Chagos Archipelago—seven atolls, 55 tiny islands, and the military enclave of Diego Garcia—lies in the center of the Indian Ocean, 1,000 miles south of India. It is the largest coral atoll in the world, with a reasonable claim to having the healthiest reef and the cleanest water in the world. There are no permanent residents, no shops or businesses. We spent 83 days there, on a mooring left behind by an earlier cruiser. The place is about as remote as you can get and still be warm.
My wife Irene and I arrive in Chagos onboard our 39-foot steel cutter, Moose, 17 sailing days after leaving Langkawi, Malaysia. Our route has taken us west along the busy Suez/Malacca Straits shipping lanes, over toward Sri Lanka, and then south (following the pattern of wind and current), parallel to the long thin line of the Maldives. It is pretty fair sailing—in Asia, anything you can sail and not motor is pretty fair—and with moderate to fresh breezes (11 to 21 knots), largely on the quarter or from astern, we keep our big genoa up on the pole most of the time. There are also day-long lulls when the sails flog back and forth with the roll. Sometimes at night during these calms the air appears to be hung silk; the horizon vanishes and the demarcation between stars and their reflections is lost. And sometimes we flip on the diesel. I love sailing, but part of a journey is arriving.
Our destination, Salomon Atoll, is a wandering sort of circle with a dozen or so islands surrounding a lagoon. It has only one pass deep enough for a cruising boat to enter—and boats have been lost here when their exhausted crews blundered in between the wrong two islands. On the chart, the pass, a narrow, coral-strewn passage, looks highly discouraging, a needle to be threaded and poor Moose the camel. The chart indicates that matters worsen on the inside, where coral heads become increasingly dense closer to the anchorage in the far corner. The undertaking seems somewhere between irresponsible and impossible, but I see the masts of three boats at anchor and assume their skippers are people like me—people who put on their pants one leg at a time.
We’ve planned our mid-morning arrival for optimal light conditions: sun fairly high and behind us. The color differences of deep and shallow water, the blue shifting to green and yellow, are much easier to see at this time.
As so often happens, the chart, although accurate, seems to have a sadistic spin. The pass is actually quite wide, with 15 feet at the shallowest point and deep and unobstructed water beyond. Slowly we pick our route down the lagoon to the anchorage in front of Boddam Island. The reefs, sometimes 100 feet across, are easy enough to spot from the foredeck, and an hour later we are anchored in an open spot near the island.
Chagos is something of a cult destination. There are people who have been coming here for 25 years, a few months this year and a few the next. They talk of seasons past, of events and people and tragedies and generosities. They represent an ongoing sailor’s memory of the place, and they are called the Ancients. Probably the only single attribute you could pin on any of them is a pronounced propensity to helpfulness.
Humphrey motors over in his dinghy. He introduces himself and says, “I’ll bet you don’t know anybody named Humphrey…”
“You’re right,” I reply. Humphrey, who is senior even among the Ancients, tells us how to build a mooring in among the coral reefs close to shore, then leaves us to survey our surroundings.
The lagoon is about two miles long and perhaps a mile across. The water, wind-driven over the reef, is an unbelievable fluorescent turquoise where it shallows over sand. All the islands are covered with coconut trees, and here and there a grove of old-growth mahogany, called takamaka, shoulders its way through the coconuts. The gnarled takamakas were once shade trees around the homes of the old administrators, and the coconuts are the remains of a long-defunct copra plantation. The only sign of the former habitation we can see is a Christian cross still standing near the fallen-down jetty. Irene and I launch the dinghy and lug up the scuba gear and the 60 feet of old anchor chain we’d picked up in Malaysia. We choose a coral head the size of a compact car in an area closely bounded by three coral reefs and shackle a circle of chain around its base. The remaining buoyed tail of chain floats up to the surface, ready to be shackled to Moose’s long anchor snubber. Now comes the hard part: getting in and out. Irene has the hard job, controlling speed and using shots of throttle to make tight turns. My job is to stand on the cabintop and look for a plausible pathway. By now the tide has come up, and we insinuate our way in without incident. Kiwi Phil, another Ancient, is waiting in his dinghy ready to shackle our snubber to the buoyed chain, and in minutes Moose is secured.
It is late afternoon after a long day. I crack two beers, and we sit in the cockpit, satisfied with the day’s various accomplishments. The light is going. The sun is entangled in the tops of trees, and boobies and terns are returning from sea. Moose rests strangely motionless, like a horse sleeping in a stall. There is no sound, nor is there silence. Over miles of reef the great Indian Ocean swells boom endlessly, a constant subliminal roar, like some majestic background score. We sit without saying much.
In the morning we putter in and tie off the dinghy on the crumbling jetty. We walk past the cross, then along the wall of a roofless ruin whose odd round windows give it an Art Deco air, and emerge at a sand volleyball court divided by a washed-up fishnet. A tin-roofed shed pronounces itself the clubhouse of the RCYC, the Royal Chagos Yacht Club. In front of the shed is a low table made from a massive cast-iron flywheel from some Victorian engine. Around it are driftwood benches. Walking inland, we come upon the ruins of a copra-drying shed, a four-cell jail and an infirmary. The roofs are collapsed and the coral-block walls are cracked and latticed with strangler vine. Even in the morning there is an eerie sense of sudden departure, the feeling of an abandoned ship.
In a sense, it is. In the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, the United States made an agreement with the British government to lease the southernmost island of the archipelago, Diego Garcia, for a naval base. Vacant possession was agreed upon, and the inhabitants of all the islands were forcibly shipped off to Mauritius, whence their ancestors, generations before, had come to work in the copra plantation. This is why cruisers passing through find signs of recent habitation but no people.
Three types of cruisers visit the Chagos Archipelago. Round-the-world voyagers, like us, who are leaving the Malaysia/Thailand area bound for South Africa, come out on the favorable monsoon, wait a couple of months, and continue on toward Madagascar and Africa when the southeast tradewinds set in. The Indian Ocean is big, easily equaling the Atlantic, and the mid-passage stop is welcome. Later in the year these same winds bring boats from Australia via the Cocos-Keeling route. The third group is the Ancients, who center their cruising on Chagos. For them Chagos is an institution, and they exhibit a strong sense of stewardship.