August 2014 - October 2014 Logs
Thursday, November 13, 2014, Tuzi Gazi Marina, Richard’s Bay, South Africa
Welcome to our new reality. We are most definitely not in Southeast Asia any more. This tardy log entry finds us four months and 5,200 sailing miles down the road in South Africa.
Our last update, from Singapore in mid July, had us girding our loins for the long anticipated crossing of the Indian Ocean. Today we can gratefully proclaim that the dreaded passage is now complete. Hallelujah. The following is the slightly condensed version of our trip.
August 2014: Heading East to go West
Somewhere in the Straits of Malacca the buck stops for circumnavigators. Its where, if you haven’t already, you have to decide on your next move. Do you marry a nice Thai girl and swallow the anchor? Do you sell your prized (or perhaps despised) yacht and head off on a new adventure? Do you load your floating home onto a freighter and meet it in Turkey, many thousands of miles and dollars later? Do you sail for the Med across the northern Indian Ocean, pirates be damned or do you face a boisterous Mother Nature on the passage to South Africa? Needless to say this particular question is heartily debated in boatyards and bars from Singapore to Phuket.
Aboard Shango options one and two were swiftly discarded. Option three, meeting the boat in Turkey somehow felt like cheating, even if we managed to get over the shocking price tag. Option four, sailing with the pirates, held no appeal. Passages are hard enough without having to maneuver in a convoy with no running lights and with radio silence for security purposes. We decided we’d throw our lot in with Mother Nature and head across the southern Indian Ocean to South Africa.
Several of our friends reached the same conclusion and by late July each of the three boats, Shango, Kite and Hokule’a found themselves pounding southeastward from Singapore, through Indonesia, towards Sunda Strait and the Indian Ocean.
Once again we were in the land of exotic islands, unpredictable fishing boats, wonderful people and unhelpful wind. With Indonesian visas and a cruising permit in hand Shango arrived in Belitung after eleven uncomfortable days of wind and seas on the nose. Our intention was to check in (and out) but we found all government offices closed for the nine days of Idul Fitri, a post-Ramadan celebration. We tiptoed around the Island for a week doing our last provisioning, fueling and assorted other chores for the upcoming passage to Cocos Keeling. Happily we didn’t arouse any suspicion and were soon under way with our expensive, time consuming paperwork untouched by officials.
We continued southeast at a better, more sail friendly angle, through drilling platforms and fishing fleets, tugboats and passenger ferries. Life wasn’t all bad though. In the Sunda Strait, we dropped our anchor at the foot of Anak Krakatoa and gazed up at its massive cone as the sun set. It was stunning. Our last stop in Indonesia was Pulau Peucang. The Island, located in Ujong Kulon National Park, is at the doorstep of the Indian Ocean. From the westernmost point on the Island we could see to the southern horizon. It was a view of sea alone and soon we would be out there.
Into the Indian Ocean
By Monday, August 17th all three boats had gathered and were ready for the first leg of our Indian Ocean journey, the passage to Cocos Keeling, six hundred miles to the southwest. After months of anticipation it was a relief to finally be underway. Heading in a westerly direction was an especially good feeling. As we departed, the wind was on the beam at 15-20 knots. The seas were a bit confused but not uncomfortable. Two days into the passage we were moving so well that we had to begin reducing sail in order to arrive at our destination in daylight two days later. As passages go this was a nice one with good wind and pleasant weather. The only negative was on the equipment front. A few days before our departure all three of our house bank batteries suddenly expired. We really didn’t want the hassle of heading back into Indonesia and all that would entail. Kite had the name and number of a freight shipper in Perth and, despite the expense, that option seemed like the lesser evil so we opted to continue on to Cocos. We had a functioning starting battery and 500 watts of solar so we were confident that, with some economizing, we could remain up and running for the duration of the passage. By the time we arrived at Cocos we had arranged, via satellite phone, for three AGMs to be air freighted to us on the weekly shuttle. (Don’t ask what that little adventure set us back.)
Cocos Keeling is a tiny atoll in the eastern Indian Ocean. A territory of Australia, it is comprised of three main islands; Direction, Home and West. Direction, where the anchorage is located, is uninhabited. Home Island is home to the ethnic Malay population of approximately six hundred while West Island is the administrative center of the atoll and supports an ethnic European (mostly Australian) population of approximately one hundred people.
During our five day stay in Cocos we managed to get our new batteries delivered from the airport (on West Island) to Direction Island via the local ferry (after they spent a cozy night locked in the ferry’s toilet). With the help of Kite and Hokule’a the batteries were transferred from Direction Island’s dock to dinghies to Shango and into the battery compartment. We had power once again. Thanks guys!
Lunch at West Island’s Dory’s Café, served by the lovely Jo was enjoyable. Several speedy snorkels through the pass south of Direction Island were lots of fun as was a cruiser gathering on the beach one evening. That was about all we managed to accomplish before a weather window presented itself for the two thousand mile run to Rodrigues, the easternmost of the Mascarene Islands.
September 2014: Passage to Rodrigues
The two thousand mile passage across the Indian Ocean to the island of Rodrigues was our second longest passage ever. The passage is known for its strong Southeast trade winds and somewhat uncomfortable sea state. Six out of the seven boats anchored at Direction Island were headed for the Mascarenes, with only one headed to Chagos. Weather gribs were downloaded and examined in detail, though they were telling us only what the beginning of our voyage might be like. With two(ish) weeks at sea, the ending would be, unavoidably, a surprise.
With a forecast for good winds going out six days we left on Tuesday, August 26th, six boats strong. The wind was lovely at 18-20 knots out of 110 degrees. The seas were lumpy but not unreasonable. I should probably mention at this point that all comments about wind speed should be taken with a grain of salt. At some point during the last year our mast-top anemometer ceased to function. Wind speed is one of those pieces of data that is nice to have but not critical so we mounted a replacement on our abandoned wind generator pole just to have a ball park idea of wind strength. The short stature of this pole causes us to have consistently low readings.
For four days we sailed along with lovely winds, clear skies and starry nights. Shango, Kite and Hokule’a somehow managed to remain within VHF range so we had the opportunity to squawk a heartfelt round of Happy Birthday to Zdenka on Kite. For another four days we had good, if less consistent, wind requiring a bit more sail handling. On days nine and ten we had an eerie absence of wind and we found ourselves motoring in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Of course this was not to last.
With just about four hundred miles to go before Rodrigues we began preparing for an Indian Ocean gale. In our windless condition we had plenty of opportunity to get ready. Among other things Roger went aloft and removed our loose and flopping radar reflector, I did some anticipatory cooking and we put the drogue at the top of the cockpit lazarette. Over the VHF we made light hearted jokes about pulling out our copies of Adlard Coles but there was a good deal of sighing to be heard.
At midnight, half way through day eleven the wind began to pick up. The Commander’s forecast sent to Kite suggested we’d get 30-40k with gusts to 50. Our friend Bill on Solstice back in Malaysia saw a forecast of mid 30’s with gusts to 40 as the high. Seas were predicted to be in the 5-6 meter range. At midnight we were seeing “Shango” 25 knots or so with the seas still reasonable from two days of calms. We had a triple reefed main and a bit of staysail out with the wind on our beam.
By morning, the beginning of day 12, we had 174 miles to Rodrigues. The wind was “Shango” 28 knots and the seas were building. The cockpit was getting regular “cleansing rinses.” There was no need to tidy up cracker crumbs. Happily it was a sunny day and that makes everything seem more pleasant. We were really appreciating our faulty anemometer readings. A mid-day arrival on the following day was looking good. Through the day we saw no more than “Shango” 32 knots, which Kite and Hokule’a translated into high 30’s to mid 40’s. Thanks for that. Seas were in the 6-7 meter range with the occasional bigger swell. Our final sail configuration, with the wind now on our port quarter, was a triple reefed main and a bit of genoa. The boat had a comfortable motion, the monitor was happier with the clean air that the genoa was getting and we could still have heaved to if we wanted to.
In the morning, after another night of strong wind and frequent squalls we spied Rodrigues on the horizon. After twelve days at sea a rousing and heartfelt “Land Ho” was heard from the First Mate. A few short hours later the crews of Shango, Hokule’a and Kite were happily ensconced in the only restaurant we found open on Sunday, toasting our safe arrival and feasting on octopus, the local specialty.
September & October: The Mascarene Islands
Before tackling the last leg of the Indian Ocean crossing sailors are offered a wonderful oasis known as the Mascarene Islands. As we began our passage research we had only a vague awareness of the islands of Rodrigues, Mauritius and Reunion. Their remote location assures that they aren’t on the itinerary of the average tourist and certainly not those from the U.S.
The Islands were settled relatively recently by Dutch, English and, most significantly, French traders and the African slaves and Indian laborers who they brought with them. The Islands are amazing multicultural gems.
After our long passage from Cocos Keeling we were very excited to explore Rodrigues, the most Creole of the three Islands. From the moment we were greeted by Gilbert, the Island’s Harbormaster, we knew we’d enjoy the friendly, laid back atmosphere of Rodrigues. We squandered innumerable hours at Le Marlin Bleu and Aux 2 Frères restaurants. We rented scooters for a day and visited the Francois Leguat Giant Tortoise Reserve where we met a 100 year old tortoise. For our anniversary we took a local bus across the Island to the Bakwa Lodge, where we were pampered with a lovely room and French food and wine. We spent the next day hiking the northeast coast before catching a bus back to town. After a week in Rodrigues we decided that we would sacrifice our visit to Mauritius to extend our stays in Rodrigues and then Reunion. Kite and Hokule’a headed off into the sunset without us.
After two weeks we said our goodbyes to Gilbert and sailed the 465 miles to Reunion. We had planned our arrival to coincide with calm weather so that we could enter Saint Pierre’s notoriously dicey entrance with minimal swell. With white knuckles and adrenalin flowing we made our way into the harbor unscathed and tied up at the Customs dock.
The Island of Reunion is a department of France. The population runs the gamut from African, Indian, European and who knows what else, but everyone speaks Creole and/or French. Our high school French was sorely tested but we managed to have a wonderful time nonetheless.
Reunion is visually spectacular. Its home to Piton de la Fournaise, one of the most active volcanoes in the world and Piton de Neiges, a beautiful, inactive volcano. In the center of the Island, surrounding Piton de Neiges, are three Cirques. Formed by the collapse of volcanic tunnels, the Cirques are giant bowls in the landscape with mountain-like walls (ramparts) and flat(ish) interiors (amphitheatres). The Cirques; Cilaos, Mafate and Salazie, are a hiker’s paradise. For a month we ate and we hiked and we toured. My descriptive powers aren’t up to the task so you’ll have to look at our photos to get an idea of the amazing landscape. Our neighbors on each side at the dock were young families with hopes of cruising. We enjoyed their company despite our language deficits. All too soon it was time to face the music. The passage to South Africa was looming and we needed to get it done.
Late October 2014: Richard’s Bay or Bust
So this passage is six hundred miles shorter than the last big passage. What’s all the whining about you ask? It’s the last eighty miles that’ll get you.
According to cruising guru Jimmy Cornell, “This passage can be a rough trip and there are few other areas in the world that have such a bad reputation among cruising boats as the southwestern part of the Indian Ocean. The strong south flowing Agulhas Current can create extremely rough conditions (read: 20 meter seas) when hit by a SW gale.”
Yes, well, let’s go for a sail, shall we?
On Tuesday, October 21st Shango, Hokule’a and Kite headed out of Reunion and into the Indian Ocean, pointed southwest. The weather on this passage proved to be less consistent than on our run to Rodrigues. We began with two days of motoring followed by several days of squalls and thunder storms. When it wasn’t squally or windless we had northeast wind which was quite nice. One evening, during a particularly unpleasant thunder storm our autopilot stopped working. Because we were motoring we were reluctant to use the Monitor. This made for a long night of hand steering till the wind picked up again in the morning. We reached our first waypoint, 150 miles off the southern tip of Madagascar, on Sunday the 26th. The chart suggested that the current might be favorable at this latitude and it was also beyond the Island’s shallow shelf (and its sea mounts and associated rogue waves.) This waypoint worked well for us and we enjoyed a nice push. On Sunday we had to beat through a brief period of SSW wind until the wind swung into the south and picked up considerably. The boarding seas were not as warm as they once were.
The second leg of the trip brought us all the way to the eastern edge of the dreaded Agulhas Current. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so definitive since the location of the Current seems to be a bit of a moving target. In some places it’s wide and at others it’s narrow. Some sources say it begins 60-80 miles offshore while others claim it’s less than twenty miles out. And of course it seems to change from year to year.
On Tuesday the 28th, with about four hundred miles to go, our anticipated Friday arrival was moved forward when Sam, the SAMM net weather man, gave us the news that a southwester would arrive on Thursday night. If a sailboat could be shifted into overdrive, it would have been the appropriate response. Unfortunately that wasn’t an option. We had wind from astern at twenty knots. The genoa was poled out and we were making respectable headway but we weren’t flying. Hmmm…
Late on Wednesday Hokule’a and Kite had begun to experience a strong adverse current. Now we were experiencing the adverse current as well. We had all sails up and the engine running. We had wind, now off the starboard quarter, but we weren’t sure it was enough to get us in before our deadline of Thursday evening. We really didn’t want to have to heave to and wait for the southwest gale to go by but we knew it was a distinct possibility. Fortunately, very early Thursday morning the adverse current abated and the wind filled in. Roger spent an exciting day tweaking the sails and had Shango moving beautifully on a beam reach. We started to think that we might beat the SW wind.
Thursday morning, with about sixty miles to go, we began our current watch. We had an updated forecast from Sam saying we’d have strong northeasterly winds all day and that we had to be into Richard’s Bay before ten p.m. when the southwesterly blow would arrive. By mid-morning we had thirty knots of wind and were moving smartly. We now knew we could make it to Richard’s Bay in daylight. We continued to look for the striking blue color and the increase in temperature that would indicate that we had entered the current but with thirty miles to go there was no sign of it. The day was quite spectacular with bright sunshine and flying spray. In the distance we could finally see the low outline of the African coast.
Finally, at nine miles out and fifteen miles north of Richard’s Bay, we found the current. It had a slight onshore set which seemed to funnel us toward the harbor entrance at a very helpful rate of ten knots. We didn’t have the sense that we would get swept by. The wind was blowing 35 knots and with a third reef now in we were having a great sail. We did wonder how the harbor entrance would be in these conditions but shortly before our attempt Kite gave us the thumbs up via VHF. They said that after only minimal surfing at the river mouth we would be rewarded with a well protected Bay. They were right and we were soon tied up at Tuzi Gazi Marina, ten days after leaving Reunion.
It was remarkable really. We had sailed to Africa.