Skeleton crew
Sailing Today|December 2020
Cruising the west coast of Africa would be an adventure into the unknown for most. Nick and Jenny Coghlan share an insight on a voyage along Namibia’s Skeleton Coast
Nick and Jenny Coghlan

Bosun Bird’s skipper often likes to rail against professionally organised cruising rallies, overlooking the fact that participating in such events is how a number of our friends began bluewater sailing in the first place. “Surely,” he will say in a superior manner, “the point of cruising is to do it all yourself, not pay somebody else to smooth your way... Even the paperwork is part of the fun...”

This, while the otherwise-loyal crew tries to catch his eye. “It wasn’t fun when we left South Africa, was it?” she will ask, after our guests have left.

We’d spent nearly two years fitting out and sailing Bosun Bird at a small marina-cum-fishing harbour north of Cape Town, after buying her at Richard’s Bay, on South Africa’s Indian Ocean coast, and trucking her cross-country on a flatbed. When, in early spring, it came time to check out of the country – bound for Namibia, St Helena and Brazil – we indulged in all the usual procrastination and hesitation to which we are prone before long passages, exacerbated now by lack of recent practise, unstable weather and the distance of the immigration office from our berth. It was 30km to Saldanha Bay, and we’d have to rent a car just to go there and back.

The elderly, dour uniformed officer in the customs shed eyed our papers in silence for several minutes. I tried to lighten the atmosphere by remarking that we’d checked out of this very office, on an earlier cruise, 20 years previously. He found the relevant entry in his log book, responding only with a curt, South African accented “Yiss.”

Eventually he got to the point: “Where are your entry papers?”

“Ah, well. We bought the boat at Richard’s Bay, took her out of the water and trucked her here...”.

“She left South African waters, then. So where are your exit papers?”

Repeat the elements of this conversation multiple times for two hours, take into account that office closing time is fast approaching, and add incipient desperation on the captain’s part.

Finally, with visible reluctance, our man took out his rubber stamp, looked at his watch and marked the clearance paper with the exact time, to the minute. He handed it back.

“Two hours. Got it?”

We raced back, dumped the car, threw off our lines and motored at full revs out of the Port Owen breakwater. The sun was setting over the South Atlantic as with relief we cleared the shallows of St Helena Bay. The swells were still five metres, but down from the eight that Cape Point had been reporting yesterday. We had a favourable southeasterly.

“Well I really enjoyed that bout of paperwork, didn’t you?” the crew said casually, as she prepared for bed, leaving me the first watch.

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