The paradox of being at sea for a long time is that you do not get more comfortable as time passes, but more scared. You get more competent, and that helps with controlling fear, but competence can only carry you so far. With each passing year out here I feel smaller and more at the whim of the ocean; more humbled, more afraid. People who come on board who have not spent time at sea often tell me they want to see a storm, they want to experience what it’s like. I know immediately that I am dealing with a novice if these words leave a person’s mouth. Storms at sea are not the same as on land. Land lubbers cannot possibly comprehend what it’s like to know the dread and physical stress that an approaching deep low pressure system causes; they cannot comprehend what it’s like to battle 70 mile an hour winds; to be in seas several times larger than your boat; to be completely at the mercy of the weather, your ability, and the frailty of your vessel.
After our last trip in October we had to sail around Cape Agulhas and the false cape, Good Hope, the most southern points of Africa to cross into the Atlantic Ocean. To get there and around we had to negotiate the fearsome “Wild Coast” of South Africa, one if not the most revered bodies of water on earth. The holy grail of capes is of course Cape Horn, at the southern tip of South America. But sailors who have rounded both often experience much tougher conditions at Cape Agulhas. I rounded Cape Horn in the Antarctic winter of 2005 and a few years back I would have looked forward to the challenge of rounding Cape of Good Hope, but I am not that person anymore. As I pored over the weather prognosis and grib files as we headed south from Mozambique I felt anxious and afraid and very small. The knots in my stomach were wound tighter than a guitar string.
The Wild Coast is named so because of three main factors. First, there is almost nowhere to hide. Ports and harbours are sparse and in several long stretches non-existent. Second is the Agulhas current, which screams south west along the coast at speeds over 6 knots, which of course assists if you’re heading south, which we were, but it also commonly creates rogue waves in excess of 80 feet when the third factor comes into play, a SW gale, known as a “Buster.” Waves like these have destroyed countless boats on this coast. Buster’s march up from Antarctica and across the southern tip of South Africa in a regular succession that has almost no pause. Sailors often wait for weeks at a time to get a weather window, often little more than 48 hours to make a jump south. Maputo to Richards Bay; Richards Bay to Durban; Durban to East London; East London to Port Elizabeth; and then around the Capes. When the difficult decision to leave is made it feels like you are racing for your life. You live for the next forecast, you talk to yourself, you try to be calm, you try to be cool, you do everything you can to prepare; but in the end you have to just hope- thus the “Cape of Good Hope”.
On the front edge of a deep low, or an impending buster there is always an eerie calm. We experience this on land as well, but at sea it is terrifically more frightening. Imagine the hand of God taking the entire sky, removing all the stars and wrapping you up in a atmosphere blanket that is several miles thick. You cannot breath through this blanket, you cannot move, you cannot see. The barometer falls and falls, you tap the glass hoping it is broken, but it laughs back at you and continues to plummet. The blackness is so complete it feels like you have fallen into an abyss from which there is no escape.
6 hours out of Maputo in the middle of the night the winds died and we were enveloped in pure black. We’d been racing as fast as we could, sailing Discovery with too much sail, hoping we could beat what I knew was coming. The sky seemed to stop a few feet from the boat. My senses were on full alert. When this one hit we were in for a hell of a ride. I reefed the sails down as far as they would go, double checked that everything was stored and secure, and waited.
When it hit I felt like we were on the wrong end of a series of Mike Tyson punches. Fast and furious blows from every direction. I donned a life jacket for the first time in the last 5 years, switched off the autopilot and hand steered as the winds quickly climbed to 45 knots. We were hard on the wind, close hauled and even completely reefed down I couldn’t get our speed below 8 knots. Green water engulfed the boat with nearly every wave, the two hulls grinding and bellowing and screaming against the mad concussion of forces. I’m always amazed boats can withstand this kind of abuse and I wonder not for the first or last time….can I?
Days later after a 36 hour rest near Maputo we are underway again, racing through another tiny window to Durban. I decide to leave on the back side of the low, which puts us hard on the wind to begin with but will give us more time before the next Buster hits. 12 hours out of Durban the winds are gusting to 55 knots. We’re on a broad reach, running south with the current and wind and seas at an impressive 14 knots under bare poles (no sail). Discovery is skidding around like a game park ride, but my small crew and I are not having any fun. Humpback whales breach and blow near us and I find myself praying to anybody who will listen to keep them out of the way. These waters are infested with Great White sharks and the thought of sinking manifests a renewed abundance of bile in my throat.
Several weeks later in early November I am alone with Discovery in Durban putting the finishing touches on a number of major projects, including the repairs to our starboard engine, which has been non-functional since June. A friend is en route from the States to help me take the boat south, but I’ve got a small weather window for the run to East London, the longest exposed stretch of coast and the most dangerous, and I want to take it. Everyone at the yacht club insists I can’t do it alone- it’s too hairy; she’s too much boat for a solo. I relent and take on a traveler from the States who’s trying to get to Cape Town. His first words are “boy I hope we get to see some bad weather.” He spends the next 48 hours curled in a ball on the couch moaning. People who are this sick are a liability and make my job even harder. In one particularly rough section something has fouled the fuel line on the port engine. I’m in the engine room lurching in huge seas, the boat is dropping off small cliffs. I spray diesel fuel all over my back and hair and puke all over my feet. I ask myself for the thousandth time- “what the hell am I doing out here?”
Thankfully my friend Jake makes it and brings some sanity to the situation (and some badly needed help) and we round Cape Agulhas and Cape of Good Hope and arrive in Cape Town exhausted and cold after yet another night of 50 knot winds and wretched confused seas. The city is wonderfully claustrophobic; hurried and complicated compared with life at sea and I relish in its lack of familiarity. I repeat a promise I’d made to myself dozens of times on the trip already- I will never sail the Wild Coast again.
Watch Jake pull in a huge wahoo
Cape Town is part vacation, and part preparation for out final year at sea. Two weeks of errands and maintenance, and some time to meet new people and relax. Before I know it we are underway again on December 1st with a full compliment of crew. Owners Martin and Bjorn; guests Martijn and Bjorn’s son Nick; Jake, a bush pilot from Alaska; and Bobby our precious chef, who returns to us after his nasty car accident last year, healed and ably handling the galley like the professional that he is. I haven’t been home for Christmas since 2003 and as excited as everyone is to be having an adventure on the big blue, my heart and soul are not in Africa. We must sail 4,000 miles NNW to the Cape Verdes, the longest passage yet for Discovery. On day 8 of the trip we cross the same longitude that we left from in another lifetime in Italy, which makes our circumnavigation official. It doesn’t strike me as a very big deal, and if it’s an achievement I can’t make any sense of it.
On this trip it is not strong wind and heaving seas that are our nemesis, but long periods of calm and contrary current. We have solid sailing for the first three days out of Cape Town and then for the next 2500 miles the going is slow and relies heavily on our motors. I’m envious of my crewmates serenity. I have told them that being alone like this, being in a place where no one else is should be savored. It’s a precious and rare gift, and each of them seem to get it- they understand and slowly get into the pace and groove of being at sea. But I can’t. I’m stressed we’re running so late; I’m bothered by the continual problems with the engines; I find no solace in the endless horizon. I try again and again to rekindle my love of the sea, but it’s buried somewhere like a sunken ship, deep beneath the dark blue Atlantic.
On day 10 we anchor at the crack of dawn for a few hours at St Helena, where Napoleon was exiled. It’s a towering, intimidating, lonely island in the middle of the South Atlantic but the people are remarkably friendly we find the place quaint and adorable. If we weren’t so far behind schedule it would have made a wonderful stop. The guests take a tour of the island while Bobby, Jake and I cart jerry cans of diesel back and forth to the boat from the town’s gas station. With some luck and wind we can still make it to Cabo Verde by the 22nd so everyone can make their flights on the 23rd and be home for Christmas. The race renews.
But we get no luck, and we get no wind. We are forced towards the African continent in search of fuel but the options all seem bleak, and even dangerous. Senegal and Gambia are relatively safe, but too far north and beyond our range. Guinea and Sierra Leone sound dubious at best and life threatening at worst. Which leaves Liberia. I didn’t have a clue where Liberia even was before this trip, but on the 20th day of the passage, still 1,000 miles from our goal we arrive Monrovia, the Capital in search of fuel and unload all the guests, who had arranged circuitous last-minute flights home. Discovery attracts a large and rather rough crowd in port and the fleecing begins. Bottles of whiskey, US dollars, clothing, shoes, wine and anything else in sight disappears in a steady flow- a procedure which I am intimately familiar. In return we slowly get passports stamped and take on fuel that is as black as my mood. The air is thick with smog and coal dust, the water is filthy and brown. It felt like a war zone.
We arrived Praia, Santiago in the Cape Verdes on Christmas afternoon, after 25 days at sea. For three days we bashed into 25 knots close hauled to the wind, fraying battered nerves into useless strands. But as soon as we are settled in and the boat stops moaning I think back to all of us swimming across the equator (the 6th time for Discovery); long luxurious days with nothing to do but gaze out at the horizon; making new friends and spending time with others; marveling at visiting dolphins and streaking phosphorescence behind the boat at night and my perspective improves. I am thankful and aware of how precious this all is, living a life at sea. But as Martin commented sometime on the trip, I’m like a firefighter trying to put out a never-ending flame. One snuffed, another flares. Can I find the energy to keep on fighting?