Transition season in BIOT


Tuesday 14 June 2016

Susie keeps a good look out for coral heads

Susie keeps a good look out for coral heads

After ten days rafted up with two other yachts, stuck on the Coastguard wall in Gan, Maldives, the heavy weather finally eased and we could prepare to leave. First we had to untangle the many lines and two anchors we had deployed to keep us all safe. With the wind still pushing us onto the wall we discussed how to separate the raft, everyone was given roles and we set to work. With dinghies to push the yachts off and with everyone working hard it all went very smoothly. We were finally free and headed out for a night at anchor. Our last night in the Maldives involved enjoying some pizzas ashore to thank the Maldivian Coastguard for all of their help.

Come 6am the next morning all three yachts, Inspiration Lady, Tin Tin and Adina, departed the Maldives, our destination British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) lying to the south south west. The passage was 290 nautical miles which by our normal standards should take just over forty eight hours. However this is a stretch of water that can be challenging; winds are fickle, doldrums occur, squalls bring heavy winds and awkward seas and throwing a spanner in the works is the equatorial counter-current. This strong current runs from west to east, not good for those heading in the direction we were. Yachts ahead of us had ended up with no wind and had to motor against the current using valuable fuel really needed for the next leg to the Seychelles. Other yachts had strong winds and due to the combination of bad winds and current one yacht even missed BIOT completely, sailing on to Rodrigues.

As we set off the winds blew kindly and we headed south-west sailing upwind, determined to put some space between us and our rhumb line (the straight line between your departure point and destination). In fact we were so wary of the weather and the current we sailed seventeen nautical miles off that line! All was going well until a storm hit the next morning. Smashing into steep, sharp waves is no fun and we were only making between half and one knot. So we tacked off and used up some of the space we had created between us and that rhumb line. Luckily the storm lasted only four hours before the wind came back in a favourable direction and we made our way to the Salomon Atoll within the BIOT group with no further problems. Susie had her birthday coming up and one of her requests was for a yellowfin tuna so it was with a bit of relief that Tom succeeded in catching one en-route and could tick it off the present request list!

Morning beach walk

Morning beach walk

Approaching the Salomon Atoll yachts already inside made contact and were ready for our arrival. The atoll is littered with large coral heads commonly known as bommies. The BIOT officials have designated certain areas in which yachts can anchor or moor. Where we were to be based you have to put an anchor chain around a bommie, secure it and take ropes from that chain back to your boat. Over the years yachts have left chains so ideally you take one of the existing chains. The four yachts already there had kindly scouted around in advance of our arrival and found two more such moorings and a suitable bommie for a new chain. Having done this type of mooring before we agreed to take the new bommie.

A large welcoming committee of dinghies greeted us and it was nice to finally see everyone. For the men, this was play time. All hands were more than willing to help us get moored. We tied to one of the existing moorings to sit and make plans how we’d set up the new one. Boys will always be boys, the toys just get a little bigger with age! Unfortunately our designated bommie was rather large and our spare anchor chain was too short to go around the whole bommie. The dinghies gathered for a meeting and there was scratching of grey matter. It was agreed we should use our primary anchor chain. But that has a big anchor on it and detaching that would be a bit of an exercise. More scratching of brains. We concluded we’d drop the anchor near the bommie, steer the boat around the bommie completing a circle and shackle the chain to where it started going around the bommie, forming a secure loop. It was agreed Bill from Camomile would dive and shackle the anchor while Norman from Norsa would be on the surface and direct Adina.

Adina works her way to Boddam Island

Adina works her way to Boddam Island

Off we set, dropping the anchor while Norman floated on the surface with mask and snorkel looking down at the bommie, directing us. A little bit of chain down, steer a little bit to port, a little bit more chain down, steer a little to starboard and so on. Dinghies were on standby to nudge the bow if help was needed. The bommie was twelve metres down and needed about twenty-five metres of chain to go around it. At one stage Susie shouted out that we had put down forty metres of chain. What the heck was going on? Seventy metres of chain later, clever old Norman actually steered us twice around the bommie to make sure we were really secure. Bill dived down, shackled the chain together and the job was done. Splendid!

With one other yacht, Tin Tin, arriving that day as well a pot luck dinner was held ashore at the “yacht club” in the evening. The island is uninhabited but there are various ruins left behind from when the Chagossians once lived here. Over the years the yachts have turned the one building minus roof into a yacht club of sorts. Many have left behind flags and there is even a guestbook sealed in a waterproof bag. A pot luck dinner simply means everyone brings along something to eat and you all share. A fire is lit and you enjoy each other’s company. At some stage of the night, after dark, the coconut crabs came out. These creatures are found in many parts of the Pacific but we’d never seen so many. You literally had to watch your feet. With large claws you don’t want your toe nipped! Other creatures of the night included some small furry friends which would have the ladies shrieking.

The next morning the boys all gathered in dinghies again to welcome the final yacht, Inspiration Lady, and make her secure. It really was quite funny as we’d all sit there hatching plans, volunteering to do the diving, bantering away, requests for coffee being made to the ladies remaining on the yachts – nothing short of an episode of ‘The Last of Summer Wine’.

Susie and Sue and the cake Sue so kindly made.

Susie and Sue and the cake Sue so kindly made.

Not many people get to celebrate their birthday in BIOT and come 26th May Susie was one of them. A bottle of bubbles was found lurking in the bilges and we scooted off in the dinghy to one of the other islands in the atoll for a champagne breakfast. With no people allowed the islands are now overgrown and it is fascinating to see their raw natural form. The Salomon Atoll is beautiful, the beaches are white, the water in many parts crystal clear. Animals and fish not used to human interaction are not scared of us. The presence of black-tip sharks meant you needed to keep your eyes open. We enjoyed exploring and snorkelled happily. Back on board Susie had a chat with her parents thanks to the wonders of our satellite phone. Then come nightfall it was time for a birthday celebration. We decorated the yacht club with balloons and the girls on the boats went to town cooking up a feast and turned up all looking lovely. Sue on Camomile cooked Susie a wonderful chocolate cake and others made deserts. A few sparklers, a few small fireworks and singing of happy birthday, it was indeed a memorable birthday in a very unique place and our thanks to everyone for making it so.

The days wore on, doing jobs, swimming and meeting in the evenings. With no wind to sail to the Seychelles and fuel being used up on generators the other yachts who had been here for three weeks already were getting nervous as their four week permits ticked away. VHF radios were dominated by talk of the weather. Amongst all this a spotter plane flew over. We had just moved Adina to another mooring as one yacht had left for Rodrigues when our VHF came to life with the pilot wanting to talk to us. That was a first! We read out all the boat names and he seemed to have a list to check them to, all very friendly, wished us well, and flew back. It added to the fun of the day.

Finally a hint of wind came and the three yachts could safely depart and are now out sailing to the Seychelles. Or should we say with the weather we have here at the moment sometimes sailing, sometimes drifting. This time of the year the south easterlies should be setting in by now but they are being reluctant and it looks like we might be doing the same.

Exploring by dinghy

Exploring by dinghy

With just two yachts left, Adina and Tin Tin, a real calm descended on this magical place. We decided to take the dinghy and make a ten nautical mile exploration of the little islands around the atoll. There are certain days you enjoy so much that all of the effort that goes into sailing a boat around the world is justified; this was one of those days. The islands were wild, completely unspoilt, the water crystal clear. While not bird spotters, we enjoyed seeing all the birds and most seemed completely unfazed by these alien creatures visiting them. White terns, grey terns, frigate birds and our favourite red-footed boobies. One tree had about twenty boobies sat on nests from where they simply kept a beady eye on us as we walked by. The shallow waters were so clear we could see small batfish and even a hawksbill turtle swimming along. The coconut trees and white sandy beaches made for the perfect paradise we all dream about. In the dingy we dodged reef and paddled to get ashore on the different islands. On another island there were lots of sally lightfoot crabs we’d last seen in the Galapagos. They darted away from us and then much to our surprise and horror white snowflake moray eels sprung out to catch them and eat them – one eel even came out of the water onto the reef to try catch one! Sorry about that crabs. Spotting colourful reef in the water, we’d stop the dinghy and jump in and snorkel. Enjoying lunch on a sandy beach with the water lapping on the shore was bliss. On our way home, just to make sure we’d really enjoyed our day, nature sent along a pod of dolphins to chase the dinghy.

The spotter plane who we assume is out there protecting these waters from illegal fishing activity flies over regularly. They swoop in low and we have a quick chat. In fact it’s something we all look forward to as it’s one of our few contacts with the outside world. And we now know they’ve found our blog so a special shout out to ‘Direct Four’, keep up the good work you are doing and could you please airdrop some fresh eggs and a few packets of bacon?

The island we all called 'Susies birthday island'

The island we all called ‘Susies birthday island’

You just can’t tire of waking up, looking out behind the boat, the sun lighting up the white beach and making the green of the coconut trees that much brighter and greener. You gaze overboard into clear water and the fish are looking up hoping you’ll give them a treat. At some stage a blacktip shark or two will wander by. Evenings are spent around the campfire cooking your dinner. These are the things we wanted from this trip. For us it’s been a real treat, in fact a blessing, to have been able to visit such a beautiful unspoilt part of this planet.

So now we sit and wait for the winds to blow so we can safely sail on. It’s just over one thousand nautical miles to the Seychelles. We will have to sail, we don’t have enough fuel, so it’s bound to be a game of ducking and diving to find wind. Who knows how long it will take us. A good run would be nine days but it’s bound to be a few days more. Adina is ready, meals are cooked, time to set sail, more adventure awaits, friends and family are coming to visit. Whoop whoop!

** The photographs here just don’t do this magical place justice so here are a few more – click here

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5 responses to “Transition season in BIOT

  1. Gareth says:

    Good to hear from you.

    Which of the Last of the Summer Wine characters is Tom?

  2. Ian Culley says:

    ….haven’t been in touch for a while. Fascinating to catch up on your stories; hope to read more when you reach the Seychelles. Bon voyage!!

    Ian Culley

  3. Mike says:

    …and if that wasn’t the most awesome birthday’s to beat all birthdays then you have certainly taken on a challenge young Thomas. What a magnificent way to celebrate?

  4. Mike from NZ says:

    Mmmmmmm yellow fin tuna! You did very well young Tom. One of the most delectable morsels from the deep. Excellent sushi and to die for when ‘cooked’ in lemon or lime juice.