Monday, October 26, 2009

October 21, 2009 - Nosy Saba, Madagascar

Hopping down the Madagascar coast has been some of the best sailing we've done in the past three years. In the lee of the world's fourth largest island, we are cruising along in comfort in flat water and good wind.

We left the Honey River midmorning, just as the wind started to build, for the run to Nosy Kalakajoro, where we stopped for lunch and a snorkel. The anchorage at Nosy K was a bit exposed, so we headed a few miles east to the deep sheltered bay at Berangomaina Point for a good night's sleep. Along the way Sten caught a really big barracuda, which we released. We also saw whales breaching and spouting in the distance. They moved on before we could get close, but it was nice to know they were still around.

We dropped anchor deep in the bay known as Paradise Hole (a bit of a stretch) just as the sun was dropping into the sea. Before I could get the sundowners on the cockpit table, Sten noticed that the depthsounder was reporting shallower numbers than we expected, so we decided to re-anchor further out. We are being very cautious about where we anchor here. Between the big tide range (currently 14 feet, but it varies depending on the phase of the moon) and the diurnal winds, anchoring is more challenging in Madagascar than most places. You could drop anchor in 30 feet of water and the next morning find yourself sitting on a sandbar or a reef because the wind shifted 180 degrees in the night or the tide fell. That scenario wouldn't be so bad in a catamaran (just climb out and clean the bottom while you wait for the tide to rise), but in a monohull, it would be more dramatic (rolling out of bed as your home falls over on her side would be a bit shocking). Once we were happily anchored we enjoyed our drinks while watching the drama of another magnificent Madagascar sunset. Afterwards, we tucked into a dinner of crab cakes. After wiping his plate clean, Sten announced "I could eat 10 more of these. I might just have to figure out how to catch crabs myself." I might just have to hold him to that.

In the hope of seeing the whales again, we set off early the next morning for Nosy Saba before the wind rose. We motored along for a while looking for whales as we waited for the wind to fill in. After another beautiful sail, we anchored off of a perfect white sand beach. We spent the afternoon snorkeling from the boat and exploring the beach.

Just as the sun was setting Sten noticed a few swirls and the occasional chug in the water next to Mata'irea. A particularly large swirl close to the boat was enough to drag him away from the sunset (and his cocktail). He grabbed a rod and made a cast with a diamond jig that he keeps rigged for passages. The fish followed with a big turn away at the boat but even after several casts, would not take the lure.

He was pretty pumped up at this point, so he ran down below to retrieve a surface lure. After struggling with the leader for a minute he managed to get it re-rigged. First cast with the pencil popper and another big follow with several swipes thrown in. Second cast was a long toss in towards the reef. As soon as it landed the water exploded. Fish on and a good one. Sten had cast from the aft deck and immediately the fish started arching down the starboard side of the boat towards the bow and the anchor chain. Then the fish swam over the anchor chain. Sten had to pass the rod around the front of the forestay to follow it. Then the fish started a dogfight down deep over the drop off and above the sandy bottom.

Sten was on the port side of the bow when the fish decided to dive under the anchor line and back to the starboard side of the hull. Watching him struggle to pass the loaded rod over the bow pulpit, under the snubber and anchor chain, and then back up the other side of the pulpit was high comedy. The fish was leading Sten on a merry chase around the boat. Finally, the fish was coming to heed and Sten managed to work his way back to the transom. As the fish surfaced I stopped laughing long enough to take the rod from Sten and pass him the gaff so that he could stick the fish just aft of its gill plate. A beautiful 12-15lb bluefin trevally came onto the deck and posed for pictures with Sten in the fading light before being filleted for our supper.

The following day was Sten's 36th birthday. The anchorage was starting to get a little rolly, but we decided to stay in this lovely spot for another day and night to make the most of his day. After breakfast, we launched the dinghy and set off to explore the rest of the island. We passed white cliffs and small bays dotted with surreal limestone islands, undercut like the ones we had seen in Thailand. There was no sign of the village mentioned in the pilot, but a large resort sprawled across the north coast of the island. Four pillars on the top of the island's highest hill beckoned us to come check them out, so we went for a walk. Returning to the beach hot and dusty, we were more than ready to get back in the water.

From the top of the hill we had looked down on the anchorage and seen Mata'irea's mast swinging back and forth like a metronome. By midday the swell was really rolling into the anchorage. Sten had been wanting to try using our dinghy anchor as a stern anchor for the big boat, so that afternoon, he rigged it up. Coupled with 50 ft of chain, it worked well in holding our bow into the swell in the light prevailing conditions. Believe it or not, in three years this is only the second time we have used a stern anchor. If we had a dedicated and easily deployed stern anchor we might use one more often.

When we first saw these pinnacles on Nosy Saba and an altar inscribed with images of cattle in dying postures at their base, we thought that we had stumbled upon some kind of cattle cult. Later we learned that the pinnacles are a hazomanga, a pole symbolizing lineage upon which sacrificial blood is consecrated, which explains the rusty red stains we saw on the alter. Among the Sakalava people of Western and Northern Madagascar, hazomanga are a focal point for prayers, sacrifices and circumcision ceremonies.

That evening the fishing was just as good as the prior night. On Sten's first cast there was an instant explosion in the water. Having learned his lesson about anchor lines and fighting fish, he jumped into the dinghy and I cast off the bow lines. Then I watched as the fish towed him across the anchorage. After another good fight he landed another big trevally, which he released as we already had a fridge full of fish.

A carving on the hazomanga

When he retrieved the lure he discovered that five out of the six hooks were straightened or bent. He decided to just keep fishing as the light faded, just to see the most excellent surface takes without actually having to fight the fish. This worked for a few casts and then something larger came in and slammed the lure. This time there was no stopping the run. The fish went deep into the reef and he felt the line shuddering over the reef. Too late, he dropped the rod tip to find yet another lure donated to the deep. However, he returned to the boat all smiles and pronounced that it was a very fine way to spend the evening of his birthday.

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