Monday, July 13, 2015


Abandoned Resort is at the Beach

It was great to have the company of Mark and Rosie on their Fraser 41, Merkava,  as we sailed across the Indian Ocean.  We were never more than a half-dozen miles apart and always within VHF radio range.  Their arrival off the coast of Nosy Lakandava, a small island just a few miles off shore of the country of Madagascar, was worthy of a standing ovation, which we were happy to provide.  It was still well before noon when Mark and Rosie dropped their anchor in the calm waters near us and in just a few moments they had their dinghy in the water and came over to Rutea, saying, “It’s time for a cocktail!” as we abstain from drinking while we’re underway.  All of us were exhausted from the passage from Chagos and no one needed much convincing that the chores could wait a day.  It felt luxurious to be at anchor, the pressure of being on watch finally suspended and the ability to sleep the entire night through a tantalizing respite.

Our energy increased the next day as the four of us piled into Mark and Rosie’s dinghy for a little exploring.  The islands that dot the area are mostly uninhabited and the limestone has been carved so that from a distance it resembles a drip castle made by children at the beach.  One particularly fun place to explore was an abandoned resort for climbers which were made entirely from materials collected from the beaches, giving a whole new definition of ‘rustic’.  The ‘rooms’ were built inside of caves, the furniture all made from driftwood, there being no mattresses it would be a stretch to give it one star but you had to give someone credit for their effort.  Also nearby was a nature reserve which provided guides for the 1.5-kilometer walk.  Ruthie was foresightful enough to know that we’d need to pay for the guides but since we hadn’t yet been to ‘civilization’, we had no ariary, the currency of Madagascar, so she piled together some fruits, vegetables, rice and the guides where happy to waive the fee in exchange for what promised to be a square meal for them.

As we made our way south towards Nosy Be (Nosy means ‘Island’ in Malagasy, one of the official languages of Madagascar; the other being French), where we could clear in, we were stunned by the level of abject poverty.  Of the 187 countries in the world, Madagascar ranks as the 177th as far as wealth is concerned.  We made sure that we had containers of rice to give to those who approached us in their very crude dugout canoes.  Most of the people who approached us brought something with which to trade – a few eggs, a handful of limes, a bunch of bananas and we never tried to negotiate a ‘good deal’.  It broke our hearts to see these people in rags and their futures appear to us to be so bleak.

As we approached Nosy Be, we were in contact with friends who stopped at Nosy Sakatia and took a ferry to Nosy Be, avoiding the notoriously high crime city of Hellville.  We followed suit and anchored off a very nice resort whose owner used to be a cruiser himself so he was very helpful in getting us lined out on the procedures, places and people.  After a few days, though, we were feeling more brave about getting closer to Hellville and moved over to Crater Bay where there are more facilities, stores, restaurants, etc.  In fact, there is a ‘yacht club’ at Crater Bay and we stayed on one of their moorings, ate dinner at their restaurant and connected with other cruisers in the area.  The village of Dar-es-Salaam, near Crater Bay, was home to many of the work boats that ply the waters of Nosy Be.  They’re powered exclusively by sail, their fragile rig ideal for the very light winds of the area.  As the morning starts to heat the air on land, an offshore breeze fills in and the boats set sail.  In the late afternoon, as the land starts to cool, the breeze reverses direction and the boats return home, expertly sailing through the crowded mooring field of shiny, white yachts, the juxtaposition not being lost on us.

After a couple of days, we felt the urge to explore some more so we headed out to a highly spoke of anchorage called Russian Bay, about 20 miles away.  Once again, we found ourselves in an isolated and remote place that was beautiful.  However, I wasn’t feeling so well so I stayed on the boat while Ruthie, Rosie and Mark went ashore.  By the time they got back, Ruthie wasn’t feeling very well either.  I recovered quite quickly but Ruthie got worse.  Feeling very vulnerable and poorly prepared to deal with a serious illness, we motored back to Crater Bay, where Ruthie’s fever continued to climb.  The conventional wisdom is that you only go to a Madagascar hospital if you want to die but there is a private, Italian clinic and we were encouraged to go there.  The doctor spoke pretty good English and we left there with a long list of prescription medicines for the pharmacy to fill.  Ruthie started to get better but it was a slow healing process.  I was grateful that we have a son who is a medical professional and he made himself available for consultations continuously.

We knew that we wouldn’t be staying in Madagascar for long as we had long planned to spend part of the northern hemisphere’s summer at our home in San Diego.  With the 1,500-mile passage from Nosy Be to Richards Bay in South Africa looming, we decided to just make one more stop before we left the country.  The island of Nosy Kumba is famous for lemurs and we didn’t want to miss them.  It was a very short sail from Crater Bay and even though we were anchored in plenty of time to have dinner ashore, it was still a little early in Ruthie’s recovery process to venture to a restaurant.  The next morning, however, Mark and Rosie rowed over and pick us up for a trip into the hills of this almost perfectly round island.  We were required to have a guide and he was a pleasant gentleman who was able to coax the lemurs down from the trees.  They seemed shy but eager for the handout of a banana.  On our way down from the hills we were able to shop for local handicrafts with local perfumes being very popular.  Once back on the boat, we weighed anchor and made our way to Hellville, where we checked out of the country and got our port clearance papers.  The following morning we said goodbye to Mark and Rosie – even though we knew it would only be a few months before we’d see each other again, it wasn’t easy.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Salomon Atoll, Chagos Archipelago

This post is being written out of sequence.  We arrived in Chagos on the 22nd of April and departed on the 22nd of May, 2015.  With no internet access in the uninhabited Salomon Atoll, I wanted to wait until I could post photos.
Rutea at Anchor Near Pakia Tea.  Photo by Tom Puchner

The Salomon Atoll lies about 300 miles south of Gan, the southerly-most island in the Maldives archipelago.  The atoll is a rough round shape if looked from the air, bordered by Île Boddam on the west, Île Takamaka on the east, Île Anglies on the north and Île Fouquet on the south.  The entire atoll is no more than 5 kilometers across.

At one point, there were inhabitants at Île Boddam and there are still ruins and a dilapidated cemetery as testimonies to their existence.  The jungle is quickly reclaiming its ownership of what’s left of a once-thriving community as the roofs of the buildings have long disappeared and now trees grow up through the building’s foundations.  More on what happen to the Chagosian people later.

Sundowners at the 'Yacht Club'

Even though the anchoring is poor and the prevailing winds make it a lee shore near Île Boddam, that’s where most of the visiting yachts drop their hooks.  We joined the fleet there and though we never had an incident with our anchor holding, we were never completely comfortable there.  However, the lure of the cruising community was strong and we enjoyed being near friends, getting together for sundowners on shore and the occasional visits via dinghy.  Though the water visibility wasn’t very good, we frequently saw black-tip reef sharks and leather-back turtles swim by.

One particularly squally day, we decided that we needed a change of venue, pulled up our anchor and steamed to the other side of the atoll to a small sandy-bottomed gap in between Île Takamaka and Île Fouquet.  Our two marine biologist friends, Tom and Sonja, were anchored there on board their 51’ all-electric Wharrem cat, Pakia Tea, with their 3-year old son, Keanu.  We felt like we were in heaven,  The thick sandy bottom grabbed our anchor securely and the water remained flat even if the wind came up as we were in the lee of the island.  The bulk of our friends were now 3 kilometers away but we came to treasure the time we spent with the Pakia Tea family.  As scientists, Tom and Sonja were able to explain so much of what was going on around us but it was their kindness, humor and energy that instantly made them close friends.  From time to time Tom and Sonja would need to do some underwater research and they would ask us to watch Keanu, which we gladly did.  Even Keanu seemed to enjoy his visits with us and quickly learned that we didn’t speak German so he would switch to his limited English.  One night when we were having the Pakia Tea crew over for sundowners, Ruthie spotted a manta ray swimming by.  Tom quickly excused himself, jumped into his dinghy, went back to Pakia Tea for his snorkeling gear and camera and jumped into the water.  He was able to capture world-class video of the giant manta rays feeding just off our boat, unusual in that mantas rarely feed inside a lagoon.  The next day, Tom and Sonja came over to pick us up in their dinghy and took us to snorkel with the mantas, a completely unbelievable experience.  The grace and beauty of these huge creatures is nothing short of remarkable and after a time, Tom and Sonja were able to identify 9 different mantas swimming right around our boats.  Sometimes all four of us adults would be swimming while Keanu manned the dinghy that was being towed by his swimming mother or father.
Keanu aboard Rutea
Peppered Eel

Our stay off Île Takamaka was enhanced by the ability to go ashore and completely walk around the island – but only at low tide.  It felt so good to get some exercise but especially in this remote and wild place.  The tide pools created by the lack of water offered some views of sea life that we had never seen before – like a peppered eel attacking and eating a crab, tying itself into knots to develop enough purchase to break apart the tough crabshell.  Too bad we didn’t have the camera with us that day!

Why a strong current developed remains a mystery to us.  After 10 days of being anchored off Île Takamaka, the current began to make us uncomfortable.  We don’t think it was specifically related to the tides as we had already been there through a full moon with no current at all.  Regardless, we tore ourselves away from the precious company of Pakia Tea (for crying out loud, we were only going 3 kilometers away!) and reanchored ourselves off of Île Boddam again.

One night, one of the boats in our fleet brought a laptop into shore to show a documentary about the Chagos Archipelago which can be found at  We were all intensely saddened by what the British had done to the Chagossian people, which, in my opinion, is a crime against humanity – the World Courts agree – and we also felt guilty that we were able to enjoy a visit to their previous homes while they were not.  Coincidently, while we were staying in the Salomon Atoll, the British Indian Ocean Territory patrol ship, Pacific Marlin, a 60-meter trawler, brought descendants of those who used to live on  Île Boddam back from Mauritius where they now live – 800 miles away – for a one-hour visit to the cemetery.  The irony and tragedy was not lost on us – people who had lived on this island for 200 years – whose ancestors are buried here - were allowed a one-hour visit while those of us foreigners who were visiting on yachts were easily granted a four-week permit.

The BIOT patrol boat, Pacific Marlin, makes frequent visits to the Salomon Atoll and boards every yacht to inspect their mooring permit.  Once anchored near the lagoon’s entrance, large, military-style RIBs are deployed, manned with substantial crews.  Their boardings, while innocuous enough, are still intimidating.  One particularly squally day, the RIBs approached the anchorage late in the afternoon, just as the sky was turning an ominous dark black.  The BIOT crew boarded Amigo, a Najad 37, with our friends, Helga and René on board, whose permit had expired a few days prior.  We watched in horror as we saw Amigo lift its anchor and slowly steam through the lagoon, darkened as though night had fallen even though it was hours before the sun would set.  I later spoke with René on the radio and he said that the BIOT official told him that if he stayed another day he was at risk of being fined £1,000.  The BIOT officials quickly back-pedaled, realizing that if Amigo was damaged or lost, it could be an international incident but the intrepid crew of Amigo was able to make it to the island of Rodriguez, 800 miles away, safely.

Regal Angelfish Pygoplites diacanthus
We did a lot of snorkeling as we waited for a weather window to make the jump to Madagascar, our own mooring permit expired and through a series of emails to the London office, we were able to talk them into a one-week extension, although they warned us that no further extensions would be granted and if our desired destination was unobtainable with the existing weather conditions, then we should choose a different destination.  It’s not that the weather was bad but rather the lack of wind that troubled us.  Our fuel was getting low and we were left with a limited range for motoring.  Granted, we’re a sailboat and theoretically should be able to make it anywhere without diesel fuel but we also need fuel to generate electrical power as we suspect that there might be a couple of people who might get irritated if we didn’t send emails at least occasionally.  So, even with a light winds forecast, we weighed anchor on the 22nd of May in the early afternoon and left the Salomon Atoll.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Chagos to Madagascar

Our 11-day, 1,600-mile passage started out on 22 May when we weighed anchor at Île Boddam in the Salomon Atoll. We had to motor out of the lagoon but it wasn't too much after that when we were able to cut the engine and begin sailing. The wind was light so we were able to stay in visual contact with 2 other boats that are on the same route for a long time.

Our weather router, Bob McDavitt, had assumed that we'd be able to make 150-mile days but the wind was too light for that. As a result, this put us behind schedule, as far as our weather route went. From time to time we'd run the engine to get us past a particular windless spot but we only motored for a total of 20 hours, with ten of those hours at the very end of the passage.

Our clearance of the Mascarene Plateau, a shallowing of the ocean floor in the middle of the Indian Ocean, had us concerned for rogue waves as the depth goes from 3,000 meters to 20 meters out in the middle of nowhere. Nothing happened but it did create a little anxiety for about 15 hours as we made our transit across it.

The weather became more boisterous as we continued west and squalls plagued us frequently. It was common for a squall to pack 40-knot winds, forcing us to scramble to adjust our sails. The squalls would form from nowhere and could disappear just as easily but often would travel the same direction as the wind. During the night, we'd use the radar to track them and we were continually amazed at how quickly they could come and go. Though we were never frightened, there were times when we'd just get weary from the constant effort that they demanded.

The very northern tip of Madagascar has the nickname of the Witches Cauldron, as the Indian Ocean meets the Mozambique Channel, creating steep seas and potentially dangerous overfalls. One of our guide books suggested clearing the tip by 20 miles to the north, which we did, but it left us with having to beat an extra 20 miles back south into squally headwinds and rough seas. It seemed to take forever and at one point the autopilot couldn't cope with the conditions, forcing me to hand steer for many early morning hours. Eventually the conditions became calmer and we were able to re-engage the autopilot.

One of the best benefits of being here is that it's significantly cooler than the places we've recently been to. I actually had to put a shirt on for the first time in a long time a few days ago and last night I was more comfortable with a light jacket on - the first time I've worn a jacket since I was in Nepal, 8 months ago.

Since we only anchored here this morning and could only scrape together enough energy to complete the most basic of chores, we haven't been able to explore much. So far, the small islands at which we're anchored remind me of some of the uninhabited islands of the Sea of Cortez. The water is not clear but the air has a freshness to it that we like very much. The humidity is lower so things finally seem to be drying out. We'll probably stay here a few days while we scrub the salt off of Rutea and then move on south.
At 6/2/2015 2:59 PM (utc) Rutea's position was 12°15.51'S 048°57.66'E

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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Halfway Around the World

Screen Shot of Our Chart Plotter as We Crossed Our Halfway Around the World Way Point
In late 2010, as Ruthie, Corie and I were in the final throes of preparation to cross the Pacific and head for points further west, occasionally someone would ask how long we anticipated we might be gone. "Three or four years," I would say, shocking the person asking the question. Who goes traveling for three or four years? It's rare that someone goes for three or four months and even three or four weeks can be seen as a lengthy trip amongst many people. Our present passage across the Indian Ocean is where we have crossed our halfway mark - 062°46.17' East. I calculated this coordinate based on the longitude that's printed on the cocktail napkins at the San Diego Yacht Club. Who would have thought that a cocktail napkin would be the source of information for a navigational computation? Granted, we're not at SDYC's antipodal - we'd have to travel almost 1,500 miles south from here to reach the exact opposite side of the world to do that and there's some very rough water down there.

So, our trip is longer than planned. Amongst our cruiser friends who are also on the Round the World route, we're going much too fast as we've only been gone 4 years, 5 months and 17 days. There are cruisers who have spent that much time in Southeast Asia alone and quadruple that for their own RTW route. There is so much to see and so much we have missed that often when we're making a decision about what we will see and what we won't, we kiddingly say that we'll see the missed sights on our next time around. Our perspective on time has certainly shifted - while in Southeast Asia, time was divided by the monsoons and now that we're heading to the higher latitudes of the southern hemisphere, we once again concern ourselves with the traditional four seasons.

If we're now halfway around the physical world, does that mean it will take us another 4 years, 5 months and 17 days before we get back to San Diego? That's hard to say. This year will see many miles under Rutea's keel while last year saw virtually none. We should be in Madagascar by early June and we'd like to be in South Africa by July, however, we'll be transiting the Mozambique Channel in the beginning of the southern hemisphere's winter and it has a nasty reputation even in the best months. Still, we know of people who did it last year and there's excellent weather forecasting available so we're optimistic. If things go according to plan, we'll fly home in August (hopefully visiting our son in the UK first) and then return to South Africa in November.

This passage has been good so far but the winds have been very light and we have a very limited amount of fuel. Our criterion for starting the engine is if our speed drops below 3 knots per hour and it's entirely possible that we might have to adjust that down even more. On the other hand, our weather router for this passage has warned us that we will need to brace ourselves for the high winds that are usually found around the northern tip of Madagascar. It might be uncomfortable but at least we should make good time. The weather now is fine - hot to be more specific - the Indian Ocean is a deep sapphire blue, the sky bright blue spangled with puffy white clouds.

This lifestyle still appeals to me. The people we've met, the friends we've made, the places we've seen, and even the long passages at sea have made durable memories that are my treasure. Rutea remains incredibly solid and her systems continue to function well albeit with the occasional hiccup but that's part and parcel to cruising. Our expectations have been exceeded. We journey on, confident in our ship and ourselves.
At 5/27/2015 2:49 PM (utc) Rutea's position was 08°59.58'S 062°34.63'E

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Friday, April 24, 2015


We actually arrived at the entrance to the lagoon at about midnight but only a fool would try to enter without broad daylight. So we hove to until about 0730 when we felt the sun was high enough so we could spot the coral heads. With Ruthie at the helm and me perched on the bow, I was supposed to be our 'google eyes' that would hopefully prevent us from wrecking Rutea on a coral bommie. Our anchorage was to be about three miles away and we were eager to get our hook down as it had been something of a challenging passage. I had no problem with running the engine at normal cruising RPM and we were making good time in the flat water. I suddenly saw the water starting to shallow and a split second later a bommie appeared right in our path. "RUTHIE!", I shouted, "HARD RIGHT!" Ruthie spun the wheel quickly and we were able to miss an almost certain disaster by a few feet.

We're no strangers to bommies. After much time in the South Pacific and more recently in the Maldives, I think we're pretty good at spotting them. Perhaps it was still too early in the morning to have a good view but this bommie wasn't apparent until we were almost right on top of it. We slowed the engine to a speed barely above idle and picked our way across the rest of the lagoon.

Nine other boats were anchored here already, a couple of them known to us. The choice of spots to drop the hook was terrible as the bottom is solid coral. Sure, you might be able to get the anchor to hold (but, then again, you might not) but retrieving the anchor that's well-hooked on a big piece of coral might take putting on the scuba gear, diving down to free it or just abandoning the anchor altogether.

The islands are thickly covered with palm trees and a thin strip of sand separates the water from the trees. The water does not have the visibility that we were used to in the Maldives but I have been able to see several large reef sharks from Rutea's deck, which is always a good sign.

Not only were we tired from lack of sleep for the last three days but the weather is extremely hot and humid (one of my favorite bumper stickers reads "I know Hell is hot - but is it humid?"). We took it pretty easy, only doing the chores that were absolutely necessary to get the boat out of the passage mode and into anchorage mode. Sundowners were on a nearby boat and once back on Rutea, deep sleep came easily.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Still Underway

Our breeze held up almost all day yesterday and we made good time except for a strong east-setting current which took us far off course. We were hard on the wind the entire day which can be tiring but at least we were able to sail. Things got quieter at night and the squalls were less severe than they had been. I think we're getting better at dodging them.

This morning is glorious and we're able to make almost 4 knots per hour in slightly over 7 knots of breeze. The seas are a little lumpy but we're in good spirits and everything is working well. Our fleet has spread out quite a bit but we still have a visual on our friends on Merkava.

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