Crossing the mighty Indian Ocean - Indonesia to Hout Bay, South Africa
Krakatoa Islands to Mauritius - Part 1
3-21 April 2013
The Indian Ocean certainly comes with a fearsome reputation ensuring that even the most rufty-tufty sailors know they're in for a challenge. Let's just say that crossing the Indian Ocean was like no other crossing we've ever done before. I don't mean this in a bad way - overall our crossing was a very good one (as in the weather and sea state could have been a lot worse!). And yes it certainly was challenging at times, but the 20-30 knots of wind was not an issue, it's the confused sea state was, not to mention those small mountains disguised as rogue-ish swells that made an appearance fairly often ensuring our very sturdy autopilot got a total workout!
So let's start at the beginning. Our decision to leave from Krakatoa Island, Sunda Strait, Indonesia, in early April was based on the fact that we really just wanted to get back home to South Africa before winter, and without the fuss of the usual time span. April is a transition season like September, but April runs a higher risk of still getting a cyclone, but this was a chance that we were prepared to take. We were Asia'd out and it was time to move on to greener pastures. Thanks to the pirates, the Indian Ocean no longer held much of an appeal to us and since we'd spent a long time in the atolls of the Tuamotus (Pacific Ocean), so missing out on Chagos was no big deal. The thought of spending 6 months in Mauritius was out of the question too (what would one do in Mauritius for 6 months anyway?). Getting to South Africa, particularly Hout Bay, in autumn was definitely achievable as it does not howl with wind every single day! The Vasco Da Gama yacht race also happens to take place every year from Durban to Mozambique at the end of April.
I like to think our trip started way up in Phuket on 2 March, because we'd been on the move ever since! We headed down to Rebak Marina, Langkawi, to antifoul the boat, and had a good spring clean/selling session. We then headed across to Penang to have our liferaft serviced. Then down the Melacca Straits to Puteri Marina where we topped up with diesel and did a last shop for fresh produce. From there we headed across the Singapore Straits (which was unnervingly quiet to say the least) to Pulau Buaya (N00.11.63 E104.12.79), then did an overnighter to Belitung to top up the diesel we'd just used to get there! From Belitung we anchored at Pulau Aur S02.58.38 E107.13.63, then did an overnighter to Pangcong (on the mainland, just before entering the Sunda Strait) S05.49.51 E105.47.14. The overnighter across the Java Sea was a most unpleasant one as we had a very strong current against us for most of the way (about 1-1.4 knots), as well as wind on the nose.
We did not want to go through to Krakatoa at night as there is a fair amount of boat traffic (ie ferries and tugs with tows), and ideally one needs to get the timing right for the current in the strait. We left early the following morning and had 4.5 knots of current with us at one stage! As the opening widened it fizzled out, but we still had around 1 knot with us. The Krakatoa anchorage is beautiful (S06.08.67 E105.25.68) - approaching the anchorage: it may seem that it never gets shallower and you're wondering if this anchorage was a good idea, but it does get shallower and is a good anchorage for a night. We anchored in about 14 meters of water. The smoking volcano is mesmerising... but sadly it did not entertain us with rumbling or spewing of large molten blobs the size of small cars! It's taken 1222nms to get here.
Our decision to use Commanders Weather to route us was the best decision we could have made, and their prices are not bad either. Naturally they can see the bigger picture and are able to forewarn you of any unfavourable developments, and are confident in the fact that they can route you safely around anything nasty. The forecasts we received from them were very detailed and accurate. We don't have an Iridium phone as there has never been a need for us to have one. I was not keen about using sailmail to get our weather reports and faxes and then trying to figure out what was going to nail us, particularly since we did not know what the connection speed and propagation was going to be like. The other problem is the files are very big, and so is the Indian Ocean, so where do you start?! I am rather relieved to say that I'm glad we did not have to rely solely on sailmail because I would have been totally stressed out!! The propagation was okay until about 1000nms from Mauritius, then the Brunei station became too far and the Africa station, well, was also a tad too far (but I did persevere as I was determined to get our position out every day) - I found 18262 (Africa) to be the most consistent eventually and then more options opened as we closed in on Mauritius. For some unknown reason the GRIB files however used to take hours to arrive in our inbox.
So after 6 months of talking about it (and Audrey stressing about it!), we finally set off on 3 April in the general direction of Cocos Keeling as Commanders wanted to get us in the trade winds as soon as possible. This was a fast couple of days with 17-22 knots of wind on the beam, Fast Forward loves this angle and we were flying along (best day was 198nms). The swell was like small mountains! We were running with 2 reefs in the main, and either a reefed staysail or reefed genoa and averaging 8-8.5 knots for those first four days.
We were then given the news that a cyclone had formed (where they usually form up there near the Chagos area), and that we need to slow down until further notice (we were both forecast to arrive at exactly the same time in Mauritius!). Commanders advised us to try and average around 150nms a day until they could see what cyclone Imelda was up to and where she fancied going. This wasn't too much of a hardship as the wind had also dropped to 12-16 knots (and thankfully also the swell), but it was soon back up to 15-20 and 25. So for the next 10 days we just plodded along using either the genoa or staysail (reefed more often than not), and no main sail. At times it was a bit uncomfortable as the confused seas remain confused, and there was that constant rogue wave aka a small mountain that would come along and lift the stern up and push us around into the swell. Not fun. And then there was the swell that would hit the side of the boat with such force that we were convinced that Fast Forward's aluminium hull would need panel beating! Most days it was too risky to have hatches open. But we did have a about 5 absolutely stunning days with perfect sailing conditions (pity we were limited to doing 6 knots!).
Once we were given word that Imelda was far enough south for her not to pose a problem to us anymore, we could speed up and for the last 3 days of our crossing we certainly had frisky conditions! Squalls packed with 33 knots and once again, those small mountains - only this time more rogueish than ever - but as usual, only in the pitch dark! By this stage of the game we were both so ready for the serene and tranquil waters that were waiting for us on the west coast of Mauritius.
In summary, the Indian Ocean is hard on the boat and hard on the autopilot. If, like us, you have been in SE Asia for a few years you tend to forget how rough it can get out there. Here are a few things to consider before making this crossing:
1) Ensure that all rigging, blocks and ropes are in good condition
2) Check all shackles and secure those that you are able to with a cable tie
3) Make sure your anchors are securely stowed and tied down
4) Close chain deck inlet, make sure anchor locker drain is clear so that it can drain
5) Check all steering components
6) Make sure electrical connections to autopilot are secure and that the autopilot is in good working condition (if you've been hanging around in SE Asia for a couple of years it will not have had to work very hard!)
7) Check all sails and stitching, especially the areas that have been in the sun (your sails are going to work very hard on this trip!)
8) Stow and secure all equipment inside the boat (yes you do know this, but for the first time ever Audrey had to get a sail tie around our already secure microwave as it was threatening to get thrown across the galley in very bad weather)
9) If carrying any fuel or water containers on deck, check to make sure they are very secure and cannot be moved by a large wave
10) We thought the clear vinyl sides and back section for our cockpit were essential items as (a) it kept us dry (b) kept out the wind
11) Prepare for all eventualities
Mauritius to Durban - Part 2
27 April to 7 May 2013
We think this crossing of around 1600nms would be trying at any time of the year as there are constantly highs and lows that dominate this area westward from the South African coast, generating high to very high winds with complementing sea states.
We left Mauritius as a cold front was also leaving, this generated winds of around 15-20, building to 28 knots for the first day, and then easing to 15-18 and petering out to 6-10 for the better part of next 2 days. As we rounded the southern tip of Madagascar we met up with another system that was passing through to the west and it threw 20-28 knots at us, which eased to 18-25. We had 2 days of rest with light winds before they got worked up again as we were nailed by a SW'r a day out of Durban. What a night that was! We had sustained winds of 33-38 for around 7 hours (from 3pm) (gusts as high as 49 knots!!!)... what I'd have given to just see 29 knots! It stayed in the 31-36 range until about 2am, and then dropped to 28-34. The swell was so huge that at times it felt like we were base-jumping in Fast Forward! At sunrise the wind was 22-28. The swell was still quite big - but too big to go any faster than the 3.5 - 4 knots we'd been averaging. That night was only the second time in our 10 years that Ken was tethered in the cockpit. Again, the sea state was the worst factor - swell breaking on the side of the boat, over the boat - it found it's way into the cockpit, poor Ken did not stay dry... and of course we were pushed way off course - the force of the water was just incredible. We were not keen to heave-to, so we simply shortened sail heavily and just pretended to be a cork and ride the swell, not trying to plough through it with speed. Needless to say we were totally exhausted as we'd been awake for 36 hours!
In the 11 years we had Sailmail we'd not experienced any problems... naturally after the above experience I wanted to let our family know that we were safe (since they too had been monitoring the weather). Blow me down - our emails did not go through!! My mother just about sent out the NSRI! She was frantic, which was totally understandable as she'd been receiving updates from us twice daily, and then suddenly we were caught in the storm, and no word from us from Sunday morning until Tuesday morning! I was furious with Sailmail and gave them a piece of my mind. Turns out it was the Maputo station - their internet connection is not that dandy and sometimes they don't have a connection, or it takes forever! Charming! The timing could not have been worse!! This is also the reason why GRIB files were never available immediately - I was always waiting a minimum of 2 hours! Roll on Durban and the joys of WIFI!
The last 70nms to Durban was rather frisky which meant catching up on much needed sleep was impossible. The sea state was still very confused and was not helped by the fact that the wind was now blowing at 25-30 from the NE... which was fine when in the Aghulas current, but not so fine when we hit the counter current - this situation generates very big seas. Needless to say we just about surfed through Durban's harbour entrance! We were very happy and excited to have safely crossed the Indian Ocean... long distances are a thing of the past! We just have 850nms to go to get home to Hout Bay. Come to think of it - Thailand and Malaysia is now 5817nms away but it seems like an absolute lifetime away!
Durban to Port Elizabeth - Part 3
13 - 15 May
Unfortunately this coastline also comes with a fearsome reputation, but if you have the time to wait in port for a good window it will be well worth your effort. The time to leave Durban is just after a SW'r... these tend to blow a hoolie, move very quickly up the coast, and are very frequent. You never want to be in the Aghulas Current when a SW'r is blowing as monstrous waves are produced. You also know that a SW'r is coming when the wind starts blowing NW and the barometer drops very quickly.... go and seek shelter!
After enjoying 6 fantastic in Durban being entertained by ex yachtie friends Roger and Jeni England, we decided that the window that had become available seemed like a good one - and we were hoping to get as many miles under the keel as we possibly could. The 850nms we had to do seemed like such an insignificant number after the thousands we'd already done! We left Durban on an insanely gorgeous day, with very light winds blowing from the NW and flat calm seas (joy of joys!). Roy from Peri Peri Radio mentioned that the strongest part of the current was rather far offshore and we weren't prepared to go the 40nms, but were quite happy once we were in it at around 20-25nms offshore and enjoying the 3 to 3.5 bonus knots. We were motor-sailing and wanted to maintain 7 knots. It's strange seeing a consistent 11-13 knots and we did 235nms on our first day!
We were hoping to be able to get to Mosselbay, but the current naturally peters out around East London and with light winds blowing we were back down to around 7 knots and a slight adverse current. There was also a SW'r that was fast approaching, so we decided to stopover in Port Elizabeth until it passed. It took us exactly 2 days to get to PE. The Algoa Bay Yacht Club caters only for small boats, and there are very few berths available at that. So we rafted up alongside a fishing boat. Mark, the engineer and skipper on board was not going anywhere anytime soon as the state of fishing was apparently rather abysmal, so it worked out well for us.
Just 415nms to go... so close yet so far!
Port Elizabeth to Hout Bay - Part 4
The weather forecasters were spot on once again, and we left Port Elizabeth on a freezing cold Saturday morning at 7am. Very light winds and rather largish SW'ly rollers, but not uncomfortable. The wind did eventually fill in from the ENE and soon we were sailing at 9 knots. The thing with going down this coastline is that you don't want to dilly-dally around because the weather changes quickly, and there are not many sheltered anchorages - so if you're able to carry extra diesel to enable you to do the extra miles, then do so.
At 11pm after rounding Cape Agulhas a pod of dolphins raced up to frolic at the bow of the boat - but this was super special because the water so jam-packed with phosphoresence that it looked like streaks of light - we've seen a similar show put on by fish in Venezuela - but nothing this spectacular. What a welcome home! Nature is just so incredible.
The wind remained very iffy, but at least we had an extra 0.3 to 0.5 knot of favourable current... which all adds up at the end of the day! The weather around Cape Point can also be trying at times as it seems to generate it's own weather pattern, it was rather foggy, but we were fortunate in that we only had quite large SW'ly rollers (@13 seconds) and very little wind. The weather gods were with us for sure! Watch out for crayfish pots in this Cape Point area - they are clearly marked with round buoys, but if there is a swell running, they can be difficult to spot.
As we rounded the last headland on Monday 20 May, pointed towards Hout Bay, and The Sentinel came into view, my heart did a serious flutter (am pretty sure Ken's did too!)... we had waited so long for this moment, it almost didn't seem real, but it was. OH.MY.GOODNESS. So this was it - we did it!! Ken and I have sailed all the way around the world... just the two of us... and incredible journey of 60710 nautical miles... it is without a doubt a worthy and rare accomplishment.
So with our circumnavigation crossed off our bucket list, it's time to change course and start a new chapter...
WEATHER INFO - RADIO NETS
* Peri-Peri Radio - Roy and Paul, very friendly and knowledgeable guys, good weather forecasting.
* South African Maritime Mobile Net - Graham and Sam - this is a HAM net, so you can only call in using the SSB if you are a HAM. We're not HAM's so we simply used to communicate via email. Google them and they can send you all the info. The guys are super dedicated and run a very slick show. Hats off to them!
DELIVERY SKIPPER / CREW
Whilst in Mauritius we met Daniel who works with the Sailing School in Cape Town. He is a very experienced sailor and a lovely young man - very personable - and just an absolute pleasure to talk to.
Here's a brief CV - please contact us if you'd like to have him on board as a very experienced member of your crew. He did not crew for us as we don't take on crew, but both yachts did leave Mauritius together and they were heading straight to Port Elizabeth.
"I'm 22, born 11th of Aug 1990. South African passport with a C1/D American visa. I've been sailing constantly for the last 5 yrs and plan to continue to do so for a long time to come. I've done 5 deliveries all from Cape Town, crossing both the Indian and Atlantic oceans numerous times, except one which was from Hangzhou (China) to the Seychelles. I've been Instructing for Ocean sailing academy for the last 2 and a half years now doing all their distance trips in the Indian Ocean ie Cape Town to Mozambique, Madagascar and mostly to Mauritius and back. I have about 75,000nm experience 30,000 being skippering miles. I have sailed our South African coastline numerous times, I've lost count actually! I know all the ports off hand and have been in serious weather most of the time while doing so. I Love sailing and the ocean with all my heart and plan to make it into the sailing history books."