Thursday, June 11, 2009

June 11, 2009 - Salomon Atoll, Chagos

Chagos isn't so much a destination, it is an experience. For some cruisers, it is a once in a lifetime opportunity to play Robinson Crusoe and live out their deserted island fantasies in an unspoiled paradise. For others, it is like summer camp, a place they return to year after year, to hang out with other yachties. At the end of our first month here, it is high time (or as many of you have told us by email - past time) that we related our experiences here.

For Sten, Chagos has been the realization of a goal set while still in school. During his second sea year at Kings Point, he shipped out on an Marine Sealift Command chartered, Maersk pre-position ship that spent a month anchored at the American military base in Diego Garcia. After a few weeks, the ship headed out on a tour of the Chagos Archipelago to exercise the engines. While steaming past Salomon Atoll, Sten saw a dozen yachts anchored in a placid, palm fringed lagoon in the middle of the ocean and said, "I've got to come back here some day." 14 years later, goal realized. Now that he's made it back to Chagos, Sten spends a lot of his time indulging in one of his favorite activities: fishing. He's promised to write up his fish tales, so I won't say more about them now.

For me, Chagos has been the chance to do some amazing snorkeling. One day, while fishing outside the reef, we hopped in the water for a swim. The sharks, attracted by our catch, circled us looking for an easy meal. Under us swam schools of some of the biggest grouper we've ever seen. As we were watching them, I noticed a turtle feeding among the giant sea fans along the vertical drop into never-never land. Distracted by the turtle, we didn't notice a huge manta ray until it was within a few feet of us. As we fumbled with the camera, trying (and failing) to get a good shot of the manta, a pod of five eagle rays swam below us. Just spectacular. But we needn't go outside the reef to see great stuff.

The other day, I was swimming around the coral in the anchorage, taking pictures of colorful little reef fish, when two eagle rays glided up to me. For the next half hour, we danced around each other in a hollow in the reef as I tried to get some good shots of them. Distracted by the rays, I didn't see a black tip swim into our coral garden until he was right next to me. Between the rays and the shark, I might have missed the hawksbill turtle if it hadn't swum right under me. To top off the experience, a four foot long, narrow, grayish green cornetfish swam into the vicinity, saw me and my menagerie, and immediately froze (freezeframe!). As he struck a pose, his skin changed from a uniform grey, to a spotted and striped concoction meant to help him blend into the reef around him. I'd never seen anything like it. And the best thing about this epic snorkeling session? It all took place within a few hundred meters of the boat.

For both of us, Chagos has been work. We worked to prepare the boat and ourselves before we set off to spend a few months in such an isolated location. We laid in provisions, gathered supplies for a garden, made sure we had any spares we might need, and (since spearfishing is illegal in Chagos) bought plenty of fishing lures. We did a pretty good job, but quickly discovered one major oversight. We had just enough flour to keep us in pancakes for a few months, but that left nothing for baking bread or other treats. Two other boats came to our rescue and gave us several bags of flour in exchange for wine in one instance and cash in another. Arriving at the tail end of the main season, we've benefited from several departing boats wishing to offload extra provisions. We now have more flour, outboard fuel and cooking propane on aboard than we did when we arrived one month ago. And a recent gift of eggs has us sitting pretty. We're doing so well on supplies that we are considering staying on for another month here.

A typical scene from our first few weeks in Chagos - reading cookbooks while surrounded by piles of laundry

The work hasn't let up since we arrived. Keeping the boat clean and us fed takes a lot of time. With no place to send the laundry, and no washing machine on board, it all has to be done by hand. In addition to the regular loads of clothes and towels and sheets, the salon and cockpit cushion covers all needed to be done. I've spent an entire week of our first month here doing laundry. Although a decent workout, stomping in place in a bathtub and wringing out clothing is a monotonous, mind-numbing way to spend one's time, even paradise. The only redeeming aspect of the whole exercise is hanging the laundry on the lifelines, which becomes an opportunity to visit with the noddy terns that have decided that Mata'irea's bow makes an excellent fishing platform. With their beautiful charcoal grey feathers, shiny black beaks and sparkling jet eyes, which are surrounded by a striking circle of white, they always seem to be dressed for a black tie event. They are so unthreatened by humans that they aren't bothered at all by my standing next to them to pin laundry on the lifelines. Another monotonous task is polishing stainless, but it has to be done. But worse than doing laundry or polishing stainless, is cleaning the bilge. A small leak in our stern tube packing gland allowed just enough water into the bilge for things to start smelling a bit sulfuric (and here I thought Chagos was supposed to be heaven, not hell). After tightening up the gland, Sten had the unenviable task of cleaning the bilge. That was one day that I was glad to be stuck in the tub stomping on laundry.

Outboard repair in paradise

We both spend a lot of time planning and sourcing our next meal. With no place to eat out, and no grocery store in evidence, everything has to be made from scratch. Luckily, we both love to eat and enjoy reading cookbooks and cooking, so that isn't much of a hardship, it just takes a lot of time out of every day. But with no dishwasher, having to clean up after every meal is getting a bit old. Doubly lucky for me, Sten does more than his share of the cooking and cleaning, which I understand makes him a rarity among cruising men.

During our first few weeks here, our menus revolved around whatever disgusting, partly spoiled item we found in our vegetable stores. When things rotted faster than we could eat them, I turned to pickling to preserve the bulk of our peppers, carrots and tomatoes. Although our veggie bins are almost empty, the fridge is filled with tasty pickles to eat during the months ahead.

One particularly memorable day our menu was dictated by two rotting apples, some moldy sausage, and block of mildewed cheese. The apples became a baked apple pancake (ala Chicago's Original Pancake House), the second half of which was served with the sausages for lunch. Having already completed two culinary miracles in one day, I was completely nonplussed when confronted with the grey powder coating the Boursin that I opened for what was supposed to be a simple dinner of cheese and crackers. "This is paradise?" I muttered to myself as I turned to the cookbooks for inspiration. Once again, necessity proved to be the mother of invention as, knowing that I couldn't afford to waste the cheese and that I certainly couldn't run out to the store for another box, I whipped up a divine angel hair pasta in a creamy herby sauce using as much of the Boursin as was salvageable, canned cream and a mixture of herb pastes.

Lest we get lazy, Mata'irea has been keeping us on our toes by tossing the occasional fit. Since we've been in Chagos, Sten has had to troubleshoot and repair a complete failure of our DC power system and all of the radios on board, including the car stereo we use to listen to CD's and feed the Ipod into the sound system. In addition, we've taken the opportunity of staying in one place for a while to make some improvements. Sten installed a new 12 volt plug in the nav station. He replaced the cracked cover on our spare outboard engine, repairing and upgrading a cover from an abandoned parts outboard onshore. I quickly absconded with our old cover and planted a bunch of basil and some tomatoes in it before he could change his mind.

The wreck of the Isis; she went down while our friends on Phoenix were here last year.

One fuzzy little black-naped tern chick and its protective parents

Bryce preparing a jobfish for our lunch

Chagos hasn't been all snorkeling and fishing, cooking and cleaning, and working on the boat. For both of us, Chagos has been an opportunity to socialize with other cruisers. We've been traveling on our own so much the past few months that we've really been relishing the opportunity to make and spend time with new friends. Sometimes, the active social schedule makes Chagos feel like one long party. While there were still enough yachts to make up two teams, there were daily volleyball matches in a sand court set among the palms (watch out for falling coconuts!). Even though the number of boats have dwindled to the point where we can't field enough players for volleyball, there are still enough people around to be sure that we'll have someone to chat with if we bring our sundowners ashore at 5:30. However, now that we are down to five boats in the anchorage, we've taken to hosting cocktail parties aboard the boats. Rainy days aren't even a hardship in Chagos - they are just an excuse to spend a day playing cribbage with new friends.

At least once a week someone comes up with an excuse for a more elaborate fest. A few days after we arrived in Chagos, a child's birthday was celebrated with an afternoon of games and a potluck in the evening. A few days later, the impending departure of a slew of boats was all the reason needed for sunset cocktails to turn into a late night of drinking and reminiscing. The following week, a gift of some meat and salad greens lead to an elaborate feast, shared among the boats in both anchorages. And since we arrived here too late to join in on the legendary Chagos Cinco de Mayo party, we brought out the tequila on the 5th of June and held Cinco de Junyo, or something like that. When we reemerged on the 7th, our first question was "what can we celebrate next?" Now we know why those noddy terns on our bow are always dressed for a party.

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