The Cape of Good Hope, the gate to the Indian Ocean
Along with Cape Horn, the Cape of Good Hope is one of the world's most famous navigational landmarks. Located at the meeting point between the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans, this geographical 'accident' is famous for its wild seas and the violent winds which beat up against it. It is also the great gate into the “Roaring Forties”.
The 'Stormy Cape' is also how the Cape of Good Hope is known, which gives a clearer picture of its reputation during the southern winter months from April to September. However, it is always possible to see waves of over four metres and winds frequently topping 30 knots in this corner of the planet. The most dangerous point is at the Agulhas bank, where storms are rife and dangerous cross currents collide.
When depressions moving in from the Atlantic meet the Agulhas Current, huge freak waves are generated. This great stream of warm waters traces a route through the colder green waters of the Indian Ocean and originates from the belt of surface current from the trades, pushed miles and miles by the monsoon, before being diverted South along the African coast to compress between Madagascar and the continent. It is one of the world's most powerful currents, with only slightly less force than the famous Gulf Stream.
With its limit close to the 100 fathom line, the Agulhas Current slides towards the South at speeds of between four and five knots towards where the land juts out at Cape Recife, Port Elizabeth (South Africa), before heading to deeper waters. This is a tremendous mass of water which can reach up to 160 km wide and over 300 metres deep. When this current comes up against a succession of southern storms, great mountains of water are created at the Cape: vertical walls of 5 storeys high, with foamy crowns that appear to rise from nowhere and speed along at 30 knots.
Made up of numerous waves, each piggy-backed onto the other, these walls of water rarely maintain their full height for more that a few minutes, but in that short time they are able to destroy anything and everything in their path. These waves are a constant in this area and are responsible for many of the boats that disappear without a trace.
Cape Agulhas, eclipsed
In reality, the Cape of Good Hope is not the southernmost point on the African continent. The real title goes to Cape Agulhas (Needles Cape, in English), a name given to the landmark by Portuguese sailors due to the sharp, spiky rocks there, which almost caused them to shipwreck. Its longitude has a particularly special significance: 20°00’ 09"E, as it marks the entrance to the Indian Ocean. From hereon the sailors enter the Great South, the toughest stretch on the regatta course. Following its discovery, the area around Cape Agulhas became an almost legendary sailing landmark, in a similar way to Cape Horn (Chile), due to the numerous shipwrecks in the area because of the very sudden and violent storms, the fog and the dangerous orography found there. Up until the Eighteenth Century, boats coming in from the Indian Ocean would rush to enter Table Bay in order to stop off at Cape Town, the 'tavern of the seas', where they would stock up on precious fresh fruit and vegetables to combat scurvy.