Hout Bay to Gansbaai

In December 2007 we went for a long sail. I had been planning for the most of last year to take Nolwandle to the Southern Cape. Having finished all my work commitments on a high at Polokwane, the big day arrived on Friday 21st December. At about 1900, Peter, Dick and myself left Hout Bay bound for Mossel Bay. The weather forecast was south-easterly 20 knots, switching to north-east and then west the next day. I was hoping that if we were somewhere between Cape Point (about two miles East of the more famous Cape of Good Hope) and Cape Agulhas (the Southern most point of Africa, 80 miles south of Cape Point) when the Westerly came through, it would be an easy broad reach to Mossel Bay.

Tabisa and Jacob Zuma, President of the ANC, elected at the ANC’s 52nd National Conference held in Polokwane in December 2007

Well this is the “Cape of Storms”, so we left Hout Bay in a 30 knot southeaster, which is normal for a summer evening. I was convinced that once outside the Bay the wind would drop. We motored to Slangkop where the wind dropped as predicted. Here I managed to destroy the crown gear on the self-steering. I called Cape Point lighthouse (call-sign Penguin) on the radio and was told it was blowing 40 knots south-east there. I did not actually believe this and anyway I thought it would drop. So we chowed the food Peter had made, put the second reef in the main, rolled the genoa a bit and put a tack out to sea. About an hour later we put in a tack back to the land and soon we were off Scarborough. In 30 metres of water another tack to avoid the land and we were now heading due South with the wind coming up to about 40 knots off Hoek van Bobbejaan. We put the third reef in the main, rolled the jib some more and Nolwandle was a having a ball, going in the right direction in a huge chop.

I was helming and the other two were down below when I heard a loud crash from the cabin. As the boat had fallen off a chop, Peter had fallen against the saloon table and taken it off its mountings. Actually, what I did not know at that stage was that the mountings were only 10 brass self-tapping coach screws! He said he was okay but in retrospect he must have hit it with a hang of a force. He tried to tie the table so that it would not move around and went to sleep on the floor – which was the most comfortable place. I carried on helming for a bit and then handed over to Dick.

I went down below and lay down, still in my oil-skins and got some sleep. Every now and then I would wake up as Nolwandle fell off a large bit of chop, slamming down the back. I slept for about 3 hours, till about 0400, when I relieved Dick on the helm.

At 0430 it started getting light, the wind was now about 35 knots from the east-south-east. We were romping along in a southerly direction at about 5 knots. Our position was about 10 miles south-south west of Cape Point. As the sun came up we were able to see the Point, which was our last sight of land for the next 24 hours. As the morning progressed the wind dropped and shifted more to the East. Things were good. By 1000 it was blowing about 20 knots and the chop had gone to be replaced with a 4 metre swell. During the day the wind continued to drop and it was very hot. We shook the reefs out and spotted a few fishing boats and continued to sail south parallel to and about 50 miles from the coast.

Cape Point Cape Point is on the far right. The better known, but less prominent Cape of Good Hope is on the left. It is slightly further South than Cape Point.

All was well, but Peter was not feeling okay. He said he was feeling sea-sick and just wanted to sleep – lying in the cockpit occasionally throwing up. I have sailed quite a bit with Peter over the last two years, sometimes in huge swells. He is also a former ship’s engineer. I have never seen him sea-sick and was surprised. He couldn’t eat and we forced him to drink water and juice. In retrospect I think that Peter was in some kind of shock from the blow he received and not just sea-sick. Whatever it was, had put him out of action. He could help for short periods of time, but was not able to steer. When we left he had told us that he was not able to helm at night, as he struggles to stay awake. I had no problem with this as Peter is a brilliant cook and I was expecting to enjoy the fruits of his slaving over a hot stove. Anyway sailing at night is my favourite, so Dick and myself could easily stand in for him.

In the late afternoon the wind dropped completely as we waited for the westerly to come through. Not all the crew were convinced that it would eventually come and there was a motion that we turn around and head for Simonstown. I was not in favour of this. I was convinced that the westerly would come and was very keen to get to Mossel Bay. Without a westerly Mossel Bay is a 150 mile slog to windward and in summer westerlies are rare, so I did not want to miss this one.


Crew in Gansbaai
Crew and “Nolwandle” tied up to “Merlene” in Gansbaai Harbour – Max, Peter, Dick

With Peter out of action I volunteered to cook – a simple matter of browning the chicken fillets and throwing in the stir-fry veggies (except that our cook had confused potjie veggies with stir-fry – no problem just ignore the hard butter-nut bits) and a packet of brilliant pepper mushroom Denny sauce. Even the skipper could make a tasty meal!

Whilst I was slaving over the hot stove I was thinking: If Peter is out of it and Dick wants to go home and was not convinced by the westerly, perhaps we should cut our loses and head for Gansbaai. We were about 60 miles away, equidistant between Agulhas and Gansbaai, well out to sea. We were perfectly positioned for the westerly to speed us to Mossel Bay, but if the crew were not keen, prudence, as opposed to my pride and sense of adventure, said go for plan B. After a supper I told them of my decision. We turned the boat to the north-east, put the donkey on and motored for about 3 hours towards Gansbaai. Then a perfect westerly came through – 15-20 knots and we were reaching under full sail at 6-7 knots towards Gansbaai. I was cursing myself as I napped below.

At 2400 I took over the helm. Peter was sleeping in the cockpit and I was having one of the best sails of my life. The wind came up a bit to about 25 knots, there was 4 metres of swell and we were surfing on a broad reach doing an average of 7-8 knots boat speed, often reaching 10 knots down the waves. This was bliss. At times there was a clear starry sky, occasionally rain squalls, but brilliant sailing. At about 0300 we crossed the bows of container ship. She came up to about 500 meters from us, slowed down and waited for us to pass. Otherwise we saw a lot of lights but there were no incidents in the busy shipping lane. I thanked the fact that we had hoisted a large radar reflector on the burgee halyard before we left. At about 0400 we sighted the Danger Point light, which marks the southern entrance to Walker Bay and is about 5 miles from Gansbaai. At sunrise, about 0530, we passed Danger Point and altered course for Gansbaai harbour.

Danger Point
Danger Point from Gansbaai New Harbour breakwater

Now it was blowing about 20 knots from the west north west – straight into the harbour mouth. The “South African Sailing Directions” warn against entering Gansbaai in a strong westerly. Is 20 knots a strong westerly? Anyway there were few other options – the closest was Hermanus – but all the books warn about this being an uncomfortable harbour. We went in close, struggling to see the leading lights as the sun was rising straight in front of us. The swell was steep, at least 3 metres high in places, and breaking occasionally. I turned around and asked the guys to remove the dodger, as it was spoiling my view. A group of dolphins began to play around the boat. Then we headed again for the entrance – it was now or never and I just had to do it. Motoring we surfed a few waves. It was breaking regularly about 200 metres to our port. We started off in the middle of the entrance, but as we approached the harbour I edged slowly to starboard and as we came alongside the breakwater light did a hard turn to starboard, opened full throttle at the top of a big swell and entered the New Harbour. Immediately we were in a calm millpond – what an excellent harbour with a terrible entrance. I was still shaking from the adrenalin. We considered tying up to a fishing boat, but decided on picking up one of the buoys. Soon the kettle was on and Peter was heating up the left-overs for breakfast.

Gansbaai entrance calm
Gansbaai harbour entrance calm in a South-easter. It is difficult to imagine the steep breaking swells that we faced entering in a Westerly. The Old Harbour is on the right, New Harbour on the left.

I phoned the harbour master’s office and a security answered – he said I should phone at 0800, which I did. The fisheries control officer said we could not stay on the buoy, but should tie up to a fishing boat. If we did not want water or electricity there was no charge and we could stay as long as we liked. That afternoon Nikki came to pick up Peter and Dick, we had a few drinks in a harbour pub and my 4 days break in Gansbaai began.