St Helena, Reconnecting with Good Mates and Naked Whale Shark Rides

 Saint Helena, Mid Atlantic Stop and Whale Shark Ride, 2010

- approach to St Helena - Sugarloaf gauntlet - reunion - Whale shark - celebration dinner

14 days blue water sailing from Cape Town, South Africa, relieved, I spotted the black cliffs of Saint Helena. I had slowed Dancyn’s speed over the last 24 hours to avoid approaching Helena’s rock cliffs in the dark of night. Cold wind and rain from the South Atlantic kept me bundled up in foulies, polar fleece and Xtra-Tuf fishing boots. Fatigued, I shivered on the lookout all night for local fishing craft as I approached this solitary spec of land mid South Atlantic. Around 4 am as the darkness began to wither but hours before a pink glow would emerge over the bow to the east a mountainous dark outline faintly developed. LAND HO! Exhausted, cold and wet, I felt the infusion of youth warm my veins again. I was rejuvenated by the idea that I had found Saint Helena but mostly that Africa with her dangerous Cape of Storms and great social injustices were really behind me. Solo sailing around the south cape of Africa was a 5-month saga that tested my endurance, sailing skills and mostly my will to continue. Early that morning as landfall loomed I felt the next chapter had truly begun.

Cloudbanks are constantly formed by moist maritime winds driving up the windward walls of the island and condensing at cooler altitudes. The volcanic peaks of Saint Helena were covered in gray cotton like clouds.  A thousand feet of black cliff faces dropped into the crushing South Atlantic swells and were becoming more visible every quarter hour. Approaching the island I realized currents flowing against the wind and the refraction of the swell off the vertical andicitic walls was making progress arduous. The stiff breeze slammed the cliffs and accelerated along them before pressing into Dancyn’s triple reefed mainsail and handkerchief of a jib. The force on the rig and subsequent heeling over of Dancyn under the load raised the hairs on the back of my neck. Set into the bulkhead, the circular faceplate of my seventies vintage knot meter distracted me. The pointer pumped wildly displaying the speed recorded by a magnetic flywheel sealed into the bow as Dancyn tore through the water pulsing past 7 knots. I began catching the swells and surfing down what were 6 footers but now with opposing current rapidly mutated into a 12 to 14 foot slop. With a frustrated sigh, as if I had done it a thousand times before, I slid the companionway hatch closed and clipped my safety harness’s tether onto the cockpit pad eye. I knew I could sleep soon but not yet! With both arms yarding on the tiller I drove Dancyn through the gauntlet of confused sea knowing I would soon round Sugar Loaf Point and find calm, flat water in it’s lee. “The dawn is darkest right?” I joked to myself. The gusts funneling off the cliffs took me by surprise but with help from the transom mounted self-steering vane, I bore down wave faces reaching 10 to 12 knots. The last ¼ mile before the point things got sketchy as nature conspired against Dancyn’s progress and I was reminded of the phase, ”illusion of control”! Then just around the point it was as if God himself hit the mute button on the remote and with silence came relief.

Around Sugar Loaf I would see my good mate Jonah onboard Brillig. Jonah Manning is another American in his 30s from my low country home of Carolina, sailing solo on a boat under 40K dollars. Jonah and I had tag team sailed the Cape of Africa clearing many of the legs within hours of one another. We celebrated numerous safe arrivals and even spent a night locked up in one of South Africa’s many settlement jails recovering from police inflicted kicks and mace. Jonah was waiting there on anchor for me and of course my celebratory bottle of cold champagne. I had carried it from Mayotte a French Naval outpost back in the Indian Ocean! I glided into the calm lee behind Sugarloaf Point and spotted Brillig’s tall white rig amongst the steel gray cliffs off Jamestown’s anchorage. I unclipped the tether from my chest then reached for the ignition and kicked over Dancyn’sYanmar diesel. The blood was slowly returning to my white knuckles. Once the engine was engaged I furled in the jib and released the halyard that led aft to the cockpit dropping the main. After engaging the autopilot I went below to review the chart as Dancyn glided towards my mates position. I turned the fridge to FREEZE and with a smile acknowledged the charge from the purring diesel’s alternator. It was going to be a deep and rocky 60 feet, that is a long way to free dive and wrestle with a jammed anchor. According to my log it was near 6am when I slipped alongside S/V Brillig, signaling Jonah with “Wake up you lazy SOB we got Celebrat’N to do”! Jonah made landfall the day before after a much longer slower passage. He had marveled at the rate I gained on him during our chats daily on HF radio 8104 mhz Upper Side Band. Brillig, a Pacific Seacraft built Mariah is bullet proof, comfortable but slow. I sophomorically traded comfort for speed when choosing Dancyn. Surely, for him there was no question who it could be! “That you Bobby?” our Carolina redneck radio nicknames for one another invented while keeping each other awake on those long ship filled nights back in Africa. Jonah popped out the hatch with his trademark stainless steel coffee mug in his hand and a well-rested ear to ear grin cut across his face.

There is no describing the sentiment of crossing an ocean and finding good friends waiting for you at your destination. Traveling the world seems like a long series of goodbyes but this makes the hellos even more exceptional. I reversed up to Brillig keeping our rigs far apart in the rolling anchorage. Drifting there stern to stern we chatted with one another from our cockpits. I wanted to know where it was safe to drop the hook. Really I was just excited to see my buddy and I knew the feeling was mutual. The reassurance that came from looking a best mate in the eye and knowing we both safely made it comforted me and we reveled in the fact that we had finally escaped Africa. I slipped inside the other sail and commercial boats and set my Bruce anchor. Dancyn came to rest up close to the loading jetty under a stone fortification mounted by British cannons. These cannons were brought to defend St. Helena, Napoleon’s island prison of exile after his surrender at Waterloo. St. Helena was a welcome surprise. I expected it to be just a stop to dry out Dancyn’s interior and bedding and have a cold beer on terra firma but it was more, much more than I could have even hoped for.

Whale shark!

Jonah and I postponed the heavy celebration for that day to dutifully check in with the officials. The Brits left a serious culture of stamping in triplicate for all their oceanic possessions. Free from the agents of uniformed officiousness we struck out to hike around this striking volcanic island and soak in some dirt for a change. The walk cured my “land high”, a crazy mania felt by sailors and fisherman when first free of their ship’s confinements. I chased Jonah up 699 stairs of the “ladder”, a path from town to the crest of the cliffs over town and the anchorage. It took four painful days to recover from the soreness in my atrophied sailor’s thighs! Enjoying the gentle roll I slept that evening more than a few hours straight, for the first time in 2 weeks. I awoke refreshed and ran my laundry over to the wharf to clean everything. I scrubbed my clothes and myself with the only TRUE luxury on this planet. FRESH WATER! Heading back to Dancyn in my last presentable dry clothing I noticed a young lady waving and jumping around on a catamaran anchored out in deep water. I saw Jonah’s tiny white dingy drifting behind the cat with some splashing around on the surface. Had someone fallen in? Was Jonah hurt? With the throttle wide open I fanged my Nissan 3.5hp at its sluggish pace over to investigate. Sitting atop a pile of clean laundry and bedding, I picked up the line for Jonah’s dink and towed it over to the catamaran. Holding on to the Cat, standing in my “Sunday Best” I asked the mate what was up? Pointing down into my dink she yelled “Whale Shark”! I looked at the laundry around my feet confused as usual, then back up with a bewildered dog like head tilt! “Under your dink!” she frantically exclaimed. I pushed back away from the hull and looked down. I was surprised to see the mottled brown camouflage pattern on the back of a massive whale shark! Equally frantic as the mate, I looked up and asked for a mask. The South African captain tossed me a mask from the cockpit. It was fresh from a plastic wrapper with no snorkel. I tied my inflatable off to their stern and as if these were my closest relatives I stripped out of my last dry clean clothing!

Rhincodon typus is the world’s largest fish, a massive filter-feeding shark that can grow to 60 feet. They are often ridden by divers and are seen lying vertical in the water with their heads at the surface feeding by funneling volumes of water though their wide mouths. They raise their cavernous mouths out of the water to spill the water out their gills retaining masses of their tiny prey. Standing naked except for a mask in front of people I had never met, wide eyed I gulped as deep a breath as I could and dove in as the mega shark passed under my dink! I frog kicked twice and caught the leading edge of the head as this 35 foot specimen began to dive. The rich brown body was patterned in white dots each with a set of khaki parenthesis for accent. The bottomless pelagic blue of the crystal clear and sediment free Atlantic Ocean contrasted the deep neutral colors. I was there holding on, pressed against the hull of the sharks body, free of clothing and air, I finally found one after all these years! Later that night Carolyn the mate told me I disappeared for 2 or 3 minutes and was pushed up 100 feet from the boat, my entire buck ass naked body free of the water! After a minute of being slowly towed down into the endless deep blue the drag of my body hanging off the head began to gently coax up the whale shark towards the sunlight again. I clung by my tightly cupped hands curled around the upper lip, amazed by the size and grace of this majestic creature. Finally breaking the surface the head of this gigantic fish pushed me up until I was dry from my shoulders to just above my knee. After a deep breath I bellowed out my classic “Wah-hoo”, then rolled off scratching the tops of my toes and the tip of my privates on its sandpaper like skin! I exhaled as deeply as possible and took another gulp! As the Shark drifted slowly past me and downward I caught the edge of the pectoral fins. Holding on in the middle of the leading edge I marveled that the winged fin was longer than I was tall. As the giant drifted deeper I glanced over my shoulder to see two guys dive in from the boat 30 ft above me. Motivated by the need for air I clawed and kicked back up to the head as before and tried to pull the big fellow back toward the surface again. Afloat, Jonah swam peering down watching this wondering how I was going to swim the distance skyward to breathe without fins! The magnificent piscine monster began to slowly ascend. Thankfully I gasped fresh air while riding on the six-foot tall rounded dorsal fin skimming along above the surface. While in shallow water the other 2 guys from the moorings charter cat with Jonah and, of course, my naked self were all hanging onto various parts of this mellow beast! For half an hour we all were towed around. The big fella did not seem phased by our playful companionship as long as we stayed clear of his gills and eyes. The whale shark cruised gracefully along the surface scooping unseen prey as if unaware of its newest hitchhikers. On one of my plunges I rode the dorsal fin then slipped down the massive body to the tail carefully avoiding rubbing the skin with certain of my more sensitive parts. I held on to the top of the tail, which was 3 meters (12 feet) tip to tip! I shared this tail ride with a dozen other long-termers irritated at having to readjust positions. These remoras or whale riding suckerfish were 3 feet long and survived hitching around the tropical Atlantic on this freight train scavenging along the way. I hand over handed from the base up to the top most peak of the tail and hung on with one hand. As I was being slung to and fro I relaxed all but my grasping hand and gazed up to see the three dudes a boat length away watching from the surface in amazement! After harassing our plankton feeding friend we went back to the catamaran as the last daylight faded away! Now was the time for Jonah and I to crack out that champagne and celebrate with our newest best friends! We all toasted to our gigantic water restricted amigo! This time with clothes on! That evening, Jonah and I swapped stories with these 3 deliveries skippers who had more miles in the Atlantic than Jonah and I combined had amassed crossing all 3 oceans!

Moments of my life on this trip are amazing. I realize my life afloat on Dancyn has afforded me an experience that is an extraordinary adventure. As the years have floated by it is funny what has become “normal” for me. However some days could repeat a thousands times and would never become normal! I continue to live for these moments. Even now the adventure continues!

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