Cape2Rio 2017 – An Unplanned Adventure

As I stared at my computer screen, I could feel my heart miss a beat. The speed, when I clicked on the magenta triangle, read 0.52 knots. All the other little triangles, representing sailboats, were sailing in excess of 10 knots. I knew something was wrong. They were not moving. The worst scenario I could think of, man-over-board, flashed through my mind. I had to calm myself down, as the tracker position updated only once every hour, but by the next update nothing has changed.

My husband is a sailor. I’m not. I prefer my feet to be on solid ground. Yet, I know the importance of dreams, and how much it means when your loved ones support what makes your heart sing. And so, like a dutiful wife and friend, despite my own fears, I support my husband’s sailing dreams.

On the 1st of January, exactly 46 years after the inauguration of the first Cape2Rio Yacht Race in 1971, Michael and seven other crew members left Cape Town on the iconic Trekker II (Voortrekker II). Designed by Angelo Lavranos on request from the SA Navy, and built in Simon’s Town, it made its debut in the 1982 edition of the Cape2Rio Race, with legendary South African sailor Bertie Reed as skipper. After an extensive refit by her new owners, she was, once again, ready to face the Atlantic Ocean.

Eventually, after I’ve clicked on the magenta triangle for the umpteenth time, it showed a speed of 2 knots. Did it update just as they started to move again? Hope and fear swirled through my body and mind in an awkward, out-of-tune dance, as I left my silent computer screen to meet a friend for dinner, relieved and grateful for the distraction. I willed myself to believe that whatever problems they encountered were fixed, and they were on their way to Rio, once more.

Despite Michael’s desire to introduce me to the joys of sailing, I have proven myself inept. My attempt at completing a Competent Crew course, ended in failure, as fear, not fun gripped my heart. I am convinced that I was born without any addiction to an adrenaline rush. Instead of inciting fun and excitement, my body goes into shock, convinced of imminent death.

When my handbag started ringing, just after 9 pm, I couldn’t move. I wanted news, and yet I didn’t. “They are all safe,” were the first words after the voice, on the other side, introduced himself.

Newspaper headlines like “Rio race yachts take pounding in big Cape gales”, “Weather hinders yachts”, or “Rio sloop’s collision with whale”, are not uncommon. The previous edition in 2014 started with the worst storm to date in the race. For the first 48 hours it created havoc, which resulted in one fatality, and 11 boats forced to retire due to breakages. It was also the race in which Giovanni Soldini, skipper of the Volvo Ocean Race Open 70, Maserati, set a new record at 10 days, 11 hours, 29 minutes, and 57 seconds, and Michael’s first Cape2 Rio. As the longest continent-to-continent yacht race in the southern hemisphere, it clocks in at 3600 nautical miles or 5600 km for us landlubbers.

As it turned out, it was not a man-over-board situation as I feared, but rudder problems that stalled the little magenta triangle.

Amidst fast, thrilling sailing there was a bang, an urgent shout to have all hands on deck, and a chaotic gybe, as they lost control of the boat. Frenzied activity followed as sails were dropped, and the skipper at the helm reported a complete loss of steering. The rudder shaft had sheared between the top and bottom bearing. Without any means of steering, they were at the mercy of the ocean. Damage was assessed, and possible solutions discussed, as water started seeping in. A pan pan was issued to inform the Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre, and the racing committee that there was an urgency on board, yet, no immediate danger to either vessel or crew. As the hours ticked by the MRCC, suggested a rescue, as there were two ships in the vicinity that could be diverted, and as they were not in a normal shipping lane, another chance for a rescue could not be guaranteed, and so, a mayday was called.

I was told a ship was on its way to them, and after saying my goodbyes, I headed home to wait for further news. At 11.05 pm I received a text reading, “They are embarking the commercial vessel as we speak”.

When the Golafruz, a cargo vessel on its way to Vitoria in Brazil to pick up maize, came over the horizon, it must have looked like a giant. At a length of 225 m, a width of 32 m, and weighing in at 73 664 tons of dead weight, and no way of slowing down below 4 nm without running into trouble itself, it had to come close enough to Trekker II for ropes to be thrown down to tie ship and sailboat together. Weighing in at 17 tons, Trekker II was heavy for a racing boat, yet, compared to the Golafruz, a mere cork in the ocean. The captain stressed the importance of succeeding the first time, as it could take him up to an hour to turn the ship around for another attempt. Daylight was fading fast. Grab bags were packed. Life vests secured. So much could go wrong. As they headed towards the ship, the rudder with a will of its own, swung Trekker II away from the Golafruz, just as the crew were ready to throw down ropes.

On the second attempt, now with darkness settled in, they managed to come awkwardly alongside one another, and secured ropes. An awful crunch of fiberglass against metal rang out, as fenders exploded with the rise and fall of 3-4 metre swells. A rope ladder came down with the instruction of the fittest and youngest to climb it first. Private moments of anguish must have gripped the hearts of the crew, but they all, one after the other, made it up the 11 metres to safety. The skipper, before it was his turn to climb the ladder, had to open the sea cocks for the boat to sink. An action, when he later recalled it, brought tears to his eyes. Each of the crew, battling their own private demons, had to look on as the lines were cut, and Trekker II was swallowed up by the night, and eventually the ocean.

“Hello my babes. I am fine. The boat is gone. We will be in Brazil in 12 days. Continue as planned. I will find you in Urca.” And then the line went dead. Joy and disappointment wrapped up in one. I wanted to tell him that I love him, that I am grateful he is alive. And I had a million questions. Too many words, and not enough time.

There is a story about Isfahan I like to tell, as it illustrates so well the role we play, through the choices we make, that leads us to that place where we are to meet Death. The story tells of a servant running towards his master, pleading, out of breath, for him to lend him a horse so that he could go to Isfahan. When the master asks why, he tells of him bumping into Death in the market place, and Death’s surprise to see him. Convinced that Death has come for him, he thought he’ll go into hiding with some relatives who live in Isfahan. Later in the day, the master also bumps into Death, and asks him why he has scared his servant so. Death replies that he did not mean to scare the servant, he was just surprised to see him there, as he is supposed to meet him that same night in Isfahan.

And just as things line up for us to have our meeting with Death, they also line up perfectly, when we are in danger, but not yet ready for that inevitable meeting. To make full use of the weather system, and consciously seeking out stronger winds, the crew on Trekker II headed down, while the Golafruz, in order to avoid the weather, headed up. A destined crossing of paths, if one is inclined to believe in the mysterious workings of the Universe, God, or Allah.

The captain, after the rescue, expressed his joy with the words, “God loves you very much”. He expected to lose at least two of the eight crew, and told them a story of how three crew members died under his watch. For fifteen years it weighed heavy upon his heart. Redemption. Atonement. Call it what you want, but he must have felt a huge sense of relief to have saved the lives of eight men, under what he described as challenging weather conditions.

Not everyone is keen to assist in a rescue at sea, though. Shortly after Trekker II issued a pan pan, they had radio contact with a ship in the area, but shortly after, it switched off all its electronic equipment, and effectively disappeared from the radar.

The evening after the rescue the captain and crew of the Golafruz barbecued a whole sheep to welcome eight new bodies on board in a joyful celebration of life. With the ship back on course, steaming ahead across the Atlantic, the story heldcape2rio one final ironic twist, when the captain died of a heart attack. He was 46, married, with a son of about eight.

And so, whilst eight families celebrated the gift of life, one family mourned.

Michael has vowed that 2020 sounds like a good number for a third attempt at successfully finishing the Cape2Rio Race. “Third time lucky’, he says with gusto, while my heart cringes.

Further Reading:

  • Cape2Rio website for a history of the race
  • Another good site for the history of the race
  • Trekker II crew rescue
  • Rob Hawley’s (one of the owners) account of the rescue on his blog
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