Surviving the Coast of South Africa

When we arrived in Richards Bay, we congratulated ourselves for finishing our voyage across the Indian Ocean. We never thought about low long it would take to get to Cape Town, but this section of coast line is not to be taken lightly.

The total distance is 950 miles (the same as going from the UK to Gibraltar) and you have to contend with the very changeable weather bringing strong, gale-force winds at times.  The Agulhas Current runs south west between Richards Bay and Port Elizabeth at up to 4 knots roughly following the 200 metre contour.  That’s good because it pushes you along quickly, but with any south in the wind, the effect of wind against current builds steep waves very quickly.

Typical High followed by a Low

The weather is dominated by a series of high and low pressure systems, which pass to the south of the coast,  moving from west to east. The high pressure systems normally give North/East winds and good weather; whereas the low pressure systems give South/West winds. 

Between the high pressure and the following low pressure systems, there’s normally a kind of front.  When this hits, the wind can change from NE25 to SW25, within TEN MINUTES.  Periods of variable winds between systems can generate intense lightning storms.

If you can average 6 knots boat speed, then with 2 knots from the Agulhas Current, you could sail the 480 miles to Port Elizabeth in 2.5 days.  From there to Cape Town, it’s another 470 miles, so with the variable currents, it would take another 3 days.  The dream scenario is a stationery high pressure south of the coast, but even then you’re looking at 5½ - 6 days sailing.  We had difficult weather conditions with small 24 to 48 hour weather windows, so it took us 30 days to do the trip – 1/3 of our visa time.

Passages between Richards Bay and Port Elizabeth are without a doubt the most challenging due to the effects of the Agulhas Current and the prevailing Southerly swell. When a low pressure has passed by, the wind slowly changes from strong south-west to north-east over a period of 12 hours.  As it backs, the wind normally drops to about 10 knots from the south-east, then builds to 15-30 knots once it gets north-east.  

If the weather windows are small, then you want to leave when the wind has backed to the south-east, but we found that even a 10 knot SE wind, builds steep wind waves on top of the swell making life very unpleasant as you bash directly into the waves.  As the wind backs through east to north-east the sea becomes more confused until a strong north-easterly has been blowing for a few hours and flattens the sea.  Finally, you have lovely sailing conditions, rolling downwind probably under blue skies.

Once you are around Port Elizabeth and out of the Agulhas Current the sea state is what you would normally expect and the weather systems seem to be more benign, with larger windows.  Although that could be because it was later in the summer – the boats that left earlier in November had a much tougher time with stronger winds and bigger seas.

To summarise our trip.  We were ready to leave Richards Bay on the 5th December looking at a weather window on the 7th.  The gap closed up and we didn’t want to go to Durban, so we had to wait for a week until the 15th – perversely, that weather window only gave us enough time to get to Durban (actual sailing 15 hours).  

After waiting 4 days in Durban, we had a 36 hour sail to East London, where we had to wait another 6 days for two SW systems to pass through before we had a gap big enough to allow us to sail for 48 hours to Mossel Bay.  There we had to wait for 3 days for a SW35 to pass through before sailing 48 hours to Cape Town.

In retrospect, we could have shaved 10 days off the 30 day total by using every small window, going to Durban earlier and doing a 24 hour sail from East London to Port Elizabeth.  When you’re planning your stay in South Africa, you should allow 2 to 4 weeks to get between Richards Bay and Cape Town depending on how lucky or how brave you feel.  Finally, get in touch with Des Cason (sygambit at who provides an excellent, free weather routing service.