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Chagos Archipelago, March-June 2011

We arrived in Peros Banhos, an atoll in the northern part of the Chagos Archipelago, on March 16 and departed from nearby Salomon Atoll on June 13. This is an account of our three-month stay.

Arrival

It was a squally passage of four days and 305 miles from Addu Atoll at the southern end of the Maldives to Peros Banhos. The last day had winds NW over 20 knots with an early morning squall which gusted to 35 knots. We were bashing into waves and not very comfortable. We arrived off Isle de la Pass about 15:00. The old chart did not agree exactly with the GPS, but by eye we made a course through the middle of the wide pass. The water was quite calm in the protection of the reef but we encountered a rain squall which reduced visibility dramatically. We motored slowly towards Ile Diamant, and visibility became good enough for us to find a reasonable place to anchor just before sunset. Probably the best anchorage in that area was on a sandy patch off the center of Ile Diamant, but we anchored further south near Grande Ile Mapou near several other boats. This was sometimes called "the French anchorage" because it was favored by French boats.

Peros Banhos Atoll

The winds which enabled us to sail from Addu Atoll practically vanished after our arrival and we had several days of very light westerly breezes. Some boats which came from Addu Atoll in this time reported flat calm conditions in which they had to motor all the way. We soon discovered the wonderful fishing. We used our heavy trolling line and simply dropped jigs from our stern to catch several nice fish (plus a four-foot shark.) All the other boats had similar success and surplus fish was often offered to neighbors. Keen fishermen trolled from fast dinghies outside the atoll or through the pass to catch Yellowfin Tuna (and White-tipped Reef Sharks.) BIOT (British Indian Ocean Territory) officials asked us to record the fish we caught and send them a report. Only people on cruising boats with permits were allowed to catch fish in the whole BIOT area which was designated a "nature reserve." Several commercial boats were caught fishing for shark fins which reportedly sold for $200 per pound in China.

On the boats which had children aboard, mornings were devoted to school. The parents taught their kids using materials provided by special correspondence schools or schools in their home area. One example of a correspondence school is the Calvert School which is American. It was often difficult for parents to do this home schooling, but they did their best to continue their children's education. The kids we met all seemed to be learning well. Nina did "fun math" with Emily and Lennard of "Iemanja" who had completed their New Zealand schoolwork for the semester. Some of the activities she did with them were turned into a book of over 100 pages which she copied for children on a couple of other boats. She enjoyed doing this and the children seemed to have fun learning.

We enjoyed snorkeling in the clear water. We wore wet-suits for protection against sunburn and jellyfish, but did not see any menacing jellyfish in Chagos. The corals were quite good in some places and there were some beautiful fish. Near the anchorages there were fewer fish, probably because of cruisers fishing from their boats. Since cruisers are there for only a few months of the year, we feel the fish stocks can recover in these areas each year. Black-tipped Reef Sharks were very common and we soon learned to practically ignore these unaggressive big fish. Large rays of various sorts were frequently seen too. We almost always towed our dinghy while we snorkeled, so we could keep swimming in a straight line instead of doubling back to our starting point. Keeping the dinghy near also made us feel a little safer in case we encountered more aggressive sharks (which we never did).

Our anchor windlass was not working well so we took it apart, cleaned it, and improved its wiring and connections. This work was greatly facilitated by Mike of "Content" who is an outstanding mechanic. We did many other boat maintenance projects too, including varnishing, repainting oars, renewing stitches in the cockpit windshield and solving leaky hatch problems. We were able to send and receive email with our SSB radio and Sailmail. Signal propagation was a challenge because the Sailmail stations were all far away. On some days we were unable to connect but most of the time we had adequate service.

It rained hard only once in the first six weeks but that enabled us to refill our water tanks and catch plenty of water for washing clothes. We didn't need many clothes in the warm climate but still needed to do laundry occasionally. As usual, we washed clothes by hand in buckets in the cockpit, then rinsed in another bucket and hung the clothes around the edges of the boat on the lifelines. They dried well in the hot sun and light breezes.

We spent about two weeks near Ile Diamant before motoring in very light southerly breezes to anchor near Ile du Coin. Here we explored the ruins of the copra producing community which used to harvest coconuts on all the islets. The old jetty, the Manager's House, the copra storage building, wells and remnants of a railroad track were among the notable reminders that many people once lived and worked here. All the Chagos islanders were transported by the British to Mauritius when Diego Garcia was leased to the USA for a large military base. The islanders won a decision in a British court that their removal was unlawful but they had not been allowed to return, except for short visits to the cemeteries. One of these visits occurred when we were at the atoll. During that daytime visit, cruisers were asked to not go ashore.

We were very sad to learn that Jerry's father passed away on April 9. He was 95 years old, but in reasonably good health and in an outstanding assisted living facility so his death was a shock to us. We were unable to return for his memorial service because we were too far from any airport, and that added to our sadness. Chagos is one of the most isolated places on the planet and the implications of that must be taken into account by cruisers considering a visit.

Our third anchorage in Peros Banhos was near Ile Fouquet at the southeast corner. This was a good anchorage after the southeast trade winds became established. We found the best snorkeling in this area of the atoll. We moved there on April 18 and stayed until May 6 when we sailed 30 miles to Salomon Atoll to collect a new sail that another boat brought from the Maldives for us.

Salomon Atoll

We anchored near Ile Takamaka so we could pick up our new roller-furling jib from the Australian catamaran "Out of the Bag." BIOT allowed boats to anchor only in a few specific locations to preserve the fragile coral environment of the atolls. The total number of boats in Chagos during our stay was probably less than 40. The Takamaka anchorage was well-sheltered from the prevailing southeast winds which got stronger as the season progressed. The shallow sandy patch near the opening between Ile Takamaka and Ile Fouquet was a good place to anchor and to see Mantas and other Rays.

We sometimes rowed ashore at low tide and walked all the way around Ile Takamaka. The circuit took about two hours, walking leisurely and taking photos. On the side of the island sheltered from the prevailing winds there was a nice sandy beach but the sides exposed to the winds and waves had more coral rocks than sand. Like all the islets of these atolls, tall coconut palms covered practically all of the land. Nobody had lived there since the 1970s but the coconut trees were still doing very well. Around the edges were a few different types of trees. The most impressive were the old Takamaka trees which gave the island its name. These grew on the windy side of the island. Their trunks were sometimes five feet in diameter and they stretched long limbs horizontally over the beach towards the sea. Many birds nested in the Takamaka trees. The most common sorts were Red-footed Boobies and Lesser Noddies but there were also White Terns and Long-tailed Tropic Birds along with other kinds of terns. Frigate Birds soared overhead. We saw a few baby Boobies with fuzzy feathers, pestering parents for food. We also saw chickens, descendants of the birds once kept by the now removed islanders.

Underfoot were crabs of several different varieties, some digging holes in the sand right on the beach for temporary shelter and some swimming in the water. Hermit Crabs were most numerous. These little crabs used the shells of other animals for shelter and dragged those everywhere they went. In some spots there were so many Hermit Crabs that it was hard to walk without stepping on them. Up higher on shore were crabs with harder shells of their own. We saw large Coconut Crabs, some about a foot in diameter. These are the largest land-living arthropods and perhaps are near the limit of how big a land crab can be. Some apparently grow a body 16 inches in diameter with a leg span of three feet and are more than 30 years old. They are delicious eating, as we knew from being given some once in the Pacific, but we were not allowed to take any in this wildlife protection area. On islands where people live they have been practically wiped out. Old Coconut Crabs have a hard shell but the little ones use shells of other creatures, just like the little Hermit Crabs. Coconut Crabs which have outgrown the little beach shells but have not yet developed their own hard shells sometimes use coconut shells for protection. Friends on another boat walked the connecting reef from Takamaka Island to Ile Mapou (the next islet north in the atoll ring). They reported seeing Yellowfin Tuna in surprisingly shallow water near the reef.

BIOT and "Pacific Marlin"

BIOT (the British Indian Ocean Territory) had just one patrol boat, the "Pacific Marlin," to police its huge area of sea and islands. This was an old ship which used to work with oil drilling rigs. It worked for BIOT but was owned by a Singapore company. It cruised around trying to catch the illegal fishing boats which came to this marine preserve mainly to get shark fins which are worth a lot of money in China. One boat cannot properly patrol such a huge area but it did its best. It visited the atolls where yachts were anchored every few weeks so that an immigration officer could check permits and make sure there were no problems. A fisheries official also asked us to report any suspicious looking boats that might be fishing illegally. The Captain had done the job for thirty years and the chief engineer looked just as experienced. The staff included several Filipinos who worked for a few months at a time to do many of the ordinary jobs like cleaning and cooking. The military provided half-a-dozen young British Marines and a few other personnel taking breaks from their assignments on the big military base at Diego Garcia.

On the "Pacific Marlin's" visit May 28th to Salomon Atoll the Captain invited all cruisers aboard for a noontime barbecue. The crew cooked steaks, hot dogs, spare ribs, fish steaks (which most of the cruisers didn't choose because we all ate so much fish all the time), salads, pasta, pudding and cake, plus beer, wine and soft drinks. Everybody from the sixteen boats still in the atoll went to this party. It lasted until 16:00 so we had plenty of time to see the ship, eat, talk to the crew, and talk to other cruisers. We met Chris, a U.S. Air Force officer originally from Long Island, NY, who worked at the satellite observation and control station on Diego Garcia. We also met Alex, a British Navy woman officer from England who had been in several interesting positions and was only 27 years old, as well as some cruisers we hadn't met earlier. We appreciated the time and effort of the Captain and crew in putting on this event.

The only thing wrong with the BIOT barbecue was that the ship anchored in the middle of the atoll. The spot was more than a mile away from our boat and had bigger waves than any of the places where the yachts anchored. Bigger waves don't matter much to a ship more than 100 feet long or its enormous dinghies which can carry a dozen people, but for the little dinghies of yachts the waves were a problem. We decided not to row to the party since it was so far away and getting back home against the waves would have been a real struggle. Several of our friends invited us to ride with them in rubber dinghies with outboard engines. That worked well, but we all got quite wet because the waves splashed frequently over the small inflatables. However, as cruisers we are used to such situations.

Our friends on the French boat "Oberon" had a sailing dinghy 12 feet long. This was large enough to handle the waves inside the atoll. They sailed to the party and sailed home again, having fun in the process. One of the other boats built a copy of "Oberon's" dinghy on Ile Takamaka. It was made of plywood and covered with fiberglass. They didn't bring enough fiberglass cloth or enough epoxy to finish the job but they would be able to complete work later after they bought more materials.

Ile Boddam

We moved four miles down the atoll to pick up a mooring near Ile Boddam on May 30. There are several coral heads in the lagoon but their white tops were clearly visible and easily avoided on a clear day with relatively light wind. This short trip enabled us to test our new roller-furling jib and the third reefing line recently installed in our mainsail. Some boats had spent as much as six months here each year, returning to Southeast Asia for the other half of the year. "Mariposa" arrived in time for Christmas and did not leave until the end of June. "Tigger" had kept a similar schedule for twenty years. BIOT changed its policy in 2011 and may limit future stays to only three months. Moorings near Ile Boddam allowed boats to stay safely no matter what the winds did. These moorings typically had a chain wrapped around a large piece of dead coral with another chain leading up to a mooring buoy. Some boats had left already so we picked up one of those available moorings.

Tom and Jan of schooner "Ambler" were our guides to explore Ile Boddam. The cruising community created a network of trails through the tangle of trees and brush which had grown up throughout the coconut plantation and the settlement which prospered here before the inhabitants were removed by the British. In the shelter of the trees there were many mosquitoes, but they did not carry malaria or any other diseases so were just an annoyance to people with sensitive skin. There were barrels for trash, and a special barrel for burning paper. Another area near the beach had a table made of a huge steel wheel where boat people gathered to chat and share food on most afternoons. The day we arrived, one cruiser had taken his dinghy over the reef at high tide and returned about fifteen minutes later with a splendid Yellowfin Tuna. His wife decided to make Poisson Cru but didn't have a recipe so called for one on the VHF radio. Nina called back with a Tahitian recipe and some of the result was shared later at the communal table ashore. One of the old buildings near the table had been converted to a storehouse where chairs, cooking utensils and tools were kept on shore so they didn't need to be carried back and forth in dinghies. Apparently the volleyball court was used every afternoon when many boats were in residence.

We wandered along all the trails and saw the old Manager's house, the school, the church, the jail, the hospital, the copra storehouse and the jetty. Everything was in ruins and overgrown since there had been no maintenance since the people were deported. BIOT prohibited permanent structures and camps ashore. Fixing up old buildings was not allowed either. The original inhabitants had erected a large cross on the waterfront as a memorial. "Sunset Beach" on the western side of the island was a quiet, sheltered spot with a good view of the setting sun. We saw a green flash sunset there, a phenomenon we hadn't seen in quite a long time.

Jerry went with Tom of "Ambler" one morning for a kind of fishing we had never tried before. They motored out in "Ambler's" inflatable dinghy beyond the reef on the lee side of the atoll where the waves were not big and anchored in about 30 feet near the drop-off into really deep water. They baited hooks with pieces of fish and added weights. Then they put on snorkeling masks and stuck their heads in the water so they could watch the fish around the hooks. When the bait was dropped, it was almost always attacked by bunches of Triggerfish which have small mouths but can consume bait rapidly even though they are almost impossible to catch on hooks. The bait was jerked away from those pesky fish and put near fish we wanted to catch and eat. Tom caught a Grouper, a Sweetlips and a Coral Trout while Jerry had a couple of good ones on his line but only landed a very small Coral Trout which he threw back. One nice purple fish straightened out a hook and got away. A hooked Grouper swam into a hole in the coral and could not be pulled out. One of the real challenges of this fishing was the frequent appearance of sharks. When they swam near the baits the guys either retrieved rapidly or lost hook, sinker and a chunk of line. It was a fun experience but it is unlikely that we will do much fishing like this.

The crew of "Mariposa" went fishing every eight days and didn't quit until they had enough fish to last until the next time. They took all their fish ashore to clean. All the heads, backbones and other parts they didn't want were put into a big bucket. Then they hauled the bucket out to the end of the ruined jetty and fed the sharks. The sharks were accustomed to this procedure. We watched one of the feeding sessions and estimated that there were about 25 Blacktip Sharks and one Nurse Shark. When a chunk of fish was tossed it really created a "feeding frenzy." We had never seen anything quite like it.

There were old wells on Ile Boddam (and on several of the other islets) and one not far from the moorings had pretty good water. Many cruisers used this water for laundry and showers, and a few drank it with apparently no ill effects. There was a huge cistern full of water too, and some used that for showers. We tried using some of the cistern water for laundry but there was too much rust in it from the steel tank. A set of clotheslines was set up near the well and almost every day there was laundry hanging there to dry. We planned to fill our water tanks from the well, but just before we did that we got plenty of rain and caught more than enough to fill our tanks.

The walking trails crisscrossing Ile Boddam were marked with floats, buoys and rubber flip-flops which had washed up on the shore. The palms kept dropping fronds so keeping the trails clear was a continuous process. We walked all the trails on several excursions, getting a bit of the leg exercise which was not possible on the boat. The scenery was mostly coconut trees, but there were a few big old Takamaka trees and some other types too. There was almost no wildlife except crabs, rats and birds. Since people had not lived here for a long time there were many big old Coconut Crabs and we always saw them on our walks. We noticed that some were colored mostly blue and others mostly red and white but we did not know why they varied so much in color. One day we walked with two other cruisers all the way around Ile Boddam. We chose low tide so there was a strip of sand and rocks all around the edge. We saw Moray Eels, young Parrotfish and several other types of fish in shallow water right next to shore. There were several sorts of crabs, terns and other types of birds. We saw some neat shells and coral pieces but had to leave them as BIOT does not allow people to collect them. It took us three hours to do this walk, and after that we felt we had really seen the whole island.

Departure

On June 8, we left the mooring and motored up the middle of the atoll to re-anchor near Ile Takamaka where the islands provided better shelter from the prevailing southeast winds. With almost no waves it was easier to swim around the boat to clean its sides and bottoms. There were no barnacles and only a little bit of fuzzy weed growing on our boat. Nina made a batch of muesli and we tried to make everything ready for a probably boisterous passage. Four other boats were also ready and waiting for a good "weather window" to leave on the 1500 mile crossing to Madagascar. Perfect weather would be moderate winds of about 15 knots from east-southeast, calm seas and clear skies with a full moon at night. We knew that was unlikely to last for the whole trip but the steady and favorable "trade winds" used by sailors for centuries were well-established by early June.

If there was a drawback to Chagos it was that there were too few places where boats were allowed to anchor and too many friendly cruisers so we found ourselves in more social situations than we'd ever encountered before in 16 years of cruising. As a result, we never did finish reading all the books we had on board. Because of limited stores on board for long periods of time everyone took food to share at these social occasions and brought whatever they wanted to drink. We had a last potluck dinner on shore on June 12 with the cruisers of the last few boats still in Chagos. We ate delicious food, and sat around chatting and drinking well into the night with good friends. This was definitely a special place, and we were glad to have spent a few months in the Chagos Archipelago. We hoisted anchor and set sail for Madagascar on June 13.

(view photos of Chagos)

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