31 December 2017 | Durban Marina
The forecast was for a breeze of a sail: NE 10 all the way, down the Aghulas current for the 90 or so miles from Richard's Bay to Durban. In weather forecasting terms, 10 knots is the average, with a 40% leeway - so anything from 6 to 14, or about force three to only just 4.
We wanted to leave in reasonable daylight to give ourselves time to get back into the swing of things, so slipped our moorings at the ZYC around 5.20pm local time in overcast but benign conditions near low tide. We expected some rain from the look of the sky.
With a radio call to Port Control for permission to enter the shipping channel and then again to leave the harbour itself, we finally exited around 5.45.
Our timeplan was to ensure arrival in early daylight to maximise safety and give us time on arrival to clear the Durban entry admin before Officialdom closed at Saturday's Noon. Without knowing exactly what speed we would average within the current, we expected the duration to be between 12 and 15 hours. In any event, we wouldn't need to be go 'hell for leather'.
The conditions outside the harbour were immediately different.
Our friends on Alba had written 10 days previously, how awkward the wave action was, and so we found it, in winds that were averaging Force 5, We realised that we should have had dinner before we left, and didn't fancy cooking, so made sandwiches in a boucily corkscrewing galley.
Our plan was to thread through the anchored shipping (some 15 ships) for about 12 miles in a SE direction and to pick up the Aghulas current at the 200m depth contour, where it is at it's strongest. In fact, even though the tide was now against us on the flood, we were already picking up a S going current of over 1 knot. The seas were by no means bad, but the wave action was quite awkward and we had been ashore for over two months. Fortunately we both seem to have good sea legs - and tummies!
We soon had both the main and the genoa sails out - but very well reefed as we were still achieving 7 to 8 to 9 knots with a super clean bottom, new sails (Yay!) and wind off the beam. The foot of the full genny is some 8m long and I reckon we had a little over 3m out. That's all it took! Ditto the main.
All was fine - if somewhat 'lumpy'.
We made our way through the widely spread out anchored ships except for the last one which seemed to be pointing in a peculiar direction - opposite to the natural lie of the wind and tide. On closer inspection of the AIS, it was shown as being a cargo vessel, under engine power, and travelling at 2.4 knots, but not going anywhre (?!) and on a very close course to ours. From it's AIS display, it appeared to be going across the front of us, so we watched it carefully as it stayed very much in our line as we approached. With the wind over our left shoulder, we had limited manouvrability, unless we gybed the sails and went well off course..
The first lightning occurred around 7pm - way off in the distance. We weren't to know it, but we would still see flashes as we approached Durban harbour after sunrise the next day.
We don't like lightening: a strike at sea would seriously dent your day, but the clouds built and the flashes became more often and appeared in all directions. We were soon surrounded, and the rain was soon hammering down.
We entered the full current and changed course to follow it around 8pm. With the wind now well behind us on the other side, we had furled the main away, gybed the genny, and were bowling and rolling along at 7 to 8 knots under the remaining scrap of genoa. Our max boat speed was clocked at 10,4 knots. The max wind clocked 37.3.
That peculiar ship was still dead ahead, but when we were about 3 miles off, the Master called us up to advise that his engines were down (not the word he used) and he was drifting, so please pass safely.
This information was very helpful as we were struggling to make sense of the situation whilst not really wanting to gybe around him. As it was, we could now lay a closer course to him and we actually passed about a third of a mile away.
Our Watch plan was to have 3 hours on, starting at 9pm, with Mags on first watch. I lay down on the saloon settee sometime after 9 to try to get some sleep before my watch at midnight. I was expecting to maybe celebrate the start of our 39th wedding anniversary with a quick kiss on the companionway steps as we did the changeover.
I couldn't sleep. I couldn't even 'rest my eyes'. The lightning got more persistent and louder and nearer until, at 1005 precisely, there was a simultaneous multi - flash and almost instant crash of multiple thunders and through that din, Maggie shouted for me.
In jockey shorts and tee shirt, I was already getting up and out. The electronics had all died, taking out all the instruments except the compass, but including the autopilot.
Maggie was now hand steering in the alternately very pitch black, with only the light from the compass, and the flashing of the lightning. We were still bowling along and it was bucketing down.
I know the precise time, because the VHF radio gives a running display of the gps position and UTC time. When the other instruments die, it continues to show the last known position and time. I switched off everything at the mains - except that radio - and logged events.
Sometime earlier - when we first saw 'forked' rather than 'sheet' lightning, I had put the handheld radio and back up h/h gps in the oven with the Iphone and Ipad in the hope that it would provide a Faraday Cage and protect these items in the event of a direct hit. Nonsense?
Who can tell until after the event!
Later, Maggie said that she saw sparks and a water spout as strikes hit the water; and that she felt a distinct 'jiggle' in her heart. (Unkindly, she denies that she was thinking of me and our wedding anniversary at the time!)
Once the intensity had reduced a notch or two, we switched the instruments back on to see what was damaged. Fortunately, the chartplotter and instruments came back, albeit with frequent messages that the heading 'couldn't be found ', but the autopilot wouldn't work. Nor could we see any other shipping on the AIS.
Hmmmm. What to do?
All we could, was to switch everything off to minimise the risk of further damage - presumably the gps signal was having problems with all the electrical 'noise' - and hand steer.
We switched back on briefly every half hour or so, when things were 'quiet' to get and plot the then current gps position. We had a waypoint in mind and simply judged the time when we needed to change course and go inshore to avoid being swept past Durban harbour.
Our Watch plan went out the portlight. We would both have to be 'on'. One to steer, and one to help keep the other alert and to adjust sails, log position and relieve the other for any toilet stops etc. No cups of tea for either of us!
Thus it was that Maggie did the lion's share of helming. She is normally brilliant, and this was not to be an exception.
By about midnight, and having not been hit, we became more relaxed (!) and felt we could leave the instruments on; but keeping DC on course and the sail filled, required concentration on the compass whilst also keeping an eye on the chartplotter. All this light is tiring, while the flashing of the lightning is a migraine sufferer's nightmare. I didn't dare raise that with Maggie, but after a couple of hours of all this, and with no end to the storm in sight, we went to half an hour on/off and fitted the other jobs into that.
And so we passed the night. We never had that kiss on the companionway steps: our minds were rather occupied with other things, and these 'ships' never actually 'passed in the night'!
But all was OK and Maggie - especially - and I had coped....actually rather well.
We gained approval to proceed into the harbour around 0700, and made our way to our pre-booked and fortunately vacant berth on the end of A/B pontoon to be fully secured by 0830. By 11 am we had visited Immigration to get ourselves 'booked in' and received a 'surprise' visit from the Border control guys a little after noon.
It's a good job that they didn't feel the need to come aboard, as Maggie was taking a much needed shower! I answered their questions on the pontoon.
Welcome to Durban!
We had a late breakfast and went to bed, sleeping for about three hours. Unfortunately, another 40+ knots of wind system is due on Monday, and we didn't like the look of the day's darkening skies, so we got up and reset all our mooring lines to cope. Being on the seaward end of the pontoon leaves us most vulnerable to storm surge.
We planned to have our 'Anniversary' dinner at one of the two Yacht Clubs, but 'all things considered' , we really didn't feel right. In any event lightning flashed again and rain started to fall - big drops - so we stayed on DC for a welcome few beers and a delicious cold chicken salad.
I kept an eye on the Brighton game via internet and we were in bed, asleep by 7.30. Maggie says I was already gone in the time she took to get ready.
We were awake by 05.30 and feeling much refreshed! It's now 0930.
Sadly, and contributing to our non-celebratory mood, I had only got the email from sister Chris - to say that darling Graham had passed peacefully the previous afternoon - as we entered Durban harbour.
The day before we were to leave Richards Bay, I had felt the need for a haircut - Graham's favourite wind up for me as a kid - so got Maggie to do it, and we sent a photo to Christine for maybe one last laugh at my expense.
RIP a lovely, loving, and very much loved man. Our hearts go out to Christine and their brilliant family.
Happy New Year, everyone. Peace and love.
From Maggie and me.