Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Madagascar Early Impressions: Harnessing the Wind (October 2015)

So we settled into our early weeks in Madagascar, and the second thing we noticed -- along with the cacophony from the music festival blaring off our bow and the gyrating rhythms of Nosy Be -- was that this is a sailing place.

In Crater Bay, in Russian Bay, in Honey River, in Sakatia, we follow the rhythm of this watery life, as boats sail by our bow or our stern morning, noon and night. It's busy in Crater Bay, as this, along with Hell Ville, forms the hub of Nosy Be's trading center. Sailing dhows of all sizes glide in and out, leaving in the early dawn, transporting their cargoes using the reliable afternoon breeze and returning after dark. And they really do glide -- they hoist their sails and go, even in the lightest of breezes. Sometimes they ghost by at midnight, propelled by a single oar to get them into waters shallow enough to drop anchor. Sometimes they sail all the way in, inching along before stopping deep in the bay. And the helmsmen expertly manage their craft, which pass so close to Momo's bow that we can almost reach out and clasp hands.


Close encounters with local outrigger and her quick crew
Sometimes, they're a little too close. Just now, as I was loading photos for this post, we heard a large clang, and for a brief moment thought something had gone wrong with our anchor. Coral clanking? No, impossible: we are anchored in mud. Chain paying out unexpectedly? That happened recently, just as we were sailing into Honey River, forcing us to anchor just a few meters earlier than we'd planned. No, the chain was not feeding out. We flew out the companionway to see what all the noise was about just as Lola said with relative calm from her view in the forepeak, "Oh! A boat's caught on our anchor!" Sure enough, a dhow had sailed by so close that its starboard outrigger snagged our anchor chain, bringing the boat boat to a screaming halt. By the time I got there, the helmsman was already trying to free himself, and by the time we were all assembled on the bow, he was gone. We waved, chuckling at the irony of this occurrence. Bernie grabbed the camera and snapped this photo (note the nearly stacked wood being delivered -- these boats represent the equivalency of the trucking industry in mainland commerce). And our new friends sailed away.

Large or small, the boats are made of rough-hewn wooden planks held together by galvanized nails and caulked with a mixture of tree resin and old motor oil. We've seen them being built on the shore, the first stage of construction taking place just above the tide line, the second on the tidal flats where repeated inundation swells the wood and seals the joints. Forget high mass fiber weaves; forget Kevlar or carbon. Forget name-brand sails. Here, sails are made from materials on hand, from potato sacks to recycled awnings, and patched with strips of clothing. Held up by bamboo or wooden spars supported by low-tech ropes, the sails move the vessels in and out of harbors, across bays, along coast lines and on estuary waterways. The toy ships, too, are carefully made from on-hand materials -- even plastic grocery bags will do for a sail.

Thai tour boats, w/  great big car engines. Ko Phangan, Gulf of Thailand.
Seldom is there the puttering sound of an outboard. Where SE Asia coastal sailing was often a test of one's patience -- drifting in light-wind whispers, weaving through fish stakes, dodging large diesel vessels stringing nets between them -- sailing in Northwest Madagascar is by a far more subdued activity. The shoreline is a blend of browns and reds, earthen tones of boats and cargo, compared to the colorfully painted longtails of SE Asia, picturesquely parked in formation at the edge of beachside resorts, Sure, there can be a rush of activity here, as commerce drives the flow. And in the larger town of Majajanga, friends of ours noted what they called the morning 'rush-hour' just off their bows. But even there, the boats are sailing.


Outrigger whizzing by Momo one fine afternoon
And these boats are fast. On light-air days we might maintain a steady 4 knots, and as the breeze builds we reach a satisfying 6. But the boats on these waters pick up and fly, unencumbered by a full keel and heavy displacement hull, lifting and leaning into the wind, their crews hiking out as needed to maintain balance and speed. One such vessel, much smaller than Momo (see photo, left), passed us one afternoon as we approached Crater Bay. Piloted by its deft helmsman, the boat sailed past with ease, picking up momentary bursts of speed by surfing on the little waves.

We're not the only ones to notice the speed and craft of these vessels. Bernie recently came across The Adventurists' Adventure #9 and the short video that introduces viewers to a dhow sailing adventure off the coast of Tanzania -- a race that, to us, is far more interesting than the big-money-corporate-sponsored sailboat racing that we're all more familiar with. From the website:

A tree, a bedsheet and some string -- what could go wrong?
Yachts are for wankers, old men and tanning. You will be sailing in an Ngalawa, a native-style boat still used by fishermen on the coast of Zanzibar and Tanzania.
It's rustic as fuck: the hull is a mango tree scraped out by hand and the outriggers are tied on with string. 

I can think of a few lower-budget Wednesday-night racers, from Newport, RI to Opua, NZ, who'd jump at the chance to get wet in this kind of wild ride. A 500-km race in and around the waters of Zanzibar. More about the Tanzanian ngalawas (the boats) can be found on the website, here. Note how with a mere 30-40 m2 of sail area, they go up to 10 knots. On a 6m open boat out on the big ocean, that's  fast. Just watch the video and you'll see what I mean. Momo wouldn't stand a chance.

Fishermen just off Momo in Crater Bay
Meanwhile, in the quiet bays around Nosy Be, fishermen row their boats just beyond the anchorage in the pre-dawn grey, and we wake to see them silently pulling in their nets just off our stern. Voices carry in the light air. They say hello, they wave, they go back to fishing.

Madagascar is, in contrast to other places we've been, a blissfully quiet experience thus far. Plenty of noise happens in town, of course: the markets are bustling, the pubs are bulging. The tuk-tuks are a lively yellow. and the music is frenetic and uplifting. Incidents of petty theft occur on every corner, and we sense there is an edge of danger here. Even Honey River, with its serene-sounding name, was not so serene for us (more coming soon: No Honey in Honey River).  But the anchorages are quiet as boats come and go with the breeze.

Below are some photos from the watery edges of the area in and around Nosy Be, Madagascar; Sept-Oct 2015.

This is the first photo we took of a sailing dhow as we came in through the pass between Nosy Komba and Nosy Be in August


Arriving in Hell-Ville


Sailing in the lightest wind

Tear in the luff won't stop these sailors
Patchwork plastic

Good morning, sailors!

Two narrow spars hold up the sail to keep this boat moving

Sailing into a crowded anchorage
Early morning fishing activity off Momo's stern

Boats cross Momo's bow as we sail to Nosy Komba in distance

Sailing in light air --note the sail material and the fridge balancing near the oarsman



Kids fishing on a calm afternoon, with rolled sails in background

Heading out with nets -- these guys will pull in their catch just off Momo's stern as the sun sets

Crater Bay waterfront

Light wind sailing -- like us, with makeshift shade cloth

Downwind across the bay

View from wooden boats to the fiberglass dotting the bay -- Crater Bay

This boat just drifted past us this morning -- no wind, no sails, but silently gliding along

Sails rolled away, and unloading at the water's edge, Crater Bay

Ghosting away and out, where they'll pick up the breeze later in the day

Moving smooth under patchwork sail

View to fishing boat under Momo's drifter (note our patches)

Fishing on a quiet afternoon

Busy loading of the fleet, Crater Bay


Close-up look at sails, spars and ropes holding it all together

Colorful sailboat in Crater Bay -- a larger tour and delivery boat

Patched and dirty, but still moving
Outrigger dug-out picking up speed on the waves -- and passing Momo


And, finally, in contrast: Momo's modern (though admittedly very old) drifter blew out with one fine afternoon breeze; time to get some local help to patch her up!

Bernie and Jana pull the drifter down, so we can sail on toward Russian Bay

Plastic bag sail (a little deflated here, but it really does work!) takes this wee skiff along the Honey River 

2 comments:

  1. The photos are are great. I've always marveled at the many ways to skin a cat when it comes to making some wood float and configuring a sail plan. Always thought that it would make a great coffee table book to capture basic sail plans from around the world. Liked in particular the shot of the wooden boats in the foreground and the plastic fantastics in the bay.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Paul. Bernie took that one photo -- and quite a few more of these. We lose track of who took what.... but yeah, it was amazing to look out to the sea of plastic from the shore. Apparently these boats are much sturdier than other similar ones along coastal Africa... Did you check out that video link? :)

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