Leaving on a long voyage is always hard to do. There are always more supplies that could be loaded or last-minute repairs to equipment. It is a big decision to cast off the hawsers and head off to a place where there is no possibility of resupply or support.
We waited under a roasting sun alongside the quay in Cape Town for the last-minute comings and goings of contractors. Seals lazily rolled onto their backs and looked up at us as we sprawled in the shade waiting for the captain’s decision to set off.
41-year-old Captain Knowledge Bengu, master of the Agulhas II, grew up in a township in Apartheid South Africa. He became the first black African ice pilot in history and was commanding the nation’s Antarctic research vessel by his late 30s. English is his third language and, he jokes, he learned it in a township school, as he briefs us on the ship’s mission and safety drills.
Mid-afternoon, Captain Bengu makes his decision, and at 1600 sharp on Saturday 5 February the crew on the forecastle haul in the thick shorelines and we edge away from the quay.
Towering above us, the recognisable shapes of Table Mountain, Signal Hill and the Lion’s Head. One of the most obvious landfalls of all the great harbours of the age of sail. After long passages across the Atlantic, or from Bombay in India, the outlines of these hills and mountains would mean a break in a journey, fresh food, water and a break to a long sea voyage.
The sun was low as we steamed out past Robben Island where Nelson Mandela and other freedom fighters were incarcerated. Whales whipped up white foam attracting scores of little tourist powerboats, but we did not deviate. There are plenty of whales where we are going.
Very quickly the ship lurched from side to side as the ocean swells lifted and dropped our bright red hull gently as they carried on their leisurely progress from east to west. I wedged in my books to the shelves, jammed my toothpaste and shaving cream together on the shelf in my head (toilet) but the whole room rattled and scratched as everything worked its way loose. I didn’t care, I was on deck, basking in the sun, hunched over against 20 knots of breeze blowing around the Cape of Good Hope.
Following in Shackleton’s footsteps
I thought of Shackleton leaving South Georgia, his last break with the rest of humanity. It was 0845 on 5 December 1914. The weather was less clement, a stiff north-westerly breeze caught the sails, heeling the ship over and bringing sleet and snow with it. There was a mountain of coal piled up on deck, 70 sled dogs tied up forward, and a ton of whale meat suspended in the rigging, sprinkling all below with speckles of blood.
Shackleton had a poem for every occasion, and on this momentous one, he gathered the men together to recite a slightly refined version of Ship of Fools by St John Lucas:
“We were the fools who could not rest in the dull earth we left behind.
But burned with passion for the South.
And drank strange frenzy from the wind.
The world where wise men sit at ease,
Fades from my unregretful eyes
And blind across uncharted seas
We stagger on our enterprise”
He was right about the staggering.
The first night at sea I played dominos with the History Hit team, and then, when they went to bed, climbed up to the very top deck and looked for a long time at the spray of stars overhead. The unfamiliar constellations of the southern hemisphere. The ones that Shackleton and Worsley, his indefatigable skipper, would rely on to steer the open boat back to the safety of South Georgia. It was still warm enough to wear my t-shirt as I star gazed, but we were heading south, and it would not be for long.