Capes are the poetic points of continents—landmarks of legends. The focus of fears and goals to reach. Capes are the summits of our sailing souls. Kaci Cronkhite
by Kaci Cronkhite (Published 2003, 48 North Magazine)
When I doubled The Cape, Africa's southern most point, with Nancy Erley and her Port Townsend built Orca 38, Tethys, I could breathe like I was on my way down from 18,000 feet. Every fiber in my body was happy. I could taste relief and it was sweet. At 1120 (local time) on April 10, 2000, we watched the GPS course count down to zero miles to go, then project a northbound heading for our first time since crossing the equator in the Maldives, halfway behind us in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Nancy's hair stopped turning gray. Tethys kicked up her 19-ton heels. We laughed louder than the wind for the first time in months and slapped hands and pounded the cockpit teak. Our gale force headwind moved abeam and Cape Seals leapt through our wake chasing us toward Cape Town, 125 miles north. We were over the rainbow and on safari.
The unnamed water world off the double capes of Agulhas and Good Hope, just to the north on the west coast, is not a place we thought we'd go on African safari. Yet, this spot where two great oceans meet was more alive with marine life than we'd seen on the whole east coast and on the continent. The water was painted in surreal textures. The indigo Indian Ocean slipped away south at four knots buried in the Agulhas current and the frigid Antarctic born Benguela current plunged north, carrying us awkwardly across the long shallow tip of the continental shelf. The union of currents, the two oceans, created and sustained incredible life. Penguins dipped in our wake. Whale spouts streaked the horizon. Ships passed us regularly. Hundreds of gannets, terns and shearwaters dove in and hovered acrobatically over the clay gray green of the northbound current. Life beyond the cape was beautiful.
On the other hand, life approaching The Cape was a nightmare, filled with vivid scenes from lesser capes that were nerve wracking, often violent and always unforgettable.
The first leg of our journey south started in Madagascar, 1100 miles north in the Mozambique Channel. We'd started the trip with urgency after receiving a Ham radio message that Nancy's dear mother had brain cancer. We set sail for Richard's Bay that day. As hard as we pushed and tried though, we couldn't beat bad weather and the traditional "South African welcome," a southwester that strikes longer and stronger than the Pacific's southerly busters. Lovely. Ten days into our trip, one of these nasty storms was forecast and we opted to dodge in behind Isla de Injaca, just seaward of Maputo, Mozambique and 180 miles north of Richard's Bay. Two other lucky boats joined us, one an experienced South African catamaran delivery and the other a French sailor. Inshore of the muddy sandbanks and in a beige world of high sand dunes and chocolate water, Tethys lay to anchor at bizarre and uncomfortable angles as the strong tides and winds fought for control. Grating chain raked the hull half the tide, wind and rain blew down the companionway, funneled by the dodger, for the other half. When we renewed the bridle chafe gear every few hours, the harsh wind slapped us around without mercy.
Next day at the crack of 1100, we got a thumb's up from the Durban Sailing Academy for an 18 hour weather window to Richard's Bay before the next front. Relieved, but taut with nerves again, we motored by the French boat and Nancy shouted to them that we were off. With a wild wave and frightened smile he raced around to up anchor and follow us through the swirling muck of current in the unmarked channel.
Our departure from Mozambique was nearly as exciting as our arrival had been. Tethys was set 75° off our courseline, as we motor sailed against 2.5 knots of incoming tide, trying to keep up with our new South African friends on the catamaran. The Frenchman frantically motor sailed to keep up with us. Despite a language barrier, we knew how he felt.
Three hours after weighing anchor we finally passed the Portuguese fort lighthouse. The South African catamaran was well clear of the land and flying fast. The wind was fickle as we tacked our way over the last shallow bank. At 0200 we finally got the evening land breeze and seven hours into our 18 hour weather window, the wind went NNW at 20 knots then to 35. Now we had a wind that Tethys excels in and we had 66 miles to go. We rolled out the yankee on the pole to port and prevented the reefed main to starboard.
Then the barometer started dropping. 1012, 1010.5,1005. The good news was that it hadn't started to rise. According to Chris Bonnet's old article, xeroxed a million times back in Thailand, we could expect 3 millibars rise before getting hit with winds of equal strength or more from the opposite direction. We quit looking at the bar. If it doesn't rise we have no problem. Just go fast and cut every inch off distance. At 1600 we were abeam Cape Vidal, just outside the 100 fathom line with a 1-knot favorable current. The South Africans just ahead of us were in a pod of Northern Right whales and making 7 knots very close to shore, reefing as fast as they could for the inferno of lightening and opaque sky ahead of them. The heat of the storm was just beginning on land.
To have any chance to make harbor before the storm, we had to move faster. The South African skipper gave us a waypoint where he had found 4-5 knots of current on past trips. We headed out for the 200-fathom line, near his waypoint and only 4 miles seaward from our present position. We were doing 11 knots. With more current we hoped we would beat the front. We were in for a ride. When the current caught us it was like being swept along in a riot crowd.
Relieved, we watched the miles to Richard's Bay go down fast on the GPS. We spoke to a northbound tanker on collision course and he reported strong squalls 15 miles ahead. He altered course to seaward. Flying along at 12-knots over the ground, we dug out fenders and docklines buried deep and unused for the last five months of island hopping since we'd left Malaysia. Tethys was surfing some, so we put the third reef in the main on the fly, then rolled in half the yankee. Our speed held, but the weather helm eased. I went below to replot our position, as now our set was 55 degrees south. The radar began to show land at 12 miles, but it didn't match the contours on the chart. The sun began to set and fireworks started erupting very close behind the hills of the sunset. Nancy put on her heavy foul weather jacket and started hand steering. Waves were 3 meters, even though the 3 knot current and the 35 knots apparent wind were all going our way. Then the wind started backing. Reluctantly I recorded the rising bar. The hot volcanic "berg" wind shot through the stormy clouds as close jagged lightening extinguished the sunset. Nancy called me up from below to roll in the rest of the jib from the pole and secure the fore and after guys as the sky opened up to drown us in rain and the wind shifted to the southwest.
From that moment it was impossible to hear each other. The lightening let us see too much, then blinded us. The wind switched direction 180° at speeds of more than 55 knots in gusts. Tethys was in a boiling sea of southbound current against the stormy winds. Seas were now 4-6 meters abeam as we headed sharply north in a breaking sea that still wanted to take us south. We were being set 135° in just two miles of the onset of "the welcome."
Dripping from deck work, I plotted and replotted on soaked salty charts. Nancy steered to the compass guided by the GPS, ignoring an ever more confusing radar picture. I would step up in the narrow companionway every few minutes from plotting only to find nothing recognizable on the radar. She would point to a feature and frustrated I would find it minutes later on another quadrant of the chart. Braced like a laser sailor, I could see Nancy in the strobe light lightening holding the tiller tight across her lap, staring through the pouring rain and spray ahead.
At the height of the blow and closing the coast, we were aiming for our second cape waypoint, Cape St. Lucia as the South Africans had insisted we do. Sweeping more and more to the south, we kept aiming for the cape 20 miles north of the Bay. Finally, through the maze of uncharted shark nets, the Frenchman's frantic calls for a pilot, a block on channel 16 due to someone with a handheld radio holding down the transmit button and the search for wreckage and crew from a Mayday a few miles to our north, we crept into Richard's Bay at 1:30 am November 6, 1998. Our British, Swedish, American, French and South African friends were there to take our lines. There was no champagne, but there was fresh milk, homemade bread, two Washington apples and a key to the showers. Next day, Nancy flew home. I joined her six weeks later to help care for her mother.
The approach to Richard's Bay, South Africa was our introduction to the famous Wild Coast with it's unique combination of strong dominant south going currents opposed by severe north bound storms, a steep continental shelf and precious few hiding places. This coast is one of the most dangerous in the world. Stories here are not legend, they are facts of 90 foot waves and tankers broken in half. Every sail becomes a race against weather, waves and current. Tethys isn't a quarter horse and short sprints are not our forte. Oceans, open spaces, blue yonders—that is our Tethys world. The approach and then the 800-mile trip still to come down the coast tainted our normally optimistic spirits, to put it in printable terms.
For the next year, Tethys sat unattended and streaked black in coal dust. We stayed with Nancy's wonderful mother in her small home on Whidbey Island, until she passed away. When we returned to Richard's Bay, the five boats that we'd arrived with the year before were all long gone, scattered around the Atlantic. It was a lonely place. Weather fax broadcasts had died in budget cuts. For the first time in ten years world cruising, we had to rely on a cell phone and suffer through a chaotically reorganized phone system for questionable weather forecasts. It was scary to leave. Our next 800 miles were the most treacherous of this circumnavigation.
We left the harbor we'd fought so hard to make, and ran with all our might from port to port south of there: Richard's Bay to Durban, then to East London, then Port Elizabeth and Mossel Bay. Plenty of drama ensured that each passage maintained it's reputation despite the fact that we avoided the biggest storms. We made it around capes again and again, just like so many other waypoints in the world. Then we did the big cape and changed direction.
Landmarks and Bookmarks
No matter where the cape is located, be it Cape Flattery, Point Conception, Cabo San Lucas or Diamond Head, capes are bookmarks in Tethys' log. Strategies, fears, weather and consequences fill our log pages in many women's handwriting.
Capes deserve attention, but they are points of hope as well as capes of fear. When Nancy left Shilshole for each of her two circumnavigation's she passed Point No Point and Foul Weather Bluff, then tied up safely at Port Townsend. The next leg of her journey, she sailed for their first "foreign" port of Victoria, British Columbia. "We were leaving late and after all the grand farewells and last minute projects we needed a place to get ourselves ready for the long passage." recalls Nancy. "I wanted to be in good position to launch into the Pacific with favorable weather. After all, the only weather you can choose is on the day you leave."
Tethys' and crew were in Victoria for two weeks as the season grew later. It was mid-October 1989. "Even though it was late, we headed for Hawaii, rather than hop down the coast. We'd weathered our first capes. I knew we were ready. If we hopped down the coast, maybe we'd miss a gale or two, but worse, we might never leave. Open ocean gales are not as dangerous to an ocean ready boat and crew as the many obstacles of land: the continental shelf with it's potential for errant big waves; the continent as a lee shore; dangers of unfamiliar river harbor entrances; ship traffic; logs, as well as the ubiquitous fog and all the other challenges of coastal cruising in the northwest. If you leave shore you are away from these things for the most part and you are on your way to warm water, the tropics, new places. New places on the other side of an ocean instead of another point of land. It was where I ultimately wanted to go. So did the other women."
Nancy and four other women, including northwest sailors Carol Hasse and Leslie Lincoln, left the Straits with darkness falling. The first log entries of Tethys' circumnavigations are the cryptic notes of rounding Cape Calver, then Cape Flattery. In 1989, Nancy and crews were navigating by hand bearing compass, radar, sextant sights and noting the newly purchased and untrustworthy Magellan positions with suspicion. In South Africa, time caught up with that Magellan and it failed the 2000 rollover. Nancy, Tethys and many women who've sailed with them are still going and going places. Next summer, they're coming home to Seattle, rounding Cape Flattery with respect and nerves and hopefully, sailing into the Straits with great relief, yet again.
Article by Kaci Cronkhite. Kaci joined Tethys Offshore Sailing for Women in 1995 and completed the circumanvigation as First Mate, Co-Instructor and has even single-handed the boat in Captain Nancy Erley's absence. She holds a USCG 100-ton license and now lives ashore in Port Townsend, Washington.