Sooner or later during any circumnavigation, every voyager is faced with what to do about Africa. It’s a big lump of dirt, after all, and unless you’re racing around in the Southern Ocean it will loom large on your horizon. Traveling west, about in the tropics, the choice is simple: over the continent or under.
Without enjoining the often-contentious debate over which route is preferred, suffice it to say that on our trip we were attracted to and ended up taking the southern route around Africa; a route that included a brief visit to the Comoros Islands and a cruise along the coast of Madagascar before crossing the Mozambique Channel and arriving in South Africa.
South Africa has a reputation for wild weather. In fact, I think wind was invented there. Cold fronts sweep across the southern part of the African continent all summer long, bringing sudden and shockingly strong squalls. Localized low-pressure cells develop along the coast, generating intense thunderstorms often overlooked in the larger synoptic forecasts. And of course there’s the infamous Agulhas Current with its propensity for huge, steep seas – Durban Holes – that can swallow ships whole.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that as a voyager with no pressing schedule you can day hop or overnight virtually the whole 915 miles from Richards Bay in the Indian Ocean to Cape Town in the Atlantic. Being patient and awaiting acceptable weather windows can yield some fine coastal sailing with the added benefit of time ashore to explore the diverse natural and cultural mÃ©lange that is South Africa.
The southernmost point of Africa is Cape Agulhas at approximately 35° S latitude. Agulhas lies about 3/4 of the way from Richards Bay to Cape Town. The primary harbors clockwise from Richards Bay are: Durban, East London, Port Elizabeth, Port St. Francis, Knysna, Mossel Bay, Simon’s Town, Hout Bay and Cape Town. All offer good protection for yachts in secure marinas.
Most voyagers arrive in South Africa at either the port of Richards Bay or Durban after crossing the Mozambique Channel from Madagascar or the Mascarene Islands (primarily La Reunion), or after coasting south from Mozambique. Some may arrive farther south – especially if coming from the Mascarenes – at East London or Port Elizabeth. All of these ports, by the way, are large commercial ports and extremely well marked and lit for arrival by day or night.
As yachts funnel toward these ports of entry from around the Indian Ocean, a number of excellent weather resources become available. Cape Town Radio (call sign: ZSC) broadcasts weather forecasts twice daily on SSB. Cape Naval (ZSJ) broadcasts weatherfax surface analyses four times a day and a five-day surface prognosis twice daily (see sidebar).
Two SSB radio nets – one ham and one marine – also operate daily. These nets provide weather information as well as some interpretation of the forecasts and recommendations based on extensive knowledge of local weather systems. Many voyagers check in to one or both of these nets prior to arrival and then continue to utilize the weather window suggestions all along the coastal route.
There are two significant features of South African weather of primary interest to the coastal sailor: cold fronts and coastal lows.
Doubling one of the world’s southernmost capes necessarily means flirting with Southern Ocean weather and cold fronts. Below Africa, low-pressure systems circumnavigate the pole unimpeded by pesky annoyances like continents. These lows extend cold fronts northward, fronts that – even in summer – often reach across the southern portions of the country. Naturally, these fronts bring strong, shifting winds and rain.
Similar to Australia’s “Southerly Busters, cold fronts in South Africa usually include very strong southwest winds. At the same time, along the east coast of Africa, as far south as Port Elizabeth, the Agulhas Current sets strongly to the southwest. When the southerly winds of a cold front meet the strong, warm Agulhas waters, hellacious waves are generated quickly.
For cruisers, cold fronts are to be avoided. Period.
Cold fronts are attached to large synoptic features and thus are easy to see coming. Although a typical surface analysis will often show three individual southern lows, there is usually a two- to three-day gap between each one. Weather windows – if you’re patient – will occur that will allow you to move along the coast in comfort.
Cold fronts have their greatest impact farther south, their effects diminishing as they reach to the north. Thus, Richards Bay, Durban and East London will generally not see the same force of winds from each front that Port Elizabeth and Mossel Bay will. Still, vigorous fronts do occur in summer and 35-knot winds are frequent in them even in Durban and Richards Bay. We arrived in Richards Bay just ahead of one such front and we barely had time to open the first bottle of champagne before the wind reached more than 30 knots.
Bottom line – monitor the forecasts and time your coastal hops to avoid the fronts.
The second interesting feature of South African weather is the presence of coastal lows. As is typical of continental landmasses in summer, a large heat-driven low will usually form over the inland portion. South Africa has this too. But the features of interest here are small, very localized lows that form primarily along the southeast coast and then track slowly up the coast before dissipating or moving offshore.
These lows are often difficult to predict with any precision – they can form quickly and be so localized that 30 miles away there is absolutely no hint of one’s existence. And they usually have very gusty winds accompanied by awe-inspiring thunderstorms.
Again, they are to be avoided. But in this case, you may not get the advance warning you seek.
Friends left Durban for East London on a “goodï¿½VbCrLf weather window. About 30 miles south of Durban they started to encounter stronger and stronger southwest winds. They decided to heave to and wait it out. As the winds climbed past 35 knots, Lena said, “You really, really want to believe the forecasts.ï¿½VbCrLf When a container ship drifted into view – also hove to – they decided enough was enough and returned to Durban.
We were denied by a coastal low when we left East London for Port Elizabeth. Lots of other boats left about six hours ahead of us and encountered nothing.
These were coastal lows that didn’t show up on the weather charts and hadn’t been predicted in the forecasts or discussed on the cruiser nets. Discretion may be the better part of valor in these cases.
If you encounter one of these lows and want to push on regardless, keep in mind that they are usually small in area and strongest felt closer to the coast. Moving offshore may alleviate some of the worst of the conditions.
Beyond the normal rigors of customs and immigration, the Republic of South Africa (RSA) National Ports Authority (NPA) has a set of requirements that must be fulfilled prior to leaving the bounds of any port. Naturally, NPA offices are never collocated with either customs or immigration offices, and so a cynic might think the NPA is in cahoots with local taxi organizations, but for whatever cause, any vessel leaving a port must file a “flight plan” with the port authority. Permission will not be given to leave the port if a current flight plan is not on record at the port control center.
A flight plan is essentially a list of ports to be visited on the next journey. Since “journey” is loosely defined, it can be a somewhat disjoint set of legs with slightly nebulous dates attached. Thus when leaving Durban for Cape Town, one can file a flight plan that lists most of the ports in between and be covered.
The key to a successful flight plan is the amount of time between filing and calling the port for permission to leave. Technically, a flight plan is good for only 36 hours. Of course, on weekends, holidays and moments of generosity by the tower controller, this time is extended.
If your anticipated weather window doesn’t show up, your flight plan expires and you need to file again. Fortunately, there are no fees – other than taxis. I’ve heard that the record for Durban is 11 times. We made it in one; our friends made it in three.
Another feature of South Africa’s commercial ports is the ubiquitous port control. You must hail port control before entering or leaving each port. You will be directed when to enter/leave and often you will have to wait while a large ship or two takes precedence through the harbor entrance.