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This is a letter sent to the SSCA (Seven Seas Cruising Association) about crossing the Indian Ocean from Thailand to South Africa. It is a brief summary of our 2011 experiences. More detailed letters about our experiences and many photos are already posted on our website. We hope this will be published in the "SSCA Commodores Bulletin" and be helpful to cruisers planning to sail this ocean in future years.
"Arctracer" crossed the Indian Ocean in 2011, traveling 5730 miles. We started from Thailand in January, stopped in Sri Lanka for a month, stopped briefly at Addu Atoll at the south end of the Maldives, stayed three months in the Chagos Archipelago, spent five months in northern Madagascar, crossed the Mozambique Channel and arrived in South Africa at the end of November. This is a summary. There are more details in our other letters.
We began in Southeast Asia where sailing is greatly affected by the northeast monsoon during the winter and the southwest monsoon during in the summer. Cyclones in the northern Indian Ocean can occur from May to November. Sailing across the northern part of the Indian Ocean is best done while the northeast winds prevail from December to March. Pirate activity made a passage through the Red Sea too risky for us, so we decided to cross the equator to South Africa. In the southern Indian Ocean tropical storms can occur from November to May while southeast trade winds blow steadily from July through September. These conditions dictated leaving Southeast Asia in January, stopping near the equator while the seasons changed, and continuing south in July.
The whole crossing, including stays at islands, requires many months. Reprovisioning is difficult at some of the intermediate places and impossible at others. We spent considerable time and effort in Malaysia and Thailand getting the boat ready and stocking it with food sufficient for the whole trip. We were able to get some fresh food and some staples at intermediate stops but Malaysia and Thailand generally had the best prices and best selection. Nina documented our provisions here.
We departed from Phuket on January 19 after the northeast monsoon was well-established. Some cruisers visited the Andaman Islands at the start of this passage but our route went south of Great Nicobar Island and north of Sumatra through the "Great Channel" connecting the Strait of Malacca to the Indian Ocean. Then we paralleled the main shipping route, staying a few miles north of most ships. We had occasional squalls but the wind was consistently northeast and usually in the 20-30 knot range. Waves thumped our starboard quarter and kept us rocking much of the time. We used nothing but our roller-furling jib after passing Great Nicobar and never needed to gybe. Boats making this passage just a couple weeks before us were hit by bad weather and one boat was lost. We arrived in Galle, Sri Lanka on January 27 after 1107 miles in 8 and 1/2 days without any problems.
Sri Lankan officials are notorious but we had only minor problems with them. We saw the sights of Galle and took a 12-day tour to see the old capitals, Sigiriya, the Hill Country and Yala National Park. It was an interesting country with a mix of cultures, scenery and wildlife. We did "last-chance" provisioning and departed towards Chagos on February 26.
The passage south from Sri Lanka was almost entirely in light and variable winds. We used our spinnaker frequently, preferring to sail slowly rather than motor. Unfortunately, both our old spinnaker and our old roller-furling jib got torn. The spinnaker was beyond repair but we did not expect to need it before South Africa. We did need a good jib so after eight days we stopped at Addu Atoll at the south end of the Maldives to mend our jib and order a new one. We spent only a week in the Maldives and were not favorably impressed by anything except their clear waters. Some cruisers spent months in the Maldives especially for its world-famous diving. Our four-day passage to Chagos was squally but we arrived in good shape on March 16 after 928 miles from Sri Lanka.
Chagos is what remains of BIOT (British Indian Ocean Territory). All visits to the archipelago must receive permission from officials in Great Britain and fees must be paid in advance. (Email BIOTadmin@fco.gov.uk for information and forms. Regulations have changed several times in recent years, generally making visits more expensive and more constrained.) We stayed March 6 to May 16 at several anchorages in Peros Banhos Atoll while the prevailing winds backed from west through south. Then we moved to Salomon Atoll where we found somewhat better protection from the southeast trade winds which gradually established themselves. Both atolls were very beautiful with excellent fishing and snorkeling. Anchoring was constrained by British officials to just a few areas so boats were clustered together and there was much socializing. We also explored the coconut plantations and villages from which all local people were removed by the British after the United States leased Diego Garcia for a military base in 1966. During our stay in these isolated islands Jerry's wonderful father passed away. We were very sad that there was no possible way for us to get to his memorial services which were attended by his large family and many friends.
Many cruisers sailed from Chagos to visit Rodriguez, Mauritius and Reunion before continuing on to Madagascar or directly to South Africa. We departed towards Madagascar on June 13. Our course for five days was southwest to a point between shoal areas of the Saya de Malha Bank on the Mascarene Plateau. During that leg of the passage we had trade winds on our beam so made good speed in sometimes uncomfortable seas. We had one fierce squall with gusts over 40 knots but no real problems. Once past the turn we had the wind on our quarter and sailed well with just our jib. Some boats (especially those who had gone south to Mauritius) visited the eastern side of Madagascar but strong trade wind conditions on a lee shore are not to our liking so we sailed straight for the northern tip and got around to the northwest side immediately. We worried about possibly strong currents and winds around Cap Ambre but did not encounter those and had a very good passage of 1512 miles in 10 days.
We arrived in Madagascar on June 23 and did not leave until November 13. The officials gave us visas for only three months but we were slow in getting down to Nosy Be to check-in and worked our way slowly down the coast towards Cap Saint Andre after checking-out in Nosy Be. We very much enjoyed this country, its people, its sailing conditions, its plants and its animals. There were just enough supplies and services available on Nosy Be to keep most cruisers happy. In addition to exploring coastal areas we took an inland tour using public transportation to Ankarana and Mt. Ambre National Parks and Diego Suarez. We did considerable trading with people in outlying coastal villages who did not have much money or access to stores. The numerous boats fishing and carrying cargo along the coast entirely under sail were a constant delight. While some cruisers explored the coast all the way down to Tulear, we stayed north of Cap Saint Andre.
The Mozambique Channel poses challenges which we tackled in November as the southern hemisphere summer warmed up. We sailed nearly straight west from Cap Saint Andre in northerly breezes until we encountered the south-flowing Mozambique current near the African Coast. Then we rode the current southwest for several days, seeking shelter in Maputo when the forecast was for strong southerly winds. We stayed for a week until the winds turned again to the northeast and we could complete our passage of 1275 miles to Richards Bay, South Africa.
Arriving on November 28 we were looking forward to "first world" facilities after many months in isolated and undeveloped places. We found very good supermarkets, good communications systems, professional officials who did not ask for presents, adequate marinas, good highways, game parks with spectacular wildlife and people who spoke English. Some accents were difficult to understand, some services were difficult to obtain and some products were expensive, but cruising often requires adjusting to new situations. We uploaded photos and letters about our Indian Ocean experiences to www.arctracer.com and started exploring this new country.
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