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February 2000




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Wrap-up of MTN Cape to Rio 2000

Didi crew in 2000 Rio Race
Our crew in the MTN Cape to Rio 2000.
Left to right, Adrian Pearson, Chris van Lierop, Dudley Dix (skipper), Gerard Reyneke, Clive Dick (navigator)

The Great Downwind Dash Across The South Atlantic Ocean

"A downwind dash of 3600 miles through the trades." Does that sound familiar? That was my own description of the MTN Cape to Rio Race, as stated on my home page. I wonder how many of you read that and were jealous of the great sailing ahead of us.

The man who makes the weather didn't read it. Either that or it prompted him to prove otherwise. The MTN Cape to Rio 2000 race proved to be anything but how I described it.

It proved to be a race in which we were disadvantaged by our own (for that you should read "my own", I suppose) tactical decisions made long before the start gun. One was the decision to sail in the IMS division, whereas almost all of our normal competition chose to race in the CRRS division (Cape to Rio Rating System - a special calculated rating system introduced for this "downwind race"). More about this later.

The other was the decision to send most of our beating sails to Rio de Janeiro in a shipping container, confident in the fact that we would not need them during the race but that they would be needed for the return voyage. The headsails which we took with us were light No 1 genoa, blade No 3 jib, storm jib and 180% drifter/reacher. That does not give many options for sailing to windward.

Downwind Start

The Rio Race always has a downwind start, with the colourful spectacle of bright spinnakers and giant sponsor logos chasing each other out of Table Bay, followed and surrounded by a hoard of spectator craft on the water and in the air. The photo below of "Black Cat" storming out of Table Bay in the 1996 race shows how it is supposed to be done. That is the way that it always has been. That is the way that it was decreed to be. What went wrong?

The good old Cape Doctor (our notorious SE wind/gale) did show its face in Table Bay in time for the start but hung well back from the start line. Just a few of the 80 or so starters toward the southern end of the long start line were able to set spinnakers for a half mile or so. For the rest, it was a slow beat into a fitful westerly breeze sneaking the other way around Table Mountain to challenge the doctor.

The expected spectacular full speed start was replaced by a soldier-like parade of the lighter and more efficient yachts feeling their way through the almost drifting conditions toward the moderate westerly wind on the horizon. Happily, this included us, well up with others in our class. Meanwhile, the heavier and less efficient boats were trapped in the light conditions near to the start, still there as we went over the horizon at 6 or 7 knots.

Didi 38 in 1996 Rio Race
This is how it was supposed to be, all the way to Rio de Janeiro. What went wrong?

Day three had us battling in light winds, while further south and west, the big boats were flying on a direct line for the turn mark, the Brazilian Isla da Trindade. We decided to sail west and a little south to get us into those same winds, which worked. Soon we were "cooking with gas" under the wonderful new asymetrical, rapidly outpacing the boats which we had left further north in lighter breezes.

Day four was one of great high and low moments. In rising winds we had opted for a poled out headsail instead of a spinnaker. In very confused seas we were experiencing exhilirating speeds and our top reading for the race. We were surfing almost continuously, riding from one wave almost straight into the next. We hit the top of one big mountain, with a seemingly endless downhill in front of us. We started down this slope at around 15 knots and it just kept building. Half way down we met a smaller wave (about 1.5m), peaking at 21.7 knots (GPS reading) as we did so. We went through that wave as though it wasn't there but that water had to go somewhere. It came clear over the boat, from bow to stern. I was helming in foul weather pants and a sweater (the only one that I had on board). The bow wave dumped itself down my trousers, soaking me top to bottom. That surf was a real high, with crew screaming in ecstacy.

After a high, be ready for a fall, or should I say "be prepared to be cut down to size". The breeze seemed to moderate a bit later in the day and we thought that we could handle it so we set our beautiful new asymetrical, our secret weapon. The wind gods saw it, siezed it and shredded it, top to bottom on both edges, plus some horizontal blowouts for good measure. Boy, did that demolish our high spirits. Four days into the race and we had trashed our greatest sail. This big and expensive sail had not yet done its job, yet there it lay, stone dead by our own hands.

I set out to try to resuscitate it. A few hours of work with needle and thread had about 1/4 of the leech stitched together and a large amount of our available twine consumed. With little faith in my stitching and insufficient sail repair tape to do the job, we declared it deceased and worthy of burial at sea. The non-biodegradable nature of nylon and the need to keep the evidence for insurance purposes kept the body on board. Maybe it will be rebuilt to fight another day.

Damage in the Fleet

At position reports next day we found that we were doing well compared with the boats to the north. Their light winds had changed to a force 9 to 10 gale, with some damage reported in the fleet. A few boats retired to ports on the South African and Namibian coasts, with rig, steering and other damage. One boat was leaking seriously from an undiscovered source and sank next day. Another competitor stood by to assist and rescued the crew. Of serious concern is the fact that the recently serviced liferaft failed to inflate initially and could have been the cause of loss of life.

As the winds moderated all over the route, our southerley position became slightly disadvantaged. We had lighter winds but a shorter distance to sail so it did not seem worth the loss of time to fight our way north to join the rest of the fleet. We maintained our course for Trindade, confident that it would bring us in close to convergence with the competition. Problem was, we were fetching to beam reaching most of the time, under our 180% reaching genoa. It was doing splendid work but we needed the wind further aft to set a spinnaker.

In position reports each day we watched the competition creep past us. This concerned us a bit but the South Atlantic High seemed to be parked in a location which would allow us to sail higher and fetch into Trindade at much better speed than the boats to the north, which would be running in light breezes. We were riding the northern edge of the high and the only danger was the high sliding down south-eastward too early, leaving all of us in light to windless conditions. Even then, our position would have allowed us to sail higher and more efficiently than the others, to close at Trindade. That was the theory, anyway.

The High Emigrates to Warmer Climes

Missing from our formula was the very unlikely possibility of the high relocating to the north, considering that it has spent most of its time further south than normal over the past few years and was already relatively far north. However, it did emigrate to warmer climes. It did this with great gusto, into a position about 17S latitude, higher than I have ever seen it. Suddenly the entire fleet was south of the high, whereas all had planned to ride the favourable downwind isobars on the northern side.

Gone for all was the fast and comfortable spinnaker sleighride, replaced by beating or fetching. We were, of course, quite used to this difficult point of sail by now, but it was something new to most of the others. This situation could not be expected to last for long, of course. That high was strong but there was another forming further south, well west against the South American coast. That would sap the energy of the one in the north, surely. It would, wouldn't it? Pleeease say yes!!!

The answer was an emphatic "NO!!". That high stayed planted there and made us beat/fetch for 1000 miles across the centre of the tradewind sailing belt of the South Atlantic. Worse still, it changed our anticipated sailing angle advantage when approaching Trindade into a disadvantage, with the other boats reaching off while we beat onward. Still, we were hanging on, fetching at 8 to 9 knots most of the time, heavily heeled and very uncomfortable. We looked like coming in at Trindade about 75 miles adrift, ready to take up the chase on the last leg. That was if the wind stayed as it was, which it would do, wouldn't it?

Another resounding "NO!!", just one day short of what we needed to reach Trindade. It stayed as it was for the guys to the north. For the next two days we received special attention from the weatherman, who sent out a cell of low pressure and planted it 300 miles off our port bow. Gave us good winds at first but then cut them off, stone dead. We made no headway for a morning before coming back up to decent speed and course after lunch.

Next day he continued the torture, in a new form. Sunrise brought a line of rain squalls across our path, from horizon to horizon. Big, black, powerful and unbroken, they sent a broad band of dead air our way, around 4 miles wide. We fought our way out of it by sailing over 90 degrees off course and against the direction of travel of the squalls. Once into usable breeze, we beat north-eastward, parallel to the squalls, until late morning before being able to turn west.

Following that low point, our spirits were lifted a bit at the expense of another yacht. We spotted it on the horizon ahead of us and identified it from the position reports as having started 6 days before us in a special start for slower boats. This double start is done to get all boats to Rio in reasonable time for a timely prizegiving. We steered to pass close by her to say hello. When we were about 2 miles from her she came to a stop in dead air under a cloud. I could clearly see the glassy water stretching a mile all round her and turned north to sail around it. There she lay, without steerage and facing back home, while we sailed past little more than a mile away at over 8 knots. We were well on our way to the western horizon before she regained steerage and turned to follow us west. It is hard to imagine the feelings of depression on a boat in that situation, battling to make miles after 3 weeks at sea.

Rounding the Island

Rounding Trindade in the wee hours next morning, we were now about 150 miles adrift of where we should have been in the IMS fleet, most of a day's sailing. Meanwhile, our normal competition in the CRRS fleet were mostly spread out far behind us. An exception was the Schumacher 41 "MTN The Better Connection", which rounded the island 8 hours ahead of us, having trailed us until the prevous day.

"MTN" was skippered by Anthony Steward, the only sailor to have accomplished the incredible feat of an open boat circum-navigation. This he did on the custom TLC 19 "Zulu Dawn". In this race he was sailing with a crew of young development sailors who sailed very well in difficult conditions.

"MTN" sailed in the 1996 race as "Kelly Girl" under Marion Cole. Our two boats were almost as evenly matched as two boats could be, them giving us about 90 minutes across the South Atlantic under IMS ratings. In that race we rounded Trindade an hour apart, rounded Cabo Frio alongside each other and finished with us 80 minutes ahead.

Now in the 2000 race, Marion Cole was sailing the Farr 40 "African Connection" and lay more than a day's sailing aft of us at Trindade. Note that this is not the Carrol Marine type Farr 40, but a local stretched version of the Farr 38 or Farr 11.6. There were 4 in the race, all in the CRRS division and all behind us.

All the while that we are sailing far from home, we wonder about the well-being of our loved ones. Through regular feedback through friends via HF radio, we are able to stay current on important matters. News from home was that business is good and my wife had all in hand. We also received the very bad news that there was a gale Cape Doctor blowing and the mountains around my beautiful home town of Hout Bay were on fire. Five houses and two holiday cottages had been destoyed in the first blaze. The gales and fires continued for many days and more houses were destroyed in Hout Bay and other areas of the mountainous Cape Peninsula of which we are a part. Happily, in my own home there was no damage although everything was covered in soot and ash.

Returning to the race, by now we had rounded Isla da Trindade. We had fallen from a full day ahead of our 1996 position at that stage two days earlier to only three hours ahead at the rounding. The big boats ahead had made very short work of this 700 mile closing leg into Rio de Janeiro so we were hopeful of finishing well up on our 1996 finishing time.

Isla da Trindade
The rather bleak Isla da Trindade disappears into the Atlantic behind us.

Stormy Weather

The weather man decided to play some more tricks. He sent out a powerful low pressure system from the land, with little advance warning on the weather fax. The result was fast runs for a couple of days, fetching across winds which gradually built from 15 knots to 40 knots. Then he threw into the mix a bunch of squalls and a cold front. As the front came through we were just completing a sail change and were prepared, with blade No 3 jib and triple reefed main. The force of the unexpected 60+ knot winds knocked us down close to 90 degrees before "Didi" came back on her feet and took good care of us for the rest of the storm. The heavy rain made it impossible to see more than about 50 metres. We could not look to windward at all due to the force of the driven rain, which felt like it was cutting into any skin it touched.

Along with the wind and rain came thunder and forked lightning. It gave a spectacular display of fireworks, stabbing the sea all around us. Our mast was the only thing around which projected above sea level and I was sure that it would take a strike. I kept one crew member below in case of problems there, while the others stayed up top where they had been when it started. All kept clear of guardrails and rigging just in case we were struck.

By that stage all thoughts of racing had long disappeared from our minds and we were pretty much into preservation mode, preservation of both the boat and ourselves. The worst of the storm was over in about 30 minutes but it left behind massive rain squalls with variable winds and very lumpy seas. In this unpredictable situation we decided to sail conservatively rather than risk life, limb and vessel. That is another way of explaining that we whimped out and stuck the spinnakers deep in the hull where we did not feel tempted to show them off to the wind gods.

A day behind the storm and its squalls the wind disappeared almost completely. We drifted fitfully, trying now to get ourselves into the squalls to improve our speed. In lumpy water it was difficult to get the sails to set. Again, the wind was too far forward to allow the use of spinnakers so we continued under 180% reacher or blade No 3 jib, depending on wind strength. Now we were missing our No 1 heavy genoa which was sitting in the container in Rio. Occasionally we set the light No 1 genoa, carrying it into stronger winds than we should have. Receiving our warning in the form of a burst halliard snap shackle, we dropped the light No 1 in a squall and decided to save it for the anticipated light airs at the finish line.

Dudley and friend
Dudley and a feathered friend in mid-Atlantic. Three birds made use of our on-board bed & breakfast facilities at different times to recuperate after being beaten up by bad weather.

Into the Oil and Gas Fields

Approaching Cabo Frio, we sailed through the oil and gas fields, passing between rigs, service tugs and tankers. Warnings of "restricted area" over the VHF radio came from two rigs between which we passed. We were by then half way in so we were also half way out and ignored them, continuing on our way between the giants.

Our deep freeze had blown a compressor pipe a few days before Trindade so by now our frozen supplies had thawed. What we had not yet managed to use was now decidedly suspect so we emptied bags of meat, chicken, bacon and vegetables into the sea. Within 30 minutes we had hooked a nice Dorado (the 3rd of the voyage) to give us some welcome fresh food to replace what we had thrown away. Soon after, a small marlin entertained us with ballet off our bow for a few minutes.

We had seen some small fishing boats working nets between the rigs. Watching for signs of their nets, all we had seen was the end flags, with no sign of floats between. On a freeing breeze, we had just set a spinnaker when gesticulations from a fishing boat showed that we were about to run down a net. A wild gybe later we were running alongside the net with main boom and spinnaker pole on the same side and flying the spinnaker on the weather side without a pole, luckily in only 7 or 8 knots of breeze. In payment for not trashing their net, the friendly fishermen pulled an impressive Dorado from the hold as a gift. With one on board and cleaned already and a broken freezer, we reluctantly had to decline their fine offer.

The Final Burst

Next morning had us east of Cabo Frio, about 90 miles from Rio and fetching in light conditions. After rounding Cabo Frio the breeze started to free and strengthen, allowing us to fly a spinnaker. As the day progressed and we closed on the finish, the wind continued to strengthen and move aft. We sailed faster and faster, building speed into 12 to 15 knot surfs. Now that we were finally into Cape to Rio Race sailing conditions, there were only about 40 miles left to enjoy it. We charged on, averaging over 10 knots for the last 40 miles. We finished in grand style with one of our beautiful "Black Cat" spinnaker shown off to perfection to the crowd of spectators on Ipanema Point.

Meanwhile, we were convinced that Ant Steward in "MTN" had finished the night before. Their engine had died before Trindade, so they had no power for communications. We had heard no position for her for a few days but she seemed to be about 70 or 80 miles ahead. On arriving on moorings at the Iate Clube Rio de Janeiro, we were very pleasantly surprised that they had finished only 40 minutes ahead of us.

We had also been chasing "Galileo", the leading catamaran. She was behind us for most of the race but passed us when we were stopped by the light conditions at Trindade. We hoped, in our "Black Cat" guise, to be first cat to Rio. We could not haul her in and she finished 3 hours ahead of us.

So, that is the way that the MTN Cape to Rio 2000 ended for us. As I write, it is 04h00 and I am too hyped up by the finish and the partying which followed to sleep. The lumpy passage prevented me from doing the work which I had planned to do on my laptop, except for 4 days that it was calm enough. I have much to catch up.

Didi in Rio
"Didi" enjoys a well earned rest at the Iate Clube do Rio de Janeiro

What we Achieved

Disappointing though our IMS position was, we have achieved some remarkable things.

1) "Didi" has now crossed the Atlantic three times, twice under adverse weather conditions. Her structure is still as good as the day she was launched. My radius chine plywood method has been proven to be very strong and to provide a fast, light boat capable of taking punishment. In contrast, some of the GRP monohulls and multihulls have suffered severe damage, some being forced to retire as a result.

2) Beating across the Atlantic, we took about 12 hours longer than in 1996, which was in near classic Cape to Rio downwind conditions. This "downwind boat" is pretty good to windward as well.

3) Out of a total entry of 90 boats, we were 17th to finish on elapsed time. Only 60% (55 boats) of the fleet finished ahead of the cutoff time before prizegiving. We made it with over 5 days to spare.

4) Only 1 catamaran beat us, a 44 footer which finished about 3 hours before us. I guess that qualified us as 2nd "Cat" to reach Rio. The other cats were all far behind.

5) Other boats behind us at the finish included a Swan 61, a BOC open 50, that gracious yet speedy 50ft old lady, "Voortrekker", all of the Farr 40s and a host of modern cruiser/racers in the 40 to 50 foot size range. This budget 38 footer happily paces most 45 to 50 footers.

More on IMS

To return to the subject of the IMS and the Cape to Rio Race, this event has shown that it is very difficult for the average sailor to compete with the well funded campaigns of the big guns. There were two maxis and three pocket maxis competing and they dominated the first four places almost throughout. Most of them had technology aboard which others can only dream about, as well as highly qualified crew members able to make the most of that technology for route planning etc. The anticipation of this happening may have been a contributing factor to the small IMS and large CRRS fleets. It will certainly be a major factor to be considered by competitors in future Cape to Rio races. I believe that the next race will have only the big guns in IMS and all others in less intense divisions.

Satisfying this trend will require the race committee to be imaginative in introducing divisions which will satisfy the need for similar boats to be racing against each other fairly. This will be needed to remove the disadvantages of being pitted against others of theoretically similar speed in one wind and sea condition but very different speeds if the conditions change. It will not be easy but will be worthwhile in the long-term interests of offshore sailing generally and the Cape to Rio Race particularly.

Where to Now?

We had "Didi" sold to a Japanese consortium last year, with only the contracts to sign. My partner could not bear to part with her so the sale fell through at the last minute. He is sailing on her back to Cape Town and, as sole owner, will be relocating her to the Vaal Dam near to Johannesburg. There she will be out of her Atlantic Ocean element but loves flat water light wind sailing conditions. I am sure that she will thrive in both cruising and racing there.

I have commissioned design work backed up and will be under pressure for awhile. I will be boatless for the foreseeable future and devoting my spare time energies into developing some new high performance low budget dinghy designs. They have been in my head for too long now and need to be put onto paper, then built in my workshop. It may take awhile, but you will see them taking shape on my website.

Read earlier newsletters : November 1997 : August 1998 : January 1999 : May 1999 : September 1999 : January 2000


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