Saturday, November 07, 2009

November 7, 2009 - Mozambique Channel

When we left Baly Bay, Madagascar for Richard's Bay, South Africa, the longterm forecast called for the wind on the west side of the Mozambique Channel to blow from the northeast. Our plan to preposition ourselves at Juan De Nova would get us away from the diurnal influence of Madagascar's landmass and put us into good position to hook into the northeasterlies when they arrived. That was the plan. However, as ever with our plans for our Indian Ocean crossings, this one may as well have been written in the sand, below the high tide line.

By the time we arrived at Juan De Nova, the northeasterly shift had been delayed. After one night there, the northeasterlies had disappeared from the forecast entirely, as though they had been a figment of our imaginations. We were on borrowed time at Juan De Nova, allowed to remain only as long as the gendarme was feeling generous (and having just learned that he was to be stuck on the island for an additional three weeks past his usual 45 day rotation, he was not feeling particularly generous). We had been granted one night initially and then bartered Sten's engineering skills for permission to remain another night. On our third day, we were faced with the option of overstaying our welcome or heading out into wind blowing from exactly where we wanted to go. Wait, why does this sound familiar? Oh yeah, because we've had this exact scenario play out repeatedly on our crossing of this God/Allah/Buddha forsaken ocean. We have essentially been beating upwind since January. Before this passage I had really believed we were due for one good downwind run before finishing out the Indian, but the Indian had other plans in store for us.

As beautiful as Juan De Nova was, being surrounded by such splendor and not being permitted to engage with it was terribly frustrating. So, on November 4th (which just happened to be the third anniversary of our our departure from Rhode Island) we set off into the southwesterly breeze and made a lot of westing, which was good, and some northing, which was not so good. We were on the far side of the channel and 23 miles from the Mozambique coast when the current kicked in and the wind started to back, which allowed us to start adjusting our heading south towards South Africa.

The difference between this beat to windward and almost every other one of our passages in the Indian is that the wind has been relatively light. Light wind, forward of the beam is a fantastic point of sail for Mata'irea as long as the sea state is commensurate with the wind. We put up the staysail, unfurl the jib, raise the main to full height, and fly. These are fast and comfortable conditions for us.

On the 5th, when we were still close to the Mozambique coast, we were riding the Agulhas current south and making excellent time, seeing 9 and 10 knots on the GPS. But then on the 6th, we unexpectedly lost the current as our rhumb line course took us away from the coast south of Quelimane, Mozambique. Then, as predicted, the fans shut off. On went the engine and it wasn't for another 12 hours before silence once again reigned. After the wind piped back up we were going great guns for a while, but the wind has backed now so we are taking it more on the beam, which is not as fast a point of sail for us in these light winds. And we still haven't managed to relocate the current. But all is well on board, for now.

The thing about this passage that keeps cruisers up at night, the thing that they talk about incessantly, the thing that causes hair to turn white and results in boats limping into Richard's Bay or Durban with shredded sails and damaged hulls is the dreaded cold front. The weather patterns in the southern portion of the Mozambique Channel are dictated by cold fronts spinning off the African coast and across the channel. The strong frontal winds opposing the Agulhas current can give rise to some seriously fearsome sea conditions. And unlike many other places, these conditions occur with regularity off the east coast of South Africa. While we've been enjoying a smooth (if unpredictable) run south, boats coming around the bottom end of Madagascar from Reunion or Mauritius have had to weather several cold fronts and winds at times to 50 knots. With any luck, we'll avoid having to deal with being offshore for a frontal passage. However, it looks like we are going to have to do something about a coastal low that is forecast to develop near Richard's Bay the day we are due to arrive there.

The challenge presented by a low pressure system forming near Richard's Bay as we approach it is that it will take the wind, which at that point should be blowing hard from behind us, and crank it around so that it is blowing hard against the current. 30 knots on the nose isn't fun. 30 knots on the nose against a 3 knot current is not a situation we want to be in. At our present pace it looks like we will not make it into Richard's Bay before the low. Luckily, we've reached a stretch of the Mozambique coast with safe havens conveniently staged a day apart from one other. We're looking at tucking into either Inhambane or Inhaca to wait for better conditions. We will be approaching Inhambane on Sunday afternoon. At that point we'll need to decide whether to push another day south to Inhaca or if we should hole up in Inhambane with plenty of margin to spare.

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