An expedition to the Chagos Archipelago

It all started in February this year when my wife, Anita, went to the restaurant at False Bay Yacht Club to escape the insanity that surrounds living and working on an incomplete yacht.

We had rushed to launch Jerrican in December 2013 or face having to rent a house ashore for the festive season, and that didn’t fit our financial plans at all! When I say she was incomplete, it was probably an understatement. There was no plumbing for instance, the cupboards had no doors, there were no floors to speak of, just a monstrous yellow engine in the middle of where the saloon floor should be! Not exactly a dreamboat!

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I had been working with a few sub-contractors since early January to pull the whole project together so that we could start our planned cruise to St Helena and beyond with the Governor’s Cup race in December 2014. This gave us plenty of time to get her completed and do some serious shakedown sails.

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What does this have to do with a visit to Neptune’s Restaurant? While there, immersed in Facebook and cappuccinos, she heard a rather distinguished and ‘proper’ British accent. These are not nearly as commonplace in Simon’s Town as one might think and so she looked up to find a bearded and sunburnt face asking her if she might watch his laptop while he went to the Gents.

The face belonged to Stewart McPherson who had just recently returned from a voyage to Tristan da Cunha and Gough Islands on board a Roberts 45, Supreme Lady, belonging to another FBYC member. As Anita discovered they had chartered Supreme Lady to take Stewart and a cameraman to Tristan as there was no other way to get there for the next two years! As she chatted to Stewart, she learnt that he is, amongst other things, a film producer and was coming to the end of a three year project to film all the British offshore territories and to tell the story of the islands that are the ‘jewels in the crown’ of the UK.

He had been as far as the Caribbean, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans filming everywhere from South Georgia to Pitcairn and now had only one more possession to film, the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately, with the way the Tristan trip had run over in time, he had now missed his only way of getting to Chagos. The yacht that had been arranged could not wait any longer.

Anita has always been one to see solutions where other people see problems so she immediately suggested that Stewart come and have a look at Jerrican, as she was sure I wouldn’t mind a shakedown cruise to the Indian Ocean in a few months time! To be fair, we had discussed going for a sail to Mauritius once.

I was working away on board when I was hailed by Anita to say we had guests for tea. She dragged Stewart on board and introduced us and showed him our ‘work in progress’. It is testimony to either Stewart’s foresight, desperation or to the result of Simon’s Town’s hospitality the previous evening, but within minutes we had an expression of interest and a promise to pursue the discussions by email on his return to the UK. The fact that he lost my email address 3 times in the next fifteen minutes made me think the hospitality had something to do with it!

To cut a long story short, we were able to come to a suitable arrangement over the next two months and agreed to meet the film crew in Gan, Adhoo Atoll, Maldives on 20 August giving me an effective two months to squeeze 10 months of work into in order to have the boat ready for passage making!

More subcontractors were employed and our home began to look like a proper construction site. Eventually, we threw in the towel and moved in with Anita’s parents for the last few weeks while the carpenter worked 18 hour days to get us ready. It was a very stressful situation. And then there was SAMSA and ‘Going Foreign’ to negotiate as well. Both SA Sailing and SAMSA were professional and helpful and the formalities were completed with far less rigmarole than I had expected.

Eventually, on 9 July, we departed. There was still a list of unfinished items as I am sure every cruising boat has, but there was simply no more time to delay if we were to keep to our commitment.

False Bay was calm and sunny on the mid winter morning that we left but we knew that it was temporary and that a typical winter cold front system was lining up in the mid South Atlantic. This didn’t phase me too much as Jerrican is a Dudley Dix 43 Pilothouse cutter, strongly built in steel and fitted out to take the worst weather we expected to encounter in an eventual trip planned to Patagonia.

Our planned passage to Gan included a stopover in Port Louis, Mauritius for two reasons. One, to replenish food stocks for the joining film crew and to top up the diesel tank and two, to give the crew a little rest and relaxation after the long haul. I had planned to take 21 days to get to Mauritius and hoped to take 20. As it was, the winter weather in the South Indian Ocean played a much larger role than I expected and we ended up taking 25 days! We also became very proficient in the twin arts of fore-reaching and heaving to!

Our stop in Port Louis was brief, busy and most pleasant. We were there for five days in which time we replenished stores, fuel and gas, effected sail repairs, sewed awnings and witnessed our two 23 year old crewmen continue their quest to find the perfect burger after 25 days of vegetarian (and the occasional fresh fish) meals!

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From Port Louis it is 1460nm NE to Gan, Addoo Atoll, in the Maldives. The prevailing wind for the majority of the leg is the South East Trade Wind so it should be an easy beam reach all the way. Not so. The winds are mainly SE, for some of the way! The seas are large and confused all of the way, making for some of the most uncomfortable sailing I have ever done. 12 days on starboard tack including 18 hours hove to while attending to an engine overheating problem. We arrived at the the entrance to the Addoo Atoll on exactly 20 August as promised to find that our film crew had fallen victim to “Island time”.

Stewart and his four man team of divers and cameramen had met in Male, Maldives, intending to transport themselves and all their equipment the 300 miles south on a local Dhoni, or inter island transport vessel. The arranged Dhoni did not turn up and it’s replacement was available at three times the already high, agreed fee! After a day spent tracking down other options in the pouring rain, they located a Dhoni captain ready and prepared to leave immediately for Gan. The maths was easy. The Dhoni can cruise at 10 knots easily, they had 300 miles to cover, a day and a half should do just fine? However, the Dhoni captain had other ideas and quite clearly, a girl on every island between Male and Gan! He insisted on stopping every night, the last time being almost in sight of the destination. Needless to say, it was quite a frustrated film crew that hailed us on the morning of 25 August from the Dhoni as it bore down on Jerrican at full speed! They had had no food for two days, anticipating a 36 hour transfer and were tired, hungry and thirsty. And Richard’s iPad had been stolen during the last night alongside in Gan. Now they were going to load themselves and all their equipment onto a 43 ft yacht and leave immediately for a 280 mile transfer to Chagos.

Once clearance had been obtained from Customs to transfer the equipment from Dhoni to yacht, they pulled up alongside and made fast to my mooring cleats, showing a lot of faith in my anchor system as the Dhoni probably weighed in at nearly 75 tons! Fortunately I had bought two “d-fenders” from Ark Inflatables that, when inflated, were larger in diameter than the depth of the tractor tyres used as fenders by the Dhoni!

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What does a film crew of five take with them for a two week expedition to a remote place that has no infrastructure and no shops? Try this for size:
Two dive compressors, six dive cylinders, 15,000 ltrs of emergency oxygen, eight enormous Pelican cases of camera equipment, two coffin shaped boxes containing camera cranes and rails, divers equipment, weights, 250 ptrs of petrol in cans and more laptops and cameras than I’d seen assembled in one place before! This was on top of the three inflatable dinghies and two outboards that I had brought along.

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Then there was personal gear. A small bag for each person with just space for a few t-shirts and board shorts. I knew I was going to get along with these guys!

I estimate that crew and kit probably added up to two tons of additional weight and Jerrican dropped at least two more centimeters of freeboard!

Once the crew had rushed a breakfast at the local “EyeCafe” (I kid you not), we started the Customs and Immigration checkout procedure via our agent, Masood Saeed. This was eventually accomplished at 17h00 and we weighed anchor immediately, setting sail on a south easterly course for Chagos, 280 miles to the south. Gan lies at 00 45S in a relatively windless belt and Chagos lies at 05 00S in the SE trades so we needed to make some easting before the SE was encountered. As heavily laden as she was, Jerrican was never going to sail in anything but a gale so it was motoring or at least motor/sailing all the way.

We duly arrived at the NW entrance to Peros Banhos Atoll in Chagos in the early hours of 28 August and drifted quietly waiting for sunrise, not for navigation purposes, but for the camera crew! This was to be the the way things worked for the next two weeks, “get the picture, worry about the other things afterwards”.

Ile Diamante in Peros Banhos Atoll

Ile Diamante in Peros Banhos Atoll

The first filming destination in a jam packed schedule was on Ile Diamanté in the NW corner of the atoll. The wind was fresh from the SE across a fetch of 12 miles and this meant the anchorage was extremely exposed and very uncomfortable. One of the conditions of our permit from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was that we would only anchor in defined anchorages in order to preserve the coral. Needless to say, I was grateful for our 40kg Rocna anchor and G40 grade chain.

The next days were filled with similar programs; Stewart and cameraman Simon would be dropped off on shore at dawn to film shore based stories and the three divers and underwater cameramen, Richard, Rohan and Jon would make several dives on the reefs in the immediate areas, coming back on board only to refuel themselves and refill their dive cylinders.

After two nights and a day of stressful anchor watching at Ile Diamanté, we moved to Ile du Coin where the anchorage was much more protected. We went on the outside of the atoll, dropping divers off for a dive on the outside reef and the shore crew to film on the only unnamed island in the archipelago. Both parties came back bursting with enthusiasm for what they had seen. The divers regaling us with stories of massive drop offs with 30m visibility, sublime coral and incredible fish life. Stewart and cameraman Simon felt like explorers of an island hitherto untouched by humans and maybe they were?

Once safely at anchor at Ile du Coin, I felt confident to get off Jerrican for the first time and leave her unattended. Anita and I dropped off the transom, glanced nervously at the Black Tipped Reef Sharks circling us and swam about 30m to the nearest coral reef. Now I was starting to understand how special this place is! The coral and its attendant fish life is simply spectacular. There are no other superlatives to describe it!

Coral thriving in Chagos. Photo by Dr Rohan Holt.

Coral thriving in Chagos. Photo by Dr Rohan Holt.

After spending an hour or two drifting lazily over the coral gardens, in 30C water, I sat back on Jerrican’s sugar scoop and reflected on the environment that we had somehow found ourselves in. We were the only yacht in an atoll more than 12 miles in diameter, containing twenty seven islands, all totally deserted (except for a lone donkey). I’m not qualified to say whether or not the creation of the Chagos Marine Reserve in 2010 has had the effect of preserving the marine environment but it does seem to have caused a huge reduction in the number of visiting yachts, some of whom used to return year after year for a few months at a time. The resultant mixed feeling of privilege and sadness required some examining.

After another day of filming on the island of Ile du Coin and it’s surrounding reefs, the weather forecast showed perfect conditions for the 25 mile sail to the Salomon Islands. This we duly did, leaving at dawn and arriving off the NW entrance to the Salomon Atoll just after lunch. The Admiralty charts of the Salomons caution that the position of reefs and other obstacles has been updated from satellite photographs, but soundings in the atoll have not been taken since the Indian Survey in 1837! With this in mind, one tends to proceed carefully to the anchorage we had chosen. In fact we were so careful we put a Marine Biologist up the mast to the top spreaders with a cameras and instructions to watch for anything solid that we might sail into!

Of the two permitted anchorages, we chose the one off Ile Boddam. The anchorage is in coral and try as one may, it’s just not possible to drop your anchor in the small sand patches and it’s inevitable that there will be some damage to the coral. We were reassured by Jon Schleyer, our resident Chagos fundi, that this is the reason the BIOT administration has designated particular ‘sacrificial’ anchorages.

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We remained at Ile Boddam for the duration of our stay in the Salomons. The shore based crew making excursions to Ile Boddam itself as well as to the various islands where the BIOT administration is busy with rat eradication and indigenous tree repopulation programs. By all accounts, these programs are being hugely successful and the increase in the numbers of breeding birds is testament to this. The dive crew, meantime, spent most of their time filming coral and fish life on the outer reef side of the atoll.

While commercial fishing is prohibited in the Archipelago, subsistence fishing is allowed. Assuming you manage to catch anything that is! I had to conclude that within the atoll, the water is too clear for the fish to be fooled by my lures or bait or they are just too well fed to take the

A little way back from the beach are the ruins of the buildings occupied by the plantation staff, back in the 1960’s when coconuts were being commercially produced throughout the Chagos Archipelago. There is a distinctly eerie feeling as one wanders around the deserted and crumbling buildings and observes the inexorable power of nature as she reclaims her terrain.

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Having found the abandoned settlement too depressing, Anita and I decided to walk around the Northern end of the island with the idea of cutting back through the plantation just before sunset. We were rewarded with isolated beaches and stunning views of the outer reef. Real picture postcard stuff!

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During our stay at Ile Boddam we were visited by the BIOT patrol vessel, the Pacific Marlin. Tom, a Kiwi scientist on board, told us about some of the conservation projects that they were busy with. Most seemed to focus on ridding the islands of rats which have become a real problem and have forced several species of birds to find alternative breeding sites. He was very positive about the results they are achieving although admitting that it is an enormous task. If only a single pregnant female slips through the net, the whole problem starts all over again in a very short amount of time.

During a very convivial visit to the Pacific Marlin, the Captain, Neil, and his Engineer, Les, who are both South African, related how the visits of yachts to Chagos had decreased in the last two years. They remembered a peak time where there were sixty-nine yachts at anchor in the Salomons alone! The current reduction in the numbers of visiting yachts can probably be attributed to the fact that yachts tend to follow the lead of those that have gone ahead of them quite single-mindedly and the trend, since the explosion of piracy from 2007, has been for circumnavigators visiting Indonesia and Thailand to head for Cocos Keeling and then across the Indian Ocean to Rodrigues, Mauritius and onwards to Madagascar or South Africa. Maldives and Chagos are the destinations that have experienced falling numbers. This was corroborated by Maldivans that we met who felt that the numbers of yachts visiting Gan had fallen by over 50% in the last few years. One also needs to acknowledge that yachts will take the path of least resistance and not only where it applies to the weather! Both Maldives and Chagos have enjoyed deserved and undeserved publicity about the complexity and expense of visiting the respective areas.

After three intensive days of filming in the Salomons, it was time to head back to Peros Banhos for another two days of filming, specifically of two islands that had been proclaimed rat free and of an island that has mangroves. The producers were interested to see to what extent birds had repopulated the rat free islands. As it turned out, they were not disappointed and the noise of, literally, thousands of breeding Terns, Noddys, various Boobys and Frigate birds was deafening, even from Jerrican sitting 100m offshore.

During our last two days in Chagos, we anchored off Ile Fouquet, the southernmost island in the atoll. This is undoubtably the best anchorage in any wind having a southerly component to it. The anchorage has excellent holding in sand in 15m. The snorkelling, and diving was out of the top drawer as well.

Anchorage off Ile Fouquet, Peros Banhos

Anchorage off Ile Fouquet, Peros Banhos

All too soon, it was time to get our guests back to Gan to catch their flights to Male and from there, back to the UK. An early start on the morning of 8 September saw us experiencing the best sailing conditions of the whole trip so far! 25 knots SE giving us a superb broad reach ‘home’ in the company of a Manta Ray and a couple of dolphin! Unfortunately the conditions did not last and we were forced to motor sail after a few hours. The full moon and some spectacular thunder and lightning shows made up for the monotonous rumble of the diesel engine.

Fifty hours later, we glided into Addoo Atoll, anchored just off the causeway, and waited for the Customs, Immigration, Health and Coastguard Officials to clear us in. And waited. And waited. The Officials were waiting in the shade under a tree and we were waiting aboard unaware that because the Maldivan President was visiting the atoll, there were no boats available to bring the Officials out to us! Could this be the Island version of a “Blue Light” incident? When we received a phone call from our Agent who was 300 miles away in Male for the day, to tell us that the Officials were waiting for us, I went to collect the lot of them in a 3m inflatable! We must have looked quite ridiculous on our way out to the yacht! In no time, we were legal and then began the process of unloading all the equipment that had to be shipped back to Male and the UK. With a little help from our friends at the Coastguard, this was accomplished in no time at all!

All in all, a very successful expedition. The film crews got enough footage to satisfy the producers in a very short amount of time. Everybody got along despite the very cramped living and working space for seven people! This can be attributed, in no small part, to Stewart’s ability to put together a team of skilled individuals with such complementary personalities. While relieved to ‘get our boat back to ourselves’, we immediately missed the vibrancy, energy and enthusiasm with which the team approached their task.

    The Team:

Stewart MacPherson. Author, Scientist and Documentary Producer (www.redfernnaturalhistory.com)
Jon Schleyer. Leader of Scientific Expeditions to Chagos, Photographer. (www.jonslayer.tv)
Rich Stevenson. Underwater camera and diving specialist. (www.divesolutions.uk)
Simon Vacher. Cinematographer and wildlife documentary maker. (www.simonvacherfilm.com)
Dr Rohan Holt. Marine Biologist, Cinematographer, Dive Medic and Diving specialist.
Jeremy & Anita Bagshaw, Expedition Yacht Owner/Operators. (www.syjerrican.com)

For details on how to obtain a permit to visit Chagos, see:https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/british-indian-ocean-territory

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