June 2, 2010 Letter to Family and Friends
Dear Family and Friends,
Go back in time some twenty thousand years to the end of the last Ice Age and you see the atolls of the Chagos Archipelago thrusting out of the sea much higher than they are today. Over the years a rising sea covered more and more of the land, possibly all of it. Only 6,000 years ago did the sea levels drop a little so that the islands of the atolls could peak their heads above water again and these beautiful green isles surrounded by fine white coral sand beaches and coral reefs emerged. This is a young land with no indigenous people, but it is a land teeming with life-birds, fish, rays, turtles, and crabs. The Portuguese were the first discovers, followed by the English and French. Eventually the British won possession and these iles became the British Indian Ocean Territory. There were coconut plantations here in the 1800 and 1900’s but that stopped when the British leased one of the atolls, Diego Garcia, to the US to be used as a military base. This happened in the mid- 1960’s and as part of the agreement, the US insisted that all inhabitants in the islands be removed. So by 1973, the islands were once again growing wild with no humans except the visiting scientists and cruisers. It is truly a little paradise and we are so glad that we decided to spend two months here. But we can’t believe the two months have passed so quickly. We arrived on April 2 and will be leaving tomorrow on June 3. Our next destination is Madagascar. The passage is 1500 miles and it has the potential of being a windy one. But with or without wind, by mid-June we should be anchored on the northwest coast of Madagascar. We hope to stay there for three months before heading south through the Mozambique Channel to South Africa. So much ahead of us . . .
But now back to Chagos. How have we spent our two months here? Basically our time has been spent doing the things you do at home like cooking, cleaning, and maintenance. The only difference is that we are in a drop-dead gorgeous place to do these things. We have to work at catching rain water to supplement what we can make with our little watermaker or we go to land to get water out of the wells. This is not drinking water, but it can be used for laundry, dish washing, and showers. Mark has spent hours with Ed taking the dinghy outside the atoll to fish so we have had a good supply of Yellowfin Tuna, Wahoo, and Bonito while here. The sea became our supermarket. Fishing outside in a dinghy is a rough sport. You have to go about 15 miles an hour in order to catch the fish, so just imagine doing that in a little rubber dinghy on seas that are never totally calm. Mark does a great interpretation of the experience, but he really has become a fisherman. In addition to fishing, we go snorkeling as often as possible and we have truly enjoyed our walks around and through the islands exploring the plants and animals that live here.
There are a few animals that are found only in Chagos. The Chagos clownfish (Amphiprion chagosensis) are here and entice us into the water as they are fascinating to watch. A particular brain coral, Ctenella chagius, is also found only in Chagos. We think we have identified it, but it is most difficult to make positive identification of coral by just looking at it. If what we are seeing is Ctenella chagius it is the most perfectly round brain coral we have ever seen. We have seen and photographed one of the two endemic butterflies and have spent untold hours walking on the islands identifying the plants that are here. In the air and roosting in the trees on the islands are Red-footed Boobies, frigate birds, and a variety of terns, our favorite being the delicate and beautiful snow white Fairy Terns. Then there are the crabs. The most abundant are the hermit crabs that wear abandoned shells. These shells scurry here, there, and everywhere on the islands, climbing the bushes and scurrying over your toes. There is hardly a shell to be found here that is not alive or lived in by a hermit crab. The coconut tree (Cocos nucifera) is king of the plant community here and the coconut crabs (Birgus latro) are king of the land animals. They are related to the hermits and have borrowed the trait of living in empty shells until they are big enough to provide their own protection. Coconut crabs are giants that can be twenty inches long including their powerful claws. Their natural shells are usually a color combination of black, shades of brown, with a tad of red thrown in. But the really large ones are a beautiful blue. They live entirely on land and can be seen tucked away in every little hidey hole on the islands. Our favorite beach crab is one we call the pirate crab. This one is light yellowish-green in color, has a body about two inches across, has eyes on stalks that stick straight up and a hollow space by each eye, one that looks darker than the other giving the appearance of a pirate with an eye patch saying, “Aaargh, Matey.”
We have had wonderful outings exploring the reef flats at spring low tides following the full and new moons. On the seaward side of the islands, the reef flats extend out almost a quarter of a mile with very little coral growing on the flats. But there is a rock-hard pink algae that grows on the flats. It is this plant that looks like pinkish-red rocks that repels the constant onslaught of the sea and keeps the islands in place. The flats support a great deal of life. Turtles, triggerfish, puffers, small moray eels, sea cucumbers, and various sponges live in the shallow waters. On the lagoon side the reef flat slopes quickly and supports the growth of huge coral bommies. This is where we snorkel among the colorful reef fish and coral. Sometimes there are turtles, sometimes Eagle Rays, but always there are parrotfish that come in every color and size that you can image, loads of powderblues, a type of surgeonfish, lots of yellow, white, and black butterflyfish, and beautiful blue and yellow Regal and Emperor Angelfish the size of large dinner plates. There are often moray eels sticking their heads out of cracks and crevices trying to scare us and lurking on the bottom are huge grouper with their big, ugly mouths. There are white fish, red fish,, yellow fish, black fish, brown fish, orange fish, and fish in every possible shade of blue. There are fish decorated in shades of purple, striped fish, polka-dotted fish . . . you name it, it is here.
We are having a very hard time thinking about leaving all of this behind, but it is time to move on as we have miles, literally thousands of miles, to go. We miss our grandbabies so very much so we are on the way home going as fast as the weather will allow us to travel. But we can’t round the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa until December or January, so we will spend three months in Madagascar and then head to a place called Richards Bay in on the northwest coast of South Africa. From there we will visit the game reserves and wait for the weather to be just right to head on south. By March of next year we should be in Brazil, but even from there it is another 3,000 miles to south Florida. So we have many miles and many adventures ahead of us.
We would love to hear from you. We miss family and friends so much and hearing the details of how your lives are going helps us feel connected. But if you do reply, please remember that we are bandwidth impaired. We cannot receive attachments and make sure that you delete our message if you hit the reply button. Whether you are family, friend, or fellow cruiser, we miss you.
Mark and Judy
Day 219, Year 5: Last Day in Chagos
Date: Wednesday, June 2, 2010
Weather: Beautiful Day, SE Winds 10 Knots
Location: Ile Fouquet, Salomon Atoll, Chagos
This is it. It is time to exit paradise. We are having a very hard time thinking about pulling ourselves away from here but our permit expires at midnight and we plan to leave by 10 am. The Pacific Marlin came in tonight, so I am sure they will be coming into the anchorage tomorrow morning to make sure we are on our way. We are bummed that we missed both of the wonderful barbecues that they have for cruisers, but that was not in the picture for us. But everything else about our visit here has been perfect, so no complaints.
We did our farewell round late this afternoon. The boats in this anchorage have become our Chagos family. Whether we have known the cruisers for three weeks or three days, we bond and feel we have known each other for a very long time. Mr. Curley and Susan Margaret are headed back to Southeast Asia, so more than likely we will not be seeing them again. Kea, Galateia, and Ventana we will probably see in Madagascar in September or later in South Africa. Aries Tor is still conflicted about which way to go. Last night they thought they were headed to Madagascar and then on to South Africa, but this morning a South African on the net strongly encouraged them not to approach the South African coast without an engine. So now they are thinking they might return to Southeast Asia or possibly head south to Mauritius and get repairs done there. If they do that, they could still be in Madagascar by September. We wish them the best in whatever decision they finally make.
We our going to miss the underwater world here, the land treks, the Brown Noddy Terns that have roosted on our bow even though they have made another mess after our clean-up yesterday, and we will miss the people we have met. But as always, we will move on and enjoy the adventures ahead.
Day 218, Year 5: Cue the Manta Rays
Date: Tuesday, June 1, 2010
Weather: Squally Night, Cloudy Day, Variable SE Winds
Location: Ile Fouquet, Salomon Atoll, Chagos
Just last night as we sat on Constance having sundowners with Ed and Lynne and Wolfgang of Galateia, I was bemoaning the fact that I have not gotten to swim with manta rays in our voyage around the world. Wolfgang swam with three of them around his boat a couple of days ago and I have to admit I was a bit jealous. This morning it was just like in the movies. It was as if the director said, “Cue the mantas,” and they appeared around Windbird. We watched them from the boat as they glided gracefully through the water. They are huge and yet just a little rise and fall of the tip of their fins propels them. They move fast and at first we thought we’d never be able to get in the water quick enough to swim with them, but then they came back again. So we jumped in and got to swim with one big guy for a short time. It was incredible. The mouth of this manta was so huge that we felt that we could be sucked right in, so it was a bit intimidating at first. But we got used to each other quickly and enjoyed the special time. I guess my Chagos experience is now complete. I have gotten to swim with dolphins, eagle rays, manta rays, and turtles and some of the most beautiful reef fish in the world. What a wonderful life.
We have only 36 hours until departure. Due to the weather, we have decided to leave on Thursday morning instead of tomorrow. We are waiting for a front to pass and then for the seas to settle down. We are also waiting for everything to dry out after last night’s rains. You don’t want to take things down to store away when they are damp. This morning I used the buckets of rain water that collected in the dinghy to do laundry and I baked and cooked all day getting ready for passage. Tomorrow should be fairly relaxed and hopefully we will have time for one last snorkel.
Last night was windy and rainy and we had one boat drag anchor. Kate and Rob of Aires Tor had come up from Boddam yesterday and on the way their transmission started giving them problems. They had to sail into the anchorage and didn’t have the usual maneuverability that a motor affords. The spot where they put the anchor down was not perfect as it was on a slope and during the night the 35 knot winds caused them to drag. Rob had the anchor alarm on and was up immediately to deal with the situation, but it was a long, wet night doing watch on Aires Tor. Kate and Rob are the youngest sailors out here. In fact, they are the youngest couple we have met in our travels. Our hearts went out to them today as they came to the realization that their transmission is not going to work. They struggled with the decision of what to do-go back to Phuket to get things fixed or travel on to South Africa. They have made the decision to travel on to Madagascar and only enter easy in and out anchorages. From there they will head on south to Richards Bay in South Africa to start their repairs. We invited them over for dinner tonight and had a wonderful evening with them. Rob is such a thoughtful young man and both he and Kate have such positive attitudes. They are planning to leave around the same time as Windbird and Constance and we will stay in radio contact. Susan Margaret has stuck with their decision to head for Southeast Asia instead of Madagascar and South Africa, so it looks like Constance, Aires Tor, and Far Niente (already there) will be our ‘neighbors’ while we are in Madagascar.
Day 217, Year 5: Countdown Begins
Date: Monday, May 31, 2010
Weather: Partly Sunny with Frequent Squalls, SE Winds 10-20
Location: Ile Fouquet, Salomon Atoll, Chagos
Our Chagos experience is coming to an end and it is going to be hard to let go. Arriving in these uninhabited atolls in the middle of the Indian Ocean and spending two months living amongst the beauty is just a very special experience. Mark has become a fisherman and I have time to explore the islands and look at every plant and animal that lives here. Madagascar will be a very different but equally special experience and we feel so lucky to be able to be doing what we are doing. I write these logs every day to try and capture the day to day experiences, but summarizing our experience here is much harder. It is difficult to describe the peaceful existence here in words. I have been trying to write a May letter to family and friends summarizing our time here, but I’m afraid it is going to be a June letter as my May time has run out. Maybe tomorrow.
We have gotten more good news about traveling to Madagascar. John and Sue on Susan Margaret emailed a friend who works at the Madagascar Embassy in Dubai and got an all-clear message for tourist headed to the northwest part of the country. So we are feeling confident that we can proceed. Now it is just a matter of getting all of the things done that need to be done before a passage. We will leave on Wednesday or Thursday, depending on readiness and weather, so we are either in 32 or 56 hour countdown. Whichever, tomorrow will be another busy day. I spent my day today cleaning the dinghy, making granola, making chili to put in the fridge for the passage, and repotting and planting new pots of basil and arugula. Mark has filled leaky seams in the teak deck with epoxy, glued soles back on sandals that have fallen apart, took the mattress off our bed so he could work on a variety of tasks in that underworld. He worked on finding a better way to ground our high-frequency radio, aligned our wheel to the position of the rudder, and then repacked all the things that are stored under our bed. It doesn’t sound like much, but it was a full day and we have more of the same for tomorrow. The weather was not good for fun activities today, but hopefully tomorrow the sun will come out and we can do one last snorkel and one last walk. Of course, if we do not leave on Wednesday, then we can do one more.
We have had the most unbelievable thing happening around our boat for the past two days. Small Bonito (a type of tuna) arrived here yesterday morning and they race around and under our boat all day long. They look like little rainbows flying through the water herding the thousands of tiny little fish that hang out here. The Bonito literally herd the little fish to the surface and that brings the Brown Noddy Terns who dive and catch the little fish. For the past month, we have had seven Brown Noddies living on our boat hook that we have tied to the front of the boat like a very long bowsprit. But now we have over twenty residents and they are once again roosting on our bow pulpit and leaving their nice little droppings on our deck. But until the tuna leave, the birds are not going to budge. And the whole experience is just too interesting to disrupt. So we’ll be cleaning the deck in route to Madagascar. For now, we will keep watching this fascinating fish and bird show.
Day 216, Year 5: Good News About Madagascar
Date: Sunday, May 30, 2010
Weather: Partly Cloudy, SE Winds 10-12
Location: Ile Fouquet, Salomon Atoll, Chagos
Love that email. Day before yesterday we got an email from sailing friends Nepenthe warning us of a pirate attack near Madagascar and of trouble there. There were no specifics, but this set off a series of inquiries. We emailed our son-in-law, he searched the internet and sent specifics, and then we emailed other contacts seeking additional information. Late today we heard back from Captain Tom Hastings, US Coast Guard, in the Maritime Liason Office in Bahrain. I emailed him yesterday outlining our entire sailing plan from here to Madagascar and from there to South Africa. He emailed back today saying that our outlined route is the best way for a sailing yacht to navigate the Indian Ocean at this time and did not warn us not to go that way. Late last year, he was the same person who warned us against going through the Red Sea. He outlined for us the current pirate activity in the Indian Ocean and included an article about Somali pirates hiding out near the coast of Tanzania, but basically his email indicated that we will be fine if we just stay close to the Madagascar coast. The second bit of good news didn’t come from email but by satellite phone. I had contact information on John Sheppard, owner/manager of Sakatia Towers, a small hotel that welcomes yachties on a tiny island near the only town on the northwest coast of Madagascar. We had called him before to see if we could have mail sent there and today Ed and Lynne called him on their satellite phone to ask about the political situation on the northwest coast. Evidently none of the political unrest, looting, and increased theft that is happening in the center of Madagascar is happening in the area where we plan to travel, so based on those two responses our plans to sail to Madagascar are back on. We spent most of the afternoon talking with Ed and Lynne of Constance and John and Sue of Susan Margaret about changing our plans. Susan Margaret made the decision to head to Southeast Asia instead of traveling on this year and Ed and Lynne and ourselves were seriously considering heading to Mauritius, but after our gathering the phone call was made and the email came in and we went back to plan A. So until we get further information that could convince us otherwise, Madagascar, here we come.
Early this morning I was a little down about the possibility of not being able to go to Madagascar and then received our email and I got really sad. Heather sent a photo of Sam and one of Jonah as attachments and they came through on our Winlink. The photos have to be greatly reduced and only one photo to an email, but they do come through. At first I was elated to see the latest photos of these guys, but then I got incredibly sad as Jonah is not a baby anymore. He was standing in the yard with a Boston Red Sox hat looking just as cute as he could be. He was just over three months old and very much a baby the last time we saw him and it will be almost a year from now when we will see him again. Sam looked a little sad in his photo and I decided that is because he misses us. So that made me even sadder. I was still wiping the tears away when we got in the dinghy to go on a low tide reef walk. By the time we got back, I was okay, but it is so hard to be so far away. Justin and Jo, if you are reading this, please send us a photo of Ziggy. Just reduce the photo to less than 50 kb’s.
Tomorrow and Tuesday we will spend getting ready for take-off and then on Wednesday or Thursday, weathering dependent, we will start our 1500 mile trek to Madagascar. It will probably take us two weeks to get there, and “there” is the northern tip. We will then spend time working our way down to Nosy Be where we check-in and where we will meet John Sheppard at Sakatia Towers. He has been so helpful via phone, so we look forward to meeting him in person.
Day 215, Year 5: Ups and Downs of the Cruising Life
Date: Saturday, May 29, 2010
Weather: Beautiful Day, SE Winds 10 (not as high as expected)
Location: Ile Fouquet, Salomon Atoll, Chagos
The “up” today was another early morning snorkel on the bommies between the isles of Takamaka and Fouquet. Ed and Lynne went with us today and it was again just magic. And this time we got to swim with the Eagle Rays. They are so beautiful and graceful. And although the Chagos clownfish do not look just like Nemo, I have fallen in love with them and can’t get enough of hovering over the anemones and watching these little yellowish-orange fish with two bright white bands around them poke their heads out to also look at me. Once the current started running again, we left the cut and went to the south end of Fouquet to snorkel there off the camp area. I saw the world’s tiniest little butterfly fish, the largest giant clam we have seen this year, and a huge group of roving parrotfish that let me snorkel right along with them. The coral was interesting and Ed and Lynne saw some beautiful, large live cowries. So it was a beautiful morning. But before going out to snorkel we checked our email and the news there was not so good. This was the “down” of the day. We received an email yesterday from Jim and Carole of Nepenthe who have been stuck in Mayotte in the Comoros due to boat problems. When they checked out two days ago, they were told by the officials that there had been a pirate attack on a Spanish fishing boat about 70 nautical miles east of Mayotte and 90 nautical miles from Madagascar in the northern part of the Canal of Mozambique. This is further south than other attacks to date and a little too close for comfort. There is no confirmation that this was a Somali pirate attack so we are contacting officials at UKMTO (UK Maritime Trade Organization) in Dubai, MSCHOA (24-hour piracy watch but not sure what the initials stand for), and MARLO, the Maritime Liaison Office in Bahrain for US flagged vessels in this part of the world. Jed sent us all the contact information for these organizations and he also sent an update from the UK Foreign Office about the current state of political instability in Madagascar. Unfortunately the US
State Department doesn’t seem to have such information for public view. Basically, after the coup in Madagascar last year, things have continued to deteriorate and tourists have to be extremely careful. So Madagascar got two strikes this morning. We will gather more information before making a final decision on where we go next, but our hope is still to head to Madagascar. The alternative is to head south to Rodrigues, Mauritius, and Reunion and hang out there until September when we could sail north to Madagascar if things have settled down. This has always been a back-up plan, so we will just keep gathering information and make a decision on direction between now and Wednesday morning. That is our projected departure date. But at this point, everything is flexible. We will weigh the information and make a decision by Tuesday. We’ll keep you posted. And we really want to send a special thanks Jed for all the research he is doing for us. He is our connection to the internet. Thanks, Jed.