Like the Mozambique Channel, the stretch of coastline from Richards Bay to Cape Town needs to be treated with a lot of respect. The strong south setting Agulhas current makes for fast passage times but it is not a place to find yourself if a front sweeps in with strong southerly winds. The conditions created by these two conflicting forces have caught out many boats in the past and create confused seas with huge steep waves. It’s all about hopping down the coast in good weather windows between safe ports. There are not so many places to hide though and between Durban and East London, a distance of around 200 nautical miles, there is nowhere. It’s all about being patient and waiting for the right moment to leave.
Fathom and Kiwi Dream finally departed Richards Bay on the afternoon of 11th December for an overnight sail to Durban. As ever, Des was helping us out and we went on his green light. It was a miserable night despite the wind being astern, messy seas with steep waves and a short period made for a horrible motion. Fathom was thrown all over the place and for the first time in a while I felt a little nauseous. The wind increased overnight and by daybreak was hovering around 30knots. The photo of me sitting in the cockpit with white water astern and sleepy eyes sums it up. It was good to reach the shelter of Durban harbour where we anchored outside the marina and enjoyed a cold sundowner that afternoon.
The intention was to wait in Durban for the next good weather window to reach East London or possibly Port Elizabeth. First we had to check in to Durban with both Customs and Immigration, a tiresome requirement in several other ports in South Africa too where a ‘flight plan’ with likely timings and destinations down the coast also has to be given. Durban is not the safest place and we were warned by the marina staff not to wear watches or any flashy items when walking in public and absolutely not to walk outside the gated marina grounds at night. Alan, Annie and I took an Uber to Customs and Immigration and walked back but it was all very edgy and we didn’t loiter along the way. Thankfully the weather was looking good so we checked out again the next day.
On the morning of the 14th December the strong southerly wind that had blown all night had backed to the south east and was on it’s way to the east. This was the queue to raise anchor and head out to sea as it would then back further to the north east and increase within a few hours. Conditions remained light until early afternoon when the breeze filled in and by sunset it was blowing over 20 knots. I set the foresail on the pole, put three reefs in the mainsail and snugged the boat down for the night. The wind blew hard throughout the next day and the sailing was fast yet uncomfortable in confused seas. At dawn on the 16th the wind had given up so I motor-sailed to maximise progress. We were now firmly in some very strong current, running up to 3 knots at times, and by noon we had travelled 202 nautical miles in 24 hours. A new record by some distance but as the motor had been used for some of the time the 151nm in the Indian Ocean still stands as the best 24hr run sailing. The foreast was looking good for the next few days and Des told me to keep going full speed ahead. No need to stop at East London so it was either Port Elizabeth or continue onto Knysna.
Late on the 16th I made the call to head straight to Knysna where Des agreed with my own estimates that I should arrive at sunset on the 17th, a few hours before a big 35knot southerly change swept up from the south. Kiwi Dream and a few other boats I had left Durban with were now astern of Fathom and were heading to Port Elizabeth. Despite being the smallest boat Fathom had again shown great speed in the downwind conditions. As Fathom surfed down a wave on the way past East London the log briefly showed a speed over the ground of 12.6 knots! The 17th started off well. As I sat in the cockpit drinking my morning coffee I looked out to see a large fin a few boat lengths away. It turned out to be a curious Orca who stayed close to the boat for several minutes, the first I had seen on the whole voyage from the UK. Now past Port Elizabeth and out of the Agulhas current, and with the wind dying, progress slowed and I realised it would be touch and go to make landfall before dark. The entrance to Knysna through the heads has a fearsome reputation due to the two treacherous bars that have to be crossed. The South African navy used to train their skippers here to teach them how bad conditions could get. I knew the swell was low enough to make it manageable but it would still be a challenge and I was a little anxious. The cruising guide I had read suggested only enter on the last of the flood tide and never on the ebb. High tide was 16:30. To make matters worse thick fog closed in and by the time I reached the entrance at 17:00 visibility was so bad I couldn’t clearly make out the leading lights. Thankfully a friend had put me in touch with another yacht already inside and they messaged me to say Navionics charts were accurate and I could follow them. The tide was still slack and I got in without drama. The anchor went down a few minutes before dark and the anchor beer never tasted so good. Later that night a storm blew in and as the wind shrieked in the rigging I lay in my bunk very happy I had made it in time.
Knysna turned out to be a fantastic stop. Once through the heads the channel opens out into a lagoon with an excellent anchorage. The town itself is a white bubble, lots of upmarket shops, boutiques and bars but everyone is extremely friendly and welcoming. I waited for a few days for the other boats to arrive from Port Elizabeth and we then all got together for a memorable Christmas period. A few of us attended the local blues festival and Tobias and Leo on Uno Mundo even braved the heads again to head out to sea for a few hours to try and catch the Christmas turkey. I joined them for a nice day sailing up and down the coast with four fishing lines out but unfortunately we didn’t have any luck. On Christmas day the local yacht club was closed but they let us use their outdoor facilities, BBQ’s, power point, tables and sun shades etc. We had a great day and in the end five cruising boats got together. Hard to believe it was my third Christmas away from home, St Lucia in 2016, New Zealand in 2017 (by plane) and now South Africa.
We all wanted to be in Cape Town for New Year so set sail from Knysna on the 28th. The swell was running quite hard and heading out over the bars was quite exhilarating. Some locals had told me to hug the rocks on the starboard side close enough that I can hear the Mussels cracking so I did and it went ok! The first day out was nice sailing but the 2 to 3m swell was relentless. Mid afternoon on the 29th Fathom and Kiwi Dream converged and we took photos and videos of each other as we passed Cape Agulhas, the most southerly point in South Africa. It was an incredible feeling to finally leave the Indian Ocean for the Atlantic Ocean and felt like a real milestone. As we turned north west a couple of hours later the seas suddenly calmed, the wind moderated and we were met by a large pod of playful dolphins. It really did feel like we were in a different ocean. Some friends of mine from home called and it was surreal to have a group chat at that moment. A memorable day.
After an easy overnight sail in 10-15 knots of breeze I sat on deck as the sun rose and watched Table Mountain appear in the distance. The approach to Cape Town must be one of the most spectacular in the world. It really is a breathtaking coastline and I couldn’t resist a couple of selfies on the way in. I tied Fathom up at the Royal Cape Town marina just after lunch on the 30th with a big smile on my face. The South Atlantic was next but first I was looking forward to some land time and Fathom needed some tlc.