Tuesday, July 07, 2009

July 4, 2009 - Salomon Atoll, Chagos

After six blissful weeks tied to a coral head at Boddam, a strong southeasterly induced us to return to our original anchorage off of Takamaka/Fouquet. We are still within Salomon Atoll, only three miles from Boddam, but it feels like an entirely different place.

Chagos, a chain of uninhabited atolls in the middle of the Indian Ocean, is truly beyond the beyond the beyond. But the first time we stepped ashore at Boddam we were bowled over by how civilized it all was. At the main camp at Boddam there is a freshwater well and clothes washing and drying station (complete with a mangle), trash facilities administered by BIOT (British Indian Ocean Territory; they come and pick up the glass and metal recycling every week or so, we burn the rest), fish cleaning station next to the old copra pier, coconut opener, shaded sand volleyball court, happy hour area complete with a large central table (made out of a giant old flywheel left over from the days when the island was a copra plantation) with benches and chairs all around and a lantern hanging above, and a covered building that is used to store lanterns, chairs, books, tools, and toys, which is affectionately referred to as the Yacht Club. Further up the island there is another clearing with another coconut opener, a hammock, and some benches, which is known as the French Camp. Cruisers take turns raking the paths that wind among all these facilities.

Nearly every day Sten would take out the trash. I just thought that he was being a very good husband . . . that was before I went ashore with him one day and learned that taking out the trash was just a chance for him to let his inner pyro out to play.

Crushing cans with a sledgehammer.

The laundromat at Boddam

Barringtonia asiatica decorate the rubbish disposal area

Sharks feeding near the fish cleaning station at Boddam

The island itself is a contrast to all these facilities, or perhaps it necessitated them. The vegetation on Boddam is close and creeping closer every day. It feels like jungle. At any turn a giant coconut crab might be blocking the path, flicking one of its front legs in challenge. When we first arrived, the paths were relatively clear, but as the anchorage cleared out and they saw less use, they quickly became overgrown. A walk from one end of the island to the other now involves following markers, such as buoys tied into the trees, and dragging fallen palm fronds out of the way.

Fouquet is such a contrast to Boddam. We've only been here for a week, and admittedly, we haven't explored the island as much as we have Boddam, but the only camp we've come across is a bench and table on the beach (called Camp David after the cruiser who built it), and we've only found one path through the woods on the island. But then, paths aren't really necessary on Fouquet. The palms and takamaka trees are tall and stately and the undergrowth much more sparse than on Boddam. Stepping into the woods from the beach feels like entering a cathedral. The roar of the surf and the howl of the wind is hushed by the trees. The canopy is filled with the chatter of birds - noddy terns, black naped terns, fairy terns, tropic birds, and red footed boobies. There seem to be many more birds nesting on Fouquet, but fewer coconut crabs about.

Sten with a big coral trout

John off Dancyn with the biggest coral trout any of us is likely to ever see.

Sten - 2.5; Shark - .5

Footballer Cod - the best eating fish in Chagos

Unfortunately, the fishing at Fouquet is not as good as down at Boddam, where it is easy to get outside the atoll to go after big fish. From Fouquet, access to the outside of the atoll is much farther away. In Chagos, dinghy fuel is precious, and not everyone has a big enough (or reliable enough) dinghy and outboard to make the run to the pass. So when someone (often Sten) catches a big fish, everyone gets together to eat. Life at Fouquet is more of a communal experience than down at Boddam.

Kids of all ages at the marine biology lesson

As different as the islands are, the social calendar seems just as full up at Fouquet. The majority of the boats in the atoll are now up here. Between sushi lessons, birthday parties, remedial sushi lessons, bon voyage parties, fish anatomy lessons, dinner parties, chart talks, and board games on rainy days, there is always something going on. I thought that when we moved up to Fouquet our schedule would settle down a bit, but we're still burning the candle at both ends.

A manta shrimp living in one of the three wrecks dotting this anchorage.

Banded pipefish - the male has a pouch in which the female deposits eggs. I wanna be a banded pipefish when I grow up. Sten is quite happy being human.

We had a school of batfish living under our boat. By the end, I had them eating out of my hand.

Left brain, right brain.

This is your brain.

This is your brain on drugs.

Invincible brain coral, poisoning the table coral trying to surround it.

There are so many different varieties of coral in Chagos that I simply couldn't keep up with their names.

Sometimes I just invented my own names, as in the case of this brilliant batch of "Walnut Coral" (TM).

Distorsio anus - possibly my favorite shell . . . and not only for its giggle inducing name.

On July 3rd, we took Mata'irea back down to Boddam for a night, to join in on the fun and games of a birthday party. We were going to make the run in the dinghy, but the wind was really strong and we weren't sure we could get the birthday cake (a delicate concoction of butter, eggs, maple syrup, walnuts and single malt) there in one piece. So on went the main engine and up went the anchor. The run from Fouquet to Boddam only takes half an hour, but it is necessary to keep a constant lookout as the route is strewn with bommies. At the other end, Ron from Tigger was waiting to help us pick up a mooring. We were just in time for the birthday games, including a treasure hunt, skittles (like bowling, but on a sand court so rolling the coconut ball wasn't so effective), and crab races. The games segued into cocktails and dinner. As we lingered over drinks and dessert, we enjoyed catching up with the folks that we'd left down at Boddam, whom we'd missed during the week we spent anchored off of Fouquet. It is incredible how close you can get to people when you see them every day, work and play with them.

The next morning, Sten had a successful fish outside the reef, and returned laden with coral trout. We would have stayed longer at Boddam, but the Kiwis, Australians and South Africans up at Fouquet were planning to blow some stuff up in honor of our Independence Day, so we figured we had better make an appearance. So on went the engine and off went the mooring line. Once we were anchored at Fouquet, we had just enough time for Sten to dive on the anchor and for me to put the final touches on my latest dessert creation (the stuff that comes out of my galley these days truly amazes me) before heading ashore for a chart talk about South Africa with the South African boats, Affirmation and Rainbow Gypsy. Over wine and olives, dates and cashews, we absorbed all the advice they had time to give us before everyone else arrived for the Chagos version of fireworks.

Sten, pinning the tail on the fish

Bernd's tandam windsurfer

Tubing Aroha's dinghy.

After dark (and after making an announcement over the radio to let any ships in the area know that there was no actual emergency), we lit one of the big floating rice paper lanterns that we bought in Thailand. As it filled with hot air and soared silently over the masts of the boats anchored off the beach and into the night sky, it glowed like a beacon. It also made a perfect target for a Kiwi with a rocket flare. He took aim, fired, and nearly set one of the boats on fire. Okay, maybe not, but when that red flare fell out of the sky behind a catamaran, a few of us muttered, "that was a bit close." After what seemed like 20 seconds had passed, a big red glow flared up behind the catamaran, and we all thought the boat was on fire. The glow extinguished as quickly as it sparked, but the owner of the cat and the firer of the flare had already piled in one dinghy, Sten and I and another cruiser piled in ours, and charged across the reef to make sure the boat wasn't about to go up in flames. A search of the boat showed no visible damage. The conjecture among the crowd was that the flare sputtered when it hit the water near the cat, causing a bright reflection between the hulls. Either way, it was a scary moment and a good lesson for all of us - When shooting off expired flares, it is best to pick a beach in front of someone else's boat.

Building an anchor alarm.

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