Crossing the Mozambique Channel

The Wild Coast. That was our destination. A stretch of water along the east coast of South Africa infamous amongst sailors. Stories abound of the mountainous 20-metre-high freak waves that can form when cold fronts sweeping up from the Antarctic push strong southwesterly winds against the swift south-flowing Agulhas current. We did not want to be at sea when these opposing forces clashed and risk joining the three thousand shipwrecks scattered around the South African coast.

We set off from Moramba Bay on Madagascar’s northwest coast, its wild lemurs and majestic, fairytale Baobab trees making it the perfect place to say goodbye to a magical country. Ahead of us was the Mozambique Channel and a challenging 1200 mile, ten day passage of variable winds, unpredictable currents and changing weather forecasts that forced us to continually adjust our course to Richards Bay.

The challenges came early in the trip, when a calm morning suddenly turned into a rough night, a favourable south-setting current unexpectedly turned north, and a forecast for two days of motoring saw us sailing uncomfortably close to the wind across lumpy, confused seas. The closer we got to the Wild Coast, the higher the pressure rose with the surprises.

Reasoning that more information is always better than less, we added to our daily downloaded weather forecast by speaking on the SSB to not one weather guru, but two: Fred and Alistair, generous volunteers who used their experience to help sailors negotiate these tricky waters. What we hadn’t bargained for was the stress that comes when the information isn’t the same.

Just when things were looking good for us to enjoy a clear run to Richards Bay Alistair gave us some shocking news. A coastal low over South Africa might move north bringing 50 knot south-westerly winds and producing those terrifying freak waves. We had to get out of the Agulhas current, but the closest port of Inhambane, Mozambique, was too far to reach before nightfall, and with a shallow bar across its entrance we could only enter at high tide which wouldn’t be until the next day. The only thing to do was sail inshore of the 200-metre-depth contour, where the current is said to disappear and even become a counter-current, but even all the way at the 100-metre contour we still moved south at 4 knots when hove-to. At that speed we would sail past Inhambane during the night. Our stress levels rising, we waited anxiously to seek Fred’s advice on his evening schedule. When he told us the low was moving safely east we were immensely relieved to be able to continue sailing, but having come so far inshore left us beating into 30 knot winds to get back on course.

Our joy at being underway again was short-lived. The next morning Fred told us that 30 knot southwesterlies were expected at Richards Bay the day we were due to arrive. The threat of freak waves loomed once more. After much debate, Gjalt and I decided there wasn’t enough wind in the forecast for us to safely cover the remaining 300 miles and we reluctantly changed course for Maputo, Mozambique. When we informed Alistair of our decision during his daily schedule he said he couldn’t see those southwesterlies in his forecast and if we pulled into Maputo we’d be stuck there for at least a week, as a series of cold fronts were expected to hit the South African coast. Confused and stressed yet again, we held our course until we could speak to Fred a few hours later. Now his latest prediction pushed the southwesterlies back a day, giving us sufficient time to reach Richards Bay after all! We scrutinized our own downloaded forecast and hesitated, unsure what to do. But with both Alistair and Fred now in agreement we changed course for Richards Bay, once again having to make up precious lost ground after sailing so far inshore.

A night of good progress and just 150 miles between us and Richards Bay sent our spirits soaring. After an intensely stressful two days, we were not prepared for Alistair to send them plummeting back down again. At noon the next day, 35 knot southwesterlies would hit Richards Bay, he said. This was the very forecast that had made us alter course to Maputo and he had dismissed! More tense hours passed as we waited to talk to Fred, hoping he’d say Alistair had the old forecast. But he didn’t. The forecast had been revised yet again. The cold front would hit the next day after all. With no safe harbours to pull into we had no choice but to keep heading for Richards Bay.

When the wind dropped during the night we turned on the engine, motorsailing to stay above 7 knots. We weren’t going to leave anything to chance now. The Agulhas current helped, but only at around 30 miles from Richards Bay did it climb to 3.5 knots. We’d expected strong current much sooner and got an early lesson not to plan passages around South Africa’s notorious coast that relied on a strong, favourable current to make it into port.

We reached Richards Bay at first light, its protective breakwaters a beautiful sight for our sore eyes. Fellow cruisers, equally grateful to have made it in, took our lines. Later that day, thunder, lightning and storm-force southwesterlies raged overhead, heeling Stella Maris steeply away from the wall she was safely tied to. We had never felt so relieved to be in harbour.

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