We left Gan, Addoo Atoll, Maldives on 18 September, aiming for the Indian Ocean island of Rodrigues, 1300 miles to the south west, as the proverbial crow flies. Unfortunately, the dictates of prevailing winds and currents meant that we were never going to be able to follow that crow’s path without making our lives very unpleasant! Sailing wisdom required us to head south east for as long as possible from Gan, in the south westerly winds, and then start heading more south west when we encountered easterly and south easterly winds as our latitude increased.
Crew for this passage was slightly different in that our son, Grant, went to Sri Lanka while we were in Chagos and came back with Claire instead of Garrick who he left with! It would remain to be seen whether this would be a good trade. Claire had never sailed or been on a boat before and Garrick had become a really useful crew member. Something about Claire’s willingness to give up her job managing a Travellers’ Hostel in Colombo and hop aboard a yacht sailing from Maldives to South Africa told me that she has the right approach to adventure and life itself!
As expected, the first two and a half days dished up very light and variable winds so a lot of motoring was done. We were able to make sufficient easting to pass on the east side of the Chagos Archipelago without seeing any more than a loom from Diego Garcia in the dark of night. Shortly after this, we started getting the unstable and variable winds associated with the crossover zone between the westerlies nearer the equator and the south easterly trade winds. Squalls with rain and colder and stronger winds from the south were a feature of most nights and we were close hauled for almost 800 miles, determined not to take the easy way out and bear away for Mauritius, a slightly easier although longer sail to the west.
For the last two days, the wind backed to the East and we had some glorious sailing, easily doing 150 mile days. We caught a nice sized Dorado to boost our protein intake into the bargain!
Our first view of Rodrigues Island was just after 08h00 local time when we were still some 25 miles out. The highest point of the island, at 396m, was the tallest thing we had seen for nearly two months! The Coast Guard were courteous and efficient, relaying our request for permission to enter the Harbour to the correct authorities and confirming their agreement within minutes. The approach to Port Mathurin was fairly simple although it would have been nice to have an up to date paper chart! Noonsite.com has warnings that there are discrepancies between the electronic charts and the actual channel to the wharf. If we had followed any of our electronic aids, we would have driven straight up onto the coral in a fairly embarrassing way!
Arriving in Port Mathurin was a fantastic experience. As we cautiously approached the wharf there was a group of four smartly dressed men gesticulating to me and indicating exactly where we should park. Sceptical by nature, I was looking for the vested interest or at least, signs of apathy. On approach, these gentlemen took our lines tied them off professionally and then chided me to hurry up and get the ‘Q’ flag raised so they could do their job! They were from the. Health Department, Immigration and the Coast Guard, there to process all the necessary forms to make our stay legal! This took all of 15 minutes with smiles and handshakes and many ‘bienvenue a Rodrigues’s. What a pleasant surprise and a lovely way to be introduced to a country. Customs took a little longer to get there, but the official was equally relaxed and prepared to overlook a couple of technical non compliance issues in the interests of tourism!
The next official to turn up and introduce himself as plain ‘Gilbert’ was the Harbourmaster! Shorts and flip flops are part of his ‘uniform’ and he bears a striking resemblance to Morgan Freeman. Super laid back, charming and hospitable, he was a font of knowledge about all things Rodriguen. I couldn’t help thinking that a few organizations along the South African coast could benefit from the professional and welcoming approach these islanders employ? There was no charge for tying to the wharf but there were no facilities either except for a 24 hour security guard at the access gate to ensure no inquisitive, but uninvited visitors turned up!
There is only one wharf in Port Mathurin’s Harbour and as far as I know, only one ship that calls there. It is a supply ship from Port Louis and calls about every 8-10 days, for 2 days and a night. Any yachts on the wharf are advised by the Harbourmaster the day before so they know they have to be off the wharf and out of the inner harbour before 06h00 on the morning of the ship’s arrival. As soon as the ship has docked yachts may return to anchor in the turning basin, about 50m from the wharf in good holding ground. The yachties are invited to tie their dinghies to the tug or pilot boat when going ashore.
My first impressions of Rodrigues were of a quaint, colonial style island town populated by friendly, easy going people of a distinctly African heritage. Not much changed that as we walked and drove around this beautiful little island.
Nobody works too hard as most businesses open around 09h00 and everywhere closes at 16h00, with most taking time out for lunch in between! Few restaurants are open later than 20h30!
The island is home to around 38,000 people and is a autonomous region of Mauritius. It is run by a Regional Assembly with the Chief Commissioner as it’s head. The island’s main industries are agriculture, fishing and a growing tourism sector.
Having been advised that the town comes to life on Saturday mornings when the local fruit and vegetable market gets into full swing, we decided to extend our stay by a couple of days to witness the occasion. We were not disappointed. The market was packed and vibey. Islanders from all over had brought their produce and crafts to the market and the rest of the population seemed to be there to buy their wares! It required considerable discipline to not buy something of everything on display. We did not have much discipline.
In total contrast to Gan in Maldives, the Rodrigues authorities have declared the island to be a no go zone for plastic shopping bags and everyone (except the odd cruiser) brings their own baskets woven from Palm fronds to carry their purchases home (usually by scooter).
Being on the rhumb line between Cocos Keeling and Mauritius, Rodrigues is a regular stop over for cruisers coming from the Far East or Australia and we soon got to know the crew from our neighbours on the wharf. Several pleasant evenings were spent ‘chewing the fat’ with them and hearing all the war stories about their voyages so far. To a crew, they were all very nervous about the passage from Mauritius to South Africa and we were interrogated at length about routes, the Agulhas current, ports of entry, the Agulhas current, weather systems, the Agulhas current, immigration regulations and the Agulhas current. Did I mention that they were all concerned about the Agulhas current? The reputation that the east coast of South Africa has earned , has spread far and wide! Unfortunately, at the risk of underplaying the dangers, we had to be brutally honest and give a really objective opinion which did nothing to allay their fears!
For two days we rented a little Suzuki car with an 800cc engine and, with four of us on board, I amused myself by trying to get out of third gear on anything except a steep downhill! Fortunately there were plenty of those! It is fairly easy to cover most of the island in a day and by the time we had crisscrossed the island and been lost on a few occasions, we had still only managed to drive 76 kilometers! On the second day, we went to Anse Marouk on the south eastern corner of the island and splashed out on kite surfing lessons for Grant, Claire and myself. Anita preferred to spend two hours doubled over laughing at our efforts! It was certainly a perfect nursery training ground. The water was 27C, the wind was steady at 18 knots and the lagoon was shallow enough to walk back to the beach, ignominiously, while your instructor carved, spun and jumped his way back on your board, just to remind one how much is still to be learnt!
All too soon it was time to hit the high seas again and make our way to Mauritius. We cleared out with all the various authorities and left Rodrigues at 10h00 on 9 October, for the 320 mile sail to Port Louis where we arrived 60 hours later after a relaxing downwind sail (for the first time since leaving SA).
Was it worth the detour from Maldives. Absolutely. Would we make a special plan to go back there? Mmmm, maybe, but only if it didn’t involve any close hauled sailing! Now I know I’m becoming a proper cruiser!
Deep Sea Charter boat’s haul after a day’s fishing!