Yacht Fathom - Setting off from England in May 2016 on a single-handed voyage somewhere a bit warmer
Yacht Fathom - A Vancouver 28
Yacht Fathom - A Vancouver 28
Yacht Fathom - A Vancouver 28

After leaving the U.K in May 2016 i’m sailing

around the world in Fathom, my Vancouver 28.

 

map

Cape Town to Saint Helena

After six weeks in Cape Town, and after the long coastal passages down the South African coast, I was looking forward to getting offshore and into the rhythm of a long ocean passage again, about 1700 nautical miles to Saint Helena. Fathom was ready too, with new forward lower shroud U bolts and new house batteries and appeared in good shape. The three year old Lifeline AGM batteries had disappointingly lost a lot of capacity so I decided to replace them with Firefly Carbon Foam types. Without trying to sound too geeky these new technology batteries are well regarded and were about half the price in South Africa. Time will tell if they were a good choice. It was sadly time to say goodbye to my cruising family that I had been sailing alongside since Madagascar, Alan and Annie on ‘Kiwi Dream’ and Mike and Marie on ‘Roke’. The end of a chapter and I really hope our paths cross again one day.

 

At noon on the 15th Feb I slipped out of the Royal Cape Yacht Club marina and out to sea. As on my way in it was necessary to dodge several whales that were loitering around the harbour entrance. A tanker passed close by with no bridge, strange, but actually it was the first sign that fog was on the way in. The weather forecast had indicated 15 to 20kts of breeze and clear skies but a couple of hours later there was zero visibility and zero wind. Once the shipping lanes outside Cape Town were astern there was still a lot of traffic around. I always find being at sea in thick fog rather stressful so remained glued to the radar. That whole night the fog stuck and it was a long motor until dawn. It was cold too and I slept under a couple of blankets.

By mid morning the following day the sun had replaced the fog, the wind had filled in, and it was time to go sailing. The water temperature around Cape Town was a cold 14 degrees celsius and over the first few days before it began to warm up there was plenty of bird life around. I spent a lot of time sat in the cockpit watching several huge Albatross circling the boat. Progress was good with a nice push from the Benguela current and night sailing beneath a bright full moon. After four or five days the water temperature had risen to the low twenties and flying fish began to make an appearance. Time to put the fishing line out!

 

It was clear from the weather GRIB files downloaded via the satellite phone that the South Atlantic High Pressure system had extended a ridge north, stifling the SE trade winds and there was a large area of calms on the direct route to Saint Helena. I changed course and steered more NNW for the next week sailing more parallel to the Namibian coast before turning to the NW. It turned out to be a good decision as the wind held for the whole crossing. It was really great sailing with the breeze hovering around 15kts most the time, a lowish swell and no rain or squall clouds. The fishing was great too, I even caught one fish while letting out the line, it just couldn’t wait to get in the frying pan.

By the 2nd week at sea I was fully relaxed and enjoying the crossing. It was warm 24 hours a day and the fleece and blankets had been stored away. Plenty of reading on the Kindle, listening to podcasts and playing guitar. The wind never rose above 20kts and it was up there with the best passage of the whole voyage. I was sleeping in 1 to 2 hour chunks at night and was well rested. On the morning of the 26th Feb, the 11th day at sea, things got a bit interesting. Here is an account of what happened.

A Wet Boat

It was early morning about 450 nautical miles to go to St Helena. I was sitting at the chart table drinking a coffee, still a bit sleepy, when I noticed that a cloth on the cabin sole underneath some of the spare water bottles was wet. Assumed that one of the bottles had a leak but on closer inspection they were all full. Looked under the floorboards and horror of horror there was water sloshing about everywhere! Split water tank? No… it’s salty…. then I lifted off the steps above the engine and what I saw was a bilge completely full of water, so high it was lapping at the bottom of the engine and had filled the engine tray. S*#$!! Turned on the bilge pumps – the automatic switch had failed to activate the pump as the water level rose.

Water was pouring into the boat somewhere at the stern. Fathom was low in the water and sluggish. Why had I not noticed earlier? I hadn’t been awake long. Rolled in the headsail and hove to. For a few seconds before I had found the source of the leak I must admit the thought of sinking in the middle of the South Atlantic crossed my mind. But survival instinct kicks in and time for a calm head….. DON’T PANIC! Went on deck, opened the starboard cockpit locker and emptied it at lightning speed so I could climb in. It was immediately clear that the exhaust hose had split open where it fixes onto the thru hull fitting and had nearly completely detached. There was a good 2 to 3 inch hole letting in water. This thru hull is just above the waterline when the boat isn’t moving but when sailing, and now with a heavy boat full of water, it was below. The water was coming in like a high pressure hose and Fathom had been filling up fast.

Squatting in the cockpit locker with the water up to my waist I quickly plugged the hole while cutting off the split end of the hose then reattached the hose with the two jubilee clips. It was crazy how much water was in the boat. The bilge pumps had only just been keeping up but as soon as the hose was reattached the water level started going down and I breathed a sigh of relief.

The next 8 hours were spent clearing the inside of the boat of water that was trapped from the bilge pumps. There were over 6 buckets worth of water in the locker under the quarter berth alone. To get access the spare anchor and chain had to be pulled out of the locker and up on deck, all in a rock and rolly boat. Lockers from the chart table aft on the starboard side had water in but the port side of the boat was ok. Water had sloshed up onto the quarter berth itself so the mattress and covers were soaked in salt water. Thankfully the engine worked fine as the water had only reached the bottom and everything electrical and the batteries were ok.

Not an experience I want to repeat anytime soon. Despite regular checks the section of exhaust hose that failed is about the only item onboard I haven’t replaced since I’ve owned the boat. It will be replaced as soon as I can find some new.

What have I learned from this? Regularly check the auto bilge pump sensor is working! Always ensure there is a wood bung tied in position ready to use next to every thru hull and maybe install a seperate bilge water alarm.

Strangely enough I was a little preoccupied to take photos of a wet boat

**

Everything was pretty much back to normal on the 27th apart from a damp and salty quarter berth that I was still trying to dry out. Just after lunch I reached a nice milestone, crossing the same Meridian of Longitude as Yarmouth, where I had started the voyage in 2016. It was a good job I had discovered the leak in time as crossing this line in the liferaft wouldn’t have felt quite the same. There are various ways of qualifying for a circumnavigation and sailing around 360 degrees of longitude is one of them. I celebrated by opening a can of beer, offered some to the South Atlantic to keep Neptune on side, and enjoyed the rest. For the first time in 3 years, and with 28,715 nautical miles under the keel, I was back on UTC time again.

around the world

The final few days into Saint Helena presented no drama and I slowed down a lot to arrive in daylight. It was a nice sight seeing the island appear on the horizon in the first light of the day on the 2nd March. By 10:00 Fathom was safely on a mooring surrounded by four other visiting yachts including a couple of familiar faces. Another long ocean passage out of the way and despite that ‘minor’ incident, one of the best.

Posted in: at sea - 2019

South Africa Part 3: Cape Town

After being constantly on the move for the last months I was looking forward to staying still for a while and pleased to discover that the Royal Cape Yacht Club has a reciprocal agreement with the Royal Solent Yacht Club, my club back on the Isle of Wight. Half price marina berth for up to one month – about US 7 dollars a day so a good deal. The New Year didn’t get off to a great start when a pickpocket managed to steal my phone at the touristy Long Street while I was walking with a couple of friends in the wee small hours of New Years Day. They are very good these pickpockets. We had been warned about this street and despite being extra careful I let my guard down for a few seconds and then it was too late. Other than having to buy another phone no harm done but super frustrating.

 

The Royal Cape is a friendly club and a real hub for cruising boats passing through South Africa. The club has a keen racing division and we had heard that the annual Round Robben Island Race was coming up. Tobias on Uno Mundo was keen to enter so Alan and I joined as crew and we had a great day. The look on the faces of the local race boats as tatty old Uno Mundo, the only cruising boat to enter, charging onto the start line on starboard, was priceless. We were soon left behind by the race boats as the wind died but consoled ourselves by empting the fridge of cold beer. After rounding Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years of his 27 years behind bars, the wind died altogether so we retired and motored back to the marina.

There is lots to see around Cape Town so Alan, Tobias, his sister Katy and I hired a car for a few days. While checking out the view from Signal Hill we were approached in the car park by two pale faced tourists who told us they had just been robbed at knife point on the hiking trail, 200m below the road in broad daylight. We offered them one of our phones to call their family and otherwise they were ok but still in shock. It was a reminder to all of us to be on guard and as we have since found out, robberies and muggings are becoming more and more frequent. Hiking in South Africa is sadly becoming more and more unsafe which is a real shame as Cape Town is such a beautiful city. We then drove along the coast stopping at Hout Bay for lunch and Simons town to meet some other sailing friends. On the way back a walk along Boulders beach for some penguin spotting before a stop at Urban Brewery for some beer tasting. The next day was Tobias’ birthday so we took a drive to the famous wine producing region of Stellenbosch for some tasting. All rather alcoholic. The highlight of my time in Cape Town was hiking up Table Mountain. It took nearly two hours and was hard work but the view was spectacular and well worth it.

Cape Town is windy, very windy For at least three or four days every week the wind shrieks through the marina and it is not uncommon to have 40 knots + across the deck. Calm days are quite few and far between but on one of these occasions a few of us took the opportunity to check out an anchorage a few miles down the coast near Camps Bay. Tobias and Katy took Uno Mundo and I jumped on Kiwi Dream with Alan and Annie. We ended up staying the night at anchor and coming back to the marina the next morning. On the way we were treated to some first class whale watching and at one point the whales surfaced unexpectedly right alongside, so close they brushed the hull. A whales tail with the back drop of Lions Head and Table Mountain was quite a view.

 

Although a little out of town I quickly realised that the Royal Cape Yacht Club was a great place to work on the boat. The chandleries, hardware stores and industrial zone were closeby and there is a shipwrights on site who are helpful and happy to give recommendations and advice. After getting some inspiration from another Vancouver 28, ‘Sea Bear’, that had an extended starboard bunk, I decided to go ahead and do the same on Fathom. Why not make some home improvements. It turned out to be a long and very messy job. Despite constructing a tent in the cabin dust got absolutely everywhere. I did all the work myself and made a few minor mistakes but overall was pleased with the end result. When in port I can now extend the bunk to a double and when at sea put back the cave locker storage and sea bunk.

After the long and rough trip across the Indian Ocean last year it was also time to give Fathom some tlc and keep on top of routine maintenance. I gave the engine an overhaul, oil change, new filters, cleaned and wiped on corrosion inhibitor. Drained the muck from the bottom of the fuel tank, serviced the outboard, rebuilt the tow generator with new bearings and seals, stripped the varnish around the galley to bare wood and added six new coats, re sealed some deck fittings, replaced some running rigging etc. It was while checking all the deck fittings that I noticed the U bolt holding the lower port shroud had lifted slightly at one end. After removing the nuts I couldn’t believe that one side of the bolt had snapped. No idea when this has happened and how it had not completely failed. Very relieved to have spotted it before setting off to sea again and a reminder that thorough boat checks are so important before and after long ocean passages. I have had two new U bolts made up by a local stainless engineer and replaced the starboard side too as a precaution.

Time has really flown by in Cape Town and as I write this it has been just on six weeks. I’m ready to set sail again and looking forward to getting out to sea. The Indian Ocean and Mozambique Channel were not so easy so i’m hoping the South Atlantic is a little kinder and more relaxing. Sadly it is time to say goodbye to friends I have been sailing alongside for many months, in particular Alan and Annie on Kiwi Dream and Mike and Marie on Roke. I hope our paths will cross again. Fathom is in good shape, full of food and supplies, 300 litres of water, 220 litres of diesel and a few bottles of South African wine. We are both ready to tackle the South Atlantic.

Posted in: South Africa

South Africa Part 2: Richards Bay to Cape Town

Like the Mozambique Channel, the stretch of coastline from Richards Bay to Cape Town needs to be treated with a lot of respect. The strong south setting Agulhas current makes for fast passage times but it is not a place to find yourself if a front sweeps in with strong southerly winds. The conditions created by these two conflicting forces have caught out many boats in the past and create confused seas with huge steep waves. It’s all about hopping down the coast in good weather windows between safe ports. There are not so many places to hide though and between Durban and East London, a distance of around 200 nautical miles, there is nowhere. It’s all about being patient and waiting for the right moment to leave.

 

Fathom and Kiwi Dream finally departed Richards Bay on the afternoon of 11th December for an overnight sail to Durban. As ever, Des was helping us out and we went on his green light. It was a miserable night despite the wind being astern, messy seas with steep waves and a short period made for a horrible motion. Fathom was thrown all over the place and for the first time in a while I felt a little nauseous. The wind increased overnight and by daybreak was hovering around 30knots. The photo of me sitting in the cockpit with white water astern and sleepy eyes sums it up. It was good to reach the shelter of Durban harbour where we anchored outside the marina and enjoyed a cold sundowner that afternoon.

The intention was to wait in Durban for the next good weather window to reach East London or possibly Port Elizabeth. First we had to check in to Durban with both Customs and Immigration, a tiresome requirement in several other ports in South Africa too where a ‘flight plan’ with likely timings and destinations down the coast also has to be given. Durban is not the safest place and we were warned by the marina staff not to wear watches or any flashy items when walking in public and absolutely not to walk outside the gated marina grounds at night. Alan, Annie and I took an Uber to Customs and Immigration and walked back but it was all very edgy and we didn’t loiter along the way. Thankfully the weather was looking good so we checked out again the next day.

On the morning of the 14th December the strong southerly wind that had blown all night had backed to the south east and was on it’s way to the east. This was the queue to raise anchor and head out to sea as it would then back further to the north east and increase within a few hours. Conditions remained light until early afternoon when the breeze filled in and by sunset it was blowing over 20 knots. I set the foresail on the pole, put three reefs in the mainsail and snugged the boat down for the night. The wind blew hard throughout the next day and the sailing was fast yet uncomfortable in confused seas. At dawn on the 16th the wind had given up so I motor-sailed to maximise progress. We were now firmly in some very strong current, running up to 3 knots at times, and by noon we had travelled 202 nautical miles in 24 hours. A new record by some distance but as the motor had been used for some of the time the 151nm in the Indian Ocean still stands as the best 24hr run sailing. The foreast was looking good for the next few days and Des told me to keep going full speed ahead. No need to stop at East London so it was either Port Elizabeth or continue onto Knysna.

Late on the 16th I made the call to head straight to Knysna where Des agreed with my own estimates that I should arrive at sunset on the 17th, a few hours before a big 35knot southerly change swept up from the south. Kiwi Dream and a few other boats I had left Durban with were now astern of Fathom and were heading to Port Elizabeth. Despite being the smallest boat Fathom had again shown great speed in the downwind conditions. As Fathom surfed down a wave on the way past East London the log briefly showed a speed over the ground of 12.6 knots! The 17th started off well. As I sat in the cockpit drinking my morning coffee I looked out to see a large fin a few boat lengths away. It turned out to be a curious Orca who stayed close to the boat for several minutes, the first I had seen on the whole voyage from the UK. Now past Port Elizabeth and out of the Agulhas current, and with the wind dying, progress slowed and I realised it would be touch and go to make landfall before dark. The entrance to Knysna through the heads has a fearsome reputation due to the two treacherous bars that have to be crossed. The South African navy used to train their skippers here to teach them how bad conditions could get. I knew the swell was low enough to make it manageable but it would still be a challenge and I was a little anxious. The cruising guide I had read suggested only enter on the last of the flood tide and never on the ebb. High tide was 16:30. To make matters worse thick fog closed in and by the time I reached the entrance at 17:00 visibility was so bad I couldn’t clearly make out the leading lights. Thankfully a friend had put me in touch with another yacht already inside and they messaged me to say Navionics charts were accurate and I could follow them. The tide was still slack and I got in without drama. The anchor went down a few minutes before dark and the anchor beer never tasted so good. Later that night a storm blew in and as the wind shrieked in the rigging I lay in my bunk very happy I had made it in time.

 

Knysna turned out to be a fantastic stop. Once through the heads the channel opens out into a lagoon with an excellent anchorage. The town itself is a white bubble, lots of upmarket shops, boutiques and bars but everyone is extremely friendly and welcoming. I waited for a few days for the other boats to arrive from Port Elizabeth and we then all got together for a memorable Christmas period. A few of us attended the local blues festival and Tobias and Leo on Uno Mundo even braved the heads again to head out to sea for a few hours to try and catch the Christmas turkey. I joined them for a nice day sailing up and down the coast with four fishing lines out but unfortunately we didn’t have any luck. On Christmas day the local yacht club was closed but they let us use their outdoor facilities, BBQ’s, power point, tables and sun shades etc. We had a great day and in the end five cruising boats got together. Hard to believe it was my third Christmas away from home, St Lucia in 2016, New Zealand in 2017 (by plane) and now South Africa.

We all wanted to be in Cape Town for New Year so set sail from Knysna on the 28th. The swell was running quite hard and heading out over the bars was quite exhilarating. Some locals had told me to hug the rocks on the starboard side close enough that I can hear the Mussels cracking so I did and it went ok! The first day out was nice sailing but the 2 to 3m swell was relentless. Mid afternoon on the 29th Fathom and Kiwi Dream converged and we took photos and videos of each other as we passed Cape Agulhas, the most southerly point in South Africa. It was an incredible feeling to finally leave the Indian Ocean for the Atlantic Ocean and felt like a real milestone. As we turned north west a couple of hours later the seas suddenly calmed, the wind moderated and we were met by a large pod of playful dolphins. It really did feel like we were in a different ocean. Some friends of mine from home called and it was surreal to have a group chat at that moment. A memorable day.

 

After an easy overnight sail in 10-15 knots of breeze I sat on deck as the sun rose and watched Table Mountain appear in the distance. The approach to Cape Town must be one of the most spectacular in the world. It really is a breathtaking coastline and I couldn’t resist a couple of selfies on the way in. I tied Fathom up at the Royal Cape Town marina just after lunch on the 30th with a big smile on my face. The South Atlantic was next but first I was looking forward to some land time and Fathom needed some tlc.

Posted in: South Africa

South Africa Part 1: Richards Bay & Safari

After spending so long in remote places it was a shock to the system to be finally in South Africa. Shopping malls, proper roads, lots of traffic, fast internet and a huge selection of food, the likes of which I hadn’t seen since Darwin back in July. It was quite overwhelming for the first few days and took me quite some time to adapt. The wharf at Tuzi Gazi became a hub of international cruising yachts, mostly comprised of friends I had met in Madagascar. A really nice and sociable time was had by all as we caught our breath and relaxed after being on edge for the passage through the Mozambique Channel. The best part of being moored at Tuzi Gazi, apart from the fact the pub was 10 metres away, was that it was completely free for up to one months stay.

a cosy evening on Fathom

Des Cason and his wife Nell made a trip to see us cruisers one Saturday. The help Des had given us all with weather and routing info for the last months, offered free of charge, had been invaluable and incredibly reassuring. It was nice to finally meet him and say a personal thank you. A bottle of rum didn’t really feel like a fair trade but he wouldn’t except anything else. Thanks so much Des! Many boats had arrived at Richards Bay with breakages and with serious repairs on the cards but touch wood Fathom seemed ok, just the normal routine maintenance to keep on top of. Everyone helped each other by lending tools, offering advice and sharing sundowners at the end of the day.

South Africa is such a complex and interesting country a few of us thought it important to try and learn a bit more about the local history by going on a Township tour. Quite humbling to see the contrast between the waterfront area we were in and the township. We learnt that in the 1970’s the local population in an area close to the port were uprooted, stripped of their possessions and dumped in the wilderness many miles away to build their new shelters with only a few nails in their pocket. The British had moved them to clear land for an industrial area. We then stopped by the Zululand University and were shocked to hear that even today the local students spend much of their time in fear of being robbed. Armed men regularly turn up at night demanding phones and wallets so the students gather together in the library after dark for safety in numbers. The student accommodation comprises of a mattress on the floor surrounded by crumbling brick walls and a holed tin roof above their heads. Another part of the tour was a visit to some voodoo stlye fortune tellers. After going into a small room and sitting on the floor, two men threw some bones in front of me and by studying their order talked to the ancestors to read my fortune. I don’t normally believe in this sort of stuff and after he told me my life was a failure and I spend my life constantly afraid of being shot, even more so. Alan was next up and came out five minutes later saying he was told he has a gift and his life is a success. A complete waste of 50 rand. Overall, my general impressions of being in South Africa were that progress is clearly being made in some areas but the level of racism that still exists is quite shocking. Never have I been anywhere that it is so blatant and in your face.

 

The highlight of my time in Richards Bay was definitely a couple of days safari at the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park. Seven of us salty sailors, a 12V fridge, and lots of food, packed into a large car and set off for the parks one weekend. We were lucky to see nearly all the animals we wanted except the cats which are notoriously hard to find. The back of a lions head 200m away doesn’t really count. We stayed the night at a self catering lodge within the park and while cooking a BBQ after dark were lucky to spot a large hyena crouched 6 feet away from us in the shadows ready to pounce. Annie quite surprisingly, and impressively, managed to imitate the sound of a roaring lion and scared it off. A quick relocation was made inside once the meat had cooked and while we ate and looked out through the glass doors the huge hyena retuned to lick the remains of the BBQ. The whole safari worked out amazingly good value, about 170 US dollars each including the hire car, park entry, one nights accommodation and food. A really great experience.

Once back on our boats it was time to start thinking about heading off down the coast towards Cape Town but not before I had six onboard Fathom for drinks and dinner. Kiwi Dream, Uno Mundo and Roke would be heading the same way but for now it was sadly time to say goodbye to Max and Tania and Alalila. We had spent so many good times together since meeting in Madgascar but i’m sure our paths will cross again.

Posted in: South Africa

Madagascar to South Africa

At the end of October, after a wonderful month cruising the NW coast of Madagascar, it was time to head south out of the tropics and run the gauntlet of the Mozambique Channel. The official start of cyclone season was days away and already the weather was changing with overcast skies and higher humidity. After checking out of Madagascar at Hellville, Nosy Be, I day sailed down the coast over the following 10 days in company with friends on SV Kiwi Dream, SV Roke, SV Uno Mundo and SV Alalila. Our final destination was Baly Bay, just north of Cap St Andre, where we would wait for a weather window to head out into the channel. As ever, Des Cason, the ex cruiser and South African based weather guru who had been providing me and many other yachts with free advice for the last months, was monitoring conditions and we waited impatiently for his green light to set off.

Baly Bay provided us with one final opportunity to meet the locals and witness how they live off the land and sea from their small villages. They have absolutely nothing, no healthcare, no running water, no electricity, no sewage system, only the clothes they wear, yet they seem content and happy with their lives, they know nothing else. We took ashore for them any spare clothes we didn’t need, old rope, tools, fishing hooks, anything that might be useful. Another humbling experience.

 

Sailing down the Mozambique channel to South Africa requires careful planning and continues to catch out those in a hurry or under-prepared. It is necessary to utilize the south setting current while at the same time making sure you are not in it if a front sweeps up from the south, which they do every few days. The charts indicate the possibility of 20m waves if a southerly gale hits the strongest current so it’s all about the timing. We finally set off on the 14th of November bound for the archipelago of Bazaruto in Mozambique, a passage of about 700nm. Our tactic was to cross the channel west of Cap St Andre at it’s narrowest point before picking up the strong south going current on the western side and hitching a ride to Bazaruto. After sailing across the Indian Ocean completely on my own, without contact with any other boats heading the same way, it was reassuring and much easier to be heading out into the Moz Channel in company with my new friends.

It took the best part of two days motor sailing in light winds to get through a strong back eddy of current and far enough west to pick up the south set. Max and Tania on SV Alalila, who in the fastest boat and with a few hours head start on the rest of us, emailed early on the 16th to say they had got their ticket for the Bazaruto Express and had boarded the train. In other words they had found the good current which was providing a 3 to 4 knot push. The rest of us boarded the train on the 17th yet the wind remained calm in daylight hours requiring lots of motoring. At night a light breeze filled in just strong enough to sail, a nice relief from the drone of the engine. This pattern continued for the next couple of days and by the afternoon of the 19th I was not far from the channel at Bazaruto. I wanted to enter in daylight and with the current running at 3 knots didn’t want to arrive too early so dropped all sail, set the alarms and went to bed as Fathom drifted through the night in the right direction. On the morning of the 20th a large pod of dolphins, a humpback whale and a jumping ray provided a nice welcome to Mozambique.

 

In the anchorage all the boats were reunited and we hunkered down as a 30kt front swept up from the south. The anchorage was safe but a little uncomfortable as we rocked and rolled about. For many years cruising yachts have stopped off here without officially checking in to Mozambique. There are reports of some being fined and passports being confiscated but on the whole yachts are left alone. It was always at the back of our minds but thankfully no one bothered us. A real highlight of our time here was being invited by the locals to their ‘beach bar’, a small concrete building with a tin roof blaring out ridiculously loud and terrible music and serving warm Mozambique beer. Some of the friendliest and most welcoming people I have ever met and a great experience as we hung out together one afternoon. The little kids showed us their dance moves and Marie from SV Roke even hit the dance floor. After kicking a football around with a few of the little ones I was getting back in the dinghy to return to Fathom when each in turn walked up to me with an outstretched hand offering a small shell they had chosen from the beach. Completely unexpected and a special moment.

Bazaruto is a very striking place, the archipelago consists of six islands which comprise mainly of sand dunes and lakes. It became a national park in 1971 and houses the largest population of Dugongs in East Africa. Despite looking hard we unfortunately never saw one, or a Flamingo for that matter. On the 22nd Fathom and Kiwi Dream left the anchorage and headed south through the winding shallow channel to an anchorage close to the Southern Pass from where we would head out to sea when the weather improved. Alan and I walked for a couple of hours along the beach then up the tallest sand dune from where we had an incredible view over the islands. As the wind howled outta the south and the waves crashed on the beach below we were very glad not to be out at sea.

 

Des sent us all an email on the 23rd confirming it would be time to head off in the morning as the wind would die down and slowly back from SE to NE. Just time to jump over the side and give the hull a quick wipe I decided. Only later was I told the whole area is alive with sharks and swimming is generally considered to be a no go! At 03:15 on the 24th Fathom was the first to leave the anchorage and I led 9 boats out through the rough pass and back into the Mozambique Channel. Although the aim was to get to Richards Bay in one go it was reassuring to know that there were a couple of bolt holes at Inhabane and Inacha on the way south to shelter at if the weather turned unexpectedly. That first day out the wind was light and on the nose so motor sailing the name of the game. I was determined to stay at the front of the pack for as long as possible despite Fathom being by far the smallest boat and it was only an hour after sunset that Fathom was overtaken by a 50 footer. They were clearly frustrated not to have passed me earlier which I found quite amusing.

On the 25th, the second day out from Bazaruto, the current was running hard at 3 to 4kts which helped provide a 24 hour run of exactly 200nm. By late afternoon the wind had increased and was blowing 25-30kts from the NE, the sea quickly become messy and confused. Fathom was thrown about all over the place but after crossing the Indian Ocean in similar conditions I was quite used to it. Running wing on wing with a heavily reefed main provided good balance and the Aries Self Steering never complained and kept us on track. Some of the boats who had spent a couple of years in the tropics with gentle trade wind sailing were finding the conditions a bit of a shock to the system and there were reports of broken halyards and torn sails. The following morning I received a tense call on the VHF from the 50 footer saying they had hit something hard in the night, their boat had rounded up and now the steering was very stiff. They gave me their position and asked if I could close on them and standby. I told them I was 7 miles back and doing 6.5kts over the ground to which they replied saying they were going faster and didn’t want to slow down so that wouldn’t work and actually they were ok! The other boats listening in found it quite amusing that the solo sailor on the 28 footer was being asked to standby the fully crewed 50 footer. It turned out later that most of their rudder had snapped off and only ¼ remained which might have been the reason for their steering issues. They got into port safely.

The weather window was holding but Des informed us that a weak low pressure would pass overhead on the approach to Richards Bay. On the afternoon of the 26th the wind which had been constantly blowing 25kts from the NE suddenly died, clocked round to the south and gently puffed at 4 -5 knots. It was a tedious motor for the rest of the evening and into the wee small hours and a little tense as the low pressure triggered off some violent lightning strikes which thankfully stayed over land and didn’t venture out to sea. I called up Richards Bay Port control at 02.30 and asked for permission to enter and at 03:30 tied up alongside Alalila and in front of Roke on the wharf. They had arrived half an hour before me while everyone else was still at sea. I later received a few comments that Fathom sails very fast for a small boat! Max, Tania, Mike, Marie and I celebrated with a late night beer on the dock before hitting the sack for a well earned sleep. The rest of the boats arrived safely the next day just in time before a 45kt front swept up from the south. It was a fantastic feeling to have arrived safely in South Africa, especially in company with my friends, and a big relief to have ticked off the Indian Ocean and Mozambique Channel. The challenge of getting safely to Cape Town remained but for now it was time to relax, enjoy some civilisation and buy some bacon. Thanks to Tania and Annie for the video and a few of the photos.

Posted in: at sea - 2018

Madagascar Part 2

Some more photos from incredible Madagascar. These were taken during the day sails south to Baly Bay after checking out of the country at Nosy Be. Fun times with a great group of boats – Max & Tania on SV Alalila, Mike & Marie on SV Roke, Tobias & Leo on SV Uno Mundo, and Alan and Annie on SV Kiwi Dream. Thanks to Tania and Annie for a lot of the photos.

 

Local Craft

 

With the gang

 

Baly Bay

Posted in: Madagascar

Madagascar Part 1

There is a lot I could write about my visit to Madagascar and I will have the time to do so in future. But in the meantime just some photos which I hope will show what an incredible few weeks i’ve had here. I’ve been lucky to meet some amazing people and a special mention goes to Max, Tania, Clem and Emma from SV Alalila. They invited me to join them on many adventures, we raced Alalila in the local regatta (and won), and we have pretty much spent all our time together. Madagascar would not have been the same without them.

The Nosy Be area is a beautiful cruising ground with flat water and good sailing, a sea teaming with life, healthy coral, and on the whole friendly locals. I have been surprised at just how happy and content the village people are despite being incredibly poor. Highlights have included sailing on a local outrigger pirogue at Russian Bay, swimming alongside a whale shark, chilling in the pristine and beautiful waters of Nosy Irandja and Tsara Banjina and a beach fire and jam session with the locals at Nosy Mitsio. Thank you Madagascar for all the memories!

Nosy Sakatia, Crater Bay and Russian Bay

 

Lima Island, Honey River & Nosy Irandja 

 

Nosy Be Regatta & local Pirogues

 

Whale Shark, Tsara Banjina, Nosy Mitsio

Posted in: Madagascar

Cocos Keeling to Madagascar

Heading out into a rough sea to commence a 3,000nm passage when feeling fresh and topped up with sleep is one thing but when suffering from an unusually bad and unexpected hangover is another. I don’t recommend doing this. During my last afternoon at Cocos Keeling I had got chatting with Marques and his crew from SV Matau, a large catamaran in the anchorage. They had come ashore for sundowners with a large coolbox full of (very) cold beers and as we sat on the beach a new one continued to be passed my way. Later I was invited back to their boat for a delicious dinner with good wine and it was a great evening. The trouble was the next morning the last thing I felt like doing was going sailing. Des, the weather guru in South Africa, had agreed that the winds would be a little lighter for the next couple of days and it was a good time to leave for Madagascar however the 3.5-4m swells rolling up from the Southern Ocean would continue. After setting sail on the 13th September it actually took me three days to start to feel good and comfortable and get into any kind of rhythm. Three long days. To make matters worse I had injured my shoulder when filling and transporting the water cans at Cocos and I could now barely raise my right arm. A true single-handed sailor.

 

By the fifth day at sea the sky was overcast with frequent rain showers and the wind hovered between 30 and 35 knots with cross swells around 4m. I was feeling better at last and my shoulder was working again but Fathom was being rolled all over the place and it was incredibly difficult to carry out any task in the cabin. Cooking was a bit of an ordeal and half my dinner ended up on the cabin sole that evening despite my best efforts to keep it on the stove. The new mainsail got a thorough workout and for a few hours I was quite glad there were four reef points. I received an email with some brief news of the huge 70knot storm below me in the Southern Indian Ocean that had rolled and dismasted two yachts in the Golden Globe Race. I was happy not to be down there and reminded myself I shouldn’t complain too much about 35kts of wind. I had hoped conditions would moderate substantially the next day but they didn’t and in fact for most of the next week the wind never dropped below 20-25knots with the relentless swell picking the boat up and throwing us all over the place. At times, even with three reefs in the main and a scrap of headsail, I was struggling to slow the boat down as we surfed down waves at over 10 knots. Exhilarating the first time but scary thereafter! On numerous occasions at the bottom of one wave the next one would hit us from a completely different angle and Fathom would slew round and water would nearly fill the cockpit. If i’m honest it all got quite tiresome, I was sailing this leg from Cocos Keeling to Madagascar unaware of any other boats going the same way and I was not in the best of spirits. I attempted to cheer myself up with the realisation that things would be a whole lot worse if I hadn’t changed plans and was heading South West towards Mauritius, a closer angle to the wind and waves, rather than West towards Madagascar.

During the second week there were less rain squalls and the swells and waves finally began to moderate. A huge morale boost was locking in to the west flowing South Equatorial Current which acted like a conveyor belt and increased speed over the ground by up to 1.5kts. A new 24hour distance record of 151nm on day 19 a nice achievement. Over the following seven day period Fathom was a rocket ship with 24 runs of 151, 144,147,144,133,135 and 150nm which was the best weekly progress of the whole voyage by a huge margin. I baked some bread and cake and life got a whole lot better. My new friends on SV Matau had set off for Mauritius and emailed me a little concerned asking how my little boat was coping with the big waves. I reassured them that I was being well looked after and all was well. The only problem I had was the house batteries were showing significant signs of dying despite being less than three years old. I have always looked after them never discharging more than 50% but for some reason they now had minimal capacity and would have to be carefully nursed to South Africa where replacements could be sourced.

By the third week at sea progress had been so fast that my thoughts were firmly on the rounding of Cape d’ Ambre, the most northerly point of Madagascar. This has something of a fearsome reputation as it is a compression zone caused by the SE trade winds hitting the land, being bent more to the south and accelerated over the top of the island, sometimes doubling in speed. To make matters worse the swells and currents combine to make washing machine like conditions. Many boats sailing from Chagos and the Seychelles to Madagascar have got beaten up. Des advised the best tactic was for me to make landfall off Diego Suarez, about twenty miles south of the Cape, and then sail north within five miles of the coast where the fast north setting current would flatten out the swell. I got very lucky with the timing and my arrival coincided with a couple of days of weak trade winds. In fact I only saw 10-15kts of breeze during the rounding of the Cape and all went well. At other times it would have been a different story (see image of the forecast a few days prior). It was a great feeling to round the Cape and almost instantly escape the relentless swells and rocking and rolling of the Indian Ocean but another 24 hours of sailing lay ahead before the anchor could go down. No sleep was possible that night due to frequent rain squalls, low visibility and proximity to land and reefs.

 

The final day of the passage was definitely one of those special ones that will live long in the memory. As the sun rose in the morning, my 22nd day out from Cocos Keeling, the clouds cleared, the waves subsided, and I was filled with the optimism and excitement of making landfall in a new country. As I sat on deck with a coffee I watched in awe as breaching humpback whales splashed about close alongside. By mid afternoon I was sipping my anchor beer in the calm, safe anchorage of Nosy Sakatia with turtles swimming past the boat. Within an hour of the hook going down I had got chatting with the two other yachts in the anchorage, SV Barbara Ann and SV Proud Cat, and at sunset we were all swapping stories and enjoying beers on the beach. Instant friends and we had only just met.

 

For the previous three weeks I had been alone at sea, happily immersed in my bubble of solitude but very much concentrated on dealing with the tough conditions, making sure Fathom was happy, that i’m eating well and getting enough rest. One moment i’m bobbing around in the big blue staring at the waves the next i’m playing silly games with local kids on the beach. The sudden contrast was almost overwhelming. I was in Madagascar and had safely crossed the Indian Ocean. It all seemed a bit surreal and hard to believe. Definitely time to get some sleep.

Posted in: at sea - 2018

Cocos Keeling

Unexpectedly, my stay at Cocos Keeling has provided a sad reminder of how polluted our oceans really are. At a brief glance this place looks just like it does in the tourist brochures – beautiful turquoise waters and palm tree fringed white sand beaches. But after I took a stroll along the beach at Direction Island a few days ago the reality stared me in the face. Mountains of plastic strewn along the high tide mark and in the most concentrated areas stacked over 50cm high. Not a few isolated patches but all along the south and east facing beaches. Even during one snorkel session I saw some plastic caught on coral a couple of metres under the surface. This plastic waste does not come from the local population, in fact there is a serious recycling effort going on here and beach clean days are organised every so often, the source is Indonesia and South East Asia with the pollution being carried by the ocean currents. Quite rightly, us yachties have to take all our rubbish away with us.

 

The anchorage at Direction Island is nearly a 2 nautical mile dinghy ride from the next island, Home Island, which supports the Islamic Malay population. There are absolutely no facilities at Direction Island except a few shelters and a large rain water tank which is not potable but good for do it yourself laundry and shower water. A trip to Home Island is required to clear in and out with the Police, visit the one supermarket, obtain drinking water and diesel and find some internet on the wifi hotspot. A ferry only runs only twice a week from Direction to Home Island so most the time I have taken the dinghy which is quite an adventure punching into 25 knot+ plus headwinds and choppy water. Coming back with 100 litres of water in jerry cans and a large amount of food the other day was a good test for the 2.5hp outboard! The Malay people are extremely friendly and helpful and seem very content with their island life. The only other inhabited Island at Cocos is West Island where the Aussie expats live. This is a longer ferry ride away from Home Island and due to the difficulty in matching the ferries from Direction to Home to West and the lively weather I never managed to get over there. Apparently the only thing I have missed out on is the liquor store!

Despite seeing the scale of the pollution here it has been an enjoyable stay and a nice respite from the uncomfortable waves of the Indian Ocean. The perfect place to recharge the batteries before the long miles ahead. There have only been three or four other cruising yachts in the anchorage but a great bunch and new friends I hope to bump into again down the line. We have shared dinners, cold beers, movie collections and snorkel sessions and it has been good fun. Wherever I end up, I always seem to meet great people and for me, more than the places I visit, this is the best part about voyaging by sailboat.

 

My intention had been to sail from here to the island of Rodrigues with later stops at Mauritius and Reunion before a 1,400nm voyage direct to Richards Bay in South Africa, passing south of Madagascar. But on the advice of other yachties and particularly Des Cason, the generous and extremely helpful ex-cruiser and now weather guru, I have changed my plans. I will sail directly from Cocos to NW Madagascar passing over the northern tip. This is the best part of 3,000nm and a month at sea. After spending a few weeks cruising down the NW coast of Madagascar i’ll hop across and down the Mozambique Channel to SA. This route will provide more places to shelter from the strong SW fronts that blow through on average every 3 or 4 days. If I had stuck to my original plan there would have been no where to hide. I’m looking forward to getting this next long stretch out the way and seeing what Madagascar has to offer. Fathom is full to the brim with food, water, diesel and most importantly I have two new jars of Marmite and Branston Pickle in the stores, a couple of tasty and hard to find reminders of home!

Posted in: Misc

Darwin to Cocos Keeling

The passage from Darwin to Cocos Keeling is the best part of 2,000 nautical miles and would be the longest passage I had done since Panama to the Marquesas last year. In the dry season there is very little wind around Darwin and several hundred miles to the north and west too. On average every couple of weeks a 15-20 knot S.E wind fills in for a couple of days when a strong high pressure system moves across South Australia. You want to leave Darwin at this time to provide a good push to the west.

With a S.E breeze forecast, and with the new mainsail successfully installed, Fathom and I were raring to go and set sail on the 19th September. In the wee small hours of the first night at sea I was woken by a strong squall and 30-35 knots of wind. Out on deck it was a bit of a struggle to pull the mainsail down and in the process one of the batten cars on the luff of the sail caught on the lazy jack line (ropes that stop the sail falling off the boom). The whole thing jammed up but eventually I got the sail down though in the process the lazy jack line had gone up the mast. Until this was retrieved it wouldn’t be possible to pull the main sail back up without it jamming again. I went back to bed with Fathom happily sailing along under heavily reefed foresail. At first light the wind had calmed down to 15 knots but there was a bit of a sea running. I had never been up the mast before at sea but the folding mast steps make this much easier. I wear a harness connected to an ascender which slides up a fixed halyard and grips in case I slip. By standing on the spreaders I managed to retrieve the lazy jack line and all was well but have to say it was a quite rolly and exciting up there and I didn’t stop too long to admire the view. The next couple of days were spent sailing along in 15 knots making good progress west.

 

Then, as expected, the wind died, but little did I know I would be plagued by calms for the next 1000 plus miles. I was in touch with Des Cason, an ex cruiser who together with his wife Nell sailed 40,000nm over a 13 year period around South Africa and Madagascar. He is very familiar with the Indian Ocean weather patterns and kindly offers a free weather and routeing service to cruising yachts on passage to South Africa each year. Every day, Des would send me an email with the expected weather for the next few days. It is incredibly reassuring to know there is someone looking at the big picture as I can only download a small area of weather onboard due to data limitations of the satellite phone. Des indicated that I should reach the S.E trade winds in about three or four days time at about 120degE longitude. In the meantime I sailed under cruising chute in daylight hours and motored at night. The breeze rarely rising above 8 knots and mostly in the 4 to 7 knot range with a flat sea.

As I approached 120degE it was evident from the GRIB files (see image) that the calm area was catching me up and I would not find any decent wind for the foreseeable future. On the positive side some strong SW flowing currents, up to 2 knots at times, helped push Fathom along. I had left with 127 litres of diesel in the main tank plus 100 litres in jerry cans so had plenty for the time being. It is just incredibly frustrating having the engine on so much and the constant noise. But less frustrating than making good 50 miles a day. As the miles ticked by and Fathom got a little closer to the Indonesian coast I began to see Indonesian fisherman. The vast majority of them had no AIS or radar signal and some even without lights at night. Most of these fishing boats are very small and low profile making them hard to see beyond two miles in the ocean swell. On several occasions I looked out the window to see a boat less than half a mile off. Some were towing large buoys several hundred metres behind them which increased the collision risk. At night I used the watchman mode on the radar and a guard zone to keep a look out for me while I slept in 30 minute to one hour blocks. At least the big ships are easy to see. These days all large commercial vessels are required to transmit an AIS signal which I can detect . This means crossing busy shipping lanes such as the ones from Indonesia to Western Australia are not too much of a drama. One ship however seemed intent on coming very close to Fathom but a call to the bridge and a chat with the officer of the watch resulted in them turning immediately ten degrees to starboard!

As it turned out, the first eleven days of the passage were spent mostly in winds under 10 knots. Never have I used the cruising chute so much. Flying this sail in daylight hours allowed Fathom to move at around 4 to 4.5 knots boat speed in 5 to 8 knots of wind which is pretty good going. One morning at first light I looked over the stern and noticed a large amount of plastic had caught on the rudder or propeller. I was not able to dislodge it with the boat hook so as the sea was calm and there was little wind I jumped over the side to free it. Incredibly refreshing to have a dip in the 27 degree water and exhilarating to do so alone, far from dry land. While asleep one night I woke to the sound of some banging and flapping on deck and rushed up to discover a bird trying to land on the spinnaker pole which I had left rigged. It was very amusing to watch the bird try and get a grip as Fathom motored along at 5 knots rolling around in the swell. Eventually it managed to find a perch and looked set to rest there for the remainder of the night. The next morning the bird was still in place and despite offering a beaker of coffee and some home made bread crumbs little interest was shown. We watched the sunrise together with conversation somewhat one way. All of a sudden a flock of birds circled the boat and my night-watchman must have recognised some mates and flew off with not even a thank you.

 

At long last on day 11 the wind began to fill in and it was a great relief not to have to motor. The following morning a pod of dolphins surrounded the boat and began playing and jumping in the bow wave. I never get bored of watching these playful creatures and every time i’ve been lucky to have them alongside since leaving home it cheers me up. After being alone at sea for prolonged periods perhaps it is suddenly having some unexpected company, the feeling that I can interact with them and they respond to my voice, that they clearly have intelligence, that creates a very powerful sensation of well-being and contentment that I find hard to describe.

A few days out from Cocos Keeling it was clear from the weather forecasts and updates from Des that conditions were deteriorating and I could expect some stronger winds and rougher seas. At last the Indian Ocean was waking up. The penultimate day at sea the wind hovered around 20 knots and the sea became uncomfortable as the waves reached 3 to 4m. The final approach on the 4th September was in 4m+ waves with the wind regularly topping 25 knots. The GRIB file (See image) clearly showed a band of 25 knot+ winds surrounding the Cocos area which is normal at this time of year at the hight of the trade wind season. As I rounded the edge of the atoll the rain hammered down and Fathom bashed into the waves on the approach to the lagoon anchorage at Direction Island. I received a call on the VHF from an Austrian yacht in the anchorage, Plastik Plankton, who kindly offered me some advise on avoiding the bommies on the way in. It was with a certain amount of relief that the anchor went down and I could relax. The last few days of the passage had been quite tiring and I was ready for a rest. That afternoon the wind reached 30+knots and began shrieking in the rigging while the rain hammered down. I was lucky to arrive when I did. Overall, despite the calms, I had enjoyed the passage and had slipped quickly into the rhythm of being on a long passage. It had taken me 17 days, interestingly the same duration as my Atlantic Crossing.

Posted in: at sea - 2018

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