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Red Sails, Or how Amarula beat a 60 foot Cat – Pete Sherlock

Amarula and Abundant life at anchor in Crater Bay

We had just walked onto the beach from Ankarea’s coconut grove and our haul of the precious nuts was adequate for a few days.  We planned on immediately freezing some of the stash to make our “Coco Loco’s” for sunset (recipe at end).  As we stepped out onto the beach I noticed the wind had changed almost imperceptibly.  At this time of day we should have been feeling the wind on our backs as the South Westerly picked up after lunch. Instead there was a breeze on my face. I looked up and to the North East and some distance away, over the mainland, sat a menacing looking storm cell.

I stood transfixed on the beach, arms loaded with coconuts, limbs tired from scaling the palm trees, elbows and knees scuffed. The horizon towards the mainland always sat with a haze obscuring it. I presumed a lot of it had to do with the slash and burn of forests for palm nut farming. I am told this is a problem in Madagascar but have no firsthand knowledge of it. The haze always lent a kind of mysterious air to the mainland, you knew land was there, but you could not quite make out any detail.  It seemed a little like the top of the “Faraway Tree”, where every few hours the haze changed shape and a new Kingdom appeared.

Matt and Kip upping Anchor in less stressful circumstances at Nosy Ankarea

Now the detail was very clear.  A massive churning storm cell sat a few thousand feet over the subdued hills on the mainland.  The cloud was divided by horizontal creases that sat like frown lines on a giant’s forehead.  It was gray green in colour and seemed to absorb the daylight around it and redirect it in a grey uniform contrast-less brume that smothered everything in its path.  My guess was that the cell itself was at least 2 to 3 miles wide and below the cloud all measure of chaos was raining down on the hapless hills.

I called out to Chris and Matt.  We needed to get back to Amarula as quickly as possible as she was lying on a soon to be horrific lee shore.  We were anchored about thirty metres out from the beach and between her keels and the sand lay several very shallow bommies.  On top of that the beach was littered with large stone size coral artifacts that would make Amarula’s hulls look like Swiss cheese in minutes.

Sunset at Mitsio with the remnants of the storm cell just beyond Nosy Ankarea

We chucked our precious cargo of coconuts into the tender, quickly turned her nose towards the ocean and dragged her down the beach.  The tide was dropping and we had a few metres of sand between water’s edge and our tender. What would normally be done with a hefty amount of cajoling, swearing and whinging now happened in a flash. My trusty Suzuki motor fired into life on the first pull and we were on the plane in a second, weaving between the bommies, towards Amarula.  As we approached her I shouted across to David on Abundant Life (one of our buddy boats) to check out the horizon. The look on his face told a story and I watched as he whipped his midafternoon siesta-lazy crew into action.

We flew around Amarula’s transom as the girls watched with interest from the trampoline, knowing something was up.  As I throttled back and Matt stopped us on the crossbeam, we threw the painter onboard and I explained what was approaching.  The cell had already crossed over the land and was now on the ocean between Nosy Mitsio and the mainland.  I was keen to get onboard and get my radar up and running so we could track the cell and know how long we had before it hit us.

I made the split-second decision to lift the tender onto her davits. I knew we still had a little time to spare and the thought of having the tender on a tow and being hammered by a squall and drowned in rain was riskier than spending the time to get her onboard.  A tethered tender would be left to the mercy of the wind and rain and if she was wrecked or sunk we would be in a real pickle.  Matt was the master of lifting the tender onboard.  This was done with a fairly simple in-boom derrick and the main halyard, but it required a certain finesse and procedure to do it quickly and without drama.

As I left him and Chris to deal with that, I got to the Chart plotter and initiated the radar.  I had the latest B and G HD radar and the warmup time was almost instant.  This piece of kit had saved us on more than one occasion and I cannot recommend it highly enough.  As soon as it began its sweep it picked up the storm cell as a large red signature on the screen with blue and green edges (denoting rain).  It took on the shape of an expanding bullet wound in a visceral war movie and as the blood red trail bubbled it led directly to us.  This was a beast of a cell.  I tagged it with the MARPA tracking and saw that we had less than 10 minutes before we would be swallowed by the monster.

We upped anchor like a Formula 1 car pit dream team, turned East and hit the throttles on both engines straight up to 3000 rpm.  Amarula shrugged off her gentle at anchor demeanour, raised her bows and sliced through the growing chop with determination.  Adéle and Robyn were rushing around deck making safe and removing our washing from the railings. Abundant Life was just ahead of us and we both headed for the safety of Mitsio and her sheltered anchorage.

Amarula’s beautiful red spinnaker

By this stage the cell had crossed Mitsio and was racing across the bay. I no longer had need for the radar sweep, as the monster laid itself out before us, both magnificent and intimidating.  She covered the entire horizon and was leading with blasting plumes of spray to mark her progress forward.  This was going to be close.  I could see that we had a fighting chance of slipping past her leading edge and missing the heart of the storm.  Abundant Life was already safe, motoring just beyond the reach of what appeared to be floating waterfalls of rain, impenetrable sheets that marched across the sea trying to cut a path to intercept us.  The first buffeting winds started to hammer us and I was glad we took the time to get the tender onboard, as she would have already flipped if on a tow.

Then the rain hit us.  It felt like a shotgun blast of ice crystals peppering you, as the first sheet delivered its painful cargo.  The rain was traveling sideways and the horizon instantly disappeared.  I was dressed only in boardshorts and my skin took the brunt of the lashing of wind and rain.  As I narrowed my eyes to protect them and squinted out from beneath the hard top I could see light ahead of us.  Every nerve end in my body was focused on urging Amarula to break out of the grip of the storm as the wind and rain washed over and through us.

We punched through the standing wall of water hurling itself at us and into the sunlight. Somehow, we had managed to clip only the corner of the storm and although it raged a few metres off our stern we bounded free of its grip.  It was at once absurd and emancipating.  Chaos was just astern almost within arm’s reach and yet the sun shone around us.  It felt like a massive scenic backdrop painted for a grand film, complete with visual effects, lay rigged just astern.

As Amarula surged forward and away from the heavy-handed giant, we saw Abundant Life was already dropping her anchor chain in the anchorage, safe and untouched.  As we limped alongside her, wet to the core and windblown, David raised a glass of rum at us and laughed.  We dropped anchor and fell into the cockpit, exhausted but exhilarated by the experience.  I made a mental note to cock my hat at David, as soon as I got a chance to beat him to anchor.

Kipper enjoying an Ankarea sunset

I did not have to wait long for the opportunity as it turned out.  We had an early night after a delightful braai on board Abundant Life.  David was returning to the West of Nosy Be in the morning and we were returning to the East.  We had both agreed to an early start from Mitsio and we would sail together until we had passed the Three Brothers just off Nosy Tanikely.

In the tender on returning to Amarula from the braai I hatched my plan to Kip (Chris) and Matt.

The morning broke like most mornings in Madagascar.  Gently and with incredible colour the horizon announced the approaching sunrise. The katabatic north easterly wind was also rising at this time and we were hoping to use it to get us to Nosy Komba before lunch.  We sat in the stillness and watched the sun poke its head above the horizon as we sipped on our coffee. Abundant Life started stirring beside us, the coffee grinder announcing life onboard. Chris, Matt and I were poised to move, our prep already secretly done under the cover of night for the sail that lay ahead of us.

Now Abundant Life is a Nexus 60 catamaran.  She has a lot more sail area than Amarula and has an extra 15 feet of waterline over us.  Not only is she frighteningly quick, David is a master yachtsman.  But we had a plan as well as a bottle of rum and some glasses on hand.

Abundant Life lay a little to the west of us and thus further offshore.  We both had to motor out of the anchorage and then turn south once clear of the headland.  The wind would be just abaft our Port quarter as we turned to round the headland, putting us on a broad reach.  I wanted to follow David out of the bay so he was not alerted to our racing intentions.  Hoping he would turn to face the wind once clear of the Bay to raise his main, we would initiate our plan and hopefully fly past him as he realised we had sandbagged him and the race was on!

As we appeared to laze about finishing our coffee and rusks, Abundant Life started upping anchor.  Chris and Matt ambled forward to retrieve our bridal as I lifted the chain on Amarula from the helm.  Both anchors seated themselves almost simultaneously and our bows turned to the West in unison as we motored out of the bay.  I waved good morning to David, hoping he would not feel the anticipation we most certainly exuded as we sat poised to spring into action.

Abundant Life was first out of the bay with Amarula about 2 or 3 body lengths behind.  I followed just off her port wake forcing David to turn into wind to starboard which was the longer of the two ways around. As we started to clear the headland I motioned to Adéle to get the glasses and rum ready in the cockpit.  Amarula’s crew were perfectly poised, a disguised America’s Cup sailing team waiting to pounce as soon as the moment presented itself.

I could see David carefully wrap the halyard for the main around his No 1 winch and then start to turn lazily to starboard as Abundant Life cruised beyond the remaining headland. I nodded at Kip and Matt and killed the engines. As I killed the engines Kip pulled at the up haul on our late night pre-rigged asymmetrical spinnaker snuffer sock, Matt winched in the slack on the sheet and our big red kite slapped open, like a silver back Gorilla beating his chest, the retort flying across the gap and startling David.  He turned to see her fill out and gather the wind, our bows lifting almost immediately and Amarula pulled forward like a possessed devil horse with wide eyes and a steaming muzzle, greasing past the open stable door.  David shouted something at us that sounded very much like “you bastards!” and then turned and whipped at his crew who were still wiping the sleep out of their eyes. The race was on!

We all gathered on Amarula’s starboard quarter, Adéle having filled our glasses with the finest Madagascan Dzama Rum and as we flew past Abundant Life I laughed out loud and tipped my glass towards David.  He responded with the time-honoured sailor’s salute (the middle finger) as his crew raced around fighting to get the mainsail up.  For the next two hours we sat and watched him off our stern, basking in our victory, warmed by the sun and the early morning rum, relaxed and spread out over the transom.  I chuckled thinking to myself that as much as cruisers hated racing, we would never willingly allow another sailboat to gain on us. It would seem that deep down in every cruiser lay the heart of a racing yachtsman.  My heart beat true to this as I lay mesmerised by my beautiful red spinnaker as she billowed, her shape pure, our blue and white pansy shell logo puffed out across her middle.  Amarula’s stern wave obscured Abundant Life as David trimmed and trimmed again trying to gain on us. Although he could not see me, I raised my glass at David again. As my sip of rum slid down my throat I sighed and smiled.

Nosy Mitsio | 12º54’28” S 48º 34’41” E | June 21, 2019


You will need the following ingredients:

  • Several freshly picked and husked coconuts
  • One bottle of Dzama Rum (white or brown according to preference)
  • Fresh dried Vanilla pods
  • Lemon/Orange (optional)
  • Fresh Mint (optional)
  • A straw


Take the husked coconuts and place them in the freezer for at least 3 or 4 hours. Remove from freezer when sunset is imminent and transport quickly to tropical beach. Make sure any groupies understand that sharing is not an option, but that a bonfire would be appreciated. Using a real man and a panga blade slice off a small portion of the top of the coconut (holesaws are also allowed) making an opening about the size of a large coin (around 19mm). Place a single pod of vanilla into the coconut making sure not to spill the water. Take the Dzama rum and fill the coconut to the brim (coconut water is normally around half the capacity of the nut).  Add a squeeze of citrus and dress with mint. Lie back, place straw in opening, relax, watch the sun set and sip generously. Repeat until Coco Loco is empty. Prepare another following the same process. Repeat. Stoke the bonfire. Make sure someone is available to help launch the tender when supply is finished. They may also have to deliver you to your vessel where standard MOB retrieval system may be deployed to get you back onboard.

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