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The RCYC Sailing Academy in the Vasco da Gama Race 2014

Tim Dykins, the owner of ‘Southern Storm’, has kindly invited me and 3 of our students to take part in the Vasco da Gama Race 2014. He was willing to cover the basic transport costs to get us to Maputo and for the return trip from Durban to Cape Town. As all of our students have very limited or none experience in ocean racing, I had to be careful whom I would choose to do the race with us. A tough race like this can lift the racing career of a young sailor to the next level or could possibly end it. For sure I didn’t want the latter to happen.

The next challenge was the short time in between the RCYC Youth regatta and the Vasco race. We just had wrapped up the very successful Youth Regatta on Sunday evening and already had to fly out in the early morning of the next day to Durban.

In the end it was Daniel Agulhas, Duane Petersen and Shane Hendrickse, to make up 3 of the 7 crew on ‘Southern Storm’. To make a long story short, these young sailors stuck to their guns and made up for their rather light weight and lack of sailing knowledge in many ways. The rest of the crew was made up by the Durbanites Chris Frost, Long John Lupton-Smith and Marc Goad. These three well-seasoned sailors have done many Vasco races before and surely would be able to cover up for the lack of knowledge from us Capetonians, at least in regards with the weather and sailing conditions up the Mozambiquean coastline.

We did fly up to Durban in the early hrs of the 16th and Chris handed over his car to us, to tackle the final distance to Maputo by road. A speeding fine on the N2 started our rather eventful trip, which brought us through Swaziland and later to Mozambique. Chris mentioned that his X5 might have a problem with the rear leveling suspensions at times. In all honesty I didn’t expect this could affect the road handling of the car in the way it did. The air suspension, to keep the car leveled even under high load, was leaking and in the progress we completely lost the rear suspension every 30min and had to stop to activate the air pump again. A sure sign for the lack of air in the suspension was, when I saw Shane and Duane hitting their heads on the car ceiling in the back of the car after the lightest bumps on the road. This road trip served as a small introduction to us how uncomfortable it would be on the boat in the race to Durban later on. In the same fashion as driving in this car without rear suspension, we would get hammered out to sea during the next couple of days.

The plenty potholes on the roads also didn’t make the navigation any easier. We only knew for sure that we didn’t want to brake Chris’s car and get stranded somewhere far away from any workshop. After negotiating with corrupt boarder officials and the assisting runners, who offered their local knowledge in return for a rather hefty service fee, we finally arrived in Maputo and made it through the mad rush-hour traffic to Club Naval, where we were supposed to meet Chris and the rest of the team.

By sheer luck we found them in a restaurant 5km away from where we were supposed to meet.

For us it was a great achievement already to make it in time to Maputo. The next morning we had our breakfast at Clube Naval. It was a beautiful sight with the boats anchoring in the background.

After we settled the bill for a very basic meal, we soon realized that the prizes asked for food and drinks are well over the prices we used to pay and would blow our budget in no time.

The rest of the day we started to prepare the boat for the trip and did some last minute repairs on some sails. In the most beautiful summer weather we all did not want to think about the weather forecast we received for the race start on Thursday. The colors for the indicated wind speed were well into purple and right on the nose, something even well experienced sailors should be worried about.

Back to the club in the evening, most competitors were talking about the forecasted gale force conditions.

After a hard days’ work on the boat we happily paid the over inflated prices and enjoyed a few drinks. Since all competitors did arrive in the meanwhile, it was a buzzing atmosphere. It was also great to see that most boats had at least 2 young crew members on board. Rob Samways on ‘Sticky Fingers’ had only young sailors on his boat. We made jokes that no older crew would survive the upwind ride on this little 30ft boat anyway.

The next day there was a short bay race scheduled to display yachting along the beachfront in Maputo and to give the crews a chance for a practice sail. Most crews were raffled together and some teams never sailed together. We on ‘Southern Storm’ definitely were in dire need of a practice sail.

The course was along the shipping channel, as it would be too shallow anywhere else in the bay. This only allowed for a soldiers course but it was fun anyway. Despite a few mishaps we crossed the finishing line first and came 2nd after corrected time.

In the evening we all gathered for the farewell party on a wooden ship, which was located next to all the boats anchoring in the bay. Free beers and food was served and the party gave all competitors a chance to get to know each other. This was a very enjoyable evening on a historic wooden boat. By 10pm most guys were back to their boats already as the weather forecast unfortunately did not change much. It was clear that we had to beat all the way to Durban in very strong wind.

The next morning arrived far too quickly and I am sure a few competitors had a light sleep that night, with a few worrying things crossing their minds before the race start.

All boats got off the start line very well and the faster boats lined up in front of the fleet for a short downwind leg down the shipping channel.

Positions changed all the time as the wind was very light and you could get stuck on either side of the course. When we thought we were in a lead, the whole picture was changing with a radical wind shift and minutes after that we found ourselves in the middle fleet. ‘Ray of Light’, being the biggest boat in the fleet, was able to get a couple of hundred meters away from the rest of us and was leading the pack after the rounding of the last waypoint. Now we were officially into the 300NM upwind race.

Soon after we set the boat up for the mega upwind leg, the wind kicked in in full force and reached well over 30kn. As I did campaign the boat for 3 years in Cape Town, I knew quite well how to get the best VMG out of her wide hull design and decided to go straight to No4 with a reefed main. We would never reef the main in a round the can race, but this would not the time to either brake the boat or the crew.

We also knew that we were at least 250kg too light on the weather rail to make her perform at the optimum upwind potential. The only chance for us to go to weather reasonable well, was to keep the boat heel under control, which proved to be a challenge even under the reduced sail plan. Our upwind performance seemed to be quite well despite the missing crew weight on the weather rail and we were able to reel in Skizzo quite easily. To our surprise we also managed to get passed ‘Bellatrix’ which was sailing with full crew and is by far the better boat for this kind of upwind sailing in heavy conditions. Now we were lying second with only ‘Ray of Light’ in front of us.

The swell and wind strength was building steadily and it was hard to keep our bodies connected to the boat. Green water was coming over the deck with every wave and we were soaked completely even with our full sailing gear outfit. As the air and water temperature were still very warm it was not unpleasant, but this would change rapidly during the night.

By the time the bilge alarm went off, we had already taken water up to the floor boards and Long John tackled the leaking front hatch with a good dose of Sika Flex. We were lucky to have a guy like John in our crew. He was the typical McGyver in our team and was making a plan in every difficult situation we had throughout the trip. It also helped that he showed no signs of getting sea sick, even if he had to tackle an overflow in our toilet during the middle of the night. The sewage of the toilet mixed with the water which entered the boat earlier, gave our boat a smell which I will not forget for the rest of my life.

After 15 hrs of racing the jokes on the weather rail did become less and less and everybody was trying to conserve energy in the best possible way. The only chance for us to do reasonable well was to sail the boat actively through the chop. This was demanding a high level of concentration from the driver and a huge effort from the main trimmer. Every chop had to be dampened on the main sheet and needed a correction on the rudder or the boat would either stop or go sideways. Duane, the smallest guy in our crew, proved to be the one with a very good feel for the main trim. His understanding to trim the boat constantly, compared with his never ending endurance would play a vital role in our effort to get into the lead.

When I asked Chris about his ideas of a watch system for the night, he smiled at me and said we won’t need any watch system in a sprint race like the Vasco. At this stage I didn’t want to argue about the term sprint race for a 400NM upwind race, but even if the conditions would calm down after 24hrs, I could not see that it would be humanly possible to keep the whole crew on deck for 2 days and nights.

The last remaining boat in front of us gave us a good indication of our own performance and as we were closing in on the much bigger 45ft ‘Ray of Light’, we must have done quite well. In the end we started to have a tacking duel with a couple of close crossings until we finally got ahead of them. In one incident I was able to miss them by only a few meters in the middle of the night. This was close racing at its best.

Most of the times we tacked between the 15 and 50 m water depth and were hugging the coast to avoid the huge wind swell further off shore. It was a huge effort for the crew to get their stiff and sore bodies every 20 – 30min from one side to the other during the tacks, without getting thrown off the deck.

Close to midnight the wind was peaking at 40kn and it started to rain. This must have been the time when all of us had second thoughts about ocean racing in these conditions. We could be lying at home in our warm beds but yet we were depleting the energy of our bodies at a fast rate in the most uncomfortable sea conditions imaginable.

To make use of the current we tried a couple of times to go further offshore to the 100-200m water depth line. The steep wind swell against the current was just too frightening and we were worried to break the boat and went back closer to shore. I guess that was what all our competitors did as well.

The main problem we had on ‘Southern Storm’ to do well in this upwind race, was mainly the lack of weight on the weather rail. With a very wide hull and transom, this boat is actually designed for reaching and running. To make it go to weather competitively it needs some serious crew weight, which of course we didn’t have. To compensate for that the main trimmer had to work double as hard to keep the boat heel under control and the main sheet had to be eased and sheeted in all the time. Duane was doing a great share of this work but so did Daniel and Shane. By 3am during the first night our crew on the rail cracked one by one. It was actually dangerous to fall asleep even in the cockpit. The boat got thrown around so violently, you had to hold on to stay in touch with the deck.

With no more crew on the weather rail and totally exhausted main trimmers, the only thing I could do was to feather the boat to weather in the gusts, dinghy style. It worked actually quite well and we managed to stay ahead of the chase pack.

By midday the next day, the worst of the front was over and the wind started to drop. We were able to shake out the reef in the main and soon after we changed to jib No1. This was the time when the sun came out as well. We started to get the sewage polluted sea water out of the bilges and dried our soaked clothes. The smell inside the boat was still revolting but at least the boat was a lot lighter.

The sea remained quite ruff and the wind was dropping rapidly, which also resulted in a rather bumpy ride. As the SW breeze was dying, the only place to find wind was closer to land. Just before nightfall the wind dropped completely and left us bobbing around until the land breeze filled in later in the night. For some reason we were not able to download the latest GRIB files. We were also one of the few boats without a routing program and we did instinctively what most other boats with the help of the software probably did. We avoided getting stuck close to Richards Bay after the land breeze would die and went further out into the current instead. The current would push us with at least 2 knots towards Durban even if the wind will die completely, which eventually happened about 40NM out of Durban.

‘Ray of Light’ somehow had managed to get ahead and was bobbing around about 1NM in front of us. Then suddenly they were able to fly a kite while we are still sitting in 0kn of wind. The gap was getting bigger and bigger and we were dammed to watch them disappear on the horizon. To the lee of us we could see another boat, we assumed it would be ‘Bellatrix’. They also were able to fly a kite while we were still stuck in that bloody wind hole.

It felt like an endless time for us being stuck in that hole and we started to celebrate once the boat picked up 2kn of boat speed again. After all the hard work we put in it was really painful to be dropped like that.

Since we already lost a big chunk of time against ‘Ray of Light’, the only thing we could fight for was the 2nd place over the line. We pulled ourselves together and started to get the boat moving again.

‘Bellatrix’ was going at a hot angle towards the shore to pick up the land breeze. We placed ourselves leeward of them to get a hotter angle towards the finish once we would be able to hoist a kite. We decided to keep a hot angle and hoisted our A0. This sail only works in a very limited wind angle and wind range. We were hoping that the breeze would not go over 15kn as this would hopelessly overpower the boat with this sail.

The closer we got to the finish the stronger the breeze did get and we found ourselves on the edge of a broach all the time. In the end we managed to hold the kite on this hot angle and were able to finish a couple of minutes ahead of ‘Bellatrix’. On handicap they would beat us comfortably anyway.

Rob Samways and his young team managed to get through the race so well, they clinched 2nd place on handicap. What an achievement on a 30ft boat in these testing conditions.

Despite the fact that we knew that we lost the race by miles after corrected time, we a felt a great deal of achievement to get to the finish without major breakage on the boat. In fact we only lost our top main batten during the first night in the gale force conditions. Other than that the boat and all sails were 100% fine.

Our team bonded very well and our 3 youngsters did a sterling job in these testing conditions. These young sailors did not show any fear and put their heart and soul into this race. For all 3 of them it was the first time they had a chance to use their passports. I am sure it will not be the last time. Duane, Shane and Daniel, you are officially no rookies anymore, you became seasoned sailors after this race. Keep up the good work and learn as much as you can. This sport needs young sailors like you.

End of the day we do this kind of things to make new friends and to test our endurance. From that perspective this race was very successful and rewarding for our team.

‘Southern Storm’ remains a hell of a boat for me as she is so much fun to sail. A pity that she is not more kindly rated under IRC.

The prize giving held by Dave Claxton, the race chairman, was a very festive affair and was well presented. Without Dave and the endless help from Sandy Samways, this race would have not gone the way it has. It needs very strong individuals to pull off a race like this. Bloody well done to all who have been involved.

In the end it were the challenging conditions and the camaraderie of all sailors which made this sailing event one of the most memorable ones I have done so far.

This race was quite hard on our bodies, but once all the pain and stiffness is gone, I will happily sign up for the next Vasco da Gama race.

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