Say Goodbye

How long will it take time
to fade the memory of a kiss?
To drain the potency of the passion
and the tenderness of our bliss?
A name not forgotten
but details of face will fade
into fleeting moments of reflection
on the connection that we made.

A poem once written for a man, now applied to a country. I have come to appreciate how much of a love affair with life is lived by the transient sailor. We get to know no country in depth or detail, but we flirt with the fringes of society and leave invigorated and passionate about the place and people we encounter along the way. Whereas most individuals live entrenched in a village their whole lives, we flit in and out of countries like migrating pelagic seabirds, never returning to the same place twice. It is this continuous exploration that brings with it an intensity born from the rawness of new surroundings and unexpected outcomes. We cast the mould aside and accept a life of constant flux and continual evolution. We shun normalcy to live a life of extremes. We seek out exploration and adventure. We try to make the most of each day, mindful of the clock ticking in the periphery. Tick tock. The countdown of the clock. We are always conscious that our time in country is on a running stopwatch, and as time closes in we try to fill every moment with the sweetness of a place we will most likely never return to. Tick tock, ping!

In the recency of our interlude
I can clearly see your face,
in that moment of silence
the minute before you wake.
Then follows the shattering of solitude
when your eyelids flicker blue
— alive we come in passion
as I crash into you.

Yet, while that clock is still ticking we get an intimacy of place that often eludes even the most resident of citizens. Days that flash past into weeks in a routine wind-down to the slow tick of minutes when that routine is gone. Tick tock. Tick tock. Once that pendulum is broken, the desire for its rhythmic beat is gone. As newcomers, we become completely involved in a place, consumed by the daily barrage of experience. Like a love affair, we dive in head first and bury ourselves in every nuance of culture and custom. With that intensity comes an addiction: An addiction to change, to unpredictable existences and to unforeseen futures.

With time against us, we fill in our days with a frenzy of activity, trying to eek out the most of our short interval in country. Time shifts and expands, and we define how we spend the hours in our day. We are allowed to fall into a slow routine of the undemanding life, with hours that aren’t gobbled up in commuting, meetings, schedules and commitments. A portion of time is spent ogling a country’s top landmarks and famous attractions, indulging in a “tourist brochure” exploration of a country. But as a cruising sailor you are more than a holiday-maker. We shop elbow-to-elbow in the street markets, bartering like locals over the cost of fruit and vegetables. We visit the community clinics looking for local remedies with fingers crossed on one hand and a translation book in the other. We wander through shady back alleys looking for an odd assortment of boat parts, smiling at the old men giving odd looks as if witness to a pare of doves in a badger den. Our kids chase their kids, not a common word between them but expressions of glee on their faces. In this knee-to-dirt experience of a country, we are exposed to her underbelly and we fall in love. We fall for all the things that aren’t advertised on the tourist brochures. We fall for her crooked streets and crooked houses, with the bad smells and the odd food, with the sly glances and the open laughter and the friendships that stem from curiosity and goodwill. We absorb the essence of a country into our pores and feel an intricate part of the fabric of life. In so short a period we feel an assimilation that generally happens in years. This is perhaps an overly romantic notion of a place, but every cruiser knows what it is like to feel the essence of a country under their skin, begot through the highs and lows of their experience. When the trip is behind us and we reflect on our time, it is the collection of these seemingly small, insignificant moments that defines our experience.

Passing time will soften
this yearning from within
and leaden the longing of desire
— memory of scent and skin.
So for now I cradle these lonely moments
without you by my side,
in the remembrance of your lips
I twist and wake inside.
For in the forgotten passion
that lay dormant
in the shadowed crevice of my soul,
you spoke and woke that part of me
with soft a gentle nudge.

What strikes me in this transient life we live is how potent but fleeting our experiences can be: intense, powerful, concentrated, all-consuming. You slip into the life that is in front of you at the moment and then – in the blink of an eye – it is gone. There are very few countries that we’ve visited that haven’t captivated me for some inherent quality. We know nothing of it other than the spelling of its name and in a small hop we land on site, amazed and awed and transfixed. In Tanzania it was the friendliness of the people. In the Seychelles it was the beauty of the land. In Madagascar it was the rawness of the on-the-brink existence. In South Africa it was the diversity. In Sumatra it was the intrepidness. In Mozambique it was the sea.

It was only yesterday that had you by my side,
wrestling beneath cotton sheets
and tying me up inside.
My singularity lost in that connection with you
— so sweet a tender place —
to banish morning solitude
in your butterfly embrace.

All places captivate you for some inherent quality; a few places consume you. For me, that place was Mozambique. It was as if the country, unknown to me all my life, opened its arms for a quick embrace and I fell headlong in love in that short moment of intimacy. I don’t know what led Mozambique to impress me with such a rare intensity of emotion. It was no single part of the country or specific moment in the trip, but a collective experience that left me raw and exposed. It was the infinite empty bays and the never-ending stretch of glistening white sand dunes. It was the myriad of single moments with strangers that we intersected with. It was the starlight shining down on unlit earth. It was the jellyfish that flashed and glowed beneath our hull with an intensity of a meteor shower. It was the slow rise and fall of a sleek back as a whale surfaced for air, exposing no more than a blowhole and an oval disk of flesh. It was the slow beat of a gull’s wing as it glided overhead, surveying us with a simple curiosity. It was the peace and quiet of the islands that dangled down the coast like a string of beaded pearls. My notes as we traveled down the coast captured the feeling at the time:

It is amazing out here, blue skies flanked by billowy white clouds on the fringes of a deep blue sky. We move through a patch of soft wind that ripples the surface on an otherwise flat, reflective sea. IMG_4744.pngWe’ve been passed by flocks of seabirds, and we’ve been assaulted by flying fish that shoot like arrows out of the water and bounce around the deck as if tossed by a novice archer. We’ve been joined by racing dolphins that play in our wake and sailed passed the solitary humpback resting on the surface of the sea. The serenity of our surrounding environment is exactly what the over-stressed office worker craves when dreaming of flinging off societal constraints. It isn’t always like this but when it is, you breathe it into your soul.

This was not my first time in Mozambique. I was lucky enough to land a position running a dive operation in a remote corner of the country a decade ago. I knew that it may be the last time I had the opportunity to spend an extended period on her shores and my farewell was an emotionally difficult one. At that stage in my life I was trying to carve every new experience out of the time I had; I’d severed the umbilical chord to my native country and the life I had established and was charging towards any unknown opportunity that presented itself. After two years in the African bush it was time for a change. I bought a ticket for America and a month later I was afloat in a small boat adrift in the Pacific Ocean. And that was the end of my time in Mozambique.

Or so I thought. Life has a way of throwing its curveballs and a decade later I was unexpectedly back on Mozambican turf, enchanted with the country all over again. Mozambique was not on the radar when we’d set out for the Indian Ocean, however the draw to return was a strong one. When we decided to sail to East Africa it was only natural that Mozambique would pop up on the radar… we were so close, too close, not to find a way to include it in our route. Of course, including it meant shaving off time in Madagascar and our time there had already been cut short by our detour to Tanzania. Tanzania or Madagascar? Well, let’s do both and while we are at it, how about Mozambique too?!

Having agreed “Why not?” we sailed down the coast from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania to the Quirimbas, a small archipelago of 32 islands in the Cabo Delgado province of northern Mozambique. We were about to hit the stretch of ocean that cruisers avoid altogether – the currents rip along the coast making southward progress impossible as the 2-knot current sweeps you north. Our strategy was to hug the coast, keeping no more than 10 meters below us. Grazing the seabed with our keel, we tiptoed Atea through a slice of coastline peppered with free-diving fisherman; while hair-raising from a clearance perspective, it was a sociable stretch with men popping up from their hunt to wave to us in passing. So, although the threat of a northern push to Somalia is the common fear, we found a way to avoid the strong current and had a relatively simple passage south. Having built up a brazen confidence over the previous 300 miles, our cockiness was dashed in the last 30 miles as the current wrapped around the Ponto Delgado headland and completely stopped our progress. With an unreliable engine that left us unable to power through the current, we tacked back and forth in the same mile-wide band of water for five hours, pacing over the same ground like a caged bear. We watched the slow crawl of the midday sun from the same spot. We witnessed a glorious but underappreciated sunset in the same spot. Night descended while we were in the same spot. Determined not to spend another night at sea with our destination only five miles ahead of us, we pushed on into the darkness with the brilliance of phosphorescent jellyfish laying a glittering path to our anchorage and will forever hold a lasting impression of their underwater brilliance – Atea walking on stars.

We pulled into uncharted territory as illegal trespassers at 10:00pm, drawn by the call of a good night’s sleep and the calm of a boat brought back in from sea. We dropped anchor at Isla Tecomagi, the northernmost island in the Quirimbas. With the anchor down at long last, there was only one problem: We’d tucked in but not cleared into the country. Mozambique has a reputation for corrupt officials, something I’d had a lot of experience with ten years earlier. Avoiding bribes is easiest Continue reading “Say Goodbye”

Say Goodbye

How long will it take time
to fade the memory of a kiss?
To drain the potency of the passion
and the tenderness of our bliss?
A name not forgotten
but details of face will fade
into fleeting moments of reflection
on the connection that we made.

A poem once written for a man, now applied to a country. I have come to appreciate how much of a love affair with life is lived by the transient sailor. We get to know no country in depth or detail, but we flirt with the fringes of society and leave invigorated and passionate about the place and people we encounter along the way. Whereas most individuals live entrenched in a village their whole lives, we flit in and out of countries like migrating pelagic seabirds, never returning to the same place twice. It is this continuous exploration that brings with it an intensity born from the rawness of new surroundings and unexpected outcomes. We cast the mould aside and accept a life of constant flux and continual evolution. We shun normalcy to live a life of extremes. We seek out exploration and adventure. We try to make the most of each day, mindful of the clock ticking in the periphery. Tick tock. The countdown of the clock. We are always conscious that our time in country is on a running stopwatch, and as time closes in we try to fill every moment with the sweetness of a place we will most likely never return to. Tick tock, ping!

In the recency of our interlude
I can clearly see your face,
in that moment of silence
the minute before you wake.
Then follows the shattering of solitude
when your eyelids flicker blue
— alive we come in passion
as I crash into you.

Yet, while that clock is still ticking we get an intimacy of place that often eludes even the most resident of citizens. Days that flash past into weeks in a routine wind-down to the slow tick of minutes when that routine is gone. Tick tock. Tick tock. Once that pendulum is broken, the desire for its rhythmic beat is gone. As newcomers, we become completely involved in a place, consumed by the daily barrage of experience. Like a love affair, we dive in head first and bury ourselves in every nuance of culture and custom. With that intensity comes an addiction: An addiction to change, to unpredictable existences and to unforeseen futures.

With time against us, we fill in our days with a frenzy of activity, trying to eek out the most of our short interval in country. Time shifts and expands, and we define how we spend the hours in our day. We are allowed to fall into a slow routine of the undemanding life, with hours that aren’t gobbled up in commuting, meetings, schedules and commitments. A portion of time is spent ogling a country’s top landmarks and famous attractions, indulging in a “tourist brochure” exploration of a country. But as a cruising sailor you are more than a holiday-maker. We shop elbow-to-elbow in the street markets, bartering like locals over the cost of fruit and vegetables. We visit the community clinics looking for local remedies with fingers crossed on one hand and a translation book in the other. We wander through shady back alleys looking for an odd assortment of boat parts, smiling at the old men giving odd looks as if witness to a pare of doves in a badger den. Our kids chase their kids, not a common word between them but expressions of glee on their faces. In this knee-to-dirt experience of a country, we are exposed to her underbelly and we fall in love. We fall for all the things that aren’t advertised on the tourist brochures. We fall for her crooked streets and crooked houses, with the bad smells and the odd food, with the sly glances and the open laughter and the friendships that stem from curiosity and goodwill. We absorb the essence of a country into our pores and feel an intricate part of the fabric of life. In so short a period we feel an assimilation that generally happens in years. This is perhaps an overly romantic notion of a place, but every cruiser knows what it is like to feel the essence of a country under their skin, begot through the highs and lows of their experience. When the trip is behind us and we reflect on our time, it is the collection of these seemingly small, insignificant moments that defines our experience.

Passing time will soften
this yearning from within
and leaden the longing of desire
— memory of scent and skin.
So for now I cradle these lonely moments
without you by my side,
in the remembrance of your lips
I twist and wake inside.
For in the forgotten passion
that lay dormant
in the shadowed crevice of my soul,
you spoke and woke that part of me
with soft a gentle nudge.

What strikes me in this transient life we live is how potent but fleeting our experiences can be: intense, powerful, concentrated, all-consuming. You slip into the life that is in front of you at the moment and then – in the blink of an eye – it is gone. There are very few countries that we’ve visited that haven’t captivated me for some inherent quality. We know nothing of it other than the spelling of its name and in a small hop we land on site, amazed and awed and transfixed. In Tanzania it was the friendliness of the people. In the Seychelles it was the beauty of the land. In Madagascar it was the rawness of the on-the-brink existence. In South Africa it was the diversity. In Sumatra it was the intrepidness. In Mozambique it was the sea.

It was only yesterday that had you by my side,
wrestling beneath cotton sheets
and tying me up inside.
My singularity lost in that connection with you
— so sweet a tender place —
to banish morning solitude
in your butterfly embrace.

All places captivate you for some inherent quality; a few places consume you. For me, that place was Mozambique. It was as if the country, unknown to me all my life, opened its arms for a quick embrace and I fell headlong in love in that short moment of intimacy. I don’t know what led Mozambique to impress me with such a rare intensity of emotion. It was no single part of the country or specific moment in the trip, but a collective experience that left me raw and exposed. It was the infinite empty bays and the never-ending stretch of glistening white sand dunes. It was the myriad of single moments with strangers that we intersected with. It was the starlight shining down on unlit earth. It was the jellyfish that flashed and glowed beneath our hull with an intensity of a meteor shower. It was the slow rise and fall of a sleek back as a whale surfaced for air, exposing no more than a blowhole and an oval disk of flesh. It was the slow beat of a gull’s wing as it glided overhead, surveying us with a simple curiosity. It was the peace and quiet of the islands that dangled down the coast like a string of beaded pearls. My notes as we traveled down the coast captured the feeling at the time:

It is amazing out here, blue skies flanked by billowy white clouds on the fringes of a deep blue sky. We move through a patch of soft wind that ripples the surface on an otherwise flat, reflective sea. IMG_4744.pngWe’ve been passed by flocks of seabirds, and we’ve been assaulted by flying fish that shoot like arrows out of the water and bounce around the deck as if tossed by a novice archer. We’ve been joined by racing dolphins that play in our wake and sailed passed the solitary humpback resting on the surface of the sea. The serenity of our surrounding environment is exactly what the over-stressed office worker craves when dreaming of flinging off societal constraints. It isn’t always like this but when it is, you breathe it into your soul.

This was not my first time in Mozambique. I was lucky enough to land a position running a dive operation in a remote corner of the country a decade ago. I knew that it may be the last time I had the opportunity to spend an extended period on her shores and my farewell was an emotionally difficult one. At that stage in my life I was trying to carve every new experience out of the time I had; I’d severed the umbilical chord to my native country and the life I had established and was charging towards any unknown opportunity that presented itself. After two years in the African bush it was time for a change. I bought a ticket for America and a month later I was afloat in a small boat adrift in the Pacific Ocean. And that was the end of my time in Mozambique.

Or so I thought. Life has a way of throwing its curveballs and a decade later I was unexpectedly back on Mozambican turf, enchanted with the country all over again. Mozambique was not on the radar when we’d set out for the Indian Ocean, however the draw to return was a strong one. When we decided to sail to East Africa it was only natural that Mozambique would pop up on the radar… we were so close, too close, not to find a way to include it in our route. Of course, including it meant shaving off time in Madagascar and our time there had already been cut short by our detour to Tanzania. Tanzania or Madagascar? Well, let’s do both and while we are at it, how about Mozambique too?!

Having agreed “Why not?” we sailed down the coast from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania to the Quirimbas, a small archipelago of 32 islands in the Cabo Delgado province of northern Mozambique. We were about to hit the stretch of ocean that cruisers avoid altogether – the currents rip along the coast making southward progress impossible as the 2-knot current sweeps you north. Our strategy was to hug the coast, keeping no more than 10 meters below us. Grazing the seabed with our keel, we tiptoed Atea through a slice of coastline peppered with free-diving fisherman; while hair-raising from a clearance perspective, it was a sociable stretch with men popping up from their hunt to wave to us in passing. So, although the threat of a northern push to Somalia is the common fear, we found a way to avoid the strong current and had arelatively simple passage south. Having built up a brazen confidence over the previous 300 miles, our cockiness was dashed in the last 30 miles as the current wrapped around the Ponto Delgado headland and completely stopped our progress. With an unreliable engine that left us unable to power through the current, we tacked back and forth in the same mile-wide band of water for five hours, pacing over the same ground like a caged bear. We watched the slow crawl of the midday sun from the same spot. We witnessed a glorious but underappreciated sunset in the same spot. Night descended while we were in the same spot. Determined not to spend another night at sea with our destination only five miles ahead of us, we pushed on into the darkness with the brilliance of phosphorescent jellyfish laying a glittering path to our anchorage and will forever hold a lasting impression of their underwater brilliance – Atea walking on stars.

We pulled into uncharted territory as illegal trespassers at 10:00pm, drawn by the call of a good night’s sleep and the calm of a boat brought back in from sea. We dropped anchor at Isla Tecomagi, the northernmost island in the Quirimbas. With the anchor down at long last, there was only one problem: We’d tucked in but not cleared into the country. Mozambique has a reputation for corrupt officials, something I’d had a lot of experience with ten years earlier. Avoiding bribes is easiest wh Continue reading “Say Goodbye”

Captain Morgan’s Cousins

While I am not prone to laughing at the expense of others, there are times too precious to resist my evil twin. I have a handful of favourite quotes from fellow cruisers that make me smile whenever I reflect on comical moments throughout our years afloat. An Australian made one of the best (and one of the most outlandish) statements when we were hanging out in Thailand contemplating whether or not to sail into the Indian Ocean. “There’s nothing for me in the Indian Ocean,” he loudly stated. Whaaa?!… buzzed my brain. In an entire ocean, NOTHING AT ALL?!

When we set our sights early in 2013 on a transit through the Indian Ocean, Madagascar was the buzzword. After reading numerous accounts of cruisers experiences of their IO crossing, we’d locked on Madagascar as the highlight of the Indian Ocean experience. IMG_0524.jpgThrough the narratives of our friends we painted a picture of wild territory where only the intrepid dare wander; where life was so poor and remote that to visit was to step back in time a century. It was a country that had been so cut off from the larger world that you’d encounter species of animal only previously seen in David Attenborough’s documentaries of lost species. If for no other reason, we were going to transit an ocean to experience this forgotten world. There was something for us in the Indian Ocean, and that something was called Madagascar.

Our attempt to cross the Indian Ocean and get to this enigmatic land had been thwarted twice: Once in February 2015 by a pregnancy that didn’t happen and a second time in January 2016 by a medical crisis. By our third attempt in June 2016, it was either Go IO or Bust. IMG_8307.jpgAs we pushed out into the Indian Ocean we couldn’t know then just how rich and rewarding the Indian Ocean was going to be for us. Looking back now, after two years spent trawling through her waters, I can assert that there is oh-so-much on offer in the Indian Ocean – and we made the most out of our commitment to explore it. We’d hit highlight after highlight: The diversity of Sumatra, the comedy of Cocos Keeling, the beauty of the Seychelles, the natural wonder of Chagos, the colorful dynamism of India, the underwater magnificence of the Maldives and the cultural richness of Tanzania. And now, finally, the jewel of the Indian Ocean lay ahead of us.

Yet with the country at our doorstep, I was dragging my heals… Should we go? At the time we were in the Quirimbas, a network of atolls in northern Mozambique, and we were loving it. IMG_9030The islands were breathtakingly beautiful and there wasn’t another boat in sight, the reefs were ablaze with life and the corals healthier than we’d seen anywhere in the Indian Ocean. Humpback whales filled the bays, as mother and calf sought protected waters until their newborns were big enough and strong enough to make a safe migration back down to the southern ocean. I was in heaven. For all our anticipation and expectation of Madagascar, I didn’t think anyplace could compete with the beauty and richness around us. I didn’t want to go. The pearl of the Indian Ocean could wait, if only we could have just one more year in this ocean that “holds nothing.”

 As it was, we were short of time and needed to make a decision. We had already cut a month off our Madagascar timetable by including Tanzania in our route – a decision that proved well worth it not only from a traveler’s perspective but from a mariner’s one as well. The passage southwest towards Madagascar is a notoriously challenging one with winds on the nose and huge southerly swells. There is no shortage of reports that indicate the passage southwest across from the Chagos or the Seychelles to Madagascar is one of the most damaging to boat and soul. IMG_9656.jpgBy choosing a westerly run to Tanzania, we turned the wind and waves to our beam and had a fantastic run from the Seychelles to Tanzania; we negotiated the north flowing current by staying close to shore and picked up the southerly Mozambique current just 300 miles south. From Mozambique we would be in the wind shadow of Madagascar, which would protect us from the strong weather that sweeps across the Indian Ocean. Ultimately it was extra miles and more motoring, but a very pleasant and non-demanding run.

Having fallen in love with Mozambique it would have been easy to cast aside all prior plans; had it not been for a longstanding interest in Madagascar and a depletion of our rum we would have done just that. IMG_1207But holding tight to a philosophy based on making the most out of any situation, or as John puts it, choosing a and b AND c when given the option of a or b, we decided we would regret coming all this distance and bypassing Madagascar all together. Plus, we’d spent weeks hyping the kids up for a trip to the land of lemurs and we were only 500 miles away. For the adults we also knew that Malagasy rum was only a few days distant and no matter how prolific the humpback numbers or how extravagant their display, life onboard a boat is just not as much fun without a bilge full of rum.

There was also the consideration of John’s 50th birthday – a year that deserves special attention. It had been John’s hope to be sitting on Malagasy shores to toast a half-century and our general timeframe made this target a viable one. IMG_9384However, as we delayed week by week in East Africa that window had quickly diminished. We progressed down the coast into northern Mozambique and we were taken aback by the absolute wonder of the Quirimbas and the proliferation of humpback in every anchorage. IMG_9961How could we leave with daily displays made by such majestic creatures? We waivered and debated and struggled to make a decision, and finally committed to a Madagascar run. However, soon after we pulled anchor and sailed west we received an email that our cruising mates on S.V. Dallandra were only hours away and prepared for an early 50th celebration. It was ironic having spent so long deliberating on departure and committing to that hard-made decision, to then turn the bows around and head back to where we’d just come from – but hey, a party awaited in John’s honour.

At dusk we turned the boat around, 20 miles towards our destination, and retreated. Navigating coral waters after dark is not something to take lightly, but we pulled in under starlight by carefully following our GPS tracks and settled in for the night. In the early morning we woke to the mast of our mates approaching, and then watched as it suddenly stilled… a grounding on perfect, pristine reef. IMG_9864.jpgKnowing we only had the day to connect and that we’d be waiting four hours for the tide to turn, we moved Atea over and a proper 50th bash commenced. What made this day memorable was the pristine beauty that surrounded us. IMG_8636We enjoyed total isolation from the outside world with no stress, worry or preoccupation. We swam in clear, temperate waters with whales within sight. We enjoyed a complete silence other than our chatter and laughter and the occasional sound of air rushing through a blowhole. We rounded off 49 with cruisers who’d become our close friends, and we had no obligation in this remote corner of the world other than to laugh, play and enjoy, and to fully live in the present moment.

What a finale to Mozambique… we had daily sightings of humpback whales throughout our time in the country but none were as demonstrative as on that day. IMG_9970.jpgAs we swam we had whales pass by us; as John blew out his candles we had mother and calf swim between the two boats; as we cracked a bottle of champagne we had a single whale raise out of the water to slam its body back into the sea with a huge displacement of water around it, a clap of sound and a spray of water as a salute to John’s next fifty years of life. I don’t think any fancy affair or extravagant party could compete with the magic of that day. Thank you Kate, Tom and Marley for calling us back for an epic birthday celebration.

In the evening we raised our anchor and sailed past Dallandra as we headed back out to sea. We sat on deck as we drifted out of the channel and watched the sun set on the horizon with dolphin and whales silhouetted in the evening light. IMG_0028The boat was pointed due east with 500 miles of flat sea ahead of us. We knew while we wouldn’t get a beating by sailing to Madagascar in the shadow of its landmass, we knew we would struggle to get any wind to propel us forward; while it is physically demanding to push a boat through extreme conditions, it is mentally demanding to slog through flat seas with the repetitive drone of an engine. In addition to the noise and the expense of fuel, there was the knowledge that our faithful diesel was only running as a result of our constant care and attention. IMG_0439We were chewing through alternator belts, we had oil pressure issues and we had to prime the water pump on every start – so another three days motoring imposed its own anxiety. But with the experience of whales behind us and the excitement of lemurs ahead, we were full of the richness of our experiences and looking forward to what lie ahead.

However, after three days of brain-rattling engine noise, we were ready for a break. Given Mayotte lay ahead of us and was reputed to have the Indian Ocean’s best collection of French wine, cured meat and cheese, our detour was not surprising. We pulled in just before dark and dropped anchor in the first viable spot; not twenty minutes later we were blasted with spotlights from a large darkened RIB, and the police were on us asking for our paperwork. DCIM102GOPROGOPR3055.JPGAfter a polite but professional welcome, we agreed that we could stay the night but would need to make our way around to the other side of the island the next day. DCIM102GOPROGOPR3067.JPGAfter a quick morning snorkel on one of the healthiest coral reefs we’ve seen, we were escorted through the inner lagoon by a pair of adult humpback whale towards the main clearance port. We’ve mutated the mariner’s superstition from “never leave port on a Friday” to “never arrive in port on a Friday,” though no matter how many times we say it we invariably arrive on Friday. Mayotte was no exception. IMG_0296We traversed the 25-mile lagoon to arrive at port control at 16:30 to be greeted by an empty office. Immigration held the same quiet reception. In theory you are not to leave your vessel until you’ve cleared in however we could smell the aromas of French cuisine floating through the air and we were too weak to resist its aromatic beckoning call. We defied protocol and enjoyed a fantastic meal ashore. In the morning we tried to clear in again but were told by Border Control to return to our ship for the remainder of the weekend and try again on Monday when offices were open. Clearly the French influence was thick here, and with it the French work ethic. And so we defied protocol again and spent the day enjoying the quaint seaside town and indulging in the exquisite local cuisine. Come Sunday we decided it best to bail when the going was good, so we pulled up anchor and said farewell to Mayotte as the authorities continued their weekend siesta.

Turning to the ocean again, we were now only 150 miles from Madagascar and could almost smell the rum. Of course, sailing so far to store up on rum isn’t just to satisfy a personal fancy… it is to uphold a longstanding tradition and fulfill our duty as sailors. Rum-slogging seafarers date back to 1600s when rum was brought onboard ships as an incentive and payment, often being of more significant value than silver or gold. While rum isn’t used as payment on Ātea, it is used as an incentive to get us through a hard afternoon’s slog. Come midday when the sun is high and the deckhands have run the captain and quartermaster weary, there is nothing that beats grabbing a quiet moment with a cold, refreshing rum. And so, it was with great sadness that we said farewell to our last bottle of Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum at the end of our time in Mozambique. With the bottle still sitting empty at the bottom of our rubbish bin, we pulled into Madagascar to a warm reception put on by Captain Morgan’s sumptuous and seductive foreign cousins. Goodbye spiced Morgan, hello sweet Malagasy rum!

Nowhere have I met such a varied collection of extended kin and it took us no time to become acquainted with them all: Vanilla, banana, pineapple, orange, honey, chocolate, coffee, coconut, kaht-flavoured goodness. With such an assortment of liquid extravagance, what’s not to like? DCIM102GOPROG0013431.JPGJust like the 300,000 other tourists drawn to Madagascar each year to play witness to its unique biodiversity, we traveled 500 miles out of our way to indulge in diversity of a different kind. Like a scientist committed to discovering every nuance of similarity and difference in a single species, we dedicated ourselves to uncovering every expression of intensity and richness of flavour in every bottle of rum, each as unique and varied as so many other plant and animal species endemic to the country.

Through our rum-fogged euphoria we discovered the beauty of northwestern Madagascar. Located 400 kilometers off the southeastern African content, Madagascar is the fourth largest island nation in the world. Splintered from Africa some 135 million years ago, it has maintained an African cultural heritage tinged with a hint of French colonial rule. Having gained its independence from France in 1960, the influence of its foreign master is still evident in the language, food and social dynamics. Locals are fluent in both French and Malagasy, and it is often hard to get by without an understanding of the fundamentals of either language. IMG_1906.jpgYou can buy the typical local produce off the street then walk into a market and buy an assortment of French wine, cheese and cured meat. If you are an old knackered Frenchman, you can also buy a poor, young Malagasy woman and the evidence of this inequitable relationship is everywhere, particularly in popular regions where tourism and foreign expatriates have found their niche. Regardless of its now apparent popularity, it is still a poor nation by any country’s standard with 70% of the Malagasy people living below the poverty level and an average annual income of US$400. With a monthly income of $33, you can see the disparity that exists between the local population and its expatriate imports.

The western side of the country has a rugged beauty about it, with lateen-rigged dhows peppering the seascape and a landscape of parched, dry earth. IMG_0532One of the most diverse places on Earth, Madagascar offers much more than merely a haven for alcoholics looking for cheap fruit-flavoured rum. Once a destination solely for the intrepid, now tourists flock to her shores to experience a slice of remote isolation with the perks of a collective network. With 11,000 endemic species of plant and 175,000 endemic species of animal and a mind-blowing 90 percent of the total plant and animal species endemic to the country, the world has now recognized Madagascar’s uniqueness and the diversity it has to offer. IMG_1463.jpgUnfortunately, for many species this global recognition has come too late. While the country has the highest biodiversity per capita in the world, it has suffered massive habitat loss – with about 90 percent of its biologically bountiful forests wiped out by logging and slash and burn agriculture, and many of its regional forests reduced to 4% of their original size.

I would have loved to travel to more remote regions of Madagascar where the word ‘intrepid’ still holds true, but we didn’t have the time. We had two months in country and so we focused our travels in Nosy Be, a small-sized island located eight kilometers off the northwest corner of Madagascar. Named “Big Island” in the Malagasy language, Nosy Be has 75,000 inhabitants living in an area three-quarters the size of Singapore. IMG_0812.jpgNosy Be is generally regarded as the largest and most popular tourist destination in Madagascar, and the island has monopolized on its popularity by offering an outcrop of guesthouses and restaurants, nature tours and guided trips to surrounding islets. There is a small but established yachting and fishing charter industry and Hellville – a very unfortunate but appropriately descriptive name for the island’s main town – provides an active night scene with boisterous bars and throbbing nightclubs. While “off the beaten path” is attainable in most reaches of the country, it is a bygone reference in these parts. It s the most expensive destination by two-fold, where the cost of food and the price of accommodation is double what you’d find throughout the rest of the country; that said, our propensity for local rum at $5 a liter rum puts cost into context. Regardless of its international draw, there is still a laid-back feeling to this hub of Madagascar activity and we slotted in quite nicely to the slow pace of life.

In yachting terms, Madagascar is now a stock standard stop in the cruising circuit across the Indian Ocean and Nosy Be is where all yachts eventually congregate. IMG_2081In the height of the season it is buzzing with activity, and it is not just foreigners who crowd the anchorages. Yachts mix with dhows as they vie for room in the bay. Nearly all the local trade is transported in sailing craft and local mariners are masters of handling engineless solid wooden boats as they gracefully slip past the modern lightweight plastic yachts with inches to spare. Well, that is, masters of craft most of the time. IMG_2075.jpgWe were witness to an incident where a local dhow misjudged their approach and scraped past one yacht to go full broadside into another – the latter a spotless 60-food luxury yacht. The owners were good-natured about the incident and, after assessing damages, even better natured after inviting Captain Morgan’s cousins onboard to commiserate with them. Out of craving and consideration, we joined them.

Another of my favourite quotes came from my son who, at age three, took to telling all the restaurant staff, “I like beer. I like it all day long.” So it was for us with rum in Madagascar. For non-rum drinkers, what is there to do in Madagascar other than to drink rum all day? While the temptation to slip into a drunken stupor is very enticing on such cheap booze, there is so much on offer in Madagascar that warrants the occasional cap on the top of the rum bottle. IMG_2704For one, there are the lemurs – non-aggressive, gentle, and curious. Once spread across the country, extreme deforestation and population growth have reduced their territory and their numbers. Out of the seventy-one different type of lemur still in existence, currently all are listed as endangered species. IMG_1593Nosy Be has capitalized on their pull on tourists and there isn’t a stop where you don’t see them bounding through the trees – wild but habituated to human contact, incented to stay with handfuls of daily bananas. In almost every stop we made these gentle, docile creatures would leap from the trees with cat-like agility and land on a shoulder with a soft velvet touch. Unlike their raucous monkey cousins, lemurs are a model of good manners and patience.

If you’ve had your fill of lemurs and need to clear your head after a visit from one of the captain’s cousins, there is nothing better than going to sea. The sailing conditions in Madagascar are remarkably good. As the world’s fourth largest island, Madagascar is big enough to generate its own sea and land breeze – with a regularity with which you can set your watch to. IMG_0814With a reliable 15-knot afternoon sea breeze on the beam, sunshine in the sky and green shores gliding past one can easily forget the early morning promise of “never again!” and enjoy a perfect afternoon sail with rum in hand. You may take a dip in 28°C waters unspoiled by plastic litter, perhaps the result of extreme poverty levels that mean locals cannot afford to buy western packaged goods. IMG_1854You may sit back and watch the procession of sailing dhow glide past as they transport cargo up and down the coast. You may gaze out on the thatched houses that dot the hillsides, all made with organic materials that make Malagasy homes eco-friendly by design rather than fashion. You just may top the moment by looking over your rail to see a humpback or whale shark gliding past, the gentle giants who grace these shores every year from June to November.

Many yachts take advantage of these conditions to enjoy a cheap cruising ground. The anchorages are numerous and well protected, the locals are pleasant and the costs are minimal, and in season the winds are predictable. IMG_1417Since Ātea has followed an unusual route this season and arrived in Madagascar late and from the ‘wrong’ direction, we were out of touch with most of the Indian Ocean international fleet. The majority of our compatriots had already departed for South Africa and only by a stroke of luck and bad weather did we reunite with our good friends on S.V. Ngalawa for a bash out and birthday do. IMG_1911Instead of reconnecting with the international fleet, we fell in step with a mix of resident charter boats and South African cruisers. Just as New Zealand and Australian sailors frequent Tonga and Fiji, so do the South Africans frequent Madagascar – just one passage from home and all the delights of a foreign world lay afoot. Team Ātea jumped in and did all that we could to join in the fun with our new friends, with the captain’s cousins trailing close behind.

 As Ātea and her crew loiter in the midst of a shiny fleet of newly baptized boats and cruisers from South Africa, our own sea miles continue to add up. Ātea has sailed over 30,000 miles since we started this adventure and it has been nearly two years since our last haul-out and maintenance period. The rust streaks are getting longer, the oil leaks are getting worse, the genoa furler is unreliable and we rely more and more on our backup systems, the skippers toolkit, our experience and plain old good luck. We have run out of fingers and toes to cross and safe anchorage at the end of each day is greeted with a sigh of relief, closely followed by a call to the Captain.

 And so, we drank our way in and drank our way out in true Malagasy style: To the rum-flavoured fruits from the Garden of Eden. GOPR3620.jpgAfter a daily assembly over a two-month period, it was time to move on. We made our acquaintance with Captain Morgan’s Malagasy cousins and, with a dedication of time and attention, our tight bond was quickly forged and it is only at departure that I can look back and see how interwoven the relationship had become and to know, with absolute certainty, that a forced separation was necessary. But then, how were we to know, and how could we be blamed?

 Having made our dash out to Madagascar, and having thoroughly enjoyed it, we are ready to return to Mozambique. The next leg takes us west again, to a small bay just south of the Quirimbas and to a friend of mine from a lifetime ago. IMG_3091We leave one amazing country to return to another amazing country, in an ocean that “holds nothing” for another but holds a world of wonder for me. We head back to unfinished business in a country we only touched, to eek out what we can of our time in the Indian Ocean before the turn of season demands our departure. With our bilges fully stocked with Malagasy rum, we are ready to tip our glass to the shores of Mozambique, to the migrating humpback whales that transit down the coast, and to friends from life past.

 Tomorrow we raise anchor for the last time in Malagasy waters and depart this unique land. It has provided happy days and happy nights and deserves its place as a “must do” on the Indian Ocean cruising circuit. IMG_2207The dependable and undemanding weather, the attractive and secure anchorages, the colourful and culturally distinct people, the unique encounters with rare species both below and above the water and, of course, the ever-present taste and smell of flavoured rum permeates our minds and our memories. Tonight we raise our glass for the last time with Captain Morgan’s raucous cousins and seal a special friendship, and toast to the memories made that will span a lifetime.

Moments of our time in Mada: Photos

Footnote – we actually departed Madagascar in late October 2017 but have been characteristically late in getting this article to press!

Tanzania – An Endhowed Gem

My bloodshot pin-propped eyes have just logged 4,867 images into my brain of snapshots of our time in Tanzania. While the visual onslaught has left me cross-eyed and numb, the catalogue of moments spun in succession makes me realize how different an experience our time has been from the average khaki-clad tourist. I knew our cruising experience would be different for us when we set sight on East Africa, stripped of our palm-fringed beaches and string of pearly isles. I expected that our panorama would be replaced with a long stretch of bone-dry red dirt and parched baobab trees, and that we would slip into safari-mode as we tootled off with a bunch of other gawking cheetah-spotters to trek through world-class game parks. What we didn’t realize was that top-rate was synonymous with top-price. At several hundred dollars per head per day, the wonderful wilds of Africa was going to be a very expensive affair. Given the extremely high cost of the top-tier game parks and the distance we would need to travel from coastal Tanzania to get there, we knew we were out of budget and far too removed for any serious safari trekking. After researching our options we decided to skip the East African parks in wait for the cheaper, more accessible reserves of South Africa. With Mount Kili and The Geti in the scrap bin, I thought we’d miss what East Africa was all about – 4,867 blurry photos of spots, stripes, ivory and horn hidden behind a bone-dry veil of wheat-coloured grass.

Rather than the safari-mania we’d invisioned, it was a quick adjustment to realize we were going to experience a much less “Trip Advised” Africa. By the time we’d hit this realization it didn’t matter – there was much more to East Africa than the Big Five and we’d already fallen in love with our less-hyped experience. We were off on a back alley tour of Tanzania. While we wouldn’t be out tramping around the bush with a rifle-toting scout or trinket-shopping in a Maasai village, we were hanging out with locals in places far off the tourist path. For me, therein lies the best that travel has to offer: Off-beat, authentic, and unexploited. As I sort through our 4,867 images, what dawns on me most is the richness that “off the beaten path” offers: To seek your own route brings with it an authenticity of experience and a uniqueness of encounter that the tour-schemes are generally void of. Not that I advise anyone with the chance to game-drive East Africa not to jump at the opportunity – the Serengeti and Ngorogoro Crater are truly one of the world’s most incredible natural wonders – but they are only a part of the richness that is East Africa and there is much that extends beyond the countries top-ranked attractions.

Tourism is one of East Africa’s leading economies, with thousands of international visitors signing up for safaris and land tours every year. On the cruising front, however, there is very little activity. Quotes from officials, locals and resort personnel suggest an average of three to five cruising yachts per year; even if you double that number it is still a very small percentage in respect to global cruising numbers. With so many people throughout the world jumping on planes bound for Kenya and Tanzania by the thousands, why are so few cruising yachts headed to her shores?

One factor may be piracy. While Somalian piracy has been a dissuading factor in recent history, current reports indicate an abatement in attacks and a decrease in risk for yachts headed through the Red Sea. There has been an increasing stream of cruising yachts crossing from the Indian Ocean into the Mediterranean via the Red Sea over the past few years, and all report safe passage. With this threat minimized, the proximity of East Africa to Somalia should weigh less heavily on the mind. In fact, current reports rank the Caribbean and Indonesia as having the highest incidents of piracy yet boats continue to flock to their shores every year. Where has that flock gone in East Africa, and why hasn’t it returned?

Perhaps the reason few cruisers don’t include East Africa in their circuit is concern for a less headline type of crime – general safety. When we talked to a few cruisers of our interest in East Africa, crime became a common discussion point. Would we be safe there? Weren’t we putting our children at risk? Wasn’t a yacht a target for thieves? Yet, all yachts heading through the Indian Ocean were pulling into Madagascar where reports of property theft were rife and then sailing onward to South Africa which holds some of the world’s highest crime rates. Yachts continue to sail to Madagascar and South African each year – so, why avoid East Africa for similar concerns?

While we encountered no instances of assault to either body or property during our time in East Africa, that isn’t to say every country doesn’t hold a crime sheet. The last time I was in Tanzania, working in the tourist trade, my purse was stolen from me. Impulsive by nature, I chased after the thief. In doing so, I unwittingly incited a mob and the mania that ensued was mind-blowing. The mob caught and battered the poor man, and the police who intervened only carried on the abuse. The result of his capture was imprisonment and death. What blared out to me at the time was how quickly order can disintegrate into chaos. “This is how we deal with crime in our country,” the Chief of Police told me: The life of a twenty-year old man for a passport and few hundred bucks. It was a hard lesson learned. I had no idea my cry of theft would issue the young man a death sentence. The instance illustrates the hard-line attitude towards crime, yet even with severe repercussions, theft remains an issue.

Acknowledging this undercurrent of potential unrest, our time in East Africa wasn’t tainted by any fear of threat. Life on a yacht means we are often in remote regions exposed to our surroundings, yet throughout out time we felt very safe and welcomed by the locals. That said, as travellers, it is our responsibilities not to invite an incident and not taunt those without with our comparative affluence. In these parts of the world, a little goes a long way and in comparative terms, we have a lot. Equally, it is our charge to ensure we do not expose ourselves. There is a saying that goes, “if it isn’t locked on, you must not care for it.” Outboard engines, for example, are more precious than a block of gold. Hang it on the rail without securing it on or leave the tender with it attached in the water overnight and you send out a beacon as a target. I know of several cruisers who woke to the sound of uninvited guests knocking about on deck in the middle of the night – everything secured was in place, but anything not locked down was lifted. Invitation accepted.

Returning to the discussion of cruising in East Africa – or lack thereof – another factor may be a fear of corruption and the hassle of dealing with crooked officials. For my part, I believe there is a fair amount of miscommunication and misrepresentation on cruising blogs and websites that paints an unfair picture of East Africa. Personally, we received a number of warnings that cautioned us against clearing in at almost every port of entry: We would be ripped off, bribes would be demanded, the officials would be difficult. None of these reports matched the experience. Of the four yachts we know of that cleared into Tanzania this year, each at a different port – Pemba, Mafia, Tanga, Dar es Salaam – every one had a positive experience. The gossip and the reports were different from the collective experience, yet if all you have to go on is negative feedback then it is hard to be persuaded to add it as a destination on your list.

Adverse wind and current for yachts transiting south down the coast may also play at the minds of would-be East African cruisers. This was one of the reasons we initially scrapped Tanzania from our route plan, but my love for East Africa kept niggling in the back of my brain… how could we travel this far and come this close to bypass the East African coast all together? I knew in setting our sights on East Africa that we would diverge from the majority of cruising yachts crossing the Indian Ocean. But with so much on offer it seemed a worthwhile decision. What we needed to understand, however, was whether we could sail Ātea south down the coast against the strong currents and winds. All talk had been that the coast was impossible to transit during the southeast monsoon season. The prevailing winds are from the south and the current also sweeps you north, making progress south very difficult before the seasons change in January. However, on closer analysis we’d decided that by sticking very close to the coast we would avoid the biggest punch of current and that both wind and current turns favorable after Capo Delgado on the Tanzanian-Mozambiquen border; we would only need to tackle this issue during the first 300 miles of our passage. If we picked our weather right we should be able to pinch our way forward in calm conditions and use the land breeze to make good progress; this might result in less sailing but it would mean that we could move south without bashing boat and body to pieces – a fair tradeoff. At least, this was our theory. Having seen the possibility – a crack in the bolted door to East Africa – we decided we’d wander on through and find out for ourselves.

A final factor that may explain the low numbers of yachts visiting East Africa is that it is not on the main cruising route. Yachts transiting the Indian Ocean have two options if they are heading west, as most are: head north through the Red Sea or south to South Africa. As there is still a very palpable fear factor to the Red Sea option, most choose a southerly route. While Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique can reasonably fit into this option, Madagascar is now very much on the radar and it is hard to include both destinations in one season. While Madagascar used to be considered remote and off the beaten path, it is hard to find a yacht who has crossed the Indian Ocean these days who hasn’t included Madagascar as a destination – and for many, a highlight. East Africa, bypassed for its neighbour, remains an isolated gem.

Most yachts that head south towards Madagascar from all departure points in the eastern Indian Ocean will hit some very rough seas and weather. Often circumnavigators report this area as being one of the toughest they’ve ever had to transit and many boats suffer damage on approach. So, when it comes to weather routing there are some considerations a skipper must seriously query. We decided we could negotiate the strong currents off the East African coast by staying close to land, and in choosing this route we would also avoid the battering that the direct passage to Madagascar brings. We found in doing so we compromised a hard passage for a longer, more roundabout route, and the decision to go via Tanzania probably added two hundred extra engine hours to the season. Easier on the boat and crew, but harder on the engine and bank account. I am glad we choose the option that we did: our passage was smooth if not costly, and we got the addition of exploring Tanzania – an experience as rewarding and worthwhile as I imagined.

Now that we’ve scooted past the border and can reflect on our time in Tanzania, I see several distinct phases of our trip which, combined, weaves a rich cultural and natural tapestry that makes East Africa one of my favourite destinations yet. Our route included remote Pemba, an island off the north-east coast of Tanzania, where the dramatic coastline of eroded limestone and sheer underwater walls drop from a dramatic two meters to three hundred meters in a vertical line. While there are a few tourist hamlets with isolated, high-end resorts, the majority of Pemba is rural and isolated from tourism. There we were invited into rustic villages where a smattering of Swahili phrases got us further than English, where the children were shy of our foreign-ness and the women hid their faces from the camera’s eye. The diving in season at Pemba is reported to be some of the best in East Africa, and the underwater topography lends itself to truth. Dhows bespeckle the African coast, but no place will conjure up their beauty like seeing a long line of them sail past us at sunset. I could have spent months there, tucked in, watching their daily pilgrimage to and from the sea.

From Pemba we made a short, unscheduled stop in Kenya due to strong northerly currents and engine failure. We were escorted to the mainland by spinning dolphin, breaching humpback whale and S.V. Barbara Ann, an American cruising couple we’d become friends with earlier in the year. There we were entreated to the sight of a beautiful old stone village, the taste of seaweed and mud crab, and introduced to the Kenyan border security. So much for our sneaky duck in and out that we’d hoped for; however, for a bottle of Johnny Walker and $20 we negotiated an amicable short-term arrangement. In general, I’m not a fan of paying bribes but when you are truly in the wrong and someone is winking you with upturned palm, a slip of green may very well suit the occasion.

From the southern tip of the Kenyan coast, we returned to legal turf in Tanzania; friends old (S.V. Momo) and friends new (S.V. Dallandra) were waiting for us in the coastal town of Tanga and we were excited to reconnect. Over the next two weeks we became familiar with rural mainland Tanzania, a grumpy club commodore and cheap yacht club cocktails.

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We also did some inland travel to the Usambara Mountains in northeast Tanzania, where we rented a mountain chalet and explored the high altitude ranges and the cloud-enshrouded mountain villages, and hunted down the wild yet charismatic chameleon. It was a treat to get some inland travel and see rural Tanzania, as well as be introduced to Mambo View Lodge and witness how an eco-tourism business that is embedded in the community can make a genuine and sustainable difference.

From there we explored the historically significant Zanzibar island, rich in history, spice, and tourism. We drank sunset cocktails on the beach with the other foreign imports in the north and walked the tightly woven streets of old Stonetown in the south. We shopped for trash and trinkets in the labyrinth of shops and stalls and in general, had a fabulous time being tourists amongst tourists. We ate octopus at the fish market, drank spiced coffee at the cafes and indulged in the myriad of culinary options the old town has to offer. Zanzibar is a truly multiethnic community that carries the unique atmosphere of a city that has genuine mystique and whispers of exotic mystery at every corner. Zanzibar was once the centre of the slave trade for the whole of East Africa and the prosperity of the Sultanate was derived in part from the business of human trade, a dark history beneath the present day tourist-friendly UNESCO-approved World Heritage site. In such a place, the history of long ago still lingers in the dark crevices of its tight winding alleys and seeps from the cracks of every chipped-stucco wall. A hundred and fifty years later and every thick, spike-studded door continues to hold behind it the secrets of its past.

Our last notable stop was in the main port and commercial hub of Dar es Salaam, where we found ourselves quickly settling into the upmarket expatriate scene. It offers a great base as provisions are easily got and readily available, the promenade provides a great social hub, there is a great selection of excellent restaurants and the ice cream is divine. There is a upitty yacht club and a hospitable slipway, the former providing airs of colonial self-import and the latter providing resources for practical support. I guess it is this last stop that clarified what I found so enchanting about Tanzania – it is like the rubiks cube of travel destinations.

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It offers a kaleidoscope of different settings unique and different from each other – from coast to sea, from valley to mountain, from bustling town to isolated village. Weaved through each of these environments is the open arms and the wide grin of the Tanzanian local – warm, engaging and delightful. In itself perhaps you could say this of every people in every country, but there is an intangible and almost indescribable uniqueness that is East Africa, discovered only by time on her soil and interaction with her people.

Looking back, our route included remote Pemba, rural Tanga, misty Usambara mountains, vibrant Zanzibar, quaint Dar es Salaam, interspersed with small bays and islets along the way. We zigzagged back and forth from island to coast moving south through coastal Tanzania from the northern border of Kenya to the southern border of Mozambique and got a good introduction to the land and life of Tanzania and its people along the way. While we didn’t spot the Big Five, walk the crater rim or hike Mount Kilimanjaro — something that would define most people’s trip through Tanzania — we got so much that is outside the box that is equally rewarding. This reward came to us by trusting our capabilities and following our own desires against the recommendation and advice of popular opinion and outsider fears. By stepping outside the standard cruising circuit, we found the blog posts outdated and general opinions misinformed. None of the factors that suggest blockades to sailing coastal Tanzania proved to be actual barriers and the few cruisers that do test these boundaries find themselves well rewarded. As I look back on my photos, it dawns on me that we’d actually struck gold without knowing it: We got to see and experience things at ground-level, outside of the stampede of flocking tourists and beyond the security of a cruising community. We got off-beat, authentic, and unexploited – the three main ingredients for a top-rate trip. We got to finger the fringes of a rare and well endhowed gem.

To view the Tanzania album, click here: Endhowed

The Flight of the Millennium Falcon

Our Passage from the Seychelles to East Africa:

Day 1: Friday, 14th July. Anchored at Baie Beau Vallon, Mahe, Seychelles. DTG: 983 miles.
IMG_4058There is an ancient sailors saying that that states, “Never leave port on a Friday.” It is Friday today, but we leave anyway… I am placing my trust in the powers of loose interpretation. We may be leaving port on Friday, but it will take us 200 miles – or 1.5 days at 5 knots – to actually sail across the country’s western boarder. As we see it, technically we are safe from this historic and well-established mariners superstition.

The dinghy is stowed on deck, we have precooked meals packed in the freezer and all loose items are secured below. IMG_3987This past week has kept us occupied with the activities that consume a pre-passage routine: Provisioning, key boat maintenance projects, port clearance and pre-departure logistics. This past week has also kept us busy creating new liquid concoctions from the liquor cabinet: IMG_3855.jpgWe were introduced through a mutual friend (thanks Astrid!) to a delightful Australian cruising family and our welcome party with the crew on S.V. Dallandra extended nonstop through the entire week. After a frantic week of yacht preparations during the day and social debauchery by night, we’d come to the end of our cruising permit and it was time to officially depart. IMG_3858We cleared customs, drove Ātea around the corner, and spent the next few days in holiday relaxation mode.For the past few days we’ve sat illegally in country, tucked around the corner in front of a swanky beachside resort with the express purpose of indolence and indulgence. John and I hit up the poolside bar, slurping rainbow-coloured liquid from umbrella-clad glasses with our feet up on deckchairs. The kids undertook a 48-hour marathon, swimming and running in an all-out endurance test fit for Olympic champions. It was a needed respite as the passage in front of us was going to be a rough one; we needed to top up our reservoirs before the next 1,000 ocean miles that lay in front of us.

We departed at 8am after a good rub of the eye and a strong mug of coffee. IMG_4036 (1)We motored most of the afternoon with light winds, but by nightfall the wind filled in as predicted; if it maintains we will be able to sail through the night. Thanks to Marley, the eight-year old crewmember onboard S.V. Dallandra, Braca has dropped his fascination with sea creatures and talks of nothing but wookies and ewoks. We decided that we’d give him more to go on than the 1cm light saber and mini-Vader that was donated to him from Marley’s Star Wars-themed Lego set and introduce him to the real deal: IMG_4014.jpgEpisode I-VII of George Lukas’ masterpiece… Da da da Da di dum Da di dum….. Here we go – slipping our son and ourselves into an entirely new dimension. This passage our “theme day” will expand the week. For the next seven days we intend to knock off one episode a day. By the end of this passage I am sure we will have all crossed over to The Dark Side – our sweet little Nemo has no chance against The Force.

Day 2: Saturday 15/7, Position: 04 53S, 53 22E. Anchored at Banc Africans. DTG: 859.
Calm weather is coming… Predict Wind forecasted it and the weather is proving it. IMG_4126.jpgWe have decided to drop anchor at a deserted islet 120 due west of the Seychelles rather than spend $200 on the mind-numbing drone of the engine for the next 48 hours. With the anchor down we revel in the splendid isolation of our little oasis – no one knows we are here, there are no humans for more than 100 miles and there is no contact with the outside world. We have only the birds for company but in that we are inundated. The clamorous noise emanating from the island reverberates around us and we find peace in the cacophony of shrieks and cries.

We give the kids their passage present even though Ātea sits on anchor mid-trip. IMG_4082I know Braca would delight in a Star Wars themed Lego set but I didn’t have the foresight to predict his new fascination; they get a boxed set of car-themed Lego each – enough to provide a preoccupation for the following few hours before dismantling them and making Lego-sabers. What these kids are learning to do through their imagination is a direct result of their deficit in theme-spec’d toys.

Day 3: Sunday 16/7, Position: 04 53S, 53 22E. Anchored at Banc Africans. DTG: 859.
Even land-based rituals extend to our passages when sea conditions permit. IMG_4138Today is Sunday and custom demands Sunday pancakes. After consuming a few syrup-doused flour fritters, we decide that the tiny islet needs a few Storm Troopers to patrol its boundaries and ensure safe harbour. With the dinghy secured on deck and a wide berth given to the island when anchoring, we need suitable transport ashore and our little inflatable kayak becomes the landing craft for our band of mini-troopers. The beauty of the little island amazes us – the sand is salt-white and flour-fine; IMG_4163.jpgthe bush is filled with a million tiny noddy-eggs and the air is filled with the protective squawk of the mother-birds warning us away. Bridled terns lay their eggs directly in the sand, a few short feet away from the waters-edge at high tide. G0511357.jpgThe kids saunter up enormous turtle-tracks that guide them to a half-dozen buried nests. This is the world before human encroachment. We spent the afternoon adding invasive human footprints in the sand and watching the birds soar, swoop and hoot their disapproval of our presence on their turf.

Day 4: Monday 17/7, Position: 04 53S, 53 22E. Anchored at Banc Africans. DTG: 859.
Whoa! We woke up to a big surprise – our first sight out the window was at the ass-end of a fishing boat anchored a few meters off our bow. So much for our splendid isolation! IMG_4229.jpgI brought my coffee up on deck for a sociable chat and found out that for all the flat seabed that surrounded us, they decided it best to anchor on top of us so that they could meet us; I found charm in what would normally be an annoyance. One generalized trait I can give the Seychellois is their outward sociability. I enjoyed sitting on deck chatting with them as they carried about with their morning rituals – washing armpits, brushing teeth, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes – me a closer part of their world than we could have shared had they followed proper mariner protocol.

We followed them ashore a little later to continue our banter and took immediate liking to the lot of them; IMG_4207I watched as one tread through (and presumably on) bird eggs to film the million screeching and swooping terns for his absent son while the others dug up buckets of the rich guano for their gardens back home. I chatted with one who had been a park ranger and learned that the eggs would begin to hatch in a week and in two weeks the island would be covered with little fluffy hatchlings. IMG_4220We invited them over for tea, an offer that turned to an afternoon drinking vodka. In the process, we somehow ended up with their dinghy tied to our stern – a last minute arrangement that kept us from sailing as intended that evening to spare them the time dragging it up on deck. After they departed we were struck by the trust they’d bestowed in us, and we were flooded with appreciation for the life that we are currently leading.

By 5pm the wind began to roll in at 15 knots but we will wait until the morning for departure. It has been a fantastic day with four very warm, friendly Seychellois, reminding us how wonderful these random moments are and how important it is to cast plans when an opportunity presents to make the most of the present. Our passage to Africa will take seven days regardless of our delay and there should be no shortage of wind from this point forward. Plus, we’d had a belly-full of vodka, so why rush?

Day 5: Tuesday 18/7, Position: 04 53S, 53 22E. Anchored at Banc Africans. DTG: 859.
Shrill whistles woke us at 6am as our fishing buddies returned to reclaim their dinghy before continuing onward to Praslin with their catch. IMG_4187.jpgWe raised sails shortly after and head off in the opposite direction. It is a perfect 15-knot breeze – congratulations to John for reading the forecast and picking the right weather window. The two days we spent at Banc Africains resulted in two days that we didn’t burn diesel. Given the high cost of diesel in the Seychelles we decided not to fill our tanks; we would take the 1,000-mile run to Africa with what we have remaining from diesel we bought in the Maldives three months ago. With half a tank remaining, we will need consistent and reliable winds to make it.

In the late afternoon, however, the wind eased and we bobbed in 5 knots amidst a mild ocean. IMG_4354We took it for the first few hours and enjoyed the silence, then kicked on the engine… diesel or not, we have an ocean to cross and we have to charge the batteries anyway. Our intended “Star Wars” theme day is delayed until we can muster the energy to match the children’s demand for creativity. Instead, we put on the first episode of Star Wars and watched the creativity of others: ‘Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace’… IMG_4408.jpglet’s hope there is nothing like that onboard for us. By early evening the wind returned and I enjoyed a solid 15-knot watch. By midnight the winds were continuing to build so we put a second reef in the main, pulled out the staysail and rolled away the genoa, leaving Ātea under a more comfortable sail configuration. Let’s hope the wind holds through the night at 20-30 knots.

Day 6: Wednesday 19/7, Position: 05 00S, 50 00E. DTG: 859.
The 20-30 knot winds remain all day, but it isn’t the wind that is making things rough… the sea state is knocking us about like loose marbles. The ocean is rough and rollers rock the boat over each bulge of water, splashing seawater over our deck. Our high center cockpit provides a secure helming position and our bimini clears leave us protected and dry. The day passes with a rocking boat and rolling bellies as John and I are feeling lethargic and unsettled with all the movement; we lay low today. IMG_4099We have not been able to muster much mental energy to take Braca through his schoolwork or engage in play, but the kids are doing well and are happily entertaining themselves with Lego and books. They seem indifferent to the conditions outside, but for the first time I have an inkling of what seasickness is about: The leathery, the apathy, the disorientation, the drowsiness. Each day is starting to roll into a sameness of the day prior and I feel like we are becoming a replica of Starwars II: The Clone Wars. Let’s hope tomorrow shakes us free.

Of note, we have turned off our AIS for the first time ever – for those unfamiliar, AIS stands for Automated Identification System and it broadcasts our position to any other vessel with AIS within a 10-30 mile radius. Turning this off means that no other boats can see our position, which is a risk when considering the fast-moving tankers and cargo ships that may pass our way. However, given the possibility of pirates in these waters, going stealth makes us feel that this is a safer course.

Day 7: Thursday 20/7, Position: 05 08S, 49 00E. DTG: 726.
John and I are finally feeling better. The kids have been fantastic, wrapped up in sibling play. IMG_4275.jpgToday the swell has eased and the wind dropped to 15 knots and we are feeling less pressure under the eased sea state. We promised the kids a “Star Wars” theme day but continue to postpone it; we will have to follow through with our commitment soon otherwise we will have our own Star Wars III enactment onboard: ‘The Revenge of the Sith’ – hopefully we will be able to pull it off tomorrow.

Two ships have passed at a distance in all these miles and all this ocean. The decision to head west on a beam reach towards Tanzania versus direct into the wind to Madagascar seems a good one right now – any more bashing into the seas and both body and boat would have been in much worse condition. The baffle in the water tank broke last night, making a terrible grinding sound from under the deck that took us awhile to pinpoint; there is nothing more disconcerting than an unusual noise that you can’t identify. IMG_4115.jpgWhen the clatter got worse, John pulled off the top of the water tank and removed the remaining bolts and the baffle while a tonne of unleashed drinking water slopped around him and the inside of the boat and successfully silenced the metallic knell. Another job is added to the list. More unpleasant sounds are coming from the rudderstock with a loud creak on each roll. We think this might be the sealing packing binding in the shaft, but with the coast of Somalia just 500 miles downwind of us steering gear failure is not something we wish to contemplate.

Not much to report other than continued progress towards the African coast. This has been a dull passage to date, though respectively easy. IMG_4325.jpgThe food was well prepared before departure so meals are easy – a good thing as neither John nor I have much appetite in the constant roll. We’ve held a conservative sail plan so we could have more control in stronger winds; today we rolled out the genoa and increased our speed by 2 knots and in doing so shortened the overall trip by a day. We are experiencing a moody ocean for the first time in a long while and it is a good reminder of all the different states that the ocean brings with it.

Day 8: Friday 21/7, Position: 05 31S, 46 35E. DTG: 610.
It is Friday and today marks one week since our official “unofficial” departure from the Seychelles. We expect a Swahili karibu (translate: welcome) on Monday if this weather continues. All feeling episode IV-ish, “A New Hope.” IMG_4145.jpgThe wind continues off our port side at 15-20 knots and the seas have settled. We continue to have the good sailing conditions that yesterday brought us and we are finally reaping the rewards of our route choice – a beam reach versus the hard bash to windward that Madagascar would have brought us. Let’s hope these conditions continue as we will have had continuous wind at an average of 15-20 knots for the duration of the trip and plenty of diesel remaining in our tank.

It is great to have consistent passage-making wind after a few windless seasons in Asia and six windless months in the Maldives; it is a good reminder of the value of maintaining a conservative sail plan. Ātea has two reefs in the main and both the staysail and the genoa are rolled up eight turns. At most, this represents 60% of our normal sail area but is proving to be the right balance for these conditions, driving us west at 6 knots while allowing us comfort through the squalls. We could push Ātea faster, but 6 knots get us a good average at 150 miles per day. Any faster and we would add stress to the steering, rig and sails, increase violence to the ship’s motion, and add extra work for the crew in sail changes due to the frequent squalls.

The kids continue to play onboard as if it were another day in the norm; their imagination is their salvation out here at sea! IMG_4278.jpgToday we celebrated “Half Way Day” and the kids opened another of their wrapped presents with much glee and excitement. All is good onboard. While we continue to get a consistent wind and there is no urgency to get in, it is much a passage of dullness and I am looking forward to getting in, anchoring shoreside and having a level floor again.

Ātea and the flying fish are hopping along at 8 knots tonight, the latter landing on deck for a free ride or safe haven. I keep running around on deck trying to free each one before it realizes it has just landed dooms day. Our netting provides a great means of keeping everything onboard… even the unsuspecting flying fish fail to escape our baby-proofed “playpen.”

Day 9: Saturday 22/7, Position: 05 32S, 43 51E. DTG: 460.
Our progress continues along at a fast pace. We’ve hit the sweet spot with consistent wind – the wind has not gone below 15 knots or above 30 for the past few days. We sit in a perfect 15-20 knot pocket with the wind on our port beam, ticking off 150-180 miles a day. Right now, the decision to head west seems a brilliant choice from the beating that the yachts report from a southern passage to Madagascar. Of course, we may get a reenactment of Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back when we attempt to go south along the Tanzanian coast. The current splits just south of the border between Mozambique and Tanzania – until we get across this parallel, we can expect strong southerly winds and northerly currents to make our transit south a struggle. It is our hope that both ease as predicted in September and we can grab our weather windows as they present to scratch our way down the coast until the equatorial current splits and sends us zipping on our way towards South Africa.

At long last, John and I uphold our promise. Today we spent the early part of the day sifting through scraps to pull together one Darth Vader ensemble and three Storm Trooper outfits. IMG_4470Braca has claimed identity with the Evil Lord… where has my eco-sensitive humanitarian environmentalist gone?! Sweet gulping Nemo has been tossed down the toilet to be replaced with the incessant death-rattle of Anakin reincarnate; Lego fish creations have been replaced by Lego swords, guns and light sabers. IMG_4571.jpgAnd here we are, conscientious parents, encouraging this. We unravel six toilet paper rolls to get the cardboard for our weaponry. We tear strips of usable cloth to create full-length capes. We pull bilge lining to construct masks and we use permanent marker that turns out to be permanent only on our newly upholstered settees. All good fun ensues.

Day 10: Sunday 23/7, Position: 05 37S, 41 25E. DTG: 298 (162 miles in 24-hours; this is one of Atea’s best-ever runs). The wind has remained and the excitement is high. We will be in tomorrow and now, at the end, the passage seems to have clicked through in the blink of an eye. Star Wars VI – The Return of the Jedi… not that I feel like I have triumphed over evil to get here; our first few days were rough but since then the weather has behaved as predicted and Ātea held up as we hoped. But I do Return – to a continent I spent my formative years in with my birth family and to a continent I took on as a young adult in my early thirties. I return a fourth time, this time as a wife and mother to share my past history and create new experiences with the family I have helped create. After a decade of being away from the Dark Continent, this Jedi Knight is ready to experience this rich, rewarding and expressive world afresh and all over again!

Day 11: Monday 24/7, Position: 05 22S, 39 38E. DTG: 148.
We drop anchor at Mkoani, Pemba Island, Tanzania at midday, 850 miles out from Banc Africains. There are a few milestones that coincide with the conclusion of this trip: This is now our sixth season cruising onboard Ātea and we’ve only just completed our first ocean crossing. For context, John completed a four-year circumnavigation onboard his yacht Violetta in 1995 with 29,000 ocean miles and I sailed 12,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean within one year, but after six years Ātea has only just passed the 30,000 mile mark. Clearly we are making leisurely progress.

I feel more than the obvious excitement that comes at the end of a passage; I am on African soil again and I am thrilled to be back. I knew when I left that it would be a long time before I returned to the continent and I was right – it has taken me a decade. I was captivated then, as I am sure to be again. I am not sure why more cruisers transiting the Indian Ocean don’t spent time off the east African coast as there is so much on offer here; we are just hours on arrival and I already hear myself begging for more time. I can feel my fingers digging into the soil trying to hold purchase, knowing regardless of the time I will get that it will be too short. But I am here now and greedy to consume as much of the experience as I can, for however long I can get. So here we are – Kuleta juu ya Afrika! – let the fun begin!

Follow link to photos of our passage: Album Images

Shall We Rally?

The decision to join a cruising rally is often a process of weighing pros and cons and finding where you fall in the balance. IMG_7586I like to think I have a bit of pirate in me, daring to fly my own battle flag, but I lowered that weather-beaten rag from the cross-trees and signed up for the 2017 Sail Maldives Rally. There were two driving factors the decision to join: One, it was essentially free and two, it promised an extravaganza unlike anything the country has ever seen. Swashbuckler or not, who could miss a good party? A promotional article published by the rally’s marketing director, Sarah Harvey, stated, “This is the largest mass-participation event the Maldives has even seen. Imagine 100-plus yachts cruising the Maldives’ waters… This will be [an] unforgettable event and the whole country is getting ready to welcome the participants from around the world.” Furthermore, the article boldly touted, “By joining the first ever Sail Maldives yacht rally you’ll be playing a part in making history, since it is the first time anything like this has ever taken place in the Maldives.” We were going to be Mavericks. We were in.

Having made the decision, we were aiming for end of January for kick off. We’d spent most of the 2016 cruising season exploring islands in the eastern Indian Ocean without the company of other cruisers and, having already spent three months in the Maldives, I was eager to drop anchor in a crowded lagoon. IMG_7822.jpgThere was only one problem: Where were the participants? We were down to the official start date and there were only three yachts on the list and one, I knew, had already dropped out. Considerable marketing had gone into publicizing the event and there had been a lot of queries by interested cruisers; surely a percentage of those would take the bait. The rally rolled the start date back a month, hoping that late February might ensnare a larger school in its net.

We pulled into Uligan mid-February, the northernmost entry point, excited for the show to begin. We were forwarded an email sent by the first yacht to arrive on scene, a Scottish crew on SV Ngawala:

“We arrived to meet Assad [our yachting agent] and his colleagues who have been tremendously hospitable. The clearance was quick and hassle-free and we were even brought a bouquet of frangipanis and fresh coconuts. In the past three days, we have enjoyed a fish BBQ hosted by the local mayor, visited the nearest resort, learnt how to fish, climb a coconut tree and swam with dolphins and manta rays. We are looking forward to meeting everyone and enjoying what promises to be an amazing rally.” 

The organizers kept touting a hundred boats on the roll call and we expected to have to muscle our way into the anchorage. IMG_9516The day of the second official start date, just two yachts were lined up. The start was again delayed to wait for yachts held up in Sri Lanka and purportedly on their way. Over the course of a few sunny, lazy days we watched the horizon and waited. Finally, far from full capacity, the nod was given and the 2017 Sail Maldives Rally officially kicked off at double our initial number.

Given our decision to join for social reasons, a team of four may sound a disappointing number. For us, however, that was a 400% increase in our social network. A small rally meant that we could travel comfortably together. In an interview with the rally’s founder, Ahmed Adeel states, IMG_9582“The sailing community is like a family, everyone likes to share their experiences with fellow sailors from all around the world.” We could build inter-yacht connections without being lost in a mariner’s metropolis and have genuine experiences with locals without drowning out the authentic in a whirlwind of ogling photo-hungry tourists. Continuing, Adeel adds, “I thought of creating an event where sailors can gather together in the Maldives, have a great holiday and explore the beauty of the country. There is no better sailing destination anywhere else in the world.” With 30°c above water and 30°c below water, with 1,190 tiny islands sprinkled across a territory surrounded by 99% seawater, guided by an in-country host such as Sail Maldives Rally, there truly is no cruising destination like it.

As the weeks moved on we grew from a group of four to eight, and eventually from eight to twelve. The agenda for the rally was crammed with daily movement, local excursions and cultural activities. Over the course of two months we would be escorted by a rally boat from the northernmost atoll to the southernmost atoll, through a chain of palm-fringed islands that extend 1200 miles down the northern Indian Ocean. This rally boat, or “mothership” was it was affectionately called, was a 100-foot charter launch that hosted staff to guide and entertain us, complete with an onsite liquor license and fully stocked bar; a magnetic draw in a liquor-free country. The local community welcomed us at all the villages on arrival with food, dance, and festivities. Our appetite for the Maldives wasn’t going to be whetted, it was going to be saturated.

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The pace at the beginning was fast. We moved almost daily to keep up with the rally schedule and were entreated to an amazing display of island hospitality.As we travelled from island to island, we were greeted ashore by a line of women and children holding flower-bedecked coconuts and shell-studded wreaths, entertained by dancer and drummers, fed fresh caught lobster and fish and guided through the township by our gracious hosts. It was hard not to feel humbled by the outpouring of gifts and gestures after a long succession of these events; this was not a government sponsored event and in all cases the budget came out of island council funds and the charity of the villagers it supports. All the effort that had gone into these elaborate events were done for our benefit at the request of the rally organizers, and we didn’t contribute a dime.

Long-term cruisers are notorious for being spendthrift. While there are few truly destitute sailors these days, all of us are trying to extend our time afloat. Our decision to join the Sail Maldives Rally was made easy by the fact that we didn’t have to pay anything extra (perhaps I should say, we were already paying enough). Whether we paid our fees directly to an independent agent or to the rally, the total cost was the same. Bringing a yacht into the Maldives carries significant costs in official permits and documentation, and a three month sojourn through the country costs about US$1,200 in cruising permits, anchorage charges, clearance costs, quarantine Inspection levies, and the list goes on. As a result, excess fees to join the rally would have made it cost prohibitive for many. Realizing this, the rally organizers put their own money forward to pursue their ambitions of making the Maldives an international cruising destination and paid for the cost of running the event out of their own pockets. In a late-night chat on the aft deck of the rally boat, Adeel explained that he had conceived of the rally a few years back and had dedicated the past year to arduous government meetings trying to persuade an uninterested body to support the venture. His goal was to prove the inaugural 2017 Sail Maldives Rally a success and get government aid for subsequent rallies. For this rally to succeed, the opinions of government decision-makers will have to be swayed or the rally will have to find a viable source of funding.

But for now, thanks to our hosts, we were livin’ large. We were being hosted in a country renowned for its cultural reservation and distance. Instead of the indifference reported by previous cruisers, we were flooded by warm hospitality in every village we visited.IMG_9104 Having spent several months in the country on our own, I realized what an honour it was to be shown customs that we would not have been privy to outside of the rally; rather than quiet reserve, we watched band after band of local drummers kicking out rhythmic beats and writhed with men and women on sandy shores to a movement never seen before and elaborate costumes we will never see again. The rally also introduced us to islands either prohibited to foreigners or too convoluted to attempt to enter on our own. The atolls can be geographically restrictive and difficult to transit without local knowledge. The anchorages are often deep (25-30 meters), the passes shallow (2-4 meters), and the lagoons filled with an impenetrable labyrinth of coral bommies. Because of this, many read the notes of other cruisers and follow an established path year after year. In joining the rally, we were shown islands otherwise banned and accepted into communities unused to foreign tourists. As participants we were privy to a side of the Maldives previous cruisers had never experienced, all thanks to the Sail Maldives Rally.

Joining a group, however, comes with its share of conflict and a rally at its inception is inherently fraught with errors – the learning curve was steep. Misjudgement in planning and poor communication led to periodic conflict between some participants and the organizers, and eventually the pack split into those whose glass was half full and those with glass half empty. To their credit, the rally team was responsive to all feedback and adjusted their agenda as requested but most of us were ready to kick our internal engines into idle after a month and a half of fast-paced movement and continuous engagement. Our tight pack of twelve split up. manta4.jpgSome yachts continued to follow the rally and the village events, others ventured off to explore the underwater scenery and search for the manta ray and whale shark found in the region. The central Maldives is a world renowned dive destination and for those of us who like to be submerged under 30 meters of water; this was our spot. The central atolls are the country’s hub of tourism and resort after resort lay perched on every visible patch of sand, running their wooden tentacles out into the sea. Live-aboard dive boats crisscross their aquatic tracks throughout the surrounding sites. Breaking up the group to accommodate the yachts was a good tactical strategy and allowed everyone time to follow their interests and explore at their own pace.

As we entered the southern atolls, the majority of yachts regrouped. By this stage the rally support team had disintegrated into a one-man band. Unfortunately, the mothership suffered irreparable damage to its generator and limped into Male midway through the rally. The ship, and all crew with it, were left behind. It was a blow to the rally and a serious loss to those of us who had become regulars on the traveling party barge; no more potluck dinners on the top deck, no more evening cocktails shared bar side, no more late night disco parties. We left behind the charming local crew who supported us along the first part of our journey. Our man-on-the-ground and respective dog-handler, Ahmed Hanyff, continued to travel with us as a guest on one of the cruising boats but by this stage all events ceased and the rally unofficially ended from this point forward.

While the disintegration of the rally at the midway point could be perceived as a disappointment, particularly for the organisers, DCIM127MEDIAI believe we got the best of both worlds. Our eyes were opened to local custom and culture through community events and we developed some tight bonds with local Maldivians, while at the same time getting the freedom to roam the atolls at our own pace and discover a side of the Maldives unique to us. With the rally we experienced full and fast, without we enjoyed slow and select.

I don’t know what Adeel and the Sail Maldives Rally team will choose to do, or what the fate of Sail Maldives Rally will be. I like to drink from a glass half full, and feel that we got everything that we wanted from the rally. However I do not imagine that the organisers got what they hoped for this year, nor can I see that the tremendous effort they put into pulling this together paid off. I hope that as guinea pigs we’ve helped pave the way for future rally participants and demonstrated that the Maldives offers the perfect playground for a successful rally event. For their sake, and for the sake of future cruisers, I hope to see a 2018 Sail Maldives Rally with lessons learned. I will most certainly stow my pirate’s hat and pull the free rally shirt over my shoulders if the opportunity presents itself again. Cruising the Maldives just isn’t the same without it.

 

Groundhogs and Desert Dogs

Favourite quote from the passage: “Mum, I wish you spent more time with me.” “But Braca, I’m with you all day long.” “Yes, but I miss you when you go on night watch.”IMG_2274 (800x533).jpg

We have just spent twelve days at sea without sight of another vessel for over 1,200 miles. Without any comms, we’ve had absolutely no contact with the outside world and no interaction with another human other than the four that inhabit this 44’ space. That kind of confinement and isolation is a mindboggling concept for all but hard-core prisoners in solitary confinement and the slightly eccentric trans-oceanic cruisers Why do it, city folk may ask. The answer is simple. But I’ll leave you to figure it out from the clues left in the entries that follow.

Take two, Scene one. Rewind to Wednesday, 26th April, 2017. The expiry date on our permit was up after a three-month tour of the Maldives and we needed to prod Atea onwards; not only because that is the natural course for a cruising vessel, but also because we had a date with an aeroplane bound for Heathrow in just over two weeks that we hoped to board. Given a small window of time to make it, we had no luxury of waiting for wind. We departed Gan that balmy afternoon with a light breeze and strong currents against us. Our strategy was to cut a path due south until we got out of the strong easterly currents, then head west until we arrived in the Seychelles. In doing so we would add approximately 200 miles to the journey but we hoped to gain time by not fighting against strong currents. We would test our theory in route to see if we made the right call.

Meanwhile, we settled into life at sea. Ironically, the first day on the water always seems to be the most taxing. For one, provisioning and preparing the ship for passage is always a demanding period, filled with long and busy days. Then there is the adjustment to the movement of a boat at sea and an ever-oscillating environment around you: You have to hold onto the toilet seat to take a pee and pray you aren’t launched when leaning forward to wipe; you learn to balance a pot over a burning flame with one hand while chasing your veggies around the chopping board with a knife with the other, keeping one eye on each to avoid slashing your finger or burning your arm; you eat your meals with your plate and cup wedged between your thighs while working your hand-eye coordination to make sure what is balanced on you spoon actually makes it to your mouth. During the first few days you train your body to cope with shifts and disrupted sleep patterns, as we run the ship on a four-hour night watch routine, and you mentally and physically shift from active and social to sedentary and solitary.

The first quarter of the trip served us variable winds and strong currents against us, a good indication that our strategy to drop south as quickly as possible was a good one. On the 27th of April, the log reads: “02° 00 S, 73° 27 E, Log 85, DTG 1216: Strong current pushes us east and we’ve ended the day further from the Seychelles than when we started.” For three days we slowly slipped southeast and we watched the days tick by as our total distance to go changed little. Being concerned about the flight deadline, John ran a speed/time/distance calculation daily to graphically display our progress, or lack thereof. We passed the intertropical convergence zone on the fourth day. The current eased and the winds filled in, and we were finally able to make some westing. Excitement ran high as we turned course towards our intended destination.

IMG_1582 (800x533)Friday, 28th April: 02° 47S, 72° 53E, Log 165, DTG 1158: Today was defined by more motoring in very light winds and continued current against us. Chagos lies 70 miles off in the near distance, harbouring all our cruising mates from the Maldives. Ah, how nice it would be to pull in for a surprise visit!

Passing the northwest rim of the Chagos archipelago marked the start of the second quarter of our journey. We held 30° degrees off the rum line in order to get well south of the ITCZ and we were anxious to see if our strategy had paid off. Until that point, we’d predominately motor-sailed; with a thousand miles of sea stretched before us we knew we would push the limits of our diesel reserves unless the wind filled in at some point in the passage.  The next log entry reports:

Saturday, 29th April: 03° 56S, 71° 59E, Log 255, DTG 1070: Weather brings nothing but light winds, grey skies and intermittent punch-less squalls. Another firking bird on the solar panel. The forward water tank is half empty, indicating we have three weeks remaining on our water supply at our current consumption rate. Real shame that the watermaker membrane collapsed two weeks before departure, but at least we had a test run on rationing our fresh water before it became a necessity. Water is now reserved for cooking and to fill our drinking glasses; otherwise, all washing – body, dish and boat – is done in salt water. The forks are beginning to rust and my hair is a tangled mess but it has cut our water consumption in half.  A dip of the fuel tank shows 300 litres diesel used so far, our remaining range under power is about 1,100 miles – almost exactly the distance remaining to Seychelles, so here’s hoping for some better wind soon!

As the seabirds graced us with their company, we tried diligently to sabotage the IMG_1405 (800x533)relationship by frantically hooting and screeching them off the wind indicator and from the solar panels at full volume, madly waving and rudely gesturing on deck. They fully ignored our ridiculous, benign efforts. It looks like we will have to replace yet another wind indicator and scrub a lot of poo off our decks.

Sunday, 30th April: 04° 42 S, 70° 38 E Log: 249, DTG 958: Pancakes in the morning and another damn bird on the Windex. Finally, a steady breeze arrives and with it long periods of fast sailing. Relief!

Finally the winds filled in, the engine got a rest and we began to watch the DTG log (distance to go) start ticking down the miles. With it, our attitudes became more playful. IMG_1645 (800x533)At one stage King Neptune honoured us with a visit, marking the equatorial crossing we’d actually done in the Maldives but had been too distracted to give proper celebration to at the time. This time King Neptune Junior presided over the ceremony, blessing the family and our ship for a safe passage onward in the Southern Seas.  Our passage notes over the next few days read:

Monday, 1st May: 05° 26 S, 68° 58 E Log: 462, DTG 848: Great sailing throughout the night and clocked 102 miles in 24-hours, but winds gone by midday. We motored the rest of the day but broke the tedium with a visit by King Neptune, marking Braca’s fourth equatorial crossing. Rum dashed on the deck and down my belly…thank you Cap’n Morgan!

Tuesday, 2nd May: 06° 08S, 67° 26 E, Log 564, DTG 748:  Winds strong and great sailing throughout the day. Progress is good and the boat surges through the water so quietly. Not a rattle in the mast or a creak in the hull– the silence below deck is both reassuring and unsettling!

Pointing our bows west marked the half way point, and we felt that we were finally bound for the Seychelles rather than Antarctica. When averaging 3.5 knots a day with over 500 miles ahead, days slip quickly into a routine and the hours start ticking by with the slow countdown of the miles behind us. For the next three days Atea charged forward at an average of 6 knots, and we were finally enjoying some good progress. We’d been right to drive south and extend our miles; in doing so we saved ourselves an additional two days at sea and 400 extra miles on the engine. The ship’s log reports:

Wednesday, 3rd May: 06° 33 S, 65° 07 E, Log 706, DTG 598: 140 miles over the past 24-hours – hooray! We finally turned due west as we have enough wind right here so no need to drop further south. Our strategy has paid off and I’m ready for a beer to celebrate! Today also marks our half-way day, with 700 miles behind us and 600 left to go, so I just might have to follow the first beer with a second.

But the favourable conditions weren’t to last. The following day the winds died and we had to resume under engine to keep up our required 3.5 knot average to ensure we reached the Seychelles in time to make our 15th May flight. Tracking progress on the DTG graph allows us to have a couple of hours rest from the engine noise each day since we know we are slightly ahead of the curve.  The next two log entries read:

Thursday, 4th May: 06° 50 S, 63° 47 E, Log 791, DTG 519:  91 miles over the last twenty-four hours. Fairly windless, and the engine has started making quite a lot of smoke. Must check the piston rings. Keeping fingers crossed. Speaking of fingers, I’ve cut each of my ten digits throughout the day, bleeding out a continuous stream of red permanent marker for Dr Braca.

Friday, 5th May: 06° 43S, 62° 14 E, Log 882, DTG 427:  IMG_1725 (800x533)The last twenty-four hours yielded a 85-mile slog. We could be optimistic and say at least it is an increase over the day before. Nothing much to say, it is all a bit Groundhog Day by now. Windless, and so ever sweat-in-my-butt-crack hot. To make the most of the heat we held Desert Day onboard, with Ayla dressed up as a coyote, Braca as a snake, myself as camel and John (yes, there is a story here) as a dung-beetle. Games and activities all supported the physical melting conditions onboard.

Onboard Atea, there are two adults who run the ship around the clock and there are two children who run themselves around the ship. It might seem that a confined space would be the most taxing on a three and five year old, but they have the undeniable advantage of an overactive imagination. IMG_2024 (800x533)We’ve taken to calling our days out not by the day of the week, but by the theme of the day. On this passage, we celebrated Desert Day, Medical Emergency Day, Doctor Day (because fixing wounds was so much fun), Tropical Reef Day, and Oh-My-Graciousness-We-Are-Almost-There Day. Creating themes is a good break from routine for all of us and allows each of us to stretch our imaginations by creating outfits, scenes and objects to suit the occasion. As for coping with confinement as an adult, there is no better way to keep entertained than to get lost in the imaginary world of a young mind. It is fun to see just how much child bubbles to the surface when void of the business and preoccupation that plagues so much of our adult lives.

But it is not all play and no work on the good ship Atea. We’ve also settled into a routine with Braca’s home schooling, something we’d failed to do while wrapped up in the constant activity presented by the Maldives Rally. We focus on different skills in three to four sessions a day and it has been fun to see Braca progress through the two-week intensive course. The next test will be to see how well we do on holiday, but we all know how that typically goes.

Saturday, 6th May: 6° 19 S, 59° 02 E, Log 1075, DTG 236:  Another cause for celebration! We crossed the 1,000 mark today, leaving us with a little over 200 miles to go. John stocked the fridge with beer in anticipation, and we accidentally cracked the seal on one… whoops! We’ve lost all wind but gained one tuna. Not a fair trade.

We’ve watched the seas over the past several days, unable to identify what is causing eddies to run a line just off our port side. Our best guess is that the disturbance marks the boundary between the west-flowing equatorial current and the east-flowing counter current. In addition to the water, we’ve also watched the sun set on the horizon each evening and I am awed by the beauty and diversity of nature. Some evenings the horizon is clear and the sun a blazing orange orb, IMG_1369 (800x533)others the sun is screened behind a line of moody squalls, casting dramatic rays of yellow, orange and red across the sky. I also watch the moonset with equal awe – sometimes a bright, clear disk and at others cloaked in a shroud of cloud. Over the course of the past two weeks we’ve sailed through nights so black that every imaginable star shines brightly overhead and shooting stars periodically blaze a path overhead, and we’ve watched the moon fill in and blanket out the stars, brightening the sky and the water below it. I guess it feels different out here because there is nothing but you and the environment; there are no buildings or street noise or smog to mar the view. There is no quick, distracted glace towards the horizon before a distraction pulls you away. It is you, the sea and sky, and all the time in the world to sit and absorb it. Or maybe it is just too much time on our hands…

Monday, 8th May: 5° 35S, 57° 33.9E, LOG 1172, DTG 176: Cleaning Day – let’s get the chores done before we get in and arrive in a boat that is semi-respectable.  Water supplies have held up nicely so we splash out (ha ha) and use fresh water.

Tuesday 9th May, 11:00am, Log 1268, DTG 50. IMG_2147 (800x533).jpgAfter 1258 miles at sea and no outside contact, within five minutes a large dolphin sweeps across our bow, a flock of terns fly overhead, a boat is sighted on the horizon and behind it – Land Ho!

Tuesday 9th May, 21:30pm, Log 1318, DTG 0. We arrived into the customs anchorage at 9:30pm and after so long with the beating engine in our ears, the silence is deafening. Bliss.

We have now motored a fantastic 200 hours out of a 310-hour trip, for all intents and purposes turning our majestic sailing ship into a punch-less ocean tug. We are a veritable motor launch with sails as functional as broken wings, but regardless of the method Atea has again delivered us safely across a large expanse of ocean. Again, my imaginary city-friend pipes up, “Why do you do it?!” IMG_2300 (800x533).jpgWe do it because cruising isn’t a holiday, it is a lifestyle. It comes with all the ups and downs of everyday life in its own unique forms: The long hauls, the slow miles, the late nights, the growling storms balanced by the travel, the adventure, the discovery and the freedom. Is it all worth it? I know my answer.

The following day we cleared in and were issued a month permit for person and boat. We fly out in four days so it wasn’t an issue for us, but Atea will need extension papers before we depart. At custom’s the officer berated us: “Why do you leave so soon, you just got here! I don’t understand. Why come to the Seychelles if you are about to fly out in an aeroplane? Don’t you want to see the Seychelles? You should have flown out from the Maldives!” Clearly, a proud national. This was our first taste of the expressive and exuberant French-African culture after the more reserved, respectful tone of the Maldivians. With my excitement brimming all I can say is bring it on!

Whiskers and Wings

We are sailing towards a country renowned for its delivery of headaches and we aren’t even on her shores before we are tipping paracetamol into our mouths. If India is as much trouble before we are even in the country, what is it going to be like when we set foot on soil?

img_9893We spent a week of hassle getting the appropriate visas re-issued, after the hassle a week prior of getting them issued in the first place — an effort that not only cost us money, but precious time. We were headed to the northern atolls in the Maldives when we discovered the visas we had on hand were only valid for arrival by airplane; entry by boat required a different category of visa. The only place this was issued was in person in Mále, so after a number of far-flung impractical ideas we turned the ship around and headed back to where we’d come from.

We applied for a six-month tourist via and indicated to the embassy that we expected to be in India a month; we would learn that we shouldn’t have been so specific about dates but we didn’t realize the implications yet. We then headed out as quickly as possible with a one-month stamp on our new visa for the short 270-mile passage from Mále in the central Maldives to Kochi on the southwestern coast of India. Whilst waiting for our visas we’d watched prime sailing winds ebb through the week to flat calm and our fast outbound march was actually a lazy slog without a lick of wind to fill our sails and a running current against us. India ahead. More paracetamol down. Were these two things going to be synonymous?

PASSAGE NOTES DAY 1:
We’ve spent a fantastic two months in the Maldives but I look forward to a change of scene – something that India will definitely offer us. I’ve heard that one must physically and emotionally prepare for travel in India, and I am not sure what to expect. Though I have heard to expect the unexpected, and I’m drawn to anyplace that can claim that. As for the Maldives, we will be back – and that is something I feel quite fortunate to be able to say. Ying, India. Yang, the Maldives. Let’s see if somewhere in their difference lays a balance.

Calm seas and a lazy breeze defined the weather for our five-day passage. The sailing was pleasant and easy, and we filled our days with both old and new traditions. Fimg_3176or one, we departed the Maldives on the 21st of December and Christmas was quickly descending on us unawares. Quite unlike my fellow associates madly scrambling to stockpile presents and negotiate parents and in-laws, we were at St. Nick’s countdown and hadn’t even hummed a holiday tune. While we were delayed, we were also prepared. We’d sent the kids out prior to departure with a bucket to fill with shells and I’d found a suitable sick of driftwood that was now safely stowed on deck. It wasn’t going to be a recognizable effort to anyone outside my clan, however inside it was the makings of a very traditional Christmas.

On our first day at sea we pulled out what we’d scavenged and set to making the season merry. The driftwood “tree” was tied to the maststep and shells hung from its gnarled branches. It was another year that location might be a slight challenge for Santa and his elves, so we wrote letters to the jolly man, stuck them inside a plastic bottle on which we’d painted “Santa Collect Here” and towed it in our wake. The kids wrote about what they’d done this year, things they’d learned and things they wanted to improve. They were told to write a list of presents they might want Santa to bring and they could only come up with one request: In direct quote they said, “a bar of chocolate, if he has one.” Ahh… long may our children hold low expectations. We were set. Our Christmas buildup was going to last a full four days, a sane number when confined to a small boat.

PASSAGE NOTES DAY 2:
Less than a week to Christmas and we started our ramp up to the holiday. My own childhood memories are made up of a series of homemade creations: playdough ornaments, a macramé tree covered with red fluffy balls and a small styrofoam tree covered in a green wool. I remember cutting and pasting brown grocery bags to the wall and placing colourfully wrapped gifts under it. I love that my children’s memories will be filled up with these oddities. Today we raised a flag up the mast broadcasting “Braca and Ayla are here,” and put Santa’s letters in a bottle. The bottle now floats behind Atea in the guise of making it easier to see, and two sets of hopeful eyes keep a lookout for their collection. The elves have yet to come but the children remain optimistic. It isn’t the first Christmas Santa has had to find them at sea.

img_3120-800x533Of new traditions, this year we began giving the kids a passage present on their first day at sea for any offshore voyage. It works well to build their excitement and has become quite a fun ritual. This time the kids delighted in an assortment of treats: a magnet set, a storybook, an origami book and a mini basketball and hoop. Championships may take some time to come, but indoor practice is a good say to burn off some energy.

PASSAGE NOTES DAY 3:
img_3190-800x496Wind came in the night, and we finally put Lucy [the engine] to rest and raise the sails. There is such beauty in the silence, and the gentle roll of the waves. We now have a dead slice of tree tied to our maststep bedecked in broken shells and the incessant tune of Jingle Bells in our ears. The jingle of the bells must have called in the birds, as a large seabird somehow managed to swoop through our aft hatch and now sits in our cabin. Let’s hope it doesn’t leave us its own White Christmas.

We’d set out a beacon for Santa and his elves and while they did finally locate us, the more immediate response came from another equally unlikely creature. Seabirds are frequently sighted any distance out to sea, and they usually fly in for a glance and fly off again. This trip was marked by some pretty unusual behavior. We had birds enter the boat three out of the five days we spent at sea; they would come in and perch on the window in the galley, on the bookcase, in the forward and aft cabins, and on our Christmas stick – probably a more accurate reference to our driftwood tree. At first I was worried they were injured or unable to find their way out and I delicately shoed them out from a distance. As each subsequent bird entered my tactics to free it relaxed, to the point that I eventually walked up and stuck my finger to its chest and the little bird would hop on without hesitation. I would walk it out onto the deck and point hand to wind, whispering the inspirational “free at last,” but none showed any interest in moving onward. I’d gently nudge them off my digit and they’d fly back into the cabin ahead of me. At first I thought it must be a domesticated bird that’d escaped the confines of its cage, however it was not only a different bird over the course of a few days, it was also difference species. Somehow we’d been marked as Fowl’s Arc and it was indeed wild seabirds that we had as guests. Our sail towards India was so unique; it was like a precursor to the country itself.

PASSAGE NOTES DAY 4:
img_3274-533x800Four birds invade our cabin throughout the day, comfortable as guests. The last is insistent and re re-enters as quickly as I take him out. He perches on our Christmas tree, content. Not until he drops a little poop on our floor do I decide to move him out again, for the fifth time. But he returns, this time to the forward cabin. I slide my finger up to his belly and he hops on, as if he and I are old friends. I carry him out again; he knows the routine. This time he changes tactic, and flies into the steering wheel as if to say, “I’m the one who owns this ship.” If he stays in the cockpit, I’m happy with the deal.

As the last of the birds depart, Santa’s elves made their way in on a surprise visit. Santa’s cards were gone and in their place were thank you notes for each of the kids and the gnawed ends of the beans we’d placed in the bottle for the reindeer, and a mess of tracks – better known as white flour – left from their footprints. The kids were ecstatic. We also spent our final day wrapped up in another new family tradition, which is a theme day during one of the days at sea. This time the kids chose Rainforest Day, after a Cat in the Hat book by Dr Seuss. Origami birds hung from the ceiling and our Christmas tree stood as a giant emergent. Ayla dressed as a hummingbird with pink wings, flowing tutu, and an origami beak. Braca dressed as a multi-colour ocelot, complete with curling tail, my leopard print nightgown and body paint. John played the roll of howler monkey, with a dress-up beard modified to form a hairy chest and a stuffed snake curling out from behind as a tail. I transformed myself into the Cat in the Hat, complete with black nose and whiskers, neck scarf and tall hat. We scattered nuts on the “forest” floor and foraged for our meal, and hooted, buzzed, howled and growled through the afternoon with flapping wings and flicking tails. It was a riot onboard and a great way to whittle away the afternoon. The four of us really got into it, and the kids carried on in character while John and I moved on to more pressing matters – entering the busy port of Kochi.


PASSAGE NOTES
DAY 5:
8:00 in the morning and already the smog that extends out from China envelops us. A tanker, four miles on our port side, is barely visible in the haze. Another tanker heading in our direction, seven img_3314-800x533miles distant, isn’t visible. The sun is shrouded in haze and the sky is covered a murky light. I pop up on deck 10 minutes later to check our surroundings and the tanker to our port is now invisible to us, hidden in the haze. It is busy today; the normal 15-minute check is down to 5 as ships and fishing boats appear in in patches with much more regularity. Fishing boats chase us down out of curiosity. All hands crowd the rail to wave hello, and after pleasantries they slow their speed and the distance spreads.

We’d pulled out of the calm ocean abyss into one of the busiest international shipping ports. The crowded shipping lanes and congestion of the local fishing fleet fulfilled all expectations of a busy and bustling India, even from 20 miles out to sea. However, where the mayhem could have easily made one feel lost, the friendly smiles and enthusiastic waves from the passing fishermen made it feel like a homecoming.

PASSAGE NOTES DAY 5
A quick scribble of notes for the day. It is evening now and we are surrounded by fishing boats, lots of them. We put our flashing light forward and navigate through the patches. We are under sail, though wind is light. At 3PM the winds shift and we put the engine on. The engine low water flow alarm shrills in our ears. We raise the sails again and John spends the next several hours replacing the impeller.

What should have been a midday arrival was delayed as we worked furiously to get the engine repaired. In the meantime, we proceeded down the shipping lane towards the harbour entrance and the smog of the day left me with an expectation of featureless high rise buildings and industrial cement compounds; img_3683-800x533I was greatly surprised, therefore, when we sailed into the entrance and a green colonial city unfolded itself in front of us. Chinese lanterns swung and lights glittered in the trees as people strolled down the promenade under them, crossing over small walking bridges that laid across narrow canals that lead back into the city. Old Chinese fishing nets of yesteryear lined the waterfront set against centuries-old Portuguese buildings. As we sailed deeper into the harbour entrance I was buzzing with excitement, eager to explore the beautiful city that lay before us.

Before any of that could happen, however, we needed to slog our way through port control, immigration and customs. At 4PM we notified port authority and customs of our intentions and they said they would meet us on arrival. We anchored off the historic Malabar hotel and were soon greeted by a boatful of officials, all whom clambered onboard and handed out a myriad of redundant forms. As we sat there filling out form after form, I noted how incredibly friendly everyone was, with vigorous head bobbing and generous smiles. While the process was lengthy, the officials made it a delight. It wasn’t until they left that we realized that they, too, received their own pleasure throughout the meeting for there I sat, oblivious to the fact that I was in full Cat in the Hat kit complete with black nose and cheek-lined whiskers. I just might have been the oddest-looking cruiser they’d processed, but it seemed they were all the merrier for it!

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To view a collection of photos: Passage Photos

The Trifecta

After two months exploring the glorious Maldives archipelago, I’ve come full circle in appreciating what the country has to offer. We’d heard numerous accounts from cruisers before us; once in the Maldives, we would swim with manta, dive with whale shark and suffocate from the density of fish in the expansive live corals that surround an infinite string of tropical isles. The bar was set high. From the echo of their voices, I painted happy pictures in my head of the four of us in our Eden in the sea. Keeping the bar high, however, became a bit of a challenge as we discovered that our idyllic isles were either submerged under a thin layer of water or dominated by exclusive five-star resorts. It took us a few weeks, but after a bit of hit and miss we finally saw the side of the Maldives sold in all the tourist brochures, unraveled before us in a trio of delight.img_2075-800x533

We tackled the country in a three-pronged approach in our newly enlightened state: One, uninhabited isles; two, remote villages; three, luxury resorts. Taking all these together, we realized we’d hit the trifecta. Our isolated islets offered not only pristine beauty, but also an opportunity to experience the rich underwater world void of a throng of tourists. Our sleepy villages offered all of us a social wonderland, and we met fast and dear friends in all of the villages we visited. And, at the few resorts that allow our salty paws to mire their impeccable paths, we got a taste of high-end luxury and the ultimate retreat.

Uninhabited Islets

The Maldives offers countless isles and at first the list of anchorages seemed infinite. As we traveled north, however, we found our planning complicated by the fact that the names were impossible to remember. On numerous occasions our conversation back on the boat went something like this: “What did that person tell us? Make sure you don’t miss out on Meeunthibeyhuttaa.” We’d pull the chart out onto the table and scour it for place names. “Here it is! Merengihuttaa. Oh. Look over here, was it Meyragilaa? Or here, Mariyamkoyyerataa. Or Mathikeranahuttaa or Magudhdhuvaa or Mudhimaahuttaa???” Eventually we gave up trying to organize a route and in typical Ātea fashion, we simply drifted northward with a vague agenda. The problem with a strategy based on ambiguity and spontaneity, as we quickly discovered, was the topography of the region didn’t lend itself to just hopping around. Let me explain.

Of the countless islands, they have been counted. One thousand one hundred and ninety, to be exact. To anyone with a few months to explore by yacht, this offers more than enough options. In fact, it was a bit daunting to think of navigating our way through the labyrinth, searching for the best that was on offer. But there are limits, as we soon found out. The depths are great and the drop-offs sheer, the result being that we often found ourselves completely cut off from the islands by design. The land does not gently slope off into deep water but quickly drops from one meter to fifty meters on a vertical wall, making anchoring impossible. We passed idyllic isle after idyllic isle, wishing to park and play. It was evident looking through the clear water what made the diving in the Maldives so extraordinary, with steep walls layered in beautiful coral and stripped and spotted fish, flashing the colours of the rainbow, dancing among the sweeping fans and crooked arms of hard corals. Instead, like a sick child watching out a bedroom window at the neighbourhood children at play, we were repeatedly denied access by depths too deep or shores too shallow.img_0922-800x533

The Maldives consists entirely of islands, grouped in two chains of 26 atolls running parallel to each other. Inside the ring of islands that make up an atoll are numerous coral reefs that make movement through the atoll feasible only in good light and with reliable charts. As we searched within the atolls for an islet that offered a flat patch of sand, surrounded by a minefield of bommies in fading light, there was often the sense of urgency in the narrowing window of time. John spent considerable time prior to departure downloading Google Map images, providing us visual detail of the landscape. This is a process I highly recommend to any yacht destined for these waters. These images became invaluable to us on numerous occasions as our options for a suitable anchorage narrowed in the four-o’clock shadow of the waning sun.

Huvadhoo Atoll: The light is fading and I stand on the bow trying to spot white sand beneath the surface. We’ve sailed along the eastern fringe of the atoll for hours now but it seems the entire eastern side is a sheer drop off, thick in soft and hard corals seen easily through the clear water. I continue to scout ahead. We shared paths with dolphin and pilot whales, the first hunting sting ray and the latter on a slow migration east, but neither are what we search for. I call out for the umpteenth time: “There must be something on the next islet, because [insert new optimistic thought].” Finally, we concede defeat. John pulls up Google Map images of the area and we search the interior of the atoll for a submerged reef with enough depth to set our anchor. We look through the images for a shade of blue just the right hue: Too light and it is just knee deep, too dark and it is beyond the reach of our anchor windlass. Quickly, we find a spot two miles distant. It is this or we are in a serious pickle. Half an hour and we see a patch of sand that stands out like a halo. We made it. We sit on a submerged reef in the middle of the atoll completely surrounded by water. With the anchor set, we listen to the collective rush of a million little silver fish breaking the surface. Something larger hunts them. In the pastel tinted light of the setting sun, it is the only sound we hear as it punctuates the intense quiet that otherwise engulfs us. It is utterly, intensely serene.

We soon discovered that of the thousand islands that appear on our charts, many are submerged under a layer of water or are tiny spots of white sand poking out of the sea. An atoll that looked to be comprised of a dozen islets, two-thirds turn out to be sandbanks set on the outer fringing reef. On many occasions we set our sights on a seemingly suitable anchorage to find there wasn’t anything on the surface to explore or anywhere suitable to set our anchor. Our first few anchorages were no more than a submerged reef in the middle of the atoll, cut off from the beautiful islets that surrounded us. At first this offered seclusion we were keen to avoid, but after realizing the splendor below us we quickly turned our isolation into an opportunity.

Hadhdhunmathee Atoll: The water is crystal clear and the fans that wave just below the surface beckon us. At low tide, the small circle of reef is the size of a tennis court and breaks the surface at its highest peak at low tide. The tide is high now, however, and we have a 360-degree view of endless blue. The four of us leap off the side deck into the water, tog-free and fin-clad, and snorkel in the breaking morning light. From above it feels we are the only beings that exist, but seconds later we cannot see each other through the density of fish that engulf us: every sub-species of triggerfish, surgeonfish, wrasse, unicorn fish, sweetlips, butterfly fish, goby and tang is in attendance. It is like a scene in an animation film, though this isn’t an over-exaggeration of the reef. It exists true in life and in front, behind, below and above us.

Due to the extraordinary underwater scenery and clear water, the Maldives currently ranks among the best recreational dive destinations in the world. As such, charter boats and dive tours abound. Divers flock to the Maldives year-round for the chance to dive with whale sharks, manta ray, and a variety of shark that are well known to the region; for many, live-aboard dive boats offer a great way to explore the area. As an independent “live aboard,” however, we have one complication to our set up: Two dependents too young to dive with us and too young to be left on their own. John and I finally settle on a compromise: Three above and one below.

Felidhe Atoll: We’ve settled into a one up/one down pattern and it is John’s turn on the wall. While John dives, the kids and I tag alongside a mammoth moray eel. Normally they are tucked in deep in a crevice, head wagging in territorial warning. Today we were invited as guests on the hunt. Large, outstretched body gracefully navigates the nooks of the reef while we keep pace alongside as silent partners. Eventually he catches his meal. Eventually we wander our separate ways.

North Ari Atoll: Never before have I watch a reef shark hunt. Usually they swim with slow grace, but today this white tip is agitated, darting erratically beneath me. I hover on the wall, pulling in shallow steady breaths on my regulator hose and watch the shark directly below me. In a flash the shark sinks his head into a hole in the reef and retracts it wildly, thrashing his head like a starved dog with a bone. He caught his meal. I caught my breath.

Rasdhoo Atoll: I’ve often been a pest to the fish but rarely have the fish been a pest to me. Throughout my dive today I had a redtooth triggerfish trying to mate with my head and for forty minutes I tried, unsuccessfully, to shake him. It was quite the distraction as it was a dive brimming with fish life – so thick that at times it was impossible to focus in a specific direction as I tried to capture it all then finally relaxed into the pleasure of being overwhelmed – then suddenly my face was dive-bombed by a sudden flash of blue that blocked everything else from view. A drunk in a bar has never been as indiscrete or persistent. I would have been flattered had it not been for the fact that I was being courted by a fish.

It is a pity I can’t share any of this with you, visually, as John and I jointly destroyed all evidence in a joint venture of camera sabotage.

Inhabited Islands

Back to expectations set, we were told our highlights would come from the water and not from the land. The first was quickly confirmed, the second we were curious to verify. Accounts reported indifference from the local population and to expect a cold eye and frozen glare when going ashore. “The women,” I was told, “are generally reluctant to engage. You’ll make more friends with the fish.” I was disappointed to hear this. After several months of solitude I was excited for time with womenfolk, but no account indicated I’d be making very many friends. “The men are hard, and the women are harder.” Another comment that did not encourage expectations of communal afternoons filled with light banter. My internal social butterfly was going to wilt.

Regardless, I ventured ashore with eyes wide open and was quickly reminded that what you hear is often not what you get. Contrary to reports, the warmth we found from the villagers has been a defining feature of our trip. There hasn’t been a village visited that we’ve not been invited in as guests. We’ve been hosted and we’ve hosted, our social custom and their social custom being traded like much-valued secrets. We’ve learned to accept a type of local hospitality that is very different from our own: guests are fed first and the hosts second. We’ve been taught the secrets of the kitchen: which leaves are eaten fresh for health benefits and which are added to the pot to add flavour. We’ve been offered veggies out of gardens, coconuts from the trees, gifts from the shops and guidance in the streets. The kids have been invited into classrooms and into homes, they’ve been asked on play dates and on picnics, they’ve been included in family excursions to parks and beaches, and they’ve been offered endless tokens of friendship: lollies, presents, toys, cards.

I’ve found in many countries a social barrier that is hard to bridge, no matter how furious the smiles and or generous the gestures. It is most often the result of language barriers and sometimes the result of cultural differences that are too diverse. I’ve felt none of this in my interactions with the Maldivians. I appreciate where words of caution have come from as we experienced some of the less friendly stare-downs that some of the other cruisers encountered. But for the majority, we’ve experienced a warmth and inclusion, not as spectacles but as equals. There is genuineness in the encounters and authenticity to the friendships created and I treasure what they’ve added to our trip.

For the Maldivians, if you aren’t pulling in fish you are courting tourists. There isn’t much otherwise on offer in regard to earning potential in the in the outer islands. The pace of life is slow, a result of both the afternoon heat and a lack of industry. The coral-brick homes are surrounded by compound walls, set on neat sandy streets. Each building houses several generations and provides a gathering area for the constant ebb and flow of family, friends and neighbours that flow through the front door. When we wander ashore in the middle of the afternoon, we wander alone. A few men linger in the teashops and cafés or rest under the shade of a breadfruit tree but otherwise all activity happens indoors. Around four-thirty the streets start to fill and the community socializes from about five to seven, returning to their homes at suppertime.

Kolhumadulu Atoll: We are asked to sit, following a tour of the house and a tour of the gardens. The four of us are seated at the table, with a bustle of activity in the kitchen and a flurry of dishes presented in quick succession. A cat is under the table, a bird in a cage to my back, a parrot presented on outstretched finger. No dog, of course. An old man sits outside on the jollie and somewhere an old woman shuffles about. Mother, sister, and sister-in-law clatter about busily at the stove, the two daughters deliver plate after plate piled high with local fare. My stomach bulges. More food is delivered. At the end of the meal my contribution, a flan, is served to us. So far, no one else has eaten unless in stealth behind the door. No one sits at the table with us and no one other than ourselves appears to eat. We are introduced to visitors that appear in the doorway, a steady stream of neighborly curiosity. At the end of the meal mother, sister, sister-in-law, and the two daughters pull up chairs and sit with us, full of chatter. At the end of the evening we are presented a package, a gift of pre-purchased treats and an odd assortment of vegetables from the garden, and escort us back to our dinghy. It was our first introduction to local hospitality.

This type of evening would be repeated in a variety of homes throughout our journey. Most often men not present, often a bird on a perch, and always several generation of women and children surrounding us.

With a population of 373,000 spread across 200 inhabited islands, each averaging one to two kilometers in size, it might be easy to expect the villages to be a collection of overcrowded townships. This is not the case, particularly as 50% of the population reside in the capital city of Malé. At an expansive 5.8 square kilometers, Malé is conceivably the most densely populated city outside of the Vatican. Furthermore its size is constricted by height. Malé is constructed one meter above sea level with half of its land base coming from the dredged sand of nearby islets. It is incredible to think that in a thousand islands that average 1.8 meters, the natural geography of the entire archipelago is lower than the aft deck of Atea. We sit on our perch like little seabirds and look down at the islands that surround us.

Speaking of birds…

Malé Atoll: I look ahead and my heart skips a beat. For some unaccountable reason the sight makes me think of a mob scene. The quiet street we are wandering down is congested ahead with a haphazard patchwork of steel. A few dozen scooters and half a dozen cars blocked the road, none moving and all piled tailpipe to fender. All heads tilt skyward. Not one person speaks. Finally I notice a man in a tree with a thirty-foot pole and a large bird being poked at the end of it. Why did this random event catch such attention? To all present, it appeared to be a spellbinding event. I walk up to the first bystander and break the silence:

Me: “What’s going on?”
Guy, matter-of-factly: “A bird.”
Me, no more enlightened. The bird was a clear and obvious fact: “Yes, but what is he trying to do with the bird?”
Guy, a shrug and silence. Eyes never stray from the scene above.

I roll through several of these hushed, identical conversations before giving up on my quest for understanding, and patiently join the rest of the crowd in silent observation of the scene above. Finally, the eagle at the top of the tree flies off after being poked one time too many. Poking Guy descends from the tree. Everyone starts the engines and drive off without another word. I walk up to the man and ask the obvious:

Me: “What are you doing?”
Guy, in a tone suggesting I am short a few IQ: “Catching a bird.”
I refrain from the obvious question, “How do you catch a large bird of prey with a thin wooden stick?” Instead, in a quick study of local custom, I simply shrug.

Clearly quite pleased, the man smiles and drives off in hot pursuit of the winged, and to my eye quite vanished, bird. We shake our heads and laugh at the bizarre and unique cultural experience. These interactions are part of what I love about traveling: Things so different to us are just part of everyday activity, no questions asked, to the people around us.

Malé is the jumping off point for all foreign tourists heading to the islands as it has the only international airport in the Maldives (a second is under construction in the Addoo Atoll which will open up the southern atolls to tourism and development). Currently, most of the tourism centers around the atolls that surround Malé. The closer we got to Malé, the more we were confined. In fact, I’m sure that I am close to the mark when I say every speck of surfaced land within 50 miles of Malé supports an exclusive, high-end resort… a fact that burdened us given the inhospitality of staff to non-guests. We wanted to go ashore, explore, play on the beach, stretch our legs but the majority of resorts denied ad hoc guests. On the few attempts made, we were stopped by hotel security and escorted to reception where we were told in curt refrain, “Of course you can use the facilities, for the day, for the cost of renting a room.” At USD150 per person we thought a free swim in the ocean beat an expensive dip in the pool.

Nilandhe Atoll: We are anchored off a resort, though we cannot get near. We were about-faced by security on approach to the jetty and not-so-courteously asked to leave. I would mind, but not twenty minutes after returning to Atea we sight twin tips break the surface of the water around us. Manta. In a breath we are side-to-side with these graceful giants. A hundred red-and-white striped tourists ashore and not a single one out in the water. What they paid so dearly to get sight of we were close to for free; take that, Mr. Security Man, we don’t need your stinkin’ resort anyway! The mantas casually glide around us, unbothered by our invasion of their space. For two days, we jump in at random to swim by their side and watch them, mantles curled and pointed, uncurl. Braca is at my side as one sweeps past us in a silent arc, his brown eye looking into our blue, curious. Finally, on the third day, they leave. Having shared the anchorage together, their departure signals our own time to leave; we’ve gotten the best that the resort had to offer without ever stepping foot on the beach.

Resorts

Regardless of continuous rebuff, we wormed our way into the grace of a few sympathetic managers and invariably spent the equivalent rate. Rather than paying the no-room room charge, we paid our dues in meals and cocktails, salons and shops – the cocktails being an extravagant treat as there is no alcohol sold anywhere outside the resorts throughout the country. A loophole exists for resorts catering to international guests and we made the most of it: Mai tai’s poolside, red wine at dinner, sparkling with the setting sun. We tip our glasses and share the facilities with Chinese, Germans, English and Russians, the bulk of foreign visitors to the Maldives, and a scattering of other nationalities for the day. Couples steeped in love hold hands and wander down the soft sand beach or lounge on sundecks overhang the reef. It would appear that Cupid had taken residence, flinging haphazard arrows at all the guests but apparently not. The Maldives is ranked at the world’s most desired honeymoon destination and by the proliferation of luxury resorts it is no wonder.

Baa Atoll: Okay, I’m getting the hang of this: Dinghy ashore, a hand on the scruff of the neck and a complimentary ride to reception, get told to take a room or beat it, receive a second complimentary ride on the golf cart, and back to the boat. Regardless, I’m dogged. I still have hope. I persuade John to join me in my fruitless pursuit of five-star luxury. We are herded to reception and recited what we now can quote verbatim. Before the golf cart pulls up for our return trip to the dingy, I grab the kids and wander off to watch the shark feeding. The only shark I run into, however, is the manager rocking her baby at the end of the jetty. I coo, ask to cradle. Pretty soon we have a fake guest room, an open tab, and all amenities at our disposal. We spend the next few days livin’ large resort-style, hand-in-hand (when not hand-on-cocktail) and Cupid-struck. Ahh… the pleasure of success!

Oddly enough, a UN mission in the 1960s deemed the Maldives unsuitable for tourism, a misguided analysis as tourism boomed after the first mission in 1972. Over the next twenty-eight years multinationals had exclusive rights on tourist development and resorts sprang up all over the central atolls, gradually extending outward. The regulation prohibited the local population from drawing on the countries biggest economic asset, with the majority of revenue only minimally going to the local economy. Each resort consisted of an exclusive hotel on its own island with a population based entirely on tourists and staff. For the majority, they were managed by foreign multinationals with all services offered within the island and no contact with the local community. Foreigners were not allowed to visit any of the inhabited islands with tourists restricted to the resorts and cruisers banned from anchoring off any populated islands. There was no interaction between local Maldivian and tourist. The authorities did not welcome independent travelers, which included yachts, and as a result very few boats visited the region.

Within the past eight years the government has eased restrictions and the small towns sprinkled throughout the archipelago now cater to international clientele. This is the result of a change in regulation in 2009 that legalized the development of tourism on a local level, allowing tourists to stay among the local population rather than solely on privately owned resort islands. Tourism had become the number one economy in the Maldives and locals were finally able to profit from the industry. Guesthouses, cafes, dive shops and souvenir shops burgeoned throughout the local villages and more than a million tourists currently visit the country each year. Still, particularly in the south where tourism has been slower to develop, a foreigner can still seen as an anomaly:

Foammulah Atoll: We are in the southern atolls and we’ve not seen a single foreigner since our arrival in the Maldives two weeks prior. We’ve passed a few scattered resorts so clearly they come, but rarely stray from dive boat or resort. We’ve been at anchor for four days now, our arrival mere hours before a big storm, gusts up to 55 knots and rain tossed at us like needles. The village, blinded from view through the storm, finally emerges. We finally leave the boat for a much-needed stretch of the legs and play on the tiny islet we are anchored off of. On the main island, I see four bodies marching in line out to sea. Arm-in-arm, they head our way. The water is deep in places, the current strong. Each supporting each other and dragging one another along, progress is slow. As they near I make out four women in full dress. I wade out as they finally reach us to greet them, smiling as they puff from the exertion. They’ve crossed four islets to reach us.

There is no conclusion to this story, for it is not yet concluded. We are en route to India but will be returning to the Maldives mid-January for another shot at the trifecta. After all, of one thousand one hundred and ninety islets, we’ve still a few yet left to get through… so, I’ll leave this on pause, to continue early next year. In the meantime, our sleepy little lives are about to get a serious shot of south Indian adrenaline.

IMG_2575 (800x608).jpgClick here for more images of Our Time in the Maldives.

SHANGRI-LA

This article was posted in Boating New Zealand April 2017 issue. To view the printed feature story, click: BoatingNZ Shangri-La.

We are moving at a racy 1.5 knots in 5 knots of breeze. These are the days we are never asked about by those interested in a description of transoceanic passages. We commonly field questions of our endurance through raging storms and titanic waves, but we are never asked about the humdrum doldrums, the flat seas and windless, lackluster days that more accurately define typical sailing conditions. While we do have an engine to give our sloth-like pace a heartbeat, for the majority of this passage we opt for a gentle roll in the sunshine and the pleasure of total quiet in this aquatic oasis. Our northbound crawl feels like a pleasant scull on a quite countryside lake – peaceful, dawdling, rhythmic. I look around me and I feel this incredible sense of disproportion. The flatness of the water that surrounds us makes me feel as if I could wander over to the clouds on the horizon and scoop them up in my palm. I told my son that we should pluck the setting sun out of the sky and put it in our pocket. His response didn’t indicate the impossible distance. “Oh, but mum, you can’t do that,” he said. “It would burn a hole in your pocket.” To him, the feeling of its proximity made it seem possible; it was the burning flame that made the proposition ridiculous.img_9083-800x533

Everything feels the opposite of what it felt like when we sailed towards the atoll: inbound a feat, outbound a breeze. Our passage to Chagos was a complete voyage in itself, a test of competence as we clung onto handrails through 1500 miles of contentious seas and an all-star victory upon completion.

Our departure from Chagos brings us nothing but slack breezes, flat calm seas and half-drunk beers balanced on our reclined bellies. With only 300 miles between Chagos and the Maldives, our destination feels like a jump towards the next box in a game of hopscotch. At one point mid-transit we passed a shallow patch where the depth was 15 meters. The coral below was as easily sighted as if viewed from a magnifying glass; fish darted away from our shadow and a turtle raised its head in greeting. The intimacy of it was surreal. We talked of jumping overboard for a quick snorkel in the calm clear water but decided to continue our slow roll forward – we’d had 33 days in succession of dancing amongst tropical reef fish and we were ready to explore what lay ahead. Of Chagos, we looked forward the promise of isolation. Of the Maldives, we look forward to bustling village life and the company of people.

Chagos lays only two days behind us and the archipelago already feels like a reflection of the illusive Shangri-La: a place discovered but never to be seen again. I am not sure if we will get another chance to walk her shores, but I am sure if we do so it will not be the place it is today. To understand this impending sense of change, one has to understand recent political history. While Chagos was once a place like so many other island nations, inhabited by a small local population and supported by subsistence living, in 1968 Chagossian lives were uprooted by international politics and the local population deported to Mauritius, the Seychelles and other distant territories. A 1966 agreement between the British and American governments stipulated that all inhabitants be removed from the territory for the installment of a US military base on Diego Garcia. The British, then in command of the archipelago, agreed. The forced eviction of 1,500 people from Diego Garcia and the six other atolls that form the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) was completed in 1973. Since then, there has been a volley of lawsuits, compensation claims and resettlement petitions that have been won and overturned in the battle between human rights violations and political interests. In 2010 the British government established a marine nature reserve protecting the worlds largest coral area (544,000 square kilometers), creating the largest swathe of protected territory ever established. The establishment of this reserve, however, became embroiled in heated debate when Wikileaks released documents that linked the establishment of the reserve to a tactical move to restrict the return of Chagossians to their native land. Time will tell. The end of 2016 marks the end of the 50-year agreement but the contract will automatically extend 20 years if neither side chooses to terminate it. That said resettlement claims by the Chagossians and reclamation demands by Mauritian Prime Minister complicate matters; the fate of Chagos continues to be played out in the battlefield of international politics. DCIM127MEDIATo view more photos of Chagos, click on the link: Chagos Archipelago

I stand out of the dispute, morally caught in the middle of a tug-of-war between human rights and ecological conservation. Walking amidst the ruins you can’t help but feel for the people who had been expelled. In 2006 previous inhabitants of the Salomon atoll were permitted a short visitation and a cross was erected and dedicated to the memory of ancestors buried on the island. Standing in front of it you can’t help but feel the injustice. I understand the need for humans to belong to a place, and in society ancestral ties play a significant role in defining that culture. The removal of the Chagossians from their native land strips them of this basic ethnic foundation.

I also appreciate the irony of being granted permission to visit a land that the indigenous population is banned from reentering. While visitors are not permitted to enter any of the British Indian Ocean Territories, a private yacht sailing across the Indian Ocean may apply for a permit to enter two of the seven atolls that makes up the Chagos archipelago. Only a handful of these applications are approved each year – if you can’t get there yourself, you can’t get there at all. If you do get permission to visit, there are only four approved anchorages within the sixty tropical islands. It was this permit that granted us a one-month stay in Chagos, apparently one of just eleven issued this year.

Yet, despite the injustice of the islanders exclusion, I am awed by the experience of witnessing the Eden of an ecosystem void of human interference. Reading the narrations of seamen from the antiquities, I have often wondered what it would be like to see the oceans teaming with life as reported in the journals of travelers from the day. Today, the ocean offers seafarers little more than a barren desert. Chagos has given me a looking glass into a world we have denied ourselves.

One month in Chagos and I realize what a modern day Shangri-La it truly is. Not only for what it is today, but also for what it might not be tomorrow. I’ve just seen my first – and probably my only – sight of the long-forgotten world I’ve dreamed of experiencing and it is truly a blessed parallel universe. Other than the fallen ruins of long ago, Chagos is untouched by human development and offers a sanctuary like no other on earth for the myriad of creatures who inhabit her shores. It is a place where the seas hold a healthy balance of marine life, and a place where a visitor can cavort with a wide diversity and healthy population of marine animals. Here, the wildlife does not seem so wild after all. They seem curious, trusting, innocent, friendly. For me, life in Chagos was akin to playing the part of an enthusiastic naturalist. Our days were surprisingly filled with adventure, unlike anything I could have dreamed of in this remote, abandoned archipelago. It was impossible to spend a day without experiencing a collection of amazing wildlife experience, and as a result watching wildlife became a central part of our daily activity. img_8156-800x533-copy-800x533To view more photos of wildlifeChagos and Friends

It is hard to describe the constant assault of wildlife experience in words. To try and capture it feels much like riding horseback at full gallop and trying to describe the feeling of each pounding hoof on the dirt track, the feel of each strand of coarse hair that tickles your cheek, the scent of each blade of broken grass, sight of each horsefly and ant and ladybug that is trampled under the pounding legs of the pack in front of you. What do you choose to relay of the experience to a bystander? What collection of moments out of the myriad of events is adequate to portray the whole picture? It is my attempt to do this in the collection of excerpts that follow and I hope I can pass on a glimmer of the beauty that is Chagos.

Black tip reef sharks shadow me. Streamlined and sleek, a subtle yet sinister threat implied in their surveillance of me and the kids who frolic in the water only yards away. Initially I was wary, but we soon become accustomed to their continual presence. They follow us like puppies; curious, eager, attentive. Our fear of them has dissipated and I welcome them as one would a familiar friend. I swing in my hammock and watch them patiently circle around our hull. We drive our dingy and look back, a trail of black tips breaking the surface behind us. We jump into the water, mask and fin, side by side, matched in our acceptance of one another. We play in the shallows as they circle around us, the occasional feel of sandpaper brushes past flesh. Acceptance. Beauty. Bliss.  

We’ve come ashore to a nearby islet to enjoy coffee and the rising sun, and as I lean back I see that my hand rests in the rivet of a turtle track. The fresh tracks lead me to five nests in the sand, and we realize that whilst looking for a beach facing the sunrise we’ve found turtle hatching grounds. Looking up, the Terns squawk as we disturb their silent congregation, and ahead Frigate birds swoop to water for a meal – caught! A single fish wriggles in a steel-vice clamp, fighting for release. Upward the bird soars, spiraling. And just as my shutter clicks, release and free-fall. I’ve caught my own fish, on film, in an unexpected moment of freedom.

Spotted eagle ray and giant stingray bask in the warmth of the shallow water. I slide my feet, inching toward them, trying not to stumble into the large ditches they’ve carved into the sand. With a flick of wing, they could disappear in the blink of an eye, but warily they let me approach. They are large pale dishes, two-meters long, wings fluttering and shifting a circle of sand that pockmarks the flat seabed. I inch, they flutter. I inch, but this time too close. A flick of wing and they are gone. Or buried beneath the sand. Either way, their barb demands caution and I back away.

Sea snakes hunt in the shallow crevices, crammed into tight nooks in the rock, I stand close to a half dozen crabs who scurrying about on wet rocks at the edge of the reef. Quick as a flash, a foots-length away, a sea snake rips the arm off its victim and darts inches past my toe. At least it wasn’t my limb under attack. I back away, pulse racing. I stumble into a small tidal pool behind me, and look down. Around my feet dart a half dozen pint-sized black tip. I freeze. It isn’t the sharks that have caught my attention, but a granddaddy sea snake sunning himself in the afternoon heat. Big, muscular. We register each other; he moves first. At breakneck speed he slithers on dry rock towards his escape and my heart stops – I know he is all muscle, but even so – the speed with which he moves is simply astounding.

Bird nests crown the trees, baby hatchlings tucked in their wooden cradles. We tread quietly through a booby-bird sanctuary. I have an audience. Thirty beaks, yellow eyes curious, turn toward me as I wandered under the branches. A brave few fly overhead to get a better look. They squawk, rotate, watch me. I watch them. I slip into shallow water, trying to get a better look. A shadow catches my attention and I turn to see a shark lazily swim past. As I wade out further to rub foot to fin, I sidestep a giant ray and, in doing so, a passing turtle bumps into my shin.

Back on Ātea, the wildlife comes to us. Terns rest on Atea’s bowsprit, their delicate feathered features casual and unperturbed by my approach. Reef fish school under our hull, attracted to our protection and the shade, and ever hopeful for the occasional meal that this visitor provides. Sharks continue their endless loop around our hull. Turtles idle past in slow investigation. The shadow of a ray lays its dark path below. Ping. Ping. Ping. Like dominos, gilled and feathered inhabitants of Chagos drop past us in quick succession.

Perhaps this is the crux of it. It is not one unique encounter, but encounter on top of encounter on top of encounter like the line up and drop of dominos that makes the experiences in Chagos so unique.

Other than sitting around all day with our mouths agape and our eyes open wide, catching the myriad of wildlife activity around us, one could ask, “What did you do all day?” A typical day might start with coffee and scones on the beach under the shade of the palm trees, the kids playing in the shallows. Braca, who six months ago would not put his head in the water of the hotel swimming pool, is now jumping and frolicking in the water, twisting and turning like a fish, snorkelling without a lifejacket and asking to be pushed down to the reef for a closer look. Perhaps he is inspired by the life around us. Ayla has similarly progressed, and whilst less proficient than her brother, she is fearless and will happily paddle off into the blue water calling out “I’m fine!” as the black tips circle curiously around us. Our afternoons would contain some degree of boat jobs and schoolwork, but otherwise we sought to break established routines and maximise our time together. We made bonfires on the beach, fished for our dinner, ate on deck watching the bloom of stars overhead. We had disco nights and games nights, dinner parties and birthday parties. Chagos offered time as a family unfiltered and uncomplicated by outside influence. We had no access to news of the outside world and no other distractions from a distance. Without Internet, television or phones, it was family life stripped bare. We live each day with just three other people to consider. How often does life offer such purity?img_8360-800x465  To view more photos of personal momentsChagos and Family

Of course on a more practical level there were a few things we are desperate for. The last egg was used in Braca’s birthday cake two weeks ago, green salads are a distant memory, and even a humble cabbage would be a treat. How would we best enjoy such a treasure if we held one in our hands? That said, our food has lasted well considering it has been six months since we left the plentiful stores of Malaysia, three months since the fantastic fresh markets of Sumatra, and six weeks since the paltry offerings of Cocos Keeling. In addition, our other pressing need is to rid ourselves of rubbish; try to imagine keeping two and a half months of household waste on your front doorstep. Our last bag of garbage left the boat in early August, and since then we have been on a regime that allows us to dispose of green-waste overboard and degradable materials in the deep ocean. Every single scrap of plastic and other non-degradables, however, have been manually compacted and stored on deck in the heat. A fellow cruiser once mentioned that his boat was like the municipal dump – we now know how that feels and are looking forward to being able to clear our own retained waste as soon as possible. Most people would look forward to a visit to the Maldives as a holiday of a lifetime destination, but for us the two foremost questions on getting ashore will be “Do you have any cabbage?” and “Where can I put the rubbish?”

Our days in Chagos were so wrapped up in the “here and now” that it is only after departure that I can sit down to think about what the experience means to us. We heralded Chagos as the epitome of a cruisers ideal destination: Remote, pristine, beautiful. That we were able to experience it without any other cruisers only amplified these traits and made the isolation absolute. Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick: “I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas.” Melville must have had Chagos in mind when he wrote these words, for no words speak of a lust for a place so accurately.

Tonight we sail onward, leaving Chagos behind us in what will always remain a favourite destination. I know it will be Ile de Salomon that I reflect on if I am ever at a dinner party playing Table Talk and pull the card that queries “If you could be anywhere in the world, where would it be?” Our time in Chagos is almost indescribable, other than to say it far exceeded our highest expectations. It is hard to measure the experience in one country against the experience in another, particularly when the environment is a very different one. While I have loved time in so many different countries for so many different reasons, the Chagos archipelago is just one of those places that will forever stand in a league of its own.