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Sailors Stories

Out of the frying pan and avoiding the fire

Kevin Ward and his partner Irma were forced to remain on their boat because their homes were let, but after 456 days in a marina, they needed to escape. Dick Durham reports.

At first, it was fun. Even though the shops were closed, trawlers delivered fresh fish daily, socially-distanced sailors raised a glass to each other from their cockpits and new friends were made on a regular basis, albeit at the required distance.

Beneath the shadow of Table Mountain Kevin Ward, 61, and his partner, Irma, sat aboard Canace, their Elan Impression 434, in Cape Town’s Victoria & Albert Waterfront, with official documentation to establish their boat was their home.

But after a while, the sight of nearby Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela, had spent 18 years in prison underlined their own incarceration.

“Yes, it was a high-end development, with luxury apartments, but South African lockdown regulations were draconian and we were condemned to stay aboard,” Kevin told Ocean Sailor.

Even though he holds a professional interest in the coronavirus as his successful Johannesburg-based company sells medical diagnostic testing equipment, Kevin, had by now organised his business so that he could work remotely. He had long held a desire to visit the 3,000 mile-long Intracoastal Waterway on the eastern seaboard of the US and decided now was time to realise his dream.

“We had spent 456 days in the marina. We could have spent another year there, but people had drifted away and it was time to go,” Kevin said.

As they prepared to depart Canace was shaken with a violent impact. “We thought we’d been rammed,” he said.

But it was the blast from an exploding petrol tank aboard a 40ft motor cruiser. The boat’s generator landed on the coach roof of a nearby yacht, the eight-man life-raft flew 50 feet and landed on the foredeck of another. Canace’s Windex was smashed by a flying fragment of GRP. But miraculously no one was killed. The police assumed it was a bomb at first. “It was an interesting send-off,” Kevin said.

They sailed away from Cape Town on March 14th 2021 to make Kevin’s longest ocean passage to date; to Ascension Island, 2,531 miles away where they arrived eighteen days later.

“Because of the pandemic St Helena was closed, so we had to sail straight past,” he said, “but curiously Ascension was open as long as you’d had a test.”

Both had taken PCR tests in South Africa which were negative and so were given a seven-day visa.

“There were no restrictions; no masks, no social distancing, the island was totally Covid free.”

However, the anchorage in Clarence Bay was unnerving. “It is completely open and the wind howls around every corner, there’s always a half metre swell running and some days you cannot land in the dinghy
at all.”

Kevin was amused to discover that the only thing which could land whatever the weather was the sharp-shelled green turtle, hundreds of which swim all the way from Brazil to lay eggs. Thanks to the growing awareness of our relationship with all creatures great and small, landing craft now have to discharge more judiciously, 

which is a distant cry from the landing craft there now which once dumped tons of building materials on the beach in Ascension for the upkeep of its famed runway. It was also used by the RAF as a staging post during the Falklands War, and a potential emergency landing zone for a US Space Shuttle with an emergency. 

Kevin worked up a course for the Brazilian island of Fernando de Noronha, but as Canace approached he discovered it too was ‘closed’ because of the pandemic. “We had toyed with the idea of making a landfall on the Brazilian mainland itself, but reports of the huge spread of the Covid-19 virus warned us off.”

Instead, the 43ft sloop kept on north-westwards as their radar picked up increasingly frequent nasty little equatorial squalls, most of which the pair managed
to dodge.

“We were never in any danger,” Kevin said, “it was just hard work; endless rounds of reefing, then shaking them out, interspersed with cyclonic wind and torrential rain. They mostly came up astern, but they sometimes hit us on the beam as winds veered from 10kts to 40kts in a couple of minutes.”

After 17 days they had covered 2,689 miles and made their landfall off the Suriname River where they had to heave-to as access requires entry at HW.

“The current is so strong there, that even hove-to we were still making four knots!” Kevin told Ocean Sailor.

After entry, they had a day sail 30 up river to Paramaribo, capital of Suriname, South America’s smallest state, where they cleared in. Ascension being Covid free and with letters from the authorities there, stating the same, Kevin and Irma were allowed in without further pandemic hassle. Here they applied and paid for visas: Kevin being a UK citizen obtained a 90-day pass, but Irma, with a South African passport, was only granted 60 days.

Moored at Suriname’s only marina, the optimistically named Marina Resort Waterland, they met the proprietor, Noel Pauw, who built the intimate (estate agents speak for tiny!) 12-berth dock, far enough up the nation’s biggest river to be situated in freshwater which drains down to the sea from the dense rain forest. This is a real boon for yachts coming in from the ocean as any fouling drops off in no time thanks to the freshwater killing off all the seaborn parasites that have aggregated on the hull, keel and rudder.

Noel’s local knowledge has proved invaluable in the former Dutch colony which was swapped in the 17th century by Britain in exchange for New Amsterdam, which is appropriately Kevin’s final Intracoastal destination, now known as New York having been renamed by the British in honour of the Duke of York.

As we went to press, Kevin, ignoring the metallic screams of howler monkeys, was planning his next leg. Although they are constrained by the hurricane season and Covid-19. Trinidad & Tobago is closed, but Grenada is open if visitors undergo a ‘battery of tests and quarantine’.

Ocean Sailor will follow Kevin and Irma’s adventures as the progress further North.

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