Indian Ocean Passage
3600 nautical miles across the Indian Ocean -from Thailand to the Seychelles
- my first ocean passage and my first solo ocean passage.
Sailing alone across an ocean is something I had wanted to do for a very long time. In 2016 I actually set off from Newfoundland to cross the Atlantic Ocean to the Azores and then Panama in my second boat SV Kuan Yin. But I turned back after three days and sold that boat soon after in order to focus on the Marine Diesel Basics project.
Though I abandoned the sea, the sea did not abandon me. Even before I'd completed the first MDB book I was missing sailing and missing having a boat. So within 9 months of turning back in the Atlantic I'd bought another boat and was staring out at the ocean all over again.
The new boat - built in France in 1983 and refitted in Australia in 1999 - needed a lot of work. Repairing 25 holes in the steel hull and deck, and fixing leaking portlights and many other issues, took a lot of time to make good. and at the same time I was completing and promoting the first Marine Diesel Basics book and the website.
Day 1 - Go or No Go?
Sunset on day one of the passage from Thailand to the Seychelles. No motor, flat sea - finally I am actually out here!
At 11 in the morning I still did not know if I was actually doing to set off. I'd already checked out of Thai Immigration, Customs and Harbourmaster and loaded the boat with the last of fresh fruit and vegetables.
But both the windvane and the autopilot were not working reliably and more than 3000 nautical miles stretched out to the west to reach the Seychelles. Go or no go?
While I was out on final sea trials, a friend called to reassure me - you don't need to prove anything. Don't go if you are not fully prepared or fully confident, he said. It was good advice.
I was nauseous with anxiety and kept looking at the land and then back at the ocean. I'd wanted this moment for so long and worked so hard to prepare the boat and spent so much money. But I also knew that the necessary sea trials were not complete and that I could not sail alone for more than a month if the self-steering devices were not working.
Yet if I don't go now, I thought, I'll never go. If I don't overcome my fears right now, if I turn towards the land, then likely my dream of an ocean passage will be over for ever. (As well as facing a 2-week mandatory quarantine and testing even though I'd not actually left).
Without making any firm mental decision to go, I just pulled the tiller to point Oceans Five to the west and that was it - now we were committed!
Day 2 - Assessment of the first full day at sea.
I was motorsailing - running the engine as well as having some sail set - because I wanted to cross the Andaman Sea and get into the open Indian Ocean away from any coastal fishing or cargo vessels as soon as possible.
However, Alex the autopilot was already misbehaving - the control arm moving in an out all the time, despite calm sea conditions where little movements were all that was required to keep the boat on course.
And there was not enough wind to use the windvane, which required at least 2 knots of speed in order to generate enough force to steer accurately. So I was handsteering for several hours and continued into the night. When I got too sleepy to continue steering, I heaved-to and went to sleep for a few hours.
Heaving-to is an important tactic to stop a sailboat. The foresail is set against the rudder - as the wind tries to sail the boat and the vessel starts to move, the rudder turns the vessel out of the wind. Correctly set, these two forces cancel each other out and the vessel lies calmly with very slow movement drifting downwind. It's a wonder to behold when a sailboat that has been rolling and pitching in rough conditions suddenly lies calmly enough to cook a meal.
I have AIS (automatic identification system) on the boat - the device is mandatory on ships. It broadcasts my position to other vessels, receives their positions and calculates if we are likely to collide! As a safety device it is invaluable. I would not go to sleep if there were any vessels within 12 miles of me. Any vessels coming within 3 miles triggered an alarm - though I was never certain it would wake me up.
Day 4 - Through the "Nicobar Gate"
Heading west-southwest from Phuket, we needed to cross from the Andaman Sea into the Indian Ocean proper through what I called the "Nicobar Gate" - a strait 70 miles wide between northern Sumatra and Great Nicobar Island. After passing the Gate there would be no land ahead for more than a thousand miles and I would, I hope be able to really relax. This video was recorded late at night, just after I'd passed through the Gate. I'd come within a few miles of Great Nicobar Island, closer than I'd planned, and become dangerously disoriented in the total darkness as to which direction I was going. This was not helped by the tiny red light on the compass breaking the day before so that if I wanted to check our heading I had to turn on a red flashlight. As you can see in the video, I was completely exhausted having been hand steering for 17 hours.
Sunset on Day 6
The quiet, the calm, the personal peace this solitude brings me.
Shortly before sunset, it became my habit to put one reef in the main sail or to shorten the genoa. This meant that there was less sail exposed to the wind. The boat would move more slowly but it was also safer.
Little is more frightening than sudden high winds blowing in total darkness in the middle of the night when there is too much sail up. In the worst situations, it can roll a keelboat on her side, until the sails are released.
Sometimes after a day with light winds, I'd leave the sails set as they had been. But every time I did, I later regretted it in the middle of the night.
Day 7 - Sailing, more or less
Settling the boat - and especially the sails - for the night was the most important task before sunset. What I wanted to avoid was an accidental gybe in the night that could seriously damage the rigging.
A gybe is when the stern of the boat passes across the direction the wind is coming from. The effect is to push the mainsail and the heavy boom (and foresails) from one side of the boat to the other. Gybing is straightforward and not dangerous when controlled. Uncontrolled - the boom can fly across the boat with frightening speed and enough force to rip the boom from the mast and seriously injure anyone who gets hit by the boom.
I have witnessed this - while doing my RYA Yachtmaster Offshore training in the English Solent in winter time. The helmsman lost control of the boat for a moment, the back of the boat passed through the wind and a moment later our instructor was slammed by the boom and knocked off his feet.
I reached out to grab him - and did - but a moment too late. He was only stopped from being thrown overboard by smashing his face into a winch! Nose broken, blood everywhere.
A few days after this video, I myself was caught by the boom in an accidental gybe. Fortunately I had a "gybe preventer" set up so the boom swung across the boat relatively slowly. But it was still enough to catch me unawares as I was preparing to adjust sail at the mast - in half a second I was trapped between the boom and the safety bars around the mast. After the initial shock, I was fairly sure I'd not broken a rib but the pain persisted every time I moved for more than a week.
Of course, this was not something I wanted to report to friends and people following my progress, in case they worried.
Sunrise on Day 8
Wanda is sailing the boat - the German-made Windpilot windvanew as already on the boat when I bought her. She's at least 20 years old (which is old for a windvane) and has some loose linkages. (Don't we all as we get older?)
First light, sunrise and early daylight are a special time of day for me. It can be a little unnerving to sail into utter darkness hour after hour - until one realizes there is nothing out there. I always kept a check on the AIS for vessel targets and a visual lookout for any lights, except when I had to sleep.
But I always feel relieved when the night is broken and the world is flooded with light once more.
Day 9 - I Actually Belief I'm Going to Make It
Only believe! Before I set out sailing to the Seychelles was only a dream - I could have said I was sailing to Pluto. The destination on the other side of the Indian Ocean seemed as remote and abstract as a voyage into space. That's actually I thought about sailing for decades of my life.
Now, on day 9, the destination has become a reality - there was still a long way to go, but "the Seychelles" was no longer a far off abstraction but my reality. From this day forward I'd no doubt Oceans Five and I would reach the Seychelles eventually.
That moment of faith, of utter conviction is essential for any big project. Yet how often had my faith in other ventures faltered! No more. Even at mot much faster than walking pace we were getting there.
(apologies for wind sounds)
Day 19 - Daybreak is always a special time
First, the fading of the darkness of night, then the intense light of the sun about to be reborn, then sunrise and the sky and the world fills with daylight.
Alone on the ocean; haven't seen another vessel for many days. A couple of school of dolphins visited briefly. Yet I never feel lonely - the pleasure of solitude is a great gift.
Boat sailing well at this stage, steered by Alex, the Pelagic autopilot. Seas calm, wind 10 knots. Heading west. Perfect start to another bluewater day.
3600 nautical miles across the Indian Ocean -from Thailand to the Seychelles - my first ocean passage and my first solo ocean passage.
Passage to the Maldives took 26 days and from there to the Seychelles took another 27 days, Weather throughout was either light winds or complete calms, though the seas were sometimes contrary.
I stopped in the Gan, Maldives, for an emergency repair to the windvane, then got delayed by contrary winds.
From the Maldives to the Seychelles is only 1100 nm directly, but I went far south (to Chagos) before finding any wind.
This was my first ocean passage and my first solo ocean passage - I'd encourage anyone who is contemplating an ocean passage to to make sure, of course, that your vessel is well-found and that you know how to sail and then - go for it!
The hardest parts for me were:
1) turning the tiller and reading west - those first moments of actually starting the passage, after months and years of delays.
2) the first week, when wind and sea conditions were so difficult and progress so slow that I began to doubt that I even knew how to sail!
3) days and days of hand-steering after both electric auto-pilot and mechanical windvane failed.
And the best parts?
Definitely those days when Wanda (the windvane) was steering and my most important task was baking bread or watching sky at night.
2) the solitude at sea - I went 14 days without seeing any other vessel on the ocean yet never felt anxious or lonely.
3) support from many friends and subscribers from my website; many sent daily text messages by InReach Satellite messenger which I looked forward to and for which I am grateful.
4) Reinforced confidence that SV Oceans Five (my 36-foot steel sailboat built in 1983) and I will be able to cross many more oceans together in the months and years to come.