Indian Ocean Passage

Saltaire back home sailing off the Southern California coast
Saltaire back home sailing off the Southern California coast
Saltaire back home sailing off the Southern California coast

The voyage from Darwin in northern Australia to the Gulf of Aden by way of Sri Lanka and India’s Malabar Coast turned out to be a daunting feat for my 1966 Cal 30 Saltaire. Gales and calms, along with bizarre currents, posed a challenging obstacle course requiring patience and skill.

Few of the cruisers I met in Darwin intended to cross by way of Sri Lanka and India. Rod Heikell, in his Indian Ocean Cruising Guide, warns, “There are few people who have much that is good to say about this route, and it can involve lots of sail changes, dull, rainy weather and some motoring.” If Heikell has erred here, it is only in understatement.

A late start from Mooloolaba Harbor, Queensland, had cast a cloud over my original plan of crossing to Durban, South Africa, which requires precise timing. Nonetheless, the change of monsoon at this time of year did not make my new route much easier.

Darwin to Christmas Island
From Tipperary Marina in Darwin, Saltaire motored out on the rushing ebb tide early on a morning in mid-September, her skipper anxious to catch the easterly that promised to carry the boat all the way to Hibernia Reef and Christmas Island. Later that morning, a slight westerly came up, pegging Saltaire on a close reach on the starboard tack, 60 degrees off the rhumb line. Oh well, I figured, probably just a diurnal coastal breeze.

After two days of tacking in the light westerly, it was obvious this was a weather anomaly. The westerly freshened after a couple of days, and Saltaire was sailing at a steady 5 knots. However, the Timor Sea threw another wrench into my progress: a counter-clockwise current setting the boat west on the port tack—and back east on the starboard tack! For a whole day, I seriously considered sailing back to Darwin, putting Saltaire up for sale and flying back to Los Angeles.   

After seven long days and 500 miles, I finally slipped between the Hibernia and Ashmore reefs and caught the southeasterly that had been promised on Kismet Weather, a cruiser weather service based in Australia.

A fast, easy broad reach carried me to Christmas Island, where I spent two weeks hanging out at the local pubs and waiting for a chart of the northern Indian Ocean to be shipped from Perth. Pleasant weather with a moderate southeasterly was the norm for the anchorage in Flying Fish Cove, a standard stop along the westward route to both the Red Sea and South Africa.

North to Sri Lanka
Most cruisers have enough sense to take a breather at Cocos Keeling before proceeding on to Galle. I, on the other hand, decided to take the whole passage in one gulp. With Saltaire’s relatively flat bilges, I’d had my fill of getting knocked around by confused seas and wanted to avoid what certainly would be harsher conditions farther south.

The Fleming windvane self-steering system keeping Saltaire on course.
The Fleming windvane self-steering system keeping Saltaire on course.

Pleasant downwind sailing under genoa, or drifter when the wind lightened up, typified the first six days out of Flying Fish Cove, Christmas Island. At about 0730 seven days out, the easterly shifted quickly to the southeast, and a dark squall line started marching in my direction. I sealed up the cabin, reduced the 8-ounce genny to storm size, disconnected the windvane and hand-steered through the 30-knot snotter. The next several days saw steady southwest winds punctuated by the odd squall.

As the miles to the equator dwindled, steady sailing eventually weakened to ever-longer calms. Squalls began to appear out of nowhere, first in the early evening, and then at all hours of the day until there was no way to adapt to a daily weather pattern. At the peak of a squall, the wind would sometimes reach 40 knots, starting from north-northwest and then weakening as it backed to the west. 

One afternoon, a huge freak wave sneaked up and dumped several gallons of green water through the coach roof hatch over the salon, drenching books and charts, missing the laptop computer by only a few inches. The wave had caught me totally off guard on a beam reach in a light westerly with two-foot seas while I sailed due north along the east 80-degree meridian. A few more dousings would occur over the next few days, so I resigned myself to using the cabin fan instead of the overhead hatch for cool air.

Dependable trade wind sailing had become a distant, fond memory once above 3 degrees, 30 minutes south. Not knowing what to expect upon reaching the final 200-mile stretch to Port Galle, Sri Lanka, I decided to save fuel and sit out the calms, waiting for the daily regimen of squalls to give Saltaire a nice boost toward her destination. I put myself on stricter water rations and prepared for the last stretch of what had become dismal progress.

The calms gave me time to catch up on small chores, untenable while sailing. Early one morning I sat on the coach roof and repaired an 18-inch tear along the mainsail leach. This is just the kind of thing that can get really out of hand if not repaired early on. I also found time to top off the house battery water, open up the 600-watt inverter to clean out salt crusts and reorganize the charts.

The intense heat and still air found easy victims in the food stores. On the eighteenth day out of Flying Fish Cove, I discovered one of the two remaining eggs had rotted, leaving only one for breakfast. Two of the three remaining onions had spoiled, and all but a paltry, few potatoes had completely rotted. A few pieces salvaged from the moribund spuds joined the egg and wilted onion in the iron skillet for the last “fresh” breakfast before reaching land. For the next week, breakfast consisted of either oatmeal or leftover rice.

Strange Phenomena
The night after crossing the equator, having endured an evening of squalls and maddeningly constant sail changes, I experienced one of those surreal things that seem to be not of this world but of some far corner of our outer fantasies, indescribable by mere words. The wind had settled to a faint breeze, so I decided to motor a while. For miles all around me in the hazy moonlight, huge, towering, bluish-white clouds formed on the flat, shiny black water, towering into tall pillars. Each pillar was a squall, and Saltaire darted in and out of the sides of the majestic columns, her skipper delighting in his frolic on the floor of this heavenly Parthenon.

A hundred miles south of Galle, I was sitting in the cabin eating breakfast during a calm when a strange sound began reverberating through the hull. It sounded like a rushing river. Having grown up along the banks of the San Gabriel River in Los Angeles County, I know there is only one thing that sounds like a river, and that’s a river.

I stuck my head out the companionway, and small spikes popped up on the water, just like on a river. “What the…?” A quick look at the GPS confirmed the unbelievable: a west-setting current at 3.2 knots! I leaped out to the cockpit, cranked on the engine, and spent the next 20 hours crabbing into the current, which topped out at 3.8 knots—I should have had a tiller pilot for this—making slow yet steady progress north. I shudder to think of the conditions a westerly gale, the kind that had provided the sailing power over the previous week, would have created with an opposing ocean current. I might not have survived to tell the story.

It was shortly after midnight when I finally passed out while drifting off the coast of Galle. Since the current was still running at about 1 knot, I had set the kitchen timer for one hour, expecting to repeat the procedure throughout the night, checking my position and looking out for small fishing smacks until dawn.

The next time I opened my eyes, it was just a hair past 0600. In a foggy, confused panic, I jumped out the companionway, looked for other vessels and sat back down to chart my position. Saltaire had drifted about seven miles north by northwest, still staying safely away from the shore and outside the shipping lanes.

Saltaire broad reaching under drifter on approach to Port Galle, Sri Lanka.
Saltaire broad reaching under drifter on approach to Port Galle, Sri Lanka.

India and the Arabian Sea
After a month of sightseeing in Sri Lanka, I sailed northwest to Cochin in the state of Kerala, India. This was early December, well into the northeast monsoon, and the wind piped through the Gulf of Mannar at 25 knots, placing Saltaire on a lively, fun beam reach between the two countries while it lasted. The boat would remain anchored in the mud of the Periyar River off the Bolghatty Palace in Cochin until mid-February, when I headed west through Nine-Degree Channel on my way to Port Aden, Yemen.

Saltaire pulled away from the coast ever so slowly in the mild northeasterly, wending her way through the Laccadive Islands, finally reaching open water a few days later. During most of the passage toward Socotra Island at the gate of the Gulf of Aden, wind speed never rose above 18 knots. Steady progress in stable weather allowed for dinners of fresh grilled tuna and wahoo provided by the bounty of the Arabian Sea.

The looming threat of piracy between the coasts of Yemen and Somalia had the Red Sea Net in a frenzy. When I was 200 miles from Socotra, Lisa Bailey, who was headed toward Mina Salalah, Oman, with her husband Bill on the Grand Soleil 39 Apollo, hailed me with a great idea. “Hey, why don’t you meet us in Salalah? That way you can join the cruiser convoy that will be leaving for Port Aden.”

“Thanks for the offer, Lisa, but I’m not too worried about pirates,” I replied. “Besides, Saltaire is so small and inconspicuous, they probably wouldn’t even see her.”

She spelled out her reasons, which all added up logically, so I relented. For the next two days, I slogged to windward in a steady, 25-knot snotter with annoying, six-foot waves breaking over the bow. Could I have kept up this unnerving bash into low, steep seas with Saltaire’s bilges slapping the water? Sure. But I valued my sanity, so I pulled off the wind just north of Socotra and aimed straight into the maw of the fabled Gulf of Aden.

Saltaire continued on her own, sailing happily on a beam reach, blithely unaware of the dangers that lay ahead. She would go on to survive a full knockdown in a gale in the northern Red Sea and a beaching during a violent mistral in Porto Colóm, Mallorca, Spain. At this point, though, she was only two days away from a fateful meeting with Somali pirates 45 miles south of Al Mukallah, Yemen. This unfortunate encounter did have a silver lining, though: aside from losing my radios and cameras, it was a beautiful day for sailing. n