Liam sailed aboard No Regrets from Mauritius to Brazil. He penned the following engaging story about a portion of his experience. Enjoy!
Rounding the Cape of Good Hope
So who wouldn’t jump at the chance of living out a lifelong fantasy?
Serendipity worked fast and February’s hare-brained idea found me in late August 2016 heaving my overstuffed duffle aboard No Regrets in Mauritius. Seven thousand miles and four months took us to La Réunion, Coast hopping from Durban to Cape Town, Walvis Bay in Namibia, across the South Atlantic via St Helena to Brazil’s Fernando de Noronha then up the Paraibo river to Port Jacaré. How on earth could anyone highlight just a couple of episodes for this digression?
The French Island of La Réunion is a remarkable place. Look at a map of the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar and you may see it, a chip of rock lost in an empty ocean. Go there and you will find a vibrant community of three quarters of a million souls who seem oblivious to their multicultural roots. It feels big, at just under a thousand square miles. It feels precarious, three volcanoes reaching over 10,000 feet above the sea and 14,000 feet below. It varies from coastal tropical to the lush isolated forests of the Mafate caldera to the vineyards and farmland of the Cilaos caldera to the barren Martian-esque plains of the still active Piton de la Fournaise volcano. Images live on in my memory, the people live on in my heart.
Namibia is another world. We stopped in almost on a whim and managed a couple of day trips. One was a rip-roaring 4X4 dash south from Walvis Bay along the beach towards the Diamond Coast where the sands were stripped to the bedrock to sift out the diamonds and where they are still recovered off shore. That run into the Namib Naukluft Park towards Sandwich harbour was cut off where the dunes met the sea. We turned inland, a couple of hundred feet up and over the coastal dunes into more dunes that stretch beyond the limit of your eyes. Our driver served us fresh oysters with champagne and spun tales that would have kept Scheherazade alive into old age. Day two took us north to the tidy German town of Swakopmund then east beyond the coastal dunes and into the endless skies and stark limitless desert. Lunch at the unlikeliest of oases at Goanikontes gave our eyes a break. Another day full of stories that live on vividly.
For all their life changing allure, La Réunion and Namibia are runners up to the sailing from Durban around the southern African capes and into Cape Town. This was sailing, not sightseeing and sailing was the whole point. The leap into the unknown of the Indian Ocean from La Réunion to Durban and the soul-soothing run from West Africa across the South Atlantic to Brazil bookended this notorious run down the East African coast. The Indian Ocean demands preparation, respect and attention. Coastal sailing brings its own demands. This coast throws in strong changeable winds and the Agulhas Current, one of the world’s two fastest running ocean streams. The storms here, when the current opposes the wind, are still quite capable of overwhelming ocean going ships and their sailors. Rounding the Cape of Good Hope itself lives as one of the world’s great seafaring challenges. It is only reliably manageable now thanks to steel ships, satellite weather data, good forecasting and hard won experience. Our progress down the coast and the earlier run into Durban were made safe by the forecasts and advice provided by Will Crockett based at the Royal Cape Yacht Club.
We left Durban on the evening of Monday October 4th. We had been waiting for some weather to pass and had planned to head out on Tuesday morning but the prospect of an early start on the leg to East London won us over and we walked right into the worst conditions of my trip. Our little fleet of three entered the perfectly protected mile and a half Durban Channel in the very last of the daylight. Towards the mouth, the wind kicked up and we could hear, and just make out, the seas breaking over the riprap harbor jetty. We turned into the open water and I don’t think any of us were prepared for the conditions. We found out later that the harbour had been closed to commercial traffic due to 21ft waves at the entrance. I have always been prone to seasickness and a couple of weeks’ easy living and Dramamine were no match for this. The simple chore of finding a wrench made short work of reducing me to green gilled baggage. Zeke packed me off to my bunk and the head while he stood my watch as well as his own in miserable conditions and it must have felt pretty grim for him. He shouldn’t have done it though I am forever grateful that he did and I am guilt ridden to this day.
The plan was to hop between ports as the weather allowed. It felt like stealing cookies when our mother wasn’t watching. A stiff wind blew us right past East London to Port Elizabeth in brilliant sunshine for five hundred miles in one leg. We squeaked in ahead of a forecast wind shift. One of our three boats took refuge in East London. The third came in a couple of hours behind us and had some hard going against the wind.
A rather tired looking ketch motorsailor tied up the day after we arrived, the Howard Davis, a 54 ton, 66ft ketch rigged motor sailor. It was crewed by ten or so students on a five month seamanship class that takes them from Competent Crew to Ocean Yachtmaster. Their skipper was one Dave Immelman, a colorful character who has, rowed across the Atlantic solo in a race for two man crews, raced in the Governor’s Cup (Cape Town to St Helena), Cape Town to Rio, the Fastnet, the Americas Cup and the Volvo Round The World Race among others. He likes his rough weather and made sure his crew was comfortable in 50 knot winds, something I could do without. He was gone the following day while we cowered on the fish pier.
The weather kept us in Port Elizabeth for a couple of weeks before we set off on the two hundred and thirty mile leg to Mossel Bay with a refuge at Knysna at one hundred sixty miles. As we left and rounded Cape Recife the wind picked up to 22 knots in our faces. On any other day, these would be the exact conditions to avoid. When the current runs strongly down along coast and the wind blows up along the coast it gives rise to conditions that live in legend and nightmares. This day the current ran weakly. We stole some more cookies and pressed on. Overnight the wind swung around behind us at 30 knots and we raced on to Mossel Bay.
Mossel Bay is a small, lovely, solid Dutch Afrikaans town; all well swept respectability. The Portuguese Navigator Bartholomew Dias fetched up here in 1488 opening the way for European expansion into the Far East. They have a fine museum that houses a replica of his ship that was sailed here from Portugal in 1988.
On the 17th we left Mossel Bay, around Cape Blaise on the final leg to the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Town. For me rounding this cape would be the unchallenged highlight of the trip. It was a quiet run along the coast. First up, around midday on the 18th, was Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of Africa and the point where the Atlantic meets the Indian Ocean, where the Agulhas Current mixes with Benguela Current that flows up from the Arctic and along Africa’s west coast. It is not a dramatic spot but we saluted with a dram, or two, and adjusted our course northward, homeward. At 3:00am on the 19th I came up on watch to 20 knot winds, a brightly moonlit sky and, six miles northwest of us, the lighthouse on the Cape of Good Hope. It stands 285 feet above the sea relentlessly sweeping its beam across the moonlit sea. A call from the leading boat abreast of the cape warned us of 40 knot winds; he was running at 6 knots under bare poles.
By 4:00am the cape was four miles off our starboard beam with the winds had risen to 30 knots. The headland itself was clearly visible in the darkness, a towering silhouette against the night sky, the sea below glittering in a pool of moonlight. This really was something. An indelibly memorable place to be on a fantastical night.
With The Cape behind us it felt like the end of the road. No longer heading out, but coming back. The bow of this fine boat nudged further northward, away from west and south. For all the payoffs of a trip like this you lose something too, the dream, the anticipation, the excitement. Even with all that was to follow, the sense of loss remains.