The Indian Ocean On Board Whale Song: Angry Seas, Cruising Magic
A yacht captain reflects on a rough, but memorable, monsoon-season adventure in the Indian Ocean.
Story & photography Tom Zydler
The 94-foot (28.7-meter) Trinity/Halter expedition yacht Whale Song had already voyaged the length of the western Atlantic from New England to the Falklands. The vessel crossed Drake Passage, cruised the Antarctic Peninsula, went north to Alaska and the Aleutians, and explored the western Pacific from Japan to New Guinea and Australia. With my wife Nancy as ship’s mate, I had the great job of captaining that sturdy motoryacht. The late Grant Wilson, the yacht’s owner, shared this extended voyage even when crossing the Indian Ocean. The stretch from Thailand to the Med via Cape Town brought the most challenging weather of the four-year cruise.
Lazy days of tranquil cruising among the mushroom-shaped islands in Phang Nga Bay, a day’s ride from Phuket, Thailand, turned the team on the good ship Whale Song into a bunch of softies. Then, with Phuket to starboard, we swung westward, right into shockingly angry seas. It was the last week of September and the time of the southwest monsoon in the Indian Ocean. By leaving then, we planned to encounter southeasterlies south of the Maldives and the equator, but the Indian Ocean threw itself against us in heaps. Barbara, the ship’s cook, found flying fish on the flybridge, more than 20 feet up.
A stop in Galle, the port on the south end of Sri Lanka exposed to the ocean, didn’t bring much relief. Owner Grant Wilson gathered his family and wisely went inland on a history tour. Meanwhile, Whale Song surged madly at her mooring lines, fighting the weather and the shockwaves from the navy’s depth charges meant to protect the area from rebel divers.
Galle has been an important eastern port for a few thousand years. An old Portuguese fort surrounds the walled city. Gaudy imagery of Buddha, Hindu gurus, lions and ship battles in an old town temple stays etched in my memory. The giant white dome of a Buddhist temple dominates the east side of town. A Muslim family, descendants of ancient Arab traders, invited us to a feast at the end of Ramadan.
At the beginning of October, as we increased distance from Sri Lanka, the winds went west and northwest. The seas still were nasty. Our next stop was the Maldives, a country of islets on the rims of large atolls that barely project above high tide. After the Indian Ocean bashing, cruising here felt like something we had earned.
Anyone visiting this region absolutely must scuba dive. We had one particularly memorable dive on Fish Head Reef in the middle of Ari Atoll. Whale Song swung at anchor a quarter mile from us while we felt worlds away under water. We encountered a massive fish with a monstrous head that set up on a collision course with us. The fish, a Napoleon Wrasse, had risen up from the cobalt-blue deep to meet us. I scratched its belly, and it circled back for more. Lionfish lurked in crevices. A row of three green turtles in winged by.
In this low-profile seascape, Malé, the capital, soared skyward. High-rise buildings darkened narrow alleys packed with overseas banks, shady agencies and brokerages, and shops bursting with goods. We anchored off shore. The harbor, a narrow moat behind breakwaters piled on the fringing reef, didn’t allow vessels greater than 100 feet, so most local traders are 99.8 feet long. They docked stern-to, and when one left or arrived, pandemonium erupted with crewmen in the water untangling ropes from propellers, swimming with lines to the shore, laughing and shouting.
Boats rushed in with watermelons, papayas and bananas and left with stacks of dry fish, electronics and refrigerators. Sharid, our dive master, disliked Malé. “It’s like Tokyo or New York,” he said. And so it seemed, even though it took me all of 15 minutes to walk across.
Sharid came from a tiny village far to the north. To present the real Maldives, he piloted us to Maalhos. A dozen small lateen-rigged open boats bobbed in the harbor next to several 90-foot tuna boats built by local carpenters. In the evening, the villagers were out in the cooler air. Two sisters, fifth- and seventh-graders, took me for a stroll through streets lined with coral-block houses and on through coconut groves on dirt tracks lined with pandanus and screwpines. Drongos—red-eyed, crow-size birds—gurgled above us. The girls shared their stash of muraki—a small, round fruit—and spoke perfect English, which is taught in all schools there.
The next leg to the Seychelles took Whale Song on a rough bounce in a wind tunnel between low pressure (“feeble lopar” in the Indian forecast) to the north and a tropical disturbance to the south. Winds of 25 to 30 knots, seas 12 to 16 feet, and a current of two knots conspired against us. Diagonally crossing the equator, Whale Song managed only 155 miles in 24 hours.
A day before we reached the Seychelles, the sky smiled. Little, puffy trade-wind clouds from the southeast sailed overhead. Large swells on the beam followed. The stabilizers, previously helpless in the head seas, now came into their own and the yacht rode smoothly.
The Seychelle islands rise in peaks. In Victoria, the Seychelle’s capital town on Mahé Island, the citizens speak both French and English. In the past, first the French, then the English ruled the islands. Charter yachts, both bareboat and crewed, crisscross between the islands. The outer islands are a world of rock and boulder. Even underwater, granite monoliths rise like cathedrals with schools of fish meandering in and out of shadows like guided tourist groups. Birds rule the skies—tropic birds, noddies, fairy terns, shearwaters. On Aride Island, nesting birds raised such a racket that I swear I could hear them underwater. The branches in the scraggly woodland were covered with so many frigate birds the trees appeared to be fruiting. In Baie de la Raie on Curieuse, we visited a small preserve with Aldabra reef tortoises, which are as large as Galápagos tortoises. Near a coppice of coco de mer, the palms endemic to the islands of Praslin and Curieuse, we admired their nuts shaped like female buttocks. Coco de mer nuts are big. The record holder weighs in at 93 pounds.
Plowing southwestward, we passed near isolated reef and islet groups awash in plankton-rich currents. Off the fringing reef of St. François, clouds of birds fed feverishly, hunting dolphins jumped and, in depths between 45 and 70 feet, three humpbacks worked the bottom. They stayed head-down as long as we watched them, only their tails swaying above the surface. Off the pass to the Glorioso Islands lagoon, a humpback breached repeatedly, his body high against the sky, diminishing the swells into mere sea wrinkles. Along the scintillating belt of shoals of the Glorieuses’ banks, hard-mouthed bluefin trevallies hit our trolling lines.
Madagascar, the fourth largest island on earth, promised a wealth of surprises. We could be devoured by lemurs, licked to death by chameleons, even be mired in rivers thick with red mud from the island’s eroding soil. At a dawn landfall off Nosy Be, we found ourselves among sailing dhows, a scene fit for Sinbad’s tales. They converged on Hell-Ville, the main port in northwest Madagascar, named for a colonial French admiral.
Farther south down the west coast, we encountered outriggers, vessels typical of the southwestern Pacific and Polynesia. Vezo people live on the coast in tiny thatched homes walled with reeds. In Bali, in a village of a dozen huts, a man sang in the doorway strumming his homemade square guitar. The women threshed rice under a giant mango tree and giggled at their pictures on the camera’s monitor. A boatbuilder shaped a boat with a razor-sharp ax.
In a few spots on the coast, unique wildlife hangs on. The Anjajavy L’Hôtel on the small Ambondroampasy River has protected a chunk of forest. Sleepy Sifaka lemurs watched from trees above and chameleons stretched fearlessly on their branches. Almost all coastal transport goes under sail. On land, manpower moves things along. In port towns like Mahajanga and Toliara, stringy men run decorated rickshaws to land at low tide on the supremely thin shallows in Toliara. We jumped from the dinghy into a cart pulled by a zebu bull.
Toward the end of November, we nosed out from the western shores of Madagascar into Mozambique Channel steering roughly toward Durban, South Africa. The southeast trade winds at 15 to 20 knots sent high, long beam swells. At 25 degrees south and 38 degrees west, on the edge of Agulhas Current, our speed began increasing. Two days later, with the fair current at 2.5 knots, the wind muscled up to 25 knots from the north-northeast. Then it shifted to a fresh southwesterly, enough to make the yacht buck like a wild horse. I went for the land, and three miles offshore the seas improved rapidly.
Off East London in the blue dawn light, southerly swells loomed like hills, now long and harmless. Out of the glassy fold of a lazy crest suddenly burst 30 dolphins heading east. Not long after passing Cape Agulhas, still in oily calm, we skirted the coast northwestward. Off False Bay, whales cavorted, tails and fins slapping the sea, sounding and breaching wherever we looked. This unforgettable approach to Cape Town, a toy under the ramparts of Table Mountain, meant the Indian Ocean was now a distant memory.
Tips for Cruising in Remote Regions
In the vast Indian Ocean, the locations with any marine services lie far apart and weather can be demanding. Losing engine power will have dire consequences. A well-run yacht will have the supply of normal spare parts for lubrication and fuel and cooling systems, as well as for the generators and the main distribution board.
Two items out of sight and out of mind need special attention. A responsible captain will check the age of the flexible couplings between the engines and gearboxes. They must be well under the prescribed hour limits. Whale Song left with new units on both engines. The small fuel-lift pumps used for priming fuel lines are often forgotten and a failure of those will reduce the engines to idling rpm.
Consult a trusted service shop experienced with your engine models for advice. Operate the backup steering system before departure. Carry a set of spare controls for at least one stabilizer. Keep your equipment manuals organized.