Voyagers and Ancestors In South Africa

by Mimi George

As “Gershon II” sails along the South African coast, I feel the part of what Genesis says is the meaning of Gershon – “a stranger in a strange land – always to be treated as family.”  Yes, along this “wild coast” of South Africa we are embraced as family … and yes, the problems and challenges of the people here are all too familiar.

The more I talk-story with Zulu, San, Xhosa, Indian, Africaner, Portuguese, Muslim, and other South African citizens, the more I see how we face or flee, embrace or resist the changes that will nurture us and our planet.  This coast is where the truth is very obvious.  We all have the same origin and we are heading toward the same fate.  We must figure out how to “Malama Honua.”

When I wrote to the Garden Island last week Hokule’a and Gershon II were waiting for mild winds and seas to make our dash along the spooky coast from Durban to East London. At 5PM on Thursday, Oct 29 ,we removed the first dock lines. We figured the light easterlies would help us into East London two evenings later.

The sea was lumpy, but we felt secure that if we made 6 knots we would get into port before strong southwesterlies could heap up any freaky waves.  We found the Agulhas current a couple miles offshore and Gershon’s powerful engine pulled Hokule’a at over 7 knots all the way.  We ‘lived on the walls’ of Gershon II as she rolled wildly.  We watched Hokule’a buck and slam into the southerly swells as the steersmen worked urgently and incessantly to keep the hulls from running over the towline.

We were close in at E. London when we learned that the low that had been moving towards us, bearing strong SW winds, had stalled.  We also learned that there was berthing available to us 140 n.m. further in Port Elizabeth. We decided to go for it.

Port Elizabeths Algoa Yacht Club had no free berths, but we were graciously welcomed to side-tie to fishing vessels.  Sunday afternoon every chair and stool was filled with four generations Africaner families,.  Some confided their discouragement about how difficult it is for them to “trust the government.”  One family will become residents of Hawai’i nei in a matter of months.  Others are working on alternative energy projects sorely needed both at home and abroad.  The sailors among them quickly embraced our purpose, and gave us invaluable pointers about local wind and waves.  They also puzzled over recent episodes of “weird weather.”

Gershon II from Hokule’a

Gershon II from Hokule’a, photo by Dan Lin

The next morning we made our move toward Mossel Bay.   We endured an ugly day and night of powering against the steep chop of inshore countercurrent.  But then, just before sunset the second day, deliverance came in one of those heart-opening, timeless, nights that we go to sea for.   It started with the sun dropping into a crystal clear horizon that yielded no less than four consecutive green “flashes.”

Each time we were lifted by a long southern swell, we saw it again.  The final green pulse was impossibly long and bright.  Then, in the inky black of night the stars brightened to incredible intensity.  The pointer stars of the southern cross twisted high above the horizon and Orion glided overhead.  On my 2-6AM watch Jupiter, then Venus rose up under the waning crescent moon.  But Venus looked red … and way too bright.  It was Mars rising directly behind it!   When the sun finally rose it was impossibly big.  The trance ended with Nainoa calling for release of the towline.  Both vessels hoisted sails and we turned our engine off for the first time along the South African coast.

Thanks to the generosity of Mossel Bay Port Control we came alongside the cement quay – the usual berth of a monstrous tug that was out keeping the oil tankers lined up with the pipe to the storage tanks that line much of this bay.  Port security measures included breathalyzer tests of every person entering the gates.  “Since 9/11 we cannot enter our own ports freely any more” some of the locals lamented.

At the Bartholomew Diaz Museum we mailed our letters at the “postal tree,” where for over 300 years the crews of European ships left letters for the next ship heading to their way.  Their centerpiece, a full scale replica of Dias’ lateen sail Caravelle, is surprisingly massive.  It took Dias 6 months to reach Mossel Bay, but in 1989 Diaz’ Portuguese descendents of Portugal and South Africa made the voyage in only 3 months.

The highlight of our time in Mossel Bay, was a visit to Pinnacle Caves, the early-man archeological site that has occupied researchers from 62 nations during the last decade.  At the entryway to cave 13B Kaimana Barcarse chanted an original composition that connected our ancestors with theirs. Our tears fell freely and this profound opening made it possible for us to respectfully step inside and witness the shelter where homo sapiens like us used ocher, flaked tools, and ate mussels 70,000 to 140,000. years ago.

Walking along the Pinnacle Caves coast

Walking along the Pinnacle Caves coast toward 13B, photo by Dan Lin

Light easterlies forecast for tomorrow. We are preparing for a 4AM start.  We shall round the Cape Agulhas, just short of the Cape of Good Hope, and put in at Simonstown.  There Hokule’a crew will engage with school children about how we can better care for our planet.  With any luck we’ll be sailing on from there to Capetown in a day or two.