"Arctracer" Letters

Around South Africa

This describes our passage around South Africa in 2012. We started in Richards Bay on March 1 and arrived in Saldanha Bay on March 16 after stops at East London and Knysna. The winds ranged from none to near 40 knots, changed quickly in both force and direction and often were not accurately forecast. We considered ourselves fortunate to have gentle conditions around Cape Agulhas and the Cape of Good Hope which earlier mariners named "the Cape of Storms." We are now back in the Atlantic Ocean.

Weather Forecasts

It is extremely important to know about the weather when sailing around South Africa where conditions sometimes change very quickly and strong winds and big seas may be encountered at any time of year. Most cruisers use multiple sources of weather information and carefully watch weather systems moving through the region. We subscribed to GRIB file downloads via Sailmail and these were generally good. In addition, we usually listened to the Peri-Peri net both morning and evening and called in once per day when underway. This net operated on 8101 khz at 7:30 and 17:00 South African time. We greatly appreciated the efforts of the friendly volunteer net controllers: Paul near Johannesburg, Norman in Basaruto, Roy in Durban and Andrew in Cape Town. They provided personalized forecasts (using Buoyweather) to every boat which contacted them and relayed coastal forecasts generated by the South African Weather Service. They usually switched to a higher frequency (12353 khz) after 30 minutes to contact boats further away, including boats in the Indian Ocean and those heading towards Brazil and the Caribbean. We found their forecasts and advice to be excellent. Additional advantages of the Peri-Peri net were hearing first-hand reports from boats in various areas and following the progress of some of our friends.

In Richards Bay, radio reception was usually not good enough for us to use the Peri-Peri net. There and in some other ports we had access to the Internet via a modem which worked with the mobile phone network. That enabled us to get weather forecasts from Internet sites including Buoyweather, Windguru, PassageWeather and the South African Weather Service official site (www.weathersa.co.za). The South African Weather Service broadcasted coastal forecasts on VHF at 12:15 and 20:15 local times. These coastal forecasts were of limited value because each forecast covered a long stretch of the coast even though conditions usually varied within those regions. An additional resource for ham radio operators was the South African Maritime Mobile Net hosted by Graeme on 14316 khz at 8:30 and 13:30 South African time. Weather is always a popular topic when cruisers meet, and we got some additional information in casual conversations.

Richards Bay

"Arctracer" spent a few months in Richards Bay at the Tuzi Gazi Marina. Marina facilities were adequate, but not wonderful. The slips had water and electricity. The docks were old, moved alarmingly when there was any significant wind and required repair several times while we were there. The repairs were made in a timely manner. There was no wi-fi, the shower/toilet block was across the street, and the marina office would not provide more than one key per boat for access to the docks and toilets. Marlin-fishing boats shared the marina with yachts. There were several restaurants and bars right on the waterfront and on some nights there was music into the wee hours but not loud enough to be a serious problem. Some boats stayed at the International Dock, which was free, without any services and extremely limited in space. The Zululand Yacht Club in a nearby estuary offered slips and anchorage, a haulout facility and clubhouse with bar and braais twice each week. Supermarkets and other supplies were available either in Meerensee or at the Boardwalk Mall. SSB reception was generally poor in Richards Bay, perhaps because of the huge aluminum smelter and other industrial plants. We accessed the Internet through the mobile phone networks, using a modem ("dongle") with our computer. We had trouble obtaining South African SIM cards for our mobile phone and modem because we did not understand the requirements. We had to get a letter from the police saying that the marina was our place of residence before we could buy SIM cards or a dongle.

Crime was a serious problem in Richards Bay. Houses and businesses were surrounded by fences, barbed wire, guard dogs, security guards and electronic alarm systems. We heard many stories of cruisers being held up by gunmen, pockets picked, cars broken into, etc. Muggers sometimes even took the shoes of their victims. We were advised to never walk anywhere at night. Some cruisers walked in groups from Tuzi Gazi to Zululand and back on evenings when braais were held and they usually encountered no problems. We did not walk anywhere at night.

Visitor visas for three months were given by Immigration upon arrival. An extension of three months was possible by applying at the Home Affairs office beside Boardwalk Mall. This office was staffed by a difficult person who required a large amount of paperwork and a fee before accepting applications for visa extensions. The results of applications varied considerably, with some cruisers not receiving extensions until long after their original visas expired. In our case, the faceless bureaucrat who processed our application in Pretoria gave three months from the time of PROCESSING, which gave us less than two months additional time in the country. This was a major problem for us since we had purchased airline tickets assuming we would be given a three-month extension from our expiry date. The date of our flight to the USA was after the new, early expiration date of the visa. We also had family scheduled to visit us in South Africa after that visa expiration date. Home Affairs was adamant that we could get no further extension, although we knew several other cruisers who did receive additional extensions. Buying tickets before knowing how long our visas would be extended was a mistake. The penalty to change flights on South African Airways was quite significant (5400 Rand in our case or $720 US with $1 about 7.5 rand at the time). We decided to never again apply earlier than the last minute to officials in South Africa.

It was necessary to check-out with officials and file a "flight plan" before leaving any South African port, even if going to another in the same country. Regulations were different in each of the ports we visited. There was much confusion in Richards Bay during our stay, with departing boats given a variety of instructions from various officials. When we finally left we needed approvals only from the Tuzi Gazi Marina and the police, and the marina faxed our completed form to Harbor Control.

(view photos of Richards Bay)

Richards Bay to East London

We left Richards Bay on March 1 with weather information from GRIB files, Windguru, and Passage Weather. There was a tropical cyclone up north in the Mozambique Channel which was too far away to bother us, and the rest of the predicted winds looked OK for sailing south. We waved goodbye to our friends and motored away from the dock at 10:45. Outside the harbor we found a good breeze from the northeast and the helpful Agulhas Current too so we zipped along towards Durban at 10 knots. The wind was right behind us so we used only our jib. We found quite a few ships near busy Durban harbor as we sailed past there in the night, and swells of 2 to 3 meters which were probably generated by a storm far to the south near Antarctica. Since it was our first day out after being in a calm harbor for a few months Jerry's stomach was not totally happy. We caught a four-foot-long Mahi-Mahi and Nina fixed a fine dinner with some of that plus spinach but Jerry could eat only a little. Boats in Durban were worried about the cyclone moving in their direction and we were advised by radio to take shelter there but we were confident we could outsail the storm so continued sailing south.

The wind died down considerably overnight and by the next morning we were having a beautiful, relaxing sail. It was 250 miles from Durban to East London and some of the weather pundits thought the weather was too uncertain to make such a jump but it looked OK to us. All day we had a lovely ride down the Agulhas Current which added a few knots to our speed over ground. After dark the wind increased to 25 knots and higher in gusts, more than we expected but still right behind us. Our speed reached 14.9 knots on at least one gust. We rolled up some of the jib and still moved at 10 knots with help from the current. The swells were not as big by midnight. We were making such good speed that we needed to decide whether or not to continue on past East London when Nina came on watch at 2:00 in the morning. The forecast was for 30 knot winds from northeast. It is 150 miles from East London to Port Elizabeth so even with strong winds we could not get there before dark. We never like entering ports at night so we would have needed to anchor or heave to off Port Elizabeth for most of that night. A low pressure center was forecast to reach Port Elizabeth about midnight, switching the winds to southwest at an estimated 20 knots. Continuing on would have meant an uncomfortable day followed by an uncomfortable night so we decided to stop at East London. We rolled up most of the sail and Nina steered us slowly towards the port for the rest of the night. We motored into the harbor without any problems at 9:00 on Saturday, March 3, with a breeze of 20 knots still behind us. We traveled 339 miles from Richards Bay in less than two days.

East London

East London is the only major port in South Africa on a river. It used to be a busier place but it still handles container ships, oil tankers and car carriers. Yachts used to tie up at Latimer's Landing, but we discovered that old dock has been condemned as unsafe. We thought we would be able to tie to a dock but Port Control told us (VHF 16) we had to anchor. We dropped our trusty anchor plus lots of chain near the Buffalo River Yacht Club boats on moorings at the head of the harbor near railroad and highway bridges. We were called immediately by the Buffalo River Yacht Club to welcome us and invite us to come in to learn all about the place. Our dinghy was on the foredeck and it was too windy for comfortable rowing so we did not visit them while they were open that weekend. The harbor extends in an east-west direction and the wind increased during the day with gusts as high as 43 knots blowing right down the harbor. There were no waves and the holding was good in 50-foot depths. We relaxed and waited for better weather.

We heard from other cruisers that East London was a very dangerous place. Apparently it was not safe to walk the streets even during the day. We did not go ashore except to dinghy to the Water Police office (practically under the railroad bridge on the end of Latimer's Landing) to fill out our "flight plan" before leaving. This was a simple one-page form which the police faxed to Port Control.

Via the Internet we learned that tropical cyclone "Irina" followed the same route we took from Madagascar to Africa. It soaked northern Madagascar, then formed into a cyclone off Cape St Andre and moved southwest through the Mozambique Channel towards Maputo. In late January, Mozambique was hit by a cyclone named "Funso," the first to hit there since 2008. "Irina" was felt in Richards Bay, but the winds there were not bad enough to damage boats in marinas. The storm twisted and turned over the southern Mozambique coast, dropping huge amounts of rain.

(view photos of East London)

East London to Knysna

We left East London at noon on Tuesday March 6 with a forecast calling for reasonable winds from the southeast. It was a pleasant sail all afternoon. There were many Shearwaters of two types and at sunset we watched an Albatross for the first time since leaving New Zealand in 2003. That night the wind kept coming from the same direction but got pretty strong. About midnight we were running at 8 knots or so with just a little jib pulling and our anemometer recorded a gust of 39 knots. Adding some of our boat speed to the recorded wind speed means that gust was well over 40 knots. We considered stopping at Port Elizabeth but when Nina took over at 0200 the wind was decreasing and we decided to keep going. By noon it was almost windless and we were practically becalmed. At 1400 the wind came back, but right in our face at 20 knots. The forecast was for 8-10 knots from southeast and here was 20 knots from the west! We made slow progress tacking into this until daylight the next morning when the breeze eased and slowly veered around to easterly. Then we had a lovely sail all afternoon. We watched Gannets, saw seals basking on the surface with flippers waving in the air, and saw a few whale blows. These animals like cold water so we knew we had finally left the Agulhas Current. It was a quiet night. The breeze came from northwest in the morning and the forecast was for fairly strong winds on Saturday when we would be nearing the southern tip of the continent. That is no place to be in a blow, and the forecasts might be underestimating the winds again, so we pulled in to Knysna.

Knysna has an entrance which is dangerous in bad weather. The passage through the heads is narrow with rocks on both sides and there are two shallow bars. Strong swells breaking on those bars can cause boats to lose control and hit the rocks. It is crucial to enter on a heading of 010 degrees true on a line defined by prominent leading lights inside. Nobody at Knysna monitors VHF and there are no port officials. Information about the state of the bars and tides was obtained by calling the Knysna Yacht Club who referred us to a member of the National Sea Rescue Institute. When we arrived there were practically no swells so the entrance was safe and we came through with no difficulty.


Inside the heads is a lovely lagoon with holiday houses all around. The Knysna Yacht Club was friendly and helpful. We tied up at their dock for a few hours, had a nice lunch at the club restaurant, walked uptown to a supermarket for fresh fruit and vegetables, and then moved out to anchor in mid-lagoon. Friends on another cruising boat had to pay a 120 Rand ($15) fee to the parks department to anchor there for a month but we weren't approached by them during the 3 days we were there and hadn't heard about that fee before. The whole place is designated a nature reserve and is alive with birds, fishermen along the shores and in boats, and people collecting shellfish at low tide. It was nice to be in a peaceful anchorage. The town seemed much less dangerous than Richards Bay. Here we saw people walking the streets apparently unafraid and yacht club members said there was no problem with violent crime though they did advise us to lock our oars at night. The waterfront and main streets were busy with many restaurants, shops and tourists. There was a marina beside the Yacht Club but we did not inquire about space or fees. The Yacht Club had an active dinghy sailing program and seemed a friendly place. There were no port officials and the only check-out procedure involved writing in a book outside the Yacht Club office.

(view photos of Knysna)

Knysna to Saldanha Bay

We enjoyed Knysna and could have stayed there longer but decided to sail when the weather forecast looked good. We left there on Tuesday, March 13 and motored out through the entrance with no swells and the beginning of the outgoing tide - perfect conditions - and we had no problem. Outside we found a northwest breeze which let us sail fairly well, and later the wind came gently from behind us so we moved along slowly. Two other sailboats left Knysna the same day, "Shady Lady" and "Cinta," and we had their sails in sight most of the time. They used their motors when the winds were light but we just sailed even when our speed was very slow. We made reasonable progress through the night towards Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point of Africa. We saw occasional seals, whales, a penguin and many sea birds. We caught a Striped Tuna on Wednesday afternoon. Nina created a delicious fish salad with some of that plus curry powder and vegetables and we ate it on bread for supper.

At 16:45 Wednesday March 14 we passed Cape Agulhas. This was a significant milestone because it is the boundary between the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean. We were now back in the Atlantic where we started this adventure many years ago. This was the farthest south we sailed in African waters and we started moving north immediately. There were changes in the wind and sea conditions soon after we changed oceans. The southeast breeze became lighter and colder. The color of the sea changed from blue to greenish, partly because we were now in a relatively shallow patch (still about 150 feet deep) and partly because the water was colder. On the eastern side of South Africa the Agulhas Current brings warm water south along the coast but on the western side the Benguela Current is north-flowing and brings very cold water from the Antarctic. The cold water is full of fish and attracts multitudes of birds, seals and whales. The fish also attract fishing boats. We saw more of these as we sailed towards the Cape of Good Hope. The wind was so light at times that even we motored for a few hours. It was pleasant except for the cold. For our night watches we put on lots of clothes, including turtlenecks, sweaters, fleece jackets, wool socks, and wool hats. Sometimes we had a bit of fog, another problem where the water is cold. This made us keep a good lookout for ships but we had no scary encounters.

We passed the Cape of Good Hope on March 15 at 15:00. The old sailors named this the "Cape of Storms" but we had lovely sailing conditions with a gentle tailwind pushing us north towards Cape Town. A little squall came through in late afternoon so we took down our mainsail and continued with just our jib. This worked very well, pulling us past Cape Town during the night. Many big ships go in and out of Cape Town, as well as big fishing boats, so we had to keep a sharp lookout but all went well. The other boats which left Knysna with us stopped in marinas just before Cape Town. Hout Bay is convenient for visiting the city but had no berths available when we passed. Also, we had heard reports that Hout Bay and Simon's Town were not well-protected from strong winds, so we were happy to continue on in the good weather.

We arrived in Saldanha Bay on March 16. As we approached we saw an unbelievable number of seals, cormorants and gannets. We sailed slowly until nearly noon, then motored into the harbor as fog approached. This is a major port for exporting iron ore and there is an enormous jetty where huge ships tie up to get loaded. We passed that and got in behind the breakwater and hill which create a very safe harbor in the northwest corner for fishing boats and yachts.

Saldanha Bay

The area seems relatively safe and most houses do not have barbed wire or other extraordinary defenses. The Saldanha Bay Yacht Club is a friendly place reminiscent of the Ossining Boat and Canoe Club where we kept our first boats on the Hudson River. They let us anchor nearby and dinghy to their dock. We enjoyed their St. Patrick's Day braai (barbecue). We walked to town, got groceries at the Spar supermarket, and bought a detailed map of the lagoon at Eigelaars Marine and Hardware Store. Rental cars were available from Langebaan, the lagoon-side resort town 14 km away. The main problem in Saldanha Bay was cold temperatures. The Benguela Current chills this area and we needed multiple layers to keep warm.

We spent one night in Kraal Bay, which is part of the West Coast National Park and a world-famous place to see birds. We learned that Wild Cards are only accepted in this National Park when you enter through a gate on land. Park officials charged us 120 Rand ($15) per night to anchor. We moved to re-anchor in a small bay further north in the lagoon but the officials charged us for anchoring there too. They said the only free anchorages were outside the park boundaries. We were very fortunate to be invited by one of the 49 landowners of the Postberg Section to visit the reserve one afternoon. This area is normally open to outsiders only for a short period in the Spring when the flowers bloom. The scenery was remarkable and we saw several animals and birds which were new to us.

We searched for a long-term berth in Saldanha Bay, planning to base ourselves here for the rest of our South African explorations. The Saldanha Bay Yacht Club had no available mooring and was somewhat exposed to strong winds from the southeast while the Mykenos Marina had no room for us and the Langebaan moorings looked too exposed. Rather than moving to Cape Town or Port Owen we chose to move to Yachtport which offered either a slip or hardstand - friendly and very secure but relatively expensive.