Monday, February 27, 2017

The Elusive Aghulas Current

It is nice when the current is helping us.
There are a number of places on the various oceans and seas of the world that cause sailors' nightmares. Mother Nature has made sure she stays in charge and keeps cocky mariners in line. We have experienced a few and tried to avoid most of them. Sometimes, though, they lie between where you are and where you want to be. Then it is judgment time!

The first challenge we met was crossing the Gulf Steam that runs north along North America's east coast. You can experience the "perfect storm" out there. The current runs north and the wind often blows from the north making a crossing quite lumpy when the wind and sea meet. There are numerous eddies where the current spins the water in circles and if you get caught in one, you go nowhere fast! In fact, you may just go the wrong way fast!

We were all looking for the red-orange area.
Our first experience crossing the Gulf Stream was at night in early November right after Hurricane Thomas. It was also our first offshore passage and we were rookies. We experienced 15-20 foot swells that often looked like they we going to douse us. Fortunately, we had very experienced crew who showed us the way - even though I had my head in the porcelain throne for the first four days. I just wanted to die right there and then! I recall thinking that I would die before we reached Tortola in the British Virgin Islands.

Here we are on Fleet Tracker heading to East London.
After five crossings (three down and two back), I am still not looking forward to that last return crossing. I have endured sailing from New Caledonia to New Zealand in wretched seas as that is never a pleasant passage. Once was enough! The return trip to Tonga via Minerva Reef wasn't pleasant either, but the thrill of being inside a reef in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean made it worth the discomfort. Definitely a once in a life time experience.

And we had plenty of company day and night! Day after day.
The three-week sail across the Pacific from the Panama Canal to French Polynesia seemed daunting at first. Thousands of miles from anywhere without seeing land for three weeks caused a few nightmares, but it turned out to be a great passage. Sailing alone through the low-lying atolls of the Tuamotus was a bit unnerving, but the two of us managed quite well without crew. And I gained a lot of confidence in my sailing skills and night watches.

These ships are huge! Three football fields long!
There was much discussion and concern about sailing inside the Great Barrier Reef of Australia prior to arriving in Oz. Some of the fleet yachts had various challenges getting inside the Reef and a few more once inside while exploring. We found it quite comfortable as long as we kept good watches for all the things that go bump in the night - or day - and there are many out there! And we tried to sail during daylight hours as much as possible.

The Indian Ocean was our next challenge as it is a very long sail in confused seas, variable high winds and quickly forming gales. We were both dreading that passage. As it turned out, it was a walk in the park for most of it. And a few times it was like being out of control on a black diamond ski run! Fortunately, we did not experience any gales and had such calm conditions that we had to motor-sail more than we liked.

The contour of the ocean's floor causes some of the effects
we feel while sailing - especially where the depths at the
shelves change dramatically - meaning rough water.
Once we landed on the shores of South Africa, we began to anticipate the next big challenge: the Agulhas Current. Oh, the tales we had been told! It seemed like everyone had an OMG story about the Agulhas Current. Based on these, I was dreading the trip around the southern tip of South Africa.

Yes, this can be a very dangerous passage if the wind is from the southwest against the current running from the northeast to the southwest. There are only a few places to duck into along this 900-mile coastline to Cape Town. The winds can quickly switch directions or build to gale force and it is not easy to get across the current to a calmer area near shore. Then there is the risk of being blown onto the shore.

Sometimes we had the big guys passing on both sides of
us at the same time. One nautical mile apart is close!
We had to wait a week for the right weather window before leaving Richards Bay on the east coast of SA. Then it was a push against time to get to East London, SA before the wind clocked around from northeast to southwest.

We managed to get into the harbor around 2100 and easily anchored. It was a little exciting going into a new harbor at night with so many different lights on shore. Fortunately, it was a harbor for cargo ships so the leading lights helped us get lined up for the entrance.

But at night, you see them on the screen like this. When
you look out, you just see some lights coming or going.
After sitting out a big blow for 24 hours and getting a good night of sleep, we were back out in search of the Agulhas Current again. We had a couple of knots of current giving us 9-13 knots of speed over ground (SOG) on the way to East London. Some boats never found the current and others complained about the current being against them. I guess we were lucky to have found it for most of that leg.

The little blue dot is us at anchor in East London.
But not so much on the next leg toward Cape Town! We had a little boost early on, but then it turned against us. We went further offshore to see if we could find the southbound current, as it runs north closer to land. No luck! In fact, no one was finding the elusive 3-5 knot current that was supposed to give us the ride of our lives!

Oh, yes! Then there are things like unlit fishing boats and
oil rigs and platforms to avoid along the way!

So, as we sailed along with the freighters passing on both sides, we just took our medicine and motor-sailed into an 0.8-1.8 current against us or from the side. We managed to average above 7 knots on the second day. I love our 110 hp Yanmar!

Several times, we had 13 freighters on the screen at the same time. This was especially fun at night! And there were oil well fields to avoid as well. But we were making good time towards Cape Town in a decent weather window despite the marine traffic.

Always checking the rigging and adjusting the sails.

No comments:

Post a Comment

We would love to hear from you here. You can see earlier posts at