Cruising

Sailing South Africa's Wild Coast

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My wife, Irene, and I had spent a very happy year in Namibia, Botswana and South Africa. Blacks and whites treated us well. We had no security issues, and we saw incredible game. We got to watch a leopard groom himself in the early light of New Year’s Day and almost drove our 4x4 into a wallow with two startled rhinos. Nonetheless, there had been an unspoken angst hanging over us. We had a tough sail coming up, and a potentially dangerous one.

The season before we had sailed our 39-foot cutter Moose across the Indian Ocean and cruised Madagascar (“Pirogues & Dhows, December 2010) and Mozambique (“A Passage to Africa”, May 2011) before settling down at the Zululand Yacht Club in Richard’s Bay, at the top of South Africa’s east coast. To continue down to Cape Town, we would have to sail the notorious Wild Coast.

The southern end of Africa has a much gentler geography than Cape Horn, its counterpart in the opposite hemisphere, and is nowhere near so far south. Still, the weather patterns along the Wild Coast are often violent and not always predictable.

The run from Richard’s Bay to Cape Town is 865 miles. It begins in a southwesterly direction, heading down toward the underside of Africa. Durban, East London and Port Elizabeth are the only refuges along this section. From P.E., as the locals call it, the course turns due west. Knysna, with its tide-ripped hole-in-the-wall entrance, and the open roadstead at Mossel Bay are the only shelters on this leg. Mossel Bay is an internationally renowned surfing venue, which should give you some notion of how unprotected it is. Between Mossel Bay and Cape Town lies Cape Agulhas, where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic on the off-lying reefs.

The leap between Durban and East London is 260 miles, while that between Mossel Bay and Cape Town is 225; so the trip is basically a series of dashes from relative safety to marginal safety. Cruisers wait and religiously monitor the weather information, hoping for northerly and then easterly winds. The reason for such fanatical care is the current.

A Current Problem

The Agulhas current is one of the world’s great ocean currents. It runs down from Mozambique in the north and fans out over the continental shelf just before Cape Town. It brings warm water down south from tropical Africa, much as the Gulf Stream carries warm Caribbean water up to northern latitudes. 

The current runs at speeds of up to 6 knots where it flows over the 200-meter contour, which can make it a wonderful boon to a boat on a southbound passage. But it has a lethal side as well. When the wind gets into the southwest quadrant, it blows square into the current, creating high, steep, breaking waves that the local pilot book describes as “appalling.” The Wild Coast has broken the backs—literally—of ocean-going ships, and yachts have vanished there without a trace. Thirty-foot waves are common, and giants running over 45 feet are not unknown.

The short advice on the Agulhas current is to never, ever get caught out when the wind goes into the west. And, of course, the wind goes westerly on a regular basis.

The South Atlantic high and the Indian Ocean high, which normally form to the southwest and southeast of the African continent, dominate the weather in the austral summer. Every five to seven days, a low typically arrives from Argentina. These clockwise-rotating weather systems (remember, this is in the southern hemisphere) get scrunched between the two counter-clockwise-rotating highs. The result is often strong southwesterlies in the 35-45 knot range.

Running the Gauntlet

On a greasy morning, with no promise in the sky of the forecast northerly, we took Moose out into the shipping channel off P.E., where an endless chain of bulk carriers were leaving with coal for China. As we unfurled our genoa, I could see that a year’s worth of the coal dust had left the sail marbled like a café table. Having been landbound for so long, Irene and I found we were soon feeling nauseous.

The wind didn’t fill in, the current proved elusive, and we motored into Durban’s busy harbor at 0100 in driving rain under a purple sky torn by lightning. We had covered only 10 percent of the distance, and we were already sick and tired. This could be a long one, I thought.

Again, this would be a passage dictated almost entirely by the weather. If we did happen to be caught trying to run down the coast when a depression was running up it—well, the old sailors at the yacht club, after a long moment’s consideration, suggested getting inshore of the Agulhas current. “Go in until you hear dogs barking. Then you can heave to, or sail back and forth for a day or so. Keep out of the breakers, mind the inshore current set, and let her blow out.”

Conventional wisdom also advocates waiting for the barometer to reach almost to the maximum of the predicted high before leaving—and I’d wondered why there were no charter fleets along this coast!

Rather than provide entertainment for the dogs of Zululand, we re-established contact with Graham the ham—call sign ZS2 ABK—who runs the Maritime Mobile Net from his home on the Wild Coast. He’s a dedicated amateur radio operator and provided us with daily synoptic chart analysis and forecasts for the areas we would be sailing into.

Our South African cellphone provided another, more mundane, source of weather information. Since we were rarely more than 10 or 15 miles offshore, we had reasonable coverage. Irene, who handles the radio and meteorology aboard Moose, often called a shore-based sailor friend and had him look online at a site like Windguru or Windfinder and give us his interpretation. 

Our basic strategy was to look for a weather window long enough to include a 24-hour grace period. For example, if we had to sail 200 miles, we’d plan conservatively on taking two days and then add an extra day as insurance. The region is just too volatile to take forecasts literally. This worked reasonably well, except for when we experienced local coastal lows.

These low-pressure eddies, perhaps only 100 miles across, are frequently too small to show up on large synoptic charts. But to a sailboat, a hundred miles of headwinds and breaking seas is a matter of some consequence. These coastal lows were like having a second bullet in the chamber during a game of Russian roulette. 

The Waiting Game

We waited 11 days in Durban, because the next leg, 280 miles to East London, was the longest we had to make, and the weather windows that presented themselves were all just a little on the short side. Finally a chance came: light northerlies for the next four days. That morning we motored out toward the 200-meter line.

It didn’t take long before we picked up a hint of the Agulhas current. Soon we experienced its full force. We watched the knotmeter like kids; at times we had a 5-knot boost. We piled on sail in the breezy spots and motored like fiends in the calms—anything to put those miles behind us. One afternoon we topped out at 11 knots over the ground. We really weren’t cruising; we were scurrying.

Shipping was fairly heavy, but predictable, in that anything heading south stayed near the 200-meter contour line while northbound traffic played the coast. One day I caught a 4-foot mahi-mahi, a tropical transient riding south on the warm stream. 

The Running Game

As we approached East London it became clear our weather window would stay open longer than expected, so we continued racing westward, past Port Elizabeth and the twin heads leading into Knysna’s lagoon. 

Just past Knysna we learned the party was over. Winds from the southeast, forecast at over 40 knots, were expected at Cape Agulhas. That sounded far too busy for our taste, so we opted to tuck into Mossel Bay, the surfer’s paradise.

Unfortunately, the port captain had nothing but disdain for sailboats and would not let us enter his harbor. We could anchor behind the inner sea wall, but that was all. Fortunately, the officers of the Mossel Bay Yacht Club treated us like visiting royalty.

We lay low in Mossel Bay for a full five days, waiting for the southeaster to blow through. Down in the Furious Fifties winds were up to 60 knots, and the great Southern Ocean swells that came north produced the steep concave breaking waves that surfers crave. We passed the time watching them doing cut-backs and 360’s on the crests. Otherwise we played tourist.

Bartholomew Diaz landed here in 1488 and an excellent replica of his ship can be found in the local museum. It was built in Portugal for the 500th anniversary of Diaz’s arrival and was sailed down by sailors of the Portuguese and South African navies. A lateen-rigged, carvel-planked craft, it sports a sterncastle that rises to shocking heights and is steered with a whipstaff from belowdecks. It is a vessel that inspires respect.

The headland where surfers congregate provides a modicum of shelter in which ships have anchored and watered from the earliest times. At one time there was a boot, hanging from a branch near a spring, where passing ships would leave mail to be carried by other ships going in a useful direction

Dash to the Cape

After Mossel Bay the complexion of the ocean changed dramatically, as the water became colder and took on a greenish cast. To the southwest, past Tristan Da Cunha, a huge low had reportedly formed, but we would have a day to spare as we covered the last 225 miles to the Cape. We had a southeast wind behind us, but the knowldge that it might quickly build to 30 or 40 knots made us apprehensive. Happily, it stayed around Force 6, and we took in a reef and had a wonderful sail with the engine off for the first time in days.

Long stems of kelp rode the waves and jackass penguins (on land they bray like donkeys) scrutinized us before crash-diving into the water. Irene was below napping one afternoon when I thought I heard a dog barking. At the time, we were 10 miles offshore, about to give Cape Agulhas a wide berth. An hour later a seal popped up, marveled at Moose, barked, and made a serpentine dive.

Our wind was still holding as we drew abreast of Cape Agulhas, the most southerly point of Africa. This is where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet, and the water is shallow far offshore. When we’d driven here in our 4x4 on one of our road trips, we saw the sea was white foam to the horizon. Moose was romping along, and I scanned the high coastal dunes with binoculars to take my mind off the weather. 

By now the current had broadened and was less strong. It was downright cold that night, so we dressed in fleece jackets and thermals and dug out our “night-watch quilt.” The stars were brilliant. The Southern Cross hung off to port, cold and didactic.

We were, in point of fact, bound for Simon’s Town, not Cape Town. On the southwest corner of Africa is a long rocky finger that points south to the Cape of Good Hope (re-named after the earlier name, Cape of Storms, failed to attract settlers). On its eastern side lies False Bay, with Simon’s Town halfway down. Cape Town is at the peninsula’s root, facing west. 

Approaching False Bay, Moose picked up some breeze from a local acceleration zone and raced across the black water. Ten miles away we could see the bay lights from the naval station twinkling. But then we sailed out of the wind and again had to motor, northward past some fishy-smelling, squabbling penguin colonies, We took our reserved space at the False Bay Yacht Club at first light and had our mooring lines doubled before the warmth of the sun was on us. That afternoon we sat in the upper lounge of the yacht club bar. I was drinking something called a Whale Tail Ale when a gust set the building to shuddering. The club anemometer read 54 knots.

Irene said, “It’s the Wild Coast!”

“Appalling!” I replied.

Photos by J. Duncan Gould and Irene Gould

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