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Déjà vu

Its funny how one gets that feeling called déjà vu sometimes? Literally meaning seen before, the psychological definition of the phrase is the illusion of having previously experienced something actually being encountered for the first time and the more colloquial definition is disagreeable familiarity or sameness.

In my recent case, it was more of the latter.

Thirty-three years ago I sailed my first transocean passage, the South Atlantic Race from Cape Town to Punta del Este in Uruguay. This was a successor to the original Cape to Rio Race after Brasil decided that it would discontinue to host the event for political reasons. Uruguay was more accommodating and several races finished in Punta del Este. In 1985 I raced as crew aboard the Lavranos designed Charger 33, a 3/4 ton IOR design from 1983/4. Owner and Skipper was the doyen of ocean racing at Algoa Bay Yacht Club, Rod Van Der Weele and the rest of the crew was made up of the late Arthur Clayton, then Port Elizabeths City Engineer and Frans Loots doing his second South Atlantic Race and third crossing of the South Atlantic after a single handed return on a Petersen 33 in 1982. I was by far the youngest, smallest and lightest of the crew so when our cap shroud connector broke near Isla Trinidade leaving the top half of our mast waving around unsupported, I was unanimously elected to spend the next two days performing aerial repairs sufficient to get us to the finish line!

Frans and I opted to sail Wings back to South Africa but had to wait for new rigging to be shipped in from the USA. The manufacturer executed the order promptly but the Uruguayan Customs officials had a different approach. They decided to play the waiting game and see who would fold first. We could see the roll of rod rigging in their office and pointed it out as ours but they steadfastly claimed that it had not yet arrived in the country. They did not count on the tenacity of two penniless mariners who were simply unable to sweeten the deal for them. Eventually they conceded and handed over the rigging. Then came the rush to fit it and leave the country as it was getting late in the season for crossing to South Africa.

Which brings me to the current scenario. I am helping a friend get his Dix 38 from Piriapolis in Uruguay to Puerto Williams in Chile. The season is marching on, winter approaches and with it the window for sensible passage making in this region of Patagonia. When performing a final rig inspection just before preparing to clear out with immigration and the multitude of officials, Barry discovered a few broken strands of wire at one of the terminals on an aft lower shroud. Sailing with the rig in this condition would be unthinkable as this piece of standing rigging is critical to the integrity of the rig. A solution had to be arrived at.

Our options appeared to be either that Barry would board a flight to Miami and persuade a rigger to make up a replacement shroud over Easter or that we would use the emergency kit kept on board for this type of scenario. We opted for the latter and hauled out the rigging kit put together by Colligo, one of the leading companies in synthetic rigging. It comprised of a length of Dux dyneema cord, a t-fitting for the mast end, a chainplate fitting for the deck end and a set of lashing blocks for tensioning the line. After measuring up the length required, splicing in the t-fitting and the lashing block, we were ready to fit the replacement shroud within an hour. Installing the shroud was a simple affair and the tensioning was time consuming but simple enough. We both sat back after re-rigging the shroud and concluded that the days of rigging sailboats with stainless steel wire must be nearing an end. The finished product was lighter, stronger and way easier to work with than wire. Lets hope I still feel the same in 1600 miles?

So once again, I depart from Uruguay on a beautiful autumn day, only this time, heading south for Tierra del Fuego and not east for home. Rigging issues overcome!

Some thoughts on “big weather”……

The South African Coast has experienced some pretty intense weather during the early days of October. Durban was hit by the exceptionally strong winds and torrential rain associated with a coastal “cut-off low”. Earlier in the same week, the Cape Peninsula was blasted by a North Westerly winter gale. 

A sailor who decided to put to sea from Durban, aware of the impending weather, has predictably been the topic of various opinions after his story was published by Richard Crockett’s online magazine  “Sailing” through the publication’s Facebook page Sailing Mag SA. 

I happened to be at sea during the gale that hit the Western Cape as I was delivering a Dix 38 from Port Elizabeth to Simon’s Town. I had had to be very patient leaving PE as there were only very short gaps between the SW gales blowing up the coast. Eventually there was a three day gap meaning we would probably be able to cover the 400 miles to Simon’s Town, but I also knew it would be a close call. As it turned out, we had a day of light Easterlies following the passing of the cold front in which we motor sailed to keep up the 6 knot average needed to make FBYC before the next forecast front, then a day and a half of glorious downwind sailing in 17-25 knots of ESE. We got 10 miles off Cape Hangklip before the wind died suddenly and just as quickly came through as a North Westerly gale with its frontal wind speeds in excess of 50 knots. It later died down to around 40, gusting 45. Even this was too much wind for us to make progress into and the sea that had built up rapidly compounded the situation. 


The forecast for weather we were trying to avoid being caught in!

The Dix designs are great seaworthy boats but the combination of high winds and short, steep seas caused by the relatively shallow waters of False Bay meant we realistically only had two options open:

1) we could turn and run back to Mossel Bay or 

2) we could “hove to” and sit out the worst of the weather and wait for the wind to back to the South West before sailing on home!

Both options had their pro’s and con’s. In favor of running for Mossel Bay was the fact that it was only 180 miles away or around 27 hours in those conditions. In Mossel Bay we could have refueled and rested before tackling the final stretch again. Counting against this strategy were several considerations. The first was that the passage east to Mossel Bay would see us going against the Agulhas Current from Cape Agulhas to Mossel Bay and with a wind against current scenario, the sea conditions were likely to be much worse than those we were encountering outside False Bay. Secondly, there was another front forecast for two days later, and although it was forecast to be nowhere near as strong as the current one, it would still make the homeward leg long and unpleasant or would have required a further wait of four days in Mossel Bay for the next gap.

The option of heaving to and waiting out the conditions at sea had a solitary con and that was that we would be drifting slowly towards a very busy shipping channel. The pro’s of the heave to option were that it would make the completion of the sail into our destination much quicker when the wind shifted and more importantly, that it would be much easier on the boat and the crew and, as long as we maintained a good lookout, much less risky. 

As it turned out, we spent Monday night slowly fore-reaching with a tiny section of headsail unfurled and backed. The rudder was set to counter the sail pushing the bow to leeward and a slow South Westerly course was made, away from land. The boat adopted an attitude of around 70° to the waves and thus resulted in a slightly rolly action but our progress was slowed to under one knot. By morning it appeared that the wind had dropped to around 30 knots and I decided to get underway again, on a North Easterly heading, back towards Cape Hangklip where I felt our best chance of entering False Bay was. Our progress was short lived! The wind soon increased to over 45 knots as we closed the coast and the only sensible plan of action was to heave to again. This time we adopted a different strategy and rolled away the headsail completely and hoisted the mainsail with three reefs. The boat sat far more comfortably with this configuration and adopted an attitude about 50° to the waves. The result was that the boat rose and fell with each swell but did not roll nearly as much as the previous night. Progress was also reduced to less than one knot in complete comfort, despite the anemometer registering gusts in excess of 65 knots.  

My concern about the shipping was unfounded as without fail, the Masters of ships were exceedingly courteous and accommodating. Only one ship’s offer to alter course for us was accepted because we both felt that one mile may be a little close to pass each other under the conditions. AIS is an amazing safety tool. With us transmitting our position, heading and speed, merchant ships were able to make course correction decisions from more than 30 miles away and we were able to call ships by name if we were concerned about their intentions. I don’t think any yacht seriously contemplating regular sailing in congested waters should do so without AIS, and the transponder type that gives a yacht of any size a digital presence on the bridge of every merchant ship within VHF range is preferable. 


Which brings me back to the question raised by the Durban sailor who chose to put to sea knowing that severe weather was forecast. Foolish and irresponsible? Or perhaps more responsible than it first appears?

I lean strongly towards the latter. Very few sailors will voluntarily put to sea in inclement conditions but there is no better way to learn how to deal with those conditions than by experiencing them! That’s the reality. You can only learn so much from books and the Internet. The designer can suggest a sailplan for dealing with storms and make a better than average guess as to his design’s handling characteristics but the only way to learn for certain is to go out and experience heavy weather for yourself, in your own vessel. The time to test your storm jib, trysail or streaming drogue/parachute anchor is when you are ready for it and have planned to do so, not when you are faced with an emergency situation. I am not for a minute suggesting that novices should head out to sea alone in storms. By all accounts, the Durban yachtsman is an experienced and capable sailor. Good seamanship entails many aspects and the competent crewing of a vessel is paramount. I am all for sailors with sufficient experience and well found yachts, getting together and putting to sea in lousy conditions and getting to know their own and their vessel’s ability. It may just save their lives one day. It’ll certainly expose any weaknesses in vessel or crew and those can be rectified for the future. 

‘Change is the only constant in life’…. Heraclitus (544 – 483 BC)

He was quite a perceptive man, Heraclitus, and he must have observed people like me when he came to the conclusion that change is the only constant in life. He also observed that “hide our ignorance as we will, an evening of wine soon reveals it”. He must have been thinking of someone else? Or maybe that was his re-incarnation sitting in the corner of the False Bay Yacht Club bar the other evening?

A reasonably well known Scot also said that “The best laid schemes of Mice an’ Men,/ Gang aft agley”! I think the modern day translation for this is ‘shit happens’? 

In my case, things are not nearly as dire as the Scot would have one believe. Unfortunately, due to the real world restrictions that the weather imposes on us and the rather longer time frames in disbursing of corporate filming budgets, we have had to put the 2017 French Sub-Antarctic Islands Expedition on hold until the following year. This is hugely disappointing for all involved as we had been looking forward to this adventure for over a year now and the planning was well advanced.

The most obvious issue to arise from this is; what are we going to do for the whole of 2017? Well, after careful consideration, some of which may have been in the same venue as the aforementioned philosopher’s re-incarnation, we have decided to go sailing! Firstly, a quick delivery dash across from Thailand to Mauritius in April just to whet the appetite, and then setting off in earnest (or rather in Jerrican) up the East Coast of Africa, taking in Madagascar, Tanzania, Zanzibar and the Seychelles etc. The single most important word in the previous sentence is “etc.”. It is the difference between a one year and a multiple year voyage and is the potential source of much fun, excitement, adventure and conflict! Who would have thought that such a small word could be so important?

Tunisia to Tortola, part 2

Downtown Mindelo, Cape Verde Islands

Late November or early December is the ideal time to cross the Atlantic from East to West, with most cruising boats leaving Europe and the UK before it gets too cold and calling in at the Canary Islands to wait for the Trade Winds to kick in and the threat of hurricanes to diminish. November is also ARC Rally season and has been since Jimmy Cornell ran the first one in1986. The Marina Mindelo, on the island of San Vincente, plays host to the ARC Rally +, with 61 boats this year opting to include a stopover in the Cape Verdes as part of their transatlantic experience. The main fleet leaves Las Palmas two weeks later and theoretically boats of similar speed in both fleets will arrive around the same time in St Lucia, 2700 miles away in the Caribbean.
The preparations for the event were much in evidence as we left both Las Palmas and Mindelo. For my money, I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to call in at Mindelo. Aside from being part of a smaller, more intimate fleet where you might actually get to know some of the other participants, Mindelo is well worth a visit. It is a town rich in history. The Portuguese and West African influences blend seamlessly into a unique culture. The people are warm and generous, if a little reluctant to engage with visitors who speak no Portuguese. Google Cesario Evora if you are not familiar with her music and you will hear the sounds of the islands from one of Cape Verde’s most famous citizens!
Enthusiastic sign language and a lot of laughter accompanies the efforts to communicate. A case in point was Jason’s animated attempts to learn the Charter Fishing Boat Captain’s secrets to catching the large Yellowfin tuna that was being cut up in his cockpit. We had not managed to catch anything other than smallish Dorado. He didn’t manage to pick up many tips but a few minutes after the discussion, one of the crew arrived with a massive chunk of tuna fillet on a plate for us!

They wouldn’t hear of any payment but accepted our return plate of sashimi with soy sauce and wasabi!

Why is it that leaving a place always takes so much longer than arriving somewhere? Somehow our plans to buy last minute fresh goods, top up the water and diesel and check out of Mindelo just seemed to take forever. In hindsight, I think we had all succumbed to the delicious state upon which ‘Island time’ is blamed! One starts to see the need to rush and to keep to a schedule as a much lower priority than say, coffee at a street cafe or a chat to a fellow yachtie about the merits of the different types of fishing lures!

But then, as always, reality sets in. In our case, the realization that it was very important to the owner of the boat that we reached Tortola in time for the boat to be on show at a Fall Charter Show. This is a show where boat owners or their crew go all out to impress the army of Charter Brokers with the various features that they believe will make their vessels irresistible to the Brokers’ clients. Our own particular challenge was that the Fontaine Pajot 44 that we were delivering was in no way prepared or equipped for the charter industry! Certain features could be added on after the show, like air conditioning, generators and kayaks and other water sports toys, but basics like linen, cutlery and crockery, coffee machines and icecream makers would not be possible to arrange in the short time available, assuming we made the deadline!
Here technology, dogged determination and teamwork saved the day! Kate received a budget from the owner through a very insistent Clearing Agent (essentially the person liaising between owner and Captain) and spent a total of probably three days purchasing all the necessary goods online from stores based in the USA while we were ashore with access to Internet. Thereafter, she had to follow up by email from mid ocean, pestering clerks to get goods shipped from the mainland to St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands so that they all arrived before we did! When it came time to get assertive with uncooperative clerks, she co-opted her mother, Val, who was in Trinidad refitting their own boat! The formula worked, and when we arrived in Tortola, there were 27 enormous boxes waiting for us stashed all over the owner’s other catamaran, a Fontaine Pajot 52.
Having extricated ourselves from Mindelo late on Thursday 22 October, we set off under full sail and two motors with a gentle following breeze. Clearing the southern end of Ihla da Santo Antao, we turned onto the heading that we would be on for the next fifteen days, 272°T. Being a little early in the season, we didn’t experience the expected Trade Winds for the next two days or so and were forced to keep our average speed up by engine power, usually just running a single motor.
When the Trades did arrive it was a wonderful feeling to switch off motors, lower the mainsail and unroll both the asymmetrical gennaker set on the bowsprit and the genoa. This was the most efficient rig for downwind sailing that we could come up with in the absence of a genuine spinnaker. We rigged up a snatch block on each mid ships mooring cleat and routed the appropriate genoa sheet through it in order to “pole” the smaller sail out sufficiently. This setup worked well and enabled us to maintain a 150-160 mile daily run quite easily.

After dark, we would usually roll up the gennaker as a precaution against the night time olympics that would be required when the Atlantic squalls passed over! The moon phase for most of our crossing was a waning moon leading into the New Moon phase giving us very dark nights where every large cloud looks like a dangerous squall, and some actually are!
Although the paths the squalls follow are not too easy to pick up unless one tracks them with radar, the effect that they have on the wind one experiences is quite predictable. If the squall passes to the north of a vessel, the wind veers from the north east to east and rises from the normal 15-18 knots to about 22-25 for maybe ten minutes and then backs to the north east again as the cloud passes. Usually there is a little rain, but not really enough to have a wash or collect off the sails.
If the squall passes to the south, or over the vessel, the wind veers rapidly to the south east and often increases to over 30 knots and is accompanied by much more rain for a longer period before backing to the north east again. This often gives one time for a good fresh water shower or indeed, just a refreshing rinse!
The further west we went, the greater the frequency of squalls and generally fresher the winds were. We were enjoying good daily runs and the fishing improved markedly.

In the last two days before arriving in the Virgin Islands, the weather was dark and overcast, squally and very hot and humid. Ideal conditions for the development of a tropical storm. I was downloading regular weather forecasts via my Iridium phone. This was done by sending an email request to a Saildocs automated mailbox and receiving a return email within seconds containing a very small (about 2kb) attachment with Grib files for the requested area. This file is then opened on my iPad using one of two apps for the purpose. I prefer the ease of use of the PocketGrib App. The forecasts all showed stronger wind and some heavy rain but no storm which was a relief. We did have an anxious moment though when I was completing my logbook entry at the end of my watch and reached for the digital barometer to find it was no longer in its place! I found it on the shelf below the front saloon window, a victim of spring cleaning, but what alarmed me was that the barometric pressure had dropped from 1012 to 1005 millibars in two hours! Surely this was an indicator of some serious weather on the way? Then I looked at the integrated thermometer on the instrument and saw it sitting on 47°C! It had heated up in the sun, behind the glass screen and had adjusted the pressure to compensate for the rise in temperature!

As fate would have it, our run into Tortola was timed such that we would arrive in the very early hours of the morning, or we could try and sail slower and wait for daylight. With the sea that was running and the 25-30 knot easterly pushing us, it was doubtful that we’d be able to slow down enough even under bare poles so we pushed on and made sure all our pilotage was prepared. Confidence in a country’s dedication to its navigation aids is completely misplaced! We felt sure that arriving in the British and US Virgin Islands, buoys would be where they are marked on charts and lighthouses would be functioning as expected, but it was not to be! As darkness fell, we sailed towards Sombrero Island, with an elevation of only a few meters. This is an island that would be almost invisible to approaching vessels until they were virtually on top of it, and it’s light was out of operation. 50 miles later, the light on the easternmost point of Virgin Gorda, Pajaro Point was similarly out of operation! But these are not big issues to any navigator using modern chartplotters and old fashioned caution. What was more scary was a phenomenon on our Garmin charts that I have not seen before and have not yet received an explanation for from the company. We were setting a course for Trunk Bay on Virgin Gorda where we would be having a photo shoot for a publicity brochure and film the next morning. Because of the rowdy sea, I opted for a longer but more conservative route around the north side of Virgin Gorda rather than transiting one of several passes at the southern end of the island where there was less room for error. Our route took us to the north of Necker Island and then south west between George and Great Dog islands and Virgin Gorda. I’m not a great fan of creating waypoints on a chartplotter’s screen, preferring to enter the coordinates taken off a paper chart (except for waypoints far offshore and away from any obstructions of course). I had entered our waypoints to give us a good clearance of Necker Island, in a sensible depth of water. When I viewed the waypoints on the chartplotters I couldn’t believe that I had made a half a mile error with each waypoint, but there it was, my course was going to take us right over Necker Island! UNTIL I reduced the zoom to 0.3 miles, and then the waypoints jumped to exactly where they were supposed to be!

At ANY OTHER ZOOM, the waypoints were out by almost half a mile! I shudder to think what would have happened if the visibility had been really bad and we had not checked, and double checked the electronic navigation system.

All’s well that ends well and a valuable lesson was reinforced! We arrived off Trunk Bay and anchored in 8 meters at 03h30 and promptly went below for some well earned sleep.

The morning was spent maneuvering yachts and cameramen around for the optimal shots between rain squalls and searing heat! When all was wrapped up, we transhipped 27 enormous boxes of equipment from the other catamaran and set off for Nanny Cay Marina, Tortola to find our mooring for the Charter Boat show.
The next two days passed in a blur as we rushed to get Svetlaya transformed into Dolphin Splash, her alter ego for the charter world and eventually, when all was achieved, she, and her crew, really looked the bit!

Mission accomplished!