A Passage to Africa Page 2 - Sail Magazine

A Passage to Africa Page 2

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”Baseball legend Yogi Berra gets credit for that advice, but it sort of encapsulated our motivation for the coming cruise.Our 39-foot steel cutter, Moose, was sailing out through the pass at Mayotte, a French island between Mozambique and Madagascar, bound for Ilha de Moambique, just off the African mainland. After a
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An Ugly Situation in Mocambo Bay

Ever since our arrival Irene had been watching the weather forecasts and talking to Graham (the Ham) in South Africa looking for a north wind to sail us down the coast. When this finally arrived we set out on an overnight run south to Ilha Casuarina.

All that morning we flew along with a brisk 20-knot breeze on the quarter, the Mozambique Current adding an extra knot to our speed. By mid-afternoon, though, the wind began shifting, and an hour later we were motoring into a 20-knot headwind. Moose was now making a scant 3 knots, including the one from current. Clearly, it was time to fold this hand.

There was a possible anchorage behind us in the entrance to a big bay called Mocambo. Our ETA would be just after sunset, during nautical twilight, but we decided to try for it anyway, with the main reefed down and the genoa on the pole. The wind, the remains of some Antarctic depression, grew colder as the sun set, but on the horizon we soon saw the southern cape of the big bay.

In almost full darkness Moose and Blue Sky felt their way in toward land and dropped their anchors close in under the shelter of a low cape. Later that night the moon rose to reveal that the cape was a sandbank, as white as snow against the dark background. First light revealed we had been fortunate in our anchorage; there was good holding and shelter from the wind, even though we were in an open roadstead. After a short VHF conference we opted to motor together 5 miles up to the village at the head of the bay, where we hoped to relax until the wind came north again.

The village was a nondescript backwater with a couple of military-style buildings and a collection of shacks and fishing sheds, many with nets drying in front. We anchored close to shore near the main beach and were immediately surrounded by boats and canoes.


Two boats around 30 feet long stood between the two yachts, a dozen men in each. Smaller craft filled in as well until there were easily 50 men circling us, shouting and indicating, “Give me your hat, your sunglasses, the outboard motor!” I called Jim on the VHF and suggested a smiling departure might be prudent. The clatter of his chain was my answer. Irene and I quickly weighed anchor as well.

Later that afternoon, safely ensconced in a gentle cove near the mouth of the bay, I was sitting reading when I heard a sing-song chant from out in the channel. Looking up I saw six fishermen coming in from the open sea, their oars thunking away as they threw their backs into it. One man called a cadence like a question. The rowers responded in a melody so hauntingly African that the scene remains etched in my memory to this day. I listened, relishing the sound until it disappeared in the distance.

An Island Utopia

Casuarina proved to be an absolute jewel: surrounded by high beaches, its crowning glory is a forest of pine-like casuarinas that sigh endlessly in the breeze. I hadn’t even gotten the sail cover on when Irene exclaimed, “Wasn’t that a whale?” I was just telling her I didn’t think so, since there was only 50 feet of water in the area, when: Whoosh!

“I thought so!” she said, as a humpback spouted and went under, out beyond our stern.

Once everything was secure, we launched the dinghy and set out to putter around the island. The north side, where we’d anchored, was the only side with any water. Coral reefs that dried at low water surrounded the rest of the island. In these coral-strewn shallows we came across a young man spearfishing. He had no fins and the tip of his homemade spear was as dull as a pencil eraser. Nonetheless, he wore a huge smile and although the only word that garnered any recognition was “langouste” I thought we had reached an agreement involving lobster.

Later that afternoon, Irene, the crew of Blue Sky and I were on the beach relaxing and drinking THB, Madagascar’s locally brewed “Three Horses Beer.” I’d brought a baggie of rice ashore to indicate we had things to trade should we meet any of the fishermen. Soon the young diver showed up, accompanied by an older man wearing a T-shirt and a pair of underwear. They presented us with two lobsters and a sunburned fish. I took the lobsters, left the fish, handed over the tiny bag of rice and indicated, in response to the older man’s gestured request, that I had no shorts to trade. They did the deal, but left with expressions of resignation—ripped off again. I felt bad about it.

Midmorning the next day a distant whistle brought me up from my book. On the beach was a stick figure holding up one arm. This time I was prepared.

For years we had carried an extra set of dive boots and fins, ostensibly for some future guest. This mythical guest, though, had never once materialized, so I put the gear in the dinghy along with a spear gun I’d never used. The diver had four good lobsters on the sand, and when he helped me pull my dinghy up he immediately noticed what was inside. I motioned that he should try on the boots. It turned out he was also a size 10 1/2! He was, within the bounds of proper dignity, very happy with his new gear, and I was equally happy to know that the gun would now actually help somebody out and not just corrode in the lazarette. I felt good again. The fellow in the underwear stood up by the tree line and waved pleasantly.

The next day the wind went north and the anchorage became an untenable lee shore. Nonetheless, there was still something I needed to do.

Setting out in the dinghy I motored around to the other side of the island. There was less wind there, but a big swell had come in with the tide, and the beach in front of the huts was white with breakers. Landing was out of the question, but when I saw the man in the underwear I held up a white plastic bag I’d brought with me, and he immediately crashed into the surf and swam out to the dinghy. The bag was heavy and he had a tough time keeping it out of the water as he made his way back toward the shingle. The younger men opened the cans of corn inside and shared them around like hors d’oeuvres. But the older man in the underwear paid it no heed. He just stood there holding up a pair of navy and turquoise Nautilus shorts.

The Sands of Inhambane

Moose and Blue Sky had now been in Mozambique for three weeks, and we were worried that we might now be in the country illegally. True, we had appeared at immigration, filled in forms, paid fees and had our passports stamped, but concern about our lack of a formal visa (and the possibility of a $1,000 per day fine) lingered. We therefore decided to avoid anything remotely urban on our 500-mile offshore passage toward South Africa. We would make landfall at a remote anchorage, deep in a labyrinth of sandbanks, near the city of Inhambane.

The passage took us southwest past the mouth of the great Zambezi River and down the Mozambique Channel. To our port lay the ship-eating reefs Europa and Bassas de India. But it was the whales that commanded our attention; they were majestic, spectacular and sometimes far too close.

We’d often see a pair forging northward at a seemingly effortless pace that would, in fact, knock off 200 miles in a day. The spout of the humpback is vertical and wide, and at a distance we could distinguish calves from their mothers by the size of their spouts. One day we counted 16 sightings, including two that were much too close for comfort.


The first came late in the afternoon. We had been watching a whale on the surface, maybe 750 feet away, slapping the water repeatedly with one of its 30-foot fins. The reports sounded like gunfire. As we drew nearer, the whale disappeared and we saw nothing for five minutes—until the two whales spouted gain 30 degrees off the bow at a distance of 300 feet. At half the distance they spouted again, water sheeting from the back of the leader—then they dove once more. I saw darkness in the water off Moose’s bow and braced myself, but that was all. They must have dived deep and come up far away.

The second close encounter came an hour later. We had seen whales breaching all day, diving and then leaping almost entirely out of the water, half turning in the air and coming down again in an almighty splash. Suddenly, three or four boat-lengths off the port bow a whale was in the air. It toppled backward, sending waves and spray everywhere. I wonder if this 30-ton creature had the slightest notion we were anywhere nearby.

One of the strangest things I’ve ever seen at sea took place the next morning. Irene was off watch below and I was in the cockpit thinking some coffee would be nice. I took a look around and ducked below, but I felt apprehensive soon afterward and climbed back on deck. There, just forward of the beam, was 20 feet of a whale’s tail sticking straight up in the air. It was immobile, like a lone coconut tree. The tips of the flukes were tense and curled skyward. We sailed closer and passed by, but the animal didn’t even flinch. Ten minutes later as I looked back it was still there, unmoving. I have no explanation. Irene, after some deliberation, suggested that it was one of a group of teenage whales doing a skateboard trick to amuse its underwater mates.

After the diversion of the humpbacks came the anxiety of landfall. The city of Inhambane is 15 miles up a sandbar-choked estuary that has a substantial tidal range. We elected to anchor behind a tongue-like point of land aptly called Linga Linga about 5 miles upriver. The East African Pilot was less than encouraging: “The bar changes constantly…watch for breakers to determine the bad spots. At the shallowest part of the bar we found 2 meters.” Charming—especially when making a late afternoon approach with a 20-knot breeze building from astern. The mouth of the estuary is over five miles across and was filled with rank after rank of rolling combers. The fairway buoy, optimistically placed on the chart, was non-existent, as were all the channel markers, but we had a series of waypoints, scrupulously transcribed at happy hour from the crew of a South African yacht called Gambit.

Our mainsail was double-reefed and the sea had turned a sandy green. The water became shallower, the seas got steeper, and we surged along toward what could be construed as a flat spot where we’d set our first waypoint. We had timed our arrival to coincide with slack water, because the out-flowing tidal current could reportedly reach 4 knots. The seas were wild at the bar, jumping erratically as current met contrary wind. The depthsounder registered 4 meters. Moose draws about half that.

Irene had the helm and ran down the waypoints on the plotter. I stood on the cabintop, making sure the route made sense in the real world. It was now very windy. There were sandbars all around us, and everywhere, and from all directions, white water was breaking on them. I remember thinking, if we don’t get into some very serious trouble, this will be a memorable day.

Only one spot caused us any problems, a waypoint that had wandered out of the channel and now sat a boatlength up a sandbank. We corrected our course and had a successful transit. We left waypoint 24 behind, exclaiming “Good old Gambit!” and anchored in the lee of Linga Linga. Outside the offshore banks were a blur of white.

Later in the week we took a rented launch to Inhambane. The city itself is colonial; the churches and public buildings suggest Portugal’s Algarve. The African markets reek of spice and are both vividly colorful and welcoming. The pace of life here, though urban, is languid. Inhambane had a pleasant feel, a place where you could sit down and relax. By now our eyes were on Richards Bay, a two-day run south. We left on the next weather window and were able to safely tuck inside one day before a hellacious southeaster—a real sandblaster with lightning—tore up the coast.

When I look back on our Mozambique cruise, what stands out most? It’s Africa. It’s a place most people don’t go. We’d gone there with some trepidation; we’d encountered some garden-variety corruption and aggression; but mostly we met pleasant and decent people. It can be wild, both on land and at sea, but it can also be extraordinarily beautiful. It’s Africa, and I’m glad I took that fork in the road.



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