Ed’s letter: Carols and caravels

Posted on 15 November 2019

It had been 31 years since last I’d stood on Vleesbaai beach. Now I was back to explore this coast for our December issue. There were many more houses but the peninsula, bending south-east to Fransmanshoek, was as beautiful as I remembered it. I looked out to sea and pictured our boat, anchored in the turquoise shallows. February 1988: what an adventure it had been.

Justin in Lisbon, 1987.

In 1987, as part of my national service in the navy, I joined a crew of 16 to sail a replica Portuguese caravel from Lisbon to Mossel Bay. This was in commemoration of the voyage of Bartolomeu Dias, the first European to round the southern tip of the continent. Our intention was to arrive in South Africa 500 years to the day after he stepped ashore in 1488.

Bartolomeu Dias sailing mid-Atlantic. Image by: Justin Fox

I flew to Portugal to meet the crew and begin training on a type of vessel that had not been sailed for the better part of five centuries. We underwent three months of sea trials before setting sail from Lisbon on 8 November 1987.

After seven weeks of beating into strong headwinds we found ourselves south of Ascension Island, preparing for a mid-Atlantic Christmas. I was on the tiller at midnight when Rui the cook appeared on deck with a pot of bacalhau and garrafa of wine. ‘Feliz Natal, amigo,’ he said as we spooned traditional Christmas codfish straight from the pot.

Our off-duty watch slept through the morning and was woken for lunch. Rui had put in a stout effort with turkey and all the trimmings, giving it a delicious Portuguese twist. We were each allowed a few minutes to call home, patched through the radio station in Walvis Bay. Suddenly, there was Dad’s voice crackling from our holiday house in Simon’s Town. The whole family was gathered around the tree. How I yearned to leap the remaining 2,400 nautical miles and be there, eating Christmas pud and brandy sauce, opening presents, listening to Uncle Arnold’s yarns.

Up on deck, we toasted Christmas with a bottle of port and sang carols in both languages. Then we wrote messages, popped them in the empty bottle, plugged the cork and tossed it overboard.

Rounding the Cape six weeks later, the caravel was a few days ahead of schedule. We were due to step ashore in Mossel Bay on 3 February 1988 – providing the climax of the Dias Festival. So the caravel had to be ‘hidden’ for 48 hours, either by sailing out into the Agulhas Current (and be hammered by the westerlies), or by creeping into a quiet bay and anchoring. We chose the latter.

Our sanctuary was Vleesbaai. After six months together, this was the last time we’d be alone before the pandemonium of the Mossel Bay festivities and the return to our normal grind. Many of us would never see each other again. The adventure of a lifetime was coming to an end.

I remember the silence. No engine, no creaking rigging, no commands shouted in Portuguese. And the chance to sleep without being woken for duty. We ate and drank and played practical jokes on one another. We swam over the side until hammerhead sharks persuaded us otherwise.

A few of us took the rowing boat and made for the beach. I stepped ashore and looked south at the hamlet of Vleesbaai – South African sand between my toes once more. ‘I must return here again one day,’ I thought.

On our last evening, we gathered on deck and sang Portuguese sea shanties. The next day, warships would line our approach, helicopters would clatter overhead, a 21-gun salute would echo across the bay and a flotilla of small craft would escort us to the anchorage where a crowd of 20,000 awaited. But for now it was only us, our doughty little boat, the sheltering arms of Vleesbaai and an orange moon.

The crew (Justin far right) lands on Santos Beach in Mossel Bay after three months at sea.

The caravel had provided all the things great journeys should: an adventure-filled odyssey, storms and adversity, great friendships made and a prodigal return. It was a voyage and a Christmas I will never forget.

We at Getaway wish you an equally unforgettable Christmas!

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