Cape Town to Fortaleza in the Southern Atlantic
Passage to St. Helena
February 5, 10 a.m: freeing the dock lines we said goodbye to Wilfrid who had taken leave from work to see us off. Soon Suka had filled away into the Southern Atlantic, as we watched the distinctive landmark Table Mountain withdrawing steadily into the distance astern.
Looking back, we were leaving South Africa with fond memories of dear friends and richly rewarding experiences. Looking ahead, we were laying a course for the island St. Helena, standing insular and forlorn nearly 1,700 nautical miles to the north-west.
Leaving Cape Town.
Three hours after we had embarked, the fax machine produced a weather chart that indicated a strong, westerly depression charging in our direction. Had we been in the vicinity of Africa's southern or eastern seaboard, straightway we would have returned to port. But here we felt the gale would merely blow us in a favorable direction.
The next day we motor-sailed into light headwinds, while riding the strongly sweeping Benguela current. Then at four o'clock again the following morning the convergence passed overhead, and brought with it gale force winds from the south. Seldom had a tempest driven us in the desired direction of travel, allowing us to use it to best advantage. But this one did. We dowsed the mainsail, and after frapping it securely to its boom, we eased it's topping lift and lashed the boom's after end to the cockpit coaming. Then we affixed both running backstays and bowsed them taut, hardened the jib sheet, and trimmed the self steering gear so as to keep the blast fine on the quarter. Riding the storm at seven knots under her own management, Suka proved herself reassuringly stable, and allowed her crew to retire belowdecks to lose ourselves each in a book. The ketch's heavy displacement and full keel, combined with our knowledge as to how to take advantage of them, were now working in our favor.
Riding the gale.
Twelve hours later the wind had intensified, and rather as a precaution we decided to shorten sail by exchanging the solitary working jib in favor of the storm jib. However, the Force 9 winds were stretching the jib sheet bar taut, and had we simply eased the sheet, the tempest could have ripped the unrestrained, sun-bleached sail to shreds. So first I adjusted the steering vane to jibe the headsail, a maneuver that backwinded the canvas, bracing it immovable against the inner forestay where it then stood supported mainly by its clew. Then while I hand-steered, to prevent any wind shift or boat lurch from precipitating an inadvertent jibe - which might have spelled sudden disaster on the foredeck - Jenny crawled forward and dowsed the sail. With the sheet now slack I released it from the throat of the self-tailing winch, then joined Jenny forward, and while she unfastened the hanks, one after another, I began cramming the sail into the forehatch.
Sailing at six knots with just a storm headsail.
Bare poled, Suka made 4-1/2 knots; but after we had bent and set her storm headsail, her knot meter swung to six.
Again we stowed ourselves belowdecks, and I returned to my Louis L'Amour paperbacks, so adroit at conveying the mind elsewhere, like any good read that served as a mind diversion in such disquieting conditions such as these. These few books, incidentally, were a gift from my grandfather, who had amassed nearly the entire L'Amourian collection.
Mountainous seas, the largest we had experienced.
Some were smashing Suka in onslaughts of seething brine.
“The pudding catapulted into the air with what I imagined might have been a 3-1/2 forward somersault. The sad result: an amorphous, yellow blob on the cabin sole. Petrified, the mate could not decide whether to cry or scream, and for the moment I was safe.”
In another thirty six hours the blow moderated, leaving our little brig rushing ahead while climbing stern-ward over the face of each huge and rolling following-sea, and descending gracefully into the successive yawning trough. These were the largest waves we had experienced, and some were crest-breaking menacingly and smashing Suka in onslaughts of seething brine. Nevertheless, Jenny is not one to sit idly about, and that afternoon she baked a sumptuous banana pudding. This was a gallant effort in such conditions, but had been suggested by the over-ripening of her stock of bananas. However, as she was holding her finished product secure on the counter top, where the pudding was cooling, she turned to reach for something, and in easing her guard at just the wrong moment the ship lurched sharply, and the pudding catapulted into the air with what I imagined might have been a 3-1/2 forward somersault. The sad result: an amorphous, yellow blob on the cabin sole. Petrified, the mate could not decide whether to cry or scream, and for the moment I was safe. In jest, I dubbed the affair: "the chef de cuisine's culinary creation, climaxed in catastrophe."
“From my journal:
Feb 10. The ship's corrected log from Cape Town is 609 miles. The wind 15 knots SW; seas moderating. Having fallen in with the southwest trade winds, Suka is running free at 5-1/2 knots, flying her full main with the genoa poled-out, wing-and-wing. The sky is sunny and the air warm. A shark, presumably, bit the trolling lure and took the tackle.
Feb 11. I'm awaiting the number cruncher's (sat-nav) producing our daily position fix, after completing my morning's enterprise of wandering about the decks, frying pan in hand, collecting the daily allotment of a dozen or so flying fish. As Suka travels northwest at a genteel trot, the days and nights are warming delectably, and sitting out on watch unencumbered is a most welcome luxury. We have crossed the 7-1/2 degree west meridian, meaning that ship's time now coincides with Greenwich Time. Such seemingly insignificant events are appreciated by the global rover who navigates celestially. His computations of longitude take into account the difference between ship's time and Greenwich time, and over the years he had watched that difference gradually lessen, now finally to zero.
Feb 14: Valentine's Day. Wind: 10 knots SE; beautiful weather: abundant. We've been catching dorado, one per day; but last night we hauled aboard a 4-foot long, snake-like fish equipped with large eyes and an intimidating set of teeth. We had caught one of these in the South Pacific, and had tossed the repulsive creature back into the sea. But when we later described the fish to the natives, they told us that we should have kept it, as they considered it a great delicacy. So we sampled this one, and found it, indeed, excellent eating. During our morning ham radio chat I described our unusual fish, and Tom Venwick aboard Fair Joanda produced a fish book that identified our denizen of the deep as a snake mackerel. Tom also remarked that this is the same species as featured in Thor Heyerdahl's book Kon Tiki.
“We crossed the prime meridian, longitude 0 degrees; meaning that we are now back in the Western Hemisphere.”
Feb 16. Caught another Dorado last night - about the only excitement we get around here, and an appetite appeasing one at that. The weather is perfect; the wind is holding a steady 15 knots and we have been riding with Paul Bunyan's washing hung out wing-on-wing, carrying the same sail wardrobe night and day for a week. Also, during the past four days we have been varnishing the brightwork topsides. Yesterday we crossed the prime meridian, longitude 0 degrees; meaning that we are now back in the Western Hemisphere.
The Loss of a Friend
Certain unfortunate events must be recounted here, as they occurred at about this time; although it should be noted that neither Jenny nor I, nor other members of the Rum Line Net, were aware of them at the time. "No one wants to read about the loss of a yacht, and especially about the loss of a life," Richard Molony wrote to me several months later, "but I suppose there's always a message there somewhere."
It seems that after 5,000 miles of complaining, Dorothy left Gordon and Mam'selle in Durban, and flew back to Fremantle. In her stead, Gordon's son Colin traveled to Durban, in order to crew for his dad. In Durban, Mam'selle had apparently tangled a piece of rope on her propeller, as obvious marks were later to indicate. Suspecting a problem, Gordon dove overboard, but perhaps due to the lack of underwater visibility, and a lack of diving experience, he did not find the problem. Nevertheless, he and Colin sailed out of Durban, and after stopping at East London they continued on, encouraged by a favorable weather forecast. After passing Cape St. Francis, though, they met with a southwesterly gale, which drove them back toward East London. In the darkness, Gordon cut one of the headlands a little too close. Actually, though, the South African chart reputedly shows a depth of 6.1 meters off this cape, where in fact a rock reef extends 300 meters off-shore. Mam'selle collected these rocks.
Gordon managed to reverse her off under power, but the ferrocement hull was now breached and taking on water, and soon the prop shaft "let go," rendering the auxiliary power inoperable. As Mam'selle drifted seaward Gordon radioed a mayday. A passing tanker intercepted his message, and relayed it to Port Elizabeth Radio, who in turn alerted the National Sea Rescue Institute. Oddly, though, help was not in coming for another eight hours.
Mam'selle was not equipped with a life raft, and incidentally Jenny and I had questioned Gordon and Dorothy about this a few months previously, and Gordon replied that he considered his hard dinghy a viable alternative. Anyway, Colin and Gordon unshipped their hard dinghy, but in the melee they holed it on a stanchion. Also, they lost its oars. Abandoning ship nonetheless, they began hand-paddling toward shore, bailing all the while. The wind was strong and contrary, though, and it easily overpowered them, and when they had to admit that they were not advancing, and when they could see that the yacht remained afloat, its lights gleaming, they tried to return, only to meet with failure once again. Throughout the night the dinghy capsized repeatedly in the heavy seas, and Gordon and Colin exerted their utmost in reboarding and bailing. Shortly after dawn the dinghy capsized yet again, but this time Gordon's strength had waned; he was unable to climb back in; and tragically, despite Colin's frenzied attempts to maneuver closer, Gordon drifted away. Colin was eventually rescued by a trawler, but his dad was never found. Nearly awash, Mam'selle was towed into the Kromm River.
Back to the narrative
Several of the yachts that had sailed in the company of Suka across the Indian Ocean and around the Cape of Good Hope were also en route to St. Helena. By coincidence, all of these had transited the Panama Canal earlier in their circumnavigations, and were now bound for their respective countries breasting the North Atlantic. So from St. Helena the group would disperse, its members heading in separate directions. Within a day of us, but not in sight of course, sailed the British yacht Fair Joanda and the Swedish Crypton. Three or four days behind us stood the American yacht Michael Stuart, the British Moongazer and Capella 1, the German Pusterblume, and the Swiss Aena. Indeed, the fleet was multi-national.
“As I swung the giant petrel aboard, the hook came free of its mouth and the bird tumbled through the open aft-cabin hatch.”
Once, rather than our daily fish, we hooked a large sea bird: a giant petrel - similar to an albatross but not as large. Apparently it had dove onto our trolling lure, for a great commotion astern alerted us to the exigency. I hauled the feathered creature aboard with no little haste, in order to save it from being submerged and drowned. But as I swung it aboard, the hook came free of its mouth and the bird tumbled through the open aft-cabin hatch. We scurried below and gently coaxed the poor fellow into the main salon, and there it stood quietly while I applied an antiseptic salve onto the flap of skin where the fishing hook had penetrated. This was when we noticed that the bird was infested with two-inch long, centipede-like parasites - bugs that apparently lived warm and dry beneath its feathers. These prompted me to carry the beast outside, where it then stood on a cockpit bench pondering its fate for a few minutes before hopping onto the coaming and flying away.
Approaching St. Helena.
About the time St. Helena hove into sight the wind grew light, so wishing to make port by nightfall we hung sails all over the rigging in an attempt to maintain some semblance of progress. To starboard we poled the jib. High to port we flew the cruising chute. At deck-sweeping level we set the genoa. And of course this rigmarole augmented the mainsail and mizzen. As if to add interest, around mid-day the self-steering mechanism dismembered, conscripting us to the helm. Then by late afternoon we came to realize that if Suka was to reach the anchorage before nightfall, Perkins would have to lend its assistance.
We were motoring merrily along when an unidentified yacht crossed our track astern. Peering through the binoculars we saw that the sailboat was without a helmsman. No doubt the condition was temporary, nevertheless the errant vessel veered away on a westerly heading, motor-sailing some 70 degrees obliquely from the island. "The crew must have fallen asleep," we bantered, watching it fade away toward the distant horizon.