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Into the devil's lair- 18th September, 2011

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Above: Google image of our plotted course and actual GPS track in white. Magenta squares represent gybes. It is interesting to note our track up the False Bay coast follows the contours of the land closely. Proof conclusive that the wind bends with the shape of the land.

A delivery trip of note.
Trip in a nutshell:
18th September, 2011

Distance: 60.3 nm.
Max Speed: 18.4 knots
Ave speed: 8.6 knots
Time: 7 hrs 05 mins
Weather Forecast: Cloudy. Wind NW 14 to 18knots. Temp 15C. 60% chance of rain.
Weather Actual: Cloudy with heavy rain at times. Wind NW 12 to 30 knots, gusting 40.
Course: RCYC to FBYC
Seas: Very rough. Swells near Cape Point of 4.0m
Sails: Reefed Main (Quantum), No. 3 Jib (North), A3 Fractional Asymmetric (North)
Crew: Trygve Roberts (Helm), Charles Crosby (Genoa/Spinnaker), Craig Preston (Main & Pit), Joshua Banks (Bow, Main and Spinnaker) : Total: 350 kg

Above: Cape Point exactly one year ago on the same delivery trip. It was a lot kinder!
Photo: Charles Crosby

Two miles off Cape Point on a 27 foot sports boat in a late winter frontal gale, reefed down to our smallest sails, flopping around in steep gray seas with rain lashing down, is not the place any sane-minded person would want to be. Yet we found ourselves in that desolate space of ocean, willingly having undertaken the trip – all four of us seemingly in a sound state of mind (as can be attested to by loving family members) when we left the marina at Royal Cape Yacht Club earlier that day. How is it possible to feel so utterly alone and helpless, yet so close to a city with millions of inhabitants, most of whom would be enjoying a warm Sunday lunch with a glass of red wine, blissfully unaware of a tiny yacht clawing it's way upwind past Cape Point in a 35 knot gale? No-one in Cape Town on that day felt more scintillatingly alive (and ‘in your face' aware of it), than the four of us.

The Lure
Each year as False Bay Yacht Club's Spring Regatta calls out to yachtsmen to shake off the winter blues and head over to False Bay for some excellent racing, we are faced with the same decision. Sail around Cape Point or put the boat on the trailer? Both options take up roughly the same amount of time, when one considers mast up, mast down, re-tune the rig and all the other details that go with putting a 27 foot yacht on a trailer, but the lure of sailing always seems to win. This year was no exception. However, we had some time constraints and the only day I could muster the minimum of four crew for the delivery trip, was Sunday 18 th September. We are accustomed to sailing in strong breeze and the forecast of a moderate to fresh North Westerly, meant we would cover three quarters of the distance to Simonstown, on downwind legs. Good stuff! Only the last leg up to Simonstown might be upwind. If we got our planning just right, the forecast indicated the breeze switching to a South Westerly by mid-afternoon, which would mean a spinnaker leg the entire route. Now that was wishful thinking! Not to mention that this is, after all, the Cape of bloody Storms and none of that nonsense would be likely to happen.

I would never have left if.....
....I had an accurate weather forecast.
Traditionally the South African Weather Bureau gives a fairly accurate forecast. Especially so if it is given on the same day. The 14 to 18 knots they forecast, turned into 35 of harsh reality. One of the worst winter storms to hit the Cape Peninsula this year, hit mid-morning that Sunday. To be fair, I did check the Wind Guru forecast and they got it spot on. The problem was, my gut feeling went with the official version - and that was an error of judgement on my part - and one I castigated myself for many times over, as the boat lay shuddering on her side, with sheets eased, and rain pelting down in really big waves, just off Cape Point. It wasn't a day for sissies. We balefully agreed and noted with some dread that we were the only boat on the ocean. That included those serious Sea Harvest trawlers you see in the TV ads – the one where you feel sea-sick at the mere thought of hake and chips; container ships; grain carriers; fishing boats; tugs…..Nothing! Not even the Jolly Roger was out! (That cheesy, fake pirate ship that takes unsuspecting tourists to Clifton come hell or high water where the focus is on ‘drink as much as you can' – It's also known as the Vomit Comet.)

Let the rain begin...
We cast off at 0820 in gray, gloomy weather in about 12 knots of NW wind. We started with a full main and the smallest headsail, as we were very underweight in the crew department. Of the 23 people I had invited to join us for this trip, all 23 declined the offer. Did they know something I didn't. Or was it the lure of the rugby?

We were clipping along quite nicely at about 7 knots with the wind freeing progressively as we started our downwind turn off Green Point light. It was at that point, that we made the wise decision to stick a reef in the main. We did not want to be struggling with a reef once we had the spinnaker up. As soon as the reef was in, we hoisted the smaller A3 asso and settled down to a nice easy reach along Sea Point and Clifton with the log sitting steady on 9 knots. Abeam Clifton, our speed increased to 11 knots. In the North West, the clouds were getting darker and heading our way. It would be only a matter of a few minutes before the rain would start.

A whale
We were holding a good angle with our planned course and soon we were abeam Llundudno, where a very large whale threw a flipper up into the air a hundred meters or so to port. A warning. The speed started climbing to 13 knots and never dropped below 10. Wave sizes were increasing and becoming unpredictable as the first rain showers came down. As the leading edge of the cold front hit, we were planing non-stop at 15 knots and thumping into the back of waves as we came careering down wave faces, sending cascades of sea water over the boat and crew, then straight out the back of the cockpit. It is just as well it is has an open stern. Charles took over helming for a bit, whilst I did a stint on the main. It takes a little while finding the groove at those speeds, but once you're into it, the boat responds beautifully to helm inputs. We started discussing that humorous version of the Beaufort Scale. The one where the wind speed at thirty knots is "excitement tinged with odd burst of anxiety". At forty knots it's mostly "anxiety mingled with prayer"….and so on. At least we were still laughing.....

Maximum speed
Things were getting wetter and louder. The faster we went, the higher the noise volumes went as the sound of a one ton boat in full flight crashed over and sometimes straight through the waves. It seemed like just minutes and we were abeam the Sentinel, off Hout Bay, having the ride of our lives. It was maximum concentration on board, keeping the kite trimmed as the speed leaped between 14 and 17 knots - frequently accelerating rapidly off a wave face, which had one grasping for anything to hold on to avoid bouncing off the boat. Surfing down a big wave, we recorded our top speed for the day of 18.4 knots. It was one of those waves that seemed to last for 200 meters with the boat in a nose-down attitude and going scintillatingly fast. It was gut-wrenching helming to be honest and once or twice I wondered if we weren't just going to dive straight down like a submarine, but the Pacer 27 has good buoyancy and a fine entry and she soon shrugs the water off with perhaps only a two knot loss of speed and is quickly back onto her maximum. We realized that the time had come where we actually needed to slow the boat down a bit. Things were starting to get hairy. Breaking the boat was not an option. We had lost sight of land at that stage (mainly due to heavy rain and low cloud), so we decided to stick in a gybe and head back inshore towards Slangkop Light – for no other reason than some mental reasurrance.

Gybing four up
I had been thinking about the inevitable gybe for some time. Who would do what? With two crew members absent, we would need to get it right, first time. We had a quick pre-gybe chat and got ourselves ready as I started bleeding some of the intense speed off by soaking onto a deeper angle. The gybe went off surprisingly well and soon we were back up to 15 knots and racing downwind towards Kommetjie Light. Closer to the shore we started encountering kelp, so thought it wise to head back offshore towards deeper water. The next gybe was also good and took place in a slightly quieter patch of wind, which helped our cause. But the frontal system was only just flexing its muscles. At that stage, it was still fast, blistering, glorious high-speed sailing. Mother Nature would wipe those snotty, salty smiles right off our faces in due course.

The breeze had cranked up to a solid 25 knots and with it, the waves were getting higher and more confused. It was wet, solid, heavy wind. The kind that breaks things. With our reduced sail plan, we figured we could still handle things and carried on out to sea on the starboard gybe. The next 15 minutes was extremely fast. We were right on the limit; trying to weave the boat down the valleys between the waves and keep it upright whilst trying to prevent thundering into the back of the next wave. Speeds were consistently between 15 and 17 knots. We were alone and very aware of it. It was not unlike that feeling you get when watching a horror movie and you know the scary part hasn't arrived yet. Cape Point was looming up out of the grayness. We would reach it in just three and a half hours after leaving RCYC. That was part of the problem. We had sailed right on the lip of the front. For us there would be no backing South Westerly, no let-up in wind speed. We were about to get our backsides kicked.

Above: Three years ago on 'Hyperactive' after a disastrous gybe in a strong south easter on Table Bay.
The next gybe was looming..... It was iffy – not our best, but we consoled ourselves that we were only four-up. After a bit of a scramble, we had the boat footing again and back up to 16 knots. All the warning signs were there. Suddenly, after hitting a patch of bad waves, the rudder gave a little shudder and we spun out into a broach. It wasn't that bad and we recovered quickly. It seemed like only seconds and the next broach put the mast in the water. This one was worse. A really strong squall kept us pinned down with everything flogging, as the four of us hung over the gunwale. There was nothing we could do except wait for the squall to pass – the boat being reasonably happy lying on her side. It was a good time to examine the keel. I suppose ‘ examine ' is hardly the right word – it was more of a “there's nothing else to look at when you're hanging over the gunwale and it's less scary than looking at the sea lapping at the companionway!” Someone did note that there was, in fact, a large clump of kelp around the keel. So what? We wanted to slow the boat down, right?

Goodbye A3
We have done broach recoveries more times than I care to remember, but this was a long and vicious squall. There was nothing we could do, except wait till it abated. That wait was the death knell for the A3 spinnaker. I watched it shatter and shred in rapid rips, starting from the edge of the reinforcing patches of the tack. Then there were just tatters flying from the tapes. At least with that resistance gone, the boat righted herself. We got the boat going again by unfurling the jib. We turned back towards Cape Point as the crew got the remains of the kite back on board. Suitably chastised, we chose to do the rest of the downwind leg without a spinnaker. But the drama was just beginning. Act One was done and dusted.

Photo: Cristian Regeni

Kelp! Everywhere!
Our foredeck guys are normally good at spotting kelp. We have a system of signals for the helmsman. He can respond immediately and avoid scooping kelp on the foils. It might have been small talk; it might have been the rain or maybe the big waves, but not one of us saw the kelp. We were still sailing at 14 knots without the spinnaker, with the breeze now at 30 knots. By the time I spotted the kelp and tried to swerve – first to starboard, then to port, then back to starboard again, it was already too late. We found ourselves thumping into a huge kelp forest. On all sides we were surrounded by kelp, perhaps more than 100 meters square Later a local told me we were probably in the vicinity of South West Reef. Sailing into kelp is no big deal, but this was just so dense, so much of it. Perhaps like a jet fighter hooking onto a restraining line on an aircraft carrier? The boat speed dropped rapidly down to 4 knots, which must have placed a huge strain on the rig. There was no question of trying to turn upwind to get rid of the kelp. We had no choice but to continue through the kelp forest. Finally after lots of thumping and bumping we were out, but we had a lot of kelp around the keel and the rudder, making it quite difficult to steer. We weren't that far from Cape Point, so we decided it would be safer to do the kelp reverse/clearing maneuver, once in the shelter of False Bay. We have never done that little trick in 30 knots before though and it wouldn't happen on that day either! Theory in the class room and reality on the water are two entirely different animals.

Neptune, Thor, the devil himself.…… the whole squad was out to nail us.
We were being hammered. Gusts were up to 35 knots with a particularly ferocious 40 knotter somewhere between. The sort of gust that pinned us down on our side with all sheets eased, as the boat rounded up and lay there helplessly in the fury of the gale coming off the cliffs over Cape Point. It was starting to get to that upper level of the Panic Beaufort Scale. I seem to recall everyone looking pale, wet and grim. I was doing a bit of personal praying at about that time as well. God seemed palpably closer than the NSRI. Between the gusts in the lee of the Point, the wind would drop right down to about 20 knots, then in seconds be back at 35 knots again with spindrift and white caps as far as we could see - and that wasn't very far at all. With each battering gust, we would have the opportunity to inspect the keel and the only positive aspect of the whole saga was that all that wild rocking had gotten rid of the kelp. Every dark cloud…?

False Bay at last.
It was three and a half hours of hell trying to get back to FBYC - all of it hard on the wind. The mainsail had developed a tear along the leech. If the sail disintegrated we would be in a spot of trouble. We were right on the upper limit of what the boat can handle. At 35 knots, only just. At 40 knots - No.

The rain belted down. So hard, that it actually flattened the waves for a while, but with the next line squall, the waves would get all confused and unpredictable. We slammed and bashed our way upwind, amazingly still doing a steady 6 knots. The mainsail leech was tearing more and more and creeping forward towards the luff. If it went completely, we would be left with only the jib to get us back and that would have taken some doing. . I suppose the big hole in the main was acting like a reef, depowering the sail high up, where it helped. Another silver lining? I started doing some mental emergency planning if the main went. We would probably have to fetch to Gordons Bay on the headsail alone. It was also getting very cold and we were all starting to feel the strain of the trip. Then the mainsheet block ripped apart from its deck housing. More drama! It sounded like a helicopter hovering just above us, so severe was the flogging of the jib and mainsail leeches. It gave us some concept of how hard the sail trailing edges were working to produce that sound.

From there for the last two hours we had to sheet directly from the boom. It was hard work. Charles and Craig shared the workload. Finally Roman Rock light appeared out of the grey afternoon sky as yet another squall swept past. We were almost back. It took two short tacks and we were back at a safe harbour, where we could take stock of damages and lick our wounds. FBYC's Billy leisegang had waited patiently all afternoon for our radio call and was waiting for us at our mooring with a helping hand. It's the sort of welcome one can expect at this club. First class!

It had been a tough day on the water. One that I will remember for a long time to come and it is firmly embedded in my top 5 now. Or should that be my bottom 5? The costs were actually not that bad. Both sails are repairable. The deck block was R 1000 and most of the other items are of a minor nature. The only thing that was important was that we were safely back.

We took precautions. We had an emergency safe harbour to go to in our planning. We all wore lifejackets and we all carried a flare in our life jackets and we made sure we knew how to use them in an emergency. No matter how short or simple this trip may seem, it can easily turn nasty when bad weather looms. As they say: It was character building!

I suppose it would be remiss of me not to mention that we took the boat back to R.C.Y.C. on the trailer. Wussies!

Next week: Spring Regatta.