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.