In my hour of darkness
In my time of need
Oh Lord grant me vision
Oh Lord grant me speed
— Gram Parsons
(could have written this on night watch in the middle of the Indian Ocean)
Leaving the Salomons at Chagos, crews must decide whether to journey via the east or west route to make way to Rodrigues or Mauritius. Both routes avoid the Great Chagos Bank to the south – an expanse of atoll and reef some 100nm across.
Once a weather GRIB file is downloaded and interpreted a route is planned accordingly. To depart in a westerly direction from the Salomons is logical, as the destination is to the south-west but more ideal for those heading to Madagascar or the Seychelles. Strong south-easterly trade winds and the west flowing southern equatorial current a couple of hundred miles south of Chagos may thwart any attempt to reach Rodrigues without bashing into waves the entire trip. Taking the eastern route has the added benefit of up to 10deg on our rhumb line, but the trip around the bank requires suitable winds to make the course to this more favorable bearing. With a weather window of expected easterly breezes, that’s the route we took. Sailing a similar route was SY Coruisk, with crew Brian, Chris and Jan. it’s good when you know there’s another yacht within cooee of us to chat to and share a beer with at the end.
The passage from Chagos to Rodrigues is about the same distance as Thailand to Sri Lanka, perhaps slightly longer. That’s about where the comparison ends. Unlike a cruisy downwind sail baking cookies and reading books, once beyond the Great Chagos Bank the passage to Rodrigues had Blue Heeler close hauled with 25knot winds, making for a very bouncy and uncomfortable trip as we bashed our way southwest. Trying to keep on our bearing of 215deg proved challenging in these conditions. How nice it would have been to turn away from the wind and run downwind, but we’d have ended up in Tanzania! Not ideal…
The first 24 hours had variable winds, plenty of cloud cover and rain. Luckily no lightening or strong winds though. Seas were manageable and we passed the BIOT base at Diego Garcia after 40 hours, keeping the required three miles clearance. With the extra 10degrees we could sail with the wind on our beam rather than uncomfortably close hauled, or so we thought. An updated GRIB on day two showed less easterly and stronger south easterlies than expected. Bummer.
In between trimming sails, sleeping, navigating, eating, reading, and watching episodes of the disturbingly engrossing US cable series Breaking Bad, we kept busy enough. As usual I’d done much of the cooking before we left so breakfast, lunch and dinner was more about compiling and warming rather than creating from scratch, although in these conditions eating huge meals is far from our minds. As the wind increased and the conditions strengthened, the focus was primarily on keeping the boat and crew safe and comfortable, while also maintaining the rhumb line for Rodrigues.
Strong south-easterlies had Blue Heeler ploughing into large waves and only more easterly winds would help us bear further south for a more favourable course to Rodrigues. On day three we furled the large genoa and hoisted our gale sail/storm jib and reduced the mainsail. This proved to be successful in keeping the boat at a comfortable speed and not overloading the auto pilot with too much weather helm. The payoff of course is that our speed dropped from 6/7 to 4/5 knots.
Out here in this expanse of ocean with no land nearby it’s interesting to watch the cloud formations brought upon by changes in temperature and pressure. Only a few years ago I was lucky to even see the sky during my busy work life, let alone judge whether the impending clouds would bring good or bad conditions. Once again, it’s the little things that make this lifestyle so unique…
Day four and still no easterlies. We bashed along our rhumb line of 215deg with 25 sometimes 30 knot winds at 60deg on a port tack. By 8pm, a hint of change as the wind shifted to the beam at 90degrees. Now we were flying along at 6knots with a storm jib and main reefed down. We have an in-mast furler so we don’t actually have reefing points except those we’d purposely marked ourselves.
The moon is not with us on this voyage and a blanket of dark clouds obscured the bright twinkling stars most nights. This makes the evening watches even more ominous than usual as the wild ocean merged with the darkness of the night sky with no distinct horizon. The only light is the phosphorescence as the waves break around us and the glow from our navigation equipment. It’s a bit like being in an airplane at night in a storm, except we get a lot wetter when it rains and the trip much more bumpier and longer. However the in-flight service is very good!
A fresh GRIB on the morning of day five showed the expected easterlies but strengthening southeast trades to follow immediately after. The day started gloomy but the GRIB was spot on and our course altered as the easterly winds arrived on cue. At the 500nm mark with 600 to go we’d managed to stay within 3nm of our rhumb line, with Coruisk never too far away. By evening Blue Heeler moved along swiftly with wind at 120 degrees off the port bow. By day six we’d made good use of the 15/20 knot easterlies and all sails were unfurled and full of wind at 110 degrees. The skies began clearing and squalls lessened as we headed towards 14degrees of latitude.
The beginning of day seven was sunny although the approaching line of clouds suggested the stronger sou’easter was on its way. With 360nm to go it was highly unlikely we’d make Port Mathurin at Rodrigues by Saturday afternoon. Day eight was a little sunnier with consistent breeze between 20/25 knots on the beam. Disappointed we would not reach Port Mathurin by a mere few hours on Saturday night, we resigned ourselves to a slow trip through our ninth night to arrive on Sunday morning, as a night entry is not permitted anyway.
Sailing the final night into day ten, two ships passed by, within a couple of miles, without having showed up on AIS. We can only imagine they had it off as they head towards the piracy High Risk Area, although we are not actually in that zone now. A whale made a brief appearance some 100nm away flicking its huge tail out of the water and swimming to the depths below, not before taking a look at the 12m potential play thing floating on top of the water. I’m glad he chose not to play with us!
Amazingly the yacht Coruisk was within 7nm of us for the last couple of hundred miles. I guess it makes sense given we’re going to the same place, but normally after such long distances there’s a greater gap between vessels. By 3am we had both hove-to some miles from the port entry, waiting until daybreak to enter.
After nine nights on the lumpy ocean we made it to Port Mathurin, Rodrigues, on the morning of the tenth day. Coruisk entered half a mile ahead of us and as both crews and vessels are none the worse for the experience, except a little tired. It was good to be ashore and to celebrate our successful voyage we went out for a meal at the very nice and French cuisine ‘Aux 2 Freres’.
That was our journey. I’ll write more about this remote island location soon.