Gerry Knight - Seychelles
Gerry submitted the following article for the 2021 Peter Batterley Award.
Cruising the Seychelles A typical beach on the island of La Digue Whilst marooned at home in a pandemic with limited prospects of sailing what better medicine than to revisit a once in a lifetime (probably) cruise in the glorious Seychelles (or Seashells as the second mate renamed them). Apart from the sailing these islands possess flora and fauna found nowhere else on earth. And the geology is also unique with white coral beaches dominated by huge granite boulders forming the backdrop to many a Hollywood epic. The Seychelles archipelago consists of 115 islands located in the Indian Ocean. The central group, including the principle island of Mahe are located some 800 miles south east of Somalia, 700 miles north east of Madagascar and about 4.5_deg south of the equator and 55.5_deg east of Greenwich. They are fully exposed to the monsoon winds which are in the south east for half the year and the south west for the other half and sailing can be a little intimidating for a novice to ocean sailing with no marinas and few harbours. For our cruise the wind was in the south east and the forecast never varied, force 5 to 7 twenty four hours a day every day! St Pierre Island off Praslin Page 1 of 13 Heavy surf on the windward coast of La Digue With most nights spent at anchor the windward sides of the islands are seasonally untenable with lee shores and no safe havens. However, a compensating feature is that the water is so clear you can always see the bottom and thus avoid the weed as you watch the broken coral and shell set around your anchor like wet cement. So, we managed to set the anchor first time every time with not the slightest tendency to drag even in offshore winds gusting 30 knots. However there is also a swell from the west that appeared to be unrelated to the local wind conditions. “Monkey Puzzle” and crew, Ann & Edward (7), at anchor off Curieuse Sun 27 Jul: Victoria – Mahe After a long flight from Heathrow we decided to spend the first night in Victoria and start our cruise afresh the following morning, this despite being warned of a smelly fish processing plant in the harbour. We obtained a lift into the town of Victoria to shop for supplies and were surprised at the limited range available in the supermarket. No fresh milk for example. (But then, we saw no cows either.) Mon 28 Jul: Sainte Anne Island: Baie Beau Vallon – Mahe Not three miles out of the harbour we came across our first picture postcard beach on a small island in brilliant sunshine so we dropped anchor and made to go ashore. But, there was a large swell running on to the beach and getting ashore didn’t look easy. Whilst we were pondering a wooden launch arrived with its pilot standing at the tiller. He paused offshore, watching the waves, eventually chose one, powered the boat onto it and deftly lifted the Page 2 of 13 outboard as the boat rode the wave and landed high and dry on the beach whereupon his passenger stepped ashore. Would that work with a rubber dinghy I wondered? I decided to give it a go, but on my own, just in case. I did get through the swell without mishap but thought it might be a bit risky with three people in the dinghy and decided we should focus on finding a safe anchorage for the night. Anyway, we’d only gone three miles. So we sailed around the northern tip of Mahe to the leeward side of the island until we came across a suitable beach with other boats anchored off and signs of life ashore. Though we had an offshore wind there was still a significant swell onto the beach which made landing somewhat undignified and a little damp. But, undaunted, we took an exploratory walk in our new and strange environment. But the best was yet to come! Tue 29 Jul: Baie Beau Vallon - Mahe There being no mass tourism in the Seychelles facilities are limited and the usual form is to book a table for dinner at a hotel ashore. But having a small child aboard we opted for an informal Pizza Bar on the beach. Most of the clientele were local as were the small lizards which periodically dropped onto our table from the canopy above. If getting ashore was difficult then re-launching was even more so. Having propelled the dinghy off the beach with crew aboard the motor would have to start first pull, or second at most, otherwise all ended up in a heap back on the beach! We met another couple who had learnt this lesson the hard way and when dining ashore they packed their evening clothes in waterproof bags and changed on the beach. Of even greater concern to me was the state of the dinghy in that the rowlocks had long since failed so that if the outboard engine had failed and with the strong offshore winds we might have ended up in Africa. Page 3 of 13 Wed 30 Jul: Baie Ternay – Mahe Having spent two days acclimatising it was time to move on and explore. Sailing along the coast to the western extremity of Mahe as the wind was increasing we found a deep sheltered cove at Baie Ternay and dropped anchor as close to the beach as we could. Even so we had quite a wild night of it, with the wind on the bows and the swell on the stern we were in constant, sometimes violent, motion. This made me quite envious of the ketch anchored next to us at Beau Vallon that had set a small sail on the mizzen and rode comfortably head to wind. Just one other boat joined us in the bay before dark, but was gone in the morning. Looking out from our anchorage at Baie Ternay The central group of islands are granitic and surrounded by rocky outcrops which look quite intimidating to the sailor but perhaps more dangerous are the unseen coral reefs which occupy the voids between. There is no buoyage to speak of but the occasional crucifixion cross cemented to the top of a rock is a salutary warning if not very informative. Thu 31 Jul: Anse A La Mouche – Mahe The next day, with strong head winds and narrow passages between islands, we motored down the west coast of Mahe to Anse A La Mouche, a beautiful sheltered bay with shallow water and sandy beaches backed by green forest. We seemed to have the whole bay to ourselves and concluded that our summer holiday period was the local quiet season. We dined ashore at the Anchor Café and were made to feel welcome but they didn’t appear to be open for business and the food was uninspiring. Page 4 of 13 Fri 01 Aug: Beau Vallon – Mahe There seemed to be little more to see on Mahe, apart from yet more idyllic beaches and, as we wanted to have adequate time to explore the other islands, we decided to head back to Beau Vallon as being the best departure point for Praslin. As we sailed back up the west coast of Mahe we experienced some waves building to mast height as the swell approached the coastal shallows. It was quite intimidating to watch these massive walls of water bear down on our beam. However, the waves were smooth and perfectly sinusoidal with no trace of white water and the boat just rode over them without consequence. The first mate had anyway by now established our limiting criteria for sailing conditions in that if the lid would not stay on the barbeque then it was too rough. But that did not help us when rounding the western cape as, sailing downwind under genoa alone, with the wind dying we were suddenly hit by a huge gust from a different direction. The boat spun through more than 360 degrees before we could release the jib sheet as, on the Oceanis 361, the helmsman is effectively trapped behind the wheel with the sheet winch beyond reach and the sheet tension was too high for the first mate to cope. This wind appeared to come out of nowhere and died away just as suddenly so, with our destination in sight we motored the rest of the way. An Inter-Island “schooner” heading for Curieuse Fuel is very expensive and heavily taxed in the Seychelles and we even had to pay a fuel tax up front. I imagine that this is because fuel imports are a heavy drain on the economy of the islands. One consequence is the inter-island “schooners” always motor sail everywhere to conserve fuel, but they never seem to set a jib for some reason. Page 5 of 13 Sat 02 Aug: Baie Ste Anne – Praslin Having obtained permission, via VHF, to leave Mahe and visit the outlying Islands, we set sail for the island of Praslin. This passage required much concentration as there are many isolated rocky outcrops and even those that were visible were still a threat if under our lee. Eventually the Baie Ste Anne came into view and, from a distance, looked quite inviting. But there is a coral reef extending right across the entrance and, as the bay was exposed to the SE there was a significant swell over it. It has a narrow channel cut through marked by a pair of buoys (the only such we saw throughout our cruise). However, they were only about 30_m apart. This meant that we would have to literally surf in through the gap and with no space to turn around this would require total commitment, a little worrying as I had not seen any other vessel enter or leave the harbour. After lying off for a while, double checking my position, I decided to go for it and once inside found conditions relatively calm but, of course, that was not discernible from outside the reef. Inside the harbour we found all the sheltered anchorages were taken and though we tucked in as close as we dare to Eve Island, the Anse Lamour being too shallow for keel boats, we were still exposed to the tail of the swell across the reef. But it had been a long crossing and we were by now getting quite used to the constant motion, though we did envy those boats, just a few metres away, in relative calm. We later explored the harbour and town but found few tourist facilities. Though there were no cafes or restaurants there was a local custom for families to entertain visitors in their dining rooms. So we took advantage of this and booked in for dinner at such a house, along with the crew from another boat. The local cuisine was somewhat unusual but made a pleasant change from dining at anchor. The Coco De Mer Palm Sun 03 Aug: Baie Ste Anne – Praslin The following day we set out to explore the Praslin National Park containing the UNESCO Coco De Mer Forest. The Coco de Mer is endemic to Praslin and La Digue and has the largest nuts of any species on earth. Our guide book also pointed us towards some local bird varieties, in particular the Seychelles Bulbul which was said to be particularly amenable to human company. In fact, they found us and were indeed most friendly, even cheeky. Another endemic specie, the Seychelles Skink, was to be found on almost every plant. In fact everywhere we looked there were strange plants and creatures unlike any we’d seen before and the island appeared largely undeveloped and unspoilt. I believe that over 50% of the Seychelles land mass is contained within nature reserves. Page 6 of 13 The Seychelles Bulbul (Hypsipetes crassirostris) There were no refuelling facilities available to yachts away from Mahe but a local did come out to us in a dinghy with some Jerry cans. We had to disappoint him however as, with so much wind we didn’t need any fuel for the whole cruise. We did however need water and having tied up to the local quay in search of same we found that there was only one tap and that was onshore and out of reach of our hose. The quay was in fact the inter-island ferry terminal and the only way I could reach the tap in the terminal building was to squeeze between the ferries. As I was effectively single handed I swallowed my pride and asked a local for help. He thought about it for a moment and then agreed provided he was the ship’s captain. What could possibly go wrong? Well, he had his moment of glory and we filled our tanks, fortunately without incident. Cheeky Bulbul Page 7 of 13 The Seychelles Skink Mon 04 Aug: Anse Lazio – Praslin Our next passage was to Anse Lazio at the northern tip of Praslin where we spent a quiet night at anchor off the beautiful beach in glorious isolation, apart from a huge cruise ship that passed in the night, blazing with light. I can’t imagine where they would berth in the Seychelles. A beach on Curieuse Page 8 of 13 Tue 05 Aug: Laraie Bay – Curieuse: Anse Volbert - Praslin The following day we anchored off Curieuse Island in Laraie Bay and went ashore for perhaps the highlight of our cruise to visit the famous Aldabra Tortoises. What amazing creatures these giant tortoises are. The mature animals can be well over 100 years of age and are even larger than one might imagine a giant to be, weighing up to a quarter of a tonne. They appear quite comfortable, even curious, in human company (the curious of Curieuse) and soon made friends with the second mate. Instant Friends The tortoises are actually “farmed” on the island and the crew were shown into a building to see the babies. Even further entertainment was found whilst traversing the boardwalk on route to the island museum; playing with the land crabs. There were scores of them, very large and bright red and they simultaneously ducked into their individual mud burrows when they detected your presence and then, if you kept perfectly still they all re-emerged together in slow motion. You don’t have to be as young as seven to play that game! But it helps. That night was spent at anchor off Anse Volbert back on Praslin, yet another gorgeous bay and beach. Page 9 of 13 La Passe Harbour – La Digue (Monkey Puzzle is the third boat from left) Wed 06 Aug: La Passe – La Digue Now, running out of time, our next destination was to be the famous island of La Digue, not to be missed. We managed to squeeze into the tiny harbour at La Passe where there was a pier for the inter-island schooners but not for mere yachties of course. So we were at anchor yet again with a stern line ashore and fenders between boats. However we were on the leeward side of the island and the harbour had stone breakers to keep out the swell so, for the first time on our cruise, we enjoyed total calm and a dry dinghy run ashore. The harbour is so tiny that catamarans had to anchor outside in the swell, poor things. As a lifelong fellow of the RSPB I was keen to see perhaps the rarest bird in the world, the Seychelles Black Paradise Flycatcher, which was to be found on this island and nowhere else on the planet. But it was decided that twitching in the forest was not an appropriate activity for a family holiday. We spent a couple of days on La Digue and hired bicycles so that we could thoroughly explore this beautiful island. The coastal roads however were quite tricky as sand on tarmac makes for a slippery ride, especially with second mate on the back. But the scenery was simply stunning, especially at Petite Anse, as I hope the following photos demonstrate. There were surprisingly few people on the more famous beaches of La Digue but then there was quite a surf running. One beach emptied entirely as someone called “run, deadly jellyfish” and everyone did indeed run and we found ourselves in the way of the resulting stampede. The first mate, an accomplished cook, was amazed to find vanilla plants growing on the island and bought some pods as a souvenir. (We only saw one gift shop and it was closed.) Page 10 of 13 The Coconut Oil Mill on La Digue Thu 07 Aug: La Passe – La Digue There were few signs of industry on the island nor even of agriculture. On a couple of beaches there were indications of past boat building activity, now largely derelict. The people of the islands appear to lead quite simple lives though we saw no signs of poverty. In one town we witnessed the opening of a luxury goods shop which had attracted quite a large crowd. Curious to discover what the fuss was about I moved to enter but the security guard on the door would not let me in because I wasn’t wearing a shirt! Towards the end of our last day we stopped for a rest and parked our bikes against a convenient tree near the coconut mill. As we pondered our next move a large black bird with a prodigious long tail alighted on the bough above us. But where did I put my camera? La Digue was probably the most interesting and diverse island we visited but there are so many more yet unseen! However our time was up and we thought it sensible to head back for Mahe with a day The Seychelles Black Paradise Flycatcher in hand, just in case. (Image stolen from Naturetrek) Page 11 of 13 A freshwater pool just behind the beach at Petite Anse - La Digue. The stunning view inland with the central forest of La Digue behind. Page 12 of 13 Fri 08 Aug: Victoria – Mahe The passage to Mahe proved to be a quite challenging. We were close hauled in a choppy sea; the first mate was seasick; and a major diversion was required to avoid a lee shore. Even having made it safely back to Victoria the difficulties experienced mooring up rate an account in and of themselves. This was to be our last charter and, though I did buy a dinghy, cruising adventures were not to resume until I retired and bought my own yacht in 2012. Sat 09 Aug: Victoria – Mahe This last day was spent exploring the town of Victoria and packing for the flight home. And explaining how we came to cut an ugly groove in the hull of a brand new superyacht. Sunday 10 August: London – Heathrow The return flight was uneventful but we arrived back in a heat wave with the pilot reporting the temperature on the ground at 40_degC. There was a major problem clearing through immigration and thousands of passengers were kept standing around in arrivals for a couple of hours. Oh, and the second mate had contracted cryptosporidiosis and was “unwell” in the midst of it all. (I learnt today that direct flights to the Seychelles are no longer available.) Whilst reflecting on this cruise some eighteen years later I have come to realise what a stunning and unique experience we enjoyed. And we only visited four of the islands. But looking at Google Earth I find that a massive new marina complex has been built at Port Victoria and there are many new buildings, hotels and catering establishments around the islands. I doubt therefore that we would ever again experience the peace and tranquillity that we enjoyed then but it remains a unique destination and there is so much more to see so that I would not hesitate to return if the opportunity arose. How about a GXSA cruise/rally in La Digue? P.S. The cruise described herein took place in 2003 and much may have changed in the Seychelles since then and some statements made may no longer be true. P.P.S. For the sake of brevity I have left out descriptions of the mishaps, accidents, and lessons learned. © Gerald Knight 04 March 2021 Page 13 of 13