South Africa

Réunion, Richards Bay, Durban, Knysna, Cape Town

13th October to 30th November

Henrietta arrived in Cape Town last night after a busy and eventful few weeks sailing the stretch from Réunion; about 1,400 miles in one hop to Richards Bay in South Africa, then three hops and another few hundred miles round the bottom of Africa to here. I’m happy to be back in the Atlantic Ocean.

That’s it. If you want more detail you’ll need to read more below, but this is rather a rambling blog post. I’m sleepy.

From Réunion to Richards Bay, my first port in South Africa, and then on to Cape Town was an anxious business. I feared 2,000 miles of fearsome winds, wild seas and so on. That’s what I’d been learning about before setting out.

Fine sunset. A few ships to keep me awake whilst sailing this stretch.

In practice, the anxiety came not from the reality but from reading and hearing too much beforehand. As so often in life the reality does not live up to the hype.

Having read books, blogs, internet sources and listened to others I’d come to expect some severe sailing. In the case of South Africa I’d learnt that there’s one low pressure system after another rushing in from the Antarctic Southern Ocean, each bringing wind reversals and seriously windy stuff and violent swells, just a few days between each episode of horrors. (This was all news to me. I thought South Africa had hot dusty game parks with lions and hippos inland, and warm blue skies with sandy beaches and lovely blue seas along its coastline. I’d been here before you see – though that was ages ago, 1973, and I was on my motorbike not a boat.)

1973 and wild camping. I was quite young.
The motorbike was, I recall, a BMW R27 bought from a missionary in Malawi. This road in Lesotho got too rough to go further.

Sailors suffer their own version of what I call ‘fisherman’s hyperbole syndrome’. This is a fairly harmless ailment that in bar room anecdotes and the excitement of hazy hindsight, converts ten inch mackerel into ten foot marlin. In sailors, this syndrome magnifies a strong wind and choppy sea to storm force winds and mountainous waves.

Nothing wrong with a good story but with time plus the distortions of Facebook’s opinionated commentators and its incubated falsehoods, in rounding the seas of South Africa we hear nothing but horrendous tales of treacherous conditions, foul currents, endless gales and dreadful fog, in which you put your vessel and lives at risk. After all there are an awful lot of wrecks. For me it wasn’t really like that. Thank goodness.

Please don’t take this to mean that it’s an easy bit of sailing. It isn’t. The Indian Ocean and South Africa in particular have given me the most challenging conditions of this journey so far. It’s really quite tiring.

But the hazards of sailing tend not to come from recognised tricky spots where we know we have to be extra careful, but from unexpected quarters. In hazardous places we carefully watch tides, forecasts etc. and we remain alert. Rounding South Africa we remain alert, but there’s no need to imagine it’ll be especially alarming. I experienced only two short-lived rough spells of 35 – 40 knots plus, and that was because I chose not to stop at East London or Port Elizabeth (because I’m mildly allergic to bureaucratic paperwork and knew such ports require it). 

Anyway, the 1,400 mile passage from Réunion to Richards Bay in South Africa was a mix of calm and too much wind, but no serious gales. I was sorry not to stop in Madagascar but it’s still closed.

At Richards Bay there’s a warm welcome from Natasha the OCC rep, a Covid test, a wait, lots of paperwork, more waiting and, after a week South Africa immigration authority decides we visiting sailors may have visas. Passport is stamped and the visa gives me three months. They call us foreign sailors, “internationals” (which is true but sounds a bit grand I think).

Friendly health officials….
We’re welcomed to Zululand Yacht Club with a bottle of fizz!

As an aside, it is frustratingly ironic that as long distance sailors, in Covid terms, we are perhaps the purest people on the planet (extreme social distancing, prolonged isolation etc) and yet on arrival in a new country – if allowed to arrive at all – are often viewed more as 19th century lepers than purity personified.

A friendly photo opportunity on arrival in South Africa (Tuzi Gazi). Don’t tell me I’m irresponsible. I know.

Never mind, South Africa has opened its doors, thanks to extensive behind-the-scenes efforts by notable local individuals.

In a big circle of holding hands, our hosts sing the National Anthem (its long and in four or maybe five languages.)

From the happy hospitality and welcoming Zululand Yacht Club of Richards Bay it was a short overnight hop to Durban. The less said about Durban the better. The silver lining was the Royal Natal Yacht Club which kindly gives visiting ‘internationals’ free membership and a bottle of red wine. The dark cloud is a striking but unlovely city where a solitary city walk to see parks, architecture and local life left me feeling uncomfortable and unwanted. But the beaches are nice enough. Suburbs I’m told are very nice. No hostility there.

I left Durban as soon as I could for a four day sail, nearly 600 miles round the southeastern bit of Africa to the charming lagoon at Knysna where green hills and a neat little town make for a picture postcard stop. 

That stretch of coast includes record daily runs as there’s the amazing Agulhas Current that adds 3-5 knots to boat speed. Too fast, so I had to linger off Knysna waiting for the right conditions to get in. It’s a hazardous entry, 30 metres wide with big swell crashing onto rocks very close. (Commodore of the local yacht club tells me that Lloyd’s of London judge it the second most dangerous entry in the world.) Going in was fine; coming out a week later more alarming – no chance to take a photo.

Entry to Knysna is through that gap.

But it was worth the wait to enter. Too many people have said ‘what could be nicer than Knysna’, but it’s true. The tricky entrance makes it untenable in strong winds or rough seas, and this entrance keeps the crowds away, but if you make it past the rocks, fast currents and shallow bar, there’s a friendly helpful welcome from the yacht club, and a small bright comfortable club house restaurant. And a relatively affluent small town on the doorstep. 

On South Africa’s Garden Route Knysna is normally busy with tourists both local and international (not this year), and well-off South Africans have waterfront holiday homes here. Henrietta had a beautiful rest tethered to the visitor mooring where guillemots (or shags) dive and terns visited. She’s the only visiting yacht so far this summer. I spent days walking, kayaking, doing minor boat chores and eating. (South Africa has a wonderful range of fresh high quality fruit and vegetables, a treasure trove of fabulous food for a veggie.)

And then I moved on, a 290 mile leg to Cape Town. It includes the southernmost tip of Africa, Cape Agulhas, and takes you from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic; and then past the Cape of Good Hope and on to Cape Town. It’s a beautiful and magnificent piece of coastline, and lots of seals are flopping and diving around as Henrietta approaches.

Approaching Cape Town

So now I sit secure in the Royal Cape Yacht Club Marina waiting for clearance. Henrietta has a fine view of Table Mountain……Health officials arrived as I was writing so now I’ve done straightforward formalities and am ‘legal’. Free to explore.

And the view now from Henrietta.

14 thoughts on “South Africa

  1. Hi Mike, great to see you and Henrietta safely in Cape Town, well done. We really enjoy your thoughtful blogs with their liberal doses of reality. There was some excellent passage-making and planning which you play down with your usual and delightful, self effacing way. We note too that you may have company shortly from the brilliant but currently unlucky Alex Thomson with his broken Hugo Boss. Hope you get a chance to buy him a beer! Best wishes, Simon and Jenny, S/Y Fenicia


  2. Hi Michael glad you have arrived safely I was just this morning writing an email to you to ask how you were getting on Glad the passage was not too onerous but I think you made it seem easy especially your entrance to Knysna when Your navigation skills came into play Enjoy the Cape I’ve never been there but it sounds lovely Happy adventures. Joycie Sent from my iPhone



  3. Made my day!
    Here (Munich) it is pretty cold (-6°C), grey and triste – no chance of travelling!
    Always enjoying your writing and your adventures!
    All the best,
    SY Savannah


  4. Just read, it might be buisy the next days in Cape Town, as the Vendee Globe passes right now the Cape of Good Hope. Alex Thomson, Hugo Boss, is heading to you and maybe you have the chance to meet Jean Le Cam, how is doing a great race so far (the oldest skipper with the oldest boat in the fleet ,-)), he set out to help another racer in a distress situation.
    Anyway, have a good time and: Welcome back in the Atlantic!


  5. Wonderful to read your delightful (as always) account and glad to hear you’ve arrived safely. We hope to be following in your footsteps one day… well maybe in two years time.
    Annie & Hugh, Vega.


  6. Hello Michael and congrats on your passage through the Indian Ocean!
    My wife and I are currently locked out of Tonga where our SV Cool Change awaits. So it is nice to share in your experiences while we sit out the pandemic back home in the US.
    Safe travels,


  7. Mike As ever it was great to receive your newsletter (I call it that because that is what you and I understand it to be). Good also to hear that you have arrived safely in Cape Town. I too have heard horrendous stories of the seas of Cape of Good hope. Infact, I probably knew of the stories before I knew what a cape of good hope was or even if it was a place. I am sorry you missed my island and probably more significant that chance to see Madagascar.

    With not much to do these days (and I am ashamed to say that as if I looked I am sure that there would be a lot to do) I have been following the Vendee Globe daily. I am not sure which Marina you are in in Cape Town but you are likely to see two of the favourites retire there soon.

    Kevin Escoffier after his amazing rescue yesterday by his competitor Jean le Cam. His 60′ boat appears to have broken in two with the bow pointing 90 degrees up in the air from the mast (or down according to some unlikely translations (how would you estimate 90 degrees down?) ) Also the great british hope, Alex Thomson, is retiring after spending several nights cutting, drilling, grinding, sanding, bolting and gluing in the hot confined unventilated space of his damaged bows came up to find his rudder buggered to the extent he had to retire. He will be with you soon and needs a hug. (If you do meet him don’t think that a comment about carbon fibre not being all it is cut out to be would be appropriate just now.)

    You may not have seen and may be interested,

    Mike You will have had your moments no doubt, and many but this video really brought it home to me. This is an iron man of sailing (and I know you are) but he looks for 40 kts winds and has chosen and qualified to race in the south atlantic and southern ocean. Poor guy had a leak of hydraulic oil from a system which some comfortable naval architect consultant in a warm comfortable office told him he needed to cant the keel to squeeze out an extra micro knot. Now already by this time he has not slept properly for 3 weeks. Can’t stop or have any help. He has one bottle of fairy liquid to last the whole trip and has to live with oil everywhere for the next 3 months: in his eyes, his hair, his bed, his food, under his feet on the ceiling…. This race has been his life for the last 4 years or more.

    Something tells me that your way of travelling the world, even though there will have been many scary bits but where you can call in for a bottle of washing up liquid if you need it is preferable.

    Mike, do take care and do keep in touch. Well done for taking the Malawi photos with you

    Best wishes Richard


  8. Mike, Well done for making it to Africa. As always a very interesting read. Best wishes. Look out for pirates !! Mike


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