The Maldives is probably most famous as a honeymoon destination – saying the name conjures up images of idyllic islands with coconut trees bent over at the water’s edge, upmarket luxury resorts and white beaches made for days of lounging. The clear blue seas with abundant fish life call you in for a snorkel. For those wanting to switch off and do nothing more than relax it ticks all the boxes whilst others will admit to feeling cocooned and missing a bit of action and adventure; on Adina we were somewhere in between.
Adina is not quite a luxury resort but a gin and tonic sundowner anchored off a Maldivian island certainly makes for a pleasant experience. And we are lucky in that we can easily move to an uninhabited island or an island with a resort or an inhabited island as it pleases us. That said, there is another side to all this paradise. Many resorts whose customers are paying dearly do not welcome yachts. Fair enough – yachties turning up in their sun-beaten clothing, desperately seeking a cheap drink, free nibbles and free wifi is not everyone’s ideal clientele. And those uninhabited islands beautiful from a distance more often than not have beaches strewn with litter and plastic washed up and ignored. The islands where local Maldivians live are fairly interesting to visit but most of the locals admitted that there is often little to do and they themselves get bored!
Having arrived in Uligan in the north we set out to slowly wind our way down the chain of atolls trying to pick a mixture of islands – good places to snorkel, small towns to visit and perhaps a resort that would take our well earned dollars and accept scruffy clothing.
The one stand-out feature of the Maldives is the clarity of the water. It wasn’t uncommon to see the anchor hitting the sand as we dropped it and watch the chain stretch itself out as we slowly reversed to dig the anchor in. Of course this clarity is all helped by the fact there is usually no wind. The poisoned chalice is that means very little sailing and lots of motoring. But with the snorkelling being that good, it’s something you’re quite happy to overlook.
One challenge is trying to find safe anchorages. Many are deep, a lot have poor holding and all round protection just doesn’t exist here. This is fine when there are no winds but when the squalls kick in you have to choose your anchorages carefully. But cruisers all swap notes and do their research and a few good anchorages can be found.
And yes, there are squalls. We are now in the equatorial belt and having been in this belt a couple of times before we know all about those squalls. Big black clouds that can bring strong winds, heavy rain and lightning, seemingly out of nowhere! At times they can put you right on edge! Our first evening in the capital of Male certainly tested us. Boats anchor in a lagoon in the neighbouring island of Huhumale. It’s the only possible anchorage within reach of the capital and it’s crowded with liveaboard boats waiting for their next customers. At around 1am the wind picked up as a big squall came through. Most of the anchorage was awake, people sitting on deck watching nervously. On Adina we have our chart plotter on so we can see if we are moving. The problem is boats all swing differently, people have different lengths of chain out and some anchors are not necessarily well dug in. We watched nervously as ourselves and a charter catamaran danced ever-closer with each other. Then a big liveaboard dragged forcing the catamaran to pull up more chain to avoid being hit. We survived but we also elected to move away and find some more space the next morning. Squalls and fronts were to test us throughout our time moving south. And they will until we pick up the new trade winds south of the equator around mid-June.
On the positive side calm days were bliss. Quite often we would go for two snorkels. In fact the heat drove you to go swimming every few hours to cool down. The waters were crystal clear and the snorkelling was some of the best we’ve enjoyed. And if there is something the Maldives wins first prize for it’s dolphins. There are so many of them. And most are enjoyed while at anchor as you see them pass by. Of course we couldn’t resist hopping in the dinghy and trying to get in the water to see them close up. It does take a little bit of skill as going flat out in the dinghy to join them they will simply come and play with you! Dolphins seem to like engines. It’s the first time we’ve had Dolphins chase the bow of our dinghy – tremendous fun. But of course as soon as you stop the dinghy they are still swimming fast and are long gone. So you keep parallel to them, put distance between you and motor ahead, turning where you think they will end up, then cut your motor and jump in. Underneath the water you can hear them squealing away – it’s such a delightful sound. And if you have timed it right you’ll see them swimming by, twirling away or in a tight knit pod swimming with purpose.
One of our favourite anchorages was a simple sand spit. We moved around the scattered bommies (clumps of coral) and found a place to anchor in sand. The sand spit was just made for an evening sundowner and we took our drinks and nibbles ashore. Much to our amazement a boat pulled up and we discovered the sand spit was owned by a hotel. The staff were dropped off to set up a table for two romantics. Luckily the hotel people were fine for us to stay and enjoy our drinks but we were discreet and left before the lucky couple, who must have paid a small fortune, arrived.
Sailing on south we ran into some bad weather and had to skip our planned anchorage – the lagoon entry was not tenable in the conditions we had. Ahead was another yacht, Tin Tin, owned by Kevin and Jacqui Enright. They managed to get into an anchorage further south and kindly passed on the waypoints. We arrived just as another storm kicked in with strong winds and torrential rain. After an hour the smallest of breaks appeared and we dashed in. The anchor dug in first time providing much relief. Whilst not planning it, Tin Tin and ourselves ended up sailing the rest of the way south together and were able to frequently provide assistance to one another.
One highlight was a place called Kolamafushi. While we’re at it, the Maldives must have some of the trickiest names going in the World Atlas. The likes of Kukulhudhoo and Maalhosmadhoo don’t roll off the tongue so easily! Anyway, the weather in Kolamafushi was perfect, we had four yachts anchored, we snorkelled, enjoyed a beach BBQ together and explored the town where locals were friendly. It’s not often you get shown the way to a coffee shop and then when you arrive others get up and come to join you at your table. More friendly locals brought fruit and vegetables to the boats. We’d ask them if they were fishing and the response was “No, we are bored so we come see the yachts”. The islands here are very different to the ones in the Pacific. There are supermarkets, a few restaurants, medical facilities, schools and internet is everywhere. In the Pacific many islands are self sufficient so keep busy just living but here on the smaller islands while most people do seem to have jobs, many sadly don’t seem to have a lot to do.
The weather continued to play games with us and we decided to crack on south. Weather forecasts were quickly proving inaccurate on a regular basis. What looked like a nice day per the forecast could turn into something pretty nasty in reality. Our last leg to the most southern atoll was a classic example. Winds forecast at a very pleasant 5-10 knots, we ended up beating to wind with 15-25 knots and rough seas made worse by a strong current pushing us well off course. Both ourselves and Tin Tin took a good pounding, it was a long hard day.
Once in the most southern atoll the forecasts started to show some nasty weather coming. Two yachts left trying to beat the bad weather and both sadly had a very tough time of it as yet again the forecasts were wrong. The town of Gan has a choice of two anchorages – you can either enter a small shallow lagoon or you stay outside in thirty metres of water. Both have a bad reputation for dragging. We stayed outside but with the bad weather coming in we contacted our agent to try and get into a harbour. Ourselves, Tin Tin and another yacht, Inspiration Lady, were offered the coastguard wall inside the small lagoon where the three of us could raft up. We knew we had to enter the lagoon at high water so with that pressure and more wind coming it all needed to happen very fast. We entered the lagoon and anchored.
Inspiration Lady being the heaviest were first to go to be against the wall. It took time to tie up in an environment not made for yachts. But by then the wind was starting to pick up, Adina was swinging at anchor and then we started to drag. Ashore Inspiration Lady were busy and no one could hear the calls that we needed to raft asap. Finally we were ready to go. Bearing away the wind was so strong Adina heeled over. The plan was for Susie to pass a stern line and Kevin from Tin Tin in his dinghy to take the bow line to hand over. A big mistake and a bad decision by us. The wind was now blowing us onto Inspiration Lady fast and the only option was to accelerate to get alongside Inspiration Lady or risk being shoved into another part of the wall. That worked and we managed to stop dead alongside Inspiration Lady. The mistake was that Kevin’s dinghy was now getting squashed between the two boats. He rapidly climbed up the boats as his dinghy was squashed but fortunately in gear it went forward and popped up, caught by one of the coastguard boys. Rather terrifying and it would take us a good while to forgive ourselves for putting Kevin in such a dangerous position. We live and learn.
With the winds now too high Tin Tin opted to remain at anchor and fortunately the next morning the winds were calm, we were well prepared and smoothly brought them alongside. In the end it was all good lessons in rafting up with strong winds blowing us onto a wall. Gary on Inspiration Lady had the clever idea of putting anchors out on the side of the boats to pull all of us off the wall.
And there we stayed put for a number of days. We all worked away on our boats, woke in the night hours as the winds would often howl away, spent time ashore and regularly socialised. There are worse ways to sit out bad weather. Finally, finally the winds eased off and we prepared to untie the many lines and anchors we had in place. A big effort by all and a great team effort we got all the boats off the wall safely.
As for the Maldives, we loved the crystal clear waters, the dolphins, the snorkelling and meeting up with fellow cruisers. We’ve always said we’ll tell the truth, warts and all; it’s wrong to ham it up and pretend everything is gloriously perfect to make every man and his dog jealous. For us the Maldives lacked some of the adventure and action we’ve enjoyed elsewhere. But we can’t live in the past, we need to live in the now and make the most of it. And that we’re now even more determined to do. We look forward to visiting British Indian Ocean Territory and even more so the Seychelles where we have Susie’s parents and good friends Charlie and Nicola visiting.
So now we set sail to British Indian Territory, a transit stop, to wait for the south east trade winds to set in and blow us to the Seychelles. No-one lives on the Salomon atoll we will stop at, tourists are not allowed to visit, there are no supermarkets, no internet, just nature at its glorious best. Sounds like a great place for Susie to spend her birthday come the 26th May. Happy Birthday my very special lady!