Wednesday, February 5th, 2020
We are were in Durban, South Africa, in December 1976 in the pretty 80’ Danish wooden Brigantine ROMANCE, the ship with so much of her DNA in PICTON CASTLE, about to set off around the Cape of Storms and onwards towards Cape Town. We were westward bound around the world on a long, almost two year, ocean odyssey. The brigantine was a faithful representative of a mid-19th-century trading vessel, hemp, tar and hand made flax sails and all. Her Skipper was age-of-sail master mariner Captain Arthur M. Kimberly. Her mate was a young me. We had hopes of a one week passage to Cape Town, the distance being about 800 miles if you sail direct. Who does that? It took three weeks and we hove-to two or three times in wild SW gales I have ever seen in the apposing Aghulus Current. Plenty of pumping. Wooden ships do that.
Our sweet oaken brigantine was alongside in Durban after coming out of drydock, freshly caulked and painted. Pretty curious place was Durban at the time. I was learning about apartheid and also about courage. As the 22-year-old mate of the brigantine and had the duty watch that lovely sunny day. This particular ship had been rigged up by Captain Allan Villiers and the last of the old school Danish ship riggers and outfitters and was just about perfect as a little sailing ship as you could hope for – and quite salty looking and attracted attention. She was literally from another era.
On this quiet South African Sunday morning, a young white lad bubbling with enthusiasm comes bounding down the pier, asks to come aboard and talk to the ‘Officer in Charge’. Pretty high falutin’ words I figured, but I fit the bill close enough, as unusually every one else was ashore on this quiet day. We chat a little bit. Then my new friend asks me a bit mysteriously if its OK if he can bring a “special” visitor to come aboard to check out the ship? I said sure, no prob, why not? Off he went. Scratched my head a little and promptly forgot about it. I had some minor project on the go. A couple hours later the young man returns with a middle-aged white man in a safari jacket and a worn fedora and comes aboard. He has an old leather satchel with brass buckles. No one else is aboard. He is introduced to me as Colonel Hoare. I stifled a giggle at the sound of the name. I had not been told that name earlier by the young guy and had no idea who this Colonel Hoare was or may have been. I wasn’t too concerned. Meant nothing to me. I found out later. I gave them a tour of our small ship as one might do on a quiet Sunday. Colonel Hoare loved being aboard, talked non-stop, was almost effervescent with excitement at every turn. This salty and tarry old sailing ship from the past struck a chord with him I suppose. He needed a place to spread something out he had brought. The satchel held a much loved (ratty) photo scrapbook. All pictures of various curious old boats he had owned and sailed and he had had a Baltic trader at one point too. They tend to be a bit larger. After a while, it seemed as if he was a bit disappointed that I had no idea who was. I was getting the idea that I was with someone who was important but I did not know it. The young guy with him certainly thought he was a Big Man. I say this because despite the attempts at evasive secrecy, crossed with my apparent lack of interest, he eventually just told me who he was without my asking. Gave me enough to know he was somebody. I finally took my cue. Oh, Colonel Hoare, the Great African Mercenary? Anyway, he was keen on old sailing ships and we spent this relaxing South African afternoon aboard ROMANCE, talking ships, and passages. He had a good idea what he was talking about as I recall. Not much about his mercenary adventures. A perfectly pleasant afternoon onboard. He went on to that lunacy of a failed attempted coup in the Seychelles some years later and got his comeuppance. You never know who you might meet in these old sailing ships.
We got to Cape Town after a pretty brutal passage. Hove-to off Cape Town on a sunny morning with little wind. Once inside the many breakwaters and tied up near the Royal Cape Yacht Club I met Dr. Christian Barnard, yep, I really did. Our lovely ship’s Medical Officer, Dr. Mary, was a former student of his so one day we marched up to the Univ of Cape Town and into his office. He of the first heart transplant. Made news worldwide. And while in Cape Town I learned a lot more about this Colonel Hoare from all these older seamen who had sailed in Cape Horn windships like HERZOGIN CECELIE, PASSAT, PAMIR, LAWHILL, PADUA, MOZART, HOUGOMONT, and others and had settled there. Hoare was quite the character, it turned out. Surprised he lived this long. Nelsen Mandela was incarcerated on Robben Island at this time and Apartheid was in full swing but with the cracks showing. I figured there was going to be a blood bath before this was all over. I was wrong. That there wasn’t thanks to Madiba. It was quite amusing (and confusing) to me to learn that I was a “prohibited” person at the time. I had a little slip of paper saying so. I am still not quite sure just what that meant as I had no problems personally there.
From Cape Town we sailed for Rio De Janeiro, sailing under studding sails for 26 days straight without taking them in- and onward towards Grenada in the eastern Caribbean, that isle of Spice we love so much.