Crossing the Indian Ocean – May 2014
Whilst the piracy problems remain in the north-west of the Indian Ocean, the only really safe option for would-be circumnavigators is to make the trip across to South Africa. SY Gryphon 2 did the trip in May this year and wanted to share their experiences.
Published 9 years ago, updated 5 years ago
The important decisions are when to go and which route to take.
The route choices are broadly these:
1. To go the traditional route from Thailand to Sri Lanka and then turn south via Chagos to either the Mascarene Islands or direct to north Madagascar and on down the Mozambique Channel to South Africa.
ADVANTAGES: Some interesting stops.
DISADVANTAGES: A potentially hard trip if going from Chagos to Mauritius with strong winds forward of the beam. Close to piracy risk areas
2. To go down the west coast of Sumatra, across to Cocos and then onto the Mascarenes. From there either round the north of Madagascar and again down the Mozambique Channel or direct to South Africa probably from La Reunion.
3. ADVANTAGES: The west coast of Sumatra is very remote and unspoiled. Good for surfers.
DISADVANTAGES: Good for surfers, i.e. big swells! Need a CAIT (Indonesian Cruising Permit) if you want to stop. Lots of motoring, poor winds in Indo.
4. As above but leaving via the Sunda Strait. This was our preferred option.
ADVANTAGES: The southing is made in the generally benign waters east of Sumatra. Visiting a smouldering Krakatoa.
DISADVANTAGES: Must be done early or the NE monsoon will have started and the Trades will have become too boisterous for comfort. CAIT needed if you want to stop. We chose not to get a CAIT instead of buying some extra fuel cans so we did not need to stop.
The received wisdom is that it is best to do the long crossing to the Mascaerenes in May before the Trades are at their height. We followed this advice leaving Cocos in the second week of May and had generally favourable conditions with winds in the mid-20s most of the way.
Boats leaving later had more wind and found more uncomfortable conditions. Leaving after the Trades have become less boisterous in September is possible (see Aurora B’s blog on Mailasail – link at bottom of report) but this allows very little time in the Mascarenes which are lovely islands (see Gryphon’s blog on mailasail – link below).
The problem with leaving early is that there is then a long time before it is wise to leave for South Africa. The recommended time is in October or early November before the chance of an early cyclone, but arriving in Richards Bay late enough for there to be less chance of a southerly gale.
Our solution was to use the enforced layover to return to the UK for a couple of months, leaving the boat in Caudan in Mauritius. Some went up to Madagascar either from Mauritius but mostly from La Reunion which it would be a pity to miss.
Our plan worked well, although we had to wait a while at Krakatau for good winds to take us to Cocos. We anchored a number of times on the route south through Indonesia, but no one took any interest in us, although there have been reports that the officials at Krakatau (park wardens not police) are charging boats that stop there now.
Our trip to Cocos was uneventful. Cocos is an odd place but worth a stop with an island just for cruisers, but an awfully wet ride to the nearest expensive shop.
The onward trip to Rodrigues was also uneventful, moderately uncomfortable and fast. Rodrigues is not to be missed. The short trip to Mauritius was easy and we managed to do it with only 2 nights at sea. Yachts that came from Chagos to Rodrigues had a hard trip.
Mauritius proved a good place to leave the boat. (See our other reports on noonsite for more on doing this).
After the 3 months in Mauritius, it is an easy 24-hour sail to Reunion. We were unlucky at booking a berth in St Pierre but the alternative of Le Port has many advantages of good yacht services if not ambience. A new marina should be in operation by late 2015.
THE SOUTH AFRICA LEG
We opted to go the direct route around the southern end of Madagascar. We chose to do this for a variety of reasons. Firstly the route north of Madagascar is within the area classed as a PIRACY RISK. There have been no piracy attacks against yachts here but even so, we decided it was not worth even a small risk. On consulting our insurers their preference was for us to go south about. Yachts that went the northern route had no piracy problem but there were thefts including from occupied boats. It is of course also considerably longer to go that route, although there are some wonderful places to visit in the north west of Madagascar. In previous years some yachts using the southern route have stopped en route and anchored in bays on the south coast of Madagascar (see Tagish’s blog for more on this – link below). However, we were strongly advised against this by some South Africans. The southern tip of Madagascar has a reputation for enhanced winds and unpleasant sea conditions and the advice is to go at least 150 miles south of the island. We cut the corner by less than this as the winds were very light and the seas very calm.
We encountered a lot of shipping and AIS was a great help. An active AIS would have been good. On one occasion we called a ship coming rather close and the watch officer suggested I needed to check my AIS, he seemed a bit surprised when I said I did not have a unit that transmits. Currents were very variable around the end of Madagascar, even 100 miles off with counter currents of up to 2 knots for a time.
The most problematic part of the whole trip across the Indian Ocean is the last 75 miles. The Agulhas current runs southward at up to 6 knots close to the African shore. Its position, speed and width vary but it is fastest at about the 200m contour and maybe only 10 or 20 miles wide. Periperi radio was a great help in advising on its strength and location. Our experience was that we started to pick up an SE flowing current at up to 2 knots when still 100 miles offshore, which gradually turned to a more southerly direction. The total width of the current was at least 50 miles to a maximum close to the 200 m contour from where it declined to 1 knot off the harbour entrance at Richard’s Bay.
The problem comes when a southerly buster comes up the coast. These are cold fronts associated with depressions further south and can come on very quickly. A southerly gale against a southerly current is a recipe for disaster for any small boat. For Brits think Portland Race on a spring ebb with a westerly gale….on steroids. The good news is that Periperi radio can advise on the likely conditions in the current. It is recommended that yachts heave to outside the current if conditions are not right and wait.
We just got it in time. 18 hours later a frighteningly powerful storm hit the coast, lasted nearly 48 hours and at its peak had 60-knot winds and 7-meter swells. An English singlehander behind us just failed to reach the harbour and had to heave-to and eventually had to call for help from the local emergency services who went out at the height of the gale and towed him in.
If you need to be persuaded not to do this crossing and put your yacht on a ship instead, read the final blog of Simanderal (link below). This was a well found, well-skippered yacht that got into difficulties en route from Chagos to Madagascar and had to be abandoned. The final blog is an excellent, dispassionate account of the attempts of her crew to keep the boat afloat until the final rescue of her crew.
These notes were prepared by Chris and Lorraine Marchant of SY Gryphon 2.
Tagish – tagish.blogspot.com
Sal Darago – saldarago.blogspot.com
Aurora B – blog.mailasail.com/aurorab
Gryphon 2 – blog.mailasail.com/gryphon
Simanderal – blog.mailasail.com/simanderal