Saturday, August 20, 2016


 While we were in Chagos, a very large sailboat with a crew of about 8 people pulled into the lagoon one day, eventually launched a large RIB and came ashore at Île Boudin, where a group of cruisers had congregated at the 'yacht club'. The people from the mega-yacht were friendly enough, a collection of crew from all over the world, including one woman from Namibia. She was the first Namibian I had ever met and not what I had expected a native Namibian to look like. Not only was she tall and attractive, but fair-skinned with blond hair and blue eyes. Many cruisers who sail around South Africa stop in Namibia and I peppered her mercilessly with questions as it always sounded so remote and wild to me. She said that it was a beautiful country but the weather was frequently bad. The part about the bad weather stuck in my mind as being the epitome of a 'fair-weather' sailor, I prefer to avoid any place with a poor weather reputation.

However, as we were preparing for our departure from Cape Town, we knew of many boats in our 'fleet' that were intending to stop in Namibia so we decided to do the same. After a harrowing departure from the Royal Cape Yacht Club in 30 knots of wind (there was a lull when we cast off the dock lines – it had been as high as 50), we made our way to Robben Island, a UNESCO World Heritage site, where Nelson Mandela had been imprisoned for many years. The sail there was delightful as it was a downwind run and the winds had abated to a moderate level. On the north end of the island is an anchorage which is popular with fishing boats although much of the bottom was foul with rocks. After spending so much time at dock, it felt good to be on the hook again in a protected anchorage, but we were prohibited from landing a dinghy on shore.

The following morning we began the 3-day passage to Luderitz, Namibia, in light winds. It was a combination of sailing, motoring and motor-sailing but we arrived in Luderitz in the morning and our friends on Amigo, who were already there, helped us tie up to a mooring. The clearing in process was simple enough though we did have to pay a small fee for arriving on a weekend. The South African rand is accepted everywhere and is the exact same exchange rate as the Namibian dollar. Together with Helga and René, we explored the area, including a trip out to Kolmanskop, a 'ghost' town from the diamond mining heyday.

One of the 'must see' places in Namibia is the dunes of Sossusvlei which is a solid day's drive from Luderitz. Helga, René, Ruthie and I piled in to a rented 4-door, four-wheel drive pickup and made our way over the mostly dirt roads, arriving at the Lodge at Sossusvlei just as it was getting dark. We had no reservation but the lodge has an excellent reputation for very high quality – along with a reputation for very high prices. One thing I have learned about the hospitality industry is that there is nothing as perishable as an unrented hotel room. If it goes unrented for a night, there is no way you can recoup that loss of income for that night. Many hotel managers are compensated on the Average Daily Rate and this motivates them to keep as many rooms occupied as possible, even if it means discounting the room heavily. Towards evening, when most people have already made their choices of where to spend the night, many front desk managers are willing to make extraordinary deals. We lucked out this time as they offered us a 50% discount for the night that included a fantastic dinner buffet, breakfast and private cottages for each couple. Even though we only stayed there one night, we quickly got used to the luxury.

We were up well before dawn as the conventional wisdom is that you start your hikes up the dunes just as the sun is rising. The dune we wanted to climb was in a remote part of the national park and having four-wheel drive was no guarantee that you wouldn't get stuck. I know a little about driving in rough terrain and I groaned loudly when the truck in front of us slowed to a crawl and then stopped completely in a particularly rough section. Keeping the engine RPM high and shifting into low range, I was able to swerve around them and keep moving – in the rear view mirror, I could tell that the cautious driver was going to spend a good deal of the morning trying to get his truck unstuck. Climbing the dunes was fun although coming down was more fun that hiking up.

That night we stayed at a farm that has rooms available for travelers, which is common in Namibia, right next to Duwisb Castle. As we toured the castle, we learned that it was built in 1908 from materials wholly imported from Germany. Helga and René, who are from Austria, were having a delightful time in Namibia as German is an unofficial language that almost everyone speaks. Our host that night kept us entranced with story after story, including one that captured my imagination about the interment of thousands of men of German ancestry from Namibia (then called German South West Africa) into camps in South Africa at the beginning of World War I. This left hundreds of women to manage the huge cattle stations that their now-interned husbands used to operate – almost overnight. With the harsh climate, the rationing of fuel and the enormous size of these ranches, it was amazing that tough men could survive. That the women where able to succeed and even take many of the ranches from being heavily in debt to being profitable is nothing short of a terrific basis for a remarkable book.

Someone had told us that the Fish River Canyon was second in size only to the Grand Canyon of the southwest United States and worthy of a visit. It was on the border of South Africa and took us most of the day to drive there, the flat tire we had on the way only slowed us down a little (many people advise that when you're renting a car in Namibia, insist that it comes with two spare tires – we hadn't). We paid our fee to enter the national park but we came to a place where the road forded the river, which is usually shallow and slow moving, however, that day, due to some extraordinary rains to the north, the brown river was raging, with high waves and much white water. This meant that we had to turn around, drive to where there was a bridge that went across the river and then make our way into the canyon, a detour of about 300 kilometers.

Once back in Luderitz, we cast off the mooring and made our way to Walvis Bay, about 150 miles to the north. This was an important stop for us as we would need to provision for our passage to St. Helena, the small island in the South Atlantic, about 1,200 miles away. Rendezvousing with Helga and René again, we rented a car and drove to Swakopmund, a very German town about 30 miles from Walvis Bay. Everything about the small city was quaint and charming, with fabulous restaurants and great places for coffee. We were able to buy good German sausages, cheeses and breads, promising passage meals that would be unique and delicious.
Flamingos of Walvis Bay
In retrospect, I am worried that we almost missed Namibia based on the woman we met in Chagos, who said the weather was bad. Not only was the weather we had very good but we loved the country and really enjoyed ourselves there. The spectacular beauty – often rough and rugged – and the over-the-top friendliness of the people will be memories that we'll never forget..

Monday, March 7, 2016

Fwd: Ascension

----- Original Message -----

Subject: Ascension
Date: 06 Mar 2016 18:39:23 -0000
From: WCW8438

There is something wondrous about seeing an island appear after sailing for days, nights and nautical miles over liquid blue. You scan the horizon for signs of anything but nothing is to be seen but blue ocean and white caps and then- an island! Nothing was there...and then something appears, ever so faintly, and you wonder if it is a cloud, fog or your imagination. It's as if out of thin air an island emerges and slowly, slowly it becomes more real, defined and then color appears, contour develops and lo and behold, it is right where the chart says it will be! Of course we have the latest chart plotting equipment and charts of the world, but we still go on acts of faith that nothing has gone awry, we are where the chart says we are and that the land will be where we are headed. The more I think about this, the more respect I have for the sailors of old that just struck out to DISCOVER! They had no idea what was out there and probably passed by many places, like Ascension, simply because they passed by on a day that was overcast, foggy or they were one too many miles away to see the faint outline of a tiny land mass.

Ascension was bypassed for many years. That is probably because it is in a very remote part of the S. Atlantic, 1600 km from Africa and 2300 km from Brazil. It's not really on the way to or from anywhere which turned out to be great for the Green Turtles, Frigate Birds, Terns, Tropic Birds and Masked Booby! Now a British protectorate with an active air base shared with a USA air base Ascension is one of the largest marine reserves in the S. Atlantic. Isn't that two opposite ends of a spectrum! Darwin studied here (after going to St. Helena) as did NASA and while Darwin helped establish a national park, NASA built the second largest runway in the world as a back-up runway for landing the space shuttle. The BBC studied here too and first established a radio transmission center for broadcasting to Africa but now strange and futuristic antennae broadcast the BBC to all over the world via short wave radio.

The island is starkly volcanic. Tall red cinder cones contrast with white sand beaches but the surrounding rocks are sharp obsidian and the moonscape is quite barren. Trails across lava fields are marked by cairns or white spray paint and there is NO water. Of course, this is in marked contrast to the one high island mountain, Green Mountain, which captures moisture from the air, creates its' own weather and is constantly shrouded in clouds and has a tropical rain forest at its' crown. The British originally built their barracks up there but it was too cold and rainy for them (must have been a lot like the UK), and was also logistically impractical so the camp was moved to lower, dryer elevations. They did however leave behind introduced banana, guava and raspberries so on our hike the other day, Neal cut down a huge stalk of bananas which are now hanging from the mizzen mast! Green Mountain does not capture enough water for drinking for the 800 island inhabitants or the military, so there is a reverse osmosis system and ALL fruits and vegetables are flown in on that very long runway. The only fresh ones you will find are potatoes, onions, apples and squash!

We have spent a wonderful week here exploring, snorkeling, turtle watching, hiking and mingling as much as possible with the locals. We ended up at the Volcano Club on the American Air Force base one evening for happy hour. We were told that there was good, traditional American food there like Big Macs and corn dogs! Oh what a reputation for cuisine we have! It was so great! Felt just like a bar at home with lots of young people ordering trays of Budweiser for beer pong. There are five other boats anchored here in George Town- our Austrian friends on Amigo, one American boat, an Italian and two British. From here everyone seems to head some place different, but on Tuesday we will head with Amigo to Fernando de Noronja- an island off the coast of Brazil, just about 1000 miles west at 3° South and 35° West. It looks beautiful in the photographs and should be a great resting point before heading on to Tobago.

So one more time, we will be looking for that tiny land mass to appear out of the clouds. Until then it should be a nice downwind run and we are confident that we will end up at the right crossroads of latitude and longitude in about a week and be ready to explore yet another island full of samba and exotic cuisine.

----- End of Original Message -----
At 3/7/2016 7:17 PM (utc) Rutea's position was 07°55.24'S 014°24.67'W
----- End of Original Message -----
At 3/8/2016 7:34 AM (utc) Rutea's position was 07°55.24'S 014°24.67'W

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Friday, February 19, 2016

St. Helena, South Atlantic Ocean

I know that chronologically I should be posting about the time we spent in Namibia but there are too many spectacular photographs to post and the bandwidth here sucks. So, for now, I'll tell you a little about the very remote island of St. Helena and why it's captivating us.

Our 1225-mile passage from Namibia to here was very easy with no big seas and fairly constant winds - our time of 7 days, 23 hours was no speed record but wasn't all that bad, either. Since St. Helena gets up to 300 yachts per year, they have wisely invested in a robust mooring field for visiting boats and it makes for an easy, if at times rolly, stay. The town of Jamestown is the business end of the island and even if the stores lack a wide selection of products and produce, for the most part it isn't too hard to find what you're looking for, as long as it falls within simplistic guidelines.

What was remarkable to us was the check-in process, which can often be a humbling, hat-in-hand experience of dealing with bureaucrats who are required to give you permission to enter their country but for whatever reason seem to be reluctant to do so. Here it was just the opposite. Customs, Port Control and Immigration seemed to be actually pleased to have us here - even to the extent where they said, "Of course you don't have British pounds to pay your fees! You just arrived, the banks are closed and we have no ATMs. Pop on by tomorrow and pay us then." It's altogether likely that no American Immigration officer has ever said those lines.

We took a hired tour of the island and albeit interesting, didn't live up to the hype given us by cruisers of the previous year. This morning we decided to do a trek with our friends, Helga and René, and based on the information on a book loaned to us by fellow cruisers and information from the Tourist Information Office, we plotted an easy but beautiful walk. The beginning turned out to be a little inauspicious as we were looking for the trail head, we asked the woman at the laundry service for directions. "The trail to Rupert's Bay is this way, yes?" we inquired. "It's too dangerous to go that way. The trail is badly sloped and much too loose. You should take the road there," she said. "But the woman from the Tourist Office said to go that way," Helga protested. The woman from the laundry service paused, her eyes narrowed and she said as both a question and a statement, "She did?" We thanked her for her time, found the trail head and marveled at the view of Jamestown Bay from high up on the side of the cliff as we walked along. True, some of the trail was very narrow - in some areas it was not much more than the width of a human hand and the cliffs dropped precipitously away far below us but we weren't too concerned. We traversed Rupert's Bay's shores and followed the trail along more steep cliffs, finally finding an ideal spot to stop for lunch at the old abandoned battery just below Sugar Loaf Peak. Lunch was relaxed as we watched the sea pound against the rugged rocks below us. There was some discussion about which way to head as the map we had wasn't too clear and the book was even less specific. Fortunately, the route we took was the right one - or the wrong one - depending on your point of view.

We climbed up from Bank's Valley but it didn't feel right, all of us thinking we should be heading more northerly than westerly. Still, we hiked up through enormous fields of prickly pear cactus (called 'tungy' in St. Helena) and though the trail was no wider than on the cliffs above the ocean, at least if one fell here you wouldn't wind up in the sea. It seemed as though we walked for a very long time when we finally came to the junction we had seen on our map. One direction went to the summit of Sugar Loaf Peak and the other headed north. René asked Ruthie if she'd like to hike to the summit and though Ruthie didn't reply specifically, the snort that came from her was a definitive dismissal of the idea. René turned to me and looked me in the eye for a moment. "Neal?" he said. I paused for a few seconds and said, "Okay." I shed my rucksack, leaving it on the trail to pick up on our return. Helga and Ruthie took the fork that headed north that was, thankfully, level, which was a relief, and René and I were to catch up with the two women once we hand successfully scaled the peak. As it turned out, the path up to the summit wasn't too much more difficult than what we had already been on but it did reveal to us what was ahead of us. In the distance I could see a tall ridge that we'd have to cross one way or another and it looked very steep. "I bet that ridge is 6 kilometers away," I told René, "and it's very steep and it's already past three o'clock." We climbed back down and walked quickly up ahead to catch up with Ruthie and Helga. "We have to go back the way we came," I said, "There's a steep ridge ahead and I have no idea how long it will take us to get to a road." No one was interested in hiking back down the steep Bank's Valley or walking the narrow path along the cliffs back to Jamestown so we all studied the map and book carefully to see if we could find holes in my suggestion. The book said it was nine kilometers from Dead Pan to Sugar Loaf and we were mostly passed all that so, we figured, we should have, at most, four kilometers to go. I was uneasy to say, "Easy" but we loaded up and started to finish up our hike. At first the trail was level and comfortable but we soon came to a nasty set of switchbacks that slowed our forward progress to a crawl. From there we had to hike straight up a ridge that had a shear drop to the ocean on one side and thick groves of cactus on the other. It was windy and warm and we were getting low on water. Once we were on higher ground we had a better view of the ridge that we faced and it was terribly demoralizing. I briefly thought about suggesting that we turn around from there and return via the way we came but thought better about it. René was doing fine but then he was raised hiking the Austrian Alps - he's extremely sure-footed and incredibly strong - while Helga, Ruthie and I were struggling to keep up with his pace. It seemed like every precipice we climbed were then followed by more, steeper ones. By now our water was gone and I was having occasional cramps in the area of my kidneys - my t-shirt was completely soaked with sweat. It was quite late in the day when we topped the last ridge and found the road that headed back to civilization. Miraculously, my cell phone found service and we were able to call a taxi to take us back to the ferry that would get us home. Larry, the taxi driver who came to pick us up, asked us what we were doing up in the Dead Pan area. "We hiked up from Jamestown, past Rupert's Bay, up to Sugar Loaf and then to here," I said. Larry, who was born on St. Helena almost seventy-five years ago, stopped for a moment, then started to say something and then stopped again. He mused, "I don't think I've ever heard of anyone hiking that route." It was a small consolation to us but a least a vindication that we had taken a route less traveled. The roads on St. Helena are narrow and steep (often one car has to pull over and wait for oncoming traffic to pass by) but I was still mildly surprised at how long it took to drive back to Jamestown.

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Monday, January 11, 2016

South Africa

Our passage from Madagascar to South Africa was both uneventful and remarkable.  We made the 1,242-mile passage in just slightly over 8 days, arriving in Richards Bay very late in the evening on the 4th of July.  We had a mixed bag of conditions ranging from flat calm to 35 knots but no rain or storms.  The remarkable portion of the trip, as we were told by others, was that we were able to make it without stopping to allow weather systems to pass, which is the usual situation when transiting the Moçambique Channel in the dead of winter.  Several of other boats in our ‘fleet’ had to take refuge in poorly protected areas while the low pressure cells marched up the Channel.

After securing a berth at the Zululand Yacht Club, we arranged to have Rutea hauled out.  Since we were planning on spending time in California, we prefer to have the boat out of the water as it typically means there are less potential problems.  The operative word here is ‘typically’ as the haul-out facilities at Zululand Yacht Club are primitive at best.  Unlike all the other yards at which we’ve hauled, Zululand uses a series of wooden poles to support the boat (they’ve only lost one boat, they report).  I begged for something more substantial and was able to secure four heavy steel supports that gave me more confidence that the boat would be okay while we were gone.

Seija, Ruthie and Ingvar

Once on the hard, we promptly scheduled a trip to the nearby game reserves of iMfolozi and Hluhluwe with our friends, Invar and Seija on the 39’ Hallberg-Rassy, Marieke III.  The accommodations at Hilltop Camp in the middle of the reserve were terrific (considering the location) and we saw lots of game, exceeding our expectations.

While we were still in Madagascar, we broke one of our cardinal rules:  Never Set a Deadline While Cruising.  However, when we stumbled across very low fares from Durban to San Diego with a very convenient stop in the UK, we couldn’t resist.  Lucky for us we were able to make the flights without any problems but we scolded ourselves roundly just the same.  Our visit home was absolutely delightful, our stop in the UK to see Ian and Sean unforgettable and our side trip to Denver to see Taylor and Ken was magical.  Before we left San Diego, we celebrated a world-class Thanksgiving, albeit a month early.

Once back aboard Rutea, our priority was to get her back in the water so we could start planning our trip around the southern end of South Africa.  Careful planning is required as the weather at this latitude can be extremely rough – they don’t call it the Cape of Storms for nothing.  Part of the problem is the Algulhas Current, which runs south from the Moçambique Channel at up to 7 knots and meets the ferocious southwest winds that come up from Antarctica.  This can create very big seas and even ‘rogue waves’, hence the other name for the stretch of coast line:  The Shipwreck Coast.  Before we left Richards Bay, our very close friends, Beth and Norm from Vancouver, made the extremely long flight to visit us.  We have indelible memories of cruising with them in the South Pacific and having them aboard Rutea was a special treat.  Not only are they expert cruisers but they’re fun, warm and very generous.  Mark and Rosie from Merkava joined us for another safari to iMfolozi and Hluhluwe Game Reserves – the six of us together was just way too much fun.
We had the ‘privilege’ of experiencing some of the winds that we were concerned about.  At one point, we saw a gust to 52 knots but the Harbor Control in Richards Bay said they saw 65.  The neighboring marina at Tuzi Gazi was loaded with foreign boats and many of their docks couldn’t handle the combination of the yachts and wind – several of the docks buckled and some boats were damaged.
When a weather window opened that we felt comfortable with, we left Richards Bay with some regret.  We felt very safe in Richards Bay as it’s primarily a small industrial port with very little crime.  Still, we were warned never to walk outside at night, only select a taxi with a white driver and avoid large groups of blacks.  It was horrifying to us that this level of racism existed in a first world country and we were never sure if this was just ‘talk’ or if we were actually in danger if we didn’t follow the advice.  We do know that the crime problem in South Africa is horrendous and it takes a level of awareness that exceeds what we’re used to in Southern California.

Regardless, leaving Richards Bay on the evening flood tide, we soon found a northerly breeze that allowed us to head first south and then southwest.  Skipping Durban, we made our way to East London, where we arrived about 48 hours later, dropped our hook and took the dinghy into the local yacht club.  Here we were again given warnings about safety and precautions but we felt pretty comfortable where we were anchored.  East London is a good-sized city and the secure harbor is where the local Mercedes-Benz manufacturing facility loads the C-class cars onto a specially-designed freighter for their transportation to the USA.  We watch as thousands of these shiny beauties were driven onto the ship in an extremely well-coordinated fashion that took all of a single afternoon.
Cape St. Blaize
 Once another weather window opened, we made our way to Mossel Bay, arriving in 30 knots of southeast wind.  The anchorage in Mossel Bay is very exposed to any wind with an easterly component and we knew we’d be miserable at anchor.  When I called Port Control for permission to enter, I asked if there was any place for us inside the breakwater, which is reserved for fishing vessels.  Much to my surprise, Port Control said to come on in and they’d make a space for us.  It was no easy task to maneuver Rutea close enough to the huge concrete jetty with the large tractor tires being used as fenders but what was harder still was for Ruthie to get from the deck onto the jetty or even one of the tires while holding onto a dock line.  Fortunately, a police van had driven out on the jetty and four big, strong policemen grabbed our lines – at the time, we didn’t know they had come out to check our passports and visas.  They were very nice and told us that Mossel Bay was a very safe town.  Our good friends on the Najad 38, Amigo, , rafted up to us shortly thereafter – all four of us felt smug that we were in a safe, calm harbor while the wind raged.

Swartberg Pass
The town had a nice charm to it with many restaurants and even a worthwhile museum that housed a replica of the ship that Bartolomeu Dias sailed from Portugal in 1488, becoming the first European to sail around south Africa.  Since the wind had changed to its prevailing direction of westerly and Port Control needed the space on the jetty we were occupying, we moved out to the anchorage, which, by this time, was fine.  It was comfortable enough that Helga, René, Ruthie and I decided that it would be okay if we left the boats at anchor and did some sightseeing.  We rented a car and drove over the spectacular Swartberg Pass and spent the night at a quaint bed and breakfast in Oudtshoorn.

About six cruising boats had gathered in Mossel Bay and even though we were thoroughly enjoying the warm hospitality of the Mossel Bay Yacht Club, we all needed to move on.  After watching carefully for another 48 hours without any westerly winds, we weighed anchor early on the 13th of December and steamed out of Mossel Bay.  Our course would take us around the most southern point of Africa – Cape Agulhas – and it has a nasty reputation.  As it turns out, we needn’t have worried.  There was no wind at all and we wound up motoring almost the entire way to Simon’s Town in False Bay.
Mark & Rosie at the Cape of Good Hope
Mark and Rosie from Merkava were standing on the dock at the False Bay Yacht Club, ready to catch our dock lines.  It was wonderful to rendezvous with them again and we made plans to spend Christmas and New Year’s together.  They had rented a car so we went on many expeditions with them, seeing sights, buying boat parts and tasting wine.  Not only does South Africa produce some fabulous wines but the exchange rate of about ZAR15 equaling one US dollar, makes them a bargain.  Very good wines can be purchased for under 40 rand – at the current exchange rate, that’s about US$2.45.  In fact, this made visiting South Africa an amazing value.  I know people thought I was crazy when I would tell the bartender to keep the change when I bought a ZAR13.50 beer and offered a 20-rand note – way too big of a tip!  But, hell, I thought, the beer was only 82 cents American and the tip was less than 40 cents!  I shudder to think about what would happen to me if I left a 40-cent tip in the US!  My sympathies go out to the South African people who’s currency has devalued so badly but it sure makes visiting South Africa desirable for North Americans or Europeans.

We eventually left all our cruising friends at the False Bay Yacht Club and made our way around Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope, getting a berth at the Royal Cape Yacht Club.  Here we’re making the final preparations for our next passage which will be to Namibia.  The wind howls here, for weeks on end, and 30- to 40-knots is common.  We’re looking for a lull so we can get Rutea out of the marina without hitting anything!