Cape Of Africa: The Illusion of Control

The Illusion of Control

When chatting with friends and family a common question reoccurs. “Aren’t you scared?” The easiest answer is “I have been afraid, but mostly just uncomfortable”. The truth is being out there on the wind in Dancyn, independent and self-sufficient, has become, well… “NORMAL” to me. Driving around Atlanta on the highway at 75mph scares me senseless! How do you people do it? And still put on lipstick and text each other? Discomfort, when you have chosen it, is more tolerable if you can remember that you’ve chosen it! There have been only a few moments that I have felt pure fear. It surprised me how calm I felt in retrospect. An overwhelming feeling of acceptance falls over me and I am left dealing with the moment the best I can. On Santo, Vanuatu before cyclone Xavier hit I cried. But only once I had bounced and leveraged Dancyn’s hull over a barrier reef into the safety of a “hurricane hole” and she was prepared deep in the mangroves for a real SMACKDOWN. Sure I cried, but I’m not sure this was fear but just fatigue of 2 days sleepless work and anxiety pre-storm. I knew I had done what I could before impact. Most importantly, I knew I could just step off into the mangrove jungle I was tied amongst and survive. It would suck but I could walk away and having that comforting thought rattling around in the back of my head saved me from true fear and allowed me the “illusion of control”. This year I sailed around the southern Cape of Africa. Down there I had a real taste of mind cleansing fear. The kind of fear that helps put all other things in perspective. The kind of fear that takes discomfort and pushes it to the back of the mind. The comfort and relief allowed by the “illusion” are gone as there is no walking away. There are no tears only the task at hand. I believe the scariest moment on this voyage around our planet was when sailing between Durban and East London, South Africa.

The 240-mile passage between Durban and East London South Africa is the longest stretch without a safe port for the entire 1000-mile slog around the Cape of Africa. In this part of the world the forces at work infrequently allow the 36hr windows required to transit port to port unscathed. The Mozambique Current pumps down the East cost of Africa for 1500 miles. It accelerates along the shelf between these two ports from 2 to 5 knots. Lows spilling up from the southern latitude’s roaring 40s and screaming 60s send swell from the South and South West. The only time this stretch of coast is passable is with a North to East wind on the Northern edge of a high-pressure system. During a Low or at the tail end of a high pressure system the wind switches to the South West to oppose the Mozambique Current. Written on my chart in bold text is ABNORMALLY LARGE WAVES and plenty of lost souls know why. I do not think wind from the South West blowing into the South West bound Current would be survivable for small sailboats like Dancyn.

Relieved to be back on land again, I cleared Dancyn through Customs and Immigration in my first South African port, Richard’s Bay. I sat in Richard’s Bay for 2 months repairing Dancyn, varnishing the teak interior and recuperating from the difficult single-handed run down the Mozambique Channel from Madagascar. Everyday I studied the weather motivated by the anxiety of sailing single-handed in the littlest boat around the cape this season. I downloaded Grib files over my cell phone. These are meteorological models that show wind direction and it’s force over a predicted time frame based on barometric pressure. I studied the weather faxes everyday; these are like topographic maps of the barometric pressure. I compared the weather faxes to GRIB files from and two other similar models displayed on and It was great to be back in the modern world again with access to so much information. As much info as I was processing it was clear that after 72 hours these forecasts were mere fairy tales. The forecasts were unable to accurately predict the many forces of nature around the Cape of Storms so far into the future but I did begin to become familiar with the patterns.

Cape weather works something like this. There are two High Pressure systems at play one on either side of the South African continent, one sitting in the South Indian Ocean and the other in the South Atlantic Ocean. When all is right in the world, come summer time, there is steady flow from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. Sailors can sail a steady Easterly wind all around the cape being weary of any possible switching due to fronts. According to local South African sailors this phenomenon has not occurred for the last 3 years and has been waning for a decade. (Climate Change anyone?) The plan for myself and the other 20 to 30 international cruising boats was to hangout in Richards Bay or Durban up the East coast of South Africa, until this summertime sail-able flow commenced. Then we would gracefully ride the 3 to 5 day “windows” around Southern Africa from the Indian into the Atlantic. We all expected to add the “Cape of Africa” feather to our caps as easily as we had done with previous sailing triumphs!

For two anxious months in Richard’s Bay I watched boats go out too early and heard the tales of their squashing once out there. The long easy “windows” were not developing and we cruisers were getting antsy. I made the most of those two months. I went to game parks, waited tables, went to Richard’s Bay Community Church’s rambunctious musical services and hung out with an Afrikaans lady Cathy and her family. We sailors mostly marveled at the shopping mall and spent our evenings having “a Braii” (BBQ in Old Dutch, the local white language), drinking at the very hospitable Zululand Yacht Club and cussing the heavy Sou’Westerly fronts that ripped through weekly. My good mate Jonas on Pelican had enough of the standing by silliness and made the 12 hr jump to Durban. Upon arrival in Durban he radioed and said, “Wait for the right one man, things got hairy fast!” That was the motivation killer that made it easy to hang out and wait for New Years!

jonas,jonah and john 3 yanks on small yachts alone

The Indian Ocean High was not developing but the Atlantic Ocean High would occasionally bleed off under the continent of Africa to fill the void. As these small highs squeezed under the cape they brought sail-able Easterly flow but these systems were running to the East and very quickly. Following these little highs would be a front with South West wind that would close the safe “window”. How hard and what time these windows closed was of constant conversation down at International Jetty in Richard’s Bay for all us west bound sailors. It was a race, sailing west trying to get to ports before the east bound highs passed them. I would be sailing west on a collision coarse with the disastrous SW winds off the tail end of these systems. The question was always the same, could you make safe port before the end of the window? Windows went from being 10 hours long to 24hr as summer in the southern hemisphere began and every 2 weeks they might even stretch to 48 hrs. After New Years Eve and with a 24 hr window opening it was time to go to Durban, 12 hours down the coast and wait for the next big gap before heading to East London, a 36 hour run from there.
I was one of 5 boats, including my solo American mate on Brillig, motoring out the channel past the Zululand Yacht Club in Richards Bay. It was the first ocean sailing I had done in 2 months. I felt rested but soft and without my edge after being stagnant (and possibly from partying so much) in Richard’s Bay. I caught a beautiful Dorado (Dolfinfish also Mahi Mahi) a few hours out and gave Jonah on Brillig a fly by as I grenade tossed him Mahi fillets. The volume of shipping traffic down the coast was shocking. I kept a good watch and radio schedule with Jonah and the other non-single handed yachts. We all safely made Durban the next morning. Brillig and Dancyn anchored outside the marina to save a buck and wait for the next window. I was well versed in collecting weather data and interpreting it. Dancyn was finally on the road again and had successfully finished the first leg of the Cape. I therefore felt some control over my destiny. I cautiously reminded myself of my Mom’s advice when I left Georgia on a motorcycle trip to Alaska, remember the “Illusion of Control” and be safe.

After a few days being tied up in a marina Dancyn was ready for the biggest jump. Dancyn’s hull was slick after rubbing the growth off and her tanks were full. The marina had WIFI so I had spent several days surveying the weather and a good 48 hr window was opening. I needed 36 hrs at most but the tail end of this window was forecast to be a rough 35 knots in the safe direction. I slept hard that night and woke to download one last weather report around 3 AM. I left Durban around 4 AM with the predicted East wind knowing that things would not start getting “hairy” for 24 hours. A “Holy Grail” for cruising sailors is to sail a 200 mile day. With the current and strong Easterly forecast I had hopes of breaking my 24 hr mileage record and possibly putting a 200 miler on the books! I also knew the farther I went in good conditions the less miles I had to endure once things started to fall apart out there. I got outside the shipping lanes by 10 miles and into the strongest current straight away. Once 20 miles off the coast I was committed to going all the way to East London. I had a double-reefed main sail and the heavy #1 headsail completely unfurled. I was smoking along and everything seemed under control. I had waited over 2 months to do this leg, I studied the weather everyday, I read all the sailing directions, I chatted up every old timer at the yacht club, I had meticulously prepared Dancyn and it was going exactly as planned. I kept Dancyn trimmed, stayed rested and tried to enjoy a great day sailing.

By that evening, as forecast, 15 knots built to 25 knots. I put the mainsail away with the third reef in and firmly lashed it down for the predicted high winds. The easy sailing was behind me and I knew I would be towed behind the furlable headsail, the forward most sail, all the way to East London. I had set the sail out on the spinnaker pole to prevent a jibe. A jibe is when the sail collapses and is blown to the other side of the boat. If it happens in heavy conditions with a violent enough force it can tear the sail or even break the mast. The pole allows me to maintain a flat sail even if the majority of the sail is rolled up on the furler during high winds like those developing. I wrote in Dancyn’s logbook that at midnight the wind was building and by 4 am I was riding 40 knots with only a pillowcase worth of the #1 unfurled. I was not scared just really uncomfortable. The waves were 14 to16 feet with smashing white crests. I fell in the cockpit as Dancyn slid down one of the wave faces. On my back flat, I looked up and aft, past the solar panels I could see the previously obscured whitewater along the wave crest in the predawn light. 24 hours earlier when leaving Durban I knew I would have to ride this pony. This was the Cape I had prepared for. Shit! Everything is fine until something breaks. I had fallen on the autopilot and broken the arm that holds the tiller. I grabbed the helm and shortened the tether to my chest harness. There would be no need to stand up again in these conditions. I knew I would need to sit and hold the helm until I rounded the breakwater into East London or until it didn’t matter.

Underneath the glowing pre sunrise sky, I sat tethered, tensely holding the helm. The companionway hatch and lazarette hatch were both locked shut in case of knockdown. Everything loose in the cockpit and down below had been stowed and tied down earlier. The bilge was dry I hoped. The self-steering wind vane was doing a good job given the conditions and only occasionally needed help from me at the tiller. I was nervous but Dancyn was doing as well as I could hope. Just as the sun broke the horizon I could see the madness around Dancyn as we scooted along a yawing trail. In the light I spotted a foot long rip at the clew of the headsail at a seam. The tear was not running yet but if it went I would not ever be able to repair the sail or more urgently even get it down in these conditions. I freed the mainsheet and dropped the boom all the way out for windage. I hoped the force of the wind against the tightly secured mainsail and boom was enough to maintain steerage because now I had to go to the foredeck far from the safely of the cockpit or control of the helm. Then I rolled the headsail in on the furler with a winch in the cockpit. I clipped my chest tether to the jack lines and crawled forward to the bow then lashed the pole down. Out of the protection of the cockpit I had to squint in the wind and spray. I should have worn my diving mask. Dancyn ran along with no sail up better than I had expected. The windage of the mainsail lashed tightly on the boom and the mast itself was enough power to keep Dancyn steering down the waves and wind. I had not slept at all that night. I was wet, tired and hungry. I just needed 2 hours. Better to be rested if I needed to really deal with something I justified to myself as I unlocked the hatch and went below. Years of fishing and sailing had conditioned me for napping. In wet foulies I laid back on the cabin sole and passed out in the calmest part of the boat.

I opened my eyes when I heard the racket of the kitchen timer in my chest pocket. Dancyn’s slick underbelly had slid along straight down wind quite well but I needed to go 15 degrees more to the West to make East London. I made radio contact with the other boats as previously scheduled. The conditions inshore were better and everyone was OK but once I plotted Dancyn on the chart I realized I was now way too far offshore and ahead of the fleet. Dancyn needed to steer more to the West or we would miss the port of East London. It was another day’s sailing to Port Elizabeth, if I missed East London I would have to face the dangerous South West wind coming up the back of the beast we were now riding. I needed the mainsail to fight across the wind and swell. Already in my foulies and harness I slid the hatch back unleashing the scream of the cape gale. The wind and spray was overwhelming to my senses. I clipped in again once in the cockpit. Absorbing the sea state with squinted eyes I paused to plan out my tasks on deck. I could not turn into the wind in these conditions to raise the Mainsail, I would have to fight it up while running down wind. I swallowed the lump in my throat, the reached down deep inside myself for a fist full of courage and crawled forward to the mast. I gathered my composure forward where the boom met the mast, standing on top of an unbroken stallion trying to shake me off its back. Grasping the rigging and bracing my back against the mast I faced the stern and the miles of angry white foam in its wake. There was no time to soak in the view but those images will always be with me as if the full force of the gale worked the images into my mind. It was an arduous task to get the main up with the wind pressing the sail against the rigging. The full-length sail battens bent around the leeward cap shroud but did not split as I heaved on the halyard. Doubling the halyard over a winch I cranked to raise and flattened the triple reefed sail to the spreaders.

Dancyn was unbalanced being pushed by the main alone down wind. She steered wildly but I needed to make up the Westing I had lost while foolishly sleeping. I began to carve the wave faces. I remember thinking how I had always enjoyed doing this in lighter conditions and in warmer climes. Now 20 miles plus off the South African coast in 40 knots and huge 15 to 20 foot seas my life depended on flawless boat handling. I was on the edge of what I thought Dancyn could withstand and well past what I thought I could. The “Illusion of Control” had long vanished. Strapped into the cockpit, bracing myself in place and with both arms pulling the tiller I began to drive Dancyn. I no longer felt cold or wet or even tired. I knew I had done everything I could to prepare Dancyn and myself for this. Peace came from this knowledge and focusing on the waves and carving them out. “Drive on” I thought. Every wave took Dancyn up to 10 or 12 knots, double her cruising speed. The vertical migrations between waves raised and lowered Dancyn 2 building stories sending my stomach into my throat at every crest. “Drive on” I continued to whisper to myself. There was nothing on my mind but the balance between wave train, loads on the rig and the compass. I focused and steered for Dancyn, our dream and my life. The world was void outside this cycle of moments. I looked over my left shoulder for the crest. I steered across the wave until near the crest then I pulled the helm towards my chest and Dancyn “dropped in” and began to break free of the wave, sliding on top of the water. Surfing on top of the water the helm goes loose and the hull and rig hum from a resonance between the wave and boat. Wave after wave for eight hours I worked back to the shelf, toward the shipping lanes and hopefully to the safety of port. Every crest was a potential disaster. Exhausted I had already let go the pain from fatigue. The distraction of discomfort did not interrupt my fear driven focus from crest to crest with the rush between them. I did not even notice the miles to destination decreasing on the GPS as I focused on the cockpit compass. As I closed in on the coast the wind speed and wave height decreased over the shelf. I worked less for more Westing. Any doubt that I might miss East London decreased along with the horrendous conditions. I finally lashed the helm and let the self-steering work while. I went down below to plot myself on the chart and hydrate.

I wrote in my log before going out and pulling up the mainsail 8 hours ago. The time had washed by. I reviewed the waypoint for the jetty entrance at East London on the GPS’s tiny screen . Any doubt that I would make port that afternoon was gone once I passed Cape Morgan. A few hours later I sighted the red light tower on the jetty entrance off Castle Point and sailed for it with relief. Closer inshore the wind had decreased greatly and I was hours ahead of the window closing. The illusion of control was back and I was realizing how tired my body was. I sailed into the harbor. Worn too thin to dock at the wharf I set the anchor in the channel out of the way of container ships. My hands and arms numb from exhaustion. My toes cramped from wedging myself into the cockpit for so long.

Now anchored, I fixed a rum cocktail. I read through the log and mileage. I had sailed 199 miles in 24 hrs. It was a new record for Dancyn. I had run 2 hours with no sail up at all and finished the last 10 unbalanced with mainsail alone. I weighed the risk verses reward of my life choices. I thought about my family and my past loves. I wondered if I could have sailed those waves 5 years ago without making a mistake. I wondered if I could recall the sensation of that fear so I could call on the peace I felt again if I needed it. I vowed to finish this trip and get back to my family soon. I completed the 750 miles around Cape Augullas and Cape of Good Hope to Cape Town. I cautiously timed each leg. On a few legs I prepared Dancyn and left only to return a few hours later deciding to wait for the next weather window. The lessons I learned on the East London leg protected me the rest of the voyage around the Cape. Hopefully the lessons I learned on the East London leg will stay with me for the rest of my life! The adventure continues!

1 comment:

  1. "Down there I had a real taste of mind cleansing fear."

    That statement alone says so much.