of fishing nets and heavy fishing lines that are washed ashore – complete with floats of different shapes and sizes, nylon cord and heavy stainless steel hooks, swivels and other fittings; just waiting to be cut up and salvaged. The jackpot however is to come upon a FAD (fish aggregating device) that has been washed ashore, complete with the floating transmitter that sends its position to its owner (a commercial fishing boat). Some of these FADs contain several dozen D-cell batteries that power the transmitter, until they are relocated into some yachtie’s torch or flashing cockpit light! It is astonishing to watch this gaggle of scruffy and ageing beachcombers descend on these modest spoils with machetes and knives – knowing that they are actually decent enough chaps and in a previous life were probably successful businessmen and pillars of respectability in their communities. And here they are, auditioning for a part in Lord of the Flies!

Fauna and Flora

Winning Ways With Weevils – since restocking in some dodgy parts of the world, before breakfast we now must first pick the weevils from the muesli. It is jolly hard to distinguish these diabolical intruders from linseeds as they keep very still when under scrutiny. We now have linseeds with legs and linseeds without legs. Linseeds without legs taste better.

Navigational Issues

Mooring in a harbour that is not a harbour. Even the largest scale chart of Gan in the Addu Atoll of Maldives – one of only four ‘ports of entry’ into the country – does not show a single harbour. Instead the charts show only fringing reefs around the islands that extend offshore for hundreds of metres. Hardwon local knowledge (and this for someone who does not – ever – ask for directions!) reveals that alongside a causeway that joins two islands, a pool within the reef - possibly enlarged by some judicious blasting and with the debris piled up on the sea side – exists a safe anchorage. A plastic bottle and a stick stuck into the rock mark a narrow passage through the reef to this sanctuary. A hungry reef on one side, a low causeway carrying road traffic on another side (punctuated by culverts that carry a powerful stream), a shallow and rocky island shore to another side and a crumbling sea wall on the fourth side. Within this little space (more than four yachts here demands close cooperation and innovative anchoring techniques) are all the facilities of a ‘port of entry’ – customs, health, immigration, coast guard, police all conveniently brought to your yacht by a coast guard patrol boat; and what’s more, it all actually works quickly and efficiently!

Four Letter Words

Yachts seem to inspire a new vocabulary of particularly noxious four-letter words, each with powerful negative connotations. The worst of these are rust and salt and hair and damp – which manifest in the most unimaginable places.

Rust - particularly on the finest, marine grade, 316 stainless steel. The marine environment is disdainful of our metallurgists’ finest efforts. Any mild steel is miraculously transformed to powder. My adjustable spanners are solidly past adjusting and my feeler gauge measures only the sum of all its leaves – a spark plug with a 10mm gap? My machete is rusted to the point that the sharp edge has simply disintegrated and the crew refers disparagingly to my butter knife. When the dive compressor is hauled out (to fill scuba tanks) and the Honda petrol engine that drives it started up (which it miraculously still does on occasion), the entire yacht is instantly covered in a plume of black particles. I understand that only some of these bits are from the exhaust blowing off its latest coating of rust – some of the particles look suspiciously like bits of engine and compressor but I cannot be sure as liberal coatings of Q20 and WD40 have congealed to prevent inspection of the substrate, even if they did not prevent it rusting. Even gelcoat and paint appear to rust!

Salt – we discovered a solid crystallisation of salt, 5mm thick, under the generator. Cooling water oozing from a strained seal? – probably - but it isn’t broke yet so it can’t get fixed yet. It is simply not possible to remove salt from some fabrics and salt is hygroscopic so the fabric never dries completely. Denims have therefore banished from the boat and donated to some hapless fisherman, to no doubt make his life equally damp and frustrating. External surfaces, especially after a few days at sea, become slippery with a damp, salt grime that causes more four letter words. On the bright side, whilst on passage a handful of table salt is obtained by the simple expedient of walking along the side deck clutching the handrail.

Hair – boats grow hair! In considerable quantity. I know this for a fact as on many occasions I have meticulously cleaned every hair from a test space (cockpit or bathroom) and then stare at a test section, defying the boat to yet again reduce my cleaning efforts to nought. And sure enough, before my eyes hairs miraculously appear on the pristine test section of floor. The hairs do not fall to the floor, they simply appear! Furthermore, the hairs cannot possibly come from us as there is so much of it that we would by now both be quite hairless. In any event at least some of the colour, length and shape variations of the offending hairs do not correspond with any known domestic specimens. There is therefore only one conclusion, the boat grows hair – proudly, defiantly, maliciously, in extravagant quantity and in bewildering array of colour, length and style!

Damp – nothing is ever really dry, least of all the crew: what with natural humidity at sea level on the equator adding to the general feeling of sticky sweatiness. Pity the yacht crews that do not have water desalinators or are unable to freely use them due to power constraints. Those unfortunate crew must rely on rainwater, or finding wells on islands, or dip into the precious stock in their tanks for everything from drinking and food preparation to washing clothes, washing dishes, washing themselves. A fresh water shower ranks up there with beer!

Beer – (in the Maldives they are strict adherents of Islam with a prohibition on alcohol). Beer must unfortunately rank amongst the foulest of these words. I slugged back the last of my precious stock while two days out from Gan harbour – confident of finding a suitable market from which to restock once we landed in the Maldives. Sadly, I appear to have misjudged the convictions of the Maldivians and am reduced to non-alcoholic beer. It is however telling that the non-alcoholic stuff is becoming increasingly palatable and even more worrisome is that the level of intelligent, or even coherent, conversation declines as rapidly as it did before!

Other - thankfully our toilets remain serviceable so we need not go there.

Crossing the Line

We finally got to cross the Equator by boat just after 6 a.m. on 13 April. A modest ration of vodka, orange and chocolate for the crew (who was on watch at the time) and several rations of whiskey and chocolate for the skipper – who heroically sacrificed his breakfast of muesli and weevils in the trade off. Ironically, after not wearing a shirt for many weeks it was on the Equator that we were in the middle of a 24 hour period of squally, stormy weather that lasted long enough to drop the temperature to shirt levels.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Experience of Chagos

Imagine this: the world around you shows water to the horizon. It is gently rolling, calm and deep blue, the light blue sky above the horizon dotted with a few pristine white clouds. Then the eastern horizon gets a fringe. As you approach, the extent of this fringe becomes apparent: it stretches in a long line in front of you. The binoculars show long, low islands, covered with extensive coconut forests. Approaching the designated pass on this western side, anxiety balls in your stomach as you see all the breaking water: along the whole stretch of islands is reef which will destroy your boat in minutes. However, the Raymarine chart-plotter / Navionics chart is accurate and you get through safely.

The beauty is astounding. Around you the water turns from deep blue to lighter sapphire to aqua and the brightest turquoise, then back again as you move into greater depths. You are in an atoll: in this case, Peros Banhos Atoll of the Chagos archipelago. If you had a bird’s eye view of the atoll, you would see a chain approximately 15-miles in diameter; the reef (the chain), a green/brown thread in the aqua waters, is almost continuous, bar a few passes and is bejewelled with long, slim green coconut islands circled by narrow sparkling white beaches and sand spits.
How can you get here? Well, the only way is to sail: the Chagos archipelago, apart from Diego Garcia which is a naval base, is uninhabited and provides none of the usual tourist means of access. Our sail from the Seychelles was glorious: for the first time, consistent currents and winds in our favour so the sails worked hard and the motors less than usual! With no pirate worries after the first 2 days, within a week we were at the islands, having experienced little in the way of bad weather besides a few squalls typical to the area…. but these come up really quickly and one needs to be prepared to put in reefs or drop the mainsail to deal with the winds which, in our experience this time, did not reach more than 30 knots. The worst part is dealing with the grumpy, lumpy seas afterwards (and the grumpy engineer husband who cannot believe that he can’t find a way to control our motion in these waters)!

We had obtained a permit from BIOT (British Indian Ocean Territories) for a month in Chagos. This allowed us to anchor in certain designated areas and in addition laid down many rules, accompanied by the threat of (massive!) fines for lack of acquiescence: no anchoring outside the designated areas / no scuba diving / no spear fishing / no keeping or cutting coral or plants / no catching coconut crabs, etc.

So we sailed south and put our anchor down at Ile du Coin. First jobs: Irene went off to check on the set of the anchor (snorkelling) and Rolf sat on the bottom of the sugar scoop to prepare the fish (mullet… i.e white fish - yay!) caught in the pass. This provided Irene with some thrilling moments. As she returned to the boat (anchor was fine…. we love our over-sized Rocna anchor!), she was delighted to see great numbers of large fish in agitated movement at the port side. Her delight was decidedly tempered by the arrival of a black-tip reef shark… which was rather more determined than agitated. Her delight completely dissipated when she realised that the food source for the feeding frenzy was coming off the boat: essentially, Rolf was chumming the water, with her in it!! Chagos lesson #1: do not clean your fish off the back of your boat, unless you are trying to summon the sharks.

Above the Chagos waterline are beautiful small islands; many are out of bounds and we explored about 10 of those allowed. Very dense in the interior with coconut palms, layers of huge fallen fronds and coconuts (rotting) and incredible numbers of hermit crabs (tiny to pretty large and of a great variety of colours) to pick your way through, they are very interestingly different from other forests and provide a cool (albeit exceptionally humid) high canopy under which to make your sweaty way forward and look out for the small areas of hardwood trees, odd fruit trees and huge coconut crabs which occur in large numbers on the islands. The small beaches (generally covered at high tide) have soft, white sand and are great to explore as the tides bring in coral and shells (not allowed to collect), as well as interesting things to scavenge: Rolf was like a happy boy playing in a junk yard when he salvaged endless floats, hooks and pieces of line for Ketoro.
The sea also washes up FADs: Fish Aggregating Devices, these float at sea with nets or logs underneath which attract small fish which in turn attract bigger fish; at the surface is a big sealed electronic device which transmits its position to the owner but sometimes the electronic parts get new owners when stripped out by yachties who find the FADs washed ashore (they also contain a large number of D-cell batteries). We were given a great show when we came upon 7 small sharks that had trapped a bait ball of small fish in a corner of a tiny island with its reef; when the sharks were satiated and more listless with their hunting the trevallys and other predator fish moved in; the red-foot boobys nesting in the tree above watched.
Ile du Coin is the biggest of the islands in Peros Banhos and was the centre of the copra industry that thrived here for about a century (see Chagos history at the end of this blog). The original plantation buildings, complete with homes, small jail, church/school, cemetery and water well are derelict and moss-covered but provide a fascinating picture of what it might have been like: the original home of the manager of the plantation huge and stately, all buildings with massive walls and with roofs falling in; the jail with its 4 doors still holding strong but roofs again clearly a weak point! Some of the railway is still evident, as are the railway trolley-cars, and the pier's remains tell their own story.
The other left-over is the donkey: donkeys were originally used for various functions at the copra processing plant and there is one survivor (a few generations on). A very healthy male, it is surely nonetheless lonely and honks (hee-haws!) at visitors to the island; we thought it a shame that BIOT have not made an attempt to give him company (human even), perhaps by moving him to Diego Garcia to be amongst equals on the US military base there?!

We found a wonderful community of yachties. At no stage were there more than 9 yachts in this atoll, usually less than 5 at a particular anchorage, but the other sailors were welcoming and friendly, leading to many evenings of sundowners on a boat, group walks (and beachcombing!), dinghy excursions together to distant snorkel areas, and in our case invaluable help from the others who have spent many seasons in the areas to which we are heading. A great friendship was established in this short time with a couple who became mentors to us.

What about underneath the Chagos waterline? Well…. my, oh my…. WOW. With no human pollution or disturbance and no commercial fishing (except for illegal Sri Lankan fishing boats occasionally) the reefs and waters of Chagos have developed for many decades just as nature intended. The corals are truly amazing: soft and hard corals, massive, healthy and of huge variety of type and colour, they grow alongside and on top of each other from near the beach out to the drop-off, where the resultant complex 3-dimensional gardens have the most fascinating topography. With and around this the many fish (small, large, colourful, camouflaged, fish-shaped and exceedingly oddly-shaped) swim, play, eat, clean each other, catch others or hide from their predators in a world totally intriguing to us. We were sorry not to be able to scuba dive but the snorkelling was so wonderful that we did not really miss it: and our breath-holding improved enormously as we dived down to investigate what was hiding under the huge plate corals or in the holes and caves. (Unsure why diving is disallowed, we assume it is because, as with spear-fishing, there is increased potential for accidents and health problems which clearly are hugely problematic in this remote place…. and would necessitate assistance from the navy at Diego Garcia, which is why we signed our bank accounts over to them when applying for our permits to Chagos!)

Also under the Chagos waterline…. sharks. Reef sharks, mostly black-tip, some white-tip, some grey, are prolific but each seems to have its own reefs/areas that it prowls constantly. And every area has at least one shark. So wherever and whenever you go to explore the reef, you will encounter sharks (we saw sharks on every outing except one). Reef sharks are not aggressive to humans (apparently) but they are very curious and circle a few times as they check you out. But you know what? They are sharks… and one is very respectful of these incredible beasts! You don’t want to be too far from your dinghy when a shark is curious so….. Chagos lesson#2: pull your dinghy with you when snorkelling. On one occasion Irene waited longer than Rolf to end her swim and turned to see a shark, more aggressively curious than he should have been, approaching at speed, not more than 2 metres away (he was probably intending to bump and move off???) Getting into an inflatable from in the water is not an easy process and is generally not achieved briskly or graciously. The speed of Irene’s exit from the water on this occasion is something of which to be extremely proud. Her grace and dignity, however, reached new lows as she found herself at the bottom of the dinghy, spluttering, fins entangled with snorkel somehow. Rolf, having seen this coming before Irene did, was standing in the dinghy and beating down on the water with our trusty hard plastic baton (Irene’s knight in shining armour; however, this was an encouragingly improved reaction from him as he is usually expected to be seen laughing uproariously on such occasions). We developed our own Chagos rule #3: two people plus dinghy present a united front worthy opponent to a shark; emitting low-pitched growls appears to deter them and finally with baton on nose they will be further discouraged and pick on a less confusing target!

Then again, under the waterline.... lunch! Trying to avoid the tinned beans, we are still living off the land (as it were) and catching fish for the pan. Tried to catch fish from Ketoro and lost 2 lures at speed (“what happened there?” expressions on our faces) then pulled in a ... black-tip!! Oh my: newbies to sailing, newbies to fishing, newbies to shark-handling... Happily, at this stage another sailor came up to us in his dinghy; a single-handed sailor for the last 24 years, this man is clearly not a newbie and proceeded to do dental surgery on the shark (from his dinghy) to get the hook out; we were delighted and the shark apparently so too, swimming off at speed with most of his teeth and gum intact: no metal fillings! We have had some success with catching squid off the boat and are becoming adept at not allowing these angry meals-to-be to shoot their black ink all over us / the boat / the dinghy. It is no mean feat to turn these guys into restaurant-style calamari rings…

Having mentioned to another yachtie how generally unsuccessful we are at catching fish (other than sharks, apparently, and tuna, which are stupid enough to catch themselves), he took us out on his dinghy to show us how it is done. Rod each. First line taken: Irene fought (wo)manfully with this huge thing that felt, half-way through, as if it had got a lot heavier and immeasurably stronger .... she successfully pulled in half a huge Trevally, with the shark (other half in belly) still attached to the fish and another 3 circling fast and close (picture: we rocking and rolling in tiny dinghy); the shark had to be discouraged with the back of the gaff after which he tried to jump in the dinghy (he knew where to get the rest of his supper)! All too exciting really, from then on we were all slipping around in the bloody water at bottom of dinghy and trying not to fall out. Seriously trying not to fall out.
Settled the nerves etc then off again; Rolf's line taken, shark on end, shark won and kept the lure. Rolf's next lure taken again and he pulled in a whole, non-sampled Trevally ... many suppers with one-and-a-half trevallys!

Above and below the waterline: turtles and dolphins. In abundance. On one occasion our dinghy was joined by a pod of dolphin that came from all sides to swim and play in our bow-wave. With 10 at any one time having fun, we could not stop, so drove up and down many times, accompanied by these giant glistening bodies shooting past and up and in front of us: seemingly smiling! Well, we were too, and particularly when we stopped and hopped into the water with our snorkel gear to swim with them, finding there were at least 30 in his pod, circling below and around us. A treat of a lifetime.

Chagos sounds like all fun-and-games. Well, it is, really; except sometimes the fun is tempered by anxiety brought about by your isolation and exposure to Mother Nature and her powers. Even within the atoll we had massive storms: some led to threatening situations on anchor, on a lee shore with gale-force winds (anchor watch all night, finger poised over the throttle switch: tense times; several yachts have become damaged in this archipelago) and some were experienced just in transit between anchor spots a few miles apart (F9 winds inside the atoll: testing).

When in Chagos, your daily activities are particularly intertwined with the environment and this experience has reminded us to appreciate our planet’s cycles and the impact we can have. Our memories of the Chagos archipelago are awesome.

Summarised Chagos history: (we apologise if there are inaccuracies in this history, but hope that it gives a picture of the background, political machinations and subsequent miseries that dictated the lives of those on Chagos). Initially visited by Portuguese explorers in 1743, the Chagos islands were subsequently claimed by France a few years later. France leased the islands to two Frenchmen who established Copra plantations and a small fishing industry – exporting mainly to Mauritius. Workers were mainly slaves. Around 1810 – 1815 subsequent to the defeat of Napoleon, Britain took over Mauritius and Chagos from France.

Britain appeared to honour the lease of Chagos and in 1834, with the abolition of slavery, the workers were freed of slave status and became contract workers for wages. The leases and concessions appear to have passed hands and in 1883 the copra oil interests on Peros Banhos and Diego Garcia merged into a private company which recruited labour from Mauritius, Madagascar and Mozambique.

By 1945 the British military presence was withdrawn, about 60% of the population had been born on the islands and in the late 1950’s the company was purchased by a Seychelles group with the result that many islanders left for Mauritius and were replaced by workers from Seychelles. The copra plantations struggled financially and some islands were abandoned. In 1965 the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) was created by Britain to provide sites for joint US / UK military facilities. Initially the BIOT comprised of transfers from Britain’s crown colonies: Chagos Archipelago (from Mauritius) and Aldabra, Desroches and Farquhar island groups (from Seychelles). Britain bought out the private contractual rights of the Seychelles commercial interests in 1967 and started evacuating the residents (about 500 workers and their families) on grounds that they were simply temporary contract workers. Evacuations – mainly to Mauritius - were completed by 1973 and in 1971 the US military started building on Diego Garcia. At present the sole remaining component of BIOT is the Chagos Archipelago which is uninhabited by civilians and with Diego Garcia occupied only by US military personnel and a small number of UK military personnel.

Britain evidently paid compensation to the various interests involved and also paid a grant to Mauritius to assist with re-settlement of the evacuees. However, the resettlement appears to have been largely unsuccessful, with the re-settled Chagos ex-residents living in poverty, and litigation against Britain commenced almost thirty years ago. Recent news suggests that the British High Court has found in favour of the former inhabitants of Chagos and negotiations are underway on how the matter is to proceed.