Tuesday 25 February 2014

Finding An Island In The Dark

This last week on the water was filled with adventure of note. And not only in the sense of sailing.

We started out with the engine on the boat being replaced, having broken a crank shaft earlier. Which meant no sailing for the first day. However, this was no deterrent, as the students were all keen to go on an overnight voyage to Saldanha Bay, some sixty odd nautical miles north of Cape Town. Along the way there is also Dassen Island, a small island off the Cape West Coast of South Africa, about thirty odd sea miles from Cape Town. This island was to be used as an alternative port as part of the passage plan.

So passage planning was at the order of the day, along with a provisioning plan. The students did  well, buying the food and with a properly thought through passage plan.

We left the port of Cape Town just after lunch on the second day, in a howling southeaster and under reduced sail. The wind was picking up, however, so we shortened sail even more before packing away the main sail about an hour into the voyage. We continued sailing under a much reduced genoa, making way at around seven and a half to eight and a half knots. Good sailing with a big swell running. The swell in this area gets to be muddled, as the big swells from the deep Atlantic roll in from the south west, rebounding on the shore and making a washing machine-like muddle between Robben Island and the main land. Not very comfortable and a bit taxing on the helmsman.

All good experience, though. The muddled swell subsided a little as we progressed to the north, making things a bit easier on board. The wind also abated as we sailed out of the funnel effect around Table Mountain, easing the work load more and allowing us to increase sail a little.

And then we literally sailed into the sunset. This was a first to all of the students, not having sailed at night before. The sailing is actually not that much different, as we were on a broad reach. The difficult part is to get your head around it, so to speak. One can argue that the sea stays the same, the only difference is that you cannot see that much any more. And we were far enough away from land to see Venus making a light path on the water, the stars hanging in the air  light house like small Chinese lanterns.

I wondered whether the students would rise to the occasion and be able to carry on with navigation by non, electronic means. My fears were soon wafted away by their enthusiasm. By the time the moon rose, I allowed them to use the GPS.  The bright moonlight made seeing land marks ashore difficult in the haze.

Then it was my turn. We found the Dassen Island in the dark and now it was my turn to pilot us into House Bay at the northern end of the island. We had decided earlier to anchor overnight and sail back the next day, as our time had run out for the longer voyage to Saldanha Bay.

The Blaasbalg at Dassen Island in the fog.

This was a first for me as well. I have been to the island before. Also navigating there in the dark and arriving at around 22h00. Our instructor at the time them piloted the boat into house bay where we dropped anchor.

But this time the roles were different and it was my turn to do the piloting. The moon was up and high enough to light our way into the bay and shelter from the big swell and the southeaster. The GPS is a wonderful instrument, but the moon gave us enough visibility to enter safely. There is no replacement for situational awareness and common sense.

A wonderful thing it is, to find an island in the dark. And one grows emotionally. All of us did that night.

Then it was the students that made a gourmet spaghetti Bolognese, complete with some chilli and a heap of garlic.

House Bay in the morning. Dassen Island light visible
behind the house on the left of the picture
After dinner an anchor watch was arranged and the rest of us went to sleep. A peaceful sleep, being rocked gently on the wavelets coming into the bay.

The next morning saw us into serious fog. Visibility was down to about one hundred meters and decreasing. However, after breakfast the sky cleared a little and visibility increased to about half a mile. This allowed us to exit safely from our anchorage and set sail for home.

The wind had changed to north west during the night, but it was very light still, with a weak cold front passing far south of us. The seas were almost flat calm after the wind of the previous day.

The cold front and its effects posed the next challenge to the students, having to navigate by dead reckoning in misty conditions. Only once or twice during the voyage home did we see land. In fact, we only saw Table Mountain shortly before calling Cape Town port control to ask permission to enter the harbor.

More character building experience.

And we had boerewors on toast for lunch. Wonderful fare again.

The last two days were spent doing small stuff like docking and close quarter work, the last day being used for man overboard (MOB) drills. The south-easterly had come back with a vengeance and we had lots of fun practicing the drills under shortened sail.

A wonderful way to end the week, I imagine. The grinning faces and tired bodies said it all.

And all of us aboard found another island in ourselves in the dark. Perhaps the dark even cleared a little. A friend once posed the question of whether there actually is dark, or is it just that someone had switched off the light.

Catching some late summer sun
It would bode us well to keep this in mind the next time we see darkness. There is a lot of fun to be had finding the light switch in the dark.

Authored by Johan Zietsman

Last updated on 2104-02-25

Sunday 16 February 2014

A Taste Of The Famous Cape Doctor

The last week saw me again introducing people to the world of sailing. Again, like every week so far, something interesting happened during the week, making it that more memorable.

This time we had a taste of serious wind. As in hurricane strength. But let me fill you in.

We started the week as normal, going through the various safety aspects and getting to know the boat. Add in some hoisting and lowering of  the main sail and end off day one with a sail in Table Bay.

On day two we provisioned the boat and had more sailing practice, including some docking and mooring. Pretty standard stuff.

The calm before the storm. Late afternoon in Hout Bay.
On the third day we set off on a voyage to Hout Bay, some twenty nautical miles south of Cape Town. We had to beat into a mild south-westerly wind from the start, then had to motor a large part of the distance as the wind dropped. That evening saw us having a quiet meal alongside in the marina at Hout Bay Yacht Club.

The next day promised some exhilarating sailing as the wind switched to south easterly overnight. After some more docking practice in the morning, we had lunch alongside and prepared the boat for sea. By this time the wind had freshened to a tad under twenty knots in Hout Bay.

Wet and wild conditions lay before us. There is always some funnel effects around the mountains of the Cape Peninsula, with the Hout Bay area perhaps notorious.

We ran the gauntlet of heavy wind, interspersed with patches of hardly any wind out of the bay and then set course for Table Bay and Cape Town. The wind was blowing twenty two knots, gusting thirty, as we came around Hangberg, just at the entrance to Hout Bay.

Big swells, horizon at twenty meters' distance.
Picture by Roxy de St Pern
Wonderful sailing conditions. Sailing a broad reach under shortened sail with the wind on our starboard quarter, the sun shining and clouds flying. We averaged about eight knots, probably peaking at over ten knots as we surfed the big Atlantic swells.  Just what one wants to make a memorable sailing experience. The crew loved every bit of this as they each had a chance to steer in these conditions.

This went on for an hour or so, then the wind picked up the pace, blowing thirty knots gusting forty.  We had to shorten sail again. This time in large choppy seas of about two meters. Not something for the faint hearted. However, we soon had the motor running and the boat pointing into the wind. This allowed two crew members to clip in on the safety lines and go forward to set the main sail to number two reef. This boat has a small mainsail, dating from an age where main sails were small and narrow and and genoa jibs were large. Reef number two reduces the sail area quite drastically.

Needless to say, the choppy seas made for quite some fun as we all got washed and splashed during this exercise. Sailing is a water sports after all.

We soon had the boat sailing again, still doing over eight knots even with the much reduced sail. More fun was had as we continued to surf the waves. This was short lived, however, as we sailed into the wind shadow of Lion's Head. The “diesel genoa” was harnessed as we continued into late afternoon on our way to Cape Town port.

Leaving Hout Bay.
Picture by Roxy de St Pern
Then we noticed that most of the excursion boats had hardly any sails up and were creeping around the lee side of the breakwater as they sailed back to port. Then they all dropped their sails before rounding the breakwater back into port.

Odd behaviour, I thought. Then it dawned on me that they knew something about the wind that I did not. As we were still in the wind shadow of Lion's Head, I had the crew drop the main sail and stow it securely.

Was that fortuitous! We saw the wind pick up to forty five knots as we neared the breakwater at Cape Town port. We were still sailing under a sliver of the genoa, having furled away most of the sail. And we were still going at over five knots. Hiding in the lee of the breakwater, we made our way towards the end where we would make our turn into port. The motor did a sterling job under these conditions as we furled away everything.

Signs of the Cape Doctor: Table Mountain's 'cloth.'
Picture by Roxy de St Pern
This is where we had a taste of the Cape Doctor. As we passed the end of the breakwater, the full force of the wind hit us. We were blown sideways by several meters as we passed the end of the breakwater. A full fifty knots, gusting to sixty.

We made a very wide turn into port, leaving as much space as possible between us and the breakwater which was now a lee shore. The boat was barely creeping along, heeling to thirty degrees under bare poles.

And we got wet. Very wet. Never in my wildest dreams I would have thought that I would get so wet inside a port and without jumping overboard. Spray and foam everywhere. We got properly wet.

I have heard some stories of this nature before. Boats not being able to motor into this heavy wind. Now I have the first hand experience.

You can harness Nature, but you cannot control Her.

As for the crew, I was very happy to sign them out as “competent” after running this gauntlet.

Authored by Johan Zietsman.

Last updated on 2014-02-16

Sunday 9 February 2014

Sailing Instruction? Sometimes I wonder

I have more or less been a desk wallah for most of my life, being an engineer. You get out onto the factory floor now and then. You also get out into the field on testing, but basically you are a desk wallah, getting your hands dirty from time to time.

Now I am a sailor. I like the outdoors, the wind and the waves. Recently I started teaching. Instructing. I wonder which is the right word. This is a somewhat new world to me, having been at student or colleague level in my career forever.  Your career can be viewed in three stages: student, colleague and mentor.

In the student stage you are still learning. Absorbing knowledge and gaining experience. That stuff that can't be taught in class. The next stage of one's career is when you have sufficient knowledge and experience to actually add value to what you are doing. This is when you get paid the most. Well, hopefully.

The last stage is that of mentor, where you transfer knowledge and experience to the next generation of people in your industry. I made a jump from engineering to sailing at this stage, with some interesting side effects.

Being a mentor or teacher has its moments.

Like this last week, for instance.

I was instructing students at competent crew level. Fresh from dry land onto the boat. Some knots, the names of the parts of the boat, hoisting and stowing the main sail. And some reefing practice. All with the boat tied neatly and securely alongside, bows into the wind.

Then we went on to sail a little out in Table Bay by way of introduction to the vagaries of sailing a mono-hull boat. A real sail boat.  The next day I took them on an outing on a schooner to show the differences in the lines and the size of things on a bigger boat. The wind was blowing at thirty five knots that evening and the skipper had the number three main sail stowed and the number four reefed. The boat still dipped a rail in these conditions. Quite an exhilarating experience for the fresh students.

The next day we carried on with sailing exercises on the mooring and went sailing later when the wind came through. Cape Town is notorious for having no wind in the morning, then a howling gale in the afternoon. This is sailing school, so we go out. Three reefs in the main, the jib furled away not to overpower the boat and giving us a neutral helm. So we sail merrily along, every one of the students getting their chance at helming and trimming the sails.

That is until I notice that most of my words are falling on deaf ears. These people are only watching the heeling indicator. No sense of situational awareness at all. All eyes on the little gauge at the bottom of the compass.

This is where I had a sense of humour failure and launched into a long speech about sailing, situational awareness and being just generally on the lookout. This is after I had the compass cover put back on.

During this tirade I also notice a little face peeking surreptitiously under my arm at the other compass. On further enquiry he told me that he was looking at the compass to steer the correct course.

Well, after recovering my composure and having this compass also covered, I launched into a proper tirade. This time about using non-instrument methods to navigate.

And then the penny dropped. This bunch had ganged up to see who could heel the boat the furthest in the gusts. Not what I had in mind, but quite funny nevertheless.  They fell about the boat laughing.

Needless to say, I had them furl away more of the jib and the sailing instruction went a lot smoother then.

After all this, one wonders if things were under control. The answer is yes. It is part of instruction that we do things in a safe manner. However, this little incident brought home to me the idea that sailing should be fun, without stretching the limits of sensibility and safety.

Did these students have fun? You can bet your bottom dollar they did. Did they learn to sail? I think so. Having ganged up on the instructor means that they had enough knowledge to make the boat go fast and heel. Chalk up one for proper basic instruction.

I get the idea that the knowledge retention will also be good as a direct result of having great fun on the water.

Perhaps teaching is not just about preaching.

Authored by Johan Zietsman.

Last updated on 2014-02-09

Saturday 1 February 2014

More Sailing And Cooking Adventures

The back of Table Mountain through the mist
The Hungry Sailor business card reads “Sailing And Cooking Adventures.” This last week the adventures part came into play for all on board, including me.

I recently had the opportunity to start instructing students at Competent Crew and Day Skipper level in the art of sailing a keel boat. The school is situated in the Cape Town waterfront. Perhaps one of the most beautiful settings imaginable.

So we sail out of Cape Town harbour into Table Bay and surrounds. This includes voyages to the nearby town of Hout Bay, a most picturesque village and small harbour, for an overnight stay.

However, this is where the bland, routine part of the story ends and the “adventure” part begins.

I have now done this return voyage once a week for three weeks running and never had the privilege of plain sailing, so to speak, all the way. This last week being the outstanding adventure of the period.

On our way down to Hout bay in quite misty conditions, the engine starter gave up the ghost. Which meant that we had to now sail in ever so little puffs of wind past the most notorious section of the Cape Peninsula into Hout Bay. Luckily for us the little wind was offshore. But I had to put out a precautionary PAN PAN message on the VHF radio. A PAN PAN is a message just under a distress signal, informing the shipping near you of your predicament. Just in case.

The students performed quite well, having to suddenly navigate in anger, as opposed to the normal, almost, academic exercise when the weather is clear. Then we sailed the boat into the berth at Hout Bay marina, as we had no engine. The operator at Cape Town radio bid us a safe voyage and signed off just as we entered the harbour at Hout Bay.

Chalk up another plus for the Cape of Storms and sail boat karma to make your life interesting.

The next day was spent in some theoretical excercises, as the boat was practically unserviceable unless we got a tow out of the harbour. Not prudent in that neck of the woods, methinks. And we had a very nice pasta salad with tuna, prepared by the students.

Early morning time in Hout Bay
We got the boat serviceable again at around 20h00 that night, while the students cooked up a hearty meal of chicken casserole. Wonderful food.

We set off again back to Cape Town the next day, sailing in a strong breeze of around twenty knots. This time on a broad reach, we sometimes did eight knots. This is sailing at its best. Clear skies, warm weather, blue water and lots of wind from behind.

Until we got to Clifton, when the engine and wind gave out again, the engine this time from another ailment. We arranged help for later the afternoon and carried on sailing.

With the lull in the wind, the students opted for making a decent cooked lunch. This time a spaghetti Bolognesa. Halfway through their latest culinary adventure, the wind picked up to around twenty-five knots as we rounded Green Point. This meant a real culinary adventure, as the students were now preparing food and cooking in literally a near gale.

Having eaten the cooked lunch in these conditions, we carried on with some sailing exercises, after which we sailed the boat back to the port and called for our arranged assistance. By this time the wind was quite heavy, as it had picked up towards sunset. The tow was not going to be able to tow us, so we opted to sail into the V&A Waterfront.

Sunset in Hout Bay, the wind picking up.
An interesting exercise, with all the other traffic motoring around in that area. We managed neatly, however, and was soon tied up alongside at our regular mooring.

The question now arises on whether all of this was good or bad.

For my money we all had an adventure that you probably could not buy for money. The students not only learned to sail in heavy conditions, they also learned to cook in such conditions. They navigated in earnest in misty, low visibility conditions, and sailed a boat into the berth.

Final closing cruise. Wonderfully
mild weather after our adventure
As for me, the responsibility of a sea Captain was yet again brought home. Being a Day Skipper is not just about going out and having fun. It is also taking responsibility for the boat and all those who sail with you. And making plans on the trot when things go wrong.

But mostly, after all has been said and done, it is about the adventure. Lin and Larry Pardey must count among the most famous of sailing cruisers in this world of ours. The title of Herb McCormick's book on the lives and times of Lin and Larry Pardey reads “As Long As It's Fun.”

He got the title nailed on the dot.

I shall follow that motto to the end. And I am sure my students will agree.

Authored by Johan Zietsman

Last updated on 2014-02-01