By Anton Bowring, on board SA Agulhas.
It’s ten pm and it’s hot. The air temperature is way up in the mid 20s. We have slowed to seven knots and we are about to alter course. Cape Point lighthouse is just seven miles ahead. Looking at the chart, I can tell you that it flashes blink, blink, pause, blink every thirty seconds. The light itself stands eighty-seven meters above sea level and in good conditions, like this evening, it can be seen thirty-two miles away. Over to our starboard (right) is Kaap Hangklip lighthouse. It flashes just once every ten seconds and has a range of twenty-five miles. While ahead and off the port bow (i.e. slightly to the left) is Slangkoppunt lighthouse which flashes four times in thirty seconds and has a range of thirty miles. From these simple indicators, it can be seen that, if we were to proceed along this heading, we would hit land in about an hour. So we must alter course to port in order to pass Slangkoppunt lighthouse on our starboard side. It sounds a bit technical but it is as natural a manoeuvre as you could wish for and, importantly it keeps us in the correct shipping lane. We are almost home.
Cape Point, which is also known as The Cape of Good Hope, is one of the world’s greatest landmarks. Few vessels pass it without altering course to some degree. Heading from west to east or east to west between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. It lies at the bottom of the African continent yet it is not the southernmost point. That honour belongs to Cape Agulhas which is a way off, out of site, to our east. Cape Agulhas is the shy one to Good Hope’s rather more celebrated reputation. The SA Agulhas is honourably named and I’m proud to be a small part of this ship’s distinguished history. In the last few months we have taken the old lady to central London for the first time. Indeed, we took her north of the equator for the first time since she was built in 1977 in Japan. Of course she has been to Antarctica many times and served South Africa well. But we took her, in her twilight years, a veritable pensioner, to participate in the first ever attempt to cross Antarctica in winter – one of the last great polar challenges. Some of us on board are, ourselves, of a pensionable age or near it. Even Ran is no spring chicken. In fact he is a senior citizen in more ways than one, even if he is one of the pluckiest for his age. And that, too, is something to celebrate; surrounding us ageing strivers who are, no doubt, living in a dream world, there are young Africans setting out on their lives of adventure at sea with whom we have rubbed shoulders and shared that dream. For them, there is the hope, the good hope, that the future will bring a life of opportunity. Inspiration works both ways and, while it would be pleasing to think that our expedition has given inspiration to the cadets on board this ship, I can say, for sure, that they have inspired me and I shall miss this ship, the crew and the cadets.
We’ll be docking in the early hours. For now, I’m enjoying the last of the voyage, alone on the dark deck, soaking up the salt air and the experiences that uniquely belong to ships and the sea. We are gently rolling on an agitated surface, under a starry sky. The constant rumble of the engines, as inoffensive as the beat of your heart, accompanies the splashing as we slice our way through the waves. The lights from portholes on the deck below illuminate the white foam in diffused circles which glide past as we roll onwards. Where on earth could you experience such simple, fundamental sensations? It is a ‘water’ thing and I love it.
While the Ice Group are over two-thousand miles away in their blizzard, we are wilting in the humid night. I think about them often and wonder how they are faring. I couldn’t do what they are doing. It’s not my element – ice. It is wonderful to visit, to see, feel and absorb. But that’s enough. Give me the sea any day.
The voyage with all its adventures, from the dance-off at Christmas and the fusion of food to the African singing, the big crane swinging, Snowflake, Mary the mouse (God knows how she’s coping in the blizzard!), the ‘snotter’ and the exploding lavatories, has all been a huge privilege to experience. But above all it has been my new and many South African friends that I shall remember with the greatest affection. Thanks Cap’n Dave and all of you – for everything. See you again soon, I hope.
Blink, pause, blink, pause blink, pause blink. Slangkoppunt is on our beam. We’re almost there.