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The following was written by our friend Des Cason, ex‑s/v Gambit. Des is not, strictly speaking, a weather professional. However, he's been reading the weather and assisting boats coming down the east coast of Africa since about 2015. He's now based near Durban, and has offered his services to help cruising boats sailing along this coast. Because Des is an ex‑cruiser himself, he offers his services for free to the cruising community, as a way to give back to all the wonderful cruisers who have helped him in the past. If you would like to avail yourself of Des's services, please email him directly.
The Challenge of Passage Planning in the SW Indian Ocean
With the route out of the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean still significantly affected by the threat of Somali piracy, most yachts on a world circumnavigation are now faced with the prospect of a passage across the Indian Ocean to South Africa and round her southern capes into the South Atlantic. Yachts starting from SE Asia are most likely to take the northern route involving Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Chagos archipelago, the Seychelles, NW Madagascar and Mozambique, while yachts starting in Darwin, Australia, usually take the southern route involving Christmas Island, Cocos Keeling, Rodrigues, Mauritius, and Reunion. While yachts can combine elements of these two routes, the focus of this article is on what happens when a yacht reaches Madagascar on the northern route or Reunion on the southern route. Up until this point passage planning is relatively straightforward given that the SE trade winds predominate.
From here on two significant weather factors affect passage planning.
The first is the Agulhas current, which starts up in the Mozambique Channel and flows southward down the South African coast as far as Cape Agulhas. Given that the continental shelf is close inshore for much of the coast between Richards Bay and Port Elisabeth the current flows strongest inshore; often as close as the 200 metre depth contour. The rate of flow varies along its length and is at its strongest between Durban and East London where it can be flowing at up to 4 to 5 knots. While this can give a yacht considerable benefit in terms of a fast passage down the coast with many yachts recording their fastest 24 hour run down this stretch, there is a major downside in terms of passage planning caused by the other significant weather factor in this part of the world. These are the Southwest depressions, which roll up the east coast of South Africa from the southern ocean up as far as southern Madagascar at regular intervals often as short as 2 to 3 days apart. When one of these depressions meets the south flowing Agulhas current the resulting seas become very short and steep creating very unpleasant and often dangerous conditions. In a severe SW gale waves as high as 20 metres have been recorded in the Agulhas current. Consequently it is not a place to be caught out in these conditions.
There are two further complicating factors when voyaging in these waters. The first is the cyclone season, which affects the waters around Madagascar, Reunion and Mauritius from December to May. This means that yachts need to leave NW Madagascar or Reunion for South Africa by the end of November at the latest. The second is the lack of safe harbours between Richards Bay and Cape Town. The only realistic options before the Cape Town area in the event of bad weather are Durban, East London, Port Elizabeth and Mossel Bay. HOUT BAY? Knysna is only a realistic option in benign conditions. The entrance is tricky and potentially dangerous. This fact was highlighted to me by a British yacht that we met on arrival in Cape Town. The yacht was hit by two monster waves just after crossing the bar on departure, which bent the steering column and spinnaker pole, did considerable damage to the stainless steel deck gear as well as drowning all of the electronic equipment. The owner told me that if they had been a lighter yacht they would almost certainly have broached and rolled over ending up on the rocks. As it was, their 21 ton yacht was just able to punch through these waves and survive the experience. In my view they had a very lucky escape! It should also be noted that Mossel Bay is only really safe, if you can get inside the harbour. If a strong easterly is blowing the anchorage outside in front of the yacht club is on a lee shore and subject to large swells. While we were there sheltering from a strong easterly, a yacht anchored outside dragged its anchor and ended up on the beach. They were extremely fortunate to be towed off by the lifeboat with minimal damage. Both these incidents highlighted to me the fact that this coast deserves real respect and very careful consideration when it comes to passage planning.
However, before one has to tackle the challenge of this stretch of coast, one has to get there. In particular the passage between Reunion and Richards Bay or Durban poses its own considerable challenge. The aim here is to avoid getting caught out in a SW depression when rounding the southern tip of Madagascar and especially when crossing the Agulhas current. The length of passage is approximately 1400 nautical miles and so will take most yachts 10 to 12 days. However, as one encounters the Agulhas current at the end of the passage there are no accurate forecasts as to what the weather will be doing off Richards Bay or Durban at the time of departure from Reunion.
Consequently one has to set off “blind” in this respect and be prepared for whatever one might encounter later on in the passage.
That said the first challenge is to round the southern tip of Madagascar. Shallow waters and a wind acceleration zone make this an unpleasant place to be in a SW depression. However, by paying careful attention to weather forecasts while in Reunion, one should be able to avoid this situation.
Once safely round Madagascar it is very important to be able to obtain accurate weather information on the weather in the Mozambique Channel and coastal waters of South Africa either by email from a weather router or from GRIB files. An Iridium Go system is probably best for this purpose as sailmail via HF radio is not particularly reliable until well into the Mozambique Channel. At this juncture one should be in a position to head directly to Richards Bay or Durban if there is a clear weather window before the next SW depression comes through.
If a weather window has not opened up at this stage the sensible strategy is to stay further North and head west along latitude 26S. This keeps one above the path of most SW depressions and keeps one’s options open. One is in a position either to head down to Richards Bay or Durban when a window opens up or to head north to Inhaca Island off Maputo if one needs to shelter from a SW depression.
The alternative to facing the dilemma posed by a direct passage from Reunion to South Africa is instead to head NW from Reunion to NW Madagascar and thence down the Mozambique Channel to Richards Bay or Durban. The advantage of this option is that it breaks down the passage into shorter legs and provides more accurate weather windows during the latter stages of the passage down the Mozambique Channel as well as several options for seeking shelter in the event of bad weather. However, it should be noted that this option will take substantially longer, especially if one intends to spend time cruising in the waters of NW Madagascar, which is reputed to be a delightful cruising ground. Accordingly this needs to be planned for well in advance and factored into one’s overall plan for crossing the Indian Ocean. Given the vagaries of the cyclone season it is not a realistic last minute option.
Once safely in Richards Bay or Durban the next challenge is to negotiate the South African coast round to Cape Town. The overall length of the passage is 800 nautical miles from Durban and a further 85 from Richards Bay. With SW depressions barreling up the coast every 2 to 3 days one would be lucky to make the trip in one go.
Therefore the trick is to work out how much progress one can make in the window between SW depressions before the next one comes through.
It should be remembered that the Agulhas current can provide a significant boost to progress especially between Durban and East London, where it really kicks in 40 nautical miles south of Durban. In favourable conditions it is quite possible to achieve a 240 mile day on this stretch of coast and this needs to be taken into account. The other factor which needs to be taken into account is the weather for rounding Cape Agulhas. In strong conditions with winds in excess of 20 knots from either direction the sea state can rapidly become very unstable and unpleasant. A further complicating factor is the likelihood of encountering a cut-off low at some stage on passage.
These are generated off the land and in most cases are of relatively short duration. Few last more than 6 hours. Consequently they are harder to forecast accurately. However, their potential impact on a passage plan in terms of imposing delay can be significant. Thus it is important to factor in some reserve time in one's plan to allow for the possibility of encountering one.
Unlike the passage from Reunion, where one has to set off blind, there is no need to do so when sailing down the South African coast, as there is a wealth of accurate weather information available from the South African Meteorological Service and other weather sources such as Predict Wind, Passage Weather and Wind Guru. However, it is important to monitor these sources very carefully as the detail changes on a daily basis, particularly with regard to timing. With careful passage planning, taking full advantage of the weather window on offer, there is no excuse for being caught out in bad weather on this stretch of coast unless one has the misfortune to suffer major gear failure. It is also important to maintain the average speed set out in the passage plan and be prepared to turn the engine on when wind strength does not allow one to maintain the required speed over the ground. Winds in a weather window can often be on the light side, so one should expect to motor for a considerable amount of time. That was certainly our experience down this stretch of coast.
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The following is an account by s/v Sofia, who sailed from Reunion to Richards Bay to Cape Town in 2017. It was provided by Des for illustration.
So how did s/v Sofia cope with these challenges as we crossed the Indian Ocean to South Africa in the autumn of 2017? Mid October found s/v Sofia berthed in Port de Galets marina in Reunion with her crew looking for a weather window to depart for Richards Bay. Mindful of the challenges and uncertainties involved in the passage ahead, which had been on our minds for some time, we decided that it would be sensible to employ the services of a professional weather router.
After reading an article in Yachting World on the internet on why international cruisers should consider using a weather router, we found Simon Rowell, who is meteorologist for the UK Sailing Team and the Clipper Race. He is also an ocean sailor, who has made two passages in these waters, so we were confident that we would receive the advice we needed. We wanted input from him in two respects for our passage planning. The first was when was the appropriate window to depart Reunion and round the southern tip of Madagascar. The second was to provide ongoing weather advice as we approached the Agulhas current. His charges were very reasonable and his advice proved to be both helpful and accurate.
However, having signed him on, Jenny Crickmore‑Thompson, the OCC PO/POR Coordinator, told us about local South African weather expert Des Cason. Des is a retired ocean sailor based in Durban, who provides free and tailored weather advice to any yacht crossing from Reunion or Madagascar to South Africa, or sailing down the coast of South Africa, out of the goodness of his heart. His advice was to prove invaluable both on the passage from Reunion and then from Richards Bay to Cape Town. I would strongly advise any yacht sailing in these waters to make use of his services.
Thus armed with advice from Des and Simon we set off from Reunion on 16 October 2017 in company with another OCC yacht, s/v Dreamcatcher (UK). Conditions approaching the southern tip of Madagascar were relatively benign. However, at this point we noticed a major tear in our mainsail. In order to prevent further damage we took the sail off and replaced it with the storm trysail. This slowed us down somewhat and Dreamcatcher steadily pulled away from us. By now we were aware of the existence of a strong SW low making its way up the South African coast, although at this stage it was not entirely clear when it would reach Richards Bay. Consequently, rather than heading directly for Richards Bay, we followed advice from Des to keep our options open by keeping further north and heading west along latitude 26ºS. By the time that we reached longitude 030ºE the situation regarding the depression was much clearer and we now had 48 hours in which to cross the Agulhas current and reach Richards Bay before the low arrived.
However the prevailing light winds in the Mozambique Channel would mean motoring hard to cover the distance in the time available. As we had already motored for some of the way from Reunion to the southern tip of Madagascar, fuel consumption was now an issue. After some careful calculations we reckoned that we had just enough to make it, with a small reserve for emergencies. After motoring hard for 24 hours we were in a position to take advantage of the favourable winds that Des and Simon had forecast as we approached the South African coast.
As the wind backed round from the NW to the SW, we were able to follow the wind around and close reach our way down the coast to Richards Bay. At that point we took a wave over the foredeck, which split the genoa at the foot, so we replaced it with the staysail and were able to make it into Richards Bay with 6 hours to spare on Thursday, 26 October 2017 after an 11 day passage, and were safely tied up in the small craft harbour in Tuzi Gazi when the SW gale arrived and roared through the rigging!
After 5 very pleasant weeks in Richards Bay at the Zululand Yacht Club, it was time to head down to Cape Town at the end of November. Most yachts head down in this timeframe for a variety of reasons, although the best time of year for this passage is January to March. We felt confident that provided we allowed sufficient time for stopovers in the event of bad weather, we could make the 900 nautical mile passage in 10‑14 days and reach Cape Town by mid‑December. Armed with advice from Des we reckoned that we could reach East London in our first weather window even though we might encounter a small cut off low south of Durban for 6 hours. Based on Des's comment that conditions might be uncomfortable but not dangerous, we decided to press on rather than call in at Durban. After a bouncy 12 hours tacking south of Durban, the wind backed to the SE and we picked up the Agulhas current. Given the boost from the current, we rocketed down the coast, averaging 10‑12 knots! With such good progress, we decided to bypass East London and head for Port Elizabeth, where we would wait as the next SW depression came through. It should be noted that in spite of a very welcoming yacht club, there are two significant problems with Port Elizabeth. The first is surge within the harbour, and the second is coal dust from the coal loading facility right next to the marina, which quickly coats everything. This problem is compounded by the severe water shortage. Restrictions on water usage mean you cannot use fresh water to wash off the coal dust.
Once the depression had blown through we moved on to Mossel Bay. Unfortunately for us, the strong easterlies, which would have been ideal for a quick passage to Cape Town, made rounding Cape Agulhas problematic while these conditions persisted, so we called into Mossel Bay and ended up on the harbour wall rafted on to a French yacht that we had met in Port Elizabeth. There we waited for a day for an appropriate opportunity to round Cape Agulhas. Given the go ahead by Des, we set off at the crack of dawn in order to reach the Cape by midnight, when conditions would be starting to die down. We duly arrived at the appointed hour and had a relatively benign rounding.
However, as we were motoring in calm winds and flat seas towards Cape Point, a cut off low suddenly materialized with 25 knots on the nose! Consequently, we found ourselves beating our way up towards Cape Point, which delayed our arrival in Cape Town. Instead of arriving in daylight in reasonable winds, we found ourselves arriving at midnight in the teeth of the "Cape Doctor". This made berthing in the Royal Cape Yacht Club marina, in the dark, for the first time, with the wind gusting over 30 knots, a somewhat nerve wracking experience!
With the benefit of hindsight, the passages between Reunion and Cape Town have certainly been the most challenging of our circumnavigation to date. In the light of this experience, the following advice might be useful for those following in our wake:
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