Wot's That Then?
30 April 2021
âWot's that then?â
âDunno kid. Never seen one before in me lifeâ. âWeird looking though. I mean. No wings, only one of them has a beak worth mentioning, no feathers, no nuthinââ
That's the exchange my pre Cruiseheimer's* brain imagined as we inadvertently passed a couple of feet underneath the few scrambled twigs that are a Red Footed Booby's nest, mother and chick peering inquisitively down through the foliage at us.
You see, there's not much goes on here in Chagos land. At least for the duration of the Covid catastrophe. Last year we had Chagos Pass #13 which, oddly, was rescinded at least six months before dear Boris caught onto the fact that his pal Donald might be wrong when he said something like Covid was just âlike a bit of the fluâ and perhaps we should tighten things up a bit. Talk about slamming doors after the horse has bolted! âSure folks. Why don't you take your spare cash, desperately needed by the UK hospitality sector, take it abroad and blow it on a long weekend in Spain. Just don't bring back any Covid.â I mean-how dumb was that plan? About as organised as his hair.
Anyway, rant over, back to Chagos where thankfully we can't get any news or access Social Meedya, it's possible that last year, one or two cruisers made it here under the wire, but I doubt it. Most got locked down in the Maldives. So, as we seem to be the first boat this year, we're getting some strange looks from the local fauna. Other than the ubiquitous trash adorning the high tide mark, the place is untouched. Exactly as nature intended. A bit like our back garden.
The administrators at BIOT (British Indian Ocean Territory) rigidly enforce the rules and regulations for those visiting Salomon Island and Peros Banhos, the two Chagossian islands in the group you're allowed to experience. (Five separate documents; the sixteen page Visitors and Vessel Ordinance, The fifteen page BIOT Guidance, Fishing Permit, Drone licence, Covid declaration and finally, your mooring permit. No wonder it costs Â£100 a week.
The archipelago is like the Galapagos but without people. Or David Attenborough. We're anchored in the peanut shaped Salomon atoll, approximately two miles by four. There's Booby birds - like Gannets with sunburned feet, Fairy and Sooty terns, Frigate birds, dolphins, sharks and a sufficiently wide range of fish to keep all these guys well fed. It also has a billion coconut palms.
Most nights, usually about an hour after high water we get a tapping on the hull. Initially we'd leap on deck to see who was abroad at that strange hour, a million miles from anywhere then we realised it was just the flotilla of coconuts making its stately way past, gently bobbing in the moonlight. During the day we amuse ourselves endlessly either walking clockwise round the island or, perhaps, if we're daring, anti-clockwise. These last couple of days it's been a full moon and so, spring tides. At low water, you could walk for half a mile out to the reef edge, or, as we're tempted to do, make a quick dash to the next island but you need to be quick as within an hour, you'll be wishing you'd brought your wellies. After two hours, composing your epitaph.
Anyway, pleased to report it's all very pleasant here. All it needs is some night life.
*Cruiseheimers: like Alzheimer's but specifically affecting the part of the brain that manages stress, fatigue, cold, wet and seasickness. The condition erases all such memories allowing the sufferer to gaily head off into the briny once again, probably under dressed and over-canvassed. Symptoms include sufferers making statements such as, âlook darling, it's a grand day for a sailâ and, âwe'll easily be in before that front arrivesâ.
23 April 2021
This popped into my scrambled head sometime overnight.
Pollock Trophy - Roy Hepburn and I in the 505 Seestu, about 1971
Polaris Trophy - Anne and I in Scotchmist, our first joint boat, a few years later. Like a wedding ring, just more practical and faster downwind.
Over the coming years we won a few more “gongs” in our Fireball but nothing of the quality of the “Big P’s”, both stunning sterling silver model boats about 13” long. (I wonder where they are now?).
Much later, i.e. life after kids, we tried our hand again, pot hunting in Beige Bandit, but that was only an exercise in frustration, pitching the Beige Battleship against hot shot lightweight French fibreglass. A double disaster.
As I scoured the recesses of my brain for any other major trophies, other than the nineteen bottles of rum we won in the ARC for being thoroughly nice people, it occurred to me that, other than my lovely wife, the only other trophy I’d won since then was atrophy.
Despite trying to offset the onset of maritime ageing, keeping nearby cruisers amused and passing locals bemused with
our mostly daily, deck dance cum workout, we’re creaking a bit more than we used to.
It’s these tropical climes you see. We’ve now spent many a year under tropical and equatorial suns. Not that I’m one to complain, but you’d think that by now we’d have acclimatised. Other than our annual pre-Covid trips home at Christmas, where we freeze our nuts off, we’ve been languishing in the steamy tropical heat for nearly ten years. Ten years where every day we’re awash in perspiration like Dirk Bogart in the African Queen, or indeed, for Scottish readers, Dan McPhail in the Vital Spark’s boiler room.
All “jagged up” we tore ourselves away from Gan, the southernmost island in the Maldives chain, under the relentless, searing sun........ and no flippin’ wind about a week, possibly a month ago. We liked Gan. It had that perfect combination for us. A real living village, locals bustling around, sweeping their yards, smartly dressed kids shuffling along to school, the harbour unloading the daily needs of the village, all as yet untarnished by mass tourism AND, hypocritically, ............ adjacent to a discrete five star resort with comfy chairs, WiFi and an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet.
The villages, for there’s actually four, the islands of Gan, Feydhoo, Maradhoo and Hithadhoo are all joined up by causeways. One tarmac road runs the full length, all eight and a bit miles. All the other roads are coral. Each village has its complement of small shops, mini markets, mini DIY stores and, of course, the phone shop. Clothing shops, old and new, line the dusty coral sand streets. Tiny traditional coral “brick” houses sit amongst smart, architect jobs, all verandahs and stainless steel balustrades. Smartly, all the homes are set amongst the shading coconut palms and spruce trees, presumably imported as I don’t think they’re local. Oddly; there’s no chooks running around. We’re used to mangy wildlife roaming the streets in the island communities - the rabid dogs of Fiji, Tonga’s street pigs, Indonesian roosters chasing hens all day and of course, the single handed cruisers.
Anyway, we left Gan behind and headed out for the three hundred miles through the Doldrums to Chagos, the island archipelago ceded to the Brits by the French way back in 1814. Presumably, as was the norm back then, the locals didn’t actually have a say in any of this.
Back in the sixties, when it was apparently OK to displace legal occupants from their family home of generations and ship them off over the horizon, the Brits shipped the locals out to Mauritius, Seychelles and, for those who again fell for the marketing, London. Having “cleared the decks” so to speak, the Chaps in Westminster then had the gall to sub-let the main island, which basically, we’d nicked, to the Americans and declared the rest a national park type thing, limiting access to passing cruisers, only to rest and recuperate as they wend their way across the Indian Ocean. Once a colonial power......
Our planned two day, three hundred mile off-wind wheech turned into a drifting match taking four days at an average speed of three point something knots, including the hours we motored through glassy seas. As if to emphasise how slow it was, at one time, a Mahi Mahi casually overtook us with nary a backward glance.
It’s unlike us to motor, but with a two plus knot W-E current for the first half of the crossing, painful as it was, if we hadn’t burned the diesel we’d have been on our way back to Malaysia. Fortunately, most of the time there was enough wind to ghost along under star lit skies. Ghosting in the absolute calm and quiet of the dark until......CRASH, BUMP, KERFUFFLE. Our chests pounding with fright, we dashed out the lounge into the patio, sorry, lapsed into catamaran speak there, we dashed out the cabin into the cockpit, to find an embarrassed looking Booby sitting on the steps trying with some difficulty to fold his wings into their non-flight mode. Like Rocky in the cartoon movie, Chicken Run, he’d crash landed into the boat, all feathers and poop.
Quickly, we rung his neck, plucked him clean and, with a dash of red wine and some garlic, popped him in the thermal cooker. Nah. We didn’t. Your hero calmed the poor wee soul with some Budgie speak which I learned from my Gran as a child, gathered him in a towel and launched the wee guy into the dark.
Finally we made it although, having clawed our way up wind to get around the last reef, we got a call from the BIOT boat we could see in the horizon. Out here, in the middle of nowhere we get this broad, west coast Scottish voice saying, “Time Bandit , Time Bandit, this is Grampian Venture”.
Our brave boys were in the process of nicking an illegal fishing boat and would we mind diverting three miles back downwind to go around the illegal net.
We met the team the next day. The skipper is from Oban, our summer base and one of the biologists has his boat in Ardrossan, just down the road from home.
*Vital Spark - see YouTube “Para Handy”
Any Bleeding Complaints?
15 April 2021 | With Aisee on the Home Stay promotion site
“Any bleeding complaints?”
“Eh? No. Actually, the service has been amazing. You see, we met this chap, Aisee, on the beach up in Gaidhoo. He was promoting the concept of Home Stays to the locals, encouraging them to set up a B&B network around the Maldives. This will allow tourists to see the REAL Maldives, meet and live amongst the people and see how they live. What makes the islands tick. Tourists will be able to flit from one island to the next, staying at Home Stays and see tons more of the country than just flying into a resort on stilts.”
Well, you see, it turns out Aisee is personal friends with both the President of the Maldives and the mayor of Adhoo Atoll. So when we got to talking we said that we had been looking to see if we could get a vaccine and Aisee said, “let me see what I can do”.
And so, here we are, we seen the islands, met the people and, now, the great news of getting a shot of Covishield. So, absolutely no complaints. Many thanks instead.
“No Mr Letton”, says the nurse, “I meant do you have any bleeding complaints”.
“Oh. Well, no to that as well”
And so ends our cruise through the Maldives. All sun, blue seas and a jag in the arm. 300 miles to Chagos.
Fin de la Jour
12 April 2021
I didn't know they did whales in the Maldives. As if there isn't enough to worry about, squalls, reefs, bommies and now; we've serious fin action - bloomin' great whales popping up all around, snorting and belching various putrid fishy smells into the air. The stink is the first sign they're nearby, if you didn't see them blow. (Thar she blows and all that). I know of three boats, a monohull on ARC Europe 2012 and two Outremers, that hit, well, something. The mono crew said they definitely hit a whale. They could see blood in the water as they prepared to abandon ship. The Outremers, of course, were going too fast to see anything but both had "Jaws" sized bites out their "wave piercing" bows, their crash boxes saving them from further embarrassment. The crew of the racy monohull ended up having a slow cruise to Italy courtesy of a passing tanker. So, when we see container ships passing, minus a container or two, or, as the other day, whales, close enough to smell their breath (a thought; do whales fart?) we get a bit concerned. The fact you're reading this means we escaped unharmed, with only a school of dolphins to give us close up fin action.
All this excitement was on our final, in fact, our only overnighter in the Maldives, the northern atolls being close enough you can just island hop and still get parked up for a night's, much needed and increasingly more important beauty sleep.
Maldives is for me, one of these places where some Maddison Avenue ad agency, or its Asian equivalent somewhere has done a stunningly good job of marketing. I mean, close your eyes for a second and just think to yourself, "Maldives". For most, I'd expect your brain would have fired off a whole bunch of electrons which, when assembled, would have built a picture of stunningly bright, silver sand islands, sat amongst calm, crystal clear blue seas, coconut palms wafting in the breeze and perhaps with divers annoying brilliantly coloured, exotic reef fish.
Well, it certainly has all that. To me, it's a bit of a tragedy that the developers have turned half the islands into sub-divisions and employ at most 50% Maldivian nationals. I mean, if you want a holiday in a villa in the sun, go to Butlins or better, rent my house. If on the other hand you want to experience the real Maldives, I'd recommend booking Home Stays, ideally, a few different ones along the island chain, travel inter-island by boat and then you'll meet the Maldivians and really experience the country.
Virtually all the coral we snorkelled over was long dead having been turned to rubble in the global warming driven "catastrophic coral bleaching" of 2016. While we like the scenery, especially the colours of the water, what we really enjoy and what we've missed is meeting the locals; seeing how and where people live their lives. The bloody virus and the rightly, strict Covid rules kept us off most inhabited islands and, lacking the boldness of the likes of the Pardeys or those on charter boats, we didn't much fancy creeping around uncharted reefs to drop our anchor off the many deserted islands, though, we did gird our loins and clench our buttocks and anchor amongst our fair share of them. Of the hundred or so inhabited islands we only got ashore on two, and now, the third and last, Feydhoo.....although that's really four as Gan, Feydhoo, Maradhoo and Hithadhoo are all joined up with causeways.
The British moved into Gan back in 1941 during the last unpleasantness, setting up an airbase to service Catalina and Sunderland flying boats. Coincidentally, our home port in Scotland, Largs, was also a wartime flying boat base.
During WWII the Gan based Fleet Air Arm provided air-sea rescue and anti-submarine patrols to protect the then vital sea routes to India and the Med. Unfortunately they missed the sub that got Captain Fred, my grandfather, and his crew. Thanks Tojo.
Anyway, back then, the local Gannites were moved to neighbouring Feydhoo and those on Feydhoo moved to Maradhoo and so on down the island chain. I'm not sure how long this domino effect went on, possibly until the last islanders relocated to Northolt, outside London and took over the air crews' houses, completing the circle. Today, the old British base is the rather pleasant Equator Village resort, so named, obviously, as it's a mere forty one miles from the equator and that puts us, wait for it........... back in the Southern Hemisphere. Soon, it will be winter. Temperature should soon plummet to near 31c!
The ceiling fans are whirring away in the old officer's mess where we are enjoying a nice cup of tea and some Tiffin and seeing people at last.
Not real people though. Just newly arrived Eastern Europeans who look like they've had their own bleaching event.
First Cut Is The Deepest
05 April 2021
First cut is the deepest. Four point three metres to be exact.
Anchoring here in the Maldives is something of a challenge. Getting a good night’s sleep, even harder. The general rule of thumb is to stay on the inside of the reef on the atoll’s windward side. Once there, nose up to said reef and drop the hook in the few metres of sand patch that, with luck, if you read Google Earth correctly and it wasn’t actually a passing cloud, is on the leeward side of the reef. Then, just as you’re finally getting to sleep in the thirty degrees and soggy wash cloth humidity, hope the wind doesn’t die overnight and you drift back onto the waiting reef.
The good news is that we’ve discovered that the aforementioned excavators have been doing their Mr Blippy. They’ve conveniently chopped cuts through some of the fringing reefs allowing access into the sheltered, temptingly blue, inner lagoons. On inhabited islands, the cuts allow access for the supply boats to feed and water the locals and the high speed inter island ferries to facilitate visiting the mother-in-law or a bit of shopping on the “big island”.
About half the inhabited islands are resorts, where, as again I’ve previously mentioned, (yawn) room rates, possibly including one’s butler, top floor to ocean water slide and access to as many restaurants as you can shake a fork at, charge from $1,000 to $4,000 per night. One island we passed is for rent on an exclusive basis. Bring the family!You can rent the whole island and it’s included motor yacht on an exclusive basis for a trifling $40,000 per night!!
Unfortunately, cruisers anchoring in the resort lagoons are about as welcome as “Travelling People” showing up in your neighbourhood beauty spot. Consequently we’re restricted to non resort islands, inhabited or uninhabited - and having struggled to anchor around both, now seek out those with these man-made cuts, all in the hope they haven’t silted over and are wide enough and deep enough.
All said, we’ve found it’s best to sail in company. It is however crucial to engineer the passage so they arrive first. Ideally your buddy boat will not be very good at Mexican Train Dominoes, have air-con and most importantly, have forward looking sonar and ideally, you’ll be in a boat suited for these waters, perhaps, a full keel, Island Packet?
02 April 2021
Some adults of a certain age, probably endowed with the moniker of "grand" something or other, may well have heard of, or worse, sat through an episode of Mr Blippy on YouTube. Worse still, you may have endured or even sung along to Mr Blippy's agonising, "Excavator Song".
Well, while he may not be a hit with said Grand-somethings, with over 93 MILLION views, the kids obviously love him. One thing's for sure - he'd go down a storm here. On perhaps every second island we pass, there's an excavator or three, either lying idle and rusting while Covid takes its toll or busy shovelling dredged sand and coral into giant piles, reminiscent of the slag heaps adjoining, now redundant coal mines of Britain referenced in the last doom and gloom, yet amusingly informative posting. (I hesitate to use Great Britain as these days, well, ...... you know; breweries and piss-ups come to mind).
Anyway, excavation's the name of the game here, constructing new sea defences against the rise in sea levels as a result of global warming, reclaiming land, although it was a long time since it was there anyway, or, as is mostly the case, creating yet another luxury eco resort.
Despite all this shifting of sand and coral, finding a safe haven is a bit of a challenge in the Maldives. Tonight, we're in Guraidhoo, having sailed twenty miles south to find two
prospective anchorages untenable, then backtrack six miles to finally get the hook down on a seven metre hump of, I dont know what, drifting back into twenty metres of black and reefs all around. Paul and Chris on buddy boat Georgia? Well, they're anchored out in mid ocean somewhere just on the horizon. Reefs all around.
Coincidentally, once anchored, fed and watered I picked up my book; "The Pacific: In The Wake Of Captain Cook". I couldn't help but smile when I read his explanation of a reef, penned in one of his many Admiralty reports, probably shortly after he'd had intimate relations with the Great Barrier Reef. "A reef, such as one speaks of here is scarcely known in Europe. It is a wall of coral rock rising almost perpendicular out of the unfathomable ocean, always overflown at high water generally 7 or 8 feet, and dry in places at low water."
Well, that's our lot to a T. The good news is our "buddy boat" Georgia is equipped with a forward looking sonar.
Probably like Cook, I wish I had one.
The Maldives - Really???
29 March 2021
As you know, I'm not one to complain, but seriously....... this is the Maldives?????
Oh..... the Crinan Canal for me.....
Coals to Newcastle
28 March 2021
I’m not sure if “Coals To Newcastle” translates for our global readership so, for those not familiar with the phrase, it is a wordplay on the irony of shipping coal to Newcastle, when, at the time of the conception of the phrase, Newcastle was one of the worlds’ largest sources of coal........and ironically, now, virtually shut down as a coal producer, it having been proven cheaper to ship coal half way around the world from, talk of irony, Newcastle, Australia.
The point of this ramble is that over the last few weeks meandering through the Maldives, we’ve been passed a few times by what looked like WWII landing craft in full jungle warfare camouflage; all foliage,
leaves and palm fronds from stem to stern.
On Thulusdhoo we finally found out what it’s all about - the Maldivian resort version of Coals To Newcastle; except it’s Coconut Palms To Paradise. You see, the Maldive islands are somewhat short of foliage. Time, development and strong breezes have taken their toll. Unlike the lush coastlines of most of the tropics the Maldive Islands sport coconut palms like a teenagers first attempt at a beard.
Consequently when the resort architect knocks up the latest Eco Resort on Stilts, the artists impression will invariably show the resort comfortably shaded by lofty palms, gently waving in the tropical breeze. Except, as on most islands, there ain’t no palm trees left. And now we know why. They’ve all been uprooted and unceremoniously humped on an old landing craft and transported to Resortville where the happy tourists can sit around, shaded from the equatorial sun on the sugar soft, silver sand beaches...... recently imported from another nearby island........ where, once, there were coconut palms.