Firstly, thank you to everyone who’s been reading these posts and asking me for more. I appreciate it muchly!
At the end of last weeks episode I had just woken up to a glorious sunrise and beautiful day, but with no wind.
We had dodged various fishing trawlers the previous night and now we were bobbing at sea while fishing vessels zipped past us like ants hauling in the day’s supplies. We were somewhere near Struisbaai and were watched cautiously by various seabirds who, in this area particularly, think that any boat means fish. The closest thing we had to fish was a desire to jump into the water and swim.
This was perhaps the most boring of days… mother nature teased us along with tiny squalls of wind that disappeared as fast as they had appeared. The water was glassy and technically we were sailing but probably only doing 2 knots in the fast bits and backwards in the “slow” bits.
To give you an idea about speed on a boat I will draw you this analogy. Firstly, ships calculate their speed at sea in knots because their speed is always relative to the water. If they’re running straight into a current/tide it might feel like they’re moving fast but in reality they’re doing half the speed it feels they’re doing. Sailors also use miles because it’s easy to translate miles to knots and know how long it will take to get somewhere. As an example, my office is about 6 miles (9.6km) away from my flat. If I drive in my car I can do that trip in about 10 minutes. (6 minutes assuming 100km/h). Our little sailboat was actually quite quick, the fastest the GPS ever accurately recorded her movements was about 7 knots, but that happened in the middle of a big storm while surfing down a 12m swell, so lets assume her real top speed is 6 knots.
So, 6 miles at 6 knots = 1 hour which doesn’t seem too shabby. However there’s this thing called wind and if it’s not your friend that 6 mile trip can take a long long time. Well, technically infinity, but to be reasonable lets say that day three was spent sailing at roughly 1.5 knots average. That means that our 1 hour trip to my office suddenly takes 4 hours. 6 minutes in a car, 4 hours in a boat.
The real average speed of our entire sail was probably in the order of 4 knots. Today’s average was probably half that… or less.
We sailed and sailed and sailed and tried our damnedest not to get too sunburnt. At some point we passed the Breede river mouth where my parents have their holiday house. You can imagine my feelings when comparing the comfort of their house with my current situation.
Toiletries at sea are not as fun as you might imagine. Firstly peeing is generally done leaning overboard with your body wrapped between two mast stays (steel cables). It’s not all that difficult once you’ve taught your body to pee on demand while facing impending death. Then there is the bucket and chuck-it, which for the sake of all mankind and our harmonious future I will not document any further. You brush your teeth in the same cup you drank your coffee out of, cleaned with sea water obviously, and spit overboard which leaves pretty streaks of toothpaste in the water.
Eventually we neared Stillbaai and while we sat out there in almost idyllic weather wishing for a storm, I can’t help but think that perhaps mother nature heard our prayer but was busy with something else at the time and would get back to us as soon as she was done. At times we were well and truly stuck. We could see wind over there, no, wait, over there… no no it’s back over there… etc etc. Eventually in desperation we decided to start up the motor and try and power towards the wind. We didn’t have a lot of diesel. I would guess we probably had about 40 litres in total, which is actually a lot for a small boat, but not if you take the next 48 hours into account. We motored for about an hour, getting teased by the wind every few minutes as it would fill our sails and make us contemplate turning off the engine… but those full sails never lasted long. During these agonising hours there was something else happening… the swell started getting bigger.
We sailed and occasionally motored all the way to the point where we could see Mossel Bay on our left. I remember it quite vividly. It was dusk and the lights of Mossel Bay slowly grew brighter and brighter off to our left hand side. We sailed passed those lights and both of us were thinking to ourselves that perhaps we should just call it a day and head straight for Mossel Bay under power. In 5 hours we could probably have been having a beer and a prego roll in some or other questionable establishment. We probably should have gone with our gut instincts. Mossel Bay was *right* there and we were sailing directly away from it, directly into a shitstorm.
In fact, once you pass Mossel Bay on your left, the bearing for Knysna (according to the GPS and compass) is uncomfortably right of where you expect land to be. Being dark we could see all the lights on the other side of the bay. Harolds Bay, Wilderness, Sedgefield… and then a whole lot of darkness. And we were heading straight for that darkness. I went below to consult the charts again to make sure that my coordinates for Knysna were correct. They were. Knysna was 50 miles away at 100 degrees. At our current pace we were between 12 and 50 hours away. The swell was getting bigger and the wind more random, albeit aggressively random.
The problem with sailing towards darkness at night is that you don’t have anything to navigate to except stars… And as the weather started getting shittier and shittier those stars would occasionally disappear for minutes at a time. We also had the reference of the lights from the other towns (Wilderness etc) that were somewhere off to our left… but they too disappeared occasionally as the weather rolled in.
It was cold, probably colder than it had ever been. I was thankful for my gloves but was still disappointingly surprised at how a “largish” guy like myself can have such a scrawny little ass. It felt like my ass bones were directly “on” the fibreglass of the boat, even with improvised cushions.
So you’re cold and the most obvious thing to do would be to pull your hoody over your head and insulate you ears etc. The odd thing though is that everytime I did that I found myself getting frustrated and pulling the hoody off within 2 minutes. Eventually I realised why. When you’re at sea you start to use your hearing a lot more than say, driving a car. You hear the wind behind you before it gets to the boat, you hear swells growing behind you threatening to dump a load of water onto the boat… with your ears covered you are essentially sailing “blind” and amazingly the comfort of warmth is nothing compared to the security of “vision”.
This was a miserable night… the swell grew and grew but the wind seemed to become more and more patchy and more and more random. At some point we decided to start motoring again but not before improvising a dip stick to try and measure how much fuel we were using. If we ran out of fuel heading into the Knysna heads we would probably die. No jokes. Fuel becomes that serious. We used strips of cardboard from a box I had brought some supplies in. As carefully as we could we dunked the cardboard and then quickly measured the diesel stained patch. 14cm was our first reading. An hour of motoring later we got 8cm… this scared the shit out of me. Our engine was meant to burn 2 litres of fuel per hour. We wearily decided to keep on motoring for another hour and get another measurement. 11cm. In other words we were either in the Bermuda Triangle or perhaps it might be that we were measuring fuel on a boat that was being tossed around by the swell. We “looked” into the tank with torches and decided to keep on going. I tried to sleep. Ok, so remember how uncomfortable sleeping is at sea? Well, add a huge diesel engine only a thin piece of plywood away from your head and the lovely smell of diesel fumes and hot oil. Amazingly I slept.
We kept on with the exhausted regime of sailing when we could sail and occasionally some motoring, but not before rechecking our fuel levels with our high-tech cardboard strips.
It was darker than it had ever been before. I was exhausted and at times would strain my eyes into the darkness thinking I could see land (i.e. we were too close) or think I could hear the sound of waves breaking on a shore… but all of that was imagined. We were far out to sea and as the sun eventually started illuminating the backs of the distant mountains I was able to relax, knowing that we were still far away from both the shore and Knysna. The swell was bigger than it had ever been before, perhaps about 5 meters. That’s two stories high, but wide enough to not be too threatening.
Knysna was a few hours away. I felt relieved knowing that eventually, probably while there was still daylight, I would be able to step onto dry land… I made jokes in my head about kissing the ground.
Up Next: The roaring 6 meter swells broke violently and audible, throwing spray 15 meters up into the air… “There’s the channel” he said, “between that rock and the spike in the distance”… All I saw was an angry wall of water and deadly rocks. I imagined what it would be like, in the water, amongst all of that.