"Arctracer" Letters

Madagascar to South Africa - November 2011

We left Madagascar from Boina Bay, just north of Cap Saint Andre, on November 13 and arrived in South Africa at Richards Bay on November 28. We anchored in Maputo Bay for a week because of strong winds. The passage covered 1275 miles in nine days of sailing. Here are more details about our planning and experiences:

Planning the Mozambique Channel Crossing

Cyclones became a slight threat in northern Madagascar in November. South Africa was warming in the southern hemisphere Spring season and temperatures there were becoming more suitable for our tropical clothing and heater-less boat. Some cruising boats made the crossing a month or two earlier and they encountered chilly air and somewhat stormy conditions. Jimmy Cornell's "World Cruising Routes" says the best time to go down this channel is October-November. Some South African cruisers also recommended leaving in November. We decided to leave delightful Madagascar early in that month.

The Agulhas Current is famous for its strength and for the tremendous waves which can be produced by winds blowing from the south against it. This current becomes important south of Madagascar's latitude, near the end of the passage to South Africa. Directly west of Madagascar a fairly weak current of 1-2 knots runs northward along the Madagascar side of the channel while the Mozambique Current of 1-3 knots runs southward near the African coast. Large ships apparently take advantage of these currents by traveling north on the Madagascar side and south on the African side. Some cruisers chose to work slowly down the Madagascar coast against the current as far south as Tulear but there were few secure anchorages south of Cap Saint Andre and we did not see any advantage in that route. We felt the best course was to sail west from Cap Saint Andre until reaching the south-flowing Mozambique Current and then ride that down towards South Africa.

Typical winds along the Madagascar west coast were easterly in the mornings, westerly in the afternoons and seldom strong. This made for delightful coastal sailing in almost flat water. This wind pattern extended out into the Mozambique Channel and affected boats trying to sail the rhumb line from Cap Saint Andre to Richards Bay. The combination of light and variable breezes plus a slight northerly current resulted in very slow progress for some of those boats. We had a forecast of several days of northerly winds when we started across the channel and those did carry us nicely towards Africa. Tropical latitudes usually do not have strong winds (excepting squalls and cyclones) so we had no worries about winds in the northern part of the Mozambique Channel. Below the Tropic of Capricorn the winds were often stronger. Low and high pressure systems constantly moving from west to east across southern Africa seemed to spawn fronts which swept up the channel about once per week. Most important to avoid were strong southerly winds blowing against the strong Agulhas Current.

Somali pirates attacked ships near Mayotte in 2011. One attack was only 150 miles from our anchorage near Nosy Be. We had not heard of any pirates operating further south so were fairly confident that we would not be attacked if we sailed down the Madagascar coast to Cap Saint Andre and then crossed to Africa. However, every year pirates seemed to be increasing their range, getting more powerful weapons, gaining tactical experience and becoming more daring. No country had done anything significant to end this piracy, even though it could have been done with relative ease by any of the big military powers. Big businesses had adjusted and their profits were not reduced by pirates. Insurance, weapons and security businesses actually increased profits because of piracy while shipping companies passed increased costs along to customers. A few cruisers were captured and held for ransom, losing practically everything even when they managed to survive. Unfortunately, although organizations such as the Seven Seas Cruising Association have done some lobbying, cruisers have had very little influence on politicians. Pirate activity must be a crucial factor in planning this passage.

Weather Forecasts

We seldom bothered with weather forecasts while cruising along Madagascar's northwest coast. Winds there were almost always light, usually blew from the land in the morning and towards the land in the afternoon, and waves were never large. When we needed forecasts for the crossing to South Africa we obtained GRIB files through Sailmail and listened to SSB nets hosted by volunteers in South Africa. The passage from Cap Saint Andre to Richards Bay was over 1000 nautical miles. Extended weather forecasts for a week or more in the future were not accurate enough to insure good weather for the last part of the passage, the part where wind strength and direction was most critical for cruising boats. The best we could do was leave with what appeared to be a good "weather window" and be prepared to duck into emergency anchorages in Mozambique if the forecast changed.

The most-used SSB weather net was "Peri-Peri" on 8101 khz at 07:00 and 17:00 South African time (GMT + 2). The net controllers often switched to 12353 khz after about one-half hour to contact distant boats. The net controllers used BuoyWeather to get forecasts for the locations of calling boats. Another valuable net was the South African Maritime Mobile Net hosted by Graeme on 14316 khz at 8:30 and 13:30 South African time. This was a ham net but Graeme would talk with any boat which needed weather information. His signal was usually very good and he swung his antenna to talk with boats in the Atlantic Ocean after talking to boats in the Indian Ocean. We seldom called but often listened and found these nets very useful. We were very grateful to the dedicated South African volunteers who made sure weather information was available to cruising boats every day.

Sailing Madagascar to Mozambique

We raised anchor in Boina Bay and left Madagascar on the morning of November 13. The wind was a light easterly, as usual, and we used it to get out into deep water before turning west. The afternoon breeze was from the northwest and we started making speeds of over 7 knots. By midnight we were about 30 miles directly north of Cap Saint Andre. By the following midnight we were more than halfway across the channel and started bending our course more to the southwest. Breezes varied in strength and direction over the next few days but we continued to make solid progress with some help from the Mozambique Current. We crossed the Tropic of Capricorn in the morning of November 19. We had good luck fishing and caught two Yellowfin Tuna and two Mahi-Mahi. Then we started getting forecasts of gale force winds which we would encounter before reaching Richards Bay. These winds were forecast to be initially from SSE, then veer more to the south and continue for several days. We needed to find a protected anchorage. We had time to sail to Maputo Bay so we did, arriving there the morning of November 20. We had sailed 1072 miles in 7 days since leaving Boina Bay.

Basaruto and Inhambane

North of Maputo Bay were two anchorages offering protection from strong southerly winds. Farthest north was Basaruto Island whose northern end was near 21 deg 29 min S and 35 deg 30 min E. West of this island was an area of shallow water and sandbanks. A detailed chart and local knowledge was obtained from South African cruisers who had been in Basaruto several times. Several of our friends did need to stop there and found adequate protection though said it was not ideal. We were prepared to stop there if necessary but were glad we did not need to.

South of Basaruto was Inhambane where a point jutted northward to about 23 deg 47 min S and 35 deg 32 min E. Shelter from southerly winds was available at the northern end of this peninsula and it was possible to find even better shelter west of the peninsula among shallow channels through sandbanks. Again, local knowledge would be very useful in finding a good anchorage. Some of our friends needed to use this protected area for several days. They warned us to avoid going ashore unless we wanted to check-in with Mozambique officials who demanded fees as high as $535US for a boat with three people aboard. We were very glad we did not need to stop there.

Maputo Bay

Maputo Bay was about 180 miles north of Richards Bay and the last good anchorage before reaching that port from the north. The city of Maputo was the capital and largest city in Mozambique. Before Mozambique gained independence from Portugal in 1975 the city was named Lourenzo Marques and was considered one of the most beautiful in the world. It was on the western side of the bay at the mouth of the Maputo River. There were facilities for big ships and some boats in the city. Protection from weather would probably have been superb there but we did not want to check-in to Mozambique. The city had a reputation for poverty and crime in addition to its expensive officials. We stayed on our boat at anchor on the eastern side of the bay.

When we first arrived we had northeasterly winds of over 20 knots so we anchored southwest of little Portuguese Island [25 deg 59.3 S, 32 deg 54.3 min E] in 15 feet over sand. This was a fine anchorage in strong northeasterly winds. However, the forecast for the night of November 21 called for strong southerly winds. There was no nearby anchorage which offered good protection from both northerly and southerly winds. Since the southerly winds were forecast to be strong for a few days we reluctantly moved to the north side of Portuguese Island and re-anchored [25 deg 57.7 min S, 32 deg 55.0 min E] in 25 feet over sand. This was a miserable anchorage because the waves generated by the earlier northeast winds kept coming to make us rock and roll. Tidal currents sometimes flowed through at more than two knots so our boat was not always pointed into the wind. The promised southerly did come blasting in the night and we were glad to be on the side of the island sheltered from those winds but it was not comfortable.

When the winds moderated on November 23 we moved east to re-anchor [25 deg 57.8 S, 32 deg 58.6 min E] in 20 feet over sand nearer the lighthouse on the northern tip of Inhaca Island. This had the same problems of swells coming from the northeast and tidal currents so was not a comfortable anchorage. Our friends on the schooner "Ambler" anchored nearby and we were amazed at the rolling and pitching motions of that monohull. This location had the advantage of quick departure as soon as the wind shifted back to a good angle for sailing south. We were glad to escape early on the morning of November 27.

(view photos of Maputo Bay)

Maputo to Richards Bay

This was a quick and easy sail with winds which were light easterlies at first and then backed around to northerlies of 15-20 knots as we approached Richards Bay. At first we had a slight adverse current and choppy seas so sailed at only 3-4 knots for a few hours. By evening we were past that slow area, were getting northeast winds of 15-20 knots and were sailing easily at about 7 knots. By morning we were definitely riding the Agulhas Current, using just our jib, with a northerly wind of nearly 20 knots. We surfed down the faces of following seas at speeds which our GPS said were sometimes over 14 knots, but climbing the back sides of the waves slowed us sometimes to 5 knots. Our powerful autopilot worked hard and we zig-zagged as the waves kept pushing us off course. On average we covered about 9 miles per hour until we furled the jib and motored into the calm waters of Richards Bay before noon on November 28. Excluding our week-long stop in Maputo Bay, our entire trip from Madagascar was 1275 miles in nine days of sailing.

Before entering Richards Bay it was necessary to call Harbor Control on VHF channel 12 (or 16) and ask permission to enter. They controlled movement of large ships in and out of this port. We were told it was the largest coal exporting port in the world, also exported large amounts of aluminum, chrome and wood chips and accounted for over half of all South African shipping. We motored to the International Dock area of the small craft harbor where we tied up alongside a large cruising boat to wait for official clearance. Immigration and Customs officials arrived the next morning to quickly clear us into South Africa with three-month visas. It was very nice to deal with professional officials who charged no fees and asked for no "gifts." We then moved into the Tuzi Gazi marina to take care of business, enjoy good Internet and telephone services, and begin our visit in Africa.