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Four Months in the Maldives

By Sue Richards last modified May 20, 2010 09:08 PM

Published: 2010-05-20 21:08:03
Countries: Maldives

Helen and Bryan Watt of SY “Aroha” spent four months cruising the Maldives in mid-2009 aboard their 37’ Bavaria.

MALDIVES PAPERWORK

The noonsite introduction is spot on on this one - the Maldives government definitely doesn’t welcome yachts and in fact appears to make it as difficult and expensive as possible to dissuade yachts from travelling around the Atolls.

Two reasons:
1) Greater revenues can be realised by concentrating on the five star resort tourist, and
2) There are many disturbing underlying political and social problems that the government is eager to keep out of the tourist eye.

We visited the Maldives for a total of about four months in mid 2009 and found accurate information on the myriad of bureaucracy very difficult to come by, even after consulting government websites and talking to local agents.

Summary:
- You can clear in at any of the three ports of entry and stay for as long as you want (subject to extending your tourist visa). The only catch is that you can’t move your boat beyond the approved anchorage (not even across the lagoon!), so who wants to do that!?
- To move your boat from the clear in port you will need to apply for an expensive “Inter-Atoll Cruising Permit”, which is valid for thirty days but extendible (at a price) up to maximum 45 days.
- After 45 days, the boat needs to leave the Maldives and clear in / out of somewhere else before being allowed back into the Maldives. In our case, this necessitated a 1,100 nm detour to Galle, Sri Lanka (unplanned) and Chagos (planned) to gain three separate Maldives clearances.
- You can only sign crew on and off at the clear in ports. This is not a problem at Male or Gan each with a nearby airport, but the nearest domestic airport to Uligam (Hanimadhoo) is about 40 minutes away by speed boat (and of course you can’t go there unless you’ve got an Inter-Atoll Cruising Permit, and the locals will charge you about $200 to bring crew from Hanimadhoo to Uligam by speedboat...)
- The authorities are extremely strict - one friend was fined around $1,000 for overstaying his tourist visa by two days.
- 90% of government revenue comes from tourist taxation. Cruising the Maldives is not cheap - we paid around US$1,800 in cruising permit fees, visa extensions, port charges, clearance fees...
- There is only one agent (Imaad) in Uligam who happens be the brother of the immigration official (Niyaz), so it’s a pretty smooth operation. He’s a nice guy and can sort out most things for you, for a modest mark up.
- There are only two agents in Gan. We used Masood who we found to be good in most respects. He’s a nice guy to boot.

MALDIVES PEOPLE. THE GOOD AND THE BAD.

We found the Maldivians to be by and large a relaxed and friendly people. As the Maldivian economy revolves around five star tourism, the locals have a strong expectation that foreigners exist solely to provide an easy lifestyle. They will think nothing of charging a foreigner $150 for a speedboat trip that is worth about $20 for a local. Foreigners in the Maldives are there to be used and abused!

Political opinions vary on a polar level, with locals either supporting the ex-president / dictator Gayoom, or the recently elected Nasheed. Locals are happy to share their (often radically opposing) views, but democracy is definitely in its infancy.

Hard drugs is a real problem. It is the principle reason that foreigners are not allowed to easily visit the local islands. It is not uncommon to see blood shot eyes and dazed expressions on the streets from late afternoon onwards. A combination of the above led to a couple of unpleasant experiences during out stay. In the most serious, we were boarded by aggressive and drugged locals at anchor (see “MALDIVES ATTACK- WARNING!!” below), in others we felt that we and our property were at risk, and in another I was targeted in a scam so comical and elaborate (involving falling coconuts breaking a plastic chair, followed by me being invited to pay for a new chair!) it made me laugh.

In between these unpleasant experiences, we met lots of friendly and generous people. We were frequently offered tuna, coconuts, and invited into people’s homes. The risk isn’t serious enough to stay away, but it’s worth taking a few more precautions than you would normally take “in paradise”.

MALDIVES ANCHORAGES

The noonsite introduction (again) is spot on - the Maldives really do lack all weather anchorages and most lagoons are very deep and exposed. To sum up our experiences, the water always seemed to be either too deep or too shallow - not much in between!

Because of the limited natural anchorages we found ourselves in the local commercial harbours roughly half of our time. This wasn’t an altogether bad thing - you miss the beauty of bare nature that you expect from the Maldives, but you get to experience the hectic, water-centric life of the local islands.

It is also easy (and recommended) to get off the tourist trail, as the “tourism zones” where the resorts are concentrated are clearly defined and overtouristed. Chart and tidal information is scarce. None of the local harbours we visited were even marked on our paper Admiralty nor electronic Navionics charts. Chart (paper and electronic) features were often off by up to a couple of hundred meters and navigational aids often varied wildly from their published location and (for example) flashing sequence. Reefs inside the lagoons are well marked (although not always in the same place as the charts...) often with a single white pole and flashing white light. We do not recommend travelling through the atolls at night.

We had tidal information for only three stations in the whole of the Maldives. We often found ourselves entering harbours, reef passes or anchorages on the top half of the tide with one of us keeping a keen lookout at the pointy end of the boat. We noted the time / state of the tide and minimum depth, to plan our departure more accurately. Marked reef passes / channels can be under 2m at low tide, and one harbour (Nilandhoo- see below) only had 1.6m at low tide!

Anchoring / mooring in local commercial harbours comes with its challenges, mainly due to the technique that the (numerous) local fishing dhonis and the box-like supply boats employ. They moor stern-too and trail numerous floating bow lines right across the harbour to the opposite wall or breakwater. This isn’t only to keep them moored perpendicular to the quay wall, but also used to extricate themselves from the inevitable tight mooring situations. The shallow-keeled, skeg-hung-rudder fishing dhonis get over these warps easy enough, but make for pulse-raising hazards for fin keeled sailing yachts. We occasionally recced a harbour in the dinghy first - the fishermen are generally amicable and happy to help out to move or hold warps under water, but we found the best strategy generally was to moor stern-to as near inside the harbour entrance as possible.

Another advantage of visiting the local commercial harbours is the cheap and easy wifi internet access. You can access this by prepaid Dhiraagu (one of the two local mobile phone providers) wifi cards (difficult to find in the shops) or by text message from a prepaid Dhiraagu SIM card (easy to find and to recharge).

I take no responsibility for the following GPS or depth information. I highly recommend consulting google earth, which we found to be an invaluable resource.

HARBOURS WE VISITED:

GAN-FEYDHOO, ADDU ATOLL. 00:41.18S 73:08.65E
Not really a harbour, more of a yacht basin. There are clearing in facilities here, it’s sheltered from all sides, has good holding in about 6m sand, diesel and supplies nearby. The only complaint is the frequent traffic (boat and motorbikes) at all hours. The frequent speed boats to / from the nearby Shangri-la resort use the jetty, although this is temporary until their dedicated pier near the airport opens (late 2010?).

The entrance can be a bit tricky as the edges of the channel aren’t well defined. The channel was marked by two black poles, both of which you keep to your starboard on the way in. The reef near the basin entrance provides good snorkelling.

The real advantage of visiting this part of the Maldives is that about five islands are joined by causeways, making this the longest stretch of paved (or unpaved for that matter) road in the Maldives. It’s well worth hiring a scooter (the tiny tourist shop opposite the entrance to the Equator Village resort will sort you out) and riding (slowly) the length of the string of islands and soaking up the local character.

FOAMMULAH. 0:18.55S 73:26.46E
Foammulah is the Maldives largest single island. It is very fertile and is one of the few places in the Maldives where you can buy fresh locally grown fruit and vegetables in any abundance. A newly constructed harbour (the biggest one we saw during our Maldives travels) offers very good all round protection. The swell can really roll in, as there is only one lick of reef to the S of the island, but the entrance to the harbour is long and very well protected. The harbour is large enough to swing at anchor if you choose your spot carefully to stay out of the way of the fishing boats. The large outdoor restaurant to the west of the harbour entrance serves decent local food and very good pizza. We (and our two fast food deprived kids...) were regular visitors there. The island is interesting to walk around, with a nice trail running up the east of the island. The fruit / veg market is housed in a non-descript concrete building, ten minutes walk west of the harbour.

GADHDHOO HARBOUR, SOUTH HUVADHOO ATOLL. 0:17.40N 73:27.25E
Gadhdhoo island is famous for its woven reed mats. The reeds are harvested from the neighbouring islands, dyed, and intricate patterns created by the women in a true cottage industry. If you ask the locals you should be able to see them being made and buy them at about a quarter of the cost compared to Male tourist shops. I wish I’d bought a couple more.

The harbour is small and busy, and sheltered from all directions. The channel is well marked but only about 2.4m at low tide.

VILINGILI HARBOUR, NORTH HUVADHOO ATOLL. 0:45.72N 73:26.01E
Vilingili is a small and friendly island. The neighbouring Kooddoo island is set aside exclusively for a tuna processing factory, staff accommodation and supporting facilities, including hydroponic gardens. The tuna factory is worth a visit. A lot of the workers live on Vilingili, so just ask around and someone will arrange an invitation. The GM Mr Abas is a well travelled and very nice guy.

The new commercial harbour at Vilingili is very busy, but you’ll get a better nights sleep in the almost abandoned old harbour immediately to the north. Enter through the channel from the lagoon (not the shallow connection from the new harbour) which is well marked and about 2.6m at low tide.

There is a newly dredged anchorage on the west side of Raaverrehaa island, just to the north of Vilingili. I’m uncertain of the depth, but it is a beautiful spot and still only a dinghy ride from the "civilisation" of Vilingili.

KOLUMAFUSHI HARBOUR, NORTH HUVADHOO ATOLL. 00:50.32N 73:11.14E
This small island was probably the friendliest we visited. Not many shops or restaurants here. The lagoon area (12-18m deep) NE of the harbour has been recommended by some cruisers, but in August, we found it to be very rolly and uncomfortable from the NW swell rolling over the top of the outer reef. The harbour is quite tight - we called on lots of help from the fishermen to negotiate the many lines. The channel is well marked and roughly 2.4m at low tide.

The nearby uninhabited Hithadhoo island (00:50.56N, 073:14.32E) is heavily wooded, has a nice bird population and offers excellent snorkelling (we liked the SE corner). It’s worth a dinghy trip across on a calm day.

GAN ISLAND, LAAMU ATOLL. 01:56.08N 73:32.34E
We didn’t like this local harbour at all - we felt for our safety and that of our dinghy and yacht. A couple of locals approached us soon after anchoring and warned us that the boat may not be safe if left unguarded. We thought it would be fun to rent scooters and ride along the causeways joining the islands, but it’s actually quite a dull ride on muddy unsealed tracks. Besides, we were worried all the time that someone was stealing our boat or knifing our dinghy.

The harbour to the west of Kadhdhoo domestic airport (01:51.30N, 073:31.03E) is used by dive safari boats for un/loading tourists and looks much more attractive. The channel is quite long and marked by sticks. Depth is unknown as we didn’t go there. There is a cafe opposite (at the airport), but no shops within walking distance. It’s a pretty spot.

NILANDHOO, NORTH NILANDHOO ATOLL. 03:03.56N 72:53.25E
This was one of our favourites. The new harbour is very shallow - about 1.6m at low tide(!!) but you can enter the old abandoned harbour (immediately to the west of the new harbour) by passing to the north of the little island. The channel is not especially well marked and is very, very shallow - only about 1.7m at low tide. Beware, there’s a sand bank encroaching across the channel, but is quite easy to see when the sun is high enough. If there’s one place to get in your dinghy (or in our case, kayak and diving mask!) with a hand held depth meter, this is it! The old harbour itself is only 2.1m at low tide- certainly the shallowest we’ve every anchored in! There is excellent swimming in the shallow aqua marine water surrounded by sand banks, right in front of the anchorage. There also seemed to be a lot of resident storks - beautiful birds making stunning photos.

The guidebook boasts of an old mosque and scores of hindu ruins on the island. The mosque is "nothing special", and we couldn’t find a single hindu stone. We were often disappointed by Lonely Planets excitable (and poorly researched) descriptions. The island is a good size - big enough so that you’re not too much of a novelty and pestered too much, but small enough to recognise people after a few days there. Despite us being there during Ramadan, we found a couple of good restaurants where you can get a good local feed for just a few dollars.

MALE, NORTH MALE ATOLL. 04:12.97N 73:32.77E
Male is an excellent provisioning base although we didn’t like the anchorage by the airport. It isn’t especially protected and can get very busy. It was literally full of dive safari boats when we were there, unable to lure tourists to the Maldives in the global recession. Just the sheer number of boats and people made us feel like our property was at constant risk of theft or damage. You definitely wouldn’t leave you dinghy unattended anywhere around here. A lot of cruisers befriend the (often bored) crew of neighbouring anchored dive boats to ferry them back and forwards to the ferry terminal, thus resolving the unattended-dinghy-on-the-dock theft problem. Anchor away from the ferry route- they run at all hours and at all speeds. The airport hotel offers day entry for those in need of cold beer (me), lounge chairs (my wife) and a nice pool (the kids).

NATURAL ANCHORAGES WE VISITED:

HULHUDEHELI, SOUTH NILANDHOO ATOLL. 02:51.63N 72:51.13E
We wanted to anchor off Ribudhoo island to the south, but found it surrounded by shallow coral reefs and deep drop offs (over 30m) all round. The alternative anchorage at Hulhudeheli was a real treat - the stuff cruising dreams are made of. The passage (on the NE corner of the lagoon) into the lagoon is well marked by bright yellow plastic containers but very shallow (we clocked 2.4m with about half tide), but opens into a beautiful lagoon with a sandy bottom at around 10m depth. There is a second marked passage to the east of the lagoon, but I don’t have any information on depths, etc. The local boats seem to prefer this one. The anchorage isn’t especially protected above the water (wind), but offers all round protection under the water (waves).

Hulhudeheli is known for its silver and black coral jewellery making. It’s a real cottage industry, but if you ask around you’re sure to find someone who’ll take you to a makeshift workshop in someone’s front room. The worked black coral is beautiful but surprisingly fragile. It’s protected and illegal to export it.

DHANGETHI, ARI ATOLL. 03:36.44N, 072:57.16E
Dhangethi is an island frequented by tourists from nearby resorts and dive safari boats and boasts numerous shark-jaw tourist shops. We found the people here to be very aggressive and had a very unpleasant experience. (See MALDIVES ATTACK- WARNING!! below). The lagoon is pretty but not protected. The entrance is poorly marked and shallow. Avoid the marked channel into the lagoon from the south which is for (shallow draft) speed boats. The well known Heritage Village on the island is worth a visit. The staff of the neighbouring Administration / Tourist office will let you in and show you around.

ULIGAMU, HAA ALIF. 07:04.74N, 072:55.09E
The only positive thing about this place is that you can clear in and clear out. It’s the only reason to come here! Really! You can order diesel, but they have to lug it across the lagoon and charge you handsomely for the privilege. The (two tiny) shops shouldn’t really be called shops, and there’s not even a basic cafe. Anchoring is in about 25+ m, either to the W or the S of the island. The rolling swells (in April) drove me crazy after a few days. The local agent Imaad organises dinners and beach parties during the cruiser season.

MALDIVES ATTACK- WARNING!!
DHANGETHI, ARI ATOLL. 03:36.44N, 072:57.16E

Whilst we met lots of friendly locals during our four months, there are enough unsavoury elements in Maldivian society to justify basic prudent measures to keep your property and yourself safe.

We had one especially unpleasant experience whilst anchored in the lagoon to the west of Dhangethi island, Ari Atoll (03:36.44N, 072:57.16E). See below for an overview of the attack.

We remain very upset about this incident for two reasons:

  1. That it happened at all. There exists a strong and prevalent belief amongst many local Maldivians that foreigners visiting the Maldives have no rights and that Maldivians may treat them as they wish with no threat of repercussion. Unfortunately this experience has been reinforced due to the ongoing lack of constructive action from the Maldivian authorities during the ten months since this attack against us.
  2. That our complaint to the Police, Maldivian High Commission in London, Ministry of Tourism and the Presidents office were not taken seriously. Despite immediate promises that police action would be taken and a meeting with the Minister of Tourism would be set up, no resolution has been proposed.

Ten months after the attack, we remain absolutely astounded that this criminal matter has not yet been resolved because I have provided to the above mentioned parties the following detailed information:
1. A detailed chronological report of the incidents.
2. Clear photos of the criminals involved.
3. The mobile phone number of the "ring leader" criminal.
4. The mobile phone number of the "ring leader" criminal’s cousin.
5. The name of the dive safari boat where some of the criminals work.

Clearly, there is no motivation for the authorities to address concerns of foreign visitors - a very concerning position for a country that relies so highly on tourism.

A brief summary of the attack:

We dined in the local Marida Beach café, where they run a tourist scam charging exorbitant prices for ordinary Maldivian food such as fried chicken, tuna curry and rice. Conveniently, they don’t have menus or written prices. This was the first such scam we encountered, having avoided the tourist zones. I refused to pay and agreed with the café manager to meet at the Island / Tourism office the following day to agree on a solution.

We returned to our boat at anchor a couple of hundred meters in front of the cafe in the lagoon. At about 10pm as we were watching a DVD with the kids before bed, a small fibreglass dinghy (from the diving safari boat “Princess Dhonkamana”, anchored nearby) banged into the back of our boat, and three or four young men scramble on board uninvited. Some men remained in the dinghy- there were a total of 8 aggressive men.

I bound up the steps and meet then in the cockpit before they can enter the cabin. They were acting aggressive and angry. I immediately feared for the safety of my family and myself. I am not sure whether they are under the influence of drugs. I asked them to get off my boat and tell them that I will talk to them if they get back on their boat.

Two men in particular became very aggressive again, jumping from their dinghy back onto our boat. They were swinging their fists and threatening physical violence. I explained that we already agreed that we will meet the following morning at the Island / Tourism Office. They refused to reason, insisting on payment immediately. Fearing for our physical safety, I agreed to pay them the amount of the overpriced meal if they leave.

With money in hand, they left. We planned to leave the anchorage as early as the tide allows the following morning.

At 6am the following morning, I was awoken by the sound of someone onboard searching through cupboards and boxes. I was astounded to find that one of the criminals from the previous night’s attack had swum to our boat (he is still wet), and had not only got on our boat uninvited, but had also entered the cabin and he was looking through the cupboards and boxes around the chart table. Beside him was a collection of our belongings which I believe he was planning on taking - mobile phones, digital cameras, and a pair of binoculars. (We also discovered later that he brought several empty plastic bags with him, suggesting he intended to take things from the boat and the bags were to keep them dry).

I confronted him and asked him what he thinks he is doing. He immediately became aggressive - I was blocking his exit from the boat. It was very clear that he was heavily under the influence of drugs - he was slurring, and his eyes were very, very blood shot.

He was very aggressive and angry when I took a photo of him (that I later submitted with my police complaint) so that my wife pretended to delete the image to calm him down.

The man told me that “This is Maldives. This is my country. I can come on your boat if I want”. He tells me “You can complain to the police, but the police chief is my best friend and will look after me”. It is clear that there is no reasoning with him, he is rambling non-stop. Again, I feared for the safety of my family and I, and just want him to leave the boat. He finally agreed to leave if I give him more money. He agreed, then attempts to extort a few more hundred dollars.

He tells me “how lucky we are”, and that it would have been very easy for him and his thugs to have returned during the night to hurt us, destroy our boat and property. He made particular reference to stealing or destroying our dinghy and outboard (worth US$6,000- the second most expensive boat I’ve ever bought!).

He told us we must leave Dhangethi immediately. He also told us as soon as we reach Male we must leave Maldives completely and never return (no problem there!). He even insisted we turn the engine on (which we do) to prove to him we will leave immediately. He says he won’t leave unless we do as he tells us. After half an hour, as the sun is rising, we persuade him to leave. I drove him to the Dhagethi jetty in my dinghy.

We watched him casually walk along the jetty and beach, and get into a small rowing boat. He rowed to the diving safari boat “Princess Dhonkamana” and gets on board. We discretely take more photos with the zoom lens.

We left Dhangethi as soon as we have enough tide to get us over the shallow reef entrance, and leave the Maldives a few days later.

Helen and Bryan Watt
SY “Aroha”

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