Having sailed “Nor’easter” across the Pacific and most of the Indian Ocean since our March 3 departure from San Diego, the prospect of a mere 1400 nautical mile (NM) jaunt from Reunion to Durban, South Africa, passing south of Madagascar, gave us no concern whatsoever. However, this particular stretch of ocean is reputed to be the most treacherous we would face. The Cape of Good Hope, on the southern tip of Africa, was formerly called “Cape of Storms,” and for good reason. The area from Cape Town to Richards Bay, along the southwest African coast, is aptly named “The Wild Coast.” The Agulhas Current, which runs south to north along that coast, causes extreme hazards. My wife, who worries more than either Travis or me, sent the following quote from an experienced cruiser:
“The current runs at speeds of up to 6 knots where it flows over the 200-meter contour, which can make it a wonderful boon to a boat on a southbound passage. But it has a lethal side as well. When the wind gets into the southwest quadrant, it blows square into the current, creating high, steep, breaking waves that the local pilot book describes as “appalling.” The Wild Coast has broken the backs—literally—of ocean-going ships, and yachts have vanished there without a trace. Thirty-foot waves are common, and giants running over 45 feet are not unknown.
The short advice on the Agulhas current is to never, ever get caught out when the wind goes into the west. And, of course, the wind goes westerly on a regular basis.”
So, being prudent world cruisers, we enlisted the help of Des Carson, a well-known Cape Town weather router who helps cruisers plan their passages via daily emails giving weather forecasts and tips on where to go, as well as when to stay put. Since any forecast is only somewhat reliable up to three days at most, departing Reunion on November 6, we had no idea of what to expect upon reaching the “Wild Coast” a week later, but communicated our position daily to Des, who would respond by noon the same day as to what was in store for us. All well and good, provided we could access Sail Mail via our Single Side Band (no cost, but spotty reception along African Coast), or our Iridium Sat Phone (expensive, but reliable).
Most of the passage was, compared to previous ones, idyllic. The moon was bright most nights, weather pleasant, we were well-stocked with wonderful French provisions from Reunion Island, including steaks, pork chops, lots of fruit, and multiple cans of chili and ravioli for when the fresh meat was gone. We even had a mascot for the trip, a cute little gecko who boarded our boat in Reunion and didn’t want to leave. My late mother, Liz, whom we used to affectionately call “Lizard,” used to wear a solid gold gecko on a necklace I gave her many years ago, so we named our stowaway after my mom, “Liz.” We fed our pet out of a contact lens case, which she seemed to like.
Most of the first week was routine, but we had some excitement when Travis hooked a huge fish he fought for an hour and finally, after it ran most of his line out for the fourth or fifth time, cut the line. It was such a big one, we could never have brought it on board, let alone eaten much of it before it went bad. On Day 4, we had north to northeast wind, which made us beat upwind with lots of water coming over the bow. Our Swan is built for that kind of sailing, but several of the 14 boats in the ARC fleet that left Reunion the same time as us reported leaking hatches due to how much their boats were flexing from the upwind work. Our boat was bone dry throughout that stretch.
The upwind sailing also caused serious problems for one of the ARC boats, “Chao Lay,” which had her jib rip in half, leaving them without a headsail only 1/3 of the way to South Africa. We learned of their problem while listening to the daily ARC radio net on our SSB. Fellow cruisers advised them on how to repair the sail, but lacking a sewing machine and a big, flat space on which to make the repair, such as a sail loft, I doubted that was feasible. We had on board a couple of spare headsails, and while ”Chao Lay’s” mast was too short for the #3 jib I hoped to lend them, our storm staysail was an option that worked. We effected an “at sea” sail transfer in rough waters by navigating close to their boat, throwing a line, and having them reel in the sail. They were most appreciative, and we were glad to help.
The next few days featured light winds directly behind us, and with over half the distance covered, we liberally burned diesel to hasten our arrival ahead of the forecasted low pressure system that was to hit the Wild Coast Friday morning. By Day 8, we were well past Madagascar and heading southwest, but decided to head for Richards Bay, 100 NM closer than Durban, to make port prior to the dangerous weather’s arrival. Shortly before I was to wake up for my watch, Travis knocked on my cabin door telling me our Sat phone was out of minutes, and he couldn’t find a SSB station to communicate our position to Des, the weather router. Unable to make outgoing calls or emails, we had no way of renewing our sat phone plan until I could reach Jamie via SSB, and there was weather coming. We figured, “what the hell, there’s no turning back at this point.
Coming on watch at 0700 that morning, the breeze was fresh, I took the helm, and Travis went below to sleep. Ten minutes later, the wind piped up to 35, then 40, then 50. With just our headsail poled out to windward, we were slightly overpowered, but still under control until a giant wave sent me surfing so fast, it felt like the boat was free falling. The knot meter hit 15, faster than “Nor’easter” has ever sailed, we hit the back of the wave in front of us, the boat broached, and the next wave came over the starboard side, filling the cockpit up to my shins and finding its way down the louvered vents to Travis’s aft cabin bunk, soaking both him and the bunk. He moved his quarters to the main saloon port side settee. A few hours later, however, the sky to the south began to darken ominously, and the wind became light. We started motor-sailing.
Five hours later, with Travis back on deck and I snugly nestled in my bunk for a 5-hour rest, the boat began to pound into waves. I knew that could only mean one thing: wind from the southwest. This was bad. When I took over later, we were still 120 NM from Richards Bay, but beating into the wind. The Agulhas Current was helpful pushing us south, but as it hit the southwest winds, as we were warned, the seas became extreme. Tacking towards the coast to get out of the waves put us in an opposing current of up to 3 knots. At times, our speed over ground, in spite of the constant 35 to 40 knot winds, was 3.5 knots. We knew we had to be in port before Friday morning, or face disaster, so we kept tacking in and out of the Agulhas to maintain speed without getting into overly huge seas. I sat under the dodger in pouring rain and seas breaking over the bow, letting the autopilot drive while I trimmed the mainsheet traveler on a double-reefed main. We also ran the engine. One wave was so big, it broke on top of the dodger. It was unpleasant, but not unexpected.
By 1700, we were just 15 NM from Richards Bay, and knew we had to get in somehow, and soon. The Agulhas no longer pushed us toward our destination, but further offshore. Going inside the Agulhas put us in adverse current pushing us north. We tacked a total of 15 times over the next 8 hours, making maybe 0.2 NM toward our destination on each 20-minute tack. The leeward rail was often underwater even with our double reefed main and tiny jib deployed, but we finally got into the channel and anchored, wet, cold, hungry, but euphoric, by 2330. There were 3 ARC boats behind us, all of whom deliberately slowed near Madagascar to avoid the weather system. They will probably arrive Sunday. While we waited all day today at anchor in the rain waiting for Customs to arrive (they did not), it was good to sleep 8 hours, and we got a slip in Zululand Yacht Club Marina late Friday afternoon, where we began drying out our clothes, Travis’s aft cabin upholstery, and linens. We were invited last night to the ARC’s steak dinner at the ZYC, as they now consider us “Honorary Members” since we’ve helped two of their boats through difficult situations. It was a lot of fun.
The night we got in, after we were securely anchored in flat waters, my son and I looked at each other and agreed, “That was GREAT!” We worked incredibly well together for the entire nine day adventure. We have now sailed 16,288 NM since San Diego March 3, and work so well together, when one of us thinks of doing something on board, the other has already begun the project. While many would wonder why sailors willingly endure, and even seek out, such ordeals, those who world cruise experience a life unlike any on land, and find it positively exhilarating. Travis and I, when he is old and I am, hopefully, still among the living, will never forget our conquering “The Wild Coast.”