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.
Eric ponders the ways of the sea, his flamingo shorts perfectly highlighting the pastel sunset.
The crossing from Phuket to Sri Lanka was straight forward in terms of route planning, and we plugged our first waypoint (set of GPS coordinates) into the chart plotter 280 nautical miles southwest to a channel just below the Nicobar Islands, an island chain in the Union Territory of India in the Andaman Sea. Upon reaching the Nicobars we had our first experience with cargo ships. Most vessels travelling west are funnelled into one of a few narrow passes between these islands before entering the open ocean. We ended up passing through this channel during one of Eric’s first night watches and the experience was unnerving but exciting. Alone on deck, he had to try and gauge where these massive ships were in relation to us, whether they saw our boat, and if they would stay on course. Anjo was equipped with an Automatic Identification System (AIS), a device that most—if not all—cruising and commercial boats have these days as their primary method of collision avoidance. The AIS is a tracking system that uses transponders to receive signals and emit different signals to other vessels that have the device. Vessel locations show up digitally on your chart plotter screen giving you a visual, as well as detailed information on how far away they are from you, what direction they’re heading, and what speed they’re moving at. Still, determining spatial relationships in the middle of the night with nothing but a few navigation lights on the tanker’s deck and the dots on the tiny screen of your chart plotter indicating the ship's location still made for an adrenaline-filled few hours. Unsurprisingly, Eric navigated Anjo through the traffic and out of the channel like a seasoned pro.
One of the main shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean runs from Southeast Asia westward to the southern tip of Sri Lanka, and carries on towards the entrance to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, the gateway to the Mediterranean. We would be running parallel to this lane, keeping 10 miles north (and out of the way) of cargo vessels. We were amazed at the number and size of the ships on the water; the screen was constantly indicating what would translate into a bustling highway back home. Some of these ships showed lengths of over 385 meters — longer than four football fields end-to-end.
A line of cargo ships outside of Sri Lanka. You definitely want to keep your distance from these giants.
As forecasted, we didn’t have much wind, and we had to motor-sail most of the way. This meant that we had the sails up only when enough wind was available to move us faster than the motor could alone. There were a few moments when a fresh breeze would pick up and we enjoyed some quiet, sail-only cruising. During those times we picked Ding’s brain and learned as much as we could. We instantly bonded with Ding, who shared his in-depth knowledge of sailing and passage-making with us throughout the entire trip. An accomplished sailor in the Philippines, he has raced in prestigious regattas all around the world. His seven kids lived in the Philippines and he raced and delivered sailboats year round, sending his earnings back home to his family. He is an inspiring man and it was amazing to meet someone so in-tune with the sea and the nuances of a boat under sail. Eric and I are both immensely grateful to have met and spent time with him aboard Anjo.
The legendary man himself, Ding.
After a few days at sea, the crew slid into a routine, and the days started to blend into one another as the miles went by. The captain had delegated gathering weather forecasts and route planning to Eric and me. Our communications were done through a global satellite device on the boat that acted like a wireless hotspot, enabling us to access the internet. Each day we would connect to the device with a laptop and download weather forecasts from PredictWind, a marine-specific weather service provider. The information would come in the form of GRIB (Gridded Information in Binary form) files, which are weather forecast data files compressed to smaller sizes making them easier and faster to download when at sea. With these forecasts you could choose what information you wanted to see (wind strength and direction, wave height and direction, satellite images of your area etc.) and forecasts were available up to seven days in advance. The forecasts were quite consistent with the actual weather, and it was a fun challenge learning how to use these devices, and see how accurate they were. Sailing in this modern age of technology—although seemingly much safer—has less of the romance that is associated with the adventures of early sailors going off into the unknown with nothing more than a sextant and the desire to explore. I’m sure on Burnett we will be able to strike the right balance.
The weather stayed calm and evening watches were peacefully spent watching for other boats and adjusting course when necessary. One of my most memorable night watches was a surreal evening when the water was full of bioluminescence. It was extremely dark from cloud cover, and while watching the splash off the boat light up the surrounding water with electric greens and purples, I noticed large flashes of light zigzagging through the water further out. After a second of confusion the flashes came closer to the boat and soon Anjo was surrounded by a large pod of Bottlenose dolphins, who had decided to see what we were all about. I could hear their splashes as they broke the surface and could catch glimpses of their bodies as the water illuminated their silhouettes, like underwater fireworks going off all around me. After a few breathtaking minutes they were gone, and I was left smiling ear to ear in the warm night air.
The weather was blisteringly hot, and we spent most of our time trying to keep our lily-white bodies hidden from the wrath of the sun. Living with a perpetual coat of sweat and sunscreen on your body was tough, and the heat often made you feel lethargic. The cabin Eric and I shared was barely large enough for both of us to be in at the same time, with a jury-rigged lee cloth the only thing preventing us from rolling on top of each other when the boat was heeled over. With rotating shifts, your body isn't able to form a sleeping pattern, and when sharing a cramped cabin it's difficult not to get woken up by someone getting up for shift, or coming in after one, regardless of how quiet they are trying to be. It was tough to acclimatize to the heat and Anjo became a floating sweat lodge with small electric fans our only respite. Therefore when a rainstorm came through on the sixth day and the captain promptly got naked on deck to soak it all in, we immediately followed suit and enjoyed the glorious downpour, one of the most refreshing showers of my life. We saw a few other nasty looking weather systems go past us in the distance, with massive waterspouts on display (ocean tornadoes, but generally much less destructive than their land counterparts), but Anjo cruised along without encountering any other squalls before reaching Sri Lanka.
ABOVE: A squall off in the distance with waterspouts forming to the right. Eric seems concerned.
BELOW: Contrasting skies of the Indian Ocean.
I was excited to see what fish we could catch as we sailed along our route and convinced the captain to take me to a local tackle shop before leaving Thailand to stock up on different lines and lures. To my delight we had some great success using hand lines (no rod or reel) that consisted of a hundred yards of small diameter nylon rope with a 20ft length of 100lb test (really strong) line, some lead weights, and a lure, all wrapped around a piece of wood or a plastic handle. The line attached to a cleat at the stern of the boat and had a bungie cord rigged to it to soak up the initial shock of a striking fish. Once a fish was hooked, the bungie would snap back, waking up any dozing crew members. Whoever got to the line first had to bring it in hand-over-hand while the boat was heeled over and cruising along through the waves. The hand lines were an effective system, and we ended up catching several skipjack tuna that were between 8-10 pounds, with one pushing the 18-20 pound mark. My filleting skills were put to the test as I tried not to drop the fish, lose the knife, or cut myself while working on the aft deck of the boat, often at dusk when the bites tended to be most frequent. We stored what we didn't eat right way in the onboard freezer, and we enjoyed seared tuna steaks and sashimi the whole trip across. It was marvellous.
A nice skipjack tuna caught on a hand line. We would have meals for multiple days from a fish this size.
One side filleted. Ding's famous fish head soup allowed us to keep waste to a minimum.
We were a few hundred miles off the coast of Sri Lanka when the boat's engine sputtered and jolted, coming to an abrupt stop and surprising us all. It turned out that we had run over a mass of old ropes in the water, which then tangled around the keel, the engine’s prop, and all around the rudder. Someone had to get in the water and deal with the situation, and craving some sweet relief from the heat I quickly volunteered to don the mask and fins. With a rope tied around my waist to keep me from being taken by the current, and a serrated knife in hand, I jumped in the water and cut away the ropes until they were cleared from the boat. Admittedly, swimming in the middle of the ocean was quite nerve wracking, and I did it as fast as I could without looking down to see what might be below me.
We learned that the first smells of land reach you long before you can see it. When you are on the open ocean the air is pure and clean, tainted only by the smells of the crew and the odd fish brought onboard. As you near land, a pungent, terrestrial smell fills your nostrils from miles away. Hints of moist earth are mixed with industrial odours associated with the presence of man, shocking your system for a few fleeting minutes before your body adapts to its new surroundings. An experience one can only have after spending an extended period of time at sea, it was an exciting indication that our first crossing would soon be complete. There was still some fun to be had as we got closer to land, however. Boat traffic increased dramatically, with large numbers of fishing boats (many without AIS and unable to be seen in the dark unless they had their lights on), and with our convergence with the shipping lanes as we neared the port city of Galle. I was on my evening watch as we came within 10 miles of the coast and it was an adrenaline-pumping experience dodging all sorts of unmarked and unlit boats zipping around in the darkness as we came closer to our destination.
As we neared Galle, we contacted the port captain to announce our arrival and learned we had just missed the window of checking in for the day. As a result, we ended up a few miles offshore doing circles throughout the night waiting for the port to open in the morning. This act, we later found out, is called pottering; aimlessly floating around with no purpose other than to kill time. We've now learned that slowing your boat's pace ahead of time to arrive in port during daylight hours can be a sensible tactic, as often there are certain hours one can and cannot enter a new country. The next morning we contacted the port captain and were directed to a bay where we were told to drop the hook and wait for a naval escort into the marina. An hour later a zodiac full of officers boarded the boat and searched below deck. They were mostly young guys, and it was fun meeting them and talking to them briefly in the English that they knew. All parties were pleased that nothing suspicious was found on board, and soon they hopped back in their boat and escorted us to our spot along a concrete wall inside the harbour designated for cruising boats. It was a busy industrial port with fishing boats and tankers making up the majority of our company.
ABOVE: Jungle Beach, where we dropped anchor to wait for our naval escort. Welcome to Sri Lanka!
BELOW: The view from Anjo tied up to a concrete dock in the inner harbour.
We were put in quarantine before we could enter the city. The process was lengthy and bureaucratic, with lots of paperwork to fill out and visits from different government agencies, but overall smooth. Everyone who came on the boat was kind and welcoming, if much more used to the heat than we were. Later that afternoon we dropped our yellow quarantine flag, took a tuk tuk into town, and strolled through the streets of the old colonial fort in Galle, getting our first taste of Sri Lanka. The harbour was where the Portuguese first made landfall in 1505, and the Fort was built in 1588. It was later fortified when the Dutch took over in the 17th century as it transformed into Sri Lanka's main spice trading port for the next 200 years. Inside the fort, the narrow, cobblestone streets are full of the aromas of Ceylon tea and cinnamon. Old, historic buildings transformed into boutique hotels and cafés show signs of gentrification, but sneak down a quiet alleyway into an old tea shop and one can still get the feeling of travelling back in time. Now a historical monument that is home to an ethnically and religiously diverse population, the coral mixed walls and ramparts of the fort are constantly abuzz with visitors from all over the world. Being a tropical country with an abundance of vegetation, Sri Lanka's cuisine is known for its vast array of herbs, spices, and vegetables, and restaurants in the Fort serve up a mix of traditional and contemporary dishes. Rich and flavourful dip curries are scooped up with hot roti, and fresh fish is always on the menu followed by a steaming hot cup of sweet, black tea. During the evenings, families gather on the wall to watch the sunset over the Indian Ocean while cricket games are played in the grass below. A truly magical setting.