Archive for December, 2010

East London

I takes a while for your body to unwind and relax after a passage like the last one, and for me, all I could eventually accomplish was an hour or two of sleep mid-morning. It’s probably a good thing, too.  While I was trying to sleep, I started hearing loud straining sounds from the docklines and went outside to have a look  The dock here is fixed, not floating, and I’d come in at 5am at right around high tide and tied up pretty tight.  If I’d taken off right away to check in and get something to eat, the cleats that the docklines were tied to may well have been pulled out of the deck as the tide dropped.

DSC_0622 Lost a fender grinding on the dock, but otherwise safe in port

DSC_0615 Looking up the river into drizzly weather at sunset

During the afternoon, I managed to turn what is one of the easiest check-in/out processes in the world into something that’s best described with a bit of Australian slang – a mission. I asked a couple of uniformed marine police where to go, and they motioned that I should walk up the hill and into town, then toward the bluff overlooking the harbor entrance.  No worries.  I started off, but couldn’t find the place, and couldn’t find anyone who did until I asked at another police station and eventually the 3rd or 4th person said that I needed to go the mile or more back down the hill and to the port area, which was right beside where I’d tied up.  No problem.  I backtracked, got to the port gate, and after several attempts was able to communicate to the guard that I was the captain of a yacht that had just arrived and needed to check in.  He made a phone call and after a chat one the local language he let me talk to someone who was also a little confused about things, but told me to go to Port Control.  The guard managed to give me what seemed like a decent set of directions and I headed back up the hill and into town.  There was one key error in the directions – how many robots (or as we’d call them, stoplights) to walk by.  But, eventually I found the place.  The security guard and receptionist there also had no idea what to tell me, and I was about to just say stuff it, when a guy walking by overheard and took charge.  He works in sales and marketing for the port, but knew exactly what I needed to do and who I needed to see.  He had me jump in his car and took me, guess where?  Right back to the dock I was tied up to, driving right through a direct shortcut that runs through the port but that the first security guard had failed to mention.  All I had to do was fill out one form and return it to the proprietor of a tiny marine store right across the dock from where I was tied up.  They fax it to port control and I just have to radio on the way out.  They even gave me one night on the dock free for Christmas. This is how days in the far reaches of the world get whiled away when you travel by boat.  Here I’m going to make a comment about race because everyone is so conscious of it here and you hear quite a few comments from whites about black incompetence and ignorance, although in general, there’s a lot less tension here than still exists in parts of the South in the US.  The people who knew what I needed to do even though it wasn’t their job were white, and all the ones who didn’t know or had the wrong answer were black.  I’m also just adding this in because of a story below.

The one thing everyone in South Africa will tell you about East London is that there’s a Mercedes factory here.  Some of the cars are sold here and the rest are shipped to the US (evidently the factory is set up for both right and left hand drive).  Virtually the entire south side of the harbor is taken up by the factory and a huge concrete dock where thousands of Mercedes sedans sit waiting for the next car carrier ship to come in.  A car carrier has a pretty distinctive appearance, and I got to see one come in this morning with the help of tugs it met at the harbor entrance while I was eating breakfast at the beach.

DSC_0620 This might be where your neighbor’s Mercedes came from

On the way back from breakfast I stopped to pick up a few groceries and had a good experience.  Lines in South Africa seem to be longer, slower, and more prevalent than anyplace else we’ve been.  I was standing in the back of the line to check out at the grocery store, lost in thought, when I suddenly noticed that a woman (a black woman, as I was one of only three white faces in the busy store) and her small cart were standing inches way, directly beside me, instead of behind me, and although it wouldn’t really have bothered me, I thought to myself, “Is this woman really going to try to cut in front of me?”  A few seconds later, she said “Would you please assist me, I need to go get some drinks.”  So, I watched her cart until she got back.  She hadn’t been back 5 seconds when she said, “I get so frustrated waiting in lines.  I’m going to go again.”  Ok.  Just she had returned the second time when the lane next to us, which had been closed, opened.  With a speed befitting a woman with a much smaller frame, she was instantly out of our line and first in line next to us.  Then, while another woman was squeezing around her to take her position and while goods were being handed over her to the other woman, she motioned to me and said, “Come on, you go first”, letting me into the new lane ahead of her.  I thanked her, we had a nice chat, and when I put my groceries on the counter she pointed to my 3 frozen pizzas, and said, “I see you’re staying alone.  Uh Hmm.  Pizzas.”  I had to smile.

Not all of South Africa’s race problems are as simple finding someone who knows where port control is or being the recipient of an act of kindness in the grocery store.  There’s an interesting one making the news lately that we learned about while visiting Brian and Monica and that was interesting to talk about with them about because Brian’s business (well, one of them at least) is English literacy.  If I asked you what language was spoken in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, or French Polynesia, you would probably say English, English, English, and French.  You’d be correct about the official language, but the reality is that only the (white) people that have been there for a the last few hundred years are native English (or French) speakers.  The natives generally speak and learn their native tongue as a first language at home and use it when speaking with fellow native friends. The native language is often not taught in school or hasn’t been taught in school until recently (I think NZ may be a bit of an exception in its treatment of the Maori language).  The native language of NZ is Maori.  French Polynesia has numerous but related Polynesian dialects.  Fiji has over 100 dialects, including a “national” native dialect, so English is the 3rd language for an English-speaking local.  Australia has many, many Aboriginal languages which, like Aboriginal culture, are among the oldest in the world.  While Nelson Mandela was president, South Africa formally adopted 11 official languages.  They are English, Afrikaans, Zulu, and other native languages, some of which use clicks in addition to vowel and consonant sounds.  When we were in the Pacific Islands, I gained a real appreciation for native people, their cultures, and their languages.  It was fun to learn a small bit of the language and to see it preserved and practiced as a part of the culture.  Most jobs in the islands are in tourism, and fluency in English isn’t really too big of a deal for those types of jobs.  It was a little different when we got to Australia.  While we were in Darwin, we watched a documentary about Aboriginal issues (Australia had just been reprimanded by the UN for racist policies toward the indigenous population, so it was a topic of discussion even more so than usual) that was followed by a short talk and Q&A session moderated by a white Australian, but featuring two key leaders of the tribe that had been the subject of the documentary.  The documentary had been pretty moving, but my first impression of the tribe’s leaders was that they could barely speak English.  As they got over their nervousness, their English improved, but it was still at a level that really made their fluency stand out and often left them struggling to express their ideas.  It was a stark reminder that not only are there still huge cultural difference between indigenous peoples and the descendants of colonists cultures that have come to dominate, there are tremendous challenges facing indigenous people solely due to a lack of English (or French) fluency, not the least of which is advocating for themselves to an English-speaking ruling population, dealing with the legal system, etc.

This language issue has an interesting twist here in South Africa, with its 11 official languages.  The news story that I referred to above is that a teacher’s union has just come out in support of “biased markings”.  That means giving non-native English speakers higher-than-earned grades in school to account for their language difficulties.  It’s a pretty controversial idea among all South Africans, regardless of color.  The problem, obviously, is that South Africa has a first-world economy that requires skilled and educated workers fluent in English.  Inflated grades in middle or high school do nothing to deal with the problem that university students, which are desperately needed as capable graduates, are suffering from a high drop-out rate due to failure to succeed in an environment where topics are difficult and all instruction is in English.  Many South Africans are angry with the education system for “failing to teach them” and then offering to just change the grades to passing.  There are no easy answers.  History has left much of the world with a local population that must either give up their native language or become bi or tri-lingual in order to have access to anything but the most basic economic opportunities.  It’s definitely a situation we take for granted in the US.

The Wild Coast

I forgot to mention in the last blog that former South Africans Dave & Shauna from S/V Dragon, who now live in New Zealand, were in Durban for the holidays and stopped by to say hello several times and invite me for food and drinks.  It was great to catch up with them.  Wes and I handled lines for them through the Panama Canal and Lauren and I had a memorable climb with Dave to the peak of Bora Bora.  I had been reminded of them when looking at a plaque and displayed newspaper/magazine cuttings in the yacht club that came from an epic storm that beat-up a yacht race pretty good in the 80’s.  Dave’s name was listed as the skipper of a boat that was knocked down or rolled, dismasted, and sustained other damage, but made it back to port unassisted.  One boat was lost with all crew in the storm, and one is now a famous photograph after being driven ashore on the Wild Coast and being tossed well up onto a high rocky ledge by massive waves.

There were also a couple of interesting sights on the way out that I didn’t mention.  One was a spot of very strong and turbulent current/overflow as I was leaving.  It was actually two areas, both with the tell-tale surface signs of large currents.  One area was filled with breakers when there were no shallows, and right next to it was an area I sailed through that looked like boiling water, with lumpy, undulating, bobbing waves covered with small wavelets.  There was nearly a 2 knot counter current through that spot, but it didn’t last long.  It’s strange to see what must be water that has made it’s was all the way across the Indian Ocean now colliding with the coastal shelf and the coastal Agulhas current.  Another odd site was several boobies and gannets resting in the water.  The birds themselves are a common sight in the trades, but always in the air.  I guess in the light winds it made more sense to quit with the flapping and take a breather.

Not long after typing the last blog, I found a southbound current, and as usual, it lasted for the first half of the night and by the second half it was gone and maybe even replaced by a slight counter current.  By the next day, the wind was pumping from the NNE at 20-30 knots and the slight counter current was resulting in what are probably the largest and steepest waves I’ve seen (at least 4 meters).  Only the jib was up, and the boat never had a problem, but I actually jumped up to run out and watch a couple of them that I saw massing up behind the boat and put on a life jacket / harness and PLB for what ended up being no good reason.  When we finally left the small counter current around sunset, the wave height dropped dramatically.  I really don’t want to see what it’s like to be out in the strong current when a big blow and swell come in.

When I changed course from following the coastline to heading toward East London and nearing the shore, the wind started to die.  To time my arrival for daylight at about 4:30 am, I furled the jib and ran on bare poles (we still have the furled jib, mainsail under cover, and deck structure as windage) at between 2 and 4 knots, with the autopilot steering happily all the time.

DSC_0607 Moon hanging over the East London skyline at dawn

Single handing has been an interesting experience that definitely isn’t for me, and I don’t think it’s just because I’ve never been a big fan of the idea.  I’ve always enjoyed sailing for the social aspects – spending fun and memorable times on the water with friends, and for the ability to see otherwise difficult to reach destinations and experience them in a unique and less touristy way.  There was a period when I didn’t anticipate having a close friend or partner that was able to circumnavigate with me, and during that period I saved money but didn’t really have an interest in taking the trip.  The joy of it for me comes from sharing the experiences and adventures with someone.  I’ve always thought single handing was for people that want to set records, have something to prove to themselves, can’t find a woman who’ll have them (sorry, most single-handers are guys), can’t afford crew, or can’t get on well with others in a small space.  I’m definitely not going for any records, but I don’t know that I’m liking the way the rest of the list looks at the moment.  Single handing is good for my figure, though.  For me, cooking at sea, especially in the type of seas that often get kicked up around here, is generally more likely to result in food passing up and out my mouth than down and in, so there weren’t any gourmet dishes, though I did manage a couple of warm things to eat.  Having seasickness and hunger being so related gets to be a little annoying after a while, especially when the seas build up.  You get feeling hungry, but cooking makes you feel sick, so you don’t eat, which makes you feel sick.  Luckily I had enough fruit, snacks, etc. to keep me going for two days and I’m sure that with time to get my sea legs or in calmer conditions it wouldn’t be as big of an issue. For the record, no feeding the fish for me since the passage leaving New Zealand in May.  If I can manage for a few more days of sailing, I’ll have one full ocean under my belt without any chunky donations on my part.  There are a lot of places to go and things to do that are fun by yourself, but being at sea definitely isn’t one of them for me.

The safety issue is a problem as well.  On long passages in mid ocean, catching a bit of sleep, perhaps with the radar and AIS alarms set, isn’t such a big deal.  Here, the route along the coast here is in the middle or at the edge of a shipping highway.  I had ships passing on both sides constantly, and of course the AIS decided that now would be a great time to act up.  Clearly it’s longing for some holiday time off.  There were ships that passed within 2 miles of me that never showed up on the AIS and others that would blink on and off the display, mostly off.  I removed and checked all the connections, opened it up to check for water damage, did a master reset on the chartplotter that displays the AIS info, disconnected the radio that feeds through, and verified the antenna seemed to be working, taking several breaks to let my stomach settle from the concentration and motion.  No dice.  It did seem to be a little bit better after I put it all back together, but it’s still not working properly.  Only once did I see a ship that looked like it was going to run me down, however, and it was coming from astern (where closing speeds are less than 10 knots instead of over 20 for the ships coming from ahead).  After a couple of calls on the radio, a nice South African fellow came on and said that they could see me and that they would change course, then he asked a few questions about our trip.  In general, we seem to be visible on everyone’s radar, which is good to know.  Luckily, the rain squalls dotting the coastline never found me, so I never lost visibility.

Losing consciousness is another thing.  You have to sleep sometime.  The goal was not to sleep more than 15 minutes at a time, but my wristwatch alarm isn’t up to waking me up all of the time.  After snoozing trough one alarm and waking up to find that a ship had just steamed past me from ahead, I tried always taking it off and setting it on the pillow next to me with the wrist strap wrapped around my ear, and that worked pretty well for the first night.  I thought I was doing well on the second night as well until halfway through the night, after I’d changed course to cross the shipping lanes and head into port.  I suddenly awoke at midnight sweating laying on my side (it’s been pretty cold at night so I had pants and a sweatshirt on).  I can’t recall exactly what time I was last up to check, but I think I must have slept for over an hour.  My watch was still laid over my neck, right beside my ear, so I think a louder alarm clock is in order.  I think I was through the dangerous traffic before I fell asleep, but my course was straight for the shore.  I was about 20 miles off when I woke up (any and all former roommates of mine are laughing now, as I’m a notorious loud alarm snooze smasher).  It reminded me of the time Antoine (the famous French singer/sailor single hander that we met in the Tuamotus) said he was sailing for Bora Bora and fell asleep, only to be awakened by his catamaran being lifted sideways by a the large waves starting to stand up and break on Bora Bora’s fringing reef.  He recovered just quickly enough to bring the boat about before it sailed onto the last wave that breaks onto the reef.  There’s another famous story from the first solo round-the-world race where either Robin Knox Johnston or Bernard Motissier was awakened by dolphins clicking and chirping when the wind had changed directions and his wind vane was steering him on a collision course with the southern extremities of New Zealand.

Anyway, I’m just past 1/3 of the way to where I’m trying to be by New Years and if the forecast holds, I’m hoping to make it in two more hops.  I should leave tomorrow for a 130 nm run to Port Elizabeth and then just sleep there for half a day or so before leaving at night to make a 3 day run to Simon’s Town in False Bay, which is across the way from Cape Town, where we’re hoping to ring in the New Year.

For now, I’m tied up at a dock here in what seems to be pretty clean and quiet East London wishing I hadn’t fallen asleep for that hour or two so that fatigue would overcome the nerves that are used to being alert and I would just fall asleep.

Moving On

Lat: 30 21.848′ S
Lon: 30 56.805′ E

DSC_0586 Heading out the Duran harbor entrance

DSC_0595 A small piece of Durban’s beach skyline and iconic World Cup stadium

So far, the Wild Coast has been anything but, which is just fine with me, except that I could use a little more wind to make it in to East London before the next southwesterly blows in. As it is, I’m motorsailing at about 4.5-5+ knots on a beam reach, but just as I’m sitting down to write this I can feel us speeding up and hear the wind generators starting to spin. It would have been nice to leave early in the morning, but I had to wait until 8 am for the marina office to open so I could clear out and then check out with the port and customs. Check out is a little different than anywhere else we’ve been. All foreign yachts are required to check out anytime they leave a port, even if it’s just for another domestic destination or a daysail. You have to provide a fair amount of boat and radio information, a sketch of your boat’s profile, and next of kin contact information. With an early start, I was still able get all the formalities out of the way as well as enjoy a veg curry pie and a couple of samosas at my last visit to Anver’s corner store. The friendly Indian proprietor and I had a short chat and he wished me luck. I guess I’ve eaten enough bean bunny chows and what not there that they recognize me by now. The other day I was 2 Rand short, and they let me come back later in the afternoon and settle up.

2 Rand isn’t much more than a quarter, but I would guess that sort of thing is still rare in Durban. Virtually all of the shops near the yacht basin either have a security guard of some sort standing near the door or a locked iron gate for a front door that you have to be buzzed in and out of by someone inside the store. That said, we walked around the downtown area quite a bit and even back and forth to the beach a couple of times with no problems whatsoever. For the record, we didn’t hear any firsthand accounts of trouble in downtown Durban while we were there and felt pretty comfortable during the day by the time we left. Downtown Durban may not be the safest city in the world, but it’s Beverly Hills compared to Colon, Panama, and the food prices are definitely a good deal.

The daily rains at random times never stopped, which is apparently unusual for Durban this time of year, but the hot, humid spells in between were evidently more typical. Either Wednesday or Thursday was a holiday here and it generally marks the beginning of a 2 week period when many of South Africa’s businesses close their doors and everyone goes on holiday. Clyde at Texwise, who’s been great to work with, was scrambling to get us the last of our stuff. We’d originally asked him just to patch the jib, but he had reasonable prices and there were a number of things that needed to be done before we sold the boat, so he ended up repairing the bimini and providing new trampolines, a mainsail cover and suncovers as well. He was the only guy that responded to my email about a jib repair that I sent to several local businesses, and it ended up working out for him. In spite of the rain, with the holiday season in full swing, the docks have been full of holiday sailors and groups of people taking yacht certification courses. In South Africa, you’re required to have a skipper’s ticket to go sailing, so there’s a thriving certification business and the yachts motoring by loaded down with newbies made me smile. They probably look a lot like we did a few years back on one of the great charter trips from Florida to the Bahamas that Wes used to organize. Like we were back then, they’re a far cry from the tanned, thin, and not so fashionably dressed small crews that we’ve become accustomed to sailing the oceans with.

I guess the thin part may be a bit of an overstatement for me these days, though. I needed to go up the stick to finish off the rigging adjustments and repairs before leaving, which is usually a two-person job. But, I’d seen riggers and Martin do it with a block and tackle setup, so I found the line and blocks I needed for a 4:1 setup at the marine stores across the street and gave it a shot. My setup worked out a little awkward in that one hand has to pull down while the other pulls up, and doing that with a 4:1 purchase up a 50 foot mast is the equivalent of pulling a quarter of your weight plus friction 200 feet while you’re sitting in a bosun’s chair. Needless to say, I had numerous breaks to stop and ponder why Lauren had become such a good cook, why I’d been eating 4 meals a day at sea, why I haven’t been working out at sea, and why we’d gone without crew, leaving me to look after all the leftovers. I eventually made it up, but I’m still thinking about how I can convert the setup into a 5:1 purchase.

In typical fashion, I’ve so far managed to find a counter current instead of the strong, helpful current that’s supposed to be out here. The good news is that as long as I can spend all the good weather windows between now and then at sea, the forecast is looking good for making or nearly making it to Cape Town by New Years, which has been something we’ve been looking forward to for a long time and should see us meeting up with a number of friends.

It’s hard to believe, but this is the first time I’ve ever singlehanded a sailboat, ever. I somehow never even made a daysail by myself, so it’s a new experience. It’s novel to me, even after sailing 20,000 miles, so I may talk a little bit about that next time.

Home for the Holidays

The sun rises just before 5am here, and this morning it’s actually visible through clear skies.  The last several days have been rainy ones.  We weren’t the only boat needing to have some work done and trying to catch the weather window that started Wednesday.  Unfortunately, with all the competing work, our canvas and furler bearing replacements weren’t quite done in time and were delivered in the rain, so we’re still here.  I got the last of it yesterday and today I’ll be trying to get everything back together so I can catch the next weather window to make the passage along the Wild Coast.  Lauren left yesterday for a much deserved trip home for the holidays that has more than a few people pretty excited, so I’ll be single-handing or possibly taking on a local to help with night watches. 

DSC_0575 The new gray tramps and white suncovers give her nice new look.  The new mainsail cover goes on when we get back.

The next 700+ miles to Cape Town are the most dangerous of our trip in the wrong weather, but shouldn’t be any problem at all as long as we take advantage of good weather windows and the forecasts hold.  I’m hoping to catch up with Marionette or some of our other friends by Christmas, but the weather is the determining factor.  Bad storms along the coast regularly create very steep freak waves of 65 feet or more, so you have to have a healthy respect for the conditions and let the itinerary become what it becomes.

We made a couple more friends here that are worth mentioning.  Diogo and Flavio are two young Brazilians sailing a 45 foot catamaran around the world.  Someone else is paying for their trip, though.  All they had to do to earn that sponsorship was windsurf by themselves, with only small backpacks, along the entire coast of Brazil.  If I remember right, it took a year and two months.  As if that wasn’t enough, Diogo windsurfed from the Brazilian coast to the beautiful offshore island of Fernando de Noronha and back, a distance of 200 nm each way, without a support boat.  They had some pretty good stories and the pics and videos from this trip are pretty amazing.  Diogo is a dedicated surfer as well and some of his helmet cam surfing videos are mind blowing, especially when he’s surfing through perfect tubes that are curled over clear water so shallow you can see the details of the coral just beneath it the surface.  Definitely not for the faint of heart.  He joked that when the waves are that perfect and they’re the only boat anchored there in a remote place, his wife tends to get a little upset with him because he surfs for 10 hours and then plops into his bunk exhausted, just wanting to see the video of the waves.  Like Diogo said, they probably know the coast of Brazil better than anyone, and they gave us some tips on places to stop in Brazil that sound interesting.  You can check out their website at

We also had the first tango night aboard Pura Vida.  One of Marionette’s crew, Gaya, has been taking tango for 8 or nine months and doing very well, so she gave about four couples a humorous and fun tango lesson.  It’s a really interesting experience, especially for couples.  I don’t think my not being a dancer made a lot of difference as it’s quite a bit different from other dancing.  After learning the very basic approach to timing and the proper way to take a step in any direction, the real challenge becomes communicating nonverbally to your partner which direction you want to take a step in.  You stand balancing with your upper bodies leaning into each other so that the follower can sense the direction the lead wants to move by weight changes and motion.  Which foot you’re going to move in that direction depends on which foot your weight is on at the moment, with the lead having the job of being aware of and controlling the shifting of weight from foot to foot for both dancers.  Lots of entertaining fun, but I’m glad there are only photos (we’ll get them from Marionette and post later) and no video.  The concepts are simple, but the execution is anything but.

2011 Pura Vida Calendars For Sale

Get your very own 2011 Pura Vida calendar! If you have enjoyed checking out the photos over the last year, then you will appreciate having their beauty captured on the wall of your home or office. Calendars are $20, paid through Paypal, which covers printing on heavy cardstock paper and shipping. Just send Lauren an email ( if you are interested, and your calendar will be mailed to you via U.S.P.S.

calendar cover