I met a number of people on the docks in Falmouth and Dublin who kept saying the same thing when I told them where we were heading. “You’re crazy! Well, it will be beautiful, but you’re crazy!” Stories of horrendous midges (sand flies), storms, freezing water, huge tides that created vicious whirlpools and radical overfalls. I have to admit I was feeling like maybe I’d made a big mistake taking us this far from our usual tropical environs. I’d learned to sail in the Pacific Northwest so I felt reasonably confident the skills required to keep people safe this far north would come back to me, but that was a long time ago…
Discovery does not hold a lot of fuel. Our range, which is greatly influenced by current, wind and seas, is about 900 miles in perfect conditions, well short of the distance on a standard ocean passage. Our forecast as we left Cape Verde for the 1200 mile trip north showed almost no wind at all. Simple math meant we’d either have to get some wind, or we’d be doing some sitting around in the middle of the ocean. But no wind does have its benefits. For one, Jody actually gets to enjoy being at sea. Usually the passages for her are synonymous with suffering and I too admit that as the years have gone by my indifference to seasickness seems to be wearing off.
I’ve been trying to write our final log of the Cape Verdes for over a month now. It’s not that I can’t remember what happened, and it’s not that I don’t have a story to tell. I experienced some of the most magical days of my life in those dry islands off the west coast of Africa and I’d like to describe how that feels.
A few days before the tsunami hit Japan and the horrors that followed life on board Discovery seemed to be almost on autopilot. Cape Verde had been serving up heaping platters of wind and waves and while my list of projects had grown beyond the boundaries of our “to do” whiteboard, none of them were all that critical. Well, other than replacing a prop, which had mysteriously fallen off. A three thousand dollar rather critical component vanished to the sea floor.
The Cape Verdes lie in the path of this hazy swath which resembles the locust swarms we’d seen in Madagascar- thick and inescapable. But as soon as we left port on that first trip before the fall of the New Year another place and country began to take shape. … On the way to the guests’ hotel I made one final effort to find a portable generator I could run on deck (previous attempts had come up empty), struggling to communicate my need to the taxi driver using a mix of Spanish, English and very poor Portuguese, which was all he spoke.
The paradox of being at sea for a long time is that you do not get more comfortable as time passes, but more scared. You get more competent, and that helps with controlling fear, but competence can only carry you so far. With each passing year out here I feel smaller and more at the whim of the ocean; more humbled, more afraid. People who come on board who have not spent time at sea often tell me they want to see a storm, they want to experience what it’s like. I know immediately that I am dealing with a novice if these words leave a person’s mouth. Storms at sea are not the same as on land. Land lubbers cannot possibly comprehend what it’s like to know the dread and physical stress that an approaching deep low pressure system causes; they cannot comprehend what it’s like to battle 70 mile an hour winds; to be in seas several times larger than your boat; to be completely at the mercy of the weather, your ability, and the frailty of your vessel.
I feel like I’ve been chewing on cotton. My lips are cracked and my hips are sore and I look again to the east, hoping again for the grayness of dawn to arrive. We have no food and our only jug of water has been contaminated with ocean and sand. I am huddled down with 7 other people in a bed made of two nylon paragliders. The fabric becomes an alarm clock every time we are blasted by wind or when one of us struggles to find a new spot on their body to relieve from the hard sand. If I had a watch I’d check it for the thousandth time. The blanket of night refuses to lift. I try not to think about water and cuss silently to myself for orchestrating this mess. My body begs for sleep but my mind stammers off again, reconstructing how ended up here.
For once it wasn’t me who almost died. But I’m already getting ahead of myself.
We had a week in Bazaruto without guests to play on the dunes before heading back across the Mozambique channel to Madagascar. In this time we flew as much as possible; spent way too much time in Vilanculos trying to repair one of our refrigerators (unsuccessfully); and got about $12,000 dollars worth of camera and paragliding equipment stolen from right under our noses on the beach. In less than 12 hours we had it all back in perfect nick after spreading the word that we’d pay a handsome reward no questions asked for the return of the items. We also had our secondary anchor stolen by some fishermen from right off the bottom one night, but this seemed a small price to pay for all that Bazaruto had provided.
At the crack of dawn after a very rough night sail from Tofo 140 miles up the Mozambique coast to Bazaruto Tim wakes me up urgently. The problem is Humpbacks. The wind is blowing over 30 knots, the seas are an ugly black mess. And whales are literally everywhere. We’re ripping along well over 10 knots. If we hit one of these giants the giant wins. Our thin fiberglass hull is no match for 40 tonnes of dense flesh and blubber. We’d be destroyed, all would be lost. He and I stand at the helm in awe- everywhere we look massive black torpedos are defying gravity and breaching completely out of the water. I count over 50 individuals in 2 hours. Twice we have to shut off the autopilot and wrench the helm hard over to barely miss a jumping whale right in front of us. It was terrifying and yet of course awesome.
After nearly 2 months in Madagascar it was regrettably time to move on, though we will be returning in September for the final trips of the season. The rough plan was to spend a few days in Madagascar, then sail across the Mozambique channel some 550 miles with a stop in Europa, a French island outpost of which we’d heard tantalizing rumours of sharks, turtles, and a phenomenal left hand wave.