Cyclone Alert
- Executive Decisions Between Chagos and Mauritius

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- You don't seem to be adequately equipped for your journey!

The poor guy could probably not help himself. He obviously had a pressing need to say something insulting. All personnel of BIOT (British Indian Ocean Territory) whom we had talked to or corresponded with until now had been very kind and helpful - excluding Richard G.C. Marshall, Commander, Royal British Navy, Commanding Officer at Diego Garcia and representative for the Commissioner of BIOT and next only to God in this part of the world, maybe.

I had contacted the BIOT authorities at Diego Garcia, only 15 nm to the SW of us, on VHF after we had received information of a possible cyclone. Having left the Salomon Islands atoll the day before we were on passage to Mauritius, around 1,100 nm further southwest.

Information taken from UGRIB showed a cyclone forming May 13th, 18:00 UTC, just south of  Diego Garcia, at 8°S 71°E (right in our path) moving in a SW direction 252°, at a speed of 264 miles per day. (In addition there was an alert for another cyclone forming north of Australia further away). This serious peril was confirmed by the Port Control of Diego Garcia, who told us that the Pacific Hurricane Warning Center had issued a heads-up for a cyclone forming at 10°S between 75°E and 80°E. The advice was: stay away from that area!

I told DG Port Control that under the circumstances I didn’t have any choice and, because of my responsibility for the safety of my crew and ship, I had to declare a Maritime Emergency in accordance with International Maritime Laws. Therefore I requested permission to enter the well protected harbour of Diego Garcia for shelter from the announced storm. I made the request also on behalf of the yacht ELAINE, sailing a couple of miles behind us.

At first all looked promising; the people at Port Control started to obtain details of our yachts and crew, even the length of the boats (indicating to me that they were planning where to dock us), but after an hour entered Commander Marshall – and all our hopes of a safe haven were torpedoed.
Diego Garcia is a restricted military area with no access for outsiders, was his message. His only 'offer' was to 'allow' us to go back and take shelter in the Salomon islands, something that we naturally had been considering already. I told the Commissioner that going back was a bad solution because there was presently no wind and we had already been motoring a lot. Going back an additional 24 hours would make an extra 48 hours of engine-running and would later put us at risk of finding ourselves 1,000 nm from anywhere short on fuel. I pointed out that a) the cyclone threat had been confirmed, b) that returning to Salomon would generate a new risk of being in the ITC (Intratropical Convergence) Zone short on fuel and c) just 10 nm ahead of us we had the perfect hurricane hole of Diego Garcia.

This is where Richard Marshall, CDR, RN, CBF/BRIT REP, decided to turn personal and began challenging my judgement as navigator, giving the remark at the beginning of this story.  He also said that he had been contacted by some yachts still in the Salomon atoll, which had made the right decision; not to leave yesterday, like you should have done too!

Few, if any, sailing vessels can be equipped, in a practical way, with enough fuel for crossing an ocean by auxiliary engine alone. This year there had been generally much less wind than usual in the Indian Ocean and all sailing boats had been motoring a lot more than customary. Even though we had carefully planned our movements accordingly, we had not taken an additional 48-hour detour (equal to an extra amount of about 150 litres of fuel) into consideration. Regarding the remaining yachts at Salomon; there was no sign of a cyclone upon our departure, as far as we knew, and none of the yachts up there had delayed their departure for such a reason – on the contrary, some had wanted to leave on the same day with us, but where not ready because of repairs and other preparations.

I gallantly reminded Richard Marshall that he would be held responsible for the consequences of his refusal to provide the requested shelter and asked him to enter my protest in his records.

- Are you declaring a Mayday?
- Of course not, at least not yet. But this may be a Pan-Pan situation.

As an option to the Salomons, we were then told, in a Pan circumstance, going to the Egmont Islands would also be permitted. They are located around 70 nm NW of Diego Garcia.

I told Commander Marshall that I regarded his decision unreasonable, inhuman and probably unlawful. I thought that the least he could do now was to obtain as much information about the weather forecasts as possible and send it to us by email. He agreed to send what forecasts they could obtain within 24 hours.

Chagos - now officially BIOT - on the chart (left).

Salomon atoll is at the top and DG around 120 south of it.

Incidence of cyclones and danger months (above). We were at the red dot!

Egmont Islands left of centre (map on left).

Click on maps for larger versions.

We maintained our southerly course on the east side of Diego Garcia while we tried to find what information we had available on Egmont Islands. Apart from the charts, which show the atoll dotted with the usual coral heads and a shallow pass on the north side there is little information available, particularly without internet, because the Egmont islands are off limits to the public. Therefore there are no notes to be found by cruisers describing navigation within this atoll or its pass. We called DG Port Control several times on the VHF for waypoints for entering and for anchoring, but nobody could give us any advice whatsoever.

Because the forecasted cyclone was still a couple of days ahead and as we had no knowledge of the suitability of Egmont in a cyclone or even how to enter that atoll, we decided, reluctantly, to continue south during the following night, awaiting Marshall’s weather report. We reasoned that, in a bad case, we would still have time to return north and, in the worst case, perhaps get permission to enter Diego Garcia after all.

Commander Marshall probably left his office that day thinking he had done a great job fending off intruders from their clandestine atoll. However, aboard two small sailing vessels not far away four persons were watching the clouds at sundown wondering what was in store for them. As darkness fell we could see the lights of Diego Garcia astern. It was going to be a long night.

Next morning we received an email from Richard Marshall: According to all available Met sources, the Southern Indian Ocean basin had no Cyclone activity at the moment.


Fortunately the cyclone threat turned out to be a non-event. However, neither Richard Marshall nor we knew that this was going to be the case one day earlier, when we were refused shelter. On the contrary, there was an alert hanging over our heads. The proper thing to do would have been to give us access to the harbour over night while finding out more about the lurking cyclone. What is so secret about Diego Garcia that the authorities are taking the risk of sending small boats into a possible storm, when it wasn't absolutely necessary? We were in a similar situation one month earlier, when we decided to leave the harbour at Foamullah during the tsunami-warning (see story here). With hind sight one could argue that it wasn't necessary to leave, but we think it was the only right decision.

Rod Heikell writes (Indian Ocean Pilot, 1999 edition) that "Diego Garcia can be entered in an emergency situation only. The Royal Navy will do their best to help in a serious emergency. This is not the place to go for a minor engine problem, a blown out sail or a minor medical problem. Call VHF16 2182 kHz and request permission to enter." The BIOT administration also writes, in our permit to visit Chagos, that, if "you have an emergency that you consider life threatening, BIOT authorities in Diego Garcia will consider all reasonable assistance".

For us out there that evening, possibly in the path of a revolving storm, all this nice writing looked like bullshit. Few threats on the ocean could be considered more lifethreatening than a cyclone. In my opinion the BIOT should seriously think about revising their policy in this matter.

A generalised sketch of the breeding ground and paths of cyclones in SW Indian Ocean.
We were at the red dot!

NOTE: The cyclone season in the SW Indian Ocean is considered to last from December through March.

Related reading: Chagos - The Forbidden Archipelago.

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