Sailing from Madagascar to Richards Bay, South Africa

I glimpse the moonlit road through gaping holes in the floorboard as we career through villages nestled in the tropical vegetation, dark shadows clustered around cooking fires, thumping music temporarily drowning the clatter. There is a bone jarring crash as the taxi hits yet another pothole. Conversation is impossible, so I am still in the dark about David who has just picked me up from Nosy Be airport and with whom I am about to be confined in a very small space for the next week or so. We are flung from side to side, swerving as equally battered vehicles suddenly appear without headlights from around blind corners. I hold on in mute terror. How ironic if I should I die here and not on the open sea.

We eventually arrive at the beach off Sakatia Be where a speed boat awaits to take us to the yacht, gleaming in the moonlight. I am eager to talk but it has been a full day’s travel and after a delicious, pre-prepared bolognaise, I fall into an exhausted sleep.

Jipcho, a 42ft sailing sloop, started her life as a racer in New Zealand. Fast and easy to sail, her smallish fuel tanks increase our reliance on sailing and influence our plans. The 3 cabins are full of gear, so whoever is not on watch sleeps in the leeward berth in the saloon.

“Its going to take how long!?”

My sailing experience is twofold. Racing between the buoys where the focus is staying upright and getting around the course as fast as possible. Secondly, chartering in exotic locations where the weather tends to be fair and the occasional storms are short and sharp, and safe anchorages are not too far away. Both are about maximising sailing in the time available.

My education begins:
I learn about round-the-world sailors who can’t afford to damage their homes. Blue water sailing – the necessary evil between destinations – is planned meticulously. The best time of year is known for each passage. Then the weather forecast is studied to ensure a sufficient window is predicted before anyone leaves safe harbour.
I learn about radio networks keeping sailors up to date on weather conditions.
I learn that when current and wind oppose, waves are steep and unpleasant and can be boat-breaking.
I learn that the Agulhas Current in the Mocambique Channel is South-setting and we will need North winds for safe sailing.
I learn that this is the second most dangerous channel in the world!
I learn that generally sailors go through the Suez Canal, but due to the very real threat of Somali pirates they now go south – this not their first choice!
I learn that even with the best planning Captain Ron is right: “If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen out there!”
I learn, finally, that my expectation of 8 days is woefully ignorant and it is more likely to be 3 weeks.

It is nearly impossible to travel between northern Madagascar and northeast South Africa during one weather window, which has a rhumb line distance of about 1,300 nm.  The Mozambique Channel must be utilized during this passage and this body of water is like a south bound runaway freight train on steroids.  You must travel south via the channel with its strong south bound current when the winds are from the north, or pay a huge uncomfortable and potentially dangerous penalty for going to windward.  For months at a time the northern wind windows typically last around three days.  Given the above, sheltered Mozambique anchorages are often used during strong winds from the south, which can last five days or more. (Cruiserswiki.org)

1. Hell-Ville.   2. Ramanamy.   3. Ilha Lava.   4. Baly Bay.   5. Ilha Casuarina.   6. Inhambane.  7. Richards Bay

24 days – 6 bay hopping in Madagascar, 2 becalmed, 9 sailing, 7 waiting for Northerly window

“One of the very nicest things about life is that we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.” – Luciano Pavarotti

The smell of roast chicken wafts up from the galley. Sunday roast with all trimmings. We have been becalmed for two days now, right in the middle of the Mozambique Channel and we need a spoil. I have a skipper who appreciates food and can cook!
Shopping in Hell-Ville, Nosy Be had been interesting: There is a cacophony of sound. The old colonial buildings still exuding charm despite their drab, peeling paint. We pile our purchases into our waiting taxi as we crisscross the town – the French influence clearly evident: The Boulangerie for an armful of baguettes which, when broken in half and drizzled with raw honey from a 2 litre coke bottle, would become our staple breakfast. The Charcuterie for saucisson and prepacked frozen portions of pork. The Boucherie for chicken and other meat. The fresh food market for unripened paw paws and bananas that would swing in a net in the saloon. Also bags of onions and other vegetables, eggs and a large sack of rice.

We eat well. The meals are bountiful and varied although mostly accompanied by obligatory rice. Pork Adobo. Thai Red Fish Curry. Osso Bucco. Bolognaise. Pancakes. Every variety of stir fried rice. Not to mention freshly caught Wahoo steaks and yellow fin tuna sashimi.

So what do you do all day?
“Try it again”
David’s voice drifts disembodied from the depths of the hull. I start the engine and let it run. There is no sound from the stuffing box (the connection between the propellor shaft and the engine). The saloon is a mess, piled with gear from the aft cabin which we cleared to get to the source of the terrible grinding noise that appeared from below early that morning while we motored to charge the batteries. We are exhausted, especially David who has done most of the clambering into the near-inaccessible, claustrophobic hull. It has been 4 hours and I have spent most the time reading through marine manuals, shouting down questions and options to try – the last being to remove the water inlet pipe to the stuffing box while the engine was running. The culprit, a thick strand of hardened grease is eventually pushed out followed by clear running, cooling water!

Life is never boring on a yacht. There is always something to do: repairs, fishing, preparing meals, endlessly studying synoptic charts, currents and wind and debating where and when to go, as well reading and writing.

Watch keeping at night is its own delight

Every evening we put in a reef or two while it is still light. This keeps us from stumbling around in the dark when the wind picks up at night as well as allowing the maximum amount of sleep for the one off watch.
It is hard to describe being on watch. It’s just you, the stars, the wind, the swoosh of the boat cleaving through the waves.
It’s boring, it’s enthralling, it’s sobering, it’s inspiring, it’s exhilarating.

“Smell the sea and feel the sky, let your soul and spirit fly” –  Van Morrison

The most comfortable place is with my back against the main bulkhead in the cockpit which means I cannot see where we are going. Every 3 songs on my iPod, I stand up, do a 360 degree scan of the horizon, I check the course, check the set of sails, make any adjustments, do another 360 scan, if I see a ship’s light I make sure we are not on a collision course. I then settle back, wrap my blanket around me, plug in the earpods and get comfortable. The leeward bench is easier to wedge yourself in, but often drenched with spume. After several days of this, I devise an elaborate set of quick release straps to hold me in the windward bench.

“It’s almost impossible to watch a sunset and not dream”

But is it romantic?
Well, after the chores, forced sailing in the wrong direction, drifting for days, the relentless sun where it is too hot and sultry to be below deck and not a scrap of shade above, bathing with a bucket of sea water and rinsing with rationed fresh water, long watches, frustration with the interminable waiting, one might be tempted to say no. Then a humpback whale and calf surface and swim alongside or one stands on its head with just its flukes protruding for a good 20 minutes, or a manta ray leaps and crashes down into the sea, and then there is the endless variety of sunsets, the vastness, the insignificance of man, arriving at a postcard island; the answer is absolutely yes.

The hardest part is adjusting to the time that it takes. But seeing boats that had made different decisions limping, or worse being towed, into port, gear broken, the crews slack-eyed and drained, I am grateful for the decisions we made.

Did I enjoy it? Thoroughly. Would I do it again. Probably not. I would be hard pressed to volunteer to sail with a complete stranger and find such an ideal combination again: an experienced skipper, easy to get on with, who appreciates good food, with an interesting library, a beautiful sailor’s boat, a good balance of testing but manageable weather. 

My aim was to expand my sailing skills, but I got so much more: friendships, beauty, an understanding of round-the-world sailors, a sense of wonder, a sense of place. All in all an unforgettable experience.

“The sea below me. The sky above me. It makes me feel free.” (Unknown)



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