“In the next few days, the boat would round 700-mile-dis­tant Cape Agul­has three times, have its long­est day’s run ever and its short­est. The long­est came first.”


Cruising World - - Contents - Story & Pho­tos by WEBB CHILES


The fore­cast was wrong, but then the fore­cast was al­ways wrong dur­ing the South African sum­mer of 2016-17, so I left any­way.

I had watched the weather for two weeks while an­tifoul­ing and pro­vi­sion­ing my ul­tra­light Moore 24, Gan­net, and then for an­other week af­ter I was ready to sail, with­out ever see­ing what I wanted.

This was my fourth time in South Africa, my third sailing west from Dur­ban. On pre­vi­ous voy­ages, I had been able to wait for a high to drift over the re­gion, pro­vid­ing three or four days of light east wind, which with a boost from the Agul­has Cur­rent, eas­ily en­abled me to cover the 400 miles to Port Elizabeth in three days be­fore the wind changed. But that sum­mer, the wind never re­mained east for even 48 hours.

By Fe­bru­ary 9, I was tired of wait­ing. The seven- and 10-day GRIBS I down­loaded with Luck­grib showed the con­tin­ued pat­tern: east wind for Fri­day and Satur­day, fol­lowed by 30 knots from the west for 12 hours on Sun­day; east

again for a day or two, fol­lowed by west at 25 to 30.

Once I go to sea, I don’t worry about the weather. I ex­pect that I can deal with what­ever hap­pens as I al­ways have, and my “al­ways” is longer than most. I don’t seek out­side weather in­for­ma­tion. I look at the sky, at the sea and at the barom­e­ter. So I de­cided to turn a coastal pas­sage into an ocean voy­age. In­stead of try­ing to duck in and out of har­bors — and there are none for the 240 miles from Dur­ban to East Lon­don — I would go to sea and stay there, eas­ing Gan­net off­shore be­yond the strong­est of the Agul­has Cur­rent and hope­fully most ship­ping; sail hard when the wind was be­hind me; and lie ahull when it was from the west. As far as I know, Gan­net was the small­est boat to clear into Dur­ban that year. She cer­tainly was the only one of any size to clear out for St. He­lena. The im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cial asked where that was. Sorry, Napoleon.

A lo­cal friend, Chris Sut­ton, came down to see me off. At 0730, a breath of wind came from the south­west. Chris took the dock lines and walked Gan­net out of her slip. When I put the elec­tric Torqeedo out­board in gear, Chris called that its quiet whirring sounded like some­thing from Star Trek and that she was Star­ship Gan­net.

The Torqeedo’s bat­tery is old and has lim­ited range. I was not con­fi­dent it would last the 2 miles from Dur­ban Ma­rina to the outer end of the chan­nel break­wa­ters, so as soon as we were clear of the moored boats, I raised sail and al­ter­nately glided and pow­ered at 3 knots across the busy har­bor. Ahead of us, two tugs were pulling a ship side­ways from its berth, while to port, a slab-sided car car­rier had just tied up.

As the last hour of eb­bing tide car­ried us to the end of the en­trance chan­nel, we cut across the wake of a pi­lot boat. When the bob­bing ended, I leaned over the tran­som and re­moved the Torqeedo and out­board bracket. They wouldn’t be used again for thou­sands of miles. I turned

Gan­net south­west. In the next few days, the boat would round 700-mile-dis­tant Cape Agul­has three times, have its long­est day’s run ever and its short­est. The long­est came first.

Gan­net slashed through the night: pale wa­ter ev­ery­where; surg­ing bow wave; foam­ing wake; crest­ing 6-foot waves; sounds of rush­ing wa­ter and wind. De­spite be­ing heav­ily laden with pro­vi­sions for more than two months, the boat had con­stant, quick mo­tion. It slid down some waves, surfed evenly for sev­eral se­conds on oth­ers. Gan­net has no ten­dency to broach. It surfs straight, and the Pe­lagic tiller pi­lot was steer­ing well.

Sev­eral hours ear­lier, I had low­ered the main­sail and set up a run­ning back­stay. An hour af­ter that, I furled the jib to half size. Even un­der such a small amount of sail, with 25 knots of wind be­hind her, Gan­net was sailing at 8 to 10 knots, more when she caught a wave, and with the boost from the Agul­has Cur­rent, we were see­ing speed-over-the-ground be­tween 10 and 13 knots. Light rain and a fall­ing barom­e­ter her­alded the ap­proach­ing front. When at 0100 the wind be­gan to push

Gan­net’s stern around, I al­tered course to head far­ther off­shore. Re­port­edly, the Agul­has Cur­rent is strong­est on the 200-meter curve, roughly 660 feet deep, and I didn’t want to be on it still when the wind headed us and blew against the cur­rent. The coast from Dur­ban to Port Elizabeth trends south­west. From Port Elizabeth to Cape Agul­has, the south­ern tip of Africa, west. At sun­set that first evening, we were 6 miles off­shore, and by the fol­low­ing dawn, more than 30 miles.

I don’t usu­ally sleep well the first night back at sea, and I was up of­ten that night, look­ing for ships, of which I saw sur­pris­ingly few, and mak­ing sure Gan­net was bal­anced and un­der con­trol. The next morn­ing, I dozed off re­peat­edly at “Cen­tral,” as my place sit­ting on a Sport-a-seat fac­ing aft on the great cabin floor­boards is known.

The wind de­creased to 20 knots and the waves to 6 or 7 feet. Some of them slammed into us with a per­cus­sive sound that in Gan­net makes me feel as though I am inside a drum. By noon, the barom­e­ter had dropped 10 mil­libars in 24 hours, and we were 43 miles off­shore.

I put a way­point into the in­avx chart plot­ting app on my iphone each noon and mea­sure daily runs back to it. With any change in course, Gan­net sails far­ther than this straight-line dis­tance, but I have al­ways pre­ferred un­der­state­ment to hy­per­bole. That day, the noon-to-noon dis­tance was 180 miles, Gan­net’s best ever. Be­cause the wind had been light the pre­vi­ous af­ter­noon, I was cer­tain that a 24-hour run from 1800 to 1800 would be even greater, per­haps ap­proach­ing 200 miles, but I had no way to mea­sure that.

Enough wa­ter was com­ing on deck that I had to put on my foul-weather gear any time I poked my head out. I stood in the com­pan­ion­way briefly, not want­ing a wave to flood be­low, and looked around. A sunny, mostly blue sky. This was great, ex­hil­a­rat­ing sailing. I wished it would last, but I knew it wouldn’t. To­mor­row, stronger wind would head us. I was not look­ing for­ward to it.

The wind be­gan to back at sun­set, and at mid­night I de­cided to lie ahull while it was still rel­a­tively easy to move about on deck. I put on my foul-weather gear and furled the jib, low­ered the main, dis­en­gaged the Pe­lagic tiller pi­lot, tied the tiller amid­ships and took the tiller pi­lot be­low. All this was a lit­tle pre­ma­ture, but I slept better, and by dawn, the wind was gust­ing the pre­dicted 30 knots and heel­ing Gan­net 15 de­grees just from pres­sure on her mast and hull.

With wind against cur­rent, I ex­pected the waves to build, but they re­mained only 6 to 7 feet, though some broke over us. In­spired by a Dan­ish reader of my on­line jour­nal who sent me pho­tos of a small spray hood that quickly folds down on his small sloop, I had one made for Gan­net in Dur­ban. I can raise and

lower it from inside the cabin, and now it was up, prov­ing it­self by pre­vent­ing most of the wa­ter wash­ing the deck from com­ing be­low.

My now two-day-old fore­cast proved to be pre­cisely right. It showed south­west wind last­ing 12 hours. I hove to for 13. The wind con­tin­ued to back, and by 1300, it was no longer head­ing us and had de­creased to just un­der 20 knots. I un­furled part of the jib and the lit­tle sloop be­gan to sail at 4 to 5 knots. By 1630, I had let out more jib and Gan­net was mak­ing 7.

Mon­day, our third day at sea, found us 25 miles south of Port Elizabeth. Even ly­ing ahull for 13 hours, we could have reached the har­bor in three days, but I was glad we had not tried. It would have been a tense dash to get in be­fore the wind shift.

Cape Agul­has was now 282 miles ahead, al­most due west. I be­gan to hope we might make it around be­fore the next front brought head winds, but those hopes van­ished with the breeze. In good vis­i­bil­ity I could see land and more ships than I wanted to, some even pass­ing out­side us, but none wor­ry­ingly close. The tiller pi­lot kept our bow pointed west, and the Agul­has car­ried us that way at a knot or 2 with lit­tle as­sis­tance from limp sails.

Af­ter one slow day, the wind re­turned, and we still al­most made it. In fact, we did make it. For a while.

Sun­set of our sev­enth night at sea found us 11 miles east and 35 miles south of Cape Agul­has, al­most on the same lat­i­tude as Opua, New Zealand, and, as I thought in­cor­rectly, the farthest south we would go on this cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion, with de­creas­ing and omi­nously back­ing wind. The gray sea, jagged ear­lier in the day, smoothed. I stood in the com­pan­ion­way and looked around for ships. I didn’t see any, but they were cer­tainly there some­where. Know­ing I would be up of­ten that night, I closed the com­pan­ion­way and went to sleep.

Sleep­ing was dif­fi­cult. I sleep on which­ever is the wind­ward pipe berth, be­hind a lee cloth and with flota­tion cush­ions wedged be­tween my knees and back and the hull, and a hard edge of wood around the com­pan­ion­way. The Avon Red­start and two wa­ter­proof food bags live on the lee berth, and when the back­ing wind com­pelled me to jibe Gan­net to port, I had also to jibe the dinghy and bags and my sleep­ing bag and pil­low.

At mid­night, my iphone showed the bear­ing to a way­point at Cape Agul­has to be 10 de­grees. We were in the At­lantic, but as the an­cients knew, there is but one ocean, and our mod­ern di­vi­sions are ar­bi­trary. We had a straight course to the Cape of Good Hope, but Gan­net sped through the night only for three more hours. By 0330, the wind was blow­ing 30 knots di­rectly from Good Hope. With re­duced sail, Gan­net can beat to wind­ward in such con­di­tions, and I have, but it is mis­er­able to do so. None of my boats, with the ex­cep­tion of Chid­iock

Tich­borne, whose mizzen weather-cocked its bow into the wind, have hove to well, so I went on deck and again set Gan­net up to lie ahull.

In an in­ter­view a few months ear­lier, I had been asked what I am still learn­ing. It is a good ques­tion to which I did not have a good an­swer. Now I re­al­ized that per­haps what I am still learn­ing is when not to suf­fer need­lessly. There are times when you have to push your­self and your boat hard, but there are times when you don’t.

I looked around and saw the run­ning lights of two ships miles north of us. The wind was shriek­ing in the rig­ging. A wave crashed over the bow and flooded aft. I quickly stepped be­low and pulled up the spray hood, which must be low­ered ev­ery time I go through the com­pan­ion­way. Then I shut the hatch.

Dawn found us still in the At­lantic. By af­ter­noon, we weren’t. The barom­e­ter was ris­ing as quickly as it had fallen the pre­vi­ous day. With­out sail up, Gan­net is a cork, and while her mo­tion was wild, we were not in any dan­ger, ex­cept from ship­ping, and we were be­yond most of that. I wedged my­self in at Cen­tral, read and watched on the iphone as Gan­net was pushed back south­east.

In midafter­noon, the wind be­gan to de­crease. At 1620, the bear­ing to Cape Agul­has was 0 de­grees, and we re­turned to the In­dian Ocean.

Two hours later, the wind abruptly dropped to 11 knots and backed south­west. Un­der main and par­tially furled jib,

Gan­net again sailed to­ward the At­lantic, but the wind soon died away com­pletely and we didn’t make it that night.

The fol­low­ing noon found us sailing at 5.5 knots, back in the At­lantic, Cape Agul­has passed for the third — two west, one east — and, I hoped, last time, and a noon-to-noon daily run of 13 miles.

Gan­net’s tor­tu­ous course had cov­ered con­sid­er­ably more dis­tance dur­ing those 24 hours, but, as I mea­sure, it was by far its slow­est day’s run ever.

The sky cleared and the af­ter­noon be­came pleas­ant. When the wind con­tin­ued to back and lighten, I set the North G2 asym­met­ri­cal and sat on deck, en­joy­ing

Gan­net sailing at wind speed. For 8,000 miles, ever since round­ing Aus­tralia’s Cape York, our course had been west. Now it was north.

Two dawns later, I watched the sun rise be­hind the Cape of Good Hope, which Sir Fran­cis Drake called “a most stately thing and the fairest cape we saw in the whole cir­cum­fer­ence of the earth.” It was a beau­ti­ful sight, the cape penin­sula dark gray, al­most black, against an or­ange-and-rose sky.

As we con­tin­ued north, we star­tled sev­eral seals sleep­ing with one fin out of the wa­ter 20 miles off­shore. They were for­tu­nate Gan­net is an in­no­cent bird and not a great white shark, which also fre­quents those wa­ters.

Ta­ble Moun­tain and Cape Town, which has one of the most beau­ti­ful nat­u­ral set­tings of any city in the world, came into view. On two voy­ages I’ve hap­pily stopped there. But this was an ocean pas­sage, and I was glad fi­nally to leave the land be­hind. I turned Gan­net out to sea.

Webb Chiles, 76, a five-time cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tor, will re­turn to Gan­net at Hil­ton Head Is­land, South Carolina, in late August, and if the weather co­op­er­ates, sail the Moore 24 ul­tra­light to the Ch­e­sa­peake in early Septem­ber. He will speak at the Ch­e­sa­peake Mar­itime Mu­seum’s Small Boat Fes­ti­val on Oc­to­ber 6. In Jan­uary 2019, he will sail for San Diego via Panama to com­plete the Gan­net voy­age and his sixth great cir­cle.

On light-air days, Gan­net still can make a good run of it with a cruis­ing spin­naker set.

From top: In Dur­ban, Gan­net was hauled and given a fresh coat of an­tifoul­ing. “Cen­tral” is the skip­per’s pre­ferred perch while un­der­way. At the sug­ges­tion of a reader, a com­pact dodger was added in Dur­ban.

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