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 ΒΌ 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.




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.




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.