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



Waiting with Friends

There's Dinner with Friends and Words with Friends. We are Waiting with Friends. Waiting for a weather window is a lesson in patience, as we've reiterated so often, but it isn't quite so bad when you're doing it with friends. We met Vic and Sandy aboard Wind Wanderer way back in the Cocos Keeling Islands. We saw them again in Mauritius and both boats ended up at the Durban Marina at the end of last year. We enjoyed some pre-Christmas activities together and then, like us, they had repairs to do, headed home for a bit and did some inland traveling. Now we are waiting together for that elusive weather window to leave Durban and head to Cape Town. Though each boat makes its own decision when to leave, if the weather window is good, most boats leave around the same time and, by default, travel in loose company. That's Vic and Sandy to the right. fun with wind wanderer

We've shared several evening meals at the yacht club with the Wind Wanderer crew. Mid-day coffee on one boat or the other isn't unusual nor is a quick stop to chat about this or that. Sandy and I shared a cab to nearby Davenport Square to take advantage of a larger, better-stocked Checkers supermarket and Dirk's, a good meat/poultry market. We've exchanged info on weather resources and commiserated about repair issues and bad passages. We've talked about sewing machines and pressure canners and canvas work and heat exchangers and a myriad of other topics we have in common over sundowners. It's a pleasant way to play the waiting game.

We'd been watching the weather religiously twice each day and listening to the PeriPeri Net each morning. At 72 hours, we were finally looking good for a weather window. At 48 hours, all was still good. We checked out 36 hours in advance of departure with the same reasonable weather window forecast although the window had shortened from 2-1/2 days to 2 days. The tedious check-out procedure was the same as last time, but it seemed easier since we knew the routine and where to go. We topped up the provisions and loaded more freshies aboard. An early check-out allowed us a leisurely day before departure. At 24 hours, the weather window was shrinking a little more. We needed about 36 hours to make it the 265nm to East London. 12 hours prior to departure, the forecast was iffy and our weather sources disagreed as to when the wind would shift from northeast to southwest. We left the decision till morning.

map durban to east london

We use several weather sources, but weather forecasting is obviously not an exact science. At 0500 on the morning of departure, it was calm and showed signs of being a nice day on the Durban end. The GRIBS, Buoy Weather, one of the Predict Wind models, Passage weather and Wind Guru all agreed that the wind would change to 25 knots SW (on the nose) by early the next morning. One of the Predict Wind models called for a mid-afternoon change … still too short, even if we believed it. The local AcuWeather was calling for heavy rains and a southwesterly wind by mid-morning in East London. Prudence prevailed. The PeriPeri net agreed. Our weather window had disappeared. Passage canceled. This is how it goes sometimes.

Sigh! Back to the waiting game ... with friends.

Waiting for a Weather Window

We've had several delays in leaving ports before, some much akin to our delays in leaving Durban. We had repairs to make, but South Africa closes down around the holidays for a couple of weeks, so things weren't as streamlined as we'd hoped. We planned to leave in mid-January, but our sails weren't finished, nor was our bimini or dodger … nor the saloon upholstery. David was still working on several “A-list” projects subsequent to my returning from the States with boat parts. We took off for a land trip and returned. grib weather

Then February rolled around. The new staysail was complete and the Yankee and jib were repaired, but the bimini and dodger were still not finished, although they were close to completion. Brennan and Hannah visited for a couple of days, then the bimini and dodger were done at last and we were ready to take off. Alas … no weather windows. Looking at pilots and Jimmy Cornell's World Cruising Routes, January through March are the best times of the year to make the transit from Durban to Cape Town. Patience is a virtue when it comes to waiting for weather windows. We've said it many times before and at the moment, we were practicing it … waiting for a good window to leave Durban. In fact, it seems like we've been waiting forever, but the windows that have appeared have been elusive and much too short. At last, however, our patience was rewarded with a short, but adequate window to sail from Durban as far as Port Elizabeth, about 390 nm away. We checked the forecasts religiously and waited hopefully . At last … a real window appeared and then it was high-stress rush, rush, rush.

We hurriedly provisioned. A resident cruising friend took us to Liberty Liquors and Mozzie's Butchery and the biggest Pic'n'Pay hyper-supermarket we've ever seen. We loaded up on everything we'd need and we were ready to go. We don't have much time left on our visas, so we provisioned as if we were heading across the Atlantic.

provisions everywhere

We paid up at the marina and checked out of Durban port. In South Africa, it is necessary to check out of and into every port … not so different from a few South American countries, actually. This is a saga to be told another day.

We stopped in quickly at Tony Herrick's new shop and picked up a copy of his South African Cruising Notes, something we'd planned on doing much earlier, but forgot till the last minute. Tony is a local cruising guru with lots of sailing experience and several cruising guides under his belt. He's also the SSCA Cruising Station Host, and he took the time to share his knowledge of the passage from Durban to Cape own with us.

david and tony looking at he cruising guide

Five boats are scheduled to leave with this window, all hoping that the window doesn't disappear with the morning's weather forecast or worse yet,  mid-route. We'll see how it goes. Tune in tomorrow for “Checking Out is Hard to Do”, a popular cruiser's lament in Durban.