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Chatty log | Passage to Chagos

Passage to Chagos

4 May

Caro: John got our passports back and the US dollars from the bank. But it takes a while and the morning is gone already.

John: OK, so Monday was a Bank Holiday, Tuesday was off because I had to surrender our passports for 24 hours to Immigration, so today, maybe, we get to go? Ever the optimist, I stride off into town with a list of tasks to clear out and arrange fuel as long as my tongue, scraping along the dusty pavement in the heat. Needless to say, I don't even get to stop for ong enough to have lunch and it still takes me until 15:00 to get verything taken care of. Then we have to rush over to the New Port to tie up and take on fuel before the SeyPec (Seychelles Petrol Company) guys go home for the day. It's a government-owned company, so there'll be no work after 16:00. Tying up proves surprisingly easy, we're given an ideal berth right on the end of the pier. I'm pretty-much a zombie by this stage, however, and completely botch the refuelling so we end up with a diesel geyser like Yellowstone National Park's 'Ol Faithful' with poor Casper on deck not knowning how to turn off the delivery and me below struggling with a sputtering breather hose that's spewing diesel into the cupboards by the engine. It turns out we've not used as much diesel as I'd calculated, and we can't even (quite) take on the 1000 litres I paid for, squeezing a total of 993 litres into tank and deck jerries. Good news is that we now have more fuel than I'd hoped. Bad news is that I obviously can't do my fuel sums with any confidence. Needless to say, by the time this little fiasco is over it's tea-time and Caro can only get a little shopping in at the supermarket before it closes; we'll have to stay another night. I'm nervous about this because we did already clear out and are supposed to be gone!

5 May

John: Oh, I forgot to mention, going back into the yacht basin the engine overheated (again!) and we had to cut it, just barely ghosting up to a mooring we could pick up. Turns out the freeze plug from hell has sprung another leak. So, today Caro and the kids take off for a relay of shopping trips to the market and shops while I get closely acquainted with the rear-end of the engine block via mirror and dive light. This is made more exciting by the inadvertent discovery that the plumbing from the hot water tank, which I am obliged to squeeze by with my arm on the way to the back of the block, is apparently charged with 240 V AC power. The resulting reflex action of springing back and uncontrollably jerking all muscles in violent spasm causes some interestring injuries in such a confined space full of sharp metal fittings. The electrical contact is made all the more potent by the fact that I'm soaked with salty sweat. Cruising really is a bizarre mix of experiences. Finally, temporary repairs (are there any other kind?) effected, the saloon floor packed with fresh fruit and veg., we drop mooring and motor out. Only 24 hours late. The Coast Guard come out to meet us to return our speargun, grumbling about our late departure but resigned to the eccentricities of vagrant yachties, it seems.

Caro: It's complicated having to do the shopping for a period of about 6 weeks. We won't be able to buy anything at all until we get to Maldives, so I better get this right. I'm not the sort to sit down and plan all the meals, I just guess. Besides, options in Seychelles are rather limited, it's not a matter of choosing what to get, only deciding how much of it to get. In the supermarket we buy big loads of apples and oranges and hope they will keep. This is also the place to get cheese and frozen sausages. Most important are the onions and garlic, I cannot cook without them, use them at nearly every meal. That's all the kids and I can carry. Round number 2 is first to the bakery and then my favourite stall at the market. The owner of the stall, a big black lady, has been treating us like a friend. She's got bell peppers, local green tomatoes, carrots, potatoes and cabbages. She looks for the best pieces and puts in a little extra. When she considers her own cucumbers not good enough she goes around the other stalls selecting the darkest green ones that will last the longest. She's great. By now our purchases have grown into a small mountain and she organises a taxi. So far so good, but still not done. We've got to find eggs, which seem hard to find this morning. Alex and I go searching in some of the other shops and strike lucky. We buy 60 eggs in 2 trays. I'll rub them with vaseline later in the hope of keeping them longer. To spend the last of our money we have one more look in the supermarket. Since our visit this morning they've had a delivery of celery and green beans. Excellent! A few more sausages, bacon, salami. Before I know it I select more than I have money to pay for and have to return some things. Embarrassing! When we get back to the boat it's already 4 o'clock and John is itching to get going. We store everything once we're on our way. For now we're only going to a bay in Praslin.

6 May

John: I come to the end of another bag of coffee and reach in deep for one of our last remaining 1 kg bags of Spinellis' finest. I come up with a bag of 'Extra Dark French' roast, which I think is rather droll since we are just leaving Seychelles, populated by French and African genes. We are not actually, truly, on our way to Chagos yet, though. First we want to check out another of the turtle foraging grounds identified by the 1998 Argos satellite tags Jeanne Mortimer used. So we made our way into the north bay of Praslin (delightful spot) late last night and put the hook in for a decent night's sleep. It turned out to be a rolly night. This morning we moved over to the western corner to get a bit more shelter while we sorted a few things out and let the kids off in the dinghy for some pillage, their last chance before the long haul to Chagos. We also wanted to take a day to clean the hull, which is now in quite a state. Casper, Caro and I spent 1.5 hours apiece scraping and scrubbing, getting most of it done. After lunch, Caro and the kids went off to snorkel and fish, while I took a second tank to go and finish the job. We can scrape the hard stuff off, but the slimy algae is almost impossible to remove. At least it's much better than before, so will hopefully not be too slow in the water. We expect light winds, so a clean hull is important. It could save days on the passage. Unsurprisingly, Caro and I are wasted to the point of dropping by the end of the day, so turn in for an early night and an early start tomorrow

7 May

John: We motored out at 06:10 in the cool rosy light of dawn, passing the mega yacht Queen Mary of London lying at anchor looking like a giant plastic spaceship. A world apart. Even at anchor, at this hour, her radar is turning; presumably someone on anchor watch scanning the screen in case something turns up and looks threatening. Are they worried about pirates or collision? So much to worry about when there's so much to lose... We make our way to 3 deg. 52.97'S, 055 deg. 43.86'E, the approximate centre of turtle 4808 foraging grounds and do a bathymetric survey. there's a good cross swell running, making things uncomfortable. Nothing of interest; why did this turtle want to stay here? We anchor in 48 m (our 80 m of chain just enough?) at 3 deg. 52.911'S, 055 deg. 43.778'E and take a dive. We place a tank at 8 m depth, this time determined not to use it! Echoes of our nearly-disastrous deep dive at the last sight haunt me. Hardly surprising. Still, as we descend I feel confident and comfortable. At the bottom, we see there is very little to see. No pits. A few scattered coral outcrops and rocks, a solitary trigger fish, nothing much else. Caroline invites me to feel the odd thermocline just off the bottom, maybe only 1.5 m thick. I can feel the nitrogen narcosis numbing my mind, but it still seems to work tolerably well. We just acquire a decompression obligation when we decide to end the dive, working our way up the seemingly endless chain to the surface and a long safety stop, actually 3 minutes of decompression and 3 safety. Back out of the water, we review and feel that everything went exactly as planned, a textbook dive. No troubles, no drama. What a contrast! Time to get out of the swell and into some shelter behind Denis island, a privately-owned island just to the north-northwest. It turns out to be a low-lying island of little obvious merit (though apparently hosts an exclusive resort) with treacherous shallows extending a long way out with little real shelter from the swell. We anchor in 4m, surrounded by bombies and rocks. A DH Twin-Otter appears and swoops in on final right over our mast, giving the kids a real thrill. They've never seen an aircraft fly overhead so close and low. For me the sound of the turbines and smell of Avtur jet fuel brings back memories of the Antarctic, when our beloved red twin otters used to be such a welcome sight in the wilderness. The plane lands on a tiny strip, probably bringing out the rich and famous for their exclusive holiday. We move off 100 m to get out of the flightpath and settle in for the night.

8 May

John: Up anchor for the last time before Chagos. We set off at 09:20, but are going to skirt the Seychelles bank edge looking for Sperm Whales before we truly set our sails for Chagos. The first excitement is when the port lure goes off big-time. There's a lull, then the line simply screams off the reel like it's attached to an express train. I have the drag on full; I cannot tighten the clutch without backing off the drag first. I attempt to slow the rapidly-spinning reel by resting my finger on the bail. I immediately receive a vicious rope burn. Maybe I shouldn't put any more tension on the line anyway. But very soon we are going to be all out of line, will the knot hold? Suddenly the line jumps, whipping out of the water as the tension releases. The fish has severed the stainless stell leader line at the lure. Probably a sailfish. Maybe just as well? I spend the next hour nursing my burn with ice from the freezer. It needed a defrost anyway. The kids are uninterested in the tedious business of scanning the water for whales. Besides, they're behind in their schoolwork schedule for the week and are keen to make up as much as possible before the end of today. We see no Sperm Whales, but a couple of large-looking dark dolphin-like marine mammals (possibly pilot whales?) surface a couple of times, the first time just 15 m off the port quarter. Then they keep their distance so we cannot identify them. Skittish. In the afternoon the wind hardens a little and backs, so we set sail for a mild beat, steering 100 Magnetic (course over ground is 85 True) more-or-less the course for Chagos. We are finally off on our 1000 mile passage, 970 to the next waypoint. Jocara slips along at 4 knots in 12 kt of apparent wind.

9 May

John: When the wind hardens, I am unsettled, nervous. When the wind builds to 18 knots or more, I begin to feel tense, my confidence dented by the couple of times we've been caught out in squalls and too much sail. I feel this even more keenly at night, when I can't see the weather so well and the rigging creaks, making me wonder what's about to break apart. I guess we've broken too much on this trip for me to feel confident of the ship. We are also handling a large boat (Jocara is 25 tons and 18 m, carrying ~190 sq. m of sail) with just the two of us, the kids can't really be counted when there's real trouble. Added to which there's the heavy weight of responsibility with regard to taking good care of Casper and Alex, of course. Maybe I'm just being an old woman and just need to get back in the groove. Still, the flashes of dry-air lightning to port keep me scanning the radar and sky in the moonless night. Today is our first full day at sea after a night's kip under sail. So far, we're blessed with sailable wind, just enough to make good progress, not enough to make the sea uncomfortable. We hook up a good-sized Bigeye tuna in the afternoon, then almost immediately afterwards a Dorado hits the other lure. Since we don't have any room in the freezer right now we bring the Dorado alongside and plan to release her once we can get the hook out. As Casper attempts to swing her on board (without using the gaff, of course) she jumps, twists and frees herself. Perfect! She swims rapidly away, everyone delighted at the outcome. The Bigeye looks very rich meat, not sure if this is going to taste too metallic, like Bonito, for Sashimi. At least it has Star's approval. I wind up with finishing a little project to provide a red light warning when the water pump is on, so maybe we won't have to risk burning the pump out next time we run out of water.

10 May

John: A very pleasant night's sail, gentle winds and good progress with no squalls or rain. I'm up at dawn, very pretty it is too, finding Caro asleep, curled up in the cockpit. By 05:50 we have only 773 n.m. to run. I tune in to the Chagos net on 4.033 MHz at 06:00 but don't hear much as the reception degrades rapidly once the sun rises. We'll get more in the coming days as we get closer. The Bigeye tuna turns out to be prime grade, not shabby at all, and we eat 3/4 of it as sashimi for lunch with a cold beer to wash it down. This is the life! It still amazes me that we can simply set off in our own little boat across a vast ocean, carrying all that's important to us and beholden to no-one, pointing our bow where we please and arriving at any exotic and remote island of our choosing. How long can such freedom last? After a film ('Driven' - a shallow, weak plot; cheap gratuitous rubbish) I see/hear some dolphins and we all rush out on deck in time to watch 3-4 dolphins cavorting around the boat, setting off spiralling trails of luminescence. Magic! Time and again we see a couple of bright sparkling trails of star-dust rocketing like torpedoes across the bows just below the surface, then looping and turning before disappearing into greater depths. Our own small bow-wave sends a pulsing stream of magical sparks along the side of the boat.

Caro: So far it's been a very relaxing passage with good progress. I enjoy not having to do anything, well, apart from cooking and stuff. I spend hours reading one book after the other. I never get enough of the everchanging sea and sky. Rather then feeling stuck on a small boat I feel free and part of the huge space around me.

11 May

John: What the hell is an onanism when it's at home? Caro came across the word in a book she's reading and asked me. Taking a deep breath (expecting the answer to form in my brain) I was mildly surprised and sightly embarrassed (as the only mother-tongue english-speaker on board) to realise that although I recognised the word, I have absolutely no idea what it means. I was slightly cheered by the discovery that Microsoft Word doesn't know either, but maybe that's not saying much. I guess we'll just have to survive not knowing. Today the wind got weaker and weaker until we felt obliged to start the engine to make any significant progress. Still, we can't complain; we've had enough wind for 3 days to get 350 miles under the keel. The sunset brings a spectacular 'green flash', for the second day running, where the sun itself turned a brilliant poisonous bright light green, rather than flashing in a smear across the horizon around the sun as I'm used to seeing. Night brings a view of our turbulent prop wash illuminated by phosphorescence trailing behind the boat. We spend a lot of time these days speculating on the stars, the origins of the Universe, intelligent life, philosophy, religion, the usual stuff of star-gazers flat on their backs staring up at the brilliant spray of diamonds in the sky. I can't believe I'm talking about the 3K background microwave radiation signal (big-bang echo) to my 12-year-old!

12 May

John: I rigged the windscoop over the aft hatch so it would rustle a lot if there was any wind, and around 05:15 it woke me up with the promise of some light air. Not yet enough to sail, but I caught the Chagos sched at 06:00. We finally cut the engine at 07:30 and settled in to a gentle sail around 4 kts with main and staysail, switching the staysail for the Genoa by 08:20. It came as something of a shock to see not one but two little fishing boats pass us to port, one only a mile off. Their thumping diesel engines rumbling across the water. Later, we saw two more to starboard. Rather than feel comforted that 'we are not alone', it feels like an intrusion. Go away! By mid-afternoon we were obliged to go back on the engine for lack of sailable wind. Still, the smooth sea with it's gentle rolling swell from the SE is very comfortable, and we have the fuel. Given that we've seen a green flash for the last two days, I'm ready with the camera set to rapid fire for the sunset. Needless to say, a small cloud (specially ordered up by Murphy) intervenes and blocks the sun at the critical moment. No green flash. Casper escapes the heat of the engine by sleeping on the coachroof (again), it's that smooth a ride these days.

Caro: One day slips into the next. The ocean seems endless. It feels as if we could go on like this forever and that's fine. On the other hand I'm watching the miles to go count down and start getting excited about our next destination. What will it be like?

13 May

John: Caro wakes me at 02:15; she's been woken in turn by the radar alarm going off intermittently and has finally nailed the culprit as a weak return from just 2.5 n.m. ahead, seemingly not moving (or moving only very slowly) and possibly on a collision course. We firm up the radar signal and sure enough, there is something solid out there. I steer 15 deg. to port to avoid it and put on the nav. lights. What can it be? We see nothing at all in the binoculars. Suddenly, there is a green light, nothing more, just a single point of green a little above the horizon. Must be a sailboat! We call on VHF 16 as we pass, 0.25 n.m. away. It turns out they are a 35' South-African boat called 'Zephyr', on a circumnavigation (left 12 years ago), now 8 days out of Chagos bound for Seychelles, so on a reciprocal course. Funny that we should be so close as to almost collide! They've had little wind (as we) and counter current (whereas we are riding with it) so are making only 20-30 n.m. headway each day right now. They give us lots of news about Chagos and ask us to report their position to boats in Chagos on their behalf; their HF radio does not transmit. They don't have sailmail. They also have gearbox trouble so cannot use their engine. Next time I'm swearing about all the stuff on Jocara that doesn't work I'll try and remember these examples to get our troubles into perspective. Later on in the morning I hear a boat, I think just NE of Chagos, with no diesel and little food left, barely holding their own against the current in light winds. By 06:00 we are at 4 deg. 26.04'S, 064 deg. 30.32'E, doing 4 kt in 4-5 kt apparent wind with 441 n.m. to go to our Chagos waypoint.

14 May

Caro: Every day we see birds, most of them now boobies. We're not catching any fish anymore. Perhaps because the sea is too calm. We managed to sail for a while with little wind, but when the sails start slapping too often we start the engine. The day goes by quickly with a lot of reading. The kids do school work and computer games. John's got into reading too. Late afternoon we all gather on deck to see if it's a green flash night. We've started doing a few excercises, some push-ups and pull-ups. The kids also enjoy standing on the boom leaning into the sail. It's calm enough to do these things. We're starting to see more squalls, but manage to dodge most of them. We worry that squalls will cause the radar alarm to keep us awake all night.

John: Last night I was kept busy for some hours dodging squalls and monitoring the lights of small fishing boats. During the day I find myself in that kind of dreamy state of exhaustion where I don't have the energy or concentration to do anything very much, not up to taking on big jobs, but it's too hot and bright to sleep. I take a fitfull nap anyway in the afternoon.

15 May

Caro: Only once in the night did the alarm go off. I first thought the radar showed a big ship, but it turned out to be another squall. The wind has now changed to the southeast, but there's still very little of it. We're still motoring in a smooth sea, though there is a big long swell from a storm far away. John is frustrated with the lack of fish and throws out the teaser with the 2 tiny squid lures. Low and behold it catches something. The smallest tuna we've ever seen! Just enough for an appetizer and a treat for the cats. We're getting a little tired of pasta, noodles or rice all the time. Casper starts making dough for tortillas. Soon we've got a system going where Alex is rolling the dough flat and I'm baking the tortillas in the pan. Great team work and a great lunch. Just as it is starting to get dark a booby comes by and starts circling the top of the mast looking for a landing spot. The feet come down, the tail feathers spread out and it nearly lands on top of the lightning arrester before a last minute decision to abandon. Just as well, the lightning arrester is like a steel porcupine and wouldn't be too comfortable! The booby doesn't give up so easily, however, and after many more fly bys eventually settles for a perch on the starboard spreader. It preens itself for a while, looking very pleased with itself, and soon tucks in its head and seems to be asleep. I love boobies, they're so curious and amusing.

John: I feel a little sorry for the tiny yellofin tuna I catch on the teaser line, but not sorry enough to let it go! I'm pleased as a little boy that my homemade teaser works, even if it does tow upside down! At the end of the day I catch another one, about the same size, so it isn't just a fluke! I sashimi the two little fish for dinner. Not great, the flesh is much lighter and has a softer texture than an adult fish, but it's OK. Alex does not agree. True, some of the pieces are rather like raw squid...

16 May

Caro: Still no wind. Still motoring. I'm so glad we got filled up with fuel in the Seychelles. The weather is glorious, a big blue sky with rows of little fluffy clouds. The sea is really smooth now. Finally we catch a good sized tuna again. John was messing with the fishing line, letting all 400 yards of it out. When he started reeling it in there was a lot of pressure on the line. There was a tuna on it! It was a bit of work to reel it in, but it was a beauty. A different species, we haven't had this one before. Near the tail it had splashes of a deep purplish blue. Sashimi for dinner again. We turned the engine off for a while so we could take the steering wheel off and put the table up for a peaceful dinner. Alex immediately had the idea that now we were drifting was a good idea to see if he could catch something, like pelagic squid. I didn't give him much chance. Here we are in the middle of the vast ocean, the nearest squid could be a hundred miles away. Alex turned the spreader light on and soon saw life around the boat. A little later he landed a big pelagic squid! Wow! He was so pleased. Casper studied it for a long time, they're quite different from reef squid. Much more solid. It didn't ink, although it did have an ink sack. Interesting. So, that's tomorrow's menu already taken care of, squid pasta.

John: I thought it best to take the line of small hooks off the back of the teaser today, we don't want any more of the little ones; let them grow into big ones! We motorsail through a flock of birds working the surface of the sea, so there's fish about... I look back at the lures and am surprised to see the teaser go under... it simply stops skimming the surface spitting up little splashes of water and submerges. Just as I'm wondering if there's something wrong with it, up it pops and resumes its normal routine. It dawns on me that it has been hit by a large fish! Well, clearly it really does work! Mind you, neither of the real lures are touched. There's a message for us here... Casper sets to work rigging the teaser with a big hook. Later we finally get around to taking some air samples, setting up the particulate sampler on the bowsprit to try and keep it well upwind of the engine exhaust. We'd much prefer to wait until we had good wind to sail and the engine off, but it doesn't look like we are going to get that this passage and it's been so long since we took any samples that we feel we have to make an effort now. We also try the new POP sampling pump with the wide hose I got in Victoria and the bigger cannister holes. It's hopeless. The flow rate is so low and the pump draws 70 amps off the batteries for only 300 litres/min. I am wondering how long we can go on like this and if we should abandon the sample when the pump shuts down automatically. It overheated, thus deciding for us. I am really upset about this, having invested so much effort to get the system to work and having already lost such great opportunities on the western leg of our trip.

17 May

Caro: When I get up we have only 20 miles to go and Peros Banhos is just visible on the horizon. It's taken us 8 days. Not bad at all. We're all excited. Chagos is a very special place for yachties, I guess it symbolises absolute freedom, although things have changed in recent years. (More on that on the Chagos page under Places.) Peros Banhos is a big atoll with many small islands around the edge. The islands slowly grow in size and we can start making out the breakers on the surrounding reef. We make our way in through a big pass in the south. We're on the lookout for bommies, but the depth seems pretty stable in the 20 meters. We drop anchor off a little island called Fouquet. Then we grab our snorkeling gear and in 2 minutes flat we're all in the water. The kids are on their way to the island, we won't see them for a while. John and I snorkel around the reef. Our first impression is that a lot of coral, about 90%, is dead. Killed in the bleaching event of 1998. We also see recently bleached coral heads, pure white table coral not yet covered in algae. A little deeper the damage is less, here there is more live coral. Also fish variety doesn't seem so great. Many big parrot fish, but not so many smaller fish like butterflies or damsels. In the shallows we nearly bump into an eagle ray that is feeding. I can clearly see two flaps that fold out from the side of its pointy beak. It then skims just above the sand. When it finds something it starts digging. Fabulous to see this behaviour. Just wish I had the camera. We swim into shore a have a walk around. We don't see any birds and the kids tell us later that they saw rats. Aahh. Even here there's some rubbish high up above the high tide line, flip flops, plastic bottles, some rope. This may have been an uninhabited island for the last 40 years, but it is not untouched. It makes me a little bit sad. Is there nowhere left where man hasn't left his mark? Back on board John and I rig up the awning to keep the sun off the deck. It's baking hot and the inside temperature is 35 degrees. Late afternoon we deploy the dinghy and set out to discover what it is that a buoy a hundred meters off marks. It's a pretty bommie, covered with big fans and the home of 2 medium sized groupers. We've brought the speargun along, but don't want to shoot one of a couple. The light at sundown is glorious, but to the south we see a line of boiling clouds. For dinner we have, of course, the pelagic squid with the leftover tuna which John has seared with herbs. Delicious.

John: Arriving in these fabled isles is a tonic to all of us, we are all running around excitedly, finding a small pod of dolphins just inside the lagoon on our way in. We try and follow them, but they seem shy and veer off. The afternoon is perfect, with a beautiful sunset and a cold beer to round off the day. I feel really blessed, here in this placid beauty with my family. Still, there are some boiling cumulus clouds not far to the south that could spell trouble.



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