The Island of St. Helena
Midway across the Southern Atlantic Ocean
Map: The island of St. Helena
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After steaming around the east coast of the island, then its north, at seven p.m. we reached the open roadstead where half a dozen visiting yachts lay wallowing to their bowers. In a place recommended by the crew of the nearest yacht, we lowered the plow into 35 feet of water, as indicated on the sounder. However, the chain paid vertically downward for 80 feet, at which point we had to haul it laboriously back aboard. Apparently our depth sounder had been sonaring the verge of a shelf, or a sunken object. Lacking an electric, hydraulic, or even a manual windlass, we gained plenty of exercise; for Suka was equipped with what seafarers of yore called an "Armstrong Patent windlass," one that worked only with a generous application of elbow grease.
Once we had grappled the chain aboard, with the plow dangling a-cockbill from the bowsprit roller we circled for a second try, cautiously edging in closer toward shore. Being wary of fouling one of the submerged wrecks rumored to fester the area, we tried again. This time the anchor found the bottom and set fast. And with that, we concluded our 12-1/2 day passage. Later that evening we noted the arrival of the errant yacht we had seen earlier. Her crew anchored nearby.
The open roadstead fronting the island of St. Helena.
The following morning we broke out the dinghy from the forecastle, and inflated it for the first time in many months. Aboard the tender, bobbing at Suka's stern I began removing the fractured self-steering gear, mounts and all. Jenny helped from the afterdeck, scrambling below many times to fetch some needed tool. The job proved a considerable struggle due to a heavy ground swell working into the open roadstead, and I wondered how we would manage the more difficult job of reinstalling the devise. When finally we had wrestled the contraption into the cockpit, I disassembled it and found that one of the more substantial components had fractured into two separate pieces. This was disconcerting, considering the many thousands of sea miles yet in our intended path. Our particular species of self-steering gear was manufactured by Auto-Helm of California (no relation to the British firm by the same name). It featured a large, independent rudder connected to Suka's transom by a decidedly inferior arrangement of aluminum tubing struts, connected to loose-fitting aluminum castings with through-bolts. The arrangement was so poorly designed and underbuilt that I had come to regard the vane more as a nemesis, but each time I repaired it, laboring 10 or 15 hours to force it back into operation once again, the device steered adequately for the next several months. Now well into this present operation, which already had consumed the better part of the day, we decided to remain aboard another night before setting foot ashore.
We always looked forward to making new acquaintances among the yachtee fleet, so when the crew of the errant yacht came to visit, we welcomed them aboard.
"You're the ones who shot by us!" the fellow proclaimed. "You sure were going all over the place out there! What is this about a 48 footer?"
"Well no, actually Suka is a..."
"Just the two of you, huh? How in the world do you handle a boat this size? Nice thing about our boat is that we use only about a third of the fuel you do. That's really some engine we have you know, uses only 3 liters of fuel per hour at full throttle..."
We invited the fellow, his wife, and college-age daughter below. "How do you handle something like this in a storm?" the skipper muttered to himself, gazing blankly about the salon. "You know, we were caught in a really bad gale north of Cape Town. Wind blew 70 knots for 3 days. Had to drag warps. And how do you navigate? This island was hard to find." From there he launched into an incisive monologue about the virtues of his boat compared with the shortcomings of ours, and soon had Jenny and I fairly squirming in our seats.
To the sea rover, his or her yacht is typically a creation of exquisite design. To complement the yacht is to win a friend, and to downgrade it is to forfeit one. That evening my thoughts roved back to the time when Jenny and I were enjoying the company of Tom Venwick and Heidi relaxing in Suka's cockpit. Gazing in awe at his boat "Fair Joanda" moored close by, Tom remarked with soulful abandon, "Isn't she beautiful?"
"Yes," I replied, looking at Tom's yacht and seeing instead the embodiment of a warm-hearted sailor's affections, "she sure is."
The following morning a heavy swell bashed the shore with such vehemence that Jenny and I shared serious reservations about landing the skiff. Fair Joanda was presently anchored here at the St. Helena roadstead, and we watched Tom and Heidi's landing technique. (Heidi was crewing for Tom at the moment, while Comitan tarried in Cape Town for the season.) At one place along the rock-walled bay is a concrete stairway, somewhat hidden from view and situated where the waves merely heave up and down, rather than crash headlong into the wall. It was here at the stairway, with proper timing, that Tom and Heidi stepped ashore with impunity. The technique was to approach the stairway, stop about 20 feet out and ponder awhile, then row mightily ahead of the next oncoming roller. Perched on the crest and stepping briskly ashore while holding the dinghy's long painter, one then allows the tender to plunge the four or five feet into the next trough as the swell receded; then, as the boat rose on the succeeding crest, one could then snatch the tender from the water and carry it to high ground.
Thus safely landed ashore, Jenny and I reported to the officials, who extended us a cordial welcome in the form of various harbor dues: two pounds sterling for landing, five pounds for section such-and-such, and another eleven pounds on account of something else. To add injury to insult the officers confiscated our passports and retained them for the duration of our stay, meaning that should a storm arise in the night and force us to depart, we would have to return in the wake of the storm, for our credentials. Fortunately we carried no underwater breathing apparatus, which we would have been required to lug ashore and surrender to customs, against the supposed temptation of appropriating artifacts from shipwrecks lying in the roadstead. As we walked away, visitor's permits valid for one week in hand, we resolved to leave as soon as possible, which was probably the reaction they were hoping for. In the end this worked to our favor, though, as a number of lingering yachtees subsequently contracted influenza, a malady currently afflicting much of the local populace.
“To stray off the paved road would have been to trundle a volley of rocks down onto the hapless villagers far below. As no doubt this would have produced a disquieting cacophony of stones pummeling on innumerable tin roofs, we kept to the road.”
Politics astern, we wandered through Jamestown on streets flanked with closely spaced, corrugated-iron roofed houses and shops. The ambiance was agreeable and the little town quiet, and the air was redolent with tantalizing odors - predominately those from a nearby bakery. The town, if it could be called that, lay tightly ensconced in the maws of an immense ravine, destitute of vegetation save for the occasional cactus. We followed a paved road that switch-backed steeply into the hinterland, and after we had climbed high above town, we noted that to stray off the paved road would have been to trundle a volley of rocks down onto the hapless villagers far below. As no doubt this would have produced a disquieting cacophony of stones pummeling on innumerable tin roofs, we kept to the road.
Eventually we arrived back in town, feeling rubber-kneed after descending Jacob's Ladder, a former cable tramway since converted to a steep stairway, said to comprise 799 steps.
Work on the Self-Steering Gear
While the other yachtees roved blissfully about the island, Jenny and I worked on Suka's self-steering gear for four days. I had located a small machine shop secreted along one of Jamestown's back streets, and its shop owner looked at my broken parts and said, "Oh, this is for your self-steering rudder. I fixed one of these last year." Incredulous, I questioned him further, and he replied, "Yes, it was a broken aluminum tube with these plastic bushings inside, just like this." From a length of pipe the fellow machined a steel sleeve, which we then fitted tightly inside the broken tubing. Back aboard, I labored through the ritual of rebuilding all the mounts that had once again worn loose. Of course this was not the best occasion for the skipper of the errant yacht to row past with the advice that I should just fix the thing once and for all, so that it would give us no more problems.
Each day the ground swell grew more bulbous, and Jenny and I were feeling an increasing urge to weigh and set sail, if not for forward progress then merely for the roll-steadying effect. Presently, Suka felt as though lying a-hull to her anchor, which indeed she was.
Eventually came the time to reaffix the contraption to the ketch's transom. Kneeling in the dinghy, which was rolling, pitching and heaving mightily, while I tried not to drop tools or parts irretrievably into the sea, I began bolting the heavy, unwieldy contrivance onto Suka's transom, which was rolling, pitching and heaving as mightily but out of phase with the dinghy. The undertaking proved ridiculously exacting and strenuous, but we were motivated by the prospect of otherwise having to stand tyranny to the tiller innumerable hours while hand steering across the remaining half of the vast Atlantic Ocean.
Once we had successfully remounted the self-steering gear, we rowed ashore several times lightering water jugs. Twice we hiked the half-mile to the petrol station, carrying four diesel jugs of five gallons capacity each. Well exercised, we returned ashore to collect four loaves of fresh-baked bread, then our passports and clearance paper.
We were away.