Tiptoe through the Graveyard

Link to Published Article: South African Adventure

My husband, John Daubeny, and I have been cruising through the Pacific, Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean over the past decade onboard our 50-foot cutter-rigged sloop, Ātea, choosing to explore the world by boat with our two children, age 7 and 9. Having just spent three years in the Indian Ocean, it was time for us to move on to new cruising grounds and we set our sights on the Atlantic by way of South Africa. Given the 40,000 nautical miles we’ve clocked behind us, you’d think the 1,500 miles we had in front of us would be another casual stroll through our aquatic playground, made easier as land would be visible all the way: We’d be watching the baobab trees of Tanzania, the pistachio plantations of Mozambique and the thorn bushes of South Africa slip past just five miles to starboard. With no wide open stretches of water to cross, we were in for a leisurely coastal jaunt with plenty of stops en-route. Easy, right?  

Wrong. We would be travelling along the Wild Coast to round the Cape of Storms to reach the Skeleton Coast. These names given by ancient mariners reflected the hazards ahead of us. Africa’s south coast has a high occurrence of weather anomalies and coastal hazards. With storms that build quickly and fog that rolls in blinding the coast from view, hidden shoals and reefs become death-traps for unsuspecting vessels. The South African coastline is notorious for its long list of maritime disasters: 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 Atea successfully through this aquatic catacomb, we needed to know what was hammering the nails into those old timber coffins. 

Rusty Nails and Failing Sails

This is where the Agulhas Current – the largest western boundary current in the world – plays a crucial role. This narrow band of fast moving water races along the eastern coast of Africa, pulling warm water from the Indian Ocean across the continental shelf before dropping south into the Southern Ocean. Pop into that stream and you race along the coast at whooping 10 knots. Timed poorly, however, that same slipstream turns into violent overfalls 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.

To further complicate things, the 1,500 NM stretch of coastline has very few natural harbours. Once the skipper makes the call to head out to sea, ship and crew are committed to make the run between safe harbours within the weather window, a window that turns quickly and closes fast. Make a wrong decision and, at best, 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 solid boat, a good plan and a 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.

You also wait until you can guarantee all critical systems are in working order. Our area of greatest concern was our 1965 Lister HRW4 diesel engine. Our last full service had been in Thailand three years prior and our stop-gap measures since then could only last so long; the saltwater pump needed priming at every start and the belts were stretched and on their final hours. Through love, luck and lube oil we’d kept her kicking but she could fail us at any moment. If this happened, we would be relying on the next two items on our maintenance list: A broken genoa roller fuller 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. Issues aside, we had to cover 1,500 nautical miles on a boat that moved at an average of six knots within three months – the clock was ticking and regardless of our issues we needed to get moving.

Tiptoe through the Ports

Understanding that our situation was less than ideal and being of mind that things never are, we shot out on our transit around the South African coast with two out of three conditions satisfied: A safe weather window and a good plan. A fail-safe boat would have to wait. We would hop marina to marina, visiting Richards Bay, 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

Richards Bay is the perfect base to explore the national parks and game reserves of South Africa, with a half dozen within a half hour drive from the marina. 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 of Richards Bay. It was such an amazing experience for all of us, full of cheetah encounters, sparing giraffe, stampeding elephant, and territorial rhino. For the kids it was the novelty of watching zoo animals wander in mixed company free from 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. Richards Bay gave us the best of Africa in concentrate. 


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 house call. In addition to a 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, an escarpment that stretches 1000km along KwaZulu-Natal with impressive 3000m peaks, stunning river valleys and rugged cliffs. 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 50-foot high mast sticking into the air as a target and we survived the wrath of the angry gods.

East London

East London is a no-man’s stop where foreigners are warned against the high level of violence in the region and tourists are recommended not to visit 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 could jeopardise the safety of ship and crew if not sorted in an entirely different down to the graveyard kind of way. 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. We tucked up into a spot up the river that was beautiful and quaint , far from the reputation one the town just beyond.  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 good quality engine belts – something not stocked as a regular consumer item on the shelves of most supply stores. We were looking for a specific needle in a high-risk haystack. But it was a hunt we had to take on, as we couldn’t move Atea without it. Fortunately, the prize 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 got 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 the Agulhas Current and we would rely on it to cover the distance in time. Atea was showing the strain of the passage and near breaking point: The bearings in the genoa furler were too unreliable to risk putting out and the headsail pole was broken so we couldn’t hold the jib out to balance the mainsail and assist. The rust coming through the bolts on the 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 our steering could go at any time, and we had no backup. Atea was a wounded warhorse; 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 previous years cruising in the tropics, we were unprepared and under-provisioned. We had none of the required gear to make sailing a boat in 10° degree temperatures a cosy affair: We had no foul weather gear, no long underwear, no beanies and no blankets. But we had whiskey and hot chocolate. For the alcoholic and the optimist in me, that was enough. For the kids, days filled with chocolate turned our hectic existence into heavenly bliss. 


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 hove-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 25 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 mad 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!” I cried out as we felt the boat heave forward with each wave. 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. A final giant wave passed beneath us and broke like thunder only yards ahead. “This is it!” John hollered out as he 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… 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 wild-eyed, hearts racing. “Hot damn! 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 had 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 money oozed from the open wallets of its white inhabitants and the problems that beset the rest of the country were forgotten. 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. 

Simons Town

Our local weather forecast had advised us to expect winds building up to 35 knots on the approach to Cape Agulhas and 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 and concluding our hopscotch through the graveyard of ships with a successful transit of The Wild Coast.

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