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Shark Bytes

November 2005 Shark Bytes

written by Monique Fallows

Posted on Wednesday, 30 November 2005

Dear Readers

 

When I last wrote at the end of September I very excitedly told everyone of the upcoming trip that we had planned to Mozambique. The biggest mistake that I made was to mention all the different shark species that we were hoping to encounter. I should have learned from experience never to do this as I now especially feel that it is bad luck!

 

The trip actually turned into a real disaster… The plan was for Chris to sail a yacht up from Cape Town to Richard’s Bay (South Africa’s most northern Port before Mozambique). Myself and the rest of the team were then to join Chris here for the start of our journey.

 

The piece of coastline from Cape Town to Durban is 800 sea miles of extremely treacherous seas and many a vessel has come unstuck here. We were concerned about the weather as in terms of prevailing winds it was not the right time of the year to be heading in this direction, but we really did not have a choice. I was able to monitor the forecasted weather reports whilst at home. As the yacht inched further up the coast the weather reports were forecasting uncomfortable wind and swell, but nothing life threatening so although Chris and the crew were not experiencing good conditions they pushed on in uncomfortable conditions. On day 5 one of the two diesel engines malfunctioned and stopped working altogether. We were in cell phone contact and when Chris called to tell me what had happened I asked him if he was worried. We had been on a previous trip where an engine failed on the yacht we were on and we still managed OK so I was not overly concerned. When he replied that Yes, he was worried I really went cold as this was the first time I had ever heard Chris say something like this whilst at sea.

 

Losing one of the engines meant that because the wind (which was blowing about 50km’s or 30 miles per hour) was coming head on the yacht did not have enough power to head in a straight direction. Therefore the crew had to now tack miles out to sea and then back again only to gain a mile or two over a long period of time. At this time the yacht was caught in St Francis Bay which is about 45 miles wide and they had to get around a point called Cape Recife in order to reach the safety of Port Elizabeth.

 

I was getting the updated weather forecasts and the conditions were just not improving. The wind was at about 25-30knots (55km and 35miles) and the swell at  3-4m’s/ 13foot. These are not horrendous conditions but the fact that they did not have enough power was a big problem.

After 36 hours they were still battling to get out of St Francis Bay. There was tremendous pressure being put on the sails and the mast from the wind. At the time that Chris was at the helm the yacht came down a steep wave and stalled. A fraction later as the wind caught the sails the pressure just became too great and the mast snapped about a quarter from the base. The mast came crashing down a few meters from Chris’s head, landing on the deck. Apparently the noise was just unreal and the best way to describe it was to compare it to a thunder flash being let off next to your ear!

 

On board with Chris were the Skipper, Ken and his daughter Amy as well as our Irish friend Seamus who was going to be doing the entire trip with us. Fortunately they were all in the cabin at the time as if anyone had been on deck something far worse could have happened.

 

The VHF radio could not be used as the antenna had gone down with the mast but Chris was able to make contact with The National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) by cell phone.

 

The NSRI immediately dispatched a rescue team. The Port Elizabeth unit has the most powerful rescue boat at its disposal, a 36-foot self-righting powerboat. Chris then phoned me to let me know what had happened and that the NSRI was on its way. It took the NSRI about 2 hours to reach them and in that time the yacht had drifted just about the entire distanced covered in the last 36 hours! In the meantime Chris and the crew had used the safety bolt cutters that were on board to sever the mast and rigging. When the stays were cut the mast came back into the hull of the yacht but fortunately above the water line. This still meant that a large, gaping hole had to be temporarily stuffed with life jackets, towels etc to stop water coming in.

 

They also very fortunately had on board very good rope that was to serve as spare anchor line. Chris and Seamus hauled this out and created a bridle line to be used as a towrope, another blessing in disguise as the NSRI only had with them a 30-meter towline. In that kind of weather the rope would never have held.

When the NSRI arrived two of the volunteer rescuers came on board and they helped secure the towline to the rescue boat, and so with the mast now at the bottom of the sea, the long journey to Port Elizabeth began.

 

When Chris let me know that the NSRI had arrived and that the yacht was being towed huge relief flooded through me and I really felt that the drama was all over. In actual fact the drama was just beginning…

 

By this time a localised weather system was developing and conditions were deteriorating constantly especially as they approached Cape Recife Point. At the very worst possible moment in terms of position and proximity to the point the shackle that was securing the towrope snapped. Leading up to this the wind was gusting to 55 knots (105kms or 65miles per hour) and the swell was between 5 and 7 meters (24feet). This was obviously placing tremendous strain on the towrope and at one point the Rescue boat saw three quarters of the catamaran rise out of the water as it was pulled over a wave! Seamus was this entire time at the helm steering the yacht through the waves and he did an outstanding job of taking the yacht onto the waves as best as possible.

 

The yacht was now very rapidly drifting towards Cape Recife point and because the swell was so huge the waves were breaking much further out to sea than it usually would. In extremely challenging conditions Chris was trying to gaff the towrope that had snapped off and after numerous attempts he managed to catch it. The NSRI rescue volunteer then had a few seconds to re-secure the rope to the yacht. This was so incredibly lucky because if had it taken a minute or two longer the NSRI were going to call abandon ship as it was drifting too close to the Point.

 

If they had to have abandoned the yacht it never would have survived the rocky coastline and would have been completely destroyed.

 

Eventually after 8 hours of towing the safety of Port Elizabeth harbour was reached. The NSRI was outstanding in their efforts to rescue not only the crew but the yacht as well and we are so grateful to them for their help.

 

So the long and short of it was that this meant the end of our much anticipated trip and the reason that I have no Mozambique shark stories to pass on!

 

Not only are we extremely disappointed in having missed this trip, it also means another year has gone by where we have missed looking for sharks in this area. We have received confirmed reports that there are now 200-plus illegal dedicated shark longliners working from Somalia down to Mozambique. It will not take a very long time before these very rich shark stocks along the east coast of Africa are destroyed. 

 

Very briefly shark news from Cape Town is that as in years gone past many great white sharks have been spotted close to shore. If any one in Cape Town is driving along Boyes drive it really is worth your while to get out and have a look for them. You maybe lucky, but be sure to wear polarized sunglasses to spot them more easily.

 

We have also done a couple of pelagic shark trips. Last week Friday we had a great trip with awesome weather. Although we had to wait a fair while we ended up seeing a tiny 90cm (3 foot) mako shark, two blue sharks and we also had about 20 yellowfin tune swimming around the boat. 

 

Being out at sea and seeing sharks again has definitely cheered us up greatly!

 

In December we have a lot of pelagic shark trips planned so hopefully I will have exciting shark stories to pass on to you all then.

 

On “photos of the month” I have put up a few images of the rescue and we also have a Christmas special on our posters running at the moment. So if you are wanting to purchase some for Christmas please do so soon so that it may reach you in time.

 

Best wishes

Monique Fallows

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