22 June 2015

Stories from My First Offshore Race - Vasco 2015

Animated Race Tracker from YB.TL 

The 2015 edition of the Vasco da Gama race ran 400 nautical miles (741kms for the landlubbers reading) along the east coast of South Africa from Durban to Port Elizabeth along a piece of coastline known as the wild coast.  It doesn't have that name just because it is sparsely populated, but because of its weather and the rough coast-line.  It was along this coast that the Oceanos sank in August 1991 which I remember as we were just 100kms north at a holiday resort that day.  But this was April ... it wouldn't be that bad ... it couldn't ...

Rocket at the start
I did the race on Rocket, a Simonis 54.  She was the 2nd biggest boat in the fleet and I knew that we had a good chance of staying dry onboard.  I was also very confident in our crew - of which I was the least experienced.  The owner / skipper has completed every Vasco race he started (16 if I remember correctly); along with 3 members of another yacht who started sailing on Rocket after Rocket took out their yacht's mast.  The navigator had done a Cape To Rio and a circumnavigation of Africa among other trips.  I'd be in good hands.  But we were short-handed and Anton arrived shortly before the start with 4kgs of popcorn, his boardshorts, flip flops and a jacket to help, leaving his kid behind with his sister-in-law for the 3 days we were to be away.

The start was a beautiful sunny day and we were glad to see that there was more wind than what was forecast.    Our start wasn't that great and we were well behind the leaders when we rounded the buoy and set our course southwards but we quickly got into the groove of things and headed into the lead at 3:30pm (the start was at 12pm).  We were flying along with the wind behind us with the big spinnaker (colourful bag sail in front) and although the wind was getting stronger and the waves a bit bigger we were looking forward to the race.  Just before sunset we had our first mishap when a strong gust of wind and a wave resulted in the spinnaker tearing about a meter from the top.  This was easily remedied as it was time to hoist the smaller spinnaker and we spent the rest of the race with the remnant flying from the top of the mast.  Night came and it was time to drop the spinnaker, but we couldn't get it down.  The halyard (rope from the top of the mast) was tangled up with the remnants of the torn-spinnaker and it was stuck fast with about 10m of the sail still flying.  There was lots of shouting and screaming to get the spinnaker down and unfurl the genoa (big triangular sail in the front), but neither was happening.  Eventually we lashed the spinnaker to the mast and untangled the genoa.  At some point in the excitement I noticed that Brian was soaked and his lifevest had inflated.  It turned out that while he was at the back of the boat a wave nearly washed him overboard, but for his lifejacket and being attached to the boat by a lifeline.

From Saturday night through to Monday afternoon we had big seas (20ft) coming from both directions, strong winds and rain. the wild coast was living up to her name.  After this point my memories of what happened on the trip are somewhat confused and I can't remember the exact sequence because when I wasn't helping do something specific I was generally lying down below as this was the best way for me to cope with the rough seas.  I ended the trip with a bruised rib, but I cannot remember actually hurting myself and other than that had fewer bruises than I usually do on a race.

Sometime on Sunday evening (after dark) it was decided to put a reef in the mainsail as the wind was getting stronger.  At this point the ever so sensitive steering decided it was a good time to break - so only one of the helms (steering wheels) was working and Herbie was in the back fixing it.  As Anton rushed forward to the mast to help Simon and Franco with the reef Simon yelled at him to clip his lifeline onto the boat.  I was waiting in the cockpit to lower the main and looked back at Herbie who looked at the guy on the helm and told him to watch the jibe, at which point the mainsail came swinging across the deck with the sheets (ropes) whipping through as well.  Fortunately the boom is very high, but I instinctively ducked as it came past.  My first thought was to look forward to the mast and I breathed a sigh of relief when I counted 3 heads (still attached to their bodies) up front.  Simon says that Franco got lifted off his feet and was going overboard when Anton (with an attached lifeline) grabbed Franco around the chest and held him.  Neither Anton nor Franco remember much - it was that quick and everyone was unhurt.  Looking backwards I saw that the mainsheet had taken off the compass and broken the helm.  Fortunately it was the broken wheel, but we finished the race only being able to steer from one side of the boat.

Koeberg Koekies
Food had not been a priority during the trip and after Anton's first batch of popcorn on Saturday afternoon we subsisted mainly on coffee, chocolates and biscuits until Monday when I think we were fed again.  For some reason the crew taking the boat to the race decided not to eat the bright green biscuits pictured above and the general feeling of unease and sickness among the crew on the race was put down to the consumption of the koeberg koekies (Koeberg is the South African nuclear power plant).  There were none left when I inventoried the food at the end of the race, but I suspect that they were fed to the fishes rather than consumed aboard.  By Monday night the wind had dropped and the sea was flat so that evening's meal of fried tuna, onion and mayonnaise with potatoes went down like a special treat.
Would we do it again?  "NEVER"
It's taken me a while to process all that went on in the race while also waiting impatiently for the rib to heal.  There were some awesome moments - the phosphorescence behind the boat on the first night; a clear view of the milky way when the clouds parted during the storms or in the calm waters as we gently made our way into Port Elizabeth on Monday night.  (The finish time was 11:30am Tues).  The joy of passing Ray of Light; the downs of equipment failure and feeling ill and ill-equipped to do the task; the joy of thinking that the bad weather would be good for us (at least half the fleet didn't finish the race); and more equipment breakages.  But overall it was a good experience.  It didn't put me off ocean racing, but this time I'll have a whole lot more experience  and know what I'm up against.  
See you there in 2016!

1 comment:

anna said...

What a wonderful article i love to read it thanks for sharing