Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Faanu Mudugau, Maldives

Rutea on the left, at Fussaru Reef.  Photo by Mark Aisbett
Many of the countries we have visited have had a theme or purpose.  My recollection of American Samoa, for example, was mostly about provisioning.  The overriding theme in Indonesia was the rally in which we participated.  The year-long stay in Thailand seemed to be mostly focused on boat repairs.  Our cruise through the Maldives is all about being in the water.  Not so much being in the boat in the water but swimming, snorkeling and diving in the water.  For a good reason, too, as the water has some of the most spectacular visibility of any I’ve seen anywhere.  Brilliantly colored fish call the reefs their home and don’t seem to mind sharing it with us.  The water also provides a brief respite from the unrelenting heat – we’re just a few degrees north of the equator and it just never cools off here.
Oriental Sweetlips

This 470-nautical mile long archipelago has over 1,100 islands (only a small fraction are inhabited) and probably many times that in reefs.  As with many places we’ve visited, the coral has lost most of its color but, at the same time, there’s evidence of the coral regenerating.  Many claim that the loss of coral is due to global climate change and that it could have a catastrophic environmental impact.  The reefs rise abruptly from impossible depths to just below the water’s surface, changing the water’s color from a royal sapphire blue to a pastel blue to a gin-clear cover for the reef.  At a place we snorkeled yesterday, our underwater visibility was in excess of 30 meters.
Red-Tailed Triggerfish

The enormous depths between atolls can create wicked currents and the patterns on the water’s surface often belie what’s going on underneath.  These same depths can give us headaches when it comes to anchoring.  I dislike anchoring in depths that are too deep for me to dive down to free a fouled anchor and fouling an anchor on coral is always a possibility.

One of the highlights of our cruise through these stunningly-beautiful islands, atolls and reefs are the group of friends we’re traveling along with.  A lot of cruisers prefer to be by themselves but we’re really enjoying the company of our friends.  The Maldives are a popular destination for tourists and there are lots of resorts that cater to mostly European and Asian travelers but still it’s sparsely populated and this can make it seem desolate amongst the atolls.  I think I’d feel isolated and perhaps lonely if we weren’t with our friends.  A common routine for our little fleet, once we anchor in yet another outrageous lagoon, is to go snorkeling, then go back to our respective boats and then gather on one of our boats for evening cocktails.    The camaraderie that develops from these unique shared experiences is intense.  Fortunately, we’re a very like-minded group.
Rosie, Ruthie and Mark

Rutea is doing exceptionally well.  The maxim, ‘cruising on sailboats is nothing more than doing repairs in exotic ports’ has not been the case for us, at least not for the time being.  We still try to keep up with the continual maintenance but she remains a well-found vessel in which we have a tremendous amount of confidence.  This is the fun side of cruising – flat seas, clear water, good friends and all systems working well.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Malé, Republic of Maldives

We have recently returned to Rutea after what we hope is our final provisioning trip;  it’s late in the afternoon;  it’s very hot and I’m sipping a very refreshing margarita that’s jammed with big chunks of ice.  Earlier in the afternoon, we were given a large plastic bag of fish by some local fishermen who were prompted into their generous mood by our offer to give them the old batteries we were replacing.  To look at their faces, you might have thought they had just won the lottery instead of eight badly worn out golf cart batteries.  I’m sure the fish didn’t represent an extravagant gift on their part but it was a polite effort and the size of fish immediately made me think of fish tacos.  Hence the margaritas to go with them.  Several well-calculated stops at various duty-free shops in airports around the world have secured the necessary ingredients.

Presidential Residence

The national capitol of the Maldives is Malé and we’ve been anchored just outside of the city for the last 10 days.  While I wouldn’t call the city cosmopolitan, it does have a definite flair and cache – from time to time you’ll see a big, black Mercedes-Benz sedan with consular flags on the front fenders, something ironic in this city of mostly motor scooters and very narrow streets.  The city’s population is busting at the seams of this small island, in which you can walk from one end of the island to the other in less than an hour.  Many, if not most, of the people who work in the city live on another island called Hulhumalé, a man-made island that is also home to the international airport.  There are plans to build a bridge to connect the two islands but for now a fleet of ferries haul passengers, motor scooters, freight and the occasional cruiser back and forth.  The cost is 5.5 Maldivian rufia, or about US$0.33 each way and takes about 15 minutes.  The ferries hold about 100 passengers and about 20 motor scooters;  there are wooden benches where white plastic resin chairs have been screwed down, their legs cut off.  The ferries are always crowded.

Malé does not have any trendy shopping centers, upscale coffee shops or liquor stores but it does have very interesting markets where produce from all over the world is on display.  Being a nation of coral atolls, the Maldives cannot grow even the simplest crop with perhaps the exception being coconuts.  Everything is imported.  Fish is a big crop though and the wharfs are lined with 60’-70’ wooden fishing boats, low in freeboard and free of bulwarks from the midship aft.


The Maldives are a very devout Islamic nation and many stores close several times a day for prayers.  All stores close for the lunch hour and Friday is their day off.  Women who don’t wear a burqa or even a hajib are in the minority.  No one has said anything to Ruthie about not having her head covered but this country depends heavily on tourism so it’s unlikely anyone would actually say something.

Alas, our time in Malé draws nigh and we will miss this unique city.  We have enjoyed the restaurants, the amenities, the hustle/bustle that is often so contradictory to our cruising way of life.  There is much left to explore in the Maldives but the clock on our visas is ticking so we’ll soon weigh anchor and continue sailing the Indian Ocean.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Uligamu, Republic of Maldives

Entrance to the Small Boat Harbor, Uligamu
We had read other boat’s blog posts about checking into the Maldives and some had cautioned about being asked for ‘compliments’ aka bribes, gratuities, etc.  It was somewhat reassuring that when we made radio contact with Customs in Uligamu, in the far northern end of the Maldive archipelago, that they asked us when we would like them to come out to our boat for the check-in formalities. “Uh, 10am?  Would that be okay?” we asked.  Our final leg into this republic of over 1,100 islands had been easy;  our energy was good, our spirits high and the weather was hot but clear and calm.  I grabbed a bucket of precious fresh water and spent an hour-and-a-half trying to wipe off some of the salt we had collected on our way.  Just as I was finishing, a launch with 6 men, some in starched white uniforms was pulling along side.  Politely, they took off their shoes and climbed into our cockpit which provides luxurious seating for two people, comfortable seating for four but cramped and steamy seating for eight people in the equatorial heat.  All were very polite and helpful, our agent, Assad, explained each document that needed to be filled out and stamped.  Less than an hour later, they were waving goodbye and we lowered our quarantine flag and hoisted the Republic of Maldives courtesy flag.

Lop To
There were a few other yachts anchored off the small village and it wasn’t long before the couple on Lop To, a 37’ steel double-ender out of Hamburg, came by to say they had purchased fruit and vegetables for us at the market just after the supply ship arrived.  “It goes fast,” said Kerstin, “and we thought you might need some fresh food after your passage.”  We liked them immediately.  Assad had planned a barbeque on the beach for that night but Kerstin and Helmut encouraged him to postpone it for a night as they felt we might be too tired to stay up for a barbeque after a 5-day passage.

It isn’t just us but one of the first things that most cruisers want when they arrive in a foreign country is internet access.  Once again, Assad was our go-to guy and he met us at the small boat harbor where we tied up our dinghy.  He invited us to his home, where he lives with his wife, 8-month old daughter, his parents and his brother and his wife.  We sat on an uncomfortable couch, filled out the forms for the local cell carrier, Ooredoo, and drank kool-aid served by his wife.

It had been a while since we had visited a devout Muslim country, Malaysia being the last one.  One more time our hearts went out to the girls and women who dressed themselves in long, black burqas, covering everything but their hands and faces.  Despite our best efforts to get a smile from these women, their faces remained stony most of the time.  Men were much friendlier.  What we did find somewhat unusual was that every home had a high, gray concrete fence around it.  The streets were made of sand and were very tidy but we saw very little activity in the middle of the day.  About 500 people live in the village of Uligam.

Making Dried Fish Salad
The barbeque the next night was a great way to end a day of snorkeling and boat projects.  Couples from three boats showed up, each bringing a dish to share while Assad and a friend brought fish.  Assad’s friend went into the jungle and came back with a handful of leaves which he began to cut into fine strips.  To this he added way too much salt, chopped onions and dried fish.  It was delicious.  The fresh fish was cooked for much too long and covered heavily with hot sauce but it was quite good, too.  I’m sure I’ve been to a barbeque where there weren’t any alcoholic beverages but I can’t remember when.  Think of the money I’d save if I were Muslim!

Rutea - Photo Courtesy of Kerstin Neermann
It had been our intention to leave the following day but a wind came up out of the south (the direction we were headed) and a chop developed that inspired us to stay for another day.  The day after that was crystal clear and the water glassy.  We pulled up the anchor and hoisted the mainsail, mostly just for looks as there wasn’t any wind.  Our destination was where some cruisers that we had met in the Marquesas were anchored and they talked of spectacular snorkeling.  It was our first attempt at deep-water anchoring since we’d gotten here.  I’m reluctant to anchor if it’s too deep to dive down to free a fouled anchor and most of the spots around our friends were in excess of 80 feet.  We finally found a spot at 70 feet, which is still deeper than I’d like but the bottom looked like it was mostly sand.  Yes, even at 70 feet, the water was clear enough to see the bottom.

Our friends were right:  The snorkeling was fantastic with thick layers of bright coral and millions of tropical fish.  It reminded us both of Tonga, the island nation in our beloved South Pacific.  This is cruising at its finest.