Sailing the Coast of South Africa
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Last Updated on October 24, 2020 by Amy
We spent 70 days in South Africa, sailing the coast from Richards Bay to Cape Town.
Strategy for Sailing Around South Africa
For many boats coming from the Indian Ocean, South Africa is a bit of a haven – protected from cyclones, favorable exchange rate, lots of services and luxuries available. However, it is a really tough sailing ground.
There’s an expression; “there are no old and bold sailors in South Africa”, which is kind of bullshit. There’s NEVER a great window to go anywhere. You have to take risks sailing around this coast. I feel like we were in the middle of the pack as far as rick-taking sailors. We didn’t take any huge risks, and many people took windows we thought looked too rough, but we also didn’t twiddle our thumbs, waiting for the perfect window.
Small windows are riskier than bigger ones – a 20-hour window can rapidly disappear and deteriorate into dangerous conditions. But sometimes, you just have to take what you can.
There were two strategies we saw sailor use: hop along the coast, taking advantage of small windows that come every few days, or hold out for the big one, and power through. We took the former, while our friends on Slow Flight took the latter. We made five stops along the coast, while Slow Flight sailed directly from Richards Bay to Cape Town.
We didn’t really do any touring in two of our stops. Durban is great for a day or two, especially if you get out to dive Aliwal Shoal as I did. But Richards Bay and Cape Town were definitely the two best stops – do not miss if you are sailing around the coast.
Now, so many people told us we HAD to stop in Knysna, and I would have loved to. However, Knysna has a narrow entrance and you have to treat it much like the bar entrances of Australia: go in when the conditions are just right (2m swell or less and it’s best if you have a pilot help you). And then there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to get out anytime soon.
I regret not stopping in Knysna, but there’s nowhere else along the coast I was particularly interested in seeing.
There’s another factor to consider. Waiting for small windows means you don’t know when you’ll be leaving any given port, and you have to get ready quickly when a window does open. It’s hard to get projects accomplished and tradesmen out to the boat when you have a loose schedule. Exacerbating the issue, most shops and services close down for the two weeks around Christmas and New Year’s. While we tried to get all the parts we needed for projects before the holidays, we ended up having snafus and having to wait until shops reopened again or tradesmen became available to make repairs. This ended up delaying our departure from Cape Town by over two weeks trying to get projects finished. Slow Flight did a lot of projects in Richards Bay while they waited for a big window to jump the coast.
We did have a schedule to stick to as David’s brother Thomas was flying into Cape Town on December 24th and we had a slip reserved at the V&A Waterfront Marina. While we could have had him fly down the coast to meet us, we really wanted to get to Cape Town before the holidays.
Weather Routing on the South African Coast
In a very simplified view, what happens is that a low sits in the Antarctic providing clockwise winds (blowing from west to east on the coast). Then a high-pressure system forms in the South Atlantic and rolls east, making the wind shift to blow from the east.
Ideally, the cruising boat will wait for the high-pressure system to roll in and take off, shooting west. Unfortunately, the big hang-up is that these systems can be unpredictable.
During the last half of our Indian Ocean crossing, we used a volunteer weather router, Des. Des lives in Durban and continued to route us along the coast. However, we went against his advice a lot, taking windows that we could. Fortunately for us, it always worked out.
The current is another big factor. There’s a huge current that runs down the east coast. We had a stronger boost than forecast; up to 5 knots with us. That current lightens once you turn to the west, but it’s still a slight push.
Time: 9 Days
We arrived in Richards Bay on November 11th after 8 days in the Mozambique Channel sailing from Madagascar. Richards Bay is a small city with a big port. It’s quieter than Durban, 90 miles to the south, so many cruising boats come here to clear in to South Africa.
We hailed Richards Bay Port Control before our arrival and were rather brusquely told to hail one mile from the breakwater. We did, and the radio operator asked where we came from, how many were on board, and where the boat was flagged.
It was overcast, rainy, and even chilly while we sailed into the entrance. We navigated to the “International Moorings”, which is the official name for the Richards Bay small boat basin. We tied up to the wall, snuggling up between monohulls stacked two deep. The concrete wharf was lined with sailboats, cruisers from all around the world who had made the trip across the Indian Ocean, just like we had.
The Port Police came directly to our boat, asked us a few questions and filled out a form.
Immigrations came to the port to clear all the boats in (there were about five of us who arrived that day). The officer took a table at one of the local restaurants, passed out forms, and stamp, stamp, stamp all done.
Our neighbors recommended Lionel (WA +27 64 651 1578) to help us with getting around town. Lionel is a taxi driver, but also just really knowledgable about the area and tries to help cruisers get whatever we need. Lionel drove us to Customs to finish our entrance formalities.
Everything was free, but also, everything was done by physical papers and ledgers. It’s not very tech-savvy here. Also, some of the officers weren’t very friendly, which we found to be the case all around the coast.
There are a lot of services available in Richards Bay. We were able to get our propane tanks filled (Lionel’s help) and sent off our laundry for very cheap (Andreas +27 83 463 3536).
We pickled our watermaker here in Richards Bay and didn’t recommission it until we left Cape Town. City water was readily available and tasted wonderful.
Boardwalk Inkwazi Shopping Centre
Next Lionel took us to the mall. What a culture shock after the Indian Ocean! We haven’t seen a mall quite like this since Phuket.
We got our SIM cards for our phones, did some clothes shopping (David lost a flip-flop in Mahujunga), and checked out the grocery stores. There’re two main ones, Food Lover’s Market and Pick & Pay. We shopped more at the Food Lover’s Market, as the produce and meats there are excellent.
Vodacom was the cheapest service provider, and we had great coverage everywhere along the coast for R700 for 20 GB ($2.33/GB).
Docking in Richards Bay
There are two marinas in Richards Bay: Tuzi Gazi and Zululand Yacht Club. We wanted to go to Zululand, but the World ARC was coming in and it was full. We looked at going to Tuzi Gazi, but the docks aren’t in great shape and we had a few storms roll through. When no one kicked us off the wall, we just stayed.
The great thing about the wall: it’s free to dock, free drinking water, and close to many restaurants. There is supposed to be a time limit, but we were there for nine nights and no one kicked us out. Eventually, boats did have to move, but we were long gone by then. There are a bunch of restaurants within walking distance, though most of of them weren’t particularly good. The wharf is well-protected. While we were there, a big storm rolled through and port officials came by passing out a paper notice with wind and rain warnings, urging us to secure our boats and be safe.
A great thing about Richards Bay in itself is the access to game parks. (More about that later).
Bad things about the wall: there are huge black rubber vertical fenders that leave giant black marks. The tide swing is so large, we worried over our fenders for a while and ended up having to buy a new round fender (so now we have two). When the tide was low, David had to “catch” me as I jumped onto our deck (I don’t know how many of the other cruisers got on and off their boats, as most have a significantly lower freeboard).
Monkeys were very persistent. They board the boats and steal whatever they can (usually food) and then show their disdain for you by relieving themselves on your boat. They also get into the trash, leaving a huge mess on the wharf.
There is a nightclub right next door too, which is very weird, as the port is far from town. But they party hard Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. When I woke up Saturday morning at 4:45 am they were still partying.
Dining at the Small Boat Harbor
The surrounding area has a shockingly high number of restaurants for such a quiet place. There’s only one neighborhood nearby, one hotel, and then the busy port. While the food was pretty cheap, most of it wasn’t that great.
We ate at Dros, a pub that serves lots of meat-and-potatoes style food.
I was shocked when the wine I ordered, advertised at R150 ($10USD), was a whole bottle! I had the hamburger, David has the chicken burger (I think he liked his better than I liked mine).
Taking a risk, we ate at Mojito’s, a Mexican and Cuban joint. The cuban menu was pretty much a Cuban sandwich, but we ordered enchiladas and fajitas. It wasn’t what we would expect for Tex-Mex food (and it certainly wasn’t authentic Mexican) but it was pretty good.
Khrua Thai Food & Sushi was a bit of a disappointment. My Pad See Ewe was nothing like I would get in Thailand – or the US. The sushi looked good though.
I think our favorite (and many cruisers agreed) was KNK Curry. For less than $10 total, we had five mince samosas, David had Chicken Curry, and I had a traditional South African dish called Bunny Chow. Bunny Chow is a loaf of bread cut into halves or quarters with the inside carved out. The crust is filled with curry. It was delicious!
Another spot to try out (if you are into this kind of thing) is Bohemian Beach Bum’s. According to Wikipedia, marijuana is “legal for possession and cultivation but not for sale.”. I don’t know how this works, because Bohemian Beach Bum’s is a “coffee shop” where you can buy infused items like gummies, coffee, chocolates, etc.
What to Do in Richards Bay
Richards Bay is the best place we stopped at to explore game parks. Most of the game parks are smaller, so they can be done in a day self-driving. Unless you’ll be flying to Kruger or Kgalagadi, go on safari here.
We hired a driver for a day, who took us to a hippo cruise in St Lucia and the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
Other cruisers went to Hluhluwe (pronounced Shu-Shu-lay) or Thula Thula Private Game Reserve. Our friends on Slow Flight went to Hulhule and Drakensberg. Months later, I was chatting with some French ex-pats living in South Africa who were going to all the national parks (what a great goal!). They said Kruger was the best park for wildlife, but Drakensberg was the most beautiful landscape.
For clear out, we hired Lionel to drive us around and sort out our paperwork. South Africa is one of those countries where you must clear in and out at every port, even when traveling domestically.
We went to Zululand Yacht Club, Immigrations, Customs, Water Police, and then back to Zululand Yacht Club. It was A LOT of paperwork and took us about two hours. It would have been faster if we’d been given the correct forms to fill out ahead of time instead of sitting at ZYC filling out ten pages.
Sailing to Durban
Time: 14.9 Hours
Distance: 90 miles
Average Speed: 6 knots
Frankly, our sail to Durban was boring, though that’s a good thing. We departed Richards Bay around 1630 and headed out to sea. Our plan was to see how the morning forecast looked before deciding whether to stop in Durban or try to push through to East London. Several other boats left the same day as us, making the jump too.
We kept close to shore as it’s only 90 miles. First, we had to work our way through the anchorage of ships. While we got the mainsail up, there wasn’t a whole lot of wind. I motored most of my watch till 2 am.
David sailed most of his watch, and when I woke up in the morning the first thing I said was “Durban or East London?”. David replied with Durban. The weather forecast was predicting 10-15 knots of wind on the nose for 12 hours. Forecasts around here always seem to lowball, so we didn’t have an interest in beating hard for nearly 1/3 of the passage from Durban to East London.
Des agreed Durban was best. Some boats we know did decide to continue on.
The skyline of Durban is pretty memorable, with the huge stadium and art deco buildings.
Time: 9 Days
We arrived into Durban early in the morning. We cleared our entrance with Port Control first on the VHF before approaching Durban Marina. Their website says to anchor out first and then dinghy in to handle your formalities. However, there’s not a good anchorage in this very busy commercial port, so we weren’t sure what we were going to do.
As we approached the marina, a tender came out to meet us and told us just to take the t-head. Gratefully, we tied up and waited for the office to open.
The marina gave us our paperwork to fill out and explained how to do the clearance. The staff was very helpful, getting us checked in and sending us off to the right offices to check in with authorities (Thanks, Bronwyn!). We walked 15 minutes to the Customs And Excise building. Immigrations just verified that we had a visa. Customs had us fill out a little bit of paperwork. In 15 minutes we were out of the building and walking back home.
Durban is not a very nice port. The water is very dirty with lots of floating trash in it. The marina itself is friendly and the docks are fine. We moved to the last slip on D dock for our stay. It is a LONG walk down the dock to the office.
Visiting yachts get a free temporary membership to the Point Yacht Club. There are shower and restroom facilities, free wifi, plus Charlie’s Bar and the Anchorage Restaurant. We had a pretty good lunch at the restaurant.
Yachties also get free membership to the Royal Natal Yacht Club.
There was a very cheap laundromat across the main road from the marina.
What to do in Durban
Durban is not a very safe city, and we were warned left and right to be extra careful. Thankfully, there’s Uber in Durban, so it’s easy to get around at the touch of a button.
We spent an afternoon on the promenade, cycling the Golden Mile, which is actually longer than a mile. I also went with friends out to Aliwal Shoal for a dive with ragged-toothed sharks.
Trying to Leave Durban
We got a bit stuck in Durban for 10 days. There was a window that some boats took about four days after we arrived, but Des didn’t like the window so we decided to listen to his advice and stay. Hindsight being 20/20, it was a good window, and we would have made it to the next stop. So we took the next one – against Des’ advice – to get out of Durban. At this point, there were several boats that had left Richards Bay when we did who had already made it all the way to Cape Town, so we were going to try our luck.
Sailing to East London
Time: 31 Hours
Distance: 264 miles
Average Speed: 8.5 knots
We woke up at 0230, checked the weather, and untied the lines. The winds had died down to about five knots. Durban harbor was brightly lit and full of activity, even this early.
As soon as we were clear of traffic, I went back to bed. As soon as we passed the breakwater, we started to bash into the waves. David navigated us around the marker and once we made the turn it was a bit better and I was able to sleep.
When I woke up we were still motoring along. While the waves weren’t big, they were choppy, and we were headed straight into the wind. Thankfully, it was less than 10 knots of wind, but we had both engines running around 2200 RPMs to keep our speed up. We were going to be chased into East London by a strong low system, so we needed to move.
While David napped, we slipped into the current and picked up 3-5 knots of SOG! I turned one engine off, and we were zooming along.
After lunch, the wind had picked up and clocked around enough to get the sails out. We even got the screecher up! David was able to turn off the engines and we started sailing while I napped.
We put two reefs in the main overnight, and the wind continued to clock around. Around midnight I put us on wing-and-wing and the wind was pushing us directly into East London.
Early in the morning, David had dolphins join him on his watch!
When I woke up we were just a few hours from the entrance. At 1000 we picked up a trot mooring at the Buffalo River Yacht Club, safe and sound!
Time: 66 Hours
Around 9:30 we were making our way up the Buffalo River in East London, and ready for a lesson on trot moorings! The Buffalo River Yacht Club has trot moorings instead of swing moorings, which is actually rather genius.
Trot moorings are a line of moorings anchored into the river bed. Instead of tying up to one mooring and swinging with the wind and current, you tie up to two moorings; one on your bow and one on your stern. This means no swinging back and forth, something that’s key for a river with strong currents in a place where heavy winds regularly roll in. However, it is hard to get set up. Thankfully, the yacht club sent out a tender to help us, and after tweaking our lines a bit, we were settled in just fine.
The yacht club is small and only open in the afternoons for a beer or braai (that would be a South African BBQ).
We did have to dinghy across the river to check in with the officials.
We didn’t do anything in East London other than provision. The BRYC is pretty removed from town, and I didn’t see anything in East London that I was super interested in doing.
Sailing East London to St. Francis Bay
Time: 28.1 Hours
Distance: 179 nautical miles
Average Speed: 6.4 knots
We departed East London at zero-dark-thirty after three nights in the river. Our next stop was St Francis Bay, a place where not many cruisers boats call in.
The winds were dead when we left, but the current was still pushing us along at three knots. We had expected that we would be out of the current, but it was still working in our favor!
The waves were pretty big though; three meters with a 10-12 second period. Throughout the day the winds increased, so first, we motor-sailed with just the genoa, and then in the evening, we were sailing with the genoa only, apparent wind speeds of up to 30 knots!
Around midnight the wind died again, and we motored towards St Francis. We had actually gone too fast and had to kill time out in the harbor before the pilot came out to lead us in through the entrance. It was a bit tricky because of its sharp, 90-degree turn into the basin. But soon we were tied up at a proper dock.
St Francis Bay
Time: 45 Hours
The marina is very small, with no room for transients. Thankfully, we know someone and were able to get a slip, but it was costly $100 a night!
The marina is in a residential area, with a few restaurants on the waterfront, and it’s a 5-10 minutes drive into the town itself. Mostly the boats were fishing boats, but our reason for visiting was to pop in and visit one of the South African catamaran manufacturers – Balance Cats.
Here is where we had to decide to call into Knysna or not. As much as we wanted to go, we were concerned that if we called into Knysna it would be a while until we got the right conditions to leave again. Also, we had a troubling leak at the waterline that we wanted to get fixed ASAP. So we made the decision to take a big jump and gun for Cape Town.
St Francis Bay to Cape Town
Time: 55 Hours
Distance: 384 miles
Average Speed: 7 knots
The window wasn’t great to get to Cape Town, but we took it anyway. We left first thing in the morning (after dawn though, sleep in!) on December 8th.
The winds were pretty high for most of the sail, and aft of us. We switched back and forth between wing on wing and deep-reaching for a majority of the passage.
Our first morning out, David got visited by dolphins again! They seem to like to come out at sunrise.
Just after dinner on the 9th, we passed Cape Agulhas, leaving the Indian Ocean behind and entering the Atlantic! The official line is 20 degrees E.
The next morning when I came up, Starry Horizons was enveloped in a thick fog. We passed an anchored ship off of Cape Town, coming as close as a three-quarters-of-a-mile, and couldn’t see a thing. The thick fog prevented us from seeing the iconic Table Mountain too…until we rounded and approached the entrance mid-morning. Finally, the sky cleared and we got to see the mountains rising behind Cape Town.
Our reservation was at the V&A Waterfront Marina, and we had to pass through two bridges to get in; a swing bridge and a bascule bridge. The bridges open on the 15 and 45 on demand.
Cape Town: V&A Waterfront
Time: 41 Days
We docked at the V&A Waterfront Marina, which is right in the heart of the V&A Waterfront District. Let me get this out of the way: I love Cape Town, and a huge part of what I loved was being at the V&A Waterfront.
Many cruisers I talked to chose not to go to V&A because of the price. This, I did not understand. Yes, perhaps other places are cheaper (like Hout Bay), but the V&A Waterfront Marina was cheaper than many marinas we’ve been to, the amenities were great, and the location was even better.
We were in the heart of one of the best districts in Cape Town. I could get anything I wanted within walking distance. The food was amazing – the V&A Food Market was less than a five-minute walk and we could eat dozens of cuisines for less than $10 a person. The view was breathtaking, one that rivals being anchored off the Sydney Opera House or (I’d imagine) anchoring by the Statue of Liberty.
All of this is to say that I think it was one of the best values for marinas we’ve ever stayed in. We paid what averaged out to less than $40 a night. The many hotels ringing the marina are priced well over $200 a night. While the amenities weren’t as nice as One 15 Marina in Singapore (the best marina we’ve ever stayed in), we were paying nearly 1/3 of the price.
In the marina, we had access to free wifi and the ablution block included laundry (which is good because sending it out in Cape Town was much more expensive than the rest of South Africa). The neighboring apartment complex had a gym we could use for R250 each for a month.
We did a lot of fun things around Cape Town and used it as a base to jump off to Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park for a 3-night safari.
We were able to get a lot done in Cape Town: fill propane tanks, patch canvas, machine some metal parts, and a lot of shopping. Cape Town is huge, and has everything you need. Rental cars and Ubers are cheap.
Clearing out in Cape Town
With the help of Josh at V&A Waterfront Marina, we were able to do our whole clear out process without moving over to Royal Cape. Everything went smoothly – even though we didn’t clear in with Customs & Immigration when we arrived into Cape Town; they just did the paperwork altogether.
And just like that, we were off on a 12-day sail to Saint Helena!