Friday, June 7, 2013

South Africa - Knysna, Addo, Tsitsikamma (2012)

Back at the Durban marina, we shifted into passage mode and prepped for our trip south.  The passage down the coast is another potentially dangerous one.  The Agulhas Current flows fastest along this stretch, reaching speeds of up to six knots.   Just like the tail end of the passage to South Africa, we would have to deal with this current and the effects of the southwesterly winds that come through every few days, causing large breaking seas.    

Although this current can cause a dangerous sea state, it can also be a blessing.  When the winds are favorable, it should make for some very fast sailing, and we could potentially log some 200 mile days.  The strategy is to use it to your advantage to sail down the coast quickly, while watching for signs of changing weather to ensure you head inshore and leave the current before a low arrives.  During the passage, we will keep a close eye on the barometer, which should provide some warning of a low approaching.

Having decent weather on the first leg of the trip is crucial, as there are no places to stop along this rugged coast until East London, 250 miles south.  After that, protected harbors where we could wait out bad weather appear more frequently.  It will be a relief to make it safely as far as East London, but further would be better.  East London is a commercial port and not a great place to stop if you don’t have to. We really wanted to make it all the way to Knysna, 550 miles away.  The locals recommended this place as a lovely resort town and an excellent place to spend the holidays.

We paid close attention to the coastal forecasts during our stay in Durban in order to familiarize ourselves with the weather patterns.  As we prepared Saviah for passage, we noticed what looked like one of the longest periods between two low pressure systems that we had seen yet.  It appeared that the wind would shift to northeasterly in just a couple days and may last as long as five days.

We walked down the street to Cruising Connections to talk to Tony, the owner and a very knowledgeable local cruiser.  He called the airport down the coast to get updated barometric pressure to compare with the local pressure.  You want to leave when the barometer has topped out at the end of a southwesterly blow, and also make sure conditions are stable down the coast.  Tony agreed that it appeared to be a very good window. 

So we worked hard to get the boat ready and still had time to see a concert before we left.  The South African band Ladysmith Black Mambazo was playing at the botanical gardens.  They are an all-male a cappella group that recorded with Paul Simon on a couple of albums.  We went to the show with Bruce and June on the Canadian boat Ainia. They put on a great show and even sang a few Christmas songs.  It was a nice distraction from the next passage.  

On December 17th, Saviah was ready and the forecast remained good as we motored out of Durban Harbor.   The passage started out with no wind and minimal seas as the southwesterlies that had been blowing for several days finally died, but the northeasterlies hadn’t filled in yet.  We weren’t going to sit and wait for wind, so we motored for a bit the first day, and hoisted the sails when it finally arrived.  On our second day, the northeasterlies strengthened to 20-25 knots.  With the nice boost from the Agulhas Current, we flew along at nine to ten knots for two days.  We sailed past East London during the afternoon of the 19th, and breathed a sigh of relief as we now had quite a few more options for safe harbors.   At this rate, we would make the 550 miles to Knysna in less than three days.

Unfortunately, entering the port of Knysna presents its own challenges.  The bay can only be entered in just the right conditions.  There are two large sandstone cliffs, called the Knysna Heads, on either side of the entrance.  The channel between the two is extremely narrow, passing over two sand bars, with several large rocks scattered about and lying just below the surface.  The tide changes about every six hours and massive amounts of water ebb and flow through the channel causing current that reaches over six knots at times.  This can cause big breaking seas right at the entrance when the wind blows against the tide.  Even when there isn’t a big swell, we wouldn’t be able to control the boat going with the current or have enough speed to go against it when it’s flowing fast.  The British Royal Navy once called this the most dangerous harbor entrance in the world. 

The local advice is to time your entry for one hour before high tide and only when the sea state is good.  There are two high tides per day, but generally only one during daylight hours.   With 24 hours before the next favorable tide cycle, we had only 150 miles to go.  We had been averaging about 200 miles per day and thought this would be no problem.

That afternoon the wind died as we passed Port Elizabeth, the next good harbor along the coast.  We turned the motor on to keep up our pace and then the fog rolled in.  Before we knew it, visibility was less than 100 ft.  Not good when you are in an area of major commercial shipping and have no radar.  After about 20 minutes, we called out a sécurité on the VHF, letting other ships in the area know our position and course.  We were pleasantly surprised when the South African coast guard responded, made sure we were ok and announced our sécurité for us (they have much better range) every 30 minutes until the fog cleared up a couple hours later.

After the fog cleared, the wind filled in at 10-15 knots, but unfortunately came out of the southwest.  This meant that we were closed hauled and the swell quickly built to six to eight feet.  There was no way we would make it by the following morning.  Bashing into the waves was killing our speed, and it was making for an uncomfortable motion.  We debated heading into Port Elizabeth, but the barometer was steady, and all of our current weather information indicated we should have easterly winds.  Since we were on the edge of the current and in a good position to leave it and run to Port Elizabeth if the weather deteriorated, we opted to heave-to and wait to see if this was just a short-term shift.

About 12 hours later, the wind died altogether and then fresh SE winds filled in.  We were underway again making eight to nine knots, with a boost from the current.  By early afternoon, we were within about 30 miles of the Knysna entrance.  We were eight hours late for the last high tide and 16 hours early for the next.  So we hove-to again and waited as the wind continued to build.  It blew 20 to 30 knots all night and the seas built to 8 to 10 ft, making for an uncomfortable evening. 

The next morning, the winds lightened a bit, but we were a little nervous that the swell would be too high to go through the heads.  As we neared the harbor, Di called the NSRI (National Sea Rescue Institute) in Knysna to ask about conditions.  The man on watch said he had just come through the entrance himself, and that it was safe.  We arrived at the heads at 10 am, just before high tide and slowly motored through the entrance, making sure to line up the two distant markers showing the safe course.  It was a bit stressful threading our way through the hazards, and we breathed a big sigh of relief as Saviah reached the calm waters inside the lagoon. 

As we motored to the other side, we contacted the Knysna Yacht Club to see if we could get a berth in the marina.  We talked to Roger, the commodore, who was very welcoming and helped arrange a marina berth for us.  The slips are actually owned by individuals, and there generally aren’t any vacancies.  Lucky for us, another club member had just hauled his boat out of the water and said we could rent his slip for our stay.  We were really excited to have completed another difficult passage and be securely moored in the marina.

Knysna lagoon and marina

The picturesque town of Knysna is situated on the northern shore of an 11 mile wide estuary.  The neighborhoods along the edge of the estuary and on the islands within it are built up with high end homes.  Many of these are seasonal residences for affluent South Africans.  The hub of the area is the development around the marina, where there are dozens of restaurants and retail shops.  This is also where the yacht club is located.  Since it is not a commercial port, the harbor is very clean and a haven for recreational boaters. 

Although it is probably a sleepy little town most of the year, we arrived just a few days before Christmas, and it was bustling with activity.  It was a great place to spend the holidays, although we would have much rather spent the time back home with our family and friends.  To make it feel more festive on board, Di decorated Saviah with lights and a small Christmas tree.

While there, we took advantage of a nearby running trail along the lagoon, trying to get back into shape.  We also spent time at the yacht club since they were kind enough to give us a free temporary membership.  We took advantage of the facilities and the wi-fi connection and got to know some of the locals.  They even invited us to their big New Year’s party at the yacht club. 

When the new year rolled around, we still had some time to kill before our next passage to Cape Town, as the marinas are generally full until the second week in January, and anchoring isn’t allowed.  Since traveling in South Africa is inexpensive, we decided to spend a few more days inland for another short safari trip.  There is another good game park a couple hundred miles down the coast, and some of the yacht club members gave us recommendations for other places to see on the way. 

We picked up our rental car and headed east down the coastal highway to Addo Elephant National Park.  The park was founded about 80 years ago to provide a sanctuary for the remaining elephants in the area.  Before that, they had become a nuisance for the local farmers and were killed by the hundreds until there were only 16 remaining in the area.  Thanks to the park, the population has rebounded, and now there are over 600 within its boundaries.  We had the best elephant viewings here, as there was a waterhole right by the road where we watched 50 plus elephants as they played in the water and mud. 

There are several animals that we spotted here that we didn’t see in Kruger.  We saw dozens of black-backed jackal and hundreds of red hartebeest, another type of antelope. 

While we were in Kruger, we heard about the flightless dung beetle, but didn’t actually see any.  They were plentiful in Addo, and they are very serious about preserving them.  There are “dung beetle right-of-way” signs all over the park, and you are warned not to run over the elephant dung on the roads.  This is because the beetles use the dung to make food balls, which they roll down the road, or brood balls, where they lay their eggs inside.  This process apparently redistributes the dung and speeds up decomposition, which helps to recycle the nutrients.  They used to be wide spread, but their populations are now dwindling, probably because they hang out on the roads.

Addo also has the big 5, but in our short stay, we were only able to spot three of them: the elephant, buffalo and lion.  Our lion sightings more than made up for it though, coming across them on five different occasions.  In Kruger, we had only seen females, but the male lions are much more striking, with their long manes.  Most of them were on the side of the road, just a few feet from the car. 

We also saw many of the usual suspects: warthogs, zebras and numerous birds. 

Although we didn’t see as many different kinds of animals, we did better than Kruger in terms of close encounters and decided to extend our stay by a day.  On the way out, we exited the park on the south side and got on the N2 for the drive back west. 

There are many things to see and do between Addo and Knysna.  Since we spent longer than planned in the game park, there was only time for a quick stop as we needed to return the rental car.   We decided to go into Tsitsikamma National Park and check out the area at the mouth of the Storms River.  This is a generally rugged coastline where big breakers crash against the cliff walls, but there were also some stretches of nice beaches as well. 

We parked the car and did the short hike out to the main attraction, which are the suspension bridges.  There are several of these bridges that were originally built in 1969 where the Storms River meets the Indian Ocean.  The longest spans 250ft over the mouth of the river, and there are three or four others that stretch from rock to rock over the western bank.  When big swells come in and break against the rocks, you can get soaked if you happen to be standing on these bridges. 

Storms River Mouth Suspension Bridge and a couple of rock dassies

We spent a few hours enjoying the park before heading back to Knysna, where it was time for us to get ready for our next jump west.  Leon was ready to get his boat back in the slip that we were occupying, and the marinas in Cape Town were starting to empty out and would likely have room for us.  We got the boat ready, checked the weather and consulted with a few of the yacht club members for advice.  After a few days back at the boat, it looked like we had a good window with light winds to start the next leg down the coast. 

The first challenge was just getting out of the bay.  Just as entering the Knysna Heads must be attempted only in good conditions and in just the right part of the tide cycle, the same applies on the way out.  The morning we were ready to go, we got up early and jogged over to the eastern head to get a look at the pass.  The winds were light, but the southerly swell was sizable, creating six to eight foot breakers across the entrance.  In the marina, there was a 50 ft sailboat with a local crew of six also trying to get out.  They had motored out to the entrance and watched the swell for several hours that morning before turning back.  It was a reminder of how treacherous the channel can be if conditions are not right.

Knysna Heads with breakers

It was going to be very disappointing if we had a good weather window, but were stuck in the bay.  We continued to monitor the forecast and early the next day, crew on the other sailboat went out to the entrance in their dinghy.  They came back and reported that it was passable.  Unfortunately, we only had two days left of what looked like a three day favorable weather window.  We decided to go for it and an hour later untied the dock lines and headed out of the bay for the 290 mile trip to Cape Town.