Staying clear of piracy

An Australian yacht at anchor off Direction Island.

Voyagers looking west from Australia at an Indian Ocean crossing can choose to go under Africa or over it: either around the Cape of Good Hope, or through the Red Sea and Mediterranean. Interesting ports beckon on each route. Sailors heading for the Suez Canal can anticipate the Andaman Islands, Sri Lanka, India, and the Maldives. Those bound for the Cape can detour to Chagos, Madagascar, and East Africa. But Somali piracy has changed the considerations for this route.

In September 2008, heavily armed pirates captured the French yacht Carré d’As IV a few hundred miles off Somalia. Before this, the pirates had focused on commercial ships with bigger crews and valuable cargo. Carré d’As IV, however, was sailed by an ordinary cruising couple. Although the French military successfully rescued the two sailors, the incident highlighted the danger of the Red Sea route to voyaging yachts.

Heretic’s route across the Indian Ocean.

The southern route

A year later, when my husband Seth and I were in Australia planning the details of our Indian Ocean crossing, a yacht and a tourist boat were captured near the Seychelles. From the outset of our circumnavigation, Seth and I had planned to round Cape Agulhas and the Cape of Good Hope, but we had wanted to call at Chagos and the Seychelles on the way. These most recent attacks changed our minds. We decided instead to take Heretic, our 38-foot cutter, even farther south and skip those two archipelagos. Sadly, hindsight validated our fears: in October, the very month when Heretic would have been in the Seychelles, British sailors Paul and Rachel Chandler were captured en route from there to Tanzania.

Our new route, across 6,000 nautical miles of almost unbroken ocean, was the only one remaining. The pirates had closed the Gulf of Aden, and their greatly extended range had even rendered much of the island-hopping on the southern route impossible. We faced three long passages to make the crossing, and at least one of them would probably be rough. The voyagers in Darwin who had wanted to cross to the Red Sea planned to wait in Southeast Asia until the Somali situation got better; most are still waiting. Quite a number of them marveled at our decision and tried to dissuade us from it. But this route is unduly shunned. It may be long, and South Africa does live up to its reputation for gales, but with careful planning and a little fortitude, the South Indian Ocean crossing can be a rewarding experience with unexpectedly interesting stops on the way.

Heretic at the wharf at Port Mathurin on Isla Rodrigues.

Jumping off point

Darwin (12° 28’ S, 130° 50’ E, in Australia’s Northern Territory) was the most convenient of our options for Australian exit ports, as it had a full-service boatyard (now it has two), supermarkets, hardware stores, and chandleries. Seth and I spent six weeks on the hard giving the 40-year-old Heretic a new barrier coat and rebuilding a patch of osmosis around her rudder post, as well as finishing a host of more minor projects.

If one does not require Darwin’s services, Bali in Indonesia is another possible jumping off point. One can clear out of Australia on Thursday Island and stop on the predominately Hindu island of Bali (8° 25’ S, 115° 15’ E) before making the Indian Ocean crossing. Yacht services are limited, but tourist options are not, and one can enjoy anything from visiting rice terraces to scuba diving.

From a sailing standpoint, Darwin positioned Heretic on a direct course for Cocos (Keeling) Islands, 2,050 nautical miles west. Had Seth and I continued into Western Australia to the exit ports of Dampier, Port Hedland, or Broome (17° 58’ S, 122° 14’ E), we would have had to cruise south and then turn north again for Cocos. This would have enabled us to visit the striking sandstone landscape of the Kimberley region, but Seth and I decided to spend that time on Cocos: we are both avid divers and this was to be the last coral atoll on our voyage.

From Cocos (Keeling) Island, we would make another 2,000-mile passage to the Mascarene archipelago (Rodrigues, Mauritius, and Réunion islands), and thence 1,400 miles to Richards Bay, South Africa. Although these two passages might be rough, the Australian high-pressure zone would make the first third of our crossing from Darwin a slow drift until we passed the continental shelf. This anticyclone sits over the Northern Territory in the dry season (May to October) and ensures clear, settled weather and light winds or calms, blocking the Pacific trades. The pilot chart for August showed 5 percent calms and no winds above Force 3 until the edge of Australia where the percentage of calms became 0, and winds picked up to Force 4, 5, and even 6.

Piton Cabris, Cirque de Mafate, Réunion Island.

Heretic did drift the first 450 miles of her crossing. Just as we sank the flat, red land of the Northern Territory, the clutch began slipping in Heretic’s transmission and she was left to wallow in a hot calm. Seth and I hadn’t yet turned around and headed back to a port during our trip, and we didn’t want to start now. So for six days we drifted. A half-knot current pushed us slowly west until finally a breeze ruffled the water. Two days later we spied clouds lined with green; we had reached Ashmore Reef on the edge of the continental shelf.

Ashmore Reef

Seth and I paused there for three days. As an Australian marine reserve, the lagoon has government moorings for visiting boats, all adequate for a cruising sailboat. We picked up one that could have accommodated the Customs ship stationed nearby. It is essential to notify the authorities in your Australian exit port if you intend to call at Ashmore, but with the officials expecting you, clearance is simple. In fact, the Customs men welcomed us so warmly that we got a tour of the ship and a guided walk around a partially restricted cay. The public is normally allowed only on one section so as not to disturb nesting birds and sea turtles. Aside from this sandy islet and two even smaller ones, Ashmore is a pelagic reef with no land, and stopping there is a surreal experience (see “Moored in mid-ocean,” Issue No. 192, March/April 2011).

The last 1,600 miles to Cocos took us two weeks since the trades hadn’t built to the strength promised by the pilot chart. We didn’t mind, though. We were bowling along wing ’n wing, and yet we rolled little; the days were warm but not hot; and the seascape teemed with flying fish and cawing tropic birds. We even spotted a pintado petrel, a bird rarely seen above the tropic line.

My only regret about our route is that we skipped the Australian territory of Christmas Island (10° 30’ S, 105° 40’ E).

Upon our arrival on Cocos (12° 08’ S, 96° 53’ E), the trades never dropped below Force 5. We entered the pass into the lagoon at dusk, following lighted navigation markers, just before a gale hit. From then on, the wind blew 20 knots or more. This made the two-mile row to town in the dinghy wet and difficult, but it didn’t prevent Seth and me from appreciating the unique culture and natural beauty of Cocos.

Yachts are welcome in the designated anchorage off uninhabited Direction Island, in my opinion the most picturesque of the atoll’s islets. Used as a cable station during the world wars, it has a land-line telephone, but otherwise nothing but picnic tables and an outhouse. Giant hermit crabs scurry in the forest and glossy coconut palms lean over soft white beaches. The water was as clear as in the South Pacific. The Rip, a small pass in which, thanks to the waves breaking over the outer reef, the current is always flowing into the lagoon, supported some of the most vibrant underwater life I had ever seen. Seth and I hurtled down it almost every day, gazing at giant clams, reef sharks, and Napoleon wrasse.

Two miles away is the Cocos Malay village on Home Island. Imported as laborers for a coconut plantation, the ancestors of the Cocos Malays formed their own culture and language. A post office, dry-goods store, and trash bins make up the facilities, but the Cocos Malay museum is of particular interest.

A roadless hamlet inside the Cirque de Mafate.

From Home Island a ferry crosses the lagoon to the tiny Australian community on West Island. There one finds the Customs office and police station (although the Customs officer comes to your boat for clearance), the airstrip with expensive thrice-weekly flights to Perth, a grocery store, dive shop, motel, restaurant, and tourist office. Seth and I managed to get our transmission repaired by a resourceful mechanic there.

Long run to Rodrigues

At the end of September, we set off for Rodrigues, the most northeastern of the Mascarenes. Although the pilot charts for October showed predominately Force 4 winds from the ESE, for us the wind never slackened to less than 20 knots, and we often saw 25 and 30. Occasional rain squalls brought even more wind, which made for choppy sea conditions. Added to this was a swell from the Southern Ocean, crossing the trade wind swell and causing Heretic to twist in a corkscrew motion. Built in 1968 to a traditional design, Heretic has low freeboard, so waves regularly doused the cockpit. Our naysayers had been more prescient than we had hoped: this was an uncomfortable, unpleasant passage. But it was over quickly. Despite a constantly double reefed main, we screamed over the 2,000 miles in only 15 days, quite a speed for a yacht with only a 27-foot waterline. And though unpleasant, the 15 days were manageable: our Aries wind vane steered in everything but the worst squalls, and we never missed a hot dinner.

Ellen and Seth Leonard’s sloop Heretic just visible to the left of a collection of signs left by visiting yachts at Direction Island anchorage, Cocos (Keeling).

Rodrigues, a semi-autonomous territory of Mauritius, rewarded us. Seth and I appreciated its slow pace of life after our rough passage. We never feared to leave Heretic’s hatches open even though we were tied to the town wharf in the capital, Port Mathurin. The island’s residents, mostly African Creole, seemed to have a strong sense of community, picnicking every Sunday and sailing races in felucca-like boats. Port Mathurin had an interesting mix of cultures as well, including Chinese, Tamil Indian, and Muslim. But it is a sleepy place, more suited to voyagers interested in bird-watching than to those wanting busier scenes and shops.

Mauritius, a fast and squally 350 miles southwest at 20° 10’ S, 57° 30’ E, is much bigger and more populous. Port Louis, where all boats, whether or not they called at Rodrigues, must clear Customs, is a bustling capital city of about 138,000 people. Tamil Indian culture dominates, but African Creole exists too, and one can walk to Chinatown from the boat basin. The basin is not ideal — yachts make fast to concrete walls — but it is secure, situated in an upscale shopping center and next to a five-star hotel. Showers and laundry are two steps away; vegetable and meat markets are in easy walking distance, as are grocery stores; and the immense Jumbo supermarket is a taxi ride away. Seth and I were able to find a machinist in the commercial shipyard to repair our steering quadrant, which had been worked by the rough seas from Cocos to Rodrigues and again on the three-day passage to Mauritius. Outside Port Louis, lush forest grows on the volcanic hills, and beaches and coral make for pleasant snorkeling and diving.

After another 150 miles of bouncy sailing, Seth and I reached the French department of Réunion. The most dramatic of the Mascarenes, the island still boasts an active volcano. Its highest point, reaching over 10,000 feet, forms the center of three large calderas through which runs a network of hiking trails. La Maison de la Montagne in Saint-Denis, the capital city close to Le Port where voyaging boats moor and clear Customs, runs dormitory-style cabins along the trails. Those in Cirque de Mafate, whose terrain is too rugged for roads, are in hamlets whose only sounds are roosters crowing and people talking. The lush mountains, roaring waterfalls, and towering caldera walls made the three cirques the best hiking experience of the voyage for Seth and me.

Strong wind entering Port Louis on Mauritius.

Tough slog to the continent

The last 1,400 miles of the crossing to South Africa are notoriously difficult. Depressions bringing cold gales from the Southern Ocean collide with the southwesterly Agulhas Current, which in places flows as fast as five knots. Strong SW winds hitting the current can create dangerously steep breaking waves. These fronts come regularly: when Heretic rounded Cape Agulhas and the Cape of Good Hope, we generally had three days between fronts. There are enough ports down the coast to be able to time one’s passages for good conditions, but when first making landfall, one doesn’t have this luxury. The trick is to time one’s crossing of the Agulhas Current for fair weather, so access to GRIB weather files is important.

The earlier in the season this passage is made, the more likely one is to see gales and storms. One cannot leave the passage too late, however, as cyclones begin to brew in the Indian Ocean. The large mass of Madagascar blocks their progress and thus makes South Africa a safe place for the Southern summer. Seth and I were lucky. We left Réunion on December 1, just as a hurricane was forming about 1,500 miles east of the Mascarenes. We had time to get beyond Madagascar, and the Southern Ocean lows were weakening, making the worst storms less likely. In fact, the most notorious third of the South Indian Ocean was our best passage. For the first week we glided west, pushed by 15-knot trade winds. We stayed well south of Madagascar to avoid its shallow bank, which can make even the calmest of swells uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous. Then fronts began to hit us every three days, but they were weak, and conditions were better than on our bouncy passage to Rodrigues. We crossed most of the Agulhas Current under clear skies and mild breezes. For the last 30 miles we did experience what makes this passage feared: 30- to 35-knot SW winds whipped up almost without warning and turned the sea into foaming 15-foot waves with very short periods. We decided to slog ahead close-hauled for Richards Bay (28° 48’ S, 32° 06’ E), thinking we could make the port before conditions worsened. We tucked three reefs in the main, and kept up our staysail and a scrap of jib. In five hours, at midnight, we reached the protection of the breakwater, and I could smell the warm land.

Our Indian Ocean crossing had proved much better than its reputation. It had been uncomfortable at times, but it had never been dangerous, and along the way we had visited a series of eclectic and interesting islands.

Ellen Massey Leonard and her husband Seth circumnavigated aboard their Westphal 38, Heretic. They sold Heretic and purchased Nahma, a 34-foot ketch.

By Ocean Navigator