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The Best Destination in the World Page 2

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

A day in the life

Paradoxically, cruising can sometimes be quite hectic. Take, for example, a typical day midway through our stay at Boddam Island.

At the 0600 sunrise, I poke my head out of the companionway to see how the sky looks. I reconfirm yesterday’s commitment not to start writing yet (this place is marvelously non-conducive to work). I also marvel that at Chagos you can leave gear on deck and not lock down the boat—a wonderful freedom. It’s also nice that we will be three months without touching money; there is nothing to buy and no one to sell it.

Irene likes to monitor the 8104-kHz Chagos net to see how inbound boats are doing. We get coffee and muesli going and pencil in the day’s plans. I’m going to install a 5-foot pole on the bow pulpit to accommodate the lesser noddies that like to perch there between bouts of fishing; this will get their tail-feathers over the water and not the deck. I’m going fishing in the afternoon with Jimbo, and Irene wants to go for a walk around the southern half of the island. Normally she would do a 5-mile run, up and down the beach at low tide, but we are at neap tides and the water doesn’t recede enough to expose the firmer sand. We are optimistic about achieving our objectives.

At 0800 Irene and I start off on our walk. The path in the coconut forest is soft with moss and crumbled coral and sand. It is still dark enough for coconut crabs to be out and moving around. They react to us by backing up against tree roots and threatening with one gesturing claw. Three steps later I get a faceful of spider web; the solution is a spider stick you twirl in front of you to entangle and remove the webs. We visit the old graveyard. It’s a bit gothic, an impression not alleviated by the fact that half the graves are only two or three feet long. We continue on as the path becomes alive with hermit crabs, all clattering about their affairs.

The tide is falling, and a concrete-hard ledge of coral runs out 100 feet to the surf line. In the foamy shallows schools of juvenile parrotfish, bright emerald green, are being washed in and out as they feed. If you wade out very slowly you can stand knee-deep among them.

Along the shoreline the sea has undercut the mat of coconut tree roots. At the high-water mark an endless line is strewn with plastic debris, mostly water bottles from Thailand, fishing floats, and flip-flops. In a mile of shore you would definitely find a left and right that is your size.

We come across a small balcony-like protrusion in the shoreline. On it sits a plastic chair. Fishing floats and frayed ropes from a long-gone hammock decorate the nearby trees. We find a well-maintained path heading back on an angle that might intercept the cross-island route; it snakes back through the trees, continues through an overgrown patch of taro and finally meets the cross-island path. On the way home we visit the well to fill a jerry can with water for on-deck showers. Since the southeast trades have established there will be no rainwater to collect on board. Three Thai girls are doing laundry at the well, scrubbing the clothes briskly with small brushes; they treat Irene with Buddhist compassion because she only soaks hers. We return to Moose for lunch.

Lunch accomplished, I assemble my pail of fishing gear: two spools of heavy braided line with built-in elastic shock absorbers, a fish club, trolling lures, the VHF, four big hooks, and an unctuous bag of tuna belly flaps that Irene had tolerated in the refrigerator. Moments later Jimbo roars up to Moose.

Jimbo is a lean Californian whose world view alternates between “fantastic” and “awesome.” We head off for the reef. Crossing the reef in a dinghy can be done only near high tide and in low surf. We choose the downwind side between Boddam and Anglaise and set off two hours before high water for a four-hour window.

As Jimbo drives I rig and set the two trolling lines. Within 5 minutes the dinghy yaws to port and I pull in a 4-foot-long wahoo. Awesome! Further trolling yields a skipjack and a rainbow runner, both modest. Rather than burn gasoline, we anchor out on a coral outcropping and bottom-fish. I am first to get a line over the side. Through my mask I see lots of aquarium fish, then suddenly I feel something scrabbling around on my upturned backside. I twist up, over the gunnel, and look at Jimbo, who is laughing so hard he can’t speak. A booby, with no fear of people, had landed on me. Our bottom fishing is wildly successful, yielding five groupers, each about 10 pounds.

Back in the bay, Basil, who is nine, chubby, and freckled, has been patiently watching the cleaning of the fish. We have removed the fillets from the bodies, leaving head and tail attached to the full carcass. “Can I have the head?” Basil, an enthusiastic shark feeder, asks in a winning French accent.

Basil keeps a piece of rope on the jetty near the cleaning table. He passes the end of it through the gaping jaws of the big grouper and then knots it twice. Out on the end of the jetty about a dozen black-tips are getting frantic, swimming in quick searching loops. When a reasonable audience has assembled, Basil braces his feet, gets a good grip on his end of the rope, and heaves the grouper carcass into the water.

Instantly, the water is alive with thrashing sharks. Basil plays a shark back and forth like a rodeo star. “Awesome!” says Jimbo. Basil shrugs and says, “Pfft! It’s nothing.”

In Chagos we’re obliged to fish for our table. The remaining three-quarters of the catch we place on coconut leaves to distribute around the fleet. A lot of people, inexplicably, don’t fish, and they truly welcome the gift.

By the time I’ve showered and Irene has organized beer and hors d’oeuvres for happy hour, it’s almost 1730 and dinghies are arriving at camp. We’ll be late again and get a bad seat beside a person whose conversational skills consist of increasing volume and never, ever listening. It’s usually a set piece; the same cast doing the same scene. The talk runs to who has flour to trade for eggs, or gasoline, or Indian rum. Darkness falls, and the mosquitoes disappear.

Chagos is a funny sort of place. Every season a new community is formed by the overlapping visits of cruisers. An annual zeitgeist, a spirit of the times, evolves. The Ancients inform me that seasons are as different as vintages. There have been years when wrongs festered into flare-ups and others as tolerantly festive as Race Week in Key West. Considering the range of social baggage, the potential exists for anything from anarchy to utopia: witness volleyball.

Volleyball games at Chagos are traditional and legendary; it’s curious that none of the Ancients play. I soon learn why. Given the informal atmosphere at Chagos, players of all abilities take to the field. The poorer ones hamper the play of the better; the good discourage the bad. The result is that people who wish to observe the official conventions of the game end up contesting that position, almost point-by-point, with those who say, “It’s Chagos. It’s just for fun.” There has been occasional unpleasantness.

By 2000 Irene and I head home, dodging reefs. The stars are so bright it is hard to make out the familiar constellations among the clutter of stars. There is no moon. Next week there will be spring tides and the highest range of the year. The coral reefs around Moose will be a foot above water briefly, and we will be almost landlocked. We drink a nightcap on the forward cabintop. It will soon be 2100, the cruiser’s midnight.

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