Boats Built to Last

Early in 1991 Clifford & Heila Gibb arrived at our factory. A contrasting couple with Heila an attractive slim well dressed lady with not a hair out of place. Clifford her husband looked in bad shape, tired and over worked. They had heard about the St Francis Catamarans and wanted to see one. As I always do I took them through the factory explaining the building process with costs, etc.

To my amazement they wanted to buy a semi-complete boat with engines and everything outside, mast, sails, winches, anchors, etc. fitted and working. The interior they would finish off themselves in Durban. Heila explained that this was to be Clifford's job, as they had just sold their business and her husband needed something to do while he got out of the rat race with all its associated stress. Something completely different for him to regain his health.

Launch date arrived "Summer Magic" was christened and sea trials completed. It was now up to me as skipper to deliver her to Durban, approximately 400 miles up the East Coast against the Agulhas current, which can flow as fast as 6 knots.

For the journey Clifford plus two of his friends with a little sailing experience and his son, who had just finished his schooling were chosen to come along. Not knowing his crew's capabilities I invited Hugh Carter, a friend who was a fellow member of the N.S.R.I. (National Sea Rescue Institute), and squid fisherman who had a happy disposition and would mix well with anyone. After a brief overnight stop in Port Elizabeth to get some food and other supplies. We set off around mid day in absolutely calm conditions. Unable to sail we motored running both engines while varying their revs, but staying under 2500 RPM, as required for running in during the first 10 hours.

After an easy 150 miles of motoring we were off East London. It became obvious that should the predicted Westerly not come through we would run out of fuel before Durban. Hence we decided to pull into East London for diesel. This and a few additional snacks were duly loaded. Around 2pm we departed the fuel dock, which is approximately 2 miles up the Buffalo River. While motoring down we received a most unusual weather report "Wind a Plenty" "Wind a Plenty" "Wind a Plenty" "Gale" "Gale" "Gale" "45 knots SW….. followed later by a 20 knot NE". I called the owner and crew together and told them of the weather report. They all agreed with Clifford who said "you are the skipper we will agree with whatever you say".

The Westerly I said holds no fear, provided we stay close to shore in the counter current with a good wind behind us. What I don't like is sailing against the current and wind, which is predicted to follow the next day. Waiting could delay our Durban arrival by a good few days. With that said we hoisted all sail and enjoyed 2 hours' of exhilarating sailing. As the wind was strengthening we dropped the main and sailed on the genoa alone. Still maintaining an average speed of around 12 knots. With the approach of evening, wind still strengthening, we rolled up the genoa leaving sufficient to maintain a steady 7 knots. Knowing a long night faced us, I decided to take the first 2 hour break, leaving strict instructions to stay on the 40 metre depth line and to reduce sail if the wind got any stronger.

I had barely got to sleep when I was awoken by a brisk shaking and the words that we only have 14 metres under the keel. Awake in a flash I dashed outside to be greeted by a pitch black night with no sight of coastline, only the flashing light from the Mbashe lighthouse. The depth gauge kept flashing 14 metres deep.

As the depth gauge showed a constant depth, I assumed it had broken down. The flashing Mbashe light, which has a range of 28 miles, gave no indication as to how far we were offshore. To be safe I added 15˚ to the compass bearing, switched on the autopilot and called for GPS and charts. The Furuno GPS came up first with a stable fix. When the chart was found I was amazed. I had asked Clifford if he had charts, "yes" was his answer, as they would be needed later. Being new to sailing he had purchased one large scale chart, which covered about 400+ miles from St Francis Bay to Richards Bay. Even with a perfect fix it would be impossible for me to plot with any accuracy anything under 10 miles from the bucking deck.

I unfortunately had not asked to see the charts as anything up to East London was considered to be in my own back yard.

The seas were becoming steep and horrendous. The genoa was reefed further in leaving an exposed piece the size of a swimming towel. While the wind was gusting up to 45 knots our speed through the water was about 7 knots with the occasional surf at 17 knots. I ordered everyone inside with the saloon door closed and to only use the aft cabins, as I wanted to keep the weight as far back as possible. Sitting at the helm I set the boat on autopilot. Visibility was nil, no moon, only the stars were visible, but dimmed by all the spume being blown about.

With no warning an enormous wave broke directly into the cockpit, filling it to over flowing forcing us down the steep slope then broaching to port at the bottom. The autopilot although set to its highest response level could not cope. I immediately disengaged the pilot and grabbed the helm, which had no feeling at all. Rudders broken off I thought. Then we were facing into wind surfing backwards with no visibility I presume on the second wave. The rudders swung over, forcing us straight down the wave. Now under my control the helm felt normal and we were surfing straight down with no visibility until the bows went into the wave in front and the white foam could be seen spraying up through the trampoline.

This is a danger sign, as from my Hobie cat days catamarans turn over more often 'head over heels" (pitch pole) than sideways. As the enormous waves seemed to have passed I re-engaged the autopilot and set about clearing the cockpit drains. In the 43 we had 4 1½ cockpit drains, which were bath tub drains with grates at the bottom.

From East London we had been eating chocolates & snacks with the wrapping paper now clogging the drains. Once quickly cleaned, the cockpit soon dried and I resumed my position at the helm. This was the closest I had ever come to a catastrophe in a boat. Wondering whether I should give the order to fit life jackets or would this panic the crew. Looking through the glass sliding door into the dimly lit saloon I need not have worried, as all members were wearing life jackets.

Seeing the water in the cockpit subside Hugh opened the sliding door. The relief of seeing me was obvious. He commented that while clearing the cockpit drains I looked like a gold fish in a bowl. Fortunately less than two buckets of water had leaked around the glass sliding doors and into the boat. The broach at the bottom of the first wave was very steep causing a lot of centrifugal force which took a tray of eggs off our make shift saloon table smashing them near the top of the starboard side wall. The crew were all tossed around, but no casualties.

Now we were in survival mode. I had Hugh sit on the cockpit seat, his back to the saloon. This way he was able to see approaching waves. The waves that broke aft even if only 10' behind were easy to see with foam and phosphorescence showing their position,

As they caught up with us, it was like driving over a very bumpy section of road with foam and spray coming over the sides, exhilarating but not dangerous. We still had good control and surfed along until the wave dissipated.

However the large unbroken waves could only be spotted when Hugh saw the stars disappearing as they approached.

Hugh was able to call out "small" "medium" or "big one". A big one caused nearly all the stars to disappear.

At the "big one" signal I would brace myself at the helm, start surfing and run a ± 30˚ angle down the face carefully watching for a swell to subside or break. If it subsided I would run along the side and then let it pass under us rather like a surfer before turning our stern back to the oncoming waves. The idea of running down the swell at a slight angle extends the length from corner to corner of the catamaran and avoids accelerating fast down which could lead to burying the bows and pitch poling.

The dangerous big ones had an extremely steep face, total height above 40' with the top ¹/3 dumping. We were pooped once again, but with quick action at the helm we ran straight and the cockpit rapidly drained. I suspect that the additional tons of water in the cockpit stopped the bows from digging in and pitch poling. The wind speed started subsiding, seldom now above 40 knots, but the sea conditions worsened. We suspected that the strong wind had blown the top off and now the swells were more regular and larger.

Here I was in pitch darkness, sailing and surfing a 43' catamaran in 43' waves in the same manor that I sailed my 14' Hobie cat in 14' waves. Fortunately I spent many hours surfing my Hobie, but never dreamt it was practice for this.

My feelings now were that with one mistake we could be history. The seas were just too big. Rather take our chances closer to shore. Carefully I edged closer towards land. Every wave broke and the whole seascape was just one mass of white foam like swimming ashore through the surf, where every wave leaves a continuous white trail.

Straining my eyes to see any sign of the shore, I spotted the lights of a small coastal ship. At a guess 5 miles in on the shore side. This confirmed that I was much further out at sea than I had imagined. Right in the Agulhas current. Water temperature was warm. This gave me confidence in heading more towards land.

As we proceeded on this course, the wind continued to subside. The waves became smaller and stopped breaking becoming large swells. Hugh was sent to get some sleep.

At first light I rolled out more genoa. An hour later I could see the coastline and set the full genoa. Checking our gain in speed I glanced at the depth gauge, showing 71 metres and working perfectly. No more jumping around and repeating the last depth, probably caused by a fish. I was to find out later that the depth gauge only works down to about 150 metres and when it does not receive a fresh signal (rebound off the bottom or fish) it flashes and just repeats the last reading. We were too deep and beyond its range.

The crew emerged very pleased to see the sunrise. We set the sails & course with strict instruction to stay at the 40 metres depth, as shown on the gauge. After a quick snack and coffee I retired, waking up around 11am. The scenic green hills of the Transkei always amaze me; beautiful sandy bays between rocky highlands. In one such bay we could easily see two large life rafts, obviously left after the sinking of the Oceanos. An amazing incident, which had occurred about 10 days before. Thanks to a local band, SA Navy and air force not a single sole was lost, even though the captain was the first to abandon ship.

Another very memorable sight was watching the remainder of the heavy seas we had just encountered crashing into some of the many sheer cliffs. The big swells would smash up against the cliff with a very audible bang and send a sheet of water all the way to the top, which would then cascade down as a beautiful waterfall.

The journey up the coast with the now moderate westerly wind was picture book, with all onboard taking turns to catch up on sleep, eating well prepared meals and enjoying the excellent views of the coast, particularly as we were sailing up in the counter current; often only ¼ mile off shore.

The dividing line between the fast +3 knots Agulhas current running SW and our ± 1 knot NE counter current was well defined by the different water colour and pieces of flotsam floating between the two.

Just after sunset, on our approach to Port Edward, situated on the boundary between Transkei and apartheid enforced homeland consisting mostly of rural huts with few roads and amenities and Kwa-Zulu Natal, a well developed area was like walking out of a beautiful dark park into a bustling well lit city starting with the well lit Wild Coast Casino forming a ribbon of light all the way up to Durban and beyond. Sailing on a warm night with light wind, full main & genoa just 100 metres beyond the shark nets. We were passing Margate, a popular holiday town, music & laughter could clearly be heard from the crowds on the beach. Hugh, I and a mature crew member were relaxing in the cockpit. Hugh suggested a tot of O.B.S (this stands for Old Brown Sherry, a favourite drink amongst fisherman). Contrary to my usual rule of abstaining during watches, thoughts of the previous night changed my perspective and I agreed. Our old friend, a Mormon, as were the rest of the crew said nothing. Hugh disappeared below, returning with two mugs of sherry. One handed to me at the helm, the other placed next to his seat. He then said he would get some snacks. On his return with snacks he indicated to me that his mug was empty, I shrugged as I had seen nothing. He then went below again and returned with two mugs of O.B.S. One he placed next to the old gentleman, the other for himself. Nothing was said. We could have been drinking coffee. Our old friend did mention that "we had a very Holy boat last night".

The night was one of pleasant recovery, easy smooth sailing with our route well lit from the shore. After breakfast, this consisted of fried Flying Fish, not my favourite so I stuck with cereal & toast. The eggs were all smashed, some still stuck to the STB wall. Mid morning the next day, the wind died sails furled and engines started. With no restriction as to the revs, we set them at a steady 3000 RPM each. This gave us a comfortable 8½ – 9 knots. I wanted to cover as much ground as possible before the north easterly arrived. Beating up against the NE is hard work, to avoid the Agulhas current you have to keep close in shore. The NE wind arrived right on the nose. Our decision was to stay on the engines to shorten our arrival time. At the Durban Harbour entrance we called for permission to enter. This was granted with the caution to be careful of the large swells. After what we had just experienced we could see no large swells.

Two lessons I learnt from this trip:

  1. Understand and know the capabilities of your instruments
  2. Check that all the tools/charts, etc. needed for the trip are onboard

Clifford & Heila finished the boat to a standard that we would be proud of. Sailed with family to the Caribbean.   Almost a year later Heila rocked up at our factory, through her arms around my neck nearly breaking it, kissed and thanked me for saving Clifford's life. He had now fully recovered and so much in love with "Summer Magic", that he was staying onboard to look after her while she returned briefly to South Africa on business.

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