“The winds and the waves
are always on the side
of the ablest navigators.”
The Cape of Storms
Durban, South Africa
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Outside the entrance to Durban's harbor we handed the sails, and while I steered, Jenny radioed port control to request entry: permission granted. This procedure, incidentally, was designed to prevent an untoward encounter with any large freighter that might have been departing. At 4:30 p.m. we motored across the capacious harbor and reached the anchorage fronting the Point Yacht Club, where port control had directed us to anchor. Suka was the first arrival of the five yachts from Richard's Bay, and within the next few hours the others had all made port as well. Jacques situated his Ludmaja II surprisingly close to Suka, and an immigration officer soon boarded us with the necessary clearance paperwork.
Well after dawn the following morning, a disconcerting bump came at the hull. Jumping to, I found that the breeze had gone slack, and that Ludmaja II and Suka had grown a little too cozy. While Jacques fended-off from the deck of his ketch, I started our diesel and backed away. Then Jenny broke free the bower and we moved to the opposite row of anchored sailboats. Ready to venture ashore, we radioed the launch, and when it arrived we paid the one Rand (50 cents) a person fare.
After wandering about town awhile, we landed back at the wharf for an interesting round of conversations with various friends. Among them, Rick and Connie Flewelling had arrived aboard their Carina, and they related enduring a harrowing storm a hundred miles off-shore Durban. A gale had struck with such ferocity that it threw Rick from the cockpit and into the sea. He hauled himself aboard only to be washed into the drink on the other tack. Carina is a Lapworth 24-footer and her intrepid crew had been cruising her for 13 years, averaging what they estimated to be 6,000 miles per annum. Their cruising philosophy was to keep the yacht simple, and wherever we saw them - for example as we were en route to some chandler or repair shop - Rick and Connie were likely to be relaxing and enjoying life, almost reveling in their lack of instruments or mechanisms to repair. Carina's ratio of displacement to crew weight was so small that Rick could hardly go forward on deck without putting the ship alarmingly down by the bows, so he had designed and built a roller furling headsail to ease some of the typical difficulties of ocean voyaging. Moreover, the yacht was so small and shoal drafted that it also served as their dinghy.
Having apprenticed with Polynesian divers for two years, Rick was by far the best spear-fisherman in our group of skin divers back at Cocos Keeling. Ironically, however, at those lovely shoreside barbecues he had contributed little to the bill of fare. Somehow, the hideous gray sharks sensed Rick's underwater prowess and seemed to follow him like buzzards. We other divers could prowl around largely at will, unheeded, but whenever Rick was about to move in on his intended prey, his daylight would darken in the shadow of some aggressive shark eager to steal his speared prey. Once, feeling rather sorry for Rick, five of us divers surrounded him, facing outward, in an effort to fend-away the gray sharks, so that he could shoot a fish. But, again, as Rick was about to squeeze the trigger, a gray easily dispersed us bodyguards, and Rick returned to the anchorage empty handed.
After a maitre d' had extradited Jenny and I from the Point Yacht Club's restaurant on the basis that our shorts did not meet with the establishment's standards, we stood again at the wharf talking with friends when suddenly I noticed that the wind was shifting. This meant that, with only her bower set, Suka would be misbehaving amongst her fore-and-aft moored neighbors. And indeed, after riding the launch back to the anchorage we found our ship encroaching upon the personal space of a local yacht. Hastily we inflated the dinghy, then Jenny rowed a stern hook aft. With that set, I easily winched Suka into position.
As an aside, Suka did not have a roller furling headsail for a few good reasons. Back then, they were not very reliable, and were well known for un-furling in a tempest. And when that happened, they were very difficult to get down. So difficult, in fact, that many a roller furling headsail simply exploded. And when that happened, the ship itself went out of control. But even if the furled headsail stayed rolled up, it added a great deal of windage in vicious winds, as compared to a bare wire forestay. And when lying to, more windage aloft means less safety. No roller furling on Suka meant that we could always dowse the headsail no matter how strong the wind, and raise something smaller to balance the boat. And this was a tremendous safety feature.
View from the "Anchorage."
Mast-head view of the city.
Durban is a large, modern city with all the amenities deemed necessary by the crusty sea rover. Laundromats, grocery stores, restaurants, movie theaters, and well-stocked chandleries were all within easy walking distance from the basin. Moreover, the Point Yacht Club offered visiting mariners a free berth at their famous International Jetty, which unfortunately was at the moment wretchedly overcrowded. According to the system, new arrivals were to displace those that had been there the longest. The jetty could accommodate perhaps 25 yachts rafted alongside the quay six or seven abreast. Additionally, a few hundred local vessels lay to adjacent moorings, tightly ensconced in a basin protected by a breakwater. Beyond that, and exposed to the immense harbor, was the dreaded "anchorage" to where visiting yachts woefully displaced from the jetty lay in exile. Reputedly, the problems with this anchorage, where Suka presently lay to her bower and kedge, were its exposure to the expansive harbor; the dredging of its seabed that had rendered its holding tenuous; and the encompassing perimeter aft comprising steep-to sand bars. Naturally, then, we would endure our first Durban-bound buster with some trepidation. As the storm unfurled, indeed, some of our neighbors dragged slowly astern while their decks bustled with the frenetic activities of their crews. We stood by all the while rather mystified that Suka's anchor was holding so tenaciously.
Having endured the gale, Suka lays calmly to her tenacious bower.
Having endured the gale, we began reflecting that our vessel's transmission had been overheating of late, weeping a few drops of fluid from its vent and occasionally failing to respond straightway to my engaging its reverse gear. Fortuitously, the city featured a Borg Warner shop, so I deemed it prudent to avail of such an improbable circumstance by delivering our transmission to the mechanics for inspection. However, because of the heavy influx of cruising yachts this time of year, the haul-out facilities proved fully booked, so reluctantly we arranged to move to the crowded jetty.
As we were soon to discover, though, we had set the bower onto a shallow sand bar, and this apparently at high tide. As I motored slowly ahead while Jenny hauled aboard chain, Suka's keel gently grounded. The present circumstance was easily remedied by a rising tide, and by our grinding in the stern warps, which reversed the vessel off the shoal. However, we could not now position the ketch over her bow anchor. From the dinghy I struggled mightily, trying to lift the anchor, but apparently it had fouled some object. Eventually, at the sight of us grappling about, Tommy came to lend assistance from his Ni Singa. The three of us labored into the morning, hampered by a stiff north-easterly that bounced us disconcertingly. Eventually the tide rose enough to allow me to maneuver Suka over the fouled anchor, and with that we were able to apply substantial leverage. With a great deal of effort we managed to winch the bower nearly to the surface, where we found that its fluke had ensnared three large mooring chains. That explained why the anchor had held so remarkably firm during the previous buster.
With the bower free at last, we began hauling aboard the stern warps. Alas, one of the kedges was also fouled. Winching it out of the water, we found it embraced neck-in-neck with an identical model, whose shank and chain directed ones attention astern, to a vessel in the second row of anchored yachts.
“Apparently the chap was not accustomed to having his mandates brushed aside, for he reacted by threatening to cut our lines should they so much as touch his boat.”
Our brig's eventual arrival at the International jetty concluded her first Durban ordeal. However, we soon learned that the ultra-crowded conditions at the Jetty did little to bring out the best personality traits among some of the residing international flotsam. Nerves here seemed to be as strained as were the mooring lines that positioned each yacht to its unwilling neighbor as its only means of security. That night a petulant ex-boxer who owned the vessel next to ours, poked his head into Suka's hatch unannounced, and demanded "Move your boat." The onset of the next gale in the interminable progression was at hand, and this Dutch fellow felt that when our mooring lines tensioned, they would chafe against his steel hull. I went outside and apprised the situation once again. Granted, the paint on a steel hull is its only protection against corrosion, yet contrary to this fellow's mandate I was reluctant to shift Suka forward, because the gale might have then shoved our ketch's vulnerable bowsprit against the stern of the larger yacht directly ahead. I related to the Dutchman that I doubted my lines would touch his yacht, that I would keep a sharp eye on the situation, and if necessary that I would then adjust them appropriately. Apparently the chap was not accustomed to having his mandates brushed aside, for he reacted by threatening to cut our lines should they so much as touch his boat.
The gale soon struck with characteristic brutality, and Jenny and I lay the night in our bunks listening to the howling tempest and to the VHF radio, which had come to life with the harrowing events befalling the unfortunates out in the anchorage.
Removing Suka's Transmission
With the gale spent, and with the steel boat's paint unbreached, and with Suka's mooring lines left mercifully intact, we spent a full day removing the transmission. Fortunately for us, after we had unbolted a few pieces of ancillary equipment, the drive shaft slid back far enough so that our disturbing the engine mounts proved unnecessary. The only real complication, then, was that the weight of the transmission was compounded seemingly a hundredfold by its awkward inaccessibility. We levered and blocked, levered and blocked, again and again. Then once we had the mass of machinery where we could grip it, ours was the straightforward task of hauling it topsides and lugging it onto the jetty while short-stepping across the decks of the two inside yachts, and into the bed of a shop mechanic's awaiting truck. Twenty four hours later the repairman returned with the reduction drive, having fitted a new set of seals after finding nothing amiss with its internal components. Jenny and I lugged the awkward chunk of metal back over lifelines; across decks bestrewn with laundry buckets, coiled ropes, anchors and chain; around cats and kitty-litter boxes; over more life lines; and finally into Suka's cockpit. And after we had painted the machine, gravity assisted our reinstalling it. By noon the following day the ketch stood fit for passage-making once again.
Jenny and I remained at the jetty for 10 days, and were about to shift the ketch to the anchorage when the decision was made for us. Purely by happenstance I stepped outside to find our inside neighbor, Peter, aboard his Canadian yacht, Sitter, unceremoniously releasing our spring warps. Five other yachts lay rafted outside Suka at the time, so effectively this fellow was casting off six vessels in one throw. Because Sitter's engine had been inoperative for more than a month, Peter had been allowed to remain at the jetty for an inordinate length of time. But having been banished at long last, apparently he was at this moment venting his furious indignation.
“Cast adrift without warning, we converged headlong into Durban ordeal #2, which lasted but a few cumbrous moments.”
Cast adrift without warning, we converged headlong into Durban ordeal #2, which lasted but a few cumbrous moments. Hollering a warning to our outside neighbors, who began bestirring themselves, I leapt below and started Suka's engine, then Jenny helped me untie from the fleet of rafted-yachts-adrift, and we backed away. Others followed suit, and altogether the crews of eight yachts relegated themselves to the anchorage that morning.
The wind was blowing 15 knots out of the north-east, initially requiring that we set a stern anchor in order to align the ketch's bow to the forthcoming south-westerly buster. With a dinghy load of rode, Jenny pulled the stern hook out over the shallows, while I motored Suka around aimlessly. Then after dumping the kedge by the board she drifted downwind paying out line. She handed me the rode's bitter end, which I then rove through a stern chock and wrapped around a primary winch, and voilà , Suka lay to her stern anchor. We made fast another line to this same rode, and easing it far out, we allowed the yacht to drift downwind another 150 feet. There, we deployed the bow anchor. Then while Jenny paid out bower chain, I winched the brig stern-ward and into position. Lastly, I rowed a second kedge forward, at a angle to the one we had already set.
The Capsized Dinghy
“As Claude was about to lower the anchor, a wave capsized the dinghy and sent it directly to the bottom. "I yelled for Claude to drop the anchor," Tommy explained later, "but he doesn't understand English - so we went down.”
In the initial throws of the ensuing south-westerly, one of the yachts near us, Lady III, began dragging. Her French crew, Claude and Renee, wisely decided to row out a secondary bow anchor. However, the wind had already whipped a hefty chop, which thwarted the couple's most concerted efforts at making headway aboard the clumsy inflatable. Tommy of Ni Singa motored to their aid with his hard dinghy. When the celestial awards are handed out for helping others, Tommy will take the gold. However, this particular morning fate was not listing in his favor. The hard dinghy was bearing the weights of Tommy, Claude, Lady III's anchor and its heavy all-chain rode, so the little boat was grossly overloaded. They managed to maneuver it into position, but as Claude was about to lower the anchor, a wave capsized the dinghy and sent it directly to the bottom. "I yelled for Claude to drop the anchor," Tommy explained later, "but he doesn't understand English - so we went down."
I jumped into Suka's Avon and rowed frantically to the scene. By the time I arrived, another yachtsman, Nick of Reremoea had hauled limp Tommy into his inflatable. As I mentioned earlier, Tommy could not swim, and having wallowed in the unforgiving brine for several minutes he found himself in grave difficulties. But once we had delivered him and Claude safely aboard Lady III, Renee began reviving the pair with blankets and hot chocolate.
Using a grappling hook, Nick and I began dragging the area, but with no success. Eventually though, a small quantity of petrol appeared at the surface, indicating the dinghy's general whereabouts, and before long we snagged something lying in the murky depths. Whatever we had, though, was too heavy to lift. In retrospect, this was most likely due to the dinghy's impinging weight of chain. Another obliging neighbor donned his scuba gear, swam to the scene, and bravely followed our grappling line down into the murky depths. After a concerted effort, the three of us had managed not only to salvage the dinghy and motor, but to set Claude's anchor as well.
Bona fide Buster
“Spanning the ever widening gap bodily, his feet planted on his vessel, and his hands grasping ours, lest he take the plunge he jumped onto Suka. 'Welcome aboard,' I bantered.”
Meanwhile the wind had intensified. A few hours after Tommy and Claude's saga, the hapless fleet was busily riding a bona fide buster, which this time was of considerable magnitude. Suka lay to a forked pair of bow anchors, but as luck would have it, the blow came not from the direction I had anticipated - in line with our main bower, but instead from fine on the port bow - in line with our backup 35-pound CQR. This rendered our main anchor unserviceable, such that the tempest began bulldozing the brig laterally toward her well secured neighboring yacht. The howling wind plowed the angry seas three and four feet high, and these oncoming combers crashed into Suka's prow and sent heavy onslaughts of spray dashing the anxious faces of her crew. The little CQR braved the storm with remarkable valor, until suddenly a gust broke it loose. At that, Suka spun helplessly to starboard, and came within inches of clouting her neighboring sailboat. Undoubtedly the two hulls would have inflicted mutual damage as they bounded wildly in the heaving seas, had not the respective crews staved-off mightily. During an unexpected lull, Suka finally sprang away, but the skipper of her neighbor failed to release his grip on our rigging in time, and after spanning the ever widening gap bodily, his feet planted on his vessel, and his hands grasping ours, lest he take the plunge he jumped onto Suka. "Welcome aboard," I bantered.
As the situation grew increasingly demanding, the brig slipped into her Durban ordeal #3. As a precaution, Perkins was ticking over at the ready, so with our secondary anchor a'dragging I grabbed the helm and motored the ketch forcefully into the wind. This relieved some of the strain from the little CQR, but it did not move us ahead. Nevertheless, the tactic prevented our smashing into our neighboring sailboat, and our dragging closer to the sandbar, which loomed menacingly a few hundred feet astern. After an hour's motoring in situ I managed to ease Suka close enough to her neighboring vessel so that our guest could disembark, incidentally while wearing my oilskin (later retrieved). Thereafter, I continued motoring into the blast for another hour and a half.
Late in the evening the gale subsided, leaving the many wearied crews free to retire belowdecks, to celebrate half-heartedly what remained of Christmas Eve.
The weather along South Africa's eastern seaboard is notorious in its severity. This is hardly the place to simply grit one's teeth and obliviously put to sea. Remarkably, though, skippers who would not dream of tempting fate by departing port on a Friday, recklessly would set sail without heeding the meteorological portends - only to find themselves agonizing in the teeth of the next gnarly tempest. We watched this happen more than once. By studying the attendant weather patterns, though, we found that we could usually anticipate the gales. The dominating meteorology is a result of the endless band of extra-tropical depressions, somewhat evenly spaced and moving eastwards across the upper 30 and lower 40 southerly latitudes. The African landmass extending southward interrupts this flow, which has swept the southern ocean for many thousands of miles from the tip of South America and beyond. Our African land mass intrudes into this flow, and so creates stupendous eddies, which can result in extraordinary barometric gradients. Thus, coastal lows are spawned in the vicinity of Cape Agulhas, from where they drift north-eastward along the coast, to subjugate Durban, Richard's Bay and points beyond. It is these coastal lows, then, that are the miscreants.
The following cycle can be observed locally: A light north-east wind intensifies, sometimes to gale force. Then it will switch direction and blow from the south-west, an event sometimes hyphenated by brief calms. After many hours of virility the strong south-westerly gale or storm-force winds will slowly moderate, leaving brief calms. Then, the cycle repeats, with a period of perhaps three to ten days.
Planning Our Departure
Planning our departures from South Africa's southeastern harbors was a matter of leaving port the moment a south-westerly gale had spent itself. This timing should allow us the most suitable weather before the onset of the next south-westerly. The local yachtsmen have evolved a simple yet effective method of predicting the onset of the next gale, based largely on the changes and values of local barometric pressures. Exercising acumen in following these principles can pay big dividends, I reasoned, even though the study of the weather is often viewed as Quixotic. Perhaps harboring the naive impression that "it couldn't be that bad out there," the more heedless sailors made untimely departures. This attitude is no doubt engendered by stories of the many who have "lucked-out," and enjoyed flawless weather rounding the Cape. And granted, during the more favorable months of December to March the storms can be interspersed with extended periods of fine conditions, such that a pleasant passage around the infamous Cape of Storms is entirely possible. But also, skippers are well known for basing their departure decisions on the often erroneous predictions and charts fabricated by the "met" bureau, whose reports I had noticed were often blatantly in error.
Suka's weather fax was producing atmospheric pressure charts three times a day, as broadcast from Pretoria. From these we learned a great deal, watching the general isobaric patterns moving about. However, we also noticed that the data was often inaccurate. At times, what the charts depicted as our local weather, and what our atmospheric conditions actually were, differed enormously. In particular, we saw a lag of sometimes days between a major meteorological event and when the met office finally depicted that event on their charts.
“Do your own thinking," Keith advised. "Regardless of what everyone else does, make decisions based on your assessment of the situation.”
Despite Jenny's and my all-embracing desires to flee Durban, the conditions offshore were not proving amenable to sailing. Discussing the situation with Keith Fletcher of Tenacity, he proffered what seemed sagacious advice: "Do your own thinking," he said. "Regardless of what everyone else does, make decisions based on your assessment of the situation." I was soon to apply this wisdom to great advantage.
The morning after we had enjoyed a pot luck dinner aboard Nikki, the sky looked promising and the fax charts indicated widespread flawless conditions. Jenny and I spent four hours checking out with the authorities, and I telephoned the local met office and learned that the experts were now predicting a few days of fine weather. That afternoon we were standing on the wharf talking with friends when a Customs officer appeared and asked if Suka was still scheduled for departure. I replied that she was, and he came aboard and issued us final clearance. This spectacle triggered many of the others to jump onto the bandwagon, and soon they were obtaining their clearance papers as well.
“Keith's advice came ringing back. "Forget the others, think for yourself.”
The following morning, as the previous buster had mitigated, eleven yachts departed, Suka being tenth in line. But once outside the protected harbor, I was surprised to find the wind blowing fresh out of the north-east, and that wisps of high cirrus were beginning to foment their omens in the southwestern sky. I sensed trouble. Despite the favorable information gleaned from the fax charts and the met office, the conditions seemed the classic harbinger of the next buster. Yet having spent so much time in Durban, Jenny and I were now more than anxious to continue, and the thought of resubmitting ourselves to Durban's labyrinth of petty officialdom was of itself incentive to press on. As I stood at the helm watching the fleet sprint aggressively away under full press of sails, Keith's advice came ringing back. "Forget the others, think for yourself."
I shared my apprehensions with Jenny, and she offered to support whatever decision I thought was best. So with indescribable reluctance I swung the helm about, and, tail between my legs so to speak, I motored back into the port. Inside the harbor we met departing yacht number eleven on its way out. Jim and Liz aboard Michael Stuart throttled back, maneuvered close aboard, and asked what was the problem. "Bad vibes," I related. "I think there may be another south-west gale brewing out there." Nevertheless, they decided to press on, following the others. We wished them well, then returned to the International Jetty, where we found plenty of space. Those remaining were indeed surprised at our untimely return, and the consensus only amplified my acute misgivings. A powerful urge within was taunting, "come on you coward, go for it!" yet my judgment whispered "stay."
“A powerful urge within was taunting, "come on you coward, go for it!" yet my judgment whispered "stay.”
Before long, Michael Stuart came put-putting back to the jetty. "Bad vibes," Jim proclaimed. "Besides," he capered, "I have a tennis match tomorrow." Responding to Jenny's radio call, an official came and checked us both back in.
The next morning dawned clear and beautiful. The fleet was no doubt a hundred miles along the coast and charging ahead, and I, quite obviously, had been terribly mistaken. As the morning began wearing on, I felt increasingly like crawling into a hole.
The gale suddenly struck Durban with such ferocity that people who were out enjoying the warm sunny morning were seen hanging onto any immovable object that offered support. The wind's fury was literally staggering. My any distinction for having been right, though, was far overshadowed by the concern I felt for our friends who were out there taking a hammering.
“My distinction for having been right was far overshadowed by the concern I felt for our friends who were out there taking a hammering.”
The storm wailed unabated throughout the day and long night, and the following morning various and sundry stricken yachts began limping back into port, having endured the night running before a 60 knot tempest, which had blasted them bare-poled back to Durban. The fastest outbound yacht was the first to return: the Germans Eric, his wife, and four children aboard their Nina had covered nearly 200 miles, and had nearly reached the next port, East London, before the gale had struck. Ludmaja II was the last in, arriving with a full complement of blown-out sails and a few choice explicatives from the French sailor's working vocabulary inscribed in Jacques' weathered expression. Most of the departing yachts returned, and we could see two masts standing beyond the breakwater; a pair of skippers had wisely anchored in the lee of the breakwater in order to avoid the requirements of checking both in and back out with the officials. Incidentally, while passing by on his way from Richards Bay, ol' Josh was one of them, having hired a competent local skipper to help deliver Comitan to Cape Town.
Two nights into the storm, the conditions were again on the mend, and I was looking for another chance to depart. That afternoon Jenny and I hiked to the offices of the port authorities, where again we checked out. Also, I telephoned the airports at Port Elizabeth and Cape Town, and learned that at the moment their weather was fine. Our skies were thickly overcast and drizzling, though, so I then telephoned the local met office. An engineer explained that the rain was not an indication of poor weather to come, but was the result of warm tropical moisture-laden air meeting the cool ocean air, and condensing.
At 10:30 p.m. the wind ceased. "We're going now," I told Jim, who came on deck when hearing our diesel engine bestir. "On a night like this?" he asked incredulously. "It's dark! It's raining!"