Cape Hangklip (Hanging Rock)
Early this morning we rounded Cape Agulhas, one of the world's Great Capes and the dividing line between the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. Three years after leaving Rhode Island, sailing south to the Caribbean and west through the Panama Canal, crossing the Pacific and Indian Oceans, it feels wonderful, like coming home, to be back in the Atlantic Ocean. We still have a lot of miles between here and home, but after rounding the Cape, everything else looks very doable.
If someone had told me four days ago that I'd be looking at the waters of the Atlantic this morning over the lip of my coffee cup, I would have laughed in their face. Actually, it would have probably been more of a derisive snort.
For weeks we have been trapped in Richard's Bay, one of the largest coal ports in the world, watching front after front peel off the southern coast of South Africa and out into the Indian as the southerly winds coated Mata'irea (and our lungs) with another fine layer of black coal dust. Several times we thought we had a weather window for making a break for a port south of us, but as Sten scrubbed our decks and I cooked up passage meals for the freezer, we watched the windows disappear as they got closer. Four day windows slimmed down to three, then two, then 36 hours.
Going to great lengths to stay entertained in Richard's Bay
Every morning I popped a Claritin to sooth my dust-ravaged lungs and sinuses and analyzed the latest weather files. Karin on Moonwalker and I texted back and forth each morning, confirming that we'd reached the same conclusions, exalted when a window would appear, disgusted as they would slam shut on us. Meanwhile, our menfolk bemoaned the state of our boats' canvas, decks and rigging as they got filthier and filthier and did what they could to fight the dirt.
There are three factors that make rounding the southern tip of South Africa one of the most challenging and dangerous legs of a circumnavigation: the Agulhas Current, unpredictable weather, and lack of safe harbors. We've been thinking about this rounding for years, ever since the start of our trip. It was the main reason that a year ago I was still lobbying for us taking the northern route through the Mediterranean to get home. I was seriously more willing to take my chances with Somali pirates than with this coast.
"The Agulhas Current runs in a SW direction following the 100 fathom (200 metres) contour of the continental shelf and can attain up to 6 knots in places. The weather around the southern extremity of the African continent is greatly influenced by pressure systems moving NE from the Southern Ocean. . . . [A] SW gale combined with the strong south-flowing current can create giant waves up to 60 feet in height and even higher." - Jimmy Cornell, World Cruising Routes
The weather changes quickly here. As we watched potential weather windows disappear before they arrived, I became less confident in the forecasts. The possibility of being caught out in the current in a southwesterly gale seemed more and more probable. If the weather changed for the worse, there just aren't that many places that we could go hide.
There are only a handful of safe harbors along the coast of South Africa. The marina in Port Elizabeth, one of the half dozen safe harbors on this coast, was wiped out by a storm a few months ago. Yachts are not to stop there until the marina is repaired. That limits the available harbors to Richard's Bay, Durban, East London, St. Francis (which has a shallow entry), Plettenberg Bay (not safe in a SE blow), Knysna (which has a very iffy entry that should only be attempted in settled weather with negligible swell), Mossel Bay (not safe in a SE blow; our friends on Blue Sky suffered serious damage there during a gale two weeks ago), False Bay and Cape Town.
The longest stretch of coast without a bolthole is the stretch from Durban to East London. We didn't want to take the boat to Durban, 82 miles south of Richard's Bay. So we needed a big enough window to get us from Richard's Bay to East London, a distance of 345 miles. Normally, when planning our routes, I assume an average boat speed of 6 knots. In which case, we would need a 58 hour window to make the jump to East London. Since the Southerlies had consistently shown up earlier than forecast, I really wanted a three day window for the run. But in talking to Karin and Russell on Moonwalker about timing and distances, they got me to see that the fearsome Agulhas Current could be a friend as well as a foe. We could assume that we would have at least a knot of current assisting us down the coast. Based on that assumption, I revised the calculations using an average boatspeed of 7 knots, which meant we only needed a two day window.
Last Monday, we got up and looked at the weather forecast, and then made plans to go up to St. Lucia to check out the hippos and crocs. But then Sten and I had a serious discussion about the amount of money we were spending on the rental car, which we'd had for five weeks. So we decided to return the car, bite the bullet, and take the next available window, even if it meant that we only got as far as Durban.
That night, we gathered with other cruisers at the weekly braai at the Zululand Yacht Club. Of course the topic of conversation eventually veered onto a discussion of when the next window would be. At that point it looked like Saturday would be the first real chance to leave. So we resolved ourselves to spending New Years Eve in Richard's Bay. But then the next morning we woke to discover that the latest gribs were calling for a window opening on Wednesday that would let us get to East London. As it blew 30 knots in the marina, Sten prepared the boat while, Ken and Jean on Renaissance 2000, Karin, and I filed our flight plans with the port authority. We were prepared to leave as soon as the southerly blow died down.
Early the following morning (December 30th) we checked the weather one last time and determined that the window was indeed there. Not only would we be able to get to East London, but if we really pushed it and managed to get past East London before the wind turned to the SW, we might even be able to make it around to Knysna or Mossel Bay.
While we waited for the still southerly wind to slack off we showered (because who knew how long it would be before our next opportunity), topped up the water tanks, unplugged from shore power, did a final stow, and gave the dock kitty who had adopted us a final pat.
There are only two things that I can say about this:
Sten is a sucker for a cute kitty and
Lenore would be mighty pissed if she knew.
Moonwalker pulled off the dock half an hour before us. In our rush not to give their super-fast catamaran too much of a head start, we forgot to take out the trash (which is now a bit ripe) and ran the mainsail halyard on the wrong side of the lazy jacks. We discovered the misled halyard as we were raising the main and hoped that it was the only thing we'd messed up in our haste to leave.
We motored out through the breakwall and found ourselves being tossed around by ocean swell for the first time in 7 weeks. After the strong southerly the day before, the seas were messy and confused. Despite the sea sickness meds we had both taken before leaving, we were both feeling a little punky. After we cleared the fleet of ships anchored off the port, I went to lay down as Sten motored hard out towards the 600 foot line on our charts to hook into the current. By 11 o'clock the wind had backed and filled. We were sailing and I was feeling much better. With full main and jib, we were soon sailing on the very edge of control.
For the next forty hours we pushed the boat harder than we ever have before. We were literally in a race against the clock. We needed to get South of East London before the southwesterly arrived.
The first night out, I sat in the cockpit, with my heart in my throat, as we sailed wing-on-wing, by the lee, in very confused seas. The speedo was showing that we were flying through the water at a speed of 9.5 to 10 knots. The chartplotter showed that over the ground, thanks to a 1.5 to 2 knot current assist, we were doing 11 to 12 knots over the ground. Consistently. I could throw all my calculations and averages out the window. We had hooked into the current and were along for a wild ride.
I feared that one of the bigger waves would kick our stern around too far and cause us to jibe accidentally (the last time that happened, in Indonesia, a metal fitting tore off the boom, shot through the bimini, past Sten's head and out the dodger). But we couldn't risk heading up, and further out to sea; if the southwesterly came early, we needed to be close to the edge of the current so that we could get out of it in a hurry. Nor were we willing to jibe and head in towards shore, and out of the current. We didn't dare lose the boat speed. We had to get past East London.
The first day we were racing neck and neck with Ken and Jean on Renaissance 2000, an Amel 53, who left Richard's Bay about a half hour after we did. Both of us were way overpowered but flying along within a few miles of each other. Several times that first day and night we crossed paths. The next morning Jean would describe our progress the night before as "scary fast for a monohull." I couldn't agree more. At one point Sten spotted an absolutely huge southern right whale in a wave trough. I can't even image the damage we would do if we hit one of those mammoths at speed.
The second night out we actually exceeded our record of the night before. Just as we passed East London the current was raging along at 3.5 knots. Right before the wind began to back off in anticipation of the southerly shift, the chartplotter showed us hitting 13.5 knots over the ground. Scary fast indeed.
The trip down the east coast was wild. We were relieved when the wind calmed down to more moderate pace around midnight the second night out, which just happened to be New Year's Eve. As the dawn broke we rounded the south east corner of Africa and began to head west. We hoped that by following the edge of the continental shelf, we would continue to have a lot of current pushing us, but it wasn't to be. At least we didn't find the counter-current, which Moonwalker did as they took a route closer to the coast on their way to St. Francis to catch up with friends.
With 1 knot of current assistance as we passed well south of Port Elizabeth we were only making 7.5 knots, which we used to think of as pretty fast, but felt awfully slow after the excitement of the prior two days. Eventually the wind died and we switched on the engine. It was actually a blessed relief to relax and read and not have to worry about the sails. The sea eventually smoothed out and we enjoyed a day of motoring along in flat waters, in the company of a massive pod of dolphins. Not a bad way at all to start the new year.
Unfortunately, the grib that we downloaded that morning were calling for a front to come through on January 3rd, which would bring strong headwinds just as we were reaching Cape Agulhas. We decided to heed Mr. Cornell's warning that "on no account should Cape Agulhas be rounded in bad weather. There are onshore setting currents near all headlands on this route, which are also fronted by reefs, making navigation very difficult, especially in poor visibility." So we planned to pull into Mossel Bay, to wait out the southwesterlies.
That evening, we pulled a new grib that showed that if we went into Mossel Bay, we might not have a long enough weather window to round the Cape before the next set of southwesterlies came through. If so, we risked being stuck in Mossel Bay in a strong southeasterly, which is not a good plan. So we scrapped the idea of tucking into Mossel Bay, turned to port, and aimed for Cape Agulhas, hoping against hope to get there before the wind switched around to the west.
Overnight the wind came back up. We spent the fourth day of this passage having a beautiful downwind sail. The seas were gentle, but building. We were making good time, but it wasn't fast enough to get us around Agulhas before the wind switched around to the southwest. So at nightfall we turned on the engine to boost our pace.
Just before dawn this morning we rounded Cape Agulhas, which was named Cabo das Agulhas (Cape of Needles) by 16th Century Portuguese explorers. When the surging Agulhas Current, bringing warm waters from the Indian Ocean, collides with the cold Atlantic waters of the Benguela Current and a strong breeze, the sea here can be tempestuous. The currents, combined with the shallows and reefs of the Agulhas Bank, make this a dangerous stretch of water that has claimed many ships. We were relieved to get around the Cape with the wind still in our favor.
But our relief was short-lived. At 7:30 am we were hit with a squall that brought the wind around onto our nose. Over the next few hours, the wind built in strength and continued to clock forward. We shortened sail, double reefing the main and eventually replacing the jib with the staysail. We spent the rest of the day struggling to get around Danger Point and Cape Hangklip. Finally, around 5:30 pm, with great relief and a sense of real accomplishment we put the anchor down in False Bay. As cape fur seals and african penguins swam around the boat we cracked open a bottle of champagne and Sten proposed a toast to a new year and an old ocean.