Sunday, May 30, 2010

Living and visiting in the Maldives

Think about your country. Visualise its size and shape, its height, feel its mass, let your mind walk its earth and experience its topography: mountains and valleys, forests, deserts and waterways, cities and farmlands. Ok, so if you are Maldivian you would have finished this exercise in less than one minute and would now be going out for delicious short eats (spicy fish balls, samoosas, spring rolls) and Red Bull!

The Maldives has almost nothing above sea level: a fact that becomes apparent when cruising the atolls with a desire to ‘explore the islands’. Go there with a desire to explore underwater and you are immensely rewarded, whether snorkelling / diving one of the many famous sites of one of the largest reef systems in the world or simply exploring the drop-off or bommie closest to your boat or on the island’s house reef: vistas of stunning corals and myriads of fish in famously clear waters.

With approximately 1200 islands (to give an idea of their size, this is a variable number as the vast majority of these low lying coralline islands come and go with the waves, current and wind!…) and hundreds of un-vegetated reefs, a map shows a swathe of dots sprinkled on the big blue. The archipelago rises up dramatically from 3000m ocean floor, while between atolls the sea floor is at about 200m down and generally the depths inside the atolls are from 30 to 50m. Land heights contrast sharply with sea depths: the highest island (Hulhumale island - reclaimed land that accommodates the airport of the capital, Male) stands proud at 3m above sea level. (Atholu is the only Maldivian word that is used in the English language: “atoll” commonly used for a ring-shaped island or coral reef that surrounds a lagoon and is in turn surrounded by open sea).

The 300 000 short, slim, mild mannered, friendly Maldivians live on about 20% of the islands i.e. most of the ‘real’ islands. Many islands are merely rocks that nevertheless remain above sea level at all states of tide and are therefore counted. Resort islands dominate the country: there are more than 100 resorts in the Maldives with most of these located on their own island; each resort fills its island completely and many must spill over the adjacent sea and reef on their stilt-bungalows to offer sufficient accommodation. Tourism is the Maldives biggest (only?) income generator and Male is geared to piping in and shuffling around the thousands that come to the resorts or one of the 120 Safari boats.

Yachties, however, are not regarded as tourists worth encouraging. So cruising the Maldives is made discouragingly costly, requires a permit which takes a week to process (which week is nonetheless paid for as if cruising), limits your activities and allows the boat in the archipelago for a total of only 6 weeks. Yachties, presumably, must be kept away from locals, and evidently the resorts have influence in limiting independent yachting… as well as refusing you access to their islands. One result is that not many yachts cruise the area (we saw only 2 private boats in our two months here) and there is a dearth of useful information for cruisers.

The absence of information is at best tedious and more often, a hazardous challenge, when you are in the Maldives on your boat and need to firstly find an island where you may anchor, secondly find a passage through the fringing reef into the lagoon; then find a suitable anchorage…. in good sand / mud and in depths of about 4m to 16m… with no pilot guide and little other reference material to assist. The start of howling SW Monsoon winds at the time did little to calm matters!

In Male you anchor in Hulhumale lagoon and this is a surreal experience that has made a lasting impression. The anchorage is located at the end of the international airport’s main runway and 747s during landing and take-off are less than 200m above your head. The little twin engined seaplanes that ferry tourists between the airport and the resort hotels similarly take off and land on a strip of sheltered sea adjacent to the main runway. Dozens of Safari Boats (chartered wannabe superyachts / house boats on steroids, that accommodate about six crew and ten - twelve guests and each accompanied by its own support boat / dive boat and its dinghy) dominate the anchorage while they turn around guest parties every week or so – and the resulting boat traffic and departing / arriving guest parties adds to the air of expectancy and excitement. Then there are fuelling barges and ferries moving in and out from the jetty every 15 minutes…. and the turtle who regards us with interest as he surfaces to inhale! About 2 miles away is Male island, covered end to end with the city buildings and a few hundred metres the other way is the first of the resort islands. Between the two is the fuel island (a small island that serves as the country’s main fuel depot), the prison island, and the president’s holiday island. Anchored between all of these are over 20 large commercial ships, mostly no doubt bringing supplies to a country that can supply little of its own goods.

Examining how the people of the Maldives supply every inhabited or resort island with the facilities necessary for human habitation is fascinating, and the costs must be exorbitant. Each island has its own diesel powered generators, its own watermaking plant (usually RO systems), rubbish disposal (usually a dedicated boat, and its own sewage disposal (don’t ask). The islands are magnificent and it is little wonder that thousands of tourists fly in for a weeks’ visit…. Thank heavens they do so, for there is no other way for the Maldivians to run their lives without this income.

Male town is small, with narrow busy roads, motorbikes everywhere, beautiful mosques, interesting streets with colourful buildings and magnificent huge trees; it has a reasonable produce market (Maldivian produce only: other fresh goods can be found at the small Indian stores, mostly imported from India and Australia) and fish market (with incredible congestion in the supply harbour…) and shops that are mostly little “spaza” shops with random assortments of things, but yet also world-standard electronics shops! There are plenty of small tea houses and restaurants supplying tasty eats from cheap local to expensive foreign menus.

So we have experienced, in the past 2 months here (working around the “only 6 weeks maximum” rule involved a passage beyond Maldives to the ‘high seas’ and back again and some poetic license with documentation to ensure that we would be allowed to stay until the kids left ….!) very stressful times picking our way through and around bommies (small raised areas of coral rising quickly and steeply from the floor), grounding on a reef (more about that later), being refused entry to islands and unceremoniously ushered away from others, anchoring and re-anchoring to find a spot that holds and also does not cause us to swing onto bommies! Add to this the fact of no water maker for 16 days and a change of season: the SW monsoon season was heralded by regular gales and big seas. Fun times indeed to share with visitors…! This summary gives an indication of the difficulties experienced in cruising the Maldives. However, it has been a wonderful experience, particularly when shared with friends and family… and we DID see amazing sights and were warmly welcomed by some of the resort islands.

Our first taste of the archipelago (our time in the southern-most atoll, Addu) was made memorable by being the only place where land could be explored (on foot and by motorbike), with causeways joining the four islands. The anchorages on the way up to Male (referred to in a previous blog) were relatively easy and very beautiful. We have since explored the atolls of North and South Male (big tourist atolls and hence most islands have resorts on them, some more welcoming than others) and Gaafaru Atoll, our most northern anchorage. But before we did that….

We grounded the boat on a reef. Setting off from Hulhumale harbour the plan was to explore some potential anchorages on our way up to collect our first set of visitors (Geoff and Sue) where they were staying at Helengeli Island Resort. The channel into a nearby island resort area proved to be our undoing… when your draft is 1.4m and the water depth is 1.9m and then 1.4m and then 0.9m, it is too late! Well, it was for us. There are many things we did wrong, of course, to put our house on the reef, and the hideous scraping, grinding, bumping noises as it bounced up and down (rolly seas do not improve the situation) all drove the point home (simultaneously with driving the keels down hard and then, more unfortunately, driving the rudder blades up very hard.) With as much speed as possible, Irene dropped the dinghy onto the water and climbed in; there was now less weight on the back of the boat…. and we had a tool to push against the side of Ketoro and dislodge her from her perch (yeah right; and with the dinghy’s prop also hitting the rocks…). Before we could test this theory or more practically, use the dinghy to set a kedge anchor, a local dhoni (small ferry) came by and dragged us off. Well, fortunately the rudders were facing forward at the time (midships) because they were rammed up into the bottom of the hull, jamming them and resulting in our having no steering at all. The return to Hulhumale harbour was done with frayed nerves and great skill on the part of Rolf, using the engines to manoeuvre.

There are practically no repair facilities in Maldives and the rest of the day was spent underwater, first opening up a tiny gap between the hulls and the rudder blades and then getting in a saw blade to saw off the tops of the rudder blades (yes, you read that correctly) where they were jammed against the hulls, to create space between them and the hulls and thus allow the rudders to move. The deflection of the blades was presumably allowed by bending of the stainless steel rudder shafts (unlikely) and distortion of the delrin shaft bearings (probably). In any event we managed to achieve sufficient space between tops of rudders and bottom of hulls to be able to turn the wheel and steer the boat, with only moderately more effort and some notchiness in the action, and we were good to go again, which we did before daylight (and visibility) disappeared; thus after a busy day we left the atoll and sailed overnight to ensure we collected our first guests the next morning! (Replacing the rudder blades and bearings will happen in Thailand where the boat is due to be hauled out anyway for bottom painting.)

Sharing the Maldivian experience with guests

A wonderful day was spent at Helengeli resort island with Geoff and Sue, ending in a romantic dinner for 4 on the beach to celebrate our joint 32 year anniversaries (followed by their first taste of getting to and fro in the dark, rocking and rolling in the wet dinghy, using handheld GPS by torchlight to find our way round the reef: no, you cannot just head straight for the anchor light beckoning (and swaying wildly).

They then spent about 10 days with us, finding out what it is like to be on our boat. Sue’s meds enabled her to avoid sea-sickness and they enjoyed the travelling as well as the chilling out (particularly in the hammock strung beneath the trampoline - allowing bum in water and drink in hand on a very hot day!!); proved to be excellent bommie-spotters and navigators from the front of the boat when trying to find a passage through a reef or to anchor, and Geoff contributed fish to dinner admirably! We snorkeled, dived, sailed gently, visited a village and the capital city Male, and generally relaxed.

We all learned that you actually DO feel clean after sea-water baths…. Yup. Water maker broke again - on their second day with us. Man, were we disciplined: we used an average of 4 litres of fresh water pppd, including drinking water. Washing goes like this: sit on the sugar scoop (step) and wash with soap and a cup of fresh water, then jump in the sea to rinse off; turns out cheap shampoo actually lathers in sea water too. (Also turns out that long hair washed with cheap shampoo in sea water falls out at an even faster rate than normal). The naked, open air baths were made more interesting at the anchorages shared with big, lit-up Safari boats nearby. Dishes were washed in salt water and rinsed sparingly in fresh. (We now have a repaired water maker and rust on the cutlery and pots as a reminder.) Clothes washing….. none.

Gaafaru Atoll was our first port of call. Wow! With only a glimpse of a distant island, we were anchored in a lagoon bounded only by (submerged) reef. Beautiful snorkelling straight off Ketoro, and scuba diving from the dinghy at a nearby drop-off: activities that all of us enjoy tremendously and we found the coral and fish life superb. An attempt to anchor near the island and go in to the village was foiled by a fearsome barricade of bommies, making a dinghy ride too long and hence cancelled.

This was followed by several days meandering down inside North Male Atoll, with night anchorages (bath spots) either in the resort lagoons where we had received permission or in the public lagoons open to many boats. The Maldives have several renowned dive sites and we hovered in the boat near one of these while Geoff and Sue had a spectacular dive on the day of their anniversary… followed by a muffin spread for tea.

Well, 9 May was turn-around day: Geoff and Sue left us and 2 hours later the kids arrived, to be taken in the dinghy immediately to famous Banana Reef for snorkelling. Whereas G & S had experienced no weather (well, hot hot still days and calm seas) this changed on the day of their departure and the kids ushered in the start of the SW monsoon season!

So… Geoff and Sue had slept peacefully outside on the trampoline at night, with but a sheet and gentle breezes clothing them; Mark, Livi and Barry (Kay had no leave) sat whooping and cheering on the trampoline while we sailed at speed, dipping the bowsprit into the sea then lifting it to the sky, generally tossing the guys around and dowsing them with sea water (call it a bath, if you like).

The kids adapted well to the sea-bath concept and it was sometimes made even more fun when the agitated water livened up the bioluminescence so we had hundreds of sparkles around us. We ate exceptionally well and a favourite pastime was to obtain provisions from the sea while on the move: it seems the more hectic the activity the better (gutting the dorado or barracuda on the back step whilst flying forward and rocking and rolling enhances the experience it appears).

We also polished off the very last stores of boat booze: champagne and wine and whiskey saved from leaving SA 8 months ago, and the boys got opportunity to learn to love non-alcoholic Bavaria beer. Occasional trips to resort islands for a drink were enjoyed (Indians or Sri Lankans are employed at resorts to work behind the bar, open the drinks etc as Maldivians are not allowed to handle alcohol).

We sailed, rested, spent time away from any humans or land at Gaafaru, enjoyed the snorkelling and had several great dives. Ball games on / from a boat test many skills simultaneously, involving dives of a different kind… and one must be aware of the potential for guard rails to get caught in toes and other places more devastating.

There were few land trips (no land in the Maldives….!) but those we attempted were generally in a good SW Monsoon wind and seaway and so involved nimble footwork and good balance and a tolerance for wet clothes (to get into a wildly bouncing dinghy from the boat or jetty and then the reverse procedure) and often occurred at night…. Fortunately all undertaken with good humour and embracing the experience! There were several nights of playing cards/ emptying buckets of rain water into the tank/ sleeping /eating while gale-force winds tested our anchor (PAH!) and some days of motoring in same. Our children are becoming sailors!

We have a water-maker again. The necessary parts (7 small seals) arrived and needed to be fitted. Sounds simple. The job took 7 hours: 2 hours to remove the cabinet in which the pump is housed from a cramped locker in the hull and to remove the pump itself; 2 hours to open it, since every nut and bolt had “locktite” glue applied to it at manufacturing stage, in order to ensure it would never be free to open; then 3 hours to replace the seals and put it all together again (holding thumbs that the correct number of parts are found to fit the right places….). Happily, Mark was still with us as Rolf needed the extra muscle (….and brain…) so Mark’s skill set has now increased! With much trepidation the machine was turned on… and it works! However, we still have buckets at hand to catch the rain…