Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Salomon Atoll, Chagos Archipelago

This post is being written out of sequence.  We arrived in Chagos on the 22nd of April and departed on the 22nd of May, 2015.  With no internet access in the uninhabited Salomon Atoll, I wanted to wait until I could post photos.
Rutea at Anchor Near Pakia Tea.  Photo by Tom Puchner

The Salomon Atoll lies about 300 miles south of Gan, the southerly-most island in the Maldives archipelago.  The atoll is a rough round shape if looked from the air, bordered by Île Boddam on the west, Île Takamaka on the east, Île Anglies on the north and Île Fouquet on the south.  The entire atoll is no more than 5 kilometers across.

At one point, there were inhabitants at Île Boddam and there are still ruins and a dilapidated cemetery as testimonies to their existence.  The jungle is quickly reclaiming its ownership of what’s left of a once-thriving community as the roofs of the buildings have long disappeared and now trees grow up through the building’s foundations.  More on what happen to the Chagosian people later.

Sundowners at the 'Yacht Club'

Even though the anchoring is poor and the prevailing winds make it a lee shore near Île Boddam, that’s where most of the visiting yachts drop their hooks.  We joined the fleet there and though we never had an incident with our anchor holding, we were never completely comfortable there.  However, the lure of the cruising community was strong and we enjoyed being near friends, getting together for sundowners on shore and the occasional visits via dinghy.  Though the water visibility wasn’t very good, we frequently saw black-tip reef sharks and leather-back turtles swim by.

One particularly squally day, we decided that we needed a change of venue, pulled up our anchor and steamed to the other side of the atoll to a small sandy-bottomed gap in between Île Takamaka and Île Fouquet.  Our two marine biologist friends, Tom and Sonja, were anchored there on board their 51’ all-electric Wharrem cat, Pakia Tea, with their 3-year old son, Keanu.  We felt like we were in heaven,  The thick sandy bottom grabbed our anchor securely and the water remained flat even if the wind came up as we were in the lee of the island.  The bulk of our friends were now 3 kilometers away but we came to treasure the time we spent with the Pakia Tea family.  As scientists, Tom and Sonja were able to explain so much of what was going on around us but it was their kindness, humor and energy that instantly made them close friends.  From time to time Tom and Sonja would need to do some underwater research and they would ask us to watch Keanu, which we gladly did.  Even Keanu seemed to enjoy his visits with us and quickly learned that we didn’t speak German so he would switch to his limited English.  One night when we were having the Pakia Tea crew over for sundowners, Ruthie spotted a manta ray swimming by.  Tom quickly excused himself, jumped into his dinghy, went back to Pakia Tea for his snorkeling gear and camera and jumped into the water.  He was able to capture world-class video of the giant manta rays feeding just off our boat, unusual in that mantas rarely feed inside a lagoon.  The next day, Tom and Sonja came over to pick us up in their dinghy and took us to snorkel with the mantas, a completely unbelievable experience.  The grace and beauty of these huge creatures is nothing short of remarkable and after a time, Tom and Sonja were able to identify 9 different mantas swimming right around our boats.  Sometimes all four of us adults would be swimming while Keanu manned the dinghy that was being towed by his swimming mother or father.
Keanu aboard Rutea
Peppered Eel

Our stay off Île Takamaka was enhanced by the ability to go ashore and completely walk around the island – but only at low tide.  It felt so good to get some exercise but especially in this remote and wild place.  The tide pools created by the lack of water offered some views of sea life that we had never seen before – like a peppered eel attacking and eating a crab, tying itself into knots to develop enough purchase to break apart the tough crabshell.  Too bad we didn’t have the camera with us that day!

Why a strong current developed remains a mystery to us.  After 10 days of being anchored off Île Takamaka, the current began to make us uncomfortable.  We don’t think it was specifically related to the tides as we had already been there through a full moon with no current at all.  Regardless, we tore ourselves away from the precious company of Pakia Tea (for crying out loud, we were only going 3 kilometers away!) and reanchored ourselves off of Île Boddam again.

One night, one of the boats in our fleet brought a laptop into shore to show a documentary about the Chagos Archipelago which can be found at  We were all intensely saddened by what the British had done to the Chagossian people, which, in my opinion, is a crime against humanity – the World Courts agree – and we also felt guilty that we were able to enjoy a visit to their previous homes while they were not.  Coincidently, while we were staying in the Salomon Atoll, the British Indian Ocean Territory patrol ship, Pacific Marlin, a 60-meter trawler, brought descendants of those who used to live on  Île Boddam back from Mauritius where they now live – 800 miles away – for a one-hour visit to the cemetery.  The irony and tragedy was not lost on us – people who had lived on this island for 200 years – whose ancestors are buried here - were allowed a one-hour visit while those of us foreigners who were visiting on yachts were easily granted a four-week permit.

The BIOT patrol boat, Pacific Marlin, makes frequent visits to the Salomon Atoll and boards every yacht to inspect their mooring permit.  Once anchored near the lagoon’s entrance, large, military-style RIBs are deployed, manned with substantial crews.  Their boardings, while innocuous enough, are still intimidating.  One particularly squally day, the RIBs approached the anchorage late in the afternoon, just as the sky was turning an ominous dark black.  The BIOT crew boarded Amigo, a Najad 37, with our friends, Helga and René on board, whose permit had expired a few days prior.  We watched in horror as we saw Amigo lift its anchor and slowly steam through the lagoon, darkened as though night had fallen even though it was hours before the sun would set.  I later spoke with René on the radio and he said that the BIOT official told him that if he stayed another day he was at risk of being fined £1,000.  The BIOT officials quickly back-pedaled, realizing that if Amigo was damaged or lost, it could be an international incident but the intrepid crew of Amigo was able to make it to the island of Rodriguez, 800 miles away, safely.

Regal Angelfish Pygoplites diacanthus
We did a lot of snorkeling as we waited for a weather window to make the jump to Madagascar, our own mooring permit expired and through a series of emails to the London office, we were able to talk them into a one-week extension, although they warned us that no further extensions would be granted and if our desired destination was unobtainable with the existing weather conditions, then we should choose a different destination.  It’s not that the weather was bad but rather the lack of wind that troubled us.  Our fuel was getting low and we were left with a limited range for motoring.  Granted, we’re a sailboat and theoretically should be able to make it anywhere without diesel fuel but we also need fuel to generate electrical power as we suspect that there might be a couple of people who might get irritated if we didn’t send emails at least occasionally.  So, even with a light winds forecast, we weighed anchor on the 22nd of May in the early afternoon and left the Salomon Atoll.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Chagos to Madagascar

Our 11-day, 1,600-mile passage started out on 22 May when we weighed anchor at Île Boddam in the Salomon Atoll. We had to motor out of the lagoon but it wasn't too much after that when we were able to cut the engine and begin sailing. The wind was light so we were able to stay in visual contact with 2 other boats that are on the same route for a long time.

Our weather router, Bob McDavitt, had assumed that we'd be able to make 150-mile days but the wind was too light for that. As a result, this put us behind schedule, as far as our weather route went. From time to time we'd run the engine to get us past a particular windless spot but we only motored for a total of 20 hours, with ten of those hours at the very end of the passage.

Our clearance of the Mascarene Plateau, a shallowing of the ocean floor in the middle of the Indian Ocean, had us concerned for rogue waves as the depth goes from 3,000 meters to 20 meters out in the middle of nowhere. Nothing happened but it did create a little anxiety for about 15 hours as we made our transit across it.

The weather became more boisterous as we continued west and squalls plagued us frequently. It was common for a squall to pack 40-knot winds, forcing us to scramble to adjust our sails. The squalls would form from nowhere and could disappear just as easily but often would travel the same direction as the wind. During the night, we'd use the radar to track them and we were continually amazed at how quickly they could come and go. Though we were never frightened, there were times when we'd just get weary from the constant effort that they demanded.

The very northern tip of Madagascar has the nickname of the Witches Cauldron, as the Indian Ocean meets the Mozambique Channel, creating steep seas and potentially dangerous overfalls. One of our guide books suggested clearing the tip by 20 miles to the north, which we did, but it left us with having to beat an extra 20 miles back south into squally headwinds and rough seas. It seemed to take forever and at one point the autopilot couldn't cope with the conditions, forcing me to hand steer for many early morning hours. Eventually the conditions became calmer and we were able to re-engage the autopilot.

One of the best benefits of being here is that it's significantly cooler than the places we've recently been to. I actually had to put a shirt on for the first time in a long time a few days ago and last night I was more comfortable with a light jacket on - the first time I've worn a jacket since I was in Nepal, 8 months ago.

Since we only anchored here this morning and could only scrape together enough energy to complete the most basic of chores, we haven't been able to explore much. So far, the small islands at which we're anchored remind me of some of the uninhabited islands of the Sea of Cortez. The water is not clear but the air has a freshness to it that we like very much. The humidity is lower so things finally seem to be drying out. We'll probably stay here a few days while we scrub the salt off of Rutea and then move on south.
At 6/2/2015 2:59 PM (utc) Rutea's position was 12°15.51'S 048°57.66'E

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