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.

Madagascar
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 arrival in 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, storms and kitty litter. But in Madagascar, international sailboats are taken in stride — of course we’d sailed 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 of wind. As the breeze fills in, the huge sails billow and strain against the willowy tree-trunk masts. Filled with all manner of passengers and goods (fruit, chickens, granite stones), the ships set off with whoops and hollers from the crew, crossing the wide bays on the sort of d \ependable breeze that makes motors seem like a foolish investment.

While the local boats are as sleek and graceful as any modern cruising boat, that’s where the similarity ends. Without a sailmaker logo in sight, the squareand lateen-rigged sails are sewn from canvas or rice sacks and patched with old cloth. Keeping with the DIY theme, the rigging is more likely to have been collected from the forest than found in a hardware store — sails are set on long yards of lashed-together branches.

Even the hulls are hand-hewn. We watched several boats being built in villages and marveled at the use of hollowed logs, galvanized nails, tree pitch and motor oil. Suddenly the fact that one crewmember was always assigned the task of bailing made sense. While cruisers are masters of ingenuity (we had assisted in a remote Indian Ocean rescue in which palm coir was used as a structural material to rebuild a broken rudder), Madagascar was a reminder of a simpler type of sailing. We think Ceilydh is relatively fast for a fully loaded cruising cat, but more than once we were left in the wake of a dhow that seemed to be flying more rips than sail. When one dhow did need help, all that was required was a length of rope (discarded by us as too old), and they were off again moments later.

Madagascar is a place where the Age of Sail never ended. Even the boats with engines seldom use them. Instead, when winds are light, they ghost along, chatting with nearby crews and laughing (with the universal smugness of true sailors) when we, in a misguided hurry to be somewhere else, turned on our engine.