Friday, July 17, 2009

Salomon Atoll, Chagos (BIOT)

June/July 2009

Il Forquet, Il Takamaka, Il Boddam
Salamon Atoll, Chagos

After praying for the wind gods to blow us south they promptly threw us a wind right on the nose and huge swells which saw us all sick for most of the 4 days it took to beat south from Gan.......yet again.....little sailing!!!!

BUT the biggest gift awaited us in the Chagos (British Indian Ocean Territory) - island paradise personified! It is the most idyllic and amazing location – an archipelago of British controlled, coral atoll islands located just about mid Indian Ocean, far from anywhere and with no resident population other than the US military base (strictly off limits) on Diego Garcia in the south.

The point of ‘no resident population’ brings with it though, a very sad and shameful history. On Il Boddam, in the south west corner of Salomon Atoll, it is hard to ignore the very visible remains of past settlement including a well built stone church and other buildings which lie testimony to how colonial governance, at will, can totally rewrite history with the removal of a people and their culture from their homeland. As early as the mid 1700’s, the French brought in slaves to the archipelago from surrounding Madagascar, Mozambique and Mauritius. Through the 1800’s, as rule passed over to the British, others came freely as fishermen, farmers, and then coconut plantation workers and for over a hundred years, the Peros Banos, Salomon and Diego Garcia Atolls, were home to 3 generations of the ‘Chagossian’ people who had their own language, Chagossian Creole, governing bodies and flag. In 1965 when Mauritius gained it’s independence, the Chagos Archipelago remained under British rule and the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) was set up to govern the area. In the late 1960’s, the largest southern Atoll of Diego Garcia was then leased as a military base to the US. At this point, all of the approximately 2000 inhabitants were forcibly removed from all atolls over a 5 year period and repatriated to Mauritius with no compensation for their loss and in fact most died soon after destitute and homeless. In recent years the remaining few took their case to the High Courts in the UK and were granted compensation and in fact permission to return but as recently as October 2008 these rulings were overturned and the Chagossian’s continue to fight to return to their homeland. It was wonderful for us to be able to experience this untouched part of the world but somewhat tainted with the knowledge that whilst we were able to freely visit this land, the original inhabitants were prevented from returning to their home.

Today the entire archipelago remains a marine reserve controlled by BIOT with their own immigration and customs based on Diego Garcia. To visit the archipelago by yacht (the only way possible to visit) requires a cruising permit be bought for GBP 100/month with a maximum stay of 6 months. Every 2-3 weeks the BIOT boat visits from Diego Garcia to check on permits, stamp passports and to enforce the few rules in place – no scuba diving, no spear fishing, no camping/staying on the islands overnight and no taking of the local coconut crabs. Rats have at some point been introduced onto some of the islands so there is a rat eradication programme ongoing but we saw little sign of these vermin whilst we were there. On one of the islands of Peros Banhos atoll there is also 1 lonely donkey left as the only surviving member of a ‘donkey colony’ – unfortunately, as other yachts reported, the donkey is still very young and friendly and looks set to have a very lonely future....maybe someone will smuggle in a mate for it!!

Entering into Salomon Atoll was a slow process as charts are notoriously incorrect in locating coral ‘bombies’ (large coral outcrops that appear up off the ocean floor in the middle of an otherwise very deep lagoon) and like all these atolls, movement is always best before early afternoon to ensure good light for viewing and preferably on a high tide. As we arrived in Salomon Atoll through the pass in the north, so did another Canadian yacht ‘Vixen’ which was remarkable timing seeing they had seen no other boats for 21 days having come from Sumatra in the East and us no other boats in 4 days coming from the north!

We had finally found the ‘cruising world’ that so many had spoken of and had, for the first time, ’neighbours’ and fellow cruisers so life was very social. There were about 10 yachts in total across 3 islands in the atoll - Il Forquet, Il Takamaka and Il Boddam with more than enough space for us to not feel at all crowded in – a good thing for others as we had to turn on our new noisy petrol generator each day for an hour rattling away up on our bow sprit! The islands are very like those of the Maldives – coconut and mangrove tree lined, white, white beaches, incredible coral everywhere with spectacular tropical reef fish but no people! The islands within are mostly very dense coconut tree jungle with a smattering of magnificent Takamaka trees which are beautiful, tall and majestic trees similar to a Mortenbay Fig tree. Low tide was the perfect time for walking over coral/sand bars between some of the smaller islands and to explore the perimeters of the main islands – the low tide saw an array of fish, black tipped reef sharks, eels and multitudes of crabs cruising around the reef shallows hunting. There was also ample bird life and was amazing to watch the antics of the frigate birds as they bullied the poor red footed boobies and noddies into dropping their catch as they themselves are such poor hunters. The flocks of fairy terns were spectacular and the elusive tropic birds with their long white tails beautiful as they hid in the trees. The snorkelling was truly amazing and the reefs vast with a myriad of different coral formations, tropical fish, turtles and manta rays. There were also 2 yacht wrecks in shallow water to snorkel over (1 that went down 5 years ago and the other last year) – both these boats ran onto the reef during the north west monsoon - a stark reminder that even in ‘Eden’ nature is not to be taken for granted and that vigilance and safe anchoring is so important. Like all coral atolls, anchoring is often in very deep water behind the reefs and thankfully we were able to drop onto sand at 25m depth and hence did not disturb any coral. We had some wild and stormy days whilst there and it was very disconcerting to have the winds shift 360 degrees overnight to have us facing onto the reef around us.....we were very happy to have a very large anchor out with many meters of chain which is so important in coral areas where rope is always at risk of cutting away on the coral.

Sadly, despite many fishing expeditions Rob and the boys’ did not have great luck on the fishing front – we didn’t have strong enough tackle to bring in the big fish and lost many lures and rapallas often as a result of sharks swiping the fish as it was hauled in. Amongst the yachts however there were some gun fishermen and communal, late lunch beach BBQ’s took on a new meaning as we dined like kings on skipjack, yellow fin tuna, groupa, red snapper and trevally. ‘Muneera’ herself become host to a community of rather large and vociferous bat fish (or ‘toilet fish’ as they are commonly known loving the delicacies emanating from our heads!) and ramoras who would go into a frenzy with any scraps tossed overboard. Trying to fish off the boat was made difficult with trying not to hook these crazy bat fish and the benito regularly cruised the waters around us teasing us with their presence but continuing to be elusive. We also learnt how to cut out ‘heart of palm’ from the coconut palms which is fantastic either fresh and crunchy, fried up or in a stew, took the ‘sponge’ from the centre of sapling coconut plants which is beautifully sweet and of course drank endless amounts of coconut milk. The boys loved foraging for food in the jungle and Tom was the resident coconut palm tree climber seeking out the young green coconuts for the best milk. The indigenous coconut crabs were an amazing sight to be found living in dugouts nestled at the base of coconut trees – beating our way through the jungle one day avoiding all the spider webs, we came across one that would have measured 1m across – an amazing looking creature and no doubt would have been very tasty!!

Chagos to Seychelles

After nearly a month in ‘paradise’ it was time to drag ourselves back to sea, farewell our new 'floating friends' and continue our journey heading west toward Africa . Whilst in the Chagos, we were told that the pirate situation in the Seychelles had had a temporary reprieve with the onset of the South East Monsoon – apparently piracy is difficult in rough seas and all had pulled back to their usual domain further up off the Somalia coast!!

So we took the gap heading out into good strong south east winds to blow us all the way and blow it certainly did............within a few hours the ocean had grown into a 4-5m swell with the winds picking up to a perfect 15-25kn with regular rain squalls blowing up to 35kn. It was a very fast, furious and wet journey but a very uncomfortable and confused ocean that saw us all, as usual, sick for the first 3 days. On day 5 we suddenly lost our engine as it flooded with salt water which was being forced back up through the exhaust with the large swells - a design fault with the original installation. Other than the fact we now HAD to sail and hope that the wind did not die, we were also relying on our engine to generate power for the auto pilot, nav equip, lights etc with our main generator still lying in pieces in the engine room. This of course all happened at night so we hoved too, threw over the sea anchor to slow us down and then sat out the night being thrown around in a stationary washing machine! The next morning we pulled out our trusty small petrol generator which we lashed to the back deck, covered it over to protect from the rain and then continued on. We were so grateful at this point to have our daily morning HF radio sched with the yachts still back in Chagos - Sten from ‘Mataera’ who is a marine engineer guided us through the process of diagnosing the problem and at the same time guided friends on ‘Affirmation’ who were heading out from Gan for Malaysia who also had engine failure.......even though no one could physically do anything to help us it was great to have the moral support of other yachts on air. The weather did ease a little a couple of days later and, after 9 days, we sailed into Victoria harbour at 2am in the morning where the Coast Guard then met us and towed us into the designated customs anchorage area. We awoke the next morning to the most magnificent sight of mountains in front of us and were all just so thankful to at last be sat on still water with no more holding on tight and waves washing through the chart house!

Mahe Island, Seychelles (arrived July 14 2009)

After clearing customs and immigration (the usual 6-8 men from the various departments on the boat) we then organised for another boat to come and tow us into Eden Island Marina where our good friends Kez and Mich Taylor have kindly lent us their apartment and marina berth for the duration of our stay – with strong winds this was a task in itself trying to drag and cajole our 16.5Tonne beast into position. Well how lucky we are to be here – we can sit with our cup of tea in bed in the morning watching over the lovely ‘Muneera’ as we snuggle down into fresh, crisp sheets and duvet with a bed that stands still......what luxury and a far cry from the last few months!! The boys are most excited by the fact we have a golf cart for our private use (they were pulled up this morning to be told that children were not to drive them around!!) and an ice making machine and I am most excited by the fact that we have a washing machine so a break from hand washing in wells and buckets! As it is the low season here we have been able to quickly have mechanics and sail makers here to start work on the engine, generator and sail repairs - we blew out the jib mid ocean and also ripped a hole in the mizzen where the HF radio aerial moved around on the mast and chafed through. We have engine and generator parts being flown in from Dubai and hopefully all will be sorted by early next week for when my parents arrive for 3 weeks. The weather is fairly windy with some rain but still warm and we plan to sail around Mahe and the outer islands for a couple of weeks. We will probably be here until late August as Rob still has to fit in a week in Dubai for work and to bollock the mechanics who did such a poor job with the engine and generator.....not that it will make any difference to them but will make Rob feel better!! Unfortunately Rob’s Dad suffered a heart attack whilst we were in the Chagos (and of course uncontactable) so we are still going to head for Madagascar, Mozambique and then South Africa but plan to be down there now earlier in October. Weather depending, we may leave the boat in Richards Bay in Zululand and overland it down to Cape Town as the ideal window period for doing the cape run is not until Feb/March and we are really not keen on taking on the notorious Wild Coast in all its glory!!

So this is where we at.....sorry about the length of the run down on the past 6 weeks of has been an amazing 6 weeks!!


  1. Hey its Zac. That sounded so cooliwant to go there now. Having loads of fun?


  2. Hi Tom it is Sami is every thing ok. That looks like a lot of fun i want to do that to.