Family Magazine

Chagos Archipelago-better Than a Soap Opera

By Behan Gifford @sailingtotem

Chagos archipelago-better than a soap opera

Cruisers love to love Chagos. They rhapsodize about the picturesque islands, amazing underwater life, and self-sufficient living. They wonder how they’’ll manage for a month without being bored out of their skulls, then wake up months later and reluctantly leave only because they’’re running out of supplies (well, back when you actually could stay that long, but boats now are easily maxing out their permits).The stories, the drama, the cast of characters–you can see why the Cult of Chagos came to be. But some of it reads more like a soap opera than a peaceful little fleet:

  • – Boats kicked out for fighting and general bad behavior (threating other yachties with a machete?!)
  • – Crew being thrown off their boat by the captain (not a lot of options out here)
  • – Silly fiefdom building, along the lines of “”this is my private beach, you can’’t walk through”.” (delusions of grandeur? or, Lord of the Flies, “grownup” style?)
  • – Wife from one boat moving in with a singlehander on another boat for a week (very confusing to husband)
  • – Removal of one crew by BIOT, flown back to the UK for trial (alleged terrorist activities)
  • – An annual collection of boats lost, or nearly lost, on the unforgiving reef

But we have our own cast of characters and dramatic events in the fleet this year. There was the harrowing, all-day rescue of the boat adjacent to Totem when it broke free of the mooring and went up on the reef-at 4am, in a squall, as Murphy would require–a story too long for this post, save to say against all odds it is still floating. And there was the boat that showed up without provisions because they were caught in Maldives without a cruising permit and had to leave immediately with whatever was on board. I’m told of two events of crew jumping ship in the weeks before we arrived, and then there was the dinghy that went missing because the buddy-diver/snorkeler got bored and decided to get in the water instead of minding the tender. Well, shocker, it floated away. Whoops! But miracle of miracles, three weeks later the dinghy was found, just a hundred or so miles from Chagos, by a French crew on their way down from Maldives, who proceeded to ransom it back to the original owners for $250.

Apparently BIOT officials used to make regular stops in the handful of permitted anchorages, bringing fresh fruit and vegetables as well as hosting a barbeque for the yachties with the kind of treats we all just dream about: real sausages (after months of halal groceries before Chagos), ice cream, even lobster tails!

The barbecues don’’t happen anymore; that’s fine, but the general lack of engagement from BIOT officials is a little odd. After making one boat leave (in squally weather, in bad light, late in the day, when they weren’’t prepared to take off on a passage) because their permit had expired, they’’ve not been back. The boat had been waiting for better conditions, and instead was forced to leave in one the poorer combinations of conditions anyone could conjure up. That was about a month ago, and while I don’’t expect a barbecue, it would be nice to at least get our passports stamped or have some sign that the BIOT is paying attention…but then again, maybe they’’re too busy rounding up illegal fishing boats that come sneaking around the territory.

Chagos may be paradise for many cruisers, but it’’s just paradise lost for the Chagossians. They arrived as slaves to French plantation owners in the late 18th century, freed when the islands (then part of Mauritius) were ceded to the British in 1810. Generations of families lived here, evolving a unique creole dialect, in lives centered around copra farming. Of the first island where Totem anchored, we could walk the ruins and relics of a thriving community: a church, a school, a hospital. In the late 1960s and early 70s, these Chagossians— British citizens—were forcibly expelled by their own government as part of an agreement with the UK to lease the Diego Garcia to the USA. They weren’’t given a choice, or anything remotely resembling appropriate resettlement options or funding. Wikileaks illuminated communications from government officials that referred to the families that had been here for generations as “”some few Tarzans or Man Friday.”” You can’t make that up.

More recently, the British government has tried to justify the resettlement claims which (as far as I can tell) only left many (most?) Chagossians impoverished. Officials have even communicated privately that the establishment of a marine park was basically just a ruse to prevent Chagossians from resettling (thank you Wikileaks, again).

On so many fronts, it’’s beyond appalling. The documentary, Stealing A Nation, can be streamed for free and tells the story in more detail.

So-Chagos…Paradise? Paradise lost? I’’ve had a running debate on Totem about whether we should have spent another month in Maldives, or a month in Chagos. No answers yet, but more to think about, in a later post.

[We’re in Chagos! I can’t see comments, but will respond once we hit Real Internet…about ten days from now, but who’’s counting? Um, ME. No internet = ugh.]

Readers who agree the Chagossians were royally screwed know we really appreciate it when you read this on the Sailfeed website.

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