The uninhabited 2,300 islands of Chagos are treasured by long range cruisers. About 1000 miles from India and the same from Africa, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, it's about as far away from civilisation as you can get. Now, yet another sailing boat is headed for the idyllic Chagos Archipelago, but there's a difference...
Diego Garcia - heavily guarded, high security
It's treasured because of its thousands of coral atolls, natural beauty, fantastic anchorages, wonderful snorkelling and the bountiful fish that can be caught there. Typically, long term cruisers spend several months there, living off the sea and their own provisioning. BUT... there's a grisley story that lurks behind this uninhabited paradise.
The story is a dramatic one of international subterfuge, vast sums of illicit money, super power intrigue, high-end politics, deceit and kidnap which would do justice to a modern spy novel. The difference is, it's all true, and it happened right here on Chagos – and the human misery that was the byproduct of that story is still going on.
In 1965, the descendants of slaves transported to the islands more than a century and a half before, were forcibly removed from their idyllic islands and transported to Mauritius. Why? Because the British had made a great deal with the United States, who wanted a strategic base in the Indian Ocean, but demanded that they have unique and uninterrupted use of the islands. 'No problem' was the apparent reply, 'we'll just move the locals somewhere else,' and gave the super power an exclusive lease.
The United States, armed with an iron-clad lease, have since operated a high security base on one of the islands, Diego Garcia, and there are constant military personnel there in big numbers. The lease allows them exclusive access, and the barely tolerated itinerant cruising sailors who spend months there at a time are at times ignored, sometimes harassed, never never allowed anywhere near the island of Diego Garcia.
Over the years, there have been sporadic efforts to bring the plight of the Chagossians, still living in exile in Mauritius, to the world's attention. However, the might of two of the greatest political powers on earth and the difficulties of the existence of that insidious lease, have so far prevented the Chagossians from achieving their passionate dream – that of returning to the only place they call 'home', and the place where their ancestors are still buried.
Now there's a new David who is out to front the Goliath.
Sam Bouquet, British shipwright, and coincidentally the son of Peter Bouquet, the original skipper of Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior, is setting out on a 10 metre sailing boat, Cindik, which he has built himself from recycled materials to sail to Chagos. His intention? Apart from wanting to draw attention to the plight of the Chagossians, he wants to raise enough cash to enable them to acquire, run and maintain their own vessel so that they can visit the graves of their ancestors. His father, from whom he obviously inherited his idealism and methodology, is now on his own boat Musichana, in Malaysia, and will sail to meet with Sam in a project which is shared jointly between father and son. The two have the support of many other concerned people, both in cash and in kind - for instance Peter's boat, Musichana, was donated to him specially for this project.
So far, Sam has reached Turkey, where he is making final preparations for his journey, scheduled for the beginning of December. However, during the journey, he has also garnered considerable enthusiasm and support from the people he has met along the way. So much so that a support group has been set up, memorably called the People's Navy, and the project is now on line at www.peoplesnavy.com.
The US Navy personnel, who patrol and guard the atolls, and from time to time visit and check on the sailing boats who spend months there at a time, is hardly likely to be happy about this new turn of events.
We'll be following the Cindik and the Musichana as they take on the US Navy single-handed, so watch this space.
(To check the location and islands of the Chagos Archipelago, click on the thumbnail maps below)