Sailing to the Rainbow Nation

This penultimate stretch of the Indian Ocean, from Réunion Island to South Africa, is one of the most demanding of our whole world tour. We will approach the Cape of Good Hope, which together with Cape Horn is one of the two great passages that every sailor dreams of doing at least once in their life. The journey should be made at this time of the year, at the beginning of the austral summer, when many others are waiting in Réunion for the right moment to decide to leave. There are also many who, surviving a bad experience in this part of the ocean, arrive in Cape Town and sell their boats. At least that’s what they say considering the excellent opportunities that can be found for buying used boats in these parts! But why is this route so insidious and feared by sailors? Because perturbations can quickly arise that totally change the weather forecast from day to day; moreover, passing through the strong winds that accelerate south of Madagascar, you enter the Mozambique channel and approaching the South African coast you will meet the Agulhas current: a marine river that when it collides with the adverse winds from the southwest generates waves that can reach 20 metres. ‘Here the waves can split ships in two!’ says Valerio.

Reunion disappears from our sight with the setting sun shining on the coast
Reunion disappears from our sight with the setting sun shining on the coast

With the awareness that we were facing a difficult journey, it was only Valerio and I on board for this passage, because unfortunately even the last of our travel companions had to return home. We set sail on Thursday, 5th November from Le Port, leaving Réunion on our stern, which slowly disappeared on the horizon. While sailing, we re-calibrated the autopilot: after two weeks of struggling to replace the two pumps and restoring all of the system’s hydraulic connections, this was the real test. At the end of the second compass circumnavigation the pilot began to work perfectly. We did not say anything to each other, we did not rejoice out of luck, we continued to sail as if nothing had happened (whoever saw us would think the two of us were crazy!) But inside we were more than happy to have put our ‘Elmo’ back in order, irreplaceable help especially now that there were only two of us left. We left after considering carefully the weather conditions for the journey we intended to take to Richards Bay or Durban, the two main landings for those coming from the north east. Doing the passage plan, we took into account the major pilot guides and the recommendations written by the ‘guru’ Jimmy Cornell in his books and we relied on the advice of a South African router and those of a weather forecast agency that our friend Paolo had set up for us from Italy. We established a way point 150 miles south of the southern coast of Madagascar, so as to limit those accelerations of wind and contrary currents that are always present in this passage. So we started our adventure accompanied by a nice northeast wind that intensified as we went down in latitude.

Milanto en route on the south coast of Madagascar
Milanto en route on the south coast of Madagascar

Between 22-23 south you leave the Tropics and the trade winds zone. You enter temperate latitudes and sailing becomes similar to the Mediterranean, one with short waves with greater frequency. But everything is upside down compared to the northern hemisphere: the northeast, instead of being a cold northeast wind, is like a warm libeccio brought by low pressures which in this hemisphere obviously turns in the opposite direction; clockwise. While the southeast is like a cold mistral that cleans the sky and brings high pressure. We jibed several times while maintaining goose winged sails with wind coming from nearly directly astern. Whole sunny days followed one another without even a cloud in a blue sky so dense that it seemed unreal. A really unusual condition to see in the ocean: it sometimes happens in the Mediterranean to find a sky like this in summer, but normally in the absence of wind, here instead there was 25 knots! At night the constellations stood out in the clear sky: Orion followed us aft and the Southern Cross, higher and higher to the left of our bow. In the middle of the night a crescent moon rose, like a silver boat sailing in the sky. After 28 degrees latitude we put the bow to the west, jibing at night and flying over the waves at 9knts with a good current in our favour. We have always maintained a conservative sail plan with reduced sails so as not to put pressure on the equipment, while maintaining the speed necessary to sail on a sea that sometimes reached 3.5 metres of wave across. However, we were not entirely alone on this journey. Together with us, 3 other boats that we had met in the port of Réunion had departed together. Besides Sea Lover, the Mexican catamaran that has sailed with us since French Polynesia, there is the friendly Chilean Jorge Senior and his son Junior on a Jeanneau 49, and the beautiful Swiss family of Andrè, an experienced skipper on a fast X-Yacht 482. Each of us followed the route best suited to the boat, at first close then progressively more and more distant, but it is always nice to share your tactics via VHF or satellite mail, feeling part of a small fleet with a single goal to reach for. When you sail around the world you are never alone, in every port you find others to share the journey with and it is nice to feel part of this great community of sailors.

Dreams and hopes at sunset
Dreams and hopes at sunset

On the fifth day of the passage the furling jib stopped unravelling, after several tests to find the problem we decided to go up the mast. The wind was letting up and the sea decreasing as a result, but the boat still rolled enough and climbing to the top of the tree in the middle of the ocean always creates strong emotions. I went up holding onto to the shrouds, a halyard behind my back to stay attached to the mast, and pushing up with my legs, while Valerio struggled from below on the winch, hoisting me with a main halyard and a safety halyard. The waves made the tree swing like a pendulum and I had to tighten my legs to keep myself attached to the branch like a koala. The risk in these cases is to lose your grip and to start swinging violently banging on the mast and against the shrouds. When I reached the top, I realised the problem: the top cap of furling foil had cracked and the genoa halyard got caught and twisted in it. I managed to free it and make an emergency repair with electrical tape. I went down looking at Milanto from above with the boat leaving a long trail of white foam in the blue ocean. Beautiful, I felt like a free albatross in the wind.

Climbing to the masthead
Climbing to the masthead

The next morning came with another challenge: a cold front was coming from the south and it would hit us fully. It could not be avoided. We could go further south to give us the opportunity to take it astern by going up again in latitude when the wind and sea increased – cold fronts can always be dangerous and come down with a violence that is difficult to predict. We waited for the monster that came from the pole and manifested itself with black storm clouds that we could see building on the horizon in the afternoon. We tidied up the boat and made ready to minimise the sail, we took out the oilskins, the shoes and the life jackets. Meanwhile, in the distance, we saw more and more clouds high on the horizon line. Here it was ,the front was approaching. The waves started to grow pushed by the wind, and the clouds close above us, the sun disappeared and the cold wind began to increase. It steadily grew up to 30knots and beyond with 4 metre waves that slammed at the bow and swept over the deck. Milanto held up well to the shocks – but looked like a submarine! We continued on a westerly course all night with three reefs in the mainsail and a small amount of genoa in the crosswind. At dawn the worst seemed to be over, the sun rose behind us and as usual it was a great consolation. All nights, even the darkest ones, sooner or later pass and the sun always shines again.

The cold front is approaching and Milanto prepares to enter the monster's mouth with three reefs and a reduced genoa
The cold front is approaching and Milanto prepares to enter the monster’s mouth with three reefs and a reduced genoa

We sailed fast upwind on the waves and it was a pleasure to listen to the hiss of the wind that resounded in the stern sounding like a pan flute that sung a hypnotic and sweet melody for us. The morning of the next day was even more beautiful; the wind had dropped and in the sky I found the clouds of Mantegna, what English meteorologists call, ‘fair weather cumulus.’ Clouds that bring good weather, high pressure and light winds. Mantegna often painted them in his altarpieces: the flat base and the development in height less than that in width, run lightly over rocky and rugged landscapes. I have always believed that he wanted them to be an allegory of the afterlife, of the Heavenly Jerusalem, or more simply a symbol of hope for the future. As if the sky were the mirror of the soul of each of us, pervaded by the morning light. This is the Mantegna that I have always preferred, not that of the dead Christ, but that of the summer clouds that bring the advent of a new sunny day.

The clouds by Andrea Mantegna
The clouds by Andrea Mantegna

The penultimate day we spent doing the passage plan for the last challenge that awaited us, that of the passage of the fearsome Agulhas current. We would have to enter the current the following morning with about 25knts of northeast wind, and aim for Cape Saint Lucia by advancing diagonally up to 5 miles north of Richards Bay and enter the large loop that preceded the harbour. At 9am on Saturday, November 14th, we were in the current with a nice carrying wind that pushed us at a speed of 9-10 knots with the waves riding with us in an ink-like dark blue sea. The green hills of South Africa appeared on our side the closer we got to the coast with the sand dunes descending to the sea. It was exciting to watch them parading along like in a long cinematic sequence shot. We had arrived in the Rainbow Nation of Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Steve Biko, Helen Lieberman, the myths of democracy and freedom that I have always admired. For us it was a dream come true. Long live life!

The coast of the Rainbow Nation
The coast of the Rainbow Nation