I was home in Anahola writing about the amazingly efficient lauhala mat sail of Polynesian voyaging canoes in the Southeast Solomon Islands (vaka.org), when I got the call. Steve and Cheryl Kornberg needed crew for the passage round the southern tip of Africa — the Cape of Good Hope. Their motorsailing home, Gershon II, is the support boat for the Hokulea during the Tasman Sea and Indian and Atlantic Ocean legs of their “Malama Honua” Round-the-World Voyage.
The Cape of Good Hope is a wonder of this world, and a sailor’s dream. But it can easily be a nightmare. I embraced the opportunity to join the effort to ensure a safe passage. Gershon II is incredibly well-suited to the job and has a long history of escorting Hokulea. I also want to learn more about how escort work is done — with a view toward the aspirations of Taumako voyagers to sail to Vanuatu this time next year. So here is what happened so far:
After four flights and 40 hours from Lihue, we arrived in Richards Bay, South Africa. Fortunately, at the Honolulu Airport I joined a pod of three other “forward-leg” (replacement) crew members. We bonded as we found our way to departure gates, waited out “mechanicals,” and befriended some of an awesome mix of people headed for the Southeast African coast.
When we arrived in Richards Bay, we learned that the 62-foot double-hulled canoe, Hokulea, and the Jakubenko 50 motorsailor, Gershon II, had diverted to the river mouth Harbor of Maputo, Mozambique. They had sailed past the eastern side of Madagascar when strong northerly winds made the northerly facing harbor untenable. Then, forewarned by satellite weather, the vessels ducked into Maputo to avoid strong southwest winds that were pounding the seas off Richards Bay and rushing up the east coast of Africa toward Madagascar.
Maputo was a harbor of refuge for them, and not any easy anchorage. But during those extra days it took them to get to Richards Bay, our group was able to sort out sources of water, foods, fuels, spare parts and communications for them. We also confirmed that the wonderful, all-voluntary National Sea Rescue Institute intended to guide Hokulea and Gershon II into the snug port of Richards Bay.
The Richards Bay welcome by Zulu community members was heartfelt and enthusiastic. It was led by a mixed-age group, including elderly Tutu-Wahine using canes to walk and shy teenagers eager to join the more experienced and very athletic dancers. They offered refreshments to all present and an array of traditional gifts to the crew members of both Hokulea and Gershon II. Nainoa gave thanks for the help coming in, and stressed the importance of acknowledging deep connections between the most ancient peoples who are still guardians of the land and sea.
The local officials, media, museum staff, Sea Scouts, Sea Quest and other ocean stewards and sailors present embraced the message of Malama Honua (care for our earth). Then everyone was welcome to board Hokulea. Some of the Zulu men found that they could blow the Hokulea conch shell rhythmically (on first try!) to accompany some of their group members who started dancing again on the deck.
Their high-kick and leaping-then fall-down dance moves (mimicking various animal movements) looked like so much fun that some of the Hokulea and Gershon II crew joined them. One Zulu journalism student, Romeo Ndlovu, wrote a beautiful article for the regional paper.
There is no government Coast Guard in South Africa. More than 900 National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) volunteers offer rescue services all along the South African coast. They rely completely on donations for everything they have and do. No one gets paid. Their facilities and vessels in Richards Bay were well-equipped and immaculately cared for. In NSRI everyone is welcome to help, and the experienced mariners who lead the organization constantly train young people to perform at-sea rescue services in the often stormy conditions along this coast.
From Richards Bay to Capetown is among the most challenging passages in the world. For a double-hull canoe with no engine, this is the most dangerous leg of the round the world voyage. The South African coast is the home of giant waves. They can rise up at the 200-meter shelf, and have been known to swallow huge tankers in the “missing wave.” Here is how it works:
Southerly busters alternate with gale force Northeasterlies and a 2-6 knot south bound (southerly) Mozambique /Agulhas current. A northwest gale can switch to a southwest gale in minutes. When the southwest winds interact with the southerly current, it creates up to 20-meter breakers with steep troughs.
The current strategy for this passage has Hokulea and Gershon II sailing from port to port when the winds and currents are light to moderate. We are looking for a two-day weather window to make the longest and most critical passage of all — the 250 nautical mile transit from Durban to East London.
To arrive at East London in two days, Hokulea must sail at a minimum of 6 knots average speed. Her wind parameters for her transit are to sail in northerly to easterly winds of less than 30 knots and to avoid sailing against westerly and southerly winds of more than about 15 knots. The height of the seas should, ideally, be under 2 meters. All it would take is one wave that size sweeping over the deck of Hokulea to take a crew member into the ocean.
There is no real port between Durban and East London. When the wind kicks in from the southwest, vessels hug the shoreline and westerlies will be blocked by some of the land forms. But that is tricky for those who don’t know the coast. And a 30 knot forecast can easily turn into 40 knot winds in reality. So, the basic plan is to take as much time as needed to wait for the right conditions to set out on.
The crew of Hokulea for this leg includes some of their most experienced sailors and promising apprentices. The entire crew, including the three-member ground crew (local interface), and the six-person crew on Gershon II, are working as one unit — one family.
South African groups that Malama Honua crew members are engaging with include Christian Surfers, who train at-risk and handicapped youth; Phoenix House peace activists working out of the home of the late, great Mohatma Gandhi; and community uplift projects, such as one we visited a rural township, where over 50 percent of the population have HIV and unemployment is over 80 percent. There is a constant stream of visitors to the vessels, and there are daily opportunities for our crews to participate in South African efforts that further the goals of Malama Honua.
After a few days of maintenance, and an eye-popping visit to Isimangaliso game reserve — a Zulu managed UNESCO heritage site — there was a weather window for daysailing to Durban. Thanks to the 4 a.m. assistance out of port by NSRI, an escort of several humpback whales the entire way, followed by 6 p.m. assistance into Durban, we entered the second-largest commercial port in South Africa on Oct. 24.
As support vessel, the view of Hokulea from Gershon II is usually “from behind.” But Gershon II is ready to offer tow whenever there are issues of safety or scheduling. Gershon II usually can tow Hokulea at 6 to 7 knots. If the Agulhas current helps out, as it did on their voyage from Maputo to Richards Bay, the towing speed can be more than 8 knots. These are going to be critical numbers during the next leg from Durban to East London.
Now we are ensconced at floating docks between the Royal Natal and the Point Yacht Clubs, both of which make us very welcome. A primary focus is the profusion of digital sources of weather data as well as local knowledge offered by South African sailors. As of this morning Hokulea and Gershon II are standing by to go to sea. The shipping agent advised us that it will take six hours to get official clearances to leave for East London. Friday morning looks like the best chance of there being suitable conditions.
Mimi George is a resident of Kauai.