It was midday as we walked as usual down a short narrow street to the yacht basin. Yachts of all types stopped there as part of their journeys around the world. They tied up together, often as many as four deep, along a pier set aside especially for them. The day was warm and sunny, and why shouldn’t it be? This was Durban, with its large safe harbour on the east coast of South Africa.
The fast pace of the city loomed large behind, but here was a different world that moved to its own time, ‘yachty-time’. No one was in any hurry, and if something could be put off until tomorrow, then it was.
On this day, a young woman, barefoot and simply dressed in shorts and tee-shirt emerged from a yacht on the furthest rank of boats and began clambering over the adjoining yachts towards where we stood on the pier.
“Wow, I’d fancy sailing around the world with her!” said Bob.
“Me too,” I replied.
The young woman took her final step onto the pier but instead of turning to continue on her way, she stopped in front of us. I felt confused and uncomfortable as she was staring directly at me. She must have heard us talking about her and was about to tell us off for being so rude.
“Hello Fred,” she grinned.
I was struck dumb. Who the hell was this svelte apparition and how did she know my name? She removed her sunglasses. “Vikki!” I gasped, “What are you doing here?”
“That’s my yacht, “she said pointing back, “or the one I helped my husband build. We are preparing to sail to the Virgin Islands. We should have left already, but at the last moment the young couple who were going to crew for us backed out. We now need to find two others to replace them.”
I looked questioningly at Bob, then back at Vikki, “Let me introduce you. This is Bob, we work together and are down here on our lunch break. We come most days and dream about how great it would be to sail away on one of these yachts.”
“I just said we were looking for two more people, didn’t I?” continued Vikki, “I don’t suppose you’d like to come along with us then, would you?”
“Would I? Of course I would, but I’m married now with a wife, child and house to care for. Then of course there’s my job; I could never get that amount of time off.”
Just moments before, to sail off into the sunset was something I’d wanted to do more than anything else. How often does an opportunity like this arise? Who was I trying to convince with my lame excuses, Vikki or myself?
Damn it, put the world on hold. “I’m going with you!”
My brother Peter was a hairdresser, and at almost that same time was listening to his client tell him how disappointed she and her husband were. They’d been due to crew on a yacht to the Virgin Islands but had been forced to withdraw. “The owners of the boat are now looking for two new crew members to take our place. Do you know anyone who’d want to do that?”
It took Peter no longer than it had taken me to make up his mind. “How do I contact them?” he asked.
And so, totally separate and unbeknown to one another, two brothers had arranged to sail into the sunset!
It would take me longer than the others to prepare to leave, so they went on ahead. By the time I flew into Cape Town, Peter, Vikki, her husband Carl and the boat had already been there for a few days. I had rushed like mad, not wanting to delay them, but need not have bothered, they were on ‘yachty-time’.
Boats taking part in the Cape to Rio yacht race had left a few days earlier so they’d moved the yacht to a good mooring right outside the clubhouse, where the ablution block had hot showers. This facility turned out to be the clearing house for all the latest maritime information.
“Take a look at this bruise,” grumbled the big guy without any hint of humour. He turned to show us the blackening, red-raw skin across his buttocks and halfway up his back. “That boat’s a death-trap. They must give up their crazy idea before someone is killed!”
The big guy had been hired to teach a paraplegic man and his wife to sail their specially modified yacht around the world. In the centre of the boat was a chair lift to raise a wheelchair from the cabin below to deck level. In theory, a good idea, but only if the hatch is kept shut when not in use. Apart from the obvious problem of high seas pouring in, it was also a gaping chasm just waiting for an unsuspecting crew member to back into. The big guy had done just that and was lucky not to have sustained even worse injuries when he hit the bottom.
Over the next few days we shopped for supplies and stowed them in appropriate spaces below deck. One item did puzzle me however; two trays of 24 assorted fizzy cool-drinks. I didn’t ask but couldn’t help wondering who was going to drink all that awful stuff.
We finally set sail, but not on Friday. It was unlucky to begin a journey on a Friday so one additional day was neither here nor there. It was a glorious sunny day and the sea was calm as we exited Cape Town harbour. This was to be our last connection with a city for a long time. We passed Robben Island and watched the seals frolicking amongst the rocks; an idyllic start to an exciting adventure. The four of us sat on deck as Table Mountain receded slowly behind.
Imperceptibly, the swells grew larger and the yacht rose and fell in sympathy. Some say that seasickness is a state of mind, and I’d believed them, firmly determined that I would not be sick. I chose to ignore the steady rise and fall of the yacht, concentrating instead on my view of the landmass slipping further behind. Eventually though, I turned and was surprised to find that only Peter and I remained on deck. “Hey, what’s happened to Carl and Vikki?” I asked.
“They’ve gone below. They’re both feeling sick,” he replied.
Instantly, my resolve to avoid seasickness crumbled. If the skipper could be sick, then so could I. Remembering just enough to face downwind, I hurled myself against the leeward rail and puked my heart out. With the Cape rollers inflicting their relentless punishment, I stumbled below deck and wedged myself into my bunk.
The yacht rose and fell. I squeezed my eyes shut but there was no escaping this hideous motion. Because we were riding the swells at an angle, the ruthless rise and fall was accompanied by a nasty twist. Rise, twist left, fall, twist right. Hour after hour this inhuman torture continued; rise, twist, fall, twist. At the bottom of each swell my innards were squeezed against my backbone, whilst at the top they attempted to escape completely. Magnified by the twisting motion anything left in my stomach spun wildly. Rise, twist, fall, twist. I finally passed out only to wake again still trapped in this infernal nightmare. On and on, this sustained torment persisted; rise, twist, fall, twist. For the next two days, the only time I moved was to put my head in the bucket on the floor beside me. I later learned that other than Peter who was a good sailor, Carl and Vikki also remained incapacitated and so the yacht was forced to sail itself, relying solely on its rudimentary self-steering mechanism.
“You’ll feel better if you go up on deck,” said Peter, who was fed up with looking at the puke-bucket and had emptied it. I tried standing and shakily joined the others who’d also just emerged. Vikki went below again and reappeared with a packet of plain biscuits and a can of fizzy drink each. At that moment I could think of nothing worse, but the others snapped open their cans and so did I. The first sip of those cool sweet bubbles was like nectar to a mouth that for days past had tasted nothing but stomach acid. Then a second wonder as the bubbles combined with trapped gas in my belly to be returned as part of a large burp. What a relief, we could smile again! The very worst of it may have been over but we never fully got past feeling seasick.
“It’s time we began doing a night-watch,” said Carl. “We’ve been lucky so far but there are ships about and we may need to avoid them.” There would be two shifts each night, so with four of us that meant one four-hour watch every second night. No great hardship. In fact, being alone under a silent starlit sky was a magical experience I looked forward to.
I was second watch one night when Peter called me up. The swells were still very large and the yacht rose and rolled as usual. No ships to be seen and we were holding a steady course. Once or twice the swell caught the stern of the yacht first, propelling it smoothly forward, exactly like being on a surfboard. I’d never interfered with the steering before, but with everyone else asleep and no one to object I released the lock on the wheel, inching it tentatively clockwise. This would be taking us slightly off the set course, but what a difference it made to the motion of the yacht. Instead of rising and rolling, the yacht was propelled forward mile after mile on the face of the swell, with hardly any other movement.
At dawn, as Carl emerged from below, I guiltily tried to explain what I’d done. “I really don’t care,” he said, “That’s the best night’s sleep I’ve had since leaving Cape Town!”
One evening, Peter was on first watch and scheduled to call Vikki to relieve him for the second. In the morning when the rest of us came up on deck, Peter was still there. “Why didn’t you come for Vikki?” asked Carl suspiciously. No answer was needed. It was obvious Peter had fallen asleep. “Anyway,” resumed Carl, “we’re now beyond the shipping lanes so we can end the watch.”
Days passed quietly. We were once joined by a school of dolphins playing for a while in our bow-wave, then darting off ahead to show us how slow we were moving. An occasional whale blew in the distance. One morning the deck was littered with flying-fish that had the ability to glide an amazing distance through the air but on close inspection looked too small and bony to be edible. At other times we lay on our bunks reading or sat chatting in the cockpit. “I think we’re due for a sail-change,” declared Carl idly one day, staring at the wind-direction indicator at the top of the mast and then back to how the mainsail was set. Peter jumped up, always keen for some action. “But not today,” drawled Carl, slowly reverting his gaze.
He would live to rue his inaction, for that night we were woken by a loud crack followed by a hefty thump. The yacht kicked wildly as if being hit by something solid. We all raced on deck to find the mainsail torn from its cleats and the boom swinging wildly over one side of the boat. A change of wind direction had caught the sail on the wrong face, slamming the yacht into an uncontrolled gybe.
“Everyone duck!” shouted Carl in alarm, as the boom pirouetted back across the deck. Without means of propulsion, the yacht was being thrown defencelessly about, hit by invisible swells from every direction out of the darkness. Vikki dashed below to get the engine started, whilst we three remaining hung onto anything fixed for fear of being swept overboard. Under power we were now more stable but the boom remained hanging stubbornly over the side. There was no way to reach it, and trying to coax it back on board by steering the yacht in different directions didn’t help either. In desperation, Peter took up a length of rope and hurled one end of it, out and high. The rope flew up and around the boom, then miraculously curled back to where he caught it. We hauled in the boom and secured it temporarily until the damage could be assessed in daylight. Catastrophe averted!
The yacht had a device we occasionally dropped overboard, that recorded our speed through the water. We’d compete to see who could guess the closest. That game didn’t last long though as we all became expert at judging the speed from the sound of the water washing against the hull. Vikki did a magnificent job of producing regular meals for us, even though being down in the galley increased her seasickness.
Finally one morning, “Land ho!” cried Peter who’d been keeping a sharp lookout. The island of St Helena rose from the water off our bow. There was no harbour so we anchored about three hundred meters out, awaiting officials that could give us clearance to go ashore. We’d now been on this rocking boat for two weeks and were very keen to get our feet on dry land, but after more than an hour, no official arrived. They’d obviously not noticed us so we’d have to go and inform them. We put on our costumes then Peter and I dived in. The water was relatively calm where we’d anchored, but as we approached the shore, the sea-swells rolling in from across the vast South Atlantic, grew higher as their path was blocked by the landmass. The closer they got the higher they rose, until they broke in a thunderous roar against the cliffs.
The local authority may not have seen us arrive, but many locals had, and were now lined up along the dock rail watching two crazy ‘yachties’ rising to the crest then disappearing into the trough of these giant swells. Having spent our youth surfing in Durban, this was nothing less than a wild thrill. We then noticed ropes hanging down on one side of the dock where it turned at right angles to the swell. Every fourth or fifth wave rose higher than the rest so by grabbing onto the ropes as the swell passed, we were swept onto the dock.
“Where you from?” asked one local in a difficult to understand accent.
“Where you going?” asked another.
“We’re from South Africa and we’re heading for South America,” we replied, “but first we need to find someone to clear our yacht.”
“Day’ll come when day’s ready.”
It was then that sanity prevailed and we realised we could hardly go knocking on doors wearing only swimming costumes. We were far more likely to be arrested for being illegally ashore.
“Thanks mate.” We dived into the next big swell and swam back to our yacht. At last, the agent arrived in his small motorboat and cleared us with grudging politeness to go ashore.
Walking up the main street of old-worldly Jamestown, was like going back in time one hundred years past. Although the locals spoke English, their dialect was barely recognisable and it was sometime before we tuned into it and could understand what they said. The last film shown at the cinema was something like ‘Gone with the Wind’ but now the posters were faded and peeling off the wall. A sign outside one shop stated there were only two weeks left to hand in cloths for dry-cleaning. These would then be taken to Cape Town and returned after one month. I thought yachty-time was slow, but time in St Helena had all but stopped.
“Hey there you lot. Wanna join us for a tour of the island?” called a voice from the opposite side of the street. It transpired that another yacht had arrived with four young Americans aboard. “If we share the cost we can hire the only minibus on the island. There’s room for eight.”
As there was only one length of paved road, the tour didn’t amount to much. We did however visit the residence of St Helena’s most famous inmate, Napoleon Bonaparte. He’d been a prisoner of the British and was kept captive in a bungalow on the hillside. The day we visited, it looked very nice but Napoleon apparently had many complaints. After he died he was buried nearby but his remains were later returned to France.
“Who’s for eating out tonight then?” asked one of the Americans. We all thought this a great idea, but after enquiring we discovered the restaurant only opened one day a week, and today was not that day. Our disappointment however didn’t last long.
“For yachties I open anytime.” beamed the jocular lady who owned the eatery. “Come back at seven and your meal will be ready.”
That evening our enlarged group tucked into an excellent alfresco meal made even better by sitting on seats that weren’t constantly in motion!
We spent our last day ashore buying provisions from shops with very little choice. Bananas and cocoanuts were in plentiful supply but what we really wanted was a fresh chicken. There was a gas oven on the yacht and Vikki could be guaranteed to produce a succulent roast.
“I’d like a chicken please,” said Carl to the man in the butchery.
“When do you want it?” came the reply.
“Now,” answered Carl, somewhat perplexed.
The butcher looked at him with an expression of disbelief. “Now” was not a word they understood in St Helena. “I order chicken from farm. Three days, maybe four, but only regulars can get.”
“How do I become a regular, if I can’t buy one?” That was a rhetorical question!
When we looked out the following morning, the American’s yacht had already left. “See you in Ascension.” they’d called out the previous evening, being sure we’d meet again in the seven or eight days it would take to get to Ascension Island.
Finding St Helena had been easy with high cliffs rising from the sea, but Ascension was entirely different. It was primarily flat; projecting very little above the water. To make matters worse, the horizon was ringed by clouds looking every bit like low-lying islands. According to Carl we were close, but was the island still ahead, on our left, on our right, or worse still had we already sailed past? Four pairs of eyes scanned the distance hoping the mass they were staring at would be the island. Then disappointment as one after another the cloud would vaporize, revealing nothing but empty sea. A nervous silence overtook the yacht as we absorbed the gravity of our situation. If we missed Ascension, it was at least three weeks sail to South America, and already our water was low.
“That’s it. That must be it!” shouted Peter who’d positioned himself on the cabin roof. We all clambered up to see where he was pointing. Sure enough, ‘land dead ahead’. Carl’s navigation had been spot on.
Having noted that the American’s yacht had not yet arrived, we anchored a short way off shore in calm water and rowed our dingy to the bottom of some steep steps. We clambered up, hauling the dingy with difficulty behind us. The administration building was nearby, and after entering we found the man himself sitting behind his desk. He looked up sternly in a far from welcoming manner. He’d been disturbed listening to his favourite radio program, ‘The Archers’; obviously the highlight of his day in this isolated corner of the globe. After scowling at our documents he said, “There’s nothing here for yachties. You can top up your water from the tap on the dock, then I suggest you leave as soon as possible.”
Back outside in the hot sun we stood stunned and unwanted, not sure what to do next. In the otherwise deserted street a minibus with two occupants suddenly appeared and stopped in front of us. A head popped out of the driver’s window. “Hey yachties, wanna come for a ride? We can show you around the island.”
The four of us looked at each other uncertainly. Strange place, strange van, strange people, but then what’s to lose? “Let’s go!”
The island was a volcanic wasteland used by the British and Americans for military and civilian purposes. Nestling in every deep depression was a radio telescope or radar dish for satellite tracking. Giant antennas sprouted from behind every rock and the air was filled with a weird humming sound. James Bond had never encountered anything like this! Our guides wouldn’t take any money at the end of the tour but did let us buy them a beer at the one and only small bar.
Having decided to ignore the administrator’s advice about leaving, we were preparing to go ashore again next morning when loud ‘whooping and hollering’ sounds were heard from the direction of the horizon. We turned to see a familiar yacht sail into view. “We’ve been going in circles for the past three days,” they shouted, “couldn’t find the damn place.” This confirmed how lucky we had been.
“Come and join us,” they invited, totally unfazed by the administrator’s brusk manner. We’re going to the US airforce base where we can get away from grumpy Brits”. Sure enough, the reception we received couldn’t have been more different. We were welcomed with broad smiles and invited into their brightly lit canteen sporting a varied menu. “What’ll y’all be having then?” No one needed a menu, “Burgers all round!” we chorused.
We spent a last night in the sheltered calm of the island and were preparing to leave next morning when our departure was unexpectedly halted. “Our anchor has snagged a rock,” said Carl, pulling on the rope which stubbornly refused to budge. Peter dived in, but the anchor was too deep and he couldn’t reach it. My effort was similarly futile. I could see the anchor through the clear water but the pressure on my eardrums became unbearable before I was no more than half way down. “The only thing left is to cut the rope and abandon the anchor I’m afraid,” groaned Carl reluctantly, hoping one of us might have a better idea. We hadn’t, but during the night, a trimaran had arrived at Ascension and anchored very close to us. Aboard was a husband and wife and two teenage sons. Assessing what our problem was, one of the boys swam over.
“Here, I’ll have a go,” he called out as he disappeared below the surface. Many seconds passed before he re-emerged, then, “Try now,” he said with typical teenage nonchalance and swam back to his family yacht.
“Thank you,” we shouted as Carl hauled up the anchor.
Our home town of Durban is in the province of Natal in South Africa, so where better to make for in Brazil than the city of Natal at the top corner of the country. It had safe anchorage in the mouth of a wide river. After setting a course, there was not a lot to do and the days passed uneventfully.
“OK, now!” called Carl one day, having adjusted his sextant to get a simultaneous fix on the sun and horizon. “Did you get the time?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, quickly writing down a number lest I forget. The last time I’d accurately set the time on my watch was when I left Durban and that was forty-two days ago. Knowing the watch lost approximately half a second per day, it should now be 21 seconds slow, so I added 21 seconds to the number I’d written down. “It was 11:32 and 45 seconds” I announced confidently.
“That’s the first decent sight we’ve had for three days,” said Carl, turning to his charts and preparing for some complicated calculations. The past days had been overcast and as Carl’s navigating skills were limited solely to sun sightings it would be reassuring to get a fix on our position. The yacht had its own maritime chronometer but that had proved to be even less accurate than my cheap digital!
“You should have learned how to do this,” admonished Carl, “You never know when you might have to navigate. What would you do if something happened to me? How would you know where you were?”
He had a good point, but a rocking boat and feeling constantly seasick did not encourage doing sums. I gave my defeatist reply, “South America is a big place, I’d keep the yacht heading west and then run us aground!”
Carl obviously didn’t like that answer but saw the logic. Fortunately the situation never arose and we sailed on through calmer tropical water and lighter winds. So light that one day the wind died completely and the yacht appeared to stop. Being the keen swimmers we were, Peter and I began badgering Carl to allow us to jump overboard for a swim. “All right,” he said, “I’ll tie the lifebuoy to the end of a long rope and trail it behind the yacht, but if you miss it, I’m not coming back for you!”
That didn’t sound like a problem, but I did think to ask what he knew about sharks in the area? “There’ve been no reported shark attacks in mid-Atlantic that I’m aware of,” replied Carl sarcastically.
Peter and I made our way to the bow and one after the other, dived in. The water was cool and refreshing as we rose effortlessly back to the surface. Then horror! Where was the yacht? From on-board, the boat may appear to have stopped, but stop it had not! In those few brief seconds, far from being stationary, the yacht had sailed on and now the only thing left to save us was the faithfully following red life-ring. A few quick sharp strokes and we grabbed it. Even then our situation remained perilous as we were now being towed through the water by what felt like a speedboat! The weight on the rope was far more than Carl and Vikki could manage to haul in, so slowly, hand over hand, we worked our way along it towards the ever moving boat. “Are you going in again?” asked Carl as we clambered aboard breathing heavily. He need not have asked.
We’d now been at sea for more than three weeks since leaving Ascension, and this leg of our journey was almost at an end. We’d planned to arrive in Brazil in daylight but had made better time than expected and so here we were arriving in the dark. The watch had been reinstated, and Carl was ending the first watch when I came on deck to relieve him. I’d never seen him looking so confused and agitated. “Take a look out there,” he said with a hint of panic in his voice. This was the first time he’d displayed vulnerability; he’d always seemed so in control. “My chart shows a single flashing light marking the entrance to the harbour, but tonight there are dozens of lights, flashing with no particular rhythm!”
I squinted into a black moonless night. “What the hell can they be?” I asked, now as confused as him.
“If I knew I wouldn’t be in this state. They could be big lights shining from a distance, or small lights close up. There’s no way to tell. We must be near the mainland but it’s so dark and I can’t see a thing. Either way, if those lights are onshore, we have to stop this yacht quick or we could finish up on the rocks!”
Doing something positive like taking down sail helped. With the yacht now at a virtual standstill and swaying quietly from side to side we strained our ears for the sound of breaking waves. Nothing. That at least was a good sign but those lights, they were still there, tormenting us with their blinking. Carl proposed a new theory: “They could be fishing boats,” he said, “then those would be their mast-head lights. They only appear to flash because of the way boats rock.” For a long time we stared into the blackness but were unable to pick out one light flashing more rhythmically than any of the others. Slowly though, the pattern began to change and one by one the lights went out. As dawn broke the silhouettes of many small boats could be seen grouping together, then gradually withdrawing. Alone and unmoving, there remained but a single light on the end of a bluff, pulsing its welcoming signal. Carl turned our yacht to follow the flotilla and we were lead without fanfare towards the harbour.
“Are we there yet?” sang Peter and Vikki as they emerged from below deck, totally unaware of the drama of the night.
A few days after arriving, “Thought you said you were in a hurry to get home,” quipped Carl mockingly.
It was true, I had said it, but that was many weeks ago. I was now on ‘yachty-time’!