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.

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