The rare gem, Dassen Island

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The rare gem, Dassen Island

Since the beginning of travel, it has always been the greatest feat to go where no man has gone before. But seeing as around 10 000 years has passed since the first known boat was built, there’s little above water that remains untouched; yet, the lure of being an explorer still remains. Leisure Boating magazine goes in search of possibly the rarest gem in South Africa, found just a short way off the West Coast.

Dassen Island, the little piece of heaven off the Western Cape’s coastline, is almost otherworldly as it can’t be visited by car and it’s not viable for day boats. The island itself is currently uninhabited, aside from the very select few folk who are occasionally granted permits to visit for research purposes.

Found in the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean, about 10 km west of Yzerfontein and 55 km north of Cape Town, this proclaimed nature reserve is second only to the biggest island off SA, Robben Island. Except for most of the northeastern shore, the island is surrounded by reefs and has something of a ‘rocky’ past as many ships have run aground here – especially when the island gained extreme popularity during the 19th and 20th centuries.

For our trip, it was decided that we’d experience the true beauty this island has to offer from the privileged vantage point of Boating World’s elegant Targa 38 and I was fortunate to spend my time there with boating legend Derrick Levy and sales executive Greg Alice. A second boat joined us for the getaway, an exquisite Riviera 33 with Jeremy Chaitman and Peter Sternberg aboard.

Departing from the Granger Bay marina at 09h50, our guys weekend away was beginning – and for me, it all starts with the journey. We set the autopilot to 355 degrees and gracefully cruised over the 3.2 metre swell. The cool ocean breeze at our backs took away some of the 25°C heat we were greeted with that morning, and the day warmed up to be over 30°C and a tad sweltering. We averaged around 17 knots along the way with plenty to see as we went along. Almost tracing the coastline here, it is a sight seen by few and appreciated by all.

En route there is plenty to see and do. For those interested, and when in season, some snoek can be caught which would be great come supper time – and if wetting some line isn’t your type of thing, be on the lookout for waving seals and dolphins frolicking in your wake. Try as you might to sever the tether of civilisation, I had cell phone reception throughout the trip. However, it did allow me to quickly research interesting facts as I passed. Take for example Robben Island; although most notably famous for its treacherous past as a prison island, it holds another less known secret.

Towards the end of the 17th century, it is rumoured that a Dutch ship, laden with gold coins, disintegrated on the reefs of the island, just a short distance offshore, in relatively shallow but very restless waters. Earmarked for the payment of the salaries of employees of the Dutch East India Company in Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia), the gold today would be worth tens of millions of pounds sterling or U.S. dollars. A few coins have washed ashore over the centuries but apparently the treasure itself remains in the ocean. So if you see something glimmering from the shores, you might want to take a closer look.

I had never been to Dassen Island before, and as time ticked by, so did the nautical miles – and on the Targa, I will say that they were the most comfortable I’d ever travelled! Before I knew it, the faint sight of an island was appearing on the horizon ahead of us – and being in the middle of almost nowhere, it felt like I was a modern day sailor finding new horizons. It was genuinely a thrill I’ve never experienced before. The distance between us couldn’t close any quicker! As the island comes into full view, you can see why so many boats back in the day called here – and the rough water crashing over the reefs on the southern side show why so many also got wrecked. When going around the island, be on the lookout for degenerating hulls of boats, new and old, as some can be seen above the waterline. It’s a reminder of our past and shows that beauty can have its price.

We passed the island to the east side in order to reach our anchor point for the night. We took refuge in a cosy cove called Huisbaai – aptly named since it’s where the few houses on the island are, and were used by guano scrapers back about two hundred years ago. Guano, a Peruvian word for accumulated dried bird droppings, was termed “white gold” due to its value as fertiliser. At 10 British pounds per ton, it was deemed profitable when a Liverpool trader, in 1843, sent the first ships to collect the droppings. One was wrecked, one turned back and the third came back with less than a full load. So valuable was guano that the British, although they possibly might’ve been able to take control over what is now Namibia, kept the island for the Guano and let Germany take the rest! Over the years, Dassen Island has been home to many birds – and one species which has paid a hefty price during its time there was the huge colony of penguins the island used to accommodate. Those who’ve been to the island will tell you the story as it is written on the sea saltencrusted information board: “Penguin eggs are rich. They are excellent for baking, and boiled yolk (the white doesn’t set) was popular for individual meals. When soap and water ran low at the islands, men even washed themselves in penguin eggs!”. Now I know the rules; what happens on guys weekend, stays on guys weekend – but I assure you, a penguin egg shower didn’t happen…

Serious exploitation took place on the island and during the period 1900-1960 penguin eggs were commercially harvested; as many as 500 000 eggs were taken in the 1920’s. To make egg-collecting easier, a wall was built around the island some 30 to 50 metres inland. This forced the birds to concentrate in coastal areas and made egg collection easier and the population fell from over 1 million birds in 1900 to less than 50 000 in the 1960’s. Egg collection was made illegal in 1967, but until then, penguin eggs were a delicacy – even served in the Houses of Parliament. This island’s beauty is unique and today, is about as untouched as you’ll find. This has meant pristine white beaches and an almost uninterrupted bird life, as seen from the huge Pelican and Cape Cormorants that cruise around looking for a quick meal.

At Huisbaai, we were greeted by as many as 25 commercial “Kreef” boats and a navigable maze of crayfishing nets. ‘Locals’ to the area uphold the law and don’t sell their catch, but if you hold a permit and are feeling lucky, throw a net down and see if you can get the freshest crayfish you’ll ever eat! We hung out for the day, taking in the sights and appreciating the serenity of it all – especially since we weren’t having much luck with the rod. We had some red bait on the hook, but looking back now, we might’ve been better off with some white muscle. Hottentot fish are a great eat, and some can be found while you venture around the island; but rather save your precious time here and try hook one (or other bottom feeders) while you’re at anchor. When evenings begin to set in, it would be rather romantic – but, not a word of it was mentioned between us five guys. We kept the evening as South African men do – drink in one hand and tongs in the other! Jeremy, being from a restaurant background, really knows what good food consists of; and the meat, fresh from being licked by the flames, gave Jeremy the honorary title as Master Chef, Dassen Island.

Once the sun had set over the horizon, it does get a little chilly on the ocean, so make sure to take something warm. The water during the day was, according to WindGuru, around 12 degrees – and this was proven relatively accurate when I dipped my hand in. In daylight, there is a certain sort of black haze in the water, but if you look closer, you’ll notice it is millions upon millions of little swimming creatures, almost like miniature black prawns or shrimp. Come night time when we switched the underwater lights on, the water became a hive of activity as a mindboggling amount of life lurks from the darkness. But, these little swimmers give this island its true rarity. While your boat is parked off, water creatures eat marine growth from your hull – cleaning it almost entirely in a 2-3 day period. It is said that there are only two places in the world where this occurs – and the other is in Brazil.

After a good few laughs had been shared, we corked the wine before a groggy morning became imminent. We had spent the evening on the Riviera 33, and like three sailors of old, Derrick, Greg and I paddled the high seas in our four man inflatable to the sanctuary of the Targa, anchored just a short distance away. Now, this is the first time I’ve slept on a boat of this style in this type of setting, and I was anxious to see what it was all about. The Targa is a luxury cruiser with a deep-Vee hull – and this gives the boat a gentle rock as you drift off to dreamland. The peacefulness of the waves, softly washing onto the beach nearby, plays as the soundtrack to your dreams – diminishing stress and making everyday life something of the past. It was one of the most pleasant sleeps I’ve ever had, and although the headroom in my stern cabin wasn’t quite like that found in a five-star hotel, everything else certainly was, such as superb lighting, a comfy bed, wooden cupboards, mirrors, blinds and a solid counter top. Naturally, this luxury runs throughout the boat, and when morning came, a steaming hot shower and a cup of coffee waited.

If you’re planning a trip to Dassen Island, plan for a two- to three-day window of opportunity to ensure great weather. A south-westerly wind is ideal as the island protects you when you’re staying at Huisbaai, but as our luck would have it, the clouds had closed in overnight and the sea was going to be a little rougher for our trip back, heading into the swell and wind. We had put the full covers onto the boat the day before and were ready to travel back – no matter what nature could throw at us!

As we departed the island, we dropped a spoon and a lure into the water in the hopes of picking up a decent sized snoek or yellow tail as we idled along. Without much result after some time, Derrick and I began changing our modus operandi by varying the line length and giving the ‘bait’ some more life-like movement. When we were clear of the island with no potential hook-ups, we packed the rods away and headed for home. Dassen Island is something truly remarkable and incomparable. It makes for a great stop off for those skippering between Cape Town and Langebaan and is perfect if you’re simply looking to get away on your boat. What’s more, travelling to the island in the Targa would cost roughly the same as taking the boat out of the water for cleaning. At Leisure Boating, we vow that 2013 is going to be a memorable year – and although leaving the island leaves you heartsore, it gives you a wealth of life-long memories. I can’t express my thanks enough to Derrick and Greg for taking me to this magical island… For more information on the Fairline or Riviera ranges contact Derrick Levy on (021) 418 0840.


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