Crossing the Indian Ocean
May 31, 2020
In February of 2019 I received an email from an old friend who has, over the past few years, become very involved in yacht racing. He asked if I had any interest in helping deliver a 40-foot sailboat across the Indian Ocean, leaving in just a few weeks. That friend was currently aboard the boat, but soon had to return to Canada and the captain needed able bodies and willing hands to fill out the crew. Eric and I had just finished celebrating the completion of the shop and were geared up to start work on our own boat, but after researching the proposed route our desire for adventure took over. We decided it was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up.
The boat, “Anjo”, a Beneteau First 40, was a sleek bluewater cruiser well outfitted for offshore sailing and racing. She was privately owned and captained by an eccentric Australian hat manufacturer who was in the process of circumnavigating the globe, competing in various ocean racing events along the way. Anjo was slated to sail in the “Cape to Rio” race — the longest continent-to-continent yacht race in the Southern Hemisphere from Cape Town to Rio de Janeiro — in January 2020. We would be getting on board in Thailand and setting off across the Indian ocean towards South Africa with the plan to get the boat as far as we could towards the starting line before Eric and I had to leave for work in late May. The trip would turn out to be an experience of a lifetime, and a great introduction to offshore sailing. Two months on a small boat, with crew that didn't know each other, would prove to have its challenges, but with those challenges came valuable learning experiences and a fair share of comedic moments.
The Route, the Weather, and the Crew
There are myriad routes that people follow to sail across the world’s oceans. This holds true for the Indian Ocean, but there are two common routes for making a westward passage: The Southern Route, and the North-to-South Route. The Southern Route requires longer passages between stops and traverses more remote locations than the North-to-South Route. Cruisers head south from different parts of Southeast Asia to Christmas Island and Cocos Keeling island (around 10°S) before making the long passage west towards the Mascarene Islands, an archipelago off the east coast of Madagascar consisting of the islands of Mauritius, Rodrigues and Réunion. The North-to-South route, which we would be taking, begins in Southeast Asia (in our case southern Thailand) and works west to Sri Lanka and the Maldives before pointing bows southwest towards Mauritius. This journey is roughly 3,400 nautical miles. For reference, 1 nautical mile is equal to 1.85 kilometres, making our crossing around 6300 kilometres.
The main variable dictating when ocean crossings are made is, not surprisingly, the weather, and the weather in the Indian Ocean can be challenging and fickle. Tight schedules and crossings are never a good combination; being able to go with the flow and wait out poor weather is essential. We would be leaving at the tail end of the seasonal weather window, and our captain’s goal was to make the crossing as fast as possible.
The northern Indian Ocean area is dominated by the NE and SW monsoons, which are seasonal changes of the prevailing wind direction. Monsoons always blow from cold regions to warm regions, so the NE monsoon (wind coming from the NE) occurs during the Northern Hemisphere’s winter months, with winds starting in the air above Mongolia and Northern China, and moving towards the warmer regions south of the equator. These are generally lighter than the summer monsoon winds, and make for ideal cruising conditions as they allows cruisers to “reach”— sail with the wind coming from beside or at an angle behind the boat—on the crossing.
We would be leaving in March with hopes that the NE monsoon winds would hold on long enough for us to make our crossing before the stronger monsoon winds of the summer picked up, as the summer winds would be headwinds if sailing the direction we wanted to go. Once we crossed the equator, we would be pushed along by the year-round SE trade winds that occur in the southern Indian Ocean. Trade winds or “easterlies” are the predominant east to west winds that flow between 30°N and 30°S latitudes, the Earth’s equatorial region, and their seasonal consistency has been utilized by captains of sailing ships for centuries.
A near gale (30+ knots) blowing outside of the marina.
The Anjo crew would consist of myself, Eric, a wonderful Filipino man named Ding (who is not only a terrific seaman, but a master rope worker), and the Captain. We were a motley crew of differing age, health, sailing experience, and seamanship. We didn’t have many details about the trip, as the captain was hard to reach while still at sea, but we packed what we thought we needed (a Costco supply of sunscreen and some swim shorts) and on March 21 we hopped on a flight to Thailand.
Arrival and Trip Preparation
When we arrived in Phuket preparation for the trip began immediately. The boat was berthed in a swanky marina surrounded by every type of expensive sailboat and superyacht one could imagine. There was a long list of repairs to be done on Anjo as she had travelled from San Francisco to Southeast Asia via the Pacific Ocean during the past year and a half and was in need of some serious TLC. We put her on the hard (took her out of the water) and a crew of workers started in right away on a new bowsprit, a new drivetrain for the inboard engine, and a fresh coat of bottom paint, among other things. While the repairs were being done, we tended to other aspects of getting the boat ready for passage making: cleaning, organizing and taking stock of everything on board, going over the rig and electronics, checking lines for chafe, buying supplies, and—of course—cooling the beer.
Phuket is a bustling city and a hotspot for tourists planning to head to some of the iconic islands off Thailand’s west coast. The four lane highways, lined with rubber tree plantations and wholesale stores, are constantly a-buzz with traffic all times of the day. Amongst the new-age buildings of the city centre is Phuket's old town, an historically rich part of the city with shrines, temples, and beautifully preserved shophouses showcasing the city's wealth from the tin boom of the last century. With time ticking, we put being a tourist on hold and focused on preparing for the trip.
We spent our days working at the boatyard trying not to succumb to dehydration in the 38°C temperatures and driving around the city looking for various parts and supplies. We would escape the midday heat (which only mad dogs and Englishmen can brave) by going back to our guesthouse and eating at what could very well be the eighth wonder of the world: a little restaurant called “Papa Mamas”. It was a ramshackle joint built on stilts overlooking the water and with the captain's Thai wife guiding our culinary journey, we were treated to freshly caught, crispy garlic shrimp, hot and sour Tom Yum soup, and colourful red and yellow curries that could melt your tongue off. The menu seemed endless, but by the end of our stay we had sampled just about every dish they served. To top it all off there was a fully stocked fridge full of ice-cold local beers, and a serve-yourself policy where the bottles were counted at the end of a meal. Singha—or “stingers” as they were dubbed—were the drink of choice, and were very effective at helping one cool off. After the meal we would head back to the boatyard to sweat out a few more hours of work before returning to the guesthouse and doing it all over again the next day.
Leg 1 - Thailand to Sri Lanka
Depart: Phuket, Thailand 8°10’12.00”N, 98°20’30.00”E
Destination: Galle, Sri Lanka 6° 1'34.90"N, 80°13'39.72"E
Distance: 1100 nm
After 10 long days in Phuket, the boat was (more or less, we thought) ready to go. We had been watching the weather and unfortunately the forecast was calling for only light winds. Regardless, we were excited and ready to depart, but when Anjo was slipped back in the water, we found out quickly that the bowsprit wasn’t bolted on properly, the engine oil had been drained and not replaced, the new drivetrain for the motor had been installed with the gears reversed (forwards was backwards, and vice versa), and the tachometer didn't work. What a start! Twenty-four hours later and with most of the issues dealt with, Anjo was as ready as she was going to be, and we were slipping the dock lines at the marina with our sights set on Sri Lanka. Eric and I, having no previous offshore sailing experience, were both excited and nervous for what lay ahead.
A successful crew sails with organized daily routines and watch schedules that are adjusted to weather changes and other contingencies. Our four-person watch schedule had each person doing a four-hour shift during the day and a four hour shift during the night, rotating so nobody had the same watches every day. Whoever was on watch oversaw the helm, watched for other boats, trimmed the sails when needed, and kept us on course. Hand steering for an entire shift would have been exhausting, especially if you encountered adverse weather conditions. Like most blue water sailboats, Anjo was equipped with an autopilot self-steering device which was in use for most of the trip. Your standard autopilot can hold a vessel on a pre-set compass course, where the more sophisticated autopilots connect to GPS receivers on the boat and will steer your boat on course, taking current, leeway (off-course lateral movement of a ship when underway) lost to wind, and other factors into account to keep you right on track. Crew not on watch would tend to jobs on the boat, sleep and relax, and cook meals. And top up refreshments from the cooler when needed, of course.