We had a spectacular sail from Cocos on to Chagos with a record daily average of 145 miles all goose winged under full
rig apart from 36 hours with 1 reef in the main and ¾ of a genoa out. It was splendid sailing with little effort. We kind
of wondered why we ever sailed below 40! We caught a 10k dorado on our plastic bag and biro lure and every morning we gathered
the flying fish off the deck.
Chagos, a British territory, is a series of coral atolls spread out over more than 100 miles of ocean with the biggest
island being Diego Garcia. Since the early 1970s this has been a military base – for the Americans – and the Chagos
natives were summarily evicted to Mauritius. They won a court case a few years ago allowing them to return to any of the islands
except Diego Garcia; a hollow victory as DG was the only one that could really sustain them. Now Diego Garcia is off limits
to everyone and you sail within 12 miles of it at your peril – the orange boilersuit awaits.
We anchored within the circle of small islands joined by reefs that make up the Salomon atoll. There was once a village
here, now just a few ruins and a graveyard remain. Up until this year the charges for visiting yachts were quite small and
dozens came every year and stayed for months at a time. The British fishery patrol vessel visited regularly and collected
the money which had to be paid in US dollars as the only bank on the British island of Diego Garcia is American – for
the military stationed there. This year the charges went up to £100 per month, payable in advance to a British bank! The islands
are each very small – about 200m by 500 and covered in a dense growth of mostly coconut palms. We were disappointed
to find that there was no beach to speak of except at low tide. So this wasn’t the desert island paradise of the telly
ads. At spring low tide we were able to walk around the shore on a ledge of dead coral and some sand. Apart from that there
wasn’t much to do ashore.
Underwater the coral was excellent and we spent a lot of time snorkelling. The brightly coloured reef fish were a delight.
The intricately patterned parrotfish could have been designed by Salvador Dali on speed and some of the giant clams were so
big they couldn’t’ close properly. Black tipped sharks circled us throughout their territory but sped away when
we were aggressive towards them – just like a stray dog that worries you from behind then runs when you turn quickly.
The seabirds were quite fearless and a succession of brown noddies made the pulpit their favourite roost. We put up with this
until the drum of the furling gear was covered in guano and half digested fish, then action had to be took! Even so we still
had the occasional bird which worked out that standing on the string near the end could weigh it down enough to touch the
pulpit and make a secure perch once more. After a while they even banded together to keep the string down!! So much for bird
|brown noddie on pulpit
Until the end of June there had been about 30 yachts at the atoll. Now with the new and increased charges there were
only 2 left. They had both been there since January and were on their 6 or 7th annual visit. It was beyond us why you would
stay 7 months in a deserted island less than 1km in size, in the middle of nowhere and to do it for 6 years in a row seems
odd. It struck me as being like a tropical old folks home, just marking time doing small things. The attraction seems to be
in the fact that it is completely uninhabited and the yachties could make their own “country”. Over the years
people have cleared some of the undergrowth on the main island making paths and clearings with fireplaces and driftwood seats
and of all things volleyball courts. There is a well ashore so water is not a problem. The most bizarre aspect we found was
that the boats all have “gardens”. The cockpit and coach roof are chocka with grow bags of tomato, pepper and
chilli plants. There are pots of herbs, spring onions and lettuce arranged on the after deck and floor space is taken up with
the home beer brewing plant. Some even have flowers. The day is spent watering and weeding the garden or fishing for the dinner
with pot-lucks and parties ashore to mark just about any festival you can invent. After 7 months on Chagos and 6 weeks sailing
time to and from Malaysia the rest of the year is spent provisioning and preserving food in preparation for the next year’s
pilgrimage. We’ve been to some out of the way places aboard Mithril and spent long times on remote islands but the long
term yachties in Chagos beat us for oddness by miles.
In my experience of cruising weather the ‘unusual year’ is curiously frequent and so it was this year. The
south east trades started early, we were told, giving us the strong breezes at Cocos. Then in Chagos we had a week of almost
continuous rain and frequent north easterly winds; also unusual we were told. Westerly winds are almost unknown at this time
of year but in our 3 week stay we had them twice. The second occasion was caused by a low pressure system to the north of
us - almost unheard of. The British patrol boat was visiting at the time and he said it was the worst weather in Diego Garcia
for 20 years. We took advantage of the west wind to claw back some easting which would help on our sail south to Rodriguez
giving a better angle against the south east trade which would inevitably return. It was a good decision and with 24 hours
of west winds we were able to pass 50 miles east of Diego Garcia. In Chagos when we said we were aiming for Rodriguez there
was generally a sucking in of breath and a shaking of heads – not quite an impossible voyage but very difficult. For
once the unusual year worked in our favour and we had a fast if wet broad reach mostly under double reefed main and small
scrap of genoa with winds never less than 25 knots.