Author: Alastair Humphreys

Cape to Rio Yacht Race (January 2003) – Cape Town, South Africa

Cape to Rio Yacht Race (January 2003)
Cape Town, South Africa

Strange that South America should begin beneath Cape Town’s Table Mountain.
Yet as I stood on the foredeck of the yacht, watching my waving friends
slowly shrink from sight, it felt less like an ending than the start of a
new chapter. I was aboard Maiden, bound for Rio de Janeiro amidst the
glamour and excitement of the Cape to Rio yacht race. Table Bay was teeming with racing yachts and
well wishers, a dramatic horizon filled spears of masts and curves of white
sail. Jetskis and powerboats, canoes and press boats, gin palaces and
bathtubs filled the few gaps. Helicopters swooped low above the fleet. The
shoreline was lined with people and high on Signal Hill scores of binoculars

As the spectator boats gradually turned for home, the racing fleet were left
alone to contemplate 4000 miles of ocean. As my first night at sea
approached and Maiden pushed on through the waves I felt a basic thrill to
be travelling again, to be on the move just for the sheer hell of it. This
is how I used to feel: I’ve got my mojo back! I turned away from the fading
Table Mountain and Africa and looked towards the sunset and South America. Every new
beginning comes from some other new beginning’s end.

To my undisguised glee a newspaper article in Cape Town had labelled me an
“intrepid young British adventurer”. But on that first night at sea I was
brought brutally back down to size as I hung over the side of the boat
retching my guts out. Lasagne (“how on Earth did I manage to fit so much
inside myself?” I marvelled) reappeared with gusto, my eyes streamed and the
damnable prospect of three weeks of this awfulness added to my misery. In my
cycling clothes and shoes I was soaking wet and cold. Pride comes before a hurl.

Once recovered I joined in the steady routine of racing across the Atlantic.
Maiden forged a name for herself when Tracy Edwards skippered her in the
1989-90 Whitbread Round the World Race with the first ever all-female crew.
Today Maiden is run as a business, taking paying crew for ocean races,
Caribbean cruises and so on. I would strongly recommend the experience. She is a 58 foot (17m) aluminium
monohull yacht. At the very front of the boat is the foredeck where all the
juicy action happens during sail changes – flailing ropes, armfuls of
billowing sail and drunken footed rolling and pitching. The deck is
criss-crossed with ropes of every colour running taut to 15 different
winches. There are two huge steering wheels and a panel of glowing green GPS
instruments. At night the two compasses glow orange like shining crystal
balls. Pressure valves allow the adjustment of mysterious sounding things
like the ‘babystay’ and the ‘vang’. Everything started as a foreign language
to me but somebody would always translate: “Pull the bloody red rope, Al!”

Below decks is a tiny toilet (tip: brace your head against the roof when
pulling up your shorts to avoid an embarrassing catapulting out into the
corridor), a kitchen smaller than a broom cupboard, and the navigation station
of charts, screens, switches, weather faxes and radios. All 15 of us squash
into a stinking, sweaty area large enough only for 12 tiny bunks. There is
not enough headroom to stand: comfort is a low priority on racing yachts.
The engine room, water maker and sail locker take up the rest of the space.

The crew was split into two watches for the rotating routine of duties. 0000
(midnight) to 0400 (“the biscuit watch” when a packet of biscuits was
eagerly shared), 0400 to 0800, 0800 to 1400, 1400 to 2000 and 2000 to 2359
was how the days went. When off duty, people try to sleep in the airless,
sweaty bunks. Helming duties rotated and occasional frenzies of activity
were needed when jibbing or changing sails, but generally there was not a lot
to do except admire the view, read, crave beer (and cigarettes… and
salad… and ice cream… and chicas…), talk rubbish and try to hide from
the sun.

When waking, the other watch (who incidentally did not appreciate being woken
by 1. guitar, 2. shouting, 3. singing or 4. hunting horn. Shame there were
no bagpipes on board…) were handed a cup of tea before climbing
bleary eyed up on deck. We would then jump into their empty bunks for a
welcome four hours sleep.

Mealtimes were the highlight of the day, especially as Joel’s cooking was an
absurd mid-ocean extravaganza. Roast lamb, pan-fried freshly caught dorado,
ceviche and home-made ice cream thousands of miles from land! The ‘Cape to
Rio’ was an arduous endurance race for our highly tuned racing machine crew
spread-eagled around deck and feasting.

24 days is a long time. Think how many people you talk to, miles you drive
and phone calls you make in 24 normal days. Weeks in the office, weekends at
home. Ever changing horizons. Hours of television, reams of newspapers. For
us it was a disc of blue water, 58ft of boat and 14 other people who were
complete strangers on day one. Yet I was not bored (except after week one when I
realised with disappointment that crashing waves and shrieking gales were
not going to feature). Once away from the African coast we were barefoot, in
T-shirts and shorts 24 hours a day. The days blazed beneath a pale blue sky
and above an incredibly clear blue ocean streaked deep down with shafts of
white light.

Sunsets brought relief from the furnace, leaving the world to darkness, us,
and the comforting glow of the GPS and compass. We began the race with a fat
cream moon in a golden halo. Small clouds of black and silver shone as we
cruised down the yellow carpet of moonlight. The helmsman heaves on the
wheel as we surf down the heavy, fast black waves. It is eternal motion,
racing ever onwards towards Rio. As the weeks passed the moon waned, filling
the utterly black sky with so many stars and shooting stars that they spill
over into the ocean, showers of amazing phosphorescent sparks streaming in
our wake, a wake of white water stretching back to Africa and the end of two
thin tyre tracks.

Behind the boat morning catches us, the sea a purple mauve as the sky begins
to turn orange and then blue. Only the strong stars survive. Eventually even
Venus fades. Dawn reinvigorates you after the long night and thoughts turn
towards breakfast, waking the next watch and then bed.

Small events break up the hours and days. A torn sail or Alberto being
winched up the mast to make repairs. John’s 40th birthday party (and the
only bottle of beer on board), Pete being smacked in the head by a passing
flying fish in the dead of night and then exacting his revenge by frying the
14 we had on deck for breakfast.

We fell becalmed for several days. I felt so small, so alone, so utterly at
the mercy of the wind. It was an impressive experience. I realised then just
how vast the Atlantic is. Dorados swam around the boat and refused to
nibble our lines. We covered ourselves in shampoo and leaped overboard, with
6km of water below us and thousands of miles to shore. We tried everything
to regain favour with the wind gods – singing (“every bit of wind’s gonna be
alright”), wind dances, sacrifices to Neptune (toothpaste, a lone sock and a
spoonful of my supper), eating lentils and, bizarrely, scratching the mast.
Eventually one of them must have worked as the wind returned.

Crossing the Greenwich Meridian was a big moment for me – the next time I
cross it I will be back in London! Only 360 degrees still to go. I’m on my
way home at last. The waves thump, sluice and fizz on the hull as I lie in
my bunk. Come on wind, take me homewards!

We crossed the finish line in the dead of night, beneath the outline of
Sugarloaf mountain and the vast Christ the Redeemer statue gleaming white
and appearing to hang in the sky. We had crossed the Atlantic and I have a
new continent to cycle across. I am looking forward to South America.

Poor Cape Town! I loved Cape Town but Rio really puts her in the shade. It
is the most beautiful city setting I have ever seen. Add samba and football,
dental floss bikinis and a permanent party mood and you have Rio. Rio walks
with a bum wiggle, talks football, eats, drinks and never ever sleeps. I
love it!

Of course I had to visit the Maracana – the largest stadium in the world – to
revel in the music, energy, noise and utter craziness of Brazilian
football. I am afraid that Elland Road, Leeds will never seem the same
again… Now, having been brutally parted from 17 months of hair, I can look
forward to 100 hours on the bus to Ushuaia (the Southernmost town in the
world) where, at last, I will get back on the bike again, bound for Alaska.