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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!

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Tunisia to Tortola (but not on Jerrican!)

Tunisia to Tortola Part one, Tabarka to Mindelo

It all started, as these things usually do, with a phone call from an old friend. In this case, the old friend was Doug Fairfield, a sailing companion from the early 1990’s in East London. Doug is now cruising in the Southern Caribbean with his wife Val on their St Francis 44.

 The gist of the conversation was that Doug’s son Dylan, daughter Kate and her partner, Jason, had a contract to deliver a Fontaine Pajot 44 Helia to Tortola in the Virgin Islands where Jason and Kate would be running the boat in a charter operation for the Russian owner and they would like someone with experience to ‘ride shotgun’ for the delivery trip through the Mediterranean and across the Atlantic. “Would I be interested?”. Of course I was. 

The obvious questions were “where is the boat now and where would the delivery start?” and “when does this happen?” This seemingly ordinary question was anything but that. There were several considerations to be taken into account. The first was that the delivery crew were all South African passport holders with implications for visas and the length of time needed to apply for them and the second was that the boat needed to be in Tortola by 4 November in order to participate in a Charter Boat Show! 

We established that the only country bordering the Mediterranean Sea that does not require South Africans to have visas is Tunisia! The boat is registered and based in Bar, Montenegro. For us to have travelled to Montenegro to collect the boat would have meant applying for visas to visit Montenegro via the Serbian Embassy in Pretoria! This introduced way too many unknowns into the equation and the owner of the boat came up with a plan to use a Russian skipper to move it to Tabarka in Tunisia for us so that we could start the delivery from there. 

This solution sounded remarkably elegant but no one thought to consult the weather. Constantin, the delivery skipper from Bar to Tabarka had a rough time of things, aside from being a single hander. The prevailing winds forced him to hug the Albanian coast on a south easterly heading, all the way to southern Greece before he could tack and head for Malta and then Tunisia. Facing further, westerly headwinds from northern Tunisia, he was obliged to turn into Bizerte to refuel. It must have been an interesting encounter with the Tunisian authorities as Constantin speaks virtually no English and the Officials spoke no Russian! This resulted in a small oversight which was to have unpleasant ramifications for us, the new crew, a few days later. He neglected to clear in with Customs at his port of entry. 

In the mean time, Jason, Kate and I had flown from Cape Town to Tunis, via Dubai and Dylan flew from New York, via Istanbul. We all met in Tunis. All of us that is except for one essential piece of luggage. And it was a weekend, following a major religious holiday and no one seemed particularly interested in our plight! We proceeded by minibus to Tabarka, a three hour journey through really beautiful countryside. My best description would be that it was a cross between Klein Karoo and Swartland vegetation with massive olive groves and herds of sheep.

We arrived in Tabarka in the late afternoon to find that our boat was still a day or more away from port! The owner was in Tabarka to facilitate the handover and he booked us into a newly built hotel in the port area of Tabarka. We just managed to find a television that was covering the Rugby World Cup, in French, and watched the last half of the SA vs Samoa match. 

  
Tabarka is a small resort town close to the Algerian border and the signs of the impact that both the economic crisis in Europe and the recent political instability have had were everywhere. New buildings were in various stages of completion but all work had ceased. Incidents in resort areas where foreign tourists had been shot had clearly affected the tourist trade upon which the country is almost entirely dependent. Existing Tourist facilities were falling into disrepair and the whole town had an air of dilapidation. There seemed to be many unemployed men sitting in groups throughout the town.  

  
Constantin arrived in Tabarka late the following evening and we immediately moved aboard to save on hotel costs. After the obligatory celebration of his arrival, and a very late evening having the finer points of Russian rock music and Montenegran wine explained to us in detail, we collapsed into a deep sleep in our new home. 

A visit by the Port Captain the next morning made everything legal, or so we thought. When I asked him where I could dispose of our rubbish bags, I thought he was going above and beyond his duty when he said “No problem, give it to me” and then promptly tossed the bag into the boulders making up the breakwater!

Later that morning, Jason was given an interesting familiarization tour of his new charge, in Russian. All the switches, breakers and instruments were labelled in Russian and the language selected on all the vessels software was also in Russian! Cyrillic script is not really one can take a guess at as it bears no resemblance to any written European language. After a bewildering two hours, he felt he had more or less a grip on the state of affairs! All that remained was for us to take her for a test sail and see if we had understood everything. Sometimes it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission, but in Arab countries this entails having quite a high risk profile! We decided to clear it with the port authorities before leaving for our test sail. We were sent from one office to the next and made to fill in arbitrary forms and flight plans as each official felt obliged to stamp his authority on the occasion! Eventually, we got to leave port, but “only for one hour, ok?”

  
Electing to have an early night as a taxi was arranged for 04h00 the next morning for the trip to Tunis to find the errant luggage, we were all either asleep or preparing to go to bed at 20h30 when we were roused by a heavy booted presence in the cockpit. Two young Customs officials armed and in full combat gear boarded and advised us that they were here to check the boat. We explained that the vessel had cleared in at Bizerte the previous day but they weren’t interested, especially as Constantin couldn’t produce a Customs clearance form and proceeded to make us fill in forms declaring what we had on board. The form, in French and Arabic, had a small block where we were advised to fill in “like Mobile”. We all duly declared that we had mobile phones and in my case, an iPad and a satellite phone. We were asked whether we had any spirits, drugs or weapons and it dawned on me that we knew nothing about Constatin, the delivery skipper, who was still on board with us. He could possibly have a stash of illicit or prohibited goods and we were all now squarely implicated. 

Then they started searching cabin by cabin and confiscated anything they felt like confiscating apparently at random. Top of their list was cameras and U.S. dollars which were “prohibited”! Clearly this was affirmative shopping at its best and we were outraged which didn’t improve the atmosphere on board. Thinly veiled threats were made about arrest and detention. When these goons were ransacking my cabin and had decided that my camera was not worth prohibiting, the main protagonist received a phone call from his boss. I understood enough of the Arabic to know he was being asked to explain what he was up to and his expression went from gleeful re telling, to irritation and then defensive aggression. Clearly his sortie had not been authorized by his senior! His boss duly arrived by car, very quickly and the goon’s demeanor changed rapidly. I had an earnest discussion with the boss man in rudimentary Arabic and schoolboy French, remaining as polite and calm as I could, as to show anger in Arabic culture is a sure way to lose face and therefore any moral high ground. We agreed that the Customs official had exceeded his mandate and undertook to consult with the boss if we were in anyway uncertain as to what the regulations were, as we had no intention to offend or do anything illegal as we were just “desperately needed tourists” supporting their economy. The goons were chastised and left, but not before annexing a bottle of Jaegermeister they found in Constantin’s cabin, just to save face. Haram. 

We were all well shaken up and realized that in the excitement of meeting and taking over from the previous skipper, we were very naïve in not checking that the vessel was all legal and legitimately in the country. This could have gone horribly wrong for us, especially if the previous skipper had decided to smuggle drugs, weapons or other contraband. A lesson learnt. 

Eventually, around 22h30, we all returned to bed, quite shaken by the experience. The next incident was less than two hours later! Tunisians do not share the commonly accepted principles of privacy and private ownership of property. Combine this with a culture that encourages carousing until the early hours of the morning and celebrates the taking of photographs with exotic backdrops, and we had a perfect storm situation for us to believe we were being boarded by disaffected Customs officials bent on taking revenge for their humiliation, when actually it was only groups of citizens on their midnight strolls posing for group photos in our cockpit!

The following day was for victualing and for Jason to make the six hour round trip to Tunis to collect our luggage. Constantin went with him to catch a flight to Montenegro. Dylan, Kate and I shopped up a storm in the local supermarket and fresh goods market. Virtually everything was available and at very reasonable prices. We filled up with fuel and water and awaited Jason’s return so we could check out and leave as we were starting to run behind schedule. There was a slightly unfavorable weather forecast but we were happy that if we checked out and then waited for a few hours, we could avoid the worst of it. 

 Checking out with the Port Authorities and the Marine Police was an easy and pleasant experience with the officials friendly and genuinely interested in what brought us to Tunisia, how our national soccer team could improve and where we were headed, and why! The same could not be said for the Customs officials! Surly, unfriendly and aggressive officials made sure we were hindered at every step of the way, and although our passports had been stamped with exit stamps, they confiscated them and tried to pressurize us into, I presume, paying to get them back. Clearly they had not forgotten about the earlier incident. Eventually we managed to up level the situation to the Head of Customs and he very politely re-educated his minions. Again, as a face saving exercise, they came aboard and searched the vessel from top to bottom, refusing to say what they were looking for!

After this, fearing some sort of retaliation, we cast off our lines and left just before sunset, preferring the less than perfect weather forecast to another night alongside in Tabarka!

Our route took us almost due north to avoid sailing into Algerian waters and then north west towards the Balearic Islands of Majorca, Menorca and Ibiza to avoid a strong East setting current and westerly wind closer to the African coast (and more tin pot dictator wannabes). Conditions were fresh westerly becoming very strong northerly winds and a typical shallow water sea state with steep swells with a short wave period. The first two days saw us only needing an unfurled genoa to maintain a decent, albeit very uncomfortable, 7 knots. When we turned more west and the wind went into the north and rose to a solid 40 knots, gusting 57 at one stage, we had to become more defensive in strategy. The residual westerly swell combined with the newer northerly swell created a punishing sea state threatening to break even well found boats, the situation exacerbated by the gale force wind. 

We had an option of running before the conditions, and ending up somewhere between Algeria, Tunisia and Libya or adopting a defensive stance to minimize the impact of wind and wave. Ending up back where we started didn’t seem like an option and having any sort of sail up with a steep beam sea and a gusting wind exposed us to the risk of capsize. We took a decision to motor gently ahead at an approximate 15 degree angle to the main swell in order to prevent the boat from crashing over waves with both hulls simultaneously and at the same time being able to regulate the speed at which we crested the swells. It was a strategy that worked well and we saw off the worst of the weather over the next 24 hours and when things had calmed down we were able to set full sail for the first time and enjoyed two days of decent beam reaching! And some good food!

This was followed by two days of very light winds necessitating the use of one and sometimes both engines. All our fuel consumption figures were neatly written out for us, in Russian! What ever story these numbers told, the reality is that we were using fuel faster than expected and we needed to stop and refuel before Gibraltar and the 700 mile leg to the Canary Islands. We selected a marina in a coastal town called Benalmadena, near Malaga as being as close as anything to our chosen route and pulled up at their fuel dock mid siesta! Despite this, the staff couldn’t have been more welcoming and accommodating. We took on fuel and water, took a few steps in Spain and left again, motoring slowly for the Straits of Gibraltar timing our arrival there for just after high water the next morning. 

  
 It’s quite a busy stretch of water and various maritime authorities take their custodianship of this stretch of water very seriously. We were stopped, politely but firmly, by three different agencies wanting to know the number of crew, nationalities and port of registry of the vessel. This certainly as a result of the current refugee/migrant crisis facing Europe. While lining up for the Straits, we heard an All Ships Alert concerning a “rubber boat with 32 passengers taking on water” a few miles on the Moroccan side of the middle point. Having seen what the Mediterranean Sea is capable of when it gets angry, I am seeing the desperation of those people in a new light!

  
Trying to do the right thing and obeying all the Traffic Separation Scheme regulations, we watched in amusement as (mainly French flagged) yachts carved their own courses through the high speed ferries and slow moving cargo vessels. 

Of the five days we took to get to Las Palmas, we managed to sail for two complete days using only the asymmetric spinnaker with the wind around 130 degrees aft. Definitely this type of boat’s preferred angle!

We arrived in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, on a Sunday afternoon, not really expecting much evidence of officialdom, and not being disappointed in this expectation! Tying up to the Reception Dock in the enormous Marina, we made ourselves at home and went on the hunt for fresh food and drink! 

  
 We intended to refuel, stock up for the balance of the passage to Tortola and obtain sailing and engine spares needed from the well stocked chandleries and then leave as soon as possible. We had no idea that Monday was “Hispanic Day” and a major public holiday! And they take their public holidays very seriously in Spain! So, with an enforced day of leisure, we enjoyed some walking about and some of the hospitality this beautiful city has to offer. We also managed to get laundry done and our food provisioning done at a modern and well stocked supermarket. Buying groceries in a language you don’t understand is always fun! We’re still trying to work out what some of the stuff we bought is, in our efforts to tick off all the items on the list Kate prepared for us.

A marina official did turn up on the Monday and placing practicality over administration, he directed us to a smaller Marina and advised that it wouldn’t be necessary to let the Customs and Immigration know that we were here, as we would be leaving the following day anyway! 

  
With the spares and fishing gear purchases made early on the Tuesday morning, we fueled up and bade our hosts farewell, bound for Mindelo on the island of Sao Vincente, Cape Verdes. 

The 892 miles from Las Palmas to Mindelo were mainly done under engine power as the wind stayed out of the north, but a gentle 10 knots giving us almost no apparent wind to work with. We did get the opportunity to test fuel consumption for ourselves at different engine revs and found the sweet spot between speed and economy. We were also able to experiment with different down wind sail combinations in (hopeful) preparation for the trade wind leg coming up! The asymmetric spinnaker set to one side and the genoa lead to a block on a mooring cleat amidships gives about as big an area of sail as one could expect to set and it seems to work well from 8 to 15 knots apparent giving a speed of around 8 knots through the water. 

We arrived in Mindelo early on Monday afternoon after a six day passage and were impressed by the welcome of the Staff of the neat, modern Marina. Mooring stern to in the Mediterranean fashion was helped by a marina employee in a dinghy taking our bow lines and passing them through the forward buoys. 

  
After two days of reprovisioning and enjoying the hospitality of this friendly island, it’s time to leave and head for what is hopefully a 16 day sail to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands where a charter boat show awaits us.  

Port St Francis to Knysna

A 10 knot Easterly and a favorable tide saw us leaving Port St Francis at 10h00 on Friday 10 July. Now I’m not superstitious but I don’t usually leave port on a Friday, just in case! This would be a test case and theoretically the only thing that could go wrong would be an impassable Heads on arrival in Knysna. The consequence of that would be having to find a place to sit out the forecast westerly gale predicted for Saturday afternoon and Sunday. We had two options, one would be to take a decision to run for Mossel Bay some 45 miles to the WSW, involving mostly motoring in the dying breeze and hoping to get there before the westerly arrived. The other option was to take a leisurely trundle back towards Plettenberg Bay, 22 miles to the East and anchor in the lee of Robberg. This would have been “Plan A”.

As it happened, a call to Jerome of the Knysna NSRI reassured us that there were no dangerous conditions in the Heads and that a transit would be quite simple.

The Knysna Heads seen from the sea side.

Having not sailed through the Heads for around 30 years, it would be fair to say that I was quite focussed on getting my line right. The leading lights are easily visible from the correct position and with Anita looking aft to spot for unexpected swells we had an uneventful transit. A sharp turn to port near the wreck just before Emu rock sees one lined up for the channels into the Lagoon which are all marked by red and white ‘safe water’ marks.

As a matter of interest, I decided to have three of our four onboard chart plotting systems recording the track we sailed through the Heads and up the lagoon. If we had blindly followed our default plotter, iSailor, it could have been embarrassing. Open CPN and especially Garmin were far more accurate in this case. There have been time, especially in the Indian Ocean, where the reverse was true.

iSailor

Open CPN, less detail at the same scale, but more accurate.

Mark 1 eyeball proves to be just as relevant today as it was when man first started navigating.

On arrival in the Knysna Yacht Club mooring area we were greeted by local yachties preparing to do a sail past of the SA Navy vessels that had been participating in the Knysna Oyster Festival for the last two weeks. The friendliness continued once ashore with the Club Manager, Tracey, making us feel really welcome and several club members warning us that many a visitor has stopped in for a week and stayed a year or more!

And with scenery like this, who could blame them?

So, where to now? That’s easy. Back home to Simon’s Town. When? Well that’s a completely different question…….

Port Elizabeth and beyond, again!

I last wrote about our travels in December last year, entitling the entry “Port Elizabeth and beyond”. I didn’t ever write about the “beyond” and the reason for that is that we had a totally uneventful sail back to Simon’s Town and actually didn’t get very far beyond that, except for a brief foray to Langebaan after New Year! As circumstances would have it, I now find myself in a position to write this blog in real time as we have recently visited Port Elizabeth again, and are now working our way west, towards “beyond”! A planned trip to overwinter in Madagascar had to be put on hold for various reasons so with the opportunity to reconnect with family visiting from abroad, we picked a weather gap and sailed east to PE. Or more accurately, we sailed as far as Danger Point and motored around Cape Agulhas to Mossel Bay. The gap in the often miserable Cape winter weather was clearly too big! Winter is a season of extremes in the Cape. One can have absolutely idyllic weather with calm seas and gentle winds, or one can experience the mother and father of all Southern Ocean depressions and accompanying storms that would make you wish you had taken up bowls instead! It’s all in the timing and if you get it right, passage making along the coast can be an absolute pleasure. Stopping in Mossel Bay to top up our diesel tank was a pleasant experience mainly due to the fishing fleet being out at sea and us having the harbour to ourselves! The Border Control unit of the SA Police were efficient and friendly checking us into port and the Jetty Manager for the fishing company was somewhat amused to be filling such a ‘small’ (400ltr) tank! We clambered up the somewhat slimy tyres to the dock and took the opportunity to hunt down a decent cup of coffee and a cooked (by someone else) breakfast! It was a good decision to fill up with diesel as we only managed to sail for 7 hours in the next 200 miles to PE! We arrived in PE in thick fog, at one stage being only a mile and a half off Cape Recife and unable to see the lighthouse. New levels of load shedding did come to mind! A most enjoyable two weeks was spent re-connecting with family that we last saw up to 10 years ago. Way too much eating out and socializing saw waistlines taking a bit of strain! On this visit to PE, we were able to take a little more time to relax and explore the city and meet up with old friends as well. What impressed me the most was the explosion of restaurants and coffee shops, with the quality of offering easily rivaling the accepted ‘foodie’ cities like Cape Town. However! My favorite eating place in PE just has to be the sit-down/takeaway joint at the entrance to the PE Harbour called “This is Eat”. Good value for money, proper seafood and as tasty as any I’ve eaten in way more ‘sophisticated’ restaurants! Fish Curry and Rice! We were lucky with the weather during our two week stay, gentle Westerlies and mainly sunny, warm days reinforcing the ‘secret season’ mythology. Nostalgic walks along the beachfront were a highlight and what a bonus to find the ‘Something Good Roadhouse’ still operating in Summerstrand! When the easterly winds returned, it was ‘déjà vu all over again’ and definitely time to move on! Manganese ore dust and bucking marinas tend to erase the positive feelings one has for a place in double quick time so it was best to move along while the warm, fuzzy feelings were still there! A dawn departure with a stiff 25 knot East wind and a typical choppy sea saw us out of Algoa Bay quite smartly. Nine hours later we were 53 miles along the coast, hove to off Port St Francis, waiting for the tide to rise sufficiently, and the east wind to drop, before attempting a transit of the narrow and shallow entrance. The Harbourmaster, Johan Barnard, was most helpful with advice and having a dinghy on standby inside the entrance in case anything went wrong! This was clearly expected as there was a sizable gathering on the balcony overlooking the entrance as we, fortunately, made a well timed transit in between some big sets that would otherwise have put us up on the unforgiving dolosses!Video by long time skipper and crew mate, Frans Loots!

A very pleasant couple of days were spent in St Francis Bay, Chez Loots, sleeping in ‘proper’ beds, yakking away until the wee hours of the morning and taking old dogs for a walk! With the advent of another east wind (gaps in the prevailing winter westerlies are rare at this time of the year) it was time to cast off and sail westwards once again. Destination, Knysna, if sea conditions in The Heads permitted. We really hoped they would as the forecast was for 24 hours of favorable winds, followed by a rather unpleasant westerly gale, with rain.

Port Elizabeth and beyond

We left East London just after sunrise on the 3rd of December with a gentle ENE pushing us down the coast. An uneventful trip ensued to PE although it was damp and cold. Coming into Algoa Bay, motor sailing into a SW wind and low cloud was easily the coldest I had been in many months. We had been spoilt; board shorts and t-shirts had become our standard outfit in anything but the worst weather and now we were reminded that we were moving south!

On the way down the coast, as I check the charts, I notice that there is a ‘Recommended Anchorage’ annotated just offshore of the Kasouga River! I remember visiting there often when living and working in Port Elizabeth and that part the of coast does not lend itself to anchoring by any stretch of the imagination! It makes you wonder how this got onto the charts and hope that no seafarer in urgent need of an anchorage relies on what the chart says!

Arriving in PE early in the morning of 4 December, brought back all sorts of memories from my student and early working days. Algoa Bay Yacht Club was where I started sailing keelboats with some amazingly talented people. I still sail with some of them today.

Having family in PE meant family time and how great it was to be able to spend unrushed, quality time with them.

It was also nice to catch up with friends I hadn’t seen for years!

PE always pleases with its friendliness and creativity. We had a family breakfast at a restaurant in the country, called Grass Roof and were seriously impressed with the food quality and service.

Another fantastic place that we found was the Bridge Street Brewery in the Baakens Valley, not far from the harbour entrance. Started by the original creator of Mitchell’s Brewery, it is a micro brewery and a really good restaurant. We tried the tester wheel where a small glass of each of their brews is served and then decided on which one to pair with our meals! A most enjoyable way to pass an afternoon!

Being close to the heart of Calamari country, I just had to sample the local fare!

Unfortunately, Port Elizabeth has one of the best and friendliest yacht clubs in the country, ABYC, but the same cannot be said for the marina. It is not in great shape and is really only suitable for a temporary shelter from a SW or westerly wind (which is fortunately when most cruisers will need it). The moment the wind swings into the east, the Manganese ore loading berth in the background to the photo above comes into play. It is then directly upwind of the yacht moorings and the wind carries a fine brown dust towards anything moored in the marina. This ore dust coats everything and sticks to sails, decks, halyards, lazyjacks and in fact, every part of your yacht goes brown! Washing down becomes an endless task!

The easterly winds also kick up a proper swell and accompanying surge across the harbour and the floating breakwater does little to stop the yachts and the marina from engaging in a deadly dance, often resulting in snapped mooring lines and dock cleats.

After two days of these conditions, we decided it was time to move on to our next stop down the coast, Port St Francis.

Durban to Simon’s Town, via a few familiar haunts…

Leaving Durban with the promise of a medium strength north easterly wind, we set off early on the morning of 29 November, loosely in the company of 7th Heaven of Hamble, Anniara and Rythmn representing the UK, Sweden and Canada respectively. And those were just the ones we could identify! When the south westerly lets up and the wind becomes favourable for the next leg down the coast towards Cape Town, every boat that needs to get west, jumps at the opportunity.

The rule for sailing west is pretty simple; aim offshore from Durban until the water warms up to around 25C (indicating that you are in the Agulhas Current) and then run parallel to the coast until the barometer starts to fall at which stage you hope that you are within a few hours of either Port Elizabeth or East London or a sheltering bay further west because there is no stopping anywhere between Durban and East London, at all.

This stretch of coast is not known as the Wild Coast for nothing! All nautical charts of the area carry extensive warnings about the incidence of ‘abnormal Waves’ and advise that due to the steep shelving of the Continental Shelf along this coast and the powerful Agulhas Current, the area is known for abnormal waves that have made large ships disappear in conditions of strong south westerly winds agains the SW flowing current.

Two of the most famous instances of disappearing vessels were of the 150m ship, the Waratah, in 1909 and more recently, the loss of the yacht Rubicon in 1984 during a race from Durban to East London. No evidence was ever found of either vessel or any of their crew.

Having said all that, when one has the right weather conditions, the trip down the coast is impressively fast! We found around 3.5 knots of favourable current and were rewarded with speeds of nearly 10 knots over the ground with minimal effort, all the way to…..

East London.

Anita and I lived in East London for 5 years after we got married and we have many happy memories of the time spent there. The opportunity to stop in, see how the place had changed and catch up with old friends was too good to miss.

We docked in East London at 20h00 on 30 November against the harbour wall, guided in by flashing torch light from a friend. Having made fast to the tall wall, we did what cruisers do best……chatted away for hours over a cold beer or two!

Two days in East London, charging around in a borrowed car, was enough to reassure us that, although still beautiful and friendly, we have moved on and East London is not home anymore.

Friends visiting for tea.

Looking back towards the mouth of the Buffalo River from above the now disused Latimer’s Landing.

After a quiet night aboard we made ready to leave for Port Elizabeth early on the morning of 3 December.

Home!

Just before we left on our expedition into the Indian Ocean, I went through some soul searching about the meaning of the word “home” and after listing some definitions from people who think far deeper than I do, I came to the following conclusion:

“For me, all of the above, and yet none of them, encompass the many meanings of the word and concept of “home”. Perhaps it’s a consequence of having moved house so many times in my life, both as a child, with my expatriate and restless parents and also as an adult, dragging my family along with me to different parts of this country and the world?

Whatever the answer is, I know in my heart that I will leave this wonderful country in search of adventure and beauty in other parts of the world, but I will only feel home when I return to this amazing place!”

Having left the beautiful island of Reunion and with the impending arrival in South Africa, it was definitely time to test my theory! What would it be like? What has changed in the five months since we left? How much have we all changed in five months and would we see “home” through the same eyes as before we left?

We departed from Reunion with a stiff south easter blowing, Hari the wind vane steering and two very sorry looking crew huddling around a bucket in the cockpit! Apparently, ‘Desperados’ is a stronger drink than it tastes?

The stated destination on our flight plan was Port Elizabeth with the logic being that we had seen enough of the Wild Coast to last a lifetime and there was no need to make landfall in Richard’s Bay or Durban and then go through the ritual of waiting for a weather window with 48 hours or more of winds that are not south west! As it happened, the south westerly clearly heard of our intentions and threatened to intercept us somewhere off East London, if we were lucky. So for once we decided to play safe and changed course for Durban instead. The passage from Reunion was characterized by my ability, as navigator, to find every bit of counter current in what should otherwise have been a fast downhill sail!

1653 miles in 15.5 days was not what we were hoping for but Durban, South Africa, was where we found ourselves! There is something about arriving in Africa that is different from anywhere else in the world and it was that feeling that we experienced from the close encounter with three Humpback Whales in Durban bay to the cheerful ‘welcome home’ from the Port Control radio operator. Once in Durban harbour, the feeling just got stronger and the friendliness of the ‘Durbanites’ just made us feel so welcome! There were Marina Staff to guide us to a open berth and hands to catch our lines. We were signed in in a jiffy and the Marina Secretary phoned the Immigration officials to come down and check us in. All very efficient. And then African time took over and we waited. And waited. And waited. Eventually I phoned the 24 hour number listed on the contact sheet for the Immigration department and spoke to a very apologetic Ms Dlamini who explained that the problem was that their department only had one vehicle to transport officials to meet every ship and yacht arriving in Durban Harbour! Needless to say, we were quite understanding but slightly disbelieving when told that the officials would be with us in “ten minutes”! And they were. Impeccably turned out, polite and friendly. What a pleasure to deal with these Government Officials who were so clearly proud of their jobs and their country!

We were a little disappointed to find out that our interaction with officialdom had only just begun! The following day saw the four of us traipsing down what used to be known as Victoria Embankment but is now called Margeret Mncadi Avenue. We had to visit Port Control then Customs, Immigration and Port Control once again! At every stage of this convoluted process we were helped by friendly, laid back officials who made the process pleasant when it could have been really annoying!

During our stay in Durban we had our second crew change; Grant and Claire left and flew to Cape Town and our youngest, Megan, joined us for the home run.

Just because we were back in our home country didn’t mean that we could stop acting like tourists! Quite the contrary! A chance encounter with a Durban local gave us the idea of visiting another country a few hours drive west of Durban. The mountain Kingdom of Lesotho. Not a main stream tourist destination, but the journey, in this case, was the adventure. We rented a 4 x 4 bakkie (ute/pickup) and made our way through the KZN Midlands to Underberg for lunch, and then a two hour drive to the top of the Sani Pass.

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The Sani Pass

Looking back towards Durban from half way up Sani Pass
Looking back towards Durban from half way up Sani Pass

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Pit stop to adjust to the altitude!

Due to our leisurely pace leaving Durban and lunching in Underberg, we were faced with a choice between rushing to the top of the pass, turning around and rushing down to get through the Border Post before it closed at 18h00, or taking it easy and finding a place to stay at the top of the pass. Once we got to the top and went through the Lesotho Border Post, the decision was easy! The scenery was breathtaking and the lure of the ‘Highest Pub in Africa’ was strong. We booked in to a chalet at the Sani Top Hotel and went to stretch our legs.

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Contemplating the road to the top
Contemplating the road to the top
Artist in the mist
Artist in the mist

The Sani Pass is at an altitude of 2876m and on the afternoon that we were there, was shrouded in cloud giving a real “Lord of the Rings” feeling!

Lovers at sunset
Lovers at sunset

With the temperature outside at close to zero C, we were glad of the fireplaces in the pub, dining room and in our chalet. To have gone from sea level, 30C and 80% humidity to 2876m, 5C and low humidity in the space of a few hours was quite a shock to the system. Fortunately the Staff at the Sani Top Hotel are highly skilled in helping visitors to adjust. Mainly by ensuring the guests are extremely well fed and refreshed! The Drakensberg put on the most spectacular thunderstorm and lighting display in the early hours of the next morning and it was a somewhat surreal experience to just lie in bed and soak up the atmosphere without having to tend to a boat’s needs in the storm!

After a sumptuous breakfast in the morning, we reluctantly started on our journey back down the pass.

Early morning view towards the coast
Early morning view towards the coast

We decided to go the rural route on the way back to Durban and drove through miles and miles of rolling green hills and valleys where farms and rural villages co-exist in scenery worthy of a John Constable painting. We eventually joined the main road system at the start of the “Midlands Meander”, a tourist route through the KZN Midlands, as the name suggests, that showcases an enormous amount of creativity the like of which I had not seen in any of the countries that we visited over the last four months.

I guess that’s what makes South African different? That and the amount of paperwork needed to leave Durban by yacht!

Were we home? No, not quite. Next stop East London.