All photos by Tim Burgess
In many ways the last trip started over 10 years ago. I was sitting in a pub on the SW corner of Vancouver Island near the Juan De Fuca Straits with a guy who’d just completed a circumnavigation. It was the spring of 1999 and other than commercial fishing in the Bearing Sea I’d never been offshore and had no idea how it all worked. This guy’s stories of adventure kept me rapt for hours and I furiously scribbled notes about all the places he reckoned were “must sees”. One in particular seemed more enticing and yet elusive than any other. Chagos. I’d never heard of it and remember pulling out a map later that night just to make sure it was real.
Since that fateful day I’ve dreamed of seeing Chagos and in many ways built our entire 5 year itinerary around visiting the remote archipelago. On Discovery and our last boat Saoirse we’ve racked up well over 120,000 miles, crossed the equator 8 times, visited dozens and dozens of countries, but Chagos remained forever on the horizon. Until this year. Many moons ago I planned our Chagos visit as part of a 30 day trip, twice as long as our longest trip to date. I carefully selected a group of people I knew would get on well and filed all our paperwork for a permit to visit with months to spare. It’s a long painful story, but our permit was denied by the BIOT (British Indian Ocean Territory) office. We were never given a reason.
We now had a 30 day trip on the books with no where to go. Between the Maldives, where we were to start, and Reunion, where we were to end there is only Chagos and a lot of ocean. Seychelles? Pirates have sequestered two boats there in the past few months, one British couple remains in custody and has been treated terribly. Mauritius? Too touristy, too easy to do by land. I got on Google Earth and noted the faintest hint of land some 300 miles north of Mauritius. It even had a name- Cargados Shoals. I did endless searches on Google and came up with next to nothing. But on the charts it looked promising. Other than a coast guard station it was uninhabited. The shoals stretched nearly 60 miles north to south, was inundated with sand cays, totally uncharted on the eastern edge, and had an inner lagoon that at least from space looked pretty incredible. To Cargados we would go!
But it would not be easy. The day before the trip started I lost two very important pieces of this mad puzzle that keeps us going. Our first mate Mikey got the sad news from his family that his mom’s cancer was getting worse and they needed him to come home to Pohnpei. I was now looking at running a 30 day trip with no First Mate. Then we lost the sail drive (like a transmission) to the port engine. It had been acting up for a few weeks and finally bit the dust. No first mate, no port engine. Trip starting in 12 hours. Super.
Thankfully the incoming group- Jim Sorensen, Tanya Burgess, Moria Reynolds, and Bruce Marks were understanding and patient with our dilemma. Thus began nearly 10 days of well…hell, at least for me. We spent two days in port ripping the sail drive apart with the help of a couple mechanics who thankfully could stand the heat better than I could. The guests did fantastically well to give us space and enjoy the local snorkeling and put zero pressure on me, but the stress in these situations is like a heavy blanket you can’t escape. Boats break all the time, everyone knows this, but I always feel personally responsible when things don’t go right. I take great pride in what we offer, the joy that our trips bring to people. Sitting in port broken down is not what you come to the Maldives to do.
It came to pass that a quick fix was not in the cards. Some of the parts were tracked down in Athens, others in Portland Oregon. I got Jody’s brother Kenny, an airplane mechanic in Alaska to jump on a plane to bring us the parts from the US personally. And Tim Burgess, who I told via email could have the First Mate job if he could get to the Maldives before we departed was in the midst of his own personal travel nightmare due to the ash cloud spewing from Iceland. His route to the boat; by car, ferry, train, bus, taxi, plane, walking and cajoling took 7 days and traversed 7 countries. One of them happened to be Greece, where he fortuitously grabbed the one critical part needed for the repair.
While waiting for the parts to arrive we spent three days exploring the south end of Huvadhoo atoll minus one engine. A bit tricky with a catamaran, but getting out of port was needed relief and worth the risk. Wicked swimming ensued- several incredible dolphin encounters, and of course colorful corals and lots of fish, a staple in the Maldives. The diversion helped greatly reduce my own stress level. Back to port to pick up Kenny and rather than attempt the repair in Huvadhoo we decided to save time by motoring 50 miles by night south across the equator (where we jumped off the boat at 2 am to swim across!) to the southern tip of the Maldives, Addu atoll where Tim would be flying in and we’d be clearing out. Clearing out of a country is typically a relatively simple affair, which consists of getting passports stamped and some paperwork. In the Maldives this process is usually helped via an agent.
Our agent, who was based back in Male had worked wonders for us during our stay. But for two weeks I’d been trying to reach him via phone, text, and email without success. He had promised to meet us in Addu on the 23rd of April to clear us out. We arrived that morning right on time, but still no word from the agent. I contacted another agent in hopes that he could help us out, as these matters cannot be handled privately. 6 days, and an expensive flight back to Male was what it eventually took to get clearance. I still don’t know what happened but I can tell you it was a near-disaster. The customs and immigration officials in Male thought a criminal investigation would ensue against our agent, but I was just happy to finally be given the green light to leave. Those days in Addu were bleak for me, but there were some incredible things cued up for the guests. While waiting for something to happen one day we got everyone up in the air for a stunning paragliding flight over the lagoon- Bruce and Kenny flew solo, and the others I took on tandem. On the flight with Jim we spotted three big manta rays who tamely stayed put the next day for an up close and personal encounter for the guests.
At sunset on the 28th we finally headed SW. 1200 miles to Cargados, the course taking us just to the west of Chagos, which would remain elusive. Within minutes of clearing the southern pass of Addu the nearly two weeks of toil and stress was stripped from my body like shaving lotion. Being on the open sea is the best medicine and for me a necessary healing tonic. One of the items I’d had on my list all week was “QUIT JOB!”. I think I have well-documented the troubles and strife we’ve experienced this year (mostly due to visa/customs/immigration bureaucracy) and these last days in the Maldives just about broke me. But as I gathered everyone around for a safety brief and felt the warmth in their smiles, their ease matched closely by my own I realized that hard and true lesson that without the bad you can never have the good, and good it would be from that point forward.
The passage went fast. Good wind struck late on the 2nd day and stayed true nearly until we reached Reunion nearly 3 weeks later. We covered the 1200 miles in under 6 days and had to reef the boat way down 100 miles out to slow her to arrive in daylight early on the 3rd of May. Other than Jim catching some very tasty pelagics the trip was delightfully uneventful. Bobby continued to blow everyone away with his culinary creations and no one struggled with sea sickness. And with 8 people on board the watch schedule was pretty ridiculous- just one 2 or 3 hour watch every 24 hours!
Ok so I can’t compare Cargados to Chagos as I haven’t been to the latter, but Cargados is easily one of the best places we’ve been on the expedition. Firstly, the winds stayed pegged near 20 knots night and day for our entire stay of 10 days. I thought the chances for kiting in Cargados this early in the season would be marginal, but in fact the conditions were as good for wind as they were in the Marshalls last year.
We kited, and kited and then kept kiting. We got the speed wing out so Bruce and Kenny could see the place from the air; Jim, aka “Fish” took to the water at every opportunity; Tanya easily grabbed the most improved kiting spot; and Kenny, Tim and Jim all got up and riding in no time for their first experience of kite surfing. Meanwhile Moria kept us incessantly entertained with her boundless and bewitching tales – fiction and non-fiction alike! The highlights were many. Beautiful lagoon, perfect flat water riding, incredible bird life, good waves,…and then we went to the south end.
Once in a while we stumble upon something truly extraordinary completely by luck. The south end of Cargados was just such a stumble. With just three days left in Cargados we rounded the southern tip of the shoal and Bruce and I made eye contact that said it all. We anchored Discovery as quickly as possible and raced to get in the water. Bruce and I rode til sunset on a pure, gorgeous left-hander that ranks in the top 3 of the expedition. The corner of the reef was a bit over-alive with big swimming things which made staying on your board quite important for your peace of mind. On one sluggish jibe I sat back in the water a bit right onto the head of a massive sea turtle. After free diving that morning with Jim in which he was pursued quite aggressively by three largish Silver Tip sharks, having a turtle’s head up my backside nearly gave me a heart attack.
On the evening of our departure Bruce and I pushed well close to full dark on the water, knowing this could be our last shot at the break, which we’d named “Silver Tip”. I’d anchored Discovery quite close to the reef, planning on moving into the lagoon where we’d found a much calmer spot to spend the night. But the anchor was completely jammed under a rock shelf and we could not pull it up. Current in excess of 3 knots made free diving on it impossible. Much discussion about options ensued, and finally Bruce went down with scuba gear and returned quickly to say we were buggered. Nothing could be done, at least not safely until morning. As usual the group cheerfully went with the flow and thankfully the wind kept us off the reef all night (a bit of a sleepless one for me!).
The trip to Reunion was a painful reminder of what offshore sailing can sometimes be. Our ESE wind, which had been as regular as clockwork and would have carried us perfectly to Reunion died a few hours after our departure. We still had plenty of fuel remaining to push on without wind, which we did for the next 24 hours. Then things got nasty. First the wind swung further and further south until it was right on the nose. Then it built to 20 knots and with Mauritius in sight the seas got steep and very confused. We only had 100 miles to go, but as our speed went from 8, to 7, to 6, to 5 and eventually 4 or less knots it was clear the 100 miles were going to take awhile. I was up all night and we must have tacked 6 times, trying to get the constantly changing wind to help us out. Discovery was taking a beating, as were her passengers. Still no one got sick (or…very sick anyway) or complained and Moria kept the energy positive with such topics as electrons, bacteria, birds of prey…and Bobby just kept charging away. Fresh fruit and fresh veg after 3 weeks? How does he do it?
Reunion is a radical and welcome change from the hot flat atolls that have made up our scenery for the past few months. Her peaks soar over 3,000 meters, the interior lush and steep like the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Smart French cafes dot the coast. In one day you can easily surf wicked waves, paraglide from 1500 meters and land on the beach, and kitesurf til sunset. The water is still warm, but the air temps are perfect. On the last day of the trip we rented a van and headed into the interior where we ogled the fantasy-like vistas and tried to get used to wearing shoes. As the guests peeled away one by one for destinations far away I don’t think any of us had Chagos on the mind. It took some work to get there, but Cargados paid us back in spades.
“Never look back unless you are planning to go that way.” — Henry David Thoreau