Change of Plans

Sitting out in the middle of the Indian Ocean with a storm bearing down on us, just holding our breath and hoping it will go away. The forecast models still can’t agree on where this cyclone is going to go or what it’s going to do. Some say it’ll go West and sit over Northern Madagascar. Others say that it’ll go South and cut across our track about 400 miles to the West of us. Either way, we’re faced with sitting out here for four more days, doing nothing except watching films, reading books and trying not to be too nervous. There is an alternative though. Rodrigues Island lies 500 miles to the South West. That’s four and a bit days of sailing. It is also far enough East that none of the forecast tracks hit it and it would leave us no further from our destination in Madagascar than if we had simply stayed put. We’re tired and haven’t had a fun time of our Indian Ocean crossing. We’ve had relentless squalls for the past week and before that winds dead astern and sloppy seas. The lure of land is strong. So, we’ve decided to change our plan and head for Rodrigues. We have set sail and are now making 5.5kts South West under a triple-reefed mainsail and a little sliver of genoa. It’s pretty rough but Bob is handling things very well.

Since we’ve decided to make landfall earlier than expected we can afford to be a little more opulent with our supplies. So this morning I decided to make bacon and egg sandwiches for breakfast, with jus de baked beans. I managed Sarah’s sandwich successfully, but it was too much to expect to be able to pull off a second performance without a hitch. At the critical moment, just as the sandwich was being converted from a menagerie of parts into something of beauty and elegance; just as the bacon had been laid onto the toast but had not yet adhered to it with the aid of a liberal smearing of mayonnaise, a particularly large wave re-distributed my sandwich impressively. One bit of bacon was hurled across the cabin and slid down the side of the portable generator. The other bit of bacon landed on the floor and became one with the hairball in the corner. The mayonnaise on the toast worked beautifully as a glue, adhering it to the side of the companionway stairs. The beans, thank Neptune, we’re still safely contained in the pot on the stove. I picked up the pieces, and through careful timing with the swells managed to reconstruct the sandwich. There were some distinctly unusual textural aspects but overall I was determined to enjoy it. Sarah, meanwhile, having eaten and enjoyed her un-molested sandwich, proceeded to laugh at me. I couldn’t help but laugh along with her.

So that’s life on Bob, as we bob around out here trying to dodge cyclones. There’s another tropical depression to our North East that we need to be careful of in addition to the one we’re really concerned about. The French meteorologists on Reunion Island think it won’t amount to much but we don’t want to take any chances. It feels good to be sailing away from these things rather than just sitting like the proverbial duck with our fingers crossed.

Cyclone

Officially the Indian Ocean cyclone season starts in November. This year, apparently, it’s spot-on!

We got an email yesterday. To paraphrase:
“I hate to be the bearer of bad news but there’s a cyclone forming and you’re headed right for it.”

Bummer.

I downloaded a weather chart via the satellite phone and discovered that he wasn’t exaggerating. Our projected course took us directly into the centre of a nasty-looking storm.

A few years ago I was in Bermuda and there was a tropical storm passing by. It was supposed to pass a couple of hundred miles from the island and we’d get 35 knot winds for a few hours. No big deal. 12 hours later, the eye of the hurricane passed directly over the island. The anemometer at the weather station blew away when the wind speed exceeded 120 knots so nobody really knows how strong it was. It caused widespread devastation. I was on my boat at the time anchored out in the most protected spot I know of – inside Paradise Lakes. Nevertheless it was a harrowing experience. There was no distinction between the sea and the air – they had merged into a single mass that was hurling itself at everything in its path, like a pressure-washer with a nozzle miles wide. I stuck my head gingerly up above the cockpit coaming into the wind and glimpsed a hellish seascape. The wind-sea came in waves. As I saw each one coming I ducked my head down and felt it pass over me like a freight train. The dinghies tied behind the yachts that were anchored in St. George’s Harbour were said to be flying horizontally behind their motherships doing pirouettes on their bow lines, their engines still attached. I certainly have no desire whatsoever to ever experience something like that in Bob, at sea.

I would say I have a healthy respect for these tropical systems, as well as a healthy skepticism of the forecasts associated with them.

Currently, as of 0600UTC on the November 4th, we are at 13 00 S, 069 25 E, about 400 miles South of the developing storm. We have hove-to (the nautical equivalent to being parked) and are slowly drifting SW at about 2 knots. Wind speed is about 22 knots, except in the squalls when it gets up as high as 35 or so. Apart from a freak wave that woke us up quite abruptly this morning by coming right through the forward hatch, all is well. We plan to stay like this for another day or two and let this thing move away to the west, which the current models suggest it will do. Fingers are crossed that they are accurate. This time. Yesterday they predicted a South West and then Southerly track, so they haven’t got their story straight yet.

This is the weather forecast looking a few days ahead. The green marker shows our current position and the red marker is where we would end up if we continue as we are.

Cake and Death

We’ve put the clocks back twice now and still have another three hours to go. We really should have changed three hours already but one of the luxuries of being out here on our own is that the number on the clock is largely irrelevant. The only schedule that matters is our own, and we’ve decided we like it getting dark at about 7.

Our position as of 1000 (UTC+6) on the morning of November 2nd is 12 58 S, 073 03 E, putting us about 2500 miles from Bali and 1500 miles from our destination – the island of Nosi Be just off the North West coast of Madagascar.

The days are much the same. The wind comes and goes and shifts back and forth a few degrees, but for the most part Bob keeps plodding along and slowly eating away the miles. Yesterday, however, was special. It was Sarah’s birthday. We’d been keeping a camembert in the fridge for this occasion, so she had that for dinner along with some bread that I made the day before. I also made a cake, and took pleasure from the thought that the list of people who have ever made a cake out here is almost certainly very small.

Putting the finishing touches on Sarah’s birthday cake.

There is life out here, however. Lots of it. The sea floor is 5 kilometres below our keel and in this location is virtually featureless. No sea mounts or chasms or ridges. Certainly no islands. Nothing to bring nutrients up to the surface. Nevertheless there are an abundance of flying fish skittering across the wave tops. Long, thin ones with flat heads and short, fat ones with rounded heads. I was once smacked in the head by one in the Atlantic and I could feel it for days afterwards. I was standing in the cockpit at the helm of a boat, minding my own business and the next thing WHACK! It was like being punched by someone. Fortunately the Indian Ocean variety seem to be much smaller, which is a good thing otherwise I’d be afraid to stand outside for too long for fear of assault. There are literally hundreds of them and Bob has become a kind of death machine. Sometimes we hear them flapping around on deck and I go and plop them back into the sea, but more often than not they get scooped up unnoticed. The deck is strewn with them every morning. I counted 101 in my clean-up the other day. At least we know they won’t go to waste; something living down there will eat them.

 

 

The Lumpy Indian

Almost one and a half thousand miles sailed. Two and a half thousand left. The moon has gone from a Cheshire Cat smile to a large white blob, with either a man or a rabbit in it depending on which cultural legend one follows.

The Indian Ocean is living up to it’s reputation. Three separate sets of swells are converging and making things very lumpy. Bob lurches and rolls like a drunken man in unpredictable ways, knocking the wind from the sails and re-filling them with a bang on a regular basis. It is easy to understand why sailors are traditionally superstitious; it seems like all is calm and well until one of us dares to mention that perhaps the sea state is improving. Then, we immediately get picked up and tossed somewhere, and the sounds from the deck of banging sails and lines and the shaking of the rigging reproach our sentiments smartly. I have substituted 1/2” nylon in place of all of the sheets and preventer lines. The stretchiness of the nylon reduces the shock loading considerably and makes a big difference to our sanity if nothing else. We just have to watch out for chafe even more than usual, since a moving, bowstring-tight piece of nylon will cut itself through in a matter of minutes if given anything to rub against. We need it to last at least three more weeks, and hopefully longer.

Despite our occasional discomfort we continue to make good time, with daily runs around the 140-mile mark. In the early hours of yesterday morning we passed the remote Cocos (Keeling) Islands some twenty five miles to our South, and there is now no more land on our route until the Agalega Islands over 2,000 miles away.

Homeward Bound

The antipodean point to Bermuda is Perth in Western Australia. That is, the point that is on exactly the opposite side of the planet. If you could dig a hole straight through the center of the Earth from Bermuda and hop through it that’s where you’d pop out.

We didn’t visit Perth but we did, as you know, visit Bali, which is directly north of Perth and on the same line of longitude. In fact, our anchorage, at longitude 115 15 E was exactly 180 degrees from Devonshire parish, Bermuda. Finally, after two years and ten months, we have reached the other side of the world, and every mile sailed will take Bob one mile closer to home rather than one mile further from it. It’s a nice feeling. Somehow it feels like we’re sailing down-hill, and that Bob knows she’s going home.

This illusion has been helped along no doubt by some of the unusually high daily runs that we’ve clocked up over the last few days, despite sailing quite conservatively. We have some very favourable currents to thank for that.

The oceans of the world are actually higher at their western sides than they are at their eastern sides. The relentless trade winds and great ocean currents heap up the sea against the continents. Going from the Atlantic to the Pacific we cheated by dropping several metres through the Panamanian lock system. But the transit from the Pacific to the Indian doesn’t involve any locks or sophistication. Neither does it involve a solid land mass with an unbroken coastline for thousands of miles. Instead, the Pacific squirts through to the Indian through the shallows of the Torres Straits and through the myriad of islands of Indonesia. This ‘equalising current’ runs generally from East to West and has been helping us along for the last month or so, often quite spectacularly. Approaching Bali we regularly saw GPS speeds of over ten knots!

Those currents have significantly reduced now but Bob keeps on bobbing along. We struggled for wind for the first few days but it seems to be a bit more consistent now. We’ve got a solid 15 to 20 knots of breeze on the beam and are making about six and a half knots under a double-reefed mainsail and half of our big 150% genoa. Christmas Island, an Australian territory, is 180 miles to our East North East and we haven’t seen any other marine traffic for the last three days, which suits us just fine. The days are starting to roll together. We’re still eating fresh food for now, though the tomatoes have started to sprout and the green stuff is looking a bit sorry for itself. There are a series of sea mounts coming up in a day or so so I’ll probably stick the fishing lines over soon and try my luck.

Our destination is Northern Madagascar, still some 3200 miles away, or about four weeks of sailing. Our original intention had been to visit a little island called Rodrigues just to the East of Mauritius and then head directly from there to South Africa, but based on the look of the weather charts and the advice of a meteorologist-sailor based in South Africa we decided to opt for what we hope will be an easier route around the Northern tip of Madagascar. Besides, Sarah wants to see the Aye Aye, her favourite animal (also one of the ugliest I think!), in the wild and that is the only place they live.