Three points came to mind as we left the Maldives –
- about three hundred miles is the distance from Gan to Chagos,
- with a passage time of three days, and
- for three things we were thankful
- to be finally underway again
- to have calm seas with a long swell and wispy clouds reminiscent of the Pacific, and
- to have that additional fuel stowed in containers on deck – so valuable because we motored for 69 hours, using 207 l of diesel.
Apart from witnessing stunning sunrises and offering a ride to a hitchhiker in the shape of a brown boobie, the passage was uneventful and we arrived to be welcomed at the anchorage off Ile Boddam by six other yachts we know. We could ‘stand at ease’! (See also the article ‘About Turn!‘)
What makes Chagos special?
The warm water lapping the shoreline is azure blue, you step onto fine white sand and seek shade under one of the hundreds of palms lining the beach. Corals and fish abound. It is quiet and magical; an idyllic island group in the Indian Ocean.
But Ile Boddam on Salomon Atoll is where the jungle has reclaimed ruinous buildings of a local coconut oil producing population evicted in the late 1960s. It is abandoned. The atmosphere is eerie. Walking around the remains of the church, warehouse, villa, school, prison and other robustly built dwellings are testimony to bygone wealth, the cemetery a reminder of past generations. The only permanent residents are coconut crabs and rats.
Belonging to Britain, Chagos is a unique, isolated and tragic outpost. Officially called The British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) normal life in the archipelago came to an abrupt end over 50 years ago when the British government leased the largest island, Diego Garcia to the US for the creation of a major military airbase still used today. All 1500 islanders were forcibly removed, some to Mauritius, some to the Seychelles and none have been repatriated. Diego Garcia itself is off limits to all apart from the military, yachts being allowed to visit just two atolls – Salomon and neighbouring Peros Banhos. There is no tourism.
We attempted to anchor on the bedrock of coral, off Ile Boddam, as there is no sand or mud, but after two attempts and we dragged each time, we went to have a look at the last remaining mooring. Though it had been used recently by a similar sized yacht, and we understood it had held in strong winds, it was not ideal, but having inspected it and taken our own lines through a 4-5” diameter hawser about 10ft below the surface, that was in turn attached to a large coral head we decided we were safely enough moored in the short term. We were tired after the short but intense passage, and this led to the decision to moor.
For this privilege we applied to the BIOT Administrator in Whitehall for a permit, not a straightforward process and one which cost £200.00. In return for supplying boat, passport, insurance details and the fee, we received authorisation for a 28 day stay, a 19 page document of rules and regulations, a 7 pager on guidance for visitors and a fishing log. Restrictions are many and fines for not observing the rules high. Arriving earlier or later than originally planned causes problems if not advised as can overstaying the 28 days whatever the reason, as some of our fellow cruisers discovered. Before we arrived, the orange BIOT patrol boat visited regularly. The weather can change from complete calm to stormy in a few hours.
Some years ago cruisers would sail here from Thailand as we did, and stay for months until weather, wind and currents were favourable again to take them back to South East Asia. We are uncertain whether this changed in 2010 when the British Government declared Chagos a marine reserve and introduced more restrictions.
Scuba diving being forbidden, we resorted to snorkelling. Back in the aquarium, we saw sting rays digging hollows in the sand, turtles great and small gliding by, sharks and a large variety of fish. But what we also saw was some of the beautiful coral being destroyed by bleaching … another sad story in Chagos. Rising water temperatures, sea levels and bacterial infection are just three of the lead causes.
Notes on Platax Batfish and Labroides kindly supplied by our good friend Oliver Straub:
Platax start life in sheltered biotopes close to coasts, often brackish waters, often in mangrove biotopes which are nurseries for many reef fish. When young they look like a slender upright triangle or a slightly stunted boomerang. The older and bigger they get the more disc-shaped they become. Also, they move out into fully saline seawater but remain close to coral reefs where they can hide from faster predators. Platax batfish reach up to 20″ diameter.
From an ecological point of view the two small slender fish near the Platax are interesting. One (on the batfish’s dorsal fin) is bright yellow and dark blue/black, the other (just behind the batfish) has an elegant black line on a bright blue body. Both are cleaner wrasses of the genus Labroides, the former with the yellowish hind part Labroides bicolor, the latter the bluestreak cleaner wrasse, Labroides dimidiatus. Both feed on ectoparasites of their client fish. Cleaner wrasses normally set up ‘cleaning stations’ attracting clients with a dance-like swimming. The clients approach, sometimes they have to wait their turn and form veritable queues, then they will remain still, often opening their mouths and gill covers for the cleaners to inspect and sanitise every nook and cranny. Even big predators like groupers will not make use of the opportunity to eat their cleaner but let them swim through their mouth and out through the gills while doing their job.
Though we didn’t, those who went out in their dinghy to line fish returned after a short time with a great and varied catch – red snapper, wahoo, tuna to name a few. Supper was guaranteed and all were neatly logged.
And where better to catch up on the day’s fishing and snorkelling yarns at the end of each afternoon over sundowners than at The Chagos Yacht Club? A glass of whatever beverage was available on yachts with ever depleting supplies and a selection of inventive snacks was normally on the bar menu. Coconut crabs and the occasional rat would invariably crawl out of the undergrowth after dark. Beach BBQs consisted of – well – fish of course!
After two days on this mooring we were not happy with our safety, and in the late afternoon we examined it as best we could, and discussed the options. We adjusted the amount of line we had out so as to alter the angle, and decided to leave it for one more night as it was too late with the available light to see the bommies and move.
At 0400 the following morning in a fresh SE’ly breeze the mooring was cut through like a knife, and we came to rest within minutes on a soft coral head. Trying to extract ourselves proved impossible, and on a falling tide we were held fast. Our calls for help on the VHF were responded to, but again until daybreak there was nothing that could be done.
The other cruisers there could not have done more to help and support, and tyres and planks were put in place to protect the hull from any damage. At 11.00 we floated off, and were held in place by anchors, which after much surveying of the surrounding bommies were used with dinghys on either side of us, to manoeuvre us through the bommies to a place of safety, where we managed to get the anchor to hold.
We discovered that a chunk of GRP had been torn from the rudder, and that the end of the propshaft by the propeller was damaged, though there was no visible sign as to how this occurred. With the help of two key yachties, the following day we weighted down the bow with 600kgs of water and equipment to raise the stern, and dropped the rudder. This was then manoeuvred ashore where miraculously a portable generator, angle grinders and GRP matting and resin appeared to begin the repair, which took 3 days.
The rudder was then returned to Pipistrelle, and lifted into position, fastened and connected to the steering system. Once the weight had been removed from the bow, Pipistrelle was ready for the passage to the Seychelles, 1,000nm away, without an engine. Two yachts escorted us to Mahé, where we eventually anchored, to then make arrangements for Pipistrelle to be hauled out for repairs.
We are indebted to many cruisers in Chagos for extracting and helping to repair the rudder. In particular we would like to thank the crews of Ceilydh, Totem and Utopia.
And after nearly three weeks, it was time to leave this outpost behind us and head towards our next destination … The Seychelles. More in the next blog.
Footnote: John Pilger’s 2004 documentary ‘Stealing a Nation’ gives a fascinating insight into the troubles of the exiled Chagossians and the chapter in Simon Winchester’s book ‘Outposts’ published in 1985 gives a vivid first-hand account of what he discovered there at the time. More recently The Guardian newspaper has carried reports about ongoing struggles of the displaced to return home.