Msikaba Beach, Transkei, South Africa

An awesome, awesome spot this. Remote, untouched and a fantastic beach all round. I have only been there once but I'll give the gen anyway and update it when I've been back (which I certainly shall!)

The spot is located at the mouth of the Msikaba river. This is at the South end of Mkambati nature reserve (run by National Parks, I think. Will get details).

The Msikaba river flows out of a spectacular gorge through a short lagoon and into the sea just South of the Sand Bluff (a large, vegetated sand dune) which forms the Southern border of the park. From here the beach stretches South for about 500m until it is bordered by a rocky island.

So, essentially, the beach is in a small bay formed by the island to the South and another rocky headland to the North. The beach is a superb, flat stretch of sand between the two. There is almost always a small channel between the rocky island to the South and the beach. The channel ranges from less than a metre wide (and very shallow) at spring lows to a broad shallow body of water well over 100m wide at spring high (although I have not witnessed this personally).

Access to the beach is via a road from Lusikisiki. The area appears to be semi-private so I'm not going to go into mass details about how to get there and so on until I have more information about the accomodation. We were lucky enough to stay in a cottage through a friend of a friend. But, until I get more details, I will describe it for the benefit of anyone lucky enough to get here.

Again, I must stress that we only sailed it once so this is the best knowledge we have so far and by no means representative of general conditions, rather just what we observed during our week long stay.

The only spot we seriously considered sailing (and tried) was the beach I described above. The other options would be on the South side of the rocky island or in the channel between the island and the mainland.

On the South side of the island is another bay and sandy beach but it is smaller than the first. The advantage of sailing this spot would possibly be in the SW wind which would be blowing onshore at this beach and therefore make it safer than the other spot. I didn't swim at this spot apart from snorkelling next to the island where there are some potent rip currents. It appears that, like the other beach, this one has a sand bank in the middle which probably means large areas are quite shallow.

The channel itself may well be sailable at Spring high tides. The SW wind howls between the island and the mainland and depending on the angles and width of the channel, could provide some nice flat water. I would be wary of currents, though.

We sailed the main beach in a NE wind. The beach is oriented such that the largest section is almost perpendicular to the NE wind. On a starboard tack, close reach, one is parallel to the beach. On a port tack, beam/ broad reach one is parallel to the beach.

The surf, like anywhere on the East coast, appears to be extremely variable. Naturally the onshore Easterly tends to roughen it up nicely but the groundswell just depends on tides and what is happening out to sea. There were times when it was seriously a mill-pond, and times when it was carnage. I guess you just have to judge on the day.

BUT

And here's the good part...

Because of the sand bank, the backline is a decent 100+ metres out, which means you get to launch in very calm conditions and there is no heinous shore break to deal with. By the time you get to the backline (and I didn't spend much time there) you should be well in control in straps and harness and powered enough to pick your line.

In fact, from the centre of the beach, it is basically not much more than armpit depth until just before where the backline breaks. We had some great novice surfing there on the quieter days.

So, how was the sailing?

Well, we picked a day that started with a light Northerly wind and the sea very calm. We'd been fishing in the morning and by the 9:00a it seemed that it was almost sailable, and so flat and unthreatening it was definitely worth a shot.

I started roughly 1/4 of the beach heading N from the island, launched and headed on a Port tack slog towards the island.

A word about the currents:

It seems that the waves wash directly inshore in the centre of the beach and then the water moves impressively sideways in a channel between the shore and the sandbank (roughly 25m wide). It either moves North or South (depending where you are, I guess it splits in the middle) and then heads very rapidly and determinedly out to sea next to the rocky headlands bounding the bay.

What this meant for me is that I launched in a Southerly current of a good 5 knots, I would guess. Of course that knocked the wind strength (which was heading in the same direction) by the same amount. Hence, slog!

So the beginning is something of a balancing act and quite tricky to orientate your board. But at least you are only waist deep

Once going, head on a nice broad reach to get solidly onto a plane and from there you're free.

The runs we had were essentially port-tacks from the launching point heading as steeply out to sea as possible (about a 30 degree angle from the shore) which afforded some really nice little ramps to jump off still way within the backline. Gybing was about 50m out from the shore and about 50m from the island.

Coming back was really fast and the opportunity to race the waves, outrun the breakers or pop over the back. Mostly flat because of the angles and super fast.

I made more effort to get further out on the port tacks which meant I could make progressively longer runs and some of them were finishing on the relatively flat water of the sandbank. Awesome! Drop off in waist deep water where there is no current if the gybe fails!

Paradise!

BUT

I discovered something nasty but Alistair took full advantage of it. The rip next to the island.

As I said, about 30-50m North of the island, all the water that has been pounding in at the centre of the beach heads back out to sea with a purpose. If you thought the sidewash launch was strong, this leaves it standing.

This, of course, is roughly the area one gybes. If you fall off, and the sail is roughly in the right place, etc, etc, you hardly notice it. Of course you are moving but it doesn't suck your power and after a neat waterstart you're able to broad reach it on your merry way.

However, I did notice that once when I fell off less gracefully and needed to do the whole "swim the sail round and kick the fin with your shin" maneuver that it wasn't at all easy to align the whole lot and clear the sail. In fact, it was difficult. Eventually I ignored the orientation, swam to the tip of the sail and cleared it from there. Once clear, I was able to orient the board and get going.

Alistair took it a step further. I imagine he did one of those classic maneuvers where you manage to use the wind to send the sail straight to the bottom of the ocean... we all know the feeling - you clear the boom end and the clew digs in and the whole lot goes down vertically to the sound of your curses.

Anyway, just as I was heading off I heard him saying, "Hey, I'm heading out to sea". Naturally I thought that meant he was tired of this pansy inshore rubbish and wanted to cruise the transkei coast looking for wrecks. But then I looked back and saw that it wasn't his decision. The rip was taking him at an alarming rate towards the open ocean. And a nice set of pounding foamies was heading in just to make it more tricky.

I was very shortly at the launch site and alerted the others before turning round to see if I could help. I had to cut very steeply out to sea because he was making such impressive progress but got to him roughly (and I do mean roughly) in the impact zone.

By that time, of course, a number of breakers had already had their way with him and he was pretty much pooped. I dropped in and secretly hoped I'd be able to get back myself, even though I wasn't tired at all.

We discussed ditching the rig but eventually Al agreed to give it one more go (waterstarting). He managed to clear the sail and we were both just getting up when a wave knocked him off again. I still had the strength to hold on so I shot in to the shallow section, gybed and tried to come back to the spot to see what had become of him.

Going out that second time was scary. I was tired now and had gybed just near the impact zone and didn't have time to hook the harness properly before I had half a dozen large foamies to deal with. I managed to see-saw them... luckily plenty of power in my sail, but my arms were just about dead.

I finally got out past the breakers but there was no sign of Al. I gybed and started to head back and to my immense relief saw Gareth heading out on the sandbank to help him - the set that had knocked him off had started rolling him and his kit back to shore and he was now just about in shallow water.

I came in and I after a nervous discussion of the events we made a few more tentative runs in the shallow waters of the sandbank but pretty much called it a day. By that time the wind had picked up even more and the sea was starting to get downright nasty.

So... what is the conclusion?

Well, I'll get it form the horse's (Alistair's) mouth when he gets back from Kruger park but here's my take on it in the meantime-

No doubt that the sailing at Msikaba has AWESEOME potential. I had a brilliant time... in fact, I think we all did until that nerve-wracking incident.

Being washed out to sea is crap and scary at the best of times but in the Transkei it is seriously scary because there is no NSRI, no cell-phone reception and plenty of Johnnies.

I would say that on a calm day, if you are careful and aware of the currents you shouldn't have too much to worry about. Be aware of the difficulty of starting in the rip and try to gybe closer to shore. But I wouldn't be really happy about it unless there was someone with a boat or jetski somewhere at hand. Thinking back on the issue, if we could have just fetched Alistair, even if we left his kit temporarily, it would have made all the difference. On a jetski or with a rubber duck you could immediately get to someone who was in trouble and pick them up. The kit will generally either drift in or drift to a point where you can fetch it but at least you can make sure the person is safe.

So, sigh, the conclusion is that we will have to make friends with jetski pilots. Sigh.

And, no, we didn't see any johnnies.

Will I sail Msikaba again?

Yes. Definitely. But I will be careful and aware of the currents and preferably would like to do it with some form of backup!