Thursday, June 27, 2013

Cape Town to Saint Helena (2013)

After waiting close to a week for the winds in Cape Town to settle down, we headed out on January 31st.  Our next stop would be the island of Saint Helena, 1,700 miles to the northwest.  The strategy for this leg of the trip is to wait for a few days of light winds in Cape Town and make it as far north as possible before the next big blow comes.  In the case of Cape Town, light winds usually mean 20 – 30 knots. 

This passage is normally quite boisterous for the first few days, and our trip was no exception.  We had S to SE winds at 20-25 knots for the first four days, with a sizable SW swell, and Saviah carried us along at over 6 knots, knocking off 150 miles a day.  At this pace, we began to think we could reach Saint Helena in 11 days.

On our fifth day out, the winds lightened, which typically happens near the tropics.  We did everything we could to maintain our speed, but our average daily run over the next six days dropped to a disappointing 109 miles.  We sailed with our big spinnaker for two days, until one night a very mild squall with gusts up to 15 knots swept through.  This sail was already near the end of its life, and a little bit more pressure from a gust caused the sail to rip all the way across, about four feet from the head.   No longer held on top, the sail went forward and into the water. 

This happened around 2 am, when Di was on watch, and she ran forward and pulled in all 500+ square feet of sail and piled it on deck.  It was good that she got it out of the water quickly before we ran over it, which could have created a tangled mess under the keel. By the time Andrew woke up and ran up top, the whole thing was pretty much over.  

We discussed switching out to the smaller gennaker, but the halyard was stuck at the top of the mast, along with the head of the spinnaker.  So we did our best with the poled out genoa, although this is our favorite sail and hearing it luff for days on end is very frustrating.  By day 11, we had almost no wind at all and averaged only 60 miles for the following three days.  It seemed that the current was likely responsible for at least half of those miles.

During these periods of very light winds, we tried to be patient and wait it out rather than motor.  We were uncertain of refueling options in Saint Helena and decided to save our diesel for crossing the ITCZ (doldrums) on the next passage.  This made for some very long days, but at least the seas were flat. 

On day 14, the SE trade winds filled in at 10-12 knots, and Saviah was finally moving along a bit faster.  We approached Saint Helena at night after 16 days at sea on what ended up being one of our slowest passages, averaging only 106 miles per day.  We opted to heave-to for the night and sailed around to the leeward side of the island the next morning after sunrise. 

Saint Helena is an island of volcanic origin, measuring approximately five miles by ten miles.   It was originally claimed by the Portuguese and then later by both the Dutch and English and was an important stopover for ships going from Europe to Asia before the opening of the Suez Canal.  The English were the first to fortify and colonize the island, and it remains one of the oldest British colonies and one of the most isolated islands in the world.  There are currently about 4,300 residents living here, mostly descendants of the original English settlers, soldiers and their slaves.  

James Bay, Saint Helena
Approaching the city of Jamestown, we were a bit nervous as the information we had showed the primary anchorage in 90 feet of water with a very steeply sloping sea floor.  In order to anchor in water that deep, we would need to put out all 250 ft of our chain, at about a pound per foot, in addition to our oversized 55 lb anchor. Our windlass is still broken and the thought of pulling up all of that weight by hand when it was time to go was daunting.  We also read that because of the steep ocean floor many boats have problems dragging off to sea. 

As we neared the anchorage, we were pleasantly surprised to see seven other cruising boats there, and all were tied up to moorings with another 15 available nearby.  We called the port on the VHF and got permission to tie up to one.  Apparently they were installed just a few months prior, which was a big relief. 

After Saviah was moored, one of the small ferry boats stopped by, and the driver said he would pick us up in an hour.  There is a wharf on the other side of the bay with a concrete wall where it is possible to land a dinghy.  Even when the winds are light and the ocean swell is minimal, there still seems to be a sizeable swell that rolls into the wharf, making a dinghy landing very wet and often dangerous. 

Fortunately, the port provides a ferry service that runs cruisers and the local fisherman from their boats to the wharf and back again throughout the day.  This means you can arrive at shore dry and with your dinghy in one piece, although it still takes a bit of coordination to get on and off of the small ferry boat as it rises and falls in the swell.  Near the wall, several lengths of knotted rope hang down for you to grab and swing onto the concrete, while the boat drops from under you. 

Once ashore, our first priority was to clear in with the officials in Jamestown.  This is the primary town and capital of the island, sitting at the bottom of a long and narrow valley with steep, bare cliffs rising up on both sides.  We asked for directions to the immigration office and were told to cross over the moat that leads into town, and look for the police station across the street from the castle.  There were many old colonial buildings lining the narrow streets, and it was interesting to imagine all of the history that has taken place in this remote island since it was settled 350 years ago. 

Our next stop was the bank.  There aren’t any ATM’s on the island, so we needed to exchange our US dollars.  The island has its own currency, the Saint Helena pound, which is on par with the pound sterling.  We then stopped at the local grocery store to stock up on fresh produce.  The supply ship apparently hadn’t been in port in a while, and most of what we found looked a bit tired. The only produce we ended up buying were a few potatoes and onions.  They did have fresh bread, eggs and cheese, which we were happy to see. 

The next day, we took the ferry back into Jamestown, to explore the city and get a bit of exercise.  The first thing we did was to climb Jacob’s Ladder.  This is an inclined plane that was built in 1892 to haul manure up to the fort on Ladder Hill and to bring goods back down.  There are 699 steps to the top, and after sitting on the boat for the last 16 days, it was not easy. 

Jacob's Ladder
Since we needed to start the next leg of our Atlantic crossing in four of five days, we decided to do one of the local tours and see as much of the island as we could during our brief visit.  One of the local guides said he would show us around, and five other cruisers were also interested.  The next morning seven of us piled into a van and headed out to see the island. 

Our guide, Robert, was born and raised on Saint Helena and since he is 70 years old, he had personally witnessed some of the local history.  He told us about two shipwrecks in the bay, including the tanker, RFA Darkdale, which was sunk in the harbor by a German U-boat during WWII. The other was the story of the SS Papanui, a passenger ship that caught fire and sank with 364 people on board.  Everyone on that ship survived, and you can still see the top of it sticking up out of the water in the mooring field.

After a quick tour of Jamestown, we headed out of the city on the narrow winding roads.  The barren cliff walls surrounding the island quickly gave way to the lush green forests of the interior, and Robert explained some of the traffic laws to us.  Since Saint Helena is a British island, the rules state that you are supposed to drive on the left hand side of the road.  This is mostly a moot point though, as the roads that traverse the island are only one lane.  When two cars need to pass, the one traveling downhill must yield to the one going uphill.  There isn’t always room to pass, so when two cars come together often one will have to back-up quite a distance before finding a place to pull over. Since there isn’t a lot of traffic on the island, it doesn’t slow things down much.

Because Saint Helena is so remote, the British used it as a place of exile, most notably for Napoleon Bonaparte.  He was taken here in 1815 after he was defeated at Waterloo and only a few months after he escaped from his first place of exile at the island of Elba.  Despite its remoteness, the British were concerned that there could be another escape attempt so the island was strongly garrisoned, including naval ships circling offshore.      

Just outside of Jamestown, our first stop on the tour was the Briars estate, where Napoleon spent his first two months on the island with a local family.  A few months later, he moved into his residence, Longwood House, where he spent the last six years of his life.   They did an interesting tour of the house and talked about his day-to-day life, and we were able to view many of the artifacts from his time there.

The next stop was Napoleon’s original grave, a few miles from the house in a location he requested.  This is a beautiful area that he often visited and is still very well maintained with lush gardens all around, although the body was exhumed and moved to Paris almost 25 years after he died.  Since the French and English couldn’t agree what to put on it, his tombstone is blank.

Longwood House, Napoleon's original grave site
Later that afternoon, we drove around more of the island and then made a quick stop at Plantation House.  This has been the official residence of the Governor since it was built in 1792.  There are five giant tortoises the roam around the grounds of the mansion, including Jonathon, who is estimated to be 178 years old. 

views of the island, Plantation House with giant tortoise
We also went by the site where the new airport is being built.  Since there isn’t an airport now, the only way on and off the island is on the RMS Saint Helena, which runs back and forth from the island to Cape Town, approximately 20 times a year.  This is one of the last royal mail ships being used today, and not only does it bring passengers, but it is also doubles as a cargo ship, delivering supplies to the island.

The economy in Saint Helena is quite weak and almost entirely sustained by aid from the British government.  Even tourism on the island is insignificant since getting there involves taking one of the infrequent 1,700 mile boat rides from South Africa.  Having an airport is expected to encourage economic development and kick start the tourism industry, with up to 30,000 visitors expected annually.  They are even building several five star resorts, and Robert talked at length about how this will change the island when it is completed in 2016.

After all our sight-seeing, it was time to do a few projects on the boat so we could be on our way.  The first priority was to figure out a way to rig Saviah with twin headsails.  Since our initial 2,000 miles towards the Caribbean would likely be dead downwind, we decided that twin-jibs would be much better than using either a single poled out sail or going wing-on-wing (jib and main set on opposite sides).  It would give us more sail area for the light winds expected, as well as reduce the rolling motion, which can often be bad when sailing downwind.

We planned to use our furled genoa on one side and the gennaker on the other.  Each would need to be poled out, but we only had one whisker pole.  So Andrew figured out a way to use the mast from our sailing dinghy as another pole.  He made a connection for it at the mast and then found a way to attach a block at the end for the sheet, as well as connections for guy lines and a topping lift to keep it in place.  It wasn’t perfect, as the sheets would likely be subject to some chafe, and it was a couple feet shorter than would be ideal, but it was better than nothing.

The next step was to go aloft to retrieve our spinnaker halyard and the remains of our spinnaker, as well as to rig another topping lift for the new pole.  This would normally be very simple, but there was a sizable swell in the anchorage.  As the boat rocked from side to side, Andrew was continually getting slammed into the mast and shrouds.  What would have normally taken five minutes took half an hour, and by the time he came down, he was pretty beat up and a little sea sick as well. 
Lastly, we noticed the gimbal pegs on our stove were wearing down again.  We had already made repairs twice, but they weren’t holding.  It would be big trouble if they broke at sea, with our 50+ pound stove loose in the cabin on a rolling boat.  Andrew made another temporary repair with some epoxy and an o-ring that would hopefully get us to Barbados, where our new gimbal pegs would be waiting.

On our last day on the island, we filled up on water and spent the last of our Saint Helena pounds on what little fresh produce we could find.  We also spent some time getting exercise before our passage, which would likely be the longest we would ever do.  We did another hike up the 699 steps at Jacob’s ladder and walked around the dilapidated forts on either side of town. 

On February 21st, having cleared out with customs and immigration the previous day, we slipped the mooring lines and set sail for French Guiana, 3,100 miles to the northwest.