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.