Durban — It’s all hands on deck at the Royal Natal Yacht Club (RNYC) as it prepares for the iconic Daisy Business Solutions Vasco da Gama Ocean Race from Durban to East London.
The oldest coastal ocean race on the South African sailing calendar starts on May 19, and participants will be welcomed by the Buffalo River Yacht Club, the receiving club when they reach their destination two to three days later.
Barry Boorman, the Vice Commodore at the RNYC, says only the boldest sailors will emerge victorious, having conquered their fears and the elements along the notorious wild coast.
“This race is not just a competition; it's a celebration of the untamed spirit of the ocean, from unpredictable weather patterns to strategic navigation through treacherous currents,” he said.
This week, members of the RNYC made it clear that you would need to be brave (And dare we add, slightly crazy?) to take on the challenge.
Hemraj Gokal, the chairperson of the race organising committee who has done 17 Vasco races, said participants would face off against unpredictable weather and rogue waves created by the fast-flowing Agulhas current clashing with the Southerly wind. Despite the inherent dangers, there was a sense of prestige in participating in the Vasco.
“For sailors, conditions on the race can vary from being occasionally idyllic through challenging to heart-stopping adrenaline-filled moments – all of which contribute to the satisfaction of being able to say: ‘I completed the Vasco.’ Like the Comrades Marathon, not everyone can win, it is more about having completed the challenge and ticked off a necessary milestone for most ocean-going sailors,” he said.
Gokal said that in the Vasco, tactics and navigational skill were equally as important as the ability to “go fast” and the constant vigilance, mental fortitude and resilience needed to face the dangers.
For organisers, it was a period of worry bordering on angst.
“Until each boat returns safely to its home port after the race, I, as race chairman, remain anxious, like a parent awaiting his child returning home,” he said.
While the final number of contestants for the 280 nautical mile race will only be known later, the first entry came from John Tudehope, representing the Gqeberha Yacht Club, who will be sailing Adios, a Fast 42. This year two additional categories have been added to the mix for double-handed and cruisers.
Boorman said that to enhance their safety measures, the yachts would be fitted with GPS-enabled trackers (enabled by the Moquini Trust) for the duration of the race, while all coastal stations of the National Sea Rescue Institute would also be on standby.
Apart from the safety aspect, the trackers also allowed the public to follow the race in real time, making it interactive and unique.
The first Vasco took place from Lourenço Marques (Maputo) to Durban in 1968. Over the years, the route has changed several times but Durban has always been part of the historic event.
Nigel Milln, the chairperson of Sail Africa who has more than a dozen races to his name, said a big part of sailing was about the person who made the least mistakes, while others would make mistakes but they recovered quickly.
He said that in last year’s race, the two fast boats were neck and neck for the first quarter of the race until disaster struck.
“When we lowered our spinnaker, which is the big front sail, we dropped it over the side of the boat into the water and it wrapped itself around the rudders, so we had to stop racing for about six hours until daylight when we could send a diver down there to release it,” said Milln.
While the Vasco is gruelling and sailing in winds of up to 50 knots is the norm, it's also filled with camaraderie, laughter and strange traditions like offering a tot of rum to the ocean at one of the most volatile spots on the route.
Then there are stories of rogue waves, myths about dragons in the water when you turn south and, just as a reminder of the wild in the wild coast, it's also where the Greek ship Oceanos sank in 1991.
RYNC Commodore Leo Kroone has done the Vasco 11 times but in 1993, he was a “Vasco virgin” when they just came through 50 knots on the wild coast; he was “seasick as a dog” and declared to all and sundry that he was giving up sailing and taking up golf instead.
When they reached East London and everyone finally had a chance to party, he remained adamant that he would never sail again. He booked a flight back home and even arranged for a taxi to take him to the airport.
“My mates took my bag and threw it on the boat so I went on the boat to get my bag and they threw the lines and we sailed back in the most beautiful conditions,” he said. He continues sailing to this day.
Boorman, who did the Vasco from Maputo to Durban, said his Vasco virgin party to celebrate his first race consisted of “copious amounts of Captain Morgan”.
Milln said the Vasco was more than just a race; it was also a social event.
This year, sailors have two new options after the race was broadened to include double-handed racing which organisers say has become popular around the world while the “cruising guys” also have the option of entering.
And given the huge expenses which come with the Vasco da Gama Ocean, the organisers said they would not have been able to do it without their title sponsor, Daisy Business Solutions as well as BOSSS Marine, Hyundai, Ullman Sails, Moquini Trust and the NSRI.