Cruising

Pirogues and Dhows

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I can’t say it was an easy passage. True, the weather was so benign we had to motor for four days to complete the 1,500-mile trip from the Chagos Archipelago to Cap d’Ambre, at the northern point of Madagascar. But Irene and I, aboard Moose, our 39-foot steel cutter, were tense the entire way. Somali pirates, forced south by international policing of the Red Sea route, were now striking shipping close to our track. Several dozen commercial ships had been attacked in the region over the past year, so we had programmed our Iridium phone with the search-and-rescue phone numbers of several different countries.

No, we didn’t see any RIBs full of hooded men, but the piracy situation had other equally alarming side effects. Late one dark night our AIS displayed a ship icon on our plotter, complete with the vessel’s name, course, speed and closest point of contact. Three miles ahead, 700 feet of steel was crossing our bow at 21 knots with not one light showing; the ship was running dark to avoid detection. And I thought I had enough reasons to be preoccupied—Cap d’Ambre, for example.

The cape at the top of Madagascar is a wild place where contrary currents, winds and seas all come together. A normal day will see 30 knots of southeasterly wind redirected and accelerated past the end of the land on the east coast, accompanied by whatever swell the full fetch of the Indian Ocean has to offer. On the west side of Madagascar, the Mozambique Channel funnels up the swell from legendary depressions that sweep along South Africa’s Wild Coast. Factor in a 10-foot tide, and the result is a washing-machine stew that extends 100 miles north of Cap d’Ambre. Boats have miscalculated here and have been driven north to altogether different countries.

The conventional wisdom is to close the coast 20 or so miles south of the cape and stay close in. When you arrive at the top, stay as near to the shore as you dare, and hope you don’t hit anything. Yes, there will probably be 8 knots of South Equatorial Current behind you, the cartography on your plotter will bear little resemblance to the actual geography you are seeing, and if you have the tide wrong you may get caught in 4-foot overfalls. But by and large, these fates all seem downright charming compared to a long-term diet of Somali rice.

On Moose we were two days out, in the area of maximum pirate risk, when the wind died. We decided not to dawdle and fell into a 5-knot dog trot under power that took us around Cap d’Ambre in a glassy calm with hot sun overhead. We motored down the west coast (a notorious wind factory) and still found no wind, not until we were securely anchored behind Nosy Hara. Sitting over a Chagos homebrew in a building breeze that evening, Irene and I finally allowed ourselves to acknowledge how lucky we’d been. Madagascar (of all places!) lay like a marvel before us.

As we worked our way down the coast we encountered a number of fishermen in pirogues. These boats are around 10 feet long and are constructed by adding planking to the gunwales of a dugout canoe. The planks are fastened with galvanized spikes, countersunk from inside. At the bow and stern the sheer line rises in a vaguely Polynesian manner. The result is a craft with a very fine entry and impossibly narrow beam. To increase stability two wrist-thick 10-foot poles are lashed to the thwarts and hung over the sides of the boat. On one side a solid wooden outrigger is fixed to the poles via two short struts. The weight of the outrigger keeps the pirogue from tipping over one way; its buoyancy stabilizes it going the other way. When the boat has to be hauled up a beach to escape the 10-foot tides, the poles provide easy lifting points. To me they seemed like rough-hewn and leaky craft.

We cleared in at Hellville where it took all of one hot, dusty day and a moderate bit of money to satisfy the usual authorities and a few more-nebulous ones. Hellville is a perfectly secular name that honors Admiral de Hell of the French Navy. One irony is that the main street is called the “Cours de Hell” (The Way to Hell), and the most noticeable street sign is the one attached to the corner of the Catholic church.

Madagascar is a very poor country, so poor that two dollars is a normal daily wage for an adult male. People eat rice, manioc and fish—and fish is a treat. We traded empty glass jars for bananas and tomatoes. Most people don’t have money to spend on things that come with packaging. As a result, everything gets used, and beaches have no rubbish on them.

We refueled and provisioned in Hellville, having not seen a store for four months. The sea breeze blew from the southeast every morning, then after a midday lull returned from the southwest. The fleet of local cargo dhows uses this convenient shift to come and go along the coast. They have no engines, usually carry a long pole for the final push into the quay, and otherwise sail everywhere. We watched them ghosting along in light air and exchanged friendly waves with their crews.

The dhows, which vary considerably from their larger namesakes in Arabian waters, evoke Columbus’s Nia in silhouette. They run 30 to 40 feet and are carvel-planked, undecked and quite flat-bottomed. The rig features a dramatically forward-raked mast with two robust backstays and a yard that, when lowered, extends well past the ends of the boat. The yard is constructed by simply lashing two long tree trunks together at their thick ends. The sails are of natural canvas, and the rig is lateen and very oversized. The lower end of the yard is set very near the stem post at the bow, so the appearance is of a yacht running only under its 150 percent genoa. Looking at the tattered and baggy sails, I was sure that many dhows didn’t make landfall on schedule.

Several days later, as we butted our way against the morning tide heading for Nosy Komba, a steady stream of unpainted dhows passed us going the other way at an impressive clip. Generally two men made up a crew, and they lounged, one in the bow and one on the helm, like teenagers in a convertible. We always got a friendly salute, but we also seemed to be the source of some amusement.

The little village on Nosy Komba is touristy by Malagasy standards; there are shops offering carvings and resoleil. (Imagine a white cotton tablecloth with floral patterns cut from it; these are used as window curtains.) The village is also known for its colony of black lemurs. Lemurs are considered fady, or taboo, and are consequently protected.

Irene bought some bananas and headed up a narrow path toward the lemurs’ habitat. Up in the branches of a mango tree, we saw furry balls huddled together. The balls had huge round orange eyes. Without warning something the size of a cat flew from the tree and landed lightly on Irene’s shoulder. It regarded her with open amazement, grasped a proffered banana with a small black hand, exactly like a child’s, then leapt back into the tree, its long bushy tail acting as an airfoil. This was repeated, and sometimes there were two or three lemurs on Irene at once, so that all that could be seen were the wrap of majestic tails was Irene’s eyes, round with amazement.

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