Tiptoe through the Graveyard

After so many significant ocean passages and timeless days on an empty ocean, you’d think we were home free when deciding to leave the Indian Ocean for a trip around the Cape of Good Hope into the Atlantic – after all, there would be land visible over our side-rail all the way. Tanzania – five miles to starboard. Mozambique – five miles to starboard. South Africa – five miles to starboard. We would be watching the baobab trees of Tanzania, the pistachio plantations of Mozambique and the thorn bushes of South Africa slip past as we made our way from one ocean to the next. With no wide open stretches of water to cross, we were in for a leisurely coastal jaunt with plenty of stops along the way. Easy, right?  

Wrong. We would be travelling along The Wild Coast to round The Cape of Storms to reach The Skeleton Coast, names given by ancient mariners that reflected the hazards ahead of us. The South African coastline is notorious for its long list of maritime disasters, a reputation held with good reason. We would pass through The Graveyard of Ships where more than 2,500 vessels before us have been claimed by the sea and countless more simply disappeared without a trace. If we were going to navigate our way successfully through this aquatic catacomb, we were going to need to know what was hammering the nails into those old timber coffins – and deflect those same perilous nails from turning Atea into our own tomb. 

The geography of Africa’s south coast is the clandestine factory for most of these quietus dagger-nails due to a higher occurrence of weather anomalies and coastal hazards. The Southern Ocean brings in temperamental weather systems, which shift quickly with little forewarning. Conditions such as changeable weather, strong winds, adverse currents, thick fog, hidden shoals and submerged reefs contribute to unpredictable circumstances that can jeopardize the safety of ship and crew. South Africa holds all these combined, making it one of the most treacherous regions in the world. With storms that build quickly and fog that rolls in blinding the coast from view, hidden shoals and reefs become death-traps for unsuspecting crewmembers and their vessels – you don’t want to be anywhere close to shore when the weather turns.

Then again, you don’t want to be anywhere close to the Agulhas Current when wind turns against tide either. The Agulhas Current – the largest western boundary current in the world – races along the southern coast of Africa as a narrow, swift stream of water. Pop into that stream and you race along the coast at whooping 10 knots. Timed poorly, however, that same slipstream turns into violent rapids that have ripped apart the steel frame of 500-ton ships. How do you avoid the same disastrous fate? The key is knowing the answer to, “How long do I have to reach my next safe harbour?” There is an established weather pattern that repeats: A nor-easterly wind slowly builds from a calm high pressure system as the next low approaches. A window of stable weather opens up, providing anywhere from a twelve-hour to four-day gap to shoot through before the pressure bottoms out, the next low arrives and the window slams shut with a vicious south-westerly buster that sweeps up the coast making conditions miserable for anyone who has stayed out too long. Understand that safe window and you should enjoy a safe trip around the southern tip of Africa. 

In addition to hazardous weather conditions, the 2800km stretch of coastline also has very few natural harbours making a coastal transit even more difficult due to the distance between “safe zones.” Once the skipper makes the call to head out to sea, ship and crew are committed to make the run within the weather window. Make a wrong decision, and you are in for a very rough ride. If we were to transit successfully – and by that I mean with our ship and our souls intact – we would need a good plan and reliable weather information. In our opinion, this was done by taking short hops within a very wide window of calm weather. Usually, you wait for wind. Along the South African coast, you wait for the pockets of calm between the wind. 

Follow the Finger

When in country, I like to breathe in its underbelly and explore the less explored. To this end we have often ignored tourist advisory boards, governmental notices and parental warning. We find our own way by personal curiosity and local advice. I believe in the value of the symbiotic relationship between nose and finger: We follow our nose and the local finger. It is an easy three step process: We ask – they point – we go. This was South Africa, however, and different rules apply. In this country we would follow the finger of one man, Des Cason – the local weather guru. Des has taken it upon himself to offer his depth of regional weather and routing knowledge free of charge to anyone seeking navigational support; along this wild coast we would follow his nose where, and we would follow his finger when.

When the man pointed, however, didn’t always suit where our interest directed us. This clash started on our first leg and followed us all the way around to Cape Town. Given this was to be the only transit we’d make around the tip of Africa in the foreseeable future, we wanted to make as many stops as possible while keeping in mind we only had a three-month visa stamped into our passport – and our list of desired ports often clashed with Des’ where and when. Given there are relatively few marinas dispersed along the coast and yachts transiting South Africa are pretty much exclusively tied to marinas, this made our continual battle of common sense versus spontaneous desire relatively straightforward. Our route for the first time would be bound by practical constraints and we would be traveling the path most taken – and in South Africa, the only path taken. 

Tiptoe through the Ports

South Africa is an incredibly diverse country, and each port we visited provided a blatant example of this variety and richness. Richards Bay is the perfect base to explore the national parks and game reserves, with a half dozen within a half hour drive from the marina. Durban is the closest port to the Drakensberg Mountains, a 1000km escarpment that stretches along KwaZulu-Natal with impressive 3000m peaks, stunning river valleys and rugged cliffs – scenery so stunning that it provided the inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien’s Misty Mountains. East London is a no-man’s stop where outsiders are warned against the high level of violence in the region and are recommended not to go ashore under any condition. Knysna, a juxtaposition to East London, was a stunning seaside village where money oozed from the open wallets of its white inhabitants. And Simons Town, our final destination, basecamp for Atea for the next year.

While we held a good list of destinations in front of us and our excitement for exploring this part of the world was high, we also had considerable trepidation about the state of wear on some integral components of our ship since our last haul-out. Our last full service had been in Thailand three years prior and our stop-gap measures could only last so long. Our area of greatest concern was our engine, and we were travelling in an area where engine failure would put us at the highest amount of risk. The items on our fix-it list continued to grow, but we were no longer concerned about anything beyond the first item on our list. At number one, Lucy – our 1965 Lister HRW4 diesel engine – had become our preoccupation. Her loyalty to us was starting to wain. She was turning into a grumbling old harridan demanding all our time and attention. But then, she’d earned the right to be cantankerous. During our relationship we had soused her in seawater, filled her sump with diesel, dressed her in poor quality belts, neglected to replace her parts when the tachometer and oil pressure gauge broke, and ignored her old age incontinence. Through love, luck and lube oil we’d kept her kicking, but Lucy could fail us at any moment. 

Number two and number three on the We Be Damned list were also a great concern. With a broken genoa roller furler and a leaky hydraulic rudder ram, we were well aware that we were in some of the toughest cruising grounds with failing systems. As our engine belts stretched and broke and air seeped into the water pump, we placed bandage upon bandage hoping none of the calamities that had claimed so many others would fall upon us. 

But issues aside, we had to cover 1500 nautical miles on a boat that moved at an average of six knots within three months – it was time to quit moaning and get moving. Following the finger, we would hop marina to marina, visiting Richards Bay, Durban, East London, Port Elizabeth, Knysna and Simons Town along the way. Each stop offered a different slice of the African pie. I got sample-sized bites at each port, leaving me at the end of our transit with an un-satiated appetite and a craving for more. 

Richards Bay

For the first time in a long time, our existence wasn’t defined by boats. When we pulled into Richards Bay, we took every opportunity we could to get as far away from the ocean as possible – into the interior, and into the game parks. Richards Bay is the perfect location to explore the many national parks and game reserves, and if you are in South Africa not scouting for The Big Five, you might as well go home and watch Netflix. Preferring the real thing, we spent almost all the time we were based in Richards Bay outside Richards Bay. It was such an amazing experience for all of us. For the kids it was the novelty of watching zoo animals wander in mixed company free from their restrictive enclosures. For John it was being able to get so close to some of the world’s most hostile creatures and survive to tell the stories. For me it was a return to my own childhood when Kenyan game parks were my playground. I didn’t have stuffed animals in by bedroom because I got them live in my back yard. When in Rome… and when in Africa. Richards Bay gave us the best of Africa in concentrate. 

Durban

Durban was never our plan. It was too short a hop from Richards Bay to make a transit worthwhile, and South African immigration were so difficult that the effort to clear in and out wasn’t worth the hassle. However, sensibility has never been my strong suit. I had a good friend there, and I was determined to make a pit stop to say hello… who knew when I’d get another chance to make a house call with a friend who lived on the opposite side of the world. So, Durban it was. In addition to a debaucherous week of social reconnections, we got a chance to see a foreign town through local eyes – an opportunity worth taking in any instance. We got to play with locals in public pubs and private clubs. We got to play with pet horses and wild monkey and even wilder dogs. And, the highlight, we got to play in the Drakensburg Mountains. “The Drake” rises above the eastern edge of the Southern African plateau and is the highest mountain range in South Africa. It was once home to the indigenous San’s people who lived in the valleys and foothills during the Stone Ages, and they left their mark through 2,500-year old rock paintings that remain to this day. We wandered through these caves and gazed at red and yellow stick-figures of age-old elephant and antelope. We gaped up at Giant’s Castle and Cathedral Peak, and we drove through the most intense lightening storm I’ve ever experienced. As the rain swamped the dirt roads and pelted the windscreen of the car blinding our surroundings from view, we were fearful for our safety as thunderbolts cracked through the sky and struck the earth around us. Fortunately, our tiny tin can of a car didn’t have a 70-foot high mast sticking into the air as a target. We survived the wrath of angry gods and Atea’s electrics were spared a full overhaul.

East London

While foreigners and tourists are recommended to avoid East London “under any condition,” this was unfortunately not an option for us. We had a condition – and not just just any condition – we had an engine-critical condition that, if not sorted, could jeopardize the safety of ship and crew in an entirely different down to the graveyard kind of way. So, we stopped. The location was beautiful and quaint. With our stretched engine belts flopping about like over-sized jandals, we motored slowly up the river and tied stern-to-stern with a small huddle of resident boats. What I can confirm is that East London is indeed not a place for outsiders. Unfortunately, “outsiders” was exactly what we were – and we weren’t just outsiders sitting on the outside. We were outsiders that needed to be on the inside. We needed to wander through the back streets of an unfamiliar, run-down, hostile town in search of a good quality belts – something not stocked as a regular consumer item on the shelves of most supply stores. We were looking for an obsolete needle in a high-risk haystack. But it was a hunt we had to take on, as we weren’t going to be able to move Atea without it. 

Fortunately, the part was secured and after a full day wandering around the dubious back alleys of East London, we were in possession of two new high-quality engine belts. As the saying goes, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” After our time as outside-insiders in one of the most impoverished and violent parts of South Africa, we decided to heed Joe Kennedy’s advice and get going.

Port Elizabeth 

Port Elizabeth was said to offer a marina with a reputation for warmth and hospitality, so we made the PE Yacht Club our next port of call. In fact, it offered neither but served up cold beer and a good roast and that was enough to appease our cravings while we sheltered for the week. When the weather finally turned and settled, we were looking at a much shorter weather window, with only 48-hours to progress the 160 miles to Mossel Bay before the next SW winds came through. By then we’d discovered where to find our new best friend, Mr. Agulhas, and we would be relying on him to cover the distance in time. Atea was a struggling tortoise at sea; she was in poor form, slow off the mark and in need of some TLC. The last haul out and antifouling had been over two years ago and the bearings in the genoa furler were too unreliable to risk putting out. The headsail pole was broken so we couldn’t hold the jib out on the opposite side to balance the mainsail and assist. The rust coming through the bolts on headstay made putting any load on the wire a risk, as a break there would mean the mast would collapse. A small leak on the steering hydraulics meant that one of our very few critical systems could go at any time, and we had no backup. Atea was a wounded warhorse, but she was continuing to doggedly carry her charges without falling lame on the final stretch. 

At 34°south and moving along the southernmost edge of Africa with nothing but the Southern Ocean on our port side and the boat a state of disrepair, we felt exposed. The temperatures had dropped, leaving our maladjusted bodies cold and shivering. Having spent all of our seven years cruising in the tropics, we were unprepared and under-provisioned. We had little of the required gear to make sailing a boat in 10° degree temperatures a cosy affair. We had whiskey and hot chocolate. For the alcoholic and the optimist in me, that was something.

Knysna

In the most supreme irony, we motored over 30 miles in a rush to cover the distance from PE to Mossel Bay to get in before the weather turned, then abandon our plans 25 miles short of our intended destination. At dawn, just as the wind arrived, we heaved-to at the entrance to Knysna in order to wait five hours for slack tide. We knew that Knsyna needed to be approached with care, but we were blissfully unaware that the entrance is classified by many as “the most dangerous harbour entrance in the world.” It’s easy to see the merit of this claim with a channel only two hundred yards wide with an extended bar, strong tidal flow, cross swells, and a large rock smack dab in the middle of the channel.  

After a restful morning bobbing around in flat seas waiting for the tide, we had the misfortune of experiencing first-hand how quickly the weather conditions change. Within the span of an hour, a flat, windless day morphed into harsh 20 knot winds with building seas. By the time we turned our bows towards the Knysna Heads, waves were breaking across the entrance. Given worse weather was on its way, we decided we would time the sets and make a made dash through the gap. 

We kicked the engine into gear and drove forward, knowing once committed there would be no turning around. Two more giant waves built behind us and pushed the stern up and the boat heaved forward as they rolled under us. Please don’t surf! We fought to keep the boat on the transit line and her stern to the waves – if we turned side-on we’d be done for. Waves passed beneath us and broke only yards ahead. This is it! John pushed the throttle forward to maximum speed as we raced to get through before the next set. The burning smell of a hot engine and hot exhaust filled the air and we cursed Atea’s spongy steering and dodgy engine belts. If our systems failed at that point – if the boat broached – if we misjudged the set – if anything went wrong at that point we would have ended up on the rocks. White water foamed on the boulders just yards off our port side. With Lucy roaring a deafening battle cry, we charged past the turbulent seas into the foamy calm beyond. The next set broke behind us as John eased back on the throttle and we looked at each other wide-eyed, hearts racing. Holy shit! We made it!It was the scariest crap-my-pants five minutes I’d ever experienced. It made Los Vegas’ thrill ride Insanity seem like a kids swing at a play park. 

Having travelled from the distinctly poor and rural province of KwaZulu Natal and the Eastern Cape, we arrived at one of the richest province in the Western Cape where 6.5 million inhabitants maintain a stronghold for the privileged white upper-class. The town of Knysna is situated on the country’s largest estuary, National Lake, and protected by the surrounding Outeniqua Mountian range. It is one of a collection of beautiful little villages along a modern and prosperous coastal highway, the well-known Garden Route, and a trip to the region isn’t complete without a drive down this beautiful corridor. It winds through dramatic scenery to wine lands, nature parks, forest trails, game reserves, and into the Karoo, a semi-desert where you can watch ostriches roam the plains by the thousands. It is a microcosm of decadence and indulgence, where it is easy to forget the problems that beset the rest of the country. After running about in our rental car “doing” all the things that you do in Knysna, we settled into the quaint yacht club with our hands on pints of beer waiting – as you do on a transit around the coast of South Africa – for the next weather window. Having passed through the Heads once, we were not going to budge until we had The Perfect Calm– when slack tide coincided with a blue cloudless sky, no wind and no swell. Just when the club was about to offer permanent membership (we were unsure if it was because we’d paid for it through the quantity of beer consumed or because customers started regarding us as staff), we got our three out of three. There was no weather window – conditions coming toward us weren’t ideal – but if we didn’t get out the gap when we could we’d be locked in again for the unforeseeable future, and we were ready to move on. 

Simons Town

Our local weatherman advised us to expect winds building up to 35 knots on the approach to Cape Agulhas, but suggested it was better to battle those conditions in the open ocean rather than on the approach to Simons Town. There are fearsome wind acceleration zones that roll down the Hottentots Holland Mountains which funnel the winds off the Cape Peninsula into storm force gusts at the exact moment a skipper is least able to manage it. Earlier in the season a fleet of highly-experienced international cruisers stretched their weather window too far and were caught in hurricane force winds on their final approach into the harbour. Crew from three separate boats had to be rescued by the local lifeboat. This was not a coast to push boundaries, regardless of how many oceans you have crossed.

As we made our way through increasingly grey and windy conditions, we maintained a conservative sailing plan and kept Atea reefed down to staysail only. The sinister and low lying Cape Agulhas extended into our path, pointing a spectral finger at us from under a dark cape – a beckoning command that has lured many ships to their doom. Cape Agulhas is the very southernmost point of South Africa, lying thirty miles further south than the more commonly-known Cape of Good Hope, but receiving less world-wide acclaim. While it is to the Cape of Good Hope where all international travellers head to in order to click their pics at the spot where “the two great oceans meet,” locally it is Cape Agulhas that is more feared. As the true southernmost corner of the continent, it is here that the Indian Ocean and the South Atlantic meet – often enraged and hostile. We were nostalgic as we transited from one ocean to the other in steep seas and 35 knots of wind behind us, marking the end of our three-year Indian Ocean voyage and the the beginning of our Atlantic experience. Early the following morning, our weather plan having paid off, we watched the wind drop away as we motored the last 50 miles through a thick fog into False Bay. As we entered our final stretch, the fog lifted and the sun came out, and a pod of pilot whales guided us towards our final destination. With high spirits, we pulled alongside the dock at the False Bay Yacht Club at 11am on 15 February, 2018, concluding our hopscotch through the graveyard of ships with a successful transit of The Wild Coast.

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