Nov 252013

Forecasting in 2013 has evolved to a level of accuracy that is astounding. When Windfinder says E’ly at 11pm, then you’d better believe them. On top of that, when they say 9kt gusting 30kt, then realise that they are trying to tell you something! With a range that wide something is up! I should have known. I really should have known not to join the cruise to Oranjeville.

The weekend starting out on a difficult note, in hindsight an omen of what was to follow. I’d taken the headsail down to repair a minor tear and had failed on previous occasions to get it back up. My goal this sunny early summer Saturday was to get the sail back up the foil or die trying. The bottom line – no cruise to Oranjeville without the sail. After all, I have this niggle of doubt about the Yanmar. I’ve read too many stories of motors failing at inopportune moments and without the heads’l I’d be buggered. How right I’d turn out to be, and how wrong!

The battle with the sail took a full six hours of my time, energy and patience but with it finally back in place, I enjoyed an easy 3hr motor-sail up to the anchorage just before the road bridge. Five yachts serenely lying to their anchors welcomed Ocean Blue as she rounded the last corner and set anchor in about 5m.

I’d wolfed down a supper of rolls and butternut soup and then transferred my sorry butt across to Crazy Seal, rafted up to Force Five in the anchorage at Oranjeville. The evening passed quickly with the usual friendly chat about nothing in particular. I don’t know exactly what galvanised me into action but I suddenly, and I suppose quite rudely, bid all a frantic good night and pointed the tender to where Ocean Blue lay anchored near by. Something about that first swirl of wind from the South East just filled me with anxiety. By the time I got on board the Easterly was blowing with a vengeance.

I’ve not had very much luck to date anchoring Ocean Blue. She and I, we have a history of dragging around the dam. And so, I had no doubt as soon as that first thought “we’re dragging” came to mind. The yacht, broadside to the SE’ly was a clear sign we were on the move. Motor on! Time to get the anchor up.

My word, I’m getting old. I heave away at the anchor and chain for what seems an eternity. When I finally get the slimy mess on board the depth sounder is showing 1.4 – 1.5m. Considering that we officially draw 1.6m that’s ominous. We do a couple of out-of-control pirouettes, first this way, then that and finally we’re free. By now the wind is a steady 30-35kt from the east and the night is wild. I rush about between helm and instrument panel, turning on nav lights and making ready to ….. and bam, we run aground full speed into the east bank of the channel.

Hard aground. She’s not motoring off this time. Damn! The only bit of good in the situation is that the muddy bank is on the windward side of the channel. I roll out a tiny piece of genoa, our only chance of getting off if the wind will assist. It viciously obliges and blows even harder, but it still takes an eternity before the bow blows off and we finally pop out into the deeper water of the channel.

There’s no time to feel proud at getting ourselves off the mud. The wind has pegged itself at 35kt and is hell-bent on destroying the scrap of sail violently flogging on the forestay. I can’t roll it up by hand, even though it’s handkerchief sized. I finally get the furling line on a winch and get it stowed, but now we have passed the relative shelter of the east bank and the wind-driven waves are pounding in from the 2nm fetch in the river. It’s wild and wet and the Yanmar gamely struggles to give us a slow 2.5kt against the wind and waves.

I take one last look back to the dark and wild anchorage. Crazy seal has beached herself on the windward mud-bank and shines a light my way but I’m too focussed on keeping pointing in the right direction to wave or cry or curse. The other yachts are invisible to me and all I can do is wish them well on their own struggles this wild night. Ocean Blue and I are now committed and on our own.

It takes forever to leave the lights of Oranjeville behind and all the while I’m silently begging the Yanmar “please don’t stop, please don’t stop”. The channel here is flanked by nasty, hull-wrecking rocks and cliffs and the chances of sailing out of here in this dark, evil weather are not good.

Once we round the corner and take on a northerly heading things go a bit easier. It’s also more sheltered in this portion of the river and for the next hour we make between 6.5 and 7kts over the ground all the way to Tombstones. The anemometer is showing a constant 20kt and we’re running. That means there’s still 30kt plus blowing in from the east. I’m dreading rounding Tombstones. With this easterly and a fetch of 3-4nm to Big Bend, whatever we experienced up until now is going to seem kindergarten calm in comparison. I’m not disappointed and am soon soaked to the bone as the bow rises and plunges into each successive wave. It’s probably a good thing it’s dark and I can’t see exactly how big the waves and weather is.

I’ve put on three jerseys and a waterproof but my longs are soaked and I’m cold, cold, cold. So far, we’re managing to make slow progress, very slow progress. So slow that threatening Graveyard reef to port just won’t leave the tiny chart-plotter screen. Now this is the sole focus and I intently watch the slow miserable reef creep along the port beam.

Things never choose the best time to happen do they? I mean, we could have been in wide open water when the stem fitting ripped out of the tender, a place where we had some room to manoeuvre and recover. But no, nothing tonight is going to be easy it seems. Nothing. The bang of the fitting ripping out the bow of the tender snaps me back into reality. I turn and watch 10DA2 rapidly disappearing into the gloom and my first thought is “Damn, I’m tired, just let it go!”

“Never give up until you can’t anymore”. I’ve still got a little left to give and so I turn Ocean Blue and run back downwind in hot pursuit. No idea how I’m going to do this in this weather? Somehow I get the boat turned just downwind of 10DA2 and while she’s pushed up against the hull by wind and wave I manage to grab what’s left of the bow. The painter is still attached to OB and holding this in my left hand, I stubbornly refuse to let go of 10DA2 with my right, even though we’ve now changed direction and she’s wanting to take me overboard. There’s nowhere to tie off, the only possibility the tubing riveted around the gunwales. That’s not going to last, but I have no other choice and so I tie off the line, fitting and all, onto the rubber tubing. By now we’re getting perilously close to the shore again and after an age I get us pointing back toward Big Bend and we start out duel with Graveyard Reef all over again.

It’s not 15 minutes later and the tubing gives way. A quick thought of ” do I climb in the tender and try and secure the line to the seat or somewhere” is quickly dismissed. If I do that both I and the dinghy will be separated from OB in a flash. Reluctantly I watch as 10DA2 speeds off into the wave-swept darkness. Somehow I know I’ll not be seeing her again. Damn. And I’ve just finished a new set of oars for her !

But there’s no time to focus on the loss. The mother ship is still in danger and there’s a long and rough passage still to be made. The water all the way to Big Bend is rough, the wind still upwards of 25kts but the plucky little Yanmar, belching black smoke at times gets us through the worst of it and once we round the corner, the wind is on the beam and the water much calmer.

We finally make the mooring at about 01h45, wet, tired and cold. Glad to be alive and in relatively one piece.

Next morning I call the fleet on Ch71. There’s carnage in the anchorage. All 4 yachts have been blown ashore and are hard aground. It takes a couple of hours and assistance from the NSRI boat to finally get them all off. At least they’re all in working condition and can make the journey back home under their own steam.

There’s no sighting of 10DA2 by any of them on the way back.

Not much good ever happens on the Vaal in November !!

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