Catching Up on the Blog…

It has been almost a month since I last posted… wow!

So much has happened, I struggle a bit with how to convey this experience. I am going to take things in a different direction with this blog, starting with the big picture and a sense of where things are now, and then writing two more specific entries that get into the details of our Indian Ocean crossing and nearly two weeks spent in Madagascar….

So right now I am waiting for the crew to return from the city of Mahajangar, the second largest port on the western side of Mozambique. We are here because we tried- unsuccessfully- to cross the Mozambique Channel a few days ago and were promptly scared off by an “armegeddon” type forecast for when we would reach Mozambique or South Africa.

It would be difficult for me to do justice in words to how depressing it was to turn Alyosha back after 50 nm at sea towards our goal (and frankly, a plane to return to my family…). So I won’t even try. I will just leave it at the fact that I am on the upswing writing this and our next weather window to cross looks like this coming Friday (knock, knock!).

More details on the Indian Ocean crossing are available to our most enthusiastic readers, but I will give the short version here: We left Cocos Keeling into some serious weather (18-20 foot seas on the beam, 24-28 knots of wind) that did not let up for 5 days. We then made great time, mainly using the spinnaker, across the ocean and of course had the mandatory 24-36 hours of hell at sea as we approached Madagascar.

I won’t ever forget the beauty of Cape D’Ambre (the northern tip of Madagascar) as the sun rose and we rounded towards Nosy Be. The seas died out, the winds stayed strong and propelled us down the coast, and we all knew that our  16 day trip across the ocean was just about over. We pulled into the town of Hellville by 10pm that night, anchored quickly amongst many other cruisers, had a few beers, and absolutely crashed.

More details on the two weeks we spent in Madagascar can be found in another blog. Suffice to say here that Madagascar has been wild, wonderful, and quite an adventure. The people are fantastic and we have enjoyed our time here immensely. (except maybe we really didn’t want to come back for that second week…)

Yesterday we spent the entire day provisioning the boat, making multiple runs with the dinghy back and forth to the center of town, filling our diesel tanks at the fuel station using jerry cans. A full working day. And then it was out to the bars/restaurants last night to watch the World Cup and have a nice prepared meal before life at sea begins again. Fun fact: Blake and I went out to a french restaurant, had several drinks, appetizers and entrees and this fantastic meal came to $32. Crazy.

Tonight we will sail across the harbor here to a “sleepy” town called Katsephy, where we hope to watch Columbia vs. England and spend our final night with some land.

The plan now is to head to Baly Bay- further down the coast of Madagascar- and wait for the next weather window to allow for a safe crossing of the Mozambique Channel. Very uncertain about whether this will happen this coming Friday or not, but also very hopeful!

It would be great to think that my next blog might be from South Africa, and I shudder to think what our status would be if it isn’t!

 

Madagascar

 

You’ll be reading this if you are interested in a little more detail about the amazing, crazy, Madagascar…

It took actually visiting the place to understand this, but Nosy Be and Hellville were not interchangeable terms- Nosy Be is the entire island off the Northwest coast of Madagascar, while Hellville is the main port on the island.

We anchored in Hellville, arriving around 10pm in the evening under the biggest moon imaginable, and quite honestly it was pretty tough to get a good bead on what awaited us in the morning… And so, on Saturday morning June 23rd the four crew members of Alyosha loaded onto the dinghy and headed into town. We had already been visited by a guy named “Kool,” who would presumably watch our dinghy while we went through clearing in procedures. This became a regular feature of our time in Hellville: always paying someone (or more often a few people) to watch over the dinghy or us, or help with diesel, or groceries, or whatever. The first few hours in Hellville that Saturday morning were just incredible. We quickly learned the main mode of transportation was the “Tuktuk” which I will describe as a tricycle type vehicle with a cover. We ended up taking these everywhere during our time on the island.

The other big lesson, delivered within hours of arrival, was how different the currency was and how difficult it was to assess the actual costs of things… My first foray into the ATM resulted in me withdrawing what I thought was between $300-$400 to pay for clearing in, etc… It turned out to be about $30!!! Several trips to the bank later and we had finally achieved permission to explore!

Our first day was spent in several internet cafes and bars, the crew using connectivity to catch up with family and friends. We had the World Cup matches on our minds, and later in that first evening we went to a local “Shabeen” (an African bar with really no westerners) to watch some soccer matches- an incredible experience.  Quick side note: that first day in Hellville also featured the crew watching some cock fights in the streets and some other adventures, there was a very tired captain who used the afternoon to catch up on sleep!

The first impressions I had of Madagascar never really left me after the first day: it was colorful, happy, crazy and fantastically foreign. There were always small shops and homes right off the road selling food cooked in every way imaginable. There were shops of all varieties, and the center of town had a cool water fountain where everyone aggregated. We also quickly learned that there would be a big celebration (Madagascar Independence Day) on Tuesday and saw many parades of people, from soldiers to school kids, preparing for the big day during our time there.

We rented mopeds, traveled to the highest point on Nosy Be where you could see the entirety of the island in a 360 degree panaramic view and also visited a cool waterfall in the middle of the countryside. We found great bars, restaurants and beaches, and came to soon understand that the French tourists had their own sections of Nosy Be that were also interesting and compelling.

I am writing this now anchored across a sleepy little town called Katsephy, very likely the last place we will explore before heading down the coast to Baly Bay, where we wait to get the right weather to get to South Africa. We spent the past 36 hours provisioning and exploring Mahajanga, a port town on the West Coast. It was everything that Hellville was AND better, as it was even bigger and more populated.

So that is Madagascar, although I saved the very best detail for last… Every day, all day, these people SAIL. I mean, sailing is a real mode of transportation. The boats are called “Dhows” and they silently glide along the coast, reaching great speeds and being sailed so skillfully. I can only hope the pictures do these craft justice because watching the fleet of boats come in and out of the harbor each day was probably the best part of Madagascar stopover.

Crossing the Indian Ocean

If you are reading this, you must want some details about our passage from Cocos Keeling to Madagascar. Happy to provide as this was one of the most interesting ocean crossings I have experienced.

We waited an extra day in Cocos Keeling because we knew some weather was going to be blowing in, and it most certainly did… Our final day in Cocos Keeling was a nasty, raining affair, with plenty of wind as well: We were able to fill all of our water bottles and water tanks throughout the day.

And then came departure day. We rigged up the storm sail, anticipating some serious wind and we were not let down: as some as we got out of the lee of Cocos Keeling we saw some huge waves (we were completely knocked sideways early on by a “rogue” 25 footer) and the winds were howling. After about 5 hours, I was nearly ready to turn around and wait for a better window!

I would like to say that things then settled down, and we began a really enjoyable transit across the Indian Ocean, but that it not what happened at all. We had five straight days of too much wind, big seas, and all kinds of crashing and banging about on Alyosha. There was no sunshine and there was no break from the squalls constantly passing through. Almost a month later, it is not hard to conjure up my emotions each morning when I would see the sun rise on yet another grim day at sea.

Eventually things did settle out, and we had a pretty enjoyable stretch of weather that lasted another full week. At one point we did a 220nm day under our spinnaker, even though we often had to take it down for small squalls. The crew passed the time by reading, playing games (chess, Risk and cards, mainly) and some enjoyable debates (religion and politics were in play!)

An absolute highlight of the trip occurred one morning during the second half of the passage when a pod of pilot whales joined us for awhile. These whales were about 4-5 times the size of the dolphins and porpoises that typically play around the boat and watching them surface, breathe and even breach was spectacular.

whale
Look closely to see the smiling pilot whale after trick!

Some other highlights of the passage were the phenomenal meals cooked up by our chef, Stu. We had everything from beer battered fish and chips to pumpkin and every meal was terrific.

A lowlight of the trip was our “MTV Real World”-like discussion about food and rationing which just seems hilarious in retrospect!

As is very typical with my experience on these crossings, the Indian Ocean did not want to give us up easily and our last day and a half featured very strong winds and a triple reefed main and jib. Unfortunately, the many days of heavy winds have really taken their toll on our sails which are now both properly ripped and feature some unrepairable sections!

As I mentioned in another blog, the rounding of Cape D’Ambre after such a long passage will stay with me a long time, with the sun coming up perfectly to present Madagascar in the best light. The Indian Ocean was done.

Darwin to Cocos

Writing this on our second day in Cocos Keeling- just wasn’t up to a blog entry after the festivities that went down after our arrival on Sunday 🙂

The passage from Darwin to Cocos Keeling was pretty straightforward: we had great trade winds for the first 6-7 days that pushed us along, followed by very light winds that weren’t helpful at all! By day 4 we had the spinnaker up and we spent about 60 hours sailing 8-9 knots with little to no adjustment on the sail whatsoever- that was definitely a first for me!

A few things really stood out on the passage: we had a tremendous full moon by midway through the leg so every night was beautifully illuminated for us. We were very successful on the fishing front: at a certain point we grew tired of all the fresh tuna and just started throwing them back! However, each Wahoo we caught did not make it past the next meal time…

We also burned a ton of fuel getting here- way more than I expected. The light air during the second half of the trip, mostly from directly behind us, just did not keep us moving against the Indian Ocean’s notorious southern swell, so we ran one of the engines almost non-stop from days 8-11.

Cocos Keeling is very nice, a great little community here, and we are anchored off “Direction Island” which has the very best swimming beach in the atoll. However, the logistics of Cocos are definitely a challenge- we aren’t even able to really get dinner anywhere because the last ferry to West Island (about 3nm and plenty of shallow reefs away) leaves for our island at 4pm. Additionally, we are resigned to multiple diesel runs today and tomorrow (always around high tide) and refueling Alyosha is going to take at least 5 trips!

So now it is on to checking the weather constantly and figuring out the best window to head on to Madagascar. That trip is going to be about 16-17 days at sea so getting a good start with strong winds is pretty imperative.

The crew of Blake, Stu and Sebastian were a great asset during the trip and some absolute gourmet meals have been served up during our passages. I am very thankful for all of their contributions. (and I am going to spare everyone details of how much I am missing my family right now, etc… )

The internet is slow here (real slow) so I have no idea whether I will be able to accompany this post with a picture of two… And truthfully, with all of the unknowns surrounding Madagascar, I have no sense of when I will be able to next post.

Darwin- Who Knew?

Today is a very big day on Alyosha, a day of great transition… The Butz Family is now packed up and will fly back home to Baltimore while my new crew- the Indian Ocean Crossing Crew- moves onboard.

I am writing from Darwin in the Northern Territory of Australia. We arrived about a week ago after some pretty hard sailing around the “Top of Australia.” Mainly it was “hard” in the sense that we had all the wind we could possibly want and then some, there was about a 6 hour period where the winds were between 30-35 knots. When you pair that with some tides/currents sometimes running against those winds, you have a recipe for some rough seas.

So after Lizard Island, we stayed inside the Great Barrier Reef all the way to Cape York, with easy sailing conditions and the wind/wave as our backs… Then we stopped at Thursday Island to catch our breath.

We actually ended up anchoring across from Thursday Island at a place called Horn Island. We spent two nights there and explored both islands by foot. These islands are all in the Torres Strait, a very small body of water, punctuated by many islands, that separates Australia from Papa New Guinea. The people were very friendly, and we were able to provision for the 700 nm remaining to get to Darwin. However, whether it was the crew’s anxiousness about the upcoming sea journey (another 4-5 nights at sea) or just the pending end of our trip, it was hard to really enjoy these islands.

And so we left on a Thursday evening (with the tide, of course) and sailed on to Darwin. We did not use the engine once except to charge the batteries! We zipped across the Gulf of Carpentaria at 9-10 knots, flying along under only the jib. After two nights and some 320 nm, we decided to stop an anchor off of the Wessel Islands. It was a naturally beautiful spot, but we were to afraid of crocodiles to actually get off the boat. On our way to that anchorage we talked to a local trawler who gave us the weather update: the winds would keep building and building on our way to Darwin.

So the next morning, Saturday the 9th of May, we departed our anchorage and sailed in 30-35 knot winds with only the storm jib up, doing 9-10 knots the entire time! It was really some great sailing, and Alyosha handled everything very well. We were going to stop again on the way to Darwin for another break, but the crew made a decision to “go for it” on Sunday and so we sailed Sunday night all the way through the Van Deimen Gulf to Darwin, arriving on Monday morning. It was actually some pretty tricky navigating there, with 5-6 knot tides being countered by strong south easterly winds. Nothing like a challenge for your final night at sea!

Ever since checking into Darwin last Monday at the Cullen Bay Marina, we have been shaking our heads in amazement: Darwin is fantastic! Let’s start with the weather, which has been Southern California perfect… Cool and breezy at night, warm but not too hot with a breeze during the day, zero humidity! The sky is clear and almost always cloudless, except for the large smoke clouds from the forest burning happening in the interior of the county. And that smoke and dust in the atmosphere make for the most spectacular, reddish/brown sunsets that I have ever seen.

Everyone here is very friendly, which again came as a bit of a surprise given the remoteness of this city. (Everyone has also told us that we have come to Darwin at the perfect time, and that the “wet season” is not particularly nice…) There is much to do and we have spent the last week swimming in the Darwin City wave pool (an incredible all day value at $5!) and riding our bikes all over town. One night, we took in a movie at the “Deck Chair Cinema,” an outdoor movie theatre clearly care-taken by movie affectionados, that was great. And I have never seen anything like the Mindil Beach markets, where thousands of people (I mean really, at least 3-4 thousand) congregate to 1) watch the sunset off Mindil Beach and 2) check out the large, interesting vendors at the market. Darwin has all of the amenities of a big city, but somehow retains the accessibility of a small town. Very impressed.

After spending 4 days in Darwin, we took a side trip further inland to a resort near Kakadu National Park. Back in February, as Lisa and I negotiated when the family would fly home, we agreed that ending the trip with a fantastic experience in Darwin would be the only appropriate way to wrap up. So we booked a glamorous resort called Bamurru Plains, where we would spend three days and two nights on a flooded wetlands. And what a fantastic experience this was!

From being greeted with a cool and wet Eucalyptus oiled towel upon arrival after travelling three hours from Darwin, to the gourmet meals served (the kids got a kick out of “Duck salad” for lunch) to the wonderful accommodation that slept all five of us, this was really the perfect way to cap off our year long adventure. We did plenty of activities (airboating, quad biking, bonfires, and safaris) and saw amazing birds, wallabies and water buffalo. But the most amazing thing was waking up in our netted, completely open, rustic, yet somehow clean cabin and witnessing the nature that would come to life as the sun rose. The kids won’t forget how well served they were (plenty of help yourself soft drinks and snacks) and I won’t forget how cozy and comfortable we all felt spending these last few days together.

So now I need to wrap this. The family is awake and their plane leaves in about 4 hours. I have plenty to do on the Alyosha side as I get ready for the Indian Ocean Crossing. I imagine this blog will take on a somewhat different feel as it becomes less a family adventure from here on out and more a blog about my goal to finish this circumnavigation.

The Whitsundays, Cairns and Lizard Island! (aka Places People Spend Seasons Exploring Where We Spent A Week)

It is May 5th and I am writing at anchor about 100 yards off a pristine white sand beach on Lizard Island. Looming over the island and this anchorage is a 1,200 foot hill that will provide us with our exercise this morning. It is called “Cook’s Lookout” and has some historical significance: Captain Cook walked to the top of this spot to try to get a better view of the labyrinthian reef system where he was stuck! Two miles north of here is “Cook’s Passage,” where he and his ship, Endeavor, eventually reached the open ocean.

This past week has been filled with great traveling adventures. After Gladstone, where the emphasis was on repairing the engines, we continued north to the Whitsunday Islands. The Whitsundays are supposedly some of the best cruising grounds in Australia, and it was easy to see why: beautiful reefs and islands providing protection from the seas and waves while still allowing plenty of wind to seep through for sailors. We stopped on Hamilton Island and spent three days and two nights at a fantastic marina. We were in the middle of the resort’s “Marina District” so we had our choice of great restaurants and shopping. It reminded me quite a bit of Block Island or Nantucket back home.

On Hamilton Island there were several resort pools that we took advantage of and some incredible hiking. Passage Peak was an 8km round trip giving us a wonderful view of the surrounding islands. We also took advantage of a chance to eat “breakfast with the Koalas” and Max, Sara and Sam absolutely stuffed themselves with “real breakfast food, Dad.” (as opposed to the simple servings on Alyosha, I suppose…)

We were no where near finished with the Whitsundays but our schedule now dictates that we constantly move north to get around Cape York and onto Darwin.

We left Hamilton Island with a 3.5 knot tide and made our way to Cairns. All of our sea legs now are inside the reef and so there is much less rocking and rolling with big seas but much more shipping traffic and reef navigation that require constant attention. Generally, we are sailing for a full overnight and then stopping somewhere before a second overnight watch is required. And so, before reaching Cairns we stopped at Mission Bay, just before the city, for the evening.

On Monday morning, (April 30th?) we sailed into Cairns, not really knowing what to expect. We had booked a marina in the heart of the city for 2 nights and we ended up staying three night and four days. Cairns is the “Gateway to the Reef” for many people, and there were at least 30 large tour boats in/around the marina that went out every day. Our first day we rented a car and drove about a hour south to Josephine Falls and Budinga Boulders, two natural, rain forest attractions that we had read about. They were well worth the effort and we spent a hour swimming in the clear river and sliding down the rocks!

By Tuesday, we had decided to stay an extra day/night and that allowed us to book our own reef tour, which was fantastic. There was a man made lagoon/swimming pool in the heart of the city that kept the kids entertained and between that and some other urban conveniences (malls, movie theaters) we kept pretty busy! Lisa and I were able to get out for a night to the “Salt House” a restaurant right next to the marina and we had a very memorable family dinner at Dundees Waterfront Restaurant. (Max grilled his own kangaroo at the table, quite interesting!)

After Cairns it was on to Lizard Island, with another 15 hour passage under our belts now. The anchorage here is beautiful, and this was the first time we were greeted by reef sharks circling the boat… between those and the now ever-present danger of poisonous (and quite deadly) jellyfish we kept our beach excursion/swimming short and sweet.

And so it is north again today, and by the time we get good connectivity it is very likely we will be in Darwin! (although I will try to post beforehand)

With 16 days left in this adventure, the kids and Lisa are counting down the days to their return home….

Gladstone?

Sitting here this morning for the second day in a row watching the industrial, port city of Gladstone spring into action with the sunrise. (And actually, as I found out yesterday, it springs to life even earlier than sunrise- there are no restrictions here on noise/work in this working town!)

We have been slowly making our way north since our last blog, over the past 10 days or so. We said goodbye to the Gold Coast and sailed all day around the north end of Moreton Island to the Tangalooma wrecks- a very cool anchorage where the kids surfed down sand-banks and we were able to snorkel on a series of shipwrecks not even 100 yards from the coast. After two nights there we traveled into Brisbane for a final provisioning mission (courtesy of a huge suburban mall about 5 miles down river of the actual city of Brisbane- much to our disappointment) and then it was onto our first taste of the Great Barrier Reef, Lady Musgrave Island.

But the trip was not without drama! We stopped at Wide Bay after 10 hours underway from Brisbane, just to rest for the night and because it was so convenient. The next morning, we had a small fire onboard when something went wrong with the starboard engine starter! (more on this and other Alyosha “trials” in my blog) Because it was Friday, we decided not to head to Bundaberg, which was the closest city, and to continue on to Lady Musgrave for Saturday and then to head over to Gladstone for repairs.

Lady Musgrave Island was incredibly beautiful, a perfect lagoon anchorage where the kids could swim and where we snorkeled and strolled around the island. The bird life there is amazing- and we met some folks who had been dropped off at the island for a week of camping. I was able to snorkel with a giant sea turtle for a brief time.

On Sunday we had a rough sail back to the mainland, and Gladstone, from Lady Musgrave. The winds were blowing pretty hard- 20-24 knots- and the seas kicked up a bit. The crew of Alyosha was none too happy (although binge watching “The Last Man on Earth” during the passage certainly helped pass the time!) and we arrived in the late afternoon in Gladstone.

Gladstone has actually been a decent stopover even though we were warned by several cruisers not to stop here… There are some excellent parks to walk/bike and the kids have made great use of the public library’s free, strong, wifi. We thought we would be leaving yesterday but we need some more parts and are instead hopefully leaving today. (knock, knock) This diversion has cost of some time and cool destinations- we are going to spend the next two nights at sea, sailing up the interior of the Great Barrier Reef, to get to the Whitsunday Islands.