But there could be worse places to be marooned than the Royal Cape Yacht Club
It is eerily quiet in the foyer of the Royal Cape Yacht Club, perhaps quieter than it has ever been at midday on the sunny edge of autumn. The trophies opposite reception are a still life of a distant past, almost unbelievable, when people still raced boats and gathered afterwards to slap each other on the back without reaching for hand sanitizer.
Not a soul in sight now as I remove my face mask and step outside.
Tentatively, circuitously, a group of us converge at a table opposite the empty Club restaurant. We eye each other across the regulatory 2m corona-safe distance, before sitting down a mandatory arm’s length apart. RCYC stalwart and marina resident Paul van Tellingen appears briefly to do some introductions, then leaves us to get on with it.
I have come to find out what it’s like to be a lockdown live-aboard. How must it feel to be about to set off across the ocean, into the blustery embrace of the unknown, only to find yourself lashed to a four metre mooring rope – for 30 days and counting?
Pretty weird, is the short answer to that.
“We were due to leave that Thursday night (when the first three-week lockdown took effect at midnight),” recalls Yasha with a smile. “They said that it was still fine to leave. But our heat exchanger wasn’t working. We fixed that but it made our departure 12 hours later and then we couldn’t go.”
With hindsight it was probably for the best, Yasha is quick to point out. Had they just left they might be sitting in a dramatically more expensive lockdown in St Helena, unable to push northwards and forced to sit and watch their adventure fund leak slowly away.
Instead they have the relative freedom of the Royal Cape Yacht Club, its maze of floating jetties and ghostly fleet of empty vessels.
They also have each other, about 15 lockdown ‘cruisers’ who have clearly got to know each other over the past few weeks. “We do take care of each other,” confirms Yasha, glancing across at her clubhouse crew who share their own whatsapp group to communicate the finer points of lockdown etiquette. “If you need a part or a food item then put a message on the whatsapp group,” says Yasha.
The group also coordinate cleaning up activities, partly as a service to the environment and partly to keep themselves busy. Each session nets about ten large bags of floating junk, everything from condoms to Nik-Nak packets, much of it stuck inside the Port and blasted into corners by the prevailing wind. With many ship crews also in lockdown inside Cape Town Port, and many storm water drains depositing waste into the water every time it rains, there is a near-endless supply to clean up.
Kim Chauncey and her husband fill up two large bags a day. “If the plastic is close enough then I go on my hands and knees and pick it up,” she chuckles. “Luckily my husband found a big net aboard, which helps.”
“It is quite rewarding and becomes a bit addictive. My husband said I was wasting my time, but now he is also addicted. It keeps us busy and out in the sunshine,” says Kim, who is also using the lockdown to prepare for their cruising adventure up to the Mediterranean.
There could be far worse places to sit out the lockdown, according to Kim, who makes the most of the Club’s waterfront facilities, particularly the terrace. “It is amazing. We just treat it like our lounge — coffee on the veranda. We can also use the ablutions. We are very fortunate.”
The quid pro quo is that the ‘live aboards’ keep an eye on the other boats, and even effect repairs or odd-jobs if needs be.
Upon request I am led through the maze of yachts to a garbage collection point – a cluster of rubbish bags on the floating pontoon, waiting to be carried to the Club’s main refuse collection point. Nichelle Swanepoel gets to work with her net, pinioning a passing plastic bag and raising it triumphant onto the hard. It may be just a speck in the ocean, but it’s one plastic speck less in the food cycle to which we all must return.
Nichelle and her husband also had ambitious travel plans before lockdown, plans now on hold indefinitely. “We were hoping to head off to St Helena and Brazil, but just before lockdown we were waiting for something to get fixed on the autopilot,” says Nichelle with a wry smile. “We had already done provisioning for the voyage, and that ended up being our provisioning for lockdown.”
Nichelle has spent a lot of lockdown time in varnishing mode: “I’ve done twelve layers on the boat. Lockdown has at least allowed me to do that,” she quipped.
A marketing manager and creative director by profession, Nichelle is still able to work from her floating office. She is used to a mobile office; the couple sold up everything, including their house in the southern suburbs, in preparation for the cruising life. “It has been a slow migration and letting go of things,” she explains. “We are not cruisers in the sense that we are retired; for us it is about living self-sufficiently and travelling the world and being able to work wherever we are – interesting, fun and adventurous.”
Now the only question is when will they be set free. And even if they are allowed to leave Table Bay, it is unclear whether they will have anywhere to go to: “We have no idea. It is very uncertain,” says Nichelle.
It’s the same story on the other side of the peninsula in Hout Bay, where several ‘live aboards’ are now watching the weather turn from the luxury of their lockdown homes. Among them are circumnavigator turned vlogger celebrities Patrick and Rebecca Childress, on their 40ft 1976 Valiant. “We were headed to tour South Africa for three weeks or so, and then head to Namibia,” Patrick told me via Whatsapp. “But this much-needed lockdown has really thrown a monkey wrench in to the remaining sailors that are here. We have all pretty much missed our window to go north.”
“We were just finished with boat work and had just rented a car for a month to go see South Africa! We wanted to tour for a month, and then do a quick haul out at RCYC because we have a leak in the boat. Then all of that came to an end pretty quick.”
Despite the dramatic change of plans, Patrick is not complaining. The lockdown at least allows them to edit a few new videos for their popular site (Patrick Childress Sailing – SV Brick House) while they await news of the pandemic beyond the relative sanctuary of the Hout Bay Yacht Club marina. “We wouldn’t mind staying a while longer here in South Africa anyways. Your president is doing a very good job with this coronavirus pandemic, and we safer here than we would back in our own country or most others for that matter.”
Patrick’s words stick in my head as I leave RCYC with a parting shot of hand sanitizer at the front door. Lockdown may not be a summer holiday, but it is a whole lot better than locked out, or locked up.
In the fullness of time, are we not all in lockdown together anyway, endlessly recycled in the wind?
I reckon the cruising folk of the Royal Cape Yacht Club figured that out long ago, and don’t mind sitting it out a while longer, squinting into the sun.