Stanley on my mind.

They say it is the journey and not the destination, and when you spend a month sailing across the South Atlantic you’d expect that saying to be particularly true… but while the month at sea was something quite incredible and I will write at length about it, I can not help but be amazed by my destination, a small town called Stanley.

Stanley is the capital of the Falklands Islands, a small group of islands off the east coast of Argentina. It’s British and there was a war in the 80s when Argentina invaded. That tension is not over. Argentina continues to rumble about new invasions and has sanctions on flights and goods leaving or entering Argentina.

When I said Stanley is the “capital” I had to use that term very very loosely. You can forget whatever image you had built up in your head of this place. It is almost certainly not what you think, but let me first mess with your head.

Stanley has an army, a cathedral, its own tv and radio stations, postage stamps, its own currency (complete with coins) and two airports. But, and this is where things get interesting, Stanley is tiny, insanely tiny. You could walk from the one side of the “city” to the other in less than an hour and during that walk you’ll meet enough locals that when you’re in the pub later someone who you’ve never met will invariably approach you and say “Hi, you must be Jonathan”. They don’t get a lot of new faces around here.

Stanley also doesn’t have any ATMs, elevators, escalators or optician. If you run out of cash after 3pm and you want to buy something from a place that doesn’t accept credit cards, well, you can’t. There are only two places that accept credit cards and they’re both “supermarkets” of the sort that also sell fishing equipment and 1 liter plastic bottles of vodka.

Being small definitely has its benefits. The idea of stealing someone’s car is hilarious to the locals. Where would you go? Muggings never happen because the chances of the victim not knowing the attacker are almost nil.

Stanley does however have a crime problem. Their prison is full. All 8 inmates and they recently had to build a new female wing to house their first female prisoner. Never fear though, the convicts are sent to the shops to buy groceries, ever so occasionally bumping into their victims along the way. This would almost be funny if it wasn’t for the issue that most of Stanley’s prisoners are pedophiles.

They take crime seriously here… the local youngsters telling us that getting caught with weed will “get you done” for 6 years and similarly driving under the influence, which is a hilarious concept as your house is almost certainly less that a 15 minute stumble away from the pub, is taken very seriously by the police force. By police force I mean the 3 cops, but only before 3am when it becomes “the cop”, and that cop has to man the phone, so really it’s more of an honor system.

Criminals are treated with such disdain that the monthly newsletter details an incident by incident run down of the previous months arrestees. The latest edition chronicles another pedophile who got caught, complete with a photograph, his full name and address. He hasn’t actually been found guilty yet.

Taking name-and-shame to a whole new level, the local paper also provides names and criminal history for all four of the previous month’s DUI and speeding arrestees. Please don’t forget, this is in a town with a population that is dwarfed by some big high schools.

Stanlians have their own accent. You wouldn’t notice it in the UK as they definitely sound British, but once you’ve met a few you realize that they all intonate in a very peculiar way that once you’re aware of becomes unmistakable. Another interesting quirk is that everyone seems very well educated and quite attractive, but you can’t help but shake the feeling that a lot of them look very very similar.

The Falkland Islands do not have any tertiary education institutions and as a result there is a very odd demographic. Most of the university age people are simply not here and it seems that most of the young professionals leave as soon as they can. I am yet to meet a 30 year old that isn’t disabled, an alcoholic or both.

What that does leave you with is old people, young people and immigrants. The young people are probably the most interesting. Most of them are either not yet in university or have just got back from university and have found that it’s easier to find employment on a remote island with a tiny population than back in the UK. Sadly that says a lot about the state of the economy in the UK.

A 25 year old in Stanley is unlike anything you’ve ever met in the UK or probably the rest of the world. Full of self confidence and lacking the routine hang ups associated with that quarter life crisis. This is a population of educated Hendrix and Led Zep fans talking about politics in a way that would make your average Che t-shirt wearing hipster stammer. They are fun to hang out with and are quick to invite your rag tag crew of dirty sailors back to theirs when the pubs close. Pub’s close at 11pm with a regiment that would make Hitler smile, but not before a 5 minute free-for-all where the locals boozily buy cases of beer over the counter at bartered prices that still seem too high. Then you’re off to theirs (usually in a taxi driven by a motherly australian woman who doesn’t even need to ask where you’re going) for some more drinks while you listen to an 18 year old tell you how they recently got into Oasis but really they grew up on Springsteen.

I can’t say anything bad about Stanley other than the food. There is one place that supposedly has good food but it looks like an old age home and has food prices that should include a night’s accommodation. Everywhere else has food that seems designed for the squaddies (soldiers who live on the base over the hill) or oil workers; deep-fried everything and almost no flavor so you end up coating your entire meal in tomato sauce and/or mayonnaise depending on how British you feel like being.

Sadly I’m flying out of here tomorrow, but rest assured that tonight will be spent in the bars, all 3 of which where everybody knows my name.

Photos to follow when I’m in a place that doesn’t charge for internet by the minute.

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Why we do what we do.

Weather permitting I’ll be leaving next Wednesday. I’m going to sail about three and a half thousand miles, across the South Atlantic, from Cape Town to a tiny group of islands called the Falklands off the coast of Argentina. I like to think that the reason I am doing this is obvious and for most of my friends the reason seems obvious too.

Though, every now and then I get asked “Why?”. As if it would be simpler to just fly there. Which is true. It takes 44 hours to fly from Cape Town to Stanley on the east Falklands. 44 hours and 5 separate flights. Sailing there takes 25 days and you sail through some of the roughest seas on the planet. The Falklands are about as close as you can get to Antarctica without actually being on Antarctica.

Is it dangerous? Of course. There are more dangerous things one could do, but when you’re 2000 miles away from the nearest hospital and in a very unpredictable environment, anything can happen.

Will I miss home? Of course! I’ll miss my wife, my cats, my comfortable bed, being able to take a warm shower whenever I want, deciding what I want to eat, being able to be alone, going out to get a coffee etc etc. I’ll be stuck on a 75 foot yacht with 7 people I barely know.

So why am I doing it? I don’t really have an answer. I have answers. But the sum of all those answers is not the answer.

I want to stretch my mind. I want to sail away, leave land behind, wake up in the morning and have to check a map to know where I am. I want to be surrounded by nothing but sea.

I want to learn to be a better sailor. We live in a world full of experts who know nothing. Rockstars who learnt everything they know in the previous 3 weeks. We’re all bullshit and truth bending. Teach yourself brain surgery in 24 hours. When your life is in your own hands you’re forced to be honest about your abilities.

I want to push myself and see where the cracks appear. I want to be bored and be forced to write. I want to spend an idyllic evening on deck eating freshly caught fish. I want time to think. I want to be scared. I want to ride out a storm and watch the sun rise on a perfect morning. I want to see land and long to touch it. I want to have a story to tell and to write those stories that are banging around in my head. I want to miss my wife, my friends, my family and my country.

I want to fly home and know why I sailed away in the first place, but I’m sure I won’t, and that is why I am doing it.

You can, satellite gods willing, follow my adventures here http://arbitrarysailor.tumblr.com/.

Single handed sailing is not for the faint hearted.

knox_johnston_golden_globe
Robin Knox-Johnston on board Suhali

I’ve become increasingly fascinated by single handed (solo) sailing and specifically single handed circumnavigations. The first person to sail around the world single handed was Joshua Slocum in 1898. His journey took 3 years and he made many stops along the way.

Sixty eight years later Francis Chichester, who Later became Sir Francis Chichester for obvious reasons, decided to try his hand at the journey. He left Plymouth on August 1966 and returned 226 days later after stopping once in Australia. He was 67 at the time and was the first person to circumnavigate with only one stop.

This meant there was only one thing left to do… Circumnavigate, single handed, without stopping. Two years later, in 1968, Robin Knox-Johnston left Falmouth and 313 days later arrived back in Falmouth to much fanfare.

It’s far too easy to romanticise these journeys but reading the books written by these men is both inspiring and scary. It’s often in the minutia that the true risks involved in these kinds of endeavours are exposed.

I found this in the “Pilot’s Notes” section at the back of Knox-Johnston’s book “A World of My Own”:

“There was a small diver’s lifejacket on board, but again I did not use it. It got in the way for one thing, and if I had fallen overside, although I would have swum in the direction of the nearest land, one has to be realistic, and it would probably have been best to get it over quickly.”

I think those two sentences sum it up better than any book every could.

Defining moments

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about defining moments. Those splinters of time that shape who we are and act as decision making references for the rest of our lives. I find it odd/sad that some of the people I talk to don’t have defining moments or perhaps they do but just aren’t aware of them.

Here are mine:

Fishing
I was probably about 8 years old. We were on holiday at the Brede River. Like most boys that age, I really wanted to catch a fish. We had tried unsuccessfully from the jetty but firmly believed that the real fishing was out on the boat, after sunset. The dads had made promises that always seemed to dissolve into comfortable couches and post-braai bliss… and it was our last night there. I decided that I was going to go and catch a fish off the jetty, and, in the absence of bait, I decided that bread, mooshed up onto the hook, would have to do. The parents were understandably sceptical, but I was adamant and marched down to the jetty in the dark and cast my line into the water. A few hours went by and I had caught nothing and eventually started falling asleep and decided it was best to go back inside.

I remember walking back into the house thinking how awesome it would have been to be carrying a huge fish! At that very moment, thinking about how great it would have been to catch a huge fish, it dawned on me that no one ever catches a huge fish unless they put their line in the water. You have to be in it to win it.

Bravery
I haven’t witnessed much bravery in my life. I’ve never seen someone run into a burning building to rescue a puppy or lift a car to free a trapped driver. Sometimes however bravery takes the form of personal courage. Courage to stand up and do the right thing, even if doing so may make you look like a loser in the process. I was 15 and my little clan of nerd friends had a favourite whipping boy called Andrew. Andrew was often the butt of our jokes. One particular day, in the absence of Andrew, the jokes got progressively meaner. Then someone piped up and said “Come on guys, that’s not cool… lets stop”.

I realise that that might seem trivial when compared to rescuing puppies from burning buildings, but if you’ve been a teenage boy you probably know that sticking up for the “loser” isn’t the cool thing to do. In that moment I realised how brave my friend was, and more importantly, how I wanted to be like him.

Your happiness is your responsibility
I think I was about 19 years old. I had recently broke up with my girlfriend, it was New Years Eve and all my friends were out of town. I got so bored and depressed that I decided to just drive around. I wasn’t suicidal or even close to tears… but in that uber-pathetic moment I decided that I was the only one responsible for my happiness. Simple.

Web Based Accounting Software
After many years working as a developer in a bunch of different industries I found myself working on a web based accounting package for a British company. It was painful work and the boss had overcommitted and we were working stupid hours with pizza as “overtime”. One evening, while working late, I decided that this wasn’t for me. I’d only been there for 3 months, but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I had been putting my heart and soul (and life) into other people’s businesses all over the world for the previous 5 years and I was finally done. I resigned in the morning. I was never going to let a job take priority over my life again.

For about a year I floated around doing odd freelance dev jobs, I even got a job as a barman so I could meet cool people… I made a lot of friends, I managed a band, I lived in a digs with some cool people and some psychopaths. It was fun.

I can be a Butcher
About mid way through my year “off” I decided that I could do anything. Nothing was above me, and similarly, nothing was beneath me. Not that I consider butchers to be at the bottom of some food chain, it was just that being a butcher was probably the furthest thing from what I had done up until then. I never did become a butcher, but I’m pretty sure I could be flippen awesome at it if I wanted to.

A loaf of bread or a pie
At about the same time as the “I can be a butcher” moment I found myself rather broke. There was a shoprite up the road from where we were staying. I walked there, hungry, with only a few rand in my wallet. I had to decide whether to buy a loaf of bread or a pie. I bought the pie.

Many people would consider that reckless. It was reckless I guess, but, I wanted a pie. I had faith that tomorrow would somehow bring more money or feed me. I’m still here so I guess I was right.

I don’t want to make light of it, but I also know what it’s like to live off almost nothing. I know that I was incredibly happy during that time, my life didn’t suddenly fall apart the minute I cancelled my medical aid and couldn’t afford to buy one of the “nice” toothbrushes. That realisation has helped me be a little more willing to take bigger risks in life. In it to win it.

Water
I really like hiking. Especially on Table Mountain. I’m not nearly as fit as I should be, as my waistline is testament to, but I do occasionally just go for walk. It was during one of these spontaneous walks that I ended up about 6km away from my car without any water in the middle of a ridiculously hot summer’s day. (This was on the contour path near Platteklip with my car parked at Kirstenbosch). I came across this tiny little trickle of water, seeping down a rock. I was so hot I ended up basically licking the mossy rock to try and get some moisture out of it. I spent a good 30 minutes getting water in tiny little doses. (I just want to make sure it’s clear here, I was never in any real danger… I was just hot and tired… worst case scenario was some sunburn.) I was incredibly grateful for the water and in the heat I got all philosophical about water and nature’s provision. I started off again towards the car. About 300m down the path I came to a river. Not exactly the Holy Ganges, but enough water that I could actually fill my water bottle will real water, not sandy moisture. What did I learn from this? It’s tough to explain. Perhaps the simplest way to put it is to just say that sometimes in life you need to be make sure you’re not being an idiot by walking a little further down the road.

Death at Sea
Almost 2 years ago I went on a little sailing trip. Myself and another guy sailed a tiny little yacht from Hout Bay to Knysna, and then back to Mossell Bay. (It’s a long story). The reason we couldn’t go in at Knysna was because a huge storm had kicked up and the Heads were closed. The boat didn’t have a functioning radio, life raft or EPIRB. The flares were old and our engine was dead. At sunset, when we realised the storm wasn’t going to die down, we decided to sail to Mossel Bay where the harbour was protected by a breakwater. The swells were picking up and at some points our tiny boat was pretty much dwarfed by the water around us. We were sailing a yacht designed and built for the Vaal Dam in some of the strongest wind and biggest swells I have ever seen. We were being pushed around like a matchbox in a pool full of cannon balling fat kids. The boat’s keel was creaking as if it wanted to snap off (something that would result in almost instant sinking) and then suddenly, in the pitch black, howling night, we hit something. HARD. The entire boat stopped dead for a second. I still don’t know what it was but I do know that I have never felt closer to dying in my life. I imagined myself floating in the middle of the sea, with my tiny life jacket trying to get dodgy flares to work even though the chances of someone seeing them were pretty much zero. The keel didn’t break and after 5 days at sea we eventually got to Mossel Bay in the early hours of the morning.

What did I learn? I don’t know… But I want to do it again. It was fucking awesome.

Sailing Day 4 (The End)

This is the final episode in the saga… I promise.

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Morning had just broken and we found ourselves staring at a rather treacherous looking shoreline in the distance, sailing past it as we made our way Knysna. Huge swells lifted the boat onto their tops where we raced along with the wind, only to be lowered into the trough of the swell where the wind was confused and the boat flopped around uneasily. This pattern continued for a few hours until we got our first sight of Buffels Bay and as the sun slipped patiently into the sky I realised how glad I was that we arrived here when we did. Jeremy said that Buffels Bay has a rocky outcrop that reaches quite far out to sea. As the sun rose higher and higher and the light got brighter and brighter I kept on seeing more of this outcrop and having to steer even further away from the shore to miss it. I have this feeling that Buffels bay is so named because of the sound the waves make crashing against her rocks… I can imagine that it might sound like a Buffalo stampede. The sight was quite awesome… and our first glimpse of how this sort of swell was breaking against rocks. The tiny houses in the distance seemed dwarfed by the swell and the spray.

Knysna was just around the corner. Which in sailors terms is apparently an hour. As we sailed Jeremy kept on trying to point out the faint outline of the rocks that make up the heads in the distance… With the sun rising directly behind them and the mist setting in it was quite tricky to see. Eventually we could make out the opening of the heads, but the closer we sailed to them the more nervous we both got. The swells were now about 6 meters high at sea, running in towards the shore, growing in size as the water got shallower, and then smashing the living daylights out of whatever was it it’s way in one huge mess of spray that made it impossible to see what was going on where. There could have been a McDonalds right in the middle of the Heads and we would not have been able to see it.

We had to go in for a closer inspection. We lowered the sails and started up the diesel motor. Cautiously we inched towards the Heads… it felt very much like what it would feel like if a tornado was stationary and you were inching your way towards it for a closer look. The closer we got the more dire the situation appeared to be. The roaring 6 meter swells broke violently and audible, throwing spray 15 meters up into the air… “There’s the channel” Jeremy 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. It wasn’t a nice thought, but we were both desperate to get off the boat. We decided to motor further out to sea and put the boat hove to (sailing term for a complicated sail and rudder setup that has the net result of not going anywhere… it’s actually quite impressive)

Once we were safely out at sea bobbing up and down as the swells ran past us towards their ultimate goal of destroying Knysna, we found ourselves in a curious situation. The wind had died down, the sun was out and the swell was getting bigger. Luckily this close in to land we had cell phone reception. Jeremy phoned up some friends and was eventually having a conversation with an NSRI guy at Knysna. He confirmed the painfully obvious… we weren’t going to be getting in any time soon. Our only hope was that as the tide came in (we had arrived at low tide) the heads would settle and perhaps the swell would die down… I think we both knew what the chances of that was. We were a tiny sail boat with a tiny diesel engine… Not even the NSRI with their super-duper high speed, built for shitstorms, semi-rigid rescue boat, would try get through the heads.

Since the only other option was sailing 50 miles (between 50 hours and 10 hours away) back to Mossel Bay we decided to wait for the thing we knew wouldn’t happen… Just in case it did. We waited for about two hours before Jeremy got on the phone again. To add insult to injury the heads were now shrouded in mist. The NSRI guy gave us the bad news. Firstly, it wasn’t getting any better and secondly there was an even bigger storm behind us, heading for land. Awesome.

I got on the phone with Lynnae who’d been driving since early morning to come and fetch us in Knysna. I told her the situation and suggested she head home since we had no wind and were going to have to sail 50 miles to Mossel Bay, which for all intents and purposes (remember there was no wind) might mean we only arrive there in 2 days time. I told her we’d get a bus. Mother nature was already screwing 2 people around, no need to include a third. Lynnae said she would head home but would drive back and fetch us from Mossel bay as soon as we knew when we would be there… That’s a pretty big deal in my books. I was supremely thankful. Jeremy didn’t seem to believe me when I said what she’d offered to do. “You’re pretty serious then” he said… “Yes” I replied… “That’s how we roll”.

In what seemed to be automatic mode we rigged up the sails and started heading towards Mossel Bay. At first there was no wind, but every hour the wind speed seemed to increase steadily… So did the size of the swells. Jeremy went to sleep as I sailed up mountainous swells. Swells the size of 3 story buildings, 4 story buildings… Walls of water that you sailed up the side of for 60 seconds and then surfed down the other side in 10 seconds. These swells were so big that photographs can’t actually capture the size of them… they just look like water at a funny angle. Sometimes we would go over the top of a swell and the boat would see-saw over the top, the bow smacking the water on the other side with a thud. This thing that would have scared the shit out of me a few days ago was suddenly fun. It was hard work fighting the swells and keeping the boat heading in the right direction but it was fun. We were making headway… slowed down significantly by the mountains of water we were having to sail over, but we were heading towards Mossel Bay.

The boat was rocking a lot too… and her keel was making creaking noises that betrayed her Made-For-The-Vaal-Dam construction. At this point I should point out that both Jeremy and I were getting nauseous when down below. It’s most telling when you’re trying to do something like tie your shoelaces. Often someone would be down below and then would pop their head up out the hatch for a few deep breaths of fresh air to settle their stomach. Jeremy lives on a boat and was getting nauseous… I think that should give you an idea of the conditions.

At some point during the day we ran into a psychotic bird who would fly ahead of us and then sit in the water right next to the boat as we sailed by. He did this about 15 times, each time flying way into the distance and then back again, literally a meter from the boat. Maybe he was bored.

We also sailed past a shark, its fin just sitting there, just above the water as we sailed by. I guess he was bored too.

In the distance we saw the shoreline with these huge swells crashing, the wind running along the tops of the forming waves, ripping a spray of water 10 metres high above the crashing wave.

The wind got rougher and the sky got darker. We were still sailing towards Mossel Bay. It was about 6 hours since we had left Knysna. As night fell we realised how tough this was going to be. We strained for a glimpse of the lights at Mossel Bay and only occasionally saw them… usually we would see them after the huge swells had pushed us off course and we’d have to correct as quickly as possible.

Suddenly there was a bang. An earth shattering, heart stopping, BANG.

We had hit something. Time passed by in slow motion. My heart raced as I listened for signs of broken keels or rushing water noises… nothing. My blood pressure was through the roof but we were ok… We strained our eyes into the darkness to try and see what we had hit, but could see nothing.

A few minutes later we decided that the wind had got out of hand and we should lower our mainsail. That’s the big one… in this amount of wind we would find ourselves sailing just as fast with a third of the sail area.

We took turns sailing in what can only be called messy conditions. The wind had “dropped” but actually was just coming from us as all angles. With less wind we were sitting ducks being pushed around by the huge swells. Eventually Jeremy went to go sleep. I carried on, fighting the waves and wind and eventually got us 10 miles off of Mossel Bay, but uncomfortably close to a large trawler that seemed to be heading our way. I woke Jeremy up and suggested we just make a break for it and motor the two hours straight for the harbour. Jeremy, ever cautious, didn’t like that idea… if we ran out of fuel nearing the harbour we would be in trouble… not Knysna heads trouble, but still, sailboat on the rocks trouble.

We decided instead to just motor for a few minutes out of the path of the trawler. Jeremy took the helm and I went below to start up the engine. There is nothing more sickening than the sound of an engine that doesn’t want to start, at sea, with a trawler heading towards you. Eventually it started but sounded like it was going to die in seconds. Jeremy killed it. We needed oil. I fetched oil out the kitchen cupboard (Yes, engine oil) and Jeremy stuck his head under the engine cover looking for the place you put the oil in. Jeremy was facing forward and I was facing backwards. I could see the trawler… and I could see Jeremy faffing about trying to be as tidy as possible and not spill any oil. At one point he was wiping the can opener clean and I could feel my head about to explode.

We started the engine up again. This time it sounded better, but by no means healthy. The pitch kept on changing all by itself. Jeremy made comments about it seizing… not the sort of thing I want to hear at sea, with a trawler bearing down on us.

(In hindsight I must admit that the Death Trawler probably wasn’t even moving, but at sea, at night, with only lights to guide you, your brain starts to play tricks on you… tricks that are probably a good idea to be playing since they might occasionally save your life.)

We got out of the path of the trawler and killed the motor again. It was annoying attempt-to-sail-in-shitty-conditions time again. Jeremy went to bed. I tried to sail.

About 2 hours later we were closer. I’m not sure if we sailed or drifted in with the huge swell. We could see the lights of the harbour wall. 3 white lights… Jeremy’s instructions were to head towards them. As I sailed closer and closer I began to try and figure out just where exactly the opening in this wall of rocks was. Eventually I saw a red light. Red = Port = Left… I started sailing towards the right hand side of that. The only problem was that the only reliable inkling of wind we had was coming straight from behind that red light.

Another hour passed as I fought the boat towards that light. I swear to god I could have swum to shore and hour ago… and we didn’t seem to be getting anywhere closer. I woke up Jeremy and requested his sailor voodoo.

Jeremy tried his sailor voodoo for another hour. Huge swells smacked the boat from all sides, the sails would whip open and closed again violently. I was losing my patience and my cool. The boat was sounding worse (whether I was imagining that or not I am not sure) and I was afraid. We were closer to the shore than we had ever been but were still no closer to that red light. I looked behind us to make sure we weren’t mistakenly towing a whale, or a house.

I think at some point I got quite desperate I was willing to call the NSRI for a tow in… real sailors don’t do that unless you’re actually in the water with 2 broken leg and a shark bearing in on you. I exaggerate but you get the idea.

Jeremy laid out the options we both implicitly knew. We could sail out to sea and go “hove to” again for the night (taking turns at watch) or we could start up the motor and try and motor in, risking the chance that the motor will die on us at some critical moment and we would be well up shit street without a paddle. It was past 2am, i didn’t feel like spending the next 5 hours floating around, only to wait another few hours while someone figured out who was going to come and fetch us.

I voted we start her up and run for it. Jeremy readied the boat, tied on the mooring lines and put the fenders in place. Once we were ready we both spoke to whatever powers that be and swung the key. I wish I knew who the patron saint of engine lubrication was.

Once again the sickening sound of an engine not starting went on for what was probably a minute. I kept my eyes on the battery meter even though it always reads completely empty while you’re running the starter motor. Eventually she swung, spluttered and then started. As sick as that little engine sounded it was still a beautiful sound. She was spewing out thick smoke and sounding like death was immanent but we had to go.

Jeremy put her in gear and motored towards the red light. My nerves were shattered as Jeremy ran through the mooring procedure. The green light appeared… that’s starboard… the right hand side. We made a beeline straight between the two. The engine coughed and spluttered but it kept on chugging along. We entered the harbour and tried to spot the sail boats. We spotted the sail boats and I went up on the bow with a mooring line in my hand ready to jump. We spotted an opening but Jeremy said it was too small… At that point I really struggled to care but Jeremy motored us around the other side of the boats. Mossel Bay harbour is loud with machines running all through the night. At some point I stopped hearing our little motor and looked back, Jeremy was looking down… “oh crap” I thought, “it’s just died… what now?”.

It hadn’t, Jeremy was just trying to give me a heart attack by slowing down while we took the corner. We found some open spots and Jeremy shouted which one we were going to take. We motored gently into place and I jumped across to the walk-on (Jetty type thing) and tied her bow line. Jeremy jumped and did the stern lines as we spent a few minutes tying her up.

I think the reality of being off the boat, after almost 5 days at sea, only started hitting home once she was tied up. I was hot, I took off my jackets and harnesses. At some point I had pulled a muscle in my arm but I can’t remember when. I was for all intents and purposes utterly delirious. I found myself walking around, just for the sake of walking, my legs learning how to be coordinated again.

It was almost 3am. I sms’ed my parents and Lynnae. It felt like the Shawshank Redemption. I thanked Jeremy for getting us “home” safe. That night I slept on the boat, about 60 meters away from a 2 story ice making and crushing machine that runs all night. I slept like a baby.

The End.

(I will write a post about the “lessons learnt” at sea shortly, but for now this saga is done. Photos to come soon.)

Sailing Day 3

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.