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.