The Cape of Storms (from “The farthest ocean” article)


The route around South Africa is notorious for violent weather and absurdly high sea conditions where southwest winds oppose the Agulhas Current. Durban Holes have been known to break the backs of well-found ships and swallow them whole. The name alone conjures up mighty images, and it�s easy to understand why an early director of marketing for the Portuguese monarchy renamed it Cape of Good Hope as he tried to lure sailors aboard ships bound for the spice trade.

Now, annually, hundreds of cruising yachts and thousands of ships make the passage safely. Weather forecasts are timely and readily available. Ham and marine-net operators give advice on weather windows and monitor the progress of yachts in transit. Ports with yacht clubs and marina berths permit the unhurried sailor to nearly day-hop the entire 900 miles from Richards Bay to Cape Town.

The key, of course, is timing. The fact that most voyagers make this trip in the dead of summer means that the worst weather conditions will not be seen at all. Still, cold fronts do pass and often bring winds in excess of 40 knots. Even in settled weather, the southeast trades can be strongly reinforced by coastal lows forming over the heated continent, and day upon day of 30 knots does occur in the summer. At times there�s nothing to do but hunker down in a snug berth and wait. Wind was invented in South Africa, it seems.

An excellent source of local weather, safety, pilotage and port information is Tom Morgan�s South African Nautical Almanac. It includes light lists, tide tables, harbor chartlets, contact frequencies and phone numbers, weather forecast times and frequencies, and suggestions for each leg of the journey. It was our constant companion.

The Agulhas Current is another constant companion on this trip, and it can be used to great advantage, as well. Strongest near the 200-meter contour, this mighty river pushes you along at 2 to 4 knots. With this kind of turbo boost, 85-mile trips — like Richards Bay to Durban — are day-hops for almost any boat. When the wind opposes the current, however — as it does with the southwest winds of a cold front — abnormally high waves develop quickly. If an unanticipated southwester pipes up, there�s nothing for it but to put one foot on the beach and get out of the dangerous current.

By Ocean Navigator