Paradise is a word we cruising sailors often hear bandied about, as if purchasing a boat magically allows a sea gypsy to gain some mythical state of perfection. Not true.
Sailing into a watery Shangri-La isn’t easy. By the time most people learn its lat/long, it’s paradise no more. Besides, one person’s Eden is another’s hell. Some sailors love deserted Chagos, others revel in the decadence of Monte Carlo’s bustling waterfront. And locations are no more static and stable than the people judging them. Landfalls often evolve, grow, wander down wrong tangents, and right themselves like wayward children.
All of which is why I hesitate to say Rodrigues is currently the finest cruising destination on Earth. Instead, I’ll just say it is my own personal paradise-of-the-moment. Why? First, it is seldom visited by yachties, and thus, familiarity hasn’t bred contempt. Every local you meet knows you’re off a boat and is interested in your journey. It is, along with Mauritius, an independent country. This means it is not threatened by the paleness of your skin or your wealth, and the locals are doing quite well, thank you. And, it is cozy. There is only one harbor, Port Mathurin, with room for six or so boats.
In Rodrigues, they don’t see a sailor as a floating ATM. In fact, docking right downtown is free, as is potable water. There is no one single item on the entire island marketed specifically toward voyagers. In the port, service is sans cost. There’s even a friendly night watchman who checks your lines for chafe while you party ashore.
Crime is almost nonexistent (there is zero violence), and visiting vessels tied to shore or anchored out are seldom locked up. Even your unattended dinghy is completely safe. The only time our Caribe inflatable was moved was for its own protection during a particularly low tide.
And, there is no official corruption. Numerous indexes say it is the most honest place in Africa, if you can call someplace 1,600 miles due east of Mozambique part of Africa. (Rodrigues is also 800 miles east of Madagascar.)
Of course, no waterfront can be paradise without a watering hole, and Madame Marcel’s is the finest bar I’ve walked into since stepping foot in Le Select on St. Barts in the 1970s. The bartender is beloved by all. Not only are the drinks ridiculously cheap, he feeds his customers so many free hors d’oeuvres that few patrons leave the fist-banged premises for a formal dinner elsewhere. My favorites are the spicy sausages and the hot pork chunks.
Who attends nightly services at Madame Marcel’s? In short, everyone. It is a very small island. The head of Immigration holds court in one corner, the local fishermen in another. While the decor is Formica and cinderblock, the warmth of its rainbow-hued customers are like a U.N. meeting for happy rummies.
Despite the fact that I no longer drink alcohol, I couldn’t help but peek in. Wasn’t that Kathy and Serge of the Flamingo 42 Raison d’ Etre, who we last saw in Great Cruz, St. John, in 1995? And the famous Duck Dancers, Laurent and Marie of Roger Rover, were there too, as were those crazy Aussie lads Rhys and Trevor of the 27-footer Liberdade, drawing a picture of their upcoming rudder repair on the back of a napkin.
I don’t mean that Rodrigues is totally focused on libation. Food counts too, and there’s no lack of world-class eateries. Formerly a French outpost, its chefs have incorporated all the tastes of Europe with the earthy hotness of African cuisine. It’s mighty tasty, even by the jaded standards of a gourmet called His Fatness. Our two favorite French restaurants were Le Marlin Bleu on English Beach and La Cambuse on Rue Francois Leguat.
Needless to say, the local rum is cheap, plentiful, and nearly as powerful as the local trade winds, which often gust over gale force in the winter month of August. The harbor offers 360-degree protection against the swell; its water is crystal clear, and there is plenty of flow-through, especially at high tide.
Navigation-wise, arrival at Rodrigues is a tad tricky. The range on the chart leads you right over the reef, which certainly cuts down visits by greenhorns, especially since most electronic charts are inaccurate as well. I’d advise that you approach in daylight with the sun over your shoulder and you’ll have no problem finding your way into the harbor.
Like any paradise, Rodrigues has its share of wonderful waterfront wackos, like Tugboat Harry of Alison, who spins yarns and hustles the laundry service his hardworking wife provides the harbor.
Ashore, the zany German ex-pat Birgit acts as the Pied Piper to local disabled children. This amazing woman is as close to a saint as we’ve met since India. Birgit came aboard our boat, Ganesh, for lunch and stayed until dinner, regaling us with bizarre stories of polar bears, Euro-radicalism, and an exemplary lifetime of selfless public service.
“I came to Rodrigues 19 years ago,” said Birgit, “and I knew it was paradise the moment my foot touched the ground. My husband and I eventually started chartering a sport-fishing vessel. I’ve cherished each day since our arrival.”
That evening we went to a local hotel to see some native dancing, and one of the handsome men looked familiar. “It’s the health inspector who boarded us via the government launch,” Carolyn whispered to me.
Rodrigues is the type of place that accepts you as a local after a few days. The heart of the culture is the busy marketplace on Saturday mornings, where all 40,000 residents gather as families to laugh, chat and embrace.
I haven’t even mentioned Rodrigues’ most famous ex-resident, the dodo bird. The island was thick with them when discovered in 1528, but the last of the tasty-but-flightless birds was eaten in the late 1600s. The local tugboat is named Solitaire, after the dodo’s close cousin, which was both slightly less tasty but smarter. Sadly, the giant tortoises also succumbed to the dining-room table. There were an estimated 250,000 when the island was discovered, but the indigenous population today is zero, though some close relatives have been imported in hopes of recolonization.
The best part of Rodrigues is, besides its amazing ethnic diversity, that locals are so culturally homogeneous. The island seems like one big family bursting with love and hope. Part of the reason for this happy state of affairs is, I think, because so many cultural events are communal.
Take Anna, the monthly supply boat, for example. A sizable percent of the population shows up to watch it dock. The police direct traffic when she arrives and manage to snarl the few cars into a knot. All the yachts have to leave the harbor so the supply boat can maneuver. Strolling roti makers ply their wares, and all the tiny retail shops have micro sales in anticipation of the arrival of new stock. Each of the market vendors await the lowering of Anna’s gangplank. Port officials bustle around, and the local pilot and Tugboat Harry shamelessly preen.
As the boat approaches, an overeager forklift driver does doughnuts of exuberance on the dock. Then, when the cargo hatches are finally lifted by the deck cranes, a cheer goes up. During our visit, rumor had it there was a new shipment of ladies high heels aboard, and many of the local beauties were praying it was so.
The librarian was there too, hoping the semiannual book order had arrived at last, as was the Catholic priest, clutching his Bible as if to bless the whole noisy mess, along with the restaurateurs, fishermen, construction workers, and even the local kids who had, once again, eaten the island out of bonbons.
Some merchants don’t even bother unpacking their newly arrived wares. Instead, they allow their excited patrons to immediately paw through it on the sidewalk. By the end of the day, the entire island is exhausted from overeating, overspending, and just having too much family fun. They yawn and make their way back home, already dreaming of the excitement that the next month’s supply boat will bring.
No, perfection is a word that should never be used to describe a person or place. It’s the wrong yardstick to hoist against any human endeavor. But on Rodrigues, time seems to stand still. It’s an island that feels outside the realm of Brexit, Donald Trump and the Kardashians.
Later that evening, Carolyn and I were tucked tiredly in the corner of our cockpit listening to the church choir practice ashore. Their singing floated across the harbor, seemingly levitating both our hearts and our vessel. “Nice,” said Carolyn as she yawned. “Very,” I replied.
“Today was perfect,” she said, and traced a finger on my jaw. “Must we leave, Fatty?”
I said nothing. She knew we couldn’t stay. Paradise can be glimpsed only briefly, like a rare bird with bright plumage flitting across the harbor.
“The only way to keep this priceless moment priceless,” I whispered, “is to sail away. Perfection can never be in the past; it lives only in the future, just over the horizon — a heavenly promise momentarily glimpsed.” “Are you happy?” she asked. I chuckled in response. “Me too,” she said.
Cap’n Fatty and Carolyn have wrapped up travels in Africa and are Caribbean-bound.