On October 24, Joshua crossed the longitude of Cape Agulhas, 200 miles from the coast. She will continue SSE until tomorrow, to gain more offing and leave the zone of convergence well to port.
It is my sixty-third day at sea, with 7882 miles covered between noon sights, a quarter of the distance from Plymouth to Plymouth by the three capes. The Atlantic is in the wake; ahead, the Indian Ocean. Yet Joshua is not actually in the Indian Ocean, despite the theoretical boundaries, but in kind of a no man’s land: the waters of Good Hope. They stretch between the longitude of the Cape and that of Durban, some 600 miles.
This area can be dangerous---often worse than the Horn --- because of the seas raised by the Agulhas Current. Many 25 to 50 ft yachts remember it. Atom was rolled over near the Cape and emerged with her deck flat as a raft. Awahnee encountered the most terrible weather of her career in these waters, and she is a veteran of the Horn. Between Durban and Port Elizabeth, Marco Polo, Eve, Adios, Walkabout, Wanda, Marie-Térèse II and others were knocked on their beam ends, or hit very hard, by breaking seas kicked up by gales blowing against the Agulhas Current, which reaches 5 knots in places.
According to the Sailing Directions, the most dangerous area is off the steep SE edge of the Agulhas Bank, where frequent gales raise an enormous sea, reinforced by the meeting of the warm, salty current from the Indian Ocean and the cold (less salty) Antarctic Current. When you have seen the eddies caused by salinity differences in the Panama locks, one prefers to give a wide berth to similar phenomena when they are on an oceanic scale.
Yesterday, there was a gale from the west. Today, Radio Cape Town announces that nothing is expected before midnight. I should take advantage of it to get cracking. But I let Joshua drag along at 6 knots fully reefed, whereas she would better 7 if I replaced the 54 sq. ft storm jib with the 162 sq. ft job, and raised the big staysail instead of keeping the 38 sq. ft handkerchief she is carrying now. The fact is, I don’t have much resilience left. I got hardly any sleep last night; it was blowing hard, with an occasionally choppy sea that made me suspect a current convergence.
The sky is fairly clear now; and the westerly wind varies between force 5 and 6, without any real gusts, and the barometer seems steady at 1013 millibars. Yet the sea is strange: it subsides right away when the wind drops to force 5, only to rise very fast, with big breaking seas as soon as it exceeds force 6 in the moderate fair-weather squalls. I am also reluctant to hoist the large jib because I would have trouble bringing it in, should the weather worsen again. Last night I had difficulty keeping the jib under control and raising the storm jib in its place. My motions were clumsy and inefficient; it took me three times longer than usual to secure gaskets and reef points. And my reflexes were dangerously slow: somehow I got caught with water up to my knees at the end of the bowsprit, without having seen it coming. The mounting fatigue and under nourishment of these last days may be to blame.
Sure, I would like to get out of this lousy place by crowding on canvas. But if the weather returns mean, as it very quickly can here, I am much better prepared with shortened sail. Wiser in my weakened condition. Nothing to worry about, far from it…but I am asking Joshua to do her best until I get back into shape.
Outside are the high latitudes and the sea rumbling a little under the force 6 westerly wind; inside, the calm and peace of my little world. I smoke, dreaming before the little globe my friends on the yacht Damien gave me. They went north, I went south. And it is all the same, since we are at sea in our boats.
I gaze at the long curve drawn on the globe: Joshua’s route since England, with porpoises and albatrosses, joys and sometimes sorrows.
During Tahiti-Alicante, Françoise and I would draw the route covered in the same way on the tiny school globe our children had sent us. And we would always wait until Joshua had covered ten degrees of longitude or latitude before extending the line. To have done it sooner would have brought bad luck, attracting a contrary gale or an endless calm.
I raise the big staysail at sunset, but keep the storm jib. A reef is shaken out of the mainsail and mizzen a little before midnight. The bow wave glows with phosphorescence, and the wake stretches out far astern, full of sparks.
The old-timers in the great days of sail come to mind: for centuries they furrowed the oceans in trade or discovery. But always for the sea. I reflect on what they bequeathed us in nautical documents, where words stand for the sea and sky, where arrows try to tell of currents and winds, of the anguish and joys of the sailors, as if that could be done, as if experience of the great laws of the sea could be passed along, as if the vibrations of the sea could go through you with only words and arrows.
And yet…I see myself in Mauritius again, fifteen years ago, studying the Sailing Directions and the Pilot Charts for the run from Port Louis the Durban. I would underline in red the ominous portents of an approaching SE gale blowing against the Agulhas Current, in blue the signs propitious to a return or holding of fair weather. Closing my eyes, I tried to see and feel what emanated from the rectilinear arrows, the dry phrases, the whole austere, scientific technicalness, full of hidden things trying to emerge in me.