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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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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