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Midnight Squall – Pete Sherlock

Kisimany | 13°34’7.56″S  48° 5’41.95″E | 09 July 2019

There is something quite exciting about hearing the anchor lock into the bow roller.  It is a sound that proclaims to all that we are leaving and in search of another adventure.  The jingle as the chain dances its way out of the crystal blue that is the ocean, the clank as the shank locates in the roller, followed by the thud as the Rocna settles into the guide.  It is music that hypes the soul, a calling if you will for those who are prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder upon Amarula’s deck and accept the unknown challenges that lie ahead as we point the bows in any direction we fancy and slide through the blue.  It is without doubt the song of freedom.

Sunset amongst the islands

Adéle and Rosie were up front, making safe the bridle and cleaning the anchor chain as we grumbled out of Crater Bay on both motors.  It was early morning and we were headed south west to explore the extensive bay of Maroakiho.  Crater Bay is a busy little port in the morning as all the pirogues and dhows use the North Easterly wind to scoot out of the bay and off to their various destinations, returning on the south westerly in the afternoon.  Crater Bay plays a very significant role locally, especially with the storage and onward resale of building materials.  They are all delivered by sea and there is a large “Builders Warehouse” in Crater Bay where you can find all your materials, from sand right the way up to palm fronds as roof tiles.

We joined the colourful dhows and pirogues with their handmade sails fluttering as they tried to catch the ghost of a breeze, or the big single piston diesel outboard stern drives chugging out black smoke and noise in return for a modicum of forward travel.  The Malagasy are incredible seamen and it always amazed me how well their vessels were manoeuvred in tight corners and without the benefit of mechanisation and bow thrusters or skid steer. They would blast through the anchorage, water licking the gunwales as the loads were piled up high, tiller steered by foot as the incumbent helmsman was busy on his smartphone calling for help to offload or wishing his maiden (s?) goodbye depending on their direction of travel.

We adjusted course once around the headland and Amarula slipped through the water with hardly a whisper.  I watched as her bows dipped, paused, lifted then broke free of the water’s grasp, just to start the gambol again.  The breeze on my face was uplifting and the sun had yet to start punishing you for seeking it.  The smell of a breakfast fry up wafted from the galley accompanied by the steady hum of chatter between the girls.  There is a lilt of delight in the way women natter when pleased, and this morning all was good as the wind chased into our sails and nudged Amarula forward towards the horizon.

We had about ten days for our little circumnavigation South. We would spend some time at Russian Bay, then head west to Nosy Iranja, Coco Beach and possibly Nosy Valiha.  Then we would retrace our passage and go East towards Nosy Kisimasy, Nosy Mamoko and explore the waterfall just beyond.  We had no schedule and no must haves.  We were completely free to decide as and when we wished.  True cruising freedom lay before us.

The days seemed to merge into a fuzzy blur.  My body clock was set for wake up about 15 minutes before sun rise.  Just enough time to get the coffee machine warmed and fresh beans ground.  The noise of the grinder was a gentle warning to the girls that the sun was about to fold back the darkness and reveal our sublime setting.  Once the coffee was made, I would drag Adéle out of bed and onto the starboard sugar scoop.  We would sit, often in silence, and sip our coffee as the broad brush strokes of the rising sun swept over the vista before us, slowly bringing it to life as the pink grey hues of the dawn were replaced with emerald greens, turquoise and the darkest richest blue sky you have ever seen.  It was called Sugar Scoop coffee and to date is still the best coffee available on this planet.

Our days were punctuated with bursts of energy followed by sun baked laziness.  We all love snorkelling, so mornings were spent bobbing in the ocean following schools of fish and whirling around coral bommies in a slow dance.  We floated with turtles, skimmed the sea floor with rays, played “first to blink” with potato bass, searched for pansies and conch shells and squealed with delight when graced with dolphins.  We surfed perfect breaks on small sand banks, explored the mangroves, followed rivers upstream and dropped our anchor in bays without names.  Our legs would burn as we climbed hills and walked through tropical jungle, thick with vegetation and promise of adventure.  We climbed old rusty light houses carefully and explored forgotten buildings, crumbling and derelict, a mirror to a long lost grand age.

We drifted alongside forgotten villages where even the Lemurs came out to greet us.  We bartered and chatted, our broken French eliciting guffaws from the Malagasy.  We queried and were offered tips on where to fish, what time and whether there was a Fady (a cultural taboo) on fishing or anything else (Thursday there is Fady on fishing in Russian Bay and Sundays is Fady for washing!).  We ate what the sea provided and what was expertly rustled up in the galley, there was a never ending supply of THB (Three Horses Beer) and each day presented a varied though equally sublime setting.

Without warning our ten days were up and we had our bows pointed back to the beginning, back to Crater Bay.  It was a melancholy sail as the girls were returning home in a few days via a flight and I would pick up crew to head back to Richards Bay.

It was late afternoon as we drifted in to Crater Bay on the dwindling southwesterly.  It was strangely without strength today and it had left a plethora of dhows and pirogues stranded in the bay.  Sails that were normally filled with the constant breeze were left flailing aimlessly and the ocean was now punctuated with oars dipping as the fishermen tried to hurry home before sunset.

Somewhere cerebral I made a note of this as it was unusual.  As quickly as I had entertained the thought it was forgotten, parked somewhere in my psyche as we prepared to anchor.  Upon clearing Crater Bay head I saw that the marina was jam packed.  It was late in the season and the cruisers had been arriving steadily from the East – Seychelles, Mauritius and Reunion mostly.  We normally anchored on the southern outskirts of the marina, so as to avoid the wakes from tenders, the water was cleaner, and it was easier to leave without weaving your way through the maze of vessels.  I looked out for our normal spot and it seemed like we were in luck.  As we drew closer under motor our buddy boat Abundant Life came into view.  There was a spot between her and a large 60 foot ketch that looked like a good old solid Med cruiser with beautiful woodwork glistening in the open saloon, backlit by the now sinking sun.

Adéle released the chain as I marked our waypoint in the chartplotter. This waypoint marks the spot exactly where we drop the anchor and is a very accurate way of checking your scope.  Personally I find it a far better way of knowing if your anchor is dragging than relying on an anchor alarm.  I backed up on the chain, we were in around 5 metres of water and I let out around 30 metres of chain.  As the Rocna dug in I got the motors up to 1800 rpm to pull her down solidly then went forward to help with the bridal.

As we settled onto our rode and the wind disappeared we drifted slowly forward eventually coming to rest.  Adéle and Rosie went inside for a shower and to prep for pizza at the Marina restaurant.  I stood on the trampoline and something did not seem right.  I knew our anchor was set properly and we had a five to one scope, so all the boxes were ticked.  My stomach turned in an all too familiar warning.  We were sitting slightly closer to the big heavy ketch and I knew she would not move as much as we did in light and unsettled airs.  The North Easterly should kick in little later which would push us away.  I took up about 5 metres of chain to set us a little further off of the ketch.

We headed off to the Marina Pizzeria a little later to meet up with Abundant Life’s crew.  It was a fun evening with good banter and rum tasting, as the bar there has the most amazing collection of locally flavoured rums.  As we headed back to Amarula I noticed there was still no North Easterly.  We climbed back on board and I lifted the tender onto her davits.  This is a golden rule as it makes it harder to steal (not that we ever felt this would happen) plus no ropes to foul your propeller should you have to move during the night and she sits on her painter.  It was a good call.

My uneasiness returned as we prepared for bed.  It was a stiflingly hot evening as the wind had not arrived.  There were some bugs flying around, normally we would not have any, but I think the lack of wind allowed them to extend their range.  I stood on the trampoline and watched out over the anchorage for some time.  The village was quiet, everyone resting for the coming day, and the few lights that burned seemed to struggle to stay alight.  The warm orange glow from the tungsten filaments slipped between the houses and onto the water where they zig zagged across the bay towards us like determined snakes crossing a dark rippled floor.  I was a mixture of emotion, sad that our time here was over, excited for the crossing back to South Africa, but mostly I knew I would miss my family and the unbroken time we had spent together.  My emotions seemed to match the haphazard lights, zigging and zagging through what ifs and why nows, between giving it all up and cruising permanently or creating more of these hiatuses, between the hamster wheel of suburban life and the uncertainty of sailing.  Somewhere inside me there was a voice that was also trying to be heard.  It was saying trust your instincts.  And my instincts were alerted to something, something was not right, something was cause for alarm.

I returned to the saloon and started shutting hatches to avoid having bugs join us for the night.  Amarula was without a light on and I worked in the darkness.  I took a final look out towards the ketch and turned to go to my cabin, suppressing the anxiety that had manifested itself.  I climbed into my bunk and reached up above my head to pull the hatch closed but somehow in doing so literally just passed out with exhaustion.  It probably saved our boat.

It was a little after midnight when I woke up.  I sleep very lightly on a boat and end up recognising every rhythm, every noise. From the lap of water on the hulls to the creak of the bridle as you swing you feel it and hear it within your sleep.  I was woken up by a single drop of rain on my forehead.  I swore under my breath as I realised I had not managed to close the hatch earlier.  As I stretched up Amarula rocked ever so slightly.  It was so slight, but it made me feel like she was moving.  My ears immediately listened for clues.  I was now completely awake.  As I sat in the darkness a strong breeze descended into the cabin via the hatch. “Adéle, wake up, somethings not right!”

I shot up and out of the bunk.  We always sleep with red night lights on so that we can see clearly at night and I was grateful for these as I ran up the lit companion way stairs into the saloon.  My heart stopped! Amarula was travelling forward at about 3 or 4 knots – we would sail right over our anchor and drag straight into the anchorage and certain collision.

In a flash I was at the helm station.  I always leave the chart plotter on and the engine keys in the ignition.  Both these safety calls made a difference this night.  As I swung the engines I was looking ahead and guessed we had about 50 metres before we would hit the first yacht.  It was 70 foot aluminium vessel and we would come off second best.  The wind was already at 15 knots and out of the South, a big squall was about to hit!  As both engines spluttered into life I pulled them into reverse to try and slow down our forward dash over our anchor.  I was worried about the chain fouling the port propeller, but I had no choice but to risk it if I was to stop us in time.  As I brought both motors up to around 2500 rpm Amarula started to slow and then finally stop, with about 10 metres to spare.

That was the easy bit I thought as now the wind had whipped up to 25 knots and the rain was starting to fall in sheets.  I tried to bring Amarula around gently, holding her between the ketch and Abundant Life, who were both bucking and straining on their anchor chains.  I was doubly concerned about our own chain and fouling it but luckily for us this round of Russian Roulette was in our favour.  I juggled Amarula between the 60 foot catamaran (Abundant Life) and the big heavy Mediterranean Ketch as they swung inwards and outwards on their chains, at different times and with different momentum, all the while dragging back. David was at the helm station on Abundant Life and I saw some movement on the ketch, so I knew that they were both alerted to the situation.  However, I was also aware that as I had anchored last I was ultimately responsible for being caught between them.

The wind speed was up to around 30 knots and the rain was so violent it was cutting into my skin. It was also cold, something that I had never experienced in the tropics, cold rain.  As I helmed Amarula I was not sure what to do to extricate us from this mess.  At some point unless the squall ended soon, we would be crushed between the two other boats as they dragged closer together.  Adéle and Rosie were both looking at me for direction.

I had two choices, risk it and stay put until the squall passed or lift the anchor and run for space.  If we stayed I was sure that the two vessels alongside me would start being a real threat within minutes. If we tried to up anchor we could be tangled with the ketch’s anchor chain. It was definitely the safer option, if we were able to lift anchor without drama.  I was so cold my body was shaking.  I sent the girls forward and instructed them to prepare to up anchor.  This was something they had done plenty of times before, but always in calm conditions and with me shouting instructions from the helm.  This was their one chance to earn their stripes as there would be no second go.  If we were tangled there would not be a chance to cut away or disengage.  We would end up causing the other vessel to drag even faster and perhaps pull us along for the ride, no doubt ending in collision.  It was any sailor’s worst nightmare.

I looked down at the chart plotter that was still logging our track loyalty.  We had been blown straight over our anchor waypoint and I had managed to turn into the wind with little dalliance from our track.  There was a very slim chance we were snagged.  My attention was pulled away from the screen with Adéle shouting.  I looked up to see the Ketch was metres away.  That was it we needed to get out of here.

It took the girls seconds to deploy the anchor control, slip the bridle and with me helping on the motors, start taking in chain.  From the helm station, with the wind blowing in my face and the driving rain cutting across the deck I could still hear the chain as it danced up out of the water and into the locker.  It took at least another minute before I heard the clang of the shank in the roller and finally the thud as she set firmly on board.  I pushed both throttles forward and Amarula lifted her bows up, straight into the wind and we escaped our neighbours and were spat out on the other side.  Adéle and Rosie stood shoulder to shoulder on the trampoline as all hell broke loose around them and calmly made good, as the seasoned sailors they were.  Amarula’s bows cut through the rain and split open the ocean, the wind marching across the decks, howling through the shrouds, as she shook off her captors.  At that moment as I stood freezing in the rain, mouth shivering and knuckles white on the helm, I felt we should just continue on course, as we were free, full of adventure and the best bloody crew on the West Indian Ocean.

A melancholic moment as Adéle and Rosie take the tender for the last time on the way to the airport

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