A 2,000-mile non-stop journey, leaving the Seychelles and sailing to South Africa made for a demanding voyage, writes Janneke Kuysters
“Quick, close the hatches!” my partner Wietze calls down while we prepare an early Monday breakfast. All is ready to leave Seychelles, we’ve mustered our courage to tackle the difficult passage south, sailing to South Africa but now there is thunder, lightning, and pouring rain. None of this was forecast.
We need to fill our diesel tanks but with the rain gushing over the deck there is no way we can open the filler caps. So we wait some more.
Only in late afternoon does it finally stop pouring; too late to go to the fuel dock. “Okay, we leave tomorrow,” Wietze says with barely concealed frustration.
Fortunately the next day dawns bright and sunny, so we say our goodbyes again and are at the fuel dock by 0730. A few hundred litres later we cast off and, finally, are on our way.
Leaving the Seychelles and sailing to South Africa, across the Mozambique Channel, is a challenging crossing, fraught with currents and adverse winds generated by strong systems that pass south of Africa. Normally, Madagascar or Mozambique offer some respite for the tired cruiser. But not this year: with both countries closed, we’ll have to make the 2,000-mile passage in one go.
Less than an hour after we motored out of Eden Island Marina, an alarm goes off. Wietze jumps into the engine room. Pink water is spouting out of the cap of the heat exchanger, the bilge sloshing with the same hue.
Thanks to the electric and manual bilge pumps working hard, we get the water level down fast. Once that’s under control, I roll out a bit of the yankee to get steerage back towards the marina.
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In light winds we can get within a mile of the marina, and fellow cruisers Peter and Jen from Steel Sapphire bolt out of the marina with their dinghy to tow us in, and we are pleasantly surprised that a 17-ton boat can be moved by a 10hp outboard engine. With some pushing and shoving we are back in our berth by 1030.
Wietze quietly works through the engine and finds the cause: our heat exchanger is filled to the brim with marine growth. The harbour of Victoria is known for very active marine life, but we didn’t expect it to be this active. With whatever tools we can find we get rid of it, rinse the system and fill it again with coolant. By evening all is working.
On Wednesday morning we say our goodbyes, again, much to the amusement of our fellow cruisers.
The excellent weather window we had on Monday has become an ‘okay-ish’ window. But we decide to go anyway, fearing another round of paperwork and a long wait.
When did sailing become a sideshow to everything else we have to deal with in a pandemic? Covid tests, health declarations, agents, visas, temporary importation documents and closed borders… it feels like we’re playing chess on three boards at the same time.
Once free of the island Mahé, we feel the true direction and speed of the wind. “We’re in for a rough ride,” muses Wietze.
Our Anna Caroline is a steel heavy displacement boat. She’s not fast, but she keeps going in rough conditions. Nevertheless, the first day is miserable: slamming into the waves, trying to point as high as possible. Cooking is like a rodeo ride, sleeping a workout in itself.
By Thursday we’re both exhausted and close to getting seasick.
We keep ploughing on, hoping to get as far east of Madagascar as possible. A strong westward current whips past the top of Madagascar, we are in the middle of a wind acceleration zone.
The more east we can get, the easier it will be to get past Cap d’Ambre and into the Mozambique Channel. The easterly wind that our weather window promised doesn’t materialise, but we keep punching and pushing, both progress and enjoyment dulled by the shrieking wind and messy seas all around us.
After 600 miles, we get closer to the dreaded acceleration zone. Cap d’Ambre is a notorious compression zone thanks to its combination of the strong south-going Agulhas current and south-south-easterly winds which can easily reach up to 50 knots there. The channel area is some 50 miles wide.
A shrill wind
The sun sets and another moonless night begins as we feel the increase in wind speed: 30, 35, 40 knots. The shrill tone in the rigging is frightening.
The waves get higher and higher, breaking crests all around. They seem to come from all sides, with no telling where the next big wave will come from.
Our windvane has trouble steering the boat in the combination of a sideways current with the wind on the nose, unable to anticipate the boat’s wild lurches. Wietze grabs the wheel and starts steering by hand. The darkness around us hides the worst of the seascape, so he sails by feel. I’m in awe of his skill.
The wind increases again and so does the wave height. “Hold on!” he shouts and a particularly large wave picks Anna Caroline up and pushes her over.
The windows in Anna Caroline’s superstructure were in the water, some 60° over, but she shuddered a bit and came straight back up. The next wave tries it again, but again our Bruce Roberts 44 handles it flawlessly. I pat the deck in a silent whisper: “thank you Anna Caroline.”
“It almost looks like we are in surf,” Wietze shouts. When I check the charts I find he may be right. There is a sill just north of the cape where there’s a difference in depth of about 50m. With these high winds and accelerated current, it may be that the sea starts breaking.
After three hours of terrible conditions, we’re off to deeper water again and the sea calms down.
Two more hours and we are in the lee of Madagascar with only 25 knots of wind left and wind-waves quietly swirling around us. Bliss. We take turns sleeping, while the windvane steers roughly in a southerly direction.
The next day we see that the knockdowns and high winds disconnected our SSB antenna from the backstay and it is swinging around loosely.
The tonnes of seawater that pounded onto our deck have also revealed every little gap where it has found its way into the boat. We look at the map and find a well-hidden bay on the north-west coast of Madagascar we can sneak into for rest and repairs.
The next day, just after dark, we drop the hook in an awesome bay and hug with relief: 849 miles done. We are very aware that we are not supposed to be here and hope that the Madagascar Coastguard is patrolling somewhere else.
The next morning we’re woken by voices. Startled, we rush on deck to see a local fishing boat sailing past. I’m beside myself with joy: I‘d hoped to see these traditional dhows in Madagascar. The fishermen wave at us, we are both curious about each other’s boats.
In between making repairs we sit with our binoculars to observe the coast: beaches, thatched houses and baobab trees. Madagascar lemurs are supposed to be here too, but we can’t spot the primates from our forbidden anchorage.
We’re not the only ones who found this bay attractive; another yacht anchors close to us, they have problems with their solar panels. They ask if we have a spare 40A fuse and holder.
We’re willing to help, but don’t want to be spotted with dinghies in the water, to avoid suspicion of having gone ashore. Instead their crew swim out to us to pick up the parts, and we have a good laugh about the ridiculousness of the situation.
Back into the breech
After two delightful days in the bay we need to move on. The steady train of high and low pressure areas that pass south of South Africa squeeze a strong south-westerly wind up the Mozambique Channel every few days.
When the strong south-going current meets this wind it creates a very dangerous, steep sea that can easily break large ships. So the trick is to avoid a situation like this. But how?
There are no easy places to hide for a boat with our draught of 2.15m. So our only choice is to sail on the edge of the current: when a south-westerly gale comes through we steer out of the current and heave to until it has passed. And then we jump back onto the conveyer belt, which nicely adds two knots to our boat speed.
That’s the theory, but how do you find the current? Trial and error. We spend frustrating days guessing, analysing conditions, and changing course. The strong south-easterly trade winds limit the options we have for ‘playing’ with the current.
We keep bashing away upwind, grateful for our decision to have new sails made half a year ago. The old ones would have been in shreds by now. Slowly we move south; the nights are getting shorter and colder. After more than a year in the tropics we shiver when the temperature dives towards 24°, and go from T-shirts and shorts to full foul weather gear in a matter of days.
And then what we feared happens: a big front approaches with strong south-westerly winds. We are just rounding the last headland before we can steer a rhumbline course to Richards Bay in South Africa.
The headland compresses the south-going waterflow and we have three knots current with us. How do we get out of it again so we can deal with the strong south-westerly winds?
“I think we’ll find a safer zone there,” Wietze points at the map. “Just past that cape, the current will widen again and will decrease in speed. If we slow down there, we let the front pass to the west of us and then continue on.”
We trim the sails for less speed and instantly it feels like we are on a pleasure cruise. The incessant noise of crashing into the waves is gone, the shrieking in the rigging is less and the boat is more upright. We relax, read a book and potter along with a mere three knots.
“I’m actually enjoying this,” I say as I cut into a freshly baked loaf of bread. “Me too,” Wietze agrees. I’m not sure if he means the sailing or the bread, but it doesn’t matter. That night, we sleep like babies and when the front has passed we’re energised to sail the last 200 miles.
We wake the next morning to an empty horizon. “It’s as if the sea doesn’t like these conditions either,” Wietze ponders. I agree: it is the strangest thing but we hardly see any wildlife or even fishing boats. Large cargo ships seem to be travelling like a train on rails, all following the exact same course and delightfully predictable.
We wait until the wind has died a little more and raise our sails again to enjoy a highly unusual 8 knots of boat speed. The miles tick away.
Arrival at night
It’s time to make a decision: do we arrive at night or not? It’s a deep-water port, large bulk carriers go in and out all the time, but a lee shore. We both take a good look at the charts again and decide to go for it. From far away, we see the harbour lights blinking in the dark.
Initially the bright leading lights make the approach easy, but then a rain squall comes through, bringing blinding rain. “We’re committed now,” Wietze says sourly.
We sail into port with just the radar and electronic charts to guide us. The lady on duty at Richards Bay Port Control that evening has the most reassuring and professional voice: no large ships are moving, we have the wide channel to ourselves.
Four miles later, we turn into Tuzi Gazi, the small boat harbour. On the concrete wall are our cruising friends, waiting to catch our lines. We cheer and dance on deck. We have crossed the Mozambique Channel.
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