Watch Captain


Our friend Ty has accompanied Totem on significant passages . We’re very excited that he’s booked a flight to Namibia next month, and will join Totem again to cross the Atlantic to the Caribbean. A little backstory on Ty and our history together seems appropriate: this is a piece Jamie wrote about our indomitable seafaring companion. It first appeared in last December’s issue of 48° North.

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 a 460′ ferry boat, the 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. There is no ‘wait for it’, at 67, Ty is all ‘go for it’! With his captains 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.

Nita helps five-year-old Siobhan with reading

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 Mahajanga, 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: 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. Except this was Madagascar, and nothing is easy.

ty kids totem gifts
Ty’s bag didn’t make it…but the one he packed for the kids DID make it. Was he phased? This picture tells the story!

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. Us and them – 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 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 Richards 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. Tack (without actually changing course) and charge along on starboard to for the rest of the day. Fast sailing in flat water. Then just as I was telling Ty that we’d never caught a fish while sailing through 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 months a year, catching fish and staying alive. They fled here to escape violent neighbors from a different ethnic group. They live in table-sized grass thatched huts. 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 canoes; models of the fine boats that are their proudest possessions.

Ty, Jamie, and new Vezo friends in the Barrens

Our westing across the Mozambique Channel was fast and lumpy. Swirling current eddies nudged together forming confused seas. We settled into watch patterns. Ty choose midnight to 0300 (give or take, as we don’t believe in fixed watch schedules). The Southern Cross was clear, and good music on to give the feeling of flying in space. Each night the stars 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 for 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.

sailboat cockpit foulies

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.

This post is syndicated on Sailfeed

ty nita cheetah

5 Responses

  1. Ya’ll are crazy. But I mean that in the nicest way. 😉

    Btw not sure how far you’re heading up the Namibian coast (Skeleton coast too?), but I spent two weeks in Namibia back in my backpacking days. Swakopmund is a welcome break (you can get German black forest cake there!), but if views of the sand dunes from the boat don’t get too monotonous do consider heading out to Sossusvlei- Very surreal and beautiful.

    Fish River Canyon is also amazing to see btw, second biggest canyon on Earth!, but not sure how easy that is to get to from the coast. Not many roads up there…

    1. Hey Yvette- we do hope to spend a few weeks in Namibia, and I’d love to see the Skeleton coast AND Swakopmund! We’ll see what the weather allows us. I wish we could get in to Fish River Canyon, but that’s going to have to be another time… it sure sounds amazing. I hadn’t heard of Sossusvlei but it’s definitely on my wish/want list now. Thank you!

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