Crossing the Indian Ocean
January 17, 2021
In 2019 Eric and I had the opportunity to help crew the sailboat Anjo across the Indian Ocean. Last spring we wrote about the first leg of our trip which took us from Phuket, Thailand 1100 nautical miles west to Galle, Sri Lanka. It was our first time heading offshore, and what an experience it was. Large pods of dolphins, dodging tankers in the shipping lanes, and some great fishing were just a few of the highlights (catch up with that blog post here). After a short stay in Sri Lanka, Anjo was ready to untie her lines and carry on towards Cape Town, South Africa, before the monsoons switched and the weather turned for the worse.
Sunset and tuna off the coast of Thailand
Leg 2 - Sri Lanka to The Maldives
Depart: Galle, Sri Lanka 6° 1'34.90"N, 80°13'39.72"E
Destination: Uligan, Haa Alif Atoll, Maldives 7°04’56.43”N, 72°55’46.78”E
Distance: 512 nm
With tanks full and provisions stowed away, Anjo cruised out of Galle Harbour (thankfully without engine problems this time) with her bow pointed southwest to our next destination: Malé, the capital city of the Maldives. It would be a 400 nautical mile trip to the islands, and we were excited to be back out on the open water for the next 3-5 days. The crew had grown by one with the captain's friend Mark who joined us for the rest of the trip. The forecast was calling for light to moderate winds from the northwest, so we were optimistic that we’d have the chance to cut the engine and raise some sails en route to this remote chain of tropical islands.
The Lost Dorado
After leaving Sri Lanka in our wake we crossed back through the wall of tankers making their way to the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean, and we were back in open water with high spirits. Since the first tuna was brought on deck back off the coast of Thailand, the captain kept telling us of his dream to eat freshly caught Dorado on his boat. Dorado, or Mahi-mahi, are highly sought after due to their beauty, food quality, and exciting acrobatics when hooked. The name Mahi-mahi comes from the Hawaiian language meaning “very strong”, and their bodies have dazzling colours - golden flanks, and bright blues and greens on the sides and back, with iridescent blue pectoral fins. Later that day I was sitting at the bow looking out at the water watching schools of flying fish dart out of Anjo’s path when I saw a flash of yellow and green. I continued to watch as one of the flying fish jumped out of the water, followed immediately by a full-grown Dorado in hot pursuit. After the Dorado made a few failed attempts to grab the flying fish out of mid-air, the two took their dance below water and I scurried back to the stern of the boat to put out the lines. Later that day, the bungee snapped and moments later a beautiful golden fish was leaping out of the air behind us! The Dorado fought much differently than the tuna, zig zagging back and forth while putting on a full aerial show. Eric wrestled the fish closer to the boat while I readied the gaff, and It seemed the captain's dream might finally be realized! The fish was thrashing around wildly making it difficult to hook with the gaff, so we grabbed the line and yanked the fish over the gunwale into the cockpit. Right away hell broke loose as the meter-long fish spat the hook and went berserk, flopping around, knocking over buckets and tangling lines as Eric and I both tried to grab it. Moments later the fish had somehow lodged itself in the wheel well, temporarily jamming up the steering and evoking true sailor's language from the mouth of the captain. Eric dove on the fish and yanked it free only to watch as with one graceful leap the fish was back in the water, swimming freely. This would end up being the one and only encounter with a Dorado we would have on the entire trip, and the captain’s dream of eating a fresh Dorado remained just that - a dream.
Dorado - slippery buggers!
Raise the Sails!
Heeled over and flying along!
We were cruising at 8 knots and it was a great feeling! 8 knots may seem slow when compared to land travel (about 15 km/h), but for some reason everything seems faster when you're heeled over on a boat. We were experiencing the harmony that comes by moving through the water from sail power alone. Not only was it remarkably quiet with the engine off, but the boat moved with a much more natural rhythm through the water, matching the tempo of the wind and swell, as opposed to forcing its way through by the engine at a constant speed. This was what sailing is all about. Open ocean, a steady breeze, and blue skies!
Just to keep us on our toes later that day we received an email letting us know that we were missing certain documents needed to clear customs in Malé, and would have to check in at a different port of entry in Uligan, a small island on the northernmost atoll in the archipelago. Although the captain wasn't pleased, the idea of visiting a small, remote island instead of the bustling concrete city of Malé was appealing to Eric and I. We happily altered our course setting a waypoint on the east side of the atoll, 200 nm away.
Marking noon positions on the chart.
A Spot of Weather
We experienced our first taste of inclement weather on night two. With our course altered we were now heading northwest, right into the weather. It was early evening when a wall of black clouds started to form ahead, and the whitecaps of breaking waves could be seen in the distance. The wind picked up as the night went on and by morning the seas had built and were confused, with the short interval swell coming from multiple directions and making for a rough ride. By this time we had our foul weather gear on and safety vests clipped into the jacklines while above deck. A jackline is a rope or wire that runs from the bow to the stern. When there is a risk of falling or being swept overboard, clipping in allows you to move around on deck safely.
The wind was bearing down right on our nose and forced us to reef our sails and go slightly off course. The wind and swell continued to build to a consistent 25 knots with white foam crests forming on the waves around us and spray coming over onto the deck. The dense cloud cover blocked any light from the full moon and by 20:00 we hit the full force of the system. Gusts over 33 knots rocked Anjo as we forged ahead into the dark. Not only was it blowing hard, but the wind was switching up to 60° on us, back blowing the main sail and rolling the boat from one side over to the other violently. Your adrenaline flows when you find yourself in heavier conditions, but as time goes on and you realize the boat can handle it, you get used to it as the new norm and start to relax. I found this was a theme for me throughout the trip as my tolerance level would build as we were exposed to different conditions. That being said, I was very grateful that we had switched to having two people on watch at a time!
After a long night, the morning came and the wind settled slightly, but the seas remained confused and the crew was tired from lack of sleep. Throughout the day the wind continued to drop, the seas laid down, and we collected ourselves from the previous night’s bashing. As we ate our dinner of seared tuna, creamed corn, and Ding’s perfect rice, we watched a glorious pink sun set over the horizon and marvelled at how different this evening was compared to the last. The full moon showed itself for the first time and as we were about to bring in the fishing lines the bungee snapped like a whip, indicating a fish was on. Shortly after we brought a beautiful Wahoo onboard. Wahoo’s are another prized game fish and are among the fastest fish in the sea. Their flesh is delicate and dense, and highly regarded in many cuisines around the world. Their elongated bodies are shiny silver with irregular vertical blue bars on the sides, and their large mouths host razor-sharp teeth. This was a great way to end the trip and the wahoo would turn out to make the best fish and chips we've ever had. We were scheduled to arrive to Uligan a few hours before daylight and would wait for the customs office to open in the morning.
Fresh wahoo and a full moon above.
The Grand Entrance
As the sun rose the next morning we were offered our first views of the tropical atoll. Swaying palm trees stood tall on coral white-sand beaches and the ring reefs were visible through the clear water surrounding the islets. Paradise was found!
Sunrise over palms.
The cruising guide recommended anchoring off the south end of the island to wait for customs, but after a few hours of dodging coral heads in the pass the Captain became impatient and insisted we try and enter a very small looking port close to shore. The only access was through a narrow channel cut into the reef not much wider than Anjo’s beam. The chart showed depths of less than 2.0m, which was too shallow for our draft (distance between the waterline and the lowest part of the boat), but the captain insisted on going in. With no other choice but to hang on and hope for the best we watched in wonder as the captain steered Anjo through the narrow channel, barely sneaking past the submerged coral heads on either side of her. As we neared the end of the channel we watched with bated breath as the depth finder rang off warning sounds indicating we were too shallow. Suddenly, the boat lurched to a stop as the keel dug into the sand and Anjo became grounded. Unfazed, the captain cranked down on the throttle and after some resistance, Anjo pushed through the sand bar and slipped into the little port.
The local port - pretty small, pretty shallow, cool looking boats.
We quickly realized the port was in fact way too small for our 40’ deep-keeled boat, but turning around proved to be no easy task. The captain tried to maneuver the boat, but the engine's reverse gear suddenly stopped working. We were slowly tracking towards a small fishing boat when Mark flew below deck to troubleshoot the issue. Eric and I hung our legs over the side of the boat ready to try and reduce the impact when, as luck would have it, we ran aground again! Luckily Mark was able to manually put the engine in reverse, and after a few embarrassing minutes we pulled ourselves off the bottom, made our 10-point turn and headed back out to the channel all wondering what in the hell just happened. Not long after the Navy came out and escorted us to a safe anchorage where we dropped the hook and they came aboard. They were just as surprised as we were and wondered why we would try and enter their port, but thankfully weren't too upset and after a quick search they were headed back towards shore. We shook it off, blew up the dingy, and headed for the beach to meet our agents and continue the check-in process.
White sand, palm trees, and crystal clear water. The Maldives in a nutshell.
We got to the beach and after a short walk were greeted by our agents; two young guys named Hammadh and Assad. Anytime we needed anything while on the island, from SIM cards to pharmacy items, these were our go-to guys. Once check-in was complete, they invited us to one of their family homes where we were lucky enough to enjoy an authentic Maldivian meal with samosas, fish soup, deep-fried bananas, and chicken and rice. We wrapped up the meal by chewing on betel nut which is a seed from a type of palm tree sliced up and wrapped in the leaves of the Piper Betel Vine that have been coated with lime. The nut has a compound similar to nicotine which gives you a head rush, and is a time-honoured custom in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Basin dating back almost 2000 years. When in Rome, right?
With just over 500 people inhabiting the island, the humble settlement is a quaint and simple oasis. Palm fronds curled over the coral walls, and people cruised the sand streets on bikes, seemingly never in a rush. It was unbearably hot as we strolled the quiet streets, marvelling at the pastel colours of the small buildings, and the ingenuity used in their building style. Coral rock was once the main building material used for construction. Large blocks were extracted from shallow reef flats with the help of iron bars and then crushed into aggregate. Instead of sourcing expensive cement, most people would burn coral debris in a pit which was then converted into lime and was used to bond the pieces together in the building process. In the early 90’s, the government became more aware of the environmental implications of the coral mining, and prohibited that style of building across the country. We also learned that Uligan was one of the first islands in the Maldives to use a combination of renewable energies, including solar panels on a micro grid and large wind turbines. We didn’t last long in the heat and the day’s excitement was wearing on us, so we retreated back to the boat for an early night. The captain took to arranging provisions for the trip south which allowed us to relax for the next two days and explore the island.
We spent the next couple of days exploring the island and catching up with our families back home. Our agents made it easy to get fuel and provisions, but unfortunately our Wi-Fi hotspot had stopped giving off a signal which made it impossible for us to download weather forecasts. We would need to have that up and running before heading south, which had us crossing over the equator and into some higher latitudes and potentially stronger weather.
From our anchorage we could see a stunning white sand beach on the southeast corner of the island. On our first morning off, we took the dingy to shore and had the beach to ourselves. I’d never swam in such clear water before with visibility over 50 feet and it was an incredible experience diving and checking out the coral. After a few hours swimming, we decided to walk into town and see if anything interesting was going on. It was around noon by the time we were wandering the streets, and again there were very few people to be seen. We wandered past a small school and saw a few young kids hanging out in the shade with a soccer ball. Right next to the school was a fair-sized sand soccer pitch so we approached the kids to see if they wanted to kick a ball around with us. They seemed adamant about not playing, but after a few minutes of “convincing” they rolled their eyes and gave in. It didn’t take long to realize why they didn't want to play as the heat from the sand fried our feet almost instantly, creating blisters the entire lengths of our soles. We quickly abandoned the game and ran to the shade to inspect the damage. Things were not looking good, and as Eric and I poured what water we had left on our throbbing feet the kids hung around giggling with “told ya so!” looks on their faces. The blisters covered our entire feet and we could barely walk for days after. First sunburns in Sri Lanka and now melted feet in the Maldives. You’d think we’d learn a thing or two about dealing with the heat! We limped our way back to the dingy and made our way back to Anjo where a very unsympathetic crew laughed at our misfortunes.
Soccer buddies. They were smart and wore sandals when we played.
Time to Head South
As much as we would have loved to stay on Uligan and really sink our toes into the sand, it was time to start heading south. Our Wi-Fi hotspot miraculously started working again and with that issue solved the crew swung into gear. We spent the day making multiple trips running diesel and food supplies to Anjo with the dinghy. With over 1900 nautical miles separating Uligan from our next destination, Mauritius, the 16-18 day trip would be the longest leg yet. The short-term forecast looked favourable and with no notable low pressure systems forming in the higher latitudes of the Indian Ocean the captain was keen to get his boat closer to Cape Town, come hell or high water.
Bringing supplies back to Anjo.
With everything shipshape we pulled the anchor and headed west passing luxury resorts and deserted islands as we navigated the narrow channels. I could tell by the tone of the crew that this next leg of the trip would be more serious than the last two. With a higher probability of encountering heavy weather, we decided to practice putting up the storm sails and going over emergency procedures. We raised the storm jib and storm trysail – sails made from heavy duty fabric, often brightly coloured and made to withstand strong winds over 45 knots – and went over which conditions would call for them.
Practicing putting up the storm jib and trysail. Pants optional.
Nerves turned to excitement as I sunk into my usual spot at the bow and thought about the great places a boat can take you, and what was in store for us on this leg of the trip. As we passed between two deserted islands my jaw dropped to the deck as I saw perfect waves peeling down the lengths of their reefs. A light offshore breeze feathered the lips before the water exploded with a roar that we could hear from the boat. With no surf board (and no chance of stopping if I had one) all I could do was sit and admire the beautiful almond barrels sparkling in the sun, and dream of the day Burnett was anchored out back of a wave like that, and we were paddling out without a soul in sight.
Part 3 will cover the final leg of our journey from the Maldives to Mauritius, an island nation 500 miles east of Madagascar. We celebrate crossing the equator, get our sea legs seriously tested, and explore a beautiful island oasis.
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We quickly fell back into the routine of life at sea, and the first evening watches were uneventful with little wind and calm seas. Having a fifth man onboard, we adjusted our watch schedule to two three-hour shifts in a day, with two people on each watch. This would be the schedule we would adopt for our next passage from the Maldives down to Mauritius and it afforded us a long enough stretch to feel rested and a brief enough turn on watch to stay alert.
On the second day of the trip the wind picked up giving us a steady 15 knots from the NE which was enough of a breeze to justify unfurling the jib and raising the main sail. The boys would get some sailing experience after all. With the wind coming over the starboard bow towards us, Anjo was heeled over (leaned over to one side from the force of the wind) and sailing close-hauled, or as close to the wind direction as she could be. Shortly after, the wind freshened (picked up and cooled down) and was blowing up to 22 knots with the seas starting to build around us. We reefed the jib (reduced the amount of sail area exposed to the wind by rolling the sail up slightly) and, for the first time while at sea, turned the engine off!