December 29, 2015

Indian Ocean 2015--Notes from the Northern Route

On New Years Eve 2014 we didn’t have much of a plan beyond, ‘get to Malaysia’. We’d just spent eight months cruising Australia and Indonesia and were thinking about a leisurely explore around SE Asia, when the three of us suddenly realized we were ready to start for home. Between us and Vancouver though there were still a couple of oceans, and the Indian Ocean was looming large.
it's time to get this teenager home...
 When we originally conceived the idea of sailing around the world—the plan always included the Suez Canal. But then, pirates. Still, more than 15 cruising boats ventured through the canal this year—but many had the added hassle and expense of armed guards and weapons aboard: a choice that wasn’t for us, for a whole host of reasons.

So this left two options: Take the Northern Route across the Indian Ocean—leaving in February. Or hang out in SE Asia for a few more months and take the Southern Route. The Southern Route is perhaps better known: Cocos Keeling, to the Mascarene Islands and on to South Africa (with the option of adding Chagos and Madagascar). It’s a faster route (boats leave as late as September and arrive in South Africa in November) but the passages are longer and the rough weather can be rougher.

In contrast, the Northern route covers more miles, more countries and straddles two cyclone seasons. It’s a route we hadn’t even considered before friends on Totem showed us their passage plans—but then it looked ideal: interesting countries, pleasant cruising and shorter passages. In retrospect, the trip was perfect for us.

Country #1 Trincomalee, Sri Lanka
March 5-19
Passage: 1100 nm from Langkawi
Fee: Visas $30 USD per person, agent and harbour fees $218 USD
Notes: We had a 30 day visa but opted to leave after an inland trip and some local exploring.

After being held up waiting for parts in Langkawi we arrived in Sri Lanka a little later than planned. Our disappointment faded quickly though when we were welcomed into Trincomalee by officials who were clearly bemused by the large number of yachts who were making the formerly off limits port their Sri Lankan port of call. While the harbour is great, and well protected, until addtional ports are opened to cruisers the true reason to visit Sri Lanka is the inland travel. In a week long trip we covered tea plantations, national parks, ancient cities and more. Highlights included cycling through Anuradhapura and seeing a leopard in Wilpattu National Park. This was also where we first met the wonderful crew on Morning Glory—dear friends who went on to make the Indian Ocean a very excellent journey.

Country #2 Uligamu in Haa Alifu Atoll to Gan in Addu Atoll Maldives
March 25- May 24
Passage: 720 nm from Trinco
Fees: Approx $900 for visas, cruising permit and agent fees for a two-month visit.
Notes: While the cruising fees are very high, a second month didn’t add much to the total fee. We also found that there was very little beyond basic groceries to spend money on—so our overall expenses in the Maldives were quite low.

We straddled the monsoon in the Maldives. As we moved south the monsoon moved north—so we ended up with a stormy week near the end of our stay but beyond that had good weather. The charm of the Maldives is being able to day hop your way down the chain of atolls. We had spectacular diving, explored some interesting villages and had many little islands completely to ourselves. Two months felt like a good period of time to make it down the atoll chain without feeling rushed. The tricky part of the Maldives is there's limited fresh food (the eggs, ugh...)—we should have carried more from Sri Lanka.

Country #3 Chagos BIOT
May 27- June 23
Passage: 285 nm from Gan
Fees: £50 for a one week permit up to £200 for four weeks
Notes: We needed to prove our yacht insurance included wreck removal and that we had medical evacuation insurance. Several boats used DAN as their proof of evacuation.

Chagos is a dreamy stop—though a deeply complex one. It’s the place I spent the most effort trying to make sense of in stories for both the BBC and Vice (be sure to watch the fabulous video by Aline from Shakespear on the BBC link). Our big worry with Chagos was having enough food from our stop in Gan to last the month in Chagos and then get us to the Seychelles. In retrospect it wasn’t such a big worry. Paula on Evita wisely suggested putting aside passage food early on during our Chagos stay—then the fishermen (Andrew on Utopia) kept everyone in fresh fish for the duration. With new boats arriving every so often the potlucks stayed interesting and no one went hungry.

Country #4 Seychelles
June 29-August 18
Passage: 1000 nm from Chagos
Fees: The fees varied with different boats experiencing different charges. We paid approx $500 USD excluding park fees.
Notes: Six weeks was longer than we needed for the Seychelles but Evan was having an infected root canal treated so we ended up hanging out in Port Victoria longer than planned.

I’m not sure I can give a fair review of the Seychelles—we didn’t cruise around that much and our main exploring was around Victoria. I think the three of us were a bit worn out by the time we arrived and quite happy to park, but if I had it to do again I would have shortened our stay in the Seychelles up and given ourselves more time in Madagascar. Overall we loved the hiking and exploring, but it was an expensive stop. Provisioning was excellent though.

Country #5 Comoros
August 22- September 5
Passage 800 nm from Seychelles
Fees: Our first taste of Africa came with a flexible fee structure. Visas came in at 30 Euros PP, Port fees at 50 Euros a boat, Police and Gendarme fees that were as much as 40 Euros each and an agent fee was set at, "whatever you think my services are worth."
Notes: Our informal agent Maketse in Mutsamudu was well worth his flexible fee.
Phone: 002693324340

Very few boats stop in Comoros and it’s definitely not for everyone: that said, we loved it. But if we hadn’t already checked into a number of moderately challenging and quite poor countries our first impressions of Comoros may have been enough to make us flee: there’s no official garbage collection (much of it is burned at the edge of the sea or dumped into ravines), pointing and yelling are part of basic communication, and the French spoken doesn’t sound like the one you learned in high school. But from the way the wind smells like y’lang-y’lang and the streets are scented with cloves, to the bright colours the women wear and the way the kids wave from dugout canoes Comoros is almost a cliché. The market is vibrant, the medina is intriguing and the people are quick to smile and laugh (and return your change when you overpay and walk away.) It’s just not an easy place—but it is very rewarding.

Country #6 Madagascar
Sept 7- October 26
Passage: 230 nm from Comoros
Fees: $100 USD
Notes: Best for last
An early Halloween party kept the kids in tune with the seasons--or something like that.
So much of Madagascar was wonderful. We loved catching up with (and getting to know better) cruisers who took different paths across the IO and who all arrived in Madagascar within a few weeks of each other. It was great having our friend Allison visit and to play tourist with her. And easy protected sailing and a friendly, low key local population made Madagascar a dreamy stop. I could list a dozen reasons why I loved cruising here (here are four) the gist though is it combines everything we set off to find: it’s beautiful and intriguing, affordable and unique and the food is yummy.
Crossing the bar at Bazaruto
 Country # 7 Mozambique
November 1-5
Passage: 680 nm from Madagascar
Fees: $40 in park fees
Notes: We never checked in but sought shelter here

We went for two walks on the beach and that pretty much comprised our Mozambique experience. The bigger bonus was getting a chance to know the awesome crews of Crystal Blues and Sage better as we sorted out weather.

Country #8 South Africa
November 10
Passage: 513 nm from Mozambique
Fees: None!!
Notes: In progress. So far, quite excellent.

** Fees and distances are to the best of my recollection and figuring, they may not be accurate.

December 13, 2015

The Delights of Durban

If I know anything about a destination, it’s that your results will vary. Depending on who you’re with, what the circumstances are and what your mood is, it can be love, hate or something in between.

Durban had everything stacked against it: all we’d heard was it was dangerous and dingy and a brief visit reinforced the idea it was worth skipping. Well, best laid plans and all that… Instead of a 36 hour weather window that would last long enough to get from Richards Bay to Port Elizabeth, ours became a 20 hour weather ‘crack’ which let us leap 80 miles down the coast in a very boisterous 10 hours. Once in, our friends found us snug spot in the marina and we hunkered down for blow after blow.

the apartheid museum
At first it looked like we’d only be in port for a day, or three, and then we’d be back on the Christmas track to Simons Town. So I hurriedly planned some exploring, including a memorable curry lunch at the quirky (and gorgeous) Oyster Box hotel. One of my favourite
curries was a local chicken and shrimp version—something I can’t wait to try and replicate with the curry spices we were given.

Next up was the fabulous Phansi Museum—with its incredible collection of Zulu art and artefacts. The assistant curator, Puhmzile gave us the kind of informative (and very interactive) tour through the collection that ensured we could envision what everything was used for—even when we’d rather not.

The puppet room at the Pahnsi demonstrated different cultural dress
My next morning was taken up with an architectural tour of Durban. The benefit of this turned out to be two-fold (three if you count the nice long walk with our lovely friends on Sage): it was great to see the cool buildings, which ranged from gorgeous old Victorian confections (including one that houses the apartheid museum) to funky art deco towers; but it was also good to get a sense of how safe or dangerous Durban really is. It turned out once you’re in the main shops district, Durban doesn’t feel much different than a big US city. And later that day I took Maia and Rivers in for some much enjoyed non-mall shopping and people watching.

Bushman paintings in the Drakensberg
Ley and Neil on our hiking trail
As fun as Durban is proving to be—we’re eager to get south. But with weather windows (and cracks) proving to be elusive, we’re continuing to explore. One huge highlight was a daytrip out to the Drakenberg. We’d been throwing around the idea of going for a couple of weeks and finally made the move with our friends Neil and Ley. The area was even more stunning than we expected and the wide vistas, great hiking and intriguing cave paintings gave us a much-needed jolt of wilderness peace.

At the risk of this turning into a, ‘we did this, this and then this’ post, next up was a fab night out at an incredible jazz bar called the Chairman. After searching through lockers for very uncruiserly pants, collared shirts and dress shoes (that would be the guys) to meet the dress code, we spent the night on cozy sofas, drinking bubbles and enjoying great music and a very cool scene.

checking out the wall of vinyl covers at the Chairman
So now we’re a week into our unplanned, unwanted stop. Today is a carvery lunch at the yacht club, tomorrow may be the beaches or aquarium. After that we hope it’s a weather window south (we really, really do). But in many ways Durbs has been a gift—it’s the reminder that as much as we try to plan, schedule and stay in control, we can’t. Our best option might be a cliché; take what comes and make the best of it. But honestly embracing uncertainty with a smile, and a night out at a jazz club, isn’t always the easiest response. But it is the most rewarding.

* Durban shots thanks to Tony on Sage and the Chairman shot is from Ley on Crystal Blues

December 7, 2015

Safari on the Cheap--South Africa


I have to admit, after nearly one month in South Africa—we may have spent more time in the mall than in the parks. But while the mall has been excellent for replenishing tired wardrobes and scoring tasty $3 bottles of wine, it’s the parks that offer the indelible memories.

There is nothing in the world like driving around a bend and being confronted with a wild animal that seems to have leapt straight out of a nursery school rhyme. It was either the moment when a mama zebra cuddled her baby (awww…) or when a giraffe had a peak inside our car to check out Maia that I pinched myself and realized, ‘I sailed to Africa.’ Actually—thanks to our dear friend Krister, from Britannia—I’m really good at taking that big inhale and just knowing in my soul that, ‘We’re in Africa, man” (or Madagascar, Maldives, Indonesia...)

But the zebra, she took it to another level.

Thanks to some South African friends, we had the inside scoop on how to do safaris on the cheap long before we got here. Skipping the 10k package deals, we rented a car and headed to Hluhluwe/iMoflozi National park, where for about $20 each we got admission to the park where we could self-drive to our heart’s content. And that night we stayed in traditional rondavels in Hilltop camp for less than $100 (including breakfast).

Our first animal came less than 10 minutes into our drive. A young bull elephant was using the road we were traveling north on, to head south. In elephant vs car Rules of the Road this meant we drove in reverse until the elephant found another path. We later learned the elephant was on the move in search of water. This part of South Africa is three years into a major drought—a sobering detail that was to come up again and again as we explored the parks.

In part, thanks to the drought, the animals were exceptionally visible during our two-day visit. All the water holes were dried up (except for an area where they were trucking in water for the elephants) so the animals were on the move—constantly foraging for leafy greens. And while the park had a good number of visitors, most of the time it was only us with them.

After two full days in Hluhluwe/iMoflozi (we had hoped for a second night but it was booked out) we headed to St Lucia to see hippos. Hippos! Staying in the cute town we enjoyed the sensation of being tourists, and then went on a wonderful boat cruise. Once again for less than $20 we were able to enter a national park and get an up close and personal view of some of South Africa’s animals.

December 3, 2015

Manson Boss Anchor 18 month review

For several years we have been using our much loved aluminum A140 Spade anchor (33 lbs). It had held in a "weather bomb" - which sustained winds over 80 knots. The weather bomb story.

But this aluminum anchor has a bit of a weak spot:  the shank. It bent slightly in the bomb (maybe 5 degrees) and perhaps a bit more in French Polynesia, where we caught it on a coral head, and loaded the shank sideways in very strong current and a squall at the same time. So it was time to think about a slightly more robust anchor. We've kept the Spade as a a backup because for the weight, it's still a great anchor.

We have been using a Manson Boss anchor for the past 18 or so months, from Australia to South Africa. We stayed in a marina for about 5 days in Australia, and about a week in Malaysia. Otherwise we have been anchored, so we have some good long term experience with this anchor. We have used it in sand, very soft mud, normal mud, coral sand, coral rubble, and small boulders about the size of bowling balls. No thick sea grass or weed to test it on.

Stowing it on the roller/deploying: the curved shank makes it very easy to self deploy and it self stows in the upright position.

Setting: It sets very quickly, much like the Spade. The Spade always seemed to like >3:1 to set, but we've got this one to set on 2.5:1 scopes in tight quarters. As usual, in mud it takes time for it to sink a bit before applying lots of reverse with the engine.

Dragging: yes, a few times. Townsville, Australia has to have the soupiest mud I've ever experienced. We tried repeatedly to get it to set and it would just pull through the stuff. What came up with the anchor was like pea soup. Very difficult ground for any anchor. The Alor islands of Indonesia have deep anchorages and corally rubble bottoms. We try to never anchor in coral, but sometimes the options are few and the sun is setting. We anchored in very deep water, with limited scope due to local boats being close. Strong currents but not wind - and we woke up the next morning about 100-200m from where we had dropped the hook. I think we may have just hooked some coral rubble then popped free when the current switched directions. Overall it certainly has shown no bad faults in this area

Holding: Strongest sustained winds we've sat on the hook have been in the Maldives with over 50 knots for 10 minutes in one squall, and 40 knots for much longer. Its surface area is considerably greater than the Spade, so I think it should do as well in stronger winds.

Issues: the shank has a nearly full length slot - " Brand new patented Manson Shackle PreventorThe Manson Boss has one slot in the shank with two docking stations to enable you to use your anchor in all seabeds. The patented Preventor quickly unscrews and docks on the alternate station to transform the anchor from a fixed shank to a sliding shank for operation in foul ground. The Preventor is captive which means you won't lose it.

This is a waste of effort and weakens the shank. I don't know anyone who would really use this feature. The last thing I want is an anchor that unhooks itself with a sliding shackle. If the bottom is that foul, don't anchor there! The small plastic washer that holds the s.s. bolt in place to keep the shackle from sliding deforms if you tighten it too much

Really minor - but the s.s. bail over our anchor roller does a good job of scraping the galvanizing off the top of the shank. I'll have to cover the bail with a better protective foam collar instead of the wrapping of rope which always gets dislodged with time.

So that's it. It's a nice anchor, reasonably light for its huge surface area and seems to hold in strong winds.

November 18, 2015

South Africa and/or Bust—a tale of camera gear

It's hard to imagine we'd forget a moment of this trip, but memories fade and photos help keep them close

In our last port before Richards Bay, every single boat we talked to had something that needed repair. Most of us had a lot of somethings that needed repair. The broken gear ranged from biggies like engines (inboard and outboard), dinghies that were on their last legs (or tubes), ripped sails and sail covers, damaged rigging and cranky autopilots to small (but vital) things like rusted out bras (yes, that’s a thing) and worn out bedding.

But for us, the #1 item on our to-do list was to fix our damaged camera equipment.

Because we shoot for both money and memories we have quite a bit of gear aboard. The first time we went cruising, when all of our lenses developed fungus (more on that later), we realized sailing and cameras have an uneasy relationship. And over the course of sailing across the Indian Ocean we proved this was true. We damaged one our main 17-55 F2.8walk-around lens (and may or may not have permanently killed the 7D camera) during a surprise downpour on shore. An older 24-85 lens succumbed to massive fungi infection, while our much loved 10-22 super wide angle took a tumble and broke in half.

By mid Madagascar we were down to our 12-year-old SLR body and a bit of an odd assortment of lenses including two telephoto lenses, an 18-55 that would only communicate with the camera intermittently and the infected lens. Based on our mishaps and experience we learned a few things:

Maia was taught to wrap her sari by tea plantation workers--i love the sweet memory and the photo reminder
Fight the Fungus:
Fungus is an infestation of spores on the outer (not so clean) surfaces of your gear which then germinate and produce more spores on the internal glass surfaces. The damage ranges from cloudiness to opacity and the way to tell if you have it is to hold the lens up to the light and look through the glass for signs of spores. Because there are a lot of fungi options you're looking for anything that's white or grey and may range from faint spotting in one corner to spider webbing across the entire surface.

While camera repair shops do offer to clean fungus, more often than not the delicate work is cost prohibitive. Even if you can get it cleaned for a good price (shops in SE Asia offered good deals) the lens surfaces may be permanently damaged by the metabolic products of the fungus, which destroys the non glare coatings and etches the lens. And even if you're successful getting it cleaned chances are the spores are still there and eventually the fungus will come back.

If you do find fungus, segregate that lens and look into having it professionally cleaned (see above) to prolong its life until you can replace it. If you’re spore free keep in mind that humid salt air is terrible for camera equipment. I’ve learned from a couple of pro shooters that lenses and the internal workings of cameras can develop fungus in as little as a week, especially if you are in a hot and humid environment or if you go in and out of air conditioning frequently. Zeiss warns it can develop even sooner; in relative humidity of at least 70% it may only take 3 days.

The Maldives offered dramatic and complex contrast--something I made sense of later as I went through our photos
Clean and Store:

The key to protecting your gear is keeping it clean and storing it in a dry place. Many pros recommend wiping down the external surfaces of your bodies and lenses with clean cotton rags lightly soaked in alcohol—this helps remove all the ‘food’ for the spores and also removes any salt that’s accumulated. Then you want to store your camera in a dry box with silica gel packs. We use rechargeable ones like these Dry Packs. Keep in mind when storing or carrying your gear that you should avoid leather, fabric and wood containers.

We keep one small drybox in a handy place so we can grab the camera quickly, while the big box with lenses and the backup body are stored in a different place. When you go to shore, don’t forget to pack your camera in a dry bag—or at the very least bring along a heavy Ziploc—just in case.

The Seychelles looked like a postcard
Go for Redundancy:
Even if your photos don’t contribute to your income, they probably contribute to your trip and will definitely contribute to your old age when (if you're like me) you’ll need them to jog your memories. If you shoot SLR it can’t hurt to have a spare body and lens kicking around (check for used and reconditioned gear). If that’s out of your budget, look for a point and shoot that takes decent pictures. But keep in mind if you’re main gear fails, you’ll be relying on back up gear so make sure you like it.

I found our 12-year-old 20D was a big step down from the 7D and recalled immediately why we had upgraded before sailing. Because the results were so disappointing (and super contrasty) my photo output from the middle of the Maldives onward dropped dramatically. When we got to South Africa one of the first things we did after dropping of all the gear for repair was to upgrade our backup equipment to a reconditioned 100D. Not only is it a good backup, but its light weight and compact size make it a great walk-around camera—something we were missing, despite all the gear we carry.
I hope to always recall the colour and life of Comoros
Protect your Photos:
At least once a month we hear from or about someone who’s lost their photos due to abandoning a boat, having a computer stolen, being hit by lightening or experiencing a run of the mill computer crash. Repeat after me: backing up isn’t enough.

While we do backup to at least two hard drives: we backup weekly and keep one in a waterproof container in our ditch kit (dry bags are not submersion bags and their contents will get wet). We also go a step further; we keep all our photo files located somewhere off our boat. Backing up to flikr or the cloud works for people with regular and fast internet, but many of us don’t have that. Our method is to send a hard drive with all our pictures on it home at least once a year. Hard drives are cheap and compact and offer great insurance.

So that's us and our gear. We're always happy to learn more--so if you have more tips please share away.
and lemurs--just because

November 7, 2015

It takes a village-to cross an ocean

Papillion takes on the bar at Bazaruto
Sometime in the next 36 hours we'll find our feet planted on solid motion-free South African soil. If I had any champagne, it would be chilling. 
But we drank the last bottle of bubbles in pretty Moramba Bay while celebrating our Thanksgiving. And as much as this passage deserves marking, we'll have to wait for pub drinks with our little passage making fleet.
Leaving Bazaruto was carefully timed for high tide and diminished wind. Even still the bar crossing left us grateful for lots of past experience. The confidence that our friends on Crystal Blues showed when they plunged into the breaking seas first, reassured the bar crossing neophytes that crossing was possible.
Even more than the Pacific successfully crossing the Indian Ocean has shown me how important our 'village' is. The sense that someone has your back has been profound. While early cruising was much more about encountering locals these days it tends to be more about the company you travel with. With only rare exceptions its easy to move between fleets of boats and be warmly included and made welcome.
We'll miss our tight knit International fleet as we move from the Indian to Atlantic. But first, bring on South Africa!
Papillon makes their first bar crossing at Bazaruto. With a series of 8-10 breaking waves in 3 meters of water, it was a nail biter.

November 1, 2015

Mozambique-shelter from the storm

On the weather GRIB, the approaching low kind of looked like an invading force: Little magenta weather feathers multiplying and marching toward us—bringing 4 meter waves along with them. As the nasty weather feathers advanced, Evan and I used electronic charts overlaid with the approaching low to look at our options. If we held our speed we'd be into Bazaruto before the main army of wind. If we picked up the current we'd we could even bypass Bazaruto and hit the harbour 100 miles further south—but that harbour didn't offer the same protection as Bazaruto, and the stormy weather would overrun it first.

The prudent option was Bazaruto—and when we realized at least eight other boats would be taking shelter here—including friends that needed assistance with engine problems, we opted to duck into the national park.

In a perfect world we'd hoped to make Richard's Bay in one shot. Different from most passages, the trip between Madagascar and South Africa juggles a number of elements which makes route planning more complicated than normal. Not only do you have to have to pick a suitable weather window for an 8+ day passage (when most weather forecasts are really only accurate about 4-5 days out) but you need to decide where to start and end a passage to make the best use of the whirling eddies of current which can run several knots in any direction.

The result of the excessive number of variables is everyone has an opinion. And everyone thinks their opinion is best. But opinions about passage making often end up seeming like opinions about parenting. Most of us only do a passage once and we take in as much information as we can and then do what we can with the conditions we're given. Then despite all the research we've done, nature and circumstance take over. We get the kid we get and the passage we get.

For us—we decided that we wanted to cross the Mozambique Channel at its narrowest, where it offered the best consecutive positive current run and where we could have a bailout option if the weather deteriorated: which it will and so we did.

So we're safely tucked into a pretty bay—with soaring sand dunes, dugongs in the water and friends floating near by. It's all a stormbound sailor could really ask for.

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October 28, 2015

Sailing to South Africa

If you asked us six years ago if South Africa (or Madagascar, Comoros, Seychelles, Chagos or the Maldives) were part of our cruising plans we wouldn't have been sure. For many of us out here this is the ocean we never planned to cross. The Suez canal through to the Med was easier and more alluring (and for Europeans which make up a hefty percentage of IO sailors-it's more direct). But then, pirates. And the decision got tougher. 
But we crossed (almost: knock on wood, make a sacrifice to Tiki, get those bananas eaten...) And now I get to contemplate South Africa.
We're about 1/3 of the way to Richard's Bay. Aside from the first squally night (40 knots out of a little cloud, surprise!) It's been mellow enough. Charlie is out of hiding and the meals I prepared before setting off are being consumed.
While we've had some bumpy and uncomfortable moments we've also been blessed with a bright full moon and clear skies.
So it was sobering when just south of Madagascar a boat was lost while we were sailing along. Fortunately, like the other for boats lost this season, the crew of two was rescued by a passing container ship.
Still it reminds us why we were wary of this ocean. And why so many boats chose pirates over potential storms this year. It will be a great thing to have the Suez canal become a safe route for cruising boats again one day. But with a few hundred Indian Ocean miles to go I'm grateful that circumstance sent us here.

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October 23, 2015

Four Reasons to Sail (and love) Madagascar

With our time in Madagascar quickly running down I wonder how I will remember this magical place. Every country we’ve ever visited (except maybe Tonga) has always been my favourite while I’m there. Immersed in the place I get mesmerized by the culture, intrigued by the politics and inspired by the landscape.

wild sifaka lemurs in Moramba Bay
But Madagascar really is my favourite.

It’s not my favourite just because of the lemurs, the brilliant sailing, the yummy rum, the incredible encounters with manta rays, turtles and giant groupers, or the way the women dance in a way that defies both physics and physiology, or because of the kind of genuine smiles we’re graced with, dozens of times a day, which make you think the world is a really great place.

dancing happens everywhere
It’s also not my favourite because plastic pollution hasn’t taken hold here yet (and the grocery stores in Mahajunga are getting rid of plastic bags so it won’t), and because subsistence living doesn’t necessarily mean abject poverty, and because we can go out for dinner and drinks on under $10. It’s my favourite because combined, all these things make Madagascar ideal for cruisers—it’s exotic, accessible and affordable.

ox carts are almost as common as cars in many places (and more common in others)
1) It’s a sailing country:

Unlike anywhere we’ve ever been, the age of sail came to Madagascar and never left. At sunrise the dhows drift out in the first whispers of wind. Lanteen rigged sails made of canvas or rice sacks and patched with old clothes are set on long yards of lashed together branches. As the breeze fills in the huge sails billow and strain against the willowy tree trunk masts. Filled with all manner of passengers and stuff (fruit, palm fronds, sand, chickens or granite stones) the crews set off with whoops and hollers to cross the wide bays on the sort of dependable breeze that makes motors seem like a foolish investment.

When we sail (race!) beside them we’re amazed by their speed. And gratified by the kind of wind that means during our travels around Madagascar we’ve only burned 40 litres of fuel (most of that because we were impatient and didn’t wait for the twice daily wind shifts). And the boats are beautiful—hewn from logs or built from raw timbers they have the kind of ancient grace that makes sailing seem noble.

And if sailing is noble, sailing around the world must be a worthy thing. Here, more than anywhere we’ve ever been, the idea we sailed here, and will sail to the next faraway place, makes sense to the people we meet.
How else would we travel?

2) Friendly Villages

Maia's dolls found a welcome home
In Moramba Bay, dugouts stopped by the boat each day to trade. Inevitably we’d offer too much for the fresh crab and prawns—but for years we’ve been keeping a box of useful things we no longer need for this very purpose. So a crab would be offered and we’d pull things out of the box: leftover fabric, empty jars, an old pot that never fit on the stove. Items would be selected and another crab would be added to our pile. Then the cadeaux (gifts) would be exchanged: a toy for the paddler’s daughter, bananas for us.

the girls claimed the pink soccer ball and we got a month's worth of mangoes
The trades needed to be fair—we’re not to give too much or it changes the balance from trade to charity. Even though the people are dressed in rags. Rags.

So we visited the three small villages to try and get rid of more stuff without getting too many crab. Each was a tidy cluster of thatch huts. One had a dhow under construction, another had a dugout being hollowed out, and the third had an injured grandfather who needed medical help. We gave out more things for the children, trying to explain they were cadeaux—my child had grown, their children could have her toys and clothes. For the grandfather we went and got medical supplies—then we decided the other village probably needed supplies so we made up another bag.

Later that night the crab arrived, and then the prawns, and the mangoes and bananas.

no diapers on the babies leads to less waste, but you need to cuddle with caution
The next day another boat was going to visit the villages so we asked them to check on the grandfather. Each boat since has been to see him and give him care. He’s healing and the crab is still being given out.

3) It’s Wild:

Andrew on Utopia let us know about the manta rays outside the entrance of Honey River. Stretching 4 meters from wingtip to wingtip the bigger of the two was trying to mate with the smaller one. The action was all on the surface—between our four boats we spent two hours watching them swoop and circle. The way they circled under and around the boats it seemed to us that when they weren’t busy trying to make baby rays they were equally curious about us.

we think they thought they were hiding
It’s not just the undersea life (and the fishing) that’s been remarkable. We’ve seen wild lemurs, incredible bird life, boa constrictors and chameleons. And when we walk the long beaches in some places we’ve been more likely to find shards of ancient Sakalava pottery than modern garbage. Subsistence living means that people haven’t learned to depend on plastic yet. Glass bottles and glass jars with lids are coveted and kept.

4) It’s Affordable:

gorgeous pulled thread table clothes that can take weeks to make sell for under $20 table runners ara less than $10
I would say cheap—but good value seems the better way to describe it. Because the things you can buy—boxes carved from hardwoods, carefully decorated fabrics, dried vanilla beans and various essential oils are all lovely quality. They just cost very little. What we don’t see here is much cheap plastic stuff. It’s not a disposable culture. Even when we traded for crab people would look over our offerings very carefully to make sure they were well made and would last.
From a cruiser perspective—while there are no marinas or big chandleries all the basics are here. There are mechanics and craftsmen and people to dive your boat and scrub the bottom. And then there's the food: fresh and delicious with enough French influence to make it a welcome change after an ocean of fish curry. And everything costs a fraction of what it would in other places. It would be easy to spend a long time here.

But while we love it—South Africa is beckoning (and rainy season is approaching). So we’re hopping down the coast while waiting for a weather window. Collecting more memories and more reasons to love Madagascar.