Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Passage to Cape Town – Part 2: Got there!

It was midnight, the sky mottled dark grey, the sea black - but for two hours we witnessed an extraordinary light-show under the boat.

The sea around us was filled with an incredible number of bioluminescent creatures and in this way Nature illuminated an amazing spectacle: Ketoro was in the centre of a huge fish bait-ball, which was using us as shelter from the dozens of dolphins seeking to eat their fill.

Bioluminescence in the sea (tiny organisms that emit light when agitated) showed the bodies and highlighted the shapes of every fish and dolphin; and the sea at our bows was alive with constant movement and ever-changing patterns. As the boat surged forward on a wave, hundreds of fish fanned forward and outwards in an arc, while the dolphins leapt at them - some left their place where they were playing in the pressure wave at the bows, others came from the sides to corral the fish and send them back under the boat where the game began again.

Swimming dolphins trailed broad bright ribbons of light where the bioluminescence in the water streamed off their fins and tails - alongside the boat, these highlighted torpedo shapes trailed their bright wakes as they surfed the waves, as they surged through the flower-pattern of fish, leaving black water passages in the luminescent fish ball as the fish fled.

And then we saw a different shape: the flat broad muscular predator with characteristic sideways tail motion. It was very quick - a dolphin sped at it, there was a short sound and the shark left them to their ball. Nature was at work, and if it was not for the bioluminescence we would have been oblivious of the drama in the water beneath us.
No photos of our bait ball but an indication of the sparkle of bioluminescence
This was a fantastically memorable experience on our last passage: the second phase of our journey to a home base in Cape Town.
Exiting the narrow channel of East London river port.
This was a ‘small’ swell; at times the huge vehicle carrier ships are kept in port for days as they cannot exit the narrow channel in the large swells that come in
We left East London with the prospect of a few days of great down-wind sailing… and so it happened. Although the winds were fairly strong from the start, the screecher sail coped well and made for fast sailing.
Sunset under the screecher: a good day and the sail behaving
But it was COLD! And we have become weak and pathetic after years of sailing in the tropics. And… these cold far-southern-latitude winds were from behind so there was no protection in the cockpit. What to do? Close up! Never mind streamlining.... close up the canvases! We made like a huge tent on the water…. And smiled! What’s more: that straight, broad back canvas acted like another sail (as in those old square-rigger boats) and probably increased our sailing speed!
Camper a-float
Hard to believe this is the cockpit of a boat on the move in strong conditions! 
No worries about wind/current; no need for canvas enclosures for warmth! 
But then the winds became stronger, too strong for the screecher sail, and the deck became a scene of frenetic activity. We had to furl the sail before it got damaged... but it would not furl properly in the strong winds. The bottom of the sail had a good tight wrap but further up it was loose and within minutes the winds were in, had opened up the wraps further and the material was flogging and flapping noisily, high above us, in danger of ripping.

What to do? We decided to drop the sail immediately and as it came down we fell onto this 18m-long monster to hold it down in the winds, secured it to the trampoline with ties, and resorted to our trusty newly-bandaged headsail.
Night-time sail problems result in a mess of sail on deck
This gave us peace for hours, but the taped repair made in East London did not last long (5 years seems beyond the sell-by date for adhesive sail tape) and we witnessed a less attractive fluttering ribbon than that created by the bioluminescent dolphins!

There was more to-and-fro with sails (more up-down, more small problems to solve) but nonetheless we actually had a really successful sail and passed Cape Agulhas: the southernmost tip of Africa. Our first seals in over 4 years came to play! They lifted their curious noses out of the water and appeared to smile as they regarded us with their beady eyes then flipped and turned and dived down. Then there were odd projections out of the water… A seal on its back, the only parts visible a shiny black nose and two flippers held up to warm in the sun! Fun animals, these.

Strong winds came in again: still from our stern, but too strong for the screecher – more sail changes. By now the boat was a mess, with baby net in tatters, lines chafed, damaged sails strapped down on the trampoline, main sail tied to the boom with bright yellow ties to prevent it lifting in the strong stern winds; but Ketoro was certainly making way quickly!
We were well ahead of schedule and as we saw False Bay ahead of us we realised we would get to Simonstown that day.

Thoughts: it will be too late to call the marina (about 6:30pm) but still light so we can anchor outside and go in tomorrow.

And the winds built... And then we were in a howling 42 knot gale, with resulting steep waves that we surfed. But a way down the wave, the (reefed) sail would catch a huge gust and Ketoro would slew and threaten to broach.... We had little control in these circumstances so took in the last of the sail and let the engines and autopilot do their thing.

Squinting into the setting sun through the un-clear "clears" (a boat's plastic windscreen) we tried to navigate our way past Simonstown naval base and into the small-craft harbour area. That identified, we had to drop anchor. Quickly.

Picture: 42knot gale, Irene in foul-weather gear up front, Rolf desperately trying to hold the boat forward into the wind.... And we fell back, far too close to another yacht. Swear.
We must lift the anchor and try again (shouting over the wind).

Rolf as before (still); Irene pulling up anchor chain.... And a rich crop of kelp and seaweed. Red, purple, brown, green, slimy, big leaves, small leaves on stalks, soft, hard.... All glued together with gloop and brought up with the chain and making its way into the locker to jam everything up. Swear.

Rolf as before (again!); Irene ripped and pulled and flung kelp and mud in chunks large and small... And they were blown back onto her, and onto the deck, and onto the clear screen, and some off the boat too, happily!

It was all too slow; the sun was down, light was starting to go, we had to try to anchor again - and then we got a call on the radio. The marina pub dwellers had seen us and assured us there was a berth open, if we were feeling lucky enough to manoeuvre in the storm. So we prepared fenders and mooring lines and gave it a go.

The wind had not abated and this boat with its high sides and windage, is a little headstrong when manoeuvring in the confines of a marina in 42 knots. Irene on the bow with the long lines to throw, Rolf yells above the wind "we've only got one shot at this".

Well, the shot was taken, was accurate, we tied on, we were home. Hello, False Bay Yacht Club!

We went to that pub!
View from Ketoro’s roof towards naval ships and submarine 
A section of False Bay Yacht Club from shore

Friday, December 6, 2013

Voyaging to Cape Town Part 1 - East London refuge

The water in the harbour channel was flat and easy, so the sudden waves as we passed the breakwater were shocking: even though we expected them.

It was Sunday 5:10am and we were beginning on our passage from Richards Bay (RB) to Cape Town. Port Control had announced the channel to be clear of shipping and our flight plan was in order so we may depart.

Our previous blog describing passage-making (Reunion to RB) started off "Weather, weather, weather. That is all yachties talk and think about before they set off across the ocean...”.
Well, same again! This time, we had only a short weather window: there was a low pressure system over RB and the next one was due in East London (EL) on Tuesday. The theory is: commence at the back end of a low system and this will give you a bit of time before the worst of the next system hits and you need to find a place to hide. The problem is the SA coastline offers few places to hide.

It is ridiculous that by 4:30am it is light in RB (you will not be aware of this if you don't live in a boat – un-curtained and with horizontal overhead hatches. Rolf is very aware of it: Irene's appearance with her black airplane eye covers terrifies him into nightmares of pirates!) but every hour helps if you are trying to beat the weather!

The journey

Our Richards Bay to East London plan had several sub-plans:
1 Richards Bay to Durban as fast as possible;
2 Find the Agulhas Current;
3 Use the current for a fast trip to East London;
4 Exit the current and enter East London before the next round of SW gales reach there!

This is how it went….

Richards Bay to Durban - Starting off on the back end of a low is not easy: winds are still strong and you head into them, seas are still very grumpy; many in the marina advised us not to go, because of the conditions, but we set off into those grumpy seas... And griped! And were SLOW SLOW SLOW! But it all settled within about 6 hours, we passed Durban in about 13 hours and started to focus on …

Finding the Agulhas current. We were 5 miles off Durban, where there was supposed to be current: and indeed we had current… AGAINST US! Unbelievably frustrating as for hours all we saw was our speed not being good enough to get to East London before the next SW gales reached us - plus the added fear of being in the strong south-west flowing Agulhas Current when the opposing SW winds hit and thus experience the notorious waves that build up. Should we revise our plan and turn back for Durban? Eventually, far offshore and around Aliwal Shoal, at about 2am on Monday morning we finally found the current: WOW!

We were in a rocket-ride. The current at times added 4 knots to our boat speed (generally 5-6 knots) plus we had good following winds: a yachtsman’s dream.
SOG (speed over ground) on chart (left) is 3.4kn faster than boat speed (right)
Our max speed seen was 12.5 knots-at the height of wind and current!

The winds, however, got stronger and the “gale warning” we heard over the VHF radio for our area was perfectly accurate!

The seas stood up… and up. Generally, when waves come underneath us, Ketoro reassuringly puts her bottom up as each wave lift us from behind and then settles as the wave moves ahead. This time we had a different and unnerving experience: big waves came underneath us… and because we were going so fast, we stayed bottom up… and stayed... on the front of the wave!

And then our foresail tore as we were doing a gybe. In the chaos and banging and bedlam and noise that is sailing under these conditions, we then managed to pull it in and stop it from completely flogging itself to bits, but – we now had to motor the rest of the way.

The last step was to exit the current and enter East London harbour. This sounds easy but you need to plan carefully, and start easing out of the main current about 35 miles before East London. You are 10-15 miles offshore on a racing ocean and with gale force winds from behind and if you are not careful you get swept past East London!

We did it, entered East London river port at 3:00 am on Tuesday, put our anchor down and slept!
The plans came together: ok, not with finesse, not prettily, not that there was any dignity…. But things fell into place eventually.

A stop in East London 

The Buffalo River is a lovely calm safe place to anchor; just don’t get in the way of the commercial ships using this port. 4 hours after anchor-down we were woken by one of these tugs that had come right to the boat…
… to say we were in the way of a ship they were soon to take into the dry dock.

So we lifted anchor and moved and watched as the ship was manoeuvred into the dock and the gates sealed before water was pumped out.

The vessel in dry dock (Ketoro in far background)
On that first day, we also had chores to do. Problems with the water maker, deck-wash pump and a bilge pump were resolved and the damaged sail was bandaged!
The sail occupies the galley and outside cockpit while it undergoes temporary repair –
fingers crossed that it holds the rest of the way to Cape Town 
The Buffalo River is a recommended anchorage for protection from big storms, and there were about 8 other transiting yachts here with us in a peaceful scene.

Although there is always the hum of cars (crossing the top deck of the bridge) and trains (on the lower bridge level and alongside us), bird-life is plentiful and the Egyptian geese can hold their own in a noise competition!
Another day a glance out of a side hatch showed a steel wall behind us; we went up top and saw a new neighbour coming alongside…

Swedish vehicle carrier tied up behind Ketoro 
Mercedes Benz manufactures all their C series cars in East London and imports its other models. Over the course of about 10 hours, over a thousand Mercedes were offloaded and a similar number loaded alongside us by being driven across the drawbridge ramp that is lowered from the ship to the wharf. A very well organised operation that was followed the next day by the start of the process of driving them all to the Mercedes plant nearby.
A small fraction of the thousand+ Mercedes vehicles offloaded onto platform alongside us;
engine on railway line in background 
The parents of friends are resident here, and they kindly lent us their car: it was an opportunity to (get to a Laundromat! … and) see something of East London, in particular the lovely coastline.

Soft, fine-sand beaches; clear water; huge sand dunes and dense dune vegetation – this area in the Eastern Cape is beautiful and so typical of the South African coastline we remember!

The weather prediction is that the SW winds will abate and move through south to south east and east.
Wind direction row shows change on Saturday, to the easterly winds that we need 
Saturday will see us leave for the next stretch, in the hope that the next stop is Simonstown, after a great 4-day stop in EL.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Flying the home flag

Well, Ketoro has been flying her home flag in Richards Bay, but we have not been there to see it, as we have almost permanently been elsewhere!

Ketoro (far left) at Zululand (Richards Bay) Yacht Club marina
But from the moment we landed, we had a great welcoming by lots of family -
Grand-dads take grandsons for walks to the hard stand – an outing both enjoy! 
Family visit: Livi (the day's chef) and Irene with Ingi and Caz 
What a difference there is between the first month after landing in a new country and the first month after landing in your home country.
The former sees frenetic activity as you try to cover all the bases (seeing the sights, observing the people, learning the customs, exploring the countryside/town/shopping options) while the latter sees (equally? MORE?) frenetic activity as you rapidly resume the "I'm home" strategies (visiting with friends and family; seeking work: Rolf went to Johannesburg; doing necessary medical procedures: Irene went to Cape Town; topping up the storage lockers with familiar foodstuff: we all went to Pick ‘n Pay and Woollies!).
Never far from the sea - here Cape Town 
Leaving the boat in the RBYC marina, we are happily resuming life in SA and seeing home with different eyes, having been away for over 4 years and now looking at our country as our cruiser friends would.
Cruising has put us in touch with wonderful people from all over the world, who are interested and extract from us information on South Africa – forcing us to gather our thoughts into coherent information. We now enjoy hearing from them about their actual experiences as many have now sailed here and travelled ashore.

The item generally on top of a foreigners list is to go "on safari" - South Africans are spoilt for choice with game parks but people the world over get very excited at the thought of seeing elephant, rhino and lion in their natural environment. Well, to be honest, after a break of more than six years since our last game park visit, we were excited too, and a trip to Hluhluwe-Umfolozi was a priority.
A typical KZN rural scene en route to the park – we look at it with new eyes! 
The bush was looking magnificent in its (southern hemisphere) post-rains spring green, and baby animals were everywhere - a lovely time to visit. One of the best things about a game park visit is that it forces you to slow down and relax (although we suspect that many of our foreign friends are not doing this enough, in order to tick that big 5 box in their limited available time!)

Sometimes, however, you have no choice but to stop:
Game drive on hold for a magnificent rhino pair 
Then baby came out and dad’s look became a warning. This was a narrow road.
After a half hour impasse we turned around and decided on another drive route! 
We have become tree-huggers! (A dearth of those at sea) 
Sometimes a tree’s silhouette is enhanced – this time by giraffe,
animals with a great silhouette themselves! 
Elephant “land mines” were prolific –
and carefully avoided in order to save any dung beetles busy in them
Dung beetle in traditional pose – head-down, pushing its ball of dung up a slope 

A collection of comments in connection with game parks…
First, the reception room always has a mapped magnet-board for placing your latest sightings; well, there are no longer magnets for rhinos here – an effort to limit communication to poachers. We are reminded of the stir we caused in China in 2012 when a SA R10 note fell out of a bag onto the table: we were astonished by the state of excitement of the locals who gathered round the table when they saw it.

We now also have a new breed of poacher: one sourcing vulture heads for traditional medicines that are expected to provide “clairvoyant powers, foresight and increased intelligence”… apparently particularly to suit the demand for greater gambling and lotto success. The weekend we were at Hluhluwe, 37 white-backed vultures died from eating a poisoned elephant carcass. Vultures have been killed in their hundreds in Africa recently – 400 in a single poisoning case in Namibia in early 2013.

Now on a much lighter note: the BIG 5, little 5, ugly 5… and “plant 5”.

The Big 5 of course are elephant, buffalo, leopard, lion and rhino. But these guys have inspired the creation of other groupings, to make game or bush drives more fun and focussed (more boxes to tick!?)...

Another Big 5 beast; we did not see the cats this trip, but of course everyone else saw lion! 
The Little 5? Elephant shrew (with a long nose), buffalo weaver bird, leopard tortoise, ant lion and rhinoceros beetle (which looks a lot like a miniature rhino).

The Ugly 5 are evidently (fondly!?) considered to be the hyena, wildebeest, vulture, warthog (Irene's favourite beast!) and marabou stork.

Finally: the Plant 5 are indigenous plants with Big 5 animal names - the leopard orchid, buffalo thorn bush (of which giraffes are very fond), rhino coffee shrub, lion’s tail (wild dagga/marijuana) and elephant food (spekboom).
“At least we had a decent aggressive thorn named after us. I would have hated an orchid”
The best part of being home is the chance to spend time with family and good friends again - here to celebrate Oma's (Rolf’s Mom) 88th birthday with her.

Now back on the boat, we watch for a weather window to set sail for Cape Town, and wonder if we will be driven to take refuge from the storm fronts en route.... Maybe not such a bad thing after all, giving us a chance to see the country differently from our previous visits, and now as our yachtie friends would!
Looking beyond the yachts to the tanker entering the channel which we will exit tomorrow
We think we will leave on Sunday 1 December: follow us on the google earth link on the right… and hope for fair winds and seas, please!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Passage-making: Reunion to South Africa

Weather, weather, weather.

That is all yachties talk and think about before they set off across the ocean. You plan your trip as best you can (wish-list: gentle long-period rollers, no adverse current, maybe a little current in our favour, please?; winds from a consistent direction, consistent strength… maybe 20knots just forward of the beam, please?) and set off on the day most likely to give you a good start…


We left Reunion in the knowledge that this passage around the southern tip of Madagascar was potentially a tough one. The weather and seas deliver absolutely nothing from the wish-lists, as the weather coming up from the Cape consists of a succession of weather front systems, all moving inexorably north and east and over any vessels en route - and when you approach the African coast, the notorious interaction between the SW storm winds and the Agulhas current adds a further dimension.

But our departure was timed for the end of the southern winter and thus the promise of fewer bad weather fronts, so off we set, Rolf and Brian (our nephew) securing the dinghy while underway and Reunion island still in the background…
Wake-up call! See that great flat sea? That was in the lee of the island… we were shocked a few hours later as we churned our way through and over huge swells (4-5m), were pushed by 25-32 knot winds, and had a most uncomfortable start as the waves were all on the beam, lifting us side-on. Then there were some rogues: water over the top of the cockpit roof, water over the stern and pouring forward over the cockpit floor; water over the dinghy as we slewed around and we came the closest ever to sliding down a wave sideways.
From the shelter of the saloon… they end up slamming down on top of the decks
Everything went flying in the galley and saloon (well, come on! We are a catamaran and should experience no more than a tinkling of the ice cubes in the cocktails!) some hatches capitulated and showed leaks when assaulted by solid water at that angle and with that force; a main sail reef line chafed and parted within the first two days, spilling the mainsail and requiring installation of the spare line on a bucking cockpit roof, other smaller bits flew apart and required attention up front and some damage was taken by bodies in the process: the boat demands its daily quota of bloodletting!
Setting up spare reef line
Foul weather yachtsman’s gear… and fluffy slippers!
Welcome to ocean crossings (not usually the fluffy slippers!! Just when you need a little TLC on the toes…!).

The following day (day 3) was calm and beautiful, gentle sailing under the screecher sail … and a rest period while we awaited an approaching front. Nonetheless, not all on the wish list was supplied: the current was horrible! 2 knots against us meant that while our speed through water felt great at 6+ knots, we were doing little more than 4 knots over ground in our effort to whittle down those 1500 miles to Richards Bay. This was truly frustrating and in fact we ended up suffering adverse current for almost the whole journey.
What to do on a calm day… getting away from everything in the world!
What to do on a calm day… transfer fuel from jerry cans. Are we having fun yet!?
Of course, the frontal system then hit us – barometer plummeted, winds came in and the log reflects the passage of the system as winds changed from NE to N to NW to SW to S: every wind-shift required attention to the sail plan, whilst we bounced on the sea made lumpy by the changing winds, sometimes having to helm when the autopilot did not cope, squalls passed over us… and the starboard engine died, requiring that Rolf go head-down under the bunk to investigate. The problem was terminal and that engine was off-duty for the remainder of the passage.
Engine oil contaminated with?? discarded into empty jerry cans 
24h Barometer pic tells a tale:
a massive pressure drop shows the low system we went through (12-6h prior); pressure rose as the high system moved in; stable means GOOD!
We have passed through the squall line and leave bad weather behind us: temporarily!

Getting weather downloads with satellite phone: the only place we could connect necessitated making a “table” for the computer.
‘Pile of Cushions’ tables in bucking boats are a challenge - something is going to go!
The high system came over us and again we had a period of calm (day 6) with lovely sailing… and dolphins, the beautiful sight of the setting sun and rising moon simultaneously and finally: the green flash as the sun’s last sliver disappeared. Treat!
Sun sets with moon sliver up high
Day 7 was auspicious for us (!!) as we passed the southern tip of Madagascar: the under-sea Madagascar ridge has huge impact on the waters miles above it, and we suddenly found current in our favour as we crossed this ridge. Hurrah!

But we knew we were getting closer to sea expanses that were more troublesome, with strong currents. Typically, if a strong wind blows over a fast-flowing current in the opposite direction, it produces large steep waves – and the Agulhas current, which flows generally towards the S/SW, is notorious for building up huge seas when a SW wind blows against it.

Our course coincided with the shipping route between the Cape (and SA ports) and the East and we encountered dozens of large ships.

The AIS info on the chartplotter was very helpful, as we could see their course and closest point of approach, and adjust our course.

An intimidating situation: 3 ships approach triangles), closest coming less than a mile away
Sometimes the AIS info entertains:
This ship’s name (Iolcos Confidence) reflects the reason for its confident approach …
with ‘Armed Guards On Board’!
And after Madagascar, there were still two further weather front systems to endure before landfall.
Nevertheless, we finally made it… (adverse current is merely annoying and 6m breaking waves are just babies, really)… and then there was South Africa!
Necessarily sailing into Richards Bay harbour (no SB engine)
Our home flag is now also the courtesy flag of the visited country: first time in 4+ years!
We, and Ketoro, are at home for a bit!