Chillin’ out in Chagos

Restocked with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet potato, cabbages, carrots and other items to replenish our diminishing stock, we left Gan in the Addu Atoll fueled up at 8am on ANZAC Day, 25 April 2014. To wait any longer would have us bashing into southerly winds and wasting precious diesel to make any headway. Our voyage took us 300nm south to the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), also known as Chagos.

Blue Heeler rode the ocean swell and settled into the sail as a westerly breeze of 10-15 knots blew on the starboard beam. Reaching speeds between 5-7 knots, we sailed 150nm in 24 hours.

Although heeling over is always a little uncomfortable when moving around the boat, for a galley wench with starving crew this challenge must be overcome (plus the fact it’s usually me who’s starving!). With Blue Heeler heeling around fifteen degrees, I made a batch of short crust pastry and whipped up some apple turnovers using apples I’d prepared earlier. With a dollop of canned cream these were our breakfast each day of the voyage. Dinner was slightly more of a balancing act. With a twenty degree heel, stronger winds, and a pressure cooker full of cooked rice in hand, I lost my balance and was thrown to the port side. All Wayne saw from the cockpit was a crazy woman with a pot of rice yelling “Feck!!” As I slammed into the nav station. Still getting my sea legs it seems.

Wayne enjoying a lovely  sail in 30+ knots

Wayne enjoying a lovely sail in 30+ knots

By the second day the equatorial current pushed us further east than we wanted to be. A large squall with winds up to 35knots slapped us around for a couple of hours, while the wind shifted south-westerly. We sailed directly south on day two and by the final leg of our voyage, we were sixty miles to the north east of our destination. Fortunately the wind had shifted southerly although less than ten knots, so with little choice but to motor sail the final hours, we turned on the iron sail.

imageThe voyage took 56 hours and we arrived by 3.30pm with enough light to navigate through the dangerous bommies within Salomon. Chagos is a conservation area and Diego Garcia, some 130nm south of Salomon Islands, a military area. As such there are strict access rules for yachties, although this wasn’t always the case. Cruisers from around the world were once able to stay for months on end, depending on the season. Unfortunately over the years, some recalcitrant yachties left too much rubbish, killed too many coconut crabs, ripped out the hearts of palms, wrecked their yachts, etc., to cause the authorities to justifiably tighten the rules. There’s a wrecked catamaran on Ile Fouquet within the Salomon Island group; a stark reminder of the dangers of strong winds. The old buildings of the original inhabitants, Chagossians, are now overgrown ruins on Ile Boddam and the ubiquitous coconut crabs make the ruins their home. The people of Chagos were kicked out by the UK and continue to fight to return to their islands.

So before arriving in BIOT, a permit valid for a maximum of 28 days must be obtained from the UK BIOT office. https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/british-indian-ocean-territory. We arranged ours while in Thailand and the cost this year is £50 per week to stay. All visiting yachts must also have adequate travel insurance, particularly for evacuation, medical or otherwise, vessel insurance, plus sign a declaration that we would pay for removal of wreckage for the worst case scenario. The BIOT official in the UK can and will reject any applications not meeting this requirement, but also the navy in the area can fine up to £3000 for arriving without a permit. A few sailors without insurance now avoid Chagos tending to sail from The Maldives direct to Seychelles, or Madagascar. A BIOT vessel comes by now and then to make sure everyone here has a permit to stay. For security reasons yachties may only stay in two atoll locations north of Diego Garcia – Salomon and Peros Banhos. There are specific anchoring areas and fines for not adhering to these designated spots.

Diego Garcia is home to around 3500 personnel who run the joint UK and US naval facility there. At Boddam Island there are six moorings, apparently put here by cruisers, and we were lucky enough to grab one. The alternative is to use anchor and chain in 10-20m but the constant grating on the coral is not good for the anchor, or the coral for that matter. There are only eight boats here now; two boats we know left the day after we arrived, with more boats expected from Gan shortly.

Located in the middle of the ocean, Chagos is as isolated as you can be. Except for the abundance of fish and coconuts, there’s no provisioning for yachties, which explains the reason for me squirreling food along the way. Scuba diving or spear fishing is forbidden, but we can use hand lines.

Old stained glass window from Church

Old stained glass window from Church

Boddam island has a ramshackle hut filled with floats, leftover boat parts, fan belts, jerry cans, and other fairly useless crap left by others; a volleyball net, hammock, some outdoor chairs, plus a couple of bins for us to dump non combustible garbage. There’s a well for us to take non potable washing water so we don’t have to run our watermaker unnecessarily. Boddam is where the yachties generally catch up for barbecues and sundowners. It is literally crawling with coconut crabs so I’m surprised they are protected. The crabs climb into the trees and live in the branches and towards evening they come out of the shadows. Hermit crabs are everywhere so it pays to watch your step. The fish are plentiful and large – grouper, trout, barracuda, tuna – and the many reef sharks will bite your catch if you’re not quick enough. A barbecue yesterday we had three groupers and a barracuda while each boat brought a plate of food.

imageOf course there is no internet in this remote location, but the satphone’s ability to post and Tweet to this blog, and more importantly download weather grib files is all we need for now. The days are spent reading, cooking, fishing, plus I’m also studying French for our forthcoming visit to Reunion and Madagascar. There are a lot of reef sharks here so not many are swimming far from their boats.

The weather this time of year in the Southern Hemisphere of the Indian Ocean is transitioning as the NE monsoon shifts to the SW monsoon in the northern hemisphere. Since we arrived we’ve had rain each day and light squalls from the east and south. As the south east trade winds develop and strengthen, there’s still a chance for tropical lows to generate into something nasty but May to October are generally good months in this region.

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Sailing the world aboard Blue Heeler
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