Friday, November 30, 2012

On to Mauritius and a Brush With Anais

Mauritius is only about 400 miles from Rodrigues, but is very different. It is much larger and has a population of more than 1.3 million. It has a busy economy with an emphasis on sugar cane, tourism, and being a transshipment point for goods to and from eastern and southern Africa. Our passage was quite pleasant although we ran into the same problem of having to slow down so as not to arrive too early.

Port Louis is the capital of Mauritius and a bustling city of 150,000.

Port Louis has a small yacht basin in a lovely harbourfront development but it was reserved for the arrival of 23 boats that were part of the World ARC rally, an event that has its participants sail around the world in only two years. Because of the ARC, other cruisers were allowed to tie up in the centre of downtown. This was pretty good except that you became a major tourist attraction, it was a bit dirty and there was a surge in the harbour that was hard on docklines - we had one part in the night even though we had chafe gear on it..

Port Louis has the best market we have seen anywhere with excellent quality food at very good prices. The sellers took great pride in presenting their food attractively. There were also interesting snacks and drinks to be had. A tasty lunch was less than a dollar including a fruit drink.

Mauritius is also a very beautiful island. It is not a surprise that it is becoming a major tourism destination.

We really enjoyed Mauritius and would have liked to stay longer, but  ended up there for only two nights because of a lady named Anais. Tropical cyclonic storms can happen in any month in the south-western Indian Ocean, but they are rare in November with an average of three every ten years. In fact, this is one reason why we crossed the Indian Ocean when we did, in early November. 

We were listening to the Peri-Peri Net which is a terrific, twice-daily weather net from South Africa, when we heard that a tropical storm was forming well to the northeast of Mauritius. At the time it was regarded as an interesting curiosity. The next day it seemed that the storm might die out before developing any real intensity. But then it all changed as the disturbance became a strong tropical storm .. and then continued to strengthen. We were left with a series of choices. First was whether to stay in Mauritius or not. The dock we were at was exposed and a bit rough in normal conditions. The storm was to pass well to the north, but such predictions can be wrong of course. If it stayed north the wind would be from the land side, but if it slipped south we would be in a very exposed spot with few alternatives close at hand. It seemed best to leave Mauritius post-haste. The next question was whether to stop at Reunion (about 100 miles to the west). Reunion's harbour is entirely artificial and the yacht basin looked to be wonderfully protected from all directions. Then word came through that the harbour was already jammed with boats and we would have to just keep going towards South Africa.

The tropical storm became a cyclone (72 knots) and was named Anais, and then a category 3 cyclone (130 knots). It was the first time that there had been such a powerful storm this early in the year - yes, we are 'special'. It basically completes our natural hazards set for the trip with a volcanic eruption, a tsunami, earthquakes, and bush fires. Guess we haven't had a blizzard yet.

I don't want to suggest that we were in any life-and-death race with the storm. We started with a 500 mile head-start and it was only doing 10 knots to the west while we could do 7+ to the southwest. Indeed we did not even notice any swells from the storm which was odd. It does complete our natural hazards portfolio though since we could now add tropical cyclone to volcanic eruption (Montserrat), torrential rains and flooding (Panama), tsunami (from Japan in Galapagos), earthquakes (Vanuatu), bush fires (northern Australia). Guess we haven't had a blizzard yet

Anais at its finest. It caused no harm since it had pretty much died out before reaching the coast of Madagascar. Note that southern hemisphere cyclonic storms rotate clockwise unlike those in the north.
A prediction of the path of Anais. Mauritius is called 'Maurice' on this French map. We left Mauritius shortly after the 15/10h date and time shown on the map so the situation we were in is shown quite accurately. By the 19th of November, we would be more than 600 miles south and west of Mauritius. Note that this is the distance between 20S and 30S.
An aside that has nothing to do with Anais. When you get into this area and start talking about Mauritius, Madagascar, the Mozambique Channel, etc,, you really realize that you are a very long way from home.

An Ocean Behind #3 (to Rodrigues)

This post should have been called, "An Ocean Behind #3 (to Madagascar) because that is where we we originally going, but we are nothing if not flexible ... Anyway, when we left Cocos we had two routes to South Africa - either north of Madagascar or south of it. The classical, and shorter, route is to go south, with stops at one or more of the islands along the way - Rodrigues, Mauritius, and/or Reunion. This route does expose you to some pretty nasty connections, in particular west of Reunion. Going north of Madagascar and down the Mozambique Channel should give you lighter winds but it is a longer passage. Until that last several years few yachts went this way because the government of Madagascar was not welcoming and corruption among the officials you had to deal with was rampant. Both situations have improved with the government encouraging tourism and (most) officials not expecting or asking for 'gifts'.

When we left Cocos our intention was to go about 2800 miles to the northern tip of Madagascar. This turned out to be exactly downwind and we mostly used just a poled out jib. In spite of a bit of helping current and good winds (15 to 25 knots), our progress was not wonderful (112 to 140 mile days) and we had an uncomfortable roll most of the time. We (the captain tends to employ the royal we at times) decided to change our strategy and head south. The change in course was only seven degrees but it made a huge difference to our speed and comfort. Our next nine days ranged from 150 to 174 miles and ride was much more comfortable, even with swells building to the 12 to 15 foot range at times. For the entire passage (2016   miles) we motored for a total of 4 hours - 2 hours getting out and away from Cocos and 2 hours getting into the harbour at Rodrigues. We really have to give the Indian Ocean credit, it is a wonderful place if you like to      sail.

The 'X' marks on the chart are our daily posiotions on the way to Rodrigues (where the boat icon is - Mauritius and Reunion lie to the west as shown). You can see that we started out heading further north for the first four days before veering about 7 degrees to the south. Note that for long passages like this that are basically east to west the shortest distance, the 'great circle route' does not appear as a straight line. Even though we going almost directly westward along 12S we would have gone almost to 13S before heading back to 12S.

 Rodrigues Island is a semi-autonomous territory within Mauritius. It has a population of about 37,000 and basically no source of income other than that that flows from its wealthier neighbour. This is actually a bit amusing because there is a strong independence sentiment on the island - people feel that they would do better if they were not part of Mauritius. Indeed, when the referendum was held over whether to become independent or stay a British colony, Rodrigues voted to remain a colony while those on Mauritius, which has many more people wanted to be independent - and it was an all or nothing vote, so Rodrigians (or whatever they are called) became reluctant citizens of Mauritius. One shop owner we talked to, who has relatives on the very rich island of Reunion (overseas French department), said that if they were independent they could join France, "because the French really like us".

Speaking of France and Britain, Mauritius and Rodrigues were French until 1814 when they became British  (earlier they had been Portugese (the name Rodrigues is Portugese) and Dutch (Mauritius comes from the Dutch). There were African slaves here to work the cane fields and after slavery ended huge numbers of Indian indentured workers arrived. As a result the population is very diverse.

In spite of two centuries of Britishness and the fact that English is the official language, most people speak a type of French Creole. In schools, the language of instruction is French, but written work is done in English - go figure. Hence many people do not speak English well, but can read and write it fluently. In any case, the baguettes here are cheap and tasty, although shorter and wider than Napoleon's original.

Rodrigues is a very pleasant, somewhat sleepy place. This is a major street at a busy time fo the year.

At Rodrigues we had to do some sail repairs to the jib as stitching along the foot had just worn away. Here Kristian and Wynne take their turn at it. It is a slow process to replace hundreds of tiny stitches by hand. We have a sewing machine onboard but it is not up to penetrating several layers of cloth. Have to give North Sails a lot of credit for this sail. It has been up for more than 20,000 miles, often in winds stronger than it was designed for. The cloth is still strong and the sail shape is not bad. There have just been wear and tear issues, for example, chafe of stitching when the sail is partly furled. It was repaired in Brisbane and again in South Africa. Touch wood, it should complete the circumnavigation still in decent shape.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Mea culpa, mea culpa - an ocean behind #2 (to Cocos I)

From Christmas to Cocos-Keeling Island is about the same distance as Bali to Christmas. In total it is about 1100 miles from Bali to Cocos Island, which is actually an atoll with several islands around a very shallow lagoon. The sailing was lovely although we ran into the same problem of going too fast so we would arrive at night - and you really, really don't want to try to enter here in the dark.

And the crowd says action shot. Every so often you have to fix something in an awkward location. One of 'Morley's' (the Monitor vane) control lines snapped on the way to Cocos so it meant climbing down to attach new ones. The point of attachment is about mid-calf with my feet dragging in the lovely water that was almost 30C. Harness is attached because it is a  long swim to anywhere. Note the fishing line with rubber snubber behind the vane. We enjoyed five mahi-mahi on the trip across the Indian Ocean - Kristian was a very keen fisherman.

Cocos is also Australia territory, but has little practical value except for its strategic location well out into the Indian Ocean. There was action here in WWII and even WWI when a German raider was sunk by an Australian cruiser. It was also a refuelling stop for military aircraft in WWII and for early airliners going between Australia and Africa. Today it extends Aussie sovereignty far to the west. Other than that it is only a drain on the Australian economy. The only jobs for the population of 600 are with the government and most people receive some form of welfare or unemployment insurance. There is a minor tourist industry but it is very costly place to get to, so few tourists come. But it is loverly!

Cocos is also a significant destination for refugee boats although these ones come from Sri Lanka which is much further away and hence a more dangerous trip in the crappy old boats they use, with no trained or experienced crew. There is a small naval vessel on watch here and while we there they took several boats that been seized out to sea to burn.

For most of its history, Cocos-Keeling was owned by a Scottish family who imported labour to produce copra (dried coconut). As such it was part of the British Empire. After the family business went belly-up, the islands were British. A referendum was held to decide if they should become part of Indonesia or part of Australia. In spite of proximity and cultural links, the people chose to be part of the rich, democratic country rather than the poorer, autocratic (at the time) one.

The beach at Direction Island is stunning.

Cocos has excellent snorkelling including through 'The Race' a pasage next to Direction Island. You drift through here with the current and see what there is to see. These pictures were taken with our new underwater camera. It is built into a diving mask so you just point your head and reach up and push the button.

Cocos is very susceptible to cyclones (hurricanes, typhoons - call them what you will). Also the entire island is only a few feet above sea level at most. Storm surge would easily cover the entire island. They have a robust cyclone shelter on Home Island just in case.

Memories of Suwarrow in the Pacific. The lagoon in Cocos is well-populated with sharks. The ones in the lagoon are black-tipped reef sharks which we have swum with before and are now used to. You don't have to go very far to find tiger sharks though and they are an entirely different thing.

Mea culpa, mea culpa - an ocean behind #1 (to Christmas I)

I do apologize for not keep this up-to-date but between being very busy and often being in places that do not offer good (or affordable) internet I have fallen an entire ocean+ behind. We are now in Richards Bay, South Africa but I will tell the story in chronological order because that is easiest for my simple mind.

The last posting got us as far as Bali but did not really cover the island at all. A few Bali comments are in order. First, it is not at all like the romanticized image we have of it. The island itself is quite beautiful with high mountains and even a smoking volcano. Secondly, it is not like the rest of Indonesia. The population is largely of Indian ancestry and hence Hindu. Add to this the fact that there are still many Moslems and a big expat and tourist presence and it is a very busy, interesting place. Traffic can be terrible with many cars and trucks and an incredible number of small motorcycles  There are dozens of large hotels and it surely must rank as one of the world's largest tourist destinations with huge numbers of Aussies and Europeans - when  you wander down the street of the tourist area there are restaurants advertising Foster's beer and 'great tucker', that have satellite TV showing foreign sports. Perhaps it would be best to describe it as an interesting place - if not an entirely  pleasant one.

To get to the harbour in Bali you have to pass through the strait between Bali and  Lombok. Currents can be strong,  although they tend to be favourable if you are heading south and there are lots of big ships, including supertankers. Smoking volcano is in the back. 
For our Indian Ocean crossing we had, for the first time, crew. Wynne is American and Kristian is German and they turned out to be competent crew and pleasant companions. They had experience on tall ships in the US and had crewed across the Pacific. Before joining us they had been volunteering in a remote village in Laos. After reaching South Africa they plan to find a sailboat (perhaps a delivery) to Europe, before settling down to a more 'normal' existence in the US. Wynne was waiting to hear about acceptance for a PhD program while Kristian would be finishing the editting of his second novel (first draft completed on the voyage) and looking at job and educational options.

From Bali our first stop was to be at Christmas Island which is an Australian possession about 530 miles away. The Aussies have demonstrated some common sense here by not having the ridiculous $330 quarantine fee that they have on the mainland. All you need is a visa (ours had run out and we were able to get one online in Indonesia. You also have to send them an email at least 96 hours before arrival to say you are coming.

This short passage went very well. We had an unusual second day. We picked up a terrific current and were moving at 8.5 to 9.5 knots. The problem was that this pace was going to get us there in the early part of the night, and I am never comfortable going into a strange harbour (or anchorage) in the dark - although in this case we could have done so. Anyway, I decided that we needed to slow down which was a bummer because we were going so fast and comfortably. Even with 11 hours of slowing down we still did 183 miles for the day. Without slowing down I suspect we would have had about a 210 mile day which is 17 miles more than our best ever. Oh well. We managed to get to the island at about 7 am which is what we wanted. The bottom there is very rocky and deep and the government have banned anchoring to protect the coral. Instead they have installed about six very good moorings which was helpful.

This is the anchorage (actually mooring field) at Christmas Island. We are on the right with Beach House, an American catamaran next to us.

The economy of Christmas seems to be based on two industries. The first is the mining of phosphate rock. During our time there two relatively small freighters loaded. The process took less than a day. The other 'industry' is dealing with illegal immigrants, largely from Indonesia, although others are from countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan. The immigration officer we talked to said that it is not unusual for some of these people to have first class stickers on their luggage from their flight from home to Indonesia. There is a large detention camp on Christmas that holds a couple of thousand asylum seekers, although just when we were there the government passed a new law that would have most of these people held in camps in Malaysia and Niue (a now mined-out phosphate rock island in the Pacific). Most refugees are granted admission to Australia but it can take several years for the processing.

The phosphate loading dock is critical to the economic health of Christmas Island. There is no dock as such. Freighters merely tie to a series of large mooring buoys. They have done a very nice job hiding the mining infrastructure, except for this dock of course.

When we were at Christmas the Australian navy 'caught' an asylum-seekers boat. I say 'caught' with tongue firmly in cheek because they want to get caught and will often call on the radio to give their location. This boat had about 60 people on it who were taken ashore on a couple of the local boats (one seen here). There is no crew on these vessels. The smugglers buy a cheap vessel in Indonesia, show the people on board how the engines work and how to use a handheld GPS and send them on the their way. Last year one of these vessels ran into the rocks around the island and 100 people drowned. The navy burn the smuggling ships after removing fuel and other dangerous materials.

Christmas Island had a very nice community feel, although judging by the size of the liquor department at all of the grocery stores, I suspect it might get a little boring. Prices are very high though since most things are flown in. A nice Chinese cabbage, for example, was $12!! Our inner stay arrived by air and cost $200 for shipping from Perth (it weighed something like 7 pounds).. They have a permanent outdoor movie theatre that shows a newish film every Saturday night.We went and saw the most recent Batman film. 

There are a couple of sets of blackboards like this in the centre of Christmas. They had everything on them from what movie was showing on Saturday to what the specials were in the restaurants and who had a house to rent. There also was an island radio station. Pretty good for an island of 1400 people. We had a chat with the owner of the hardware store whose daughter was running in the New York marathon. The whole family was going to cheer her on and the island got behind her since she was raising money for cancer research. Not sure what happened when the race was called off because of Hurricane Sandy.