Chagos to Madagascar


May to August 1999

Chagos to Madagascar


On Tuesday 27 May Senta, rigged with a working jib on the cutter stay, and two reefs in the main sail, ran out through the pass from Salamon atoll, Chagos, turned to port and reached in a south westerly direction towards the southern tip of the Malha Bank.  We had decided to take this route to avoid any possible rough seas on the bank.  Many other boats planned to sail directly to Madagascar across Malha.  Another reason for going south was that the south east trade wind would continue to strengthen and we wanted to be able to run off in front of it as this happened.  The wind was blowing twenty knots from the south east and the seas were very rough in the gap between Salamon and Perhos Banhos atolls.


Once through the gap the swells became larger, but longer and hence more comfortable.  There were however occasional vicious cross seas from the south, hitting Senta from the side and breaking onto the decks.  We were broad reaching in 25 knot winds averaging six knots.


We had arranged with Bill on First Choice to give us a weather forecast each morning when he spoke to the other boats who had also left Chagos.  He picked up the weather reports from Inmarsat via the electronic gizmos on his boat.  This was quite useful in letting us know that there was nothing terrible lurking anywhere.  He told us that the winds were going to be stronger where we were in the south.  We knew that already and had anticipated it.  But we were grateful for Bill's help.  There are no official weather forecasts for this part of the world.  There are also no ships, being off the major shipping routes.  A lonely place.


We listened each morning to the other boats talking on the radio net.  Our little Sony lets us receive very well, but has no transmitter.  It was interesting to track progress of our friends and silently commiserate with them in their problems. Those further north were having considerably less wind.


The covers I had made for the middle and forehatches were working well, keeping the spray at bay and Senta airy down below.


In a rain squall in the early morning of Saturday 29 May the wind steerer broke. Senta rounded up into wind and sat with sails flapping waiting for us to investigate and fix the problem.  A bolt connecting the vertical arm of the steering device to the pendulum had sheared and needed welding to fix.  We decided to lash the whole lot together with a light line. This seemed to work, so we were off again on the sleigh ride to Madagascar. The second thing to go wrong that day was a blocked head.  Pierre to the rescue again.  We wondered what number three problem would be, but it did not come until the next day.


The wind moderated to under 20 knots but by the following day was back with force.  The boats further north continued to have less wind.  Bad luck number three arrived as a large wave broke over the boat and I got my first total drenching in the cockpit.  Weather and seas were very warm so we did not wear oilskins.  Drenching meant that we had salt water soaked clothes to cope with down below.  Eventually we discovered that the best thing was to go on deck wearing our birthday suits.  Our skins are the best oilskins, being completely waterproof and are also easy to rinse.


We had not seen any ships, although Cross Town Traffic and Hi Velocity, further north, reported seeing several.  We were obviously further south than the traffic lanes.


Our first three days runs had been 144, 154 and 125 miles; an average of 137 miles per day, or 5,7 knots.  A good speed for two reefs in the main and working jib.  We had opened the roller furled headsail to Yankee size about twice for a couple of hours, otherwise we had been well reefed down. Senta continued to angle south westwards and would do so until we reached 12 degrees south.   We then planned to sail due west through the channel between Saya de Malha and Nazareth banks.  We hoped for good current and stronger winds



In the late afternoon of Sunday 30 May, the wind moderated.  We unfurled the Yankee and kept it up all night.  The next morning the seas were less confused and the wind even lighter.  We were considering hoisting the full main when the wind came back even stronger than before, blowing 25 knots from east south east all day and the following night.  Our fourth and fifth day's runs were 153 and 161.  On the morning of 1 June were had reached our waypoint south of Malha Bank and were now 710 miles from Chagos, with another 750 to go to reach Cap D'Ambre at the northernmost tip of Madagascar.  Our average 24 hour run had now picked up to 150 miles.

            Big swell in south east trades
The seas were rough in the pass between Malha and Nazareth Banks, but smoothed out after we were through.  Cross Town Traffic reported on the radio that she had sailed directly over the Malha bank on a rhumb line course to Cap D'Ambre and had experienced no problems or unusual sea conditions.  In fact once on the bank in thirteen metres of water it was calm; no swell; only a small chop; and a Korean fishing boat at anchor.


On the morning radio Schedule Deja Vu reported that she was leaving Rodriguez for Mauritius.  Duet and Hi Velocity on the more northerly course to Seychelles were experiencing poorer winds, periodic squalls and an adverse current.


The south equatorial current was giving us a welcome push and with good winds on the sixth  day gave us a 179 mile run.  This current, which is 700 miles wide, splits when it reaches Madagascar. The northern part bends to the north west and accelerates over the top of Madagascar.  We wished to avoid the large seas caused by the current passing Cap D'Ambre and being swept far off course away from Nose Be.  So we aimed to hit Madagascar about fifty miles south of the cape and then sail northwards next to the shore, rounding Cap D'Ambre less than 300 metres off the shoreline.



Our sea legs were well established and, in spite of the uncomfortable seas and wet conditions we were able to bath, bake bread and buns, cook warm meals and sleep reasonably well on our three hour off watch periods.


The wind became more easterly and we were sailing too far southwards on a broad port reach, so we gybed the working jib and then ran goose winged directly westwards.  This was a good point of sailing.  The wind steerer was coping well, except that our lashings chafed through every day and had to be replaced.  The seas, now coming from the port quarter and not from the side, were less bothersome.  The motion of the boat was easier and surprisingly there was less rolling.  Our speed continued to be good and after seven days our 24 hour average was up to 155 miles.


We were spending little time on deck only popping our heads out every ten minutes or so to check for ships.  So we did not see much wild life; one or two birds; no dolphins; but many flying fish on deck every morning.  Senta was airy down below, the new hatch covers helping to make life reasonably pleasant.  Some food supplies were running low.  There was no more muesli for breakfast.  The rice and pasta were almost finished.  We had plenty of canned food, but that gets boring.  In the fresh food department we had one onion and four 'oranges' that were given to us by Chris and Louise of Harmony as we left Salamon.  They came from a hidden orchard at Perhos Banhos.  Unfortunately these were wild oranges and must have been crossed with grapefruit.  They were so bitter we couldn't eat them.  Louise had warned us of this and said that we should squeeze them add lots of sugar and drink the juice.  We dreamed of the meals we would have once we reached Nose Be.  Loads and loads of fresh fruit and salads, eggs and bacon, meat, cheese, baguettes....


As we approached the coast of Madagascar the wind increased and on the night of 4 June the squalls made us furl the bimini, drag down the double reefed main, as the boom was repeatedly hitting the water, and replace it with the tri-sail. Under this rig Senta romped down the seas at nine knots towards Cap D'Ambre, while we stayed down below, listening to classical music and doing pre-navigation for the rounding of the Cape.  The night of 5 June was memorable but tiring.  Twenty five to thirty knot winds and rain squalls accompanied us as we ran towards the coast at Diego Suarez.  At midnight the moon rose to show us the silhouettes of the mountains and the white foam of the breakers.  Senta ran up the coast towards Cap D'Ambre with Pierre on deck keeping watch and hand steering while I navigated every inch of the way as we strove to keep to the fine line between the shore and the rough seas where the current caused rip tides and other uglies.  At 0400 we rounded Cap D'Ambre and in the first cool light of morning Madagascar looked magnificent.  Mountains and hills were definitely a change from the palm-tree atolls we had become used to.


The wind became lighter as we rounded the cape and sailed westwards.  We eventually had to resort to motoring as we set a course to sail to the west of Isles Mitsio.  We urgently needed sleep which we took in short spells during the morning and early afternoon as we motored down the north west edge of Madagascar.


By early evening the easterly wind returned and strengthened until we were reaching under a pocket handkerchief of jib rolled out of the furled headsail. Some of the squalls were so strong that at one stage Pierre, off watch below, stuck his head out of the hatch and shouted. 'Where is all of this wind coming from?  This is not the bloody Falklands!'


No it was Madagascar.  In just over nine days we had sailed the 1440 miles from Chagos, at an average speed of over 160 miles per day.  A fast, interesting, relatively trouble free but wet and uncomfortable passage.  The seas had been ridiculously boisterous, especially with the heavy southerly cross swell giving Senta a curious cork screw motion.  Typical of sailing in the south east trade winds of the southern Indian Ocean.


The next morning brought moderate to fresh south easterly winds and we had a glorious sail in calm seas past Isles Mitsio to anchor in the channel between Sakatia Island and Nose Be in the late afternoon.  This was a favourite spot from previous visits and well protected from the south east.  After a large meal of pasta and canned tomatoes we went to sleep.  Wonderful deep sleep, uninterrupted every three hours by 'How would you like to wake up?  Your watch!', when you felt you had only just fallen asleep.

    Restaurant at Sakatia Island

After a few days rest at Sakatia we sailed round the south west tip of Nose Be to Hellville, where we found three South African boats; Dream Child, Pimpernel and Imberhorne.  Liza and Andrew of Dream Child visited and told us that they were permanently stationed at Nose Be doing charter work.  They found that it paid well and was a good life style.  The going rate was R600 per day per person for full board and overnight stay.


We were invited for tea aboard Imberhorne.  Six young South Africans, Quentin, Anita, Paul, Lindsay, Jurgens, Angela and the cat Anna had sold up everything and were on their first step on an extensive world cruise.  They knew all about Senta, having read copies of our previous newsletters that a friend had given them.


Continued at top of next column…….






…..continued from previous column


A few hectic days of checking in, arranging for the broken steering arm to be welded, filling up with fresh water, shopping for fresh supplies and we were ready to start exploring the area.  There was as yet no sign of any of the other boats who had left Chagos.  Some we knew, from the radio schedule, had stopped at the northern tip of Madagascar and were slowly cruising down towards Nose Be.


Kaskasi, a large Warram, catamaran skippered by Andrew Plaskett (Plastic) from Zululand Yacht Club arrived.  It was flying the Seychelles flag, but had come from South Africa on a delivery voyage, .


By Tuesday 15 June we had completed our re-stocking and left Hellville for Russian Bay about 20 miles away.  Unfortunately the afternoon westerly wind came through too late for us to reach our destination before nightfall, so we changed course and went to Nosy Kisimani instead.  There we anchored in the nook between island and reef just as the sun was going down.  We had a quick cup of tea in the cockpit before we were chased below by mosquitos.


We had not taken anti-malaria drugs for over two years, so we had to be careful not to get bitten.  Our hatches all had net screens and we used mosquito repellant on our skins at night.  This worked well and although we were in high risk areas with large mosquito populations for most of our cruise, we were seldom bitten and thankfully avoided contracting malaria.  We did however carry drugs to treat the disease if necessary.


World Cup Cricket was entering its final stages and we were able to listen to the semi-final and final matches on our Sony world band receiver.  The tie between South Africa and Australia in the second of the two semi finals was almost too exciting to listen to, especially as the result meant that South Africa would not go through to the final.


The next week was spent cruising to Russian Bay and then back to Crater Bay on Nose Be in search of our Chagos friends.  Fishing was poor and Pierre only caught one bonito trolling from the dinghy in Russian Bay.  We don't like to eat this type of fish, so after cutting off a piece near the tail for bait we gave the rest of the fish to the grateful crew of a dhow that had sailed into Russian Bay for the night.



At Crater Bay we found Inomacas, Chelsea Morning and Cross Town Traffic. They all came on board Senta for afternoon tea, coffee and biscuits and a chat about the passage from Chagos.  Everyone had experienced a rough, fast voyage and were pleased to be cruising around the sheltered waters of north west Madagascar.  They were also revelling in the abundance of fresh food. News of Walt and Maria of Csa Vargo was that they had decided not to return to South Africa, but were continuing eastward across the Indian Ocean to Malaysia.


From Crater Bay we caught a taxi into Hellville to replenish fresh stores.  We tried to save some money by taking a 'collective' taxi instead of a 'special'.  Never again!  We were squashed into a tiny Renault together with eight other passengers.  In Hellville we found the small town in a state of excitement.  There was a military band and parade and a celebration in the square.  This was to mark the arrival of sacred wood at the Queen's palace in Antananarivo.  The wood was need to rebuild the parts of the palace burned down in a fire in 1996.


Several day's cruising took us to Nosy Komba to do our washing in the fresh water that runs down into the village's water trough from the top of the mountain.



                          Nosy Komba


Anne of Cross Town Traffic had a birthday coming up on 26 June so several boats sailed to Nosy Kisimani for a beach barbeque to celebrate.  While making the fire on the beach, Norman of Chelsea Morning found a lazy boa constrictor sunning himself on the sand right near where we wanted to hold the birthday party. There are no poisonous snakes in Madagascar, but the area round Nose Be has many constrictors.  Having been reared in the Australian outback Norman had no fear of snakes.  So he lifted the boa up by its tail and placed it in the bushes a little way from the party site.  I must admit that I didn't stray too far from the fire that night.


After the toasts to Anne and singing of 'Happy Birthday' and 'For She's a Jolly Good Fellow', I told the others that they were also helping Pierre and I to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary which was the following day.  When he heard this, Pierre of Inomacas, was astounded.  He shook his head and remarked, "C'est incroyable. It is unbelievable. 40 years!!  I would be dead!"  At which his wife, Genevieve, playfully hit him on the head with a twig of driftwood an said,"Thank you very much, Pierre!".  We spent several days at Kisimani, walking on the beach exposed by the low spring tides, watching dhows sail in the bay, and generally enjoying ourselves being lazy.


We then sailed back to Nosy Komba, where we shopped for souvenirs to give to family and friends when we saw them at the end of the year.  After two rolly nights at anchor we woke early and went ashore to do the washing.  We then motored westwards to Nosy Momoko with all sails covered, sun awnings up and the washing hanging on the life lines to dry.  With the dinghy towing behind we only needed fenders over the side to look like a typical Vaal Dam cruising boat.


The Nosy Momoko anchorage is well sheltered in an L-shaped corner of the island. The water is clear, holding good and the scenery, especially the mountains to the south, is spectacular.  We spent three days here before sailing back to Hellville.  We had decided to stay in Madagascar a further month and needed to renew our visas.


At Hellville we found Makaretu with Marie-George, Benoir, Maxine and Morgan(of Chagos penis infection fame) on board.  They were all well and we visited them early evening one evening to catch up on news.


We had to wait four days for our passports to be sent to Diego Suarez for the visa renewals.  So we hung around Hellville at anchor, watching the comings and goings in the small harbour and going ashore to shop each day.



    Hellville: Dhow sails in front of ketch Sylvia


One morning as we sat at a table on the pavement at the Oasis café enjoying coffee and cream cakes, we were approached by a black man who greeted us in a very friendly manner as if he knew us.  I had never seen him before, but soon noticed that he was wearing a baseball cap made from a South African flag.  He introduced himself as George, the owner of a small 26 ft boat, which he had sailed from Durban and was now chartering in the Nose Be area.  He was making a reasonable living and planned to return to South Africa at the end of the year.  We met George several times during our stay in Madagascar, and were impressed with his drive and enthusiasm.  Although his boat is really too small for chartering, he had bought several two-man tents and camping mattresses.  His charter guests were accommodated in these tents which were pitched on the shore in the various bays and islands that they visited.


To our surprise our passports with the new visas for a further two months were ready as promised.  The cost was R140 each with a "present' of R20 for the immigration official.  We were now able to leave Hellville again and sail to less hectic places.  A quick visit to Crater Bay and then a good sail over to Russian Bay, where we stayed for ten days.  Several boats came and went, including Mike on Doualla, Patrick and Carolyn on Cockaigne, and Chris and Louise on the motor launch Harmony.  Cockaigne had just arrived from Richards Bay after spending 20 months there doing a major refit to their boat.


At the beginning of August we sailed again to Hellville to spend a few days provisioning for the voyage to Mayotte and then on to South Africa.  Another trip to Nosy Komba for washing brought us into contact again with Derek and Jill on Ginseng and Andy and John on Sara.  It was interesting to hear about their experiences since last seeing them in Chagos.  While rowing over to Ginseng I was hailed by a Swedish boat, Galatea.  Peter the single hander on board told me that the cholera, which we knew was rife in Majunga, had now spread to Hellville.  We would have to be very careful about cleaning fresh produce and the source of our water supplies.


In order to avoid the dreadful rolling in the north easterly swell at night at Nosy Komba, we sailed around to the south shore of that island and spent two enjoyable days anchored in a delightful bay.  We then tried to sail up the east side of Nosy Be and round the top, but this was thwarted by a complete lack of wind.  So we returned via the south of the island to Sakatia, where we found First Choice, Gitana and Moonshadow anchored.  Most of the boats from Chagos who had planned to visit Madagascar were now in the area.  During an enjoyable lunch at the Sakatia Passions Lodge the crews of all of the boats swopped sailing tales.


            The last two weeks in Madagascar were spent cruising between Hellville, Sakatia and Russian Bay.  In Hellville we noticed that the 80ft ketch Sylvia had a problem with her Red Ensign.  The Union Jack at the top of the hoist was upside down!  The wide white stripes were underneath and not on top.  As the rest of the boat was in absolutely perfect condition and the crew worked all day and every day to keep her like that, I wanted to row over and point out their minor mistake. But somehow I never got round to it.


After final provisioning and check out in Hellville we sailed to Russian Bay as this is a good jumping off spot for the short leg to Mayotte.  There we found 12 other boats, quite a crowd in a normally relatively uncrowded anchorage.  The first morning there was great excitement as some of the boats had spotted whale sharks swimming in the bay.  Dinghies set off to the sharks and some of the crew got into the water to swim with them.  They are quite harmless, being plankton eaters, but are very large, up to 12 meters in length.  Later that day as Pierre was stepping from the dinghy onto the boarding ladder, he looked down and saw one of them lying in the shade underneath Senta.  Although he knew that the creature was harmless, Pierre was quite shaken by being so near to such a big animal, nearly as long as Senta.


We said goodbye to Cockaigne, who would leave in a few days for Mayotte and then on to Kenya, Cross Town Traffic who would cruise down the west coat of Madagascar and then across the Moçambique Channel to Richards Bay, and Fajaro, who was also bound for Kenya.


We then made final preparations and went to bed for a good night's sleep before setting off on the 300 mile crossing to Mayotte on 19 August 1999.