DURBAN:THE sails are “old and tired”. Some of its panelling is out of joint, and it could do with a few licks of paint in its nether regions.
In terms of looks and appeal, Argo FY, a 38-foot yacht that berths at the Durban marina, is not in the same league as some of its contemporaries.
Those upmarket neighbours include Bellissima, CFM, Bellatrix, Therapy and Mafuta (Zulu word for fat), all spiffy-looking yachts endowed with modern fittings and luxuries.
When Argo arrived in Durban about a year ago, it became the local laughing stock at the marina because it seemed as if its sails were constantly “reefed”. Sailors narrow (reef) their sails in bad weather to minimise the impact from winds.
However, when this “ugly duckling” competes with the more expensively assembled yachts in regattas, it leaves competitors in its wake - and some are even placing bets that it will win the 2020 Cape to Rio yacht race.
While Argo is a dynamo in the water, its racing success hinges on the expertise of its owner and skipper, Craig Millar, a respected figure in local sailing circles.
“The yacht is smaller and far cheaper than most of the others in the marina. My boat is probably worth about R700000, while the others are in excess of R2million.
“At first, we didn’t believe we could compete, we tried a few races and won.”
Buoyed by Argo’s successes, Millar has set his sights on entering his vessel, which is accustomed to carrying nine crew members, for the 2020 edition of the highly regarded Cape to Rio Yacht Race.
He plans to use the remaining time to nurse his 20-year-old Argo into ship-shape, ahead of the epic sailing Atlantic crossing.
“Argo is old, but not an unseaworthy boat. She’s a strong vessel. She just needs a lot of TLC.”
Millar, 55, expects his yacht to morph into a “beautiful swan” next Sunday, the day when Argo will be fitted with new sails.
“The only sails we’ve had on thus far are the very poor and old ‘delivery sails’. Delivery sails are the sacrificial sails that are used when a boat travels to the start of a regatta. You don’t put on your expensive Michelin tyres getting to an event, you save it for the race,” said Millar.
On that day, the Argo will test her new sails in a local endurance race.
Millar is well versed in the nuances of sailing. His sea legs have developed over 40 years of navigating the oceans of the world.
In that time, he has won numerous provincial and national events, and second place finishes in the 2000 Cape to Rio and the 2005/06 Clipper Around the World Race.
Despite his prowess in sailing, Millar is at odds to explain where his innate affinity for the sport stems from.
“I was born loving sailing, but I don’t know where it came from, because my parents had nothing to do with the sport,” said Millar.
He said when he was 13 he built model yachts and a few years later his uncle took him to a sailing event at Midmar Dam.
He tried to get a permanent job in the navy when he became eligible for compulsory conscription, under the old apartheid government, so that he could continue to pursue his sailing passion.
“The recruitment office agreed initially, but eventually shunted me to the air force, where I worked as a helicopter mechanic.”
At 22, Millar joined a company manufacturing yacht masts. He dumped that job when his friend, Anthony Stewart, invited him on a sailing mission.
“Anthony was hired to deliver a Durban boat to its new owner in Italy. We had no money for the trip, so we agreed to take two passengers, and used their payment for provisions.”
Millar said while he and Anthony were accomplished sailors, “navigating was another thing”.
“We had this book called Mary Blewitt Media of Celestial Navigation for Yachtsman that we quietly referred to.
“Sailing is about managing the boat, using the wind and water, but navigating is using a compass to plot a path between two points on a map. And you’ve got to use the sun, stars and trigonometry to assist you.”
Millar admitted that things didn’t go swimmingly well.
“The trip was supposed to take three months, but we took about a year and a half.”
When they eventually got to Sardinia near Italy, they had no money and survived on spaghetti and sauce. Millar and one of the passengers got a job to deliver another boat to the US while Anthony sailed solo to his destination.
Millar acknowledged he did some daring things, while at sea when he was younger, but not anymore.
“I have to be more conscious about the safety of others on my vessel. As the skipper, I’m responsible for everyone.”
Millar said he often skippered boats with people who were professionals but not savvy out at sea, but were there for the adventure.
Being a disciplinarian also had its consequences for Millar. He eventually had to settle for second place in the 2005/06 Clipper race because he was not prepared to compromise on his no alcohol policy while sailing.
“We were locked in a tight finish with a boat from Western Australia in the race to Jamaica, and we got there first. I didn’t know that our crew won a bet on the outcome of that leg, and their winnings was a case of rum.
“I refused when one of the crew members attempted to challenge my dry boat policy”.
Millar’s stance didn’t go down well with the rest of the crew and they got into an argument with him.
Disappointed with the fallout, Millar’s heart and soul was no longer in the race, and his team had to settle for second position.
“I regret my reaction. I accept it was my fault. I should not have let my emotions get the better of me after the argument.”
While Millar admitted he was not so competitive these days, he strongly believed Argo could win the Cape to Rio.
“I think we have a good chance because it is a downward race. This boat is a flyer in down winds.”