25 June 2018
This season has been marked by some of the most challenging anchoring conditions we've experienced yet. In Gan (our last destination in the Maldives), we wedged ourselves into an impossibly small harbour created for a couple of coastguard boats and a handful of small water taxis. There really was no other tenable option for protection from the blinding rain and 35 knot winds when we arrived so we convinced ourselves that we could squeeze in between the local boats (in addition to well a catamaran and two monohulls also seeking protection).
We positioned ourselves two metres behind the stern of a water taxi and pulled back to set the anchor, ending up a boat length in front of the catamaran (or the 50 foot monohull, depending on how we swung). Then the squalls started again. Winds peaked at over 40 knots (which was about one fifth of Tom's heart rate!). With the engine running, we watched skippers on the other boats do the same, and anxiously made it through the night. For days, we all managed to swing around in the winds in synchrony, fully aware that well placed horseshoes has as much to do with it as anchoring skill. We love our anchor!
Port Mathurin Harbour in Rodrigues is much, much larger than the tiny one in Gan. But once per week 'Anna' - the 200 meter (or so) supply ship arrives. To sidle up to the dock, Anna has to swing herself around inside the Harbour. There is little space to spare in this maneuver so cruisers are required to leave the Harbour until Anna has unloaded and departed.
And because there are frequently too many boats for the Harbour to accommodate, the exact moment Anna leaves, cruisers scramble for position to be first in the Harbour channel entrance. When the wind howls (and it does regularly), it tugs fiercely against hulls, stretching anchor chains to their limit. It isn't uncommon for a boat to end up on the reef here, so gentlemanly sportsmanship flies out the window and the mad scramble for position is as frantic as a game of musical chairs.
The tight fit between boats and the reef left us all a bit sleep deprived many mornings. In spite of numerous position checks in the middle of the night we actually slept through a near incident when a boat in front of us dragged anchor and miraculously missed us as it drifted past. It came within 2 metres of colliding with the boat behind us before the skipper was woken up by another cruiser who just happened to be awake at the time. Horseshoes again!
15 June 2018
Once we settled into the anchorage and the winds abated, we went to shore to stretch our legs and explore a bit. Within 5 minutes we were greeted by Harry, a tall, elderly man who hopped off his bicycle and welcomed us to the Island. He told us a little about Port Mathurin and Rodrigues, where to find supplies, and asked us to sign his guest book. He loves interacting with visitors and sharing stories with people from around the world. We met many friendly people during our stay, but none matched the ambassadorial charisma of Harry. He spoke excellent English, influenced no doubt by his gregariousness and commitment to interacting with visitors. (While English is the official language on Rodrigues, the locals consider French - a Creole version - to be their native tongue).
Too small on a world map to get much attention, we knew very little about Rodrigues until we arrived. Here's a bit of information we learned (in addition to what we learned from Harry), which you may find interesting as well:
Rodrigues is about 89 km long and 6,5 wide, and is 560 km northeast of Mauritius. Today it's home to just over 40,000 people but it was actually uninhabited until 1528, when it was discovered by Portuguese navigator Don Diego Rodriguez. The Dutch followed, then the French, and finally the English, until both Rodrigues and her big brother Mauritius gained independence from England in 1968. By then, the landscape had been altered so much that many of the unique plants and animals had lost too much of their natural habitat and many became extinct, like the Dodo bird and giant tortoise. Also during this time, African slaves were brought to work on plantations, and today 97 percent of Rodriguan inhabitants are descendants of these slaves. Remnants of French and English occupation permeate today's culture on Rodrigues, blended together with Indian and African influences. Here you drive on the left, pay for goods with the rupee, eat a unique style of french cuisine infused with Indian spices, and walk along roads with colonial architecture, intermixed with clapboard buildings and corrugated roofs.
People who choose to stay on the Island (rather than leaving to build careers on Mauritius), enjoy the slower pace and simple lifestyle. They live in basic homes, grow their own fruit and vegetables (organic by necessity and so tasty!), the men fish while women collect octopus in the lagoon, they place a priority on raising their kids, and engage in whatever work is available. The local economy is struggling, and 37% of Rodrigues live below the poverty line, but people seem genuinely content here. Education and healthcare are free, but there is a perceived lack of generosity by Mauritius in sharing the wealth generated by industry and tourism. In spite of any discontent, there is almost no crime on Rodrigues. The local prison accommodates only 5-6 inmates, and acts on a come-and-go-as-you-please regime. Serious offenders are sent to Mauritius. Nobody can even recall when the last murder occurred on Rodrigues.
We found the countryside beautiful. Small farm plots overlook the protective reef that extends miles out from the undulating folds of the steep volcanic hillsides, rimming the Island with bright, shimmering turquoise. Reef fish like grouper and parrotfish are often on the menu, as is octopus (the creole octopus curry is my favorite). Concerns about overfishing has led authorities to ban commercial fishing inside the reef and locals are only permitted to fish in traditional boats without a motor as a means to protect remaining stocks. Plastic bags have been banned from the Island, Locals tote their goods in paper or cloth bags, cardboard or wooden boxes, and sturdy plastic bins. Plastic bottles and containers continue to pollute the landscape here like everywhere else, but until Coca Cola and its partners ramp up their new 'World Without Waste' program, eliminating plastic bags is a good start.
We always like to explore on foot, and spent many hours trekking up, down, and around the hillsides. Local buses are a great way to explore too of course, and on Rodrigues each bus is run independently and personalized with a decorative mural in keeping with its name, like Prince of Love, King of the Road, or Rottweiler. Riders are entertained by the driver's favorite tunes which scream through the speakers at high volume.
One excursion took us to a park on the beach where we planned to head out for a day hike. We were immediately greeted by an enterprising young man who asked us if we'd like to have fresh fish and papaya salad for lunch on the beach. We had already eyed the new patio restaurant across the street but were persuaded by our travel mates to be a bit more adventurous and try local cuisine on a picnic bench. After a 45 minute wait paper plates and plastic forks arrived along with a bottle of water. A tray of grilled reef fish (head,tail and all) and a bowl of grated green papaya were plunked down on the table between us, which we shared with 2 other tourists. We worked hard at discreetly extracting tiny bones from each forkful of fish while waving swarms of flies away from our food. An elderly local woman in a tiny bikini squeezed in between us, chatting continuously at us and passers by in French, later following us on our hike and riding the same bus back to town. A memorable afternoon for sure!
A real highlight for us during our brief stay was a trip to the Francois Leguat Giant Tortoise and Cave Reserve. Here we walked with endangered giant turtles who, having been raised in captivity, were completely unafraid of humans and absolutely loved having their necks rubbed. We also explored caves with stalactites and stalagmites, and spotted the Rodrigues fruit bat, the world's rarest bat.
(new images in the photo gallery)
Chagos to Rodrigues
23 May 2018
The Dilemma: Do we push our stay to the limit of our visa in this version of paradise? Or do we take advantage of the (relatively) good weather window and set sail to Rodrigues before the window slams shut?
Calculating optimal time frames for passages is always a challenge. But the strict rules for Chagos enhance this challenge to the point that sailors typically spend less than their allotted time there to avoid being forced to leave in bad weather when their 28 day visa expires.
The Indian Ocean had shared its friendly, tame side with us up until Chagos and we weren't keen to expose ourselves to its infamous wild side. So after a couple of weeks of playing tourists we went back to work analyzing weather forecasts, and prepared to leave at the 3 week mark. We set sail 8 days before our visa expired. Two other boats chose to leave at the same time and we were able to maintain 'eye contact' with both throughout the trip.
Our journey to Rodrigues would take us south into increasing trade winds where we would be guaranteed plenty of wind and swell. The tactic - to minimize wear and tear on the boat (and discomfort for the crew) is to head east initially to clear Chagos Bank where winds are generally lighter, and then head due south, before eventually curving southwest where the southeast winds are strongest. This allows you to make a final run into Rodrigues from the east with the wind and swell behind you.
Heading east into headwinds and accompanying swell the first day was like taking preventative medicine. But taking our medicine early ended up being a great plan. Our first day of discomfort was rewarded by a couple of days of relatively easy sailing. We were able to catch our breath and brace ourselves for the final days which, as predicted, tested our grit as sailors. Winds slowly built from 20 to 25, accompanying swell increased from 2 to 3 meters. Our auto pilot performed well until the winds reached 30, which combined with a 3-4 meter swell just aft of the beam made his work a challenge. Maintaining course by hand steering was worse so fortunately 'Otto' persevered.
Our mainsail traveller line however, gave up on us - but not until our last night at sea. With the weather forecast looking grim in the days ahead, we were eager to maintain speed and stay the course. So with plenty of fuel and less than 100 miles to go, we fired up the engine and (combined with a small section of genoa) made a run for Rodrigues with 25+ knots of wind and 3-4 meter seas on our aft quarter. It was a fast last 24 hours often in the 7.5 to 8 knot range! We arrived safely the next afternoon before the weather intensified further, happy and relieved to be able to enjoy a nice meal and get a good long sleep in a protected anchorage. Some of our fellow cruisers who left after us had a more challenging sail.
27 April 2018
Everything about Chagos is extreme. The small atolls in the middle of the Indian Ocean are mere specs on the globe. They're remote and exremely challenging to get to. Otherwise known as BIOT (British Indian Ocean Territory) Chagos is one of the largest marine protected areas in the world. Six hundred forty thousand square kilometers of surrounding ocean is protected against commercial fishing, and other than the Military Base on Diego Garcia, the Islands (atolls) are completely uninhabited. Visitors (yachts in transit) must receive permission and a permit to enter the atolls and are allowed to anchor in only a few designated areas - and only for a maximum of four weeks. No camping ashore is permitted and everything brought in must be taken with you when you leave. The marine and bird life here is incredible. Snorkeling provided us to exposures to numbers and sizes of fish we've not seen before. We spent many hours swimming among schools of bright colored parrot fish, groupers, unicorn fish, moorish idols, butterfly and surgeonfish of incredible varieties and bright orange wrasses. Stunningly colorful, twice as large and many times more abundant than any time in our previous experience. We swam with reef sharks and four metre manta rays, and were impressed at the degree of coral recovery since the most recent El Nino event(particularly the large clumps of pink brain coral). Curious Red Footed Boobies and young sea birds of various unique species seem fearless in terms of human contact. They flew half a meter above our heads and allowed us to get close enough when perched on deck to actually touch them. Coconut crabs were literally everywhere on shore. Within an hour of wandering through the bush we spotted well over 50 of all sizes and colors. Generally very shy, we found them wedged into crevasses of trees, hiding between fallen coconuts and peeking out beneath clumps of dirt and leaves. But having heard about a cruiser losing her finger when she got too close, we were careful to watch our step and not point too close! The skies are dramatic here every single day. Beautiful but rain and wind-filled, we watched clouds tumble across the sky for days on end, waiting for squalls and torrential rain to subside. And strangely enough, a small group of adventurous cruisers crossing the Indian Ocean each year end up here for a brief time (approxmately 40). Truly an international group, the cruisers we met here from fourteen boats included Germans, Dutch, Australians, Americans, French, Swiss, and even French Canadians. Some we've met before and many we look forward to seeing again along our journey West. Chagos, extremely special.
(new images in the photo gallery)
The Maldives in Retrospect
24 April 2018 | Gan
Before we left for the Maldives from Malaysia we were filled with trepidation. We had heard that there had been a shift towards more traditional and radical Islam and that the Maldives was a major source for ISIS recruits. Then the news that the President called a state of emergency, jailing the chief justice and was having the military control the streets added to our anxiety. Numerous national governments were advising tourists to avoid the Maldives. We were also told the locals tended to be unfriendly and preferred that “yachties” would stay away from their villages.
As a result of the above we decided to avoid the capital (Malé), avoid villages as much as possible and try to survive our trip South through the islands before heading off to Chagos.
Then we arrived in Uligan, had a warm welcome from our agent Assad and all the officials who checked us in with friendly efficiency. On multiple visits to the town of Uligan we were met by locals who were consistently friendly and very helpful. This was not the Maldives we had expected.
This experience has continued throughout our 7 weeks here and as documented in other blogs, this is one of the best countries we have visited. The diving has been spectacular, the anchorages to die for and with a few exceptions the local population friendly, outgoing and very helpful.
We get the sense that the Maldivians are proud of their country and really care about its future. Those that we got to know were happy to talk about their political views, always an interesting topic here.
In summary, as is often the case, the party line in the media bears little resemblance to the reality on the street. We are happy we didn’t heed all the nay sayers as we would have missed one of the best cruising grounds in the world.
A Quick Trip South
22 April 2018 | Gan
After leaving “Paradise” we had a fairly quick (for cruisers) trip further South. We were starting to look towards our trip to Chagos and beyond and were beginning to count the days until checkout.
Our first stop was Dhangethi, a small village about 6 hours South. The entrance was over a reef with me one the bow, calling coral heads to avoid. The depth got down to 12 feet, safe but anxiety provoking. The anchorage was calm and shared with a number of safari (tourist live aboard) boats. We picked up a few provisions and stayed a second day due to squally weather. The further South we get (closer to the equator) the more unsettled the weather.
The next morning we headed for Mafassaru Kandu, a recommended stop to the East of us. Again after a trip through a field of coral we settle in behind a sandy reef in 25 feet of water. We immediately jumped in and checked out the reef in front of us as well as the set of the anchor. All was well so we relaxed on the boat for the rest of the day. We had initially planned to spend a few days here but the call of heading South had us up the next morning, retracing our path through the coral and off on an overnight sail to Maahva.
Our initial plan was to anchor off a small reef in the centre of the the South Hadhunmathee Atoll. However flexibility is an essential part of cruising and as 15-20 knot winds and associated waves were coming in from the West the admiral (Kim) suggested an alternate anchorage behind and sheltered by the West side of the atoll near Maahva.. This required a bit of navigating to avoid a couple of large reefs but overall it was a much better choice (the skipper, initially unhappy with any change in plans had to agree). However by morning the wind had shifted 120 degrees and left us in a position of being pushed up onto the West reef. Again flexibility prevailed as we made a quick exit when the depth under our keel shrunk to under 5 feet!. What was to be quiet day snorkelling and resting turned into a trip across the atoll in 25 knots of wind and a second overnight to a small protected bay in front of a small town, Thinadhoo. This provided a well appreciated rest with no reefs or swell to worry about. The next few days were spent relaxing and provisioning for our upcoming trip to Chagos. We also topped up the diesel tanks and changed the engine oil.
One last overnight has got us to Gan, the most Southern part of the Maldives. The trip was not without a few torrential downpours! In fact we delayed our entry into the anchorage after arrival due to blinding rain and 20 knot winds. This was to be bettered by 37 knot winds once we were “comfortably anchored” within two boat lengths of two other yachts (was Neptune getting back at us perhaps for not sharing our dwindling supply of alcohol as we crossed the equator the night before?)
After the weather improved we found Gan and associated villages to be great. We had been given the name of a local (Mulla) who went out of his way to help us. We also had a great lunch with the crews of the two boats we anchored so close to. Now just a couple of days of provisioning and weather routing and we will say goodbye to the Maldives.