Tag Archives: sailing South Africa

South Africa to Saint Helena

1st December 2020 to 13th January 2021

Tourist Cape Town, Christmas and a sail to Saint Helena

A month in Cape Town passed quickly; a fascinating month, which included the typical cruising sailors’ diet of boat bits, tourist bits, sociable bits and unmentionable bits, plus Christmas somewhere in there. Briefly then….

First though I point out that Cape Town is made interesting less because of its scenic splendour, fine beaches and high quality wine (nice as they all are) than because it’s such a bubbling stew pot of people, folk from every corner of the planet. New African arrivals from most countries of the continent, people who have short term work here, freshly arrived Europeans, and others, all muddling along with the historic residents, African, Afrikaans, Cape Coloured, Indian and English. 

It is a beautiful, yet for me an uneasy metropolitan city of contrasts: global glamour and awful poverty, striking city architecture, luxurious villas alongside desperate shabby townships, privileged wealth and struggling immigrants, the entitled and the misfitting outcasts, ragged down-and-outs at a Ferrari showroom. All this human life beneath the fabulous backdrop of Table Mountain and Lion’s Peak, and an overarching blue sky.

Cape of Good Hope (or Storms, depending)

The racial divides and tensions are complex. Much too complex for me. I was going to tell you something about it, but remembered it’s best to gloss over the three minefield topics of politics, religion and Marmite – best not to upset people. “Cry, the Beloved Country” which I’d read as a youth, is well worth reading again.

With such warm welcomes everywhere, and outstanding friendly generosity and help, it would smack of ingratitude were I to dwell on the Nation’s difficulties. (And it’s not as if my nation, Britain, doesn’t have its own heavyweight problems.)

When here, you will often hear the words “This is Africa”, delivered with a fatalistic shrug, not because your knowledge of geography might be limited, but rather like the commonplace British phrase “it is what it is”; both being uttered to explain anything that is wrong, or fails to happen or seems ridiculous. Most tiresome.

However, this blog is meant to be telling you about Henrietta’s little adventure, not these rambling observations.

Memorable highlights for me? 

Lunch with the Portuguese Cape Town community. Mainly originating in Madeira, they’d invited solo sailor Henrique (Madeira), who’d then invited Frank (German solo) and me (British solo) to go too. Wonderful generosity, white table cloths, real interest, a feast and excellent wine. Huge thank you to the local Portuguese.

Portuguese/Madeira Cape Town for lunch

Kirstenbosch Gardens. Perhaps the most beautiful, serene and magical botanic gardens I’ve seen anywhere in the world (and I’ve seen many). A fabulous variety of plants, textures and colours perfectly set in the rolling foothills behind the city and with Table Mountain behind. Visited twice but would readily have returned many more times. In fact I could live there.

A sweaty leg-throbbing clamber up Table Mountain – on a very hot sunny day. Ample water and a banana used. But some titanium definitely needed. Fifty years ago it was easy-peasy, but things change. At little over 1,000 metres Table Mountain isn’t even very high.

Half way up Table Mountain, and puffing

A wonderful Christmas Day with my kind host Michael (originally New York but long time South Africa), plus Othmane (Morocco to Cape Town, four years, on bicycle and skateboard), and Regina (Germany with Kazakhstan origins working here).

After four of the past six Christmases spent alone, usually at sea, it was an especially memorable, friendly and happy day. And much as I enjoy the company of my fellow sailors it’s good too to spend time with terrestrial friends.

Christmas lunch. Othmane, me, Michael and Regina

Othmane Zolate from Morocco has been in Cape Town for two years now. He’s wide-eyed, gentle, modest and open, not born to either money or privileges, but with a local production company is now making a film of his four year cycle/skateboard trip for several African TV stations. (Out early in 2021, Netflix too). Here’s a link to a YouTube clip.

Othmsne’s Trip

One of the many extraordinary people I’ve met during the past few years, his next venture is to sail around the world. He’s done a sailing course here in Cape Town and I’ve no doubt he’ll go on soon to his next venture. Bicycle, skateboard, African deserts and hardships on land will make life on a boat at sea seem oh so easy and relaxed – most of the time.

A few unlucky participants in the Vendée Globe (a singlehanded round the world non-stop sailing race) were forced to retire and their beautiful racing boats, the Formula 1 racers of the sailing world, found themselves in Cape Town. To my eyes they are beautiful and of course I’d love to sail one, but for cruising round the oceans give me Henrietta any day.

Vendée Racing yachts, Initiatives Coeur (Samantha Davies) and Hugo Boss (Alex Thompson)

Soon it was time to move on. Home is still a long way away. The first step is 1,700 nautical miles from Cape Town to the little South Atlantic island of St Helena, perhaps 12 days; quite a long way but nothing special in the world of circumnavigation. 

Changes to Covid rules in South Africa at the end of December 2020 had among other things banned the sale of drink. A new level of restrictions was introduced. All alcohol sales had been banned. No shop could sell it. Vineyard visits and wine tastings were over. Every bar shut down, restaurants and clubs such as the Royal Cape Yacht Club could no longer sell booze. The place died.

Wine tasting before the ban

But that wasn’t the reason I left. It just happened that way. I’d had a month in Cape Town, seen what I’d wanted to see, enjoyed a convivial Christmas and done enough shopping. I had the nomadic itch and wanted to move on.

I’d expected an easy passage northwards with following breeze and warm sunshine, so it was a horrible shock by day three to have a full gale, cabin soaked from a breaking sea that sluiced inside (I’d foolishly removed washboards for fresh air).

Feeling queasy, unwell, downhearted and exhausted, it was a rare spell when I asked myself what on earth was I doing on the wild ocean waves when I might instead succumb to advanced self-pity, lie around at home, hug a hot-water bottle and broach a bottle of whisky.

The crashing wave had made trouble for electronics too; AIS and chart plotter were out of action (fortunately partially fixed a couple of days later, along with my morale).

The gale, with howling winds gusting over 50 knots and harsh foam-crested waves, lasted nearly three days, much stronger than forecast before I left Cape Town. It definitely shouldn’t have happened. It was a wild downwind ride, all sails stowed and still at speeds over 5 knots.

Such conditions make you feel very small, insignificant and powerless in the face of nature – which indeed we are. It’s very rare to encounter them and in about 45,000 miles over the past five years this is only the second such occasion. After that wild start, it was a slow warm easy sail the rest of the way, an occasional gull or tropic bird for company.

Apart from very rare incidents of vile weather, time passes easily enough with on-board chores, minor maintenance, cleaning, cooking, reading, looking out enchanted by the confident dance, swoops and glide of occasional ocean birds, and the less confident skittery flights of flying fish, music, podcasts, thinking, planning, dreaming, sail trimming. And I find I’m tired, happy to sleep when I can.

If ever boredom threatens I remember my mother’s comment to a listless moody teenage son, “it’s only the boring who ever get bored”. And with routine established, boat tidied and feeling better in warm sunshine, St Helena soon comes into view.

Approaching St Helena
Sailing ships have stopped here for many centuries

In the end the passage took longer than 12 days but, as I’d known landing in St Helena would not be permitted till at least 14 days had elapsed since leaving Cape Town, there was no rush. I was looking forward to stretching my legs, chatting to fellow mankind, fixing broken Hydrovane bracket (a bolt had sheared in gale) and buying some fresh fruit and a beer.

Little did I know…….

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.