Farne’s World Cruise, Cape Town

Brian Lowrie

We arrived in Durban on the 10th Nov after 6000 miles in the turbulent Indian Ocean. What delight to wander ashore from the joint moorings of the Royal Natal Yacht Club (reciprocal membership with our RNYC) and the Point Yacht Club to eat, drink and socialise with friendly locals and other cruisers. But that is all within the harbour gates- the town of Durban has its problems. Businesses, even small shops, operate with armed guards, anyone who can afford to has moved out into suburban enclaves surrounded by high walls, electric fences and alarm systems, and shops in huge malls where they feel safer. We were generously entertained at the home of South African cruising friends – ‘just bring all your laundry’, insisted Barbara fully understanding our needs after weeks at sea! Then we hired a car and visited the beautiful Drakensberg Mountains, the wildlife park at Hluhluwe- Umfoloze and the St Lucia Wetlands reserve.

Sailing on the west coast of South Africa is dominated by the weather’s interaction with the Agulhas current. Every few days the barometer drops, a ‘Southerly buster’ sweeps up the coast at 30 to 50 knots and after 36 to 48 hours you can go sailing again. The Aghulhas current is heading south like a huge river travelling at 3 to 6 knots 5 to 20 miles offshore, roughly along the 200 metre sounding. The trip from Durban to Capetown is 850 miles and there are only 4 possible places to stop. What you have to avoid is being at sea heading south when the buster comes through as huge seas 30 to 60 feet high develop very quickly and endanger small, and large, boats. Fortunately the forecasting service is good. An amateur ‘ham’ Fred, on his Peri Peri net, collates and interprets weather reports from various sources and gives yachts their ‘weather window’, ie how many days or hours they have to get to the next port before the next buster.

On 27th November our ‘window’ opened, 48 hours. We travelled all over the port to arrange our exit pass and popped out at the same time as Robin Knox Johnson’s Clipper Race was leaving, (they were having so many problems with their 70ft Chinese-built boats that they hauled out the whole fleet for repairs in the Phillipines). With us was Gerald, our cheerful South African host, whom we had first met in Trinidad on a catamaran he had built himself and later sold in the States. Missing sailing, he wanted to know whether to buy a boat to sail in South Africa, so we offered him a ride to find out. We were soon on our way south, although not finding the current until later that night. We saw plenty of humpback whales and lots of dolphins. That evening, further offshore, our speed over the ground picked up to 12 knots,
6 knots current and 6 knots boatspeed, with choppy water but no big seas. We passed East London, the first option, like a rocket and in 48 hours reached Port Elizabeth, a distance of 400 miles, just as the barometer fell and the next gale arrived.

Port Elizabeth is a mineral loading port with a yacht club in the corner.

The pontoons were full and the moorings old and poor quality, so we were directed onto the quay wall. It was a mistake to stay there as there was quite a surge and, inspite of wrapping them, we wore through 2 good warps and the torque of the movement suddenly shattered one of our toughened glass windshields. Port Elizabeth is a pleasant town on South Africa’s Garden Route, but we were on our way after 2 days, leaving Gerald to head home for his wedding anniversary, his mind made up that the Wild Coast was not a very great place for recreational sailing.

A night and day took us to Knysna, a beautiful, huge, sheltered estuary with a narrow entrance 100ft wide and a submerged rock in the middle, the Emu Rock, with a least depth of 1.2 metres. The tide runs at up to 7 knots in and out between the Eastern and Western heads, high rocky cliffs, and the waves often break across the entrance. We arrived at high water, passing between the imposing Heads and into the shallow estuary, whereupon a local charter yacht guided us to the Knysna Yacht Club. They moored us, fed, watered and entertained us in great style. It is an expanding holiday town with lots of leisure facilities, golf course etc and many Europeans buying holiday homes there for the winter months. The problem with Knysna is leaving, as once the wind builds the swell in the entrance builds and you can’ t get out until well after the wind has abated. Fred gave us a window until the evening to reach our next port, Mossel Bay, 40 miles away, so we bade farewell to friends and left early at low water in light winds through the narrow channel. That Buster built during the day but we plugged on in 30-35 knots, motor-sailing hard with the Volvo engine running at 2500 revs, a wet trip, reaching the shelter of Mossel Bay by late afternoon. With a lot of wind blowing we decided not to go into the restrictive harbour, but anchored in sand about 1/2 mile off the beach outside the Yacht Club near another boat that we knew. We had had a tiring day so decided to eat aboard and launch the dinghy in the morning. Around midnight Anne heard voices and footsteps on deck and, thinking that we must have swung too close to the other boat, called me and we went on deck. As we came up the companionway 2 intruders dived overboard and swam for the shore where we could see a group of people. We called Port Security but our visitors were long gone by the time their van appeared on the shore. Fortunately they had not taken anything or gone down below, probably opportunists thinking that nobody was aboard. Despite the boarding (the only time in the whole trip), we enjoyed staying 2 days in Mossel Bay. The yacht club was friendly, the town accessible and the museum was excellent with a full size replica of the vessel used by Diaz in the first landing around the Cape by a European in 1488.

On 10th Decenber we rounded Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of Africa, and set a course for Capetown round the Cape of Good Hope, visible 34 miles away at night. We motored in the early morning, having to alter course for a container ship fast approaching from astern, seeing whales floating along with their tailfins in the air ‘sailing’, dolphins, and groups of seals ‘sunbathing’- lying together on their backs with their flippers in the air, perhaps thousands. No wonder whalewatching is becoming such a valuable part of South Afric’s tourist scene.

Soon we could see Table Mountain and as the wind increased to 35 knots the ‘tablecloth’ appeared with the clouds boiling up and pouring down the mountainside. We motored into the harbour at max throttle against the wind and into the Royal Cape Yacht Club which has 350 marina berths. It was almost full as the Cape to Santander Race was soon to start and the Club’s own annual regatta takes place over the Christmas holiday. The Volvo Race yachts were also in port making repairs for their next leg. They kindly found us a berth where we could leave the boat while we returned to UK for Christmas and the birth of a new grandchild.

Farne at RCTYC

Farne at Royal Cape Town YC, with Table Mountain in the background

In retrospect we would have been better to stay at the marina in Simonstown, the naval base round on the east coast. The Royal Cape facilities were 2 miles out of town in the dock area necessitating taking taxis as walking was unadviseable, although we did walk and cycle around. Being in the industrial part of town the boat became very dirty- it ws the dirtiest place we had ever left her. Also the Yacht Club did not cater very well for travellers,(eg no laundry facilities), concentrating on its own yachting scene whereas the Yacht Club at Simonstown was friendly, well equiped, cheap and clean and the town was safer and within easy reach of Capetown and the airport. There is also an excellent new marina / housing development in the Victoria and Alfred Dock , in central Capetown but more expensive.
We spent a week sorting out the boat, hiring a cheap car to run around the chandlers and repair workshops and also to do tourist things- visiting the vineyards of Stellenbosch and Franschoek, touring Cape Point and the botanical gardens at Kirstenbosch and of course going up Table Mountain.

Then it was time to fly home- hopefully our last long haul flight. Next time we should be returning in the boat.