Travelogue #8, Dec 10-19 “Into Africa” by Larry Caillouett

Saturday, Dec 10

With a tip of my cap to Willie Nelson’s signature “On the Road Again.”

🎵 On the sea again – 

Just can’t wait to get on the sea again. 

The life I love is sailing oceans with my friends 

And I can’t wait to get back out at sea again.

On the sea again 

Goin’ places that I’ve never been

Seein’ things that I may never see again 

And I can’t wait to get out on the sea again. 🎵

Today was the Big Day. We finally set sail for Africa. Well, Mauritius and La Reunion are counted as African countries in terms of proximity and tectonic plates, but people who speak French and drive Peugeots and bring fresh baguettes home every day—that’s not what usually comes to mind when you say “going to Africa.” We are finally on our way to continental Africa.

La Reunion is so tall that it casts a long wind shadow. “Setting rpm” is a more accurate description than setting sail, but I’ll take it. Either way. When we finally escaped Reunion’s last efforts to hold us longer, we got back to what ocean sailing should be—boat heeled to leeward 10-15 degrees, sails filled out in graceful curves, bow slicing through waves like a hot knife through butter, sounds of water lapping at the hull, and the rhythmic gentle gallup of the boat toward the horizon.

On my 9 pm watch the moon came up big and round and orange straight behind the boat, its gleam across the water like a tail on a kite. Clouds soon choked it, but the tenacious moon fought back and broke through again and again. This was no quitter moon. Eventually it conquered the clouds and became a bright beacon in the sky casting shadows over the boat.

A seabird made several attempts to hitch a ride at the stern of the boat. I thought it had given up until I caught a glimpse of him perched on a midships stanchion. This is not where birds usually try to land because there isn’t much to hold onto. This bird may be familiar with the Allies’ D-day strategy of landing where the Germans knew was a terribly difficult and therefore unlikely beachhead. I admired his grit and decided to let him ride. If he had to spend the night perched on an ocean wave, he could have become a shark appetizer.

Sunday, Dec 11

What a busy morning! I came on watch at 6 am. Alex had examined the forestay and found that it was too loose. It had a bit of sag in it despite the mast showing some rake. So Alex and Joe went to the bow to tighten the forestay while I stayed at the helm. We secured both spinnaker halyards to a shackle on the anchor roller and released pressure on the hydraulic backstay. Joe tightened the adjustment at the furler motor with an oil filter wrench, not the correct tool for this job but it worked pretty well. We returned the spinnaker halyards to their usual place and retensioned the backstay.

While we were all up and the wind was light, it was a good time to set the spinnaker pole to windward so we could pole out the genoa for downwind sailing. We can do this now that our spinnaker pole fitting was repaired in Mauritius and our genoa foil was repaired in La Reunion. Alex and Joe adjusted the pole height while I controlled the foreguy and afterguy. All these lines get complex so we had to reroute them several times to get them right. We opened the genoa to port, prevented the main far forward to starboard, and set the staysail between them. All of this was before 8:30.

By noon the wind had become so feeble that it didn’t matter how we set our sails. Reluctantly we started the engine and began motor sailing across a relatively flat sea.

Monday, Dec 12

My day started early on the midnight to 3 am watch. We were sailing again without the engine and making 7 to 8 knots. We had been watching a cargo ship named Lucy Ocean getting closer and closer to us. It crossed ahead of us about 2 miles away and then we were alone on the ocean again. Three more cargo ships passed close by later in the day so we must be in the shipping lane.

This is trade winds sailing. The boat is balanced and sailing downwind with little heeling. We glance over at the chart plotter now and then to make sure no freighter will be bearing down on us. It’s Culhane time on Liberty.

On my night watch I went to the aft deck to look up at the black night sky. The stars were spectacular! I think the Greeks were on the wacky weed when they imagined elaborate constellations in the stars, but it’s easy to see why the stars held such fascination for them.

Tuesday, Dec 13

After a small rainstorm passed through, the wind moved forward on port beam. Our sails were set completely wrong for that, so I furled the genoa and opened it on starboard for a broad reach and moved the boom aft. With wind in the low 20’s the boat hit its stride around 8 knots.

Alex had set a waypoint at about 100 miles off the tip of Madagascar. We decided to cut the corner and save some mileage. This might bring us into stronger winds also. It definitely brought us into the shipping lanes. At one time we could see four 1000-foot freighters or tankers heading northeast toward us while we were sailing southwest. It felt like being on a one way street going the wrong way.

Wednesday, Dec 14

The wind moved aft so we went back to sailing wing-and-wing. Waves and swells were 3-9 feet and were hitting the boat on its port quarter, so when a wave hit the boat it would roll to starboard and then yaw back to port. Winds were in the mid to upper 20’s so we were making good speed around 8 knots, but the rolling made tasks difficult. Nothing would stay where we put it, so hold on to your plate if you don’t want to eat off the floor. Anywhere else but here my walking motion would be a sure sign of intoxication.

We passed the tip of Madagascar at Cape St. Marie as I came on my afternoon watch. We were sailing our deepest angles of 170-180 degrees and making 8-9 knots on 20-25 knots of wind assisted by 2 knots of current partially aligned with our course. Seas had flattened somewhat so this was textbook ocean sailing. At dinner time we reached the halfway point between La Reunion and Durban.

Thursday, Dec 15

The Southern Cross greeted me when I came up for my midnight watch and the moon peeked out from a cloud to say hello. It’s good to have friends in high places.

During my watch the wind backed 10 degrees making it impossible to maintain our course to Durban without jibing, something we aren’t going to attempt at night. That would require one or two crew on deck to remove the port running backstay, remove the starboard preventer on the boom, center the traveler, change course to move the boom over to port side, set a port preventer, set the starboard running backstay, and lower the traveler. Not on a bouncing sea at night.

And that doesn’t even include taking the spinnaker pole down, resetting it to the other side, and rerunning all the lines. That’s an ordeal of its own. So now the course that the wind set for us is toward Port Elizabeth. I would rather go there than Durban anyway, but weather considerations in the next 24-36 hours will make that determination.

We have a following sea. When a big swell or wave comes up behind us, it lifts Liberty’s stern and shoves us forward. We gain one to one and a half knots with the push, and when the wave passes under us our speed falls back.

Friday, Dec 16

The weather changed our plans. It is forecast that a storm coming up the coast of South Africa will cause the seas offshore from Durban to be very rough when we were to arrive there. We would have to either slow down or heave to in order to allow the storm to pass. We decided to change our course to East London 250 miles down the coast from Durban. We will use our time to make progress instead of stalling to get into Durban. If the weather is good when we approach East London, we will sail past it to Port Elizabeth, 150 miles further south. Sailing in cantankerous weather requires juggling multiple options.

Speaking of cantankerous, that’s our wind. It has backed so far behind us that we are sometimes sailing by the lee with the wind coming slightly from our starboard side while our sails are set for port winds. We have a strong preventer on the boom so we are not worried about an accidental gybe, but we don’t want to sail very deep by the lee. So our course is farther south than we would like, but we have no choice until we can do a controlled jibe in daylight.

Well, it didn’t take long for the wind to force our hand. Around 7:30 am a huge wind shift had us scrambling to jibe the boom and spinnaker pole. We are still sailing almost dead downwind, but on starboard now instead of our usual port tack. This is forcing us up above the East London rhumb line. Our course may change several more times before we make landfall somewhere on the coast of South Africa.

Saturday, Dec 17

Another pretty day in the Indian Ocean with blue skies and white clouds. The wind is telling us to go to Port Elizabeth by backing around from the east to the north. If we maintain a constant wind angle, this guides the boat farther to the south. But the low pressure front heading toward us will have the last word on that.

If you can’t think of any reason to go to sea in a small boat, let me offer you one: the sparkles of the night. Far from the light pollution of civilization you can see God’s handiwork in all its glory in the sky. The brighter stars demand your attention. The dimmer ones draw you into their depth. And when you finish marveling at the sparkles above you, look down to the wake churning off the boat and see the fire sparks of bioluminescence in the ocean as the phytoplanktons complain about being disturbed.

Sunday, Dec 18

The night was very dark with winds in the mid 20’s, seas building, but no rain. We generally had two crew up at all times. About an hour before my 9am watch I became aware of the boat pounding into the waves. Sometimes it sounded like the boat was landing on rocks. Joe and Alex were driving the boat hard.

My cabin is in the bow so it has more motion than the rest of the boat. Some people say that they can’t sleep with all that movement, but it’s rock-a-bye-baby to me. When the bow is climbing a wave, I can feel a gentle pressure sinking me into the foam mattress under me. When the wave is crested and the bow loses its support, I experience semi-weightlessness until I press into my mattress again and get ready for the next surge upward. I think a bird in a nest on a limber tree branch may enjoy the same ride. But without the landing on rocks.

We had marked two rhumb lines on the chart plotter, one to East London and one to Port Elizabeth, 140 miles farther south. We had hoped that the wind would let us go to Port Elizabeth but yesterday morning it pushed us toward the East London course. As I came on watch this morning it drove us over the East London rhumb line and the most southerly course we could sail was due west. We are expecting the wind to shift to the east and let us turn south. If not, when we reach the Agulhas current, it will take us south unless a northerly wind like the present one makes that passage untenable. As with many things in life, timing is critical.

Monday, Dec 19

It was a golden daybreak. The sky was softly colored with gold and the myriad facets of the sea surface reflected the gold back to the sky. This was a full half hour before the sun made its official entrance into the day. By that time the sky’s gold had faded into a soft blue, a sensible color that announced that the day was open for business.

This was the day I had booked my flight home from Cape Town. I cancelled it before leaving Reunion when I saw there was no chance of reaching Cape Town in time for my flight. I’ll have to find another flight when I get there.

🎵All I want for Christmas is

To be at home

To be at home

To be at home

All I want for Christmas is

To be at home

So I can wish you Merry Christmas!🎵

On my morning watch I finessed the light wind with small changes in heading until the wind was too light to finesse and too light to matter. We started the engine and set a course for Mbashe Point, 70 miles north of East London to take advantage of the strong Agulhas Current which is approximately 60 miles wide and runs south at about 4 knots.

Land ho! The light of the towns on the east coast of South Africa became visible at about 25 miles from the coast and became brighter and fuller as we continued toward Mbashe Point. When we were about 7 miles from the shore we turned south to follow the coastline to East London. Depending on the weather we may sail on past East London to Port Elizabeth.

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