white dragon in Madagascar
Île Sainte-Marie to Nosy Be
We left Île Sainte-Marie with a fine ESE breeze and a clear blue sky, heading up the east coast of Madagascar. We had been waiting for the forecast to show a slackening of the strong east wind that blows most of the time at the Northern Cape of Madagascar, regularly reaching 70-80kts. It was a fabulous sail with the southerly current helping us along at 10-11kts.
White Dragon’s crew was down to just two after Mauritius. The other crew members had left to go back to the UK, so Steve (who had been with me since we left Hong Kong) and I settled into our three hours on and three hours off watches. It’s tough adjusting to a maximum of two and a half hours sleep at the start of any trip, but after two to three days the body falls into the pattern and all is well.
The humpback whales for which Île Sainte-Marie is famous accompanied us as we sped north up a coast that seemed devoid of human habitation. Often these huge creatures jumped 20 ft clear of the pure blue ocean to crash back into the water with a terrific splash. Mothers with their calves were also taking the same heading up to the North Cape; although we thought they would be headed south to the icy Southern Ocean and the Antarctic some 5000nm away.
Just before the Northern Cape there is a huge and very protected inlet that 16th and 17th century pirates used as a safe haven and hideaway. We were tempted to go in to explore the many bays and natural harbours surrounding the north Madagascan city of Diego Suarez, but had been warned that vessels often got trapped in there for days or even weeks on end when the fierce east or south east winds crank up. Also Diego Suarez doesn’t have the best of reputations and our friends Phillip and Gale on Gaia (from Mauritius) had their dinghy stolen on the very first night they anchored there!
The wind was forecast to blow at 30kns. But as we approached the bleak headland at the very top of Madagascar we reefed down heavily as the wind built to 40kns ... 50kns ... then 60kns. But White Dragon took the squalls in her easy stride and with her customary indifference as Steve and I hunkered down to clear the Cape.
I had planned to anchor up the deep fjord-like inlets just round the cape on the north west coast but it soon became clear this wasn’t going to be possible as the wind funnelled down the inlets at 50kns plus. So we sailed on and as the wind finally eased some 25nm past the cape we found a beautiful anchorage on the west side of a small island. We dropped the hook in 15ms of clear water at 14:00. Steve and I were desperate for some sleep because - to be prudent - we had both stayed awake and on watch in the heavy winds and seas.
But just as we finished our ‘lovely cup of tea’ and headed for our bunks, the wind sprang up from the west at 15kns then built to 20kns. We were now on a lee shore and we had to get off it ...so it was another three hours before we dropped anchor once again.
This time we crept into a deeply protected but shallow bay. I was glued to the forward sonar screen hoping that the clear flat seabed would continue until we had 360 degree wind protection. Then we boxed the anchor, checking that our swing would not take us over any coral heads or other obstructions. There were just 3ms under the keel but the tidal range was only1.5m; so with total peace of mind we headed straight to our bunks ... both thoroughly exhausted.
In the morning we upped anchor and set a course for Hell Ville on Nosy Be. Hell Ville was actually named after a French captain who first landed there and named what was then just a small village. However it most aptly lives up to its name! But try not to base your opinion of Nosy Be on Hell Ville.
Unfortunately you can’t avoid going there because all yachts (whether they have cleared into Madagascar elsewhere or not) must clear and report to the corrupt port officials. ‘Have you got a gift for me’ is one of the commonly used phrases. But it’s best not to make any gifts because if you do these will then constantly be requested by other officials as the jungle drums spread the message.
The dhow rammed White Dragon amidships
You will also be hassled to have someone look after your yacht - or for other services - all of which should be refused. And when you get ashore, taxis on the quay will also hassle you. But if you walk 200ms to the port gate you can pick up a Tuk-Tuk to get to the town and its market for a few Malagasy Ariari. The fruit and veg market is very good and most vendors are fair and will charge you the correct local price. But still look around first and check prices before you start shopping.
Get what you need then move off to Crater Bay and anchor with the other cruising yachts off the friendly and helpful yacht club. Bruce (the manager) and Isabele (the French owner of the yacht club) are a very nice antidote to Hell Ville and they will help with water and fuel at reasonable rates.
We were warned in Hell Ville that yacht theft was rife in Crater Bay but this is just a ploy to get you to stay in Hell Ville longer. In all the time we spent there we never heard of a theft problem.
However we did have a pretty horrific problem when a local dhow loaded with wood tried to cut through the anchorage. Normally these dhows drop downwind to pass astern of the many anchored or moored yachts, but as we sat on board having an afternoon beer we saw one dhow heading into the centre of the anchorage.
There was another yacht anchored outside and a little below us so I went to grab my camera as the dhow was clearly trying to get round the bow of this yacht and I didn’t think he would make it. But by the time I got back up on deck I realised that he had just squeezed around the other yacht’s bow but - to my horror - rather than falling off the wind to go around our stern he just came straight on under full sail.
The dhow rammed White Dragon amidships. Its 8inch diameter solid wood bowsprit smashed to smithereens under the impact as White Dragon rocked to the hit.
I was in no doubt - as were people on other yachts around us - that we would have suffered major damage as the 40ft dhow (fully loaded with its cargo of wood) hit us going 6 or 7kns under full sail. Steve and I jumped in the dingy to find out how big the hole was while the dhow - with its sail and mast now collapsed on top of it - drifted away.
White Dragon (as all Kraken Yachts) is built to a very strong specification. But even so we were amazed to find that the only damage was a two feet long scuff mark on the gel coat. We knew that this would fully polish out. Other yachties came over to offer assistance, thinking we must be holed or that the crash would at least have cracked the hull - and all were as surprised as we were to see that White Dragon had shrugged of such an impact with no real damage. With the light of hindsight it was the best proof we could ever give of the build quality and strength of Kraken Yachts. But this wasn’t how I had envisaged proving it!
I took Bruce (the Malagasy yacht club manager) over to the dhow that had hit us. But other than having the satisfaction of telling the crew they were idiots, there was nothing to be gained. So we put it down as just another chapter in our story of White Dargon’s epic 21,000nm maiden voyage. Little did we know that there would be much more severe tests in the weeks to come, further along our route.
We spent four weeks diving, sailing and exploring around Nosy Be and it was a unique lifetime experience. Wild limas jumped on our heads, chameleons danced along branches a foot in front of our eyes and we saw crocodile-killing turtles on the tiny island of Nosy Komba. They kill a croc by scuttling at lightning speed straight into its open mouth. Then they eat it from the inside out! Nice.
We ate mud crabs, bought local honey, caught tuna and enjoyed great times in this wonderful cruising ground. But we felt it was time to leave when friends started to email us telling of an outbreak of bubonic plague in the region around the capital Ampangorina.
Madagascar is a unique paradise but it is one of the poorest countries in the world and most of its very happy inhabitants live on the poverty line. Cruising yachts that visit the area - which is without doubt the best way to see Madagascar - provide some income to the local village people so please don’t haggle too hard. A few dollars go a very long way here.
Next instalment: Nosy Be to Cape Town.