Seychelles Saga Revisited

Story: John Parker

“Six people from Cape town have been arrested in the Seychelles and are being detained on board their yacht ‘Okavango’ as suspects in connection with the recent abortive coup attempt.” So read an alarming piece in noon edition of the Cape Argus on 9 Dec 1981 that had my family worried. John Parker reflects on an adventure.

A few months earlier Skipper Felix Unite and his hand-picked motley crew were provisioned and directed to sail and deliver the brand new 42ft sloop ‘Okavango’ from Cape Town to the Maldives, where she would be deployed as a sailing charter boat. The new yacht was one of three new boats of an eventual charter fleet of eight. After months of preparation and as a final sea trial we motored out of Royal Cape Yacht Club in fine weather in late October 1981 and set sail for Durban.

Seychelles Saga Revisited

The wind stiffened as we rounded Cape Point heading East and Felix ordered a sail change, the first of many that week. This first leg of the voyage proved to be in the heaviest seas and roughest weather of the entire six week voyage. We experienced a five metre-plus following sea off the Eastern Cape which tested our mixed seamanship skills to the max.

Most us were on a steep learning curve. I remember Felix deploying the sea anchor several times. I also recall racing down huge swells with our spinnaker in full flight, ballooning out in front of boat, while keeping a cautious eye on the end of the spinnaker-pole for a potential broach.


Photo: One of owners of the ‘Okavango’ on holiday

One of the owners of the ‘Okavango’ insisted on joining us for the leg to Durban – as a holiday – but soon regretted it, suffering violent and relentless sea sickness.

We arrived in Durban harbor slightly shaken up but intact, until the engine stuck in reverse at speed as we approached a busy wharf. Lourens Bester, our trusty mechanic sprang into action and disabled the motor in a matter of seconds before it smashed our stern into the concrete dock. 

Seychelles Saga Revisited

Photo: Felix on the helm in heavy seas off East London

Felix’s crew comprised Esme Beamish, Lourens Bester, Jamie Heathcote-Marks, Duncan ‘Stuff” Duffett and the author. I was 25 at the time and one of youngsters. I was comforted by the fact that Felix was a highly experienced and capable sailor and Es a fabulous cook. We had sleeping berths for six with a fore and aft cabin and convertible dinette accommodation configuration.

The hilarious Jamie thought it would be smart to grab the spacious double-bed in the forepeak cabin. He quickly regretted his enthusiasm after his body was heard slamming against the cabin ceiling a few days into voyage, as the yacht pitched and surfed through heavy Indian Ocean troughs.

Felix sorted us into four-hour watch-keeping pairs; Felix and Es, Jamie and Lourens, Stuff and Johnny. We were all grateful that Felix took his second job of navigator as seriously as his first. Although we had the latest sat-nav receiver installed for tracking our position, Felix could often be seen on deck using his sextant for celestial confirmation of our co-ordinates before updating his chart.

Photo: Felix and Lourens pulling in our fresh dinner.

We reorganized ourselves in Durban, made some minor repairs, re-provisioned and entered the Mozambique Channel on a north-easterly course, bound for the Seychelles and eventually the Maldives. It wasn’t long before the fishing rods were out on the stern rod-holders, hoping for tuna, Spanish mackerel and dorado (also known as mahi-mahi or dolphin fish) but in reality hooking many dark-fleshed striped bonito and barracuda on the trolling lures. Dolphins followed the bow of the boat for days at time and there was surprising bird life, despite our distance from land. I remember spotting albatross.

Our first land-fall after leaving Durban was the Island of Europa (200 km west of Madagascar). There a couple of French Foreign Legionnaires on R&R motored out to meet us and the beers flowed until long after sunset. Soon after weighing anchor the next day we hit doldrums-like conditions for a few days and passed the becalmed time fishing and having one-on-one swimming races around the boat. Then as our sails filled as we tacked north past the spectacular uninhabited atoll of Bassas da India.

The atoll is the product of a submarine volcano that soars 3,000m from the ocean floor, creating a band of exquisite fringing coral reef, within which lies a lagoon 11 km in diameter. From three hours before high tide until three hours afterwards, Bassas da India disappears beneath the surface of the sea. This feature made it a scourge for sailors of the past and graveyard for shipping.

Seychelles Saga Revisited

Although the exact number can’t be known due to the plunging depths around the atoll, it is estimated that over 100 vessels met their fate on the razor-sharp shoals. Bassas da India is now a popular diving destination but there was nobody there in 1981.

Still further north we anchored in a sheltered bay off the island Juan de Nova (80 km off Madagascar) in the narrowest part of the Mozambique channel. We were readying to set sail for the Comoros Islands when there was a minor drama. Our anchor had wrapped itself around a coral head, just as the sun set. Felix strapped on the scuba gear and resolved the problem in the dark. After a day or two’s sailing we sailed within sight of the only other yacht we encountered on the voyage and moored the ‘Okavango’ in the medieval harbour of Domoney, Anjouan, watched by hundreds of curious onlookers as we came ashore.

Photo: Duncan emerges from a swim in the doldrums.

The Comoros is a sovereign archipelago island nation located at the northern end of the Mozambique Channel between north-eastern Mozambique and northwestern Madagascar. Portuguese explorers first visited the archipelago in 1503 and the islands provisioned the Portuguese fort in Mozambique throughout the 16th century. In 1793, warriors from Madagascar started raiding the islands for slaves. It was estimated in 1865 that as much as 40% of the population was enslaved. France first established colonial rule in the Comoros in 1841, with the nation gaining its independence in 1975.

As a nation at a crossroads of civilisations, the archipelago was first inhabited by Bantu speakers from East Africa, supplemented by Arab and Austronesian immigration. Since declaring independence, the country has experienced constant political instability with more than 20 coups or attempted coups d’etat, with various heads of state assassinated in the process.

As we approached the islands we became aware of a distinctive perfumed smell. The Comoros is the world’s largest producer of ylang-ylang oil and a large producer of vanilla. Ylang-ylang (cananga) trees are valued for the perfume extracted from its flowers and essential oils used in aromatherapy and in oriental- or floral-themed perfumes (such as Chanel No. 5).

On Anjouan we met up with a Swiss national Robinson Crusoe-style hippy who became our de facto guide and we spent several days exploring the volcanic tropical island and its many waterfalls. We replenished our supplies of spring water, mangoes and coconuts and finally set a course for the main island of Mahé, Seychelles, passing close by the Aldabra atoll and the Farquhar islands.

Photo: French Foreign Legionnaires aboard the ‘Okavango’ off Europa island.

Photo: Pulling up anchor wasn’t always easy.

Less than a day after we left the Comoros we turned the deck music down as our radio picked up a boat-to-boat discussion about something unusual going on in the Seychelles, which did not sound good. At this point we were unaware that an attempted coup had taken place on 25th November.

Our engine had developed a cooling problem, which Felix was keen to sort out. After a brief discussion and review of our depleted stocks of food and drinking water we decided to press on to Mahe. Thats where we planned to have a brief holiday in one the world’s great tropical paradises, before embarking on the final leg of the journey to the Maldives and deliver the ‘Okavango’ in one piece to the charter company. Unfortunately, it wasn’t going to be that easy.

Photo: Our welcoming party in Domoney, Anjouan, Comoros.

Photo: Exploring Anjouan, Comoros Islands with our Swiss friend.

The story of the ill-fated coup d’etat began in 1978 when South African based representatives of the exiled Seychelles president James ‘Jimmy’ Mancham approached legendary mercenary commander ‘Mad’ Mike Hoare – who had successfully led two mercenary groups in Congo crisis in the early 1960s – to overthrow the pro-Marxist regime of president France-Albert Rene (also known as ‘The Boss’) and re-install Mancham as president.

The island nation had gained its independence in 1976 but Rene had “promoted” himself from prime minister in 1997 while playboy Mancham was allegedly engaged in a romantic tryst at the Savoy Hotel in London, while attending a Commonwealth Heads of Government conference. As grim as Mancham was amiable, Rene imposed one-party rule, built up the islands’ first standing army with help from Tanzania, and permitted an oversized USSR embassy to open for business.

There was no doubt considerable strategic interest in these islands and the United States also voiced its concern about the regime in the Seychelles, given the islands’ proximity to its new strategic military base on nearby island of Diego Garcia.

Exiled associates of Mancham contacted Hoare, then working in South Africa as an investment adviser, to fight alongside fifty-three other mercenary soldiers, including ex-SA Special Forces (Recces), former Rhodesian soldiers and ex-Congo mercenaries. In November 1981 Hoare assembled his mercenaries and dubbed them ‘Ye Ancient Order of Froth Blowers’ after a charitable English social club.

They planned to seize key points in the capital, Victoria, while Kenyan forces flew in to ostensibly restore order and Mancham to his presidency. They hid AK-47s and other combat weapons in false-bottoms of their luggage, as Hoare later explained in his book ‘The Seychelles Affair’.

Photos: France-Albert Rene and ‘Mad’ Mike Hoare, unknown photo credits.

Nine of Hoare’s team were sent in advance, to identify potential targets and rally support from dissident Seychellois soldiers. The rest of the mercenaries arrived on 21st November 1981 on a Royal Swazi jet at Seychelles International Airport at Pointe La Rue, just south of the capital. With all but two of the mercenaries through customs the coup plot was suddenly exposed when a Kalashnikov rifle was discovered by an official at the terminal.

After a long gun battle and the taking of 70 hostages, 44 of the mercenary group were forced to retreat aboard a hijacked Air India Boeing 707 en route from Harare to Bombay – with 65 passengers and 13 crew aboard – redirected back to Durban. One mercenary died during the firefight – accidentally shot by another mercenary – two were wounded and seven of the party, including a female accomplice and SA National Intelligence Service agent were left behind. A Seychellois police sergeant and an army lieutenant were also killed.

Later, at his trial in South Africa, where he was charged for offences under the Civil Aviation Offences Act, Hoare claimed that the SA government was involved in the coup. Although initially denied, a UN Security Council investigation into the coup concluded that SA military agencies had indeed been involved, including supplying weapons and ammunition.

As we sailed in from the south west and rounded the northern tip of the main island Mahé we became aware of spectacular granite outcrops and a pleasant smoky cinnamon aroma that is present all around and blends with the smell of the ocean, the earthy rainforest and takamaka trees overhanging the water’s edge. The ‘Okavango’ sailed cautiously into Victoria harbour a few days after the airport debacle, none the wiser.

Seychelles Saga Revisited

A military chopper buzzed us overhead and our yacht was quickly intercepted by a naval patrol boat off Victoria and guided in by hand-held megaphone to an isolated mooring overlooked by a rusty Ton-class minesweeper which was controlling the port of the nation’s capital. Armed soldiers and naval officers immediately boarded our vessel and demanded that we bring up and unpack every single item from below deck for a detailed inspection.

They were clearly suspicious that we were late-comer mercenary reinforcements to the coup party. Having sailed over 3,200 nautical miles, from 34 degrees S to five degrees S, we had been at sea for around six weeks. We were a deeply tanned motley crew and a bit rough around the edges but totally innocent. Our nervous captors were part of a hastily arranged Tanzanian military force which had arrived earlier to assist the Seychelles authorities restore law and order and hunt down remaining mercenaries and coup supporters who had melted into the local population and surrounding tropical forests.

After a few hours of general confusion and looting (including our cash and precious camera gear and film) the six of us were taken ashore at AK-47 gunpoint and bundled into two army Land Rovers. The streets were lined with troops in camo fatigues and it was clear that a curfew was still in place. After further interrogation as to ‘what were we really doing here?’ we were handed over to the police for detention. Here we were incarcerated in separate cells within a dank old stone prison in Victoria. I remember feeling strangely accepting of our fate.

We shrugged our shoulders. We were up for anything in those days. Three of us were fortunate enough to be travelling on British passports. It wasn’t long before the British Embassy came to our rescue, helped us explain our innocence and expedited our release. An unexpected but welcome benefit of British citizenship. Those in possession of less useful ‘green mamba’ SA passports were released not long after us.

Photo: Rum cocktails on the beautiful white sand of Beau Vallon beach

The Seychelles is an archipelago of 115 islands with spectacular beaches, coral reefs and pristine nature reserves, thanks to a history of strict environmental legislation. The islands were uninhabited throughout most of recorded history. Austronesian seafarers and later Maldivian and Arab traders were the first to visit the uninhabited islands.

The earliest recorded sighting by Europeans took place in 1502 by the Portuguese Admiral Vasco da Gama, who passed through the outer islands of Amirante and named them after himself (islands of the Admiral). The earliest recorded landing was in 1609, by a crew from the British East India Company.

A transit point for trade between Africa and Asia, the French took control in 1756 and named the islands after Jean Moreau de Séchelles, Louis XV’s Minister of Finance. The British took partial control of the islands in 1794 and assumed full control upon the surrender of Mauritius in 1810, formalised in 1814 at the Treaty of Paris.  Seychelles became a UK crown colony and independence was granted in 1976, as a republic within the Commonwealth.

We were released after a day or two but the authorities held our passports for several weeks. Initially confined to the “Okavango’ which was now alongside a jetty at the north end the harbour, we were gradually given more freedom to move around Mahe. The locals were very friendly, cheerful and welcoming. We spent weeks hanging out on Beau Vallon beach and played on the two Windsurfers that we had brought on the ‘Okavango”.

At the time Felix was the SA Windsurfing champion and the locals were impressed with his tricks and style. We met up with David Lacy, an old school friend of Duncan’s, who was working on Mahe. David was living the life of Riley and very hospitable, introducing us to local seafood curries as well as some lovely local women.

Later we were allowed to explore the magnificent nearby islands of La Digue and Praslin. There we came across rare Aldabra giant tortoises and the unique coco de mer, a species of palm that grows only on the islands of Praslin and Curieuse. It’s also known as the sea-coconut or double-coconut and nicknamed the “love nut” because the shape resembles buttocks. Duncan and I had our surfboards and hunted down a few small waves on the east coast.

Photo: Prisoners in paradise. The author with Duncan Duffett on the right.

The crew never made it to the Maldives. We had been away for nearly three months. Leaving the ‘Okavango’ on Mahe, Duncan and I flew to Nairobi and then to Israel, for another adventure and later to Europe, while Felix and the other crew members who had jobs and wives to get back to returned to Cape Town. A relief skipper and sailing crew flew in to deliver the ‘Okavango’ to its final destination in the Maldives in early 1982.

The mercenaries left behind were rounded up and detained and U$3m was eventually paid to President René by South Africa for their return. Mancham lived in exile in London until April 1992. France-Albert Rene remained as Seychelles 2nd president until 2004.

Seychelles Saga Revisited

John Parker, Sydney, April 2018