Sunday, November 3, 2013

Racing to Rio - A perspective on Crossing the South Atlantic Ocean

I have crossed the South Atlantic under sail four times. Three times it was with full crew from Cape Town, South Africa, to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in the Cape to Rio Race. The other crossing was double-handed and going the other way. I will do it again in January but this time the build-up is proving to be very different.

First, I am not there to prepare the boat for the race myself. I have always been there to take charge of the preparations, with much able assistance from my crew and my family. This time I must rely on someone else to sort out any issues and to ready "Black Cat" for her 3,250 nautical mile voyage. That distance is nearly 3800 land miles and more than 50% longer than the famed Trans-Pac Race.

This voyage is small compared with a round-the-world voyage but it is, nevertheless, a major voyage and it is across waters that see very little traffic. Aside from commercial fishing ships and the boats that are racing, there are very few vessels crossing this ocean at any time. We have to be self-sufficient, to take care of whatever situation fate and the weather gods might send our way. We can't make a VHF call to the Coast Guard or US Towing to come fetch us. Each boat has to rely on its crew in an emergency and vice-versa; boat and crew are totally inter-dependent and both have to be fully prepared.  And, in the traditions of all seafarers, all boats are ready and willing to assist each other if needed.

I am very grateful for the work that is being done in Cape Town by Dave Immelman in preparing "Black Cat" in my absence. Dave will be my navigator for this race and was her skipper for the 1,800 mile Governor's Cup Race from Simonstown to St Helena Island in December last year. He is the only one on the crew who lives in the Cape, so a big load has fallen on his shoulders ahead of this race. The Cat is now 18 years old and Dave has been charged with upgrading anything that needed upgrading, from structure through to finishes, rig, systems, equipment and sails. In many respects the St Helena Race served as a good shake-down to highlight any issues that have developed in the years since I handed her over to her current owner, Adrian Pearson.  I look forward to test-sailing her on Table Bay with all the new goodies that she has gained since I last sailed on her.
Racing under spinnaker into inky darkness.
Sean Collins & Adrian Pearson in the cockpit.
 The other difference is that for previous races I lived in Cape Town and  this time I live in USA. In Cape Town I was always surrounded by people from the sailing community. Cape Town is a beautiful place to sail, one of the best in the world. It can also be one of the toughest places in the world to sail, with sometimes violent weather and extremely testing seas. In that environment the fact that I was soon to cross an ocean on a small boat was of passing interesting but not considered to be too much out of the ordinary. After all, if you can sail in Cape Town you can sail anywhere, so what could be special about an ocean crossing?

This time it is very different. My neighbours know that I design boats for a living. They have not seen the big boats that I have built, only the little Paper Jet that took shape in their neighbourhood and drags around faithfully behind my minivan when I am going sailing. They have not seen the boisterous to wild conditions in which so much of the Cape Town racing happens. Here I am a bit of an oddity because I just don't fit into the mould. They are very supportive of what I am doing but don't really comprehend it; the who, where, what and how of sailing across an ocean. I must admit that I do enjoy explaining to them what I will be doing, where we will sail, the beauty of Cape Town and Rio, the good and bad experiences of sailing a small boat across thousands of miles of open water, through good weather and bad and the real or imagined dangers. In their view I fit in somewhere between eccentric and totally crazy, leaning mostly toward the crazy end of the scale. They worry mostly that it is a very dangerous thing to do.

The truth of a voyage is really somewhere between how it is viewed by my friends in Cape Town and those here in Virginia Beach. In each of the races that I have sailed we have had to cope with at least one big storm and another one or two smaller ones. Yes, it is dangerous; but we do what we can to reduce the danger. As far as I can recall, only one person has died during the Cape to Rio Race in the 42 year history of the event. Thousands have participated, two boats have sunk on the race, two have sunk on the return voyage and only one person has died. That was from a heart attack that would likely have happened on land anyway.
Gavin Muller repairing sails during the 1996 race.

We all take precautions because it is dangerous to be on a small boat way out of sight of land. The boats are all fully equipped with a wide range of safety equipment, which has to be maintained according to mandated schedules. All boats are scrutinied before being allowed to start. All boats have to prove a high level of experience and/or certification among the crew before they are accepted. That experience and certification is for ocean experience, navigational and seamanship skills and the ability to take care of medical emergencies with the very comprehensive medical kit that we carry with us.

Additional to those documented requirements, every skipper sets his/her own standards for behavior on their particular boat. I can't vouch for other skippers but on "Black Cat" we go into safety mode in bad weather and from dusk to dawn, when no person is allowed on deck without first putting on their safety harness and clipping onto one of the many secure points on deck before exiting the interior of the boat. Along with this, a clear head is always required, 24/7, so there is no drinking of alcohol except for one optional drink at happy hour each day. There will be plenty of time to imbibe in Brazil.

An ocean crossing like this does not need to be dreaded but neither is it a cakewalk. We need exciting activities in our lives to build the memories that we cherish. They help to remind us that we are alive and have a purpose in our lives, they give us the material with which to tell the stories that will entertain our friends and grandchildren in the autumn years to come. If we don't reach those autumn years we still come out ahead because we have had a lot of fun and excitement along the way.