Down South Africa's Wild Coast Pt. 1

Goodbye, Durban

There are more than 2,000 shipwrecks, dating back at least 500 years, off the South African coast. The Wild Coast is a section of coastline between KwaZulu-Natal (Durban) stretching south to the port of East London in East Cape and it's claimed more than its share of ships. Several ships simply vanished without a trace. The sail from port to port is about 265nm and there are no safe havens in between. Hence, the reason we sought local knowledge and we were keen on waiting for a reasonable weather window of at least 2-3 days.

east london 265 nm

The south-setting Agulhas Current narrows between Durban and East London and can run at speeds of up to 6 knots where it flows over the 200-meter (650') contour line at the edge of the continental shelf. It can obviously be an awesome push for southbound boats like us, but there are some serious caveats as well. When the wind kicks up from the southwest, which it does with regularity, it blows directly into the current, creating giant breaking waves described in Tony Herrick's cruising guide as abnormal. The local pilot describes them as appalling. Both seem to be masters of understatement. Monstrous freak waves "of up to 20 metres (65 feet!) in height, preceded by deep troughs, may be encountered in the area". The long and short of it? Don't get caught in the Agulhas Current when a southbuster hits. Unfortunately, southwesterly gales blow here frequently.

great waves

Locals advise patience. Forget about deadlines getting from one port to another. Wait for the right weather forecast. If, however, you happen to be passage-making and the wind switches suddenly from northeast to southwest, which it can do in a matter of minutes, head for shore. Once out of the opposing current/wind situation, the waters tend to be calmer and the waves dissipate. Heave-to, if necessary, and ride it out. Needless to say, we're approaching this passage with some trepidation.

durban to east london

We'd been watching the weather all week. Thursday looked good … then it didn't. Saturday night looked promising, although it appeared we might be motoring against light southerlies for the first few hours. At this point, burning a few gallons of diesel seemed reasonable. For the third time, we made the rounds of the bank and all of the pertinent authorities. They knew us on sight. The procedure seems to change every time we check out, but we were cleared and good to go at the end of two hours.

We had a farewell dinner with Wind Wanderer at the Royal Natal Yacht Club. They weren't quite ready to leave yet and cruisers never know if they'll see each other again, so we celebrate when we can. We made an early night of it, took our Stugeron and headed to bed for a restless night's sleep. We were up at 0400 to check the weather and emails one last time. The weather window was short, but still reasonable. We cast off and slid out of our berth just before 0600 into the millpond-smooth marina waters. The sky was just pinking up as we kept company with fishing boats, motoring across the calm harbor past huge, docked freighters, out the entrance canal and into the bay. We were in the Indian Ocean once again, heading southwest for East London and points beyond.

goodbye durban