Newsletter #2- From New York to Africa (Twice) and onward to “Down Under”

FILED FROM: Hobart, Tasmania. December, 2002
On this leg I fly to New York, we dip our toes in the Southern Ocean and retreat, sail to remote Kerguelen Island and wind up in Hobart instead of Wellington.
The flight from Cape Town to New York took a little over 24 hours. First I flew to Johannesburg for the international connection. When I got there I had never seen such chaos in my life. The departure lounge was a mass of humanity, pushing carts, trying to clear security, trying to get a boarding pass. Obviously I was not going to make it. I appealed to a porter; I told him I had an hour to make the New York plane. “You wont make it , mon,” he said. I looked desperate. “I can help, it will cost,” he proffered. I took his bait, “How much?” “$20 U.S.” I replied, “Okay. Let’s go.” He led to a point and told me to wait. After a few minutes a South African Airways rep appeared and led me to a ticket agent. Within minutes I had the boarding pass and passed through security. Then the rep intercepted me, he wanted $20 as well. Clearly the people at Johannesburg International Airport have worked out a solution to the endemic unemployment of the area. Twenty minutes after strapping myself in we taxied away. Once airborne I had a double rum and felt much better.

The plane landed in the Cape Verde Islands to refuel and change crew. Twenty-four hours after leaving Cape Town, Don’s limo service picked me up at JFK in New York and within an hour or so I was in tranquil Brookhaven. I had brought the SSB radio for repair and shipped it UPS overnight that morning. A couple of weeks later I flew back. I had put away the pool furniture, shut off the outside faucets and closed the shutters. The house was ready for winter.

Back in Cape Town, the crew and I did the reprovisioning. Bob’s partner, Sue, had inventoried the boat supplies while I was away so that we could stock up for the leg to New Zealand. We found time to squeeze in a tour of the South African wine making region at Stellenbosch. A full day tour cost $24, including lunch, such is the ludicrously favorable exchange rate for the Yankee dollar. While I was away, David had visited relatives in Botswana and had a fabulous time.

We left Cape Town on 15th October with a fair wind and sailed south to clear Cape Agulhas, which is the southernmost cape of the continent, not the Cape of Good Hope. Once clear of the Cape, the weather deteriorated and almost before we knew it, we were dealing with heavy seas and winds up to 60 knots. After a couple days, the whisker pole broke into two pieces and a little later the staysail halyard block disintegrated; this allowed the sail to flog itself to bits before we could furl it. I surveyed the damage and decided to return to Cape Town, which lay 400 miles astern. Just a week after leaving we pulled into our old slip at the Royal Cape Yacht Club.

The riggers and sailmakers were wonderful and we left again shipshape after only four days. This time we had a hard beat to weather to clear Cape Agulhas. Once clear we had to decide on the route to New Zealand. The world is a globe, and the shortest path is to sail south of east, but it gets windy and cold and Antarctica is in the way. Sailing Directions issued by the British Admiralty recommend sailing east at a latitude of 40° S, claiming the weather is better than further south. But by sailing at 50° S the distance shrinks by about a thousand miles, and we would pass close to the mysterious island of Kerguelen, one of the most remote in the world. Naturally we opted for the higher latitude; the weather was indeed grungy. A little over a week after clearing the Cape, the wind swung to the east and increased to 60 knots. We set the double reefed mainsail, reefed staysail and hove to. In 36 hours we drifted backwards by over 25 miles, very frustrating. David managed to get his head in the way of the staysail boom and got a good knock, fortunately with no serious damage (to the boom, that is).

As we approached the Crozet Islands, the boat was overwhelmed by a huge wave that literally buried the vessel. The cabin darkened for a moment and seawater poured in through every crack. Some equipment on deck was broken or washed away, but for the time being the ocean had spent itself and after that the weather improved. Three weeks after leaving Cape Town for the second time we approached Kerguelen; the coast was covered by a thick fog. We got good radar contact and headed down the coast for the French research station at Port aux Francais. As the long sub-Antarctic twilight faded the fog lifted to expose the stark, snow covered mountains of Kerguelen. By morning we were near the base. The weather turned sunny and a call on the VHF radio brought out an inflatable to guide us to an anchorage that was free of kelp.

The station is home to about 100 people, all scientists and support personnel. They were very hospitable, and we were assigned a guide, a Scottish scientist based in Australia. We were told only one or two yachts sail to Kerguelen every year. We had a shower, did some laundry and met the station chief, who extracted a stiff fee for our visit. In return we ate wonderfully in the base canteen. We found the post office which is apparently famous throughout the world to collectors, who mail envelopes so that they can be returned with the rare Kerguelen stamp and frank. To my surprise they wanted to borrow Fiona’s stamp, so some lucky collectors will get a bonus as all the envelopes awaiting the next supply ship will carry our stamp as well as the Kerguelen frank. We bummed some fresh veggies off the chef, got our jerry jugs refilled with diesel and prepared to leave.

We took a walk along the beach to inspect the many elephant seals and king penguins and let them inspect us. By late afternoon we weighed anchor so that we would be clear of the coast by nightfall. The met office gave us a five-page forecast of westerly winds, but we had easterly winds for 12 hours. We stayed near 49° S latitude for over 1,000 miles, a region of the “Roaring Forties” characterized in a recent book as “Godforsaken.” In fact, the weather wasn’t too bad–better than the stretch of ocean near South Africa. We had our share of gear failures, of course, mostly chafed lines and a few stainless fittings that cracked. Each day we checked in with ham operators in South Africa or Australia and each week we called Brenda and Sue on the Iridium satellite phone. Watch succeeded watch; on average we spent a couple of hours each day on deck, reefing or shifting sails. We cooked and baked bread, and every few days we opened a fresh Manchester Guardian from the stack my daughter Brenda had accumulated; the time passed quickly. Once a week when the weather wasn’t too bad we had a movie show, either black and white on my old 5″ TV or a DVD on Bob’s laptop. We are trying to educate young David to appreciate the classic movies, such as: Lawrence of Arabia, Casablanca and the Maltese Falcon.

Nearly two weeks after leaving Kerguelen we were 800 miles south of Cape Leeuwin, one of the famous capes rounded by the square riggers, they were usually closer than us as they favored latitude 40° S. We saw the solar eclipse on December 4th. A few days later, in the middle of the night, the Aries self-steerer failed, due to a structural collapse of the support assembly. We had to steer by hand most of the time, a tedious and chilly experience. As Hobart was a thousand miles closer than Wellington we decided to switch our destination to Tasmania. We only had a one-in-a-million chart of Tasmania but we managed to contact the Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania on the radio and got a promise of help as we got closer. Our last night at sea produced the heaviest weather we had experienced since leaving Kerguelen; full gale conditions. We sailed up the Derwent River in the morning and a member of the club, John, guided us on the VHF radio to a slip he had arranged right in down-town Hobart.

Two days after we arrived, Bob’s partner, Sue, flew in, via New Zealand. She brought with her some new DVD’s for our weekly movie show and spare parts sent by Red, our “ship’s wife” back in Bellport. A couple of days later, David’s sister, Lindsay, flew into Hobart. We got our repairs organized and Helen Franklin in England shipped in spare parts for the Aries via DHL. At the moment everything seems to be under control for a departure for Stanley in the Falkland Islands in the week after Christmas, we should be able to witness the finish of the famous Sydney to Hobart Race before we leave. For the statistically minded, the leg from Cape Town (second departure) took 47 days and we logged 6,113 nautical miles. Total miles logged for the trip so far is 16,910. Hopefully, my next newsletter will be written from Brazil or the Caribbean, with Cape Horn and the chilly weather behind us.

Best wishes until next time, Eric


Bob inspects the break in the whisker pole.

South coast of Kerguelen, visible as the fog lifts (photo Bob Bennett)

View of the Massif Gallieni, Mount Ross, the highest mountain on Kerguelen at over 6000 ft. (photo Bob Bennett)

The author framed by the south coast of Kerguelen.

The crew of Fiona pose with an elephant seal pup on the shore of Kerguelen. (photo Bob Bennett)

Bar scene at the French base at Port aux Francais. The Station Chief, Dr Rolland, is on the left. Author in center, crew member David Pontieri on right. (photo Bob Bennett)

GPS plot of the boat’s position while hove-to for about 36 hours near 41º S, 30º E. The horizontal scale is 80 nm.

Fiona at anchor, Port aux Francais, Kerguelen. Despite the island’s reputation for ferocious weather, we found very pleasant conditions. The building on the hill is the church, they have one service a year when a priest visits with the supply ship. (photo Bob Bennet )

King Penguins survey their domain on Kerguelen (photo Bob Bennett)