Vasco da Gama Race. Tough and Unrelenting

Nigel Milln and his Phezulu Crew having taken line honours.

by Richard Crockett

Now this was a Vasco race that Vasco da Gama himself would undoubtedly have approved of as it was tough, unrelenting, and ultimately rewarding for those able to tough it out and complete the course.

That last phrase is important as so often in ocean racing today it’s easy to take the simple option and go home when the going gets rough, but not this year as the fleet that crossed the start line in Durban crossed the finish line in East London in what was anything but an easy Vasco.

Let me wind back to before the start when all the weather models showed two days of unrelenting South Wester at close to gale force strength or more. The chatter was all about postponing the start. I was brought up in the school that simply said start at the advertised time, irrespective of the conditions. Today that attitude is almost frowned upon, and in yacht racing the Race Officer has the power to postpone a start should he deem fit. So when the start was delayed from 11h00 to 17h00 and then again to 06h00 the following morning, it was a decision made in the best interest of the race – and was a good one. Instead of 48 hours of upwind sailing in rough seas, there was likely to be 24 hours or less!

Weather models don’t always deliver the correct information simply because the wind is a dynamic force which is constantly changing, and the upwind sailing part prevailed for over half the race. But that’s ocean racing, which is not for the feint-hearted, nor for those who cannot “vasbyt” and hang in when the chips are down.

The 06h00 start was in darkness, something that concerned me as Durban is often very still and windless at that time of the day, but fortunately there was wind. It was an interesting start without any issues as the fleet got away cleanly, led by the catamaran ‘’Dual Flyer’’, which I was aboard, with a great pin-end start. For ‘’Dual Flyer’’, being a catamaran, the leg to the Fairway Marker was not as easy as it was for the monohulls, yet she did not disgrace herself and rounded mid-fleet, and took off like the proverbial robbers dog from there.

Phezulu skippered by Nigel Milln.

From the Fairway marker it was likely to be upwind for almost 24 hours, so the crews settled down with reefs in the main and small jibs, all looking exceptionally comfortable and maintaining good boat speed and direction.

As always in the Vasco race there are three course options – the inshore leg, the rhumb line option and the offshore route in search of the fast south-flowing Agulhas current. From the start the fleet erred on the offshore leg, but by midday some were already heading inshore, led by Sigi Bailes aboard ‘Nemesis’. It was probably still too early at that stage to be looking to head inshore, and as the afternoon progressed the inshore leg became the favoured option for most with the two front-runners, ‘Nemesis’ and ‘Phezulu’ (Nigel Milln) converging and crossing tacks after nearly 12 hours of sailing.

The cat, ‘Dual Flyer’ was handling the upwind side of the race exceptionally well and was within just a few miles of the leaders, hanging onto third spot in terms of line honours. Her performance in the prevailing conditions had suddenly become a big talking point amongst the landlubbers ashore. As the sun set there was nothing in it at the front with ‘Nemesis’ and ‘Phezulu’, both Fast 42s duelling it out with ‘Nemesis’ having the edge.

Night sailing is often when races are won and lost, so the hours until daylight were likely to determine who the line honours winner could be. The wind was still up and the going anything but easy, although the weather gurus had predicted a shift away from the South West in the early hours of the morning.

By sunrise there were no real surprises in the fleet as the two front-runners were still locked in close combat, ‘Dual Flyer’ was still third, but ‘Magic’ and Majimoto had closed a little on ‘Dual Flyer’ after good upwind performances during the night. Chinook, another Farr 38 had taken a huge leg seaward, approximately 40nm, and was charging inshore at a rapid pace, but had probably gone too far out to be a real challenger on handicap.

The wind did indeed go to the land, and as the fleet bore away the boat speeds increased, the spinnakers came out and the tough conditions since the start were fading pretty damn quickly. The miles were being chewed up and spat out quickly, and ETAs for the finish were also coming down rapidly.

By sunset ‘Phezulu’ had opened about a 9nm lead on ‘Nemesis’, and had 20 and 29nm to go to finish respectively. ‘Dual Flyer’ was maintaining her third sport with 45nm to go.

During the afternoon as the wind picked up and ‘Dual Flyer’ was barrelling along at great speed in the upper teens, the clew of the big asymmetrical spinnaker blew out, slowing progress quite considerably, but with the wind expected to keep its strength, there was hope that a fast pace could be maintained with the small spinnaker and an early evening finish still possible.

Sigi Bailes and her Nemesis crew after docking in second place.

Well Aeolus – the god of wind – always has tricks up his sleeve during the Vasco race, and he played a cruel card by slowly turning off the wind after sunset. The front-runners battled to get to the finish line as there simply was not enough wind to sail in. And for those further back the current and odd short-lived puff pushed them towards the finish.

‘Phezulu’, Nigel Milln and his crew ultimately took line honours, followed by ‘Nemesis’. While Nigel Milln of ‘Phezulu’ sailed an exceptional race and deservingly won, it appears that ‘Nemesis’ may not have had the right spinnakers on the final afternoon to take the lead and ultimately the honours. Despite that Sigi Bailes sailed a magnificent race with second place over the line being a fitting 50th birthday gift after the titanic duel with ‘Phezulu’.

Aboard ‘Dual Flyer’ we struggled with no wind and battled for about two hours to cross the finish line as by the time we made it there the tides had switched and the river was flowing out to sea and pushing us back. But third over the line was a commendable performance, with Majimoto coming in about an hour later. The wind was turned back on and the rest of the fleet finished in quick succession.

Line Honours results HERE:  Vasco da Gama Ocean Race Line Honours Results 2021

Corrected Time Results HERE:  Vasco da Gama Ocean Race Corrected Time Results 2021

There were some really noteworthy performances worth mentioning. ‘Spirit of Anna Wardley’ skippered by Nqoba Mswati was one which I always hoped would finish as this young man took on huge responsibility by taking a very young and completely novice crew of boys and girls on the race, all of whom had not sailed at night before. Theirs was a wonderful result, as the crew were always spirited, despite being last to finish.

‘Majimoto’, skippered by Jon Marshall also had a really good race, and he too had a mixed crew with three women aboard. He hung in from the start and finished fourth over the line with a noteworthy result. Sadly his homeward passage was tragic – and is covered later.

Dual Flyer, the Scape 39 catamaran, skippered by Brad Rayson.

‘Mafuta’, the Bavaria 36 skippered by Robin Hulley was at one point the boat furthest out to sea, and while not a racing boat, finished third on corrected time. A great result.

Peter Channing’s ‘Magic’ put in a rock solid upwind performance on the opening day, and while losing some ground off the wind, certainly did lots to distinguish herself.

John Tudehope, now a race stalwart, had a major water leak issue aboard ‘Adios’ which did affect his performance, yet he solved the problem and soldiered on to finish.

Mafuta skippered by Robin Hulley.

Jasper van der Westhuizen, now sailing a Simonis 35 also had a good race. I have seen him in ocean races battle to sail well upwind, but on his new boat he has found some good gears and is improving his performances every time he goes racing. Well done Jasper for travelling the furthest to get to the start.

Lastly, one of the hot favourites for the race was the Farr 38 ‘Chinook’, but a navigation instrument issue on the race prevented them being in the hunt, despite a very fast finish.

This was no easy race by any stretch of the imagination, yet the entire fleet of 10 boats finished in East London to a rousing welcome from the Buffalo River Yacht Club.

Magic skippered by Peter Channing.

Some History
I have always been a fanatical Vasco da Gama Race supporter, and have amassed tons of information on the race from the very first one all the way through to now.

While doing some research a week or two prior to the start the fact that there was conflict about how many races had been sailed niggled me. The official race site said 47, I thought it was going to be the 49th. In fact after lengthy and careful research, this was in fact the 50th ever Vasco da Gama Race. It was also the 25th race to East London.

It’s sad that this was not picked up earlier as a 50th race may well have attracted more entries. Yet it happened and happened well thanks to the Point Yacht Club and all those who put in the effort after a two year hiatus.

This is a race with stature and history and everything must be done to keep it an annual affair.

My Race
When all the moons aligned, being the 50th race and the 25th race to East London, I suddenly realised that the only moon that was not quite in alignment was my own as if I did the race it would be my 25th race.

A wildcard and somewhat cheeky Whatsapp to Brad Rayson, the owner of the S’Cape 39 cat ‘Dual Flyer’ enquiring of the possibility of a “hole for a small one”, I got the nod and hot-footed it to Durban.

Well the rest is history as I sailed with a really great bunch of guys on the race and now have started 25 Vasco da Gama Races, and finished 23. The only blemishes were in 1984 (when we all know what happened as the fleet was pummelled by hurricane force winds), and one when aboard ‘Marchioness’ a massive 70-footer, when the forward hatch blew out leaving a gaping hole on the foredeck and little option but to head home.

Of all those races I have done 24 to East London and one from Maputo to Durban.

With all the moons aligning to permit me to race, I had the distinct feeling at the finish that they had realigned indicating that perhaps my ocean racing days were over and that I should hang up my sea boots! The first sign was that my trusty Sperry Topsider Figawi deck shoes saw both soles disintorigated during the race. The second sign was that I took a dunking in the Buffalo River after docking!! That’s a story to tell over many Captain Morgans!

Tam Tam skippered by Jasper van der Westhuizen.

What I have always found in ocean racing is that one always remembers the good times, while the bad times don’t fade completely as they are remembered – simply not as vividly. I had a great time aboard ‘Dual Flyer’, with good guys, and I will always treasure the memories of my only Vasco aboard a cat which turned heads, performed far better than anyone expected, and provided me with a very different sailing experience.

Will I hang up my sea boots? Watch this space.

More importantly I would like to thank all the people who encouraged me to do the race again, and who congratulated me on my milestone. Trevor Hulleman waited for me to dock and was there to take our lines, so that he could be the first to offer his congratulations. And the Vasco da Gama Race cap given to me by Conrad Bennett, Commodore of the Buffalo River Yacht Club, boldly embroidered with “25th” will certainly be treasured forever. But the honour bestowed on me by the ‘Dual Flyer’ crew to take the boat across the finish line will never be forgotten. Thanks guys – you are all very special.

While I did this race for my own personal reasons and goals, I would like to dedicate my 25th race to all those who have ever done a Vasco race, while remembering all those Vasco sailors who are no longer with us. Plus, and most importantly, to encourage all yachties to try the race at least once. For me personally, my first ever ocean race was the 1977 Vasco da Gama Race – the bug bit and it has been difficult to let go. As Nike says: “Just do it”.

A very sad ending to this race was the total loss of the Farr 38 ‘Majimoto’. She, under owner/skipper Jon Marshall, left East London for Durban in a strong south wester, hoping for a fast passage home.

Off Cape Morgan, and while quite close in, they broke their rudder. Despite trying to fashion an emergency steering device, they were being washed ever closer to the shore, so the NSRI were requested to assist. The crew were taken aboard the NSRI vessel and while attempts were made to take ‘Majimoto’ in tow, it was simply not possible due to the sea state. The tow was eventually dropped, and ‘Majimoto’ left to fend for herself with no-one aboard. During the night she succumbed, having run ashore at the Kei River mouth.

A very sad end for a grand old lady of the sea.