The Wish by Peter Sherlock

Zululand Yacht Club | Richards Bay | August 3 2019

The wind finally danced behind us with a swirl and a pause, we matched her steps, turning our bows south west as we followed the coast of Mozambique on the home stretch to Richards Bay.  Amarula’s beautiful red asymmetrical spinnaker escaped from her snuffer sock as she filled with the breeze and hastened us home, pregnant with the north east wind that tracked the coast. The water was pure azure, patterned with pillars of sunlight that flickered down as far as the eye could see, the air was warm and the sight of land comforting. The low, dark horizon, green and covered in cloud was not going to be there for long as we were already around Pont Zavora and would slip into Maputo Bay as the headland turned and headed west away from us.

The tracking details of the trip including the initial leg where we were holed (the circular route due east of Richards Bay

Night watches were a little more intense now as there was traffic and of course not all of it complied with the basic navigation requirements. We had the radar split between 4 miles and 12 miles, selecting targets as soon as they were in range and tracking them to ensure they would pass wide of us. Occasionally we would call the passing ships up on the radio (if they had AIS it would show the call sign) to check they had us on their screen and were aware of our course. When we could we changed course to ensure we were well clear of commercial vessels. No more reading and relaxing, with 30-minute intervals to check what was going on. Now it was at the helm for your three-hour shift.

We did have a final hurdle that was busy moving towards us. There was a coastal low that had formed and was headed our way. It was a worry during the crossing, as we were unsure of its strength and may have had to tuck in at Inhaca. Thus our passage plans were slightly adjusted to make sure we could get behind Portuguese Island should the blow hit. Our daily weather updates were basically all about the coastal low and now that we were in Maputo Bay it was decision time. Lawrence (our weather guru) had gone to great pains to see what kind of a threat the system presented. In our final call before having to commit, he forecast 4 hours of south westerly maxing at around 20 knots. It would cause a very confused and uncomfortable sea state, but it would be over quickly and we would be running again. Given our current speed and course it would arrive around 20h00 local time so it would also be dark.

I chewed on the information for a while and finally decided to continue on course. I knew Amarula could handle it and it would not be the first confused sea we had sailed in. It meant we would have to motor for 4 hours minimum into the wind. Our diesel reserves were not great but certainly enough to handle motoring all the way from Inhaca to Richards Bay. I also knew that we would get a weak cell signal as we passed Inhaca and Punto and I could update weather grib files and have a clearer idea of when we could expect the blow and whether it had changed in strength. If it was a real buster we could turn and run with it back to Inhaca.

We crossed Maputo Bay with little to report other than a lovely yellow fin that was dispatched of very quickly by Bob and re-appeared on the cockpit table as the most delightful sushi. I sail a dry boat for crossings but occasionally there are “Captains Rations” when we need to celebrate something or a little lift me up is required. The rations consisted of a THB (Three Horses Beer) Quart that was shared between the three of us. This was clearly such an opportunity and we washed the sushi down with small sips (to make it last) of Madagascar’s finest.

We were just south of Ponta Do Ouro, having crossed into South African waters. It was after lunch and we were gurgling along at around 7 or 8 knots with 15 knots from behind. The sea was flat and glassy, we had about 24 hours before we reached Richards Bay. I was at the helm having checked the weather with a little cell signal earlier in the day. The forecasted front had subsided a little and was still due to hit us around 20h00. My gaze was drawn to the spinnaker. She was perfectly set, the luff fluttering almost imperceptibly every now and then as the fabric pulled at itself, lifting Amarula’s bows. It is a mesmerising sail, her redness reflects throughout the boat and onto the ocean. It always astounds me how quiet Amarula is when she runs. The spinnaker will occasionally groan as the breeze fills, the fabric adjusting for the load with long ripples quickly traveling outwards across the fabric, creating this sound. Occasionally there will be a slap as the sail resets, the luff snapping in a short sharp “thwat”. From the hull there is only the sound of the ocean swirling along the waterline, aerating and popping then mushing as it flows under the stern and washes out behind us.

It is a strangely therapeutic point of sail. The sounds do not startle, but rather contribute to a slow and lazy feeling onboard. Sitting at the helm you can feel your eyelids drooping as the motion slowly lulls you into a semi-comatose state. You feel warm and safe, the sunlight stroking your features as the shadows break the light. I was feeling content, we were so close to port and safety and without drama. Just the way we like it.

It was exactly 16h00. I know this because I checked my watch in anticipation of the coastal low that was barreling its way towards us. We still had around 4 hours of wind from behind but something made me uneasy. I looked forward of our bows off into the distance and the horizon, looking for clues. There were none, no threatening clouds, no white horses or confused seas, no birds running before the front. Just a beautifully blue ocean bordered by sand dunes about 5 miles to Starboard. The spinnaker sat directly ahead of us, the only sail flying as the main sat safely in the stack pack and the genoa furled.

My stomach fluttered. I knew my intuition was calling out to me. It is something I believe all ocean crossers develop, the ability to feel something is not quite right when everything you are looking at reviews as absolutely good. Intuition had saved us more than once on this trip and mine had developed to the point where I knew I could not ignore it. I called out for Bob and Chris “Let’s drop the Spinny”.

Amarula’s bright red spinnaker – Warren at Ullman created this sail for us – we love it!

They were understandably perplexed. We were making good speed with a favorable wind and no reason to adjust. The forecast low was still around 4 hours away and would surely be felt with enough warning to pack away the spinny and get onto motors safely. “Let’s just do it – my spidey senses are freaked out”. We released the tack on the spinnaker and it immediately flew out beyond our bows, depowering the sail in an almost underwhelming way. As the tack headed out we pulled down on the snuffer and it sucked in the red sail, creating a long tube that snaked from the top of the mast down onto the trampoline. The halyard was released and the sail in its captive tube was whisked into the sail bag and then the locker in a matter of minutes.

I returned to the helm with Chris and Bob. I was on the helm chair, Bob was sitting to my right leaning back on the deck with Chris to his right just inboard of the gunwale. I was looking at the wind indicator which was still sitting on 15 knots from around 160 degrees. The hum of the diesel motor was now breaking the silence, but we were still sitting at around 7 knots through the water.

It was immediate and without clear warning. The wind speed dropped to nothing and then swung from 160 degrees abaft to 0 degrees and on the nose. Within a few seconds it was up to 15 knots and climbing. We all exchanged a look! If the spinnaker was up right now we would be in all sorts of trouble. The front had arrived early and with a punch! I could only imagine the panic that would have ensued. The sail would have been forced back across our mast and spreaders, filled with an angry wind coming from the wrong side. It would probably have stopped us dead in our tracks and certainly would have fouled on the standing rigging, at best ripping to shreds, at worst creating havoc and damage to the shrouds and spreaders, the sheet whipping around, cracking and smacking like some crazed cowboys giant whip.

Instead we were made aware of its presence by the wind indicator and the growing whistle from the shrouds. It didn’t take long for the sea to turn a steel grey colour and become a cruel twisted mess, waves slapping the bridge deck and powering up along the inside of the trampoline, exploding through the netting and throwing the ocean up and over the boat. We switched on the second motor and resigned ourselves to the melee that presented itself.

A reminder of the beauty at anchor somewhere in Madagascar (secret location)

Somehow, we managed to remain excited through the storm. Perhaps it was because the big fat raindrops still felt warm and carried the scent of home or the fact that we knew this was a temporary setback as we could almost sense the port of Richards Bay. Either way the chatter was high and the short pitching waves did little to dampen our enthusiasm for the thought of tying up at the Zululand Yacht Club and the celebratory Bunny Chow at KK’s Curry planned for tomorrow’s lunch.

This was the culmination of a long journey for me. I had set off from Richards Bay almost three months earlier with high hopes and romantic notions. Around 3000 nautical miles later I was a very different person. I had learned to trust my instincts and feel the planet through the bare souls of my feet. I had learnt the nuances of slow travel, how to soak it all in. It had taught me to be quieter, to hear my inner voice, all but forgotten, and to absorb Mother Nature in all her moods. You cannot really exist, really live without doing this, without absorbing nature, being present in her expansive arms and opening your eyes to what breathes and beats around you, interconnected to you. The hamster wheel of suburban western life is all consuming and does little to further you, less to feed your soul and nothing to connect you to the planet that is your very life support. Perhaps my greatest lesson was that there is never a perfect time to commit, but that now is the time to commit.

Amarula arrives back at Richards Bay as the sun was setting

My wish is that you too should feel the tug of adventure, feel the constant, subliminal pressure of the what ifs and why nots. That the romantic notions and high hopes work their way effortlessly through your urban armour, piercing open the cracks and flowing into your being, in the same way the ocean poured in through the hole in our bridge deck at the beginning of our journey and flooded Amarula, revealing our vulnerability.

My wish is that your soul is flooded with the call to cast off and set course for some wild and untamed land far across the oceans and to return some day as an adventurer. As have I.

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