Wednesday, November 04, 2009

November 3, 2009 - Juan De Nova

Perhaps departing on a big passage on Halloween wasn't our brightest plan. There were bound to be some glitches. Our early evening departure from Baly Bay was delayed by an unsettled weather system. For a while, we had very strong winds while thunder boomed and lightening flashed around us. This region is very dry so it didn't take long before the lightening caused fires on shore. As the thunderstorm passed overhead, it sucked up all the wind. So we went to sleep for a few hours while we waited for the wind to fill back in. We woke up shortly before midnight to find the full moon beaming down through the hatch over our bunk.

Maybe it was the thunderstorm, or maybe it had something to do with it being Halloween, but the night had a spooky feel to it. Due to the light wind, we had a slow five mile sail out of the deep bay in which we were anchored. I was using the radar to augment our visual observations of the coastline and the drying reef at the mouth of the bay. I was getting a radar return off of another boat heading out of the bay, but we couldn't see anything. It was hidden by the shadows of the bluffs behind it and there wasn't a light on board. Inspired by our fellow midnight travelers, Sten started to tell ghost stories about ships manned by skeleton crews.

As our ghost ship cleared the mouth of the bay on the radar screen, the shadowy outline of a top sail schooner emerged from the shadow of the coast and sailed into a pool of silvery light cast by the moon. It was as if an ancient pirate ship had sailed out of the 18th century and into our path. Suddenly, an electric light illuminated their sails, reassuring us that the crew at least was from the 20th century, even if the ship's design was firmly in the 18th. They completed their tack out of the bay, and that was the last we saw of a light on the ship. As long as they stayed in the moonbeam, we could see them, a dark shadow against the silver sea, but once they fell too far behind, we had to use radar to pick them up. As the only metal on board the ghost ship was likely the cooking pots and a few nails in the hull, their radar signature was very faint and after a while we lost them in the darkness around us.

Until dawn it was slow going. But eventually the wind filled, strengthened and came forward. We made great time through the rest of the morning and early afternoon, reaching the western cape just as the wind started to shift again. Each time Sten turned us a few degrees south, the wind clocked an equal amount. We nailed the cape rounding, making the spooky midnight departure and the slow going overnight worthwhile.

As the late afternoon westerlies strengthened, we sailed south along the west coast of Madagascar. The current was against us, slowing our progress. All around us whales played in the current. As several of our friends have hit whales on this leg, with varying amounts of damage to their boats, we were anxious to avoid running into one. We've heard that a strong bass beat will make them aware of your presence, and even wake a sleeping whale, whereas they don't seem to react to the sound of a boat slicing through the water. So we cranked up the radio. I'm not sure it did anything to ward off the whales, but nothing entertains me as much as watching Sten play air guitar.

As the sunset the wind continued to clock to the southwest, pushing us towards the coast. We held our course for a few hours. Just before midnight, with two miles of searoom left, we tacked out. For a few hours we had a fast passage west. Then the wind slackened and things got slow and sloppy during the early morning hours. After breakfast, we gave up, furled in the jib, certerlined the main, and turned the engine on to motor the remaining 50 miles to Juan De Nova, a small French island.

As we approached Juan De Nova, the color of the sea changed from a greenish blue to the iridescent royal blue water found only near atolls. The underside of the clouds and the wings of hundreds of thousands of nesting sea birds reflected the aqua green water of the shallows. We could see a long white beach for walking and collecting shells, and clear water for swimming and snorkeling. Juan De Nova could be paradise, but we are forbidden to enjoy it.

It used to be that yachts were welcomed here. But for the past few years the officials have become less welcoming. This year the gendarme has been outright hostile to yachts. He sits on the radio, telling you that you must leave, or you will be required to pay a huge fine (a friend of ours was threatened alternately with fines of 10,000 Euros and $10,000). But the gendarme and the military don't have boats (at least at the moment), so it isn't like they can come out an harass you physically (so really, we can't blame the gendarme for being frustrated - his job is to police the land and water here but he is not provided with the means to do so). If you can stand the verbal abuse, it isn't a bad spot to hole up for a few days on the way to South Africa. It gets you out of the influence of the onshore breezes along the Madagascar coast and that much closer to the south setting current on the west side of the Mozambique Channel.

Well, wouldn't you know it, but when we rocked up here (as the Kiwis would say) yesterday afternoon there was another yacht here. How lovely, we thought, someone else to talk to. But then the gendarme called them to come in and get him so that he could come out and speak to us in person as we weren't responding to his hails on the radio. "Were you talking to us? Sorry, we don't speak French . . . je ne parl par Francais," or something like that. So after much back and forth with the gendarme telling us in French that we had to leave and us arguing back at him in English, he got fed up enough to go over to the other yacht to get a translator.

Turns out that the other yacht is part of a TAAF (French Overseas Territories) scientific mission. Through the translator we explained that we were waiting for the wind to fill in from the north and blow us to South Africa. The gendarme asked if our engine was broken. It was tempting to lie, he could have been looking for a reason to allow us to stay. But we told the truth - yes, the engine worked, but we didn't have enough diesel to motor until the wind filled. We asked to be allowed to stay 2 or 3 days. In the end, we were granted one night. We are forbidden to fish, swim, or go ashore. We also learned that there is a new TAAF regulation pursuant to which yachts are supposed to pay a usurious 600 Euros for the privilege of stopping here for a week. But they have no process in place for collecting it.

We resolved ourselves to one night of recovery sleep then setting out into fluky winds to try to find the southerly current. But later that evening, while Sten was relaying for the Peri Peri Net, the other yacht's dinghy came over. I found some pants (I find them as superfluous as Sten does shirts; between the two of us we tend to have on one complete outfit) and went out to talk to them. The translator (sans gendarme) said "Hello, I need an engineer." I responded, "I just happen to have one!" I explained that Sten was a diesel engineer and would be happy to help them with their engine woes. The translator said that he would ask the gendarme for permission for us to stay longer. I went back down below and when there was a break in the radio net explained to Sten that I'd just pimped him out for permission to hang at Juan de Nova until the wind fills.

Sten has been working on the other yacht's engine all day, bathing in diesel. In return, we have been permitted to spend one more night here (for a total of two). Meanwhile, I spent the morning analyzing weather files and doing laundry. A little while ago I joined the guys on the other boat for lunch. A change of scene and the chance to eat something cooked (and cleaned up!) by someone else has been the highlight of our restricted stop here. If it weren't for the tight regulations, Juan De Nova would be an amazing place to explore.

No comments: