Sunday, December 20, 2009

Looking back and forward: what is normal?

Well, we are two weeks into the Seychelles and it has been an interesting experience again: learning about procedures, how the new places operate, what they have to offer to whom and where.

While every time we get to a new port of entry we learn more about what we are supposed to do to clear in, it is very different in each place and so, mostly, we don’t know what to do… i.e. what to give to whom and where (the when is basically as soon as you come in, assuming it is not a weekend, public holiday or lunch time!) You may have read about our last experience….. dealing with the officials in our pj’s over cereal in the boat! But it is not just official procedures. Where do we shop for what and what is the benchmark price? How do we get around? Which beaches/islands can we visit and put down anchor and what do they offer? Where can we afford to eat, if we choose to eat out?

More importantly… how will we deal with our new circumstances, when will we adjust and when will new circumstances seem normal to us? In an e-mail I told a friend that things were settling down to normal, then followed up by telling her I took advantage of a good rain to put my cossie on and go outside to clean the whole boat down and thereby use the fresh-water rinse on offer. Well, this apparently caused my friend much mirth and exclamations of “Normal!!??” Well, it seemed normal to me…. Am I going “bossies” …?!

With this in mind we set to and developed a list of our new “normal”.

To help you visualise our current circumstances, to which we have grown fairly accustomed but cannot say we love them all, here is what we deal with daily: wet feet and wet floors (humidity), wet bums and pants (dinghy travel… and Rolf’s race-car driving!), being permanently sodden and streaming (no lovely “glow” in this heat and humidity!); always acknowledging the elements to be in control (sun… there is not enough suncream in the world, wind… which decides on how we will get there, water(sea state) … dictates the ease and comfort of the ride and the sleep); sleeping with no bed sheet deliberately so that we feel the rain as it falls through the hatch onto our legs (and then we know it is raining…. and can leap up and run around and close all the hatches, which were kept open for air); sore, tired muscles from doing work at odd angles, lots of walking to get anywhere, and getting chores done in an environment of stairs, constant movement, limited space, pull starting the outboard motor instead of turning an ignition key - everything is transported by dinghy which involves lots of multiple handling on unstable surfaces; endlessly monitoring our use of resources (when last did you check or limit your water consumption during a shower/gas consumption whilst cooking/fuel consumption while driving/battery condition when using lights/plastic bag consumption for garbage disposal?); regular inconvenience of accessing stuff (either you cannot remember which locker it is in or it is at the back/bottom of the locker); changing our land view even when not travelling – while swinging at anchor or on a mooring (very disorientating at night and when trying to figure out if the anchor is holding); sailing and its attendant sail work and on arrival evaluating options and then executing a mooring or berthing or anchoring – generally resulting in even shorter or broken finger nails. These are not complaints, merely observations of how different and physical our life has become.

Then there are the different standards in presenting oneself (well, for starters, if we are both happy with the other as hair stylist, our standards must have changed…!); different expectations of yourself (if there is a problem… Just fix it!) and of your day (it will be unpredictable: Murphy is a demon operator on boats) and of your life (deal with what comes your way and don’t expect to have much control… A funny one: the tall red postbox outside the cafĂ© at Inhambane received Laura’s postcards and we happily moved on having completed a little task. Wrong! Walking past the BACK of same postbox the next day revealed it to be a dustbin… silly us to assume all was exactly what it seemed. Happily the postcards, on top of the pile of rubbish, were fine and able to be posted again… at the post office this time.)

So, that is the current “norm” about us. What is the norm in the Seychelles and how does this early days perspective differ from Madagascar?

The Seychellois: friendly, helpful, with a strong environmental consciousness. They have strict rules regarding litter and use of resources, including who may use their islands and beaches. Madagascans, also friendly and helpful but more naive, appear less environmentally-aware; they have no facility for dealing with litter, for example: the backs of their villages are liberally strewn with debris and if a helpful boat-man in a harbour offers to take your rubbish packet, you will return to find it strewn over the dock or in the water (however he will have scanned it for useful things like bottles, a precious commodity). When looking over Madagascar you will see telltale smoke from at least one fire at any time; the belief is that burning forests will help to enrich the soil with its coal/ash. A consequence? Only about 15% of their forests remain and land is not becoming enriched. Only Sakatia Island has a ‘no-burning’ policy, due to strong ex-pat influence, and it is regarded as the richest island for the communities.

However, the Madagascan attitude assists yachties in that we are allowed access virtually anywhere: cruising is an absolute dream with freedom of access to the beaches and islands (unless a luxury lodge frowns at you for blocking their view). In the Seychelles we are disappointingly restricted: many of the islands are privately owned or fall under National Parks, the latter resulting in a daily fee of approximately R150.00 (SA Rand) per person, and another R200 for the yacht (and no facilities for this except access). In fact, here is another normal for our life as we live it in the Seychelles….COST!!!! My first cappuccino since Cape Town was bought by a kind Rolf at a cost of almost R50 (last cappuccino!); we paid R80 for a (large) pineapple the other day…. a bit ripped off as they are normally R60; soft tomatoes from R6 to R8 each and I passed on the Walker’s Christmas mince pies at about R15 per pie. However, some of the Creole cooking takeaways from the street vendors are tasty and cheap at about R20 – R30; but then need to be washed down with beer (local) at R20 and up to R45 in restaurants.
Nonetheless, the Seychelles islands are beautiful. Victoria (on Mahe) is one of the tiniest capitals in the world and has lots of charm – similar to Pietermaritzburg 40 years ago, but is busy and vibrant during the season; Mahe Island has some lovely spots but plays second fiddle to Praslin and La Digue, the main tourist islands… and the other 102 islands! The photo shows Chauve Souris, a private island off Praslin.

We look forward to visiting about 10 of them in our stay before we leave for Chagos and the Maldives at the end of Feb: many islands to the SW of Mahe will be avoided since they are privately owned, many are declared National Parks (and we will not often pay their fees) and many thanks to the pirates (although we have already seen two US Navy warships in Port Victoria… pirate patrol),.

The Seychellois are a colourful people (those on the smaller islands often adopting a Bob Marley-way, complete with accent) and are a range of colour themselves. To paraphrase a local guide book… in the Seychelles, “marriage is not a restrictive institution”! In Madagascar, meanwhile, a young French artist who had worked there for three years told me he was approached by a village chief to please spread his seed and increase the local gene pool (a problem in the small villages).

Rolf is presently drinking a toast (with his cheap Madagascan beer at a mere R12) and paying tribute to one of his favourite items of equipment – a 3 metre scaffold plank that found its way aboard in Richards Bay and has adorned our stern ever since. It has served as a gangplank; a fish cutting board; a coconut chopping platform; a workbench; a fender board; a fixture to secure additional diesel jerry cans on the trip from Madagascar; a washboard (to prevent big following seas from breaking directly into the cockpit); as a lever and as a jacking base to lift the starboard engine, weighing in at a couple of hundred kgs, back onto its mounting bolts (from which it had jumped at some time after a securing nut had unthreaded itself – your engine has not done this after a couple of months use?); and most recently as a scaffold plank to reach an otherwise unreachable light fitting in the cockpit roof (in order to drain the water from the fitting – see above for the new “normal”)

This second photo (also displaying the beauty of the plank)shows an example of interesting mooring practice undertaken by a couple in the charter yacht on the left… gave us a few moments of tension as we watched from the bank!

Today was boat cleaning day and putting up the canvas cockpit screens to enclose the large cockpit and effectively add an additional living space – useful when it rains, which it does a lot of in the current rainy season here! Particularly valuable because our children arrive in the next two days to fill the boat, share Christmas, New Year, interesting experiences, beautiful beaches, a lovely sea and a new look on our world.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Friends visit, playing survivor and surviving a passage

Ok, so this is a long one. Bear with our stories but a lot has happened…. If you want to take it in shifts, we have broken this entry into two coffee-break pieces: You too can have fun with us (the visiting friends part) and You too can survive a passage with us.

You too can have fun with us
We had guests for a week! Alice and Noel were the first of our friends to be brave enough to trust our sailing so they spent a week with us in Madagascar… a week that was wonderful, enjoyed by all, and provided interesting challenges…!

At the start, getting from your plane to your holiday accommodation is a different process when you are joining friends on their boat: arriving at night, the Shaws were picked up at the airport by a stranger, subjected to a long and rough taxi drive to a beach in the dark and then met by a small speedboat which would take them across a to another island where our boat was anchored. We were at Chanty Beach to meet them so they would not feel abandoned (or abducted) and as we walked in the dark over the rough eroded ground and then the beach to board the little transfer boat, Noel’s comment was that it felt like they were in a show of Survivor.

Waking on the first morning in paradise (a bay on Nosy Sakatia), they snorkeled off the boat and enjoyed coconut, mango, banana and papaya smoothies. During the course of the week we showed them all our favourite islands, beaches and snorkeling spots. Before continuing, a clarification… Alice says that reading that we “snorkel from the boat” simply does not convey the experiences we (and now they) have had: the snorkeling from the boat has, on many occasions, been on par with many previous scuba diving experiences. It is truly wonderful.

We played survivor on a tiny lovely beach in Russian Bay, dragging firewood around and making a great fire for a sunset braai. Never have beer, red wine and pork chops gone down better… and it seems the hermit crabs who tried to make beer cans their new homes, and those that FEASTED on the bones, felt the same. (Note that we are very environmentally conscious and feed the locals before removing our mess!)

Speaking of beer…. part of Noel’s survivor training was getting his stomach used to the local beer, which comes in quart bottles and spends days standing in the sun while in tortuous transit from Tana; after an initial wobbly however, he mastered the skill! At all times Alice and Noel were great “crew”: Alice proved a dab hand on the helm, Noel was fisherman and they both cleaned and tidied endlessly!

We did the tourist thing with the craft market at Nosy Komba and shared with them enchanting lemur experiences (Moms with babies wrapped tightly round them, both eating off your hand) then anchored off Lokobe National Park and sent them for a walk along the river in the wild.
Their eyes were big on their return, with tales of being chased out of the forest by the MIGHTIEST roar (“Didn’t you hear it on the boat?”). Chats to a local later revealed this terrifying roar to be made by the tiniest lemur in Madagascar…! That night we were subject to our rolliest sea; to our chagrin (or rather, read into that some fear and anxiety) Madagascar was hit by its first cyclone and we were on the outskirts of it, happily feeling only the impact on the water. Of course, you only know after the event that you will only experience the outskirts of the cyclone, while for days having a gnawing worry that you may have to survive its coming over you… it did not. Alice and Noel had to survive a hot, enervating day in Hell-Ville, but they found it easy by retreating to the local watering-holes and waiting for us as we completed official country exiting procedures and food and fuel provisioning.
Now to the real “survivor” experience… wherever we went, between boat and other activity, we used our trusty intrepid dinghy. It has a small “bailing bucket” in it and we joked as we left on day 1 of their visit (for the first time 4-up in the dinghy) that Noel was to be chief bailer. All went well in the morning but our return saw post-lunch revellers in choppier water with light swell and not paying heed to their weight distribution. It all happened so quickly: Irene saw turtle fin coming out the water and exclaimed; all turned to regard said turtle; water came over the front of the dinghy in a great torrent; all looked stunned momentarily as the second wave came over and submerged the nose of the dinghy as Noel simultaneously BAILED!! – off the boat! By doing so he began the start of our recovery, which continued with Rolf ensuring he kept the motor going to prevent stalling and the three-men-in-a-boat fiercely bailing out water. This word bailing implies method and control: the reality is that the boat was 7/8 full of water and sinking, the bail-bucket (half plastic coke bottle) was lost somewhere amongst 8 floating fins, 8 f-ing walking shoes, 8 f-ing fin booties, 4 f-ing masks and snorkels, clothing, suncream etc… we scooped MADLY with whatever we could: hands, shoes, feet (!) while Rolf used only one hand to scoop and kept the dinghy going in circles with the other. That was the other time Noel played survivor: only he knows how many times Rolf nearly rode over him. Then, when there was some evidence that we may be winning the war on water, Rolf noticed one of his crocs floating off in the distance. So we abandoned Noel and went to fetch it…. leaving Noel to play survivor! Summarised list of casualties: two ladies tops (used for snorkelling), one pair sunglasses, one camera (didn’t like the bailing), four people’s dignity. Summary of the event: we were never in any danger, but the motor would have been, and the post-mortems were hysterically funny!

Summary of the visit: WHAT FUN!!! You too can have fun with us… when are you coming?? Don’t be scared… we are more cautious on the dinghy now, and can sail the yacht really well, having just undertaken a passage completely on our own…

You too can survive a passage with us
Turns out spending a month cruising between islands and anchoring in generally calm waters spoils you and makes you forget that this is not really sailing. So, preparing for passage to the Seychelles, we had to get our minds and hearts back into the idea of sailing through the nights, constant movement under-foot, galley issues, real weather issues with few hide-away spots… and in this case, the added worry of piracy.

The day after the Shaws left, we got underway, having ascertained that the cyclone had gone and weather was good with only a low-pressure system building far in the east and no new cyclone threats. Wake-up call: the sea was horribly disturbed, wind on the nose, could not sail decently but had to power into it… and we both elected to have sea-sick tablets (probably partly induced by nerves). We had two days before leaving the northern tip of Madagascar and on both nights settled into fair anchorages to get some sleep.

Two issues: one… the northern tip (Cap St Andre) is notorious for funneling the seas and winds around it at great speed from the SE so one needs to steer clear and have conservative sail settings, attempting it only when weather conditions are appropriate. We had these conditions. Second issue: of course, both the UK and Dubai-based Maritime Safety Organisations had advised against sailing to the Seychelles (“why not sail in the Caribbean rather?”) as they had to do, with a couple recently being taken by pirates near the Amirantes (one of the Seychelles outer island groups, SW of the main island). We called the Seychelles Coast Guard and advised of our plan to avoid that area by sailing via the Farquhar islands to Coetivy Island, well to the east of the Amirantes. They approved of this plan, and all we spoke to said “head east as soon and fast as possible”.

So we left Madagascar behind us and to our dismay found, firstly, that we simply could not sail east immediately because, although the weather was good, the wind and current were still strong enough to make that virtually impossible and we had no option but to go north…. and, secondly, that we had no more money in our satellite phone account, could make no calls and were about to be cut off completely. (Aside… we had initiated the process of getting more money into the account with our provider but a series of events occurred so this was not completed…. Panic!) Fortunately an sms to Mark was received by him, he called us back and got the show going and the next day we were back on track.

Clearly, we got here safely (the Google Earth site linked to the blog shows our route, updated after we got here to foil the pirates!) and the trip was good, interesting, challenging, tense and simultaneously peaceful! The Indian Ocean north of Madagascar is fascinating: nearer the equator it can be like glass, reflecting the clouds around the rim of this apparent blue dinner-plate (Irene wanted to subscribe to the flat-earth society) but within twenty minutes can turn into a broiling, rolling, confused mess as storms on various sides all make themselves felt on the surface.
We were sometimes covered with gentle showers which moved over quickly and did not change the sailing at all but once after two days of the utmost calm and almost no sailing-wind we were assaulted from all sides and had to survive about 12 hours of heavy weather.

Watches were shared equally between us in 4-hour shifts, with Irene always given the 4 to 8am watch: a real treat, as testified to by the photos. For the first few days we were guarded by a full moon that turned the sea to silver and one morning the rising sun turned a cloud gold, bathing the whole area in magnificent soft golden light.

We were accompanied by birds en route: two hitched rides on the boat as they rested and many others used us to assist them feed…. dozens of flying fish would be disturbed from the water as we passed them and the birds would swoop down on them, capilitalising on the ungainly flight of these odd fish.
Some watches were delightfully peaceful while others required hard work and management of sails and route. All watches were tense as we scanned the horizon for fast-approaching dhows, in the knowledge that we would be able to do nothing in that situation but pick up our contingency “pirate bag” and spend Christmas in Somalia. This may seem overly dramatic but it was the reality and brought about the decision not to stop at any islands en route but to make way as fast as possible to our destination and avoid all exposure: hence no night lights (not even navigation) and no radar - just very sharp eyes. Also hence a conflict between joy at the brilliance of full-moon nights but tension that it made us more visible.

We were of course pleased to arrive here at Mahe Island late on Sunday afternoon but were too exhausted to really celebrate. We had to anchor outside the harbour with the yellow Q flag (standard practice to inform authorities you have not yet cleared in) and wait for them to come out to the boat on Monday morning. We were in bed at 7:30pm…. and embarrassingly slept through the arrival of the 6 Ports, Customs, Immigration, Health, Coastguard and Police guys on their launch at 7:00 on monday morning so that they had to return at about 9 and found us eating breakfast!

We have discovered normal life… a calm night at Seychelles Yacht Club, people across all sectors with a good service ethic, a little town with recognizable supermarkets and a movie house!! (But still no rooibos, provitas, bran or non-chocolate muesli!) Note: please don’t visualize Seychelles Yacht Club as the Royal Cape…. We are on a mooring buoy, no water or power provided by the club, tuna factory and noisy streets alongside. But the food is good and cheap…. Especially by Seychelles standards! After a few days of settling in here we will check out the neighbouring islands and prepare for the arrival of our next sets of visitors…. Mark and Livi, Barry and Kay are coming to join us for Christmas in the Seychelles!