Saturday, September 26, 2009

Ups and downs of our first passage

Well, this was finally it… we were on our way! After the long delay, Ronnie (our delivery skipper) and Patrick (our friend who wanted to join in this experience… called “mad” by some of his friends, apparently…!) got on board with us and on Tuesday 15 September we set off... looking like sea gypsies with all the stuff we were transporting to Madagascar for Admiral! The weather was not predicted to be perfect, but in Cape Town if you wait for perfect you will wait forever... and then, perfect as you leave CT may not lead to perfect for other parts of the voyage.

Our first day saw big rough lumpy seas, with Ketoro bumping and rolling up and down heading into the swells, first on motor and then main (reefed as the winds increased) and headsail with winds 25kn SW.
Ronnie set up a 3-hour watch system for the passage: this worked very well (Pat suffered motion sickness and was excluded for the first 24 hours until he got his sea legs… um stomach!) with the exception of a bad night outside Durban some days later. We were all freezing... which helped to keep us alert!Once we had rounded Cape Point (6h into the journey) the strong SW winds, supported by SW 5m swells (at times increasing to about 6m) really supported us and we felt like we were flying through/over the water! We made great speed for the first 3 days, with a speed challenge set up as we surfed down those swells; occasional 50-knot gusts helped us to peak at 15knots boat speed (Ronnie won the competition).

Note: when you are totally new at this sailing thing and the twice-daily VHF weather report warns of gale force winds (defined as 35 knots) you tend to quake; apparently when you are old-hand you also hear this and quake and would not leave your sheltered harbour if you had brains and the choice. However, we were out in it and have learned that it is the wind combined with the sea state which is important: in our case the swells were not opposing us or the wind and hence the ride, while thrilling and exhilarating, was not dangerous while taken with care. We were delighted to receive calls from Mark telling us about lots of people following our progress (on our Google Earth blog, which Irene updated 3 times daily) and complimentary text messages / quick e-mails from those following our progress saying things like “…Smokin’!”

So how did this experience feel? Well … massively and absolutely new!! Overload…! Like so …
Our new fifth crew member, the autopilot (AP) was amazing and held course in most of those huge conditions so the watch was greatly eased by usually not having to hand-steer. This meant you could briefly leave your station to visit the heads / make coffee / take a photo and of course it was less exhausting. Having said that, simply being on watch WAS exhausting for us (well, for Irene) as specks of light on the horizon or radar screen pose a threat to an already-taxed adrenaline-producing system, your senses are so heightened and all the sounds and scenes are radically different from any previously experienced.

During day-time watches others are generally around and give you company (although of necessity one must catch up on sleep during the day to prepare for the next night/catch up on the previous) while your company on night watches is a black-and-white panorama of pinprick stars on a pitch canvas, supported on an ever-rolling, broiling black sea. This latter appears so different from its day-time appearance: during the day one has the benefit of light to develop the 3-D picture while the black sea appears flat at night, the shape and movement appearing from an incessant moving brilliant white froth accompanying it and changing shape and form constantly. The swish and rumble of this froth alongside, sometimes moving ahead of the helmsman and sometimes falling back, is mesmerising: particularly so when the brilliance of the white is heightened by phosphorescence.

New noises. My word, these are indescribable. The noises of the sea in which you are a speck: swishing is lovely, soothing; the other sea noises can be big and unnerving if you let them. Then there are the disembodied voices over the VHF radio: other sailors calling to each other, the regular 12:15 and 18:15 weather update calling “All ships, all ships…” But particularly… yacht noises. Thank heavens we were not exposed to these at first on our own, because the noises on board a yacht making headway in heavy seas are alarming in the extreme. Crashing, banging, knocking, grinding, creaking and groaning first come to mind, of a decibel level such that you cannot think and I feared we were about to break up! But no, these are usual. In fact, apparently Ketoro is relatively quiet when it comes to bridge-slap: in catamarans, water accelerates between the hulls and hits the bottom of the bridge-deck at speed, with a deeply but sharply resounding bang. Due to our high bridge-deck clearance, we have much less of this than some other yachts (thank heavens!!! Enough to cope with anyway…)

There are also the heart-stopping noises of alarms. Alarms are good: they inform you when things are not quite as they should be and thus enable you to take control of the situation. When you are in your cabin at 2 am (exhausted, just off watch) and you hear what you assume to be the auto-pilot alarm you know that Rolf (on watch) will over-ride it, take the helm, get back on track and re-set AP. When the alarm continues to ring you reprimand yourself to stop panicking but rush to check that he is not overboard anyway. On seeing him in the cockpit your heart is soothed, but wait: the alarm is still going…. and in fact, it is the bilge pump alarm (which sounds to inform you there is water in the bilges, which it then pumps out and the alarm stops). You retire to bed with the sounds of the three guys attending to the problem of this non-stop alarm, assuring yourself with the calm rationale of a sleep-deprived inexperienced sailor that the yacht is not going to sink and all will be well. Which it was. But sleep hid away anyway and so it is coffee in the galley with the others and many bleary eyes.

The best noises of all are hearing a whale while you are in your cabin and those of sailing in a calm sea with fair winds. This passage generally kept the latter from us, with the exception of some hours on two later days; we were instead given the heavy-sea-weather boat noises and … engine sounds. Now maybe boys love the throbbing and thrumming of motors, but this is a sailing yacht, for heaven’s sake! Nonetheless, it appears that one uses ones motors often… and in fact, thank heavens for them in big seas (to push us through and support the sails), also times with no wind, docking and facilitating your path round the numerous huge ships near big harbours. It seems, however, that engines need attention.
Certainly, both of ours did. As a result of which, we had boys upside-down in the engine bays often, no matter how rocking the sea, pumping out and replacing gear-box oil and keeping the samples for the technical guys (read: bedding strewn all over the boat, no place looking or feeling like a home in the old context of the word, diesel and oil-finger-smears on everything, diesel-smells at home. More sea-sick pills.) Enough of that.

After the hectic Cape seas and weather we were treated to The Dream off the Transkei.
Perfect weather, sufficient wind to sail by our code zero (colourful asymmetric spinnaker), spectacular coastline (which we saw from close up as one keeps in-shore of the Agulhas current throughout the trip, where possible), crystal sea and dolphins surfing, dolphins playing in our bows, whales breaching and blowing, birds gliding, diving and fishing.
This was heaven… but it was soon (as predicted by the remarkably accurate weather forecasters) replaced by our worst sailing when we received strong winds on the nose (not good for cats!) accompanied by fairly large lumpy seas against us. AP was unreliable in these conditions so we had to hand-helm: a very exhausting experience, so watches were reduced to 2 hours and when on deck it was foul-weather gear, lifejackets, harnesses. In these conditions (extreme noise, banging, howling and wild boat movement) we also had to deal with getting round all the huge ships around Durban harbour in the dark. It is a good thing that we have now experienced a situation in which 5 hours of sailing takes you no further than 2nm further on your journey (in many cases tacking around the ships caused us to lose ground) as we would not have believed it possible! The highlight of this time was a wonderful call from Barry telling us that he and Kay had become engaged!

It was with relief that we felt these awful weather conditions changing just before midnight, bringing us up to our last day and Rolf’s birthday on wonderful sailing seas with more whales and dolphins gracing the shores of northern Natal. The contrast of the experiences the night before with our champagne-charged full English breakfast round the table in celebration (AP on helm) was enormous.
This was followed by birthday “cake” (bowls of ice-cream and nuts with generous splashes of Captain Morgan) and a happy peaceful entry into Richards Bay harbour. We are convinced that this yacht sailing in under her beautiful Code Zero was the picture of peace… as it surely was, but gave no telling of the experiences that had gone before to get us to this point!

So we are ensconced on the wall at Zululand Yacht Club for a week while we get some repairs done, take stock, re-provision, re-arrange lockers … and recover! We are completely exhausted and enjoying the peace, still waters and twittering weavers building their nests alongside our berth. We are enjoying visits from Mark and Livi and the Durban in-laws and cousins. This has been a physical and emotional roller-coaster but has prepared us well for the next step up to Mozambique then Madagascar.

Watch this space, and follow us on Google Earth (access from the link at the top of the column on the right), which we will try to update as often as possible. If the place mark does not move, assume that we are visiting land, or anchored for a breather, or cannot get the sat phone to work, or we are getting no time to do it… but above all assume that we are enjoying realising this dream.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

At home on the water

At last we are living in our new home! Here is Ketoro at Cape Town’s Royal Cape Yacht Club (having spent several weeks at Elliott Basin nearby). We have been living in this home for a week and what follows is a quick picture-narrative of it all:

In the yacht basin, we are fairly protected from the big swells but still can experience a lot of wind, which howls with high pitch through the rigging around us. On this morning, however, it was magnificently calm and still, as viewed from the starboard hull amidships’ port light (window!).

The next view, from the cockpit area (back of the yacht), shows that the small-craft harbour is still integrated with other working parts of the harbour, and it is wonderful to watch huge container ships being assisted in and out by tugs, while fishing boats go about their morning and evening business.

The following photos give you an idea of what home looks like inside…. And it is really comfy!!

You will notice (below) that the galley comes complete with mess and kitchen hand! Irene (further down) is shown on the phone at the nav station…. Probably asking someone for help as to the use for all the switches behind her! When you come and stay, please remember to switch on the appropriate ones when you want to, say, use the loo or the shower….
The aft cabins are shown here (ours in earth colours) and there is another forward cabin in the port side (guest hull), with the guest heads shown. In case you wondered, the extra rail in the shower is a grab-rail….

We have put massive effort into getting Ketoro ready to sail, and somehow managed to stow about 7 trailer-loads of stuff into all nooks and crannies we could find (and also the lockers provided.) We have provided foodstuff for between 3 and 6 months, learning as we went what to get and how to store it. So for example, we have limited fridge and freezer space so discovered that waxed cheese rounds will keep for ages until cut. The accompanying photo shows several kilo-sized cheese rounds wrapped in muslin, labeled and stored in foil containers in one of the bilges in the starboard hull (held snugly in place by plumbing and our shower drain pump). Bilges are close to the water hence a bit cooler for storage…. And if water gets in the bilge pumps automatically sort that out.

Some of the food storage lockers in the starboard hull are shown here; each shelf classified by type of foodstuff and the quantities and storage location detailed on a spreadsheet, along with the location of the extra stock (mostly in the bilges in the port hull or in locker s under the saloon seating, where that is not taken up by batteries, inverter or aircon unit). The spreadsheets require that note is made every time a product is used; this will make it easier to keep track of stocks and the need to replenish…. Not to mention obviating the need to scramble round and dig into all the storage locations trying to count what is left over! All tins were labeled in permanent marker on their lids in case the labels came off, and we vacuum-packed a lot of the foodstuff into smaller packages for convenience of storage and to minimize the deterioration factor when the bags are opened.
So we think we are almost ready to go. Of course there is still lots to do, but some can be done on passage…. Even though we are certainly not expecting much of the trip to be as calm and gentle as seen in this photo of a jaunt out with Mark and Livi recently!
Depending on the weather, we may have to motor (either if there is no wind or winds too strong so we drop the sails and use the motors to punch through the sea) but we really do want to sail … and hope to get our code zero up (asymmetric spinnaker-type sail) …. Keep your fingers crossed!!