by Richard Crockett
I was delighted to recently be in contact with Neville Bransby, a Durban yachtie whose father competed in the 1971 Cape to Rio Race aboard ‘Cariad’. Neville posted on Facebook, a photo of this father at the helm of his Shearwater 39 during a very recent passage to Richards Bay, which gave me an opportunity to enquire if it was indeed his father who was aboard ‘Cariad’ in the ‘71 Rio Race.
Don Bransby is 95, and Neville was the only other person aboard on that Richard’s Bay passage as he enjoys his short-handed sailing.
Bransby has since sent me material from his personal archives of that race – so this is about Don Bransby and ‘Cariad’, and this is how his abridged writings on the race opened, and how he wrote about the race:-
“Looking back over the years it was, by modern yacht racing standards, rather a mediocre affair and attracted few acknowledged racers. Nevertheless it was arguably the longest ocean race in the world at the time and brought to the start in beautiful Table Bay an enthusiastic cross-section of vessels ranging from serious contenders to fast cruising yachts to old tubs just joining for the ride.
“Bruce Dalling in lovely ‘Jacaranda’ and dozens more, South African, British, American, German, Italian, Canadian, French, and somewhere between fell ‘Cariad’ as, though a top class racer in her prime, she was now hardly competitive except in sustained strong winds when her sturdy construction and powerful rig would come into its own. In the event such conditions prevailed only during the first 24 hours after a rousing start in a brisk 25 knot south easter, when the old lady showed her mettle with a run just short of 240 nautical miles which kept her well up with the leaders.
“It was at this time that I had to face an important dilemma – important to me anyway. It was simply that I had no head for heights and that tall mainmast gave me the horrors. Setting the main topsail required a crewman to climb the mast and feed the luff into the track of the topmast, and one day that crewman was sure to be me. It was bad enough in harbour, but in a seaway it didn’t bear thinking about. The only solution, I decided at last, was to bite the bullet as the saying goes, and to make the job my own. The first couple of times were tough, but then to my surprise I found that I was enjoying working up the mast and the problem was solved.
“One evening in mid Atlantic after a particularly hot and humid afternoon we were roused by a startled shout from Bob on the wheel, and there to the north we were confronted by a sight I have never seen before, or since.
“Seemingly rising out of the sea on the far horizon were several comet-like objects trailing great thick fiery tails – for a few breathless seconds they traversed the night sky in a great spectacular arc before as suddenly disappearing below the horizon’s rim. The sudden and unexpected visitation was quite unnerving, and to this day I have not identified the phenomenon, though space debris has been suggested.
“17th February brought the South American coast in sight, at last, in the vicinity of Cape Frio. Dawn brought Rio in sight set against its incomparable mountain background, and here the old lady finally came to rest opposite, but not yet across, the finish line, as if simply too tired to move another yard. With sails hanging limply she slowly drifted in a circle as we scanned the famous city so tantalisingly close.
“The morning wore on and we watched frustrated and impotent as close inshore a smaller rival, ‘Gaviota’, making every breath and slant of local breeze inched across the line. To seaward a spinnaker blossomed threateningly just as the long awaited wind stirred the sails and gently carried us the last mile to the finish, a full seven maddening hours since we first sighted it.
“Our 41st placing out of 59 starters was hardly remarkable, but we had done what we had set out to do. We had crossed the Atlantic under sail alone, we had enjoyed a great trip, and moreover, we were still friends to the end of it”.
While the race itself was obviously event free, the same could hardly be said for their passage from Durban to Cape Town.
“We set sail for Cape Town on Christmas eve 1970, and by the next day my old problem was back, and for Christmas dinner I managed to force down an apple, if only for a while.
“We weathered a severe gale off Port Elizabeth, with the old ketch smashing through heavy rolling swells, steeply heeled with seas washing down the lee decks, in a gale which also caused the sinking of the supply Tug ‘Smit Lloyd’.
“After rounding Cape Agulhas, gear failure caused our nine-metre topmast to buckle and snap near the base, and our huge genoa headsail to collapse in the sea and wrap around the keel, having to be dragged out with dozens of rips needing repairs before the race.
“Neptune still had one more trick up his sleeve, and when we were a couple of miles off Cape Point, young Trevor Richards, who had only joined us for the Cape trip, came up on deck grasping an extra large pressure cooker in both hands. Lurching to the lee rail he leant over to empty the contents into the sea just as ‘Cariad’ rolled heavily in a strong gust. I was on the wheel at the time and watched helplessly as his feet rose off the deck and his body teetered momentarily on the rail before he plunged head first into the bitterly cold Cape waters, still determinedly clutching the bulky cooker.
“Fortunately Nigel was on deck with me, and shouted the dreaded “man overboard” while throwing a life ring. The crew erupted on deck and kept the swimmer in sight from points high up on the mast and the poop rail, which was as well as I had lost sight of him, except once when I saw his head on top of a swell.
“The sails were dropped and the engine started, and in about 15 minutes we had him back on board, cold and dripping, and without the offending cooker! What a relief as we could so easily have lost him.
“A rather battered ‘Cariad’ entered Cape Town with many jobs to complete before the race in two weeks time. A new topmast had to be made and stepped, and many sail repairs to be completed”.
There are plenty of pics to go with the above very brief account of ‘Cariad’ and her passage from Durban to Cape Town and then Rio de Janeiro.