Over the top of Madagascar – Mother Nature rules


Sunday 7 August 2016

At 0730 on 31st July 2016 we lifted anchor and left the beautiful Seychelles. Five minutes later we were back and anchored as a drive belt on the engine alternator had gone!

So, at 0800 on 31st July 2016 again we left the beautiful Seychelles. Departures are always hard as you become so comfortable and familiar with a place, then you have to drag yourself once more into the unknown. This time the unique unknown factor was six days of upwind sailing to the Comoros. Circumnavigations are usually sailed anti-clockwise as it means the prevailing winds are behind you resulting in more comfortable downwind sailing. However, with the Somali piracy risk still in place the vast majority of cruisers are sailing around the Cape of Good Hope rather than through the Red Sea and that inevitably means some upwind sailing across the Indian Ocean.

People use different routes to get to Richards Bay on the east coast of South Africa and all have their advantages and disadvantages. We’d chosen the so called “northern route” of heading south (makes complete sense of course) based on the places we could visit along the way. Jimmy Cornell who writes the authoritative book ‘Cruising Routes of the World’ describes it as the most interesting route but the most challenging. And it has been challenging at times but it was about to get a whole lot more challenging.

Sailing west and south from the Seychelles you are faced with south-east trade winds which means sailing upwind. The trade winds are at their strongest in July and August and most notably they accelerate around the north-east coast of Madagascar creating a wide band of strong winds. The perceived wisdom is to wait for later in the season when the winds are lighter and to sail to the Comoros which gives a slightly better angle than sailing direct to Madagascar. We’d been watching the weather daily since arriving in the Seychelles and when the Senior Plumes were in town we’d noticed a potential weather window. A weather window means more favourable winds and in our case they were showing lighter winds, light enough that we would take them on upwind. The Senior Plumes left and the window was holding. All hands on deck, get Adina ready, we’re going for it!

The first day we had light winds and we used them to get south, our theory being that when we went over the top of Madagascar we could bear away (so not be sailing hard upwind) and have a more comfortable sail through the strong wind zone. This trip certainly had the nerves going and all we could think about was that band of wind accelerating and waiting for us.

Fishing is usually banned for the first few days as we allow our sea legs to settle in. But Tom knew that once the going got tough there would be no fishing whatsoever so day two the lines were in! Bang, Bang – two big Wahoo (or Yahoo / Yeehaaa as our Seychelles guests Charlie and Nicola call them), Adina’s track record of catching fish every passage this year is still intact! Our freezer is fully loaded and the boss has said no more fishing – unless a yellowfin tuna (her favourite) is caught of course.

As we progressed we came across huge flocks of boobies, literally groups of seventy to one hundred sitting in the water. They would take off as we approached and many would come and inspect this unusual object passing through their water. They fly alongside and cock their heads looking at you. Many find the sails interesting and squawk away, a group even tried to land on the mast head. And a few would dive on our lures too – we dreaded one actually getting hooked.

Then sitting one morning we heard a loud shooting up of water, a noise we know from dolphins blowing out air on the surface of the water. It was a whale! A very large whale less than one hundred metres away. We were both enthralled, in awe and scared too – we certainly didn’t want something nearly the same length as Adina anywhere near us. Three surfaces and it then plunged down and was gone. Did this mean more whales were around?

The winds would pick up at night and the seas would get more boisterous. With each sunset and sunrise we’d get squalls which would form fast and furious. Both of us had instances where we had to wake the other one up to quickly reduce sail. Without a moon you can’t see the waves and it makes it a little disconcerting. But Adina was performing well, she has always enjoyed upwind sailing. It’s just her crew who worry about any damage as the strain on the boat feels so much more than when sailing downwind.

Morning and night we downloaded the weather calculating a spot to turn and head over the top of Madagascar. Go too far south and while you get a better angle to cross, you find stronger winds. And of course for us the crossing was going to happen at night when you can see little.

As we got into the accelerated zone the seas were bumpy. The time came and we steered west-south-west. At first the seas were boisterous but with tide and wind going the same direction, they settled down. Our strategy was working, we were flying along nicely. The main was well reefed, we had our smaller staysail out and a deeply reefed genoa. We’d probably been too cautious. Adina bombed along nicely, we kept pushing her, willing her on to be over the top and out of the accelerated wind zone. Morning dawned and by 0900 we were done! The bizarre thing is the other side of Madagascar there is a wind shadow, the winds die, the sea calms. You go from one extreme to the other – surreal.

We were pleased we had safely made it over the top, but there was a sting in the tail. Further south and coming up the Mozambique Channel were some strong southerly winds from a gale that had formed earlier near South Africa. It meant getting to the Comoros was going to be difficult. Already in our hearts we knew it would not be possible. When you’ve done so much planning to visit somewhere it’s hard to abandon that plan but we’ve been in this situation before. We sat and deliberated and vowed we had to decide come 1500 that day. The winds made the decision that much easier as the actual direction of the wind turned worse than forecast and was on the nose – we would have to go to Tanzania or Madagascar! So off to Madagascar we headed. It simply meant our one month in Madagascar would now be two months. No bad thing as many a cruiser has said they wished they had more time there. As the movie song goes “I like to move it, move it”. We bet every cruising blog mentions that line!

Our target was the island of Nosy Mitsio on the north-west coast. Looking at the weather forecast the last six hours of our passage would have some strong winds on the nose but we decided to take it on and deal with it. We slowly motored in the no wind zone with adverse current against us. After all the big deal of getting over the top it was a bit of a slog, we wanted to be in and anchored. Mother Nature then delivered us a blow – the strong winds arrived six hours earlier just as the sun set and they were blowing hard. At first, still determined to reach our destination we motored against them. But we were banging through short choppy rough seas, spray was flying, it was uncomfortable so again we changed plans, cracked off and aimed for Nosy Be further south. It was still hard going and we laboured away with wind against tide. Around 3am we realised that with a change in the wind direction we could still reach Nosy Mitsio and so we changed direction again. Of course a few hours later the wind changed back again but we’d had enough, we decided to stick it out even if the going was slow. While we were pleased with our efforts to get over the top of Madagascar, Mother Nature was reminding us who was boss.

After a slow slog, we managed to drop anchor and we could relax. For us that meant a good breakfast of eggs and bacon! Followed by some sleep.

Welcome to Madagasgar

Welcome to Madagasgar

Madagascar at first glance is strikingly different from the Seychelles yet has its own beauty. Nosy Mitsio provides great protection against the seas; the hills while brown and red, are scattered with green trees and coconut palms. Ashore we can see the villages with their dry thatched roofs. Already we’ve had some canoes coming out to trade. It was a year ago we were trading with Papua New Guineans. It’s become quickly obvious they don’t have much here. Papua New Guineans would bring a treasure trove of garden vegetables, here’s it’s an egg or two, a crab. Good advice was given to us that in Madagascar it’s more about giving than trading. We soon learnt that when one person wanted five t-shirts for a bunch of bananas! We need to take our time, learn how things works. Like anywhere else there will be opportunists but there are far more people who are genuine, people with little, the yachts come but for a few months.

We’re going to be staying put for a few days then we’ll explore a little before slowly making our way to Cap Andre which sits halfway down the west coast and acts as a launch pad to get to South Africa. We also need to give Adina a full check over. She has performed marvellously well and looked after us, she’s solid and determined. We need to be sure she stays that way for the trip to South Africa.

On shore we can hear the herdsman whistling to his cattle. This is Africa, it feels like a whole new adventure has just begun.

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One response to “Over the top of Madagascar – Mother Nature rules

  1. Ros King says:

    Well done Susie and Tom! Looking forward to reading more!