“Eyes on the Prize: Rounding the Capes”
In baseball one of the most daring and exciting plays is the squeeze bunt. The runner takes off from third base with the pitch. The batter bunts the ball away from home plate to give the runner time to slide into home before the ball can be fielded and thrown to the catcher. It has to work just right to succeed. If the batter misses the ball or bunts it too hard, the runner will be tagged out at the plate.
My squeeze bunt is sailing to Cape Town with only a narrow window of opportunity to reach Cape Town in time to fly home for Christmas. If everything goes well, it takes 3 days to sail from from Port Elizabeth or 4 days from East London. If we are delayed by bad weather, fueling, clearing Customs and Immigration, or other unforeseen problems or if I have a problem getting an affordable flight out of Cape Town, I might get tagged out at home.
Paraphrasing Bing Crosby,’s wartime hit:
🎵Will I be home for Christmas?
Can you count on me?🎵
We will soon find out.
Tuesday, Dec 20
I was surprised last night when I saw the lights of South Africa and we were still 25 miles from shore. Now I know why. The land rises quickly from the shore and the towns and settlements are built at the crest, not down at the shoreline. When I saw the land for the first time by daylight I immediately thought how pretty it is, verdantly green with patches of dark green trees making patterns on the brighter green fields.
One of my favorite movies features Kurt Russell as Cap’n Ron, a charming but dodgy rent-a-captain. When the owner’s wife expressed concern about safe passage in the rickety old boat they had inherited, Cap’n Ron assured her, “If anything is going to happen, it’s going to happen out there!” He was right. It did.
We started today heading south with the wind blowing north. Not ideal, but we could motor against the 12 knot breeze and still make good progress. By early morning the wind increased to 25 knots and the seas got steeper with short period. I hand steered to try to hit the waves in a way to minimize the splash of pounding directly into them, but the big waves still sprayed water all over the boat and slowed our speed. By afternoon the wind was in the mid to upper 30’s and our progress became agonizingly slow, mostly 3 to 3.5 knots, sometimes only 2 knots. A rough division of miles to the entrance of the next harbor by 3 was not encouraging. When we finally turned toward the harbor and got favorable current behind us we could do 5 or 5.5 knots.
In the midst of all this I noticed two white seabirds flying in long graceful circles over the water and occasionally diving to catch a fish. They seemed to not be bothered by the rough weather. I guess they don’t have any paid leave in their line of work. It’s “Give us this day our daily fish.”
We ducked into East London just after rain ended and just before dark. The commodore of the East London Yacht Club had arranged for a fuel truck to come out to refuel us. The operator and his wife took our lines and helped us get secured on a long high dock wall. We will clear in tomorrow morning and I think the weather will allow us to go on to Cape Town without any more stops.
Wednesday, Dec 21
We thought we had taken care of our Customs and Immigration process and had cast off all but the last dock line when we got a call that C&I wanted to do do some paperwork at our boat. So we secured the boat to the dock again, did the paperwork, and cast off about an hour later than we had expected.
It looked like a perfect sailing day as we left East London—blue skies, puffy white clouds, good wind, and nearly flat seas. Nevertheless, a weather report warned us of changes us as the day went by, so we were eager to put some miles behind us.
We sailed out far enough to get in the Agulhas Current and when we got 3 knots of current we turned south toward Port Elizabeth. The wind had backed and was now at the stern instead of at the bow as it was yesterday. We were using only the mainsail and had to reef it more and more as the wind built. This is where a sail that furls into the mast proves to be very useful. Wind picks up— roll the sail in another 10% or so.
As night fell the wind had increased to 35-38 knots and we had reduced the mainsail to less than half of its full size. We were making over 9 knots with only a scrap of a sail. I saw the boat hit 10 knots a few times. Frankly, this was scarier sailing than the previous day plowing into big waves. If you want to have a similar experience, try this: Go out on the interstate on a moonless night. Set the cruise control on 75 mph. Then turn the headlights off! Leave them off for at least 5 seconds. Then turn the lights back on and proceed as you normally would so that your heart rate can return to normal.
The chart plotter showed the locations and courses of several boats around us, some going our direction and some the opposite way. The AIS showed that none were near us or likely to come close until a cargo ship named Double Delight appeared on the screen. It was coming directly toward us at 11 knots. Add our 9 knots to it and we were closing on each other at 20 knots. AIS showed it coming as close as .16 mile. That’s 845 feet and way too close for comfort. I called the officer on watch on the VHF radio and requested that he alter course since we had limited maneuverability. He agreed and altered course 12 degrees to starboard. We passed port to port one mile apart.
Thursday, Dec 22
We arrived at Port Elizabeth about an hour after sunrise. That was good timing because it’s much better and safer to enter a new harbor in the daytime. The commodore of the Nelson Mandela Bay Yacht Club was waiting for us on the dock. He took our lines and after boarding the boat gave us a good orientation to the harbor, the city, and interesting activities in the area. Two African animal parks are nearby.
We docked against a long concrete dock wall that was built for the fishing boats. It was a busy and interesting environment. Joe walked down the dock with me explaining the equipment on various types of the big commercial fishing boats. Many of the workers nodded or said hello to us as we passed by. Some stopped at our boat to see what we were and say hello. Fancy blue water cruising sailboats are a rarity on this dock. One seaman from Egypt was especially friendly; we enjoyed talking with him as he was overseeing the unloading of fish from the 100-foot fishing boat on the dock behind us and the loading of ice for the next fishing excursion.
After the strenuous passage to East London and Port Elizabeth, the main activity we were interested in was sleeping. We all woke in time to walk to a nearby restaurant, the Black Impala, for dinner.
Friday, Dec 23
We all had lunch at a restaurant overlooking the harbor. No one expressed much interest in a mini-safari, so I Ubered into town for a Thai massage while the others went to a nearby grocery store. The day turned rainy with the approaching storm so we just ate on the boat. A delightfully low key day.
Saturday, Dec 24.
Twas the night before Christmas
And all through the boat
Not a sailor was sleeping
We were too much awoke
The crew checked their lists
Preparing with care
In hopes that fair weather
Soon would be there
Past Lizzie, past Seal Point, past Plettenberg Bay,
Past Mossel, past Beaufort, past Agulhas Cape
To the end of the land
To the Cape Town landfall
Now sail away, sail away, sail away all!
Sunday, Dec 25.
We had a wonderful Christmas Eve dinner at Hussar’s Grille and woke early on Christmas Day to prepare the boat before our 8 am departure. Everything checked out until we turned on the instruments and discovered that the wind speed and wind direction instrument was not working. It hadn’t given us any problem previously and was working when we docked at Port Elizabeth 3 days ago. Boats! It’s always sompting! Even though we knew that we could motor all the way to Cape Town, wind data is important for speed, comfort, and safety. There was a spare anemometer on board so we tested it and then hoisted Joe up the mast to install it. This is familiar territory for Joe; he has been up to the top of Liberty’s 76-foot mast at least a half dozen times on this voyage. Success! It worked, and at noon we set sail.
Actually we set rpm. The wind was very light and directly on our nose. In other words, useless. So we motored.
Monday, Dec 26
Still motoring against a light headwind, we rounded the long anticipated Cape Agulhas and gave it a wide berth, about 6 miles. (I would have cut it closer for better photos, but that decision was above my pay grade.) Seas continued to be benign, long 2-3 foot swells off the port bow. Current gave us a half knot boost. Wind was 12 knots smack on the nose so we continued motoring.
Tuesday, Dec 27
If I was a little disappointed that rounding the Cape was so anticlimactically easy, it partly made up for it going up the west Coast. The wind was still unfavorable so we motored on. Waves were bigger and stronger and on our nose so we lost about 2 knots of speed while still motoring 2000 RPM. Every time we calculated a likely time of arrival in Cape Town, it turned out to be wrong. The weather changes a lot around the capes of South Africa, so the forecasts are rather tentative.
Wednesday, Dec 28
We crossed the mouth of False Bay—actually it is a real bay, so only its name is false—and rounded the Cape Of Good Hope. This is the cape that is usually mentioned when the great capes of the world are discussed. Cape Agulhas is more prominent and is the literal southern tip of Africa, but it seems to be the Rodney Dangerfield of the capes—it don’t get no respect among anyone but sailors.
After we rounded this cape and headed north, the seas smoothed out and our speed increased. We made landfall at Cape Town an hour after sunrise and it was spectacular. Table Mountain towers over the city and totally dominates the horizon and skyline. Tall buildings look Lilliputian in front of it.
The harbor itself is beautiful. The Victoria & Alfred Waterfront Marina is surrounded by a complex of high rise luxury residences, 5-star hotels, upscale shopping and restaurants, and elegant office buildings. Rows of expensive private yachts complete the picture. Adding a playful note to our arrival, seals frolicked in the marina’s waters and big fat sea lions lying on a dock barked continually at nothing in particular.
After we docked and secured the boat, several people from the other Oysters stopped to welcome us. Some brought gifts. I think they were aware of the problems we had been dealing with. Even if they didn’t know the particulars, they could see that we were still in Reunion when they were already docked in Cape Town.
After a short rest, I was ready to see Cape Town since I had only 36 hours before my flight home. Dana, a crew member from another Oyster had stopped by Liberty to say hello to Carmel. She was ready to go to Table Mountain and so was I, so we teamed up and called a taxi. Traffic going there was thick. In fact, when we arrived our taxi was blocked from entering because the park was full. We paid our driver and got out and walked up to the ticket area. Yes, it was full but we could wait in a line for 2-3 hours and take the cable car up to the top. Or we could hike up one of the several trails that go to the top. That would take about 2.5 hours. Or we could pay double for a Fast Pass ticket and ride the cable car up in about 10-15 minutes. We chose what was behind Door Three.
The top of Table Mountain is as amazing as its sheer face is impressive. A huge variety of plants grow there in its unique ecosystem including shrubs, trees, ground covers, and flowers. Some of them grow only there; in fact, one of the six kingdoms of flora grows only on the top of Table Mountain. In addition to lizards, snakes, and birds, there is an animal living there that is about the size of a Guinea pig but is most closely related to the elephant. I didn’t see it.
After we came down we got in a taxi to go back to the marina. I had talked about hoping to see the penguins at Boulder Beach so Dana asked the driver how long it would take and what it would cost to go there. The driver said it would be 1600 Rand or $100 to take us there, wait for us, and then take us to the marina. I was a bit surprised at the price, but this would be my only opportunity to see the little tuxedoed waddlers and I knew it was about 40 miles round trip, so I agreed.
The penguins are a big attraction. Hundreds of people were there gawking and taking photos, just like me. The penguins didn’t seem to mind. They went on about their business—swimming, fishing, sunning, nesting, and waddling. We saw a few juvenile penguins but none freshly hatched. These were the stars of the Netflix series “Penguin Town” and, in the words of Buck Owens and Ringo Starr, “all they have to do is act naturally.”
Thursday, Dec 29
I had planned to pack and then ride the Hop On, Hop Off double decker city sightseeing bus before my flight home, but packing turned out to be a much bigger job than I had imagined. I had four months of light and heavy clothing, foul weather gear, medicines for a variety of possible maladies, cameras and electronics, and souvenirs. This called for my finest, most patient, most innovative packing. Solid things had to fit inside hollow things like shoes and water bottles. I managed to get 51 pounds into my rolling duffel and filled every cubic inch of it. With 26 pounds in my smaller duffel, 24 pounds in my back pack, jacket tied around my waist, neck pillow riding on my neck, Australian croc hat on my head and passport in my pocket I was prepared. And exhausted. Fatigue overcame my desire to do any more sightseeing. I called a taxi and went to the airport to get some rest.
Friday, Dec 30: Epilogue
27 hours later I arrived home—10 days after the flight I had originally scheduled, and 2 days after my rescheduled flight. Seeing the Australian Outback, sailing along the Great Barrier Reef, seeing the Komodo dragons, visiting Bali and some remote and far away islands, crossing the Indian Ocean, rounding the Cape, and visiting South Africa were truly a hoot—but I’m glad to be home again.