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Wild Coasts and Wee Children

“Log extract, 26o 13′ S, 07o 52 W:  This is fantastic. Four hundred miles into our voyage to St Helena and we are creaming along (everything being relative!) in a south-easterly force 4, the No.1 poled out, full main, two knots of favourable current, and a lazy following  swell. Crew morale is at a high and the traumas of this morning are fast dissolving in glorious sunshine.”

 I had a suffered a rude awakening at 6 a.m., faced with Chloe being sick into the leecloth, Jago howling for his breakfast, a squall coming through, and all this before I had a chance to put the kettle on. The words of a pharmacist in Hout Bay, South Africa came flooding back with a vengeance.  As he toted up our mound of antihistamines, suture kits, Scooby Doo plasters and suchlike paraphernalia, he had given us a long, hard look and said tersely, “I thought there was a law against taking children that young to sea…”

I quite agree. Anyone planning a 4,000 mile trans-Atlantic voyage on a 31 foot yacht with a two year old and a five month old should be immediately institutionalized. (Those wishing to simulate the experience should try squeezing their local Montessori into a tool shed and taking the whole ensemble on a two week bungee jump.)  Why do we do this?  We love the lifestyle and have a particularly obstreperous daughter who demands adventures on a daily basis.  We just do our best to comply.

Our journey really began in Durban where we had spent a frantic two months completing the final touches on Tandika, giving the old girl a complete makeover from weekend sailor to proper little cruising boat.  We emerged sitting two inches lower in the water but sporting solar panels, extra gerry cans and fixed bimini—as well as our pride and joy, and most faithful crew member, the new Airfoil self-steering vane.

Pete and I (and Chloe) had both sailed the Wild Coast before—it has an ugly and extremely well earned reputation. We had experienced the notorious south-westerlies coming in with a bang from the comfort of the marina, and our neighbour’s anonometer had read gusts of up to 55 knots.  It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the conditions kicked up by this sort of wind riding over the five knots of contrary Agulhus current, an experience best avoided. This coastline cannot be described as a ‘piece of cake’ cruising ground but boy, have we encountered some of our most exhilarating sailing there!

This trip was no different. When we finally got our fair weather window, three days of north-easterlies forecast, we seized our chance with gusto and bid farewell to the murky waters of Durban Harbour. Out on blue water we had a full three days in 25 knots of downwind sailing, second reef in the main and the jib poled out, with Tandika—in all her tubby glory—gamely taking the short steep seas in her stride. With the current racing under her and screeching down a couple of good waves, our top speed on the GPS read twelve knots!   

Two and a half weeks later, having spent Christmas and New Year’s Eve surging up and down on the pontoon in Port Elizabeth as the next 40 knot south-westerly blew through, we found ourselves en route to Mossel Bay…sailing in brilliant sunshine with the smoky hues of the Tsitsikama mountain range stretching off in the distance on our starboard side, a spectacular reminder that we would soon be sailing past the entrance to Knysna. 

"Hmm," said Pete, wistfully, "We could just go in for a couple of days?"  A quick consultation and we found that we were just an hour off high water. That clinched it. It’s not the simplest pilotage and during the flood or ebb tide the current can run up to 7 knots in the entrance.  A call through to Henk (the local friendly coastguard) on the VHF determined that the entrance was like a washing machine. "Hell!" he said happily, "You guys have done it before!" 

With a moderate SE swell ricocheting off the western head, the sea was thrown into confusion and we were bounced around the cockpit as we made our approach. We coaxed our temperamental 12HP Arona into gear, took a deep breath and went for it.

The entrance is narrow and the inconveniently sited Emu Rock means that the leading line takes you within spitting distance of the rocks on the western head. We surfed through, our hearts in our mouths, Pete with eyes on the leading line and hands on the helm, the children (thankfully) asleep, and me keeping a close eye on the waves building up behind us.  As we touched the calm waters of the lagoon, met with a huge grin and a wry salute from the bobbing tourist boats, three lines of breakers frothed and foamed clean across the entrance.

We were the last boat to cross the line before the harbour entrance was officially closed for the next 24 hours until conditions improved!  For us, the real danger in entering was getting caught up in the Knysna time warp. We had been there the year before, seduced by its easy lull. This time it only took us three weeks to leave.

We had run out of excuses to stay.  We stocked the boat, persuaded an old friend to abandon kite surfing in Cape Town and crew across the Atlantic with us, and scrubbed the bottom. We dropped the mooring, passed through the Heads in the calmest conditions, and set the spinnaker.

Rounding Cape Agulhus, as the current eased well offshore, the seas flattened out and the water became alive with dolphins and seals frolicking, and with gannets and cormorants plummeting into the waves.

After listening to the latest forecast, we made a tactical decision to put in to Hout Bay and avoid yet another coastal low. We waited for the sunrise, slowly puttering in as the fog lifted to reveal a stunning approach.  Sheer, rocky cliffs plummeted into the sheltered waters of the bay, making a pretty backdrop to the small scruffy town that from a distance looked like real "outpost" country.

The pontoons were weathered and rickety but the welcome warm. After being there for a week, we were doubly-glad not to have dropped our hook in the harbour. The fishing boats roared in and out like bulls on the rampage, and works that were in operation to shorten the harbour wall were simply to stop the fishermen unwittingly doing the job themselves.  

A highlight for us was the local seal population. Every morning we would find a young male stretched out on the pontoon next to the boat who would raise an eyelid and stare balefully before snorting and rolling over into the water with a brief splash. I couldn’t help feeling we were trespassing.

A week of final stocking, building castles on the beach and visiting the afore-mentioned grumpy pharmacist, and we were physically and psychologically ready to leave. We sailed off the pontoon and beat out into the bay in a crisp Force 4. Our voyage was just beginning. 

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