All posts by Atea

Captain Morgan’s Cousins

While I am not prone to laughing at the expense of others, there are times too precious to resist my evil twin. I have a handful of favourite quotes from fellow cruisers that make me smile whenever I reflect on comical moments throughout our years afloat. An Australian made one of the best (and one of the most outlandish) statements when we were hanging out in Thailand contemplating whether or not to sail into the Indian Ocean. “There’s nothing for me in the Indian Ocean,” he loudly stated. Whaaa?!… buzzed my brain. In an entire ocean, NOTHING AT ALL?!

When we set our sights early in 2013 on a transit through the Indian Ocean, Madagascar was the buzzword. After reading numerous accounts of cruisers experiences of their IO crossing, we’d locked on Madagascar as the highlight of the Indian Ocean experience. IMG_0524.jpgThrough the narratives of our friends we painted a picture of wild territory where only the intrepid dare wander; where life was so poor and remote that to visit was to step back in time a century. It was a country that had been so cut off from the larger world that you’d encounter species of animal only previously seen in David Attenborough’s documentaries of lost species. If for no other reason, we were going to transit an ocean to experience this forgotten world. There was something for us in the Indian Ocean, and that something was called Madagascar.

Our attempt to cross the Indian Ocean and get to this enigmatic land had been thwarted twice: Once in February 2015 by a pregnancy that didn’t happen and a second time in January 2016 by a medical crisis. By our third attempt in June 2016, it was either Go IO or Bust. IMG_8307.jpgAs we pushed out into the Indian Ocean we couldn’t know then just how rich and rewarding the Indian Ocean was going to be for us. Looking back now, after two years spent trawling through her waters, I can assert that there is oh-so-much on offer in the Indian Ocean – and we made the most out of our commitment to explore it. We’d hit highlight after highlight: The diversity of Sumatra, the comedy of Cocos Keeling, the beauty of the Seychelles, the natural wonder of Chagos, the colorful dynamism of India, the underwater magnificence of the Maldives and the cultural richness of Tanzania. And now, finally, the jewel of the Indian Ocean lay ahead of us.

Yet with the country at our doorstep, I was dragging my heals… Should we go? At the time we were in the Quirimbas, a network of atolls in northern Mozambique, and we were loving it. IMG_9030The islands were breathtakingly beautiful and there wasn’t another boat in sight, the reefs were ablaze with life and the corals healthier than we’d seen anywhere in the Indian Ocean. Humpback whales filled the bays, as mother and calf sought protected waters until their newborns were big enough and strong enough to make a safe migration back down to the southern ocean. I was in heaven. For all our anticipation and expectation of Madagascar, I didn’t think anyplace could compete with the beauty and richness around us. I didn’t want to go. The pearl of the Indian Ocean could wait, if only we could have just one more year in this ocean that “holds nothing.”

 As it was, we were short of time and needed to make a decision. We had already cut a month off our Madagascar timetable by including Tanzania in our route – a decision that proved well worth it not only from a traveler’s perspective but from a mariner’s one as well. The passage southwest towards Madagascar is a notoriously challenging one with winds on the nose and huge southerly swells. There is no shortage of reports that indicate the passage southwest across from the Chagos or the Seychelles to Madagascar is one of the most damaging to boat and soul. IMG_9656.jpgBy choosing a westerly run to Tanzania, we turned the wind and waves to our beam and had a fantastic run from the Seychelles to Tanzania; we negotiated the north flowing current by staying close to shore and picked up the southerly Mozambique current just 300 miles south. From Mozambique we would be in the wind shadow of Madagascar, which would protect us from the strong weather that sweeps across the Indian Ocean. Ultimately it was extra miles and more motoring, but a very pleasant and non-demanding run.

Having fallen in love with Mozambique it would have been easy to cast aside all prior plans; had it not been for a longstanding interest in Madagascar and a depletion of our rum we would have done just that. IMG_1207But holding tight to a philosophy based on making the most out of any situation, or as John puts it, choosing a and b AND c when given the option of a or b, we decided we would regret coming all this distance and bypassing Madagascar all together. Plus, we’d spent weeks hyping the kids up for a trip to the land of lemurs and we were only 500 miles away. For the adults we also knew that Malagasy rum was only a few days distant and no matter how prolific the humpback numbers or how extravagant their display, life onboard a boat is just not as much fun without a bilge full of rum.

There was also the consideration of John’s 50th birthday – a year that deserves special attention. It had been John’s hope to be sitting on Malagasy shores to toast a half-century and our general timeframe made this target a viable one. IMG_9384However, as we delayed week by week in East Africa that window had quickly diminished. We progressed down the coast into northern Mozambique and we were taken aback by the absolute wonder of the Quirimbas and the proliferation of humpback in every anchorage. IMG_9961How could we leave with daily displays made by such majestic creatures? We waivered and debated and struggled to make a decision, and finally committed to a Madagascar run. However, soon after we pulled anchor and sailed west we received an email that our cruising mates on S.V. Dallandra were only hours away and prepared for an early 50th celebration. It was ironic having spent so long deliberating on departure and committing to that hard-made decision, to then turn the bows around and head back to where we’d just come from – but hey, a party awaited in John’s honour.

At dusk we turned the boat around, 20 miles towards our destination, and retreated. Navigating coral waters after dark is not something to take lightly, but we pulled in under starlight by carefully following our GPS tracks and settled in for the night. In the early morning we woke to the mast of our mates approaching, and then watched as it suddenly stilled… a grounding on perfect, pristine reef. IMG_9864.jpgKnowing we only had the day to connect and that we’d be waiting four hours for the tide to turn, we moved Atea over and a proper 50th bash commenced. What made this day memorable was the pristine beauty that surrounded us. IMG_8636We enjoyed total isolation from the outside world with no stress, worry or preoccupation. We swam in clear, temperate waters with whales within sight. We enjoyed a complete silence other than our chatter and laughter and the occasional sound of air rushing through a blowhole. We rounded off 49 with cruisers who’d become our close friends, and we had no obligation in this remote corner of the world other than to laugh, play and enjoy, and to fully live in the present moment.

What a finale to Mozambique… we had daily sightings of humpback whales throughout our time in the country but none were as demonstrative as on that day. IMG_9970.jpgAs we swam we had whales pass by us; as John blew out his candles we had mother and calf swim between the two boats; as we cracked a bottle of champagne we had a single whale raise out of the water to slam its body back into the sea with a huge displacement of water around it, a clap of sound and a spray of water as a salute to John’s next fifty years of life. I don’t think any fancy affair or extravagant party could compete with the magic of that day. Thank you Kate, Tom and Marley for calling us back for an epic birthday celebration.

In the evening we raised our anchor and sailed past Dallandra as we headed back out to sea. We sat on deck as we drifted out of the channel and watched the sun set on the horizon with dolphin and whales silhouetted in the evening light. IMG_0028The boat was pointed due east with 500 miles of flat sea ahead of us. We knew while we wouldn’t get a beating by sailing to Madagascar in the shadow of its landmass, we knew we would struggle to get any wind to propel us forward; while it is physically demanding to push a boat through extreme conditions, it is mentally demanding to slog through flat seas with the repetitive drone of an engine. In addition to the noise and the expense of fuel, there was the knowledge that our faithful diesel was only running as a result of our constant care and attention. IMG_0439We were chewing through alternator belts, we had oil pressure issues and we had to prime the water pump on every start – so another three days motoring imposed its own anxiety. But with the experience of whales behind us and the excitement of lemurs ahead, we were full of the richness of our experiences and looking forward to what lie ahead.

However, after three days of brain-rattling engine noise, we were ready for a break. Given Mayotte lay ahead of us and was reputed to have the Indian Ocean’s best collection of French wine, cured meat and cheese, our detour was not surprising. We pulled in just before dark and dropped anchor in the first viable spot; not twenty minutes later we were blasted with spotlights from a large darkened RIB, and the police were on us asking for our paperwork. DCIM102GOPROGOPR3055.JPGAfter a polite but professional welcome, we agreed that we could stay the night but would need to make our way around to the other side of the island the next day. DCIM102GOPROGOPR3067.JPGAfter a quick morning snorkel on one of the healthiest coral reefs we’ve seen, we were escorted through the inner lagoon by a pair of adult humpback whale towards the main clearance port. We’ve mutated the mariner’s superstition from “never leave port on a Friday” to “never arrive in port on a Friday,” though no matter how many times we say it we invariably arrive on Friday. Mayotte was no exception. IMG_0296We traversed the 25-mile lagoon to arrive at port control at 16:30 to be greeted by an empty office. Immigration held the same quiet reception. In theory you are not to leave your vessel until you’ve cleared in however we could smell the aromas of French cuisine floating through the air and we were too weak to resist its aromatic beckoning call. We defied protocol and enjoyed a fantastic meal ashore. In the morning we tried to clear in again but were told by Border Control to return to our ship for the remainder of the weekend and try again on Monday when offices were open. Clearly the French influence was thick here, and with it the French work ethic. And so we defied protocol again and spent the day enjoying the quaint seaside town and indulging in the exquisite local cuisine. Come Sunday we decided it best to bail when the going was good, so we pulled up anchor and said farewell to Mayotte as the authorities continued their weekend siesta.

Turning to the ocean again, we were now only 150 miles from Madagascar and could almost smell the rum. Of course, sailing so far to store up on rum isn’t just to satisfy a personal fancy… it is to uphold a longstanding tradition and fulfill our duty as sailors. Rum-slogging seafarers date back to 1600s when rum was brought onboard ships as an incentive and payment, often being of more significant value than silver or gold. While rum isn’t used as payment on Ātea, it is used as an incentive to get us through a hard afternoon’s slog. Come midday when the sun is high and the deckhands have run the captain and quartermaster weary, there is nothing that beats grabbing a quiet moment with a cold, refreshing rum. And so, it was with great sadness that we said farewell to our last bottle of Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum at the end of our time in Mozambique. With the bottle still sitting empty at the bottom of our rubbish bin, we pulled into Madagascar to a warm reception put on by Captain Morgan’s sumptuous and seductive foreign cousins. Goodbye spiced Morgan, hello sweet Malagasy rum!

Nowhere have I met such a varied collection of extended kin and it took us no time to become acquainted with them all: Vanilla, banana, pineapple, orange, honey, chocolate, coffee, coconut, kaht-flavoured goodness. With such an assortment of liquid extravagance, what’s not to like? DCIM102GOPROG0013431.JPGJust like the 300,000 other tourists drawn to Madagascar each year to play witness to its unique biodiversity, we traveled 500 miles out of our way to indulge in diversity of a different kind. Like a scientist committed to discovering every nuance of similarity and difference in a single species, we dedicated ourselves to uncovering every expression of intensity and richness of flavour in every bottle of rum, each as unique and varied as so many other plant and animal species endemic to the country.

Through our rum-fogged euphoria we discovered the beauty of northwestern Madagascar. Located 400 kilometers off the southeastern African content, Madagascar is the fourth largest island nation in the world. Splintered from Africa some 135 million years ago, it has maintained an African cultural heritage tinged with a hint of French colonial rule. Having gained its independence from France in 1960, the influence of its foreign master is still evident in the language, food and social dynamics. Locals are fluent in both French and Malagasy, and it is often hard to get by without an understanding of the fundamentals of either language. IMG_1906.jpgYou can buy the typical local produce off the street then walk into a market and buy an assortment of French wine, cheese and cured meat. If you are an old knackered Frenchman, you can also buy a poor, young Malagasy woman and the evidence of this inequitable relationship is everywhere, particularly in popular regions where tourism and foreign expatriates have found their niche. Regardless of its now apparent popularity, it is still a poor nation by any country’s standard with 70% of the Malagasy people living below the poverty level and an average annual income of US$400. With a monthly income of $33, you can see the disparity that exists between the local population and its expatriate imports.

The western side of the country has a rugged beauty about it, with lateen-rigged dhows peppering the seascape and a landscape of parched, dry earth. IMG_0532One of the most diverse places on Earth, Madagascar offers much more than merely a haven for alcoholics looking for cheap fruit-flavoured rum. Once a destination solely for the intrepid, now tourists flock to her shores to experience a slice of remote isolation with the perks of a collective network. With 11,000 endemic species of plant and 175,000 endemic species of animal and a mind-blowing 90 percent of the total plant and animal species endemic to the country, the world has now recognized Madagascar’s uniqueness and the diversity it has to offer. IMG_1463.jpgUnfortunately, for many species this global recognition has come too late. While the country has the highest biodiversity per capita in the world, it has suffered massive habitat loss – with about 90 percent of its biologically bountiful forests wiped out by logging and slash and burn agriculture, and many of its regional forests reduced to 4% of their original size.

I would have loved to travel to more remote regions of Madagascar where the word ‘intrepid’ still holds true, but we didn’t have the time. We had two months in country and so we focused our travels in Nosy Be, a small-sized island located eight kilometers off the northwest corner of Madagascar. Named “Big Island” in the Malagasy language, Nosy Be has 75,000 inhabitants living in an area three-quarters the size of Singapore. IMG_0812.jpgNosy Be is generally regarded as the largest and most popular tourist destination in Madagascar, and the island has monopolized on its popularity by offering an outcrop of guesthouses and restaurants, nature tours and guided trips to surrounding islets. There is a small but established yachting and fishing charter industry and Hellville – a very unfortunate but appropriately descriptive name for the island’s main town – provides an active night scene with boisterous bars and throbbing nightclubs. While “off the beaten path” is attainable in most reaches of the country, it is a bygone reference in these parts. It s the most expensive destination by two-fold, where the cost of food and the price of accommodation is double what you’d find throughout the rest of the country; that said, our propensity for local rum at $5 a liter rum puts cost into context. Regardless of its international draw, there is still a laid-back feeling to this hub of Madagascar activity and we slotted in quite nicely to the slow pace of life.

In yachting terms, Madagascar is now a stock standard stop in the cruising circuit across the Indian Ocean and Nosy Be is where all yachts eventually congregate. IMG_2081In the height of the season it is buzzing with activity, and it is not just foreigners who crowd the anchorages. Yachts mix with dhows as they vie for room in the bay. Nearly all the local trade is transported in sailing craft and local mariners are masters of handling engineless solid wooden boats as they gracefully slip past the modern lightweight plastic yachts with inches to spare. Well, that is, masters of craft most of the time. IMG_2075.jpgWe were witness to an incident where a local dhow misjudged their approach and scraped past one yacht to go full broadside into another – the latter a spotless 60-food luxury yacht. The owners were good-natured about the incident and, after assessing damages, even better natured after inviting Captain Morgan’s cousins onboard to commiserate with them. Out of craving and consideration, we joined them.

Another of my favourite quotes came from my son who, at age three, took to telling all the restaurant staff, “I like beer. I like it all day long.” So it was for us with rum in Madagascar. For non-rum drinkers, what is there to do in Madagascar other than to drink rum all day? While the temptation to slip into a drunken stupor is very enticing on such cheap booze, there is so much on offer in Madagascar that warrants the occasional cap on the top of the rum bottle. IMG_2704For one, there are the lemurs – non-aggressive, gentle, and curious. Once spread across the country, extreme deforestation and population growth have reduced their territory and their numbers. Out of the seventy-one different type of lemur still in existence, currently all are listed as endangered species. IMG_1593Nosy Be has capitalized on their pull on tourists and there isn’t a stop where you don’t see them bounding through the trees – wild but habituated to human contact, incented to stay with handfuls of daily bananas. In almost every stop we made these gentle, docile creatures would leap from the trees with cat-like agility and land on a shoulder with a soft velvet touch. Unlike their raucous monkey cousins, lemurs are a model of good manners and patience.

If you’ve had your fill of lemurs and need to clear your head after a visit from one of the captain’s cousins, there is nothing better than going to sea. The sailing conditions in Madagascar are remarkably good. As the world’s fourth largest island, Madagascar is big enough to generate its own sea and land breeze – with a regularity with which you can set your watch to. IMG_0814With a reliable 15-knot afternoon sea breeze on the beam, sunshine in the sky and green shores gliding past one can easily forget the early morning promise of “never again!” and enjoy a perfect afternoon sail with rum in hand. You may take a dip in 28°C waters unspoiled by plastic litter, perhaps the result of extreme poverty levels that mean locals cannot afford to buy western packaged goods. IMG_1854You may sit back and watch the procession of sailing dhow glide past as they transport cargo up and down the coast. You may gaze out on the thatched houses that dot the hillsides, all made with organic materials that make Malagasy homes eco-friendly by design rather than fashion. You just may top the moment by looking over your rail to see a humpback or whale shark gliding past, the gentle giants who grace these shores every year from June to November.

Many yachts take advantage of these conditions to enjoy a cheap cruising ground. The anchorages are numerous and well protected, the locals are pleasant and the costs are minimal, and in season the winds are predictable. IMG_1417Since Ātea has followed an unusual route this season and arrived in Madagascar late and from the ‘wrong’ direction, we were out of touch with most of the Indian Ocean international fleet. The majority of our compatriots had already departed for South Africa and only by a stroke of luck and bad weather did we reunite with our good friends on S.V. Ngalawa for a bash out and birthday do. IMG_1911Instead of reconnecting with the international fleet, we fell in step with a mix of resident charter boats and South African cruisers. Just as New Zealand and Australian sailors frequent Tonga and Fiji, so do the South Africans frequent Madagascar – just one passage from home and all the delights of a foreign world lay afoot. Team Ātea jumped in and did all that we could to join in the fun with our new friends, with the captain’s cousins trailing close behind.

 As Ātea and her crew loiter in the midst of a shiny fleet of newly baptized boats and cruisers from South Africa, our own sea miles continue to add up. Ātea has sailed over 30,000 miles since we started this adventure and it has been nearly two years since our last haul-out and maintenance period. The rust streaks are getting longer, the oil leaks are getting worse, the genoa furler is unreliable and we rely more and more on our backup systems, the skippers toolkit, our experience and plain old good luck. We have run out of fingers and toes to cross and safe anchorage at the end of each day is greeted with a sigh of relief, closely followed by a call to the Captain.

 And so, we drank our way in and drank our way out in true Malagasy style: To the rum-flavoured fruits from the Garden of Eden. GOPR3620.jpgAfter a daily assembly over a two-month period, it was time to move on. We made our acquaintance with Captain Morgan’s Malagasy cousins and, with a dedication of time and attention, our tight bond was quickly forged and it is only at departure that I can look back and see how interwoven the relationship had become and to know, with absolute certainty, that a forced separation was necessary. But then, how were we to know, and how could we be blamed?

 Having made our dash out to Madagascar, and having thoroughly enjoyed it, we are ready to return to Mozambique. The next leg takes us west again, to a small bay just south of the Quirimbas and to a friend of mine from a lifetime ago. IMG_3091We leave one amazing country to return to another amazing country, in an ocean that “holds nothing” for another but holds a world of wonder for me. We head back to unfinished business in a country we only touched, to eek out what we can of our time in the Indian Ocean before the turn of season demands our departure. With our bilges fully stocked with Malagasy rum, we are ready to tip our glass to the shores of Mozambique, to the migrating humpback whales that transit down the coast, and to friends from life past.

 Tomorrow we raise anchor for the last time in Malagasy waters and depart this unique land. It has provided happy days and happy nights and deserves its place as a “must do” on the Indian Ocean cruising circuit. IMG_2207The dependable and undemanding weather, the attractive and secure anchorages, the colourful and culturally distinct people, the unique encounters with rare species both below and above the water and, of course, the ever-present taste and smell of flavoured rum permeates our minds and our memories. Tonight we raise our glass for the last time with Captain Morgan’s raucous cousins and seal a special friendship, and toast to the memories made that will span a lifetime.

Moments of our time in Mada: Photos

Footnote – we actually departed Madagascar in late October 2017 but have been characteristically late in getting this article to press!
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Tanzania – An Endhowed Gem

My bloodshot pin-propped eyes have just logged 4,867 images into my brain of snapshots of our time in Tanzania. While the visual onslaught has left me cross-eyed and numb, the catalogue of moments spun in succession makes me realize how different an experience our time has been from the average khaki-clad tourist. I knew our cruising experience would be different for us when we set sight on East Africa, stripped of our palm-fringed beaches and string of pearly isles. I expected that our panorama would be replaced with a long stretch of bone-dry red dirt and parched baobab trees, and that we would slip into safari-mode as we tootled off with a bunch of other gawking cheetah-spotters to trek through world-class game parks. What we didn’t realize was that top-rate was synonymous with top-price. At several hundred dollars per head per day, the wonderful wilds of Africa was going to be a very expensive affair. Given the extremely high cost of the top-tier game parks and the distance we would need to travel from coastal Tanzania to get there, we knew we were out of budget and far too removed for any serious safari trekking. After researching our options we decided to skip the East African parks in wait for the cheaper, more accessible reserves of South Africa. With Mount Kili and The Geti in the scrap bin, I thought we’d miss what East Africa was all about – 4,867 blurry photos of spots, stripes, ivory and horn hidden behind a bone-dry veil of wheat-coloured grass.

Rather than the safari-mania we’d invisioned, it was a quick adjustment to realize we were going to experience a much less “Trip Advised” Africa. By the time we’d hit this realization it didn’t matter – there was much more to East Africa than the Big Five and we’d already fallen in love with our less-hyped experience. We were off on a back alley tour of Tanzania. While we wouldn’t be out tramping around the bush with a rifle-toting scout or trinket-shopping in a Maasai village, we were hanging out with locals in places far off the tourist path. For me, therein lies the best that travel has to offer: Off-beat, authentic, and unexploited. As I sort through our 4,867 images, what dawns on me most is the richness that “off the beaten path” offers: To seek your own route brings with it an authenticity of experience and a uniqueness of encounter that the tour-schemes are generally void of. Not that I advise anyone with the chance to game-drive East Africa not to jump at the opportunity – the Serengeti and Ngorogoro Crater are truly one of the world’s most incredible natural wonders – but they are only a part of the richness that is East Africa and there is much that extends beyond the countries top-ranked attractions.

Tourism is one of East Africa’s leading economies, with thousands of international visitors signing up for safaris and land tours every year. On the cruising front, however, there is very little activity. Quotes from officials, locals and resort personnel suggest an average of three to five cruising yachts per year; even if you double that number it is still a very small percentage in respect to global cruising numbers. With so many people throughout the world jumping on planes bound for Kenya and Tanzania by the thousands, why are so few cruising yachts headed to her shores?

One factor may be piracy. While Somalian piracy has been a dissuading factor in recent history, current reports indicate an abatement in attacks and a decrease in risk for yachts headed through the Red Sea. There has been an increasing stream of cruising yachts crossing from the Indian Ocean into the Mediterranean via the Red Sea over the past few years, and all report safe passage. With this threat minimized, the proximity of East Africa to Somalia should weigh less heavily on the mind. In fact, current reports rank the Caribbean and Indonesia as having the highest incidents of piracy yet boats continue to flock to their shores every year. Where has that flock gone in East Africa, and why hasn’t it returned?

Perhaps the reason few cruisers don’t include East Africa in their circuit is concern for a less headline type of crime – general safety. When we talked to a few cruisers of our interest in East Africa, crime became a common discussion point. Would we be safe there? Weren’t we putting our children at risk? Wasn’t a yacht a target for thieves? Yet, all yachts heading through the Indian Ocean were pulling into Madagascar where reports of property theft were rife and then sailing onward to South Africa which holds some of the world’s highest crime rates. Yachts continue to sail to Madagascar and South African each year – so, why avoid East Africa for similar concerns?

While we encountered no instances of assault to either body or property during our time in East Africa, that isn’t to say every country doesn’t hold a crime sheet. The last time I was in Tanzania, working in the tourist trade, my purse was stolen from me. Impulsive by nature, I chased after the thief. In doing so, I unwittingly incited a mob and the mania that ensued was mind-blowing. The mob caught and battered the poor man, and the police who intervened only carried on the abuse. The result of his capture was imprisonment and death. What blared out to me at the time was how quickly order can disintegrate into chaos. “This is how we deal with crime in our country,” the Chief of Police told me: The life of a twenty-year old man for a passport and few hundred bucks. It was a hard lesson learned. I had no idea my cry of theft would issue the young man a death sentence. The instance illustrates the hard-line attitude towards crime, yet even with severe repercussions, theft remains an issue.

Acknowledging this undercurrent of potential unrest, our time in East Africa wasn’t tainted by any fear of threat. Life on a yacht means we are often in remote regions exposed to our surroundings, yet throughout out time we felt very safe and welcomed by the locals. That said, as travellers, it is our responsibilities not to invite an incident and not taunt those without with our comparative affluence. In these parts of the world, a little goes a long way and in comparative terms, we have a lot. Equally, it is our charge to ensure we do not expose ourselves. There is a saying that goes, “if it isn’t locked on, you must not care for it.” Outboard engines, for example, are more precious than a block of gold. Hang it on the rail without securing it on or leave the tender with it attached in the water overnight and you send out a beacon as a target. I know of several cruisers who woke to the sound of uninvited guests knocking about on deck in the middle of the night – everything secured was in place, but anything not locked down was lifted. Invitation accepted.

Returning to the discussion of cruising in East Africa – or lack thereof – another factor may be a fear of corruption and the hassle of dealing with crooked officials. For my part, I believe there is a fair amount of miscommunication and misrepresentation on cruising blogs and websites that paints an unfair picture of East Africa. Personally, we received a number of warnings that cautioned us against clearing in at almost every port of entry: We would be ripped off, bribes would be demanded, the officials would be difficult. None of these reports matched the experience. Of the four yachts we know of that cleared into Tanzania this year, each at a different port – Pemba, Mafia, Tanga, Dar es Salaam – every one had a positive experience. The gossip and the reports were different from the collective experience, yet if all you have to go on is negative feedback then it is hard to be persuaded to add it as a destination on your list.

Adverse wind and current for yachts transiting south down the coast may also play at the minds of would-be East African cruisers. This was one of the reasons we initially scrapped Tanzania from our route plan, but my love for East Africa kept niggling in the back of my brain… how could we travel this far and come this close to bypass the East African coast all together? I knew in setting our sights on East Africa that we would diverge from the majority of cruising yachts crossing the Indian Ocean. But with so much on offer it seemed a worthwhile decision. What we needed to understand, however, was whether we could sail Ātea south down the coast against the strong currents and winds. All talk had been that the coast was impossible to transit during the southeast monsoon season. The prevailing winds are from the south and the current also sweeps you north, making progress south very difficult before the seasons change in January. However, on closer analysis we’d decided that by sticking very close to the coast we would avoid the biggest punch of current and that both wind and current turns favorable after Capo Delgado on the Tanzanian-Mozambiquen border; we would only need to tackle this issue during the first 300 miles of our passage. If we picked our weather right we should be able to pinch our way forward in calm conditions and use the land breeze to make good progress; this might result in less sailing but it would mean that we could move south without bashing boat and body to pieces – a fair tradeoff. At least, this was our theory. Having seen the possibility – a crack in the bolted door to East Africa – we decided we’d wander on through and find out for ourselves.

A final factor that may explain the low numbers of yachts visiting East Africa is that it is not on the main cruising route. Yachts transiting the Indian Ocean have two options if they are heading west, as most are: head north through the Red Sea or south to South Africa. As there is still a very palpable fear factor to the Red Sea option, most choose a southerly route. While Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique can reasonably fit into this option, Madagascar is now very much on the radar and it is hard to include both destinations in one season. While Madagascar used to be considered remote and off the beaten path, it is hard to find a yacht who has crossed the Indian Ocean these days who hasn’t included Madagascar as a destination – and for many, a highlight. East Africa, bypassed for its neighbour, remains an isolated gem.

Most yachts that head south towards Madagascar from all departure points in the eastern Indian Ocean will hit some very rough seas and weather. Often circumnavigators report this area as being one of the toughest they’ve ever had to transit and many boats suffer damage on approach. So, when it comes to weather routing there are some considerations a skipper must seriously query. We decided we could negotiate the strong currents off the East African coast by staying close to land, and in choosing this route we would also avoid the battering that the direct passage to Madagascar brings. We found in doing so we compromised a hard passage for a longer, more roundabout route, and the decision to go via Tanzania probably added two hundred extra engine hours to the season. Easier on the boat and crew, but harder on the engine and bank account. I am glad we choose the option that we did: our passage was smooth if not costly, and we got the addition of exploring Tanzania – an experience as rewarding and worthwhile as I imagined.

Now that we’ve scooted past the border and can reflect on our time in Tanzania, I see several distinct phases of our trip which, combined, weaves a rich cultural and natural tapestry that makes East Africa one of my favourite destinations yet. Our route included remote Pemba, an island off the north-east coast of Tanzania, where the dramatic coastline of eroded limestone and sheer underwater walls drop from a dramatic two meters to three hundred meters in a vertical line. While there are a few tourist hamlets with isolated, high-end resorts, the majority of Pemba is rural and isolated from tourism. There we were invited into rustic villages where a smattering of Swahili phrases got us further than English, where the children were shy of our foreign-ness and the women hid their faces from the camera’s eye. The diving in season at Pemba is reported to be some of the best in East Africa, and the underwater topography lends itself to truth. Dhows bespeckle the African coast, but no place will conjure up their beauty like seeing a long line of them sail past us at sunset. I could have spent months there, tucked in, watching their daily pilgrimage to and from the sea.

From Pemba we made a short, unscheduled stop in Kenya due to strong northerly currents and engine failure. We were escorted to the mainland by spinning dolphin, breaching humpback whale and S.V. Barbara Ann, an American cruising couple we’d become friends with earlier in the year. There we were entreated to the sight of a beautiful old stone village, the taste of seaweed and mud crab, and introduced to the Kenyan border security. So much for our sneaky duck in and out that we’d hoped for; however, for a bottle of Johnny Walker and $20 we negotiated an amicable short-term arrangement. In general, I’m not a fan of paying bribes but when you are truly in the wrong and someone is winking you with upturned palm, a slip of green may very well suit the occasion.

From the southern tip of the Kenyan coast, we returned to legal turf in Tanzania; friends old (S.V. Momo) and friends new (S.V. Dallandra) were waiting for us in the coastal town of Tanga and we were excited to reconnect. Over the next two weeks we became familiar with rural mainland Tanzania, a grumpy club commodore and cheap yacht club cocktails.

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We also did some inland travel to the Usambara Mountains in northeast Tanzania, where we rented a mountain chalet and explored the high altitude ranges and the cloud-enshrouded mountain villages, and hunted down the wild yet charismatic chameleon. It was a treat to get some inland travel and see rural Tanzania, as well as be introduced to Mambo View Lodge and witness how an eco-tourism business that is embedded in the community can make a genuine and sustainable difference.

From there we explored the historically significant Zanzibar island, rich in history, spice, and tourism. We drank sunset cocktails on the beach with the other foreign imports in the north and walked the tightly woven streets of old Stonetown in the south. We shopped for trash and trinkets in the labyrinth of shops and stalls and in general, had a fabulous time being tourists amongst tourists. We ate octopus at the fish market, drank spiced coffee at the cafes and indulged in the myriad of culinary options the old town has to offer. Zanzibar is a truly multiethnic community that carries the unique atmosphere of a city that has genuine mystique and whispers of exotic mystery at every corner. Zanzibar was once the centre of the slave trade for the whole of East Africa and the prosperity of the Sultanate was derived in part from the business of human trade, a dark history beneath the present day tourist-friendly UNESCO-approved World Heritage site. In such a place, the history of long ago still lingers in the dark crevices of its tight winding alleys and seeps from the cracks of every chipped-stucco wall. A hundred and fifty years later and every thick, spike-studded door continues to hold behind it the secrets of its past.

Our last notable stop was in the main port and commercial hub of Dar es Salaam, where we found ourselves quickly settling into the upmarket expatriate scene. It offers a great base as provisions are easily got and readily available, the promenade provides a great social hub, there is a great selection of excellent restaurants and the ice cream is divine. There is a upitty yacht club and a hospitable slipway, the former providing airs of colonial self-import and the latter providing resources for practical support. I guess it is this last stop that clarified what I found so enchanting about Tanzania – it is like the rubiks cube of travel destinations.

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It offers a kaleidoscope of different settings unique and different from each other – from coast to sea, from valley to mountain, from bustling town to isolated village. Weaved through each of these environments is the open arms and the wide grin of the Tanzanian local – warm, engaging and delightful. In itself perhaps you could say this of every people in every country, but there is an intangible and almost indescribable uniqueness that is East Africa, discovered only by time on her soil and interaction with her people.

Looking back, our route included remote Pemba, rural Tanga, misty Usambara mountains, vibrant Zanzibar, quaint Dar es Salaam, interspersed with small bays and islets along the way. We zigzagged back and forth from island to coast moving south through coastal Tanzania from the northern border of Kenya to the southern border of Mozambique and got a good introduction to the land and life of Tanzania and its people along the way. While we didn’t spot the Big Five, walk the crater rim or hike Mount Kilimanjaro — something that would define most people’s trip through Tanzania — we got so much that is outside the box that is equally rewarding. This reward came to us by trusting our capabilities and following our own desires against the recommendation and advice of popular opinion and outsider fears. By stepping outside the standard cruising circuit, we found the blog posts outdated and general opinions misinformed. None of the factors that suggest blockades to sailing coastal Tanzania proved to be actual barriers and the few cruisers that do test these boundaries find themselves well rewarded. As I look back on my photos, it dawns on me that we’d actually struck gold without knowing it: We got to see and experience things at ground-level, outside of the stampede of flocking tourists and beyond the security of a cruising community. We got off-beat, authentic, and unexploited – the three main ingredients for a top-rate trip. We got to finger the fringes of a rare and well endhowed gem.

To view the Tanzania album, click here: Endhowed

The Flight of the Millennium Falcon

Our Passage from the Seychelles to East Africa:

Day 1: Friday, 14th July. Anchored at Baie Beau Vallon, Mahe, Seychelles. DTG: 983 miles.
IMG_4058There is an ancient sailors saying that that states, “Never leave port on a Friday.” It is Friday today, but we leave anyway… I am placing my trust in the powers of loose interpretation. We may be leaving port on Friday, but it will take us 200 miles – or 1.5 days at 5 knots – to actually sail across the country’s western boarder. As we see it, technically we are safe from this historic and well-established mariners superstition.

The dinghy is stowed on deck, we have precooked meals packed in the freezer and all loose items are secured below. IMG_3987This past week has kept us occupied with the activities that consume a pre-passage routine: Provisioning, key boat maintenance projects, port clearance and pre-departure logistics. This past week has also kept us busy creating new liquid concoctions from the liquor cabinet: IMG_3855.jpgWe were introduced through a mutual friend (thanks Astrid!) to a delightful Australian cruising family and our welcome party with the crew on S.V. Dallandra extended nonstop through the entire week. After a frantic week of yacht preparations during the day and social debauchery by night, we’d come to the end of our cruising permit and it was time to officially depart. IMG_3858We cleared customs, drove Ātea around the corner, and spent the next few days in holiday relaxation mode.For the past few days we’ve sat illegally in country, tucked around the corner in front of a swanky beachside resort with the express purpose of indolence and indulgence. John and I hit up the poolside bar, slurping rainbow-coloured liquid from umbrella-clad glasses with our feet up on deckchairs. The kids undertook a 48-hour marathon, swimming and running in an all-out endurance test fit for Olympic champions. It was a needed respite as the passage in front of us was going to be a rough one; we needed to top up our reservoirs before the next 1,000 ocean miles that lay in front of us.

We departed at 8am after a good rub of the eye and a strong mug of coffee. IMG_4036 (1)We motored most of the afternoon with light winds, but by nightfall the wind filled in as predicted; if it maintains we will be able to sail through the night. Thanks to Marley, the eight-year old crewmember onboard S.V. Dallandra, Braca has dropped his fascination with sea creatures and talks of nothing but wookies and ewoks. We decided that we’d give him more to go on than the 1cm light saber and mini-Vader that was donated to him from Marley’s Star Wars-themed Lego set and introduce him to the real deal: IMG_4014.jpgEpisode I-VII of George Lukas’ masterpiece… Da da da Da di dum Da di dum….. Here we go – slipping our son and ourselves into an entirely new dimension. This passage our “theme day” will expand the week. For the next seven days we intend to knock off one episode a day. By the end of this passage I am sure we will have all crossed over to The Dark Side – our sweet little Nemo has no chance against The Force.

Day 2: Saturday 15/7, Position: 04 53S, 53 22E. Anchored at Banc Africans. DTG: 859.
Calm weather is coming… Predict Wind forecasted it and the weather is proving it. IMG_4126.jpgWe have decided to drop anchor at a deserted islet 120 due west of the Seychelles rather than spend $200 on the mind-numbing drone of the engine for the next 48 hours. With the anchor down we revel in the splendid isolation of our little oasis – no one knows we are here, there are no humans for more than 100 miles and there is no contact with the outside world. We have only the birds for company but in that we are inundated. The clamorous noise emanating from the island reverberates around us and we find peace in the cacophony of shrieks and cries.

We give the kids their passage present even though Ātea sits on anchor mid-trip. IMG_4082I know Braca would delight in a Star Wars themed Lego set but I didn’t have the foresight to predict his new fascination; they get a boxed set of car-themed Lego each – enough to provide a preoccupation for the following few hours before dismantling them and making Lego-sabers. What these kids are learning to do through their imagination is a direct result of their deficit in theme-spec’d toys.

Day 3: Sunday 16/7, Position: 04 53S, 53 22E. Anchored at Banc Africans. DTG: 859.
Even land-based rituals extend to our passages when sea conditions permit. IMG_4138Today is Sunday and custom demands Sunday pancakes. After consuming a few syrup-doused flour fritters, we decide that the tiny islet needs a few Storm Troopers to patrol its boundaries and ensure safe harbour. With the dinghy secured on deck and a wide berth given to the island when anchoring, we need suitable transport ashore and our little inflatable kayak becomes the landing craft for our band of mini-troopers. The beauty of the little island amazes us – the sand is salt-white and flour-fine; IMG_4163.jpgthe bush is filled with a million tiny noddy-eggs and the air is filled with the protective squawk of the mother-birds warning us away. Bridled terns lay their eggs directly in the sand, a few short feet away from the waters-edge at high tide. G0511357.jpgThe kids saunter up enormous turtle-tracks that guide them to a half-dozen buried nests. This is the world before human encroachment. We spent the afternoon adding invasive human footprints in the sand and watching the birds soar, swoop and hoot their disapproval of our presence on their turf.

Day 4: Monday 17/7, Position: 04 53S, 53 22E. Anchored at Banc Africans. DTG: 859.
Whoa! We woke up to a big surprise – our first sight out the window was at the ass-end of a fishing boat anchored a few meters off our bow. So much for our splendid isolation! IMG_4229.jpgI brought my coffee up on deck for a sociable chat and found out that for all the flat seabed that surrounded us, they decided it best to anchor on top of us so that they could meet us; I found charm in what would normally be an annoyance. One generalized trait I can give the Seychellois is their outward sociability. I enjoyed sitting on deck chatting with them as they carried about with their morning rituals – washing armpits, brushing teeth, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes – me a closer part of their world than we could have shared had they followed proper mariner protocol.

We followed them ashore a little later to continue our banter and took immediate liking to the lot of them; IMG_4207I watched as one tread through (and presumably on) bird eggs to film the million screeching and swooping terns for his absent son while the others dug up buckets of the rich guano for their gardens back home. I chatted with one who had been a park ranger and learned that the eggs would begin to hatch in a week and in two weeks the island would be covered with little fluffy hatchlings. IMG_4220We invited them over for tea, an offer that turned to an afternoon drinking vodka. In the process, we somehow ended up with their dinghy tied to our stern – a last minute arrangement that kept us from sailing as intended that evening to spare them the time dragging it up on deck. After they departed we were struck by the trust they’d bestowed in us, and we were flooded with appreciation for the life that we are currently leading.

By 5pm the wind began to roll in at 15 knots but we will wait until the morning for departure. It has been a fantastic day with four very warm, friendly Seychellois, reminding us how wonderful these random moments are and how important it is to cast plans when an opportunity presents to make the most of the present. Our passage to Africa will take seven days regardless of our delay and there should be no shortage of wind from this point forward. Plus, we’d had a belly-full of vodka, so why rush?

Day 5: Tuesday 18/7, Position: 04 53S, 53 22E. Anchored at Banc Africans. DTG: 859.
Shrill whistles woke us at 6am as our fishing buddies returned to reclaim their dinghy before continuing onward to Praslin with their catch. IMG_4187.jpgWe raised sails shortly after and head off in the opposite direction. It is a perfect 15-knot breeze – congratulations to John for reading the forecast and picking the right weather window. The two days we spent at Banc Africains resulted in two days that we didn’t burn diesel. Given the high cost of diesel in the Seychelles we decided not to fill our tanks; we would take the 1,000-mile run to Africa with what we have remaining from diesel we bought in the Maldives three months ago. With half a tank remaining, we will need consistent and reliable winds to make it.

In the late afternoon, however, the wind eased and we bobbed in 5 knots amidst a mild ocean. IMG_4354We took it for the first few hours and enjoyed the silence, then kicked on the engine… diesel or not, we have an ocean to cross and we have to charge the batteries anyway. Our intended “Star Wars” theme day is delayed until we can muster the energy to match the children’s demand for creativity. Instead, we put on the first episode of Star Wars and watched the creativity of others: ‘Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace’… IMG_4408.jpglet’s hope there is nothing like that onboard for us. By early evening the wind returned and I enjoyed a solid 15-knot watch. By midnight the winds were continuing to build so we put a second reef in the main, pulled out the staysail and rolled away the genoa, leaving Ātea under a more comfortable sail configuration. Let’s hope the wind holds through the night at 20-30 knots.

Day 6: Wednesday 19/7, Position: 05 00S, 50 00E. DTG: 859.
The 20-30 knot winds remain all day, but it isn’t the wind that is making things rough… the sea state is knocking us about like loose marbles. The ocean is rough and rollers rock the boat over each bulge of water, splashing seawater over our deck. Our high center cockpit provides a secure helming position and our bimini clears leave us protected and dry. The day passes with a rocking boat and rolling bellies as John and I are feeling lethargic and unsettled with all the movement; we lay low today. IMG_4099We have not been able to muster much mental energy to take Braca through his schoolwork or engage in play, but the kids are doing well and are happily entertaining themselves with Lego and books. They seem indifferent to the conditions outside, but for the first time I have an inkling of what seasickness is about: The leathery, the apathy, the disorientation, the drowsiness. Each day is starting to roll into a sameness of the day prior and I feel like we are becoming a replica of Starwars II: The Clone Wars. Let’s hope tomorrow shakes us free.

Of note, we have turned off our AIS for the first time ever – for those unfamiliar, AIS stands for Automated Identification System and it broadcasts our position to any other vessel with AIS within a 10-30 mile radius. Turning this off means that no other boats can see our position, which is a risk when considering the fast-moving tankers and cargo ships that may pass our way. However, given the possibility of pirates in these waters, going stealth makes us feel that this is a safer course.

Day 7: Thursday 20/7, Position: 05 08S, 49 00E. DTG: 726.
John and I are finally feeling better. The kids have been fantastic, wrapped up in sibling play. IMG_4275.jpgToday the swell has eased and the wind dropped to 15 knots and we are feeling less pressure under the eased sea state. We promised the kids a “Star Wars” theme day but continue to postpone it; we will have to follow through with our commitment soon otherwise we will have our own Star Wars III enactment onboard: ‘The Revenge of the Sith’ – hopefully we will be able to pull it off tomorrow.

Two ships have passed at a distance in all these miles and all this ocean. The decision to head west on a beam reach towards Tanzania versus direct into the wind to Madagascar seems a good one right now – any more bashing into the seas and both body and boat would have been in much worse condition. The baffle in the water tank broke last night, making a terrible grinding sound from under the deck that took us awhile to pinpoint; there is nothing more disconcerting than an unusual noise that you can’t identify. IMG_4115.jpgWhen the clatter got worse, John pulled off the top of the water tank and removed the remaining bolts and the baffle while a tonne of unleashed drinking water slopped around him and the inside of the boat and successfully silenced the metallic knell. Another job is added to the list. More unpleasant sounds are coming from the rudderstock with a loud creak on each roll. We think this might be the sealing packing binding in the shaft, but with the coast of Somalia just 500 miles downwind of us steering gear failure is not something we wish to contemplate.

Not much to report other than continued progress towards the African coast. This has been a dull passage to date, though respectively easy. IMG_4325.jpgThe food was well prepared before departure so meals are easy – a good thing as neither John nor I have much appetite in the constant roll. We’ve held a conservative sail plan so we could have more control in stronger winds; today we rolled out the genoa and increased our speed by 2 knots and in doing so shortened the overall trip by a day. We are experiencing a moody ocean for the first time in a long while and it is a good reminder of all the different states that the ocean brings with it.

Day 8: Friday 21/7, Position: 05 31S, 46 35E. DTG: 610.
It is Friday and today marks one week since our official “unofficial” departure from the Seychelles. We expect a Swahili karibu (translate: welcome) on Monday if this weather continues. All feeling episode IV-ish, “A New Hope.” IMG_4145.jpgThe wind continues off our port side at 15-20 knots and the seas have settled. We continue to have the good sailing conditions that yesterday brought us and we are finally reaping the rewards of our route choice – a beam reach versus the hard bash to windward that Madagascar would have brought us. Let’s hope these conditions continue as we will have had continuous wind at an average of 15-20 knots for the duration of the trip and plenty of diesel remaining in our tank.

It is great to have consistent passage-making wind after a few windless seasons in Asia and six windless months in the Maldives; it is a good reminder of the value of maintaining a conservative sail plan. Ātea has two reefs in the main and both the staysail and the genoa are rolled up eight turns. At most, this represents 60% of our normal sail area but is proving to be the right balance for these conditions, driving us west at 6 knots while allowing us comfort through the squalls. We could push Ātea faster, but 6 knots get us a good average at 150 miles per day. Any faster and we would add stress to the steering, rig and sails, increase violence to the ship’s motion, and add extra work for the crew in sail changes due to the frequent squalls.

The kids continue to play onboard as if it were another day in the norm; their imagination is their salvation out here at sea! IMG_4278.jpgToday we celebrated “Half Way Day” and the kids opened another of their wrapped presents with much glee and excitement. All is good onboard. While we continue to get a consistent wind and there is no urgency to get in, it is much a passage of dullness and I am looking forward to getting in, anchoring shoreside and having a level floor again.

Ātea and the flying fish are hopping along at 8 knots tonight, the latter landing on deck for a free ride or safe haven. I keep running around on deck trying to free each one before it realizes it has just landed dooms day. Our netting provides a great means of keeping everything onboard… even the unsuspecting flying fish fail to escape our baby-proofed “playpen.”

Day 9: Saturday 22/7, Position: 05 32S, 43 51E. DTG: 460.
Our progress continues along at a fast pace. We’ve hit the sweet spot with consistent wind – the wind has not gone below 15 knots or above 30 for the past few days. We sit in a perfect 15-20 knot pocket with the wind on our port beam, ticking off 150-180 miles a day. Right now, the decision to head west seems a brilliant choice from the beating that the yachts report from a southern passage to Madagascar. Of course, we may get a reenactment of Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back when we attempt to go south along the Tanzanian coast. The current splits just south of the border between Mozambique and Tanzania – until we get across this parallel, we can expect strong southerly winds and northerly currents to make our transit south a struggle. It is our hope that both ease as predicted in September and we can grab our weather windows as they present to scratch our way down the coast until the equatorial current splits and sends us zipping on our way towards South Africa.

At long last, John and I uphold our promise. Today we spent the early part of the day sifting through scraps to pull together one Darth Vader ensemble and three Storm Trooper outfits. IMG_4470Braca has claimed identity with the Evil Lord… where has my eco-sensitive humanitarian environmentalist gone?! Sweet gulping Nemo has been tossed down the toilet to be replaced with the incessant death-rattle of Anakin reincarnate; Lego fish creations have been replaced by Lego swords, guns and light sabers. IMG_4571.jpgAnd here we are, conscientious parents, encouraging this. We unravel six toilet paper rolls to get the cardboard for our weaponry. We tear strips of usable cloth to create full-length capes. We pull bilge lining to construct masks and we use permanent marker that turns out to be permanent only on our newly upholstered settees. All good fun ensues.

Day 10: Sunday 23/7, Position: 05 37S, 41 25E. DTG: 298 (162 miles in 24-hours; this is one of Atea’s best-ever runs). The wind has remained and the excitement is high. We will be in tomorrow and now, at the end, the passage seems to have clicked through in the blink of an eye. Star Wars VI – The Return of the Jedi… not that I feel like I have triumphed over evil to get here; our first few days were rough but since then the weather has behaved as predicted and Ātea held up as we hoped. But I do Return – to a continent I spent my formative years in with my birth family and to a continent I took on as a young adult in my early thirties. I return a fourth time, this time as a wife and mother to share my past history and create new experiences with the family I have helped create. After a decade of being away from the Dark Continent, this Jedi Knight is ready to experience this rich, rewarding and expressive world afresh and all over again!

Day 11: Monday 24/7, Position: 05 22S, 39 38E. DTG: 148.
We drop anchor at Mkoani, Pemba Island, Tanzania at midday, 850 miles out from Banc Africains. There are a few milestones that coincide with the conclusion of this trip: This is now our sixth season cruising onboard Ātea and we’ve only just completed our first ocean crossing. For context, John completed a four-year circumnavigation onboard his yacht Violetta in 1995 with 29,000 ocean miles and I sailed 12,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean within one year, but after six years Ātea has only just passed the 30,000 mile mark. Clearly we are making leisurely progress.

I feel more than the obvious excitement that comes at the end of a passage; I am on African soil again and I am thrilled to be back. I knew when I left that it would be a long time before I returned to the continent and I was right – it has taken me a decade. I was captivated then, as I am sure to be again. I am not sure why more cruisers transiting the Indian Ocean don’t spent time off the east African coast as there is so much on offer here; we are just hours on arrival and I already hear myself begging for more time. I can feel my fingers digging into the soil trying to hold purchase, knowing regardless of the time I will get that it will be too short. But I am here now and greedy to consume as much of the experience as I can, for however long I can get. So here we are – Kuleta juu ya Afrika! – let the fun begin!

Follow link to photos of our passage: Album Images

Hopscotch in the Garden of Eden

The Seychelles has been a dream destination of mine for as long as I can remember… or, at least, as long as I’ve known how to sail. This mid-Indian Ocean archipelago represented the epitome of top cruising destinations and I remember sitting of the shores of Mozambique, looking east, dreaming of a future when I’d get to weave my own track through her waters. IMG_2677.jpgI wasn’t quite certain if this dream would ever come to fruition because at the time I’d only been a coastal sailor, never venturing far from the sight of land. Regardless, I often imagined what the country would hold for me: Crystal blue waters shimmering over glittering diamond white sands, endless islets and atolls teaming with sea birds and land turtles, a steel band beating a tune as I turned fresh-caught lobsters on a fire, my toes buried in the sand. I am not sure if it was from a book that I pulled these images or the rumours of a fellow traveler; however they got there, the images were imbedded deep in my sub-consciousness. Now, firmly entrenched in the cruising lifestyle with six years of open-ocean sailing behind us, I was finally going to get my chance to see these images firsthand.

Cruisers often seem to travel in a flock. Perhaps it is some collective force of nature or the under-appreciated inclination for human sociability, but there is an undeniable gravitational force that pulls people together. Watching the fleet of boats transverse the Indian Ocean these past few years, it seems a random pattern of a southerly route followed by a northerly route from the Asia to South Africa; this year the majority of boats that we knew were heading south for Mauritius and Rodriquez but we weren’t to follow them. The Seychelles had been on my radar far too long to pass her by. We would cross the Indian Ocean this year, and I was determined that the Seychelles would feature in our route planning.

While arrival in a country after a long passage is always an emotive experience, seeing the peaks of the tall mountains rise up on the horizon was a particularly emotional moment for me. Here she was, the Seychelles at long last, unfolding herself in front of me on the very ocean that had separated me for so long. IMG_3881Having spent the past six months in a country made entirely of low-lying atolls, it was quite a sight to see the tip of Mome Seychellois, a 905-meter granite rock, rise up on the horizon. The detail of earth and humanity began to fill the blank green tapestry of the mountains as we inched towards Mome Seychellois and Trois Freres: The rich smell of dirt combined with the acrid smell of the tuna processing factory, the sound of chatty shorebirds mixed with the repetitive hum of rotating wind generator blades, a smattering of colourful roofs materializing from the canopy of trees as ornaments decorating the hillsides. I was abuzz with the same ecstatic enthusiasm of a young child licking her first ice cream cone – this was my first taste of the Seychelles and it couldn’t have been any sweeter.

Having waited so long to get to the Seychelles, it was ironic that we would work so hard to sail to her shores and fly immediately out. That said it had been a long time since we’d been home and family was calling. Tickets had been booked well in advance and the departure date was upon us – our time in the Seychelles was going to be short and sweet. We pulled in, played for a week and flew out. Given my anticipation to get here, I could appreciate our agent’s response when we petitioned for the boat to stay during our month departure: “What? You’ve just ARRIVED in the Seychelles and you already want to LEAVE the Seychelles? WHY would you do that?” Us: To visit family. “But, then why wouldn’t you leave from another country?!! Why would you choose to leave from THIS ONE?” Implied: You must be crazy! We were nervous. She was going to reject our application on grounds of national pride. While I understood her line of inquisition — we were leaving a dream holiday destination for a holiday elsewhere — we had already committed time with family and held tickets in hand. With a series of disapproving grunts and shake of the head in disapproval, she stamped our documents and dismissed us.

The next month saw us indulging in almost every shoreside pleasure available to us — something that England has in abundance. My standing joke was that I was going to eat as much cheese and drink as much wine as I could manage to consume, either leaving the country feverishly addicted or my long-standing cravings completely spent. IMG_1729.jpgWe enjoyed time with family and reconnected with longstanding friends and fellow cruisers we’d shared company with in previous seasons. It was fun to ride the trains through the lush countryside and wander through quaint British villages, sail dinghies on the Solent and drive a RIB to the Isle of Wight, picnic in the manicured parks, dine in the pubs, grog up with the family, rock out at a concert and chase a rolling block of cheese down a hill. Above all we were reminded that while the cruising life is rich with reward, life ashore is rich with diversity.

A month after flying out we were back on creole soil, cravings satiated and addictions firmly rooted, this time with a month in front of us to explore the fabled Garden of Eden. What I didn’t appreciate then and do now is that the Seychelles is very different from my picture of a cruising paradise. IMG_3256.JPGIt is worthy as a sailing destination to be sure, but not in the way I’d constructed in my head. The building blocks were there: the white sand, the clear water, the reggae music and the creole seafood. What was missing was the countless isles and the limitless possibilities. For all 115 islands that make it up, the Seychelles has a relatively constricted cruising area. There are three main islands, each with a collection of smaller marine reserves attached to it, that are the sum of cruising grounds for the majority of sailors. The rest of the hundred or so islands are uninhabited or protected marine reserves, most of these lying in the outer islands at a considerable distance from the inner hub and exposed to the weather.

I am and am not one fundamental thing: A planner. I am a Gemini with a drive for change without an interest in detail. The combination means that I do things at the spur of the moment without forethought or planning. I fly on a whim and learn on the way. This has many drawbacks but the advantage is the comedy of learning things in situ. The Seychelles is famous for a few things; well known to anyone that does a quick Google search of the country. I, however, having spent countless miles of hard work to get here never once researched the country to see what it offered. I had a dream, therefore I had drive – that was enough to draw me. As a result, the heart of the Seychelles unfolded itself to us in a series of comic moments, details of the country that I was to learn about over the course of our stay.

The first was the Coco de Mer. For the ungoogled, the image of the Coco de Mer is of the voluptuous derrière of the female figure, and it was everywhere. The female bum greets you on arrival at the airport, it fills the curios stalls in the streets, it is printed on postcards and every brochure of the country, it is even stamped on a page in our passports. There is a collective national fascination with the female reproductive anatomy. You can have a carved wooden statue, hold a key ring, wear a t-shirt, drink from a shot glass — all of a woman’s ass. Having just arrived from six months in a highly conservative Muslim country, the brashness of it was refreshing. The Seychelles was sexual, and they were proud of that sexuality. Or so I thought.

It took me a week, but I was to gradually learn that the Coco de Mer was, indeed, a coconut. It was endemic to the Seychelles and a rich part of its history. IMG_3627.jpgIt was this nut, visually so representative of oversized human genitalia, that created the myth that the Seychelles was the Garden of Eden – scratch that apple, the nut was proof of the origin of mankind. For what it is worth, at half a meter in diameter and 20 kilograms in weight it is the largest seed found anywhere in the world, the male tree does hang a very long penis from its branches and the female does produce the most delicious looking derrière. Had I done my research, I’d have known a decade ago that it was trees on hillsides and not seashells on sandy shores that the Seychelles was known for. The Garden of Eden beckoned me, but to understand why I had to look toward land and not the sea.

The second of our comic relief moments was the granite. What I didn’t realize prior to arrival is that the country was full of rocks. Big, big rocks. In fact, I’d spent over a decade fantasizing about the Seychelles and not once had I appreciated that it was rock rather than sand that made the country famous. IMG_2902.jpgHow did I miss that 41 of the 115 islands were built on a foundation of granite? Was it just oversight that made me ignorant of the exceptional fact that the Seychelles was the only mid-ocean granite islands in the world?! Expecting idle days anchored off low-lying islets with our heads poking around coral gardens, our reality was days spent gaping up at huge mountain peaks, over sheer rock cliffs and at boulder-crowned beaches. Rather than idle, our time was filled with vigorous hikes up steep rocky paths, walks through wooded forest, cycling up hills, meandering around boulder-strewn beaches and rock hopping above the surf.

Another misconstrued notion was that we’d spend all our time in the water. For one, it was cold… or at least, cold in comparison to the sauna-like waters of the Maldives. It took a week to acclimate to the 28-degree water temperature. Once that was corrected, it took time to work a strategy for tackling the big surf. It wasn’t big as in dude, ride that wave big. It was big as in doc, bust out the neck brace big. IMG_2829.jpgThe waves that rolled into the bays were short and powerful, but once you worked out the set you could tackle a suitable approach – body surf four then race out before the next two rollers came and knocked you out in a body-crushing, ego-shattering washing machine. Outside of the in-your-face beach break, there were no obvious reefs to snorkel or charted dive sites to explore – ironic given the sites were fill with as many big rocks underwater as big rocks above water – and both were activities we expected would consume our days. What distinguishes the diving in the Seychelles are the unique granite underwater formations that make a spectacular underwater landscape but the sites weren’t easily accessible and required local knowledge. As a result we didn’t get time underwater as hoped, but we got plenty of time tumbled through it.

It was the third of the comic lessons that filled much of our children’s interest, and fulfilled their sex education. It was the first time the kids had seen a land tortoise and as the heaviest tortoises in the world at a whopping 300kg, they made quite an impression. They were held in open pens in parks, botanical gardens, beaches and bars. IMG_2331They were free roaming and also found in the backyards of local homes as they were often kept as family pets. We watched them eat, sleep, bathe and just as often, mate. There was one particular batch that seemed particularly inclined. The kids fed them their afternoon rations for a week and every day, like clockwork, we’d bear witness to their repetitious and droning copulation – clearly they too felt they were livin’ it large in the Garden of Eden. With the innocence of youth, each time Braca watched the act he told us they were “marrying each other;” it was a honeymoon destination indeed!

Having had my fill of rocks and nuts, we quickly became restless. We’d done the required gape at the country’s natural wonders: We’d pet the giant land tortoise and rubbed palms on the erogenous nut. Now we were keen to explore the country by sea but we had one problem – we didn’t see a labyrinth of reef-encrusted islets sprawled out around us. When looking in detail at the charts, the list of destinations within reach extended to three names, Mahe, Praslin and La Digue, all a short hop between each other. Basically, we had a month to play aquatic hopscotch.

Initially my enthusiasm fell flat as the experience fell far from my expectations — there was nothing intrepid about this experience at all. It was a land full of tour agents catering to tourists. There were lots of charter boats moving daily on their week tour of the country and the beaches were filled with sunburnt foreigners, but there were very few long-term cruisers exploring the area. After a few days of shaking my head in puzzlement, I readjusted my expectations and redefined what our time in the Seychelles was about: G0230594.jpgWe were not going to hunker down with the indigenous population, use sign language and guess translation. We would not traipse across land left virgin to the traveler’s eye. We were going to take a holiday like the rest of them. Regular routine was cast out and we postponed schoolwork and put boat jobs on hold. We pulled out our sunblock and our beach toys and spent the days rolling about in the surf and lazing in the sand. We partied with the bareboat charterers, socialized with the holidaymakers, and entertained locals onboard in a revolving door of new faces. We rented bicycles to explore the villages, walked well-laid paths through native forests, surfed the shore breaks, and ogled at the breathtaking scenery around us.

We started our holiday in Mahe, the largest and most populated of the islands. With 90% of the country’s population living in Victoria, the smallest capital in the world, we had good grounds for observing the engaging confidence of the Seychellois. Their manner is forthright and confident, their personality gregarious and outspoken, their dress daring and bold. In social circles this was charming but in official circles we found it arrogant and blunt. While we tried to distance ourselves from as many administrative agents as possible, we welcomed locals onboard with open arms – this brought many entertaining evenings and some of our fondest experiences. One discussion that stands out was the local concept of self in relation to community. IMG_3812.jpgAs our friend Ronny informed us, “to say a name anywhere in my country is to know the face” – a beautiful description for a country where everyone knew everyone. I compared it to my own community where even neighbours are strangers. “We care little for money here,” he added, “it is time and family we value. In this country, no one is ever alone and no one is forgotten.” Poetic. Regardless of the actual authenticity for the majority, it was a good reminder of the value often lost in Western culture where everything is fast paced, family distanced and friends forgotten, and money matters most. I find myself reminded again and again by local speak how it is the present that we live for in a world where family, friendship and community connection is paramount. When we invited Ronny for an evening onboard, we didn’t host one – we hosted a group. There were three generations amongst us and friends were included. Nor did they come empty handed; wrapped gifts were brought for the kids, beautiful shells were brought for us and the fish they pulled in that night was all donated to us. It was an incredible show of community, hospitality, warmth and camaraderie and I will always value the insights they shared and the friendship they offered.

From Mahe we followed the glossy brochure prompt to the neighbouring island of Praslin in search of the “best beach in the world,” page 8. IMG_3075It was a bold claim and I was keen to verify it for myself. Indeed, there was something to it. The large granite boulders that fringed the white sand beach resulted in a breathtaking panorama, the backdrop filled with tree-filled mountains and turtles that broke the surface of the water around us. It was here that a generous local tested our perchance for defying the law by offering us a sapling Coco de Mer. A generous offer and a tempting one, attracted as I was to the thought of my own palm-fringed deck, but one we had to refuse.

Given my agreement with page 8 of the brochure, I thought I’d follow its next suggestion on page 12: “It is not advisable to visit La Digue as a day trip only. There are so many beautiful spots to visit and so many interesting people to meet that we insist you spend a few days at least on this magnificent island regardless of your length of stay in the Seychelles.” DCIM100GOPROGOPR0464.JPGWith an advertisement like that, who could miss it?! We tucked ourselves into the tight little harbour in the center of town and enjoyed all that the island offered – charter yachts inches from port and starboard side and the socializing that came with it, bicycles to tour the island (it was that or tour by oxcart as vehicles are exempt from the island), creole meals and the festive atmosphere that defined the relaxed little island. In a fast moving world, this was the epitome of chill.

After four weeks of aquatic hopscotch, our little stone thrown at random determining if we moved ahead one space or back two between Mahe, Praslin and La Digue, we hit the end of our cruising permit and were ready to move on. Our key question was: Where to? Having diverged from the flock we were keen to return to it, a regrouping that would set our course south to Madagascar. But my sonar was bending my head to the west and all primal senses were driving me towards the shores of East Africa. It was not a common route; at this time of year the wind and current make moving south difficult and most of the yachts intending to exit the Indian Ocean by the end of the year need to get southward in order to round the Cape of Good Hope. We also need to pass this cape and we couldn’t understand a feasible way to make both East Africa and Madagascar happen this season. However, on close inspection it looks like the current splits at the border of Tanzania and Mozambique and the winds might be favorable if we stuck close to the coast, dodging behind the wind-shadow of Madagascar. In fact, going west to Tanzania might save the battering that wind and sea would give us if we tried to reach Madagascar directly. Besides, we weren’t the only wayward stragglers. We had cruising friends in Tanzania and we had cruising friends heading that way – either the route was feasible or we weren’t the only ones stupid enough to attempt it. Either way, we were going to find out. A week prior to departing the Seychelles we did a typical Atea gybe. We scrapped our plans to head south towards Madagascar and decided to continue our trek west. Onward we sail to East Africa – she has held me in her clutches before, as I am sure she will do yet again.

Images: Seychelles at Long Last

 

 

 

 

The Bracarazzi

Sitting cross-legged in the sand next to a Russian Evangelist who was doing missionary work in Sumatra, I was enjoying some time with another traveler to chat about her experiences:

Her: I feel so dreadfully sorry for these poor local women.
Me: Oh? I didn’t quite understand.
Her: Yes, the women, the poor souls. Mothers have no babysitters, absolutely no support. They have to do it all on their own. I just don’t understand how the women can manage.
I smile at the innocence and ignorance of the comment.
Me: Ah, but they don’t. They have more readymade support in a small local village than an entire American city will offer.
She looked at me, puzzled, and added: And you, too. All on your own as well. How do you handle it?
Seeing that she hadn’t grasped my first statement, I gathered things weren’t sinking in. I just smiled.

See, it is impossible to travel through the islands and claim exemption from local custom. You do not own your children; they are the responsibility of the entire community. With a white-skinned towhead, you present a magnet irresistible to the local villagers. The cruising community came to call our local fan club the “Bracarazzi.” as other cruisers traveling behind us would be asked in awe if they knew Braca, opening their phones to proudly show a small Caucasian boy swamped in a crowd of grinning faces. I once had to chase down a woman who had swooped in on Braca, then eleven-months old, and ran as fast as she could into the bush with a screaming baby. When I heard my child’s cries and realized what had happened, I quickly took chase. There she was, clinging onto a child in full-fit, clicking off Selfies at fifty a second with a cheek-splitting grin and a red-faced toddler clearly in distress. When I approached she proudly looked up at me, clearly quite pleased with her efforts.

Finding your child is no problem; they are either trailing a long line of enthusiastic playmates or they are at the epicenter of a thick crowd of curious observers. It is reclaiming them than can provide some tricky negotiation. I’ve often had to clamber through a crowd five deep and watched the faces of disappointment when I’ve pulled my children away. Childcare is by no means difficult to procure as a local; nor by extension is it difficult to obtain as a guest to the community.

While I am not a mother willing to drop my child in the arms of strangers in my own neighborhood, vanuatu womanI am more than willing to do so on a small remote island hundreds of miles from home. Indeed, we have done so on many occasions and have returned to find them fully entrenched in local activity – dragging a cardboard car across the sand or playing naked in the shallows surrounded by a dozen kids. Doted on and adored, the villagers take your child into the fold with no hesitation or reservation. If you want the key to the door of local acceptance, travel with children. I left my Russian friend on the beach with her pity and her misconception. Perhaps she will come back one day as a mother herself and gain a totally different insight into the local culture.

Take Two

Passing the year mark in any disease is usually a significant benchmark. For our crew, May 2017 marks the 365 days that we have cruised with a type-one (T1) diabetic. Anyone familiar with diabetes is aware of the pressures on a parent to successfully manage the illness, particularly during the initial period of understanding the disease, calculating carbohydrates in the diet and administering the necessary drugs. With a T1, the learning curve is steep – and getting it right is essential.

For those unaware of the day-to-day of supporting a dependent diabetic, the regimen involves routine blood checks to verify the level of glucose in the bloodstream – too low and the patient can “crash,” too high and the body starts to build toxic levels of ketones in the bloodstream. If unchecked, the stress on the body leads to long term organ damage. Continuous monitoring of food intake is essential to running the right insulin-to-carb ratios – carbohydrates have to be precisely measured and a level of daily intake has to be maintained. And of course there is tell-tale sign of a diabetic – the hypodermic needle.

Our story started a year ago in Thailand, on the verge of a near-catastrophic decision to go to sea. At the time, Braca was showing signs of increasing illness but we were unable to identify the cause. As anyone who has experienced diabetes knows, the symptoms slowly creep up you. At first there was increased thirst and increased urination, understandable in a move to the tropics. Then he showed signs of decreased appetite, but young children are notorious for being picky eaters. Then he started to become lethargic and showed little interest in normal social activity which we interpreted as boredom, understandable with a change in environment. Realizing something was going on, either physical or emotional, I took him to the health clinic and the clinician diagnosed him with vitamin deficiency. We got a small box of multi-vitamins. Regardless of supplements, things started to get worse. He started bed-wetting, sleeping during the day, refusing meals altogether; things weren’t right. I took him to the international hospital and the physician diagnosed him with throat ulcers and constipation. “One week,” the doctor promised, “and he will be back to normal.” We left with an enema and a prescription for oral thrush.

Meanwhile we continued to prepare for our season ahead, a year-long voyage that would take us 12,000 miles across the Indian Ocean. Provisions were fully stocked, a multitude of boat maintenance requirements had been ticked off the list, 850 litres of diesel and 1400 litres of water sat in our tanks. The boat was set to go, and so were we. Ahead lay the colours of Sri Lanka, the aquamarine necklace of Maldives, the isolation of Chagos and the challenges of Africa. After all the pressure of constant work on the boat and concern for Braca, I felt like leaning out over the pulpit with arms reaching out to the sea and yelling at the top of my lungs, “Indian Ocean, thanks for waiting. We are finally on our way!

We cleared customs from Thailand on the 10th of January 2017 after getting the green light from the physician and sailed to our departure point. Still, I had a nagging feeling that things weren’t right. The evening before departure we wandered around a local carnival, trying to get into the festive spirit but Braca kept dragging his heels and complaining that his bones hurt too much to walk. As we shouldered him through the crowd, apathetic and lethargic, neither of us felt confident that his condition matched his prognosis. Then things began to spiral. We were half way through his meds but he was still moping around and looking miserable. During dinner, he violently vomited at a stall-side market and we whisked him back to the boat, tucked him into bed and tucked ourselves into the internet. Lethargy. Weight loss. Increased thirst. Increased urination. None of his symptoms matched the doctor’s diagnosis. What we did come up with, however, was unimaginable: Addison’s disease, depression, diabetes, or cancer. Regardless of the doctor’s assertion that all would be cured through prescription pills in a week, we began to question his diagnosis and in a defining moment we turned back from the sea. It was a decision that probably saved our son’s life.

At first light we pulled up anchor and raced back to Phuket. During the night Braca had slipped into a heavy, rhythmic breathing pattern unlike anything I’d witnessed before and I was manic with fear. Having already cleared out of the country we were now illegally back in it, but we disregarded customs protocol and raced into the paediatric department at Bangkok Hospital in Phuket. The doctor concurred: Weight loss, vomiting, and rapid breathing were not signs of a standard oral infection, nor was the hyperventilation or dehydration that he was now expressing. Braca was immediately whisked into the Intensive Care Unit and dropped into a flurry of drips, drugs and needles. Our son was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and was in critical condition. With blood glucose levels sky-rocketing and severe ketoacidosis, he was at the final stage before system shut down. “Without sufficient insulin,” the doctor explained, “your son’s body has been unable to process sugars and he has been burning fat to survive. As a result, the ketone waste has been acidifying his blood and if untreated, he will quickly go into a diabetic coma. People can die from ketoacidosis.” Through a thick mist of shock and disbelief, we numbingly fell into an alternate universe, vaguely aware that our plans and lifestyle had been dashed on the rocks of an incurable disease.

Four days in intensive care with a four-year old is one of the saddest, scariest experiences any parent can go through. I sat at his bedside and watched him sleep for hours on end, an enthusiastic, energetic little boy zapped of all his spunk and spirit. Trails of tubing spiralled from his body, hooked up to a complex assortment of beeping and blinking machines. At the same time, it was a relief to be in the hands of medical experts and under proper care after the dizzying weeks of confusion and helplessness. Neither of us had imagined that he had such a serious illness; we had scoffed at the list that our online research predicted. I remember looking at my husband and saying, “Surely none of this applies to our son!” We never imagined the worst, but it seemed the worst was now upon us.

Following his period of stabilization, we were transferred from Phuket to Bangkok under the care of the diabetes specialists at Bangkok Hospital. The luxurious five-star accommodation notwithstanding, there were some significant drawbacks to our situation. For one, when discussing medical education and treatment, language fluency is a must. I sat through sessions where the diab-specialist smiled widely and repeatedly pointed to a pages in a booklet translated to English, without being able to discuss the material or answer a single question. The nutritionist walked me through lists of diabetes-approved foods, none of which fit our western diet. The doctor was very knowledgeable but her ability to transfer her level of understanding to me was very poor. Given I had travelled all the way to Bangkok to get training from the top experts in their field, a week into the program and I was still mystified about the disease. Gradually Braca’s energy returned, and he took on the appearance and attitude of a healthy four-year old; keeping him entertained in hospital was becoming more and more challenging. We both wanted out of the sanitized walls of the hospital, but I was far from being confident that I could take him into my care.

As a parent, it is mindboggling to lose the confidence of being able to care for your child’s basic needs. I would have to get comfortable pricking him for blood, jabbing him with a needle, and micro-managing every aspect of his dietary intake. I would have to constantly survey his body for signs of a low. Is he sweating, pale? Are his hands shaking? Did he simply trip or was that the result of a sugar-crash? Having a four-year old self-diagnose is an impossible task, so I would have to become his internal monitor from the outside. And I would have to become familiar with the word no. “No, you may not have a piece of toast.” “No, you may not have that apple.” “You may have water, but no, you may not have a glass of milk.” Regimen and restriction – welcome to our new world.

We were finally booted from the nest following three weeks of hospitalization and rudimentary training acquired predominately through sign-language. We were discharged, but we were not allowed to fly. Before we could cut the umbilical cord to our medical support team, we needed to prove we could keep Braca stable under our own care. Excitedly we packed our bags and headed for a nearby hotel, ready for the next step. Rather than glide, we crashed hard. Not five hours under my supervision and we were racing through dense traffic back to the hospital with severe food poisoning. It was a painful but important lesson learned: caring for a diabetic is hard; caring for a sick diabetic is ten times harder.

Over the weeks that followed we learned to take small steps, we learned to deal with each problem as it presented itself to us, and we learned not to look too far into the future. Our small steps took us further and further into Bangkok’s crowded streets, down muddy canals, up towering golden Buddha’s and through vast shimmering temples. We set out each morning with our tourist map, our insulin kit and the doctor’s direct number. Day by day we crossed off the list of Bangkok’s finest attractions and wrote down blood levels and calculated insulin doses. At the end of two weeks, we were ramped-up and touristed-out. We’d proven to the doctors and ourselves that we could fly. Which brought us to our next quandary: Where do we fly to?

We looked at our options: Expatriation to America, repatriation to New Zealand, or to continue under the support of the team in Thailand. Each had its merits and its drawbacks. We’d been in contact with the Madison Clinic for Paediatric Diabetes at UCSF, a leader in children’s diabetic research and treatment, and Braca was accepted into their program however we weren’t guaranteed medical insurance coverage. We could repatriate to New Zealand and the diabetic team at Starship was ready to receive us, however it meant leaving the yacht in Thailand for an undermined amount of time and our home in Auckland was rented out. We could continue under the care of the Thai diabetic team and continue to live on-board our boat, already prepared and provisioned for us, but we were not prepared to transit oceans with a newly diagnosed child so travel would be restricted to Thailand for another year; plus, a return to New Zealand would get us under the care of our main medical support team and we’d get another attempt at comprehensive training, this time in our own language.

Eventually we chose repatriation. It is worth noting that our insurance was hoofing the bill for our medical expenses and incidental costs. In a stroke of luck, it was first year we’d ever purchased medical insurance as an express requirement for visiting the Chagos archipelago, a group of atolls in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Due to this planned stopover, we were absolved of paying the substantial bills we’d incurred through our ordeal. After a mere month on their books, we called on TopSail for assistance and they stepped up to shoulder the considerable burden of our bills. Their final action was to assign a flight nurse to escort us back to New Zealand. While they didn’t say it, their unspoken words were, “You are Starship’s problem now.”

As our cruising companions raised their sails and caught the wind westward across the Indian Ocean, we folded our wings and flew south. It is impossible to speak highly enough of the Starship, New Zealand’s primary paediatric hospital, and its paediatric diabetes department. The team had been briefed on our case and were ready for us when we got there. The day following our arrival in Auckland, we were readmitted into hospital for observation and training. Our first session with the senior consultant was our next defining moment and a turning point in our attitude towards our future with diabetes. While we were still reeling from the knowledge that diabetes was a full-care, incurable disease, the diabetes team were used to supporting families of diabetics. In New Zealand, that often meant people living in rural townships or remote island communities in the outlying Pacific Islands. Our case was unique as a cruising family, but our obstacles were not unknown. While we were still grappling with the idea that diabetes had changed us forever, it was the expectation from the diabetes team from the outset that we would be returning to the boat and a life afloat. As soon as we were admitted, the conversations were optimistic and encouraging: Our training program would be concentrated and accelerated, and we would be issued a supply of insulin to last us a year. The resounding message was, “Diabetes should fit into your life, not rule over it.” So, with their unwavering encouragement and support, we started to let our dreams seep back out of the box. In doing so, we had to confront our own level of confidence and ask ourselves the questions: Could we return a life on-board the boat? How capable were we care for our son completely removed from medical support? What if he became ill and we were faced with a situation we were too inexperienced to handle?

In order to answer these questions, we needed a trial run. A month after arriving in New Zealand, we booked ourselves on a three-week campervan tour of the South Island. We drove the length of the island and enjoyed being tourists in our own spectacularly beautiful country. It was not only therapeutic for our over-stressed souls, it was bonding for a family who had been split up for much of the preceding ordeal. Finally, we were finally cut loose to laugh, play and bond as one unit again.

After an amazing tour de force of the South Island highlights, we’d proven ourselves capable of supporting Braca outside the support of a trained medical team. Now that we’d proven our capability, it was time to get down to logistics. We’d become used to life with a diabetic, but we needed to know if we could transition from a life ashore to a life afloat. Diabetes is a common disease, but who was out there managing the condition in the cruising community and what was the experience like for them? What did they need to account for in restricted confines and restricted resources? Was there any inherent risks that cruising presented that we needed to consider? All of the cruising diabetics we were introduced to were adults who had been managing their condition for years. However, diabetic children are different since they have smaller, less stable metabolisms. Furthermore, a diabetic child at sea is removed from all traditional support systems. Our key question was, “How far from expert care and support should a newly diagnosed four-year old diabetic child travel?”

There were also practical considerations we had to address. We needed a refrigerator that we were confident in as we would have a year’s supply of insulin on-board. A replacement was ordered. We needed to guarantee communication with our diabetes team should any issues arise, and our current SSB radio was unreliable. We upgraded to a satellite link via an IridiumGo. We needed a year’s worth of supplies that were typically dispersed via one-month prescriptions. Our all-star diabetes team and friendly local pharmacist stocked us with a two-year supply of insulin, glucose monitors, testing strips, injection pens, ketone strips, emergency glucagon kits and an assortment of other diabetes paraphernalia. In a whirlwind of planning and purchasing, we readied ourselves and spread our wings. We may have to find a new route for the season, but these four seabirds were heading out to sea.

Which direction to look, however, was less straightforward as choosing a route for what remained of the year required a number of considerations. We were too late to do follow our initial Indian Ocean itinerary and an attempt to re-join the 2016 fleet would mean a long ocean passage and missing out on some of the highlight destinations completely. At the same time, another season in Malaysia and Thailand did not appeal to us. Given we would be traveling out of the main cruising season, where do we go? Sumatra popped up on our radar. We could delay our Chagos permit until the transition season and the Maldives could feature in our route after all. In April, just two months after our repatriation to New Zealand, we returned to the boat; in June, just four months after diagnosis, we began our 2016 cruising season. The following six months cruising was one of our most stunning experiences to date and an example of what can happen when the best laid plans fall through. Sumatra, Cocos Keeling, Chagos and the Maldives all proved to be top class cruising grounds and being there on our own was a testament to what is achievable against the odds.

So, what is it like sailing with a diabetic? Some of it is standard diabetes stuff: We test his blood glucose levels four to five time a day and he has an insulin injection after every meal. Braca has learned to identify when his sugars are low and has learned to say no when offered sweeties by well-meaning locals. Physical activity drives him down quickly so we carry a high-sugar “quick fix” in an emergency kit wherever we go. Some of our issues are unique to the cruising lifestyle: The stores of most long-term cruisers are stocked with pasta, beans and rice which lead to a carb-loaded diet. Fresh produce is often hard to come by and few island countries offer healthy snack alternatives. While cruising in isolation of support was initially a nerve-wracking experience, we quickly realized there were many advantages to our sheltered situation. It provided us a controlled environment where we could learn the nuances of Braca’s condition and the unique characteristics of his body. Unlike a child at day care or school, Braca is rarely out of parental supervision so we don’t need to worry about a caretaker mistaking a low, forgetting to take a reading or miscalculating insulin. Braca never goes to cake-fuelled birthday parties and is relatively incubated from the typical flus and colds that run rampant amongst school children. Diabetes is a life-sentence no doubt, but we learned that it is not a sentence to your respective prison. The verdict and the terms of its parole are defined by you.

This month marks our twelve-month milestone of cruising with a diabetic child, and our phoenix has indeed risen from the ashes. We started with small steps through those dark days when our future seemed so bleak and our dreams were buoyed by an encouraging family and supportive medical team. Our plans were based on risk management and the mitigation of any foreseeable complication, as best we could identify them. Finally, we trusted ourselves to let go of uncertainty and released our shore-bound tether. One year ago we headed Atea’s bow towards the open sea and found peace and simplicity in the wide embrace of the ocean, and through the experience we learned what the doctor said was indeed true: Diabetes should fit into your life, not rule over it. However you choose to live it.

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Shall We Rally?

The decision to join a cruising rally is often a process of weighing pros and cons and finding where you fall in the balance. IMG_7586I like to think I have a bit of pirate in me, daring to fly my own battle flag, but I lowered that weather-beaten rag from the cross-trees and signed up for the 2017 Sail Maldives Rally. There were two driving factors the decision to join: One, it was essentially free and two, it promised an extravaganza unlike anything the country has ever seen. Swashbuckler or not, who could miss a good party? A promotional article published by the rally’s marketing director, Sarah Harvey, stated, “This is the largest mass-participation event the Maldives has even seen. Imagine 100-plus yachts cruising the Maldives’ waters… This will be [an] unforgettable event and the whole country is getting ready to welcome the participants from around the world.” Furthermore, the article boldly touted, “By joining the first ever Sail Maldives yacht rally you’ll be playing a part in making history, since it is the first time anything like this has ever taken place in the Maldives.” We were going to be Mavericks. We were in.

Having made the decision, we were aiming for end of January for kick off. We’d spent most of the 2016 cruising season exploring islands in the eastern Indian Ocean without the company of other cruisers and, having already spent three months in the Maldives, I was eager to drop anchor in a crowded lagoon. IMG_7822.jpgThere was only one problem: Where were the participants? We were down to the official start date and there were only three yachts on the list and one, I knew, had already dropped out. Considerable marketing had gone into publicizing the event and there had been a lot of queries by interested cruisers; surely a percentage of those would take the bait. The rally rolled the start date back a month, hoping that late February might ensnare a larger school in its net.

We pulled into Uligan mid-February, the northernmost entry point, excited for the show to begin. We were forwarded an email sent by the first yacht to arrive on scene, a Scottish crew on SV Ngawala:

“We arrived to meet Assad [our yachting agent] and his colleagues who have been tremendously hospitable. The clearance was quick and hassle-free and we were even brought a bouquet of frangipanis and fresh coconuts. In the past three days, we have enjoyed a fish BBQ hosted by the local mayor, visited the nearest resort, learnt how to fish, climb a coconut tree and swam with dolphins and manta rays. We are looking forward to meeting everyone and enjoying what promises to be an amazing rally.” 

The organizers kept touting a hundred boats on the roll call and we expected to have to muscle our way into the anchorage. IMG_9516The day of the second official start date, just two yachts were lined up. The start was again delayed to wait for yachts held up in Sri Lanka and purportedly on their way. Over the course of a few sunny, lazy days we watched the horizon and waited. Finally, far from full capacity, the nod was given and the 2017 Sail Maldives Rally officially kicked off at double our initial number.

Given our decision to join for social reasons, a team of four may sound a disappointing number. For us, however, that was a 400% increase in our social network. A small rally meant that we could travel comfortably together. In an interview with the rally’s founder, Ahmed Adeel states, IMG_9582“The sailing community is like a family, everyone likes to share their experiences with fellow sailors from all around the world.” We could build inter-yacht connections without being lost in a mariner’s metropolis and have genuine experiences with locals without drowning out the authentic in a whirlwind of ogling photo-hungry tourists. Continuing, Adeel adds, “I thought of creating an event where sailors can gather together in the Maldives, have a great holiday and explore the beauty of the country. There is no better sailing destination anywhere else in the world.” With 30°c above water and 30°c below water, with 1,190 tiny islands sprinkled across a territory surrounded by 99% seawater, guided by an in-country host such as Sail Maldives Rally, there truly is no cruising destination like it.

As the weeks moved on we grew from a group of four to eight, and eventually from eight to twelve. The agenda for the rally was crammed with daily movement, local excursions and cultural activities. Over the course of two months we would be escorted by a rally boat from the northernmost atoll to the southernmost atoll, through a chain of palm-fringed islands that extend 1200 miles down the northern Indian Ocean. This rally boat, or “mothership” was it was affectionately called, was a 100-foot charter launch that hosted staff to guide and entertain us, complete with an onsite liquor license and fully stocked bar; a magnetic draw in a liquor-free country. The local community welcomed us at all the villages on arrival with food, dance, and festivities. Our appetite for the Maldives wasn’t going to be whetted, it was going to be saturated.

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The pace at the beginning was fast. We moved almost daily to keep up with the rally schedule and were entreated to an amazing display of island hospitality.As we travelled from island to island, we were greeted ashore by a line of women and children holding flower-bedecked coconuts and shell-studded wreaths, entertained by dancer and drummers, fed fresh caught lobster and fish and guided through the township by our gracious hosts. It was hard not to feel humbled by the outpouring of gifts and gestures after a long succession of these events; this was not a government sponsored event and in all cases the budget came out of island council funds and the charity of the villagers it supports. All the effort that had gone into these elaborate events were done for our benefit at the request of the rally organizers, and we didn’t contribute a dime.

Long-term cruisers are notorious for being spendthrift. While there are few truly destitute sailors these days, all of us are trying to extend our time afloat. Our decision to join the Sail Maldives Rally was made easy by the fact that we didn’t have to pay anything extra (perhaps I should say, we were already paying enough). Whether we paid our fees directly to an independent agent or to the rally, the total cost was the same. Bringing a yacht into the Maldives carries significant costs in official permits and documentation, and a three month sojourn through the country costs about US$1,200 in cruising permits, anchorage charges, clearance costs, quarantine Inspection levies, and the list goes on. As a result, excess fees to join the rally would have made it cost prohibitive for many. Realizing this, the rally organizers put their own money forward to pursue their ambitions of making the Maldives an international cruising destination and paid for the cost of running the event out of their own pockets. In a late-night chat on the aft deck of the rally boat, Adeel explained that he had conceived of the rally a few years back and had dedicated the past year to arduous government meetings trying to persuade an uninterested body to support the venture. His goal was to prove the inaugural 2017 Sail Maldives Rally a success and get government aid for subsequent rallies. For this rally to succeed, the opinions of government decision-makers will have to be swayed or the rally will have to find a viable source of funding.

But for now, thanks to our hosts, we were livin’ large. We were being hosted in a country renowned for its cultural reservation and distance. Instead of the indifference reported by previous cruisers, we were flooded by warm hospitality in every village we visited.IMG_9104 Having spent several months in the country on our own, I realized what an honour it was to be shown customs that we would not have been privy to outside of the rally; rather than quiet reserve, we watched band after band of local drummers kicking out rhythmic beats and writhed with men and women on sandy shores to a movement never seen before and elaborate costumes we will never see again. The rally also introduced us to islands either prohibited to foreigners or too convoluted to attempt to enter on our own. The atolls can be geographically restrictive and difficult to transit without local knowledge. The anchorages are often deep (25-30 meters), the passes shallow (2-4 meters), and the lagoons filled with an impenetrable labyrinth of coral bommies. Because of this, many read the notes of other cruisers and follow an established path year after year. In joining the rally, we were shown islands otherwise banned and accepted into communities unused to foreign tourists. As participants we were privy to a side of the Maldives previous cruisers had never experienced, all thanks to the Sail Maldives Rally.

Joining a group, however, comes with its share of conflict and a rally at its inception is inherently fraught with errors – the learning curve was steep. Misjudgement in planning and poor communication led to periodic conflict between some participants and the organizers, and eventually the pack split into those whose glass was half full and those with glass half empty. To their credit, the rally team was responsive to all feedback and adjusted their agenda as requested but most of us were ready to kick our internal engines into idle after a month and a half of fast-paced movement and continuous engagement. Our tight pack of twelve split up. manta4.jpgSome yachts continued to follow the rally and the village events, others ventured off to explore the underwater scenery and search for the manta ray and whale shark found in the region. The central Maldives is a world renowned dive destination and for those of us who like to be submerged under 30 meters of water; this was our spot. The central atolls are the country’s hub of tourism and resort after resort lay perched on every visible patch of sand, running their wooden tentacles out into the sea. Live-aboard dive boats crisscross their aquatic tracks throughout the surrounding sites. Breaking up the group to accommodate the yachts was a good tactical strategy and allowed everyone time to follow their interests and explore at their own pace.

As we entered the southern atolls, the majority of yachts regrouped. By this stage the rally support team had disintegrated into a one-man band. Unfortunately, the mothership suffered irreparable damage to its generator and limped into Male midway through the rally. The ship, and all crew with it, were left behind. It was a blow to the rally and a serious loss to those of us who had become regulars on the traveling party barge; no more potluck dinners on the top deck, no more evening cocktails shared bar side, no more late night disco parties. We left behind the charming local crew who supported us along the first part of our journey. Our man-on-the-ground and respective dog-handler, Ahmed Hanyff, continued to travel with us as a guest on one of the cruising boats but by this stage all events ceased and the rally unofficially ended from this point forward.

While the disintegration of the rally at the midway point could be perceived as a disappointment, particularly for the organisers, DCIM127MEDIAI believe we got the best of both worlds. Our eyes were opened to local custom and culture through community events and we developed some tight bonds with local Maldivians, while at the same time getting the freedom to roam the atolls at our own pace and discover a side of the Maldives unique to us. With the rally we experienced full and fast, without we enjoyed slow and select.

I don’t know what Adeel and the Sail Maldives Rally team will choose to do, or what the fate of Sail Maldives Rally will be. I like to drink from a glass half full, and feel that we got everything that we wanted from the rally. However I do not imagine that the organisers got what they hoped for this year, nor can I see that the tremendous effort they put into pulling this together paid off. I hope that as guinea pigs we’ve helped pave the way for future rally participants and demonstrated that the Maldives offers the perfect playground for a successful rally event. For their sake, and for the sake of future cruisers, I hope to see a 2018 Sail Maldives Rally with lessons learned. I will most certainly stow my pirate’s hat and pull the free rally shirt over my shoulders if the opportunity presents itself again. Cruising the Maldives just isn’t the same without it.