Subject: Crossing the Indian Ocean on WOMBAT OF SYDNEY - 2011

 

I apologize now for the length of this document, but I was asked to provide as much
detail as I would liked to have had received myself. Also while proof-reading this
document, I realized that it sounded terrible and that no person in his right mind would
read this and still want to do the trip. But that is not how I remember the year at all. I
guess that it is the result of mentioning something that somehow gives it too much
weight.

Lynn would never do the Indian Ocean again and for that matter, I would not want to do
it either. It was just a miserable trip for us. We have met people that have had an easier
time and claimed that the leg to Rodrigues was one of the most delightful that they
have ever had. But most would agree with me that it was just plain lousy sailing, not one
of those where you lay on deck reading as the boat glides you to your destination. With
the Indian Ocean you have enough bumpy seas to make sure that you never settle
down in comfort.

Unfortunately, to get your boat to Europe, or the US, from Australia or SE Asia there are
only two options, ship it or sail it. I don't think that the Red Sea is an option that makes
sense for anyone, unless they have a death wish.  I tell people that you have two
choices on the route to take, you either go to Cape Town, going south of Madagascar
and take the risk of getting beat up a few days by the weather, or go the Red Sea and
take the risk of getting beat up for a year or so by some drugged up black guys. For
me there was no contest!


Shipping for us was not an option, as I would have had a stroke just thinking about the
cost. Selling the boat now was not an option for us either, so that left "sail". I like to think
that the days sailing from Cocos to Richards Bay, saved us thousands of dollars that
we could not really afford and since a penny saved is a penny earned, we made big
money! Now we are in Cape Town and the trip across the Atlantic should be easy.
Furthermore, from here on we are back to the kind of sailing that we came out here for.
Life is good and it is easy to forget the rotten bumpy seas of the Indian Ocean!
I believe that the horror days of encountering unexpected terrible weather and
monstrous seas are pretty much things of the past. These were predominately caused
by poor weather information and poor planning. The modern yacht should be able to
make its way without encountering the unexpected dangerous conditions that yachts
ran into in the past. Now you usually have advanced warning of bad weather
developing, or moving in your direction. You can then decide to alter course or hunker
down and take the blow. We always opt for altering course and running away. So far
that has worked for us.

Timing of our trip:
We left Sydney on 4 May and went up the east coast and over the top to Darwin. We
left Darwin on 5 July and sailed to Ashmore Reef, Christmas Island and then to Cocos
Keeling Island
, arriving on 28 July. We left Cocos Keeling on 18 August for Rodrigues
and then hopped down to Mauritius and then Reunion. We left Reunion on 28 October
for Richards Bay. By the time we reached Cape Town, we had sailed better than 9,300
nm in six months.

The first point to make is that it was less than ideal to have to sail from Sydney to
Cocos Keeling in such a short time, as it left us a little travel wary before we even
started the trip to South Africa. I would recommend taking a more leisurely pace to
Cocos, as the trip to Rodrigues is best started in a good mood and well rested.  I
would also try to make the leg from Cocos to Rodrigues around mid-June so as to
avoid the reinforced trades of July and August. We had planned to leave Cocos in
June, but family health problems delayed our departure from Sydney, pushing our
entire crossing to Reunion late. We left Reunion for Richards Bay on 28 October,
which was very close to our planned date of 1 November. We thought that the timing of
this leg was the most important and it dictated all of the earlier "pushing to get there"
sailing that we did. We got to Reunion and started looking for a weather window for the
last week in October to the first week in November. Whether it was good planning or
just blind luck, we did get a good window and departed.

The advice I got from our South African friends was to leave Reunion around the 1st of
November and to head for Richards Bay. The current is narrowest along the coast at
that latitude and cuts down the exposure to rough seas that the strong southerly setting
coastal current can cause. The ideal departure time is early enough to avoid the
possibility of an early cyclone and late enough to reduce the probability of getting a late
winter gale. Their next observation was that when you get a weather window to head
south along the South African coast, take it! Otherwise, you could be sitting in Richards
Bay or Durban for a long time. The last point is that there are not enough good
moorings available in South Africa to handle the number of foreign yachts that will be
arriving from overseas. Therefore, make a booking early and then get south to fill that
spot before it is given away to another yacht. (This advice does not apply to those that
are happy to get into Richards Bay and sit there for a few months. This would allow
earlier boats to depart Africa and free up moorings, as well as getting the nicer weather
on offer for a trip south in January. For those that decide to "see Africa" while the boat
sits in Richards Bay, they can go down the coast to Cape Town in January/February
when the weather is more settled.)

Moorings in South Africa refer to what would be called a "slip" in the US or Australia.
The condition of these moorings is by and large "poor" and the exposed nature of the
marinas, create a potentially hazardous situation when the wind blows "like stink"! The
marinas that we have seen are all made of floating docks held in place by anchors and
chains. You must be careful to avoid catching your rudder or keel on a poorly placed
chain, particularly if you are backing into the slip.

Weather and General Conditions:
The Indian Ocean crossing was more uncomfortable than crossing either the North
Atlantic
or the Pacific. Having said that, I feel that it was not dangerous, just bumpy and
slow. I would have thought that with the projected average wind providing an 18 knot
beam reach, we could have averaged 200 nm per day. However, the winds we almost
always aft of the beam (AWA 140 Portside) and averaged more like 25knots. Since it
was so rough, we sailed most of the way with the main flaked on the boom and only half
of the genoa unfurled. We averaged 170 miles a day, covering the distance from
Cocos to Rodrigues in 12 days, which meant an average of only 7 knots and by far our
worst average passage ever. The smaller boats crossing at the same time as we did,
reported having some of their fastest ever 24 hours. They could go at their hull speed
and still be moderately comfortable, whereas we had to slow down to keep from
damaging the boat, or throwing everything into the floor. When we first started the leg,
we were zipping along at 8.5 to 9 knots and then every hour or so we would encounter
wave conditions (usually waves out of the SSW) that would slam the boat. We quickly
decided to slow down and have a more comfortable trip.

From Cocos Keeling Island to Reunion, we had a constant swell from the south mixed
with the swell from the east. By far the roughest part would have been the first half of
that leg, with the southerly swell averaging 4 meters, with a medium period. It often got
up to 5 meters and sometimes the period shortened to as little as 7 seconds. The
swell from the stern, or quarter then provided a very uncomfortable combination. After
the mid point, the swell from the south was mostly around the 3 meter range, but was
still large enough to make for the occasional "peaked" wave. Occasionally the southerly
swell produced a wave action that would roll the boat with a jerky motion that defied
staying on the seat if you were lying down in the cockpit! The result was similar to
sailing in a washing machine. In fact, sailing between Mauritius and Reunion I had to
wrap the tether on my inflatable life vest to the winch, so that I could lie on the bench
without being thrown onto the cockpit sole!

The winds between Cocos Keeling and Reunion were often well above the grib
forecasts and the gribs did not show any of the troughs that developed enroute. In
addition to the grib files, I would greatly recommend getting the text forecast "Met.8s"
via SailDocs. These forecasts were divided into "10 areas" that provided very useful
information despite their short forecast period.  The use of "Met.8s" allowed us to plot
fronts and troughs so that we could dodge them. On one occasion, by altering our
course only 20 miles or so south, we got 25 knots, while the boats that remained on the
rhumb line got 35+. I also had the advantage of having a friend (John de Launey on
Destiny V) provide regular weather briefings via our Iridium satellite phone. I would
arrange a time to call him and he would have looked at a number of sources to get a
feel for what the systems were doing. That worked very well for me and gave use more
accurate weather forecasts than I could get via SSB. This was particularly helpful on
the leg from Reunion to the turn point off Madagascar, after our SSB died. I hope to be
standing weather watch for him sometime in the future.

The general conditions between Reunion and Richards Bay were much better than
those experienced from Cocos to Reunion. The southerly swell was still present, but
after the turn, was very much in sync with the present wind. The only real rough spots
were off the southern tip of Madagascar and they were mainly due to the fact that, at 80
nm off, we were cutting the corner very close.

I think the trip to Richards Bay should be looked at in two parts. The first is from
Reunion to a point south and west Madagascar. The second part is when to close on
the coast of South Africa. We looked for a forecast that would allow us to get from
Reunion to a turn point between 80 and 150 miles south of Madagascar in either very
light winds, or moderate winds from the east or north. This would put your turn point
somewhere along a line between 27 and 28 degrees south. We also needed to be far
enough west of Madagascar (44E or so) when the expected SW wind came in, to allow
us to foot off to the north. That means having between 600 and 700 nm on the
rhumbline from Reunion to the turn point, say on 28S. Then a quick sprint due west to
get off the Madagascar Plateau. To do this we took off in a SW wind of 25 knots and
beat up the rhumb line for a day so that when the wind came around we could make the
westerly turn point 24 hours ahead of the next forecasted SW change. (I would
recommend that if you have a boat that does not point very well, you should consider
leaving when you can make good a course of 170 and get what distance south you can
early.)  We actually ended up a little west of course, but got that distance back when
the wind came around to the SE. We ended up turning west on 27S which put us
around the corner at 80 miles south of Madagascar, which is very close and should not
be done unless the weather is stable and favorable. Even though we had good
conditions, we still got some larger waves a couple of times as the wind got up over 20
knots between the time that we had turned to a westerly course and clearing the
plateau south of Madagascar.

Twelve hours or so after making the turn, the winds had come around to the SW. This
wind was expected, so we reached off to the WNW and gave up about 50 miles to the
north over the next couple of days and the wind strength stayed around 25 knots for us.
Had we stayed on the rhumb line, the winds we would have gotten would have been in
the range of 35+. We then looked closely at what the forecast was for the period when
we would be within 100 miles of the coast. We had been planning on a high pressure
pushing up and settling over the South African coast to provide northerly winds or calm
conditions when we did the last 50 miles. If the weather had not cooperated and
conditions were anything less than ideal, we had planned to slow down greatly and wait
until the wind was right before we crossed the coastal Agulhas Current. Timing of this
crossing can be made a lot less worrying by talking to the guys on the Piri-Piri Net, as
the South African coast is famous for being able to "turn up a coastal low" when nothing
is forecast. These little lows that may generate in advance of a front are vicious and
can really beat you up, as they are very strong, with very dense cold wind that packs a
punch. The effect of 30 knots is similar to 40 knots in the tropics and these things can
bring 60 knots or more to the party. Having said that, the weather information is good
enough that you should be able to avoid these conditions by either being lucky enough
to arrive at the right time, or patient enough to slow down and wait for the right
conditions. If you are early, then just head north. You will find that a 100 miles or so
further north the effects of a SW are greatly reduced and you can use the coastal
current to get you back south very easily when the winds go back to the north.

DESTINATION NOTES
Cocos Keeling Island

We enjoyed Cocos Keeling and it provided a great rest stop before the big hop to
Rodrigues. The anchorage at Direction Island has good holding, very well sheltered
and is relatively free of swell. Checking in is easy, as all you need to do is to call
"Cocos Keeling Police" on Ch 20 when you are 12 miles out and they will tell you to
anchor at Direction Island and call them when anchored. They may direct you to stay on
the boat and they will come out, or they will instruct you to come ashore to check-in.
The entry to Cocos is easy and the C-Map is accurate. We entered in late evening, just
before dark and anchored in the deeper water just off the entrance leading marks in
about 10 meters. We then shifted into the anchorage the next morning with good light.
Other boats arriving a few days behind us came into the lagoon in the dark and also
anchored out until the next morning. Shopping is not really very good, but it is still a
good rest stop with beautiful water. Cruisers congregate on Direction Island where
there are very good picnic facilities. If you want to go to West Island, there is a ferry
service from Direction Island on a couple of days a week, as well as daily service from
Home Island. Home Island is easy to get to by dinghy, but I would not recommend
trying to dinghy to West Island. The museum on Home Island is a must to visit.

Rodrigues
We thought that Rodrigues was a great stop and should not be missed. It makes the
trip a little shorter and is an interesting island to visit. We rented a motor scooter and
visited the "turtle farm" on the south end of the island as well as drove almost
completely around the island in one day. The prices were not high and the veggie
market was particularly good. Internet was free, albeit slow at the public library. We
were allowed to lay along side the dock while no ships were in, but had to move out of
the harbor when one arrived and then re-entered and sat on anchored in the turning
basin until the ship left a few days later. Tying alongside the dock is not a problem, as
swell is non-existent.

Mauritius
The facilities in Mauritius are not good and space along side the dock is very limited.
Most boats ended up rafted inside the marina, but this was preferable to being on the
outside wall of the marina. We were on the outside for a couple of days and busted 2
fenders due to the wind pushing onto the concrete pier and the movement of shipping
in the harbor. Again shopping is good and prices are very reasonable. I would not try
taking on fuel in Mauritius as duty free is not available to yachts without a great deal of
paperwork and delivery costs are high.

Reunion
We stayed at the northern port, as the southern port was to shallow for our draft. We
enjoyed the modern marina and the town was only a 20 minute stroll away. The prices
of things were not expensive, despite what we had been told to expect, and the market
on Saturday morning was one of the best any where. After you check out, you can
move to the little fuel dock and take on duty free fuel very easily, no big forms or
hassle. I believe that the fuel actually worked out to be cheaper than that available in
Mauritius or Rodrigues.

South African Coast
Richards Bay
The marinas in Richards Bay are good by South African standards and the game parks
are close by, so it is a good place to sit while waiting for a weather window to head
south. The International section of the city dock is convenient and is free. The problem
is that it gets crowed and you may need to shift your boat when someone arrives or
leaves. There are also a couple of private marinas, but we did not check prices.

Durban
The marina at Durban is reasonable in most regards, but stinks to high heavens when it
has been raining heavily, due to a major city sewer which dumps raw sewerage into the
harbor right at the marina office. Needless to say, it rained a great deal while we were
there and despite what is said about HIV/Aids being very active in South Africa, I can
assure you that someone is using condoms! I counted 15 one morning walking up the
pier and a friend on another dock said that he counted 54. By the way, my ego was
crushed when I noticed out how large the condoms were!

Port Elizabeth
We arrived at Port Elizabeth and decided to stop as the winds had died and we felt like
resting. When we pulled into the harbor, we went into the marina and tried to tie to the
end of the floating dock. Unfortunately there was so much surge that I was having
difficultly getting the boat to stop along side the dock. It was taking ≤ throttle fore and
aft thrust on the main engine just to keep from crashing into the pier.  I then looked at
the depth and only had .5 of a meter below the keel! At low tide I would be bumping the
bottom or worse. So we threw off the lines and left the harbor. We motored for about 3
hours before the wind returned.

Mossel Bay
When we arrived at Mossel Bay, there were no moorings available at the marina, so we
were told by Port Control to tie to the end of a concrete pier. There was a good bit of
surge working the harbor, so getting the boat settled was a bit of a chore, as the dock
had very large black tires chained in place and sea lions in each of the tires. After tying
along side for about 30 minutes, we determined that we would probably spend the
night adjusting the lines to stay safely at the pier. So, we moved outside of the harbor
to the anchorage in the shadow of the large pier that forms the northwest side of the
harbor. The anchorage was good during the southerly winds that occurred while we
were there, but northerly winds would be very uncomfortable. The town is a delightful
place to visit and we enjoyed the day that we had there. We only moved on because
the weather was good.

Capetown
We got a mooring at the Royal Cape Yacht Club, which is located in the southern
corner of the main shipping harbor. Unfortunately, it is not close enough to the places
that you would want to go, to be able to walk. But it is very sheltered from the winds and
probably the safest marina in Cape Town to leave a boat tied to a dock. Having said
that, the wind is blowing 40 knots while I am writing this and we have had gusts to 53
knots! Fortunately, surge and wave action is not a problem and as long as you have
good dock lines you will be fine. We rented a car for the time that we will be here and
have visited the numerous sights and tourist destinations around Cape Town and
consider it to be one of the best places we have spent "shore time" in. When we
arrived, there were 7 of our South African cruising friends waiting for us on the
dock...what a welcome!  We have particularly enjoyed Muratie and Delheim wine farms,
with Muratie being a favorite.  Their cheese platter for 2 was delightful and 95 Rand
(about $11).  Stellenbosch and Franschoek are delightful towns to visit.  Stellenbosch
is a beautiful Cape Dutch architecture town and also a university town.  Franschoek is in
a lovely valley and is surrounded by many wine farms.  The local trout there is a great
meal!  Hout Bay is great for a walk on the waterfront...fishing boats, local vendors, a few
shops and Muriel's Munchies.  Muriel's Munchies....great calamari and chips!  (Muriel's
daughter is Audrey from the yacht Fast Forward.) We visited Spier Wine Estate (near
Stellenbosch) to go to the Cheetah Outreach and Eagle Encounter.  The birds were
amazing.  Drakenstein Lion Sanctuary was good as well....true sanctuary for lions that
were abused or found in war torn countries.  In False Bay, there are penguins at the
Boulders.  Cape Point was good value and the drive there was a lovely coast drive that
included Chapman's Peak. Here in Cape Town, the V & A Waterfront is good
entertainment...local talent about performing, lots of curio shops, and a large mall.  In
the mall, there is a restaurant called Willoughby's which is excellent food and not over
priced.  There is often a queue, but it moves fast and the wait is worth it!  The Red
Shed is on the left (facing the mall) side of the mall and has local crafts of good quality.
Sea Point is a nice walk along the ocean and there is a good deli type restaurant down
near the light house.  Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens are wonderful.  We went with
local friends and ate a late breakfast at the cafe near the upper gift shop in the
gardens.  Our trip up Table Mountain was great.  We've not taken the red bus tour here
but have been told that it is well worth the effort.

My advice is to be very careful in getting a mooring in Cape Town, or the area
surrounding the Cape Peninsula. You must make sure that the position you get in the
marina is not exposed to the extremely frequent high and gusty winds out of the
southeast. When I spoke with the marina manager at Hout Bay, he cautioned me about
the winds. He told me, "As your boat would be out on an exposed section of the
marina, it could get very high winds and rough wave conditions. You must understand
that we get winds up to 100 knots in Hout Bay and if we get them while your boat is
moored here, it vey well may be damaged." Needless to say we did not stay in Hout
Bay
!

A Sailing Story
The day we left Reunion, we moved to the fuel dock and took on enough to get us to
South Africa. We then left, motoring past a large (55-60ft?) racing yacht named Wizard,
that was tied there. We asked them when they were leaving and they replied that they
would leave in a "couple of hours". I told them to wave on the way by and they said "that
we will"!

So everyday we called Wizard on the VHF to see if they were close to us, but never
got a reply. On the morning of 3 November I saw two ships, on my AIS receiver, that
were about 9 miles WSW of me and 3 miles south of my course line. I then heard one
call the other and say, "Do you see the orange smoke to your stern?" That got my
interest and I listened for the next hour while they dropped a lifeboat to recover the
crew and life raft that had been spotted. By this time we were within 3 miles and could
see both ships well. When everyone had been picked up one captain reported to the
other that "Cape Town said there should be a Japanese woman" in the crew. The other
captain said, "No Japanese woman, Japanese man." So, I assumed that the crew was
from a Japanese boat. I radioed that I was enroute to Richards Bay if they needed
assistance getting the crew to their destination. They replied that they had everything in
hand and needed no assistance. I later learned in Richards Bay that the yacht Wizard
had three SA crew, one Australian and one Japanese male crew member. They were
evidently about thirty miles ahead of us when they struck a container. They were later
dropped off in Mauritius and had to fly to Durban.

This makes me think to recommend an AIS receiver, if you don't already have one. We
saw very few ships during the entire voyage across the Indian Ocean, but saw lots of
ships on our AIS! It scares me to think of how many ships have passed within 10 miles
of us that we never knew were there. I used to be pleased when ship traffic was light.
But now that I know they are there and I can call them if we are going to be close,
having them around gives me comfort that someone is never far away to effect a
rescue should something happen.

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This document was started at the request of a couple of cruisers that wanted some
feedback on our trip. I have included others in the distribution that I felt (or hoped
in some cases) would be following in our wake in the years to come.

The views expressed in this document are mine as well as any errors that relate to
planning, or the logic used in planning. Use it as you see fit and feel free to ask any
questions. I do not hold myself up to be an expert, or one worthy of providing "sage
advice", just someone that has "been there and done that" without getting beat up or
sinking.

Fair Winds,
Mike Brown
S/V Wombat of Sydney