Indian Ocean Voyage Part 3: La Reunion to South Africa

Having safely sailed over 3000nms across the Indian Ocean from Fremantle, Australia to Reunion Island, the next stop for Rob and Barb White on SY Zoonie was Richards Bay in South Africa. But to get there they had to cross the Mozambique Channel and the infamous Agulhas Current.

Published 2 years ago

On our way to South Africa.

Zoonie is nosing due south under engine in light airs at the moment about 250 miles east of the African coast. We have been acting under the advice of Des Carson ([email protected]) who knows these waters well after exploring them for 13 years with his wife Nell.

Their best personal knowledge is of the Mozambique Channel; Richards Bay, Tanzania, Madagascar (Mada) and Kenya and over the past four years he has guided over 400 yachts from all points east to Africa, around the south coast to Cape Town. His final tally last year was 120 but will be less than half this year because of Covid. We are number 41. On our passage across the Indian Ocean Des provided another weather source for us to use in our route planning but now we needed his advice too.

Under motor due to the calm wind conditions.

Just a few metres out of Le Port Harbour we were off soundings and Rob set Zoonie on course for the first Waypoint to the SE of Mada, there was little wind in the island’s shadow so we were motoring.

From “Rock a Bye Baby” Days to Lightning and Squalls

My log entry for 10th Nov reads; ‘Progress could not be more comfortable, 4.5 to 5.5 knots sailing in a wind of 14 – 17 knots off the beam. Occasional groups of dark clouds pass but come to nothing, just a little more wind. Sighted another sail @ 1300hrs off the stern port quarter, could it be Jori? Rock a Bye Baby Days, gentle wind, light seas, soft roll. Altered onto run on Des’ advice from 192’ to 212’. A little refreshing rain.’

Person on the deck of yacht in wet weather gear
Weathering the rain squalls

At midday on the 12th a wet squall came over us and washed the windows and stainless steel a treat, but it didn’t bring much extra wind. It did show that the settled weather was on the change and with the arrival of FRIDAY 13th we were experiencing life in the fast lane at the end of a wind convergence zone. Hours of sheet lightning blazed threateningly all around us and overhead. With each one we feared for Zoonie’s electrics. The sky was parchment yellow and the cabin lit up like a film studio. Frequent heavy showers flattened the crazily confused sea. 32 knots of wind from different directions made sailing impossible, so we furled the genoa, brought the main amidships to steady Zoonie and proceeded under motor like a drenched skulking cat, ears down and watchful. Mada Madness Weather.

Big waves on a heavy swell from the SW slammed into Zoonie’s port bow stopping her dead and rattling everything on board. I was sick once, my last Reunion croissant ended up heading for Davy Jones’ Locker.

Des wanted us to stay above 27’S above the top of the Lows to the south so we turned Zoonie to WNW onto a starboard tack and pulled the genoa out to port.

The weather pattern as we approached South Africa.

Life in the Fast Lane – Approach to Richards Bay

Finally, on the 15th November we appeared to have current with us for the first time since we left Fremantle. We were also entering the acceleration zone around the SE corner of Mada with the NE winds intensifying and whisking us along with it. Des had sent us on a route to miss the rough seas over the shelving coast and during that night the wind rose to 35 knots, so a second reef went into the poled out genoa and the main rested snug inside the mast. Zoonie’s progress was ace but the sea was short and disturbed so no sleep was had by either of us.

Peering out over the blue expanse of water was repaid with numerous ‘blows’ from what appeared to be humpbacks, they were a long way off (thank goodness!!) but we both detected their little dorsal fins.

Preparing for the Agulhas Current

During a quiet spell Rob took the opportunity to top up the main fuel tank from the diesel cans and on our daily check of the emails we read Des’ plan for our approach to Richards Bay and watched as the wide front you can see moved inexorably towards us.

We were all for slowing right down and delaying a day to ensure the approaching front came across us long before we reached the Agulhas Current, but Des said turn due south for the next 24 hrs to position ourselves in a less strenuous part of the system.

We had small flocks of terns visiting us now, screeching their arrival and staying a short while before continuing on their way and ships passed by on parallel and reciprocal courses, all to or from Richards Bay, a busy coal port.

Picture of big ocean swells astern of a yacht.
Heavy swells made for uncomfortable conditions.

As evening crept towards us so as you can see the sky warned us of the Front’s arrival. In fact it hit quite suddenly at 11.30pm and it was great to be able to put out a little sail and turn the engine off. The wind was a generous 25 knots plus but the sea was short, steep and unforgiving of Zoonie.

The Plan of Approach

Des had formulated a plan of approach. Now back on 260’, nearly west, we would continue until about five miles off Cap St Lucia and within the Agulhas Current and then, when comfortable turn for a point 20 miles north of Richards Bay and ferry glide towards our destination. The aftermath of the front allowed us to continue under sail for a while and that night the sea was an occasional miracle of phosphorescence, sparks from squid, and above a heaven laden with stars and the Milky Way astride us.

Our angled approach meant we would not be targeting the river mouth from the deep and across the current, a potentially deadly line of approach because of the risk of being bowled over sideways, instead we were running with the current. We ditched the main thus reducing the chance of a broach.

Our track towards Richard’s Bay.

Towards Richards Bay

The close-up of Zoonie on the chartplotter shows her crabbing towards Richards Bay and the blue line from her hull is the mighty Agulhas setting in.

 “Clear all the way now, so don’t mess it up,” Des warned.

There was one un-laden vessel on his way in and Rob set Zoonie for the green buoy next to the beacon that marked a wreck, with a determination I rarely see in him and we squeezed around the corner with the big feller, bone in its teeth, coming quickly up behind us.

We had to pass one entrance, to our marina eventually after we’ve cleared in, and then turn sharp right between two yellow buoys to the international jetty. Just after we’d done so the big boy ship slid past and there would barely have been room for us next to him. Just out of the channel are shallow sandbanks, so that wasn’t an option.

Finally we had arrived in South Africa, 1580 miles from La Reunion and 5493 from Fremantle – a total of 42 days at sea.

Barb and Rob White
SY Zoonie (UK)

Map of voyage across the Indian Ocean
Zoonie’s track across the Indian Ocean – from Australia to South Africa.


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The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of or World Cruising Club.

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