The Last ‘Big One’ – Cocos Keeling to Tanzania

At intervals during our circumnavigation we had contemplated the Indian Ocean crossing, not always with a great deal of enthusiasm because of the distances involved across to Africa; 4580 nm (8200 km) from Indonesia and 3330 nm (6000 km) from Cocos Keeling. Add to that the intemperate weather and sailing conditions that seemed to be a common factor in quite a few of the accounts we had read.

This challenge has generated enough interest amongst cruisers to justify an ‘Indian Ocean Crossing’ Facebook group and also a useful document written by experienced sailor, Durban based Des Cason, who has successfully guided many hundreds of boats across this ocean and onwards down the infamous Mozambique Channel. We initiated daily email contact with Des prior to departure so that we could benefit from his experience as well as from the sophisticated weather information sources to which he made daily reference; much superior to our limited Iridium Go satellite link.

Initially we had planned to sail across to Madagascar and cruise down its west coast before making the crossing to Richards Bay in South Africa, but due to a recent gold smuggling scam, yachts were prohibited.

With fond memories of both my land travel trips to Tanzania and having read glowing reports of cruising on that coast, it seemed to be the ideal destination to utilise the last few months of the present cruising season and to bring our circumnavigation experience towards its end.

We set sail west from Cocos Keeling on August 31st and had a steady 12 knots of apparent wind from behind along with confused seas; one set of swells being driven by the local wind direction and a cross swell arriving from the Southern Ocean. We were thankful not to be sailing a monohull as even Moondust with her 7m beam was rocking and rolling in the confused sea state. Rain squalls set in, on and off, for five days, a spin-off of repeated low pressure systems forming northwards towards the equator and we had to conserve battery power due to lack of replenishment from solar power. Pancakes instead of bread maker baked bread were a welcome spoil. Regardless of the dismal weather, we made good progress with the constant winds despite reductions in sail. Karin again excelled, never once feeling seasick!

Karin picked up some flying fish, sometimes up to 20, from the decks each morning.

By September 7th Cocos Keeling was one thousand nautical miles astern and as if to mark our progress, the fishing line deployed once the weather moderated yielded a beautiful 12kg Bluefin tuna; about as large a fish as we can comfortably handle whilst sailing with two to three metre swells rolling past about every eight seconds. We both put on leather gloves to safely handle the very thin wire trace as we brought it on board and then set to cleaning and vacuum packing it for the freezer.

Our magnificent 12kg Bluefin tuna.

We were now well into the area of the stronger south east trade winds which averaged around 20 knots, just under 40kph. These generated consistent two and a half metre swells about every eight seconds, which approached rapidly for weeks on end, picked Moondust up and dropped her on their trailing slope. We continued to sail Moondust conservatively to minimise breakages, nevertheless making good speed; notably 174nm in one 24h period.

It took some time for us both to become ‘passage fit’ again, adjusting to the constant motion and lack of sleep. As this was our third major ocean crossing, it no longer had the novelty of the South Atlantic and Pacific, which made the adjustment a little more taxing.

The log entry for September 10th notes: ‘Good wind all last night. Planning for the northern Madagascar compression zone’: The trade winds blow unimpeded across the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean until they hit Madagascar where, along with the south equatorial current, both split to flow north and south along the landmass. At the northern point of the island the wind and current intensify as they sweep past the headland and the wind effect extends hundreds of miles to the north of that point.

Hugging the coast within 5nm would yield the calmest passage as there is least wind and the strong current flattens the swell. We still had over 300 nm to go but now was the time to fine-tune our approach, so we headed slightly south hoping to reach 13 degrees S as we neared the coast. At this point, the current would sweep us north. However, if we found ourselves too far to the north and east, Moondust would have a bumpy ride across wind and wave to make the necessary headway west. Thus, the further south we commenced our northerly run the less boisterous things would be.

The log for September 13th reads; ‘Fine day and steady breeze. Lost a largish tuna, then caught 2 Wahoo simultaneously.’  We sailed over a ‘valley’ in the underwater Mascarene seamount, dubbed  ‘The Gap’ and then the next afternoon encountered a strong wind and rain squall which kicked up a very rough sea. We pulled the mainsail down and sailed all night with a well-reduced genoa until morning, when the sun shone and things began to dry out.

We caught two Wahoo simultaneously.

Daily routine

Our routine for this crossing was to take alternate four hourly watches at night, mine starting at 19:00 and so on until early morning when Karin would sleep from 0300-0630. I would boil up our favourite breakfast oat mix at 04:45 and put the pot into the ‘Wonderbag’ to cook. Then I got the local weather for the day to enable timely adjustments to the sail plan once Karin was up. Before she arose, I would eat breakfast and after hand-over, go down and try to grab another few hours of rest. She always started her day with a nice cup of coffee before going through her morning routine which included our daily update to Des giving him our position, course and speed, and baking bread.  

During the day we would both remain in the cockpit, taking turns to keep an eye on the wind and sail settings and also for ‘fish and ships’. I would do a daily boat inspection, fixing things that needed attention and we would occupy ourselves by receiving and writing emails, reading books, playing and singing or whistling along to the ukulele when conditions weren’t too noisy, catnapping, running the water maker for our fresh water needs, and playing cards. In the late afternoon, at sundowner time, Karin would begin to prepare vegetables to go with the evening meals that she had pre-cooked and frozen.

Approaching Madagascar

The days rolled by and on September 17th we were making our final approach towards Madagascar. Despite having sailed south as much as was comfortable, we still had to point Moondust across wind and wave more than we wished to get close enough to the island. The log reads at 20:30 that night: ‘60 nm to the top of Mada. 1.5kn current flowing NNW. Wind 20 kn true from behind. Mainsail down, one roll in genoa. Mustn’t overshoot (the north point). In addition to the chart plotter GPS, I had turned on the navigation devices on the computer and smart phone to be sure that we wouldn’t plough into the beach, although this proved largely unnecessary as a lighthouse was clearly visible.

Karin came up at 23:00 and her watch took us to just south of the northern cape and at 03:00 I awoke to find a strong 2.5 knot current flattening out what would have been large waves. Karin had put two more rolls into the genoa and it was as if we were riding down a fast flowing river as Moondust gently slid over the surface of the ocean, as she raced around the point in the moonlight.

By daybreak the ‘honeymoon’ was over; we were out of the calming land effect and sailing south west under a 2 reef main and full genoa to find the edge of the compression zone. The seas were short and steep from behind. Once the wind and seas eased, we changed course towards Mtwara, the most southerly Tanzanian port clearing foreign vessels, about 300 nm away.

As if to celebrate our successful passage, a beautifully coloured, green and golden 12kg dorado (dolphin fish) took the lure and found its way into the freezer.

Now in the lee of Madagascar, the wind strength and swell eased and we made steady progress until on the calm, fine night of 23rd September when we reduced sail to slow down so as to make an early morning landfall at Mikindani Bay, near Mtwara.

The Indian Ocean had two last surprises for us however. First we sighted whales as we entered the bay and then a strong squall blew in just before we were to pass through a narrow, shallow channel. We hove to until it blew over and then were able to sail gently into Mikindani Bay and anchor with a vista of stately Baobab trees before us.

The smell of wood smoke from the cooking fires on shore confirmed we were back in the land of our birth, beloved Africa, and happy to have completed the leg from Cocos Keeling unscathed in 23 days. We later heard of cruisers who, around this same time, had 35 knot winds for days on end which whipped up 5m seas, smashing portholes and windows.

Those uninitiated to the sea often ask what it is like to be on the ocean and if we aren’t afraid. In an idle moment on the passage I contemplated this question and came up with a statistic that says something about the constant motion at sea. I estimated the vertical rise and fall for our total passage from Indonesia, using average wave heights and intervals. Surprising even to me, we had not only sailed across an ocean but had climbed (and dropped) the equivalent of 27km for every day, or 864 km over the total distance! Thus one gets used to motion and thankfully we never had cause to fear.

2 Replies to “The Last ‘Big One’ – Cocos Keeling to Tanzania”

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