Which is more important. The journey or the destination? A buddhist would say the journey.
In our saloon we have a sticker which says 'Are you having fun yet?' Sometimes we actually have to read it!!
There are three traits which characterize the Indian Ocean in the SW monsoon. Cross swells, squalls and electrical storms. We were happy to experience all but the latter.
Another of Peter’s analogies: ‘An offshore passage is like cosmetic dentistry – you know you want the big smile but is it worth the pain?’ Like yacht racing, the pain is very short lived, but the beauty of the ocean remains in your mind forever. I am happy to report that Peter is enjoying passages more as he experiences them! (I am not sure he would agree with this in fear of being dragged into more!!!)
Of course, such a reflection of an ocean passage has a dampening effect of reality. The 36 hours of almost continuous squalls (albeit not very strong) between Seychelles and Male are soon forgotten. It is not a problem of being wet for all of that time, (after all hot and wet is not that bad) but rather the demanding sailing of such rapid changes in wind strength. We must admit that we did take the easy way out at times and just motor sailed with the headsail. After the last 2700 miles, we are now more experienced in guessing the strength of the squalls by their colour and looking at the density of the green blobs on the radar! As Teddy would say; ‘there’s another black bastard coming at you’!
We cleaned the bottom of the boat and the prop 3 days before we left Mahe. One of those three days included a 25nm sail to Petit Cour on Praslin Island where we stopped to have a final rest and watch the World Cup finals. During this short time, the growth on the hull and prop was so significant, that we were losing ½ knot of speed when motoring. So in the middle of the Indian Ocean in 4000m of water, we hove to for Peter to go over the side and clean the prop. The colour of the water was magnificent and characteristically, Indian Ocean Blue!
Statistically the SE trades blow harder around the Seychelles. This certainly held true this season as we sailed fast up to within 10 miles of the equator before we carelessly lost the wind! We crossed the equator around 64 degrees E, then headed on a more easterly course, having to motor 80 hours between Seychelles and Male, trying to get north from the equator. The pain was exacerbated by the current (up to 1 knot at times) we had against us. VPP2 (computer program which has all the information from the pilot charts and will estimate a course for you maximizing wind and minimizing current) was excellent in plotting us a course to Male.
We stayed around 3 degrees 30 min N for most of the time as further north, although there was more wind, the squalls were stronger. We have had a debate with other yachties as to which is preferable – motoring or 40 knot continuous squalls. Hmm, tough decision! We waited for 10 days in Male for wind, which was well worth it. We were a little longer in reality as we were hiding in an atoll for 4 days before we checked in!
Between Male and Phuket, we sailed all the way until we got to the Nicobar Islands which is the entrance to the Malaccan Straits. 85% of the time we had winds from 12 – 20 knots off our starboard quarter. Perfect sailing conditions which allowed us to sail 160 to 170 miles per day for the first half of the passage. There was only 2 days of 30 knots of breeze! It apears that this is considered a very strong breeze in SE Asia! I guess the Kiwis, other Southern Ocean dwellers and the Fremantle sailors are the only ones that would consider this an 'average' wind???? If we didn't go sailing in Fremantle in 30knots, we would seldom get out of the pen!! Apart from the short lived squalls, that is the strongest breeze we have had since leaving Fremantle!!
We maintained a latitude of 4 degrees 30 min N, a little over 100 miles south of Sri Lanka, only making our way north on a gentle NE course after passing the SE corner of Sri Lanka. India and Sri Lanka have an enormous impact on the weather conditions for hundreds of miles. The grib files we downloaded via sailmail were accurate for a 24 hour period and as most of the trough lines (and squalls) were north of 5N, we planned our course successfully to miss most of these.
The shipping lane between Aceh and the Nicobars is close to one hundred miles wide. A few ships head SW, but the majority are heading west towards India. There are no defined lanes and at times we had ships heading at us from both directions. We crossed the first shipping lane easily, and managed very well with the major one. Of course, we had squalls to deal with when the density of the ships increased, so although we had the ships on radar coming at us, we could not see them until they were less than ½ mile away!
Our adrenal glands worked overtime. We did cheat a bit though as for most of the time we were 1 mile behind Bill on Time Out who has a computer program which reads ship information via the VHF (AIS) which gives us their course, distance and speed. Two ships actually changed course for us! Unfortunately Time Out was heading east to Langkawi and we were off on a more northerly course to Phuket. We missed having that information on the last day when it got really busy!! We had a few tense moments in squalls with visibility reduced to under 2 miles. We had one slab sided car carrier coming at us at 25 knots. We had it on radar but only saw her steaming out of the gloom, 1 mile away. Around midnight, just when we though it was safe, we gybed to take a ship down our starboard side. It kept coming back onto our bow. We finally worked out it was turning, which was odd as we were very close to the Nicobar islands. When we could see its lights we kept heading for its stern light. It ended up being a massive tanker and we passed it less than 1 mile on our port side.
We had debated the merits of crossing in The Great Channel or Sombrero Channel further north. The yachts that went further north at the same time took a bit of a hammering with quite bad weather/swell and had trouble with fishing boats. We did not encounter either.
From the Nicobars, we motored the last 220 miles to Phuket in mostly clear skies and definitely no squalls!
During both passages, most of the time we enjoyed magnificent sailing conditions with starry nights and clear days. We established a routine of midday movies, just going on deck every 20 minutes for a quick scan. There was the odd day that the only ‘movie’ screen we watched was the green blobs coming at us on the radar screen! We only saw one vessel on passage (well, unbeknown to us, we had gone past a tuna fishing boat 2 miles off our beam which took Bill by surprise when it popped up in front of him) until we got to the shipping lanes at the entrance to the Malaccan Straits.
Both passages took 10 days, even though Male to Phuket was 400 miles further. We had heard of the possibility of difficult sea conditions in the locations where there are rapid changes in elevation of the sea bed. It is difficult to comprehend how the surface of the ocean can be affected by what happens 1000m to 4000m below! Of course, all that was said was true! We had seas rising from 1/2m to 2m-3m where the sea floor jumped from 4000m to 1000m and several tidal overfalls and whirlpools between Nicobar and Phuket. An amazingly calm sea suddenly erupting into breaking waves that sounded worse than what they actually were. It makes you jump when you are otherwise having a very quiet night watch!
Other yachts that left Seychelles a month later than us have experienced reasonably rough weather. In other years, yachts returning to Phuket have got an absolute hammering. Apparently when the monsoons are weak, the ITCZ is not very active, which translates into a decrease in intensity and frequency of squalls and electrical storms. The NE monsoon last season was very weak – the high pressure systems over China were not strong. Sometimes it pays to be lucky!
A cruising friend had organized us a pen at Boat Lagoon Marina, which is a bit of a cesspool to tie up in, but an excellent location for getting work done. Luckily for us we had turned off the shallow depth alarm in the Seychelles (took Gorbar and us a while to work it out!) as we came up the channel to Boat Lagoon with a 1.9m tide which was not enough water for us! We went aground (for the first time EVER!) and anchored (we could see the fluke!) in less than a meter of water – in case we drifted (?) onto the pylon nearby. After entertaining the tourist boats, whose speed and wake bounced us into deeper water (where we had 0.2m under our keel) we were soon on our way with the sounder showing 00 (which meant we had about 400mm underneath us) for most of the two miles into the marina. It was a relief to be tied up, not having to think of dragging or keeping a look out for ships! Some red wine and a deep comatose sleep. Bliss!