Madagascar // By Sea

May 11 2016

Travel Africa client Reece Pacheco recently embarked on a round the world trip with his girlfriend. We had the pleasure of organising their safari in Kenya in March before they set out for Madagascar. He's written a fantastic blog about their adventure including a short video they made documenting their sail down the West coast of Madagascar in a pirogue.

Madagascar // By Sea Written by Reece Pacheco from his blog

I love a good adventure.

You know the kind... when you set out and some crap goes wrong, but then yadda yadda yadda and everything’s ok in the end?

Well, this isn't that. I mean, it was an adventure, and everything is fine now, but it was one of those experiences when shit went from good to challenging to not good, to bad, and then worse, and then bordered on really, really bad for a while before swinging back around to challenging (still), and finally back to a new normal.

And in hindsight, I'm trying to be realistic about our situation. I'm trying not to over-sensationalize this. But the more I think about it, the more I compare it to many survival stories I’ve read/heard in the past, the more I think about how quickly bad can switch to really, really bad, the more legitimately I believe that we just got through one of the potentially most dangerous experiences of this trip.

Some of you know what I’m talking about, and have already seen the short video I made documenting our sail down the West coast of Madagascar in a pirogue. For those of you who haven't, watch here:


Now that we’re all caught up, I’ll attempt to provide more context here that isn't in the video because I didn't have any footage and/or I tried to keep it short and/or it didn't hit me until after the fact.

First, I’ll explain that the Vezo, the semi-nomadic people who inhabit Madagascar’s coastline, sail these waters all the time. Vezo literally means “people who fish” and/or “those who struggle with the sea,” and everyday they can, they are out on the water - fishing, crabbing, gathering… anything to feed their families and maybe make an extra buck or two.

So, they are seemingly expert seamen. At least that's what we believed at the start of our journey. But the reality is that while they are experts in their particular seafaring way of life, in our experience anyway, they are not expert sailors, and I believe their strength is one of perseverance, more than skill.

For example - during our search for a Vezo, we were told by a couple different guys that the winds would be good and we’d make it to our destination easily. But of course that's what they said - they were desperate for our business, two of the handful of tourists in town, and the only ones looking to sail.

There’s just one problem with that. I had access to the Internet and could look at the forecast. Glad we did, and thus found a boat with a motor because we didn't put the sails up at all the second day, and ended up motoring much of the third day, too.

OK… so what, right? No human can really predict the weather accurately and all ocean going people face the potential for conditions to change.

But usually, one tries to mitigate at least some of the other risks to one’s journey. You try to anticipate the known risks, and prepare as best you can for the unknowns as well.

We asked how far offshore we’d be sailing. We were told no more than 600 meters. Less than 1k? Ok… worst case, we can swim that with our valuables in our dry bags and then walk to the nearest village. Of course, the distance between villages can be some 100k, but the point is, we felt that we could always swim if shit got really bad.

But when the wind changed direction on us (challenging), and the engine wouldn't start (even more challenging), and then the mast snapped (bad), we were not happy to notice that we were very far offshore, closer to 2 miles (BAD), and drifting further away by the second (BAD. BAD. BAD…).

As I said in the video, we kept our cool, but that night we both admitted that we were both thinking we’d have to swim for shore, contemplating how much of our provisions we could reasonably swim with.

Speaking of gear… one of the selling points during our negotiations was that “these guys have life jackets!”

Of course, they didn't have enough for everyone, nor did they have anything else - a radio, a flare gun, a Coast Guard - that would pass for basic safety pretty much anywhere else in the world.

As for food/water, Annie and I were very glad to have stocked up on snacks, just in case. That being said, we actually both tried to follow the Vezo’s lead… skip breakfast, limit the fluid intake (we certainly weren't stopping for bathroom breaks and we didn't have a lot of water to begin with), and then snack later on maybe, or just eat dinner when we get to shore. As evidenced by the Vezo, the human body can survive on very little for much longer than we think. However, we didn't really want to put that to the test anytime soon, and certainly not while out to sea.

And as for the boat itself, it truly is a handmade craft. Frayed lines hold together tree branches acting as booms. The hull soaking through and leaking just enough to cause alarm.

Again, this isn't to criticize the Vezo. They simply don't have these things because they really don't need them and/or can't afford them. But I'm pointing it out because their lack of safety gear, and shoddy equipment is another layer of the bad to worse cake that we were baking.

So, back to swimming to shore, which we never had to do, thank god, because, besides the obvious, there was another good reason to stay in the boat lurking around.

We didn't realize it at the time, but thanks to Blair - the Kiwi ex-pat who has been chasing uncrowded waves for the last 25 years, who is currently the only surf tour operator in Madagascar, and who has the leathery skin and jaded world view to show for it - we were informed of just how sharky the Mozambique Channel really is, particularly where we had been sailing. Yeah…

When we told him our story, he didn't hesitate to add that the Vezo have been known to sail too far offshore to fish, the wind changes, they can't get back to shore, and well, they die. Even happens to the best Vezo sailors, as evidenced by one recent local boatman’s demise.

So, again, any one of these things… no big deal. Fun challenge, haha let’s go home now.

But it's hard to laugh off compounding problems in small craft at sea, and while trying not to be a paranoid-helicopter-parent-to-myself, my radar is now on alert for compounding shitstorms like the one we luckily got through.

Related Articles