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Indian Ocean fast track

Oct 2, 2015

A family emergency forces voyagers to take the direct southern route

Nat Warren-White’s sloop Bahati.

Nat Warren-White’s sloop Bahati.

When sailing east to west, there are basically three ways to cross the Indian Ocean:

1) The northerly route under Sri Lanka and India, across the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden, up the Red Sea to the Suez Canal and on into the Mediterranean
2) The middle route via Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Seychelles, possibly Chagos and then on to Rodriguez/Mauritius/Reunion or inside Madagascar and down to South Africa via the Mozambique Channel
3) The southerly route, the “fast track,” via Christmas Island, Cocos Keeling, Mauritius, under Madagascar and on into South Africa.

On board our Montevideo 43 Bahati, we had crossed Route 1 off our list due to the threat of pirates near Somalia and the Yemens. Our “Plan A” was to take Route 2. We decided that the strong possibility of challenging weather was a better risk than the chance of facing human threat. We’d secured the necessary permits from the British government for the Chagos stop and we were excited by what we’d read and heard about Sri Lanka, the Maldives and the Seychelles, as well as the northern coast of Madagascar.

Unfortunately, Plan A was thwarted when we got news that my dad back in Maine was dealing with some health issues affecting his brain. Once again, just as we had struggled with my mother’s battle with cancer two years earlier, we were unsure as to the right move. We did not want to be caught in the middle of the Indian Ocean should Dad’s situation become life threatening.

We’d also taken on a new crewmember — Christopher Blake, nephew of Kiwi sailing legend Sir Peter — who had flown in from Auckland carrying a new S2 drive for our autopilot in his duffle. This was to be Chris’ first ocean crossing and he was excited about it.

A brisk day in the Indian Ocean.

If we did not leave Thailand before mid-March, however, we’d miss our window for the northern route. That meant waiting to leave for another six months … or, sailing south again toward Bali and retracing the path we’d taken six months earlier. I was sad to think of skipping some of those mystical western Indian Ocean islands but, in reality, the more I heard about my father’s condition, there was really no choice. I had to go home. My dad, John, was one of our strongest supporters and our chief cheerleader as we’d found our way halfway around the world. Although he made it clear, via my sister, that he did not want me to come “all the way home” to be present during his last days, in my heart I could not imagine missing that moment, if for no other reason than to be able to thank him in person for all he’d done for us. I would never have embarked on this voyage of a lifetime if it had not been for his encouragement and mentorship.

We bade Chris Blake a sad goodbye in Langkawi and booked tickets for our flight home to Maine, leaving Bahati to fend for herself in a secure slip at the marina in Telaga Harbor. Within 24 hours of making the decision to leave, I was at my father’s bedside in Maine. He died of complications from a brain tumor in less than a week and we were able to join in the wonderful celebration of his long seafaring life well and passionately lived. A few weeks later, I was back on board Bahati, this time alone, as Betsy decided to stay in Maine.

Solo in Malacca Strait again
Returning to Malaysia alone was both a blessing and a curse as it meant that, against my better judgment, I’d be sailing back down the Malacca Strait by myself  — something I’d sworn never to do again after the treacherous passage I’d had sailing north! But again, I could not find any available crew and there was really no choice if I was going to succeed in crossing the Indian Ocean that year. I needed to be back in Bali by September at the latest in order to get to South Africa before the cyclone season set in.

I survived this stressful solo passage south as far as Singapore, albeit with a couple of close calls, and, thankfully, my good pal, Tim Van Ness, joined me for the run from Singapore back to Bali. By the time we reached Benoa again, I’d managed to find three hardy 20-somethings, including our son, Josh, and his pal, Luke, who were more than willing to fly out to join me. Josh and Luke could only stay aboard for three weeks but my third stalwart volunteer, Ben Powers (who I had only spoken to via phone) agreed to sign on for the whole shebang.

Never having met in person, this was a risky commitment for both of us. I’d received good reports from a mutual friend and, in the end, Ben proved to be a topnotch mate despite some early challenges (see “Tapping into 20-something power,” ON #209).

In Jimmy Cornell’s words from his book World Cruising Routes: “As sailing conditions at the height of the SE trade winds season can be quite boisterous, the recommended time to cross the Indian Ocean is outside the period when the trade winds are in full force. Between July and September, the winds often blow 25 knots or even more, occasionally reaching gale force. There is also often a cross swell, which makes for uncomfortable passages.”

Nat Warren-White, AKA “Captain Biscuits,” mends a sail.

Ultimately, Jimmy’s prediction proved to be right on. We experienced “reinforced trade winds” from the time we left Bali to the day we arrived in Durban more than two months later. A rough but thankfully fast passage!

By chance, we also happened to be on an almost-identical schedule with the World Arc Rally. This actually proved to be a boon as the rally boats beat us to most of the harbors and had left again by the time we arrived, meaning that the locals were all set up for itinerant yachts and the docks were not crowded.

Pre-voyage apprehension
I was more nervous about this Indian Ocean passage than any we’d done to date. It was known for chewing up sailors and spitting them out, sometimes in pretty rough shape. Again, Jimmy Cornell writes: “The long haul across the width of the South Indian Ocean has the full benefit of the SE trade winds during the southern winter months from May to October. Because the wind blows from the SE and the swell is almost at a right angle … the motion can be very uncomfortable and it can also be tough on self-steering gear, which have sometimes broken under the strain of the violent motion. The weather is generally rougher in the proximity of Cocos Keeling and both winds and seas usually moderate after the halfway mark to Mauritius. The trade winds continue to blow consistently in October, but the weather becomes more squally and the chances of encountering gale-force winds are greater.”
 
Fair warning! We’d already broken the stainless arm connecting the S2 linear autopilot drive to the rudder head while en route to Bali. We’d managed the last half of the Singapore-Bali passage using the old wheel-driven autopilot that served us well on that haul but subsequently “gave up the ghost” on the first leg of the Indian Ocean run. Unfortunately, the same vulnerable S2 arm we’d had patched and welded in Bali failed again only couple of days out of Benoa. There was no turning back as the winds were blowing hard from astern with rough seas to match, and it would have been nigh unto impossible to beat back against them.

Our only hope was that we could manage a better patch job, or even have a new arm fabricated somewhere en route. The first possible stop was at Christmas Island, which along with Cocos Keeling, stands as the most remote Australian outpost in the Indian Ocean. Christmas Island lies about 700 miles southwest of Bali. With any decent wind (and there quickly proved to be plenty of it) we should be able to fetch up there in less than a week.

The so-called “fast track” across the Indian Ocean taken by Bahati. Warren-White had wanted to take a more northerly course and explore more islands.

Those first days sailing fast and furiously on a beeline for South Africa were among the most stressful and exciting we’d experienced. Southeast trades were blowing a steady 25 to 30 knots and the cross seas were rough. This made dealing with a broken autopilot extremely challenging. When the stainless arm broke for the second time, I found myself thrown across the aft cabin as I frantically tore apart our double aft berth to get at the steering quadrant. I was exhausted, dehydrated, and black and blue by the time I had the job done. And then I was faced with a stainless arm busted in exactly the same place where the newly welded patch had been added in Bali. The metal fatigue was obvious beneath the patch job. On top of that discouraging development, we had no guarantee that the old autopilot would stand up any better than it had on the run down from Singapore. In fact, it too gave up the ghost in less than 24 hours.

Our Monitor windvane showed itself to be worth its weight and more in gold on this relentless passage (see “Autopilots and Windvanes,” ON #192) I was also relieved to know that I had three strong and able helmsman aboard for this first stretch should all our backups pack up. We did manage to get the S2 arm welded again in Christmas Island (thanks to the crew at the local mining operation) but we did not trust that it would hold. In fact, it broke less than two days offshore.

We finally got a proper weld done on the autopilot arm in Cocos Keeling by Digger, a local car repair guy. But we relied almost exclusively on the Monitor all the way to Simon’s Town, South Africa, where we had a new arm built.

“Chairman Mo,” as we affectionately came to call the Monitor, is a powerful, ingenious wind-driven invention. It helped steer us easily and accurately through some of the roughest and windiest weather we encountered on the entire voyage. Finally, I would call the Monitor the single most important piece of equipment we added to our arsenal before leaving Maine.

Tossed around and loving it
From Christmas Island to the Cape of Good Hope (4,928 nm) we were two on board. Mate Ben Powers and I quickly settled into a comfortable watch rhythm, four hours on and four off. We discovered a trusting balance on this long passage despite the rough weather and resulting rig and structural issues. The cross seas and boisterous winds kept us constantly on edge but, after a week at sea, we got used to being tossed around and found ourselves celebrating the good fishing and exciting sailing conditions.

Ben’s arm had healed quickly from his unlucky impalement by a multi-hooked lure as we were preparing to put to sea in Flying Fish Cove on Christmas Island. Fortunately, the lure was new and, though I had to snip the barb off the hook with the bolt cutters in order to back it out of the wound safely, with a little hydrogen peroxide and a week’s dosage of doxycycline (as well as the approval of the local nursing staff) we felt safe to leave on what we guessed would be at least a two-week passage to Mauritius.

From left, Luke Newton, Josh Warren-White and Ben Powers parade in the lantern festival on Christmas Island.

We let “Chairman Mo” do most of the hard work and we allowed ourselves to relax a bit and enjoy the wild, wooly and constantly changing sea and skyscape. The fish were plentiful and we caught a number of them. Our most impressive was a shortbill spearfish we estimated to be over 60 pounds. I wanted to let it go free, but Ben insisted we land it. “We’ll eat it all and it’ll bring us good luck!” he claimed. A week after hoisting it aboard, we were still figuring out creative ways to prepare it. Finally, we were both happy to see the last of it gone. For the next week, neither of us wanted to drop a hook overboard. When we looked this monster up in the fish guide it said: “The shortbill spearfish is quite rare. It’s unlikely you’ll ever catch one.” Who knew?

To his great credit, passionate sailor and skillful seaman Ben was always astutely and expertly watchful on board and often one step ahead of me when it came to managing the rig and systems. I couldn’t have asked for a better mate and companion. Quiet and unassuming, when sailing with Ben I could always retire to my off-watch bunk and trust that he could handle whatever was dished-up and that he would call me if he needed help. A true blessing!

We knew we needed to move as fast as possible to stay ahead of the developing cyclone season creeping up on us. In fact, a week en route to Mauritius we heard that the first cyclone of the year was passing over Cocos Keeling. We’d escaped just in time. For a few days we closely monitored its route. It was on this same route three years earlier, and well into the cyclone season, that the 45-foot catamaran Queequeg had foundered in the midst of two converging cyclones. Two of her three crew were lost. This is not a passage to take lightly.

Bee-line for Mauritius
Given our late schedule, we decided to bypass Rodriguez and head straight for Mauritius. A stalwart 30-foot yellow Australian sloop called Josephine, carrying two inexperienced sailors, left Cocos right behind us. We agreed to try to stay in touch with them via SSB en route but quickly lost contact. Given the rough conditions we encountered, we worried about them but lo and behold they pulled up to the Port Louis customs dock only four hours behind us.

We were so amazed and excited to see them that I hopped over the fence and ran back into the customs office (it was Sunday and the gate was locked) to grab their paperwork for them. On the return trip, I managed to roll off the top of the rounded stainless steel rail. My head hit the concrete abutment first. Ben said it sounded like someone had dropped a melon — I quickly passed out. When I came to, with a rapidly stiffening neck and deepening headache, we decided the right thing to do was to get me to a hospital quickly.

Ben Powers with a fresh catch in the South Indian Ocean.

We were met in the emergency room by an attentive and caring Indian doctor. She gave me two options: 1) take some Tylenol and stay awake — or be awakened every hour or two — during our first night in port after 14 days at sea, or 2) opt to have a brain scan then and there to determine whether I had any bleeding going on. Ben, bless him, instantly opted for the scan, declaring he had no intention of staying up all night especially after a couple of beers and two weeks’ sleep deprivation. I readily agreed and we waited while they brought in the CAT-scan technician from her day off. One hour and $100+ later, I was released with a clean bill of health and instructions to come back the next day if I was still feeling dizzy or nauseous. 

We immediately went out and celebrated with Josephine’s crew. Needless to say, we all slept well that first night in port. I needed a chiropractic adjustment a few days later but otherwise did not suffer any other ill effects.

The Indian Ocean also bought on the only real dental problem in our entire voyage. The pain in my lower molar was intense. Between daubing it with a numbing ointment, dropping numerous Tylenol laced with codeine and chewing a bunch of cloves, I managed to ease the discomfort. By the time I reached Mauritius it had subsided all together. I found a lovely French dentist who did some x-rays, poked and prodded, and then declared I’d “probably had an abscess” but it looked like it had drained and healed by itself. I got it checked out again in South Africa, but it never came back to haunt me.

We were very fortunate not to get hit by any major illnesses on our entire trip, other than second mate Michael’s bout of dengue fever coming out of Panama, but we were grateful to have a membership in MedLink (www.medaire.com) that allowed us to talk with a doctor via satphone 24/7. We gratefully took advantage of that option, and, under their guidance, a well-stocked med-kit numerous times. Thanks, Mate Betsy, for insisting on and overseeing both these invaluable support tools.

Our battery boxes, which supported five of our six Trojan batteries and sat directly under the companionway ladder, fell apart during this rock ’n’ roll Indian Ocean run and the hefty lead-cell batteries nearly landed in the bilge. We managed to rig a spiderweb of supporting nylon twine that held things precariously in place until we tied up in Port Louis and sought out some local carpentry help. Our second day in port we found Ladan (emphasis on the second syllable — “Not like bin Laden,” he instructed us), a local heavy equipment operator and road contractor, who did a little ships’ carpentry on the side.

Ship’s carpenter and road contractor Ladan with grandson and son on Mauritius.

He and his brother and son arrived dockside the moment they finished their day’s work and stayed until 0300 the next morning, scarfing together a new battery box cut by hand from rough lumber and plywood. They returned with other family members, paying us daily visits until the morning we left port. They drove us up the mountain to meet their wives, kids and parents, dished us up a home-cooked meal and then took us on a tour of the island. Early the day of our departure, they showed up with hand-wrapped gifts (homemade “ships in bottles”) for us and our “families back home.” Then they bid us farewell with tears in their eyes. Another example of the hospitality offered time and time again in this primarily Muslim part of the world.

We made one more stop on this fast-track run down to South Africa. Reunion Island, still living under the aegis of France, is an extraordinarily beautiful off-the-beaten-path outpost. The difference in the sense of entrepreneurship on independent Mauritius versus government-sponsored Reunion was palpable. It was nearly impossible to find a cabbie willing to drive us the couple of miles to town on Reunion; conversely, we couldn’t get away from the incessant self-promotion of the drivers in Port St Louis.

Our ride at dawn to the edge of the ancient calderon, or “cirque,” as it is called locally, was spectacular. From the top of 10,000-foot Piton des Neiges we looked down into the lush valleys below at the villages scattered across the inside of the dormant volcano.

The sailmaker and rigger in Le Port, Reunion, Benoit Coppens, an ex-juggler and street performer who owns and runs La Voilerie du Port, is a terrific ambassador and skilled one-man operation who helped us replace our running backstays as well as the roller furling lines for both the jib and mainsails.

Staying offshore
We’d been warned about the vagaries and challenges of the passage from Reunion across the bottom of Madagascar. Jimmy Cornell recommends staying at least 150 nm offshore as you pass south of Madagascar to avoid the shallows and currents that can kick up treacherously high seas.

The mountains of Reunion Island, last stop before South Africa.

We had met some young sailors from Cape Town on Mauritius. They were completing the last legs of a two-year circumnavigation. Already in homecoming mode when we left them in Port St. Louis, they chose not stop at Reunion but promised to stay in touch via SSB as we made the tricky crossing close together. They proved to be expert guides sharing their wisdom of local weather patterns in these famously treacherous waters. When we finally reached Cape Town they loaned us their bohemian digs in a beautifully retrofitted carriage house to help us celebrate our first and only South African New Year’s. Theirs was but the first of many generous welcomes we received.

Despite all the dire warnings, we managed to avoid any truly bad weather on this final haul across the Indian Ocean and, at the last minute and with a reasonable weather forecast, we decided to head straight for Durban rather than stop in the reportedly more yacht-centric Richards Bay.

We had departed Bali on September 12 and arrived in Durban on November 23 — 72 days and that’s the “fast track”!

Since leaving Maine a little more than four years earlier, we’d been anticipating the moment when we’d finally bring Bahati back home to South Africa where she was built. On our arrival in Durban, a member of the Point Yacht Club caught our lines. He smiled and said, “I think I know this boat! Wasn’t she called Whisper?” Hah! “Right you are, mate!” Welcome home old girl! 

Nat Warren-White is currently working as a management consultant while scheming his next voyage, possibly to Norway.

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