December 29, 2015

Indian Ocean 2015--Notes from the Northern Route

On New Years Eve 2014 we didn’t have much of a plan beyond, ‘get to Malaysia’. We’d just spent eight months cruising Australia and Indonesia and were thinking about a leisurely explore around SE Asia, when the three of us suddenly realized we were ready to start for home. Between us and Vancouver though there were still a couple of oceans, and the Indian Ocean was looming large.
it's time to get this teenager home...
 When we originally conceived the idea of sailing around the world—the plan always included the Suez Canal. But then, pirates. Still, more than 15 cruising boats ventured through the canal this year—but many had the added hassle and expense of armed guards and weapons aboard: a choice that wasn’t for us, for a whole host of reasons.

So this left two options: Take the Northern Route across the Indian Ocean—leaving in February. Or hang out in SE Asia for a few more months and take the Southern Route. The Southern Route is perhaps better known: Cocos Keeling, to the Mascarene Islands and on to South Africa (with the option of adding Chagos and Madagascar). It’s a faster route (boats leave as late as September and arrive in South Africa in November) but the passages are longer and the rough weather can be rougher.

In contrast, the Northern route covers more miles, more countries and straddles two cyclone seasons. It’s a route we hadn’t even considered before friends on Totem showed us their passage plans—but then it looked ideal: interesting countries, pleasant cruising and shorter passages. In retrospect, the trip was perfect for us.

Country #1 Trincomalee, Sri Lanka
March 5-19
Passage: 1100 nm from Langkawi
Fee: Visas $30 USD per person, agent and harbour fees $218 USD
Notes: We had a 30 day visa but opted to leave after an inland trip and some local exploring.

After being held up waiting for parts in Langkawi we arrived in Sri Lanka a little later than planned. Our disappointment faded quickly though when we were welcomed into Trincomalee by officials who were clearly bemused by the large number of yachts who were making the formerly off limits port their Sri Lankan port of call. While the harbour is great, and well protected, until addtional ports are opened to cruisers the true reason to visit Sri Lanka is the inland travel. In a week long trip we covered tea plantations, national parks, ancient cities and more. Highlights included cycling through Anuradhapura and seeing a leopard in Wilpattu National Park. This was also where we first met the wonderful crew on Morning Glory—dear friends who went on to make the Indian Ocean a very excellent journey.

Country #2 Uligamu in Haa Alifu Atoll to Gan in Addu Atoll Maldives
March 25- May 24
Passage: 720 nm from Trinco
Fees: Approx $900 for visas, cruising permit and agent fees for a two-month visit.
Notes: While the cruising fees are very high, a second month didn’t add much to the total fee. We also found that there was very little beyond basic groceries to spend money on—so our overall expenses in the Maldives were quite low.

We straddled the monsoon in the Maldives. As we moved south the monsoon moved north—so we ended up with a stormy week near the end of our stay but beyond that had good weather. The charm of the Maldives is being able to day hop your way down the chain of atolls. We had spectacular diving, explored some interesting villages and had many little islands completely to ourselves. Two months felt like a good period of time to make it down the atoll chain without feeling rushed. The tricky part of the Maldives is there's limited fresh food (the eggs, ugh...)—we should have carried more from Sri Lanka.

Country #3 Chagos BIOT
May 27- June 23
Passage: 285 nm from Gan
Fees: £50 for a one week permit up to £200 for four weeks
Notes: We needed to prove our yacht insurance included wreck removal and that we had medical evacuation insurance. Several boats used DAN as their proof of evacuation.

Chagos is a dreamy stop—though a deeply complex one. It’s the place I spent the most effort trying to make sense of in stories for both the BBC and Vice (be sure to watch the fabulous video by Aline from Shakespear on the BBC link). Our big worry with Chagos was having enough food from our stop in Gan to last the month in Chagos and then get us to the Seychelles. In retrospect it wasn’t such a big worry. Paula on Evita wisely suggested putting aside passage food early on during our Chagos stay—then the fishermen (Andrew on Utopia) kept everyone in fresh fish for the duration. With new boats arriving every so often the potlucks stayed interesting and no one went hungry.

Country #4 Seychelles
June 29-August 18
Passage: 1000 nm from Chagos
Fees: The fees varied with different boats experiencing different charges. We paid approx $500 USD excluding park fees.
Notes: Six weeks was longer than we needed for the Seychelles but Evan was having an infected root canal treated so we ended up hanging out in Port Victoria longer than planned.

I’m not sure I can give a fair review of the Seychelles—we didn’t cruise around that much and our main exploring was around Victoria. I think the three of us were a bit worn out by the time we arrived and quite happy to park, but if I had it to do again I would have shortened our stay in the Seychelles up and given ourselves more time in Madagascar. Overall we loved the hiking and exploring, but it was an expensive stop. Provisioning was excellent though.

Country #5 Comoros
August 22- September 5
Passage 800 nm from Seychelles
Fees: Our first taste of Africa came with a flexible fee structure. Visas came in at 30 Euros PP, Port fees at 50 Euros a boat, Police and Gendarme fees that were as much as 40 Euros each and an agent fee was set at, "whatever you think my services are worth."
Notes: Our informal agent Maketse in Mutsamudu was well worth his flexible fee.
Phone: 002693324340

Very few boats stop in Comoros and it’s definitely not for everyone: that said, we loved it. But if we hadn’t already checked into a number of moderately challenging and quite poor countries our first impressions of Comoros may have been enough to make us flee: there’s no official garbage collection (much of it is burned at the edge of the sea or dumped into ravines), pointing and yelling are part of basic communication, and the French spoken doesn’t sound like the one you learned in high school. But from the way the wind smells like y’lang-y’lang and the streets are scented with cloves, to the bright colours the women wear and the way the kids wave from dugout canoes Comoros is almost a cliché. The market is vibrant, the medina is intriguing and the people are quick to smile and laugh (and return your change when you overpay and walk away.) It’s just not an easy place—but it is very rewarding.

Country #6 Madagascar
Sept 7- October 26
Passage: 230 nm from Comoros
Fees: $100 USD
Notes: Best for last
An early Halloween party kept the kids in tune with the seasons--or something like that.
So much of Madagascar was wonderful. We loved catching up with (and getting to know better) cruisers who took different paths across the IO and who all arrived in Madagascar within a few weeks of each other. It was great having our friend Allison visit and to play tourist with her. And easy protected sailing and a friendly, low key local population made Madagascar a dreamy stop. I could list a dozen reasons why I loved cruising here (here are four) the gist though is it combines everything we set off to find: it’s beautiful and intriguing, affordable and unique and the food is yummy.
Crossing the bar at Bazaruto
 Country # 7 Mozambique
November 1-5
Passage: 680 nm from Madagascar
Fees: $40 in park fees
Notes: We never checked in but sought shelter here

We went for two walks on the beach and that pretty much comprised our Mozambique experience. The bigger bonus was getting a chance to know the awesome crews of Crystal Blues and Sage better as we sorted out weather.

Country #8 South Africa
November 10
Passage: 513 nm from Mozambique
Fees: None!!
Notes: In progress. So far, quite excellent.

** Fees and distances are to the best of my recollection and figuring, they may not be accurate.

December 13, 2015

The Delights of Durban

If I know anything about a destination, it’s that your results will vary. Depending on who you’re with, what the circumstances are and what your mood is, it can be love, hate or something in between.

Durban had everything stacked against it: all we’d heard was it was dangerous and dingy and a brief visit reinforced the idea it was worth skipping. Well, best laid plans and all that… Instead of a 36 hour weather window that would last long enough to get from Richards Bay to Port Elizabeth, ours became a 20 hour weather ‘crack’ which let us leap 80 miles down the coast in a very boisterous 10 hours. Once in, our friends found us snug spot in the marina and we hunkered down for blow after blow.

the apartheid museum
At first it looked like we’d only be in port for a day, or three, and then we’d be back on the Christmas track to Simons Town. So I hurriedly planned some exploring, including a memorable curry lunch at the quirky (and gorgeous) Oyster Box hotel. One of my favourite
curries was a local chicken and shrimp version—something I can’t wait to try and replicate with the curry spices we were given.

Next up was the fabulous Phansi Museum—with its incredible collection of Zulu art and artefacts. The assistant curator, Puhmzile gave us the kind of informative (and very interactive) tour through the collection that ensured we could envision what everything was used for—even when we’d rather not.

The puppet room at the Pahnsi demonstrated different cultural dress
My next morning was taken up with an architectural tour of Durban. The benefit of this turned out to be two-fold (three if you count the nice long walk with our lovely friends on Sage): it was great to see the cool buildings, which ranged from gorgeous old Victorian confections (including one that houses the apartheid museum) to funky art deco towers; but it was also good to get a sense of how safe or dangerous Durban really is. It turned out once you’re in the main shops district, Durban doesn’t feel much different than a big US city. And later that day I took Maia and Rivers in for some much enjoyed non-mall shopping and people watching.

Bushman paintings in the Drakensberg
Ley and Neil on our hiking trail
As fun as Durban is proving to be—we’re eager to get south. But with weather windows (and cracks) proving to be elusive, we’re continuing to explore. One huge highlight was a daytrip out to the Drakenberg. We’d been throwing around the idea of going for a couple of weeks and finally made the move with our friends Neil and Ley. The area was even more stunning than we expected and the wide vistas, great hiking and intriguing cave paintings gave us a much-needed jolt of wilderness peace.

At the risk of this turning into a, ‘we did this, this and then this’ post, next up was a fab night out at an incredible jazz bar called the Chairman. After searching through lockers for very uncruiserly pants, collared shirts and dress shoes (that would be the guys) to meet the dress code, we spent the night on cozy sofas, drinking bubbles and enjoying great music and a very cool scene.

checking out the wall of vinyl covers at the Chairman
So now we’re a week into our unplanned, unwanted stop. Today is a carvery lunch at the yacht club, tomorrow may be the beaches or aquarium. After that we hope it’s a weather window south (we really, really do). But in many ways Durbs has been a gift—it’s the reminder that as much as we try to plan, schedule and stay in control, we can’t. Our best option might be a cliché; take what comes and make the best of it. But honestly embracing uncertainty with a smile, and a night out at a jazz club, isn’t always the easiest response. But it is the most rewarding.

* Durban shots thanks to Tony on Sage and the Chairman shot is from Ley on Crystal Blues

December 7, 2015

Safari on the Cheap--South Africa


I have to admit, after nearly one month in South Africa—we may have spent more time in the mall than in the parks. But while the mall has been excellent for replenishing tired wardrobes and scoring tasty $3 bottles of wine, it’s the parks that offer the indelible memories.

There is nothing in the world like driving around a bend and being confronted with a wild animal that seems to have leapt straight out of a nursery school rhyme. It was either the moment when a mama zebra cuddled her baby (awww…) or when a giraffe had a peak inside our car to check out Maia that I pinched myself and realized, ‘I sailed to Africa.’ Actually—thanks to our dear friend Krister, from Britannia—I’m really good at taking that big inhale and just knowing in my soul that, ‘We’re in Africa, man” (or Madagascar, Maldives, Indonesia...)

But the zebra, she took it to another level.

Thanks to some South African friends, we had the inside scoop on how to do safaris on the cheap long before we got here. Skipping the 10k package deals, we rented a car and headed to Hluhluwe/iMoflozi National park, where for about $20 each we got admission to the park where we could self-drive to our heart’s content. And that night we stayed in traditional rondavels in Hilltop camp for less than $100 (including breakfast).

Our first animal came less than 10 minutes into our drive. A young bull elephant was using the road we were traveling north on, to head south. In elephant vs car Rules of the Road this meant we drove in reverse until the elephant found another path. We later learned the elephant was on the move in search of water. This part of South Africa is three years into a major drought—a sobering detail that was to come up again and again as we explored the parks.

In part, thanks to the drought, the animals were exceptionally visible during our two-day visit. All the water holes were dried up (except for an area where they were trucking in water for the elephants) so the animals were on the move—constantly foraging for leafy greens. And while the park had a good number of visitors, most of the time it was only us with them.

After two full days in Hluhluwe/iMoflozi (we had hoped for a second night but it was booked out) we headed to St Lucia to see hippos. Hippos! Staying in the cute town we enjoyed the sensation of being tourists, and then went on a wonderful boat cruise. Once again for less than $20 we were able to enter a national park and get an up close and personal view of some of South Africa’s animals.

December 3, 2015

Manson Boss Anchor 18 month review

For several years we have been using our much loved aluminum A140 Spade anchor (33 lbs). It had held in a "weather bomb" - which sustained winds over 80 knots. The weather bomb story.

But this aluminum anchor has a bit of a weak spot:  the shank. It bent slightly in the bomb (maybe 5 degrees) and perhaps a bit more in French Polynesia, where we caught it on a coral head, and loaded the shank sideways in very strong current and a squall at the same time. So it was time to think about a slightly more robust anchor. We've kept the Spade as a a backup because for the weight, it's still a great anchor.

We have been using a Manson Boss anchor for the past 18 or so months, from Australia to South Africa. We stayed in a marina for about 5 days in Australia, and about a week in Malaysia. Otherwise we have been anchored, so we have some good long term experience with this anchor. We have used it in sand, very soft mud, normal mud, coral sand, coral rubble, and small boulders about the size of bowling balls. No thick sea grass or weed to test it on.

Stowing it on the roller/deploying: the curved shank makes it very easy to self deploy and it self stows in the upright position.

Setting: It sets very quickly, much like the Spade. The Spade always seemed to like >3:1 to set, but we've got this one to set on 2.5:1 scopes in tight quarters. As usual, in mud it takes time for it to sink a bit before applying lots of reverse with the engine.

Dragging: yes, a few times. Townsville, Australia has to have the soupiest mud I've ever experienced. We tried repeatedly to get it to set and it would just pull through the stuff. What came up with the anchor was like pea soup. Very difficult ground for any anchor. The Alor islands of Indonesia have deep anchorages and corally rubble bottoms. We try to never anchor in coral, but sometimes the options are few and the sun is setting. We anchored in very deep water, with limited scope due to local boats being close. Strong currents but not wind - and we woke up the next morning about 100-200m from where we had dropped the hook. I think we may have just hooked some coral rubble then popped free when the current switched directions. Overall it certainly has shown no bad faults in this area

Holding: Strongest sustained winds we've sat on the hook have been in the Maldives with over 50 knots for 10 minutes in one squall, and 40 knots for much longer. Its surface area is considerably greater than the Spade, so I think it should do as well in stronger winds.

Issues: the shank has a nearly full length slot - " Brand new patented Manson Shackle PreventorThe Manson Boss has one slot in the shank with two docking stations to enable you to use your anchor in all seabeds. The patented Preventor quickly unscrews and docks on the alternate station to transform the anchor from a fixed shank to a sliding shank for operation in foul ground. The Preventor is captive which means you won't lose it.

This is a waste of effort and weakens the shank. I don't know anyone who would really use this feature. The last thing I want is an anchor that unhooks itself with a sliding shackle. If the bottom is that foul, don't anchor there! The small plastic washer that holds the s.s. bolt in place to keep the shackle from sliding deforms if you tighten it too much

Really minor - but the s.s. bail over our anchor roller does a good job of scraping the galvanizing off the top of the shank. I'll have to cover the bail with a better protective foam collar instead of the wrapping of rope which always gets dislodged with time.

So that's it. It's a nice anchor, reasonably light for its huge surface area and seems to hold in strong winds.