"Turn to wind!" shouted Jamie, as a squall knocked the yacht sideways.
I clung to the helm, flinging Esper into the gale force blackness, sea spray piercing my eyes. Jamie grappled with the lines, his hands bleeding from friction burns. I must keep the wind off our beam, I thought, otherwise it's all over.
Chagos, our destination, is situated at the southern tip of the Chagos-Laccadive Ridge, visible at sea-level in the Lakshadweeps, Maldives and the Chagos Archipelago. The US naval base of Diego Garcia marks its southernmost inhabited point. Only military personnel live in Chagos now, the British having removed the local population in the 1960's when it leased Diego Garcia to the US. Chagos is accessible to those with their own vessel and a permit to visit from the British Indian Ocean Territory's offices issued before arrival. We had our permit and were good to go.
We departed Naalaafushi, a sleepy island in Meemu Atoll, with the wind blowing 25kt from the west, a good angle from which to make our twenty-six hour passage to Huvadhoo Atoll, the penultimate jumping off point from the Maldives to Chagos. As night fell we were racing south. Then we passed the shelter of Kolhumadulu Atoll, and the first squall hit. With too much sail, we fought to keep Esper out of the raging waves. An hour later the storm calmed and although the yacht had been blown off course we pointed her back to our destination.
But Neptune had other plans, and throughout the night we fought relentless wind and tide. The next day was worse, now we could see spume whipping off the top of the waves and malevolent black clouds crushing the sky. We gave up trying to get anywhere south, aiming instead back towards land. With the wind forever on Esper's nose, and waves breaking over the bow into our cockpit, the storms were unremitting, coming every hour then continuously throughout the second night. The easterly current and westerly wind pushed us further off-shore, and no matter which way we steered the Maldives remained illusive. Our compass pointed north-west, but our navigation instruments showed we were moving south-east. We were being pushed backwards. Esper made some headway between the storms, but after twenty-four hours of moving forward we arrived back where we started. We had entered the Twilight Zone, the only option seemingly to go where the wind took us, probably Australia.
Jamie and I hand steered in the open cockpit, Esper's autopilot not strong enough to deal with storm conditions. To understand how this felt, imagine going to the gym for a workout and spending half an hour weight training on the bench, extend that to 96 hours, add driving rain and waves of salt-water hurtling at you, while you stand at a 35º angle regularly being thrown off your feet. With no food and a few minutes sleep the hallucinations kicked in. Both of us heard choirs singing and snatches of conversation from friends and unknowns. A WWII fighter pilot babbled incomprehensible instructions at me from the binnacle. I saw a city suburb in the illuminated compass, complete with trees, road markings and detached houses. Our wind instrument turned into a clown. When Jamie saw a spectre looming over me, we knew we'd have to pull it together if we were going to survive.
Moving below decks was treacherous: water bucketed through a broken hatch, oily bilge liquid seeped through the floor boards and both heads (toilets) overflowed. The bucking yacht made it impossible to use the galley, but our bodies had kicked into 'fight or flight' and the adrenalin squashed any yearning for food.
By the third day, with judicious steering, we managed to shave degrees towards land. As another wall of white water raced across the ocean in our direction, we reminded each other that at some point it would all be over, one way or another. That night our forestay broke. In the gale, we clipped onto the deck and inched our way towards the bow. Somehow Jamie managed to pull down our wildly flapping sail, and we stuffed it, along with gallons of Indian Ocean, into the fore-cabin.
On day four we reached the lee of South Male' Atoll. Wet through, wired, and with a damaged boat, we limped towards safe haven in Hulhumale' anchorage. The only question now was, where next?