May 31, 2015

Pausing in Paradise

Today's agenda includes a bit of snorkelling, some writing, and a walk, and if the clouds stay away I want to go photograph the church ruins. I also need to cook meals, do dishes, check on the produce, and flip the eggs. And at 5pm we'll gather with the other sailors (from France, Spain, England, Australia and the US) and have cocktails and appetizers on shore until the rats and coconut crabs stage their dusk assault and we're forced back to our boats.

It's been a long time since we last had the option to stay in one anchorage until we tired of it. Unlike the forced stops where we've waited for weather or parts—we're in Chagos because it's one of those places that people literally sail around the world to reach. There's the tragic history—which gives it an air of gravity and importance—if sailors stopped coming, and stopped sharing the story of Chagos, the Chagossian people would lose one more voice in their fight for justice.

But mostly we're here for the simple lush beauty.
This is as unspoiled a tropical paradise as it gets in our modern world.

In 2010 marine protected area (MPA) was created that covers the territorial waters of the Chagos Archipelago. The reason for its creation was in part a cynical one; the environmental no take zone acts as yet another hurtle to stop the return of the Chagossian people. The result though is a rebounding of fish and shark populations (birds still seem to be lagging: likely because of the rats on shore and their general worldwide diminishment).

Fishing, while not entirely a matter of dropping a baited hook over the side and pulling in dinner, is the easiest we've ever encountered. Even we are catching fish (subsistence hook and line fishing is permitted—though we need to log and report our catch). While the people who actually consider themselves fishermen (you know, with rods and everything) have had to come up with new hobbies after catching too many.

So it's simple slow living while we pause here and take in the beauty. We have fish and coconut to eat as well as all of the supplies we laid on in advance of our arrival. We have ample sunshine and cool rain showers. We have shady jungle trails to hike and colourful reefs (with turtles, sharks and rays) to snorkel. There are friends to chat with and enough kids between us to recolonize the islands.

And each evening when the sky turns pink and the sun drops into the sea I can't help but be grateful that we get to be here tomorrow too.

Man vs Laundry

It's not an exaggeration to say that laundry facilities can influence cruising plans. If your default laundry method consists of a five gallon bucket, a plunger and hard-earned RO water (or captured rainfall) then the chance to do laundry ashore with copious water is occasionally worth a detour. Usually abundant water comes from a tap and goes into a machine. But on Boddam Island the water is hand drawn from a well and emptied into giant tubs where there's plenty of plunger room. 
Not quite a machine with hot and cold water and a nearby drier—but still a pleasing upgrade from our normal amenities. And with the fees we pay to be here—it's seems silly not to take advantage.
Fresh water floats on a layer on top of saltwater in the wells that were dug on the island. Yesterday the laundry well was brimming—but after a few boats did washing the water level dropped and today hauling the bucket up seemed a lot harder.
Luckily after one wash and two rinses it looked like we were done. I hung our dripping sheets over a handy clothesline while Evan rung them out. Then the clothesline broke and our clean laundry fell onto the muddy ground.
Washing the sheets the second time felt like more work than the first time: Especially after Evan dropped the rope and bucket down into the well and he had to take the dinghy back to the boat to fetch the boat hook to retrieve them.
Then the first few re-washed items I carefully arranged on a sturdier clothesline blew off, landing back in the mud.
Back they went into the wash tub.
And up came more water from the well.
Eventually we took our clean but sodden laundry home, to dry in our rigging. Now it's snapping in the tradewinds, where there is no mud.

May 30, 2015

Chagos Church

On what was once main street Boddam Island we came across a little stone church. It was the fractured stained glass that caught my eye. The Brits told the Americans that Chagos was only inhabited by a few itinerant workers and 'Tarzans' before clearing away the Chagossian people. They had promised 'sterile' islands as part the deal for the base at Diego Garcia. 

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May 29, 2015

Chagos Archipelago

On the last morning of our passage from the Maldives to Chagos, menacing thunderheads materialized around our boat and then the wind picked up. With vanishing visibility we raced against the weather to pick our way past reefs and into the safety of the lagoon. Cautiously we wove our way through coral bommies, past lush uninhabited islands, to the anchorage at Boddam Island. There we picked up a mooring that some enterprising yachtie had previously built and headed ashore to explore one of the most isolated places we'll visit.

For yachties, Boddam Island is a fabled Indian Ocean stop. It's found in an atoll in the northern part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), a huge region that includes six atolls and over 1,000 islands. Off most people's radar, the best known island in the territory is found 100 miles south: Diego Garcia is a US Naval base that rose to infamy when it was identified as a possible CIA black site.

In previous years cruising boats stayed in Chagos for months on end. Traveling between fair weather anchorages with dolphins and manta rays, and the old settlement on Boddam Island, with its wells, flourishing gardens and orchards (and even a few feral chickens), it was a peaceful lifestyle. Each week, or so, the BIOT boat would stop by to collect garbage and a token fee.

Our Robinson Crusoe Eden comes at huge a cost. In the 1960s Britain and the US made an unsavoury deal to set the islands aside for defence purposes and build the base at Diego Garcia. Over the next decade the 2000-2500 islanders, who'd initially been brought to the islands in the 1790's as slave workers for coconut plantations, but who went on to develop a unique and permanent culture, were expelled to Mauritius and the Seychelles.

Some had journeyed the 1200 miles to Mauritius for an annual shopping expedition and when it came time to return home they were abandoned on the docks—they were told that there was no boat available and they couldn't go home, ever. Others were slowly forced out by cutting off their jobs at the coconut plantations and stopping the flow of goods to the stores. The shop shelves grew empty, the church attendance dropped and the schools were closed. In some cases even the local animals were killed by officials.

No force was used to remove the people but they were told they had to go because the US navy wanted their land. Initially no provision was made for their settlement into Mauritius. They were left to fend for themselves. Many ended up in slums or prison.

It's a strange thing to be permitted to use the nation of an exiled people as your personal tropical playground. While yachts used to stay for months, these days you can only get a 28-day permit after mailing away reams of paperwork and paying a significant fee to the British Indian Ocean Territory.

It's still a better deal than the one the Chagossians got. There's a story of Chagossian fishermen attempting to stop in to collect coconuts—and being threatened with a $20,000 fine. The islanders weren't permitted to revisit Boddam until 2006, 30 years after the last residents were removed. At the time it was thought the formal visit was the first step in a pilot resettlement program. But the deal with the US for the lease on Diego Garcia is for sterile, uninhabited islands. Despite a variety of tribunals and reports that have come out in favour of repatriation for the Chagossians, they are no closer to coming home now than they've ever been.

While they wait, we explore. Using a machete we cut our way through the jungle, we search out their cottages, gardens and church. At one point we made our way to the graveyard. Time has rubbed away the inscriptions from almost all of the grave stones but as we stood in the peaceful place it seemed fitting to make a pledge to share the story of Chagos.

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May 26, 2015

Chagos Bound

Passage making, especially uneventful light-wind hops of a few hundred miles, is kind of a pleasant punctuation between adventures. Which is better, I think, than the sailing trip being the adventure. When a passage is an adventure it's because something bad happened. But when an adventure happens on land its because something unexpected occurred.
This passage is pleasantly mundane; we've sailed and motor-sailed, we've hosted a few boobie birds a dodged a few small squalls. Mostly though we're relaxing and letting the last few memories from the Maldives sink in. We've also started to ponder exactly what we'll do with 150+ eggs...
Yup, 150. In our defense they are small eggs and considering that there are no chickens in the Maldives and all the eggs come from India or Sri Lanka there's a high percentage of bad eggs (though testing so far shows this batch of eggs is remarkably fresh...) wouldn't expect them all to be good.
150 eggs are still more eggs than we set out to buy. For the first few days in Addu City it looked like we'd be unlikely get any eggs. A week of bad weather had disrupted the already inconsistent supply chain from Male and after hitting ever shop in a two-island radius we had only found 10 eggs--which were rationed to us five at a time.
Then we were given the tip to go to the furthest island in the atoll because they often got things first. After three shops (and lots of walking in the hot sun) we were still egg less. But then the shopkeeper from one of the shops we'd visited showed up on scooter to tell us he'd found us eggs. He and Evan sped off. Shortly after Amy and I found our own eggs. Not wanting all our eggs to come from one basket (or crate) I bought backup eggs.
150 eggs... Frittatas, quiches, devilled, pickled...

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May 23, 2015

Next Stop Chagos

Leaving anywhere is always a little bittersweet. There’s the pang of departing a remarkable place we probably won’t visit with the same depth ever again but there’s also the excitement of the new and unknown

And between the two there’s the getting ready.

I’m not sure what causes the mental division between one place and the next. The physical divisions can vary: While crossing the South Pacific, one major line was the equator; another was the jump from one island group to another; in some places the separation is geographically small, but culturally wide. This time the divide is a 300 mile light-wind passage along the same geographic ridge of ancient volcanoes we’ve been exploring for the past two months. But the journey will take us from sparsely populated atolls to unpopulated ones.
We’re going from help-is-available to self-sufficient.
We’re also leaving behind the 4 am calls to prayer.

during squally weather the fishing boats stopped by to give us weather updates and food
Becoming more self-reliant:

For the most part self-reliance is the goal of cruisers. In practice, it’s impossible to plan for every contingency. In the Maldives we’ve been incredibly fortunate to have access to shipping agents from Real Seahawks. When we arrived in the Maldives, Assad met us at our boat (with ice cream and a sim card for our cell phone) then proceeded to answer any question we had—from where to buy x, y & z to what address should we use as a mail drop.

Here in Addu City, Matthi has arranged for our laundry, found us a welder and located carpenters and mechanics for other boats. Mostly he works as a large ship agent. He tells us large ships don’t need anywhere near the service yachts do, and while our fees are less than a ship’s, he enjoys the challenge of helping us on our way.

being invited into people's yards for mangoes and coconuts was a wonderful way to meet locals
Chagos doesn’t have an Assad or Matthi though—so there the reliance turns to helping each other. We’re carrying water maker parts to one boat that needs them from another boat that’s delayed for repairs. But aside from acting as a courier we’ve also been the contributor and receiver of a variety of different spare parts and expertise.

But truly, once we hit Chagos, we’ll need to be as self-contained as we’ve ever been.

Stocking up for self-sufficiency:
This squall reached 60 knots--it kept us at anchor and  food delivery stopped through the Maldives
It’s true that people eat everywhere. But as we moved away from agricultural regions it’s been clear that not everyone eats as well as everyone else. In the Maldives the main dish is tuna—it comes fresh, canned, dried and smoked and is found on the breakfast table, lunch table, dinner table and in snacks for tea. Along with the tuna you’ll find rice, cabbage, red onions, carrots and the occasional bean and tomato. All of these are tasty in moderation—but in the long run they’re both redundant and don’t keep as well as you might hope. So that’s led to a bit of a scavenger hunt for fresh food.

a healthy tuna industry feeds the population a LOT of tuna
Addu city is the second most populous atoll in the Maldives—but that really doesn’t say much. Not even the resorts buy their food in the Maldives—they have it shipped in separately. The rest of the country gets far too many staples from India. The food travels by slow boat and by the time it arrives, and is distributed to the outer atolls, the eggs are 50% bad and the cabbages are nearly sauerkraut.

To make the best of it, we’re dependent on kindness. In one store the shop keeper called me over to see his newest produce—so I could select the best options. On the great egg hunt (eggs didn’t make it to Addu city in the bad weather—and the atoll ran out) one shop keeper took off by scooter and searched shop-to-shop until he found a new shipment of eggs—then he came to find us to take us to the eggs. In some villages we’ve been given fresh mangos and on one the council president, Mohamed gave us a ‘clump’ of about 30 drinking coconuts.

our 'clump' after a week of use still looks awfully big
Once we get the food we need to preserve it as best we can. I’ve been pickling beans, making chutney, sun drying tomatoes and canning meat. We’ll leave Chagos either when we start to get hungry or our permit runs out.

When to go

Much of the ‘when’ was determined by our 60-day Maldivian cruising permit, which has run out. The rest is weather and readiness. The weather looks okay—not perfect, but fine. And there is always, always more that can be done and more food that can be bought—but we’ll leap off into the new and unknown tomorrow. It’s sooner than we’d like, and before we’re really ready but that’s how cruising is.

May 10, 2015

Weathering the Maldivian Weather

watching a squall come in over the reef

We’ve spent the past few days hunkering down between fast bursts of sailing south—when we have moved it’s been with a cautious eye on the weather and an equally careful search of the charts. When we get in we want to know exactly what to expect from an anchorage and have a fairly clear idea where we’ll be dropping the hook. Thanks goodness for google earth--and the Maldivian's unique use of 'stick' navigation (sticks often mark reef passes) if we had to rely on charts of this region we'd be far less adventurous.

a few seconds later the island (and our bows) disappeared in the rain
Our goal is to keep making our way south through the Maldives as the south west monsoon sets in: A goal that’s complicated by the fact that we really haven’t got a clear understanding of what to expect from the south west monsoon season—especially because as our climate changes, long-reliable seasons just aren’t that predictable anymore.

it's not all like this...
When we’re passage making, we tend to use the big picture weather providers: and download GRIBS and satellite pictures to get a sense of trends and forecasts. Once we get to a new country though—especially one that’s 99% sea, we tend to look more at local resources to get a handle on weather and current patterns. In the case of the Maldives we check in with local forecasts as well as with the local fishermen.

Since ancient times, the Maldivian people have organized their lives around two seasonal weather patterns. Every year has two monsoons, the north east monsoon or Iruvai and the south west monsoon called Hulhangu. Iruvai means hot and dry and Hulhangu means hot and wet. Historically Hulhangu starts on April 8 and is divided into 18 nakaiy, thirteen or fourteen day periods that help people determine the best times to fish, travel and plant crops. Technically the nakaiy should also help tell us when to sail south—but the feedback we’re getting from local fishermen is the nakaiy ain’t what they used to be, so we should use the historical info with a grain of salt.

the good news is you can still snorkel in the rain
Right now though the nakaiy seems to be right on track. The period from May 6-19 is called Kethi and traditionally consists of dark clouds, frequent rains and storms—making it a good time to burn leaves and sew crops but not such a good time to travel or fish for tuna.

The good news is that if Kethi does follow its typical patterns we should get a decent period of calm starting in a few days (that would be for the crop planting). Right now though, we’re tucked in behind a big wide reef with the tuna fleet anchored behind us. Wind is roaring through our rigging and we’re all catching up on long neglected chores, book reading and movie watching. And we're dreaming of days where we see sunsets. And the sun.

May 2, 2015

More Maldives

A Dhoani taking tourists for a sunset ride
I love it when a country surprises me.
Maybe it’s the sombre clothing, the women dressed in flowing black dresses and hijabs; or perhaps it’s the reserved way the locals interact, as welcome as we feel its tough to get a smile or wave out of people: but the Maldives feel very sedate and steady, and very unsurprising. It’s not the kind of place that you’d expect to have 12 different names for a coconut. Or even the kind of place where a coconut might be detained by the police. But during the 2013 election a kihah (young drinking coconut) was suspected of being infused with black magic and was accused of vote-rigging in a key presidential election.

The kihah was found innocent and released.

posters and political slogans are found throughout the islands
Much of what makes the Maldives intriguing is how little most people know about it. The common perception is of a sun-kissed paradise that caters to the well-heeled and honeymooning. And up until 2010 (after the Local Tourism Laws were passed by Mohamed Nasheed in 2009) exclusive resorts were about all outsiders ever saw of the Maldives.

In truth, it’s a deeply complex country of 394,000 (with one third of those being foreign or illegal workers). Most people either work in the resorts, for the government or they fish. Right now the Islamic Republic is struggling to stabilize its nascent democracy. But just yesterday thousands protested against the government in Male and hundreds (including several members of the opposing political party) were arrested.

we spend hours everyday in the warm water

Despite the turmoil, the Maldives feels very peaceful. We were lucky enough to spend the past two days being shown around a couple of villages (when we were out of the water—which is tough, the water is amazing). 

a local boat getting repairs
On Maamigili Island Jamsheed walked us through the town to the shore where traditional wooden boats being built. There we were told they are built without plans or nails and that the master boat builder has the blueprints in his head. From there he took us past the gardens and then to a local restaurant where he treated us to a traditional lunch where he encouraged us to try a little post-lunch adafi (betel leaf and areca nut with a little breath-freshening mint and clove).

my skeptical face...
Over the adafi (I’m pretty sure I got the delicate-white-tourist-lady serving because I never noticed any sort of effect) our talk turned to how the tourism laws are perceived in the villages. Jamsheed explained that more conservative Muslims are worried that the outside influence of foreigners will dilute community and religious values. But as the owner of a guesthouse he’s discovered the opposite is true. Most people who come to the islands want to learn about the local culture, he explained, so the local culture has a chance to become stronger.

We talked a while about village life and politics, and then Jamsheed asked us if we needed any coconuts. We told him we already have a few aboard and then we commiserated over how tricky it is to get the young drinking coconuts. Then we learned those aren’t coconuts. A coconut (the mature kind with meat) is a kaashi. But a kihah is for drinking (or placing curses on someone…) and therefore it’s not a coconut.

So armed with twelve names for coconuts, and a deeper understanding of village life, we headed back to the boat and dove back into the gorgeous water and looked forward to all the surprises to come.