Sailing the Cape

Arrived late at night off the crowded plane from Jo’burg.  From the lawn of my B&B, I am met by the familiarity of stars overhead, but in the unfamiliar pattern of the Southern Hemisphere, which suddenly arrange themselves and I am looking at the very familiar constellation of Orion, but upside down: low in the sky and feet in the air.  My old friend looks a bit silly doing a headstand on the horizon, but I guess I won’t be doing any celestial navigation.  Where’s the Southern Cross?

I wake to a thick fog covering the hillside, and opening the rolling security gate with my clicker, I make my way downhill toward the South Atlantic I can hear but cannot see – so pea-soupy is it – until I am halfway across the beach.  I must touch any ocean I am near – this one is clear, but nearly as cold as Maine in the summer.  I touch it to my lips – untasted since I went to Brazil in 1991.

People and dogs appear and disappear out of the veil as I stroll the beach.  On the way back, a moment of panic as I realize I have not marked my way, have no phone or address, but when I relax my internal sense of direction takes me back.

A friend of a friend of a friend has secured me a place on a boat today, and the fog mercifully lifts as we drive around Table Mountain from Camps Bay to False Bay.  Cape Town is so dramatic, combining Big Sur (cliffs into the sea) with Greek islands (rows of white houses on the lower slopes under the strata of the mountain outcrops) and Laguna (beach culture, if that’s not oxymoronic).

John has big hands, big eyes behind big glasses, and a big belly.  Big brown curls escape his baseball hat to surround a round and ravaged face.  Bumbling but alert, he plucks his way through the aisles of the Pick ‘n’ Pay, stacking up a mountain of food for the 7 of us who will be on board.  Determined to find the best in everything, he laughs away all suffering.  “We’ll be picking up a missionary,” he booms.  I ask if that means there’ll be no drinking, smoking, or swearing. “No one in this world is without sin,” John says cheerfully.  I felt like an imposition – he had to take me out; Alistair insisted because Jacqui insisted – but now I wonder what I have gotten myself into.

Norman is indeed a missionary in Mozambique, hailing from Montreal.  His two children, Jonathan and Daniel, pre-teens, climb in the back of the van while I sidle up to John’s bouncing thigh – he can’t not be moving.  Unsatisfied, he stops for more food.  Laden with bags, we trundle along the pier to the boat, Out of Africa, a 40’ sloop, a bit down at heels for a New England boat, but fairly well-kept for this tropical booze cruise marina.

We are looking for a chart – John loaned them to – who was it? – when we are joined by Jenny and Dave.  Jenny is meek and small as Dave is hugely rotund and loud enough to make John seem retiring.  He goes one better than the Maine saying of ‘his brain never had a thought his mouth couldn’t use’; he thinks that every thought he has is one that everyone can use, and he is going to make sure they hear it.

He knows more about docking lines radios, weather, local fish, politics, sailing the world, and anything else that comes up, and he is dying to cut off whatever paltry contribution anyone else comes up with in order to share it.  He has brought a GPS that he has somehow screwed up, and insists on announcing each button he pushes as he attempts to reset it, to no avail.  I can see now why John brought so much food, but I can’t see why he brought Dave.

He, like the others, was a strong Christian.  You could see them itching to proselytize (Norman, the only ordained one, being the most reticent and least eager.  He didn’t seem to have much of the missionary in him; I suspect he had simply retreated from the world for a while, and then found he loved life in Mozambique among the Yow (no idea, but that’s how he said it).

At home, I am so lucky to have two sailing companions who enjoy silence as much as I do, and I resign myself to a day in the life of a non-stop talker.  Here endeth any further talk of Dave, but you can be sure he did not.

We motored out of the slip, but it soon breezed up to 17 knots or so.  No one else seemed to want the wheel, so took it and trimmed it as best I could (Dave kept showing me how, but the boat wandered as much as his attention).  Finally he got interested in something else, and I get my wicked way in balancing the sails and tweaking the leech lines, outhaul, and vang, and soon we were humming along at 7 knots toward Seal Island – the local famous spot.  Nothing like it, the clean sea humming along the lee side, the boat slicing the waves happily, steady in the wind.

You know those shots you’ve seen on the National Geographic channel of great whites breaching as they grasp poor little seals in their terrible jaws?  All happens right here.  We could see the seals, poking their heads up, and hear them and smell them as we passed to leeward of the island, but it wasn’t the season for the sharks so the seals are safe for now.  Apparently a local current anomaly makes for murky water near the bottom and clear water up top.  The sharks hide in the murky water and seals don’t even have time to move.  Everybody has a shark story, but lightning kills more people in Africa every year than sharks, snakes, and lions combined.

We did see whales, their slow backs breaking the long waves – Bride’s whales they called them, but we call them minkes.  We saw schools of small penguins, which used to be called Jackass penguins (as that is exactly what they sounded like) until the jackass lobby piped up and their name was changed to African penguins.

And, man did we see dolphins!  We must have had 3 dozen or more, playing around the boat, riding under our bow, leaping on either side, and racing off to fish, only to come back and squeak at us again.  So exuberant, so playful, so graceful.  I don’t know why they do not breath out under water, but they surface and blow and suck in an instant and are down again, never leaving a trail of exhaled bubbles.  We saw them surround a school several times, winding around them, tightening the fish into a whorl, and then slicing through it to chomp them.  Surprisingly, the seals hunted with them, occasionally sticking their long necks out of the water.

It was Wednesday, few boats were out, not even fishing boats, and we eased sheets and reached desultorily while we had lunch, and then tightened up and flew back across the bay (narrowly missing a submerged rock – navigation, though they all just finished a course supposedly, was not a strong suit on this boat).  Despite Dave’s assured “If you can sail here, you can sail anywhere” assertion, I would steer well clear of this boat if it were in Maine waters.

John, a self-confessed non-intellectual masquerading as a fool, nevertheless with street smarts (retired with a boat at 50, can’t be that dumb), was as well-intentioned as the day was long.  When we returned, Dave, of course, had to rush for an errand, and Jenny took the missionary family, so John and I stayed to do the dishes and out the boat away, and then he drove me ‘round the scenic route back to Camps Bay.  I protested that I could get a cab, but he told me a story of an American who had gone out of his way for him when he was in Nevada, so I will honor his christian soul and look for some South African with whom to pay it forward.

Bits:

Black guards hanging around every street, guarding against blacks.  Rolling iron gates with sharpened uprights seal off every house.

The difference between John, a cheerful bigot in generalities, but who talked personally and with christian concern to all and sundry, and praised Mandela as well as de Klerk.  Other ‘liberal’ folks in my classes, started out all egalitarian, but ended up, within a few sentences, talking about ‘them’, meaning blacks, as a monolith.

Certainly ‘affirmative action’ here, with a majority black population and very little education or experience with government, has resulted in a lowering of educational, medical, and business standards, and the man standing for prime minister (and likely to get it) is under indictment for corruption (meaning he was obvious and stupid enough about it to get caught).

One needs to be careful.  I asked the audio-visual guy for an extra extension lead as we set up in the hospital for class, and apparently must have asked in the wrong way and got a diatribe about my need to wait and how harassed he was in return.

One woman in the class complains in a strong Afrikaans accent that she cannot understand my American accent, can I speak more Afrikaans-style?  No, actually, ma’am, when you go to a course given by an American, a certain amount of American accent is, um, expected.  The downfall of this apartheid, says someone else, was the attempt to impose Afrikaans as the national language over the tribal languages of Zulu and !Xhosa and the others.

It is easy to be condemnatory about the Somalis kidnapping ships off Somalia, but when you understand that during the 15 years with no government, other countries have given local warlords a backhander and gotten rid of their nuclear waste in Somalia’s desert, while other countries (like Japan) have fished the stocks out completely on the shelf off Somalia that there is now a generation of fishermen’s sons who have no way to make a living, so they seek revenge on the countries who have poisoned their land.
The affinity between the southern commonwealth nations – Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and somewhat less, India.  Sports mad – rugby, cricket, and the FIFA World Cup, which will be played here in another 18 months, is on the news daily.

In Camps Bay, Table Mountain lords above us – the peaks of the 12 Apostles leading down toward the cape – and cloud is constantly spilling over it as the warm sea air is blown up into the cold.  The cloud keeps trying to get down the mountain, but it evaporates.  Finally, as the sun goes down, the cloud pours down upon us beach sunset watchers.

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