On To Madagascar

13 August 2017   Reunion to Ile St Marie (Day 1)
The alarm went off at 07:00. Glenys was still feeling a little ill, but better than yesterday, so she wanted to leave.  Expecting big waves outside the port, we drifted in the outer basin while we put the ropes and fenders away.  I also rigged up our spinnaker pole to starboard, so it was 08:20 before we cleared the port – “Jackster” and “Red Herring” were at least an hour ahead of us.

About ½ mile from the port, we spotted the blow of a Humpback Whale only 200 metres from our bow, I scrabbled for my camera, but missed the classic photo of the whale’s tail stretching out of the water as it dived.  It’s the mating season for Humpback Whales and we’re hoping to see more when we get to Ile St Marie. 

Leaving La Reunion

The wind shadow of Reunion stretches dozens of miles to the west of the mountainous island, so we motored north-north-west for an hour until we were able to sail. The 3 metre swell built up faster than the wind and the waves were confused, throwing us about, making life very unpleasant.  

After three hours, the wind had built to SE 20-30 knots and we were able to steer our required course of 305°T - the wind was on our starboard quarter.  The large, confused seas were slewing us about, so I rolled away the main and set up the genoa poled out to starboard with the staysail out to port.  It was better, but the motion was making us both queasy - Glenys because she was still fluey and me because I’ve not been at sea for 7 weeks.

The day wore on remorselessly.  Continuing to feel a bit dodgy, we were unable to read for any length of time and just staring at the horizon makes the minutes pass very slowly.  Glenys retired to bed in the morning and I had a couple of hours’ kip in the afternoon – being asleep helps the queasiness and certainly helps time pass quicker. 

We had dinner at 18:00 before the sun went down.  Fortunately, Glenys had made a lamb stew yesterday, so her time down below was restricted to a few minutes heating the food and ladling it into bowls. Neither of us felt up to eating much and Glenys soon went off to bed.

As night fell, I spotted a long line of clouds to the south of us, so I switched on the radar and could see a line of rain about five miles away, running parallel to our course  - it looked like the clouds were streaming downwind from Reunion. I altered course ten degrees to the north hoping to get away, but the cloud system caught us at 20:00.

We didn’t have any rain or really strong wind, but the wind veered by 90 degrees, moving from our starboard quarter to our port quarter and then swinging back, varying in strength between 10 & 25 knots.  It would have been very frustrating with the main sail up because we would have had to keep gybing, but with the poled-out genoa and staysail, we can easily handle a much wider range of wind direction.  I just rolled the staysail away when the wind was on the port quarter, which slowed us down a little, but I could leave the genoa alone because being poled out, it works with the wind from either quarter.

Running Downwind

Glenys’s 10-1 watch was just more of the same with the wind strangely staying at SSW for long periods – the forecast was for SE20-25.  Glenys was looking decidedly tired and queasy at our one o’clock watch change, so I did a long watch until dawn, so that she could get six hours solid sleep. 

From 4 to 7, there were long periods of heavy rain, which was blowing under our bimini rain panels, so I escaped the wet cockpit and went down below. By this time, I was feeling very tired, so I dumped some cockpit cushions on the saloon floor and slept on them.  In order to keep a proper watch, I set a timer to wake me up every 15 minutes, so that I could pop my head up and check the sails and AIS.  Doing 15 minute naps worked okay, but I wouldn’t like to do for days and days like the single handed sailors do.

14 August 2017   Reunion to Ile St Marie (Day 2)
The day started grey, but at least the rain soon stopped. By 10:00 the clouds had moved north leaving behind blue skies and 15-20 knot south-east winds.  By midday, the wind had dropped to 12-18 knots, so we pulled the mainsail out to port and ran downwind wing-on-wing.  The seas reduced to 2 metres and in the afternoon, we had idyllic sailing, albeit a bit slow at 4-5 knots – fortunately we had at least 1 knot of current with us, so we were making reasonable time.

Glenys was still feeling bilious, so she slept for a few hours in the morning and had another nap in the afternoon.  The rest did her good and she was feeling much better by sunset – well enough to have some dinner.  Hopefully, she’ll be back to normal tomorrow.

The good weather continued through the night, but the wind dropped a few knots and reduced our boat speed to 3 - 4.5 knots.  It was lovely when the half moon came out at midnight, but it’s cold on the night watches.   During the day we’re wearing shorts and t-shirts, but when the sun goes down, on go the fleeces. Last night, in the strong winds, I ended up wearing a fleece, a jacket, long thermal trousers and even a pair of socks.  Tonight was a little warmer with the lighter winds – no need for long trousers and socks.


It’s amazing how attuned one becomes to the sounds of the boat. Alba doesn’t have many rattles or creaks, so a new noise is very noticeable. Tonight there was an intermittent creak/click on the mast a couple of times a minute.  I knelt next to the mast for ten minutes (at 01:00) and worked out that it’s the mast bracket for the rod kicker moving very slightly when under extreme loads. I don’t think that it’s a problem because I reinforced the fitting a year ago and the annoying sound went away when I reduced the tension on the rod kicker.

15 August 2017   Reunion to Ile St Marie (Day 3)
At 07:00, we had 124 miles to go, so we planned to have a relaxed sail and arrive tomorrow morning.  The wind stayed at 8-12 knots through the morning, but after lunch dropped a couple of knots more and came directly behind us, so that we were only sailing at 2.5 to 3 knots.  This low speed combined with the 5 foot waves bounced us around, so the sails were constantly slating.  However, we persevered because we had 1.5 knots of current with us and still had time to arrive tomorrow morning.

I put out a couple of lures because I’d heard that the fishing was good around Madagascar, but with a boat speed of 3 knots, I didn’t hold out much hope. When I pulled the hand line in a few hours later, the lure had gone, so something was tempted...

By 16:00, a bank of clouds overtook us and the wind dropped even more, so with 80 miles to go we started motoring.  We then had showers all night, with the wind remaining light, but clocking around as rain clouds passed through.

16 August 2017   Ambodifototra, Ile St Marie, Madagascar
Glenys woke me at dawn, just as we were rounding the south end of Ile St Marie.  We motored for 8 miles along the west coast and had four sightings of Humpback Whales.  Unfortunately, the light was so poor that I was unable to take any decent photographs.  


The skies remained grey and we were overtaken by a shower as we approached the harbour for Ambodifototra - the island’s only town.  By 07:30, we were anchored at 17°00.13S 049°50.85E in 10 metres of water on sand/mud.  The anchorage is a little rolly, but the inner harbour has moorings with no space to anchor.  

After a quick breakfast, we dropped the dinghy in the water and I started our 15hp outboard, but the damn thing cut out on me and wouldn’t start again. This was really annoying because I specifically tested it twice in the week before we left La Reunion to make sure that it all worked.  I removed the carburetor, took off the fuel bowl and sprayed everything with carburetor cleaner.  After reassembling it all, it worked fine.  I guess that the fuel had evaporated in the carburetor and gummed up the slow run jet. 

It was half past nine before we headed into town with “Red Herring” to tackle the clearance procedures.   We entered the small boat harbour and took our dinghies to the north side of the stone ferry jetty, where there are some sturdy iron hoops to lock our stainless steel chain painter.  As expected a local came up and offered to watch our dinghies for us, but we politely declined because we were in a very public area in the middle of town.

My initial impressions of the town were that we’re definitely back in a third world country.  The main street has chaotic small traffic - motor bikes, Tuk-tuks and bicycle taxis.  Off the “main road”, the small streets are lined with small ram-shackled shops selling a plethora of items - rusting hand-made hinges; foam for mattresses; woven baskets; charcoal cooking stoves and iron cooking pots to put on them.  Other stalls sell charcoal; snacks; and piles of second-hand clothes.

Typical Market Store

Our first stop was at the BFV Bank to get some cash – the currency is called the Malagasy Ariary and has an exchange rate of 4,000 to £1.  Thankfully the ATM handled both Visa and Mastercard and dished out our cash.  We took out 600,000 Ariary (£150) which was dispensed in 10,000 Ariary notes, so my wallet was bulging.  Interestingly a guard at the bank made me take off my hat and sunglasses while I was using the ATM, so that the camera on the ATM could take a good image of me - first time that I’ve had to do that.

After a few false starts, we found the Police Station, which is on a small street just to the south of BFV Bank, heading away from the coast.  

The police station is a small, scruffy white building partially hidden behind market stalls. We found a bored police officer sitting behind a rough wooden desk, who directed us into a small office with two people sitting at desks ladened with paper.  It took 25 minutes of muttering and writing on forms for them to complete their paper work. Our passports were stamped with the visas (90 days for us and 60 days for “Red Herring”) and we were told that the Commandant had to sign everything.  Unfortunately, the chief police officer was away from the station, so we had a lengthy 90 minute wait until he came back.  

To pass the time, Karen and I popped out to the local Telma Telecom office and bought SIM cards for our phones.  The guy was very efficient and within 15 minutes we both had SIM cards installed and 5GB of data available for 85,000 Ariary (£21).  This is 20% of the cost of the same service in La Reunion and the internet is 4G - ten times faster on this tiny island than in first world La Reunion. 

The Police Commandant turned up at noon and the visa process continued.  We knew that the official cost of a 90 day visa was 140,000 Ariary (£35) and the clerk had already filled in a bill that we had to take to another office to pay.  Now a photocopied receipt appeared and we were asked to pay 50,000 Ariary (£12.50) cash per boat for “the formalities for Immigration”.  The receipt was stamped; the cash placed in an old fashioned “signing” book with the other documents and whisked away to the Commandant.

Police Station

After the signing, we were handed our passports; the bill to be paid at the government cashier (“Le Consideration”) and the signed receipt for the “Formalities” cash.  I’m guessing that the cash went straight into the Commandant’s pocket.

All government offices are closed from 12:00 to 14:00, so there was nothing to do except retire to a restaurant and have lunch.  We took the dinghies from dodgy town dock around to a beach just on the northern side of the small boat harbour and pulled them up next to a nice friendly restaurant called the Terrasse Bar.  They served a nice meal for 10,000 Ariary (£2.50) and large 650ml beers were 4,000 Ariary.  Most of us had Zebu, which is a type of cattle that is popular in Madagascar, not only for eating but as a “workhorse”, pulling ploughs.

Suitably fortified, we dinghied over to Ilot Madame to complete our clearance formalities.  We locked our dinghies to a concrete railing at the east side of the small island and found the Coast Guard in a small building nearby.  They took us to a smaller office and called the customs officer, who apparently lives nearby. 

The Coast Guard filled in a form, taking the details of boat and our intentions.  The form said that we had to pay a fee of 60,000 Ariary (£15).  Karen from “Red Herring” started to argue that this wasn’t an official payment and that we shouldn’t have to pay it, but she didn’t speak any French and so Glenys had to try to translate the arguments, which was difficult.  We eventually gave in and paid the cash over.  More troubling than the back-hander was that we were unable to get any Domestic Clearance from Ile St Marie to Mahajunga (or even Nosy Be). 

Our next stop was at the Customs.  The customs officer is an unpleasant man (think short, fat, sleaze-ball toad) who was only interested in getting his grift.  He spoke a little English and the first order of business was to make it very clear that we were going to have to pay a fee - something along the lines of “I clear you, you pay money”.  Karen was still smarting from the encounter with the Coast Guard, so she laid into Mr Toad demanding proof that we were supposed to be paying him a fee.

The Customs Officer

Mr Toad actually asked “How much did you pay the Coast Guard?”  We refused to tell him so he said that the Customs fee was 60,000 Ariary (£15) and produced a very badly photocopied receipt.  Karen persisted and said that this was obviously not an official receipt.  Mr Toad responded with “we pay him and we don’t have to pay any more to customs”.  I thought Karen was going to hit him when he called her a “difficult woman”…  After a stressful ten minutes, we caved in and paid him his pound of flesh.

The psychology is interesting.  We needed him to stamp our clearance and he wanted us rich westerners to pay him.  The negotiations were severely complicated by our lack of French - it’s difficult to be eloquent when your French is limited to “Can I have two beers, please”.  I guess that we could have haggled his fee down by using persuasive arguments, but with only £15 at stake, it’s hard to be motivated.

The other aspect to the process was to show us that he was powerful - at one point, he actually said “Owning a (rubber) stamp is Power in Madagascar.”  Another thing that he did was to insist that we counted out the 10,000 Ariary notes onto the table, which I think, to his small mind, extended his victory as we humiliated ourselves by showing him our money.  (I have heard that the locals throw the money onto the floor when they are forced to pay bribes.)

At the end of the customs process, we walked out with a stamped copy of our clearance from La Reunion and the tatty receipt, which didn’t even have the amount paid written on it - again no domestic clearance to the other side of the country.   Karen hung back outside the door and was incensed to watch Mr Toad sweep up his ill-gotten gains and stuff the notes into his back pocket.

With a bad taste in our mouths, we wandered over to the government payment office which is unfortunately called “Le Consideration”.  We were relieved to find that they were very professional, taking our bill; our cash and sticking a very official looking receipt in our passports under the rubber stamped visa.  I think that was the only honest part of clearing in.

We retired back the boat, had a few beers & a sandwich and went to bed early.