Ocean Sailor reader, Kevin Ward, reports on a gruelling passage back to Cape Town from Madagascar…
South Africa pushes it’s Southern Cape into the Southern Ocean. The Cape of Good Hope is flanked on either side by two of the planets other great oceans, to the west the Atlantic and to the east the Indian Ocean. With cold currents to the west, stirring with warm currents to the east, with prevailing westerlies clashing with S. E. Trades, and high-pressure systems going up and down like yo-yos on both sides, it is no wonder that the Cape of Good Hope creates more weather than just about any other promontory on earth.
One of them is a cyclone bomb or weather bomb, which tears up the east side and will always catch out the unaware.
All the coasts around this great beak have been christened with names not featured in any glossy, yacht charter brochure: the Skeleton Coast, the Cape of Storms, the Wild Coast.
Sailing around it in any direction requires a sound boat and a skilled skipper, and lifelong sailor Kevin Ward, 60, who has doubled the cape, was left asking himself if his boat, Canace – Poseidon’s lover from Greek mythology – an Elan Impression 434, really did pass muster.
“The area around Nosy Be on the North-west Coast of Madagascar is a beautiful place to cruise. The pace of life is slow, the surroundings idyllic and the sailing is little more than short hops in the gentle diurnal winds. But for us, this came at a price and by October, after five months, we had to make the return to our base to escape the cyclone season.
With heavy hearts, and a degree of anxiety, we started our trip back south through the Mozambique Channel.
We were day-sailing along the coast of Madagascar because, during some night sailing on the passage north, I had come across many unlit fishing craft which proved hazardous and I did not want a repeat performance.
We spent three days at Russian Bay, where the daughter of an old friend of ours taught us how to cook coconut rice with fish.
At Turtle Island, we stopped to try and capture the shellbacks on camera, without success!
In Honey River, we bought some nectar from bees which hive in the mangroves.
All these inlets were marked at sea by the dark brown water, full of soil, which pours out of them.
I was wary as we rounded Pointe Berangomaina as this was where I had grounded on the way up. We had anchored here and dragged during the night when the wind got up. We found ourselves over at a 10-degree angle with the totally unprotected rudder dug well into the sand.
I was worried I had damaged it as there were no facilities, travel hoists or even quays to lean against for hundreds of miles around. Fortunately, we left without damage, but it did leave me thinking.
In Parrot Bay, we couldn’t resist a return visit to see the spectacular white and brown lemurs and seek out the parrots hiding in their rocky crevices.
Here there were a large number of other yachts all either returning to South Africa or en route on a circumnavigation. This leg – across to Mozambique – held most of the circumnavigators in trepidation.
The fleet seemed to grow until a final victualling stop at Mahajanga, for diesel, fresh food, wine and beer.
Twelve days after leaving Nosy Be we anchored in Baly Bay and the next day, October 31, we left Madagascar.
The current on the western side of the Mozambique Channel runs strongly south for much of the time, but unlike the Agulhas, further south, it cannot be relied upon to assist, instead, it runs in large anti-clockwise eddies. There are accounts of yachts crossing to Mozambique encountering strong foul currents on the 220-mile crossing from Cap St Andre to the Mozambique Coast. Winds in the channel are shaped by mostly benign northerlies, ‘South-easters’ coming from the south of Madagascar and strong southerlies arising from low-pressure systems passing further to the south.
Access to good weather data is essential for efficient planning, but here our luck had run out. The modem on our trusty Iridium phone packed up and we became dependent on the goodwill of those who would send us brief updates by SMS.
Our hope had been to head south keeping outside of the many reefs and islands until at the latitude of the Barren Islands we would bear off south-west to Bazaruto. In the event, the winds headed us and we found ourselves steering west across to the Mozambique Coast. Here we encountered a strong southerly current and a very confused sea as the wind countered the current.
The currents were all over the place – it was like being in a washing machine producing choppy 6ft waves. The Elan is normally a dry boat, normally a secure boat, but I was sitting behind the wheel and I got absolutely soaked by an incoming sea, so I crouched in the companionway waiting for a lull. I didn’t even venture out to look at the instruments as the sea and the weather got worse. It was a pretty unpleasant 24 hours.
Our difficulties persisted until the current and a backing wind eased and five days later, we made our way through the narrow sand channels to anchor off Ponta Gengareme on Bazaruto Island.
A couple of days after we left for the passage to Richards Bay. The much-discussed current failed us completely and winds were light until about two miles out of Richards Bay all hell broke loose. Fortunately, I managed to get the third reef pulled down before a 45-knot squall hit us and the harbour, that was visible, had disappeared from view and it was a tortuous two hours before we bashed through the squall and we were able to make our way in. Next day when I unfurled the genoa, the luff spar fell apart. How the genoa had remained furled I will never know. We had to wait a month for spares to be sent out from Sweden.
Later at the Zululand Yacht Club we met an Australian couple aboard the yacht Leventeia, a Beneteau Oceanis 43, who only had two reef points, told us they had encountered a storm of 60+ knots 60 miles north-east of Richards Bay. Their mainsail shredded totally. This coast was clearly living up to its reputation.
The coast south of Richards Bay is dominated by the strong south-west flowing Agulhas current, which can reach rates of five to six knots. For those travelling against the current, as we had on our passage north, this means hugging the shoreline to miss the worst, a stressful experience especially at night as there are few lights along much of this coast. On the way up I was suffering fatigue and, at night, felt as though I was sailing in a canyon: I couldn’t turn to port because of the shallows, yet I couldn’t steer too far offshore either because of the current.
This time we would have the current behind us, but it is essential to avoid wind against the current as the Wild Coast is famed for treacherous conditions with stories of monstrous freak waves of 60 feet which have claimed many vessels. There are few ports offering shelter along this coast which makes it essential to have a weather window long enough to make reasonable progress. A series of low-pressure systems generating strong south-west winds had delayed our departure from Richards Bay, but finally, on the morning of the second Monday of December we had our chance with a window long enough to reach East London 340 miles down the coast, or possibly even Port Elizabeth a further 135 miles on before a monster cold front was forecast to hit Cape Agulhas, Africa’s most southerly point 770 miles away.
With the current under our keel we made good progress and by midnight on Tuesday made the decision not to call in at East London. East London is the last truly sheltered harbour with easy access in all conditions and it was tempting to stop, but with fair weather, it made sense to press on. After a month’s delay in Richards Bay, there was no telling when another opportunity might arise. We had made an overnight stop at Port Elizabeth on our way up and were in no hurry to repeat the experience – the marina is now sadly in poor condition -the sailing club’s future is threatened by the politics of the port – and in any case, offers poor shelter in strong winds – so it was a relief to find that our favourable weather window was extending ahead of us. With the Agulhas current finally falling away our speed was dropping to more believable numbers but even so by Thursday night we saw that we would not have to anchor at Mossel Bay – our last port of shelter with easy access on this passage and made instead for Agulhas and the home run to Cape Town.
Cape Agulhas is low-lying and unremarkable from the sea, and it passed by in a light mist which intensified as we made for the spectacular and majestic Cape Point.
This was to be the first time we would round it at night, and we were disappointed to see nothing as we motored on through thick fog which persisted and hid even Table Mountain and Lion’s head as we arrived in Cape Town on the Saturday morning.
Something of an anti-climax maybe, but we were hugely relieved to have arrived safely and in good time. Other yachts which had left Richards Bay with us had stopped at East London or Port Elizabeth and were still there by Christmas, with one yacht sustaining damage at the latter, after breaking her lines in a strong blow.
Madagascar is a truly beautiful and friendly island, and we will definitely visit again, but the passage to and from Cape Town offers serious challenges and I realised I needed a stronger built yacht, so as soon I was back in port I contacted Kraken Yachts to make enquiries about ordering a K50.”
Kevin Ward, 60, who has lived in South Africa for 20 years, was born in Surrey, England. He has been sailing since he was a teenager. From Chichester on the South Coast, Kevin has cruised the West Country, Brittany and Normandy. The whirl-pool like conditions he experienced in the Mozambique Channel reminded him of rounding the English Channel’s
Portland Bill with the adverse conditions created there by strong wind against tide.