We sail along the hazardous South African coast and the Cape of Good Hope. Making it back to the Atlantic lifts our spirits, as does Ubuntu!
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Richards Bay – Cape Town (ZAF)
“Ouch”, Floris moans when Luci’s bow collides with a steep wave. Water courses over the foredeck, followed by the characteristic sound of water rushing into the boat. “Oh no, the deck hatch of the bathroom is still ajar!”
Swearing, Ivar disappears below deck, closes the window and dries the bathroom. Half seasick, he climbs back into the cockpit. After months on shore, it is clear we have become landlubbers. Our sea legs are hard to find, and we obviously did not prepare well. But the Indian Ocean at Richards Bay puts us right back into sailing mode. The start to the 900-mile passage along the South African coast, which is notorious for depressions, monster waves, and rugged capes, is a rude awakening.
The months we spent in the Netherlands feel far away. We had not seen our family and friends in three years and felt that a visit was much overdue. Although we offset our flights’ CO2 emissions by planting trees (through Trees for All), we still felt some guilt, not having wind or renewable energy sources to power our travel. However, soon after we landed, our guilty feelings were quickly replaced by euphoria from hugging the family and friends after so long. Our calendars became jam-packed, reminiscent of our past lives and it was incredibly energizing. We couldn’t get enough of our hospitable family and friends, the delicious dinners and fun group weekend outings.
We noticed how long three years really is, especially when we saw our much-loved nephews and nieces. How they had grown! The months at home flew by and we basked in the warmth of being surrounded by our loved ones—no video call from afar could compete with real-life meetings. The experience strengthened our desire to sail home. The first hurdle on our homebound journey, however, is a big one: the capricious South African coast, including the infamous Cape of Good Hope.
Timing is Everything
We soon agree on the tactic to deal with the daunting sail ahead of us: coast hopping. The biggest challenge in this sailing area is the rapidly alternating, strong northerly and southerly winds. The latter is especially notorious, as the mighty Agulhas sea-current runs southward. Strong winds against this strong current can create monster waves. In those circumstances, it is important to seek shelter in a safe harbour, of which there are only a handful along the route. So timing is everything!
Our first weather window is short, so we stop in Durban. Fortunately, our arrival is calmer than the departure from Richards Bay. The northerly wind that brought us here is almost gone, an omen that the weather is about to change. We are happy that we can shelter here when the wind blows strongly from the south in the coming days.
While moored at the very hospitable Point Yacht Club, we keep a close eye on the weather. The club is in the center of Durban, which, unfortunately, is plagued by unemployment and crime. On the bright side, our South African friends Marlize, Jacques and their girls visit us and act as ambassadors to their country, driving us around town and introducing us to their favorite beach club. We spend a bittersweet day together, as it is also time to bid them farewell.
Thunder and Current
After a few days the wind changes to the north again. We calculate that we should be able to reach East London, about 250 miles away. The Agulhas current is reported to be near the coast on this stretch, so we only need to keep a few miles of distance from the beach to take advantage of it. But when the beginning northerly wind slowly carries us south, we don’t notice any current. Threatening storm clouds build up in the evening, lighting up the horizon in the distance almost every second. While trying to estimate how the bad weather will develop, we are suddenly startled by a bright flash and a deafening bang.
“That was very close!” Floris exclaims in horror. A few more near misses follow. Lightning strikes in front of and next to us, while the thunder booms loudly above us. Tensely, we sit in the cockpit until the we can no longer hear these impressive forces of nature. It was undoubtedly the heaviest thunderstorm we have ever experienced, so we are glad to have escaped unscathed.
The next morning, the Agulhas current is still nowhere to be seen, even though we have already sailed about 100 miles. Just when we start to worry about our schedule, our speed picks up very quickly on the GPS. Soonafter, the current picks up to almost six knots, propelling us southwards at 11 knots. In the middle of the night, we enter the harbor of East London with strong winds. Big waves break even within the harbor piers, but Ivar steers Luci with a steady hand to calmer waters. We breathe a sigh of relief after we tie up to a mooring buoy belonging to the local BuffaloRiver Yacht Club.
The next morning the wind turns south again. While purple gribs keep us inside, we consider ourselves fortunate in the sheltered location of the Yacht Club. Commodore Peter advises us not to call at the next port, Port Elizabeth. “The jetties are poorly sheltered, and your boat turns black from the dust of the industrial harbor!” He’s the umpteenth person to warn us. We intend to sail past it but need a longer window of favorable weather. After a week we are so tired of waiting that we decide to take our chances.
The next brief weather window gets us to Port Elizabeth effortlessly, bringing us around 150 miles closer to Cape Town. Despite her reputation, the Port Elizabeth marina serves us well as we seek shelter from another few days of strong southwesterly winds, With the SW winds the pontoons stay upwind, and preventing us from experiencing the notorious dust. We do feel sorry for the owners of the soot-black boats that have a permanent berth here but consider ourselves lucky that we can leave again as soon as the wind becomes easterly.
On the way to Mossel Bay, our next good weather waiting room, we notice that our drinking water has become considerably cooler. Since our water tank is in the steel keel, this is a sign that we have entered colder water. In this area the warm current of the Indian Ocean and the cold of the Atlantic Ocean meet. This is also noticeable in the rich animal life. There is enough food here for birds, seals, dolphins and even whales! We can’t get enough of wildlife spotting and feel like we are at our own personal zoo.
Mossel Bay doesn’t have a hospitable Yacht Club but the port authorities allow us to moor at a rough concrete quay. Large tractor tires act as fenders. It is not an ideal berth, especially since we plan to seek shelter here for a week because of the strong westerlies. Fortunately, the town doesn’t disappoint. The many classical buildings give it a charming appearance. There are many shops, and we discover beautiful hiking trails in the area. It also has a fascinating history: the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias set foot here in 1488, the first European to reach South African shores. A replica of his vessel is the highlight of the local maritime museum. Later, the Dutch who provisioned here called it Mossel Bay, after the many mussels that grew here. For centuries, a tree, the now famous postboom, was used to leave messages for passing sailors. It is considered the country’s first post office.
When Pierre and Ping, our South African friends we met in Patagonia, take us on a road trip, we can’t believe our luck. Steep valleys, traditional olive groves, breathtaking views of the desert, ostriches, and picturesque villages make the drive spectacular. They also take us to “De Vette Mossel”, a popular, family-run fish restaurant on the beach of Mossel Bay, where we feast on all the goodies that grow and swim in these nutrient-rich waters. Our lively social agenda continues when Marlize’s parents Wilna and Piet visit and treat us to a delicious meal at the country club.
Around Two Capes
Thanks to the hospitality of such lovely friends, time flies by. We leave Mossel Bay under a sunny sky and with a light breeze from the east that pushes us towards Cape Town. We had waited ten days for these conditions. First, we round Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point of Africa. Hours later, we move past the Cape of Good Hope. We can hardly believe that we have such beautiful weather in this infamously treacherous sailing area. While sailors who preceded us had to deal with strong gusts, we approach Cape Town under gennaker. Overjoyed we treat ourselves to a berth in the V&A Waterfront marina, in the heart of the city.
Our neighbors in the marina – the seals – loudly compete for the best spot on the pontoon that the Two Oceans Aquarium has made for them. Regularly they visit us, so we are treated to live marine entertainment. The marina also proves to be an ideal place to meet old and new friends, as they can easily board Luci via the floating pontoons. We are thrilled to reunite with Willem who treats us for lunch, introduces us to his lovely friends Hugo and Liesje, and even invits us to King’s Day drinks with more than 200 Dutchies at the consulate. With Shana we share common friends, and she steals our hearts when she takes us to a captivating music performance, Stellenbosch and Fransch Hoek. Seeing such green, lush landscapes and visiting a wine estate makes us understand why this region is so popular. We also make our way to the Kirstenbosch botanical gardens, which prove to be absolutely enchanting and captivate our attention for the day.
Hardship and Forgiveness
On a day with calm seas, we take a ferry to visit Robben Island. “What a tragic place this is”, Ivar sighs when we learn how South Africa’s traumatic history over the centuries played out here. The seals of the island were slaughtered by the Dutch in the 17th century and the island soon became a prison for insurgents and later a leper colony. From the 1960s onwards it was again used as a prison. Political prisoners, specifically those who fought against apartheid, the institutionalized system of racial segregation, were held there under circumstances akin to a concentration camp.
Today it is a museum. An ex-convict tells us about the inhumane conditions under which he and many others including Nelson Mandela were imprisoned here. Despite hardship, the future president of South Africa chose forgiveness and reconciliation over revenge and hatred. Because of this, he is widely credited for avoiding carnage once apartheid was abolished. “If we fight, our children lose,” he stated. His inspiration was Ubuntu, an African way of life that revolves around community and sharing.
Truth and Reconciliation
Shortly after Nelson Mandela was released in 1990 after 27 years in prison, apartheid came to an end. In 1994, the first democratic elections were won by the African National Congress (ANC) and Mandela became president. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a staunch campaigner against apartheid, was appointed as chairman of the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This commission heard witnesses and investigated the crimes committed during the apartheid regime. If the perpetrators told the whole truth about the crimes they were involved in, they were given amnesty. Desmond Tutu believed not only in the power of forgiveness, but also in the cleansing power perpetrators could experience by admitting guilt. Although there is still criticism that some leading figures have gone unpunished and victims have not been fully compensated, the commission’s work did reveal the previously unknown fates of many victims. This in turn paved the way for reconciliation and freedom for all.
Ubuntu in Africa
Our visit to the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, amuseum which honours the legacy of the late Archbishop, confirms that he, too, was a great supporter of Ubuntu. According to him, it is no coincidence that Ubuntu originated in Africa. Human survival was particularly difficult there because of harsh climates, severe droughts, parasites, deadly diseases, and large predators. Taking good care of each other increased the chances of survival for everyone. Individuals did not survive, only close-knit communities did. Tutu was known for saying: “The man who tries to live alone in Africa has as many chances as a bee flying away from its hive or an ant leaving its nest.” Humans have evolved as social beings and are naturally inclined to help each other, he believed.
It reminds us of our Zulu-guide Mphile, who we met in the Imfolozi Game reserve. She explained the habits of different animals, the function of plants, and the relationships between them. When she talked about the animals, she called them brothers and sisters and explained how many animals help each other. “Nature is as much survival of the fittest as it is cooperation,” she said. When we later visited her village in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, she explained that Ubuntu means “Humanity” to her: “I am because I am a part of a community”. In other words, the deep-rooted African philosophy is about sharing and caring and the awareness that we are all connected. “This philosophy is very much alive within the Zulu community,” Mphile said. “We help each other whenever possible. With food, housing, or money. Within the family, of course, but also within the village.”
Ubuntu in Practice
Not only does the story of Mphile makes us realize that the Ubuntu philosophy is still very much alive in South Africa. We also hear about people who donate food or volunteer for the community, pay the school fees of their employees’ children, and one doctor specifically who sets up clinics in underprivileged neighborhoods to provide medical care to the poorest. In these examples and others, we see again how human existence is most meaningful when relationships exist with between one and other.
We visit a poignant example of Ubuntu in practice in Cape Town: the Amy Foundation. It is named after American student Amy Biehl, a gifted and dynamic young woman who was committed to making a difference in South Africa. She worked tirelessly with members of the ANC at the Community Law Center at the University of the Western Cape on the new constitution and women’s rights and helped register voters for the country’s first free elections in 1994. On August 25th, 1993 Amy Biehl was tragically killed during political violence by a mob. Four young men were convicted of her murder but Amy’s parents, determined to honor Amy’s belief in the truth and reconciliation process, pled for their release. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission agreed and released them after five years in prison.
Amy’s parents carried on her legacy and established a foundation to support underprivileged young people. Two of the convicts even went on to work for the foundation. Director Kevin Chaplin, who is also the founder of the Ubuntu Foundation in South Africa, explains that each quarter they help more than 1,000 young people of different ages through after school activities, education, training and internships. He shows us around one their training centers where spiring hospitality managers take cooking classes, young women learn how to sew or give manicures and young men learn how to become carpenters. There is strong focus on entrepreneurship, so we also visit a class that’s offered on how to run a business. “The training they get here gives them a better chance in the labor market and helps them start building a career”, Kevin explains. “It’s amazing what difference a little humanity can bring in someone’s life.” We couldn’t agree more.
How is it possible that despite the wonderful philosophy of Ubuntu, there is so much corruption and crime in South Africa? When we ask Kevin about it, he describes the blatant corruption and clientelism that stemmed from the administration of the former president, Zuma. “Fortunately, things seem to be getting better under the current government, but it is a continuous struggle,” Kevin adds.
“However, it seems that there are also more structural economic issues,” Ivar points out when we are back on board. Writer Naomi Klein convincingly argues in her book The Shock Doctrine that in the mid-1990s Nelson Mandela and his government were given little room by large international capital providers, the IMF and international trade agreements to redistribute wealth in the new South Africa. Poverty and unemployment remained high and even worsened. This has undoubtedly contributed to the growth of crime. In addition to the political arena, there seems to be a continuous economic power struggle as well.
We Are Because the Earth Is
As a life philosophy, Ubuntu challenges individualism, selfishness, and hatred. It enlarges the circle of the “we” to all people. But can we also extend that circle to non-human life? After all, we now live in a different time than when Ubuntu came into being. Nature has been tamed by humans. These days we destroy biodiversity, disrupt the climate, and pollute the ecosystems we need for our survival. Desmond Tutu surely thought so: “We need to widen the circle of our Ubuntu, as we become aware of the totality of what we are. Our bodies extend into the soil, into the air, into the rivers and oceans. Our families include our dogs, cats, horses, cattle. Our species is a cell in a larger organism, a planetary body that functions to maintain life on earth. Let us practice planetary Ubuntu. We are because the Earth is.”
We realize that with rounding the Cape of Good Hope we have left a notorious sailing area behind us and are back on “our” Atlantic Ocean. Even though we plan to make another detour via Brazil, the Caribbean and North America, we are undeniably getting closer to home from here. And that feels good.
But that’s not the only reason. Ubuntu has inspired us and convinced us that this philosophy has the power to help solve many human challenges around the world. You could say that Ubuntu has filled us with good hope that a socially just and ecologically sound society is indeed possible.
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