Solo to Dassen

I’m a little on edge in the days leading up to my planned departure to Dassen Island and it shows.

Sandy asks “If you are so nervous then why do you have to sail solo up the coast? Why can you not just be happy day-sailing in the bay?

I can’t argue against that logic. All I know is that if I don’t do the voyage, despite the nerves, then next week, next year, I’ll still have unfinished business up the west coast.

The boat is capable and sufficiently prepared and so that’s not the reason for the nerves. In the final analysis the concern surrounds the capability of the skipper,  my biggest concern the risk of incapacity due to sea-sickness. I’ve done one or two crewed trips up the coast to Dassen and Saldanha where I ended up feeling distinctly green and wished I would rather die. Under those conditions it’s difficult to properly run the ship and my concern now is what happens if the mal-de-mer kicks in hard while I’m solo?

It’s Friday, February 25, 2022 and Ocean Blue noses out of Table Bay harbour in the pre-dawn twilight. Close on her heels and also with a crew of only one on board is the Sadler 26 “Jigsaw”, our buddy boat for the cruise up the coast. One should never set sail on a Friday it’s said but this is just a short 35 nautical mile hop up the west coast and so we kid ourselves that the Friday-rule doesn’t count.

Conditions are good enough to allow sailing for most of the way up to Dassen today but the trip up the coast is never totally flat or without challenge. The auto-pilot’s incessant whiirrr…whirrr…whiiir after the passing of each south westerly swell becomes irritating and I choose to hand steer to maintain the peace and quiet.

I spend way too much time trying unsuccessfully to get some kind of sheet-to-tiller self-steering running and eventually give up in disgust, taking back the helm and clawing back the lost distance to Jigsaw who has now left me in her wake.

As the day drags on and Dassen heaves into view I can see the Mykonos fleet fast over-hauling us. It’s pure coincidence us having sailed on the same day and weekend as the regatta, driven more by a weather window and available time than anything else.

The voyage up the west coast is, in my mind, determined more by the weather window for the return leg than the outbound voyage. During the summer months and into autumn it’s often easy to find a decent wind with a strong southerly vector to blow you north up the coast. It’s quite a bit more challenging to find a northerly to bring you back.

Our choice of weekend was driven by just such a weather choice, a forecast 15kt south easterly on the Friday with the wind set to veer north westerly by 6am on the Saturday. The plan was to get to House Bay before sunset on Friday, enjoy the anchorage overnight and then use the favourable winds to return to Cape Town the following morning.

Jigsaw is several miles back now and I’m fast approaching Die Blaasbalk, a dangerous-looking reef that extends about half a mile north of the island’s east side. Time to fire up the Yanmar, furl the sails and ready the ground tackle.

My thoughts drift back in time to an era when sailors had no motors or chart plotters. Our planned anchorage is in 4-5m of water, close in to the jetty that thrusts out from the beach in House bay. It’s a fairly straightforward entry but one that requires a little concentration. Once one has left the Blaasbalk rock well to port, the entrance is due south between the rocky, wave-swept eastern shore and the rocks and foul ground that lie almost in the middle of the bay. To get to our anchor spot we need to thread the needle between these dangers and this is no time to pretend that we’re anything as tough or as capable as those ancient mariners. For us it’s definitely motors and chart-plotters all the way!

Anchor down in 7m north east of the jetty and it’s time sit back and enjoy the tranquility. For now, ‘Blue is the only yacht at anchor and we have a short time to enjoy this wild place in total solitude. I’m loving my Rocna and have no temptation whatsoever to go back to the previous CQR that lies in the forepeak as back-up.

Soon I’m joined in the anchorage by another two yachts, Jigsaw and an unfamiliar 40-footer which I can’t identify. About an hour and a half spent on the foredeck, feet up, listening to the surf crashing all around and the calls of the sea birds. Then tiredness sets in and I sleep deeply until just after sunset, waking to a darkening twilight sky.

House Bay, Dassen Island [Feb 2022]

Despite the protection offered in the right conditions Dassen remains a wild and remote place and in the darkness it becomes all the more apparent as you hear the surf crashing on both Die Blaasbalk and the reefs of Boom Point. I’m still a relative novice at this coastal cruising thing and this, being my first time solo, has added an additional layer of wariness. Every 2 hours I’m up on deck to check the anchor and our position although each time I do I sheepishly leave ‘Blue and the Rocna to keep doing their thing as all is well.

The predicted northerly blows in ahead of schedule and by 2am the anchorage is starting to get a little bumpy for my liking. Popping a Sturgeron in expectation of a 4am departure I return to the comfort of the quarter berth. Finding sleep now impossible, by 0230 the snatching and groaning of the rode in the bow roller has me decided. “Depart as soon as possible.” With the beach now a lee shore astern I see through the fog that Jigsaw is also getting under way.

By the time all is prepared and the motor running it’s 3am the fog has descended. Waiting for Jigsaw to up anchor I finally get underway at 0330 motoring jaggedly out of the anchorage as I try to orientate myself in the poor visibility. At one point, having spent several minutes, head down franticly stowing the anchor and chain, I look up to see Jigsaw motoring off to port of me. My first thought is “Hey Captain, you’re going the wrong way“. It takes me a while to wipe the condensation off my specs and realise I’m headed straight for Die Blaasbalk with not too much room left to react. A couple of very deep breaths later and we’re out in the relative safety of deeper water and make the turn to starboard, heads’l out and angling in toward the mainland for a more favourable wind angle.

I find the voyage back south to Cape Town generally much easier and more comfortable that the outbound trip. It’s likely that the ever-present SW’ly swell presents itself of the starboard bow on the return rather than cork-screwing the boat up on the northward passage. There’s enough wind for us to manage just over 3 knots but we’re sailing dead downwind. No point in raising the main at the moment and the headsail pulls us along for a while through alternating pockets of fog with zero visibility and clearer patches where perhaps we could see a mile or so.

Checking the batteries – down to 12.2V! That’s a 60%-discharge and almost at the point where you should turn them off. The fog has me concerned about losing battery power and a functioning chart plotter so I turn on the Yanmar to charge the batteries. With the motor now aiding the genoa the speed immediately doubles.

Under pretense of giving the house bank a good charge and intoxicated by the constant 6kts over the ground that was the end of purist sailing for the day. We covered the remaining 30 miles back to Table Bay with the Yanmar and the heads’l alternating between fog all around and leaden grey skies in between.

As I review my voyage logs in front of the winter fire several months later, I muse that sailors are perhaps a particularly strange subset of human. Already I sense the cold, wet, foggy tiredness of the voyage waning in my memory, already being replaced by the sense of achievement for having successfully done something truly difficult. But perhaps that’s only because I’ve had a nice warm and comfortable night in a dry, sweet-smelling bed that doesn’t move and doesn’t require me to be up every 2 hours to check that it’s still where I anchored it?

Lessons learned?

  • I’m glad I made the effort to reach Dassen, glad I achieved what I had been nervously anticipating. But, having done it solo over the previous 2 days, I’m more convinced than ever that the effort wasn’t perhaps worth the small gains of putting my feet up in the anchorage for a miniscule 2 hours. As Fatty Goodlander once said “Cruising should be fun. If it isn’t you’re not doing it right”. I think next time a good few nights at anchor are called for to make the delivery trip up and down the coast more worthwhile.
  • I always kid myself that I’ll anchor in 3-5m but every time I reach an anchorage I always end up in 7-10m because otherwise it appears I’ll be uncomfortably close to the shore. It’s good to have more chain and rode than you think you’ll need. With 30m of 8mm chain and 50m of rode Ocean Blue can comfortably have out a scope of 5:1 or more but perhaps more rode would still be welcome.
  • Could I have sailed out of the anchorage if the motor failed? I suppose under duress I would have, but it wouldn’t have been at all easy between the underwater dangers each side and especially with the added visibility problems. Once that anchor breaks free but is still 7m under the surface and you are being blown ashore you have precious little time to stow the gear and get underway. With the main up to sail off the anchor this problem would only become worse. And the wind was quite light at 12-14kt. If it were pumping from that direction it would be a dangerous challenge. Having a solid, reliable motor is great peace of mind.
  • With the fog rolling in and visibility reduced to the bow roller it would be virtually impossible to safely leave an anchorage like House Bay if the power fails and the plotter doesn’t work. Once at anchor it would be prudent to make sure you have a compass heading memorised out to clear water.
  • I was greatly relieved to experience zero sea sickness. Coming back to Cape Town is always much better and less rolly due to the swell angle and so my main concern was the voyage north. No hassles at all. I did take a Sturgeron at the prescribed dosage and time before start and perhaps that helped. I suspect though that cutting back on the coffee and alcohol intake leading up to the voyage was perhaps also a major factor, most likely the coffee. There was a very subdued twinge of “I might be getting sick” on the way back as I cleared Dassen and the swell began to roll under the boat but it was very short lived. Or perhaps it was just psychosomatic? With crew on board you can allow yourself to be ill since there is someone left to run the boat. When you are on your own that is not an option.

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