Chagos in August

Sadly, a French boat, Marimba, went on the reef here a few days ago as we were finishing breakfast. They were a husband and wife team who had sailed around the world before. In fact they had been sailing for over 20 years so lack of experience was not the cause.

They had ideal conditions and LOW tide as well. They lined up the boat in what they thought was the pass into the atoll and powered straight ahead – up onto the reef. The boat was about a mile off course and went between the wrong islands. The captain had even been here before in 1981.

What do you think was cause? Yep, fatigue. They had had a 20 day trip with bad weather from Christmas Island and “just knew” they were in the right pass. That’s what happens when you get too confident or too tired and don’t triple check the charts.

As soon as it happened all of us at anchor here roared out in dinghies out through the pass and around the back of the atoll to help them. Heinz, an older German sailor off the catamaran Papagena, left his dinghy and came with me as I have a 15 HP outboard which is quite powerful.

As we were flying out of the atoll into the open sea bouncing over the wave tops just behind the surf line we come soaring over a wave hell bent for leather and right below us in the next wave trough was a whale! JEEZ! As soon as we hit the water I banked immediately left almost throwing Heinz in the drink and saw then it was a manta ray on the surface. He dove right and we sped off the other way missing him by almost two inches. That was a heart stopper for all involved.

At the scene of the accident, we worked on getting anchors out from the boat through the ever increasing surf to try and winch them off. A couple yachts of even pulled up their anchors in the atoll to come outside and try to tow the boat off the reef. But by the time everything was ready the tide was in and the waves were smashing the boat to bits. She was a total loss. It was very sad.

We spent the rest of the day, everyone here, helping them unload what we could from the wreck and put it on shore. They are camped now alone on a small island in sight of their destroyed home of the last 20+ years. It was really good the way everyone rallied around them to help – a good example of what cruising is all about.

We went over again yesterday, all of us, and held an auction. There we purchased just about all their stuff. Now they have enough money to buy air tickets when they get to Africa. The couple plan to hitch a ride there on a friend’s boat which is due any day now.

I bought some extra mooring lines while others got radios and other essential gear. They even sold all their sails. Somebody even bought the boat “As is, Where is,” for 50 bucks. Imagine losing everything in a second and of course, they weren’t insured. They were lucky it happened here and not in some deserted atoll. All told they recouped about 25% of their total net worth. Fatigue is the sailor’s and the pilot’s worst enemy. That and pride, I guess.

The trip back to Phuket was one of 1,751 miles direct as the bionic crow would fly. We broke the journey up by going to Gan, Maldives first. That was just 300 miles north from Chagos. We left Chagos August 2nd. We wanted to leave Aug. 1st but that was a Friday and sailors never begin voyages on a Friday.

(“We’re not superstitious – but why take a chance?” as Paul, on Quarterdeck always says). We motorsailed 48 hours to Gan, or Addu, the southernmost atoll in the Maldives. There we fueled up and bought some apples which were only a few months old! For us that was fresh fruit and very welcomed. In fact, there were only nine apples on the island when we were there and we bought them all.

We had to ration them between us for the trip back! We also had dinner with friends Jim and Joanne who run a Victoria Secrect’s underwear factory there (!). (You never know what you’re going to find when travelling offbeat places). The factory and 800 workers have been imported lock, stock and barrel from Sri Lanka. We had a nice tour of the factory and now we know how panties are made.

After 48 hours in Gan, it was a rough and rolly trip of 1,600 miles to Phuket, Thailand. We didn’t have much wind for half the trip but we had large and uncomfortable swells the WHOLE WAY. We’re talking the boat rolling from side to side constantly with things crashing away in their cupboards 24 hours a day. We stuffed tea towels amongst all the plates and silverware, etc, to deaden the noise.

Try taking a shower with the whole shower bouncing up and down, up and down and side to side. Easy to get soap in your eyes. Many times we were rolling so much the caprails were submerged! Not much you can do with those conditions. As the wind was behind us, when we had wind, we poled out the genoa to the side to hold it open to the breeze. But each swell would tip the air out of the sail so it would collapse and then as the boat righted herself the sail would fill with air instantly, BANG! It must have sounded like we were duck hunting with large gauge shotguns drunk.

So we had to reef the sail in to prevent it from tearing apart which meant even slower progress. We even tried poling the gennie out with a triple reefed main to dampen the rolling motion but the main just blanketed the gennie. We gotta get a spinnaker going here. We have one on board but no halyard so I will be rigging that up once we get to Phuket.

We left Chagos within days of Papagena, the St. Francis 44 Cat mentioned above and Tramontana, an Atkinson 51; designed, built and sailed by Phil Atkinson, quite impressive. We kept SSB contact with them all the way across.

Due to the rough seas on the trip Papagena lost a rudder leaving them one left (remember, they are a catamaran). This made it difficult to control the yacht in the rough and swelly conditions and sure enough the next day the other rudder broke off and sank to the bottom as well.

This happened in 30 knots of wind just nine miles off the Nicobar Islands on the way back to Phuket, leaving them helpless. 75 miles ahead of them setting a new speed record on the Chagos to Phuket run, Phil and Faye on Tramontana, turned around and sailed all night to get to Papagena. They then proceeded to tow Papagena the next 300 miles into Phuket. It was quite a heroic effort.

We were 300 miles behind Papagena so by the time we got to the scene of the crime both boats were back in Phuket drinking beer. Another example of yachties helping yachties.

Other than the swells, we have had an uneventful trip (still 200 miles to go as I write this so I better be careful of what I say)! Thankfully, this time we have had no ugly encounters with Sri Lankan fishermen (which means we haven’t seen ANY). And we crossed the busy shipping lanes at the entrance to the Malacca Straits with all the traffic to and from Europe to Asia pouring into the Indian Ocean at night in major squalls with no incident. That was exciting.

I was up all night in the rain negotiating the boat under sail through the 30-odd miles of ships all travelling directly at us about 20 knots (23 mph) vs. our brave six knots. We saw about three dozen of them as we ducked and weaved around the big boys. Three days later we were back in Phuket enjoying lots of beer and ice cream.