November arrived and with it the unsavoury prospect of negotiating the Mozambique Channel’s tropical revolving storms, should we linger. This prompted us to head south from Zanzibar, towards Richards Bay 1500nm (2700km) away, at first making day sails between night anchorages.
The current and the light winds were against us over the next six days as we tacked south in short hops in mostly calm seas. Sometimes we had to sail all day, doing double the distance to the next anchorage a mere 20 nm away. Once, with Moondust sailing erratically on both tacks, we noticed that the mast top wind vane sensor was bent to port, probably due to a collision with a bird, so Karin hoisted me aloft and I was fortunately able to remedy it.
Later, just after tacking, Moondust suddenly slowed down, dragging sideways. A glance at the port rudder showed that we had finally snagged one of the dozens of informal fishing buoys (plastic bottles) we had so far managed to avoid. With the gaff we pulled the very taut line to the surface and cut it, whereupon Moondust leapt ahead again. We made sure not to use the port engine again until Karin volunteered to swim and remove the remainder of the ‘birds nest’.
From Okuza Island on 3 November we set off for deeper water to avoid fishing boats and thus began our passage for Richards Bay. The battle south continued as we sailed into the wind and were pushed sideways by the current for almost two hundred nautical miles, until it finally turned in our favour on 5 November.
Negotiating the Mozambique Channel
The Mozambique Channel is a difficult stretch of water, whose notoriety is sometimes only truly appreciated by those who have come badly unstuck there. Thus we were happy to have Des Cason, a Durban based sailor who is experienced in these waters, generously acting as our weather, current and passage advisor, as he has for hundreds of yachties. On his advice we gave Cabo Delgado, at the north of Mozambique, a 30nm offing to avoid the rough seas reflecting back from the mainland. Once past this point, we set a southerly course, gratified at last to have a good wind angle and the current assisting us.
Deep ocean currents are invisible and cannot be felt on a boat. They sometimes flow in large oval swirls, varying in direction more or less constantly. However, with Moondust’s navigating instruments we could monitor them and were delighted to finally notice a positive impact on our progress.
Shortly after Cabo Delgado we were sailing directly towards the Coral Floor natural gas platform when they radioed us, requesting that we give them a 6nm clearance. We happily obliged, changing course, and after dark the huge bulk of this 400m long platform was impressively lit up like an ocean liner, the bright orange waste flare being visible from 35nm astern that night.
We turned Moondust 90 degrees west and were gratified after an hour to make an easy exit from the current’s clutches, picking up a more favourably inclined south westerly flow. By now we could look at the chart and recognise names on shore that we knew from our overland trips.
Unforeseen stops in Mozambique
8/9 November saw us racing south, for us a record breaking, current assisted run of 196nm in 24 hours! However, the weather forecast changed and with adverse winds predicted ahead, we made an early morning decision to turn 90 degrees and head west for shelter in the lee of Bazaruto Island, almost 85nm west.
We were visited by a tiny swallow at sunset which flew around the cockpit, not bothered by us, before finding a sheltered nook where it spent the night. One marvels at these fragile creatures’ ability to navigate thousands of miles, sometimes in very rough conditions.
The next day I had a sense of deja vu when we sailed past Ponta Don Carlos, a 4km sand spit angling west off the north of Bazaruto Island. I had visited this island a few times around 55years earlier on our home built 24 foot sloop, Rebel.
Sailing past again, I clearly recalled the fate that befell another Rhodesian yacht that cut the corner of Don Carlos Point one night, ending up hard aground in surf on a falling tide. The tidal range here can vary up to 6m between high and low water and this family had to repeatedly ferry their valuables in knee-deep water to dry land. Complicating the disaster was the fact that their young son was diabetic and required a stable supply of insulin.
GPS navigation now makes things much easier and we rounded the point safely in good weather on a fine day, to thread our way through the shallows. All this was a far cry from the 1960’s when safe arrival depended on sextant navigation. At night we also used to use the orange flare of the Pande oil well fire on the mainland to steer by. Back then the island was sparsely inhabited, fish abounded and we could buy dried pearl oyster meat from the local people as well as beautiful pearls; white, pink or a steely black. I remember snorkelling on the reef at Gangareme Point and seeing two meter long brindle bass and huge, coloured parrot fish. Nowadays this is a National Park and, whilst nearing our anchorage at Gangareme Point, a smart National Park boat pulled alongside for payment of park fees.
West across Bazaruto Bay lies the mainland and its beach, where in the days preceding Rebel’s launch, we used to travel down from Rhodesia for our annual holiday, destination Bartholomew Diaz; a long peninsula of sand which enclosed an enormous, sheltered bay. Our Land Rover rig was equipped for camping, boating and fishing and arrival at ‘BD’, as we used to call it, required a final 43km drive up the beach between the tides. Some rusting vehicle carcasses bore testament to those who had got the tide times wrong, ending up pinned against the steep red cliffs. Towards the end of the peninsula, other rusted frames indicated areas of quick sand, to which we gave a wide berth.
Those idyllic weeks passed so quickly and, as with many things, a few years later BD ceased to exist as we knew it, following a cyclone which breached the narrow peninsula and cut off our holiday camping ground to form an island.
Against these wonderful memories our plain anchorage, rather far off the beach near Gangareme Point, contrasted significantly. Next morning we looked at the weather forecast to find that the system which had encouraged us to flee to Bazaruto had disappeared overnight. After some rapid mental calculations and encouraged by Karin’s enthusiasm, we decided to make use of the next 28 hours to sail the 140 nm south to Inhambane. Time was of the essence as we had almost no cushion should the weather change; the penalty would be a southerly blow in our face, kicking up the sea dangerously against the Mozambique current.
Thus committed, after noting Des’s wry comment that ‘everyone has the right to put to sea and kill themselves’, at 10h00 we decked the anchor, hoisted all sail and set off north. We were assisted by the current but used the motors as well, as it would take us at least three hours to round the tip of Bazaruto and begin our way south. Once around the island, we hoisted the gennaker and with the help of a south westerly current Moondust made good speed. At sundown we changed sails and continued to ‘race’ south with the current and a good wind, making 8-9 knots over ground. So far so good!
Sheltering at Inhambane
Morning saw us about 35 nm short of our destination, which guaranteed our arrival, but brought our shallow estuary entry into sharper focus. I had a good satellite chart of the area and Karin had sourced some entry waypoints from her Whatsapp contacts, however, the usefulness of both were under question due to the shifting sandy bottom. We managed our speed carefully, deciding to make our entry on a rising tide, 90 minutes after the low at 13h30, which would confront us with the moment of truth. Questions milled through our minds: would we face breakers across a shallow bar, would the waypoints prove accurate, was the tidal information reliable, what effect would the inflowing current have… and so on.
After a tense half hour, with the depth sounder only showing 0.5m under Moondust at times, we finally reached deeper water and made our way to a shallow, well protected anchorage. We had made a good, if lucky call, and were happy to be that much closer to Richards Bay.
We enjoyed the seven days we spent there, meeting the local sailors and lodge owners, once again watching the Springboks playing with the oval ball, feasting on some excellent meals and celebrating Karin’s birthday.
Meanwhile the southerly systems blew through until a favourable weather window finally materialised for Richards Bay, 350 nm down the coast. We covered this stretch quickly and made landfall two days later around 08h00. We were totally amazed and delighted to find my daughter, whom I hadn’t seen in five years, and her husband waiting for us on the dock! What an incredible welcome back to South Africa and a fitting way to effectively end our circumnavigation!