30th September 2003
The provisions had been purchased, industrial quantities of chilli con carne prepared. Now the time had come to take the sea sickness pills and face up to our lack of sailing knowledge. We would be sailing through the Knysna heads for the last time, sail round one of the worlds more treacherous coastlines, and all in order to reach a new residence in cosmopolitan Cape Town .
A three day break in the south westerly winds that dominate the South African winter would allow the easterly winds to blow us around the coast, with the attendant high pressure system damping the swells that rear up as they surge out of deep water and onto the continental shelf just a few miles offshore.
Would this prove too much for our sailing skills? Quite possibly, but the Alleykat press gang had done sterling work at Friday nights kicking out time, enlisting some experienced seamen to help ensure safe passage. First Kevin. The primary boat builder, he clearly viewed Alleykat with pride and would be sad to see her go. Joining him was Theo, a young lad who crews Kevin’s charter boat, and Ellie, one of the owners of the boat company. Fortunately they had underestimated our organisational skills, bringing with them enough food to render our Chilli redundant. With family and friends gathered on the dock, everything turned sepia and Celine Dion started wailing about how her heart would go on. Fortunately we were too far north for icebergs, so it was with confidence that Thom announced his intention to stretch Alleykats legs.
With 3m of swell running and the winds not yet fully turned, the first few hours were spent under motor, although as a result of the sea sickness pills I slept through most of it. The night bought with it my first experience of being on watch. With 6 adult crew, we took a 2 hour on, 4 hour off watch pattern. It didn’t take long to adapt to, although I’m sure that after 5 weeks on the Atlantic we will welcome the chance to sleep through the night. With the lights of land only slightly visible on the horizon, and no moon, the stars burned brightly above us, occasionally dropping from the sky leaving a trail of light behind them.
The next morning I awoke to a blue sky dotted with wispy clouds, a strong wind blowing straight from behind us. We hoisted the spinnaker (a large sail used in following winds) and tested how fast we could go. Occasionally a swell would catch up with us, and we would be able to surf down it, stopping only when the bow ploughed into the trough at the bottom. Using this technique we managed to reach 17 knots, although the fun soon stopped after we realised that we had set the instruments wrong, and had twice as much wind as we thought. This was a rather exciting moment as it meant that we had spent half the day risking ripped sails, and also explained why one of the hulls had been starting to lift out of the water (much to Thom’s consternation).
Early afternoon saw us rounding Cape Aghulas , the southernmost tip of Africa . An unspectacular end to a continent, gentle hills slope down to a golden beach, the small town that rests just above the sea a place unlikely to attract visitors on it’s own merit. The unprepossessing nature of the land has never hampered the areas ability to build itself a fearsome reputation, as in bad weather high winds work against the ocean currents to produce huge seas, the subject of many cautionary tales in the yacht club at Knysna. Fortunately our passage was the perfect contrast to this, with glorious sailing weather, the only real danger being severe sunburn or hitting one of the whales that played in the water around the Cape .
The day passed peculiarly, with nothing much happening, but time passing quickly. Meals provided some temporal awareness, although with nothing to do, and a delicious chicken curry in the fridge, the temptation was to eat all day. Diaries were written, the log book updated and sails trimmed for maximum efficiency, then sunset came and everything came alive.
Since leaving Knysna the fishing lines had been out, heavy-duty boat rigs with thick line and stiff rods. As the sun set, one of the reels started screaming as a fish let it’s anger at taking the bait be known. The reel has a brake on it that allows the lines progress to be slowed, but this was ineffective. We watched the line continue to fly out, until a sudden bang told us that the nylon line had given up under the weight of the fish. This led to much debate about the likely size of the fish, although the ease with which it had snapped 50lb line told us it must have been big. Hopefully with practice we’ll actually be able to get the fish on board, in which case there will be photos instead of one that got away stories.
The next dusk event was the arrival of a school of dolphins in our bow waves. We could see their dark shape under the water as they ducked in and out of the hulls, then they would burst out in a flash of grey, before disappearing back under with barely a splash. They stayed with us until the sun had dropped so far below the horizon that the only way to know the splashing noise of their play, then as quickly as they arrived they had left.
Dark drew in, causing the coastline to blend in with the night sky, settlements along the coast providing an abundance of stars just above the horizon, interspersed with the occasional lighthouse sending its warning twinkle across the ocean. Night also bought with it the arrival of a new low pressure system and a wind that was blowing straight onto our bow. Unwilling to spend the night beating (sailing into the wind) we dropped the sails and started the engines, motoring for the last leg of the journey around Cape Point and up the west side of the Cape Peninsula . And so it was that early on the morning of the 30 th September we pulled into the harbour of Cape Town the next morning, our first proper journey completed.