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.