Shortly after me and my daughter returned from a trip to Paris, a worldwide epidemic hit. We were very lucky to be home in perfect time, as strict measures were taken by every country to be protected against further spreading of an apparent virus.
On 26 March 2020 a lockdown was announced in South Africa and it basically allowed only buying food. Non essentials like restaurants, Art Galleries, beauty salons, and most small businesses were asked to close down for a period.
I realised that I can carry on with my life mostly like I always do. I am an artist, working in my studio from home, I work independently, am self employed and don’t deal with people on a daily basis at all. I felt quite prepared mentally for a lockdown as I remember the first time I was exposed to a similar situation.
It was 17 March 1999 when I left Cape Town on our yacht with my first husband. We knew what was waiting for us. We were heading for Brazil in South America but stopping over on St. Helena Island in the South Atlantic Ocean. Depending on weather conditions the trip would take 21 days. That meant seeing only one other person during the whole time, seeing no land at all, hearing from no one else and only seeing the waves of the sea. At the time we used a sextant, a normal watch and a log meter for navigation. We had a VHS radio to contact passing ships or talk to other yachts that would be in reaching distance.
Moya, a 46 feet Gaff Ketch was single handedly built by Div – a very strong black steel hull and brown sails. She looked like a pirate ship. It had taken Div four years to build the yacht all by himself and now she was ready to sail off. We had uploaded tins of food, dried food and even a good amount of boxed wine. Cheese were preserved in oil and bacon in coarse salt. There were enough diesel and water in the tanks to make a safe trip, in case the wind decided to die down.
Family and friends came to greet us a few days before as we were not sure exactly what day we would untie from the dock. Div was studying the weather to predict a safe time to leave.
We had to be ready to leave in a few hours if the weather gave us an opening to leave the stormy waters of Cape Town. On the morning of 17 March 1999 we got the weather opening and untied the mooring lines and started motoring out of Cape Town Harbour.
Our only two crew members were our two sea cats. Tula and Chica. We rescued them from the Animal Welfare, after my 16 year old Camilla had died just weeks before we were leaving. I was heartbroken as Camilla had been with me through University studies and had been my companion in my gypsy- like lifestyle. Tula and Chica had been on the boat since a few weeks old and had no idea that there was life on land too!! They grew into little teenage cats being happy to sit in the sun on deck, and sleeping any place inside the boat and sharpening their nails on the wooden mast. We have been out of the harbour a few times and both cats had learned to steady themselves by pushing against the fiddles when the boat was healing at an uncomfortable angle. Fiddles are upright pieces that are attached to all ends of table tops to keep anything from sliding off during sailing.
Soon we were out at sea with land disappearing into the distance. Moya was rigged for a tack to the portside which makes a very easy sail with the tradewinds behind us. As night crawled up unto us the sea became tumulus and the swell of the waves were up to 4 meters. We had watches of three hours each holding the tiller to steer the boat into the right direction. It was my first ever night on a yacht and the noise of the sea against the hull made it impossible to really go to sleep. I only had 3 hours to rest before it was my turn again to keep watch and hold the tiller! Moya was surfing down huge swells and moving fast for a heavy steel boat. We had taken down sails in order to slow down in the heavy wind and fast moving waves.
By the third day being at sea with no land in sight the sea had calmed down. We were used to steering the boat on our 3 hour watches, holding the tiller by hand. For some of my watches I stood up straight for the whole period with the tiller between my legs to keep the boat in the right direction. The tiller is like the steering wheel in a car, and set in the cockpit of the boat. The lower part where people sit outside and from where boats are steering from. Our compass was set on the roof of the wheelhouse and the person on watch had to keep an eye on the compass and keep steering in the planned direction.
The first navigation was done before we left the Cape Town harbour on 17 March 1999. As the weather changes the boat sometimes veer off and strong currents also influence the direction of the boat. Div had a log meter running at the back of the boat in the water and was able to calculate the distance over a period of time. He was determined to use a sextant to navigate our direction and so he did. The angle of the sun in relation to the earth is used to calculate our direction.
We were sailing in the South Atlantic and we saw the beauty of sea life in abundance. Arctic Skua’s, flying fish landed on the deck often during the day, and flying squids landed in the cockpit and stained it black with their ink.
We soon grew accustomed to the routine of doing our watches, and making meals with a boat that is constantly at a 30 degree angle. I baked fresh bread, Div made deep-sea-apple pie that consisted of broken Marie biscuits, pie apples and condensed milk.
WE saw no other human beings, and I felt like talking to anyone I could reach on VHF and developed a craving for roasted meat, despite that fact that I am a vegetarian. I dreamed of having roasted meat and hot fresh vegetables and a very cold beer. One late afternoon I saw a bulk carrier on the horizon and imagined myself having an interesting conversation with the captain of the ship. I called the ship on the VHF -radio but got no response. After about 30 minutes I heard a crackling voice calling on the VHF and heard a man speaking Russian and calling us. Just hearing another voice in the sea engulfed world of mine, was reassuring.
We acknowledged each other in our respective languages and that was enough for me to carry on the trip not seeing land or other people.
Life felt surreal and dreamlike… days flowed into the next with only the consistency of routine reminding us of time going by. On off watches meals would quickly be made, as it feels like being in a washing machine all the time . The boat moving through the sea, makes a huge noise, cutlery rattles, and my whole world was lived at a permanent angle of 30 degrees or sometimes a little more. Every step had to be carefully thought through, as one hand was kept free to keep myself from falling.
In the second week of being at sea, the wind forces were so strong that I had to hang unto the tiller most of my watches. That meant being alert for 3 hours and keeping the boat sailing straight by keeping the tiller between my legs. In between I kept my eye on the compass to make sure we were going in the right direction. We sailed without auto pilot at the time, so steering with the tiller was necessary … holding it by hand. Sometimes big waves came through the skylights and parts of the inside of the boat would be soaked. Saltwater needs to be cleared with fresh water otherwise it never dries out completely.
By the end of the second week of being at sea, the wind had died down. The sails were slatting and chafing and we didn’t make a lot of progress. The compass made funny swing movements and we found that it is due to anomalies on the earth. The moon had grown and night watches became easier on the eyes and it was a pleasure to see the moonlight on the ever-moving sea.
By the end of the second week we were very close the St. Helena Island… and had about 90 miles to go. The skipper decided that we should take down the Mizzen sail otherwise we will reach the island at night. I felt dirty and longed for a shower on land. So far we have taken showers that consisted of salt water showers on deck and using a litre of fresh water to clean the salt water away. By morning as I served my breakfast for me and the skipper, I saw a big school of dolphins, cavorting in the waves and St. Helena Island was only 20 miles away.
On the first day of the third week at sea, seeing only the Big Blu we were in anticipation of the sight of land. By 4 in the morning the dark outline of St. Helena was clearly visible under cloud cover and overcasted conditions. WE carried on with our heading of 34 degress South, till we could see the lighthouse and then gybed to make way for Jamestown. By 7 am in the morning we came in to anchor, and had to make a few turns to have a look at the depth of the water. The Ferryman came out to show us a spot to anchor. Soon after anchoring the customs officer Barry Williams came round to do his job. We chatted and he found everything in order and left with smiles and best wishes. After all the happy procedures we were excited to go ashore after being at sea for about three weeks.
Our dinghy was taken down from the deck, where it was stowed during our passage from Cape Town. The sea was now my new Highway going ashore for the next few years.
We rowed to the piece where sea meets land and where it was safe to tie down our dinghy without being smashed to pieces between heavy waves and rocks.
We stepped foot on land after three weeks, and for a while I had landsickness…. Being on land and still feeling the movement of the sea in your body.
To be continued….