From No Outspan
by Deneys Reitz
False Bay is aptly named. Unlike Table Bay on the opposite side of the Cape Peninsula, it is a treacherous expanse. Dead calm one moment, the next fierce south-easters would beat in from the Antarctic: the waves lashed mountain-high, everything on board banged and pitched from rail to rail, and one had to run for shelter without loss of time.
The mouth of the bay is thirty miles wide, and from the Cape of Good Hope to Cape Hangklip it lies open to the great swells rolling in. It required good seamanship to navigate its stormy reaches in an open boat.
But the weather was not always rough, and the days I best remember were those when we sailed at dawn, the surface smooth as glass. As the fog slowly lifted, we saw vast flocks of Malagasy duck and terns and seagull and cormorant diving into the shoals of sardine, the fall of the birds lashing and churning the sea like shellfire in France.
Amid this hurly-burly would come schools of porpoise, a whale or two, and seals and penguins and sharks, the whole forming a spectacle probably unequalled anywhere in the world. Then we would throw out our lines and pull in great fish – Cape Salmon, cabillaud, Steenbras and other kinds weighing from fifteen to thirty-five pounds and more – until our fingers were numb and the boat was down by the head with the weight of our capture.
We used to go out on Lucky Jim, an eleven tonner belonging to our friend Mr Jim Taylor, the Grand Old Man of False Bay. He was possessed of great wealth and great kindness. He held broad, tolerant views on South African affairs, and his knowledge of the bay and its moods was unrivalled. As often as wind and weather permitted he took us with him, and many were the happy hours we spent in his company.
The False Bay fishermen were a breed unto themselves, mostly Coloured people with a dash of Malay blood in their veins, and the lives they led were those ofCaptains Courageous and the Newfoundland Banks.
The howling storms often made communication by word of mouth impossible, so they evolved a sign language of their own. This was only for the elect and it was not until one had become a member of the lodge, so to speak, that they would initiate an outsider to its mysteries. Mr Taylor, and my sons Jan and Michael and I, had been accepted as belonging to the craft, and we knew the cabala of the bay. In passing other boats we would put hand to forehead, touch our left cheek or right, or lip or chin; we would make three cuts across our arm or dip our tackle high or low, bend a wrist as if to kill a mackerel, or describe a circle, and those across the water would have been told what fish were running, how deep the nearest bank was, whether seal or shark had interfered with our lines, and also the time of day.
The fishermen had grown so accustomed to their alphabet that even in port a man would ask for a match to light his pipe, tell of his thirst, or say he was turning in, by show of hand instead of by word of mouth.
False Bay was a haven of rest from the quarrels of Parliament, and a great source of interest to my boys.