Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Passage to South Africa (2012)

The passage from Reunion to South Africa covers 1,450 miles and is known for being a very tough leg.  As you leave the tropics and round the south end of Madagascar, the area’s weather is affected by an unending succession of Antarctic lows moving eastward.  Even in the summer when they are less intense, fast-moving lows still pass through every 2-4 days making it almost impossible to avoid some bad weather on the passage.  These lows are especially dangerous as you near the South African coast and enter the fast flowing Agulhas Current.  This wind against tide situation regularly causes a dangerous sea state.

After preparing Saviah for the passage, we waited a week for a good weather window.  It was a long week with quite a bit of anxiety, and more than one instance where we thought we were leaving the following day before the next forecast would cause us to postpone.  Fortunately, there were three other cruising boats waiting to make the same trip, and we could commiserate together.  We met on most afternoons to discuss weather, and two of the boats shared information they received from the weather routers they hired to provide forecasts for the passage. 

On November 2nd, a low pressure system that had been hovering south of Madagascar finally seemed to be moving along.  Everyone agreed that it looked good to depart the following day.  Our plan was to leave in the early morning hours, but after a walk along the break wall, we changed our minds.  The surfers were out in force catching the 8-10 foot waves breaking over the St-Pierre harbor entrance.  We were stuck for the time being.  The forecast called for conditions to settle later that day, and we made many trips back and forth to monitor the swell.  It did settle down eventually that afternoon, and all four boats set off within a few hours.

The first five days we had mostly light winds that switched direction and speed often.  Before leaving Reunion, we changed out the genoa for the small working jib for a couple of reasons.  We thought it would be a good sail for the strong southwesterlies that we would ultimately encounter, and because our big genoa still needed to be repaired after a large section of stitching came undone during our crossing to Mauritius.  

We were determined to maintain a decent pace during this trip, as the longer we were out, the more bad weather we would see.  This meant motoring at times, but of course we only had so much fuel, and the forecast showed more light winds for the following few days.  In order to conserve fuel and keep up our pace, a headsail change was necessary, as the small heavy jib wasn’t cutting it.  We were nervous about flying the spinnaker because of the quickly changing weather, and decided our best option was to repair the genoa.  Andrew spread out the big sail in the cockpit and began hand-stitching about ten feet of sail.  It took almost four hours to repair it, but we were glad we did.  We switched the headsails and made relatively good time, averaging 5.5 knots.  We only used the sail for a couple of days and then switched back to the small jib when the forecast showed an approaching low.

Throughout the passage, we stayed relatively close to s/v Ocean Lady, a British boat that left Reunion right before us.  We attempted to speak to Alan and Margaret each morning and evening at a scheduled time on the VHF.  Communication was only possible when within about 15 miles of each other.  We were out of range most of the time, lose contact for a day or two, and then somehow drift back together again.  In fact, five days out of Reunion, we were both sailing downwind, wing on wing.  They were on a port tack and we were on a starboard tack when we had to adjust course to avoid a collision.  We ended up crossing within about 50 yards of each other.  When we were in VHF range, they often provided us with some very useful weather updates.    

s/v Ocean Lady
Although it is very tempting to round the corner close to Madagascar, the more conservative route goes approximately 150 miles south of the island before turning west towards South Africa.  Hugging the coast would probably save at least a day, as there is a strong favorable current and the distance is shorter.  However, the continental shelf and several sea mounts in the area can cause enormous waves when the conditions deteriorate.  Freak waves have even been reported in this area when the winds are light to moderate, so it is best to give the island a wide berth. 

The general strategy is to encounter a low south of Madagascar and then try to make the remaining 700 miles to South Africa before the next one arrives.  As we neared this area, we received updated weather information, which showed our timing was good as a low was approaching.  The winds closer to Madagascar were forecast to be stronger, so we continued 30 miles further south before pointing west. 

About 12 hours after turning west, the front of the low passed through with lots of thunder and lightning, and we had SSW winds at 30 knots with gusts to 40.  Saviah handled it well, and we sailed along on a close reach with a double-reefed main and staysail.  After the front passed, we had nice sailing again as the E to SE winds filled in for a few days. 

During this last stretch, we tuned in to the Peri Peri net in the morning and evening.  This net is out of South Africa run by knowledgeable sailors located in various cities around the country.  They provide detailed weather forecasts for the area, ranging from Madagascar and Mozambique all the way around South Africa and up to Namibia.  They also give each boat that checks in information specific to their location. Most of the cruisers check in with their positions and get advice on strategies for the approach to the Agulhas current.  Since we don’t have an SSB radio, we can’t broadcast, but we can listen in on our receiver and still use the information given to other boats.

There was a bit of anxiety as we approached South Africa.  The Agulhas current flows fast south down the coast.  The width varies, but to get to Durban, we would have to sail about 50 miles across it.  If you are caught in the current when a low passes through, it is bad news.  The SW winds blow against the current and regularly create enormous breaking waves.  Our charts of the area have “cautions” that describe the risk of freak waves of up to 65 feet during these times. 

Unfortunately, timing the low pressure systems is not as easy as it sounds, mainly because these lows are not easily forecast.  If we weren’t so stressed about it, it would have been almost comical to hear the guys on the Peri Peri net give advice to incoming boats.  One morning, they would tell them to hurry before the next low arrives, and by that evening they would advise slowing down as they wouldn’t have time to make it.  The low would stall out, and the next day they would recommend hurrying up again.  Having access to these quickly changing forecasts via the net was helpful, and we never missed a broadcast.

As we approached, we were in hurry mode and motored when necessary to keep our speed up.  Two days before reaching the current, the weather forecast changed and showed a front arriving sooner than expected.  It would likely reach us before we crossed the current.  We turned off the engine and sailed along slowly waiting for the front to pass.

Fortunately, the front was quite mild and passed quickly, and we motor-sailed again in light winds to get through as fast as possible.  We entered the current as the sun set on our 11th day out.  We had calm conditions through the night and noticed only a couple knots of current.  As the sky began to lighten, the NE winds filled in and before long, we had 8-10 foot seas and a NE breeze of 25 knots.  We were flying along at 8 knots, happy to know that we would make it through the current without any weather related issues. 

The next concern was making it into Durban without getting hit by a ship.  We later learned that Durban is the busiest shipping harbor on the African continent.  There must have been 40 ships near the harbor, some coming and going, others just hanging out waiting for their turn.  The last 25 miles turned out to be the most stressful part of the passage as we navigated through the commercial traffic.  We made it through without incident, and by 9 am we radioed Port Control and were given permission to enter the harbor. 

helicopter removing Durban harbor pilots from outgoing freighter
It was an amazing feeling to be motoring through the harbor in calm waters with that passage behind us.  We headed over to the marina and dropped the anchor in the shallow waters near the entrance.  They didn’t have a spot for us immediately, but after closer inspection and measuring the depth in a shallow berth, we were able to move into the marina.  We cleared in with customs and immigration and breathed a huge sigh of relief… Saviah had arrived in South Africa! 

Durban marina