Interview With Adrian Kuttel

Adrian Kuttel (right) receiving the South Atlantic Race Trophy from Neil Gregory, Commodore of the Royal Cape Yacht Club.

by Richard Crockett

It was just over a year ago that Adrian Kuttel almost took line and handicap honours, on the smallest boat, in the Cape to Rio Race. In this interview he shares his thoughts on the race.

The Kuttel family name is one deeply entrenched and respected in Cape sailing. It goes way back to the 1900s, and is still a force to be reckoned with, as the singlehanded performance Adrian Kuttel put in on the recent Cape to Rio Race, proves.

He came close to taking both line and handicap honours, being denied line honours by a mere 61 minutes. Whichever way you look at that performance, it was an historic result which saw him add his name to the prestige gold & silver South Atlantic Trophy. More so because he was sailing singlehanded.

Adrian’s father, Padda, was a tough campaigner who competed in two Whitbread Round the World races, and who tried on several occasions to win the coveted South Atlantic Race trophy, yet failed.

His uncle, Ted Kuttel, a former Commodore of the Royal Cape Yacht Club also tried to lift that trophy in victory, but he too failed, as did his cousin Rijk in the 2020 race.

Sadly, Adrian was unable to lift the South Atlantic Trophy in victory as on the second day after the start he ruptured the bicep in his right arm. Many would have seen that as an omen to head home, yet Kuttel soldiered on, literally sailing the rest of the race single handed as one arm was severely damaged with very limited movement.

The Rio Race was his first real test in a singlehanded race. This is interesting as the Kuttel family have no history of singlehanded sailors. They all sailed fully-crewed.

“I have dreamt about short-handed and solo sailing since I was a kid, and growing up it was the domain of lunatics” he said.

“There was not a sober yachtsman who would consider going sailing on his own because how does one keep watch and a seamanship lookout. I would be lying if I said the elders in my family didn’t share that view. They just thought solo sailing is a bunch of nonsense, for madmen and lunatics.”

Adrian Kuttel at the start of his epic race to Rio.

Having said the above, he quickly checked himself as he realised he was probably treading on some sensitive toes. “Quite a lot has changed in the intervening years, and I don’t think the greats of our time – Bertie Reed, John Martin and others – were mad. They are my idols, so I disagreed with those sentiments, even then. Today we have AIS and reliable technology like proper auto pilots which can steer with a kite up and handle gusts. You’ve got boats configured for short-handed sailing and sail inventories designed to be more forgiving and more suited for short-handed sailing.”

He reiterated just how important AIS is for a single-hander as it lets one see what boats are close by, and further stated how accurate the various weather forecasts are today.

Pushing him on the physicality of sailing alone, he made it very clear that sail changes were his biggest challenge as he would lose an hour, maybe more, to the fully crewed boats at every sail change.

“When you are hammering along and want to go to a smaller kite, you have to go jib up and then bear away. Then you have to blow the sheets and guys and pull the kite down. Then you have to harden up and keep the boat moving in some kind of direction while you sort out all the guys and sheets, re-rig the new kite, hoist that and then drop the jib. Once that is all done, you have to get the boat settled and the kite trimmed for the new course. That’s an hour in time, and something fully-crewed boats would do in five minutes. So sail changes were physically very demanding. Oh, and I forgot about the preparation of all lines, as you have to flake every line and make sure everything is going to run free – that’s a fifteen to twenty minute job which you can’t do before your change begins as it’s a given that a wave comes over and washes all the ropes in to a mess!”

The above gives an indication of the down side of single handed sailing, but it was a conscious choice he made – maybe a personal goal?

Quick as a flash he replied as follows: “It has been burning me since I was a kid. My masters’ thesis when I did my MBA was effectively a sponsorship document for what was then the Around Alone race. I did entrepreneurial studies, then an MBA and that sponsorship document was my final thesis. This was in the early ‘90s when no one was putting money into sailing. I came close as a company I approached really loved my proposal – and instead of sponsorship they offered me a job as a strategist! I never gave up on the dream which I have somewhat tempered. I wanted to race around the world in an open 60 then – what kid doesn’t – but I tempered that dream to a solo Transat.”

That dream came alive when discussing his upcoming 50th birthday celebrations. His wife asked what he wanted to do, and after some soul-searching he said he wanted to cross an ocean singlehanded. That’s when his singlehanded dream started becoming reality.

He went to the Paris Boat Show to sign a deal, and came away with a different boat altogether, having met the builder of the JPK 1030 who agreed to build him a boat.

The first part of the singlehanded plan was in motion. Having secured the boat he decided to do the Cap Martinique solo which was due to start in April 2021. His boat was launched in late December, so he took Paul Stanbridge along to advise and train him in singlehanded sailing.

Sadly, COVID hit, and the race was cancelled.

That temporarily scuppered his Solo Trans-Atlantic dream, so he brought the boat back to Cape Town and sailed it here where he did more and more double-handed sailing with Gerry Hegie. Cap Martinique, take two, was looming, and as he felt he had not done enough solo sailing he would go two-up with Hegie.

“That race resolved, in my mind, that there was an itch that needed to be scratched, that being my desire to go it alone.”

Elation at having finished the race – despite the darkness!

This is where his whole Rio Race experience became a reality, and a harsh one at that.

“I came up to the start line and I thought what are you doing here boytjie? It was then that I decided to take it really easy, have lots of fun, and not worry about places and results”.

“I remember talking to a round-the-worlder many years ago in Durban and asking him why he sails solo. His answer stunned me, as he simply said it’s like walking around with a stone in your shoe – when you take it out it feels good! Is that stone out of your shoe now?” questioned Crockett.

“No! It is very firmly in my shoe, and it feels like the only time that stone is out of my shoe completely is when I am on deck on my own and there is a race on the way. I have had a taste, and there are a couple of events coming up that hopefully will be very interesting – the Governor’s Cup to St Helena, or the South Star One-Two that is late this year. I would love to be involved in that, there are a lot of ifs and buts around it, but let’s see. The next certainty is April 14th which is when the next Cap Martinique starts. So I will be going from Brittany to Martinique in a 70-boat fleet”.

Having filled in your background, let’s race to Rio.

It was on the second or third day that you injured your arm. What actually happened and what thoughts were going through your mind?

“I actually get butterflies, and my hair stands on end, when I think about it. I had pushed hard out of the start, and I had been going really fast. I kept reminding myself of the two maxims I set – look after yourself and look after the boat. I was certainly sailing within the limits of the boat, but I got overtired and should have rested more. I was standing below near the companionway steps where there is a hand-hold on the windward side. I lost my feet – they just disappeared, and my whole body twisted as I hung on. I felt my arm loading up as I tried to find my footing when I heard this gunshot, a god almighty explosion. I let go and collapsed. I then kinda picked myself up and sat up on the companionway steps. I had this rushing, this incredible roaring in my ears which were getting hot as was my whole body – I was hyperventilating. There was absolutely no pain, so I just sat there looking dazed. My immediate thought was “you f**ked it now – your race is over on the second night, and you have thrown the whole thing out the window by being a stupid arse. At that moment my world just fell away from me” he said.

He described how he sat on the companionway steps assessing his injuries. “I quickly realised that I could not pull anything, but gingerly by touch and feel I concluded that there was no break, but rather only soft tissue damage. It was at that moment I realised that Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation (R.I.C.E.) was important from then on. However, I did not have any ice aboard, the compression I didn’t understand, while the elevation helped when lying on my bean bag. My final decision was that as my arm was not broken I could go home or keep racing. That’s when I became a real single-handed sailor!”
In pressing him for more he admitted to having doubts about his ability to continue, and conceded that at times it hurt so much he just had to sit quietly and simply breathe. Despite having an array of pain killers aboard, he chose not to use them in case they impaired his judgement. The final medical analysis of his injury was a distal biceps tear.

I pushed him as to his genuine aspirations in the race, or whether he was simply using it more as a training race to get to grips with the nuances of single-handed sailing. My reason for the question was that day in and day out he was at the top of the leader board, or there abouts. A magnificent performance for the smallest boat in the race, and the only single-hander.

“Paul Stanbridge has been very influential in my sailing. He is a great mate and he does coach me very well, but most of all he gives very good advice. He has always advised me to be realistic with my expectations when racing. In my first conversation with him for this event I said I wanted to do as well as possible. He replied no. You are going to end up probably mid-fleet given your abilities and your time with the boat and who you will be sailing against. Anything better than mid-fleet and you will be doing well, anything less and you need to do better. But mid-fleet is where you are going. This was instilled in me, and I accepted it.”

Despite having tried four times to win the Rio Race on fully crewed boats, that was not his objective this time.

I asked him about his course as in my view while following on the YB Tracker he appeared to sail a relatively conservative yet very clever course. After the fleet split into North and South fleets he was always leading that southerly fleet back into the course. Some guys sailed an incredible distance more than they really needed to because they either weren’t looking at the weather, they weren’t thinking, or they just simply had brain failure – but he seemed to be on top of every shift all the time.

“I have never had a race where my toast landed butter side up! I spent a lot of time on my navigation as I enjoy it, plus it’s all important, especially when you are solo. I didn’t initially make many mistakes as I felt I was reading the weather really well, and even when the models were diverging, I was very comfortable. There were two options right from the outset. The gribs were showing a western route – a rhum line route straight through – which I was happy to go with, but I was very wary of that option. I initially went that route, but over time it became less and less certain and I started being more and more happy covering to the north of the southern pack.”

He explained how the gribs showed the wind that was going to carry the southern fleet all the way up the rhum line to a two day patch of twenty knot headwinds and into a day of light air. On that rhum line route he said it looked like he would sail straight into a cul-de-sac, so that’s when he started working his way north.

“I was flabbergasted that the guys kept going west, I still don’t understand it to this day, and in hindsight it was obviously the wrong thing to do.”

The celebrations continued long after he came ashore.

His Northing option started with about two and a half days of light air upwind to get around the top of a small front. That move was a lifesaver because of his injury, as the light air upwind was easy miles for his boat, and enabled him to rest and catch up on sleep.

Once around the front, the course became a very traditional one as the morning gybe would take him north until the evening gybe gave him some westing. As the weather models developed, he had to get further and further north until he gybed on the northern fleets’ latitude.

At that point he had a good lead, although there was a small system he had to get around. He was always able to get around those systems as he was able to tight reach and run in on relatively tight angles – say 100 true, going straight at the rhum line. But of course there are always obstacles, and at this point a massive system was developing in front of him.

“I had my A5 up and I was hammering along. It started getting dark and stormy and I was feeling quite run down. That’s when I made what was my biggest mistake of the race. I took that A5 down too early as I felt I would not be able to control things if I was hit by a big squall. That was about 1300nm from Rio with less than a week to the finish”.

It was at this point that he realised he was in the “race of my life” with ‘Ray of Light’ which was 120 miles behind and sailing fast.

“Suddenly, I really started racing. As I sailed higher, I dodged a lot of squalls. Ahead was a big weather system so I took my A5 down and had no jib as I saw the situation darkening ahead. But then I appeared to sit for 8 or 9 hours. Once I got into the blow things were fine. I got a massive thunder head of sustained 30 knots for a good part of that night and a nice twenty-minute spell at 40 knots – one reef in the main and my J3 with everything just let out and the boat was simply flying. Once the thunder head had passed there was not a breath of air, and I was becalmed!!”

He was now setting course for his approach to Rio, and it’s when he made his second mistake, which he put down to being very tired.

“I put the A5 up again on a great reaching angle in to the finish line, while ‘Ray of Light’ was running down. That was my time to smoke them, but I simply could not get the A5 to fly properly. This went on for the best part of a day. I slept, came back and tried again, and that’s when I admitted to crossing the halyard and flying the kite from the incorrect halyard. That’s what tiredness does to one”.

“Heading towards the finish ‘Ray of Light’ was coming down hard flying an asymmetrical kite. Sometimes they would come right up to me and sometimes they would go away. We were closing the finish, and they were still running. To my right I noticed a massive rain squall forming over Rio, and thought that they would get hit by a monster. While watching this a massive gust hit me and I just managed to get the kite out of the sky and the jib out. I was sitting by the autopilot just trying to keep the boat going downhill when we popped out of this mess to see ‘Ray of Light’ right there. In that time, they did nine sail changes to my three. After my three sail changes, I was heaving, I couldn’t breathe – and that’s when they got ahead. I was not done and took a flyer in desperation, a bad option as I ended up an hour behind them at the finish.”

He explained how he was lucky to have finished so soon after them as exhaustion had set in after being awake for three days. The wind was dying, and he was trying to cross the finish line at two o’clock in the morning against an incoming tide when he suddenly thought he was not going to be able to finish the race.

“In my exhausted state I had strange thoughts going through my head until suddenly a commotion brought me to my senses. I had finished the race, but I was completely spent.”

His thought process and his exhaustion at the end was dire, and he had doubts that he would be able to harness his final resources and strength to finish. “I wasn’t in the moment enough when I crossed that finish line, and I did not realise that ‘Ray of Light’ had waited at the finish for me. I was just processing too much, and very badly, but by the time I reached the dock I had come to my senses”.

I can fully sympathise with the emotions, exhaustion and regrets he felt on finishing, but there were questions he needed to answer and clarify.

“Am I correct in saying that you were the southern-most boat in the fleet at one point and the most northern boat in the fleet at one point as well, or have I mixed you up with ‘Ray of Light’, as it is interesting that you had both extremes and you were right there challenging for line honours at the finish line”.

“I certainly was the most southern boat, and I probably did end up the most northern too” he responded with confidence.

“I didn’t really pay attention to positions until my wife, Chiara, kept telling me that I was winning. I told her that the results programme looks at the closest boat to Rio, and that as I was the most western boat, I wasn’t winning anything! Eventually I had to believe her!”

Did you know at the time that you had a good chance of taking line and handicap honours 50 years after old Bruynzeel took line and handicap honours in 1973? Bruynzeel’s boat was the biggest in the fleet while you were racing the smallest boat. That would have been a brilliant history making moment had you done it?

“I had no appreciation for how brilliant a piece of history that would have been – it makes my skin crawl. I was absolutely focussed on obtaining my objective which was to have fun, be safe and have no dramas. I was governed by that and did not take any mad risks to get line honours. I was confident though that I had the South Atlantic Trophy in the bag”.

“While closing in on Rio I had to remind myself that I was heading into a big blow, and not wanting to mess things up and compromise my position, I took my sails down too early. My thoughts were that line honours was pie-in-the-sky and that no one really cared about them anyway as “The Prize” is the South Atlantic Trophy. I simply did not comprehend the history and what an achievement it would have been. I actually put it out of my mind and wrote “forget line honours” – just get there” in big letters in my notebook.”

You were quite correct in that approach as the big prize is the South Atlantic Trophy, but, to do both in the smallest boat in the fleet would have been absolutely brilliant.

“It was a helluva dichotomy, because although I put it out of my mind, I did race ‘Ray of Light’ as best I could, but they got through me in the last four hours of the race.”

At the time I imagined how difficult it was for you because you were 10 – 12 feet shorter than them and they were fully crewed compared to your one functioning arm!

“I do console myself in having the satisfaction of winning the South Atlantic Trophy and having my name on it now. My thoughts on the trophy is that it has 32 ounces of solid gold – at today’s prices about R880 000’s worth, never mind the silver which takes its value to about R1 million. But, that is not the value of the trophy, as the value is all the names that have gone before mine. My father tried to win that trophy twice – he missed it once by 3 minutes, and once by 4 minutes!

Receiving that trophy is a moment I will treasure forever.

Adrian and Chiara Kuttel and their family with the five trophies he won in the 2023 Cape to Rio Race.

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