South Africa - Cape Town

 On Thursday 26 January we departed Mar del Plata to head the 3700 miles to Cape Town, South Africa. Though this was to be our eighth ocean passage of over 2000 miles, it was also the longest and, like all passages in the higher latitudes, likely to include the odd dose of unpleasant weather. However, our first few days followed the delightful summer pattern we had learned to enjoy in Mar del, with bright sunshine and brisk, but not strong, winds. Having sat for months, apart from a brief trial sail before the passage, Sunstone picked up her quarter wave and reveled in the reaching conditions. By the end of the first week at sea, a pattern established itself, not only in our watch-keeping and sleep, but in the weather. Brisk NNWlies would send us surging along, averaging over seven knots for three days or so, then a front would move in, once bringing rain more torrential than any we'd ever seen. The wind then went briefly into the SW, followed by a lightening and backing breeze as a high came over us for a day or so until the northerlies came back again. We rarely used the engine except to charge and kept up a very high average speed.

Mar del Plata sinks below the horizon

A wandering Albatross conducts a tour of inspection

The fast reaching could be damp at times

We had hoped to stop for at least a day to visit Tristan da Cunha, an island possession of Britain in the middle of the South Atlantic, with a population of about 250 in a settlement perched on the edge of a volcano. We approached in moderate weather in the afternoon. The classic cloud formation over a high island bloomed on the horizon. Unfortunately it also hid almost entirely any sight of the island itself. All the we could see were the edges and the white dot of the visiting mail ship the RMS St. Helena. We had said from the start that we would only stop if the weather was good enough to allow us to anchor safely in the open roadstead off the Edinburgh settlement. Sadly, it was not. We stood off for a night hoping for an improvement, but a front closed in and the seas and wind built. We headed on for Cape Town and, in fact during the next day experienced the strongest winds and biggest seas of the passage.

Frontal passage

The calm in the middle of the South Atlantic High

Once this vigorous front had past, the South Atlantic High, which had been weak and quite far north decided to strengthen and shift well south, directly over us and then into our path to Cape Town. For most of three days the wind departed and we motored, hoping that the wind would return before we had to turn off the engine in order to keep a reserve for emergencies. A few hours before silence was due to reign, the breeze gently kicked in from the north and we emerged back into our previous pattern as a front slowly approached. This time the wind held, until with a SWly at our backs we made landfall on the afternoon of 20 February. Having followed the recommendations of the guides and pilots, we approached from the SW in order to avoid being swept past Cape Town by the Benguella current and the often strong seasonal Selies. In the event the wind stayed SW until at about 2300 we approach Cape Town Harbour. At that point it gave us its usual greeting to Cape Town visitors, by coming SE at 25-30 knots - enough to discourage us from trying to find a berth in the Royal Cape Yacht Club marina in the dark. Fortunately there is a convenient mooring buoy just outside, which we picked up for the night. After 25 days on passage, plus a half-day hove-to off Tristan, we slept the deep sound sleep of the just.


Waking to the sight of Table Mountain, after our passage, and then snug in a berth at the RCYC, by this time Table Mountain complete with 'table cloth', and Sunstone still looking good after 3801 miles of sailing in 25+ days at an average of 6.2 knots.

We had hardly settled in, washed down and recovered when South African hospitality took over. Roy McBride, the OCC Port Officer for Cape Town, helped us find all the things we needed. Dave and Erica Campbell, who we had last seen in Rarotonga in 1999, soon made contact. Their boat, Jigsaw, was ashore being refurbished ready for sale - in order to help fund their new larger boat, which is under construction.


Once our bikes were assembled we made our way into town and particularly to the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront development. We are not great devotees of Malls, but quite liked the V&A, which seems not solely devoted to retail therapy, but also has visitors like the Swedish square-rigger, Gotheburg, and local talent on regular display. In downtown Cape Town, there are elegant older buildings like Government House, as well as the usual modern towers.

 The RCYC is a very active racing club. As it happened, shortly after our arrival, one of the Club's most popular events was due to take place. We couldn't resist, even though there was not enough time to get Sunstone into true racing trim, nor to gather any other crew. The race weekend involves a 60 mile passage race up the coast to the Club Mykonos Resort in Saldanha Bay, followed by a pursuit race around a complicated course in the Bay itself. Traditionally the race up the coast is a sleigh ride in fresh SElies. So it proved. In a way it was fortunate for us that the wind built early and we were not at all tempted to set the spin in winds up to 30 knots. The poled genoa, No. 4 and full main were quite enough to keep us going at over 8 knots most of the time and to finish half way down our class of 26, the first of the non-spin boats to do so.


Some boats found the spinnaker work on the passage race a little too demanding. This one flew the spin from the mast head for the whole last half of the race to Club Mykonos.

We had approached the complex course of the pursuit race with some trepidation. In the event the wind was almost perfect for us, starting light and rising to a perfect force 4, with lots of beating and close reaching. We managed to raise and more importantly lower the spin three times without disaster. At the end of the day we were 8th in class, only beaten by boats of the L34 class, who were holding their national championships. To top off the weekend, the wind went calm for the trip back and so instead of the usual strong SEly beat, we had a gentle motor all the way back to Cape Town. The only excitement was entering the harbour, where half the German Navy seemed to be emerging following a weekend visit.

Though we were postponing most of our sightseeing until Tom's sister, Inge's, visit in April, Vicky was eager to test her newly refurbished hip on a climb up and down Table Mountain. Timing is important for an ascent, as a clear, relatively windless day is essential for good viewing from the top. It is also good to get an early start to avoid climbing during the midday heat of such a clear calm day. We decided to take a guide, not merely because of the many tales of tourists losing their way on the mountain, but also to take advantage of his knowledge of the history, fauna and flora of the mountain. Robin, our guide, proved his worth on all fronts, taking us on varied circuit of the mountain, climbing the shady southern side in the early morning, with wonderful views of Lion's Head and Camp Bay. All along the way he pointed out the wide variety of flowers and plants, including South Africa's national flower, the King Protea.


Though a bit tired by the time we reached the 'table's' summit, we enjoyed the view and lunch. We knew that the descent would if anything be tougher, partly because it would be steeper and partly because the passage had left us less fit than we would like for hiking.



Getting down Platteklip Gorge proved to be just as challenging as we expected. Though the path was very good it was extremely steep, with steps high enough to pose a real challenge to aging knees. The other challenge was less expected. Earlier in the day, Robin had said that unusually he had seen a snake - a harmless one - on the previous day. As we descended, Robin suddenly made a huge awkward leap. Concerned that he might lose his balance Tom followed straight behind, when Robin turned and shouted, "Be careful - snake!" There on the left side of the path was a medium-sized puff adder - fortunately a fairly somnolent one, neither puffing nor hissing, which are supposed to be the signs of imminent attack. Perhaps it's safer to stay at sea!