The area between Durban and Cape Town is known as the Wild Coast. Weather changes in a flash. Winds blow hard along the coast in one direction, then switch and blow hard in the other direction. And there is the always looming specter of the Agulhas Current, and the impact it has on the seas.
Monday started with Liam calling my name with an urgent tone. I had my head in a locker…”What?”
“Collision!” he says. This doesn’t compute. But I look out and see that one of the Yacht Club boats is pushed up against our bow. The sole person aboard is trying to restart its outboard motor. We hold his boat off until he is successful, and we give him a good push out. Just a scratch in one bow…whatcha gonna do…?
Then it is Norm. “Did you see the email from our weather router? He says we have a short window first thing tomorrow to get as far as East London or Port Elizabeth.” Hmm, I was just talking with Rob and Carol about the crazy idea of leaving the boats for another week, flying to Cape Town, and touring the area; hoping for changes in the weather pattern by the time we got back. But Norm is clearly beyond ready to depart, even if it entails some marginal weather.
So we all study the email and consult our various wind prediction web sites (such as earth.nullschool.net — check it out if you haven’t seen it before). I also have to consult with the diesel mechanic, who has one of my engines spread out in many pieces. But he seems to think it will be ready in time.
It takes a little while to adjust to this sudden plan. And as we discuss it, the consensus is we shouldn’t wait until morning, but rather get going at dusk. This may put us into some nasty wind initially, but the hope is it will avoid even nastier wind at the other end of the hop, 2+ days later. Edd, our BPO rep, tells us we need to get moving ASAP with clearing out. Even though we aren’t leaving the country, here we have to do forms for customs, immigrations and the port authority before we can leave for another port.
Nobody seems to know definitively what we have to do. Edd was told when we checked in with immigrations that we didn’t need to see them to leave, but the port authority tells us otherwise. At immigrations they can’t find my inbound forms, even though they were done at the same time as Tahawus, whose form they have. So I fill out the inbound forms as well as outbound. They briefly asserted that our crews needed to present themselves, but when we said we’d have to drive back to the marina to fetch them, the officers decided it wasn’t necessary…
No worries, two hours of forms and walking between the three offices, and we were “out.” The plan was to go at 6pm, and hopefully sail as far as Port Elizabeth (about 370 miles), with an option to stop at East London (250 miles). There is no place to stop closer than 250 miles, so one has to be prepared to deal with whatever the weather brings for nearly two days. Nora and Liam had their Scopalamine patches on by the time I got back; I popped a Bonine.
Tahawus went first, on schedule. Maggie was about to go next, when a nasty looking rain squall blew in. They decided to wait a few minutes. As the squall began to subside the daylight was waning, so with the wind still blowing Maggie backed out of their slip into the narrow channel, barely wide enough for them to turn in. As they tried to back and turn, the wind blew their bow down toward us, and I saw our second (and much more damaging) collision of the day about to happen. Some shouting ensued. Maggie’s anchor overhangs their bow, and it was one inch (no kidding) away from taking a chunk out of No Regrets when their boat magically stopped its approach. The magic must have been their bow thruster, which had been repaired the day before.
As we motored out the channel, surprisingly large waves began rolling in. And then we could see the end of the breakwater, lit up periodically by the adjacent navigation light, with huge surf crashing over it! What were we getting ourselves into!? As we motored past the breakwater and turned directly into the seas, wave tops were breaking here and there, and we were plunging down off of crests into steep troughs. I was glued to the helm, adrenaline pumping. Nora and Liam were both sick already!
[Later on the radio we heard ships calling Port Control for permission to enter the harbor. They were denied — “The port is closed due to the seven meter waves breaking across the entrance.” We didn’t see 7 meters, but it was exciting, and funny to think that ships were being denied entrance.]
The hope at this point was that the big, steep seas were caused by the shallow water along the shore, and we headed toward open water. The expectation was that doing so would also put us in the strong current, with the wind opposed to it, so there was a risk that the seas would get even worse… In fact we found ourselves in not only adverse winds, but an adverse counter-current, too. The waves moderated slightly, but we could only motor into the mess at about 5.5 knots (with both engines), which was only giving us about 3.5 knots made good against the current. This was going to be a long night.
Chris, the singlehander aboard Tom Tom, made a quip a few days ago that I was “singlehanding with two passengers.” This was a nasty comment, and not close to the truth about my crew. But for this night I was going to get a taste of singlehanding. I stood watch all night (with catnaps, of course), and let Nora and Liam try to sleep. Not sure they got any more sleep than I did, though!
We expected the wind to go light in the morning, then shift to east, then at the end of the day come behind us from the northeast, and give us a night and following day of good sailing before our weather window closed with another blow in our faces. Until the wind changed we would be doing a lot of motoring. The engines were working fine. But a pump that transfers fuel from a large forward tank to a smaller tank at the port engine failed. We couldn’t move against the wind and seas with one engine, so we had to siphon a Jerry jug of diesel into the port tank, while bouncing around in the seas. This was accomplished without incident, thankfully.
We got out of the counter-current and into 3+ knots of Agulhas current going our way. The wind came up at a good sailing angle. I managed to replace the impeller in the fuel pump — a good trick in windy conditions. Things were looking up. I was feeling chuffed (new British word I learned here) about being at sea and mastering a challenging situation.
The second night the skipper made French toast for dinner — trying to make something the crew would eat. Everyone had some. Good. Although the crew was still feeling green, their spirits remained positive.
The night sky was spectacular. But it was too cold to stay outdoors and enjoy it for long. We put up our small spinnaker for some relatively comfortable downwind sailing. Until 4:30am, when I was awoken by the surge of the boat, and went up to find the wind was approaching 30 knots. We were sailing beautifully and very fast (with the extra boost of the current, we hit 20 knots over the ground at one point). But the spinnaker was at its limit, and we didn’t want to test the wind’s limit…so time to bring it down…always a challenge in the night…Liam and I did enough shouting to wake Nora who says she can sleep through anything…the three of us succeeded in getting it “snuffed”…and switched to just a reefed jib…still going fast. When the wind gusted over 40 knots we were very happy to have taken the spinnaker down!
The morning brought superb sailing. Blowing about 30 from behind, with a big push from the current, waves surprisingly manageable. On a midnight radio checkin with our fellow BPOers, we committed along with Tahawus to proceeding for Port Elizabeth. Maggie planned to stop at East London. Now it is mid-afternoon and we have 40 miles to go. The wind is going to change back and blow 20-25 on our nose, if we don’t make it to PE first. We can see the clouds ahead signaling the change. But the forecast gives us until about 8pm, which would be just about what we need. As we approach the coastline we no longer have the free ride from the Agulhas, but we still have plenty of wind from behind. Hope the front holds off just a little so we can get in comfortably, and Tahawus (about 10 miles behind us), too!
Regardless of how this chapter ends, this will be remembered by me as the Wild Coast.
As it turned out, our wind went light when we were about 10 miles out, and we motored in as the wind came against us and started to build. But Tahawus was still out, and they had 40 knots, gusting to 50, on the nose. They could barely motor into it. We stayed up to take their lines; got squared away around midnight.
I was very disappointed with what we found here. It is tricky to get into the yacht dock — they told us just to tie to the fisheries pier instead. Giant tires are keeping us off the wall (and painting black smudges on our topsides). There is a surge as well as crazy wind, so uncomfortable motion, and grinding noises, and banging into the tires. Still challenging to sleep, and Nora is still feeling ill at the dock. At one point the boat lurched as I was stepping from the deck to the cockpit, and I ended up in a pile on the floor with a bleeding scalp (not serious).
We are amidst a hive of activity of fishing boats coming and going, nets hauled up on the jetty, and deckhands gawking at our boat (lots of compliments). A short walk away is the yacht club, with a bar and restaurant, and very nice hot showers. Things are looking a little better. But our primary task here is to identify another weather window for moving on. I wish the weather window would include some warmth, too — winter does not seem to have yielded to spring yet in these parts.