Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Passage to South Africa (2012)

The passage from Reunion to South Africa covers 1,450 miles and is known for being a very tough leg.  As you leave the tropics and round the south end of Madagascar, the area’s weather is affected by an unending succession of Antarctic lows moving eastward.  Even in the summer when they are less intense, fast-moving lows still pass through every 2-4 days making it almost impossible to avoid some bad weather on the passage.  These lows are especially dangerous as you near the South African coast and enter the fast flowing Agulhas Current.  This wind against tide situation regularly causes a dangerous sea state.

After preparing Saviah for the passage, we waited a week for a good weather window.  It was a long week with quite a bit of anxiety, and more than one instance where we thought we were leaving the following day before the next forecast would cause us to postpone.  Fortunately, there were three other cruising boats waiting to make the same trip, and we could commiserate together.  We met on most afternoons to discuss weather, and two of the boats shared information they received from the weather routers they hired to provide forecasts for the passage. 

On November 2nd, a low pressure system that had been hovering south of Madagascar finally seemed to be moving along.  Everyone agreed that it looked good to depart the following day.  Our plan was to leave in the early morning hours, but after a walk along the break wall, we changed our minds.  The surfers were out in force catching the 8-10 foot waves breaking over the St-Pierre harbor entrance.  We were stuck for the time being.  The forecast called for conditions to settle later that day, and we made many trips back and forth to monitor the swell.  It did settle down eventually that afternoon, and all four boats set off within a few hours.

The first five days we had mostly light winds that switched direction and speed often.  Before leaving Reunion, we changed out the genoa for the small working jib for a couple of reasons.  We thought it would be a good sail for the strong southwesterlies that we would ultimately encounter, and because our big genoa still needed to be repaired after a large section of stitching came undone during our crossing to Mauritius.  

We were determined to maintain a decent pace during this trip, as the longer we were out, the more bad weather we would see.  This meant motoring at times, but of course we only had so much fuel, and the forecast showed more light winds for the following few days.  In order to conserve fuel and keep up our pace, a headsail change was necessary, as the small heavy jib wasn’t cutting it.  We were nervous about flying the spinnaker because of the quickly changing weather, and decided our best option was to repair the genoa.  Andrew spread out the big sail in the cockpit and began hand-stitching about ten feet of sail.  It took almost four hours to repair it, but we were glad we did.  We switched the headsails and made relatively good time, averaging 5.5 knots.  We only used the sail for a couple of days and then switched back to the small jib when the forecast showed an approaching low.

Throughout the passage, we stayed relatively close to s/v Ocean Lady, a British boat that left Reunion right before us.  We attempted to speak to Alan and Margaret each morning and evening at a scheduled time on the VHF.  Communication was only possible when within about 15 miles of each other.  We were out of range most of the time, lose contact for a day or two, and then somehow drift back together again.  In fact, five days out of Reunion, we were both sailing downwind, wing on wing.  They were on a port tack and we were on a starboard tack when we had to adjust course to avoid a collision.  We ended up crossing within about 50 yards of each other.  When we were in VHF range, they often provided us with some very useful weather updates.    

s/v Ocean Lady
Although it is very tempting to round the corner close to Madagascar, the more conservative route goes approximately 150 miles south of the island before turning west towards South Africa.  Hugging the coast would probably save at least a day, as there is a strong favorable current and the distance is shorter.  However, the continental shelf and several sea mounts in the area can cause enormous waves when the conditions deteriorate.  Freak waves have even been reported in this area when the winds are light to moderate, so it is best to give the island a wide berth. 

The general strategy is to encounter a low south of Madagascar and then try to make the remaining 700 miles to South Africa before the next one arrives.  As we neared this area, we received updated weather information, which showed our timing was good as a low was approaching.  The winds closer to Madagascar were forecast to be stronger, so we continued 30 miles further south before pointing west. 

About 12 hours after turning west, the front of the low passed through with lots of thunder and lightning, and we had SSW winds at 30 knots with gusts to 40.  Saviah handled it well, and we sailed along on a close reach with a double-reefed main and staysail.  After the front passed, we had nice sailing again as the E to SE winds filled in for a few days. 

During this last stretch, we tuned in to the Peri Peri net in the morning and evening.  This net is out of South Africa run by knowledgeable sailors located in various cities around the country.  They provide detailed weather forecasts for the area, ranging from Madagascar and Mozambique all the way around South Africa and up to Namibia.  They also give each boat that checks in information specific to their location. Most of the cruisers check in with their positions and get advice on strategies for the approach to the Agulhas current.  Since we don’t have an SSB radio, we can’t broadcast, but we can listen in on our receiver and still use the information given to other boats.

There was a bit of anxiety as we approached South Africa.  The Agulhas current flows fast south down the coast.  The width varies, but to get to Durban, we would have to sail about 50 miles across it.  If you are caught in the current when a low passes through, it is bad news.  The SW winds blow against the current and regularly create enormous breaking waves.  Our charts of the area have “cautions” that describe the risk of freak waves of up to 65 feet during these times. 

Unfortunately, timing the low pressure systems is not as easy as it sounds, mainly because these lows are not easily forecast.  If we weren’t so stressed about it, it would have been almost comical to hear the guys on the Peri Peri net give advice to incoming boats.  One morning, they would tell them to hurry before the next low arrives, and by that evening they would advise slowing down as they wouldn’t have time to make it.  The low would stall out, and the next day they would recommend hurrying up again.  Having access to these quickly changing forecasts via the net was helpful, and we never missed a broadcast.

As we approached, we were in hurry mode and motored when necessary to keep our speed up.  Two days before reaching the current, the weather forecast changed and showed a front arriving sooner than expected.  It would likely reach us before we crossed the current.  We turned off the engine and sailed along slowly waiting for the front to pass.

Fortunately, the front was quite mild and passed quickly, and we motor-sailed again in light winds to get through as fast as possible.  We entered the current as the sun set on our 11th day out.  We had calm conditions through the night and noticed only a couple knots of current.  As the sky began to lighten, the NE winds filled in and before long, we had 8-10 foot seas and a NE breeze of 25 knots.  We were flying along at 8 knots, happy to know that we would make it through the current without any weather related issues. 

The next concern was making it into Durban without getting hit by a ship.  We later learned that Durban is the busiest shipping harbor on the African continent.  There must have been 40 ships near the harbor, some coming and going, others just hanging out waiting for their turn.  The last 25 miles turned out to be the most stressful part of the passage as we navigated through the commercial traffic.  We made it through without incident, and by 9 am we radioed Port Control and were given permission to enter the harbor. 

helicopter removing Durban harbor pilots from outgoing freighter
It was an amazing feeling to be motoring through the harbor in calm waters with that passage behind us.  We headed over to the marina and dropped the anchor in the shallow waters near the entrance.  They didn’t have a spot for us immediately, but after closer inspection and measuring the depth in a shallow berth, we were able to move into the marina.  We cleared in with customs and immigration and breathed a huge sigh of relief… Saviah had arrived in South Africa! 

Durban marina

Monday, April 22, 2013

Reunion (2012)

We set sail from Mauritius on October 19th, for Reunion Island, 140 miles away.  Winds were light during the afternoon, but finally filled in at SE 15-18 knots around sunset.  Saviah was making 5-6 knots with a single-reefed main and jib for most of the night.  Reunion is about 40 miles long and 30 miles wide with several very tall peaks, making it visible from far away.  When the sun rose on Saturday, the mountainous cloud-covered island came into view. 

As is often the case, the land mass disrupts the generally consistent wind, causing gusts as it heads over and around the island.  As we came around the south side, the wind switched from 10 knots to 35 knots back and forth every few minutes.  This made steering a little challenging for a few hours before the winds died all together on our approach to St. Pierre.

approaching Reunion

We were a bit apprehensive approaching St. Pierre.  We knew there was a small marina but couldn’t find much information about it and had no luck trying to contact the marina or harbor master before we left Mauritius.  We weren’t sure they would have room for us. In addition, the entrance can be dangerous in a heavy swell, as it is narrow and crosses a sandbar with a depth of six feet at low tide.  It would be challenging even in moderate conditions.  We really hoped it would work out because our guide book described St. Pierre as a fun seaside town in close proximity to the mountains.

Thankfully, the seas were calm when we entered at high tide, and the lowest depth we saw was 9 feet. We hailed the port on the VHF on arrival and got no response.  We saw an empty slip in the marina and decided to just take it and find someone on the ground to ask permission.  There were a few other cruising boats in the marina, including our neighbors on True Blue, a Canadian boat we met in Australia.  We learned that the port was closed for the weekend and decided to just stay put and talk to them on Monday. 

The island of Reunion has changed hands and names several times since it was discovered in the 16th century, but it has been primarily controlled by the French over the last few hundred years.  It remains an overseas department of France today, and as such, is part of the European Union.  There is a population of about 800,000 on the island made up of people of primarily African, Chinese, Malaysian, Indian, and of course, French descent.  French is the official language, but there is also a local Creole spoken by many of the natives.  There are not many tourists that visit the island, and those that do are almost exclusively French.  Very few of the locals speak any English, which made it a little challenging at times, but we tried our best.    

We spent our first couple days walking around town and cleaning the boat since we had fresh water at the slip for the first time in a while.  We got some exercise swimming laps in the lagoon next to the marina.  The shallow water is protected by a reef extending off the marina breakwater.  The lagoon and adjacent beach were a popular hang-out for locals and tourists alike.  Free wi-fi was available from the boat, and we were able to plan our trip into the mountains, which was the primary reason we wanted to visit Reunion.  We booked a room, found the bus stop and packed our bags for a three day trip inland.

St. Pierre marina and nearby beach
Several other boats arrived over the weekend, and we all went over to clear in early on Monday morning.  The officials were remarkably laidback, and we were happy to find we could stay in the same slip.  Clearing customs was a quick process, and once we had our papers, we went back to the boat to grab our bags and rushed to the bus stop.  Reunion has good public transportation with nice comfortable busses and fares that are only one to two Euros.  Our first leg took us up the coast from St. Pierre to St. Louis, where we transferred to another bus that took us to our destination, Cilaos. 

After spending the last few years on the water, Andrew was really craving time in the mountains and Reunion has an abundance of great hiking, canyoneering and other outdoor activities.  There are two major mountainous regions on the island.  One is on the southeastern side, which includes the Piton de la Fournaise. This peak rises to more than 8,600 ft and is one of the world’s most active volcanos. 

The other mountainous region is on the west side of the island with the now extinct volcano Piton des Neiges at its center.  This is the highest point on the island at 10,070 ft.  It is surrounded by three large calderas (volcanic craters), known as the three Cirques.  We only had time to visit one of the cirques, so we decided on the Cirque de Cilaos.  The town of Cilaos is the largest settlement in the Cirques and would be our base for the three day trip. 

The bus trip to Cilaos was an experience in and of itself.  It involved traversing the RN5 through the mountainous terrain, with more than 400 twists and turns along the way.  Many are hairpin turns that seem impossible to maneuver in a full size bus.  Sometimes the bus driver had to stop and back up a few times to make it around.  This is probably why the busses had major scrapes along the sides.  There were several tunnels along the way that were just one lane and barely wide enough for the bus to fit.  The driver had to stop, pull in the mirrors, and wait for oncoming traffic before proceeding.  The tunnel walls were just a few inches from the bus on either side. 

bus ride to Cilaos
It took two hours to make the 25 miles to Cilaos, which is a picturesque town of 6,000 people, sitting at an altitude of 4,000 feet.  The scenery here is spectacular.  It is surrounded by mountains, including the highest peak, Piton des Neiges, which towers of the town. 

We checked into our lodge, dropped off our bags, and then headed to the visitor’s center.  There are many well marked trails that traverse the nearby mountains and canyons.  We grabbed a map and did a short hike that afternoon while the weather was nice.  We spent an hour hiking up to a lookout and enjoyed great views of the area for a few minutes before the clouds started rolling in. 

Generally speaking, the mornings in Cilaos are clear.  By afternoon, the town is usually shrouded in clouds, and then the rain starts.  It can rain quite heavily here, and Cilaos apparently holds the record for the most rain in a 24 hour period (73.6 inches).  We decided to get up early the next couple of days and do some of the longer hikes in the clear morning hours.

Since we were hiking out of a village on a French island, we decided we could do better than our usual power bars for energy.  We got up at 6 am and headed to the bakery where we loaded our backpack up with paninis, croissants, pain au chocolate, some other pastries, and a few slices of pizza.  We walked up the road and reached the trailhead at 7 am.

The trail wound its way around the hillside, with deep canyons below and towering peaks overhead.  After a few hours, it led down into the valley, and at the bottom, we took off our shoes to wade across la riviere de Bras Rouge.  We hiked up the other side of the canyon, and then caught the Col du Taibit trail, a climb up to 6,857 ft.  There were rare patches of trees that provided some relief from the sun, but most of the hike was unshaded.  We reached the top around 2 pm and took in the beautiful views of the surrounding peaks.  Exhausted, we hiked back down to the trailhead and caught a bus the last few miles back to Cilaos.   

view from Col du Taibit
Andrew decided that while in Reunion, we needed to climb the Piton des Neiges.  It was a difficult one day hike on its own, and we were quite sore from the long hike the day before.  We got up even earlier the next day, stopped by the bakery to fill our packs with even more food, and caught a bus to the trailhead.  The guidebooks say this is a nine hour hike, and we wanted to reach the summit while the skies were still clear.

The trail starts in a forest, steadily climbing, and then becomes rocky and quite steep.  We pushed hard for three hours to climb 4,000 ft where we reached the Gite de la Caverne Dufour.  There is a hut here at 8,100 ft where most hikers stay for the night before summiting the next morning.   We were already tired and wished we were staying for the night as well.

From the hut, it was another two hour climb up the last 2,000 ft to the summit.  This section had no trees, more bushes and scrub, and huge boulders everywhere.  The last 30 minutes of the trail traverse a ridge of red ash, with a few lonely plants sprouting here and there, adding dashes of green to the stark landscape.  The views from the summit were stunning, looking out over the other peaks and villages all the way to the ocean and beyond.

hiking Piton des Neiges
We had lunch on the summit and a short rest as we watched the clouds begin to roll in below us.  Hiking down was much faster, and it only took 45 minutes to reach the hut, which was now completely shrouded in clouds.  The rest of the hike was three hours through dense fog with very low visibility.  Back at the trailhead completely exhausted, we hitched a ride back to town.    

Our last morning, we only had enough strength to walk into town for breakfast and then off to the bus stop for another exhilarating ride back to St. Pierre.  Although we could have been happy spending several months in Reunion, there was already one early cyclone this season, and it was time to get out of the tropics.  We needed to focus on getting Saviah ready to sail to South Africa, one of our most dreaded passages.   

The leg from the Mascarene Islands to South Africa is notorious for being a tough sail with unpredictable weather.  The 1,500 mile passage leads initially south, before turning west towards the South African coast after clearing Madagascar.  The trade winds of the tropics quickly disappear after leaving Reunion, and the weather is dominated by a succession of Antarctic lows moving east.  These lows have strong SW winds and move through fast, often every 2-3 days, so avoiding them is virtually impossible.

The lack of sheltered ports on the South African coastline and the mighty Agulhas Current contribute to the challenges.  The Agulhas Current flows south in a wide channel along the coast at speeds of up to six knots in places.  When the SW wind from a low pressure system blows hard against this current, it creates giant waves of up to 60 feet, with even larger freak waves reported during storms.  It is important not be caught crossing the current when a low comes through.

The advice we received from several South African sailors was to watch the weather and arrive south of Madagascar at the same time a low pressure system does.  If you can time it right, this gives you a chance for a clear run to the coast across the current before the next low arrives.  If you are late or the next low pressure system arrives early, you just heave-to and wait for it to blow through and then cross the current.

After returning from Cilaos, we woke up one morning and noticed the boat Rough Bounds tied up to the wall.  We met Paul, the single-hander from Toronto when we were in Cocos Keeling a couple months prior.  On closer inspection, we noticed that he had no mast.  We caught up with him later that morning, and he explained that he was on his way to South Africa from Mauritius and was hit by a squall, not far from Reunion.  A strong gust knocked him down, and then two large waves hit him in the few seconds before the boat had a chance to right itself.  The mast broke and was ultimately lost.  He motored to Reunion that evening and was heartbroken at the thought of not being able to finish his trip back home.  We later learned that he was able to find a replacement mast in Reunion and successfully made the trip to South Africa.  In the meantime, it was a reminder that this was one of our most dangerous passages, and we needed to be ready for anything. 

We did a thorough inspection of Saviah’s rigging, as well as the rest of the boat.  Since our portlights had been leaking a little, we just caulked them all closed.  During our inspection, we noticed that we were missing one of the two pins that hold the jib furler on.  Luckily, Alice on True Blue had several spare bolts that fit, and Andrew was able to make a temporary repair.

Several other boats were also preparing for departure, hoping to catch the next window.  We met every day and discussed the weather forecasts.  A couple of other cruisers were paying weather routers back in the U.S. for advice.  These are weather experts with sailing experience who analyze the weather and give recommendations on when to leave and what route to take.  It was really helpful to have their thoughts and analysis of the situation.  After waiting nearly a week, we finally had what looked to be a good window for departure on Saturday, November 3rd, and Saviah set sail for Durban, South Africa.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Mauritius (2012)

Saviah and her crew arrived in Mauritius on October 10th, after completing a 17 day passage across the Indian Ocean from Cocos Keeling.  We tied up alongside the concrete wall in downtown Port Louis, a bustling commercial harbor and the capital of Mauritius. 
The island is part of the Mascarene Island group, located about 450 miles east of Madagascar.  The Mascarenes were formed many years ago as a result of underwater volcanic eruptions.  Like most of the others islands in the group, Mauritius was originally inhabited by the Dutch.  It was later occupied by both the French and the British before becoming an independent state in 1968.  Mauritius is famous as the only home of the now extinct Dodo bird. 

After informing the customs office of our arrival, we were told to wait on our boat, as officers from quarantine and immigration needed to come out first.  They arrived around noon, and we completed the paperwork in 20 minutes.  The next step was to check in with the nearby coast guard, and then finally the customs office gave us our official clearance papers.  Once checked in, we went ashore to the ATM to pull out some Mauritius rupees and grabbed a quick lunch before walking to the nearby marina.  We were really hoping to get a spot in the marina for at least a night, so we could take on water and clean off the boat and ourselves.   
Unfortunately, the marina was full.  The Coast Guard reluctantly let us remain on the customs wall for a night, as long as we agreed to leave the next day.  It wasn’t ideal, as there was a bit of surge in the harbor and our lines, which were tied off to the lamp posts, were under a lot of strain.  Since the nearest anchorage was a 15 mile sail, we were glad to have a place to tie up for the night and spent the rest of the day exploring downtown and getting used to walking again.   

The next morning, we moved to the anchorage at Grand Baie.  This is a well-protected and shallow bay on the northwest side of the island and the hub of the tourist activity.  The bay is surrounded by restaurants and shops, and there is also a very large grocery store a couple blocks away.  Food stalls along the beach offered an assortment of good cheap street food.  It was interesting to hear the variety of languages spoken as we walked.   The local population is made up of people from various nationalities, primarily China, India, Africa or Europe.  The locals seemed to switch between Mauritian Creole, French and English without any problem. 
The Grand Baie Yacht Club has a history of welcoming foreign cruisers, and offered us a one month free temporary membership.  We took advantage of the amenities and enjoyed hot showers while there.  They also have a jetty where we pulled up alongside to top off our water and fuel, which we hadn’t done since Bali, a month ago.   After our tanks were full and the salt was rinsed off the topsides, we set the anchor in about 10 ft of water and set off to see some of the island.

Mauritius is about 40 miles long from north to south and 28 miles wide, encircled by a broken ring of mountain ranges.  It is surrounded by miles of white sandy beaches, with lots of reef protected lagoons beyond that.  Since we were only planning to spend a week in Mauritius, we decided a good way to see this beautiful island is to rent a scooter and hit the road for a few days.  We left from Grand Baie and started off around the north side of the island, deciding to make a clockwise circumnavigation on mainly the smaller coastal roads.  The north side of Mauritius is mainly flat, lending itself to growing sugar cane.  We passed field after field of it as we followed the road along the coast.

Continuing on, the route took us along the east coast of the island through many small coastal villages. Near the SE side of the island, we parked the scooter at the Vieux Grand Port police station and walked down the road to the base of Lion Mountain.  Looking to hike to the summit, we searched for the trailhead using instructions from our guide book.  But the trail is not marked, and we spent almost an hour walking through the sugar cane fields at the base of the mountain before finding it.

sugar cane fields in Mauritius
It took a few hours to get to the top, and it was definitely worth it.  There were several lookout points along the way, with beautiful views of the east side of the island, as well as the lagoon and surrounding reef.

hiking on Lion Mountain
After the hike, we got back on the scooter and continued to the Blue Bay area on the SE corner of the island.  We stopped for the night at a B & B and enjoyed walking around town and along the very popular beach nearby. 
Before leaving Grand Baie earlier in the day, we checked the weather.  There was a tropical disturbance forming north of us around the Chagos Islands that we needed to keep an eye on.  That night we checked the weather again, and found the disturbance had deepened into a category 3 cyclone, named Anais.  Sustained winds were as high as 115 mph, and the forecast showed the track heading by Mauritius, a few hundred miles offshore.  This meant, at a minimum, we would get some strong winds, but that it could also change course just slightly and actually hit Mauritius.  We debated heading back to Grand Baie after just one night. 

Since we brought our laptop with us, we were able to keep an eye on the weather at the many wi-fi hotspots around the island.  The cyclone was still a few days out, and we could be back in Grand Baie within 3-4 hours from anywhere on the island, so we chose to spend one more night on the west coast and just keep monitoring the storm.  The next morning, we headed west to see the Black River Gorges National Park.  There was a narrow road leading through the park with attractions and hiking trails along the way.  We stopped to do a short hike to Alexandra Falls, and then we hiked up to the highest point in Mauritius, Piton de la Petite Riviere Noire, at 2,717 ft.   It was a relatively easy hike until the last steep scramble up to the top.  There were excellent views of the southwest end of the island and the ocean beyond. 

more hiking on Mauritius
After the hike, we continued to circle the island and headed north along the west coast.  We stopped for the night in the small coastal village of Tamarin.  We found a small backpacker lodge that was recently purchased by a couple of Italian expats who were in the middle of remodeling the place.  They had one room finished and available for rent, which they gave us a great price on since they weren’t officially open for business.
We spent some time walking around the small town, but there wasn’t much going on, other than the work being done at the salt evaporation ponds across the street.  Here they make salt in the traditional way by flooding the retention ponds with saltwater and waiting for the water to evaporate off.  The women then shovel the remaining salt into buckets and carry them off to the storage sheds.  Moving these buckets of salt around in the hot sun looked like hard work.   

salt ponds near Tamarin
When we checked the weather that evening, we were relieved that the forecast showed the cyclone staying further north than originally expected and then eventually dying out in a few days.  There would still be strong winds in Mauritius, but not too bad.  After a night in Tamarin, we continued north back to Grand Baie, taking the highway through the very congested city of Port Louis.  It was a bit nerve racking on our little scooter, but after we made it through the city, we were back on the smaller back roads again and enjoyed the last leg through the small coastal villages.  We saw a lot of the island over our three day tour and had a good time, despite having to keep our eye on the storm. 
Back in Grand Baie, we returned our scooter and did some last minute grocery shopping before getting back to the boat.  Although the worst of cyclone Anais was heading toward Madagascar, winds were expected to increase, so we planned to stay put for a few days until conditions improved.  Later that day, the wind kicked up in the anchorage and hovered between 25 and 35 knots for several days.  The holding was good in the shallow anchorage, and we had no issues while waiting it out. 

We agreed before we left Seattle, that we would not put ourselves at risk by being in the tropics during cyclone season.  The official southwest Indian Ocean cyclone season runs from November to April, with the most likely months being December to March.  Tropical cyclone Anais formed on October 13th, marking the earliest formation of an intense tropical cyclone ever recorded in this area.  Although the winds weren’t too bad in Mauritius, it was bit unnerving to be so close to this cyclone before the season even started. 
When conditions finally settled down, we sailed back to Port Louis on October 19th.  We tied up alongside the wall again and spent an hour completing the paperwork necessary to clear out of the country.  We set out early that afternoon for the short overnight hop to Reunion Island, 140 miles away.