I first went sailing in Stilbaai in 1973 as 10 year old kid. From then onwards I spent as much time as possible sailing there, initially in the river and later in the both the river and the sea. I started off in an unnamed 9 foot dingy, progressed to a Dabchick, once or twice sailed an Andy dingy there, often sailed various Hobies, loved sailing Lasers and much later took my Lavranos trailer-sailer Contradiction there. In between I sailed any craft that I was offered a go on. I humbly offer these thoughts on sailing in the Goukou River and hope that those who have also had the pleasure of this experience will make some comments. For sailing in the sea I hope to write something at a later stage, but I do suggest a careful reading of the “South African Sailing Directions” published by the SA Navy Hydrographic Office.

Upper reaches
Goukou sunset above the low level bridge about 15 miles above the mouth


The Goukou River used to be called the Kafferkuils River. This offensive name was officially changed in 1998 in the face of much resistance from the National Party and other white reactionaries. The new name is not yet reflected on the South African Navy charts or Sailing Directions – they seem to be a bit slow at SANHO. (I have just downloaded Notices to Mariners March 2007 edition which announces this change, 9 years after it was gazetted!)

Sunset on the Goukou River looking west towards Paalinggat from Contradiction at anchor. The calm before a westerly storm!

Goukou was a chief of the Hessequa Khoikhoi. He was respected by the Dutch colonists and the VOC for his wealth, as well as his wisdom. In his later life he was strongly opposed to the Dutch and their confiscation of his people’s land. His domain stretched from the Botriver to the Gouritz River. His son was called the “Groot Jongen” by the Dutch colonists and Groot Jongensfontein is named after him.

Sailing the Goukou

Stilbaai is a great place to sail dingies and also has potential for small keel boats, especially trailer-sailers. From the bridge to the Goukou River mouth is about 1 nautical mile. This section offers great sailing, especially from half tide through high tide to half tide again. At spring high tide the whole river valley is covered with water. At low tides you have to stick to the deep water and avoid the sand banks.

There are two great reaches on the river when the South Easter is blowing. The first is from the slipway on the East bank to the slipway at Draaibaai (see below). This is a great reach in both direction. Only problem is when there are lots of speedboats around. The other great reach is from the Rooisand beach at Paalinggat to the opposite bank of the river. This is usually a broad reach upstream and a close reach downstream. There are not meant to be any motorboats around here. The Rooisand is a nice beach to come ashore on, as long as there are no fisherpersons on the jetty.

Stilbaai aerial
A photo of the river below the bridge, clearly showing the open mouth and many of the sand banks. Draaibaai is the main corner of the river in the photo, Paalinggat is the notch half way between Draaibaai and the mouth.

Above the bridge there is about 12 miles of navigable water all of which is sailable, especially if you have a lot of patience and concentrate on finding the deep water. Much of it is very beautiful. The river is how ever facing many ecological challenges, most of which are hidden by its beauty.

This photo was taken about 10 miles from the mouth

There is only one section – from where the tar Riversdale road leaves the river till opposite the Riverside caravan park – where the channel is very shallow at low tide and difficult to find at high tide. The deep water is usually alongside the rocky banks and on the outside of the river curves. At points the river is very deep – there are some well known holes where large kabeljou are rumoured to hide! During the Christmas and Easter holidays you need to beware of fast motorboats and waterskiers, who generally have no idea of the Rules to Prevent Collisions at Sea, or even the most basic rule that motor vessels give way to sail or human powered vessels.

Mad waterskiers
Mad Waterskiers who don’t understand the rules of the road at a narrow stretch of the river! Note the two boats at high speed, one with a skier, overtaking a boat with a skier down in the water.

Above the bridge the wind tends to follow the river valley. If a South Easter is blowing then the wind tends to blow up river. If a Westerly is blowing then the wind tends to blow down river or across the river. Beware of areas of gusts.
Top of river
The top of the navigable section – about 12 miles from the sea. About a mile above this the river is crossed by this low-level bridge:

Max Tabs on bridge
Tabisa trying to force me to drink! On the low-level bridge over the Goukou above the navigable section.

The River Mouth

For the me the most interesting part of the river has always been the mouth. The fact that one can sail out the river into the sea and back again has always fascinated me. There are few places in South Africa where this is done regularly. Obvious places are the Buffalo River mouth at East London, which is a commercial harbour. Durban and Richards Bay are big lagoons and commercial harbours. The Bergrivier mouth at Velddrift, which is a fishing harbour, Knysna and Port Alfred and that’s about it I think?

The Breederivier mouth at Witsand/Infanta is another possibility, but it does not seem to be regularly sailed, although ski-boats do go out to sea there. At Puntjie, the mouth of the Duivenhoks River, ski-boats do use a channel cut in the rocks to go out to sea, but this would be far too dangerous for a sailing boat. I have also seen a Wharram catamaran use the mouth of the Gonubie River near East London.

I would be really interested if anyone else has experience of sailing in and out of the river mouths of South Africa which are not harbours. I know this used to be done at the Kromme River near Cape St Francis, but does it still happen? What about the Keurbooms and Umzimvubu at Port St Johns? For a list of all estuaries in South African have a look at this webiste.

Photos of many estuaries, but not the Goukou, are viewable here.

Goukou Mouth

The Goukou mouth is easily negotiated by a well sailed dingy, and I have taken my 6m trailer sailer Contradiction through a number of times. Larger boats have also negotiated the mouth. I am aware of a Muira which went through a number of times and have also once seen a 9 meter fishing catamaran come through the mouth, for repairs. At spring high tides there is usually more than six feet of water on the bar. At a normal high tide I would estimate five feet to six feet of water. Once the bar has been crossed there is usually at least 2 meters of water in the main channel at least to just before the first main bend in the river at Draaibaai. There is a map of the first 1 mile of the estuary on this website.

Bar Two
Goukou River mouth at half tide. The channel over the bar is the gap in the breakers, centre left of the picture. Ystervarkpunt in the background.

Draaibaai is on the West Bank of the river and there is a slipway and jetty there. Just downstream of Draaibaai there are two large bouys in the river, marking the furthest downstream motorboats are meant to proceed.

Draaibaai from contra
Draaibaai from Contradiction at anchor at Paalinggat. Excuse the washing.

The best anchorage for a boat of any size in the river would be North of the Paalingat stream, opposite the first two houses on the West bank of the river. In a position in the middle of the river, there is always two meters of water in good holding ground of mud. This position is well protected from both the Southeaster and the Westerly storms. There can be a strong tidal flow here of about 3 knots and generally the boat will lie to the tide, but this is not a problem as the holding is so good. I have left Contradiction anchored here, unattended for over a week, and she was very happy there.

Contradiction pallingat
Contradiction at anchor at the recommended anchorage off the Paalinggat stream. This photo taken at low tide from the East Bank of the river. The house in the background, traditional thatch roof just emerging behind the melkhout tree, is the oldest house in Stilbaai.

Interestingly on the British Admiralty chart Cape Infanta to Cape St Blaize there is an inset of Stilbaai and the mouth of the river (called Kafferkuils in those days), which is presumably there for use in entering the river? The river has changed alot since that inset was surveyed, in the 1870s if I remember correctly, so I would not use it to get in through the mouth.

Contradiction at pallinggat
Contradiction at anchor seen from the Paalinggat stream

There is also a good anchorage off the slipway on the East bank of the river, just past Draaibaai.

Draaibaai jetty and slipway looking across to the anchorage off the slipway on the East bank.

The difficultly of this anchorage is negotiating the Draaibaai corner, which is only navigable at high tide. It is recommended to use the channel on the inside of the turn, as it seems to be deeper than the outside channel these days. This was not always so. In the 1970s and early 80s the outside channel was deeper, but it seems to have silted up, especially just below the slipway, where the rocks start on the river bank.

Bridge from contra
Looking towards the bridge from Paalinggat. The slipway on the East side is half way towards the bridge

The Bar Shifts With the Wind

The river mouth and bar requires a bit of thought. I would recommend reconnoitering the mouth at low tide from the road on the West bank near the mouth. The best position is just opposite a house with the name Alikreukel. The channel over the bar shifts depending on the prevailing wind. In summer, when the Southeaster is the prevailing wind, the channel tends to go out towards the bar and then turn towards the South East and Lappiesbaai.

Bar lappies
The bar from the lookout point above the harbour, with Lappiesbaai beach in the background. This picture is taken in summer so the channel over the bar opens towards the prevailing Southeaster wind. The concrete pillar marks the end of the last vywer and the transition from rocks to sand on the West bank.

In winter, when the Westerly and Southwester is more common, the channel tends to point either straight out to sea, or to the edge of the rocks on the West bank of the mouth. Often the concrete beacon on the rocks marking the last Vywer, will then mark the edge of the channel.

Mouth at low tide

Looking from inside the mouth to the bar at low tide. This pic is taken in April and the channel is straight out, reflecting more Westerly winds.

The change in the direction of the channel makes it essential to check it out before hand. I generally take a compass bearing and also make some bearing lines lining up the lampposts and the houses. From a distance at sea the NGK church spire is very visible, but close to the river entrance it gets hidden by the river banks, so this is not a useful marker to use. Lining up the lampposts on a feature on the houses is best. Remember to count the lampposts proper. It may be best to write down what you intend using as bearing lines.

Inner mouth
Inside the bar from the road on the West bank at half tide. This is a good place to take bearings of the channel over the bar. The river is deep at all tides in this section.

It is strongly advised if you are in anything larger than a dingy to make your entrance in the half hour before high tide. The waves in the mouth will be less and if you ground, there will still be little tide left to hopefully lift you. I generally approximate the high tide in the sea at Stilbaai as similar to that published for Mossel Bay, with the tide in the river being about an hour behind Cape Town.

At times the waves can break quite large in the mouth. This depends on a number of factors, the most important being the swell size and direction as well as the wind direction and strength. The waves generally break in the mouth. In a Southeaster they will generally be blown down from behind and be not very high, unless a big swell is running. In a westerly the swells may not break and be more perfectly formed, but are often larger. This is great for surfing, but often not so good for coming in the mouth in a small boat.

Bar Two
Another view of the bar showing the channel and the deep water in the mouth clearly
As a kid I was obsessed by the mouth and regularly surfed an Extra dingy there. In those days my philosophy was the bigger the waves the better. The result was a broken boom and broken rudder on two separate occasions. On another occasion I also bent the top section of a Laser mast. I developed a rule which was never gybe in the river mouth as most of these mishaps happened after a gybe. Of course when you are surfing a wave and a sandbank or set of rocks is looming in front, then you may have no choice but to break this rule. If you must gybe, ensure that you do not capsize on the wave, as if you do there is also a danger of putting the mast in the sand and being driven onto the mast by the waves. If the boat does capsize as soon as possible you should point the bow into the waves as this will lesson the force of the waves on the boat.

Legal Issues

The river mouth and estuary are controlled by Cape Nature, but are actually policed by the municipality – especially in holiday seasons. There is a set of rules obtainable from the kiosk at Draaibaai in season, or from the municipal offices next to the library on the West bank. Any boat over three metres requires a licence which is obtainable for a small fee at the above places. They theoretically ban boats over 6 meters, but may be flexible for sailing boats. As mentioned above, motorboats are banned below the Draaibaai bouys, but in practise they are tolerated as long as they go dead slow and do not harass anybody. Please always give way to sailing and rowing boats and do not harass the fisherpersons. Also beware of swimmers when motoring. During busy periods the municipality operates a yellow patrol boat on the river.

They do not encourage boats to enter the river mouth from the sea, but this is probably unenforceable under the rules of the sea. A boat entering the river could always claim to be doing so for safety reasons.


This is now the name of the main swimming beach on the East side of the river mouth. Actually Lappiesbaai used to be the name of the area where the Ellensrust Caravan park is. The main tar road leading to the beach and the Caravan park covers what was once a channel of the river. At high tide the road would have been covered, and many of the old houses here are built on stilts. Three of the houses closer to the old hotel had slipways built under them so that boats could be drawn up into the boat houses. These houses are now separated from the river by the road and the reclamation that has been done to build the road.

The reclamation of Lappiesbaai and Ellensrust Caravan Park was linked to the stabilisation of the sand dunes at the river mouth. This stopped the river mouth from being able to move around significantly and has led to the increasing silting up of the river. The supposed positive side of this is that sand dune also does not move much and the Caravan Park is usable. Anyone who has actually stayed in this caravan park would probably dispute this as it is by and large the refuge of dinasours from apartheid days. If you are looking for laid back place to stay, where no one will complain about you speaking loudly, or even dancing, I can highly recommend the Preekstoel Caravan and Camping area about 2 kilometres to the East of Lappiesbaai. I have spent many very happy days and nights there. And the view of the bay is also much better there.

Sunrise from preekstoel
Sunrise over the sea at Preekstoel caravan park