The decision to join a cruising rally is often a process of weighing pros and cons and finding where you fall in the balance. I 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. There 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. The 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, “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.
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. 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. Some 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, I 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.