A Wild Ride Down the Wild Coast
The day started out peacefully enough as we raised the mainsail in the bay and began our passage to East London. There were light winds from the south/southwest as predicted and we motor-sailed, looking for the Agulhas Current that would provide the push we needed to get down the coast quickly. The Durban coastline receded into a haze and disappeared behind us as we made our way south.
The prevailing southeast swell was 2m and a long period, but the southwest waves were short and close, making for a bumpy, unsettling ride. We were glad we'd taken our Stugeron. We had expected rain, but sailed under unexpectedly, pleasant, sunny skies. The light southerlies persisted long into the afternoon before turning southeasterly. We ventured out past the 200m contour to about 25nm offshore finding a max of only 2-1/2 knots of current. We wandered back to the 200m contour about 12 miles offshore and settled for 8 knots of speed (5.5 knots motor-sailing against light SW winds + the current) which would put our arrival at East London precariously close to the end of our favorable weather window … IF the weather window stayed true to forecast.
All the usual malfunctions cropped up immediately after three months of not sailing. The handheld auto-pilot remote wasn't working. The chartplotter was fickle … sometimes working, sometimes not. David sorted through the problems and one by one and got them handled as best he could. The chartplotter, for instance, was working fine, but would not display AIS results, so we had to rely on the VHF for AIS data. In general though, the day was uneventful and replete with naps, until nightfall. Then, as dusk rolled around and darkness enveloped us, things started happening.
First, the current increased to 3-4 knots, then the wind direction finally changed to ENE. This was a good thing. We shut down the engine and did an easy 9 knots with the single-reefed mainsail alone. The wind continued to back and increase until we were nearly downwind. The current increased to 5 knots. The crescent moon hid behind thick clouds and we sped ahead at 10 knots, then 11, then 12. The rain began, visibility decreased, and the AIS began chirping. We hadn't seen another boat or ship all afternoon, now they converged on us as if heading to a freighters' convention. The wind changed more northerly. We jibed and altered course a bit.
The wind freshened to 25-30 knots. Downwind that's not usually an issue, but in retrospect we should have reduced the main and poled out with a reefed headsail at that point to better balance the boat. We didn't. When the winds increased to a sustained 40 knots, combined with following seas, we decided it was time to take another reef. Before we managed to accomplish this however, an unexpected 50 knot blast from the north and huge following waves caused a series of unfortunate events.
We jibed first one direction, then back the other, causing the main to flog violently. A sail slide snapped and then another. Ping, ping, ping, ping like dominoes … until the mainsail clung precariously to the mast with only a few sail slides left to hold it. In the rain and wind, we managed to corral the mainsail in the lazy jacks and get it down and lashed. In the process, a batten snapped when it slammed against the spreader. We continued on with the staysail, still maintaining 11-12 knots. When dawn appeared, we were tired but still on track for an early arrival in East London.
The shore was mostly huge sand dunes which seemed to merge with the sea until we spotted the East London skyline around 1200.
We headed for the breakwater at the entrance to the Buffalo River. With permission from Port Control, we entered the harbor and passed huge car carriers loading and unloading at the busy dock. By 1430, we were anchored peacefully in the river behind moored boats at the Buffalo River Yacht Club across from Latimer's Landing. We broke an all-time record for the most miles sailed in Nine of Cups in 24 hours … an impressive 214 nm. Keep in mind, that's with motor-sailing and up to a 5-knot current to help us along. We were glad to be in East London and very, very tired.
There were repairs to do, but for now … sleep … we just needed some sleep.