Reunion to South Africa

The passage from Reunion to South Africa provided a variety of conditions.   For the first three days the wind was fair from the south east, making for a brisk close reach and had Sylph making good time, averaging about 150 miles a day.

On the morning of the third day, New Years Eve 2003, I thought some fresh fish would be nice so I streamed the lure.  At about 11.30 I decided to check the lure and just as I came out into the cockpit and looked astern I spotted a nice size mackerel leaping out of the water, a glint in its eye, as the hunter sought its quarry.  The fish however could not see the glint in my eye nor I am sure did it have any concept of irony.  I grabbed the line and felt the big fish strike.

Bringing it alongside I gave it a nip of rum to the gills to calm it down then hoisted it into the cockpit.  It lay there, a big fearful eye looking up at me …. Death!  I thanked the fish’s spirit and cut its head off.  I sliced two juicy fillets from the tail and pan fried them in a light herb and flower batter in olive oil along with some chips.  I do not put the lure out often because I hate killing these big beautiful pelagic fish and without refrigeration there is no way I can eat even a third of the thing.  Mark from Cornelia had given me a recipe for drying fish so I decided I would try it out in the hope that I would not have to waste too much of the fish.  The recipe is a simple concoction of water, salt and vinegar which is used to marinate the flesh for 30 minutes, the meat having been cut into thin strips.  These strips are then hung in the rigging for three days, being brought below if rain threatens or if it becomes humid.

The fish drying was quite successful but now I have to admit I have no idea of what to do with it.  I tried eating it raw, it being much like beef jerky, tough and salty, and I could only eat small quantities.  Maybe it would make good emergency rations though I cannot imagine an emergency dire enough to induce me to eat it, especially if my water supply is limited, so I still have a sealer full of it.

New Years Eve also marked the point where we passed clear of the bottom end of Madagascar and late that afternoon I altered course to the west, setting a waypoint in the GPS to take me to Durban.  The wind from here gradually became more variable.  At 29°S I was back in a temperate summer climate with highs and lows passing south of me causing the wind to slowly ease over about a three day interval and pick up again as the high pressure system moved through to the east.

I had two such systems go by, and as the cols passed the wind died to a zephyr, especially at night, which led to much slatting of sails and fraying of nerves.  When I can’t stand it anymore I drop everything and drift waiting for the wind to return.  I have a great light weather sail, like a simplified spinnaker, which I call a drifter.  It has a QANTAS kangaroo on it and makes a real statement.   It will draw old Sylph quietly along at a couple of knots in the lightest of breezes, but if the wind picks up it is a real handful to douse.  I end up with the halyard wrapped one turn around the mast winch and led forward in one hand, this I check away as I try to gather in the sail on the foredeck with the other.  Invariably the time to bring the drifter in is when the wind starts to freshen and to date it is definitely one of my less seamanlike evolutions.  I had it up and down a few times without major hassle excepting once when I managed to drop it in the water and watched helplessly, halyard in one hand, leech in the other as the sail decided to set under the keel.  Not wishing to be drawn and quartered by my own boat I released the leech and somehow managed to claw the whole lot back on board without damage apart from some anti-fouling marks on the sails head.

On day 11, Thursday 9 January, all the signs pointed to a front coming through.  Over the previous two days the barometer had steadily fallen from 1020 to 1011 Hpa, the weather fax showed a front was on its way and at 09.00 a bunch of high cumulus clouds was advancing from  the south.  I put a precautionary two reefs in and sure enough, at 10.00 the wind swung into the SSW, freshened and a chill in the air announced the arrival of the new air mass.  It was not a severe front as the wind did not burst upon us in a sudden dramatic gust but rather increased steadily, even so by 14.00 Sylph was down to trysail and storm jib, the wind a steady force eight.

I was pleased to have the opportunity of testing Sylph’s storm rig in gale force winds, as I had not had the opportunity to do so until then.  Unfortunately I left furling the headsail a bit late and consequently had to let it fly to furl it, which in turn led to some damage along the foot and leech.  The wind also had the windvane on the self steering gear fluttering furiously and I decided it wise to unship the vane before any damage ensued.  As most single and short handed sailors will testify, windvane self steering is worth two extra crew members with its untiring ability to maintain a course virtually indefinitely .  Thus it was that  I was to have the opportunity to see Sylph, wheel and self steering lashed, sailing herself under storm canvas, close reaching comfortably into the building seas, at a respectable four knots.  I was pleased that she was able to look after herself so well in the strong winds, and felt confident of our ability to handle nastier stuff in the future.

The gale was short lived and 24 hours later I was back to full sail, though actually with the damaged jib I used a combination of staysail and part jib, again feeling very pleased with myself for having fitted a staysail for just this sort of contingency.

At 3.30 Saturday 11 January I awoke to a change in the boats motion.  The wind was very light and Sylph was dancing all over the place.  I checked the chart and as suspected we were crossing South Africa’s notorious 1,000 meter depth contour, marking the edge of the continental shelf where the Agulhas current flows at its strongest and is sometimes responsible for monstrous 20 meter waves when a full southwest gale is blowing against the current.  I was relieved that the short lived gale had passed through when it did, as it meant I would now most likely have a three day window of fair weather in which to reach Durban. 

That morning conditions were light enough to warrant the drifter again, in the afternoon the wind freshened from the NE, a sea breeze perhaps as we got closer to the coast, and in the evening at 18.20 I sighted land looming out of the hazy sunset.  Africa!

The harbour entrance to Durban was dead down wind and the channel in line for a perfect sail into harbour.  It was dark by the time I approached the entrance but it was well marked and the moon was bright so I set myself the challenge of entering port under sail which went without a hitch and made for a wonderful start to my stay in Durban.

At 21.30 I had secured alongside the Point Yacht Club marina, not a little excited at having made it across the Indian Ocean, knowing I had survived the most difficult time of my life so far, and now I had a vast new continent to explore.  What, I wondered, will I discover here?

My first morning in Africa, Sunday 12 January 2003, reunited me with a few cruising friends, Phil and Amie from Iwalani who seemed a little jaded, Steve and Pam from Pamda Bear, unfortunately Pam had developed a flu like illness and was feeling pretty low, and my Spanish friend Issie from Islero, who was in high spirits.  When Issie and I last parted he did not think I was going to make it to Africa and he looked twice before he believed it was me. He gave me an enthusiastic welcome and a big bear hug.  It felt very good to be here.