Friday, January 24, 2020

Memories of a Trans-Atlantic Race

This week I was sent a photo that brought back good memories, 24-year old memories of our first Cape to Rio Race on "Black Cat", in 1996. It was sent to me by Gavin Muller, who was the youngest in our 5-man crew. He took it on the last night of our race, as we were sailing between our Brazilian landfall of Cabo Frio and the finish line off Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro.
From left, Adrian Pearson, Brian Cole, Dudley Dix and Sean Collins. Sadly, two are no longer with us, the others are scattered around the world.
The Cape to Rio Race is 3500 miles of tradewind ocean racing, starting in Cape Town and finishing in Rio de Janeiro. A race like this breeds friendships that last a lifetime. Most of us were good friends before the race and the three weeks in close quarters in the middle of nowhere, in company of seabirds and the occasional fish or whale, cemented those friendships forever. Gavin was the odd-man-out at the start of the race, being much younger than the rest of us, but he too became a friend for life.
Gavin Muller repairing our light spinnaker.
Adrian Pearson (RIP) was my partner in "Black Cat". Brian Cole introduced us while I was building our boat for the race, bringing him in as crew. Later he joined me to co-finance the project.

Brian Cole (RIP) was the oldest in our crew, at 60. He was a director of North Sails Cape Town and a regular on the crew of my previous boat, "Concept Won". He joined us on this race as navigator for his first and only ocean-crossing voyage. His wife, Marion, was co-skipper with Judy Provoyeur of the all-lady crew of the Schumacher 41 "Kelly Girl", our closest handicap competition in the race. On handicap, they had to reach Rio more than 20 minutes ahead of "Black Cat" to beat us.

Sean Collins was a client many years ago for a rig redesign on his cruiser. He became a friend, sailing with me for many, many miles on "Concept Won". We raced together uncountable times in fully-crewed and double-handed races around the buoys and around the coasts of the Cape of Good Hope, quite justly also named "Cape of Storms". We had much experience sailing in mild weather and in those storms.

Gavin Muller, at 21, was not long out of college. His math teacher, an acquaintance and also a boat owner at Royal Cape Yacht Club, had asked me if I had a crew slot available for Gavin, who had previously sailed a Cape to Rio Race with him while still a school boy. Another friend of mine had to withdraw from the crew and Gavin slid into his spot.
Another of Gavin's photos. This one shows me in the bosun's chair working on the headstay foil, damaged by the spinnaker pole. The big cat watches over me.
"Black Cat" is the prototype of my Didi 38 radius chine plywood design. I designed her primarily for this race, starting to formulate the concept while racing to Rio in 1993 as navigator and sailing master on the Shearwater 39 "Ukelele Lady". I built her in my garden in Hout Bay, a suburb of Cape Town. The build took 2 years with help from my wife Dehlia, Sean Collins and another friend, Nigel Watkins, who didn't join us for the race.

Part-way through that race, with the nearest land (the Brazilian island of Trinidade) about 500 miles away, we had a close call with a boat of about 40ft that was sailing unlit on a moonless night. I was in my berth under the cockpit, dozing with my brain on alert as usual. Brian and Adrian were in the cockpit and I heard a discussion start, trying to identify something ahead of us in the dark. We were under spinnaker, averaging about 10 knots, so closing pretty fast. I joined them in the cockpit to see that we were on course to T-bone this wooden boat. Two wooden boats colliding in mid-ocean would not have been pretty. The skipper of the other boat suddenly appeared on deck, shining a flashlight on his mainsail. Within another 15 seconds we would have been past him and would have made much noise to advise him that he had missed out on the action of unidentified ships passing in the night. I suspect that he still holds those images in his head of our big cat spinnaker bearing down on him fast.

We figured from his course and position that he was possibly en-route from Cape Horn to Europe. Next morning on the daily fleet report I told of our near-miss. The story appeared in the Cape Town newspaper next day, although not entirely accurately reported. We were also the subject of the daily cartoon, the original of which now hangs proudly on my wall at home.
The cartoon drawn by Grogan for the Cape Argus newspaper.
We had not seen our competition "Kelly Girl" since the start but they were always close behind in the handicap race. We hadn't seen another boat for many days although the position reports showed that there were always others somewhere over the horizon. Trinidade was a mark of the course and, as we approached the island toward sunset one day, we saw "Kelly Girl" behind us on the horizon. After that we saw each other at least once a day.

A few days after rounding Trinidade we were sailing in 5000m of inky blue water that suddenly turned brown and murkey. We hadn't seen a seabird for a few days and had hooked nothing on our fishing lure, trailed for many days. At the same time the sky was full of birds and our lure hooked a long-fin tuna. Within 5 minutes we had three of them aboard before deciding to keep the lure aboard rather than have nature think us greedy. The truth is that, with one fish for dinner that night and the other two in the freezer, we could not cope with any more. Within an hour we were back into inky blue water and 5000m of water, having completed our crossing of the 60m depth of the Almirante Saldanha Sea Mount. In another million years or so maybe this will be another island in the Atlantic.

Meanwhile our race-within-a-race carried on with us sometimes ahead and other times "Kelly Girl" appearing out of a thunder storm ahead of us. Cabo Frio was our first landfall in mainland Brazil and we rounded that promontory abeam of each other and 100 yards apart. We finished about 3am that night, about an hour ahead of "Kelly Girl", with the 20 minute handicap advantage in hand as well. Another 4 years on, in the 2000 Cape to Rio Race that same boat was skippered by circumnavigator Anthony Steward, who finished about 20 minutes ahead of us. These two boats are very closely matched for ocean racing.
Relaxing in the Bay of Islands after the race.
Since that 2000 Rio Race "Black Cat" has crossed this ocean twice more, to total six Atlantic crossings. She has also raced the 1700 mile Governor's Cup Race from Cape Town to St Helena Island twice, including line- and handicap-honours in the 2014/15 race.

It is now 24 years that "Black Cat" has been sailing. She has nearly 100 sisters on the water or in build. She has also spawned another 16 performance designs in sizes from 15 to 55ft for a wide range of concepts. These range from monohull dinghies to trailer-sailers and large catamarans, even fast little gaffers. More than 500 boats are on the water or being built to this range of designs. Most are amateur projects, with builders producing impressive quality.
Didi 29 Retro, a gaffer with a great turn of speed.
DH550, a very comfortable and eye-catching cruising cat.
Both of the boats above, as different as they may appear, are derivatives of the Didi 38 design. To see our other plywood designs go to Or to see our full range of designs of all types and materials, go to our main website or our mobile website.