February 2002 : Indian Ocean and The Maldives



We are very happy to report that we have had an excellent time in February, which has proved a complete antidote to the trials and tribulations of the previous couple of months. On the first of the month we embarked across the Indian Ocean, starting on the final quarter of our circumnavigation – only 8,000 or so miles to go! This has undoubtedly been the most benign of the three great oceans we have now crossed. Our voyage to the Maldives was the perfect ocean passage. Last year when leaving New Zealand, I had the idea of sharing my daily log to show how relaxing and uneventful an ocean passage can be – but that one turned out to be anything but. This was far more typical:

By morning we have caught up and slightly passed the two Canadian boats which left a couple of hours before us – they seem to be experimenting with home-made sails with strange names. Lovely sailing goosewinged in 10 knots – unfortunately we seem to have a little adverse current. First 24 hour run a respectable 122 miles. Spend all day reading and catching up on sleep in turns – both quite tired after the rigours of last month – but this is perfect recuperation.

And so it continued – a dream of a passage. We made daily runs of 159 and 160 on the following days and passed south of the tip of Sri Lanka on the eighth day out, dodging some of the heaviest shipping we had seen for some time. We had anticipated, on the basis of reports from yachts ahead, that the wind would die off between Sri Lanka and the Maldives, but it never did and we arrived euphorically after a total of eleven days – very much inside our estimate.

Our stop in the Maldives was brilliant, providing everything we had been feeling deprived of – idyllic surroundings, relaxed atmosphere and a social life. We arrived knowing very little indeed about this remote country. The fact that it never makes the news headlines indicated we presumed, peace and stability - which seems to be right. The country comprises some 2,000 tiny islands strung together around several large atolls in a chain stretching 300 miles northwards from the equator and has a population of around 250,000 - virtually all Muslim. It is hard to fathom how and why a population came to be there at all – though beautiful, the islands are incapable of supporting human life, with only rainwater and little soil - most food has to be imported. The main business these days is tourism and fishing. The main anxiety is global warming – a rise in sea level would be catastrophic for a country no more than 2 metres high. We arrived at the island of Uligamu in the northernmost atoll of North Ihavandhippolhu – all of them have names like that – and in fact the word ‘atoll’ is Maldivian, or I should say Divehi – the national language, which has its own unique script.

On our arrival we were immediately given the warmest of welcomes – by locals and yachties alike. Friends Hygeia, Yangshou and Mazy had arrived from Sri Lanka the day before us and we enjoyed a grand reunion. Clearing formalities took the form of a visit by two delightful, very smartly uniformed officers – from customs and coastwatch - who welcomed us to the Maldives. They had the usual sheaf of forms for completion, but also plenty of time and the inclination to chat, pleased to discover how keen we were to learn about their country. On going ashore we discovered ‘Sailors’ Choice’ – an outfit set up by an enterprising Maldivian to cater for the needs of visiting yachts – diesel, water, laundry facilities (water from a well!), and meals ashore. Niyaz spoke perfect English and was keen to assure us he could provide anything we needed. In reality his promises were frequently wildly over ambitious, but he was so charming that it was impossible to mind, and his shady courtyard was a very convivial meeting place.

North Ihavandhippolhu Atoll being at the far north of the country is totally untouched by tourism – as yet. About 12 miles in diameter, it comprises about 20 islands, mainly scattered around the perimeter reef, with a few inside the lagoon, some inhabited but most not. Uligamu – an island about one by half a mile in area - has a village of about 400 people – mainly women and children, with the men working away at tourist resorts or in the capital Male some 200 miles south. We also visited a couple of other villages on islands in the atoll, all quite similar – set off the beach in a surprisingly organised layout of walled courtyards and straight streets. Each courtyard, surrounded by a very straight and angular wall of grey coloured and sharp looking coral ‘brick’, encloses several huts for sleeping, cooking, storage, etc. Everything is spotlessly tidy and clean – the sand ‘streets’ obviously regularly swept. The people were reserved but very friendly – on one occasion we stopped to watch a community cable laying scheme – the village men digging a trench down a street, and we found ourselves included in around of drinks being handed around – a glass of hot pink sweet liquid with something like semolina lurking at the bottom!

The almost severe angularity of the villages was in startling contrast to the vivid natural beauty of the beaches and lagoon – sparkling white sand and reef giving the water a fabulous variety of blue and turquoise hues. The water was exceptionally clear and we could see clearly to the bottom under our boat at anchor in 12 metres, and were always surrounded by exotic fish. Sadly the coral in the Maldives is all dead – the result of a rise in water temperature during the El Nino of a few years ago. Although it is showing signs of regeneration, we could only imagine how spectacular it must once have been.

Fortunately, this does not seems to have affected the fish who swim around in great abundance. The Maldives apparently have strict ecological rules regarding reef fishing and I don’t know anywhere we have seen more fish and less fishing activity.

After a week of this idyll it was time to embark on our second installment of the Indian Ocean, another 1,257 miles to Oman – the last really long passage of our voyage. We expected light winds for this section, and by and large this is what we got. A slow start, warming up to a fast few days in the middle and then without any wind at all, we motored the final two days – taking in all just under ten days. During this passage we were in daily communication by email with friends in the UK who provided us with weather information gleaned from the Net – for which many thanks. Weather forecasting for these latitudes is clearly a difficult business! The passage was entirely uneventful and although not quite as euphoric as the first stage, was enlivened by a couple of new diversions. Sailing in loose company with the three other yachts, who set off a day and two days after us, we were in regular radio contact. Everyday 4pm was quiz time, with each boat setting and attempting to answer questions of the ilk - "Where would you have to start from, in order to walk ten miles south, then ten miles west, and then ten miles north, and end up where you started from - apart from the North Pole? One set of cryptic clues whose answers were all countries, produced the gem "Place where marsupials can get a drink" - "Aruba"! More seriously, Chris decided that for this passage he would navigate solely by the sun and stars. The GPS was kept covered and not used for navigational purposes – although I took furtive peeks at it every now and then for confirmation that we were still, in fact, on the right track. All went very well – Chris’ fixes were never more than 10 miles out, and the two prior to landfall were within 2 miles. We arrived into Salalah at 3.30am – perfect timing, enabling us to use the lights on shore for our final run in.

With that large chunk of ocean behind us, we are now nearly seven eights of the way round the world – only four hours behind UK time. Two days out of Salalah we crossed paths with a vast container ship, streaking across the ocean at an impressive, if scary looking 22 knots. Chatting on the radio, they told us they would be arriving in London in exactly two weeks! It will take us considerably longer than that as there is so much to see between here and there – but we are now beginning to feel homeward bound.