Planning A Crossing of the Indian Ocean in 2012
- Planning your route is not just about weather anymore - part 2.

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The long and winding road

As I wrote in the previous story, our return to the North Atlantic hemisphere (which includes the Mediterranean Sea) suddenly, in 2011, became a Long and Winding Road, if I may borrow the lyrics of Paul McCartney. Instead of the once remaining 3,000 nm the distance now became 18,000 nm. On the positive side; our cruising life is extended and we will see even more locations. It could be worse.


(Click on map for larger version)

The image on the left is a copy of an ICC map.

It indicates piracy incidents, January - April, 2012.

I have indicated our planned 2011-route through the area.

We decided not to go! But several yachts did go.

4 cruisers were murdered and 7 others taken hostage.

So how do you plan a crossing of the Indian Ocean in 2012?

Our first decision was that we wont ship our yacht on a carrier, we will sail it ourselves. Then we started to look at our remaining options. Obviously we would sail around Africa, but which route should we take and what kind of schedule should we follow?

We came to the conclusion, that any sensible route these days will include Mauritius (or Reunion) as a stepping stone and consequently also the trip from there to South Africa. Weather systems dictate that this trip should only be attempted with a departure in October. Decision number two: position yourself at Mauritius before the end of September.

The reasoning behind this conclusion is best explained with the help of the map below.


Click on the map for a larger copy.

There are two traditional routes across the Indian Ocean, depending on your departure point.

Geographical and political considerations

A. Southern route. Yachts leaving from Australia, without visiting South East Asia, usually depart from Darwin and head for South Africa, a distance of roughly 6,500 nautical miles (12,000 km for landlubbers). Stops can be made at Christmas Island, Cocos (Keeling) Island, Mauritius (and/or Reunion).

B. Northern route. Yachts in SE Asia heading for Europe have usually taken the route across the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea and finally the Suez Canal. Stops can be made for instance in Sri Lanka, India, the Maldives, Oman and Yemen before arriving in the Red Sea.

These two main alternatives can be combined or modified in many ways, but today Somali piracy is limiting the options:

C. Yachts in East Asia and South East Asia wanting to sail via South Africa have traditionally either a) joined the southern route from Bali or from the Sunda Strait (between Java and Sumatra near Djakarta) or b) followed the northern route to the Maldives and then sailed first to the Seychelles and through the Mozambique Channel towards South Africa making stops in Madagascar and/or the African mainland (Kenya, Tanzania), a route roughly indicated by the light-blue broken line on the map. Because of the spreading piracy, this Seychelles and Eastern Africa route is now off limits.

D. When sailing from Australia to Europe without rounding the Cape of Good Hope, yachts have usually followed the southern route to Cocos Keeling,then joining the northern route in the Maldives.

E. Today, the northern route from the Maldives onwards is not an option anymore. Somali piracy has made this route too risky. In February 2011 we went as far as Uligan in the northern Maldives where we realized it wasn’t prudent to carry on. We made a U-turn and returned to Thailand to make new plans. This situation is indicated by the green broken line across the Arabian Sea.

Therefore, these days, as you should avoid the Red Sea and the east coast of Africa, any logical route from Thailand or Malaysia to Europe has to include the Mauritius to South Africa part. Unfortunately that area is considered to be maybe the roughest on a traditional circumnavigation.

Climatological considerations

The weather of the North Indian Ocean is dominated by the monsoons, which also have some effect in the southern half of the ocean. NE winds blow in most of the northern part between November and March. They are strongest and steadiest in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea diminishing closer to the Equator. In general, this monsoon generates ideal sailing conditions (if you are sailing in a westerly direction) and winds seldom reach gale force. There are some areas where the weather pattern is affected by the passage of depressions to the north of the area. One of interest for us lies south east of Sri Lanka, where a major storm in early January this year delayed our departure from Phuket last time.

The SW monsoon blows strongest from June to September. It is a consistent wind blowing an average of 20 knots and frequently reaching gale force. The weather of the SW monsoon is overcast and often unsettled with heavy rainfall.

The monsoons are preceded and followed by a transitional period of 1-2 months before the next monsoon takes over. During these transitions the weather is often squally with gale force winds.

Tropical storms occur in the North Indian Ocean with highest frequency in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal during the transitional periods between the monsoons, namely mid-May to mid-June and late October to mid-November. Most of these storms form between 5N and 15N. In the Bay of Bengal there are on average more cyclones than anywhere else in the world.

The currents of the North Indian Ocean reverse their direction under the influence of the monsoons. The west setting NE Monsoon Current reaches its peak in February and is located between the Equator and 6N. Its counterpart, the SW Monsoon Current occurs from May to September.

The east setting Equatorial Counter Current is the only current in the North Indian Ocean that doesn’t reverse its direction. However, its strength is reinforced during the transitional months. This current lies to the north of the west setting Equatorial Current. At the height of the NE Monsoon the counter current flows very close to the NE Monsoon Current, which means that by moving slightly to the north or south one could shift from a west setting to an east setting current. During our passage from the Maldives back to Thailand in late March 2011 we kept this fact in mind, should we encounter strong adverse currents and therefore we stayed on a southerly (5N) latitude for as long as possible (see our report Against All Odds, and find out more about the weather in the North Indian Ocean).

The South Indian Ocean lies, for most parts that are of interest to us, in the SE trade wind belt, although the monsoons to the north have considerable impact causing NE winds during the winter monsoon and SE winds during the summer monsoon. However, for the purpose of this study where we are interested only in the weather between the Equator and the Tropic of Capricorn (22.5S) it is sufficient to note only that the wind directions at these latitudes are favourable all year for a westbound trip. Also, the Equatorial current, which always lies south of the Equator is westbound.

The cyclone season of the South Indian Ocean lasts from November to May, with the highest frequency of storms in January.

The above summary of the weather in the Indian Ocean (north of the Tropic of Capricorn) does not include weather in the area between Mauritius and South Africa because that’s another story as we have to cross that area anyway, regardless of which route we choose to get to Mauritius. Let’s cross that bridge when we get to it.

For a source of condensed data about the Indian Ocean, see THIS page at Cruisers Wiki.

Our final decision

We have an additional, personal, condition: We want to visit our country home in Finland for 2-3 months in July-August, which requires that we can find a secure place along the route to leave the yacht.

As we saw it, we had two alternatives:

1) Departure from Phuket (Thailand) or Langkawi (Malaysia) in January/February along the yellow route via the Maldives. We would arrive in Mauritius at the end of May and try to find a secure place for the yacht for three months while we (the crew) fly home to Finland on our annual vacation. We would return in September to prepare for the crossing to Durban.

2) Departure from Thailand or Malaysia in February back-tracking to Singapore and in Indonesia and then depart on the southern route by way of the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra (near Djakarta). In this case we would leave the yacht in a marina in Singapore or Johor Bahru (Malaysia) from May to early August. We would have to continue the trip before mid-August in order to have an enjoyable trip across the Indian Ocean with an arrival in Mauritius before the end of September. The crossing to Durban would be identical to that of alternative one.

We decided for alternative 1. However, we still have no guarantees for finding this "secure place to leave the yacht", but we hope we can sort this out once we arrive in Mauritius if not before - and we cross our fingers.


Source: geomaps.wr.usgs.gov

Looking at the animation above, I wonder how we would ever get back home if the continents hadn't separated. I wouldn't be surprised though, if the gap closes again before we get there.

March 6, 2012. Galle harbour, Sri Lanka.

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