In our latest special report, world cruising veteran Janneke Kuysters explains how to sail across the Indian Ocean
“It’s still a long way to get home,” Carina Hammarlund muses. My partner Weitze van der Laan and I nod. Between us and our home ports in northern Europe it feels like we have to sail half the globe.
In the New Year yachts from all over the world gather in Phuket, Thailand, for the last legs of their circumnavigation. For yachts from northern Europe, there are three options to get back to their home countries.
The first is sailing across the Indian Ocean and rounding the Cape of Good Hope before sailing back up the Atlantic. The second is to sail around India and then head up the Red Sea, across the Mediterranean and then home. The third is to ship the yacht home from Thailand and jump on an aeroplane.
Every option has its advantages and disadvantages, and making the right decision depends on a lot of very personal factors. We spoke to cruisers who had chosen different solutions.
“We ran out of time,” Conny Hammarlund says. “We enjoyed four years of glorious cruising and found ourselves in Thailand, trying to decide which way to go back to Sweden.” An enticing job offer for his wife, Carina, made the decision simple: their Amel 56 Ultimo was going back on a ship and they would fly.
“For us it was a simple business case,” Carina says. “The cost of the shipping versus the time we would save to get home and get back into a great job was better than using at least another six months to sail her through the Red Sea.
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“We prepared the boat in Phuket in March and in April she was picked up by the transport ship. Four weeks later she was offloaded in Copenhagen. We made the decision in January and were back home in April. She is our home, so we went to Copenhagen straight away to pick her up and sail her to our home port of Stockholm.”
Carina continues: “The advantages of shipping are simple: it is a quick and safe way to move the boat if you need to get back home relatively fast.”
Conny adds: “Of course there are disadvantages. Preparing the boat for transport is something you don’t do often in your sailing career, so you have to learn fast. Apart from that, it is expensive at first sight. But the comparison with the wear and tear of a long ocean crossing was not too unfavourable for shipping Ultimo.”
There are three main elements to the cost of shipping a yacht. First the Hammarlunds spent two months preparing to ship, which cost around £5,000 (if we assume an average cruising cost per month to be £2,500 for fuel, maintenance, insurance and living costs). This was done at anchor in Thailand. The actual cost of shipping was £40,800, plus the two flights home from Thailand.
After Ultimo was relaunched in Copenhagen, the couple sailed straight to Sweden that same day, so they incurred no additional harbour costs.
The third minor cost was insurance: “We signed a third party insurance via the transport company which was £160. During the transport there was no insurance cost, because the boat is covered by the transporter,” Conny explained.
The couple did a lot of research before Ultimo was loaded onto the transport ship. “We compared prices, but also the experiences and feedback of other cruisers.” They based their choice not only on cost, but on customer references.
“We invested a lot of time in communication with the shipping company and the agent right from the start. This proved to be vital, because in the first stages a lot of information needs to be exchanged fast.
“During the transport they kept informing us and sent us all necessary details. You need to be flexible; schedules change, pick up dates and even locations can change because of regulations and delays.”
The Red Sea question
For a long time, sailing to Europe via the Red Sea was a definite ‘no go’ – yachts have been hijacked by Somali pirates, yachtsmen kidnapped and sometimes murdered. The efforts of the international maritime community have decreased the risk of piracy and past years have seen more and more boats successfully making this passage.
In the 2019 season 53 boats travelled through the Red Sea in both directions. Among them were Frank Mulder and Sandra van Manen, who sailed their Trintella 49 Blue Roger through the Red Sea and Mediterranean en route to the Netherlands.
“For us the most important reason to travel through the Red Sea was the limited time we had,” Van Manen said. Her work commitments as a doctor and, even more importantly, the birth of a grandchild, urged them back home. She adds: “We didn’t feel like doing long crossings again and wanted to sail the shortest route back home.”
“And it was a quick passage,” Mulder says. “We left Thailand mid-January and were back home in the Netherlands at the end of May. It took us a month to travel the 1,000-mile track up the Red Sea and through the Suez Canal.
“There we left Blue Roger for two weeks in Egypt to fly home and be with our grandchild. After that, we sailed the passages in the Mediterranean, Bay of Biscay and North Sea at leisure.”
In Frank’s opinion: “Safety is not really an issue any more, especially with the help of UKMTO (United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations). In the Gulf of Aden there is the biggest risk of piracy though.”
For Mulder, the disadvantages are: “The weather. You have to think of the Red Sea as a chimney: the hot deserts on both sides with the cooler water of the Med on the north. The wind blows from the north with a Force 6-7 all the time.
“The wind shifts make it very hard to tack. We’ve had days that we only moved forward with 1.8 knots. It’s very frustrating, and you have to be on your guard all the time.
“There are yachtsmen who anchor under way in between the reefs but they are poorly charted and we considered the risk too high. In that respect it was one of the most dangerous parts of our circumnavigation.”
For the five months it took Blue Roger to sail from Thailand to the Netherlands, the total cost was £12,500. “In addition to that,” Van Manen comments, “you need to budget for the transit of the Suez Canal (£450) and for a lot of small cash payments. At least £1,800 is needed to pay for all these expenses while you transit the Indian Ocean and Red Sea.”
Having access to good and recent information is vital. “We used the Red Sea Pilot and we were members of a secret Facebook group of Red Sea crossers. That was very helpful. And the contacts with UKMTO were invaluable,” Sandra says.
“In Thailand an informal flotilla formed,” Frank explains. “But because of our time pressure, we didn’t join them. These flotillas have advantages, but there are disadvantages too, especially when some boats are a lot faster than others. There is a sense of security when travelling in a group. We went alone and never felt unsafe.”
Transiting the Red Sea is not a decision to be taken lightly and would require very thorough research. The reduction in piracy attacks reflects the greatly reduced number of vessels passing through the Gulf of Aden or venturing close to the Somali coastline, but the political issues which created the piracy problem remain, combined with increased instability in Yemen. Nevertheless, for those considering it, Frank Mulder has the following tips and suggestions:
- Take cash: at least $2,500 USD in small notes.
- Stay away from Saudi Arabia; they are not used to yachts there and treat (and charge) you like a large cargo ship. There are also security issues.
- Make sure the boat is ready to tackle strong upwind conditions; prepare for significant wear and tear and carry lots of spare parts.
- A satellite phone is useful in the Gulf of Aden: you cannot use your radio to contact UKMTO. If there is an issue with a vessel approaching you, call UKMTO and they can send a plane to fly overhead.
- Most insurance companies will not cover sailing in the Red Sea. Start talking to alternative insurers at an early stage.
“You must be able to motor at least 1,200 miles,” says Alarie. “Every year several unprepared sailors run out of fuel, food, and money. Some end up begging for diesel from the Coalition Forces while sailing slowly in the High Risk Area (HRA). This ends up being a distraction to the hard working Coalition Forces, one that Somali pirates may use to their advantage.”
How to sail across the Indian Ocean
We chose to sail Anna Caroline across the Indian Ocean for two reasons. First, we were not sure that we wanted to tackle the headwinds and potential danger of the Red Sea. But more importantly we wanted to visit the wonderful islands in the northern Indian Ocean and then sail around the Cape of Good Hope. As part of our itinerary we have already sailed around two of the three big Capes, so this third one was still on our wishlist.
Choosing to cross the Indian Ocean means adding a year to your circumnavigation. To avoid running into cyclones, you need to leave Thailand in January, make a stop in Sri Lanka and arrive in the Maldives in March. You then have over six months to spend in the Maldives, Chagos, Seychelles, Mauritius or La Réunion until the southern summer starts and you can round the Cape of Good Hope, so it is a relaxed schedule.
The other option is to stay longer in Thailand or Malaysia and cross in September straight to Madagascar. Either way, cruising to Europe via South Africa will take around 18 months.
The advantages of crossing the Indian Ocean include having the time to pick relatively benign weather, and the ability to visit some groups of islands that are still not overrun by cruising yachts. You might also choose to make some interesting land trips ashore in Africa.
The disadvantages are mainly the time that is involved in getting back to Europe, and the extra wear and tear on the yacht caused by sailing many miles (for us on Anna Caroline it will be around 16,500 miles from Phuket to the Netherlands) in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans.
If you take this option, there are two major cost factors. First there is the additional cost of living, maintenance and insurance. Given the earlier assumption of £2,500 per month, this amounts to £45,000 for 18 months. On top of that, there is the cost of hiring agents, clearance and cruising permits.
Chagos and the Maldives are expensive with an average cost of between US$1,000-1,500 each. For other countries, the cost is lower, often much lower, but you should allow another £2,000. Depending on your insurance company, you may also see an increase in premium or deductibles.
Because cruising in the Indian Ocean is still relatively rare, sources to find information are scarcer. The Indian Ocean Cruising Guide by Rod Heikell is helpful, as are numerous Facebook groups and forums. There are some older cruising guides for specific destinations like the Seychelles and Maldives, but they are very hard to find in hard copy. We found that it is a good idea to start selecting agents at an early stage; a lot of countries require you to have an agent and there are quite large differences in fees.
“For everyone dreaming of crossing the Indian Ocean the way we did, I would recommend that you do a very thorough check of the boat and all your spare parts while you are still in Thailand and close to resources,” Wietze van der Laan advises. “Most boats are at the end of their circumnavigation and the many miles that have been sailed by then have taken their toll.
“Your boat needs to be in mint condition, because it is very hard to get spare parts in most parts of the Indian Ocean. You need to be independent.”
The scenarios mentioned are for a ‘normal’ cruising season. The 2020 season has been anything but normal with COVID-19 causing lockdowns and restrictions.
At the time of going to press many countries, including South Africa, required arriving yachts to undergo COVID-19 testing and quarantine. The Maldives and Tanzania are relatively unrestricted, while Madagascan authorities are limiting yacht movements heavily. Social upheaval caused by factors like rising unemployment and the collapse of tourism is also impacting on the safety of destinations in the Indian Ocean.
Red Sea updates
“The coalition forces don’t encourage cruisers in the area but they will tolerate us – particularly if we try to follow their guidance,” says Wade Alarie, moderator of the private Facebook group for Red Sea crossers.
Organisations issuing guidance include the Maritime Security Centre for the Horn of Africa (MSCHOA) and United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO).
About the author
Dutch couple Janneke Kuysters and Wietze van der Laan are sailing around the world in their Bruce Roberts 44 Anna Caroline, returning home via the Indian Ocean.
First published in the October 2020 issue of Yachting World.