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 January 28, 2016   Jamie and Behan Gifford

Vezo-fishermen-Jamie-and-Ty--Barren-Islands-Madagascar

You can take the man out of the boat, but you’re nuts if you think his boating days are over.

Last year, Captain Ty Anderson retired after 30 years of service with the Washington State Ferry system. You may recall him as the captain that safely anchored M/V Tacoma in July 2014. Anchoring a boat isn’t usually news. Dropping a 12,000 pound anchor to stop a 460 foot ferry with hundreds of passengers moving at 16 knots from kissing the beach after it lost control due to a massive electrical failure, made national news. With 30 years of service, 30,000 ferry landings and more than enough lively stories to fill a book, most people would settle into leisurely retirement. Not Ty. He is more rough mountain bike ride than arboretum stroll. At 67, there is no ‘wait for it’, Ty is all ‘go for it’! With his captain’s uniform stowed, Ty was itching to sail.

We first met Ty in 2010. He and his wife Nita, who was a preschool teacher for our children on Bainbridge Island, joined us for a day sail in Mexico. Both were excellent, enthusiastic sailors – and sailing around breaching whales in windy Banderas Bay was memorable for all. A few weeks later, Ty emailed to ask if there was any possibility to join Totem for the trip to French Polynesia. We hadn’t considered taking crew, but quickly agreed that he would be a terrific addition. Nineteen days over 2,900 miles at sea in wide ranging conditions on lilliputian Totem, 1/10th the length and 0.27% the displacement of M/V Tacoma, isn’t everyone’s idea of fun. This was heaven for Ty.

Five years and one epic retirement party later, Ty took interest in joining Totem again for more leisure time on the water. “How about Madagascar to South Africa?” we asked. As a fourth generation mariner, there was no need to elaborate on what sailing to South Africa implies: big low pressure systems, strong currents, and potential for mountainous seas. “Aw, that’s perfect!” Ty replied.

Into the mucky harbor of hot, dusty Mahajunga, Madagascar, Ty waded in latte colored water towards Totem’s dinghy. Two days and 148° degrees of easting didn’t wither his enthusiasm. “Boy, am I glad to see you!” he boomed loud enough to draw attention from men chipping rust from rotting ships. Captain Ty arrived, but unfortunately his luggage didn’t. He had no clothes, no toiletries, and no foul weather gear! Phone calls to the airline weren’t promising. We still had passage provisioning to do, so adding a few lines to the shopping list was easy. This was Madagascar, though, and nothing is easy.

Over several days, jerry cans of diesel got filled. Food lockers got topped up. Ty found a new uniform: orange T-shirt with red and green shorts. It fit, sort of. This new look was as different from his captain’s uniform as Totem is from the hundreds of pirogues that sailed by daily: men and boys in tattered clothes with tattered sails driving outrigger canoes overloaded with cargo. We were sailors separated by centuries of technology sharing a moment in time. Ferry boat Captain Ty, scheduled to the minute every day of his maritime career, did a funny thing – for the first time in 30 years, he removed his watch. It was time to go.

Sailing to South Africa is not a point-and-go passage. In roughly 1,200 miles there are four distinct weather systems and a crazy number of current eddies. Our strategy was to follow the coastline south some 400 miles. When the southeast trade winds set in, point towards Africa and hope to slip between low pressure systems on the final stretch to Richard’s Bay.

Sailing along the coast of Madagascar is as good as it gets. Morning land breezes bring nice port tack reaching, paused at midday for the wind shift. Then you tack (without actually changing course) and charge along on starboard for the rest of the day. It’s fast sailing in flat water. Then, just as I was telling Ty that we’d never caught a fish while sailing through a fish feeding frenzy like the one boiling around us – wham, fish on! It was a beautiful Spanish Mackerel that fed us for three meals. More good luck arrived with word that Ty’s luggage was found and waiting for pickup. This presented a challenge as it was in Mahajunga, 200 miles in the wrong direction. Fortunately, another cruising boat was in the area. The crew of Solstice collected the luggage and pointed south to rendezvous with Totem in the remote Barren Islands.

The Barren Islands proved a memorable stop. Solstice arrived. Ty was reunited with his foul weather gear. We all had a fascinating exchange with the Vezo people. Vezo are semi-nomadic and live in these remote sand islands for several months a year, sustained by the fish they catch. They fled here to escape violent neighbors from a different ethnic group. They live in table-sized grass thatched huts. Their nutrition is very poor. We pulled together a bunch of clothes, fishing line, nails, and old swim fins to give. We didn’t ask for anything. How could we? Still, they gave us several carved models of canoes, just like the fine boats that are their proudest possessions.

Jamie and Ty coming into Richard Bay South Africa.

Jamie and Ty coming into Richard Bay, South Africa.

Our westing across the Mozambique Channel was fast and lumpy. Swirling current eddies nudged together forming confused seas. We settled into watch patterns. Ty chose midnight to 0300 (give or take, as we don’t believe in fixed watch schedules). The southern cross was clear, and with good music on, it gave the feeling of flying in space. Each night, the stars were dimmed by a bright waxing gibbous moon.

Our lucky streak was interrupted when the newest weather forecast showed a low pressure system moving towards our destination. Low pressure systems bring southerly winds which push against the strong current flowing in the opposite direction. Minimally, groups of five or six steep waves bunch together forming walls and trenches with few seconds between. If sustained, waves can reach legendary heights of 50 to 100 feet. Our timing was tight, but okay, so we carried on instead of bailing to a safe harbor in Mozambique.

The funny thing about weather and predictions is… well, the southerly winds arrived early. We kept a hard pace on all night, so as the change happened we were just 17 miles away from Richard’s Bay. At just six miles away it built to 30 knots and the seas piled up. Ty and I were in the cockpit, soaking from spray and in awe of the weather change. Together we finessed Totem through one green wall at a time. Six miles and 90 minutes later, Totem was safe inside the largest coal port in the world.

Nita and Ty did get to meet a Cheetah after leaving "Totem" in Richard's Bay

Nita and Ty did get to meet a Cheetah after leaving “Totem” in Richard’s Bay

At the Zululand Yacht Club in Richard’s Bay, someone asked Ty if it was hard to be crew instead of captain aboard Totem. He smiled and said, “No way, I’m just here for the sailing.” Nita arrived a few days later so they could explore South Africa together. Last we saw them, Ty had ditched his orange, red, and green uniform. His watch was back on and together they headed to the bush land, looking for lions and cheetahs.

Follow the Giffords on their blog directly at sailingtotem.com or at the blog page at www.48north.com/blogs.htm