Around the Top of Madagascar

21 August 2017   Ile Des Nattes to Ambodifototra, Madagascar
Sometime in the early morning, the damn wind picked up from the south again and we started pitching.  It was difficult to sleep, so I was up at 06:00 and did some forward planning looking at anchorages around to the north-west coast of Madagascar.  It’s 330 miles, so we either do it in one passage with 3 nights at sea or we break it up and do three one night passages, stopping at a couple of anchorages.

We have to pass around the northern tip of Madagascar, which is an acceleration zone for the south-east trade winds.  Not only are the winds higher, but big waves are generated and previous cruisers have been hammered as they head west, so we need to make sure that we get there when the winds are relatively light.  The weather forecast seems to show reasonable winds in a week’s time, so we’re going to aim for that.  

Close Encounter

The weather was mixed with some showers, so we abandoned the idea of walking around the Iles Des Nattes and pulled up the anchor to head back to town.

As we were sailing away from the anchorage, a whale was passing by, being pursued by a local whale-watching boat.  They’re supposed to keep 300 metres away from the whales, but often approach to within 25 metres.  This whale was moving quite fast.  It turned away from the local boat and headed straight towards us.  We didn’t have our engine running, so I don’t think that it saw or heard us until it was 25 metres in front of us at which time it turned left and swam down our starboard side.  Glenys was at the wheel, hyperventilating, and I was taking photos.

Back at the Town Anchorage, we went ashore to buy some vegetables, topped up the internet on our SIM card and settled down for lunch in the Terrasse restaurant - I just HAD to have my last fix of Zebu before we leave Ile St Marie tomorrow.  While we were eating, I heard a loud cluck behind me and turned to find a lady holding a live cockerel by the feet, trying to sell it to the owner of the restaurant - not something that would happen in the UK.

There are a number of peddlers who wander around town coming into the restaurants to sell Vanilla Pods.   Madagascar is the world’s leading producer of Vanilla, which is the seed pod of a type of orchid, originated from Mexico.  Interestingly, the plant can only be naturally pollinated by a particular Mexican bee, so all vanilla orchids around the world are hand pollinated, which is very labour intensive.

Vanilla Pods

The pods are inspected every day and picked by hand when they are mature, but before they split open - another labour intensive process.  There then follows a lengthy curing process.  The pods are first put in hot water for a few minutes to stop vegetative growth.  They are then wrapped in bundles in cloth for a week, which causes an oxidation process, making the beans go brown and developing the characteristic vanilla flavour and aroma.  

A drying process takes 3 to 4 weeks followed by a conditioning process which is performed by storing the pods for five to six months in closed boxes, where the fragrance develops further.  The processed fruits are sorted, graded, bundled, and wrapped in paraffin paper.  This long and labour intensive process makes Vanilla one of the most expensive spices in the world, currently costing $500US per kilogram.

The peddlers who wander around the streets have a starting price of 600,000 Ariary ($200US) per kilo.  With a local commodity so valuable, theft is a major problem and the vanilla farmers have armed guards protecting their crops.  I wonder how these peddlers get hold of their vanilla pods?

After lunch, we headed back to the boat and I popped out to obtain our Domestic Clearance from the Port Captain.  He filled in various forms and I had to pay 30,000 Ariary (£7.50) for one month’s port fees and 35,000 Ariary (£9.00) for processing the clearance.  I was told that the port fees cover the whole of Madagascar, so I shouldn’t have to pay any more for a while.  

The Port Captain issued the Domestic Clearance from here to Mahajanga, which is the last post before we head off to South Africa.  I’m hoping that this strategy will mean that I don’t have to see any of the authorities in Nosy Be.  He also told me that I don’t need a “Permis de Circulation” because he could only issue one for the Ile St Marie area and it’s only necessary if we were staying in one area for a long time.  I may get stung for one of these “Cruising Permits” in Nosy Be, if I’m not careful.…

We invited George, Mairy and Angus from “Ngalawa” over for a beer or two.  They arrived from Mauritius yesterday. 

22 August 2017   Ile St Marie to Angontsy, Madagascar (Day 1)
I nipped into town to buy some bread and by 09:30, we’d upped anchor heading for an anchorage on the north end of the island.  We had a nice downwind sail in the SW 10 knot winds.  Unfortunately, the anchorage that we were aiming for looked to be exposed to the south-west waves, so we looked for somewhere else to anchor.

KAP Chart of Antsiraka

A long spit of land sticking out from the mainland looked to be suitable, with a gradually sloping sea bed that looked like sand or mud on the charts.  I quickly used the excellent internet on our phone to have a look on Google Earth and it looked good. Glenys changed course while I dived down below to create some KAP charts of the new anchorage (using the excellent GE2KAP utility.)  Twenty minutes later, we were sailing into the anchorage with my new KAP charts displayed on our OpenCPN chart plotter – I love having internet at sea...

We dropped anchor at Antsiaka at 16°50.29S 049°49.63E in a depth of 7 metres on good holding sand.  We were well protected from the south-west wind waves, but a big rolling swell was coming in from the north-east causing big breakers on the beach.  It wasn’t a problem in the anchorage, but we didn’t fancy landing the dinghy on the beach.  There’s a village on the other side of the spit of land, but we couldn’t visit.

During lunch, we reviewed our plans and decided that we might as well start heading up the coast where we might find more interesting places.  We plumbed for Angontsy Bay, which was 110 miles away, so if we left in the afternoon, we should easily get there by midday.  By 15:00, we’d stowed everything away, put the dinghy on deck, topped up our water tanks and Glenys had cooked a Prawn Curry for dinner, so we upped anchor and headed north.

Nice little Tuna

Unfortunately, the nice SW wind had disappeared and we ended up motoring for most of the way.  When we cleared the north end of Ile St Marie, the north setting current disappeared and we had ½ to 1 knot of current against us for 45 miles as we crossed Baie D’Antongil.  We picked up a very slight favourable current when we were north of Cap Masoala. 

As the night went on, the clouds built up and we had a few “teasers” where the wind picked up to more than 10 knots, so we dragged out the genoa and turned the engine off, only to find the wind dying ten minutes later.  There was a long 1½ metre swell from the north-east, but the motion was comfortable.

23 August 2017   Ile St Marie to Angontsy, Madagascar (Day 2)
At dawn, we were still 20 miles away from our destination. It was a lovely sunny day, but the wind stayed less than 10 knots from the south-east, so we motor-sailed downwind.  In order to stay out of the way of local fishing boats, we’d spent the night eight miles offshore in water that was over 1,000 metres deep.  As we approached land and came into water shallower than 100 metres, the current picked up to 1 knot in our favour.  We saw no fishing boats last night, so we’d have been faster if we’d stayed closer to the shore.

We were approaching Angontsy at 11:00.  It didn’t look very good – we had a 2 metre swell rolling in from the south east, which was pushing us towards the breakers crashing on the reefs.  About ½ mile out, there was a very sharp line where the water became discoloured (sort of milky), which didn’t help our nerves.  We followed the Navionics charts, using the following waypoints and all was well.  

The sea bed slowly shallowed from 20 metres to where we anchored in 5 metres at 15°15.07S 050°28.46E.  The swell is blocked by the outer reef and the anchorage is relatively calm.  There’s a slight residual roll, but it’s very pleasant.  There’ a fishing village ashore, which we would like to visit, but I can’t face getting the dinghy off the front deck and then having to put it all back.

Anchored off Angontsy

When we were five miles out, I caught a nice Tuna, so my first job was to fillet it, so that Glenys could make us fresh Fish Butties for lunch.

Even in this remote place, we have a reasonable telephone and internet connection, so I downloaded a weather forecast.  The wind looks like it will be a few knots more tomorrow, so we’re planning to leave tomorrow afternoon and sail directly around the Northern Cape.  It’s 210 miles to the cape, so if we leave at sunset, we’ll have two nights at sea and arrive at the cape at daylight on Saturday (25th) and will be in an anchorage on the north-west coast by midday.  The weather forecast predicts 20-24 knots for the next 5 days, so there’s no point in waiting. 

We chilled out for the afternoon, having a nap and resting.  I received an email from a friend, Andy who is starting to think about living on a boat in the future.  One of his questions was related to how much does it cost to go cruising, so I did a little bit of analysis of our expenditure over the past 6 years and found that on average, we spend a staggering £47,000 per year.  Half of this is spent on the boat and you can have a look because I’ve published a little article analysing our Expenditure.  I’m still in shock, but I can’t see anywhere that I would want to make radical savings.

The anchorage became a little more rolly in the afternoon when it was high tide and the swell was sneaking over the reef.  We watched a movie with our Tuna in a Creamy Sauce.