A Land of Sails

Madagascar is truly a land of sails. With consistent winds and beautiful homemade boats, the local sailors are masters of ingenuity.
With tree trunk masts and hand-sewn sails, the local boats of Madagascar are a unique sight. Diane Selkirk

After we sailed halfway around the world from Vancouver, British Columbia, our arrivalin Madagascar was a revelation. In most places we’ve traveled, the fact that my husband,Evan, and I sailed there, from so far away, on our own 40-foot Meander catamaran,with a kid and a cat, has earned puzzled laughter and questions about pirates, stormsand kitty litter. But in Madagascar, international sailboats are taken in stride — of course we’dsailed Ceilydh there. Why would we travel any other way?

At sunrise the dhows slip out of Crater Bay, past anchored boats, on the first whispers ofwind. As the breeze fills in, the huge sails billow and strain against the willowy tree-trunkmasts. Filled with all manner of passengers and goods (fruit, chickens, granite stones), theships set off with whoops and hollers from the crew, crossing the wide bays on the sort of d \ependable breeze that makesmotors seem like a foolish investment.

While the local boats are assleek and graceful as any moderncruising boat, that’s where thesimilarity ends. Without a sailmakerlogo in sight, the squareandlateen-rigged sails are sewnfrom canvas or rice sacks andpatched with old cloth. Keepingwith the DIY theme, the riggingis more likely to have been collectedfrom the forest than foundin a hardware store — sails are seton long yards of lashed-togetherbranches.


Even the hulls are hand-hewn.We watched several boats beingbuilt in villages and marveled atthe use of hollowed logs, galvanizednails, tree pitch and motoroil. Suddenly the fact that onecrewmember was always assignedthe task of bailing made sense.While cruisers are masters ofingenuity (we had assisted in aremote Indian Ocean rescue inwhich palm coir was used as astructural material to rebuild abroken rudder), Madagascar wasa reminder of a simpler type ofsailing. We think Ceilydh is relativelyfast for a fully loaded cruisingcat, but more than once wewere left in the wake of a dhowthat seemed to be flying morerips than sail. When one dhowdid need help, all that was requiredwas a length of rope (discardedby us as too old), and theywere off again moments later.

Madagascar is a place wherethe Age of Sail never ended. Eventhe boats with engines seldomuse them. Instead, when windsare light, they ghost along, chattingwith nearby crews and laughing(with the universal smugnessof true sailors) when we, in a misguidedhurry to be somewhereelse, turned on our engine.

Read more about sailing in Madagascar here.