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Moonstruck/Dumbstruck - 19th Feb. 2011

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Clifton at sunset on a better day circa 2004

Some days things just go badly.
This was one of them..........
LOST OVERBOARD - in the vicinity of the Western Breakwater in the shipping channel…….
1 x peak cap (imported and embroidered white on black the words COWES WEEK and given to me by our ex bowman, Nic Baigrie)
1 x blue and white Coleman 40 liter cooler box
1 x sealed pack of barbecued chicken wings
1 x sealed pack of savoury meats
1 x bottle of chilled Champagne
1 x bottle of Beyerskloof Pinotage
1 x bottle of Chenin Blanc
1 x pack of serviettes
2 x knives, 2 x forks, 6 x wine glasses
2 x plastic thermos cups
1 pair dark glasses (prescription)
1 x pkt pro Vita biscuits
1 x plastic bucket
1 x brass padlock without keys
4 x minds devoid of romance

But more of this later.

The concept is that the public go down to Clifton's fabulous, jet-setting 4th beach in the best part of the summer during the February full moon weekend, for live music through the twilight time and well into the night. The event is sponsored by BP Express, so entrance is free and Capetonians turn out in their multitude to crowd onto the beach, having dutifully supported the NSRI by buying a glow stick. For those of us who are supposedly more privileged, we take our boats around and anchor off the beach to enjoy an evening of fun and revelry. That is the concept. There is, I have discovered several times in my considerable life on earth, a chasm akin to the Big Hole of Kimberley, between concept and reality.

That big white billowing cloud

We have done it before over the years and more or less know what to expect. The weather had looked suspect all week with an average wind speed forecast for D-Day of around 18 knots. By now we also know that in certain parts of Table Bay one should add at least 10 knots onto the forecast speed and in some cases, you can even double, or triple it. So it was a case of “Shall we go or cancel?”

Simon and his girlfriend, Michela, joined us for the evening. I called Simon in the afternoon and asked about the wind. He lives in the city and has a good view of the bay.

“Not more than 15 knots and hardly a white cap anywhere on the bay” was his response.

That was the final commitment we needed, so we grabbed the big cooler box and added appropriate Moonstruck food with a bottle of dry Champagne and a few frosties. Down at the club it was windy, but not more than 22 knots – certainly manageable for us. The plan was to motor around to Clifton. It would take about 50 minutes. Lines were cast off; the motor topped up and off we went for an evening of Cape Town splendour. That was the concept.

The trip was uneventful. Simon had suggested we button on our smallest headsail which could furl and it would give some added horsepower. This was done. The wind was a little strong heading out the harbour, but it soon died down to almost nothing as we neared Green Point Light. Arriving at Clifton, we noticed a much reduced fleet, but the beach was packed. Massive white clouds were boiling over the Twelve Apostles (a 1000m high ridge of mountains forming the peninsula to the south of Table Mountain), the first tell tale signs of a really big blow. Clifton and Sea Point have the unique geographical advantage of being firmly in the wind shadow of the mountain, allowing perfect calm days when the rest of the city is being battered by gale force winds. And this is definitely the reason why the Moonstruck event is held there. One is almost guaranteed of having good weather during February. That is the concept anyway….

Clifton,'s all the same.
We anchored to the south side of the bay, close to some large granite boulders in a forest of kelp. Our small folding anchor bit first time and Simon announced: “We are vas” Music came drifting towards us from a live band playing on the beach, but every now and then a strong puff of wind would swirl over from the Camps Bay side, causing the boat to swing on the anchor rode. Normally it is wind free there and the first pangs of concern started. Within another 10 minutes the white clouds had dropped a lot lower and the sea was in a frenzy just to our right, behind the boulders off Camps Bay – to the point that the gusts had started roaring as they catapulted down the ravines towards Camps Bay beach, lifting incoming waves back onto themselves and exploding in cascades of wind driven spray. Those gusts were easily over 50 knots. We lived in Camps Bay many years ago and I know exactly where the cut off line is between the calm of Clifton and the fury of Camps Bay in a South Easterly – and we were right on the edge of it. The spill over wind was increasing by the minute and the wind could be heard roaring behind the boulders, sending spray up into the air. The trip back into the wind was going to be ‘interesting' or ‘character building'. Either word was euphemistic.

Another few minutes was all it took, when I suggested that we lift our anchor and move further to the north side of the bay to escape the wind. It was starting to get cold and unpleasant. All agreed this would be a good move, but the anchor would not come up. It was stuck good and solid. We then went into our Croatia style anchor recovery mode. It happened on a yacht charter some years ago on our final day of a two week charter, just off the medieval city of Dubrovnik where in a one in a million chance, I managed to anchor on top of the main submarine cable – and hook the CQR firmly around it. An hour and a half of attempts at getting free were all in vain and no-one on board had the lung capacity to do a 12 meter free dive. VHF contact with the Sunsail HQ instructed us to stay put until a suitably qualified diver could get the anchor off the cable. It was just a touch embarrassing! And here it was happening again. It took us close to half an hour and finally, just as the NSRI were about to assist us, we got it out, covered in about 50 kilos of kelp. At that stage the wind was starting to get really unpleasant and cold, so we decided to head for calmer waters – north towards Sea Point.

Taking terns

Minutes later we were back into the calm zone, but that coast line along the Atlantic seaboard is generally not friendly for anchoring. It is rocky and dangerous, so we decided to just head back to the club and have our meal there. The sun was setting as we motored home doing 6 knots with the swell behind us adding a bit of speed. It was a pretty scene with thousands of terns swooping around in a fish feeding frenzy. Above us the mountains were smothered in those thick white characteristic clouds that evaporate as if by magic at a given altitude. Pretty, but dangerous.

The calm zone ends just near the Green Point Light House. We could see the wind on the water. At this point it is necessary to explain the mood on board. Our concept evening of a lazy, summer evening's outing had turned a little sour. Being just a cruise under motor, we had not gone through any of our usual safety rituals – like tying things down, stowing them properly, wearing life jackets and so on. It had turned dark quickly. We turned the nav lights on as we started feeling the breeze from the starboard beam after the light house. It was still quite manageable. The cooler box and ancillary eating gear was on the cockpit floor where it had been when we left Clifton. No problem with any of that so far, but we were in for a very rude surprise.

Navigating was a piece of cake. Our VHF was on the harbour channel 14 and all we needed do was head directly for the green flashing light at the end of the Western Breakwater. The wind was getting steadily stronger as we gradually left the Sea Point calm zone. We have sailed around the breakwater many, many times. I know the waters well and know exactly how to handle the boat. At that stage it was fully dark and we were all starting to get cold as bits of spray were being flung up as the bow plunged over the waves, which themselves were increasing in size very quickly. The safety of the harbour was a mere 500 meters away. The gusts were getting stronger and each one would send the bow of the boat sweeping 30 degrees to port. Despite putting the helm down, she would not easily come back onto course. That meant having to turn the motor about 15 degrees to port on its pivot, to compensate. Forward progress was becoming painfully slow. There was also a lot of shipping plying through the harbour entrance, so we had to be sharp and make sure with our limited speed and manoeuvrability, that we kept out of the way of other boats. The full moon was completely obliterated by the clouds. One could palpably feel the combined angst on board as the outboard starting cavitating over each wave slowing forward progress down to about one quarter of a knot. It was a case of plodding resolutely upwind, until it was safe to turn to starboard and into the harbour. The wind was already around 35 knots and increasing. Our concept evening was officially over. Ain't no romance in that lot!

From peace to panic in 10 minutes

Once past the line of the breakwater, I tried to turn the boat through head to wind. This took place with a great deal of difficulty. I was wondering if we didn't have a plastic bag on the prop or maybe a strand of kelp, but that was not the time or place, to do an inspection. Finally we made the turn, but things were starting to get really wild and out of control. The outboard was cavitating almost continuously and our forward progress was almost zero. Then the outboard drowned as it went under a big wave. I asked Simon to unfurl the jib, so we could at least sail our way out of trouble. I did not like the situation we were in at all. It was starting to turn ugly very quickly. The moment we had the jib unfurled, we had some drive back and I had some steerage to work with, but with only a headsail, we had masses of lee helm and poor control. Our angle was taking us back south onto the wrong side of the breakwater. I asked Simon to try and restart the outboard. That was the moment de critique. Normally we cross sheet the headsail (for those not in the know, it means the sheet is controlled from the windward side, which means the crew dont have to leave the rail) but that night it had been sheeted conveniently on the leeward winch - and it's a self-tailer. It takes much longer getting the sheet off a self tailing winch than out of a cam-cleat - as we were to find out.

Merde, merde, merde!
(A sort of mental preparation to start thinking about Mayday, Mayday, Mayday)

Simon had sheeted the headsail in tight, with the intention of trying to get the boat to point high enough to get on the windward side of the breakwater. We were horribly underweight in terms of sailing the boat efficiently and I had a 90 kg man on the lee side trying to sort out the motor. It was pitch dark. The seas were getting very rough and the wind was already gusting into the forty knot range. You know, when it shrieks? None of the boats heading into the harbour had any idea we were in trouble. Any notion about sending a radio transmission was ludicrous. No-one would have heard anything above the howling wind anyway and we needed each and every one of the four bodies on the rail. We were on our own. It took maybe another 10 seconds and a huge gust of wind hit us and the boat started heeling beyond 45 degrees. I had the helm fully down trying to get the boat to turn more upwind. That is the point where gravity took over. I shouted for someone to ease the sheet, but it's not easy, when the boat is heeling like that and it actually makes matters worse with another body off the rail. Simon was hanging on for dear life, half submerged and before we could say “Davey Jones's Locker" the boat went over, past 90 degrees, spreaders in the water. The cooler box and other sundry loose gear all came clattering across the cockpit – the whole lot catapulted over the side and was gone into the darkness in a blink of an eye. All of us were hanging from the lifelines, with Simon still on the lee side and hanging onto the pushpit - fully submerged. We were suddenly in very big trouble. From a beautiful calm motor run along the Sea Point Promenade to this hell hole of dark fury. Cape Town, my city…. we have a love/hate relationship.

Plan B - A concept that actually worked.

My wife (she finds the strength when extremely motivated) finally got the sheet off the winch and the boat righted herself. The outboard had died – probably drowned, but at least we were upright and moving again. All pax were accounted for. We could do a check list of losses once back on shore, but just how were we going to get back to our mooring? The call was made to head for the Granger Bay Marina – only about 1 mile away and slightly downwind, so we would more than likely be able to sail the boat in if we could not get the motor running. Had we had our normal crew, we would have had a reefed main up and a balanced sail plan which would have got us back without too many problems. There were lessons and more lessons being hammered home as we ploughed our way towards Granger Bay. Once in the lee of the Western Breakwater, things seemed calmer and we could start making plans. Simon got the outboard running again after a few pulls and we furled the headsail as we navigated our way gingerly into the Granger Bay marina, where we found several vacant moorings and tied up (very gratefully) adjacent to Windpower. There was virtually no wind in the marina. We started tidying up and taking stock. We had gotten off very lightly. One can't help but think how easily we could have had a man overboard scenario. It is a very scary prospect and one which haunts me. Some sore muscles, lots of bruises, one or two rhino lips added to the list, but we were safe and alive. By 10pm we arrived back at RCYC after we got a lift from a family member and it was probably a good thing we did not get into the harbour. Opening the car door was almost impossible. The wind must have been into the 60 knot range. Hideous!

Home Jerome

The following morning I went down to do an inspection and locate missing gear. The whole of Table Bay was flat and calm. I cast off the lines and quickly took the boat back to RCYC, marvelling at the fickle Cape weather and just how prepared one has to be.

Good sailors don't become good by staying in the harbour. Get out there, but do it safely.
If anyone spots my Coleman Cooler on Blouberg beach or Robben Island, let me know. Oh yes, we found the sealed packet of Greek salad wedged inbetween the outboard bracket and the pushpit. All is not lost!

2011 Pacer 27 National Championships and Mykonos Offshore
On a different tack...Racing starts on Wednesday morning (23rd Feb) in the form of three back to back windward/leeward races which will continue through to Thursday afternoon. On Friday morning we join the Mykonos Offshore fleet for the downwind dash to Langebaan and then complete the event with a medium distance race in and around langebaan/Saldanha Bay on Saturday. Most of the visiting boats have arrived at RCYC with just Felix the cat, Wild Thing and Music Sebago still to arrive. Pacer owners have shown excellent commitment with all but one of the available privately owned Pacer 27's having entered this year. The Mykonos Offshore entry list stands at 128 including the Pacer 27's and the Hobie Tigers. Watch this space for a comprehensive report.