Voyage to Madagascar

Satphone update: photos to follow in a few weeks

We left Reunion early before the unusually strong northeast winds pinned our yacht to the dock at Le Port. Rafted alongside was Coruisk, skippered by Brian and crew of Chris and friend Keir. After hugs and farewells, Coruisk, who would leave a couple of days after us, tossed their lines setting us free. At 7.30am we motored out of Le Port on route to Madagascar.

Keen to make up for lost time after our extended stay in Reunion, skipper and crew agreed to forego a visit to the island of St Marie on the east coast and would head directly to and around the northern tip – Cape d’Ambre – where the Indian Ocean swell and trade winds clash with the waters of the Mozambique Channel. Joining us each night on this trip was a welcoming bright moon lighting our way.

With 620nm to reach our destination we optimistically expected four nights at sea, planning an arrival at Antsiranana (formerly Diego Suarez, some 20nm south of the cape) on the afternoon of the fifth day where we’d regroup and plan our voyage around the top. The grib forecast showed winds increasing around the cape later that week and to remain some days after. The first two days of our trip we averaged five knots, not quite enough as we’d like. By Wednesday morning the wind had died as clouds rolled in from the east bringing drizzly rain and wind on the nose. With 255nm to go the voyage to reach Antsiranana would take longer than we’d hoped.

The south equatorial current flows north and south along the east coast of Madagascar. As the water of the Mozambique Channel rounds the cape from the west with a falling tide the effect of south east trade winds against tide and the Indian Ocean causes steep seas, referred to by sailing author Jimmy Cornell as a ‘witches cauldron’. Prudent advice given to us was to round the cape with ‘one foot on the dirt’, that is, as close as possible to the shore, and make the pass on a rising tide. By our fourth day we were considering two options. One was to hole up in Antsiranana and round the top when the weather was fair. The second option was to continue sailing through if the wind, tides and currents were favourable. Our fifth afternoon at sea had a winged-out Blue Heeler yawing back and forth over the calm seas and light winds with over 100nm to go. At 6pm Wayne went down for his sleep and I curled up in the cockpit to watch a movie on my iPad while keeping watch. Thirty minutes into “300 Rise of an Empire” with a cast of buff Greek bodies strutting around in leather straps looking very serious, my entertainment was rudely interrupted as a 30 knot squall and cold rain drove Blue Heeler 40 degrees off course to the west. Pillows, iPad and cushions thrown below, I donned my wet weather gear and let the squall run it’s course, thinking it would pass over in a few minutes. After five miles it was obvious that the pole had to come down as the wind shift wasn’t reverting and I couldn’t get the wind on the beam, back on course, with the jib poled out. Wayne came up on deck to stow the pole with me at the helm working the sheets to correct our course. A little disheveled he then went back down to finish his rest. Immediately a delightful 25 knots broad reach on calm seas had Blue Heeler tearing along at 8-9 knots with full sails. After successfully viewing my thrilling movie, at 11pm it was my turn to go below as Wayne came up for his four hour watch. By 12.30am though I was wide awake and bouncing up and down in my bunk. I raced up to the cockpit and looked around at the violent seas buffeting the boat. The wind was still around 20/25knots but the seas were very confused. Time to reef the sails! To take the wind out of the main allowing us to furl it, Wayne hove-to, while I clipped in, leapt to the mast and furled the main to our second reef mark. I then took my disheveled body back to my bunk for a couple more hours of half-sleep.

This sudden sea change began about 100nm south of the northern tip and the rough conditions remained with us the rest of the voyage from the Indian Ocean to the Mozambique Channel. Conditions around the top were forecast to be 25 knots plus and at this point the wind was from directly behind. Not a good direction. Although it was rough and we strayed further from the coast than we liked, we figured we would arrive at the cape on a rising tide, the best time to round it. So that’s what we did.

With swell from the Indian Ocean pushing us along, and wind against the oncoming current, conditions were rough as we made our way up the east coast. By midday Friday the tide had turned in our favour and for eight miles we rode the swell on a course of 282deg. Now triple reefed we passed the Cape d’Ambre lighthouse within half a mile and in 25 metres of water. The wind increased once around the top, no more than 35 knots, but conversely the seas abated substantially treating us to a pleasant end to a boisterous 24 hours.

Deciding to island hop down to the island of Nosy Be some 110nm south gave us a bit of a rest to enjoy the scenery and the sailing. The land is quite barren and stripped of vegetation, with lone skeletons of trees dotted around the hills and a smattering of bushes and shrubs amongst the dry grasses. White tailed birds and brilliant brooch-like bumble bees fly over, while friendly fisherfolk on ramshackle outrigger canoes paddle by on their way home for the evening.

Now that we’re back in the heat of the tropics, at anchor I leapt into the cool water for a swim and to wash all the salt from the past week out of my hair – our first swim since we left Chagos back in May. The water isn’t clear but it’s cool and salty. Madagascar is reknown for an abundance of wildlife so unless I hear otherwise I’ll assume there may be bitey or stingey things lurking in the depths. The latitude is almost the same as Darwin and there’s plenty of nasties in the waters at the Top End of Australia.

Our time here is limited to a few weeks, as we are keen to cross the Mozambique Channel to South Africa before November. A lot to see and do by all accounts and still so many miles to go. I’m writing this as we leave our anchorage at Mitsio Island and can see Nosy Be some 35nm away. We’ll check in at Hell-ville in a day or so.

The elephant is being slowly consumed…


Our anchorages north of Nosy Be:

Once around the cape wind was strong ESE in the mornings, shifting to SW by lunchtime. Great sailing along flat waters of the west coast.

Anchored 16nm south from cape at Nosy Hao (12.07.030S 049.02.345E). Winds up to 25knots consistently overnight but good holding on Sandy bottom. Next night travelled 42nm south in light seas to anchor in the calm bay behind Nosy Antaly (12.33.724S 48.51.504E). Wind picked up from SE overnight up to 25 knots but good holding in mud/sand. Next day travelled 27nm in perfect conditions – 15 knots from the southeast, shifting southwest allowing us to glide over the calm waters. Anchored in 14m mud at Maribe Bay at Mitsio Island (12.54.314S 48.34.590E). [end]

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Sailing the world aboard Blue Heeler
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