Passage to Africa
Annette and Jenny
Sailing away from an island lying in the trade wind belt is usually not the most pleasant part of an ocean passage. An incessant, oncoming swell wraps around the isle, and converges in its lee, where it collides with itself, as it were. This constructive and destructive wave interference creates confused seas that extend miles downwind. To compound matters, the land protruding abruptly from the sea creates wind turbulence in its lee, creating fluky and light airs that hamper a yacht's sail drive.
Even so, miles away from Reunion we endured an unpleasant night, due to a lusty wind cutting broad on the port bow. But by morning the spanker had moderated to an ideal 15 knots and backed to the quarter.
The following six days proved some of the best sailing we had experienced. As we lounged about the topsides in idle reverie while basking in the sunshine, we easily dismissed the fact that we were plying the virulent Indian Ocean - except that the sea bore that unmistakably somber undertone.
Annette proved herself a worthy crew member. She allowed Jenny a respite from the galley, and treated us to her superlative French cooking. She did not sleep through a night's sail change, but would dutifully arise whenever she heard us working on the foredeck. Best of all, though, she augmented our watchkeeping, and therefore afforded us an extra portion of sleep. Moreover, Annette tutored us in the French and Spanish languages. In exchange, I introduced them both to the rudiments of celestial navigation.
Jenny learning how to use a sextant while Annette marks the time.
Many members of our Indian Ocean Rum-Line group had put to sea again, and had reactivated our ham net. So we enjoyed our twice daily scheduled radio contacts with those who tuned in. As a contingency we exchanged our respective positions, and Josh dutifully related his weather forecasts each morning.
Comitan had departed two days ahead of us, yet during our third day we overtook her. I grew suspicious of Josh's navigation when that night his masthead strobe crossed before Suka's bow and disappeared over the horizon to our port quarter. We were heading south-west, and Josh and Heidi were presently sailing south-east. Later, Heidi related that at the onset of darkness Josh would simply reduce sail and retire below, never mind that the self-steering gear was not working properly.
The following morning Josh reported a position that was not even in the proverbial ballpark, and this alerted us to the possibility of his tiring to the point of imperiling the vessel and crew. But no doubt thanks to Heidi's energizing cooking and to the successive days of superb weather, Josh continued pressing on, if slowly.
Life at sea.
The southern tip of Madagascar is a place most sailors try to avoid. The reason is that a sea mount extends from it, far away to the south, and this interacts with the South Equatorial Current to produce seas which can be rough in the extreme. Moreover, the prudent mariner stands well clear, in the event that a south-westerly gale should arise, and limit the sea room against Madagascar's lee shore.
After steering for a point 160 miles south-east of Cape Sainte Marie, Madagascar's southernmost promontory, I then laid a course directly for Durban, this in increasing winds and roughened seas - boisterously unpleasant conditions that prevailed for the ensuing 36 hours. But then the sea began settling and the wind grew oddly light. In comparison with our averaging noon runs of 135 miles, we traveled only 80 miles that day.
We were concerned about Josh, who was due to round Madagascar, so I asked if I could examine his sextant altitudes and times. Dave Pirie aboard Moongazer and I began daily checking Josh's celestial calculations by radio, and we also plotted his dead reckoning positions. Our figures indicated that Josh was doing fine over the long haul, although his steering was not accurate on a daily basis.
The powerful Agulhas Current can set one far south while approaching Durban, so we now steered a course toward Richard's Bay, 88 miles north of our destination. Now November 2nd, nine days after departing Reunion, and incidentally on Suka's second cruising anniversary, we stood some 200 miles from Durban, while progressing well in a 20 knot north-easterly under double-reefed mainsail and jib. The sky was heavily overcast and a light drizzle had set in. I did not realize this at the time, but such conditions near Africa's south-east coast portend an impending south-westerly gale. The glass was probably falling like a rock, but I had eased my guard and was not paying attention.
A furious gale
At 2 am Annette called below, waking me. She reported that "the sky ahead is really black, and that it's starting to rain." She asked me to come outside and have a look. This is why the skipper does not sleep well on a run such as this; something always needs tending. The wind is strengthening, necessitating a sail change; the radioman of a passing ship is hailing, expecting a reply - or we need to radio him; or the sat-nav has produced a needed position, the plotting of which is of great exigency. And I was to stand watch for the next three hours. This time it was: "It's starting to rain."
"OK, if it starts raining hard just come belowdecks," I admonished.
"Ray, it is raining hard," Annette implored, "and I think you'd better come have a look."
"Just come below and close the hatch until it passes," I advised. She scurried belowdecks just as a blast of wind trounced Suka onto her ear, as though an atomic bomb had exploded not far away. I hesitated, hoping the squall would pass, but the piercing gale only intensified, and by then Suka was moaning and kneeling on her larboard beam end. "Jenny and I need to drop the sails," I announced. "Annette, you'd better stay below."
“The tempest thrashed my oilskin jacket with a vengeance; it howled in the rigging, and flogged the sails fearfully. Suka was laboring; the seas were crashing into her hull and catapulting over her. Rain mixed with this spray drove horizontally, and immediately soaked me through.”
Reaching out, I attached my safety harness to a jack line, and once outside I found that the night was as black as the inside of the proverbial cow. The tempest thrashed my oilskin jacket with a vengeance; it howled in the rigging, and flogged the sails fearfully. Suka was laboring; the seas were crashing into her hull and catapulting over her. Rain mixed with this spray drove horizontally, and immediately soaked me through. I slid back the companionway hatch and requested someone to turn on the spreader light.
A bright light came on, revealing in utter chaos the ketch lying overpowered. Jenny groveled out the companionway and clipped her safety line. The tremendous jouncing required us to hold on with all our mights. "OK," I hollered above the unimaginable din, "let's get the jib down." We had doused this sail so many times that the motions had become ingrained, so fortunately we each knew what to do. Protected by her safety harness clipped slidably to a jack line, Jenny crawled forward and bravely climbed out onto the bowsprit. Once there she clipped a secondary safety line to the headstay, and signaled "ready." I uncleated the jib sheet, which had been stretched bar taut. As it eased, the sail began flogging violently, making a sound like thunder. When I released its tension altogether it aligned itself away from the tempest and stood stiffened like a giant slab of plywood. At that, Suka overpowered her self-steering rudder and hove to automatically.
Hastily I crawled forward to the mast, and eased the halyard. Incredibly, though, the jib refused to come down. It remained erect despite the absence of halyard tension, and save for a few foot's width all along its leach it did not seem to be flapping much. I joined Jenny on the bowsprit, and together we clawed the jib down the stay. Then we wrestled the sail as though it was a bronco about to be branded. With all our strength we scooped it under us, then we climbed onto it in an attempt to hold it down. Astonishingly, though, for all our weight we were not supported by the wooden catwalk, but by a large bag of compressed air - such was the wind's pressure. After tying gaskets around it, and tightening them one at a time, we finally managed to subdue the sail; then we unhanked its luff from the headstay and jammed the uncompliant, sodden beast down into the forward hatch, and onto Suka's formerly dry forecastle cushions.
Next we turned our attention to the mainsail, which was taking a real beating. One of the reefing lines had pulled out and had torn the sail as it went, but we did not notice this because of the commotion. Jenny released the halyard while I sheeted home the boom, then after easing the topping lift we man-handled the flailing boom-end into the cockpit, and lashed it securely. Flaking the sail back and forth over the boom proved impossible, so we frapped it as best we could using a dozen gaskets. Then I disengaged the self-steering vane, and folded it back.
Strangely, the seas were diminishing despite the gale's amplifying ferocity, and I soon guessed why. Initially the wind had struck from the north-east, but it had shifted to south-west, and in backing or veering (I have no idea which) it had knocked itself down. Anticipating storms like these, we always kept Suka battened down and storm ready when at sea, so topsides there were no remaining tasks. Thoroughly sodden, we retired belowdecks.
Throughout the next several hours the wind decreased imperceptibly and the seas developed considerably, but not to the point where lying a-hull seemed dangerous, and where I would have bore away and run Suka a'quartering downwind. Nevertheless, as the occasional wave pounded Suka's hull she shuddered, as did her crew.
“A few weeks later, though, we met a couple who told us that a similar storm had assailed their sturdily built ferrocement ketch, in nearly this location, and that a rogue wave struck the sailboat and rolled it 360 degrees.”
Although we felt anxious, we were not afraid. Laying tightly snugged, the brig was riding the storm adroitly, and by now I considered her seaworthy and able to withstand these gales. A few weeks later, though, we met a couple who told us that a similar storm had assailed their sturdily built ferrocement ketch, in nearly this location, and that a rogue wave struck the sailboat and rolled it 360 degrees. Remarkably, the yacht sustained but little damage.
Lying on the starboard lee bunk, again with plans to catnap, I wondered how long the gale would last. One day? Two or three? But the nap soon proved infeasible; the girls were now seasick, and the responsibility was therefore mine to tend the watchkeeping, to monitor the sat-nav and the radio, and so forth.
Dawn was beginning to pigment the mountainous, frothy horizon. Was it my imagination, or was the wind moderating slightly? At least the rain had ceased, so I opened the hatch, reached out, and clipped my harness into a jack line. Egressing like an astronaut, I emerged into a shrieking seascape of spume-flung turmoil. The waves were colossal. With the passing of each, Suka climbed up, up...and up, then wallowed down into the next gaping trough. "She's a great ship, this little brig," I thought aloud.
The gale was moderating
And now I was certain the gale was moderating, so I turned the helm hard a-lee, and Suka responded straightway by gibing onto the reciprocal heading. Then I steered a course that put the wind onto her quarter, and Suka's knot meter needle swung to 4 knots. This seemed laudable progress considering that the ketch stood naked of sail. Moreover, the wind pressure in the bare rigging was sufficient not only to drive her, but to heel her well over and prevent her from rolling severely.
With the mainsail doused and its boom lashed into the cockpit, Skua sails in gale-force winds. Note the double sheet to the storm jib, to better handle the loads.
The wind moderated gradually, and around 9 am I called belowdecks for a storm staysail. With this underarm I crawled forward along the heaving, pitching, and rolling deck. I bent the canvas to the inner forestay, and in 15 minutes had the tiny sail flying smartly. With this, Suka ground among the gnarly combers at hull speed.
The companionway hatch drew back a few inches and a hand presented a half-full cup of steaming coffee. Braced with feet against the well, and clinching the cockpit coaming with one hand, I sat absorbing the solace of the morning brew. I reasoned that since Jenny had managed to make coffee, then the worst of the storm must be past. Two hours later the girls emerged dressed in oil skins, and working together we bent the storm jib to the headstay. Our noon run that day was 118 miles, which seemed remarkable considering our having lain a-hull for six of those hours.
By evening we had set the reefed mizzen. The seas were now too ponderous to take on the beam without risking Suka's untimely demise, so I held the north-easterly heading.
The wind has greatly reduced to 25 knots, and Suka is scurrying along in rough seas.
The next morning the wind blew from the south-west at a greatly reduced 25 knots, to which Suka scurried along dressed smartly in her working canvas. We were now free to lay a course for Africa. But as we had deviated far off route, our sailing direct to Durban was now out of the question. We would soon reach the vicinity of the infamous Agulhas Current, where safety dictates that one press hard toward the nearest port of refuge under threat of the next gale in the unending succession. So we laid a course instead for Richard's Bay.
We press hard for Richard's Bay.
By afternoon the wind had fallen light, and before long the ketch was flopping heavily in a dead calm. The gale had spent itself. Motoring toward the coast, eventually we collected a light breeze from the north-east. We closed with land after dark, a whopping 158 miles north of Durban.
We found the shipping lanes busy with freighters. As we crossed the lane, readings from my hand-held compass indicated that one particular ship bearing down on us would pass well ahead. The radioman called us repeatedly questioning our intentions, but apparently he could not comprehend my answers - perhaps, in retrospect, as I was speaking English too rapidly. Finally I hove to for several minutes, showing the opposite color of the masthead light to indicate that we had given way, and this appeased the fellow. It's too bad, I thought, that the captains of all big ships are not as concerned about the wee yachts.
Sailing before a stiff north-easterly while being shoved along by the powerful Agulhas Current, we traveled over the seabed at nine knots. And as Suka drove southward throughout the night, her watchkeeper sat bundled in several layers of clothing, as the air chilled.
Reaching the entrance to Richard's Bay in a 30 knot north-easter, we entered and berthed alongside the designated customs and clearance wharf. We had traveled the 1,450 miles from Reunion in 12 days.