The Crossing. Some suffered the indignity of running out of cold beer, while others were badly hit by Cyclone Kurumi and fell off the radar. In this month’s kulula khuluma in-flight magazine (March 2020 pages 129-136) I share about the adventure-seekers I met, and how they’d raced across the Atlantic in this year’s Cape2Rio Yacht Race.
It was calm and nearing midnight, the moon a thin slither in the dark sky as
I bobbed up and down on the tiniest little rubber duck just beyond Rio de Janeiro’s Guanabara Bay, waiting about 4km offshore on an ink-black sea at that spot where the Cape2Rio 2020 finish line spanned between Ilha do Pai and Ilha da Mãe, the Father and Mother islands.
I was fighting back nausea aggravated by fuel fumes from the little boat’s engine while trying to look cool alongside race chair Luke Scott, himself a seasoned sailor who makes a point of meeting all arriving crews, no matter what mad hour they sail in at.
There were 22 participants in this year’s Cape2Rio. I’d seen all of them departing Cape Town, on the 4th and 11th of January respectively, depending on the race class they were in. Having missed the arrival of the two trimarans that’d soared in a week earlier, I was finally in Rio to meet the crews due to arrive during the last days of January.
To sturdy myself, I kept my focus on the iconic outline of Sugarloaf Mountain, and the reflection of Christ the Redeemer casting light across the city from His vantage point on Mount Corcovado. My passage to this point had taken under an hour, and still, I was wobbly on my legs, my tummy churning. How to even imagine being at sea – rough, stormy, merciless ocean – for three weeks? That’s how long many of the participants in this legendary race spend aboard their various seagoing vessels – the last two boats take a month to do the crossing, while the winning craft finished in just over seven days.
The first boat I witnessed crossing the finish was a monohull named JM Busha 54. As it approached, the wind dropped away completely – good for my motion sickness, but not for Busha’s weary and battered sailors whose final leg became painstakingly slow.
At the helm were South African siblings Michaela and Ryan Robinson on their third Cape2Rio adventure, with 19-year-old Michaela the youngest skipper in the history of the race. This crew of six students, including Tawanda Chikasha, the race’s first-ever Zimbabwean participant, had gone to war on the waters – they’d battled the threatening swells of Cyclone Kurumi, almost run out of food, and suffered a broken rib. Yet here they were, celebrating the fulfilment of their dream.
Ryan Robinson later spoke of how the night of the storm had them digging deep to survive. ‘It’s not something driven by self-preservation, but rather by the need to save each other,’ he said. ‘We pushed through the long dark hours, rain pelting down like bullets, knuckles white from holding on, a 60-degree lean angle as we rode the 35-knot induced waves. It was terrifying, but we fought together.’
Held in January every three years, Cape2Rio links ‘Cabo da Boa Esperança’ (our Cape of Good Hope) with Rio de Janeiro in a sailing race designed to challenge the brave, test the tenacious and humble the courageous. It strips sailors down to survival mode, drawing out the bare basics of human resilience that sees crews pull together, honing their skills and hard work to push towards the finish.
The tactical event began 49 years ago with the first race attracting 58 boats of intrepid sailors that set off from Cape Town on 16 January 1971. The longest continent-to-continent yacht race in the southern hemisphere, it covers a distance of about 6 670km (or 3 600 nautical miles). This year’s South Atlantic crossing drew participants from six continents and 16 countries. There were 17 monohulls, three cruising catamarans and two crazy- looking futuristic trimarans named Love Water and Maserati Multi 70 which would score first and second places overall.
Technology has advanced substantially over the years and the Iridium Satellite Tracking system fitted to each of the individual boats does an amazing job of monitoring the fleet’s progress, Pacman-like, across the Atlantic. Still, the challenge of the crossing and the impact of Neptune’s unpredictable moods remain unchanged. Cape2Rio remains a hardcore race geared towards adventure-seekers.
Among the hopefuls that headed to Rio de Janeiro this year was the fast-on-the-downhills, yet somewhat lacking in comfort, Ballyhoo Too, a 25-year-old monohull on her maiden ocean crossing. Capetonians Rijk Kuttel and Christopher Garratt, the boat’s two-man crew, were on their 4th Cape2Rio race, their 3rd sailing together. They finished second in their class behind the impressive Brazilian double-hander, Mussulo 40.
Also in the race was Zulu Girl Racing (left), a MAT 1180 monohull skippered by Siyanda
Vato (one of the youngest black skippers the race has seen) and crewed by an experienced South African team. Their charge to the finish carried a particularly palpable energy as it had not all been plain sailing for this crew who’d fallen off the radar for a few hours after hitting the cyclone, causing grave concern.
Zulu Girl found itself with a broken rudder and a badly burnt crew member and was without power for the last 10 days of the crossing. Losing electricity meant being unable to operate the desalination system needed to produce drinkable water. And, since they’d opted for freeze-dry food, the crew was unable to prepare meals. They were forced to ration their emergency supply of drinking water – it just about saw them through to the end but they arrived in Rio very thirsty.
‘It’s not a race just anybody can do. Although minor challenges are expected and good preparation can make those challenges easier to manage, you just never know what the elements and chance will throw at you.’ – Zulu Girl Racing Skipper, Siya Vato
Of course, having no power also limited their use of navigation and monitoring equipment, leaving them on full alert as they reverted to keeping watch for potential dangers from the deck – it was real back-to-basics stuff that meant being taken by surprise by what they couldn’t account for at night.
‘When we were hit, it was the dead of night and everything turned pitch black, bar the occasional lightning bolt that illuminated the horizon,’ says Vato.
‘We saw 70 to 80 knots, got the sails up and with the boat vibrating like crazy, rode out the storm. The crew was obviously a bit shaken, but we managed to get our heads back in the race.’ Dealing with a different sort of deprivation was the crew of South Africa’s Argonaut, skippered by Charles McDonald. His team comprised Royal Cape Yacht Club members who had committed to braaiing all the way to Rio, leaving a trail of boerewors- scented smoke in their wake. Their most critical moment, they claim, was when their freezer broke and suddenly there was no more ice or a cold beer.
Vato, meanwhile, took the thirsty passage in his stride. His crew not only pulled through, but by the time they’d set foot on dry land, were already looking forward to the next edition. ‘I’d do it again in a heartbeat,’ he says. ‘Every day, and twice on Sundays. We’ll be back – and next time we’re taking the trophy!’
Yes, the celebratory caipirinhas at Rio’s yacht club did wonders for courage.
Love conquers all
The overall winners of the 2020 Cape2Rio Yacht Race were a group of friends who’d done the race before, but this time wanted more. Skippered by Craig Sutherland with South Africans Ken Venn, Phil Lambrecht, Mike Clarke, Mike Minkley and Rick Garratt among the core crew, Love Water was chartered from Frenchman Antoine Rabaste, who joined the team as a crew member for the crossing. Intent on winning, they had entered with that express purpose, but had strong competition – their rival throughout was fellow trimaran Maserati Multi 70, skippered by Giovanni Soldini and manned by a crew of dashing Italians who survived on pasta, adrenaline and determination.
Soldini, whose VOR70 Maserati was the 2014 line honours winner, still holds the monohull record for the Cape2Rio race and had played a game of cat and mouse with Sutherland as they chased across the Atlantic Ocean. But Love Water emerged victorious. No ordinary boat, the 80ft long, 64ft wide (24m, 20m) revolutionary racing trimaran, literally flies above the water – and did make history. Leaving Cape Town on 11 January, it crossed the finish line in Rio in just 7 days, 20 hours, 24 minutes and 2 seconds. Sutherland and his team smashed the existing South Atlantic crossing time in the process and took four days off the previous world record.
Why Cape Town and Rio?
Perhaps mostly because it links two of the world’s most beautiful seaports – their iconic mountains the last and first things participating sailors have sight of. There is also that shared history of exploration that can be credited to the great Portuguese navigators Diaz and Da Gama. Although it was ironically by accident that while sailing in frail caravels in search of a sea route to the spices of India 500 years ago, that a small fleet led by Pedro Cabral reached a river mouth surrounded by spectacular high peaks, and since it was the month, called it the River of January.
An underlying theme among the 2020 competitors was their desire to give back, with many adopting their own cause or fundraising project in a commitment to the ocean and environment;
1. Besides wearing their South African pride on their Speedos, the crew onboard Myrtle of Bonnievale sought to draw attention to the scourge of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome and raise funds for what is a serious crisis in the Western Cape.
2. Umoya’s crew of five friends created eco-bricks with the waste generated en route. Over the 25 days, they produced five bricks, each being equivalent to a black bag full of plastic. In Rio, these were handed over to Engineers Without Borders and the boat’s skipper did a presentation on the use of eco-bricks.
3. JM Busha 54 is not only the name of the craft, but also an organisation that works to promote peace and unity in Africa through education, arts, culture, music and sport. An initiative that spoke to this crews’ hearts, they sailed to create awareness and spread the word.
4. Zulu Girl Racing’s ‘No More Barefeet Campaign’ was focussed elsewhere. Inspired by his own background growing up in an impoverished area in KwaZulu-Natal, the boat’s skipper, Siya Vato, has invited donations of used school shoes to be distributed to disadvantaged children, so that they may go to school and in turn get an education.
** Read the article online at kulula khuluma in-flight magazine (March 2020 pages 129-136)