"Arctracer" Letters

Passage from Chagos to Madagascar, June 2011

We departed from Salomon Atoll in the Chagos Archipelago on June 13, 2011 and sailed across the Indian Ocean to the northern tip of Madagascar. We encountered fairly normal trade wind conditions most of the way with just one strong squall. Benign conditions let us round Cap Ambre very easily and we anchored in a bay on the northwestern side of Madagascar on June 23 after ten days and 1512 miles. Below are more details of this passage.


Chagos is at 5 degrees South and the top of Madagascar is at 12 degrees South. The cyclone season of the South Indian Ocean lasts from November to May. The best time to make this passage is either May-June or September-October when the southeast trade winds and the currents of the area are both favorable. The only hazards on the rhumb line are the shallow areas of the Saya de Malha Bank on the Mascarene Plateau. Some of our friends sailed the rhumb line and had no problems but we wanted to avoid possible problems with the shoals and currents of that area. We chose an intermediate waypoint near 10 degrees South and 55 degrees East as recommended by Jimmy Cornell in "World Cruising Routes." This increased the length of our planned route by about forty miles but we felt additional safety was worth a few more hours at sea. The rhumb line route keeps the southeast trade winds on the beam the whole way, enabling good speeds but a possibly uncomfortable ride. From Chagos to our turning point would be slightly into the wind for about five days but after the turn we should have the wind aft of the beam for another five days. Our catamaran is very comfortable with wind and waves coming from behind. A fast passage was not as important to us as a safe passage. We expected somewhat rough conditions for the first half of the passage and pleasant sailing afterwards. That turned out to be what we got.

The most difficult part of this passage can be rounding Cap Ambre at the northern tip of Madagascar. When the southeast trade winds hit the mountains of Madagascar they are turned north and can be quite strong. In addition, the westward-setting current also turns northward along Madagascar's east coast with a strength which varies but can be quite strong. When the two combine they can push a boat north very rapidly and make it difficult to round Cap Ambre closely. If a boat passes too far north of that cape it can be very difficult to sail back into the lee of Madagascar against prevailing winds and currents. Some boats have been forced so far north by bad conditions that they have abandoned a planned visit to Madagascar and set a course towards Mayotte. We chose a waypoint forty miles from Cap Ambre and ten miles from the east coast of Madagascar to avoid getting pushed too far north. We figured we would be able to compensate (if necessary) for strong winds and currents by aiming towards this waypoint until we were confident of rounding close to the cape.

First Days

We raised anchor at Ile Fouquet in Salomon Atoll at 9:30 on June 13. We put a single reef in our mainsail in anticipation of strong southeast trade winds with possibly stronger gusts between islands at the start. Two other boats followed us out, with one bound for Rodriguez Island and the other taking the rhumb line route to the top of Madagascar. We caught a nice Yellowfin Tuna just outside the lagoon and had fish for lunch. The wind was SE15 and we traveled at over seven knots in slightly lumpy seas. Nina made spaghetti sauce underway so we had spaghetti for dinner with fresh corn bread. After a little rain shower in the evening, the wind dropped below 10 knots for the rest of the night so our speed dropped to about 5 knots. There was a nice moon and it was pleasant sailing. The breeze picked up over 10 knots in mid-morning and we added the staysail for better balance. Three more boats left Salomon bound for Madagascar on the 14th. We maintained a SSB net with other boats sailing from Chagos so we could keep informed of their positions and weather. The net operated both morning and evening but we only participated during evening sessions. At noon on the 14th we had sailed 145 miles since raising anchor.

By mid-afternoon there were big clouds on the horizon so we put a second reef in the main. After a good fish dinner, rain showers started in the evening and the wind picked up to 17 knots with gusts to 20. At 2:00am a squall hit suddenly with 27 knot winds so we furled our jib completely. Then the winds came at 35 knots from the east, so we turned slightly to run with it on our port quarter. The strong winds and rain continued for three hours. The strongest gust was recorded at 37 knots on our anemometer when we were running downwind at 8 knots so the true wind speed was perhaps 45 knots. The boat handled these conditions very well. The squall dissipated at 5:00am and we got back on course with a SE 14 breeze. Our noon-noon distance was 132 miles. Nina made cookies during the afternoon, great snacks for night watches. There was a solid overcast all day and the afternoon wind was SE 20-25. We had some seas of over four meters which occasionally broke on deck. Conditions were never dangerous but moving around was difficult. We were pleased when the wind dropped below 20 knots during the night and the full moon appeared.

About 00:30 on the 16th the sky darkened and we looked out from under our cockpit roof expecting to see a big cloud. Instead, we were astonished to see the start of a lunar eclipse! The sky was clear and we were in an excellent location. The eclipse became total and the whole event lasted two hours. We felt very privileged, knowing we were among the very few people able to see this magnificent show. We sailed at about eight knots all morning and recorded another 159 miles at noon. The wind reduced to SE 15 in the afternoon. Our supper was fish and linguine. The wind was back near 20 by evening so we partly furled the jib and traveled at about 6 knots. Squalls in the night brought some rain with gusts of 25 knots. We maintained a seven knot average speed for 24 hours and recorded a day's run of 168 miles at noon on the 17th. The wind continued SE 20 under cloudy skies all afternoon. A huge billfish took our trolling lure just before dark and Nina got to see it make several leaps before it broke the lure in half and got free. Very dark clouds and occasional squalls of 25 knots continued through the night.

Past the Turn

At 3:00am on the 18th we reached our waypoint and turned west to pass between the Saya de Malha Bank and the Cargados Carajos Shoals. The SE 20 wind was now well aft of our beam so we took down the staysail so it would not blanket the jib. We sailed comfortably at about 8 knots. The waves coming up behind were large enough to have significant effects. On some big swells we practically surfed down the wave front with the GPS zooming up to 12 knots and then dropping to 4 knots when we got onto the back of the wave. By noon we had sailed another 163 miles. At 13:00 we got into an area of strange currents with whitecaps everywhere. We tied in a third reef just to be safe, but then the wind dropped to 15 knots and we sailed out of the strange currents. We were still averaging 6 knots but it seemed boring. We had New England style fish chowder for supper. The wind was so far aft that the mainsail was not letting the jib pull properly and was making us slew around on the waves so we took it down entirely about 2:00am on the 19th. We nearly hit a sperm whale at 8:45. It passed very close in front of us and about 50 feet from our port side. Nina made blueberry pancakes with Vermont maple syrup for Fathers Day breakfast. Later that morning we hoisted a very light sail with the jib, hoping for a little more speed and less slewing on waves. It may have helped a little but we still were pushed around by following seas. Our day's run was 143 miles. We took down the light sail in the afternoon, and re-hoisted the mainsail with one reef during the night. Breeze was SSE 12 all night and our speed was 6 knots. Nina made bread, rolls and another batch of cookies during her early morning watch on the 20th. We changed all our clocks to Madagascar time (GMT +3) so our day's run was 161 miles for 26 hours. We had fishburgers with tartar sauce, onions and cabbage on fresh rolls for lunch and dinner.

During the afternoon we hoisted the staysail and sheeted it tightly to reduce slewing on waves in SE 15-20 winds. This worked until almost midnight when the wind shifted more ESE. Then we took the staysail down to make the jib happier. Winds on the 21st varied from 14 to 22 knots and the swells seemed to vary unaccountably too. We kept making good speeds and the day's run was 167 miles. We had trouble with the port engine overheating, finally took the water pump apart and found a broken impeller which we replaced. Nina made delicious pizzas for dinner. One of the boats which left Chagos sailed the rhumb line towards a conservative waypoint further south than ours. They passed our stern less than half a mile away just after dark and we chatted with them on VHF. We had light but pleasant ESE 12-15 breezes overnight and on the 22nd when our day's run was 139 miles. We got within 5 miles of our waypoint about midnight. At that point we had twenty degrees of leeway, getting pushed north by both current and a breeze of S 10-13. We turned towards Cape Ambre and controlled our speed by varying the amount of jib unrolled. We ambled along at 4-5 knots planning to reach the cape soon after daylight. The lighthouse at Diego Suarez was operating, and so was the light at Cap Ambre.

Cap Ambre

The sun rose at 6:01 on the 23rd and we followed the east coast of Madagascar closely, almost "with one foot on the beach." We rounded the cape at 9:00 with a breeze WSW 10 and no apparent current. Conditions could not have been better. Wind of SE 15 came soon after we passed the lighthouse and we flew southwest in flat water. At 10:00 we were off the entrance of Baie Ampanasina, the second one south from the cape. The CMAP charts in our computers had an offset here of nearly one mile so were not suitable for navigation until an offset was determined and plugged into our chart programs. We took the sails down and motored upwind into the bay to drop our anchor at 10:30 in the northeastern corner at 12 degrees 01.2 minutes South and 49 degrees 12.4 minutes East. Our day's run was 129 miles. Our total distance sailed was 1512 miles in 10 days. We had a small celebration with some of the other cruisers who crossed from Chagos at the same time but we were all tired and went to bed early for a long, uninterrupted sleep.

(view photos of Cap Ambre area)