Adventures on the High Seas

I got up early this morning (6am), not because I had anything to look forward to (like golf), but just because. I checked the hot water — still working! — and called the plumbing company who came to check on it yesterday to let them know it was working. “Great,” says the lady who answered the phone. “Call us next time if you have problems again.” Okay! Thanks so much for coming to check on it! “It was our plizha,” she says.

Did you hear that? THAT’S what makes this place so great! We Canadians might have said, “No problem,” but here they say it was a PLEASURE (and they say it with that cool South African accent).

After breakfast Sue and I looked at some other courses that we might golf at in the next week or two. Sue had finally had it with the dead plants in the planters on our balcony, so she got a big garbage bag and ripped them out. Before lunch we went out to do a bit of shopping: more sunscreen, more beer, more cheese.

Right after lunch Sue figured out how to use the washer and did a load of laundry. It’s a new energy efficient machine, so it took a long time to do a load. No dryer, but a big drying rack in one of the closets got set up in our living room and I left our ceiling fan on high when we left the house a little after 2pm.

We went down to the V&A mall. I was looking for a cigarette adapter to charge my phone (/GPS) in the car. After doinking around at the mall for a while we continued on around the harbour. Our friends Marina and Helene had mentioned that was a regular once-a-week opportunity to go along for a sailboat ride at the Cape Town sailing club. They forwarded the notice to us:

Spend an evening sailing on one of the Royal Cape Yacht Club’s (RCYC) yachts participating in the Lufthansa Twilight Series. Bring warm clothes and a waterproof jacket.

We had tried to ‘pre-register’ by phone a couple of days ago, but were told to ‘just show up’ at around 4pm and they would register us and we’d be sailing by around 4:30. I’d looked up the location of the yacht club on google maps and since it was only about a 4 or 5 Km walk, Sue thought it would be good exercise for us if we walked there.

So we walked. Well, the walk along the harbour wasn’t anything like walking around at the Waterfront or the V&A Mall! No decent sidewalk, lots of big trucks, dirty streets, metal fencing, etc — in other words, a WORKING harbour. It wasn’t as hot today as it had been for the past few, but it was still plenty warm. By the time we finally arrived (safely) at the yacht club, we were hot, sweaty, and thirsty. And a bit too early to register. Okay, let’s go sit in the bar and cool off.

It seemed that ‘registering’ wasn’t as simple as it seemed. I had put our names on a list, but we were about the 15th on the list, and it looked like we might not get to go! Sure, people ahead (and some who’d registered AFTER us) were getting ‘picked’ — but most of them were either ‘experienced sailors’ or cute girls. And because the winds were VERY strong today (last Wednesday they had cancelled the event because of high winds, and the screen in the lobby showed everything after 1pm today was “in the red zone” — so quite a few boats were opting NOT to go out today.

WELL! This did NOT sit well with Sue. We had NOT walked all this way only to get shutout! I urged her to go stand in the lobby and smile at the old sailors and maybe we’d still have a chance. And besides, if it’s too windy to sail, do you REALLY want to be out on the ocean? Well, if we’re not going sailing then we’re WALKING all the way back! Gulp. Okay, I’ll go see what I can do.

And just when we were more or less resigned to a long hot walk back to the apartment, this tiny old lady comes up to us and asks, “Would you like to sail?” Yes! Okay, follow me.

And before you know it we are on a steel 34-foot boat named ‘Cabaray’, with Ray and Liz Matthews, and Christian (a German) and Alan (English). And we are the ‘guests’. And while there is some question as to whether the race will even begin, we will be ready! We no sooner are on the boat and we’re taking sails out and rigging the sheets and a whole bunch of other ‘sailor’ things. And we’re backing out of our slip. And heading out into the open bay. With lots of other boats. It appears the race is on. Did I say race? Oh yes, this is a race. Ray says there are about 80 boats entered, but probably only about 50 will race today. And we are in a class with 7 other similar boats, and will be starting with the second-last group. And while we wait for the start signal we jockey around on the big waves for position — not so close to the start line so as to be OVER when the horn sounds, but also not in the middle of a ‘granny tack’ where we’re facing the wrong direction!

And then we’re off! and it’s a GREAT start. We’re in perfect position. The wind is violent and we’ve had to take the sails down several feet in order to not be ‘over-sailed’. But we are flying. Well, actually we’re keeled over big time — one rail is regularly under water and we are getting soaked with sea spray. But Ray and Allen and Christian are working their butts off, cranking and pulling and ‘coming about’ and not at all worried about the gale force winds. Sue and I are smiling — this is WAY more action than we had bargained for. We didn’t really think it would be an evening ‘cruise’, but by now my palms are raw from pulling ropes and my knees are skinned from running back and forth on top of the boat, raising and then folding the big sails, trying to stay out of the way but helping when it seemed I was needed. This is REAL sailing! I want to get my phone out of Sue’s bag, which is down in the hold, but the sailor quickly advise against it: “Cameras and sea salt are not a good combination.” So the reader will just have to believe me that we were in some mighty big winds, doing our best to lean a keeled-over boat upright, looking out at a lot of other boats fighting to stay perpendicular to the waterline, and not really enough time to consider whether this was fun or scary!

Did I say gale force winds? We had just rounded the first marker and were not sailing WITH the wind (a TERRIFIC start — and about that time Liz mentioned to Sue that LAST YEAR we won the trophy!) when 3 loud bursts of the horn put an end to the race. “They’ve called the race. Too much wind.” Shoot! What now? Do we take down the sails? No, says Christian, let’s sail her back to the docks. So we ‘fly’ home — our speedometer reads more than 7 knots, plus we have a 23 knot wind (30 knots, says Allen, is officially a ‘gale’!). We are really moving.

And that’s about the time our adventure started. We were close to home base when all of a sudden the engine stopped. Oh oh. Our experienced captain (we learned later that he is actually the commodore of the yacht club!) didn’t waste any time. “Hoist the gib!” he shouts. But Allen, who has just carefully taken down the front sail and nicely wrapped it and tied it up, doesn’t respond. He later explains that he did not know we had no engine, so it didn’t make any sense to him to put the sail back up. But now we had NOTHING! Except a huge wind blowing our boat STRAIGHT INTO THOSE BIG ROCKS that protect the harbour! Too late for the sail. Next Ray comes running to the front of the boat, dragging a big heavy old anchor. DROP THE ANCHOR! NOW! But first Christian cuts the sheet from the gib and ties it to the anchor. And then we have to fasten the other end of the rope to the boat. And all the while the winds are getting more violent, the waves are spraying us even more, and the big boulders on the shoreline are getting closer.

Ray gets on his radio, announces that we’ve lost power and need help. He signals to the boats coming into the channel behind us. Soon another big sailboat comes up alongside us, cuts in front of us, swings wildly around towards us on the other side — and CRACKS up against our boat. Everyone on both boats is reaching and pushing away and throwing ropes to try to get towed. But the wind is too rough and we can’t manage it. The other boat pulls away and we continue to drift. It tries again, and this time Christian manages to throw a rope that the guys on the other boat can catch — but ours is a STEEL boat, it’s heavy, and the other boat can’t pull us in this wind. In fact, now THAT boat is in danger of hitting the rocks. They manage to roar away, back into relative safety of the open water.

And now it’s too late for us. Our starboard side bangs up against the wall of rocks. We can hear the keel below crunching on rocks. And then we bob up and down, back off a bit, and bash back up against the rocks. Allen and I are near the front of the boat — feet pushing against the rocks as hard as we can to keep one particularly sharp edge from piercing the side of the boat. Christian is trying to tie bumpers all along the side of the boat to protect it — but the boat shifts forward and back and the bumpers don’t line up with the rocks. More boats come to try to help — but it’s too dangerous for other sailboats to come this close to shore in these rough waters. Eventually a big ‘coast guard’ type of motor boat arrives. But it too can’t tow us off the rocks. And it has trouble getting close enough to us.

Finally a big orange inflatable boat with two big engines in the back and a full crew of ‘rescue’ guys in full wet suits and life jackets arrive. I didn’t really believe that would work, but it did. They pulled us off the rocks, so our boat ‘backed’ off, and the front swung around one last time, clanking against the wall of rocks, and then we were free. Ray kept asking Liz to go down below and see if we were taking on water. By now he had unpacked brand new never-been-used lifejackets and insisted we each put one on. Once we were free from the rocks and ‘safely’ out in open water again, the other motorboat came back and threw us a tow rope. They pulled us all the way to the pier, passing huge brand new catamarans and yachts, many destined for shipment to Florida and the Caribbean. There were about a dozen sailors waiting at the dock, helping to tie our boat up. Even here, the winds made this no small job.

As we were getting towed into the bay, I was thinking about the damage to the boat (and even to the boat that hit us earlier) and I commented to Allen that “sailing is a rich man’s sport”. Allen smiled and said, “You know what they say: If you want to know what it feels like to be a sailor, go stand in a cold shower and burn money!”

Sue and I made our way up the ramp and walked into the yacht club. There was a huge party going on there! I guess 50 or so boats, most with 6 or more people aboard, and the race finished before it really even started — well, 300 people were going to stick around and enjoy themselves. So we did too.

Big beers, cheap hamburgers, and even a guest lecture by a guy who had sailed a sailboat from Cape Town to Argentina, then to South Georgia to climb a mountain, and finally sail back home to Cape Town. Our late arrival back at port meant we missed the lecture. But we had our own story to tell now, and many of the sailors had by now either seen our boat or heard about our problem — so when Ray and Liz and the crew were finally done cleaning up the boat (it will be hoisted out of the sea tomorrow, checked for damage, and they hope it will be racing again next Wednesday night!) and had made it back to the clubhouse — well, they will be telling stories long into the night tonight.

We, on the other hand, were exhausted. Not only windswept and sunburned and feeling dirty with our matted salt-watered hair and icky clothes, but we’re just not used to that much ‘activity’. So we said goodbye to our new friends (who invited and encouraged us to come again next Wednesday!) and went out to find a cab to take us home. But no, here in South Africa people are so kind and friendly. And another ‘friend’, a woman standing in line at the bar with Sue, waiting to be served, offered to give us a ride — and dropped us off right in front of our place. Thanks for the ride!

It was her plizha!