Around South Africa
Leaving the Cape of Storms to Starboard

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Cape Point from the safe side
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We arrived in Cape Town on December 10, 2012, which, when I write this report, was about 3 weeks ago. Sailing from Richard's Bay, our first port in South Africa, to Cape Town is a bit of a challenge - at least if you are in a hurry. We were not on a schedule, but sometimes it was frustrating, when the weather forecasts changed very rapidly, and the "window" for the next hop was determined to be too short. The most important rule on this coast is: do not get caught out there in a strong southwesterly, but in November 2012 the southwesterlies were dominant, interrupted by brief 1-2 day breaks.

Arriving in Table Bay, Cape Town on the 10th of December 2012

Another reason for annoyance on this trip is the limited number of berths available for transient yachts. Most circumnavigators rounding South Africa try to be here during the southern spring, early summer, in November - December and, now that the route through the Red Sea is practically out of bounds, the number of cruising yachts on the southern route is increasing. To make it even more difficult there is a fleet of 20 plus ARC-Round the World yachts that are getting special treatment in most marinas. When you try to enter the same harbour as several ARC-yachts you will not be the guest of hounour. Also, most of the various contractors, such as mechanics, electricians and sailmakers are busy with the ARC-fleet with little interest in the rest of us, independent cruisers.

November 25 chart showing the highs and lows Grib file showing arrows from all directions

There are three major factors that govern the route from Richard's Bay to Cape Town: 1) the Agulhas Current running on a southwesterly course down the coast at a speed of up to 6 knots; 2) the variable weather pattern of low and high pressure systems coming from Antarctica and the southern Atlantic and travelling north-eastwards along the coast, and 3) the lack of sheltered harbours and anchorages, particularly between Durban and East London (270 nm). The interaction between the strong SW flowing current and strong wind in the opposite direction can generate monstrous freak waves. There are several warnings on the charts regarding areas that are particularly known for such abnormal waves of up to 20 metres in height!

Our worst incident did not occur out at sea, but in a harbour. In Port Elisabeth Scorpio was dirtied all over by dust from manganese ore, see previous report: Getting Stuck in the Wrong Place. We are still, a month later, getting black shit down the stays, shrouds and halyards here in Cape Town every time there is precipitation, or even just fog.

The food was always delicious, above a plate of deep fried calamari and vegetables cooked al dente for less than €6 INCLUDING the wine. Beer was always tapped to the brim, and less than €2 á pint!
Why bring your own under these circumstances? We couldn't afford to eat at home!

Okay, enough of warnings and complaining, because South Africa is a great place to visit. The people we meet are extremely friendly and the yacht clubs (there is at least one in every port) couldn't be more welcoming; many of them offering some free days for use of their facilities to start with (even if you are anchored out because of lack of space at the pontoons). There is a lot to explore ashore, the prices are very reasonable (at least from a visitor's perspective) and the food is great. One thing that we considered a big disappointment, however, was the chilly weather at sea, but we may have had false expectations and, most likely have been spoilt by more gentle climate after so many years in the tropics. My blood has probably thinned causing my personal built-in thermostate to malfunction.

Sometimes I needed a wind breaker even ashore.
Here in Knysna. Note the Crocs in matching colour.
At least we were prepared for the worst.
Temperatures were as on a Finnish summer's day.

Our next port after Port Elisabeth was Knysna and on the way we crossed the meridian of our home port Helsinki, and as we thus had crossed all meridians, we were now, at least in practice, circumnavigators (see the story What is a Circumnavigation?).

We arrived in Knysna on December 6, which is the Independence Day of Finland, and were met by friends Helinä and Kalle on yacht ELAINE, waving the Finnish flag on the dock of Knysna Yacht Club. Unfortunately there was no space for us in the marina and we really needed a facility to wash of all the Port Elisabeth-dirt, so after two nights at the club dock we decided to leave (instead of staying at anchor), taking advantage of a period of easterly winds.

At Knysna Yacht Club on Independence Day They didn't have space for us in the marina.
No wonder!
This is a different ball game!

Sailing just a couple of miles off the coast, we could often connect to the internet and I kept on sending emails to all yacht clubs ahead requesting space, but all were full, and in most places it would be difficult or even impossible to anchor, even temporarily; quite a dilemma, especially as many of the harbours in the Cape area are suffering from very strong winds. Two days later we rounded Cape Agulhas, the most southerly point of the African continent, and had therefore arrived in the Atlantic Ocean. The wind was blowing 20 knots from the east, the waves were moderate and the going was pretty good, so passing this dreaded point was a non-event this time.

On a westbound circumnavigation, leaving Africa to starboard is often called "rounding" Africa, as opposed to leaving it to port going through the Red Sea. During some meditation on one of my night watches I reached the conclusion, however, that on a true circumnavigation it really doesn't matter which way you choose, north or south, you are going to circumnavigate the African continent anyway (see story: Planning to Sail Around All Continents?).

After Cape Agulhas we had to decide wether to enter False Bay or to continue around Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope, originally more accurately called Cape of Storms. There is a misconception, that the notorious Cape of Good Hope is the most southern point of Africa. Of special significance for centuries of navigators, however, the Cape of Good Hope, usually just called The Cape, instead marks the point where the course of a ship, after sailing down the western coast of Africa, begins to travel more eastward than southward. False Bay is the large bay between Cape Agulhas and the Cape of Good Hope, which got its name because westbound navigators often mistook Cape Agulhas for Cape of Good Hope and steered in to the bay instead of going around The Cape further to the northwest.

Being only a few miles south of Cape Agulhas I managed to get on the internet and get some weather forecasts for the following night and next morning for the Cape Town area, including Cape Point (which is next to the Cape of Good Hope). There was a bit more wind and wave in the prognosis than I liked, but at least it wouldn't be on the nose, so we decided to go for it (particularly as we didn't really have anywhere to go in False Bay either).

Forecasts for Cape Point: Gale warning and dangerous seas, but we would be passing
on the night between Sunday and Monday and should be in Cape Town before noon. Well, we were, but the last 3 hours, on Monday morning, we had sustained winds between 40 and 50 knots, topping at 56.3!

Between Cape Agulhas and The Capes (Point and Good Hope) the wind stayed behind and we were on a dead run with the head sail poled out, no main. After midnight we rounded The Capes and stoved away the pole, as we were on a broad reach sailing north along the coast, 2 miles out. After we passed Hout Bay we were on a close reach and the winds, which had stayed around 30 knots all night, started to get stronger. The last three hours were some of the toughest we have experienced during our twenty years of cruising. We had sustained winds of 40-50 knots, topping at 56.3 according to the instruments. I called Cape Town Port Control to ask about the conditions in the harbour. They said that the winds were too strong for pilots to work (their limit is 35 kn, I heard later) and that no ships were allowed to enter or leave the harbour, but we were welcome if we thought we could get around Green Point where we would turn into Table Bay (and face the wind). Around us we had several big ships heaving too or putting out anchors. One of them was the cruise liner MSC Sinfonia.

At one stage I considered turning the bow north and heading for Saldanha 60 nm away. But the waves were not too bad as the wind came from the shore, downhill from Table Mountain, and little by little, hugging the shore as close as we dared, we finally made it and managed to get in behind the break waters. The wind was still blowing over 40 knots, but the katabatic effect generated by Table Mountain was replaced by the less fierce funnel effect over False Bay, across the Flats isthmus and Table Bay, and therefore the gusts did not quite reach 50 knots anymore.

I called the dockmaster at Royal Cape Yacht Club (RCYC) on the phone and, after some persuation as we didn't have a reservation and the marina was full, he gave us permission to tie temporarily to a floating dock. He couldn't really send us back out on the sea again. It was 9 o'clock in the morning of Monday, January 10, 2012.

The next day I read in a news paper, that MSC Sinfonia had 1,400 passengers who were forced to stay at sea an extra night as the ship was denied entry in the strong winds.

We were happy to be in Cape Town, which had been THE major waypoint ever since we made a U-turn in the Maldives in February 2011, aborting the plan to sail through the Red Sea. And I was optimistic, that we somehow would be allocated a berth at RCYC.

The cruising season of 2012 has now successfully ended.