It is embarrassing that Part 1 of this account was written two years ago – there is no excuse. To recap, the previous article was devoted to the preparation of a long delivery from South Africa to Australia, including the provisioning of the vessel and recruitment of a suitable crew. This part is about the actual voyage of the 40ft. Leopard Catamaran, built in Cape Town for a South African family who were moving to Brisbane, Australia.
The obvious route was to sail south, pick up the Roaring Forties, and then let the strong westerly winds take us to our destination. However, if you want a yacht that’s still intact at the end of the delivery, this wasn’t much of an option. The other option, which we took, was to sail east – much longer but safer! The first part of the leg from Cape Town is always bumpy and not a good way to get your sea legs. The reason of course is, at this point, there is a merging of three oceans – Indian, Antarctic and Southern Atlantic.
After about three days of feeling ill, the crew regained their appetites and started to share cooking duties. The boat headed towards Saint Helena, our first port of call. All deliveries to Europe or the Caribbean seem to make this stop as it is about ten days sailing from Cape Town and a perfect first leg. But we were also carrying spare parts for the island’s school bus! Probably the world’s most remote island, and once the enforced home of Napoleon, it is only supplied by passing boats and a Royal Mail ship. On a previous delivery, I had spent Christmas on the island and was treated very well by the “Saints” as the locals are known.
The next leg was to Trinidad to pick up fuel and fresh supplies. We left St. Helena with the largest bunch of bananas I have ever seen – a thank you for delivering the spare parts. After the first leg, and only a short stay onshore, it didn’t take too long to get into routine on board again.
There were only three of us aboard – myself, Jacque (first mate) and Lucy (crew member). The watch rota was four hours during daylight, and three hours at night, rotated daily so we all had an opportunity to see the sun rise and set. On most deliveries there are two lines with fishing lures towed behind the boat which can help supplement our provisions. On this leg, we caught a marlin, which must have been 100lbs. (a photo of this is in Part 1).
This was a difficult catch as the line had to be pulled in by hand as we had no rod to help. After dodging the spear-like bill without injury, the next task was to fillet this massive fish. Unfortunately we only had enough freezer space to store half of it, so the rest went back into the sea for other fish to share.
It’s a misconception to think the oceans are full of fish – on a previous delivery from Cape Town to Nice, France we only caught one tuna, at 7,000 nm and within sight of our destination, so we ended up giving it away.
On the stretch between St. Helena and Trinidad, we were able to use our gennekar which is a sail used for sailing downwind and a cross between a genoa and spinnaker. This is not supplied with the boat, and is hired by the skipper from the delivery company. It has to be returned after every delivery, but can substantially improve the performance of the boat, thus reducing delivery time. On this leg, when we had to take it down quickly due to a sudden increase in the wind, part of it went overboard and was torn by the keel. This meant we couldn’t use it for three days, the time it took to repair it with duct tape and many stiches. But it lasted for another 1,000 nm before we could have it properly repaired in Trinidad.
Once we were close to the Brazilian coast, we were able to take advantage of a strong current to help us on our way to the Caribbean. After many weeks at sea, your senses become very astute and even at a distance of two hundred miles from shore you can smell vegetation. Also, the sea was a muddy colour, being affected by sediment from the Amazon.
Knowing we were getting close to our next destination, it was the anticipation of a good shower that became foremost in everyone’s mind. On a small boat that doesn’t have a water maker on board, you are dependent on the water you carry. As the water tanks only hold 700 litres, we carry extra water in small drums strapped to the deck. So washing at sea consist of standing at the aft with a flannel, soap and a bucket of sea water, with a small bottle of fresh water to rinse off your hair. However, if it rains, we use the sails and buckets to capture as much as possible as well has having a natural shower at the same time!
After the euphoria of arriving in Trinidad, having a good shower, meal and a rum punch or two, we found out that the Government had, only a few days before we arrived, put a rather hefty tax on all fuel, so our plan to buy cheap diesel was thwarted. The alternative was to sail to Venezuela, but after a few discussions with locals, this idea was abandoned as we were warned that the fuel is often poor quality. Anyway, although our fuel budget was over the amount we had anticipated, we had saved on provisions with the fish we had caught.
So, with our boat well stocked with fruit and vegetables from Trinidad, we commenced our voyage to Panama, being careful not to sail too close to the Venezuelan coast as we had been warned of pirates. In fact, at night, we turned off our navigation lights and kept a very close watch of other lights, but fortunately they only appeared to be fishing boats. A sailing catamaran with two very small auxiliary engines is no match for a fast boat filled with hostile pirates! A welcome sight one night was seeing the lights of Willemstad, the capital of Curacao, on our starboard beam. Curacao had been home for six months the previous year and was my introduction to true salsa dancing!
Before leaving Cape Town we were warned that the sea approaching the Panama coast can be very bumpy but happily this wasn’t the case. We moored up at Colon which is the nearest port to the Panama Canal and where all the formalities are carried out to allow transit through the canal. Prior to arrival, we had arranged for an agent to help us and I had been given a budget of 1,400 US Dollars to cover all the expenses. From memory, I don’t think there was any change!
The whole process took five days, so a lot of the time was spent at the Yacht Club, a short walk from our berth. The bar of the Club was frequented by a few couples that had sold everything at home, bought a boat to follow their dream and ended up in Panama, either running out of money or losing their nerve to continue, so drink had become their only solace. The town of Colon is not a place to be after dark! A fellow delivery skipper was mugged and stabbed three times whilst waiting for clearance.
We were finally ready to start our journey through the Canal late one afternoon, after all the formalities had been completed. On this trip, I was ticking three boxes of ‘things to do’ – going through the Panama Canal, sailing across the Pacific and visiting Australia – so this was the first one accomplished! We picked up a pilot and two linesmen and made our way into the first lock just behind a huge freighter. Once through, we tied up to a mooring in the Gatun Lake, and the pilot left us to spend the night there. The following morning, another pilot arrived to take us through the lakes. He turned out to be a very enthusiastic tour guide and we saw monkeys in nearby trees, birds everywhere and the occasional alligator. It took us virtually all day before we reached the Miraflores locks which took us down to the Pacific Ocean. As the locks are covered by a webcam, my family back home could see us go through – although we did look very small in comparison to these huge feats of engineering.
That night, whilst sailing from the Panama coast, we hit something that was floating just beneath the surface. After determining that we weren’t taking on water, we had to wait until the following morning before going overboard to investigate for any damage. Fortunately they were only scruff marks, so it must have been a plank or tree.
Our next stop was the Galapagos Islands – a part of the voyage we had expected would be difficult. We had been told to expect head winds and we weren’t disappointed – we spent the next eight days covering only 500 nm and being very uncomfortable. Although we were on the Equator, it was getting increasingly colder due to the Peru Ocean Current.
I must say it was a pleasant change to eventually be in the calmer waters of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island – after anchoring in the bay we slept like babies! The next day on shore we stepped between Iguanas and tortoises who were just wandering around the town. At the fish market, seals were picking up the scraps. It’s an amazing place – the whole area is just teaming with animals, mammals, birds and fish. Before leaving. we visited the Charles Darwin Research Station to commemorate the great man who arrived in 1835 on board HMS Beagle.
As we sailed away with the wind following us, it was obvious by the long undulating motion of the waves that we were in a large ocean. And as a result of delays in leaving Cape Town, we were now well into the tropical cyclone season which was a concern as we still had many miles to cover. Fortunately, we had a very good meteorologist in South Africa who was watching the weather patterns for us, but it meant navigating with the view that we might need to get to the Equator rather quickly. With the gennekar up we were making good progress. Every day at sea, we ran the engines to charge up the batteries as we didn’t have a generator – good batteries were essential to ensure communication and navigation equipment operated.
Fishing opportunities remained good – one day we caught a 70 lb. wahoo which I think is the most delicious of all sea food and provided many great meals. Once, after catching a dorado which we thought was too small to eat, we noticed as we were putting it back in that another one had been following the boat. It turned out to be its mate and they swam off together. After this experience, fishing became much harder!
When you are in a big ocean, you feel very vulnerable especially in a small boat. It’s not the fact that you expect to capsize or anything like that, but what happens if a crew member becomes ill or has an accident. In fact, we weren’t far from the “Oceanic Pole of Inaccessibility” which is the furthest point from land, so if there aren’t any ships in the vicinity, you are compelled to take matters into your own hands. I found this the most worrying aspect of being a delivery skipper.
Before reaching Tahiti, we visited an atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago. This was not just for curiosity – but on the advice of a seasoned skipper in Cape Town who suggested a visit to trade black pearls for cigarettes and rum with the divers. However, things had changed since our source of knowledge had been to this part of the world, as people were now driving flashy vehicles, and the only pearls were in shops which accepted visa cards – a great disappointment! It was, however, a beautiful spot and we left with the few black pearls our credit cards would allow. Now the problem now was what to do with all the rum and cigarettes!
After a few days, we arrived at the Moorings Base on the Tahitian Island of Raiatea from where we could see Bora Bora in the distance. We were provided with a berth in the Marina with electricity and water – all we needed for our short stay, but long enough to enjoy the hospitality of the French Polynesia people and marvel at the fragrant flora that surrounded us.
The next stop was Tonga about 1,400 nm away which would take about 9 days to cover. Although the weather was fine, we were now well into the cyclone season and I must say I was concerned that conditions could change.
However, we arrived safely at Queen Salote Wharf on Ma’ufanga, one of the Friendly Islands as named by Captain James Cook on his first visit in 1773. What became immediately evident was the size of Tongans, who are both tall and wide, as apparently they suffer the highest level of diabetes per capita in the world. The reason for this is that their diet has changed over the years with more high cholesterol food imports from New Zealand.
Our stay in Tonga was short as we were eager to get on with the last leg of the voyage which would take about 12 days. One of the best parts of this delivery was the compatibility of the crew. Even after all this time together, we still enjoyed the experience, but there was the feeling that after such a long time away we needed to be with our loved ones – Lucy was planning to meet her boyfriend in the Caribbean, and Jacque was missing his girlfriend in South Africa.
Our fishing lines were still helping to supplement our diet – this time it was yellowfin tuna which would provide sashimi with the wasabi we had brought with us from South Africa. Eating fish in restaurants subsequently has always been a disappointment!
As we were getting close to our destination, it was time to start detailing the boat. Although we had a continuous cleaning schedule throughout the voyage, it was time to try to make it look as if it had just come out of the factory, instead of being sailed two thirds around the world. The wind conditions were very fluky the closer we got to the Australian coastline, but we used the engines more and more as we had sufficient diesel for a last minute splurge.
We arrived in Brisbane on the 8th December 2008 after 117 days on board and sailing 14,374 nm without any major incident – it was an incredible feeling!
As we had been warned, Customs and Immigration formalities were very thorough – apparently they sometimes send a diver to inspect the bottom of boats to ensure there are no undesirable incrustations! All food supplies were inspected and all perishable items were bagged up and disposed of. Once completed, we found a marina so that we could dispose of all the plastic fuel containers. This was when I found out how wonderful and trusting the locals were – someone who I had only just met lent me his pick-up truck to transport them!
The next day we delivered the yacht to a berth at the bottom of the owner’s garden, where champagne flowed and the crew were the guests of honour.
Just another successful delivery!