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A Diamond in the Rough

Kat Atomic was on her way back to California when water in the bilges called for a major detour.
By Jim Cash

We were three days out of Cape Town, South Africa, hugging the coast, 100 miles offshore, on a northerly course until we could turn west for St. Helena. This was the second leg of our ‘half circumnavigation' needed to bring my new Wildcat 350 Mk2, cruising catamaran Kat-Atomic, from the factory in Durban, South Africa, to its new home in Marina del Rey, CA.

It was late afternoon on the Saturday before Easter. The winds were off our port quarter at 15 to 20 knots apparent, and the big spinnaker was pulling our heavily loaded cat along at about eight to 10 knots. A routine check of the port bilges brought the “Oh Sh--” response to the substantial amount of water found.  After pumping the bilge dry, a close inspection under the teak and holly revealed a small spout of salt water every time the boat settled into a wave. After ruling out all the obvious causes for sea water in the bilge, we decided we had better find a port to diagnose the problem rather than having a larger problem reveal itself in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Resembling a German fishing village, Lüderitz is an incongruous sight on the coast of Western Africa.
The chart showed that the small port town of Lüderitz, Namibia, was the closest to our position, about 150 miles to the northeast.  The delivery skipper I had hired to help guide us across the Atlantic said he'd been to Lüderitz, 20 years earlier while serving in the South African army. He remembered it as a quaint little German fishing village; still it should have the facilities to haul our boat out of the water, if necessary. 

We groped our way into Lüderitz harbor late Easter Sunday night with the fog setting in and only a South African cruising guide giving us scant directions.  A sleepy voice from the Port Control, on channel 16, instructed us to raft on to an old nonworking ‘lighter' anchored in the harbor. 

We learned that Customs and Immigration wasn't open on the Easter Monday holiday, and were instructed to check with them first thing Tuesday, so we had the run of the town for a full day before our official passport stamping formality. At first light we drew straws to see who would slip over the side into the diesel skimmed cold water to assess the problem. We found a crack on the aft end of the seam where the keel attached to the hull. 

It didn't take long for the locals to show their hospitality. A British chap rowed his dinghy up to our boat at 0800 Monday morning. As soon as he heard of our dilemma he went into action, arranging for a mooring at the Luderitz Yacht Club, introducing us to those who could pull the boat, and taking us for a tour of the community.  

When Kat Atomic was hoisted out of the water a patch of fiberglass cloth was found to be delaminating at the edge of the keel.
When the boat was hoisted out of the water our diagnoses were confirmed. A small patch of fiberglass cloth was delaminating at the trailing edge of the keel.  The normally hollow keel had filled with seawater. On the third morning of our detour, a call to the factory connected them with Fibermarine, a local ship builder. They took responsibility for repairs, and a swarm of workmen descended on the boat.  To take my mind off the grinding and cutting on my brand new boat, we decided to play tourist. Two of us caught a ride with a vacationing family of German descent to visit the diamond mining ghost town of Klomanskop. 

We were in Lüderitz seven days to complete the repairs, including the wait time for the new teak and holly floorboard to be flown in from Durban. During this time we were made to feel very welcome and became known affectionately by the locals as “The Americans with the leaky boat.” Most of the town's buildings are now part of the National Historic Registry, and with the tradition of the architecture came the traditional German hospitality.

Seven days later the author and his crew were ready to resume their course, carrying on board a parting gift symbolic of the German hospitality—lobsters.
The teak and holly floorboard arrived via FedEx on Saturday afternoon. Knowing we were anxious to get back to our journey, the owner and foreman of Fibermarine personally came to make the installation. They worked until after 2300 making adjustments to get the boards to fit perfectly. Not only did they come prepared to work overtime, the owner's wife Lindsey brought us 14 African lobsters (they call crayfish) and insisted they were a gift. We said farewell to our new friends the following morning after being lifted back into the water and motored our way out through the harbor entrance to resume our South Atlantic passage.

I would not have originally planned a week's sojourn in Luderitz, Namibia, but this small, out-of-the-way port on the edge of the African desert, known as the skeleton coast proved to be truly a diamond in the rough.

Lüderitz, A Cruising Jewel

Lüderitz, Germany? No, it's Lüderitz, Namibia, an anachronistic village perched on the edge of a southwest African desert.
Lüderitz, Namibia, a German village perched on the edge of a southwest African desert is a leftover from another era . Namibia, previously called German South Africa, and then West South African, was one of the first of the Southern African countries to gain independence from Europe in the early 1960s.

The natural harbor that surrounds Lüderitz Bay on three sides was first discovered by Europeans when the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias sailed down the coast that he called 'Sands of Hell' and found his way into this small bay in 1488.

The Portuguese later called the bay Angra Pequena and it was recognized as the finest natural harbor on the whole Southwest African coast; but otherwise nature hasn't particularly kind. The wind blows cold with persistence, the shoreline is inhospitable, and there is a total absence of freshwater.

Sealers, whalers, fishermen, and guano collectors were the first people to use the harbor, but a community didn't take hold. It was not until Adolf Lüderitz, a German trader, and his partners decided that Angra Pequena would make a good base for trade, that a settlement was established.

The trading ship Tilly, loaded with a variety of goods in Cape Town arrived in Angra Pequena in 1883. Negotiations with the local natives concluded with the bay and adjoining territory for five miles in all directions being ceded to Adolf Lüderitz and his partners for a sum equivalent to 200 Rands and 200 rifles. The German flag was then raised for the first time over this part of the African desert that same year.

A narrow-gauge railroad was built in 1906 to provide a trade link to the interior. It was during the building of this railroad that workers first discovered diamonds and the fortunes of Lüderitz were changed forever. The port evolved into a successful supply depot. Then fishing, canning, and processing of rock lobster for export also took hold. The affluent diamond mining community of Klomanskop became the economic center of Southwest Africa. In its heyday Klomanskop had the largest hospital, theater, and public swimming pool in all of Southwest Africa.

Today Klomanskop is a ghost town being reclaimed by the desert.

The area fell on hard times after World War I when the interest in diamonds moved farther South. Today Klomanskop is a ghost town being reclaimed by the desert. However, Lüderitz has been making a modest come back with the proliferation of near-shore diamond mining. (Small boats with huge vacuum hoses suck the sand from the bottom of the bay and near coastal waters.) There are also high hopes for the recently completed container ship harbor built by filling in a good portion of the southern end of the bay. One of the locals, working on the Kat Atomic casually said to me one afternoon, “You know, your boat's sitting next to a diamond field...” Apparently the fill used for the quay was dug from the same area that had previously proved so rich in diamonds less than a 100 years before.

(The author wishes to thank the Lüderitz Historical Museum for its help with this historical side bar.)

About the author: Jim Cash, a professional yacht captain and freelance writer, lives in Marina del Rey, CA. Retired in 1999 after 30 years in corporate management, Jim now divides his time between teaching sailing, and taking tourist sailing to the Southern California islands. 

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