Sunset over the ocean

Sailing From Knysna to Madagascar on a Knysna 500SE (Part 2)

Another day… another bay. A story about 3 guys sailing from Knysna to Madagascar on a Knysna 500SE.

Part 2 – The Crossing to Madagascar

Wednesday 11th March -­‐ Richards Bay

sailing slideshow

Richards Bay is a nice little place with a completely different feel to Durban. We are very comfortable at Zululand Yacht Club, which has all the amenities, although we spend too much time in the Chandlery, which also stocks all the fishing gear one can eat. This is truly the male equivalent of Victoria’s Secret!

We pay a visit to Richards Bay centre using the services of Eagle Taxis. Richards Bay is seemingly a big shopping mall, although we are told there is a more industrial section. We browse around, stock up on provisions, including fresh meat and groceries. We hope that the freezer will manage the load although the shore power keeps tripping which means we constantly start the genset to power the boat, but we would really like continuous shore power to properly freeze stuff. We will get vegetables and fruit last thing tomorrow.

Fortuitously on the way into town we see a chap selling second-hand fishing rods under a tree so we do a quick u-­‐turn and Paul gets very excited by the bargain rods he sees. Very excited. He acquires a replacement fishing rod which was made about 100 years ago – the reel is so heavy it could be used as ballast. And then he buys a second rod. For Thomas, he says. But he is now convinced that the playing field for the Fishing Competition has been levelled. He has moved strategically from being ‘No-­‐Rods’ Greenwood to ‘Two-­‐Rods’ Greenwood and hopes this will give him an edge. We shall see about that.

Steve has been nurturing a ginger beer plant since Knysna, and began bottling ginger beer on the way up the coast. The plant is a concoction of ginger, sugar, yeast and water and ferments in a small green water bottle. It is doing really well. Adding a little sugar and crushed ginger each morning sees the fermentation process really bubble, and the plant gives a happy and endearing little pop every so often as the gas build-­‐up shoots the top off and into the sink. The first batch of the full mix using Steve’s secret recipe, all in plastic Coke bottles, lives under the captain’s chair. If they all explode simultaneously, then there will be a huge mess, so Steve diligently releases the pressure each morning. The batch is nearly ready and should be around 4% alcohol by volume. Yum!

We take the dinghy around to Tuzi Gazi for dinner and have an awesome meal overlooking the water.

Thursday 12th March – Richards Bay

Gibby and Lance finally arrive at the yacht club while we are having lunch. The noise level increases dramatically and locals begin leaving the pub. CMD is already laden with stuff that Gibby needs for his surfing operation in Madagascar, including a large outboard motor strapped between the trampolines up front. He reveals that he has ‘just a few more things to take’. This turns
out to be 6 car batteries in the back of the little sedan! Muttering under his breath about the weight, Paul grumpily stows these under Gibby’s bunk. Gibby is unabashed.

We get a surprise visit from some KZN ‘cousins’ of our good mate Philpy the One-­‐legged. He has sent us a stash of emergency supplies – rum, biltong, droe wors. This is gratefully received, although we would much rather he delivered it in person and stayed on the boat. We declare an emergency immediately: the picture shows us drinking ginger beer and enjoying some of the supplies.

We all go into town: Paul and Gibby head off to do the port clearances and customs stuff and find gas, while Lance and Steve do the final provisioning. The fresh stuff at Fruit and Veg City leaves much to be desired -­‐ have they had load shedding or something so that the fridges don’t work properly? -­‐ so we buy half there and the other half from Woolworths which is more expensive but should last longer on the boat.

Gibby gets excited when he finds a stainless steel ship’s wheel in the chandlery which he promptly purchases for his ‘Canary’ in Cape Town.

We try to get the satphone working – which is not going well. This is an Inmarsat iSavi which we have rented for a month to test it out. It is supposed to act as a hub for our iPhones, iPads and laptops on the boat. Our plan is to use SMS to keep in touch with family, phone calls for emergency, and the data allowance to download GRIB files of weather data and possibly to browse internet. However, data is the most expensive component of our pay-­‐as-­‐you-­‐go bundle and we have allowed ourselves a ‘generous’ allowance of 10Mb (the equivalent of 3 songs on an iPod). We know this will be very limited.

[Technophobes: skip next 5 paragraphs!]

We battle to get the device working – we use the club wi-­‐fi and our 3G connections to get all the software installed on the various devices and finally are able to make phone calls and SMS’s although we think that the people we test it on could be bemused by receiving an SMS from ‘SatNav’ with just the one word “Test” in the message. For the life of us though, we can’t get data working. Steve is convinced that the service provider account has not been set up properly. A 2-­‐hour call to Dave, the support person, reveals that we have indeed set everything up correctly, but the data allowance has not been properly set up with the service provider and he promises to do this.

When this is done, and we open the software for data we get a big fright. Paul’s iPad and iPhone start gobbling up the data allowance downloading stuff. Before we know it we have consumed a huge chunk of our allowance. These devices are scary – and default to grabbing whatever bandwidth they can find to update applications, download email and generally keeping themselves connected. Not really ideal if data bandwidth is scarce. It is also hard to know exactly what they are doing.

We resolve to use these mobile devices only for phones and SMS, and to use the laptop for data downloads of weather files and Steve sets up the firewalls and settings to control this. We get another fright when using the laptop to open the web site. Another 4Mb of data used just opening the
graphics on the landing page. No wonder one hears horror stories of people running up accounts in the tens of thousands without realizing it! Thandiwe, CMD’s sister, allegedly ran up a bill of R98k without realising it on a recent voyage!

The only way to use this sensibly is to just configure everything to only download raw data files, and SMS’s (although we see that a long SMS counts as 2 or 3 ‘actual’ SMS’s so that too is constrained). So we download and install Weathernet, Explorer and some other software (which we find is not compatible yet with the latest version of mac software!) and take out a subscription to download weather files.

It’s still not working right, but we manage to get some weather data downloads onto Paul’s iPad that persuade us that the best time to leave is tomorrow or delay until Tuesday. We hope to beat the weather systems up the coast of Mozambique and then across the channel, heading northwards towards Europa Island, instead of the rhumb line from St Lucia direct to Tulear.
Yes: we know that one should never commence a voyage on Friday 13th. But maybe we will get away with
this because we are not actually starting, you know, just continuing our voyage from Knysna.

Aaargh! In the evening Paul moves strategically into the lead in the Fishing Competition, but there is a lot of debate about whether his fish is legal or not. Rather than use his new rod(s), he switches on the underwater lights and nets a fish that is not visible to the naked eye using a kiddies fishing net. This is so wrong on so many levels, not least of which is that fishing from the moorings is illegal, undersized species etc. But after we establish through close scrutiny that there is an actual fish in the net (it is so small that we cannot determine its species – or actually whether it is a fish or some other shrimpy-­‐type thing), we finally
allow him to claim the rights to First Fish caught. He is so insistent that he is a winner that we think he might cry if we refuse. We do the good thing and practice catch-­‐and-­‐release, although it may be several years before this (alleged) fish is ready to procreate.

Steve drowns his sorrows with ginger beer.

Friday 13th March – Richards Bay

Everyone is settled in, everything stowed and ready. We cast off just before midday and head down the estuary and out to sea. We have a great 15-knot southerly wind, the spinnaker (with its new black and white sheets) is up and looking beautiful, and after a bumpy sea to start, things flatten out and we bowl along.

We work out a watch system: 3-hour watches during daytime between 9 am and 6 pm and 2 ½ hour watches in the night. This means that the watches we do will slowly rotate, and no-­‐one will get stuck with the dogwatch every night.

The beautiful wind drops in the late evening and we are encountering a 2 knot current, so it’s motor-­‐sailing. We reduce speed because Paul complains of thumping into the swell, but everyone else thinks Paul is deliberately going slowly so as to time our arrival in Sodwana at dawn so we can put in an early morning dive. On our original passage plan we were due to pass there during the night……

Saturday 14th March – North Coast of KZN

Today proves to be a truly awesome day.

We arrive off Sodwana just in time for an early morning dive. It’s Gibby’s turn to mutter about delays. Gibby’s early morning wake up ritual is a bit alarming. First one hears a bellow like a wounded zebu from
the aft port cabin. He is awake! Then he staggers out of his cabin, dressed in shorts and clutching his privates. His eyes do not open until he has felt his way to the coffee machine, where he makes his first coffee. He becomes vaguely human only after his second coffee of the day.

We anchor in slight swell on a sandy bottom inside the reef. Lots of diving boats pay us a visit as they pass
by on their way to their dive spots.

Our dive operator comes out to collect Paul and Steve from the boat; our reputation clearly climbs in the eyes of the other divers, because this is so cool!. However, we then proceed to a point only 200 m to seaward of where we had anchored – a dive spot called 2 Mile Reef. We could have floated there ourselves if we had the GPS coordinates and known where it was! That would have been cooler!

Paul and Steve have a great dive with awesome visibility. We see lots of coral and rock formations, and the usual fishy suspects. But we also catch glimpses of the very shy white tipped-­‐reef shark, Paul beards a moray in its den, and we follow a turtle for a while. As the visibility declines towards the end of the dive we came upon a huge school of kingfish slowly circling above us. Most peculiar to see, among the hundreds of kingies is a lone Moorish Idol trying to fit in with the school, but looking really out of place, his bright black and yellow marking very visible against the grey steel colour of the kingies. A bit like a primary school kid trying to hang out with the older in crowd… After a while, he gives up his pointless attempt to remain inconspicuous (did he realize that we had seen him and comes over to say hi to us.

Paul has a GoPro and is creating some amazing video clips. The diving shots are great, but the little cameos of moments during the day are really funny. In the blur of days passing by, it is very cool to have little insights into life on board and the weird things that we get up to. We hope it doesn’t get as far as Youtube. Certainly, Steve’s moves playing air guitar are not fit for human consumption.

Alas! Paul moves further ahead in the Fishing Competition! He catches a nice sized yellow-­‐fin tuna during the afternoon and we decide to keep it. Paul creates some nice sized fillets – Steve makes carpaccio and we have tuna steaks for dinner.

Paul is now well ahead in the Fishing Competition. Paul already has the First Fish title, and is in the lead for Most Fish and Largest Fish categories. By way of preserving some self-­‐esteem, Steve declares a new category: Smallest Fish, and informs Paul that he does not plan to compete in this particular category as it would not be humanly possible to catch a smaller fish than Paul did. Ever. Paul looks abashed.

Matters even up later when Steve catches and lands a small yellow-­‐fin, which we photograph and release. Game is on, and Steve is just warming up!

The evening sees us cross into Mozambique waters and we motor past Ponta d’Ouro in the early evening which calls up memories of a family diving holiday for Paul and Steve. It is very beautiful with the lights along the shore. Cellphone reception sees us all getting a few messages and calls to our loved ones.

Paul sees MSC Opera pass us in the night – only a nautical mile away. Lance is settling into the night watches, and has now made the captain’s chair his own. Best view; best breeze, smart move. His concerns about seasickness have proven unfounded, but he does have the misfortune that the heads in his cabin are playing up. When we thump into the swell, the valve in the heads blurts an evil-­‐looking and evil-­‐smelling splatter all over the inside of the toilet bowl. This needs to be cleaned. It is also not good for seasickness!

A new side of Gibby is revealing itself on this voyage. Every hour or so, he turns into a love-­‐struck teenager. He won’t say much except to say how awesome Michelle is (although he uses his own version of English to do this – we call it Gibbledegook or Gibbyrish). He is a bit reluctant to show us her picture. We think he is scared of competition. He pines when we are out of cellphone range.

Sunday 15th March -­‐ Bay of Maputo

Dawn sees us motor-­‐sailing past Inhaca Island and north-­‐east across Maputo Bay. We see MSC Opera
peeping out from her anchorage behind the headland as we pass by.

We have to make a call: for most of this trip we have been headed by wind and current. Winds have been on the nose, and if we want to sail we will either be forced against the coast, or driven down towards the southern tip of Madagascar, where we don’t want to go. We have been forced to motor sail most of the way. We want to choose a route that will get us into decent wind as quickly as possible.

We can either head up the coast towards Inhambane and then out towards Europa Island, or we can turn east now and head direct for Tulear. Given that there is a stable high-pressure system over the channel, the sea is calm, and the wind is light, we decide on the latter route and turn east. There is a possibility of southerlies in a day or so that we can pick up, and the nearest cyclone is off the tip of Madagascar and heading east, away from us.

This decision proves to be the right one, for a different reason. Steve’s reel gives a frantic whine and the
braided lines streaks out. This is a big fish! We are greeted by the awesome sight of not one, but two marlin
leaping out of the water. One of them is doing its best to shake the lure.

Adrenaline is high. Steve is determined not to lose the fish, Lance is at the helm trying to keep the fish from going under the boat, Paul is taking videos (of his thumb) and Gibby has to be restrained from jumping into the water to land the fish. It is too beautiful to keep and so we are going to release it but we must bring it to the boat first to remove the lure.

It dives, jumps and dives again. Slowly but surely Steve brings it to the boat and alongside the scoop, his rod bending almost double under the strain. Gibby tries to grab its beak but has no gloves, so a kitchen towel is used. The fish shakes loose his first attempt (or did Gibby let go to avoid being hooked himself?). The power of this marlin is awesome.

The fish sounds again but is tiring. And then, as Steve is lifting the fish towards the boat, a loud crack is heard: the rod snaps in half and the rod eye that is now taking all the weight begins to bend. But at last Gibby is able to grasp the beak and we ease the great fish onto the scoop. Its tail is in the water still, and the tip of its beak stretches halfway across the engine hatch – all of 2m long and we estimate at least 30 kg. The fish is exhausted or stunned, and we are awed by its beauty. Quick photos are taken, the lure extracted,
and the marlin eased back into the water.

We are distressed when it seems to be battling to recover, floating on its side and flapping its tail feebly. Did we damage it when landing it or is it just exhausted? We watch it, try to right it and try to get water flowing over its gills. As it shows some signs of reviving we let it move away from the boat. Gibby is determined to assist, and launches the paddleboard to paddle out towards the marlin. This seems to do the trick: no way
is a marlin going to put up with getting swimming lessons from Gibstickle! It submerges below his board, remains out of reach for a few moments and then we hear Gibby’s ecstatic shout as with a flick of its tail the marlin disappears into the depths.

Island-­‐style tuna for dinner. Yum!

Gibby’s entry in the log is the rather laconic: ‘the fishing competition is hotting up…’. Paul is silent on the matter. A marlin is a big score!

As we experience another beautiful sunset, MSC Opera closes astern of us on her way to Fort Dauphin, Madagascar. Paul calls them on radio to get a weather check and to check they can see us as their course brings her quite close to us. They eventually pass about 1 mile across our bows, all lights ablaze and looking great in the evening dark. We see flashes from cameras – are passengers really taking photos of us in the dusk?

Monday 16th March -­‐ Thursday 19th March – Mozambique Channel

We are now heading away from land, directly towards Tulear. The sameness of the wind and sea, and the
routine of shipboard life means that the days blend into each other.

We are lucky with the weather – but the high pressure seems to be damping down both the wind and the sea and we could do with some wind from the right quarter for a change. The watch system is working well and there is an easy-­‐going spirit on the boat.

Gibby spends a day lying on the trampoline in the shade of the foresail and turns into a lobster with a personality disorder – he is in some discomfort. Lance conducts a serious and fascinated observation of the flying fish that skim over the waves in front of the boat from his vantage point at the helm. Paul manages to avoid most of his watches, somehow. Steve exercises his culinary skills, and makes bread, and ginger beer. We eat well, although we are missing a few things: it is noted there is a serious deficiency of paw-­‐paw on the boat for example.

As we trudge towards Tulear, we experience beautiful sunsets and sunrises. The nights are dark now, which means that the stars are out in spectacular style and we pick out Saturn , Venus, Mars and Jupiter and the familiar constellations of Scorpio and the Southern Cross as they wheel their way through the heavens. The new moon rises after midnight, and altho0ugh each of us has a favorite watch, the 4am watch is surely the most magnificent: a few hours before dawn and then the opportunity to see the pink and orange sunrise over a smooth silver-­‐
slate sea.

We continue to struggle with the Satphone – it does not seem to cope well with tracking satellites and is
temperamental. But we do manage to get some SMS messages off to loved ones.

We have our quota of daily swims, where we heave to, and jump into the clear cobalt-­‐blue water. The water
is barely cool, and if one dives down one gets a sense of vertigo looking down into the deep blue void below.

Paul discovers the joys of being in a hammock under the prod (the pole sticking out from the front of the boat) and persuades Steve to do the same. It is truly relaxing hanging there in the shade, with the occasional wave giving one a slap on the bum now and then. Steve perfects the dismount from the hammock but finds that a re-­‐entry from the water into the hammock is not as easy. Regrettably, Paul gets footage of these experiments on video. Damn papparazzi

As we approach Tulear, we see birds and lots of seaweed and the odd piece of sugar cane. Wind comes up (finally) during the last evening and we thump into the oncoming chop. Lance becomes an 8-­‐knot demon during his watch until Paul is dislodged from his bunk after becoming airborne following a particularly steep wave, and we slow down a bit!

We see a huge lightning storm over the mainland as we approach Tulear in the evening. The towering dark cumulo-­‐nimbus clouds are silhouetted by huge orange flashes in the distance, as though some huge, silent, naval battle is being waged in the distance. The coast seems close, but we still have miles to go.

It has been a fast and relatively comfortable passage, although we have motor-­‐sailed almost all the way. Our diesel bill in Tulear will be huge – and we are down to our last 100l as we near land. We look forward to arriving in the early morning. The coastal chop is bouncing us a bit now.

Friday 20 March 2015 – Approaching Tulear

Dawn brings a choppy sea and more motorsailing. We approach Tulear from the north, and the shoreline glides past on our port side. We can smell Madagascar on the breeze now: the smell of charcoal fires with a kind of spicy undercurrent. There are few land-­‐marks – just small villages lining the shore. The pre-­‐dawn sky, streaked with pale blue and orange merges with the blue grey haze of cooking fires and the pale stripe of the beach.

As we move up the channel, we encounter the beautiful sight of half a dozen trading dhows, laden to the gunwales with bags and crates, deep in the water. They are hoisting their topsails as they pass between ourselves and the rising sun, their crews busily moving around the decks. They move with an incredible speed, these huge boats, and they disappear swiftly behind us on their way up to Ifaty, Morombe and ports further north.

The approach to Tulear is edged by sandbars and vast areas which become mud flats at low tide so we follow the leading lines carefully and turn into the narrow channel towards the port. The port is quite nondescript – really a large concrete jetty populated with a few single story sheds. Stacks of containers lie piled up waiting for the arrival of a freighter, and at this early time of morning, there are few people about. Behind the jetty, a long causeway stretches into the distance – the only clear way of getting to the shore at low tide unless one wants to run the gauntlet of the mud flats.

We come in slowly past a tug and pilot boat. There is a rusty old boat tied against the pier and although there is space behind it we decide to tie up against the boat itself. The tidal range here is over 3m and this means if we tie up against the wall, we will be continually adjusting the mooring ropes to avoid being left hanging from the wall. Moreover, the rough wall is likely to grind our fenders into pulp.

Paul rotates Catch My Drift and we tie up against the old rusty tub with the help of the Madagascan
‘guardian’ on the boat.

Now we have to wait. It is too early and none of the port officials are at work yet. We meet a chap called Jose, who seems to know what the procedures are: moreover, he has a dilapidated vehicle, so we recruit him to be our ‘agent’ and to transport us around.

An official arrives down at the port. Steve’s limited French establishes that the officer has called all the other officials and that we are to wait at the boat. One by one, in order of increasing importance, the port officials arrive. Each arrival necessitates a round of increasingly complex, but polite handshakes and introductions all round. Finally, the port captain appears and the delegation now comprises 6 people plus us,
plus Jose.

We all cross the rusty tub onto CMD and pull out the papers, flight plans, crew lists and ship’s papers. The customs fellow wants to inspect our stores and is insistent that we produce a manifest (a list of cargo) because this clearly is what generates revenue. We insist that all the equipment on the boat belongs to the boat and is not for trade purposes. ( What they would make of Gibby’s 6 spare batteries, outboard motor and other paraphernalia is not to be contemplated.) At the end of the day, he settles for a ‘personal’ manifest where we list our personal items like cameras etc. They want copies of every document, times three! Out comes the little copier, which manfully tries to cope with the demand, but the slow page-­‐by-­‐
page copying eventually becomes too much for the delegation, and they accept that what they have is
sufficient. For now.

We think we are done, but oh no – now we have to visit each official in turn in their offices although all we
really need is a port clearance form.

At the first office, Immigration, we find out that they are not able to give us the three-­‐month cruising visa, and we must all get the one-­‐month visitors visa. This will complicate things for Paul and Steve as we will have to obtain an extension to the visa later in the voyage. We must also pay 15000 Ariari per person (R60) as a ‘fee’, although these visas are ironically stamped GRATIS.

The issuing of a visa is a process of note. In the past, the visa was a printed form that was glued into the passport, but there are no forms in Tulear. A female official carefully takes out FIVE rubber stamps, and a blank piece of paper. She carefully uses each stamp in a precise position on the page: it transpires that the appearance of the visa is made up of 5 separate images – one a date, one saying GRATIS, one the Port Authority stamp , one a dotted line for a signature and so on. After making sure that the layout is right, each passport is carefully opened to a suitably empty page, and the process is repeated four times, once for each of us.

Eventually we extricate ourselves. We move to the adjacent police office, where again we must pay a ‘fee’ of about the same amount. Steve politely asks for a receipt, which is probably not the best move. This promptly results the official opening a large file an extracting an official piece of paper in French. Closer reading indicates that this is nothing more than a contract for security for AR800000 per month. Is he saying that we must pay part of his salary? In any event, he does agree to produce a receipt for us which Jose will collect later. Hmm. All very polite.

We must pay a visit to all the other officials as well but decide to attend to provisioning matters first. Lance will be leaving us today, having decided to return to Debbie and his pressing commitments, but he needs to change his flight, we must fill up with diesel, get some local currency and get some fresh supplies from the market.

We recruit a guardian to look after CMD while we are gone, and climb into Jose’s jalopy. It is hot already,
and we have things to do.

But here we are, safe and sound in Madagascar. It’s been a good trip and the weather has been kind. We are 890 miles from Richards Bay and it has taken us 6 ½ days to get here. Gibby’s comment in the ships log at 0600 sums it up: “Great trip with great guys and lots of laughs”.

And now for Madagascar itself.

Keep following SV-Catch My Drift Log Book Entries!

Author and Co-Owner – Steve Erlank

Open seas with beautiful sunset

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